Saturday, 21 April 2018

PLAYING FAST AND LOOSE


   Its's been a difficult last few years for me. There prevails a certain restlessness and a subterranean sense of guilt. The reason?- a feeling that I've not done enough to help in ushering in the "acche din" or in making India the superpower which our PM divines is within our grasp. I've not sexually molested any woman ( though I did compliment my sister-in-law on the beautiful sari she was wearing, which Mrs. Vrinda Grover would probably consider a border line case), I've not beaten up anyone for carrying seekh kababs in his car, I've failed to warn any Dalit against riding on a horse, I've not cheated in any exam ( though I did briefly consider taking the LLB exam from the same obliging University as Delhi's ex-Law Minister), I've not defrauded any bank or floated a real estate company like Unitech or Amrapali, I haven't jumped any look-out notices, I don't have any NPAs ( well. none that effects the economy in any way!), I haven't painted my Mashobra cottage in any shade of saffron, I haven't leaked anybody's Aadhaar data on line, and I haven't indulged in love jihad ( primarily because I cannot locate a woman stupid enough to run off with me). I could go on with my misdemeanors, but I'm sure you get the point- I've miserably failed to take any of the steps that will propel us to a leadership role in the world. I've let down our visionary Prime Minister, hence the hang dog look and the contrite feeling. So I've decided to do something to atone for my sins of omission, to turn over a new leaf as it were, somewhat like Adam when he saw Eve dressed in skimpy fronds.
   I've decided to go on a fast- not on a fast unto death, partly because Swati Mahiwal of AAP has already monopolised this at Rajghat these days, and partly because this may be treated as suicide, jeopardising both my life insurance policy and the wife's family pension. But even after eschewing this more extreme form of masochism, I soon discovered that there were other hurdles. First, the venue of the fast. Nowadays one can only fast at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, as per the orders of the NGT- makes perfect sense, if you ask me, to restrict fasting to a venue named after a Hindu god since fasting is a peculiarly Hindu concept. Fasting at the Jama Masjid, for example, would be impossible what with the fragrance of galauti kababs wafting in from all the surrounding lanes. So I contacted the MCD who informed me that the RL grounds were booked solid till the 2019 elections! It appears that every politician, NGO, JNU students' union, farmers' union, transgender association and assorted crackpot wants to go on a fast nowadays. I learn that some larger-than-life women MPs and Ministers, known for their feisty press conferences, raucous laughter and bringing back bodies of dead Indians from abroad are also planning to join the bandwagon: they have figured out that rather than fasting in the seclusion of their homes to shed some flab, its better to do so at RLG where they can also get some badly needed free TV time. Talk of killing two birds with one stone- though in this case it will be at least four stones, which is what each of these magnificent ladies is hoping to shed, in the national interest, of course. I may, therefore, have to go to the Yamuna flood plains to fast, but I have a dirty feeling that Shri Shri Ravi Shankar might have beaten me to it- he just can't tear himself away from it.
   My next discovery was that fasting is no longer the simple exercise in abstinence that it was in Mahatma Gandhi's time. Back then its purpose was to commune with one's soul, or, better still, with God; nowadays both eyes are firmly fixed on the voter and the third on the nearest EVM. There are now a number of business models to choose from, depending on the objective of the fastee ( "fastee" may be the wrong word; the correct term may be "faster" but that sounds too much like the fastener in Donald Trump's zip, and since it is difficult to associate that with any form of abstinence I'll stick with "fastee". thank you). For the benefit of the reader who is entertaining similar thoughts here are four of the better known models of fasting which are trending on Fakebook:
The BJP model: resorted to when you have broken all the rules in the book ( and in Parliament), cocked a snook at the courts, and firmly believe in the Nixonian doctrine: "When you have them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow." Its also meant to convey to the opposition the message that what you can do we can do better. A bit difficult for me to emulate because [a] I do not have a 56 inch chest,[2] in today's dispensation I am the "ballee" not the "baller" in the Nixon quote, [c] I do not have access to expensive Taiwanese mushrooms to quickly recover my strength before the next assault on the Constitution.
The Congress model: in this version the emphasis is not on the fast itself but on the chhole bhature that are served prior to it. The objective is not important- when you have an obsession for tilting at windmills it doesn't matter which windmill you choose. In stark contrast to the BJP model, the Congressmen prefer to keep the cameras away lest they capture their bite rather than the byte, which defeats the whole purpose of the gastric exercise. Therefore not for me- I wish to atone for my sins in 4D and on Whatsapp, Instagram, Hike for that total cathartic feeling.
The DMK model. Now this is the one I like best, though it's not recommended for Mr. Nitish Kumar's prohibitionist Bihar. Devised by a nutritionist, it compensates for the calories you lose on the dosas by providing them via the booze. We all saw it playing out sometime back on prime time TV, the bottles of Cauvery water mixed with the nectar from the glens of Scotland- now we know why they want more water! This model is not for me, however, I only drink on weekends.
The Anna Hazare fast. This comes closest to the Mahatma's model, and that's why it appears to have gone out of fashion. Plus, all the original adherents of this style have all become Ministers or Governors and have no reason to fast any more. All except Mr. Hazare himself, a poor, lonely old man  whose fast the last time had set Delhi on fire. He had successfully appealed to the conscience of a nation and a government four years earlier. Sadly, these appeals work no longer- the govt's conscience has been replaced by an EVM, and the nation's by Twitter. Certainly not a model to follow in these unscrupulous and opportunistic times.
   So there you have it- which model should I choose? Confronted with this Hobson's choice I've decided to ditch my original ideals and follow the sane admission of John Maynard Keynes: " when the facts change I change my mind." In other words, I've decided to follow the Arvind Kejriwal model of fasting. which is simple and effective. It consists of an announcement of the fast on prime time TV, to be followed a day before the event by a bulletin stating that the fast has been cancelled on medical advice! How's that for having your Kate and Edith too? More promiscuous than abstemious, I should think, but it works. Now I have only one remaining problem- how do I get an appointment with Mr. Kejriwal's doctor? I learn he's thinking of going on a fast himself- he wants a Rajya Sabha ticket, just as his CA did. Here's how the local wag in Patparganj put it:
                     Kejri played a little game
                     Known as five year cricket;
                     Who gives a damn about the runs
                     When you can get a ticket?
Having exorcised my guilty conscience I plan instead to go to Kaka di Hatti for their nan and rogan josh- I can always fast the day Neerja decides to try her hand at cooking.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

BJP MPs' NIGHT OUT-- A SUGGESTED ITINERARY.

   The MPs of the Bhartiya Janata Party, having exhausted themselves with the sheer physical effort of passing the annual budget without any discussion and resisting any debate on the two non-confidence motions, have now been given a furlough by Mr. Modi: they have been asked to spend some nights in Dalit villages lest there is a catastrophic run on their vote banks. I am heartened by the PM's new found empathy for those at the bottom of the caste heap and would therefore like to suggest three places they should visit, where they can see at first hand the new India they are building. I shall take the liberty of addressing our Hon' MPs in the first person: a citizen of India is still entitled to do so, right?
[1] Rasana village in Kathua district of Jammu. A little girl was gang raped and murdered here on 13th January 2018. I'm aware she's not important for the MPs because she was a nomadic Bakarwal Muslim( though she herself was too young, perhaps, to even know which religion she belonged to). But don't worry, you won't be tainted by any contact with this community on your visit because there are only four Bakarwal families in this village, and even they have moved out because of the fear psychosis created. And yet they posed such a great " threat" to the Hindus there that the little tot had to be massacred to make an example! You may like to find out why and whether your venomous ideology had anything to do with it?
     I realise that you folks are very busy people, and that Rasana is a god-forsaken place, seven miles from any road and cannot provide you gentlemen the comforts you are used to on such visits( usually paid for by the PSUs under your government). But do tarry in the village a little while and visit a few spots. Go to the dharmasthan where the little, helpless girl was confined and raped for seven days; after uttering the obligatory " Jai Shri Ram" do reflect briefly on the uses to which religion is being put to these days. Visit next her pathetic make-shift grave, make-shift because the local residents would not allow her battered body to be buried in the Bakerwala graveyard- ask the local worthies whether an eight year old child is just as dangerous dead as alive? If you have the time take in also the clump of bushes where her body was found with a torn vagina and her head battered out of shape.
   Then, and only then, should you go to Kathua and ask your supporters- the Hindu Ekta Manch and the lawyers- why they are preventing the Jammu police from filing a charge-sheet and taking action against the accused. Have they been emboldened by the complicit silence of people like you and your leaders in Delhi? Pick up the phone and talk to your two Ministers in the Mehbooba govt- Chandan Prakash Gupta and Lal Singh- and ask them whether they too have daughters or not and whether they think that "Beti padhao, Beti bachao" is just a slogan, or whether( worse still) it does not apply to Muslim girls. Take the trouble of dialling again, this time Mehbooba herself, and ask her why it took her a week to sack them from her Cabinet ? An awkward question, I know, because if you extend this logic then most of your Ministers in other BJP ruled states would have to pack their bags too- like that non-entity in Madhya Pradesh, Nand Kumar Chauhan, who last week claimed that the murder was the handiwork of Pakistan! What would your party do, I wonder, if it could not blame Pakistan for everything that goes wrong?

   [2] But wait! Don't go back to Lutyen's Delhi yet- see a bit of Yogi's Uttar Pradesh first. Your next visit should be to Makhi village of Unnao District in UP where another chapter of Yogi Adityanath's mis-rule is playing out. By now, gentlemen, it should not surprise you that rape and murder is the primary motif here too, or that defending the accused is the overwhelming priority of the Chief Minister. A young girl was allegedly raped by the local MLA ten months ago, she named him in her complaint but the police, good lap dogs that they are, did nothing. Earlier this month, therefore, she tried to immolate herself before the CM's residence in protest. And here's the amusing bit ( since I know you find all this quite funny)- her father was arrested for allegedly possessing an unlicensed weapon, beaten up by the police and the MLA's brother, and died. The govt. refused to arrest this "mahabali" MLA; the CBI did so only on Saturday when the Allahabad High Court threatened to order the arrest itself..So here's the first question you can ask this saintly Chief Minister: Is this his concept of Ram Rajya? Where a person with a weapon is arrested immediately but a criminal politician with rape and murder charges against him is not touched for ten months ?You could perhaps suggest to him that he should declare UP a national park and a conservation area for political criminals under the Wildlife Protection Act. These animals are not endangered, of course( they are thriving) and this may pose a problem, but I'm sure the PMO can resolve this little issue, perhaps by changing the definition of animals.
    You will note in this whole sorry episode that the victim's family is neither Muslim, nor Christian, nor Dalit- just an ordinary Hindu rural family. And this is the bit that you can report with pride to Mr. Amit Shah when you go back to that grand new BJP office in New Delhi- that the Yogi is a truly secular person; he does not target minorities only, even Hindus are grist to his mill, provided, of course, they are poor, vulnerable and have daughters his MLAs can take a fancy to. You can also report to Mr. Modi that making Yogi Adithyanath Chief Minister was a master-stroke, for he has made UP the sanctum sanctorum for all BJP politicians with criminal cases- not only has he withdrawn a case against himself, he is in the process of withdrawing criminal cases against dozens of others, including an ex Union Minister accused of- you guessed it- rape. Indeed, the visit to Unnao will be an eye-opener for all of you, and you have much to be proud of.
   [3] By now, of course, you must be desperate to get back to Delhi and the kababs of Moti Mahal. But persist for just one more day if you will and take a short detour to Nizampur village of Kasganj district of western UP- after all the PM did exhort you to go to a Dalit village, did he not? Nizampur is one such village, with 7 Dalit families out of 65 houses:the upper caste Thakurs dominate here. You will be relieved ( and no doubt surprised) to learn that the bone of contention here is neither a rape nor a murder nor an absconding MLA. The story here is much more primeval- an educated, young , aware Dalit couple who are getting married next month want to take out their marriage( baraat) procession through the village and the Thakurs will not let them. Another matter of some hilarity for you, no doubt, when juxtaposed with your PM's ad nauseam reiteration that we are the fastest growing economy in the world- but for the Dalits here it is literally a matter of life and death. The Thakurs, all your supporters, have already imposed a complete social and economic boycott on the Dalit families here. On your gracious visit to the village, therefore, you may like to prevail upon them to restore to the Dalits the drinking and irrigation water they have cut off, open the public toilets which they used and which have now been locked, forcing the Dalits to defecate in their own houses, restore the electricity to their houses. You may lose some votes of the Thakurs , undoubtedly, but think of it this way: for how long can you flog the ghost( or statue) of Dr. Ambedkar and allow persecution of his Dalits at the same time? Oh! I almost forgot- while exiting Nizampur, you may like to offer a special word of praise ( and maybe a recommendation for an out of turn promotion) to the District Magistrate of Kasganj who publicly endorsed the Thakurs by stating that processions are not an integral part of Hindu marriages! In private, of course, you can remind him of Shivji ki baraat, and advise him to emulate our Prime Minister in maintaining silence at all times. 


   This then is the suggested itinerary, taking in the microcosm of the promised acche din. I am hoping that all of you honourable folks will return wiser and sadder men- but I'm not counting on it. By the time you return to Delhi your national leaders will have started crawling out of the woodwork, spouting their customary inane clitches about the guilty being punished. The Prime Minister has already flagged off this bout of platitudinous diarrhoea with his usual proforma, ex-post facto statements on the 13th, realising that constipated silence was no longer an option. We wish you well on your return with the hope that you realise how fortunate you are- you can go back to your plush govt. bungalows, but you leave behind at least three families who have been either driven out of their habitations or are terrified of continuing to live there. And remember the words of the poet:

      Ek ansoo bhi hukumat ke liye khatra hai,
      Tumne dekha nahi ansoo ka samundar hona.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

WHAT DELHI CAN LEARN FROM VELLORE.

    In 2004 I was deputed as Election Commission observer for Vellore, Tamil Nadu for the Parliament elections. One day the local DFO ( Divisional Forest Officer) called on me; I asked him about the rampant sandalwood smuggling in the state( Veerappan was active those days) and the steps taken by him to curb it. That evening he took me to a dense sandalwood grove of about two acres: I could not believe my eyes at what I saw! The whole copse was surrounded by a six strand barbed wire fence which was electrified. There were watchtowers with armed guards and floodlights at regular intervals. Seeing the shock on my pahari face the young officer explained: " You see, sir, this is the last grove of sandalwood trees in the district, all the others have been felled by smugglers. We are taking no chances with these remaining trees."
  I was reminded of this little nugget from my past this week when I read a CAG report about the status of the green cover in Delhi, where the Veerappans appear to have been replaced by the much more dangerous officers of the Forest Department and the PWD. Veerappan took out only sandalwood trees; our officers, as befits their educated status, are not discriminatory in their plunder- they fell everything that grows. According to this report 13108 trees were felled in Delhi in the last three years( 2014-15 to 2016-17) for "development" projects- in a city that is gradually turning into an arid desert! Even worse, whereas 65095 trees were to have been planted as compensatory afforestation only 21048 were actually planted, a shortfall of 67%. From my experience in the Forest Deptt. in HP I can state with full confidence that the survival rate of planted saplings never exceeds 40% at best; in other words, of the 21000 odd saplings planted not more than 8000 will actually survive to their third year ( if they are not chopped down before that for another flyover or convention center, that is). The final picture, then, is this: 13000 trees felled, 8000 replaced. Even the replacements shall take decades to deliver any environmental values- and we just don't have those decades before the Armageddon of climate change overtakes us.
   There is an accumulating deficit then of 5000 trees every year. No wonder the tree cover of Delhi is a dismal 20.59% of its area, the dense forest figure is even worse- just 6.72 sq.kms in 2017, and declining every year. It is clear that the Delhi administration, particularly its Forest Deptt., has miserably failed to protect the green lungs of the city. Whatever protection is available is thanks to the Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court: without their vigilance the entire Ridge would have disappeared by now, occupied by godmen, fat cats, para military camps and farm houses; as it is almost 20% of the original Ridge has gone. But even these two institutions at times cannot appreciate the urgency of the need for preserving whatever few trees are left: witness the approval granted for felling 400 trees for a convention centre at at Pragati Maidan and another 1000 trees for another such building at Dwarka: it is unfortunate that on the 4th of this month the NGT dismissed a concerned citizen's petition to save the trees at Dwarka.
   Here is why the time has come to save each and every tree in our cities, especially Delhi which is already the most polluted city in the world. Even by the govt's figures( which are suspect) the green cover of Delhi is just 20% of its geographical area which is 1400 sq. kms. The area occupied by parked motor vehicles alone- hold your breath- is 13% of the geographical area ! ( 10 million vehicles x 18 sq. meters= 180 million sq. meters=180 sq. kms.). Alarmingly, the green cover is going down every year while the motor vehicles are increasing by 10%, or 1 million cars per annum. In just five years or so there shall be more area under cars than under trees- and this does not even include the area under roads. Do we still want more convention centers at the cost of trees?
   Look at it another way, from the benefits of trees as carbon sinks. An average, 10 year old tree with a diameter of 8 inches sequesters apprx. 50 pounds of carbon every year. The 13000 trees felled in the last three years would have sequestered 325 tonnes of carbon every year, or about 10000 tonnes over their lifetime. We have lost this for ever. And the average Delhi-ite just can't be bothered; all he does is complain about pollution, heat, dust, floor area ratio and traffic jams while he happily chops down all the branches of that 100 year old neem tree because they obstruct the sunlight to his house, or proudly steps out to buy the latest SUV.
   Back to Vellore. Maybe Delhi needs the Vellore approach to counter the Veerappans sitting in our govt. offices. Maybe the only way to save Delhi's trees is to withdraw the 10000 cops on VIP duty and redeploy them to save the city's vanishing green cover. We can live without politicians and bureaucrats, but not without trees.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

MILES TO GO BEFORE WE SLEEP


[ This article was published on the op-ed page of THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS ON 4.4.2018]


               The Supreme Court judgement of 9th March legalising the Living Will or Advance Medical Directive has opened the door to a dignified death but few will be able to walk through these doors because of apparent confusions and the red tape in which the process has been enmeshed. All the five Hon’ judges do not appear to be on the same page as regards the circumstances under which the Living Will shall kick in. Does it apply only to “ withdrawal of medical treatment” or does it also cover “ refusal to accept certain extreme forms of treatment”?
  The CJI is clear that it applies to both when he says that “ a competent person…has the right to refuse specific treatment…even if such a decision entails a risk of death.” He is supported in this finding by both Justice DY Chandrachud ( “ the right of..an individual to refuse medical treatment is unconditional….”) and Justice Bhushan ( “ an adult human being…is fully entitled to refuse medical treatment or to decide not to take medical treatment and may decide to embrace the death in a natural way.”). Justice AK Sikri , however, stops short of saying so: he states that passive euthanasia can be permitted “where a patient is in PVS ( Permanent Vegetative State) and he is terminally ill, where the condition is irreversible, or where he is brain dead.” It needs to be noted that such a condition can generally be diagnosed only when a patient has already been administered life support measures in an ICU, without any benefit. Therefore, what he seems to be giving his approval to is withdrawal of life support, not to refusal to accept treatment, which lies at the heart of the Living Will concept. There appears to be a divergence of views here, which may pave the way for challenges to the whole judgement in future, I fear.
   Even more critical to the true intention of a Living Will, however, is the multiplicity of “ safeguards” built into the judgement regarding both the execution and the operation of the Advance Directive. It provides that the LW has to be signed by the testator, two witnesses and a judicial magistrate; copies have to be filed with both the court of the JMIC and the local body. Upon hospitalisation the JMIC shall send a copy of the LW to the hospital, which shall set up a medical board to recommend whether its provisions  should be given effect to. This report will then be forwarded to the Collector who shall then constitute a second medical board for a final opinion. This has then to be sent to the JMIC who, after personally visiting the hospital and seeing the patient himself, will pass the final order. An appeal against the reports of the medical boards or decision of the JMIC shall lie in the High Court only.
   I have two reservations about this process. First, why is it necessary to have three levels of scrutiny before giving approval to the LW? The whole idea of such an Advance Directive is to be spared the kind of aggressive, painful and expensive “ life support” interventions that may “prolong” life but not improve its quality. This is an individual and extremely personal decision and is taken knowing fully well that such treatment may keep the person alive- but he does not wish to live this kind of undignified, dependent existence. The judgement itself accepts this argument when it states ( Justice DY Chandrachud): “ Neither the law not the Constitution compel an individual who is competent and able to take decisions, to disclose the reasons for refusing medical treatment nor is such a refusal subject to the supervisory control of an outside entity.” [ Italics provided by author]. The CJI also fully supports this position: “ But where a patient has already made a valid Advance Directive which is free from reasonable doubt and specifying that he/she does not wish to be treated, then such a directive has to be given effect to.” [ Italics provided].
   The procedure prescribed, however, contradicts the above findings because it effectively takes the power of the final decision away from the testator of the LW and hands it over to two medical boards, a Collector and a Judicial Magistrate. It completely undoes the good work in the rest of the judgement. The emphasis of the Court should have been on the first stage, viz. the execution or inscription of the will to ensure that it is voluntary, informed and authentic, and to that extent the procedure provided is unexceptionable. But the codicils in the second stage- giving effect to the will- negate the concept of primacy of the patient or the stated objective of the judgement that “ the best interest of the patient shall override the State interest.”
   Even otherwise, the second stage “safeguards” appear to be excessive and shroud the whole exercise in so much red tape that it is doubtful whether many people would be able to take the route to what the Court terms “ an easy and gentle death” but in fact will be an expensive and traumatic journey. Precisely at a moment of intense distress, sorrow and stress the patient’s next of kin will be made to run from hospital to  courts, shepherded by grasping lawyers, to give effect to the LW. The whole process is bound to take weeks, if not months, given how slowly the wheels of the judiciary grind. Applications for forced abortions take so long to decide that quite often the 22 week stipulation is exceeded and another unwanted child is the only result. The caution shown by the Court is, in my opinion, quite disproportionate and makes the whole scheme unworkable. It is perhaps justified in the case of “active euthanasia” or Physician Assisted Suicide but certainly not for “ passive euthanasia” which the Court itself has held to be a patient’s constitutional right. The various parts of this judgement are inconsistent with each other and need to be reconciled. I’m afraid a dignified exit for most of us is still some time away.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

SECTION 118 FAILS TO CURB LUST FOR LAND IN HP.

         [ This piece was published in the SUNDAY TRIBUNE on 31.3.2018]

Section 118 of the HP Tenancy and Land Reforms Act 1972 was intended to protect the Himachali agriculturist and prevent the diversion of scarce agricultural land. It has done neither in the last 45 years. Instead, it has spawned corruption, lowered land values, encouraged benami deals on a large scale and deprived people who have otherwise spent their entire lives in Himachal from acquiring any property in the state. Most importantly, it has devastated the natural environment to a point where the hinterland of all major towns have become virtual concrete slums. Every five years a new government promises to review it but its poltical spin-offs ensure that nothing happens.
Figures on the HP Revenue Deptt.’s web site reveal that between 2010 and August 2015 approval was given in 1676 cases; more than 50% of these were for tourism and house construction, and these categories are the real culprits. Both these categories have become a cover for rapacious real estate developers who openly indulge in benami transactions and, thanks to the lack of any building regulations outside urban areas, are disfiguring the state’s natural environment on an ever increasing scale. The govt. has proof of this, but prefers to turn a blind eye.
The Justice DP Sood Commission, set up in 2010 to examine the functioning of this Act, submitted its report in 2012 in which it made the following damning indictment: “ majority of builders are creating a concrete jungle and spoiling the natural forested environment.” Some of its other alarming findings: 95% of allottees were outsiders, benami purchase was rampant, in 80% of cases examined by him land was “bought” by locals whose own holdings were less than five bighas, non-agriculturists were purchasing agricultural land without any permissions, even land allotted to the landless by the govt. was being sold off! He recommended the confiscation of 42 illegally purchased properties. His final, disgusted recommendation was : “ Either implement Section 118 or scrap it.” Justice Sood’s report has more or less been consigned to the dustbin, as far as I know. It would be interesting to know how many of the 42 properties have actually been vested in the govt.
Section 118, in conjunction with the ubiquitous Apartments Act ( which Justice Sood had recommended should be scrapped) is playing havoc with the state’s environment and its natural resources. In the absence of any planning laws in the rural areas, trees are being cut ( remember the case of the 482 trees chopped down in Tara Devi in 2016 by a developer?), hills being excavated, roads being carved on impossible gradients, water sources being polluted, debris being dumped in valleys. There is no concern for local architecture or aesthetics- the two images attached with this article will prove my point. Both pertain to Section 118 constructions  near Mashobra- the first is a “resort” which has been under construction for the last seven years, on a site which used to be a dense, beautiful apple orchard: every single tree was chopped down to make way for these hideous “villas”. The second is a commercial housing complex, also under construction for the last five years, which has no takers- but a beautiful plot of land has been destroyed for ever.



There are hundreds of similar constructions coming up all over the state, facilitated by Section 118. A friend of mine who has spent his life in the valleys of Kullu district informs me that at least a dozen benami “resorts” are coming up in the magical Tirthan valley- one of the last remaining untouched areas in the state- all owned by people from Punjab and Delhi. No part of the state is safe from the tentacles of this lust for land in Himachal. These “investors” will make crores- at the cost of the state and its genuine inhabitants. This process of despoliation has been made easier by the govt. bringing in an amendment to the Act in 2011 which provides that Section 118 is NOT attracted in the case of built up flats and houses if the lease is upto 99 years. This has thrown open the floodgates to reckless construction all over the state.
These houses, hotels, resorts etc. do not benefit the state in any way. Most of these houses are second or third homes of the uber rich in Delhi or Chandigarh and stay locked up for most of the time. They create no employment opportunities for local youth, there is no contribution to the local economy since everything is brought in from outside. On the contrary, they create pressure on local infrastructure which was never designed to cater to these numbers- water supply, road, electricity. The local Panchayats are unable to handle issues like garbage disposal and the hills are gradually being blanketed in plastic.
While the “outsiders” make merry, even “domiciled” Himachalis ( those who have been continuously residing here for twenty years) are unable to buy land outside urban areas. Those who have bought land with permission under Section 118, on the other hand, cannot sell it without fresh approval of the govt.: this creates more avenues for corruption. The sensible thing is to have a reasonable lock-in period of 10 or 15 years and thereafter have no conditions.
The govt. needs to have a long, hard and honest look at the impact of this law on the environment, economy and infrastructure of the state before relaxing it any further under the guise of “ ease of doing business”. At the end of the day, if the law does not serve the genuine interest of the state and its residents ( but only that of some individuals) then it must be drastically amended. Quality of life has to have priority over ease of business.







Saturday, 31 March 2018

AN APOLOGY THAT DIMINISHES THE NATION.


    I've been quite perplexed, and somewhat saddened, by the general public reaction to the serial apologies by Arvind Kejriwal ( four so far and still counting). One expected the hoots of derision and taunts from the Lutyens Delhi crowd, the mercenary press, the OG-turned-saffron columnists, but certainly not from those who are capable of thinking independently, those who have a finer understanding of the nuances of our deteriorating democratic values. But they have also succumbed to the devil's wind that is blowing through our country these days. They are all wrong: the apologies don't demean Kejriwal, they diminish us all. Let me explain why.
    Kejriwal has apologised for calling a bunch of politicians crooks. Did he have the evidence for this?- we will never know now, though there are SIT and ED reports with the govt. about the gentleman from Punjab, and minutes of DDCA meetings ( which the court has not allowed Kejriwal to access)that may throw more light on another worthy from Delhi. Assuming that Kejriwal had no hard evidence he should not have made these allegations ( so goes the argument of Lutyens Delhi) and therefore it is only right that he should eat humble pie ( and his words) by apologising. But why should this be a reason for jubilation and twitter sarcasm? It should, instead, be a cause for despair and anger, because it proves that the truth will never out, and that those who dare to speak out will be swiftly cut to size.
    Kejriwal's primary appeal lies in his anti-corruption crusade, his opposition to the status quo and the quid-pro-quo culture which has ensured that 1% of the population has cornered 73% of the wealth generated in the last three years. His accusations of political corruption are generic in nature, and he takes names to put a "face" on the evil, just as political parties put up the "face" of a CM candidate to crystallize their promises in an election. And the people believed him, because the citizens of India don't need any so-called "evidence" to convince them that all-well, almost ALL- our politicians are corrupt to the core. Look at the forest, not the trees. According to the election watch-dog, Association for Democratic Rights, in the current Lok Sabha 82% of the MPs are crorepatis: the percentage has been increasing consistently- in 2004 it was 30% and in 2009 it was 58%. [ The country's poorest Chief Minister, who had just a few thousand rupees in his bank account, just lost the election in Tripura. What does that tell us about the state of the union and the context of Kejriwal's charges?] As is to be expected, the same trend is observed when it comes to MPs with criminal charges: 24% in 2004, 30% in 2009 and now 34%. THIS is the evidence which the voters intuitively accepted when they brought the AAP to power, the propellant for the change they desperately wanted. Individual names are inconsequential. Evidence is not needed.
    It is another story that Kejriwal had to withdraw his charges against some individuals. It was not just lack of evidence which made him do so, but a combination of our legal system and political machinations. In most mature democracies a distinction is made between political claims and personal allegations, and the former is given liberal latitude: courts are reluctant to entertain defamation cases based on the free-for-all of electioneering. In India that judicial discipline is missing. Secondly, in no other truly democratic dispensation is defamation a criminal offence: in India it lies at the heart of the law because it is a useful tool to silence critics. Given this politico- legal ecosystem, and a Central govt. which has been hounding him from day one, Kejriwal never stood a chance. 33 defamation cases were filed against him in half a dozen different states; in the fortnight when he issued his first apology he was required to personally appear in 22 cases! The interesting thing is that he was being targeted by just about every political party that had all five fingers in the cookie jar. None of them targeted each other, for that old code- honour among thieves-still holds good in politics at least. Since they are all in the same boat, no one wants to rock it. Kejriwal was the rookie outsider who had to be taught a lesson lest he sink the boat- and so the artillery barrage of defamation cases, facilitated unknowingly by a judicial system which is truly blind.
   No one, not even an incumbent Chief Minister, can defend 33 cases in which he has to personally appear at each hearing, and still continue to discharge his duties responsibly. This is what the BJP and Congress had planned for- like with Gulliver, tie him down with a hundred shackles and render him impotent and inert. Kejriwal perhaps read this diabolic strategy a bit late, but when he did he has adopted exactly the right course of action. The apology is a strategic retreat and not a comedown for him : he has not retracted his allegations, he has regretted making them. His core base of supporters recognize this.
   The whole affair, however, is a sad day for our country for it demonstrates how entrenched forces can use the unscrupulous and venal systems of our polity and jurisprudence to take down anyone who dares to challenge them- all done "legally", of course. And therein lies the danger to our democracy: the technicalities of law being used to muzzle serious allegations against a category of people who continue to prosper while the rest of the country goes to the dogs-or cows, in the present age. No one will speak out now.
   Kejriwal was perhaps wrong to have made the allegations without solid evidence. He has done the right thing- strategically, ethically and legally- by apologising. But that is no reason for us to celebrate. It is, instead, reason enough for us to introspect whether this is the real road to democracy. What does the common citizen do when the government won't act, when the courts won't convict, when the press won't publish? Kejriwal's enforced apology has just ensured that we can't even bark any more. It's worse than a dog's life.  

Saturday, 17 March 2018

CROSS SUBSIDIES AND TRAINING CAPSULES.


   We all know that the good Lord, when in a sanguine mood, could turn water into wine. But the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Mr. Jai Ram Thakur, has now gone one step further: he proposes to turn wine into milk! In the budget for the new year, presented by him last week, he has imposed a cess of two rupees on every bottle of booze sold in the state. He expects to garner Rs. 16 crore by this epiphanic measure, of which Rs. 8 crore will be spent on improving the ambulance service ( which primarily caters to drunkards, driving and driven, in any case) and- note the brilliance of the fiscal strategem- Rs. 8 crores on setting up gosadans and goshalas. These poor stray animals, now rehabilitated, will naturally produce an abundance of milk, thanks to the 800,00,000 bottles of hippocrene that the 60,00,000 happy Himachalis will now imbibe with even greater gusto than heretofore, since its all being done in the cause of the gau mata. How can one say no to that fifth peg, knowing fully well that a refusal will deprive  some toddler in Dodra Kwar of a cup of milk? One for the road has now become one for the brat!
   Mr. Thakur's cross-subsidy idea is a master stroke: the more one drinks, the more one contributes to (a) the nutrition of children( don't forget, almost 38% of India's under-fives are malnourished), and (b) the welfare of an animal on the back of which the BJP is riding to victory, as surely as Porus did on the back of his elephants. Both Mr. Nadda and Mrs. Maneka Gandhi would be overjoyed. On the other hand, if the additional cess dissuades people from drinking, then again the Chief Minister can claim credit for the arrival of the age of abstinence. As you can see, dear reader and dear tippler, it's a win-win for him. There is much that the ham handed Chief Minister of Bihar, Mr. Nitish Kumar, can learn from our CM. The former's policy of forced prohibition has benefited neither his voters nor his exchequer nor his cows. The policemen and rats- yes, rats- we are told, are the only happy lot. It has been reported that last year about 8000 bottles of seized liquor mysteriously disappeared from a police station in Bihar. The official explanation proffered was that rats had drunk all the liquor in the malkhana! And so the Pied Piper of Champaran is happily leading his flock to the elections in 2019- who knows, its difficult to predict anything in Bihar- by then these rats will probably have Aadhar cards and Voter IDs. Mr. Nuttish Kumar may, or may not, win that particular election, but Mr. Jai Ram Thakur can now tell him, with a not so straight face:

    Sharab itni bhi nahi hai tumhare maikhane mein
    Jo hum chhor dete thhe paimane mein !

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   Tourism has become the most insidious and pervasive of all human activities: more than 3 billion tourists tramp all over the globe every year, and no place is safe from their damaging footprints- from the Negev deserts to the Amazon rain forests, from the frozen wastes of the Antartica ( yearly visitors-30000) to the crawling slums of Manila. from the junk-strewn heights of Everest to the stygian depths of the Mariana trench. This hydra-headed monster has sprouted many tentacles- food tourism, temple tourism, casino tourism, graveyard tourism, sex tourism, war tourism, adventure tourism, wild-life tourism- no aspect of human or animal life is safe from a tourism tag. But even by these fecund standards the latest form of tourism being offered by the Delhi govt. is innovative and ingenious  and could have been dreamt up only by a bureaucracy with far too much time on its hands.
   The authorities of Delhi's Tihar Jail ( the largest jail in Asia) have just launched what they call " Jail tourism". For a charge of Rs. 500 per day tourists can spend upto one week incarcerated in Tihar, living the life of a convict: staying in the rat infested cells, eating the maggot infested food, following the typical prison regime. I find this inventiveness both pathologically fascinating and puzzling, for a number of reasons.
   Firstly, what kind of masochistic streak would drive a person to volunteer to enter Dante's world, especially when there are no guarantees that he would ever get out? It is common in Indian jails for detainees to be forgotten, all paperwork lost, no record of their arrival. It is more than likely, therefore, that such a sucker tourist would then have to resort to another potential brand of tourism- Habeas Corpus tourism- before he can be released!
   Secondly, which idiot will spend money to get inside a jail when he can do it for free? All he has to do is draw a cartoon about the Prime Minister, or yell " Bomb" in an airport, or carry a seekh kabab in his car, or comment about the RSS's shorts, or forget to stand up for the national anthem, or stroll down Hazratganj with a girl- and he'll be in Tihar before he can say Jai Hind. This is the most obvious flaw in this business model, in my view.
   It strikes me that this idea would be more useful as a training module for our rulers rather than as a tourism template. The Department of Personnel may like to consider the following. There should be a training-cum-exposure  course for all our decision makers- Ministers, bureaucrats, bankers, industry honchos- in Tihar: a one week capsule of total incarceration. This should replace the present modules: stints in foreign universities where we come back with a Smriti Irani kind of "degree" and lots of purchases from Macy's, Walmart and Oxford Sreet; "mid-career" courses in Mussoorie where we catch up with batch-mates, drink chhang in Happy valley and try to resuscitate old liaisons with lady officers who did not marry us because we had the wrong cadre. Of late the govt. has started another kind of training- despatching officers to various ashrams and godmen to imbibe transcendental values. This too should be discontinued because all the chaps learn there is to breathe in deeply -the "Kapal bharti"- before rejecting a file, or to say OM! loudly while accepting the gold biscuit disguised as a "kaju ki barfi" at Divali. No sir, abolish all these in favour of the Tihar capsule.
   I can almost guarantee a sea change in those who attend this course, which will essentially be a preview of what they will be in for- for a much longer time, of course- if they continue with their shady ways- the LOUs and LOCs, the tinkering with the tender, the hidden NPAs, the suspicious selections and appointments, the surreptitious issue of approvals, the police " encounter" at midnight and other routine moments of life in govt. I learn on good authority that Dante had a visual premonition of Tihar when he penned his Inferno. Life in this purgatory can be pretty difficult- even after you get used to the "food", the beatings, the extortions, the mosquitos, rats and cockroaches, you still have to go through the trial by fire- having a bath in one of the loos. If you drop the soap in the bath you never- NEVER- bend to pick it up. Get it? I'm sure those of the readers who have been to boarding schools like BCS will understand!
   The point I'm making is simply this- if our policy makers are exposed to a week in Tihar as  state guests it will do more to improve the government's functioning and probity, and dissuade any malfeasance, than a lifetime of  Colombo Plan training courses. Lets give it a try- at worst, we'll never hear of some officers and Ministers again: that's a price the nation can live with!