Saturday, 16 March 2019

WATERING HOLES AND MORGUE MASALAS.

   Watering holes are essential retreats for all species, in the real jungle or the urban one. They provide much needed R+R and the chance to rub noses ( and the occasional unsuspecting posterior) in a relaxed setting. But whereas in the jungle there is only one rule- the bigger guy drinks first- we have managed to prescribe a weird set of dictums to regulate membership and behaviour in our gated oases which we call Clubs. In Delhi's Gymkhana club, for example, one has to apply for membership before one is even born, such is the waiting list. New members are inducted only in place of old ones who kick the ice- bucket, as it were, so a kind of Death Watch prevails on the club premises at all times, with the "waitees" keeping a close watch on the "oldies" and plying them with loads of cholesterol to help the natural process of ageing.
  I have just learnt that there exists a club in Europe called the Giga Society; it has only 6 members, primarily because to qualify one has to score more than 195 on the IQ test. That rules out everyone in India except Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer, but I'm told that they are not accepting any applications from India after Vyapam- they don't trust our marking system. The whackiest membership requirement, however, comes from- where else?- my home state, UP. There is an exclusive club there called the Mritak Sangh, and to become a member one must be dead! No kidding. The saving grace, however, is that you don't have to be dead-dead or brain dead as in a bureaucrat, but only declared dead, through false affidavits, forged letters and documents, usually by relatives who are fed up of waiting for you to call it a day so they can grab your real estate ( and sometimes your wife). These walking dead have now formed a guild so that they can get together and drown their sorrows. In the USA there is an Ejection Club ( I checked twice, it IS Ejection and not Ejaculation, so don't get your hopes up quite yet). It had 5607 members at last count, and to become one you must have survived being fired out of a military plane by ejection seat. Being fired by the govt. from your job does not qualify, so that rules out Urjit Patel and Raghuram Rajan who in any case have parachuted safely to the Davos club. Wing Commander Abhindan of course can now join, with honours because he also ensured that the Pakistani pilot couldn't qualify.
  The ADC club in Shimla persists with a unique caste system, in violation of our Constitution. It's run by the Army but they have to take in some civilians also because the property belongs to the govt. The civilian chappies can't vote, but the unkindest cut is that they have to pay more for their booze! The army guys get their liquor at CSD rates while the bureaucrats have to pay the normal, post excise, bootlegger rates. They are the new OBCs ( Other Boozing Classes) of Shimla. This doesn't do too much for civil-military bonhomie but it ensures that at least one third of the membership is sober at all times and that only civilian bottoms get pinched on New Year's eves.
  Which brings me naturally to another club where liquor poses another kind of problem- the CSOI   (Civil Services Officers' Institute), Delhi. It's a splendid place with a fine bar and two restaurants, created exclusively for bureaucrats so that they can let their hair down without any arms dealers exploiting the bald patches. It's the place where pensioners are dispatched by their wives every morning to get them out of THEIR hair. Unfortunately, it appears to be run by some teetotaler gnome  in the Cabinet Secretariat who has never heard of CCTVs. Nothing else can explain the recent decision that the bar will open only at 7.00 PM on week days. My discreet inquiries have revealed that the govt's innovative 360 degree assessment system had perhaps revealed that some babus were playing hookey on working days, having gimlets at the bar when they should have been recording dissenting notes on various files or suppressing the data on employment generation. But why shut down the bar, for godsakes? Why not just ask Arvind Kejriwal to install one of his CCTVs at the door? That would have worked just as well, for a CCTV a day makes a babu earn his pay, as the ditty goes. I am reliably informed that the retired babus are now planning to move to Assam or Bihar en masse where the hooch is freely available in police stations and excise offices. Their wives will not follow them, of course, which is another reason why they are shifting base. As that other ditty goes: four pegs a day keeps the wife away.
   The India International Centre in Delhi has fine dining rooms where the members come to relax after delivering lectures on how to change the world in 90 days. But its restaurants have the ambience of a morgue, ( the main chicken dish, I learn, is called Morgue Masala) and not just because the median age of its members is three score and ten. I was there last month with a group of cadre mates and their spouses ( for some reason they are never called 'wives' in govt. parlance, have you noticed?), all retired chappies except one couple. Now,  IAS officers while in service are a bit like that Russian dog in that old joke- they are well fed but not allowed to bark. So when the muzzles come off after 35 years they tend to be a chatty lot. In the middle of all this yapping and general mirth a waiter emerged from nowhere like Banquo's ghost with a placard which, shorn of bureaucratese, essentially asked us to SHUT UP. Since it was an unsigned statement, like the note submitted to the Supreme Court on the Rafale deal, we took no notice of it. After five minutes the undertaker himself materialised ( it was actually the Manager) to advise us in a sepulchral tone that the IIC had a high cholestrol, low decibel policy and could we please, therefore, speak in Chinese whispers? I learn that all heart attacks in this club are silent heart attacks because of the rules. Damned irritating if you are a waitee on the waiting list, because you never get to know when a member has left for his heavenly abode. But everyone puts up with it because the food is in the Vir Sanghvi class. Why, the other day   our Defence Minister Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman came for dinner and even asked the chef:  "How's the ( Rogan) Josh ?"
  Time for another air-strike?

Saturday, 9 March 2019

BOOK REVIEW: PRESERVING A PRICELESS FRAGMENT OF NATURAL HISTORY.






THE GREAT HIMALAYAN NATIONAL PARK- The Struggle to save the western Himalayas.
                      by  Sanjeeva Pandey and Anthony J Gaston.
Published by Niyogi Books, Delhi, 2019.  Rs. 1500/. 364 pages.



     This book is a long due but worthy tribute to one of the finest ecological treasures in the Western Himalayas, a UNESCO site since 2014, but still unknown to most of us. That it has been penned by the two persons perhaps most qualified to do so ( Pandey was Director of the Park for almost eight years and Gaston had conducted the surveys which laid the groundwork for the Park's creation) imbues it with an authenticity and insights an outsider would have found difficult to impart. The book is not a scholarly tome, nor a critique of govt. policies, nor a guide, though it has elements of all three, but an introduction to various facets of the GHNP, inviting the reader to go there and find out more for himself.
   It begins by placing the GHNP in its natural setting in the north-western Himalayas, detailing its geography, vegetation,  climate, forest types, rivers, flora, fauna. Of particular interest is the history, since British times, of issues relevant even today- the effects of grazing and forestry practices, including timber extraction, and the surprising but welcome conclusion the authors arrive at, viz., that" the extent of forest cover, at least in the temperate zone of the western Himalayas, has changed only moderately in the last 100 years." Those who have visited Manali would find this nugget interesting too: the stately deodars that enfold this town today were all planted by the then Conservator of Forests, one Duff, in the 1880's- the original stands of pure deodars in the upper Beas valley had all disappeared by then. Never before have so many hoteliers owed so much to one man!
   The creation/ notification of GHNP in May 1999 followed a detailed scientific study of the biodiversity and demographics involved. The area of the Park, almost 900 sq.kms was well chosen in the middle and upper reaches of the Jiwa Nal, Sainj and Tirthan valleys. It had a very sparse population, no road connectivity, was well insulated from the "development" activities of the Beas basin and was a rich repository of western Himalayan flora and fauna. Even though no displacement of any populations took place, modifications had to be made to the original plan as the Park took shape: three villages intruded into the Park and they had to be segregated into a separate, 90 sq. km. wild life sanctuary called the Sainj Wildlife Sanctuary; an Eco-zone of 230 sq.kms.was carved out on the western boundaries in 1994 to provide a buffer and absorb the biotic pressures generated by the surrounding villages- grazing, herding of livestock, collection of fodder and firewood, extraction of herbs. The ecozone has 160 villages with a population of 14000 and about a thousand households had been traditionally dependent on the park area for these needs.
   The GHNP management quickly realised that biodiversity conservation within the Park would not be possible without providing alternate livelihood options to the families whose rights had been terminated. A Biodiversity Conservation Society was set up in 1996, along with Women's Self-help Groups and Credit and Savings Groups. Their members were given training and marketing support in vermi composting, propagation of medicinal plants ( which the Forest deptt. buys back), manufacture of handicrafts, jams and pickles and souvenirs. Ecotourism and trekking ensures employment to dozens of youth, as does MNREGA. These well thought out interventions seem to be paying off: as Pandey reports from a study carried out in 2011, there has been a significant recovery of vegetation in the alpine meadows as compared to the baseline of 1999, and the population of pheasants and ungulates has also gone up, the earlier resistance by the locals has declined. GHNP is a case study in demonstrating that biodiversity conservation is possible only through socially inclusive programmes and participatory forest management by involving all stakeholders.
   The GHNP is a trekker's paradise and about one thousand of them visit it each year. The chapter on trekking describes the major treks in the valleys of the four rivers that drain the Park: the Parvati, Jiwa nallah, Sainj and Tirthan. The trekking routes, however, are not marked on the accompanying maps, nor are essential details such as altitudes,distances, support services, required permissions provided. Each trek is not very well delineated as it overlaps with others and can leave the first timer a bit confused. The chapter could have been better structured since this is the part of the book that most readers would be attracted to.
  This book is a treasure trove of information for the botanist, zoologist, bird watcher and any lover of nature, for the biodiversity of the GHNP is astounding. It supports hundreds of species of the north-western Himalayan wildlife: 8% of its plant species, 21% of birds, 10% of mammals, 7% of reptiles, 9% of amphibians. It is one of the last remaining refuges of many endangered species: the western tragopan, cheer pheasant, snow leopard, Himalayan musk deer, Asiatic black bear, Himalayan tahr and the elusive serow. Birdlife International has classified it as an endemic bird area. The authors have found that the Park contains the best gene pools of walnut, hazelnut and horse chestnut. ( I had taken some  saplings of the last named tree for my cottage in Mashobra and today I have six of these majestic lords of the jungle standing tall on my grounds!). One of the secrets of the  success of GHNPis that the sheer geography of the Park makes most of it inaccessible- 68% of its area is above 3200 meters. With four major rivers and 1400 streams, all disgorging into the river Beas it is also a priceless storehouse of water.
  The GHNP is now the nucleus of a much larger contiguous Protected Area landscape measuring  2854 sq. kms, comprising the wildlife sanctuaries of Tirthan, Sainj, Kanawar, the Pin Valley National Park and the 710 sq. km. Kheer Ganga National Park embracing the Parvati valley, created in 2012. The state govt. should now work towards designating this entire landscape into a bio-sphere reserve.
  In conclusion, this book can be read at two levels: one, as a celebration of the preservation of what the authors term a fragment of the natural history of the Himalayas, as old as the fabled Pandavas, forever lost elsewhere. Second, as a recognition of the role of biodiversity in maintaining eco-systems and in providing eco-system services. Though mostly successful, GHNP is still a work in progress, an experiment that cannot be allowed to fail. It still faces many threats, to which the authors have alluded in passing: hydel projects, tourism, road construction, vehicular pollution. It will need many more persons of the caliber, and with the devotion and passion, of Pandey and Gaston to enshrine it permanently in the magnificent landscape of the western Himalayas.

    

Friday, 1 March 2019

NO L.O.C. IN POLITICS, NO N.O.C IN DELHI.


   By ordering the IAF to lock its laser bombs on the terrorist camp at Balakot Prime Minister Modi may just have also locked it on to the ballot boxes in the coming elections. While the opposition parties are still grappling with their egos and individual ambitions Mr. Modi may have stolen the election from under their noses with his decisive gambit. Of course, the elections are still two months away but its template has now changed.
  The BJP had been on a sticky wicket with the primary narratives- employment, farmer distress, Rafale, Citizenship bill. a floundering economy, compromised institutions- appropriated by the opposition. Its one trump card, hyper Nationalism, appeared jaded and even overplayed. Its nervousness was evident in its desperate attempts at forging any possible alliance with any party, even those which had been humiliating and blackmailing it. But Pulwama and Balakot have changed all that. It has resuscitated the nationalistic fervour which is being kept at full pitch by the party's social media warriors, obsequious TV channels and by the PM himself in his rallies and statements. Mr. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka has even claimed that the air strike has ensured that the party will now get 22 seats in that state. Mr. Modi himself addressed the political rally at Churu with the images of the 40 CRPF casualties forming the backdrop. The coffins for votes strategy has been displayed unapologetically. A dangerous triumphalism appears to have replaced the earlier narrative.This is the emotional bond which all Indian elections need, which Mr. Modi had managed to create in 2014 but which had been missing so far in the current run-up. Expect this to be fully exploited and kept at fever pitch in the coming months, for this is the BJP's forte. The opposition will find it difficult to counter this new machismo and will have to play along, at the risk of giving all the credit for this action to Mr. Modi. This can only be good news for him. There can, of course, be some blowback in the form of increased terror activities in Kashmir or overt retaliation by Pakistan, but this can only add grist to the BJP mill.
   Which makes one wonder: why did Pakistan choose this critical ( from an election point of view) moment to stage the Pulwama attack? Surely its wily ISI could not have been unaware of the fact that it was handing over to Mr. Modi precisely the " brahmashastra" he desperately needed? Or did it miscalculate badly- expecting the usual tepid, pusillanimous response rather than the ferocious counter that was actually delivered by our Air Force? If so, then it has failed large time, for it has converted what used to be a tactical Indian policy on terrorism into a more robust strategic one which has changed the rules of engagement between the two countries for ever. Somehow, however, I find this difficult to believe: the ISI has been playing this game for too long to have read Mr. Modi's psyche wrong.
  Or is there a second, more diabolic and far-sighted thinking behind the Pakistani "misadventure"? It goes something like this. Pakistan wants Mr. Modi to win the elections! The last thing it wants in Kashmir is peace and a settled and peaceful population there, Kashmiris must always be kept on the boil, alienated and victimised by the Indian state. The BJP government's muscular, militarised policy which views the valley only through the prism of "law and order", the wielding of the Damocles sword of Articles 370 and 35A, its over arching communal agenda, ensures this. The polity of the country as a whole has never been as fractured as it is today, with no political consensus on any issue, not even on national security. All this suits Pakistan fine, a hostile Kashmir and a fractured India is just the biryani mix they want, so why would they not wish for Mr. Modi and the BJP to continue? Think about it.

             *                                        *                                      *                                          *

  There is only one point on which the Congress and the BJP agree: a pathological hatred for Mr. Arvind Kejriwal. The latter's discomfiture with Mr. Modi's pet bugbear is understandable, not so the attitude of the Congress. It has no presence in Delhi, either in Parliament or in the Vidhan Sabha. Why then is it spurning Mr. Kejriwal's repeated overtures to strike an alliance in Delhi with the AAP to keep the BJP out ? It is learnt that AAP is willing to offer it about 2 of the 7 seats in play, a generous offer by any reckoning. Why then is it determined to commit hara kiri? Rahul Gandhi has shown great flexibility and a shrewd political instinct in the manner in which he has stitched up alliances elsewhere; why have these qualities deserted him in Delhi? He should realise that without a tie-up the Congress will be decimated in the capital by the twin onslaughts of the BJP and AAP; Mrs. Shiela Dixit is a spent force now and at best Marg Darshak Mandal material, Mr. Maken is nowhere to be seen or heard of, Mr. Jolly a political grass-hopper who doesn't know himself where his next hop will take him. Why gift some possible seats to the BJP when every seat will be worth quite a few electoral bonds in May?
  Having said that I have no doubt that Arvind Kejriwal will win the majority of Delhi's seats. The gin and tonic types at Golf Club and the pampered lot in Lootyen's Delhi may scoff at him but he has largely delivered on his promises, though he has had to fight every inch of the way with the BJP, the Lieutenant Governor, South Delhi, the Municipal Corporations, a biased media, even the judiciary- without any support from the Congress, it should be noted. He has steadfastly focused on those who most need good governance: the 40% of Delhi which comprise the lower income households, including the 20 lakhs who live in slums and unauthorised colonies. His priories have been health, education, water supply, slum improvement. Delhi's allocation for health and education is the highest by far among all states in percentage terms : Rs. 7485 crore( 12 % of total budget outlay for 2019-20) and Rs. 15601 crore ( 25%), respectively, and the results are visible. Delhi's govt. schools now match the private ones in quality and infrastructure, and 8000 new classrooms have been added in four years. The 189 novel Mohalla Clinics have treated 40 lakh patients till December 2018: referred patients now get free treatment and diagnostics in the best private hospitals. Few would remember the 20000 litre/month free life-line water scheme introduced by Kejriwal in 2015; it was much reviled and scoffed at by all "experts" then. Well, guess what?- it has more than proved its worth. Not only has it not resulted in any revenue loss, it has actually led to a huge saving in water consumption: the number of households consuming less than 20000 litres/ month has increased from 5.00 lakhs in 2015 to 13.67 lakhs in 2018. In other words, 8.67 lakh families are consuming less water now than they did three years ago. Mainstreaming of the demand for full statehood for Delhi is a wise move for it will find resonance among the 20 million people who are being deprived of the representative democracy that the rest of India enjoys. And finally, Kejriwal's "victim" card may just turn out to be the trump card, not the joker that the effete classes consider it to be.
  Will Mr. Rahul Gandhi reconsider his party's position? The time has come for him to decide who is his bigger enemy- Mr. Kejriwal or Mr. Modi? There is no middle ground here.  

TURNING INTO A FEDERATION OF SILOS ?


[ This article was published in The New Indian Express and The Morning Standard on 28.2.2019 with some minor changes.]
 


 Not since the early years of Independence has our country been in such a fractured and dissonant state as it is today. Back then it was states like Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Hyderabad, Nagaland resisting being a part of India. Today the issue is one of opposition ruled states rejecting the over arching authority of the centre and its agencies and attempting to build legislative and policy walls to keep the central govt. away from its shores. The concept of federalism is being seriously threatened by these developments, and though some push back ( by the states) has always existed it has now been taken to a new level by the BJP's contempt for all other political parties, and by Mr. Modi's personal style of adversarial politics and governance. This is in sharp contrast to his 2014 promise of promoting federalism, just one in a long string of promises that have never seen the light of day.
   This push back by the states comes in many forms, the latest of course being the surgical strike by Mamata Bannerji against the CBI on the 3rd of February.. It was bound to happen sooner or later, given the manner in which the CBI was being used selectively as the BJPs pit bull against opposition leaders exclusively. The warning signs- three states, Andhra Pradesh, Madya Pradesh and West Bengal withdrawing permission for the CBI to operate in these states- were there but Delhi either failed to read them or  ignored them. It thus made the mistake of unleashing the pit bull on the Bengal tigress and has been left licking its wounds, with some band-aid supplied by the Supreme Court. The constitutionality or correctness of her action, as also her disallowing political leaders landing rights in her state, is certainly open to question. The damage to our federal structure, however, has been done- it is now a foregone conclusion that more states are likely to follow the trail hacked out by Mrs. Bannerji.
   Mr. Modi's disdain for any consultation with states before ramming through his  programmes is also driving a wedge between the center and the states. Never before have so many states opposed central schemes, even though it deprives them of central funds. The Bharat Ayushman health programme has already been rejected by West Bengal, Chhatisgarh, Odisha and Delhi who feel that their own schemes are more beneficial. Similarly, the just announced Farmer Income Guarantee scheme has already been spurned by West Bengal and is likely to be rejected by Telangana and Odisha too as they have better programmes in place; others will inevitably follow. This will in turn create more friction and distrust between Delhi and the state capitals.
   An even more disturbing trend is the widening gulf between the southern states and the northern ones, particularly the " Hindi heartland" states. This reverse continental drift is the result of inept politics, economics and demographics. The first is exhibited frequently in the centre's attempts to foist Hindi on the southern states every once in a while, such as by naming Metro stations and milestones on National Highways in Hindi. The RSS ideologue, Mr. Tarun Viay's statement last year about the "dark-skinned" races of the South didn't help matters at all. The economic disparity between the two Indias was exacerbated by the revised  TOR of the 15th Finance Commission which adopts the 2011 population census as a basis for devolution of funds to states instead of the 1971 figures, which had been the norm so far. This is significant because the four southern states have had a much lower population growth than the northern ones since 1971: the average TFR ( Total Fertility Rate) of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in 2011 was 1.7 against the average TFR of 2.5 for UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. This will translate into reduced allocations for the southern states, further exacerbating the resentment of the south against the north. As a percentage of central funds, just UP alone gets more than the four southern states combined!
  The demographic imbalance has sown the seed for another, more dangerous challenge in the coming years. As the populations in the southern states decline and become older in relation to the rest of India, this will create a vacuum in labour supply. Excess labour from a poorer north will inevitably migrate to the south, creating social tensions and antipathy towards these " outsiders". This will only add to the perceived sense of economic and political "dominance" of the north, engendering violent pushbacks. We have already seen the first signs of this in the attack on people from the north-east in Bangalore a couple of years back, and the more recent violence against people from Bihar in Gujarat over the rape of a young girl.
  These forces and perceptions will drive states to devise legal and illegal means to curb the movement of outsiders to their states, thus eroding one of the fundamental premises of our constitution. This has already started in various disguises. Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir already have laws that prohibit outsiders from buying land there. Just last year the Delhi govt. ordered that in govt. hospitals in the state 80% of the beds would be reserved for people from Delhi ( this was struck down by the High Court). It has been trying to impose similar quotas in govt. colleges. Madhya Pradesh has just issued an order mandating that industries which benefit from govt. programmes will have to employ 70% of locals. As unemployment and poverty defy solutions, more and more states will adopt such policies and erect barriers to entry of people from other states. A hyper "nationalism" is forcing hundreds of Kashmiris back to their own state from other states like Haryana, HP, Rajasthan, Jammu post the Pulwama attack.
  The centre's obsession with security has already made migration from one state to another difficult for the common man. Various ID requirements such as Aadhaar, EPIC ( Voter Identification card), ration cards etc. are now mandatory in all walks of life, from getting a phone to opening a bank account to obtaining admission in a school to receiving the monthly PDS dole. A migrant from a village will find it difficult to negotiate these barriers, and will therefore in all likelihood be denied all these benefits. He will not even be able to exercise his most fundamental of rights- the right to vote. This appears to be happening in Delhi where the Aam Aadmi Party has been alleging that more than 20 lakh voters ( from UP and Bihar, naturally) have been removed from the voters' list. The denial by the Election Commission doesn't carry much conviction.
  These are all straws in the wind that do not portend well for the idea of one India. If states and the centre are in a constant state of antagonism and do not acknowledge each others' writ or powers; if people are not able to move freely, study or work where they wish to, settle down in any state of their choice, access the benefits they are entitled to regardless of where they come from, vote based on their current place of residence; if they are regarded with suspicion in states other than their own, if they are subjected to violence or discrimination because they are "outsiders"- then we are not one country but a federation of silos.

  


Saturday, 23 February 2019

FINING PETER TO PUNISH PAUL IS BAD JURISPRUDENCE.

 
   In the first decade of this millennium there was a Chief Justice in the Himachal High court who was a waking nightmare for bureaucrats and politicians. He had made it amply clear that he considered them the scum of the earth who needed to be brought on to the straight and narrow path of public service. He made it his mission in life to do so, and his weapon of choice was the power of contempt. On any given day there was a long line of Secretaries, Heads of Departments and the odd politician lined up outside his court like sheep being led to the slaughter. If you had looked closely you would have found me in that line more often than not, because I was one of his favourites. In less than a year I received more than a dozen contempt notices; on one occasion he advised me to bring my toilet bag next time because he intended to send me to Tanda jail on the next hearing!
   As you would have figured out by now, dear reader, he was certainly not on my list of Ten People I Would Love To Meet. But even the devil must be given his due, and there was one thing he did get right: when he imposed hefty fines ( and he did so with gay abandon) he levied them on the concerned officer and not on the department concerned. He ensured that the amount was deducted from the officer's pay. And that is precisely the point of my piece today.
  Higher courts are by law empowered to impose fines/ costs if they find that their orders are not being complied with, and I notice that of late this power is being exercised quite frequently ( which in itself is a good thing), especially by the NGT ( National Green Tribunal). I have compiled a list of cases which I have come across these last few months ( there must be many more I am not aware of, obviously):
[1] 17.10.2018---------- The NGT slapped a fine of Rs. 50 crore on the Delhi govt. for not taking action against polluting stainless steel pickling units.
[2] 31.10.2018---------- The NGT fined the Tamil Nadu PWD Rs. 2 crore for failure to remove encroachments on the Cooum and Adiyar rivers and Buckingham canal.
[3] 2.11.2018----------- The Pollution Monitoring Committee of Delhi govt. imposed fines ranging from Rs. 50000 to Rs. 30000 on the PWD, Jal Board and Irrigation and Flood Control Deptt. for dumping construction waste in the open.
[4] 4.11.2018----------- NGT imposed a fine of Rs. 50 crore on Punjab govt. for not taking action against industrial units dumping their waste in the Beas and Sutlej rivers.
[5] 19.11.2018--------- NGT slapped a fine of Rs. 100,000 on the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for submitting a wrong report to it without proper verification concerning illegal workshops in Shahdara.
[6] November 2018--- NGT fined West Bengal govt. Rs. 5 crores for not taking effective steps to curb pollution in Calcutta.
[7] 27.11.2018--------- NGT fined the Delhi govt. Rs. 5 crores for not complying with its orders to curb air pollution in the capital.   
[8] 7.12.2018---------- NGT imposed a fine of Rs.50 crore on the Karnataka govt. for its failure to clean up the foam shrouded lakes of Bangalore.
[9] 21.12.2018--------- NGT imposed a penalty of Rs. 5 crores on Odisha's Central Electrical Supply Undertaking for its lackadaisical attitude to the safety of animals. It's carelessly laid HT lines had resulted in the death of seven elephants in Dhenkanal district.
   As a citizen concerned about the deteriorating environment of our country I fully support these fines. All authorities, public or private, give two hoots about the law and the environment, and even less for the welfare of the common man, so whenever they are caught out they should be punished. But here is the question: by imposing these fines, are they being punished? Or is it the common citizen once again who is being punished? For the fines imposed are not on any individual but on the organisation or a generic "government." They will be paid out of the department's budget, i.e. from out of the consolidated fund of the union or the state, which is basically from the taxes collected from you and I. In other words, the honest tax payer's money is being used to bail out the rogues in the government. He is the one who is being punished, not the delinquent official, and that too twice over: not only is he being denied some service he is entitled to but his tax money is being used for a purpose he has not approved. Nothing will ever happen to the Executive Engineer, Town Planner, Revenue Officer, PCB officer and others who the court found to be at fault. That is why they have no incentive to change they way they function, and that is why nothing improves in the government's working.These fines, humongous as some of them are, will have no effect: Bangalore's lakes continue to splatter foam regularly, elephants still die of electrocution and lions are run over by trains, Delhi and Calcutta had more polluted days AFTER these fines were imposed, the rivers of Punjab and Himachal continue to be used as drains by industry and municipal authorities, thousands of illegal hotels and industries flourish in prohibited areas with complete impunity, as the recent fire and 17 deaths in a Karol Bagh hotel in Delhi testify.
  All this can change overnight, however, if our courts change the template for imposing fines. Instead of fining the department or organisation they should penalise the individual officer(s) who is at fault or who has been non-compliant. For example, instead of fining an Electricity Board Rs. 5 crores for negligent stringing of HT lines, fine the Chief Engineer, Superintendent Engineer and Executive Engineer Rs. 1 lakh each and order it to be deducted from their salaries. The improvement would be instantaneous, just as in contempt cases the mere threat of summoning the personal appearance of an officer ensures that the work gets done. Fine a Minister or two and the reformation would be visible in no time at all! The long term benefits of such an approach would also be tangible: officials would take their responsibilities more seriously, and would be more reluctant to succumb to the various pressures or inducements that prevent them from doing the right thing. For they would be aware that now it is their own necks ( if not the more nether regions) that is on the line. And the taxpayer would not have to pay for their sins. The Supreme Court too made this point earlier this month when it fined Mr. Nageswar Rao, the interim Director of CBI, Rs. 1 lakh for disobeying its orders. But it must not stop at this. On the 21st of this month it issued orders asking the Chief Secretaries and DGPs of ten states to personally ensure the safety of Kashmiris in their states following the manufactured hysteria in the aftermath of  the Pulwama attack. If they fail to ensure this they should be held personally accountable in a similar manner. There can be no more effective way of ensuring that the rule of law prevails.
  I hate to say this, but I must: I wish there were more judges like the one who was so concerned about my dental hygiene all those years ago.            

Saturday, 16 February 2019

LETTERS OF DISCOMFORT.

   I really am at my wits' end these days trying to figure out all this media frenzy about escrow accounts, sovereign guarantees, IGAs and letters of comfort. One had heard of "comfort ladies" in South Korea and of "comforters" that put little babies to sleep, but our PM certainly resembles neither of them so how come he's in the middle of all this nonsense? We'll have to wait till Mr. N. Ram of the Hindu ( both inappropriate names since he appears to have little sympathy for either the Ram or the Hindu Bhakts) publishes the French letter of comfort to find out what it actually contains, but I think I already have a pretty good idea. It probably goes something like this:

   " Dear Prime Minister,
      this is to assure you ( and Mr. Doval who I know is peeping from behind your back) that we shall be supplying 36 Rafales to you by 2022. They will be in "fly-away" condition, that is, if you don't pay for them in advance they shall fly away from India and back to France. HAL will be our up-set partner, and the big A the off-set partner. Of course, this assurance is contingent upon Mr. Macron not replacing me in the next few months and my not getting caught out in some flagrant delicto, as I am wont to at times. But don't worry even if things go wrong. We had a similar problem in 1894 in the Alfred Dreyfus case, also related to the defense of the realm, but resolved it with some old fashioned minority bashing at which, I learn, you are pretty good. You may also take comfort from the fact that the Congress lost power over the Bofors case but returned to rule five years later: these things have a five year cycle like El Nino. Till we meet again in 2024!
Comfortably yours,
XXXXXXX."

   Perfectly innocuous and comforting, I should think, and therefore I just can't fathom why the Opposition is getting its danders up over the whole affair. This is a perfect comfort letter, providing cheer to all concerned except HAL which in any case should have realised that its hopes were nothing but a mirage. I speak of these matters with some authority, you know.                                                                                                   Many years ago Neerja's folks issued an RFP ( Request for Proposal) for her marriage. Out of 5 bidders I came in at LI ( or H5, or High Five, depending on your perspective) even though my technical specs were found wanting. But I did offer her an India specific enhancement that the other four could not- life membership of India's most exclusive club, IASOWA ( IAS Officers' Wives Association), the real kitchen cabinet that actually runs this country, notwithstanding what Mr. Doval or Amit Shah may think. It worked and an MOU was signed. I then sought a sovereign guarantee from my would-be mother in law ( also known as MIL and not to be confused with the MIG whose fire power pales in comparison to her's) that Neerja would not ditch me after a few years of marital bliss. She refused, on the grounds that it was not Neerja's credentials that were suspect but mine. I had to lump it since time was running out for me, just as it is for the Indian Air Force. I also had to open an escrow account: my hardly earned pay went into it every month and it was Neerja who decided what to spend it on. Unlike the NDA Rafale deal, there was also a transfer of technology clause: I was to be taught how to cook and Neerja would be trained in how to take the dog for a walk. As it turned out, however, only the first part was actually implemented, but in the absence of an arbitration clause I had to lump this too. But everything else worked perfectly because I had plenty of letters of comfort  - 79 of them, which I have lovingly preserved. They are all from Neerja, from the days before we got married, when I was posted to desolate places like Jwalamukhi and Ranital where the only female one got close up to was the DoorDarshan newscaster at 9 PM everyday; even she looked good to us, sprawled on the floor in a broken down rest house. These letters of comfort kept me going till the IGA ( Inter Gotra Agreement) was finally signed on the 23rd of January 1977, with the family pundit as witness ( no, he didn't give a dissenting note).
   This contract had no need for an off-set clause either, because all its components were in place, except one- the honeymoon package. That was taken care of by a letter of discomfort from the Chief Secretary denying me any leave for the post nuptials in a flagrant violation of my fundamental rights. I had to lump that too, since slapping up Chief Secretaries still lay in the distant future.  So it was wedding in Lucknow, a  train to Delhi and a night bus to Mandi, with a subsequent controlled crash landing in Chamba. Since then we've been cruising on auto-pilot. There were no kickbacks either, just a pushback in the form of two sons. They are neither "chaiwallahs" nor "chors" nor Pappus, nor have they benefited from any dynastic privileges other than a propensity to start balding in the mid-thirties. They are doing fine, without support from any coalitions, reservations, electoral bonds, NPAs or hate speech. So here is the message, folks: this too shall pass, for there is life after comfort letters and sovereign guarantees, with or without the opinions of a CAG. 
   

Sunday, 10 February 2019

ARE WE ENDANGERING WOMEN'S RIGHTS BY PUSHING TOO HARD?


  In this benighted country even the issue of women's rights has been reduced to a meaningless level by a combination of competitive politics, hasty judicial intervention, hyper ventilating media and self-seeking femininism. In the process the cause itself has been damaged and it is debatable how many of the intended benefits have actually accrued to the vast majority of women in the country. Statistics tell us, in fact, that in spite of years of high decibel "affirmative action" their position has actually become worse! According to the 68th round of NSSO data the %age of women in India's work force has declined from 25.6% in 2001 to 21.9% in 2011. And ironically, for all the posturing by successive governments, the position in the public sector is worse than in the private sector: in the latter women formed 24.5% of the work force while in the former they constituted a mere 17.9%. Our politicians' sanctimonious hypocrisy is thoroughly exposed by these figures.
  The Triple Talaq ( TTT) hullabaloo is a case in point. The BJP govt. took up this issue as a pure political gambit, the objective being to help the party, not Muslim women. Neither divorce nor TTT is a major issue for Muslim women, at least not any more than it is for Hindu women. In fact, according to the 2011 census again the rate of divorce among the Muslim community, at 0.56, is lower than among Hindus at 0.76. ( National Herald, 29th Jan. 2017). Nor are Muslim women the sorry victims they are being made out to be by the govt.: a BMMA ( Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan) survey for 2014 shows that in 40.57% of divorce cases it was the woman who initiated the proceedings. Nor is TTT the endemic it is portrayed to be: the same survey reveals that out of 219 cases received in one sampled Shariat court, only 22 were of the TTT variety. It also shows that the electronic media is not the favoured medium for serving a TTT notice as is constantly being tom-tommed by the media - only in 0.25% cases was the message delivered via phone, SMS or email.
  Objective data, therefore, seems to suggest that the chai-wallah party raised an unnecessary storm in a tea cup for its own ends, without any scientific study by an agency like the Law Commission. It made matters worse by criminalising something which the Supreme Court had already declared "non-est." In the process, at best, it missed an opportunity to address the real issue confronting women of all religions and communities- abandonment, without recourse to any law. This is the practice which is endemic among Hindus and Muslims alike- the Prime Minister's own constituency, Varanasi, is the forced abode of tens of thousands of abandoned women and widows, if only he would care to admit it- and needed a law to eradicate it. At worst, the new TTT law/ ordinance will only mean that Muslim women will now be thrown out and abandoned without a penny, instead of being divorced through a process that at least gave them some recompense in the form of mehr etc. How is the lot of these women any better now?
  The Sabarimala case has not advanced women's rights either, but it HAS done two things. One, it has exposed the BJP's double standards: while in the Triple Talaq case it professed to champion the rights of women, here it is ranged against them! Two, it has made the Hindu male more vociferous and aggressive against allowing women the right to enter the temple. In the process it has done great disservice to the cause of women. But it has served the true purpose of the hypocrisy on display- consolidating the Hindu vote against the left front govt. in Kerala. It has provided another instance where the judiciary has unwittingly played into the hands of politicians. I have always maintained that religious reforms have to come from within and should not be legislated.
  The MeToo campaign started on a positive note and for some time held out the promise that it would improve the woman's dignity and safety in the work place. Enthused by its claiming an early victim in MJ Akbar, however, it soon degenerated into an orgy of naming and shaming on social media, with accusations flying thick and fast, some of them going back decades. The distinction between sexual molestation and inappropriate behaviour was quickly forgotten in the ensuing media frenzy. The genuine cases got mixed up with allegations meant to settle personal scores and the atmosphere in work places has now become even more hostile for women generally.
  Some "progressive" pieces of legislation have not helped their cause either. The Maternity Amendment Act of 2017 now makes it mandatory for private companies to provide 26 weeks of maternity leave on full pay, provide a creche if they employ more than 50 persons ( something, incidentally, which the govt. itself does not do!) and also permit them to work from home. This is even more generous than the provisions in many European and SE Asian countries which are far more developed than we are. Now, these are good ideals to work towards but they should be calibrated to correspond to the existing business and economic environment. In a country where 80% of the employment is provided by MSMEs and small businesses which work on very small margins such munificent provisions become unsustainable for the average entrepreneur. Moreover, many countries which have similar provisions, such as the UK and Germany, share the financial burden by bearing 50% of the cost. We do no such thing. The combined effect of all this is that many employers are now reluctant to hire women; just about everyone I know who runs an establishment tells me that this is perhaps the worst  kept secret in industry. The declining figures for female employment would appear to bear this out.
 The question that needs to be asked therefore, shorn of all feminist dogmas, is whether the majority of women have actually benefited from these half-baked, politicised, short-sighted measures, or has their cause been set back by many years? Have we done more harm than good to the interests of women ? Could we have done better with a more calibrated approach, taking one small step at a time instead of many giant steps for womankind? It is sometimes best to make haste slowly.