Saturday, 8 December 2018

THE BIRTHDAY GIFT.


   It's that time of the year again, when I take a step closer to the final resting place- no, not the bar in Gymkhana club, which nonetheless comes a close second in the definition of " heavenly abode"- but, you know, Valhalla. In other words, my 68th birthday calls. I don't get many gifts of myrrh and incense these days, because, I suspect,  most folks are not sure I'll survive to give them the return gifts. My sister-in-law, Anjali, always gives me a either a Glenfiddich single malt or a Bill Bryson book, on alternate years, depending on her current assessment of what I need most that year: an upliftment of the spirits or of the sense of humour, respectively. My sons pool their resources to give me something that would keep me occupied for at least four hours everyday: last year it was a new Savings Account in State Bank of India, something I would strongly recommend for all retired persons with time on their hands: it takes roughly four hours of strenuous effort daily for about a month to change your address, and you will have had a second reincarnation before they change your mobile number. Don't even think of withdrawing whatever little money Mr. Modi, Mr. Jaitley et al have left there. ( Believe me, I've tried all three). This year my sons have already given me my first smart phone and boy! does it keep me occupied- I usually take a photo first thing every morning and spend the rest of the day trying to find it in the album or photo gallery or the cloud or wherever it disappears. My strike rate is like that of the Congress in the 2015 UP elections, but like Rahul Gandhi I'm not giving up. Neerja (the wife of 41 years) doesn't have to give me anything: she's already gifted me almost two thirds of her life and I've made a mess of most of it, so I can't really ask for anything more, can I ?
  That leaves only the government. The last gift it gave me was eight years ago when it allowed me to retire in peace, without either charge-sheeting me or withholding my pension. So now I've been thinking of asking the government for a gift this year, and, in keeping with the "zeitgeist" of the day, what I want it to do is to name Kanpur, the town from where I come( albeit reluctantly), after the Shuklas- rename it Shuklanagar or Shuklapur. After all, if the Marathas can have a Marathwada and Nirav Modi can have a Modinagar and the Agarwals can demand that Agra be named after them, and Mirzapur is likely to be rechristened  Mishrapur,  why can the Shuklas not have a city named after them ? Since the flavour of the day is the "gotra" I can proudly claim that the Shuklas have a strong case, descended as we are from one of the original seven rishis- Bharadwaj rishi. We were the ones who rowed Bhagwan Ram across the Saryu river in his exile, long before there was any Inland Waterway or flying boats to help with the crossing. And since nationalism is the other Chef's Special these days, let me inform the unwary reader that the Shuklas are also firmly embedded in the fight for the freedom of Bharat. We roundly supported Mangal Pande, the leader of the First war of Independence in 1857; although I myself was too young to have taken part in that glorious carnage, members of my gotra died in the hundreds to create a country in which in later times the Vijay Malyas, the Reddy brothers and Baba Ram Rahims could flourish. And, to top it all, I'm married to a Pande! So how about it, Adithyanathji? If your only hesitation is that you only rename places which have an existing Muslim name, then perhaps a little digging might reveal that Kanpur may have been Khanpur in the hoary past and thus qualifies for your evangelical renaming crusade? It's astounding what dedicated digging can turn up, you know.
  But I also have a plan B, just in case Yogiji is too occupied with election rallies to pay heed. See, I wish nothing for myself, in the tradition set by our " Mukhya sevak": if not my gotra, then how about my professional class, the IAS ? I feel a statue of a bureaucrat would make a good gift- the Anonymous Bureaucrat ( you never get to know which bureaucrat has bungled up on that last defence deal), on the lines of the Unknown Soldier. This would be the perfect way of remembering, in future years, a service that has served the nation well, and itself even better. And the statue would also be timely, because the IAS itself is highly endangered, like the wild asses of Kutch, and may not be around much longer. Given the huge numbers in which its members are joining political parties just before elections, it shall very soon be absorbed by the BJP, the Observer Research Foundation,or the Vivekananda Foundation, and cease to exist. So a statue, slightly bent at the waist, with the Conduct Rules in one hand and a red light in the other, would remind future generations of how higher  species can evolve into lower ones, quite       against the laws of Darwin  and  of  nature.    I am acutely aware, however, that there shall be very stiff competition in this department. I read on Whatsapp recently that a petition is doing the rounds demanding that a 100 meter statue of Sunny Leone should be erected( is that the right word?) near Bangalore. I'm told that the demand is based on the fact that she is responsible for India Rising ( at least the male half) and for her contribution to the Happiness Index, especially after demonetisation when the only libido left standing ( is that the right word?) was that of Mr. Jaitley. But there would be two major issues with building a statue for her, and they give me hope. One, it normally takes at least one battalion of armed police to protect her five feet seven inches frame from the attentions of her male admirers who suddenly discover that Braille is the only language in which they can converse with her. Can you then imagine what would happen if there were 100 meters of her, her magnified curves overhead stretching all the way up like a stairway to heaven?  The govt. would have to withdraw at least two full army divisions from the western front to protect her statue, and who would then protect our Pakistan border from the IEDs of Mr. Navjot Singh Siddhu ? Secondly, the DGCA ( Director General Civil Aviation) too would have a major problem on its hands. Every plane within a radius of 500 miles of her statue would be requesting their ATCs for a course diversion so that their testosterone driven pilots could have a glimpse of her before they crash into the Sentinel islands yelling " Hallelujah!" And don't forget those hang gliders- they can land on anything.
   So I still retain some hope that we may yet be immortalised with a statue on the Shimla ridge or Shuklanagar. Of course, the pigeons and their dive bombing tactics will pose a slight problem ( be you ever so high the pigeons will always be above you, to misquote our very own Supreme Quote- sorry, Supreme Court), but at the end of the day I'm a realist and accept the fact that some days you will be the statue and some days you will be the pigeon. I'm sure Sardar Patel already realises this, notwithstanding Ms Spandana's quip, and hopefully Mr. Modi also will- on 11th December ?
  Happy birthday to me, folks, if I say so myself!

Saturday, 1 December 2018

WHY ARE CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE ENVIRONMENT NOT ELECTION ISSUES?


   The election delirium is upon us again, and political parties are busy churning out 100 page manifestos, recycling the same trash they regurgitate every five years: reservations, subsidies, loan waivers, free power and so on. This time we also have the complimentary adds on- temples and statues, rising higher and higher in inverse proportion to the plummeting standards of public discourse. And as usual, nobody is even talking about the elephant in the room. already in "masth" mode: climate change and the environment. The manifestos are completely silent about them, and the nearest the candidates come to them are when they talk of building toilets ( to be subsequently used for storing fodder, naturally).
   Which is a pity and a mad made tragedy in itself, because we as a country are staring natural disaster in the face but continue to grin like idiots. We have the third worst ecological footprint on the planet, after the USA and China. The effects of climate change are already upon us- record temperatures, floods, droughts, extreme weather events, the old templates no longer relevant. It has been predicted that countries in South Asia will lose 30-40% of their agricultural output by 2050. The govt's own Economic Survey 2017 has estimated that the loss in agriculture production every year due to climate change is US$ 10 billion, or Rs. 70,000 crore at current exchange rates. According to the Lancet Countdown 2018 report on Health and Climate Change released last week India  lost 75000 million man hours of labour in 2017, equivalent to one year's work for 7% of the working population ( the figure was 40000 million in 2000). 80% of this was in the agriculture sector, and we still wonder why the farmers are protesting ? Pollution related deaths ( already at 0.50 million per annum for India) will rise exponentially, heat waves have killed 9000 people in the last three years, migration of environmental/ climate refugees will overwhelm our cities. 24% of our lands are already degraded and headed for desertification, all major rivers are heavily polluted, ground water levels are depleting alarmingly with 60% of the blocks classified as water stressed, we have lost 10.60 million hectares of original forests in the last 14 years, we have been eradicating other living life forms at a galloping rate- in just the last two years the list of endangered species has gone up from 190 to 443 ( IUCN figures)  Apocalypse is round the corner, and all our politicians can ask is who was Mr. Modi's father or whether a mosque is a place of worship?
   We as a nation have always had a dismal record of protecting our natural environment or of respecting the rights of other species to live, notwithstanding our ancient vedic philosophy. But the track record of the present BJP govt. at the centre is particularly appalling. In its pyrrhic and single minded quest for a top slot in the Ease of Doing Business ranking it is decimating the environment on a scale not seen before, and destroying the livelihoods of those most dependent on it: tribals and poor farmers. The Forest Policy and various enactments are being re-written to enable diversion of more forest land for industrial projects, a prime example being the Inland Waterway project on the Ganga which is being exempted from preparing either an EIA or an EMP, and for which the rare Turtle  (Kachua) Wildlife Sanctuary on the river near Varanasi is being denotified, the first time since 1972 that a Sanctuary is being denotified. EIA and EMPs are  being exempted for linear projects( highways and railway lines) and real estate developments upto 50000 sq. feet. The Coastal Regulation Zone Rules are being liberalised to permit big capital projects such as ports ( the Sagarmala project), impacting in particular huge swathes of mangrove forests that are a buffer to storm surges. River linking schemes are being pushed through without any thought given to their environmental impacts on the river basins, there are 31 such projects on the anvil. The disastrous 900 km. Char Dham highway linking Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Badrinath has been given the go ahead, even though it will involve the felling of more than 40000 trees and result in an unimaginably huge footprint in these highly fragile zones; the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013 has been forgotten. Protected Areas and Tiger Reserves are slowly being whittled away with the blessings of both the Forest Advisory Committee in the MOEF and the Wildlife Board, now reduced to compliant flag bearers and packed with bureaucrats instead of scientists and specialists. In just one PA, the Panna Tiger Reserve, more than 5000 hectares of prime tiger habitat is being diverted for the Ken-Betwa river inter linking project for which 1800000 trees will face the axe. An astonishing 519 "relaxations" have been given for projects in Protected Areas since 2014. The National Green Tribunal is being systematically weakened so that it can be brought to heel. NGOs who work for the environment are being harassed and their fund flows squeezed. More and more people are being displaced to join the 60 million already displaced since Independence.
   Mr. Modi's government appears to be mesmerized by big ticket projects and ventures, and will not let any concerns about the environment stand in its way. All warnings are dismissed as the rantings of "urban naxals" or interference by foreign entities who have no idea of India. But the danger and the threats are very real. Unfortunately, the victims of natural disasters and climate change will be the most vulnerable sections of society: farmers, tribals, fishermen, migrant labour and the tens of millions in urban slums. They do not have the wherewithal to protect themselves against the climatic and economic hardships that are inevitable as nature withdraws into its shell and strikes back.
   And here is what puzzles me no end: I can understand that the govt., in its hubris and arrogance, will do what it wants to do; what I cannot comprehend is why the opposition is silent on these issues too, why civil society ( which gets its danders up at even a whiff of a MeToo story) and the media don't articulate them to create more awareness during election times. Surely, someone should be telling the unsuspecting voter what awaits him in less than a generation ? Everyone wants the tribal vote, but no one tells them what will happen to them once the forests have gone, or the farmer once the aquifers dry up and the glaciers disappear, or the orchardists about the consequences of the bees and butterflies becoming extinct, or the slum dweller on how to cope when wet-bulb temperatures reach 35 degree celsius. No, we don't tell them because we have our air-conditioners and ROs and air purifiers, we buy our food from malls and Big Basket and don't give a damn whether it comes from a farm or a lab, we drink bottled mineral water anyway. We have a surfeit of politicians but not a single leader who can LEAD, rather than be led by the populist nose. For a time we deluded ourselves that we had finally discovered one in Mr. Modi but he has turned out be an ad. campaign with little substance. His renewable energy target ( for which he ironically got that UN award for the Solar Alliance) - 100 GW of solar energy by 2022- is floundering, and the best estimate is that it will not exceed 67 MW. The Ganga is dirtier today than it was five years ago, inspite of more than Rs. 4000 crores having been spent on it, which is not surprising, for a govt. which cannot clean 18 kms of the Yamuna in Delhi can hardly do any better for the 3000 km. of this once splendid lifeline. And so, while we may be the world's fifth largest economy we feature at the 177th spot out of 180 countries in the World Environment Performance Index. We were at 141 in 2016. How's that for a reality check while we line up to get our fingers inked at the nearest polling booth?

Thursday, 29 November 2018

OUR RIGHT TO KNOW IS NOT NEGOTIABLE

[  This article was published in the New Indian Express and in the Morning Standard on 28.11.2018 with some slight changes.]

      These last few weeks have had a bizarre quality to them, almost a Kafkaesque experience, with doses of Lewis Carol, Ian Fleming, Spy vs Spy, John Le Carre and George Orwell thrown in. The two high profile cases with the Supreme Court- Rafale and CBI- are testing the patience of both the Supreme Court and the citizens of a country waiting with bated breath for some Daniels to finally come to judgment. Rafale is clearly headed nowhere, notwithstanding the judicial sound and fury, and will soon be lost in the cumulonimbus clouds of defense secrecy, Official Secrets Act, technicalities over weaponry, government filibustering and the residual blame game over Bofors. We will hear no more of it till the sonic boom heralding the arrival of the first of the 36 planes next year.
    The CBI case, however, is much closer to our hearts because these are the guys who can walk into your house tomorrow and arrest you for having doodled on a file fifteen years ago. And so we want to, and are fully entitled to, know exactly what is happening in that famous cage carpeted with sleuths owing allegiance to all kinds of shady political and dubious entities. The CBI at the moment most resembles a Mafia organisation, with different groups reporting to their own capos, keeping surveillance over each other, planting and destroying evidence, plunging knives into each other's backs and doing the other things that promote organisational ethos and bonding. India has not seen this kind of internecine blood- letting since the time of the Mughals, and therefore we naturally want to know more of this synthesis of Mughale Azam II and Godfather III. And we certainly don't want the Supreme Court to play the spoil sport with our right to know.
   On the 20th of November the Court took umbrage at media reports revealing the gist of the charges made by Manish Sinha, DIG in the CBI, against a Minister and a whole host of senior officers, alleging bribery, coercion, interference etc. in sensitive cases. It was also livid at the leaking of Mr.Alok Verma's reply to the CVC's show cause notice to him. So outraged was the Chief Justice, in fact, that he carpet bombed everyone in the court, refused to allow any lawyer to speak, abruptly adjourned the case without assigning any reason, and retreated to his chambers. With all due respect and deference, one cannot agree with this line of action.
   In the first place, it's been almost a month since Mr. Verma was removed unceremoniously in a midnight coup by the central govt.: he immediately filed a petition in the SC against this. Even a kid in a Bihar nursery school could see that his sacking ( it was no less) was illegal, it violated the amended provision of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act and a Supreme Court order: he could have been divested of his position only by the collegium of the PM, CJI and Leader of the Opposition. A month later and there is still no decision on his petition, and one month of his remaining tenure of three months has already been lopped off. Instead, the Court has busied itself with investigating tangential matters such as the charges against him and his replies to them. The petitioner has been put in the dock! These issues could surely have been examined AFTER  settling the legality of his removal. The government appears to be slowly achieving through the back door what it should not have been allowed to do through the front. 
   The developments of 20th November, culminating in the CJI's angry outburst- " You don't deserve a hearing"- are even more disturbing and disappointing because they are legitimising what SC advocate Gautam Bhatia in a brilliant article in the 29th October issue of the Hindustan Times calls " the jurisprudence of the 'sealed cover.' " Mr. Bhatia's piece was penned in the context of the Rafale case but is equally pertinent here, because the Court is insisting on the same confidentiality here. He points out that the "sealed cover" is being resorted to time and again by the court- Rafale, NRC case, Judge Loya case, and now the CBI case. He is critical of this process because it is "a court driven opaque and secret process" and because it " involves the court in a secret dialogue with( in most cases) the state."
   One has to agree with Mr. Mr. Bhatia. Why should there be a kind of gag order in the CBI case? Here is a premier organisation investigating the most important economic and criminal cases in the country, its senior most officers are at war with each other, its politicisation is nearly complete, it is subverting justice on a regular basis, its functionaries appear to be indulging in large scale corruption, investigations are being fixed. Why should the public not be told about this fecal state of affairs, all being carried out on the tax payers' moneys? Why should we not be told what the charges against various officers of the CBI are, and what their responses are? Why should we not be informed of the names of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians named by Mr. Sinha in his petition? This is not a matter that concerns the judiciary alone, the ordinary citizen is even more concerned because it impacts his life more than it does the judges who still have a degree of defense against crooked and rampaging policemen, which the Joe in the street does not have. It is the same Joe who probably votes for that politician, pays the salaries of these bureaucrats, has to deal with these policemen on a daily basis.
   No, sir, the jurisprudence of the sealed cover is a deviation from the settled principles of law. It imposes an opacity in what should be a transparent process; it confers a protection on the state and its minions which can only embolden them; it " infantalises" the public ( Mr. Bhatia's apt phrase) because it assumes that they are not mature or intelligent enough to make up their own minds. It smacks of a colonial mindset which is premised on the belief that only an instrumentality of the state can be trusted with "sensitive information." It also betrays a contradiction in the Court's own stand: once it admits a petition it acknowledges that some public interest is involved in it, how then can it deny relevant information on the case to the same public?
   The right of the citizen to know what the government and its agencies are doing has to be paramount in a democracy. The courts are an instrumentality to enforce this right, not to deny it. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018

HOW TO CONSERVE TIGERS, MAHARASHTRA STYLE .


   Whatever one may think of Mrs. Maneka Gandhi's politics one cannot but admire and commend her commitment to the welfare of animals, both wild and domesticated. Her passion for their protection overrides her political compulsions, as is being evinced these days by her taking up cudgels against both the Maharashtra and Odisha governments ( the former her own BJP entity) over the killing of the tigress Avni by the Forest Department, and seven elephants by electrocution in these states respectively. I have experienced her fierce loyalty for these mute creatures at first hand, in an encounter I am not likely to forget in a hurry.
   It was sometime in 2001 or 2002: she was a Minister in Mr. Vajpayee's cabinet and I was heading the Forest Department in Himachal. A crisis of sorts erupted when a Himalayan brown bear in Gopalpur Zoo caught some infection and in spite of all the attentions of our wild life veterinarians, its condition worsened, and it seemed to be slipping away. One day I received a direct call from Mrs. Maneka Gandhi; she herself was on the line, no protective shield of PS or PA. And boy! was she hopping mad! For the first few minutes she let me know exactly what she thought of me, the HP Forest department, and its vets.- and her opinions do not bear recounting. She wanted an immediate update on the bear's condition, and on being told of the discouraging prognosis, informed me that she was sending down two vets from the Zoo Authority of India to treat the bear; she also offered the advice that the HP vets could be assigned to treat bureaucrats! She slammed down the phone, and by next day her vets were at Gopalpur. The brown bear recovered, and we all slunk back to our respective offices, our tails demurely between our shaking legs.
   And so it is no surprise for me that, in this respect at least, she has not mellowed down in the least. And she is absolutely right, for the killing of Avni, a three year old tigress ( also known as T-I ) by the Maharashtra govt. is nothing but a cold blooded murder by the same department which was supposed to protect her. Avni's territory lay in the Yavatamal region, a scrub forest woefully lacking in a proper natural prey base. She was held responsible for the death of 13 villagers over the last two years, even though no autopsies were conducted on the dead to positively establish this charge. The Maharashtra Forest Department's [MFD] conclusion was based on " circumstantial" evidence, which in India is usually enough even to send a man to the gallows, so what chance does a poor tiger have against our bureaucracy?
   It is now clear that the MFD has been been grossly incompetent in managing this tigress and in taking the easy way out by simply killing her. And not just her- the MFD is probably guilty of the murder of three, not one, tiger: Avni's two nine month old cubs have not been since the 3rd of November; there is little hope for them for they are too young to survive without their mother. Here are some indisputable facts that have now emerged about the culpability of MFD and their favourite shikaris:
* Even though MFD was aware that the scrub forests of Yavatmal had an inadequate prey base for the big cat, and that conflict with humans was inevitable because there were many villages there, it took no steps to relocate the tigress.
* The department, according to the Forest Minister's own admission, had been "trying" to tranquilise and capture Avni for the last eighteen months, without any success! No further evidence is needed of its incompetence. To add to this, an expert team from the Madhya Pradesh forest department ( which has plenty of experience with capture and relocation of the big cats) had offered to help but was turned down.
* According to NTCA ( National Tiger Conservation Authority) protocol, even where a man eater is involved, its elimination is the last resort, when attempts to capture it have failed. As we have seen, no genuine attempt was made to capture Avni. It is not even certain that she was a man eater. A man eating predator is one which prefers a human over its natural prey ( usually because it is too old or injured to hunt other animals), actively stalks humans, and consumes the kill. None of these preconditions were met in the case of Avni.
*  The Maharashtra FD was criminally complicit in engaging private shooters to kill the tigress without any genuine attempt to capture her. The person who finally shot her ( Asghar Ali Khan) was not even authorised to do so; it was his father, Shafath Ali Khan, who was engaged by MFD to kill the tigress. ( Incidentally, this father-son duo have terminated hundreds of wild animals- wild boar, blue bull, leopards- in similar operations).  Asghar Ali is now claiming self defence,  that the tigress had charged his team at night while they were out looking for her and he had no option but to shoot her dead. Which raises the question: what was he doing there anyway? Why was he hunting her when it was his father, not he, who had been licensed by the MFD to eliminate Avni?
* Even the claim of self defence has been disproved by the autopsy report of the tigress. According to the report reproduced in the Hindustan Times of November 10, 2018: " The bullet had pierced the lateral end of the carcass. ( If), as mentioned by the hunter that T-I was charging at them, the bullet would have pierced the upper shoulder, head, face or back if that was the case. The animal was not attacking the forest team but standing 10 meters away."
* Equally damning is another finding of the autopsy. Photographs of the dead body of the tigress show a dart sticking out of her left flank, which was used by the FD and the hunter to claim that they had first tried to tranquilise her, but the dart was ineffective. This too has been trashed by the autopsy report: " The dart only pierced the surface of the tigress's carcass, which meant that it was merely placed by the forest team to show that the tigress had been tranquillised or else the quantity would have been more." 
   It is pretty clear now that Avni was killed in cold blood, no bona- fide attempt was made to capture her, she was shot by someone who was not authorised to do so, and that the Maharashtra forest department is engaged in a massive cover up. The state Forest Minister, who has been justifying the killing from day one and shielding the guilty, has amply demonstrated that he too is complicit in the matter in some way. Both the Minister and the PCCF ( Wild Life) should be immediately sacked. The two inquiries ordered will get nowhere and shall only legitimise the cover up. What is needed is an independent inquiry, not by forest officers who will protect each other, but by a team of wild life experts. Mrs. Gandhi, who is waging a lonely battle, should demand such an investigation and/ or conservationists should approach the courts. With just 2226 tigers left in the wild ( 2015 census) India certainly cannot allow bungling foresters and crassly ignorant Ministers to preside over the deliberate killing of more of these magnificent creatures. The alarm bells are already ringing: we lost 132 tigers in 2016; Maharashtra alone accounted for 23 deaths in 2017  (NTCA figures). With this level of attrition surely we should not be eliminating more of them under the garb of man-animal conflict ?
   

Saturday, 10 November 2018

THE WALKING DEAD or LESSONS FROM THE METRO.


   As I find it a little more difficult to get out of bed each succeeding autumn morning, my mind  (what's left of it, that is) inevitably wanders to thoughts of ageing. The process is very gradual and kind of sneaks up on you: the cells stop multiplying but continue dividing, not unlike the BJP, the telomeres stop communicating with each other a-la Mr. Jaitley and the RBI Governor, the joints protest loudly like Mr. Kejriwal at any sudden move, the memory starts playing tricks like it does frequently with Mr. Rahul Gandhi on the stump, and one begins to speak like Sashi Tharoor i.e. in words that no one understands, certainly not my sons, nephews and nieces weaned on the two syllable patois of Twitter and Instagram. So slow is this process, however- like being murdered by a  four toed sloth- that one is not even aware of it.
   And then one day- WHAM!- it suddenly hits you full on the geezer. It can happen in different ways- a wilting feeling in bed just when you're about to embark on your MJ Akbar routine, that ECG report when you take out that new health insurance policy, the moment when your son is blessed- is that the right word these days?- with his second child or third divorce. It can even happen as it did to Groucho Marx: you are standing grieving at the graveside of your batchmate, all alone because everyone else has left, when a chap sidles upto you and whispers: " Not much point in going back home, is there?" My own epiphanic moment, however, came in an entirely different and discomfiting way.
   I usually travel by Metro since I need to reduce my family's carbon footprint which rivals that of Bigfoot or Godzilla, thanks to my wife Neerja. I seem to have spent my entire life following in her trail like an excited puppy: earlier it used to be so that I could spoon up the random smile, the casual word of endearment, the fleeting expression of affection- all too precious to be left discarded by the roadside. Now, however, I do it so that I can switch off the fan, lights, AC, geyser or heater in her wake: she NEVER puts them off because God himself once said " Let there be light!" and she's a deeply religious person. She HAS to say hullo to her mom, sister and bevy of friends six days in a week, and- you guessed it- it can't be done over the phone because Airtel maytell everyone about it, and in any case they all have to see who is wearing which type of Banarsi saree that day. So she burns the hydrocarbons like Mr. Mohammad bin Salman is giving it away for free in order to atone for blowing away Mr. Khashoggi, not a recommended use of wind power.
   So here I was on the Delhi Metro one day; it was crowded and I was standing in the aisle hanging on to a strap like yesterday's washing. Suddenly a pretty young girl got up from her seat and offered it to me with the words( I shall remember them till my dying breath): " Uncle, please take the seat." UNCLE ! When a beautiful member of the fair sex calls you Uncle you just know that there's no point in going on living; it's the kiss of death and you now belong with the dinosaurs. It was at that exact epiphanic moment that I realised that I was now a prime candidate for the geriatric ward. I had boarded the train as a sprightly 66 year old, but deboarded at Mandi House a broken relic. My metamorphosis was complete: I now belonged to the ages.
   One year later, however, after twelve months of this fossilized existence I must concede that things are not all that bad: being a dodo has its upside. I no longer mind the aching joints when I wake up every morning because they indicate that at least I'm still alive. The best thing about getting old is that all those things you couldn't have when you were young you no longer want, and therefore don't miss them any more. I no longer fret and worry where my wife goes of an evening, just so that I don't have to go along with her. Mr. Jailtley gives me an additional Rs. 50000 exemption on my income ( before he mops it all back with incessant cesses, of course), and the Railways give me a 40% concession on the fare even though the train is 12 hours late and/or cancelled. The govt. respectfully refers to me as a "senior citizen" before asking me to line up for four hours in various queues. And most important of all, I'm gradually moving out of that lethal " MeToo" zone which has felled many a perpendicular stalwart, if you get my drift. Though, if accused of molestation, I might well be tempted to follow the example of that zippy 81 year old who was recently accused of rape. Standing in the dock he could barely conceal his pride at having been conferred this honour at his age, and when asked by the judge, pleaded guilty! The judge, of course, was having none of this and fined him a thousand rupees for lying under oath ! Or that other old dodger who was approached by this hooker outside a bar who propositioned him thus: " Hi, dad, I'm a great believer in barter: what do you say to some sex for some beer?" The ancient geezer thought for a long moment and replied: " What kinda beer you got?" Ah, the arrogance of old age! As Oscar Wilde almost said: the young know everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, and the old don't give a damn about anything!
   And that, dear reader, is the problem with the kiss of death: you're dead but don't know it. The walking dead.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

WHEN WILL WE RECOGNIZE THE REAL " MAKE IN INDIA" HEROES ?


   I don't know about you, but I'm not too  excited about Mr. Modi's " Make In India" jumla. And it's not just because the the Dassault transfer of technology ( to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited), worth tens of thousands of crores over the Rafale life cycle and beyond, has been consigned to the shredder by this government. It's also because all that is being made in India these days are grotesquely monstrous statues and thousands of more dollar millionaires, demonetisation notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it. Okay, so we have a few more unicorns in ByJus and PayTM and Mr. Ambani has added another 5000 crores to his net worth. But this is all business as usual, further emphasis on the business model which promotes consumerism and more rampant ravaging of the earth's resources. As someone who is not sure whether his genes will survive into the next century ( remember  Stephen Hawkings' prediction ?) precisely because of these unsustainable business models, for me the real heroes of Make In India are not guys on the Forbes 500 list but those unknown, ignored, under-the-radar entrepreneurs and innovators who are coming up with ideas that can, perhaps, save this planet from its ordained Apocalypse. And there are quite a few of them in India, though the mainstream media, brought up on a junk diet of Hindutva , rape, corruption and poll surveys, may not have the time to report about them. So this week let us learn a bit about three of these innovators, youngsters who can change the destiny of this Anthropocene age.
   Mandar Talunkar is an engineering graduate in his early 30's who has just patented an electricity generating device that requires no fuel to produce power. All it needs is hundreds of people walking over some special flooring tiles: the pressure of their weight on the flooring creates the mechanical energy which is used to produce electricity. His system has been installed in the Nagpur railway station in a small area on a trial basis, and it seems to be working: the power generated by the tiles is used to light up four 25 LED bulbs at the station entrance, apart from powering a couple of display screens. Can you visualise the promise this technology holds out, with tens of millions pf people walking all over our public spaces, malls, airports, railway stations, even pavements? Why, we could have those wonder tiles on our treadmills at home: that 30 minute brisk walk on the apparatus every morning could generate the power needed to heat the water needed for the bath later! A DIY if ever there was one. This could, indeed, be the fabled demographic dividend that has been eluding our planners and Mr. Amitav Kant all this time!
   Next on my list is another youngster who works with that scourge of our times- plastic. Prashant Lingam of Hyderabad builds houses made exclusively from plastic! He has employed hundreds of ragpickers to collect plastic/ polythene bags from landfills, which his process turns into building blocks and tiles which go into the construction of the houses. A typical, 2 bedroom unit consumes about 2.50 tonnes of plastic ( the roof alone needs 5 million plastic bags!). These houses are better insulated from the weather than brick and mortar dwellings and therefore consume less electricity, but cost about 20% more. However, Prashant says this is all a matter of scale, and once demand picks up the unit cost will come down. The paver tiles ( 100 polybags= one tile) are a big hit with the Hyderabad City Council which is procuring them from Prashant's company for public walkways and pavements. This technology, replicated on a large scale, can be a partial solution to the problem of recycling of plastic waste. It can also offer gainful employment to thousands of the weakest sections of our populace. One crore invested by Mr. Ambani in his high profile businesses will create just one job, the same amount deployed by the humble Prashant Lingam will probably create a thousand. No prizes for guessing who India needs more here.
   The third entrepreuner, one who can give Elon Musk a run for his money, is a young Indian in California, K.R.Sridhar. His start-up, Bloom Energy, has invented a power box the size of a Bose music system which can provide enough clean power to run one American home or six Indian homes. His patented secret is a fuel cell  made of silica( beach sand) which processes clean fuels like natural gas or bio fuels and, through a chemical reaction, converts it into electricity. His invention is not a hoax or a chimera: it has inspired John Door, the venture capitalist who has invested in Netscape, Google and Amazon to put up US $100 million into the project. And it is actually working on the ground! Sridhar's power boxes have been bought by Google, EBay and Walmart and have been functioning successfully for 18 months now. They provide 15% of EBay's total power requirement in Silicon Valley headquarters and have already saved the company US $ 100,000 in fuel bills. The power is clean and off the grid.
   Why is it that we never hear of these champions of the Earth except through social media? Why is it that we never see them at all those glitzy conclaves and business summits where the same jaded personalities are paraded before a wildly clapping audience- the Chandna Kochars and Amitav Kants and Nandan Nilekenis ? Yes, they have all contributed to the economy but the time has now come to look for solutions beyond GDP, GST, Interest rates and trade deals. The Bezos, Gates, Mas and Zuckerbergs of the world have no doubt revolutionised commerce and business models and processes but their tech driven consumerism has imperiled the planet and put the future of homo sapiens in question. They have caused a tsunami of consumption and degradation of the natural environment that is the hallmark of the current Anthropocene age, which may be the last for us. We now need minds and entrepreneurs who can reverse this trend and find unconventional answers to these excesses. This is what this young group of inventors is doing, and this is precisely why they need to be recognised and applauded by governments and societies. They might just make it possible for homo sapiens to walk into the next century. That's why, for me at least, they are the real heroes.
   [ And oh! have I told you about my good wife, Neerja and her friend Mrs. Minu Sood ? They run a tiny NGO called ABHI in Shimla which works with mentally/ physically disadvantaged kids who have completely dropped through the chinks in the govt.'s welfare programmes and are more or less left to fend for themselves. ABHI's centre provides much needed counselling for their parents, physiotherapy, medical check-ups, basic vocational training, and social skills. Most important of all, perhaps, it gives them a place where they can mingle with others and escape six days a week from their lonely existence at home. And Neerja and Minu do this without any charge whatsoever, with minimal assistance from the government, which has even reduced the paltry grant they are entitled to under the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan. They manage with a smile and help from a few friends and volunteers and well wishers. They remain unsung but they have made the world a slightly better place for those whom society has forgotten- a business model which has gone out of fashion.]

Saturday, 27 October 2018

NOT REALLY A CRACKER OF AN ORDER, MY LORDS.


   The first thing I did on reading about the Supreme Court order last week on firecrackers was to get on to Amazon and buy some face masks. Because Delhi can now expect an Auschwitz kind of experience this Diwali- thousands of kilos of firecrackers stored from last year ( unsold because of the interim ban last year) will now be dumped on its hapless citizens under the garb of " green" crackers. For the Court's order is meaningless and unimplementable( at least in the short term); it is an exercise in idealistic ivory-towerism.
   The order states that only " green" fireworks-i.e. those that do not contain aresenic, barium nitrate or aluminium, are of low decibels, and do not emit smoke, will be allowed. But the country does not manufacture any " green" fire crackers at all; the cops have no way of distinguishing between the green and the dirty, they also possess no sound meters. So we shall be exposed to the same Sivakasi and Chinese stuff, no doubt labelled " green" or "eco-friendly". Take the time limits imposed by the court: between 8.00 and 10.00 PM for Diwali and 11.55 PM and 12.15 AM for Christmas and New Year. How in God's name can this ever be enforced by 30000 cops on 2 million Delhi households, each of them a potential arsonist or pyromaniac when it comes to Diwali? And then we have the suggestion that city administrations should organise " community" fireworks displays at some central point. Really? What about the poor sods who live near these points?- will they not be exposed to excessive levels of toxic fumes and gases in these concentrated fireworks displays?
   The Court also does not appear to have factored in the seasonality aspect, at least for north India: Diwali falls in November when all the meteorological conditions are tailor made for atmospheric pollution: falling temperatures, low wind speeds, winds from the north-west, wide spread stubble burning in the northern plains. These all collate to ensure that any smoke/smog that is generated during this period does not disperse and hangs like a toxic shroud over the cities and plains. This year the pollution levels have ALREADY reached levels that are seven times the safe limit, the number of patients reporting respiratory distress have already started rising- and Diwali has not arrived as yet! Surely the court could not have been unaware of this alarming context? Why then did it attempt to strike this unsustainable and inequitable balance between Article 21 of the Constitution( the right to  environmental protection) and Article 25 ( the right to profess one's religion)? Why did it not ban the manufacture and sale of crackers altogether, instead of adopting the proverbial middle path to appease the religious hardliners? I find this timidity quite inexplicable. If it can assert the right of a few vociferous women to enter a temple ( there was no ground swell of demand for this), how can it deny the rights of tens of millions to  clean air to breathe? Is the former right more important than the latter? Pertinent questions, but the answers are more difficult.
   Methinks the court really had no choice, given certain developments over the last couple of years, and perhaps therefore decided to adopt a realistic, rather than an idealistic, approach. I don't know how to put this except to say that, having burnt its fingers more than once, it has decided that discretion may be the better part of valour.
   It all began with the Jallikattu judgment last year: the ban on the bull runs aroused widespread protests all over Tamil Nadu, the order was defied everywhere till some kind of peace was brokered with a review petition. Then came the partial prohibition on sale ( not bursting, mind you) of crackers in NCR region last year, mostly observed in the breach, and criticised roundly by all good Hindus. Recently we have had the Sabarimala imbroglio, the fuse being lit by the Supreme Court's order allowing entry of women of all ages into the temple. This was surely the nadir of constitutional/ judicial collapse- the state government, inspite of deploying thousands of policemen, could not implement this judgment even partially- not one woman was able to enter the temple, thanks to endemic resistance by the "true" devotees and the priests. In between these high points of our Constitution in action,of course, we also had the protests over the film PADMAVATI . Of late another phenomenon has emerged: various BJP and RSS leaders delivering their own obiter dicta which sound almost like ultimatums to the judiciary- the Ram temple at Ayodhya must be built regardless of the judicial verdict; in fact let us not even wait for the SC pronouncement on the matter, let the govt. issue an ordinance. No one in either the govt. or the ruling party has condemned these statements.
   There were/are a few common threads running through all the above instances, and no concerned observer of the great Indian circus could have failed to observe them: open and voluble defiance of the court's orders, inability and unwillingness of various state governments to implement them, just about every political party coming out in opposition to the judicial orders on the grounds that they interfere with the practice of religion and culture, the demand for an ordinance to nullify the court orders. In fact of late it appears that the only common platform the political parties of the country, ruling and opposition, share is opposition to judicial pronouncements. This constant push back and friction is, in my opinion, beginning to take its toll. They are slowly eroding the writ and authority of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, and perhaps beginning to have an influence on their decision making. The failure to completely ban crackers, at least during the winter months when pollution levels are at their maximum, may be the result of this constant psychological pressure. Which, if true, will be a pity- and extremely dangerous. The "middle path" may be okay for the likes of the Buddha or Confucius but it is not what an independent judiciary needs to follow in a country slowly being dragged to the brink by an aggressive majoritarianism and a pampered minoritarianism. We expect the higher judiciary to be consistent in its pronouncements. Sabarimala was an elitist infringement on religion, the firecrackers order is an abject capitulation to religion. Neither builds trust in the courts.