Saturday, 20 July 2013

The CBI-- Caged Parrot, Swooping Eagle, or Sitting Duck?

The Supreme Court's now famous description of the CBI has created a stir in the avian community, especially among the flightless ones in Lutyen's Delhi. Its now open season for the CBI, with all four estates prescribing all kinds of life-saving medication for the hapless organisation, in varying dosages. It reminds me of a joke I'd almost forgotten: it goes something like this. One day a Red Indian brave rides furiously into town and heads for the local Doctor. He tells the Doctor: " Heap big Chief, no shit!" Correctly diagnosing that the brave's Chief had constipation the Doctor prescribes some strong laxatives and the brave rides away at a gallop. Next day he gallops into town again and screams at the Doctor: " Heap big shit, no Chief!" Is something similar happening to the CBI?

The diagnosis first. Yes, the CBI's track record over the last few years has been a mixed one at best- it has repeatedly and blatantly and inexcusably caved in to political pressure in a large number of important cases; even without the pressure it has not covered itself with glory in many other cases. It is no longer trusted by anyone- not the common man, not the judiciary, not the opposition. But please ask yourself: is it any different from any other govt. organisation? Have the track records of the Enforcement Directorate, SEBI, IB, all govt. Ministries and Departments, the state police and their Vigilance Departments, the various Regulators, State Public Service Commissions- mention anyone- been any better? Why pick only on the CBI? The fact is, every organ of the Govt. has succumbed to pressure from outside and capitulation by the bureaucrats from the inside and has self destructed insofar as objective, fair and effective governance is concerned. Is it reasonable to expect the CBI to be any different from other governmental entities? The CBI is just one rash among a horde of others on the thick skin of our polity, and by concentrating exclusively only on it we are making the mistake of missing the woods for the trees.

The medication next. One panacea appears to be on everyone's lips these days- GIVE CBI AUTONOMY FROM THE GOVERNMENT. The Supreme Court is keen on this, the Opposition is screaming for it( madly hoping it won't happen before they come to power), and TV anchors go apoplectic demanding it be injected immediately. Only the discredited Central govt. is opposing this, and for once, much as it goes against the grain, I agree with it ( though our reasons are totally different, believe me!). Please do a reality check. We are a democracy, and not yet one that has evolved a strong system of checks and balances unlike the UK or USA. In a democracy every organ of the state has to be accountable to, and has to be superintended by, Parliament. The instrument for doing so is the Government of the day elected by Parliament, no matter how incompetent or venal such a Government is: any other formulation-such as the Autonomy from Government control now being bandied about-weakens the democratic underpinnings of the state and should be abjured. The latent danger in taking this route multiplies exponentially when the talk is about giving autonomy to a uniformed, armed force which is legally empowered to detain, arrest and prosecute. Let us not, in a moment of media inspired hysteria, do the framers of our Constitution the injustice of implying that they did not know what they were doing when they firmly and unequivocally placed all uniformed forces under the unambiguous control of the civilian Government of the day. Do we wish the CBI to become like the ISI or the KGB, just two autonomous police forces I can think of immediately? And where do we draw the line?- if the Government's meddling with the CBI is adequate reason for making it autonomous then, by the same specious logic, shouldn't we be granting similar autonomy to the IB, BSF, CRPF, ITBP, SSB, all state Police forces, and maybe the Army, Navy and Airforce? Because you can rest assured that the Governments-all of them without exception- do just as much meddling with them. The chorus for Autonomy is a red herring introduced by people who should know better. Autonomy from Government control does not automatically lead to better performace unless the nuts and bolts of the machine are fixed. Neither Scotland Yard nor the FBI have the kind of autonomy we are now demanding for the CBI, yet they are the finest police organisations in the world.

Can we trust the CBI with autonomy? To find an answer to this question you need look no further than the expose by Shoma Choudhury( in the Tehelka magazine of 29th June) of the CBI's handling of the Aarushi murder case. It is a brilliantly researched, doggedly persevering and systematic uncovering of the depths to which the CBI has gone to frame the parents of the poor girl, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, in the murder of their own daughter. She exposes everything point by point- the manipulation of witnesses, the tampering of evidence, the misleading of the courts- by a DIG level officer, simply because he had made up his mind that they were the murderers- in the process, according to that article, he refused to look at evidence that could have pointed him in the right direction. Shoma Choudhury's point-by-point detailing and marshalling of facts makes one sit up and take another look at what many people thought was an open and shut case. This is not a case that involves political big-wigs, and so even the fig leaf of " political pressure" by the govt. is not available to the CBI. No. sir, this is just usual police working- the same mindset that makes police beat up women in UP, lathi charge protesting young students at India Gate, kill by the hundreds people in their custody, extort crores from petty hawkers every year on the streets of Delhi, rape women in lock-ups, arrest a young girl for tweeting her dislike for Bal Thackeray, allow the murderer of Jessica Lal to get away.  There was certainly no pressure from the government in these cases.And you would like this same police to be autonomous? Because make no mistake- there's no difference in the mentality of state police and central police, and most of the time its the same personnel flitting from one to the other. Think- if this is how they behave when they are accountable to the governments on a daily basis, what can they not do when they are no longer accountable?

 The fact is, government pressure/ covert interference is not the only factor that influences the actions of the CBI or any other police force. Their behaviour is also dictated by other forces- money power, caste and community considerations, personal loyalties to individuals who may or may not be within the Government, unabashed personal ambition, obligations to others in the matter of appointments and promotions, and the sheer predatorial instincts of all those who wear a uniform in this sub-continent. Taking away the Government's powers of superintendence will not remove these influences- in fact, this will only make them stronger, because now they can indulge their malfeasance and worse without fear of being pulled up, because now they are " autonomous".

There are no short-cuts to reforming the CBI, and no quick-fix solutions, certainly not of the kind that our TV channels want in the space of one panel discussion. Every trekker knows that the shortest path up a mountain is usually the most dangerous. Persisting with our present course of medication for the CBI will destroy this organisation for ever. Autonomy has to be eschewed in favour of " operational independence" and MORE( not LESS) monitoring. The structure of the organisation has to be reviewed. Selection procedures have to be reformed. The carrot and the stick both have to be taken away from the Government. This cannot be achieved by mere diktat, either by the courts or the Government, but needs comprehensive introspection by experts and a wide consultation with civil society. It should not be driven by a transient media frenzy This article is an attempt to perhaps kick-start the process. Given below are some of my own suggestions:

[1]   The appointments of not only the Director but of all officers till the rank of Superintendent of Police should be with the UPSC( for both direct recruits and deputationists). Only the best should be chosen and both the present and proposed systems cannot ensure this. It is being suggested that the Director should be chosen by a collegium comprising the CJI( or his rep), Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Three Wise Men, granted, but they are immediately handicapped by the fact that they would choose only from a short-list prepared by the Government, and its in the preparation of this list that the mischief lies. As all of us who have served in Government know( some to our cost) the preparation of such " panels" are totally subjective,opaque and not based on any verifiable criteria. Secondly, the selection of the Director of such a critical organisation should not be something that is completed in a short sitting over a polite cup of tea, which is all  these three wise( and presumably busy) men would have time for. Thirdly, it is certainly inappropriate and an infringement of the theory of separation of powers for a judicial officer to be involved in the selection of a senior executive functionary, who may even have to appear before him in court some day in a case relating to his conduct, or even his appointment- will the CJI( or his rep) then recuse himself ? And what does it say of our executive, and indeed the country, to impliedly admit that we can't find three competent and objective individuals outside the judiciary? As for the other two worthies on this collegium, suffice it to say that deals on senior appointments can be struck before between the Government and the Opposition....

 The UPSC is a constitutional body established to make selections to senior appointments in the Government. It has an objective and transparent process, and it has no personal axe to grind. It is far removed from the consequences of its recommendations. The Government should prepare the Recruitment and Promotion Rules for the post of Director( and all ranks upto SP) and leave it to the UPSC to make the selection. The person so selected is not obliged to anyone for any act of kindness because he has made it on his own merit, and herein lies one of the biggest advantages of the UPSC route. There can be no quid pro quo, no payment of an eternal debt which makes the Directors of such organisations effectively bonded labour.

The importance of selecting the right person as Director cannot be emphasised enough. It is, in the ultimate analysis, individuals and not mere legislation or court orders or autonomy that make an organisation. We have a whole host of " autonomous" organisations in our country- State Public Service Commissions, various Regulators, Commissions and Councils by the dozen, even Lokayuktas-yet, how many of them have displayed any independence of decisions and action? The Election Commission and the CAG have always been autonomous- yet it took a Seshan and a Vinod Rai ( with no additional powers than what their predecessors enjoyed) to make these organisations something any country can be proud of, entities that Governments now know cannot be intimidated or bought. The power to refuse to do anything wrong , or to refuse to suppress what is not right, is with every senior functionary of the Government, not only with Seshan or Vinod Rai- the difference is, they chose to exercise these powers while the others choose to take the route more travelled. If the CBI chooses to make U-turns in Mulayam Singh's cases, and delay those relating to Mayawati; if it dithers on Coalgate and looks the other way in Sajjan Kumar's case; if it chooses to let a wriggling Mr. Bansal off the hook and tries to put Modi there instead -its because the Director has consciously chosen not to exercise the powers he has. It is in the nature of all Governments to push, but the Head of the organisation must have the moral courage and caliber to resist: every single Director of CBI in the last few years- including the present incumbent- has failed to demonstrate this quality.

[2]   The Director CBI, like the Election Commissioners and the CAG, should on retirement be ineligible for any Government post, including any Committee or Commission. This is a vital reform provision, as anyone who has worked in Government knows. In the last couple of years of their service a kind of reverse evolutionary process usually occurs with senior civil servants- they start becoming invertebrates again and " homo erectus" starts resembling " homo prostratus"! It is the lure of a post retirement sinecure that makes all civil servants salivate uncontrollably: for most of them superannuation is a Near Death Experience, and they would happily sell their souls to Faust to avoid it- which is what most of them do. Governments know this, and have handled this phobia so well with the handing out of Governorships etc. that by now the undeclared motto of the CBI probably is: Thou shallst not bite the hand that feeds thee. Take away this bait, and half the battle is won.

[3]   Having appointed a Director who has no debts to repay,and who now knows that his golden years will be spent in looking for lost balls on the golf course and not in some Raj Bhavan ,the next step should be to strengthen his administrative powers so that he can run his organisation the way he wants to. He should have full powers of appointments for all officers of the rank of DSP and below. He should have complete powers to post his officers where he wants to- let him select his own team and then hold him accountable for their actions. His officers will also have only one point of loyalty-to him alone-because they now know that the Government has no role to play in the matter. Give the organisation complete financial independence: once its budget has been sanctioned by Parliament all financial financial powers should vest with the Director, and he should not have to approach any Ministry for sanctions.

[4]   The CBI should have its own Directorate of Prosecution and the freedom to appoint its own panel of lawyers. The Government is reluctant to allow this because, by giving legal advice which suits the government, its own Law Ministry appointed lawyers can influence the direction and nature of any investigation and prosecution. It is this which has contributed in no small measure to the CBI's loss of credibility, and this must be unequivocally corrected.

[5] Review the existing staffing pattern of the CBI, on which a lot of light has been shed by Brajesh Kumar in his article " To keep the Parrot caged" in the the June 16-30 issue of Governance Now. In his article Mr. Kumar reveals the hiatus between Cadre and Deputation officers in the CBI- at lower levels( SP and below) the ratio is 60:40 in favour of the Deputationist, which goes up to 75:25 at the level of DIG, and further to an astounding 80:20 at Joint Director rank. This is not healthy for any organisation and at least twelve Parliamentary Standing Committees have recommended that the in-house cadre should be strengthened. It is not difficult to understand why successive Governments have been reluctant to act on this recommendation. Deputationists( in this case from the IPS, IRS, IAAS) are easier to control and influence because their postings and continued tenure are completely within the discretion of the appointing authority( which is the Government and not the Director). Deputation has its positives: it brings varied experience and expertise to an organisation, but when overdone it can stunt the growth of that same organisation, as is happening to the CBI, because it prevents the internalisation and absorption of that same expertise. Furthermore, deputationists have no loyalty to their borrowing organisation, no espirit de corps, no vested interest in its future. Cadre officers in such situations, on the other hand, become demoralised and frustrated and fall easy prey to external influence and manipulation. Correction of this structural distortion has to be one of the top priorities for any meaningful reform of the CBI.

[6]  Reduce the multiplicity of authorities which hover above the CBI like a menacing cloud, striking it with bolts of lightning to assert their powers from time to time. DOPT, Law, Finance,MHA, CVC, Cabinet Secretariat, PMO- with so many conductors its no wonder the CBI doesn't know whose tune to dance to! Therefore, one is not too sure of the wisdom of the proposal before the Supreme Court that for cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act it should report to the CVC and for all others to the DOPT( its parent Ministry). Why introduce this schizophrenic element? This dichotomy is untenable also because most cases, even those with The PCA element, would also involve charges under the IPC and other Acts-forcing the Agency to report again to multiple Ministries. In the interest of both, effective functioning of the CBI and better monitoring by the Government, the agency should be superintended by just one authority-it could be either the PMO or the Cabinet Secretariat. The role of the DOPT is an anachronism and the sooner it is done away with the better.

[7]  The suggestion made in court that the CBI should not show its files or share any information with the Government is against the logic of a democratic polity. Perhaps this could be the case in a specific, court-monitored investigation, or where the court so orders, but it should not be made a general rule. As I've stated earlier in this article, the CBI has to be accountable to the Government, but there can be no accountability if the Government is denied any information it seeks. Furthermore, many cases have major ramifications that may impinge on international relations, economic policy, the country's security, issues related to defence; a Government that is denied information about these cases cannot act in the best interests of the nation. And thirdly, the law mandates that a civil servant cannot be prosecuted for an action done in the discharge of his official duties without the sanction of the appropriate Government- how will this sanction be given or denied if the latter is unable to see the papers relating to the case? The Government should have the powers to call for reports from the Director, to review his organisation's functioning from time to time. This cannot-and should not- be done by the proposed three member judicial panel: they themselves are not accountable to anyone, and they are not part of the executive. Their presence can only weaken the Government's role, which cannot be healthy. It is Government which has to answer to Parliament and the people, not the judicial panel. The Director cannot serve two masters. This further erosion of executive authority should be opposed in court.

[8] One final point: the CBI should no longer be made to serve as a lifebuoy for ineffective state governments whose own police forces have lost all credibility with the people. I refer to the practice of states handing over to CBI routine murder/ rape/kidnapping cases because of lack of trust in their own police. This has to stop: the CBI Director should be empowered to refuse to take over these cases because (a) the CBI is not a run of the mill thana, (b) such cases stretch its resources and other, more important investigations suffer as a consequence, and (c) it should be used only for cases with a national ramification. The relevant Act should be amended to achieve this, and to prevent politically expedient cases being dumped in its lap. In fact, the ideal we should move towards is to have a separate list of federal offences, cross-border in nature, which should be the CBI's exclusive turf, as in the case of the FBI.

All the above suggestions are a package-adopting one and not the other defeats its purpose.
I have attempted this write-up because I strongly feel that this country of ours is at a make or break stage of its evolution. The issues we face today, including the future of the CBI, are far too important to be left to be decided by the Courts or Governments alone. As someone once famously said: Politics is far too important a business to be left to politicians alone! Civil society has to get involved in this debate. We cannot have a CBI that can run amok with impunity, freed from all accountability except to the courts in some cases. It is the job of the Executive to run its organs, and if it is not being able to do so properly then we should look for systemic solutions, not administer steroids that transform the patient into a monster. Dr. Frankenstein did it once........                                                                                                      

I have given my views here, most of it based on 35 years of service in the Governments in the State and at the Centre. I have also at times played the Devil's Advocate in this article- or should I say, the Devil's Attorney General? After all , as Attorney General I can always revise my advice, or, better still, deny that I ever gave it in the first place!


Monday, 8 July 2013

The Uttarkhand Apocalypse: is Himachal next?

 Himachal has been incredibly lucky. Every ingredient of the Uttarkhand disaster, bar one, was( and is still) present in the Himachal context- rampant, unplanned construction; mindless allocation of hydel projects; ruthless denudation of forests; quarrying and mining of hills and river beds; unnecessary road construction. The one missing ingredient saved Himachal- reduced intensity of rainfall: had another 100 mm of rain been unleashed over Kinnaur, particularly in the Sangla valley, the devastation from Chitkul down to Rampur would have been horrific. But for how long can we count on luck, for how long can successive govts. play Russian roulette with nature?

The term " flash floods" has become a convenient alibi for govts to explain away the devastation regularly caused by our mountain streams, but the fact is that these same rivers have for centuries been able to handle heavy discharges- why is it that it is only now that they cause such terrible damage? Is it a mere coincidence that practically all such " flash floods" occur in areas where hydel projects are coming up? It was a welcome change to hear the Chief Minister in a recent TV interview acknowledge that hydel projects are partly responsible for these occurences, but he left an exit suit for himself by adding that " no one can fight against nature's fury". That is precisely the point, Mr. Chief Minister: don't fight with nature, work with it.

The largest single contributor to the rape of Himachal's environment are the Hydel projects, and successive BJP and Congress govts. since the early nineties have to take the blame for it. They have been blinded by the lure of revenues, the discretion, patronage and rent seeking that comes with big money. It is not that they are unaware of the consequences of such massive degradation- there are constant protests from affected villagers, NGOs, CBOs and even in the reports of various agencies. But the lure of money and the arrogance of power and the ineptitude of the higher bureaucracy have ensured that these concerns are ignored.

In 2009, acting on a PIL( CWP no.24/09 ) the HP High Court had appointed me as a one man Commission to study and report on the environmental impact and compliance of major hydel projects in the state( I was at that time the Additional Chief Secretary[ Forests]). I visited all major projects in the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi river basins and submitted my report to the court in June 2010.( The full report is available on the web-site of the Hp High Court). I am also an ardent trekker and have been trekking the high mountains of Himachal for the last twenty years with a core group of like minded friends, and have seen at first hand the gradual but steady degradation of the environment that our leaders' misconceived notion of development is causing. Most visitors to the state witness, and grumble, about what is happening to its towns, but this is just the crust: the real, frightening, long-term destruction is taking place in the interiors and remote valleys where our policy makers can't be bothered to go.

There is no such thing as an eco-friendly hydel project in mountain terrain. The constraints of topography, design and finance will always cause environmental damage of varying degrees, no matter what conditions are imposed to minimise it. Therefore it becomes incumbent upon every govt. of states such as Himachal to assess when the damage to the ecology by such projects exceeds their benefits, and put a halt to more projects. No such assessment has ever been done in Himachal though the tipping point was reached long ago.There are currently more than 150 big and small hydel projects operating or under construction in the state, primarily in the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi valleys. Projects have also been allotted in the high Chenab valley but the govt. is still figuring out how to evacuate the power from there over the 13000 feet high Rohtang Pass! The biggest footprint of these projects is on account of the sheer volume of muck and debris that they generate by tunneling and road construction. Just to give one an idea, the net volume of muck generated by the Kol Dam of  NTPC on the Sutlej is  2.27 crore cubic metres; to put this in perspective: if this muck were to be dumped into the Sutlej( where it will eventually go), it would raise the level of the Sutlej by 2.20 metres along a length of 100 kms.( the distance almost from Khab to Tattapani). And Kol Dam's generating capacity is only 800 MW-projects aggregating to more than 4000 MW are coming up( or have already come up) on the Sutlej!  All projects have approved dumping sites but even these are on the precipitous banks of these rivers: they have the effect of further constricting the channel and the natural flow of the river, and sooner or later the gradient, weathering effect and the constant flow will ensure that this muck finds its way back to the river. And as if this were not enough, the constant use of heavy explosives and blasting  for construction of tunnels and roads has irretrievably fractured these mighty mountains causing huge landslides long after the projects themselves have been completed. This is further compounded by the large scale deforestation of this fragile terrain which is still a work-in-progress for nature. Since the eighties, more than 750000 trees have been felled, most of them for hydel projects and their transmission lines, further loosening the already disturbed soil. All this eventually finds its way into the rivers.The governments at the Centre and the state cannot be unaware of the environmental havoc they are causing, it is recorded by their own expert agencies: the 2007 Report on land degradation by the National Remote Sensing Authority, Hyderabad, states that Himachal is one of the three states of India that " have the highest percentage of soil degradation". Himachal's rivers are being literally choked by the millions of tonnes of muck that is being dumped into them by these projects.The most irrefutable proof of this is the BBMB's own admission that the life of the Bhakra Dam has been significantly reduced because of the unexpected levels of silt in the river. The  much maligned " flash floods" are the direct result of the muck from these projects finding their way into the rivers: their capacity to carry water is dangerously compromised, the waters in times of heavy rains initially back-up and then break loose with ferocious power, carrying with them millions of tonnes of rocks and debris, demolishing everything in their path. Some of the recent videos of Uttarakhand show just this- the pictures show a flood of rocks and mud rather than water cascading down the valleys. And still we fool ourselves and call this " nature's fury"? Sometimes I wonder- will we still have a Sutlej or a Ravi or a Beas in ten years' time?

There are two other impacts of hydel projects that need to be mentioned. The first is the fact that hydel projects are coming up one after the other on the same river, leaving no linear distance between the tail race of one project and the diversion weir/ dam of the next one. In my report to the High Court I had mentioned that in the stretch of the Ravi river in Chamba district between Bajoli( Bharmour) and Chamba town, a riparian distance of 70 kms, 4 HEPs have been sanctioned/ are under construction, each diverting the river into kilometres of underground HRTs( Head Race Tunnels). Once these projects are completed, only 4 kms of the Ravi would flow in its original bed- the remaining 66 kms. would totally disappear! I have since mapped out the Sutlej also- out of about 115 kms. of this mighty river between Khab and Bilaspur, 103 kms. would disappear underground. What are we doing to our mountain rivers? Are we converting them all into mythical Saraswatis?

The second impact can be even more terrifying, if that is possible. Dams are meant to store water and release it gradually to generate power. Such dam-based projects( as opposed to pure run-of the river ones) pose a tremendous danger to downstream populations in these narrow valleys. For these HEPs water is inventory and every cubic metre of water has a monetary value, so they are loathe to release water unless it can generate power. During times of floods they continue to store water until it reaches the High Flood Level and starts threatening the dam itself. Then they open their flood gates and release the water in such humoungous volumes that floods result downstream. In the normal course, had the river not been dammed, the excess water in the river would have been discharged over an extended period of time, limiting the damage. The really chilling thought is what would happen if three or four dams were to all open their flood gates simultaneously, which is a distinct possibility with the cascading sequence of projects we are allowing. No one appears to have studied the probability, or the impact, of such an eventuality.

Most of these points I had brought out in my report to the HP High Court in 2010. I had also made four broad recommendations:

[I]   All approved hydel projects should have a minimum riparian distance of five kms. between projects, and  all sanctions should be reviewed accordingly.

[II]  All further sanctions should be put on hold till such time as the govt. carried out EIAs ( Environmental Impact Assessment) studies for the whole river basin( and not just for the limited area in which one project is located, which is the current practice). This was because I was convinced on the basis of data available with me that the CUMULATIVE IMPACTS of so many projects on one river alone were more than the sum of individual project impacts, and these were not being factored in.

[III] Indisriminate allotments of HEPs all over the state, without any concern for the fragility or ecological value of the area, should no longer be allowed. Certain ecologically important and vulnerable areas- National Parks and Wild Life Sanctuaries and their buffer zones, dense forests, the upper catchment areas of rivers and streams, high level pastures, areas contiguous to glaciers, areas rich in wild life and flora, etc.- should be declared Ecologically Sensitive Zones under the Environment Protection Act immediately to stop the rampage.

[IV]  Minimumwater flows in the rivers downstream of the dams should be strictly enforced. Out of the ten projects I had studied only one had provision for this!

The State Govt. of the time vehemently opposed my report in the High Court, and none of the recommendations have been implemented, as far as I know- business goes on as usual.

 Let us now consider the second biggest instrumentality for environmental destruction at the govt's disposal - the PWD( Public Works Department). The hydel projects at least make an attempt to reduce their footprints but the PWD has no such pretensions: secure in the backing of politicians whose only interest is the award of contracts and sub-contracts to as many of their supporters as possible. There do not appear to be any environmental norms for road construction in Himachal, notwithstanding the constant vigil maintained by officials of the Forest Deptt. Road cutting debris is simply dumped down the hill sides, trees felled or buried in muck, no retaining walls or other structures built, no cross drainage done, no effort made to stabilise the slopes. A PWD road can be seen from miles away, by just following the succession of landslides on a mountain side. These slides and patches of erosion continue for years and in fact become bigger every year. Every year, as road construction attains a frenzied pace with the PMGSY and similar schemes the strangulation of the rivers continue.Little is being done to control this because all this is being done in the public interest- to connect villages. No one disputes this, but must it be done in such a hurry, with so little concern for the environment? The NHAI has strict engineering norms for its roads, why can't the PWD? Yes, this will make the roads more expensive to build and fewer kilometres will be added every year, but isn't it better to preserve the natural features of this beautiful state, to save its people from periodic " natural" disasters than to simply garner a few more miserable votes?

The contribution of unplanned and unregulated mass tourism in the state to its environmental degradation is growing every year and no one appears to be paying any attention to it. Ever more roads are being built to remote, fragile and pristine destinations in the name of tourism. To give just one example- Hatu Peak is a spectacular meadow perched on a ridge above Narkanda, with a period temple on it, at about 10000 feet. Till a few years ago it could be reached by a comfortable twelve km trek through dense oak and deodar forests; a few thousand people went up every year. And then the Govt. built a motorable road to Hatu. Hundreds of stately, ancient trees were felled, tonnes of debris dumped in the untouched forests. Today the meadow is rutted with the tracks of hundreds of buses and cars, there is garbage strewn about everywhere, thousands of tonnes of emissions choke the forests, and the place is ruined for eternity. Parashar lake above Mandi was ruined in similar manner by the local Minister many years ago.Choordhar is another peak/ temple at a similar height whose snow cap can be clearly seen from Shimla-it is the southernmost point in India to receive snowfall on a regular basis. The Govt. is now building a road there also! Chamunda Devi's temple in Kangra is nationally famous, and lakhs of people come there every year. What most people don't know is that the original Chamunda temple was/is located another six thousand feet above the present complex, in the lap of the Dhauladhars. It is an ancient shrine, on a small grassy ridge, in the midst of a small forest of oak and fir. Only a few hundred persons visit it every year, mainly locals , which is a good thing because it has no water, no toilets, no accommodation- but even then, on my visit there some years ago, I noticed that the stand of trees was gradually disappearing under the pressure of the need for wood for heating and cooking. I was horrified, therefore, to read in the papers some days back that the Chief Minister has announced that a road would be constructed to the old Chamunda temple! Many of the natural treasures of the state are under similar threat from short-sighted politicians: Triund, Shikari Devi, Bijli Mahadev, Saryolsar lake on the Jalori ridge, to name just a few.

All these places have practically no carrying capacity and centuries ago had struck a fine balance with nature, which is now being threatened. Infusions of hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims into these locations( apart from other serious ecological impacts), with their demand for transport, accommodation, heating and cooking, will only lead to hastening the warming process of their surrounding snow fields and glaciers, further deforestation and soil erosion, and ultimate catastrophies of the Uttarakhand type. Localised warming will lead to increasing incidence of GLOF( Glacial lake overflow), one of the main reasons for the sudden deluge of waters that engulfed Kedarnath. In fact, a scientific study published in the Economist of May 11, 2013, has reported that significant glacial retreat is occurring in the eastern Himalayas and the area of glacial lakes has gone up by 26% since 1970. The effects of EWEs( Extreme Weather Events) which are predicted to increase, will be multiplied exponentially and in the cross-fire between a grievously wounded Nature and myopic administrators will be thousands of unsuspecting tourists and locals whose bodies will never be found. The Himachal govt. has to wake up before it is too late, rise up above populism and show some leadership in the following areas:

[I]  Abjure construction of roads to locations which do not have the carrying capacity to sustain large numbers of people. If essential, provide ropeways instead

[II]  Do not increase the carrying capacities of such places either by artificial interventions- respect the balance of nature struck over centuries.

[III] Do not allow construction of any kind under the garb of providing facilities for visitors beyond the basic needs- toilets and water.

[IV] Strictly regulate the number of visitors after first ascertaining the carrying capacity of the location. This will also limit the casualties if a disaster happens.

[VI] Invest the state's limited resources on providing good communication links instead.

The world over it has been established that tourism is a double-edged sword and it needs responsible hands to wield it.

Finally, a word about the role of the agency at the Centre entrusted with the task of protecting the country's environment- the Ministry of Environment and Forests( MOEF). Its role so far has been apathetic at best and dubious at worst. Its decisions are entirely subjective, whimsical and politically coloured. Whereas it comes down heavily on villagers who are dependent on forests for their livelihood and spends its time devising ways to deny them their rights, it has failed to show the same concern for mega projects which cause a million times more damage. It has banned the only kind of tourism which makes sense- Ecotourism( Himachal was the first state to come out with a comprehensive and genuine Ecotourism policy) on pure technicalities but has no compunctions about allowing hydel projects in the buffer zones of National Parks, or in approving such projects at heights in excess of 10000 feet, located adjacent to montaine glaciers! At the heart of its misplaced magnamity is its Expert Appraisal Committee which makes the final recommendations. It is shocking to note that in the six year period ending December 2012 the EAS has approved 262 river valley projects! Actually, I am not surprised- after all the Committee's Chairman was earlier the Chairman of the Central Electricity Authority and its Vice Chairman an engineer. The earlier Chairman was closely associated with hydro-power companies. People who have built their careers on erecting edifices worshipping concrete and cement, on the extraction of power from the last drop of water and the last ounce of coal have now been put in charge of protecting the environment! The irony here is delicious, were it also not so tragic.

Is anyone listening?

Monday, 1 July 2013

Why I shall support Modi in 2014

I have been getting more and more worried over the last year or so at the direction( or lack of it) in which our country is headed. It is like a runaway plane falling from the skies and we are plummeting past one alarming indicator after another-- inflation,economic slowdown, falling rupee,complete break-down of law and order, ever emboldened Naxalites, total internalisation of corruption, an administration that answers to no one,complete lack of governance, cronyism on a scale never seen before, a brazen lack of accountability, public intimidation of constitutional authorities, a judicial system that has all but collapsed,environmental disasters that no one knows how to cope with, complete paraplegia of decision-making at all levels in government,appeasement of " minorities" and other sections that is reaching ridiculous and dangerous levels, dynastic politics at the Centre and the states reminiscent of the Mughal era.......I could go on and on but after some time the mind becomes numb and registers only one emotion-------IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE. Another five years of this and we would be well on our way to becoming a failed state and joining the ranks of Pakistan, Haiti and Somalia.

The general elections of 2014 offers us one last chance to redeem ourselves. I have been on this mortal coil for 62 years and have never voted for the BJP but have, after much thought, decided to support MODI in 2014. This is considered a heresy in most neo-liberal circles in India today but we have to go beyond mere labelling and stereo typing to understand my decision. But before I go on to Mr. Modi himself, let us review the context in which this decision has been taken. The state of the country is self evident in para one above. The next question then is: What are the alternatives or choices that we as voters have? The Congress will only perpetuate the present mess-even more worrying and dangerous is the fact that, were the Congress to return to power, it would consider it had a renewed mandate to carry on as before. In any case, who in the country would lead the Congress- a reluctant dynast,or an ageing economist who has discovered his true skills lie in politics, or a backroom puppeteer? Or, God forbid, all three? ( Seriously, this is a possibility- after all not one of these three want to shoulder sole accountability, and they may reason that if a dual power centre can ensure two terms, a triple may be good for even more!) No, to my mind the Congress is not an option. Who else, then? Well, if we scrape the bottom of the barrel assiduously we will come up with Mamta Banerjee[ TMC], Mulayam Yadav[ SP], Nitish Kumar[JDU], Naveen Patnaik[ BJD], Jayalalitha[ AIADMK], Sharad Pawar[ NCP] and Mayawati( BSP). There is no need to discuss their achievements or ideologies at a national level ( incidentally, not even one of them has a remotely national outlook or ideology since they cannot see beyond pandering shamelessly to the vote banks in their respective states) because they are state( not even regional) leaders and none of them can hope to be Prime Minister on the strength of their own parties. They all realise this, of course, hence the idea which periodically emerges like a skin rash, of a Third or Federal Front. This didn't work even when a Third Front could agree on a leader( as in the case of I.K. Gujral or Deve Gowda). How on earth will it work when every one of the state leaders mentioned above feels that he or she has been reincarnated precisely to become the Prime Minister of India? The negotiations for choosing a PM( if the Front comes up with the numbers, that is) will resemble one of those WWF fights where about six hunks are put into the ring to beat the daylights out of each other till one of them is left standing to claim the crown. I cannot see all of them agreeing on even one policy issue, whether it is reservations, industrial stimulus,foreign policy, disinvestment, environmental protection, centre-state relations etc. If they come to power at the Center, the paraplegia of today will become quadriplegia tomorrow. Fortunately, in any case, they can never muster the 274 seats required-it will be difficult for them to reach even hundred even if they do very well in their states. So a Third Front is a non-starter, and voting for any of these parties will only help the Congress by dividing the anti-congress vote. [ You will have noticed that I have not mentioned Mr. Karat of the CPM. That's because he's become like a flat bottle of Coca-Cola- earlier he was all fizz and no substance: now even the fizz has gone].

That leaves only the BJP, with its historical baggage of the RSS, Hindutva, Ramjanmbhoomi ( by the way, this baggage also includes five years of exemplary governance under Vajpayee from 1999 to 2004)-perhaps enough baggage to dissuade me from voting for the party. Except that this time the BJP has an add-on: Narender Modi. And that, to my mind, adds value to the party and makes the crucial difference.

Modi has been reviled ad-nauseam by the "secular" parties and sections of the elite media for many years for the 2002 riots in Gujarat, by the former not because of any love for the Muslims( as I hope to show later) but simply in order to appropriate the Muslim vote, and by the latter because they have to keep whipping somebody in order to get their TRPs- in India only extremes succeed. Modi has been tried and condemned by them not on the basis of facts but by an opportunistic mixture of innuendo, presumption, speculation, half-truths, hear say. Look at the facts. There was a horrendous orgy of killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 where about 2000 of them were massacred. Some of Modi's ministers and many BJP/ VHP workers were involved: quite a few of them have also been convicted, the trials of many still go on. The Supreme Court set up at least three SITs and is itself monitoring the investigations. Many PILs have been filed in the SC and the High Court accusing Modi of master-minding these massacres. In not a single case has either the Supreme Court, the High Court or the SITs found any evidence of Modi's personal complicity. Yes, they have held that he could have controlled the situation better- but nothing beyond that inspite of ten years of frenetic drum beating and sustained vilification.
Now look at the other set of facts. Under Modi's current watch, perhaps for the first time in India, people have been actually convicted for communal rioting and murder- more than 200 convictions, with about 130 of them sentenced to life imprisonment. All the communal massacres in India since Independence have not resulted in even one tenth of these convictions. Modi's government has to be given some credit for this: yes, the investigations were carried out by the SIT and not by Modi's police; yet Modi could, if he was so inclined, have interfered covertly in the whole process by asking his officials not to cooperate, by intimidating witnesses, influencing judges, conveying hints to prosecutors- something which, as we all know too well, governments of all political hues in India have mastered. Modi could have done what the Congress has done so successfully in Delhi in three other high-profile cases being monitored by the Supreme Court- the Commonwealth Games Scam, the 2G case, and Coalgate ( not to mention also the Sikh massacres of 1984): have these cases made any headway? has wrong-doing been proved in a single instance? has anyone been convicted? No,sir, these investigations will drag on and on till they are lost in the mists of time. Supreme Court monitoring cannot ensure justice unless the govt. of the day allows its agencies to function- it is to Modi's credit that he did so allow them. Compare this with the manner in which the police in Delhi have been emasculated to protect some senior Congress leaders in the 1984 Sikh carnage- everyone in Delhi knows, even after 27 long years, that their hands are dipped in blood, but the evidence will never reach the courts; the recent acquittal of Sajjan Kumar only confirms this.

The biggest stigmata on Modi is the charge that he is " communal" and not " secular". All ( non-NDA) political parties never tire of tom-tomming this from the roof-tops and consider this their trump card to ensure that he will never achieve his Grand-slam at the centre. But after eleven years this is beginning to wear thin and people are beginning to question the assumptions behind this charge and even the definition of what constitutes " communal" and "secular." Nirad Choudhry had long ago given his opinion that India is the continent of Circe where humans are turned into beasts-it is also the graveyard of the Oxford Dictionary where the meanings of words are turned on their heads to suit political exigencies! So " communal" today means a Hindu who is not ashamed of saying he is a Hindu, and " secular" means a Hindu who panders to other religions in order to get their votes at the next elections! By this inverse definition Modi is considered communal- notwithstanding that not a single Hindu- Muslim riot has taken place in Gujarat under his watch since 2002, notwithstanding that the BJP got 17% of the Muslim vote in the Assembly elections in the state earlier this year, notwithstanding that the party won five of the eight seats which had a dominant Muslim voter base, notwithstanding that the average Muslim in Gujarat is much better off economically than his counterpart in Assam, UP or Bihar( headed by " secular" parties). Compare this with the record of the Samajwadi party in UP where more than a hundred communal riots have taken place in less than two years, with the Congress in Assam where hundreds of Muslims were butchered last year and at least three hundred thousand of them are still languishing in relief camps with no hope of ever returning to their villages, with the Congress ruled Maharashtra where hundreds of Muslims were killed with the active help of the police after the Bombay blasts. ( Needless to say there do not appear to have been any convictions in any of these pogromes). And MODI is communal?
I am a Hindu but I stopped going into any temple twenty years ago because I was sickened by the rapacious behaviour of their pundits. I am no longer a practicing Hindu in a public, ritualistic sense and frankly I don't know how many of the religious beliefs I retain, but I still consider myself a Hindu because Hinduism is more than just a religion- it is a culture, a civilisation, a way of life. But in the Kafkaesque India of today if you were to proclaim that you are a Hindu ( even though you have equal respect and regard for all other religions) you would be branded " communal"- this is what political discourse has been reduced to by our politicians. And being " secular" no longer means treating all religions equally: it means splintering society into a myriad " minorities" ( another perversion of the Oxford Dictionary) and then pandering to such of them as suit you in your naked pursuit of power. In the process India has been converted into a complex jigsaw of minorities, castes, tribes, classes,  sections and what have you. The British could have learnt plenty from us about Divide and Rule! But more and more right thinking people are beginning to question this recipe for disaster, and I am one of them. India is 80% Hindu- why should one then have to be apologetic about proclaiming that one is a Hindu ? We have been ruled and exploited and vandalised for eight hundred years by Muslims and for another two hundred years by Christians, and yet we have accorded these two religions a special status as " minorities" with privileges that the Hindus don't have. Has any other country in the world ever displayed such a spirit of accommodation and egalitarianism? Is there a more secular civilisation in the world?And yet, a Hindu who says he is a Hindu is considered communal! Does a Hindu have to prove his secular credentials time and again by greater levels( or depths) of appeasement of other religions simply so that they can continue to be vote bank fodder for political parties?                                                                                                                          

Modi has had the courage to raise these questions and is therefore being reviled by those political parties whose apple carts he is threatening to upset. But people are beginning to pay attention. Modi is not considered secular because he is proud to be a Hindu and refuses to give doles or concessions to any religious group( including Hindus, but that is conveniently glossed over) beyond what is provided in the constitution and the laws of the land. He believes this weakens the social fabric of the country and that even handed development is the best guarantee for equitable prosperity for all. He is not considered secular ( and instead is branded as communal) because he says publicly that he is proud to be a Hindu. And has he done anything blatantly or provocatively pro-Hindu in the last ten years? There is not a single instance of this and yet he is vilified as communal and anti-minorities by the same party that presided over more than two hundred anti-Muslim riots in the seventies and eighties in Gujarat, that massacred 6000 Sikhs in 1984, that lit the fuse in Ayodhya by installing an icon of Ram in the mosque there, that failed to take any action when the Babri masjid was being razed to the ground! Modi has carefully distanced himself from any public support of Hindutva, has kept the VHP and the Bajrang Dal on a tight leash in Gujarat ever since he came to power there, and has even incurred the wrath of the RSS for not toeing the line on their purely religious agenda. It takes time, and some mistakes, to attain maturity; the Modi of today is not the Modi of 2002: then he was still in the pracharak mould of the RSS, inexperienced in the exercise of power, lacking administrative experience. He has now developed into a politician with a vision, an administrator who has delivered to his people and caught the fancy of the entire corporate world in India and abroad. Rahul Gandhi has been around in politics for almost the same length of time but has still not progressed beyond his epiphanic perception that India is a bee-hive.

Pause a while to honestly compare Modi's qualities with his peers in the political firmament. His integrity is impeccable, both personal and vicarious. Even Mr. Manish Tewari has not been able to charge him on this score, and that's saying something! I am not aware of a single major scam unearthed during his term( compare this with the Congress either in Maharashtra or at the Centre: the Congress has more skeletons in its cupboard than a graveyard does). Modi has no family to promote or to insure against inflation for the next hundred years( compare this with any other party leader, all of whom have given an entirely new meaning to the term " joint family"- brothers, uncles, wives, sons, sons-in-law, nephews-all happily  and jointly looting the nation's resources). Modi has a vision and a road map for the future and he has demonstrated in Gujarat that he can implement his vision. No other major leader of the parties that are vilifying him comes even close to comparing with him in this respect- Manmohan Singh once had a vision but his unique concept of " coalition dharma" has ensured that he now cannot see, or hear, or talk; Rahul Gandhi cannot see beyond bee-hives and boats that rise with the tide, Sharad Powar cannot see the woods for the sugar-cane stalks, Mulayam Singh has been fixated on the Prime Minister's chair for so long that he has now started hallucinating; Nitish Kumar's vision is a peculiar bi-focal which enables him to see only Muslims and OBCs; Navin Patnaik, being erudite and sophisticated must be having a vision but he has not deigned to share it with anyone yet;  Mayawati cannot see beyond statues of herself and of elephants; and as for Mamta Banerjee, she is colour blind-she can only see red. Modi's track record as an administrator inspires confidence in his ability to play a role at the national level. He sets specific goals, provides the resources and then gives his bureaucrats a free hand to operate. He has ensured water availability to towns and to greater number of farmers, Gujarat now has 24X7 power and has even offered to sell power to other states. Modi has realised long before his peers that future growth can only come from the manufacturing sector since the past stimulus provided by the service sector is now bottoming out, and has prepared his state to attract capital: perennial roadblocks which have bedevilled other states- land acquisition, labour issues, law and order, lack of decision making, cronyism- have all been sorted out. It is no surprise then that Gujarat has been receiving the second highest amount of investment funds after Maharashtra. His opponents, looking for anything to denigrate his achievements, cavil that Gujarat has always been a progressive state and no credit goes to Modi for all this. True, Gujarat ( and Gujaratis) have always been entrepreneurial and progressive, but any economist can tell them that the higher you are on the performance scale, the more difficult it is to make incremental gains- and these gains Modi has been making year after year. Gujarat has consistently been among the top five states in just about all economic, social and human development indicators, and far above the national figures. Here are some figures I picked up in the Hindustan Times of June 12, 2013:

[a] Infant Mortality Rate
                                   2005           2010
     Gujarat                      54              44
     Haryana                     60              48
     Orissa                       75               60
     INDIA                        58               47
[b]  Access to Safe Drinking Water( in %)
                                   2002           2011
      Gujarat                    84.1            90.3
      Maharashtra             79.8            83.4
      Andhra                    80.1             90.5
      INDIA                      77.9            85.5
[c]  Poverty Reduction ( in %)
                                   2004-5         2009-10
     Gujarat                      31.6            23
     Karnataka                  33.3            23.6
     MP                            48.6            36.7
     Orissa                       57.2            37
     INDIA                        37.2            29.8
[d]  Annual GDP increase( in %) from 2005-6 to 2012-13
     Gujarat                       10.3
     Uttarakhand                12.36
     MP                              8.82
     Maharashtra                 9.97
     Delhi                           11.39      

Modi is no paragon of virtue. He is arrogant, does not allow a second rung of leadership to emerge, brooks no opposition, is impatient and authoritative, is not a consensus builder. But then we are not seeking to canonise a saint but looking for a political leader who can get this country out of the morass that its present stock of politicians has got us into. We are looking for someone who can be decisive rather than justify inaction under the garb of seeking an elusive " consensus". We are looking for someone who has the courage to have a vision and the skills to translate it into reality. We are looking for someone who will work for the country and not for his " joint family". We are looking for someone who can restore our identities as INDIANS and not merely as Brahmins or Scheduled castes or Muslims or Backward castes. We are looking for someone who will not pander to religions and be truly secular. And we are looking for someone who will not be ashamed to say that he is a Hindu in the land that gave birth to the most tolerant and enlightened religion this world has seen. Modi may fail- in fact, there are good chances that he will. But he at least promises change, whereas the others promise only more of the same. He offers us Hope. Shouldn't he be given a chance?