Saturday, 31 December 2016

DELHI BELLY : ITS TIME TO COMPENSATE CITIZENS FOR WRONGFUL ARRESTS.

     The arrest and release on bail of Air Chief Marshal ( Retd.) SP Tyagi last week after 18 days of imprisonment highlights a disturbing trend in our justice system: the increasing instances of wrongful confinement of citizens by the police. This is not to declare Tyagi innocent of the charges against him but to question the legality of arresting someone without adequate evidence being available against him. The SpeThe cial Court which granted bail to the ACM catechized the prosecution on this very point, emphasising that the CBI had presented no evidence against Tyagi relating to moneys received, assets acquired illegally or quid pro quo. This is a very serious stricture against the CBI and in any just system should result in action against the Investigating Officer and the prosecuting counsel, but this is unlikely to happen. ( Interestingly, it was on the basis of this same inadequate evidence that the Air Chief was first sent to jail by the magistrate when he was arrested by the police!). Surely it is time to raise questions.
     Citizens in India are being confined illegally on a colossal scale, either in police lock-ups or in judicial custody. Our prison population is about 4.50 lakhs, of which 70% ( or 3.10 lakhs) are undertrials, i.e they have not yet been convicted of any offence. The majority of them are not likely to be convicted either. According to NCRB data for 2014 the national conviction rate for IPC offences is just 45%; in other words, of the 3.10 lakh undertrials in jail 55% or 1.65 lakhs will be found innocent for want of evidence ! But they would have spent years behind bars, deprived of their liberty and natural rights, their future blighted by the stigma of imprisonment. Why were they arrested in the first place ? Why did the courts send them to judicial custody if there was no prima facie evidence against them ?
    The answer is nothing short of an indictment of our criminal justice system: callous apathy, venality and incompetence of the police, failure and lack of due diligence on the part of our lower court judges, and complete indifference of the policy makers. To begin with, many of our laws themselves are defective to the point of being blood thirsty- laws relating to dowry deaths,  suicide, rape, domestic violence, atrocities on scheduled castes, sedition are so crafted that the complainant's word is accepted as the gospel truth and the " accused" can be arrested straightaway without the need for any corroborating evidence. This is grist to the police mill which in any case are more interested in " closing" a case by arresting someone than in ensuring that actual justice is done by catching the real culprits of a crime. Quite often public/ political/ media pressure is so intense that an arrest-any arrest- is the only way to get them off their backs. Thereafter shoddy investigation, external influences, lengthy delays, witness intimidation, frequent transfers and lack of any accountability ensure that 55 of 100 cases will inevitably end in acquittal, either at the trial stage itself or in appeal(s). Meanwhile, of course, those arrested will languish in jail.
    The same bizarre process applies to convictions, after trial. In the Akshardham Temple blast case of 2002 six accused were convicted by the trial court and High Court: three were sentenced to death and three others to imprisonment ranging from 10 years to life. All six were acquitted by the Supreme Court on 16th May 2014 which pointed out grave lacunae in the evidence against them. But by then their lives had been destroyed as they had spent the intervening ten years in jail. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such cases playing out every year. Should the nation not compensate them for the miscarriage of justice even though no reparation could possibly bring back the years lost, the reputations tarnished, the families torn apart ?
   There are many types of wrongful confinement: False Arrest ( detaining a person without lawful authority), Wrongful Arrest ( taking someone into custody without prima facie evidence), Wrongful Imprisonment ( confining someone without just cause or without using legal channels), and Wrongful Conviction ( imprisoning someone on grounds/ evidence subsequently found to be inadequate). The first three are blatant violations and transgressions of the law; only the last type is a consequence of a legal process, but it is nonetheless no solace to the victim. All four are rampant in India but have not attracted the attention of either the government or civil society.
   The developed world, the genuine democracies have accepted that victims of a necessarily imperfect criminal justice system are entitled to reparation from the state, and have devised mechanisms for it. In the USA 29 states have legislated Wrongful Conviction Compensation statutes which provide compensation ranging from US$ 50,000 to US$100,000 for every year of wrongful imprisonment. ( And this in a country where the problem is nowhere as endemic as in India- between 1989 and 2013 only 1281 exonerations were recorded: we probably hit that figure every month). A typical case is that of one Marty Tankleff who was wrongly convicted for the murder of his parents when he was only 17 years old. He had to spend 17 years in incarceration before he was acquitted in 2007. He was awarded compensation of US$ 3.4 million dollars by the state of New York. In the UK and other developed countries too systems exist for the state to be sued in such cases. It is next to impossible to do so in India because both, specific legislation or a general law of torts are missing.
   Wrongful confinement of any type by any agency of the state is a violation of human rights, and when it occurs on the scale that it does in our country it amounts to a negation of an equitable justice system. The prevailing concept of " arrest first, gather evidence later" is abhorrent to the spirit of jurisprudence. One can understand the indifference of the government and the parliamentarians, but what is inexplicable is the silence of the judiciary and the bar. Is it because the former is equally guilty through its casual approach, and the latter because this infringement of fundamental rights is good for business? Whatever the sordid reason may be, it is high time laws are put in place to compensate the victims of wrongful arrests/ convictions and to punish the perpetrators. At the least, this would have a salutary effect on the way our police conduct investigations and the judges examine evidence. The people have voluntarily given the state enormous power over their lives in order to live in a just and lawful society; when the state errs in the exercise of this power it must offer reparation to its victims. Not doing so would be breaking a covenant that is the bedrock of a democracy.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

HAS THE OPPOSITION LOST THE PLOT--AND THE 2019 ELECTION ?

     The lemming is an Arctic rodent which multiplies geometrically. Once every few years something odd happens to them: they are overtaken by a suicidal impulse and millions of them fling themselves off cliffs and drown in the ocean below; no scientist has been able to explain why they do so. Something similar appears to be happening to our main opposition parties over the last month- they are self destructing, slowly but surely. Their conduct in both houses of Parliament and actions outside are irrefutable evidence of this. But unlike the lemmings, in their case we know the reason: frustration, lack of a specific agenda ( other than a hatred of Mr. Modi), and inability to respond to the changing narrative he has generated.
     The immediate trigger for this mass hara-kiri has been demonetisation. This paradigm policy shift is something all political parties ( including the BJP), indolent in the stasis and inertia of the last three decades, were totally unprepared for. Lacking an existing template or the vision to develop a new one, all they have done so far is to paralyse Parliament, attempt to incite people outside into some kind of a civil disobedience movement, organise half-hearted dharnas, make outrageous claims of deaths in bank queues, selective leaks to cronies etc. They have even threatened to derail the GST dialogue in a scorched earth display of exasperation. None of it has worked.
     Demonetisation- or our own 8/11- is something which will be discussed and analysed by economists and politicians till we return to the stone age ( which, by the way, is inevitable: we shall either nuke ourselves out of existence or annihilate the natural environment to a point where no life will be possible on this sorry planet). But demonetisation is here to stay, such a monumental measure is irreversible and going back is more fraught with danger than going forward. Its logic is also impeccable. Its future is the promised land. All this Mr. Modi has been able to communicate to 1400 million Indians. The opposition parties- barring just a few- failed to see the logic of the measure, to understand its inevitability, or to distinguish between its substance and its implementation- the former is sound, the latter faulty. By clubbing both together they have muddied their own backwaters and are now thrashing around blindly, looking for an exit route. There isn't one. The govt. has messed up, without a doubt, but the Opposition has messed up big time.
    There are plenty of mistakes- blunders even- in the manner demonetisation has been implemented: failure to calibrate the 200,000 ATMs in advance, failure to anticipate the chaos created by the shortage of legal tender in the economy, failure to plan advance printing of notes, failure to install more POS machines with vendors before introducing the reform ( something which the govt has now mandated the banks to do, in the millions), failure to anticipate the effects on farmers during sowing season, failure to factor in the job losses and impact on the informal sector. The list is long. The govt's only defence to this roster of omissions is to cite the need for secrecy. This doesn't cut ice, much less the crap.
    But that is not my point- the point is that the Opposition failed to exploit this, and they faltered in three ways: one, by attacking Modi rather than the policy; two, by debating the substance ( which Modi had already successfully sold to the people and the world) rather than the implementation; three, by not raising these deficiencies in Parliament and by shutting Parliament down they denied themselves a powerful platform for exposing the govt. Rabble rousing on the streets by Mamta Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Sitaram Yechuri, et al. is no substitute for informed debate on such a serious matter. Even more ridiculous was the pathetic attempt to portray a routine go-around by a plane over Calcutta air-port as a conspiracy against Ms. Bannerjee's life, or an annual Army exercise as a coup attempt, or the hacking of Rahul Gandhi's twitter account as a BJP conspiracy! Nobody takes the Opposition seriously any more on this issue; even more important, however, they have conceded valuable time and space to Mr. Modi to rectify shortcomings and claim success.
    He has used this precious time given to him on a platter in a masterful manner- he has frequently tweaked the original policy to make mid-course corrections, he is constantly amassing data to prove his claims on the existence of black money, and he has cleverly steered the original intent towards the advantages of a cashless economy. And most important of all, he is being successful in selling it to the people standing in the bank and ATM queues. Just consider the facts which have emerged: more than Rs. 50000 crores have been deposited in Jan Dhan accounts, 80% of which had zero balance just a month ago, seizures so far include Rs. 2000 crore in cash and 243 kgs of gold, more than a hundred dealers in gold and foreign exchange have been raided, banks report that digital transactions have doubled since 8/11, millions of new bank accounts have been opened, e-wallets are reporting as much as a 1000% increase in their business, property and gold prices have crashed. To the ordinary folks, this corroborates Modi's refrain that the black money wallahs are on the run and that the country is happily gravitating towards a cashless economy. Neither of these are essentially true, but politics is all about perception and this is one war that Mr. Modi is winning.
    He is weathering the crisis well, thanks to the walk over given to him by a combined Opposition. The next two years will be even better for him because by then the real and tangible benefits of demonetisation shall have kicked in: a massive expansion of the tax base, both direct and indirect, in the millions; significantly enhanced revenues for the government, both by way of penalties and expanded compliance; enhanced budget provisions for rural and welfare schemes; elbow room to reduce taxes; a quantum leap in financial inclusion and cashless transactions; a lowering of interest rates resulting in a fillip to industry and business; creation of more jobs. The icing on the cake will be GST ! By the end of 2018 Mr. Modi can legitimately claim that he has delivered on his promise of     " Achhe din."  No Prime Minister can go to the people for votes with a better package. That is why I believe the Opposition has already lost the 2019 elections. Going forward from here they will have only nuisance value.
  This is not a prospect that pleases me. I have always believed ( and written) that Mr. Modi needs a strong Opposition to keep him honest, as they say in cricket. There is an ambiguity about his ideology and core beliefs that is disconcerting; he is authoritarian and uncommunicative; he cannot accept or accommodate dissent: he follows a " good cop"- " bad cop" routine towards the minorities; he regards the natural environment as a stumbling block towards development; he doth protest too much about his humble background, he can barely conceal his contempt for the judiciary. One of his biggest flaws is that he is too technology centric: in fact, this appears to be his blind spot: he genuinely believes-wrongly- that technology can solve all governance and social problems. A modern state cannot be built on technology alone; what is also needed are the softer values of equity, rule of law, transparency, free speech, tolerance of differences and dissent, social inclusion, a government that is genuinely compassionate. These are still lacking in Mr. Modi's dispensation. What we do have in ample measure is a hubris of impressive proportions, evident in his recent statement: I am a "fakir" and can  give up everything and just walk away with my " jhola". Fakirs may be closer to God but they do not make ideal Prime Ministers, in fact they pose a danger as leaders of nations. A man who has no stakes has no commitments for, as Bob Dylan said, " if you ain't got nothing you got nothing to lose."
   For all these reasons Mr. Modi needs a strong Opposition to maintain the balance that is crucial for democracies to survive. This no longer exists. A selfish, vision-less and ideologically bankrupt Opposition has ensured that the scales have tilted irrevocably in Mr. Modi's favour and 2019 is now for him to lose. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

THE MYTHOLOGY OF SRIKHAND MAHADEV.


         
     
                                  [ SRIKHAND  MAHADEV  PEAK . Photo Sanjeeva Pandey.]


    At 18000 feet the peak at Srikhand Mahadev is imposing in its savage grandeur and timeless beauty, shrouded in constantly drifting clouds ,surrounded by ice fields and buffeted by powerful winds all day long. The massif is located on the border of Kullu and Shimla districts and is approachable from three directions: Bathad in the Tirthan valley, Phancha in the Ghanvi Khad and Baghipul. It is perhaps one of the most difficult pilgrimages in the state but for those who venture to undertake to visit this abode of Shiva the rewards are plenty. And one of them is the rich mythology associated with this legend, rich even by the fecund standards of our Dev Bhoomi. I find three of them particularly fascinating and poignant.
   On the final day of the trek to the peak one has to ascend from Bhim Dwar, the camp site for the previous night. The first five kms or so is over alpine pastures, but then the terrain becomes rocky and covered with scree- not a blade of grass grows in this barren wasteland. But after another four kms or so one suddenly finds one self in the middle of a field of flowers- a profuse expanse of the mystical Brahm Kamals, hundreds of them sprouting in glee from between the rocks, their white and cream colours transforming the barren landscape into an arboratum of the gods. This place is known as Parvati Ka Bageecha ( The Garden of Parvati).

 
                                                   [  PARVATI  KA  BAGEECHA ]                                        

The Brahm Kamal is the favourite flower of the goddess Parvati, and they are there for a reason. Legend has it that it was at this spot that Parvati waited for 18000 years to win the affection of the God Shiva, who was meditating on the peak at Srikhand, totally oblivious of her. Empathising with her loneliness and distress, the Brahm Kamals bloomed around her spontaneously to give her company and cheer her up. And they are certainly a cheering sight in this desolate terrain. giving one fresh encouragement for the remaining climb of 2000 feet that still remains.

   One continues ascending beyond Parvati Ka Bageecha and the terrain soon reverts to the harsh, glaciated landscape, all greenery vanished. A short distance on, at the foot of the final, steep climb to the peak is a small, glacial lake, fed by the snow melt from the surrounding glaciers- and herein is embedded another poignant myth. This pristine lake is in the shape of an eye and is known as Nain Sarovar. Legend has it that Parvati, while waiting for Shivji, became so disheartened and disconsolate that she started weeping. One tear drop fell on the ground and formed itself into the shape of a lake which is what we see today, hence its name. Pilgrims and trekkers take a dip in these holy waters before proceeding further. The lake is gradually filling up with detritus and may one day disappear entirely, but it has imbued this stark landscape with an anthropomorphic emotion which adds richness to this dev bhoomi



                                                               [ NAIN SAROVAR]

     From the lake it is a steep 2000 feet ascent to the peak over continuous rockfall, boulders and patches of ice and snow, but one baffling mysterious myth still remains. Halfway to the peak, scattered among the boulders, one comes across a dozen or so stone tablets of massive proportions, rectangular in shape, completely out of place among these rounded boulders. There are carvings on their faces, like some type of cuneiform or vanished script in regular lines. Take a look at the image below:

                                                                 [ BHIM KI BAHI ]

      It would be difficult to convince any reasonable person that (a) the regular shapes of these tablets have not been CARVED by a humanoid hand or that they are the result of natural erosion, and (b) that the calligraphic type markings on them are the result of action of winds and ice. Such explanations do not match with the surrounding rocks which do not show the effects of these natural forces. The carvings are too stylised and uniformto be natural . And the question:why only these dozen odd tablets ? The devout have a more interesting explanation: these mountain ranges were visited by the Pandavas during their exile ( there are legends of the fabled Pandavas in other regions of the state, and other natural features associated with them, such as Pandupul in the Parbati valley and Bhim ka Chulha at Hatu Peak ), and they are supposed to have spent some time on Srikhand Mahadev. These tablets were carved by Bhim and the " writings" on them are the accounts of their travels recorded by him. They are known as " Bhim Ki Bahi" or Ledgers of Bhim. Pilgrims venerate these rocks, as the chandan ( sandalwood) markings on the image bear testimony.
   I am reluctant to dismiss outright something which I cannot explain rationally. The remote, natural landscapes of Himachal are absolutely saturated with similar mythologies of the ages. We may not believe in them but we must respect them for they are part of the DNA of both man and nature in these forbidding regions. They bring together MAN, RELIGION and NATURE, a much more sustainable synthesis than today's concoction of Man , Religion and Politics. They have also played a significant role in preserving the natural environment and we must value them for this reason alone, if not for others.  

Saturday, 26 November 2016

REBOOTING INDIA---OR--- " WHO NEEDS THE MONEY, HONEY ?"

                            [ Picturisation of a modern parable-- In Que(ue)st of Freedom ]
         
           

         So we have had our own 8/11 event and Mr. Modi has had his CASH-22 moment- just to demonstrate that when it comes to crises we don’t lag behind the developed world, no sir ! The serial is still playing out to breathless reporters and hysterical anchors on TV, grateful for a sequel to the surgical strikes of last month. The common man is bearing it out with exemplary fortitude: I have stood in ATM queues to withdraw subsistence level shekels for hours and have been amazed at the good humour and patience on display, reaffirming a trust and social entente without which the legal fiction of money cannot survive for a day. Contrast this with our pampered politicians: I am no longer surprised at the fact that in India any major crises always brings out the best in our people and the worst in our politicians.
Mr. Modi has achieved with this one stroke what two years of ghar wapsi, beef ban, sedition cases, love jihad etc. could not—revive the real Hindutva spirit! The essence of Hinduism is the practice of a simple life, strong familial bonds, charity, thrift, humility,  worship of our Gods, the sober contemplation of an after-life. All these values—hitherto banished by an all pervasive consumerism-- have begun to dominate our lives again after 8/11. With no cash to spend we now expend our shrunken resources only on the most essential items- food, medicines, fuel and so on; no more visits to Malls or Multiplexes, no more parties, no more beauty treatments or spas, no holidays: our lives have reverted to the simplicity of the Mohenjodaro days ! Family bonds are becoming stronger since now evenings are spent at home in happy togetherness, instead of party hopping or pub crawling. A rare humility shrouds the metro landscape along with the trademark smog, from Khan Market to Golf Links to Chanakyapuri, for there is no more humbling experience than standing for three hours at an ATM, grateful for the two thousand rupees you will be grudgingly dispensed. That famous Hindu religiosity is evident again with millions of the now useless rupees being “ donated” to temple “ hundis” ( God will convert them into “ white” again, not to worry). We have rediscovered the uplifting spirit of charity, what with beggars being sought out and being persuaded to accept our murky thousands into their Jan Dhan accounts. And, finally, most of us have begun to think beyond the hedonist pleasures of the here and now, of the future, a future where the Income Tax man will be watching over all ( not necessarily in the manner that the good Lord watches over us), a future in which neither gold nor land would be able to offer much comfort for our hidden wealth. The promised land is beginning to look more and more like Eliot’s wasteland. In fact, in our quest for this enforced simplicity Hinduism may even be moving towards Buddhism with its asceticism and renunciation of all worldly goods and pleasures. Indeed, do not rule out the possibility of Mr. Modi emerging as a latter day religious Messiah, combining all religions in India under the banner of a new syncretic Modiism. We may yet get the Promised Land, along with the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes, after all. The millionaire may yet enter the portals of heaven, along with the camel which has already passed through the eye of the needle, but AFTER he has paid his tax and 200% penalty, of course. 
    But, thankfully, its not all gloom and despair in these cashless times. We can extract some humour and wit from all those long queues. I give below some gems, collated from various prophets and weirdos forming those queues, that irrefutably demonstrate that among the fire and brimstone of the politics there remain nuggets of earthy wisdom, irony and irreverence that will see us through this crisis:
Mr. Modi has fulfilled his pre-election promise of a deposit of Rs. 15000 in every person’s account. The manner in which the 25 million Jan Dhan accounts are being used for depositing black money by fat cats ( Rs. 65000 crores at last count) holds out hope that Modi may even exceed his promise!
Sex workers in Sonagachi in Calcutta, GB Road in Delhi and Kodambakkan in Chennai are out of work these days because there is now no cash in an essentially cash based sector. I have heard that, in order to counter these withdrawal symptoms digitally,  PayTM is coming out with a customised, untraceable App for the trade, to be called LayTM. I have not, however, been able to nail this down.
Retrospective taxation is now being followed by retrospective corruption--bribes are being returned! I have reports from my own state and from Punjab that officers are returning the bribes ( taken in better times in the now banned notes) to their erstwhile extortees, to be given back in a post-FIXIT future in new notes, at a discount of 30% which is the going rate apparently. See, even bureaucrats have a code of misconduct.
In just one week Mr. Modi has achieved more for prohibition than the Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has managed to do in six months. Liquor sales are down 75% because no one has cash. Economists, usually a dismal lot, are happy because it proves their dictum that fiscal measures are better than physical ones. This also provides us a hint as to why Mr. Kumar’s JDU is one of the very few political parties supporting demonetisation.
A Keralite friend has come up with an eminently sensible suggestion for Mr. Modi and the Election Commission, consequent upon the order for inking fingers of those exchanging old currency. He notes that since all male Keralites in any case stand in queues outside booze shops the whole day the govt should consider opening polling booths and bank counters in these shops and carry out all three activities simultaneously. The proposal, I’m told, is being examined seriously as it will result in major savings to the govt. and also ensure a high turn out. OROP will now become OVOP- One Vote One Peg. As my friend commented: “  How does it matter, bro- whether politics or the booze, its all old wine in new bottles, isn’t it…hic !?”
By the time the current exercise is over India will have become a truly equitable society. With all businesses at a standstill and all the rich demonetised, the only ones who are making any money these days are the beggars and daily-waged labourers, upto their hocks in exchange commissions and Jan Dhan deposits. Why did this not occur to Amartya Sen and Bhagwati ?
The reason we don’t see many policemen controlling the lines at the Banks and ATMs is that they are all IN those lines, in plainclothes, depositing their hoards of cash!
Here are a couple of new words that have entered our lexicon, post FIXIT:

         NILLIONAIRE---an Indian millionaire after 8th November 2016.
        PREMATURE EJAQUEUELATION---what happens when the ATM runs out of cash before you reach the head of the queue.

A brilliant take by Babumoshai on Facebook:
  “ The old lady you see in the ATM queue used to be a young bride when she joined the line.    QUEUE KI SAAS BHI KABHI BAHU THI.

Sometimes our past speaks to us, just to put things in perspective. At a time when the entire opposition is ranged against Mr. Modi here is a quotation from Kautilya’s  ARTHASHASTRA:          “ Learn--  When thieves,  dacoits and traitors in the country become restless, shout, and try to create anarchy—the King is ruling well !”

So brighten up, folks, and don’t listen to all those doomsday politicians and economists. We’ll be laughing about all this one day soon or when the ATM starts dispensing cash again, whichever is earlier.





















Saturday, 19 November 2016

THE DELHI SMOG--FROM CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHANDNI CHOKE

       Delhi has been choking on its arrogance and indifference for the better part of this month and on the 6th of November pollution levels jumped off the 1000 point AQI scale, after it reached 999 at Anand Vihar ( where I live !). I am delighted . What Delhi-ites are now getting are the wages of their own sins, and if the govt. is pressing the panic button its because of its own mutton headed policies. I am, in a perverse way, happy that matters have reached a crisis point because in our country nothing ever gets done until the problem assumes crisis proportions. The Lokpal Bill was conceived only when Anna Hazare et al fasted in Delhi for days on end, the laws on violence against women were passed only when a massive people’s movement brought Delhi to a stand still, and OROP was granted only when the ex-servicemen’s agitation started assuming dangerous proportions.
Delhi has been the most polluted capital city in the world for quite some time but no one was bothered in their focused worship of Mammon. Garbage is dumped outside Rs. 50 crore houses, a car is a must for even going to the bathroom, every fifth house is being demolished to build more flats ( raising prodigious volumes of dust), green areas are concretised to provide parking for more cars. Traders will not allow pedestrianisation of markets, residents will insist on their right to burst millions of fire crackers,  devotees will proclaim THEIR right to choke the Yamuna with all kinds of muck ( with ample support from the likes of Sri Sri Ravishankar), and everyone will gang up against the Odd-Even scheme. Assorted environmental experts make a good living criticising every positive move at doing something. Politicians do little except blame each other, generating even more hot air and adding to the ambient temperature. Living in their air conditioned cocoons Delhi-ites have taken the natural environment for granted for far too long and their self-created nemesis is now catching up with them
     As for the NDA govt. at the centre  this metropolitan gas chamber is a symbol of its experiment of Make in India at all costs. I have not seen a dispensation which is so indifferent and destructive of the environment as the present one. For all its faults ( and there were many) the UPA and earlier Congress govts. did respect the environment and created a regulatory framework to protect it, under the umbrella of three cardinal laws- The Forest Conservation Act, The Wildlife Protection Act and the Forests Rights Act. It gave teeth to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and established the National Green Tribunal.
     Regrettably, the NDA govt. has spared no effort to dismantle this protective framework, in the mistaken belief that this will hasten Make in India and ratchet up the GDP figures . In the process 30% of the proposed ESZ ( Environmentally Sensitive Zone) of the Western Ghats has been thrown open for mining and builders, railway lines and national highways are being bulldozed through national parks and tiger reserves, rivers are being diverted without adequate EIAs, large swathes of forest lands are being diverted for industry, rights of tribals and forest dwellers are being trampled underfoot, industrial projects are being permitted even in the buffer zones of protected areas, hydel projects in the fragile Himalayas are being sanctioned with gay abandon, and efforts are even being made to de-fang the NGT. And all this while 75% of our rivers are polluted, the genuine green cover is declining at an alarming rate, more and more species are being pushed towards extinction and 300,000 children die each year from air pollution.
      There have been enough warnings- the landslides in Kedarnath, the floods in Srinagar and Chennai, the frothing lakes in Bengaluru, the rising temperatures all over the country, the two year drought in 2014 and 2015. The Delhi smog is the latest, and is just one manifestation of the environmental neglect taking place at a nation-wide level.
     But neither the citizens nor the governments will read the writing on the wall. The former refuse to change their life styles geared exclusively towards convenience, consumption, pleasure and money making. The latter  cannot look beyond GDP, FDI and WPI.   The Union Environment Minister has passed the buck to the states, the CM and LG of Delhi are holding parallel meetings spouting competitive clich├ęs and platitudes, all of which we have heard before. A Delhi Minister has created an Avaz petition seeking suggestions from the public ! The solutions have been there all the time, if only the govt. would muster the will to implement them:
·            *  Ban ALL firecrackers permanently ( not just for marriages, as the LG has done). The right to life supersedes the right to practice distorted religious rituals.
·             * Add 5000 more buses to the DTC fleet within a year.
·            *  Implement the ODD-EVEN scheme immediately, and keep it going till January 2017.
·            * Shut down the Badarpur Power Station permanently ( not just for ten days). We cannot have a coal guzzler of ancient vintage in the middle of a city where 30000 people are expected to die of respiratory disease this winter alone.
·          *  Ban demolition of ALL residential buildings for three years ( except on safety considerations). Their rampant, F.A.R. driven reconstruction is a prime cause of dust pollution, generation of vast quantities of rubble  and underground water depletion.
·           * Ban ALL construction ( including public projects) for two days in a week through the winter months.

·          *  Encourage Uber and Ola to introduce ride-share schemes instead of erecting administrative hurdles belonging to another age.
There is much more to be done ( including a review of the anti environmental policies of the central govt.) but let us at least begin with these six . This can be a template for other metros too.
    The Delhi smog is indicative of a blind spot in the govt’s priorities. It is high time all development projects are sifted through the filter of their impact on the natural environment and proper cost-benefit analyses conducted. We cannot blindly pursue unmitigated economic agendas with no thought given to their impact on the natural order. After all, we still have to live on this planet and cannot outlive its destruction for long, not even with all the technology and monetary resources at our disposal. Milton Friedman put it very well when he said this about the kind of world we are building:

“ What if it meets all the criteria of economic success except one: you cannot live there ?!”



Saturday, 12 November 2016

DEMONETISATION: PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF INDIAN POLITICS.

    Mr. Modi's evening strike on black money on the 8th of this month is the defining assault on India's real enemy. Pakistan is an external adversary and can ( and has) been contained by our armed forces. It is always more difficult to do battle against your own internal systems which have turned rogue, as in the case of auto-immune diseases. The dark or black money in India is one such malady which had been flourishing unchecked for the last forty years. It has been responsible for the culture of corruption, gutter politics and tax avoidance that has become our defining characteristic. It has widened the gap between the have and have nots where the top 5% of the population own 75% of the country's wealth even though only 3 million people pay Income Tax. Even more grotesque, this leprous culture has acquired legitimacy ( if not envy!) as exemplified by the lifestyles of the rich, the famous and the politically powerful. The Finance Ministry has estimated that this parallel economy comprises 12% of our GDP or about Rupees 14,00,000 crores.
   I have grave reservations about Mr. Modi's governance model: its emphasis on industrialisation at the cost of the natural environment, his refusal to communicate with the people except at election rallies, his penchant for over centralisation of authority, his lack of tolerance for dissent, his religio-cultural brand of nationalism, his inability ( or unwillingness ?) to take the minorities along with him. Nothwithstanding this, however, I have no words to adequately praise and laud the momentous step he has taken on the 8th of this month. We had believed till then that the Indian politician had lost for ever the moral essence to take such decisions. Most Indians are over-joyed to have been proved wrong.
   The most effected are the politicians and the business- bureaucrat nexus which had evolved a symbiotic relationship of blood-sucking with them. But one is none the less surprised by the vehemence with which they are opposing, and trying to sabotage, the path breaking measure. In fact they are going further- trying to incite panic and disaffection in an already somewhat disturbed situation. When the going gets tough the crooks get going: Mr. Modi has managed the impossible- he has brought Mulayam Singh and Mayawati together: the only thing they have in common is their subterranean swag of illegal moneys. Mamata, buoyed  by her success in Bengal, is now trying to strike a national pose. Kejriwal has made a terminal blunder by jumping on to their bandwagon like an organ grinder's monkey: by joining them on this issue he is now tainted with the same brush as them- he will soon realise that if you lie down with dogs you will get up with fleas. Only Nitish Kumar, Chandrababu Naidu and Naveen Patnaik, to their credit, have come out in open support of the demonetisation. The rest, wily politicians all, are typically silent, like scavengers waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before committing themselves.
   Specious, misleading and irrelevant arguments are being advanced to condemn the decision: What about the black money stashed abroad ? How will the common man, the farmer manage without cash ? Only 10% of black money is in cash- what about catching the other 90% ? This is the marriage season and therefore the wrong time to implement such an action. The timing is suspicious, the BJP is looking at the UP/ Punjab elections.
  Its all self-serving, opportunistic balderdash. Of course there's unaccounted money abroad, but its  not even 25% of our own domestic black money; in any case its stupid to argue that one should not touch the latter before tackling the former! The common man is moving towards the banking system and this decision will only accentuate this movement: there are almost 700 million debit etc. card holders and they can easily migrate to a less cash dependent system. Yes, cash is only one of the forms of black money, but its the one which feeds the others, the prime others being real estate and jewellery/ gold. Demolishing the cash haven will automatically erode the value of the others- property prices in Gurgaon and Delhi have already come down by 30-40% in just 72 hours, and gold will also follow suit . Its always festival or marriage season in India and if important decisions are allowed to be constrained by them we would never be able to move forward. The election argument is just as vacuous: ALL political parties- including the BJP- would be effected by this turning off of this illegal tap.
   Mr. Modi must be supported in this agenda- changing initiative by all right thinking Indians. He must, however, not rest on his laurels but should move with the momentum he has generated and quickly take follow-up measures to consolidate this initial thrust:
* His biggest immediate challenge is to normalise the situation on the streets and markets and to ensure that the cash starts flowing again to families and businesses, big and small. If the long lines at banks and ATMs continue for more than a week the back- lash from honest citizens will start to build up and he could lose public support.
* It is common knowledge that gold traders and foreign exchange dealers have been working overtime to convert black money for the last five days. This has to be stopped with an iron hand, and quickly.
* The current demonetisation is a grievous blow to the corrupt body politic, but it is not a mortal one, and this egregious monster can quickly recoup itself in a few years if secondary measures are not taken. These should include
       - Netting the self-employed and the professionals like Doctors, Lawyers, Beauty parlours, Private tutors, Property dealers etc., all of whom deal exclusively in cash and never issue receipts.
      -  Revise the circle rates of land to plug the real estate sector, especially the secondary one. In South Delhi, inspite of revisions, the circle rate is still barely 50% of market rates.
      -  Prohibit reemployment of retired bureaucrats, defense officers in ANY private sector employment-companies, trusts,societies, foundations, NGOs- for five years.
     -  Bring in legislation to stop the system of governments ( both state and central) appointing retired bureaucrats and judges to PSUs, Commissions, Tribunals, Regulatory Authorities etc. by arbitrary nominations. Such appointments should be made by open selection by a statutory body.
       [ These last two suggested measures will break the nexus between govt. officers and business, and the even cosier one between politicians and bureaucrats/ judges whose last year of service is generally devoted to establishing a quid pro quo to obtain reemployment.]
    -  Clean up the political and electoral system by bringing in legislation mandating donations/ contributions to political parties and candidates through cheques only, regardless of the amount. All mature democracies have this provision, and after blitzing the common man there is no reason why the politician should be exempted.
   -  Impose a cap on how much gold can be retained by an individual, trust, religious institution. Any quantity in excess of this limit should be compulsorily depositable in the Sovereign Gold Bond scheme. This will bring huge quantities of gold into the banking system, curb demand, and drastically reduce imports of gold, which currently are the biggest drain on our foreign exchange reserves after oil.
    All Indians have been served a bitter medicine this last week, for our own good. But the medication needs to be continued with follow up doses, like an antibiotic whose full course must be taken. Otherwise the disease will remanifest itself in an even more virulent form very soon, and the next time we may not have a physician like Mr. Modi brave enough to prescribe the right medicine. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

DELHI BELLY : SIGN LANGUAGE

        In today's world which puts such a premium on communication we have millions of words and sound bytes thrown at us every day. I read somewhere that the equivalent of one whole Encyclopedia Britannia is uploaded on the net every TWO MINUTES ! To protect our sanity from an overload the brain automatically filters out 99.99% of the stuff. Unfortunately, one of the genres filtered out is also one of the most innovative, unconventional and creative ones: I refer to the signboards and hoardings on the roads and the stickers or painted words of wisdom on the back of trucks, buses and autos. This is not the elite blather of Ogilvy and Mather or Hindustan Thompson, this emanates from a grass roots sub-culture of those who live their lives on the roads and in public spaces, one way or the other. It is therefore far more virile, spontaneous and infused with an earthy humour that reflects the pulse of life of the sons of toil. Most of us not yet confined to hospital beds spend a large part of our lives on the roads, yet how many of these signs can we recollect ? Be honest.
      I have been fascinated by this highway literature for some time now and have noted a few of them: this is as good a time as any to share them with the reader who must by now be sick of the full-page ads of both the Aam Aadmi  and Samajwadi parties and badly in need of a break !
      Many years ago I was driving to the Corbett National Park when at a roadside dhaba-cum-liquor shop I saw a sign announcing CHILD BEAR.  I couldn't believe my eyes- this was a wild life sighting I never expected. I parked quickly and rushed inside. There was no bear cub there, the owner assured me, only CHILLED BEER ! Was it the Uttarakhand education system on display here or a wily marketing strategy ?
     Continuing on to the Dhekala Rest House within the Park, adjacent to which flows the Ramganga river, we witnessed a rare instance of bureaucratic humour. On the bank of the stream( which is infested with crocodiles) was a signboard containing a dire threat:                                                               RIVER HAS CROCODILES. SWIMMING PROHIBITED. SURVIVORS WILL BE                           PROSECUTED.                                                                                                                                       Quite a Hobson's choice, if you ask me-- if the crocks don't get you, the cops will !

     We are all used to painted advice on the rear of trucks and buses, exhorting us to use the horn or dipper or to stay away from power brakes. But what on earth does one make of this, sent to me by a friend recently ? Its a sign painted on the rear of a Himachal University bus : USE DEEPER AT NIGHT. I sometimes wonder if the guy who painted this was an illiterate, a closet humourist or a sexual deviant. I am giving the photo below as proof that this is not an invention. HP University is an educational institution, right? Then how come no one there has noticed this bad spelling. worse pun( or therapeutic advice)?


                                                               
                                                                                                      ( Contributed by Pankaj Khullar)

     There was a time when auto rickshaw drivers in Delhi didn't just beat up passengers, they made them smile. In the early 90's I was serving my five year sentence in the Ministry of Coal in Shastri Bhavan ( before they started handing out longer prison sentences in this Ministry). The Ministry had hired an auto rickshaw for delivering files to the officers' residences. On the back the driver had inscribed:                                                                                                                                                                   NANAK DUKHIYA SAB SANSAR, SARE DUKHIYA YAMUNA PAAR.

   Amen. I live in " Yamuna Paar" these days and I know exactly what he meant.

    Not too long ago  Himachal still had avian life in the wild, but that was before our politicians discovered there was much more money to be made from hydel projects, cement plants and road widening projects. One day, driving down to Kalka, I was pleasantly surprised to note that some enterprising forester had put up a board on the roadside near a clutch of dhabas, claiming that

                               A BIRD IN THE BUSH IS WORTH TWO ON A PLATE.                                          The sign is no longer there. Its a pity, because there is certainly a need for the HP Forest Deptt. to continue trying to educate the public on similar conservation issues. I sometimes wonder what we'll be seeing in a few years ? Maybe something like this: THE WESTERN TRAGOPAN IS OUR STATE BIRD ( UNFORTUNATELY IT IS NOW EXTINCT).

    Here is another message on conservation from Kenya- without a single word needed to be spoken:


                                                                                                  (Courtesy: Quora Digest.)
Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words.

    Governments are not known for their sensitivity to the disabled or the disadvantaged. That is why I found this hoarding on a road in the Netherlands quite touching. It is absolutely brilliant in conveying the " feel" of this particular handicap. Maybe our own governments should emulate such empathy, instead of merely making meaningless gestures such as changing " viklang" to " divyang" and then ensuring that they have no access to public spaces, trains or buses and are regularly humiliated at air-port security and on planes.


                                                                                                           ( Courtesy: Quora Digest)
     Finally, I cannot conclude without referring to a remarkable advertisement issued by the Punjab govt. in the early 1980's. In a bid to woo industrialists the government, quite against the run of play, came up with a bright idea and announced it in all newspapers as follows:

    GOOD NEWS FOR INDUSTRIALISTS. ALL THEIR NEEDS WOULD NOW BE TAKEN               CARE OF BY ONE SINGLE WIDOW !

Talk of window of opportunity! Never has one missing alphabet contributed so much to the industrialisation of a state.
  

Saturday, 29 October 2016

DELHI BELLY : THE TRAGEDY CONTINUES and THE SILVER LINING IN POLLUTION.

     The country appears to have forgotten the tragedy still playing out in Kashmir, the valley. Its been more than a hundred days now, and almost a hundred deaths, but we have moved on to Karan Johar, the Tatas and Amar Singh. The " surgical strikes" have served their purpose of moving the spotlight away from the internal dimensions of the problem; TV anchors and retired generals have ensured that we look at the valley only through the prism of war with Pakistan. It doesn't matter that these strikes have served little purpose: infiltration and cease-fire violations have only increased amongst the ceaseless and futile war mongering. The govt's strategy is clear: exhaust and starve the Kasmiris into acquiesence . It would be so much more humane to talk to them.
    The modern state is an awesome adversary, with its millions of troops and unlimited resources; a country of 1.2 billion can easily take a few hundred deaths in its stride ( the number of farmers committing suicide every year is many times this number, but do we bat an eyelid at that ?) The Kashmiris can't win and Mr. Modi knows this. But what he should also factor in is that they can cause a lot of damage to the fabric of the nation and the values it stands ( stood ?) for. Kashmir is headed for indefinite turmoil and prolonged destabilisation. Recent developments are a portent of this: the burning of 19 schools so far and attacks on siting MLAs indicate a plan to destroy the political and development processes; I have no doubt that the ambit of these attacks shall be enlarged in the coming days. All reports seem to indicate that the State has ceased to exist outside the urban areas, and even in the latter it is visible ( and felt) only through khaki uniforms and tear gas shells. According to press reports hundreds of young Kashmiris have disappeared, reportedly to join the militants. They will surface soon, I have no doubt, trained and armed with the dozens of looted weapons, and then Pakistan won't have to infiltrate foreign militants through the LOC- we will have plenty of our own by then. There is every possibility thereafter of the valley becoming a base for Al Quaeda and ISIS.
    Surely Mr. Modi and his advisors can see this unfolding scenario ? I totally discount  Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister: she is totally discredited in Kashmir, knows she cannot return to power, and is therefore hanging on to Mr. Modi's coat-tails in a desperate existentialist attempt. Coming back to Mr. Modi, who will talk to Pakistan but not to his own citizens in the embattled state: I had said in an earlier article that the BJP's anti minority DNA will never allow it to make peace with this Muslim state- events over the last three months are bearing this out. This unforthcoming ( obstructive, actually) attitude further establishes the BJP's majoritarian credentials and is needed to win elections that are looming. There is no contradiction between showing a steel fist to Pakistan and a velvet glove to Kashmiris, but it appears that elections are more important than the country's integrity.
   This is a zero sum game. The Kasmiris cannot win. Neither can Mr. Modi. But there WILL be a loser- yes, India.
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    We all have our EUREKA ! moments. This week I stumbled upon the reason why no authority in this country- state or central- is serious about doing anything to protect the environment and curb the rising pollution levels---pollution is GOOD for the economy! Every industrial sector manufacturing anti-pollution gadgets is booming, and new products are being added every day. It began with simple candle type water filters in the 90's and moved on to electronic water purifiers and then RO's. Who had heard of air-filters fifteen years ago ? Now you can't live without them, what with the Air Quality Index having breached the 500 mark yesterday in Delhi. This industry is growing at 30% per annum, especially after the US embassy ordered 400 of them during Mr. Obama's visit. We are now being advised to put on face masks every time we go out, and my chemist can't stock enough of them. Vegetables being laced with dangerous chemicals, we now have a new fangled apparatus which washes them chemically( water won't do since it is also tainted) before cooking. Since oils are adulterated the alternative being offered now are Air- Fryers. Have difficulty breathing due to the smog ?- buy a nebulizer. Nobody uses mosquito nets any more because the mosquito enters one long before you do- and so the repellent industry is thriving. One company has just brought out a solution which, when applied to clothes, warns off the dengue and chikengunya critters. Sales are booming. The health insurance sector is galloping along nicely too, thank you, the worse things get. The bottled water industry is overflowing- forgive the bad pun- with profits because tap water everywhere has more E-coli than water molecules. Rising temperatures have ensured that air conditioners are now an essential appurtenance even in lower middle class homes, power demand has shot up as a consequence requiring more power stations, boosting this and related sectors, more pollution is released into the atmosphere. The pollution cycle is complete, and industry thrives.
    Economists will have you believe that pollution related deaths and ailments are costing the country billions of dollars in lost productivity and medical expenses. Don't believe a word of it. In fact the contrary is true: the medical and health care industry is booming BECAUSE of these ailments- every private hospital and nursing home is packed to capacity, and beyond, with victims of pollution related diseases. One just had to visit any hospital during Delhi's recent dengue epidemic to understand what I mean. All this has no additional impact on govt. finances, because our health care budget, at less than 2% of GDP, has remained at that level for many years whereas pollution related cases have gone up exponentially. Nobody goes to a govt. hospital if he can help it; my maid took a loan from me last month and spent a few thousands of her own money to treat her daughter at a private institution. It is the private health sector which is rolling in the moolah.
   Loss of productivity ? This has to be a joke. Productivity is an illusion in the govt. sector, because if half the number of govt. employees were to disappear tomorrow by some lucky stroke, nobody would even notice their absence! Private sector labour productivity in India is in any case abysmally low- about one fifth of China's- so health related absences don't make any difference, and in any case since only 2% of the labour force is in the organised sector and entitled to medical leave, the other 98% don't get paid if they fall ill. No cost to the economy, see.
   So, dear reader, see through the fine print: Pollution is the hidden trigger in Make In India. And as your lungs fill up with PM 2.5 and your liver starts to glow in the dark with all the metals inside, rest assured that the economy is growing at a healthy 8.5 %.   

Saturday, 22 October 2016

KHUSHWANT SINGH LITERARY FESTIVAL- A FEW TAKEAWAYS.

    The fifth KSLT was held in Kasauli from the 14th Oct. to 16th Oct. this year. Here are a few impressions that I left with.
    The audience/ attendees were the usual high brows at such gatherings, but the star performer was a simple, unassuming, Hindi speaking young man who goes by the name of Kanhaiya Kumar. Yes, the former President of the JNU Students' Union and currently being tried for " sedition " by a government and a system which have made a mockery of the law. Kanhaiya spoke on the 15th. on his idea of " Nationalism" with an eloquence which commanded a pin drop silence. His message was powerful but simple: in a country as diverse as India nationalism cannot be described in unitary or even binary terms; to define it in terms of one particular religion ( as is being currently sought to be done) is to misrepresent and demean it; it is equally obnoxious to define it in terms of support for the army- we respect and love our defense forces, but we have the right to question them without being called anti- nationalists; Indian nationalism cannot but be multi cultural, multi-religious and widely inclusive ; the current narrative on nationalism as framed by the ruling BJP exposes the face of fascism, not democracy, and has to be resisted by all right thinking people.
   [ Incidentally, I am in complete agreement with his views, especially where he spoke about an ersatz nationalism based on unquestioning support for the army. Any blind support is suspect. The pity is that senior officers of the army, unused to the wiles of the Indian politician, are being taken in by the BJP in its effort to coopt the defense services into its own narrative and give it a patina of respectability. The BJP is converting its religion based nationalism into a " religio-military " nationalism, which is even more dangerous for a democracy. In this it is being unwittingly assisted by a whole horde of retired Generals who have descended onto TV studios to proclaim that the army cannot be questioned. Why not ? A report in the Hindustan Times on the 18th. of this month shockingly reveals that it too can have feet of clay: a senior general, Lt. General B.K. Chopra, the Head of the Army Medical Corps. ( now retired) has exposed how the system of disability pensions is being widely misused by senior defense officers to fraudulently obtain hefty tax free disability pensions after retirement. Just yesterday Prashant Bhushan broke the story of defense officers being compromised in honey-traps in defense deals.These revelations prove why holy cows have no place in an open society. By stridently claiming a deified status these generals are just playing into the BJP's hands.]
    The logic and the passion in Kanhaiya's words were self-evident, but what was astonishing was the response of the audience. Remember, this was not the usual Kanhaiya crowd of leftists, activists, students and similar species for whom the government and TIMES NOW savants have nothing but contempt. The audience consisted of retired ( senior) military and civil service officers and their families, authors, journalists, academics and sundry socialites. Notwithstanding this, I was amazed at the response Kanhaiya manged to elicit from them- they were mesmerised, hanging onto his every word, every now and then breaking out into loud applause and clapping- he received more ovations at Kasauli than Mr. Modi did at the US Congress ! This is something the BJP should take note of: Kanhaiya's views are resonating with a much larger section of the country than the party thinks, and if even the privileged elite empathise with him then the BJP has cause to be worried. We have not heard the last of this idealistic and fiery nationalist, and I can't but help reflect on the irony of it: Kanhaiya is the creation of Mr. Modi himself- had the govt. not lost its head and sense of proportion over the JNU incident, Kanhaiya would probably still be sharing his ideas with a dozen students or so over aloo ka parathas in JNU's Ganga  dhaba instead of spreading his message throughout the country. Mr. Modi has unwittingly baptised him in the fire of police high-handedness and converted the raw ore into steel and made him a national rallying point- he may yet live to regret his mistake.
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   Given Mr. Khushwant Singh's love of the mountains and that the Festival was being held in Kasauli, his second home, one would have liked, and expected, that the organisers had spared some more time for discussions on environmental issues impacting Himachal. Only one session was scheduled on this topic, and that too was curtailed. Its a pity, because the Himachal that Khushwant Singh loved so much is plagued by devastation of  nature on a colossal scale by hydel projects, cement mining, unplanned urbanisation, unnecessary road construction and unregulated tourism run amock. The state's policy makers are now almost exclusively focused on politics and on feathering their nests in anticipation of an adverse result in the next elections, the senior bureaucracy, never known for any sensitivity to the environment, is too engrossed in managing promotions and postings, and the few NGOs who occasionally protest are ignored. Meanwhile climate change, impending earthquakes, rapidly expanding glacial lakes and disappearing rivers are becoming more real every day. I wish some of these issues had been discussed- surely they are as vital and relevant as the 1961 war, the state of the economy and the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan, all of which found more time ? Maybe next time.
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Kasauli is a disaster waiting to happen. I visited this once quaint town after many years and was appalled at its condition. I met many old residents of Kasauli who complained bitterly about the ruination of a once sylvan settlement. The main road from Dharampur looks like a bombed out stretch from Syria, Garkhal has become a choke point and desperately needs a by-pass, huge buildings ( with little or no parking), mainly hotels, are coming up all over the place, no thought has been paid either to the traffic issues or the carrying capacity before allowing these monstrosities, heritage buildings are being demolished ruthlessly ( I was informed by one lady that the old Rest-House, a British era structure, has just been demolished to make way for a multi-storey, cement and concrete hotel !) The less said about the four laning of the Parwanoo- Solan highway, the better. Its a highway to Hell, and I've already written about it earlier in these columns, so I won't repeat myself.   [ PARWANOO-SHIMLA FOUR LANING-- HIGHWAY TO DISASTER. 10th March 2015.] . Are we condemned to be ruled by philistines for ever ? 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

DELHI BELLY : THE CAVE MAN OF SAINJ VALLEY.

   Its difficult these days to agree with most of what Mr. Virbhadra Singh, Chief Minister of Himachal, does or says, whether its playing ducks and drakes with the bureaucracy, or further despoiling the environment with hare-brained proposals like plundering 23 kanals of forest land on the Dhauladhars ( at 12500 FEET) to build dharamshalas  for the Himani Chamunda temple, or regularising thousands of building violations in Shimla, or attempting to bypass a High Court order to remove encroachments on forest lands. But it is even more difficult NOT to agree with him on a statement that he made on Teachers' Day on 2nd September this year. To paraphrase, he deplored the fact that awards were cornered by those teachers who had good connections at Shimla, and that those who served with greater dedication in the remote areas of the state were never even considered. I can't agree more with the Hon' Chief Minister, for once.
   This malaise is not limited only to teachers but to all categories of awards doled out by the central and state govts. Not service, not talent, not contributions but networking and proximity to power centers is the essential key to getting these awards. Teachers, of course, are a highly politicised class of govt. servants, and it therefore follows that their awards too would get politicised. But if you were to look even at the Army or Police awards you would find that seniority and rank are the chief determinants, not contribution of any notable quality. ( The exceptions, obviously, are the gallantry awards which probably are the only genuine citations). It would be rare indeed to find a senior Army or IPS officer who does not sport an award or two while the 98% ORs are generally ignored. If you serve long enough, and rise high enough in the ranks, then you will get some award or the other as surely as night follows day. But I digress.
  Coming back to teachers who render exceptional and selfless service, I can think of no one who deserved recognition more than Shastriji. This is not his real name but that is what we called him. He is a TGT and teaches in primary schools; I still remember the time I first met this humble but courageous man.
   I had gone on a foot inspection of the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu in 2002. We had trekked twenty kms. from the road head at Neulli in the Sainj valley and arrived by evening at the tiny hamlet of Shakti, one of only two villages still within the Park's boundaries. The other is Maror, eight kms further up the valley. They consist of about twenty houses each. Both are notorious for being launch- pads for illegal activities in the GHNP and Sainj WLS- poaching, extraction of medicinal plants and grazing of sheep, among others. Their residents are naturally wary of outsiders, especially govt. officials, and do not welcome them with open arms!
  We were sitting around the camp fire that evening when a man in a simple white kurta-pyjama and sleeveless woolen jacket, a jute bag slung over his shoulder, walked in and introduced himself as the primary school teacher in Shakti. He gifted us some delicious " siddhus" ( he had cooked them himself!) and invited us to visit his school next morning on our way to the GHNP. This was Shastriji. We went to the primary school the next day, and therein hangs an amazing tale of commitment and devotion.
   Shastriji belonged to Shensor village much further down the Sainj valley. One day he was ordered to be posted to the Govt. Primary School, Shakti, a new school opened under the govt's policy that wherever there was a cluster of twenty school- age children a primary school would be opened. A commendable policy, you would think, except for the fact that there was no school building there, as Shastriji discovered when he landed up at Shakti after the twenty km trek from Neulli ! He did have about twenty five prospective students ( Maror was also part of the catchment area) so it was imperative that he arrange a building for the school without delay. His superiors- the BEO and the DEO- naturally could not be bothered: in govt. the privileges and powers are usually centralised while the problems are delegated. Shastriji was told to make his own arrangements.
  He pleaded with the good burghers of Shakti to give him a couple of rooms in a house but they refused: they thought he was a plant of the Forest Department sent there to spy on them, that schools were a waste of time, that their children would do better in life by learning the jungle lore ( especially the illegal ones!).A month passed with no progress. Shastriji could have just given up and sought another posting. But ( he told us later) he was so taken up with the miserable plight ( and future) of the children of Shakti and Maror that he resolved that he WOULD teach them, building or no building. He found a location for his school ( which is what we visited the next day).
   The school was located in a cave ! About half a kilometer from the village and 200 meters above the river, the cave had a mesmerising view of the river and the rolling, pristine forests of the GHNP across it. It opened onto a fairly wide ledge where the students could sit on sunny days. The cave was about twenty feet deep and fifteen feet wide. Shastriji had hung a curtain across it in the middle: the front portion was the school and the rear was his spartan living quarters! There were about ten youngsters busily poring over their books, and Shastriji proudly informed us that the villagers had now accepted the school ( though not him!) and willingly sent their children to study. The school had been in existence for more than a year, and somehow he kept it going, the visit by an occasional bear or leopard notwithstanding. Once a month he shut down the school for three days to enable him to walk down to Neulli/ Siund to collect his salary, rations and teaching material. Life was difficult, he told us, especially the lonely evenings and nights in the cave, when the children had all gone back to their homes. He had no comforts, no company, no social life, but all this was out-weighed by the fact that he had managed to establish a school. I heard his narration with a sense of guilt: I thought I was doing public service from the comfortable environs of Shimla- it was nothing compared to Shastriji's labours in this remote village!
   The lessons we picked up that day at that humble primary school cannot be taught in any university. On returning to Shimla I met the Education Minister and apprised him about the cave-school, which, incidentally, happened to be in his constituency! He was oblivious of it. But he took immediate action and a regular building for the school was sanctioned immediately. I went back to Shakti a few years later, to find a brand new school building in the village! Shastriji, of course, had left by then. I was informed that he continued there till the new building was inaugurated and then requested for a transfer- his job was done. I have no idea where he is now.
   If ever a teacher deserved an award I can think of no one more suited than this simple, intrepid soul who lived in a cave for five years in the 21st century, just so that his pupils could go out into the wider world outside. Can you ?   
   

Sunday, 2 October 2016

DELHI BELLY ----THE MYTH OF NON - VIOLENCE

                  [ The 2nd. of October is the International Day of Non-Violence.]

    One of the lasting benefits of good writing, or literature, is that it holds up a mirror to society and nations, and provides a moral compass by which we can gauge the direction in which we are headed. And the truth it contains is eternal, not faded by time: in fact, these are the characteristics that distinguish great writing from ephemeral pen-pushing. This week I'd like to invite the reader to go back in time ( for the millenials, to a time before they were born) and look again at one such work.
   The book is THE CONTINENT OF CIRCE by the last " Englishman" to have left our shores, Nirad C. Choudhry, published in 1965 and winner of the Duff Cooper Prize the very next year. Too much of a thinker and straight shooter in a nation that was beginning to abandon both attributes, Nirad Babu subsequently emigrated to Oxford and thus almost certainly avoided the fate that awaited M.F.Hussain many years in the future. The title of the book is a dead giveaway of its contents. CIRCE is a goddess of Greek mythology who resided on the island of Aeaea. Skilled in the magic arts of sorcery and transmutation, she had the power to transform human beings into beasts. When the fabled Greek hero Odysseus landed on her island with his compatriots she turned all of them into animals. Nirad Choudhry's thesis of India centers on this power.
   The Indian sub-continent, he believes, is like CIRCE and makes beasts of human beings, it has a dehumanising influence on all who live, or have lived, here. Nirad babu brings all his formidable erudition and knowledge of the classics to bear on his theory. He debunks the conventional "pacifist" image of India and maintains that we have been steeped in a history of violence from the time of Asoka, through the Maurya and Gupta dynasties to the rule of the Mughals. Our culture too is a reflection of our violent genes, and he marshals the evidence to prove this, pointing to the curious fact that our greatest epics- the Ramayana, the Mahabharat, even the poems of Samundragupta- revel in the depiction of wars, betrayal, degradation of women, killings. fratricide, and so on. India has been, and is, a land of violence and beasts. Nirad Choudhry was of course roundly condemned for this formulation, this misinterpretation of our "glorious" past: but the 60's were gentler times and he was neither crucified nor sent to jail for sedition or " hurting the sentiments" of people. Half a century later, let us examine if he was right in his controversial conclusion, or was he simply mixing history and mythology, Greek and Indian ?
   From time immemorial we have laid claim to be a land of non-violence, pacifism and compassion, and have cited as evidence our spiritual traditions, saints, vegetarianism, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. The facts, however, appear to support Nirad Choudhry. Even if we forget our hoary past, the statistics of modern India ( post 1950) suggest that we are amongst the most violent nations on earth. Here are a few unnerving numbers:

* During the Partition between 2 million and 3 million people were slaughtered, and 83000 women were raped. These are probably under estimations.
* Since 1950 more than 10000 people have been killed in communal riots.
* 47000 people have been killed in Kashmir so far, including 13500 civilians.
* India has the second highest number of murders in the world, after Brazil. According to official UN-OECD figures there were 43000 murders in 2012.
*  The state is a big killer too. As per figures released by the govt. in response to an RTI query, between 1988 and 2013, an astounding 17064 people were killed in police firing and 33046 were injured. 2832 policemen were also killed during this period. According to figures released by NIPSA ( Network For Improved Policing In South Asia) in an article dated 3rd July 2015, two persons die in police firing in India EVERY DAY.
*  NCRB data reveals that there were 24923 rapes in 2013. In addition, there were 13766 instances of child rapes, according to a reply by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to a question in Parliament. The actual figures are certainly higher: almost an equal number of both crimes go either unreported or unregistered by the police. And this does not include marital rape, which is still legal.
* 500,000 girls are killed EVERY YEAR at the foetal stage-  it is estimated that the figure of "missing" girl children in India since 1990 alone is 10 million! Our deteriorating child sex ratio indicates that this figure is only going up. This is slaughter on a colossal scale- we don't even spare the unborn.
    In addition there are thousands of street agitations, dharnas, gheraos, destruction of public and private property. Just look back at the Jat agitation and the violence playing out in Karnataka as we speak.

   It appears we are not only an extremely violent society but also one that lacks compassion. The treatment of Dalits and women, the exploitation of the poor, the pain we inflict on animals ( these days we are on a dog killing spree in the South) are just some facets of this. Road rage is another. Refusal to help accident victims is now part of our national character. We are collectively immune to the sufferings of others, as long as our individual cocoons are not punctured. Just the other day in Delhi a woman was stabbed 26 TIMES by a jilted lover on a main road in full daylight, CCTV cameras record that at least twenty cars and one hundred pedestrians passed her while she was being slaughtered but not one person did anything to stop it. Before this, in the last month itself, Dana Manjhi, a poor tribal in Odisha was forced to carry the body of his dead wife for ten kms on his shoulders because the hospital would not spare an ambulance or hearse for him; a husband whose wife expired while on a bus was thrown out when the conductor discovered the wife was dead; in Kanpur a father with a seriously sick 11 year old son carried him in his arms from hospital to hospital begging for medical treatment; since he was a daily wage labourer he naturally couldn't get it, and his son died in his arms. Such stories don't even make news anymore, because they no longer shock : they have become the norm in a sick society. Nobody is ever punished- the administration and society takes it in its apathetic stride. CIRCE has done her job well.
   Why has a rapidly modernising India become a menagerie of brutal beasts ? While it would require the intellect of someone like Nirad Choudhry to even come close to an answer, there are three contributing factors that one could consider:
POLITICS--- Public behaviour, to a large extent, is influenced by the type of political ethics, conduct and discourse that people witness. In India today these have touched rock bottom. The type of politics we have today legitimises violence, discrimination, misogyny, elitism, factionalism and sheer lawlessness. Genuine leaders provide role models that society can aspire to; unfortunately we have no leaders today who can mould character or behaviour, they can only win votes. The conduct and statements of most so called " leaders" only promote hatred, intolerance and regressive attitudes. The Nehrus, Patels, Boses, Kriplanis, Jayprakash Narayans and Malviyas have vanished into the mists of time and have been replaced by moral and intellectual pygmies who are taking our society down into the abyss from which they themselves have emerged.
THE STATE-- In any civilised society it is the state which sets the bench mark and the bar for social values and public behaviour. It does this through enlightened legislation, their equitable enforcement and the setting of examples by practicing what it preaches. All are missing in the Indian state. Archaic laws allow husbands to rape their wives at will, LGBTs to be thrown into prison, the terminally ill to die a thousand deaths before their final release, the tribal to be dispossessed of his lands and natural resources so that someone in a city can install another AC or buy another car, a celebrity to mow down three pavement dwellers in his imported car and walk free- the list is endless. But it is these laws that are enforced strictly. The " good" laws are rarely enforced and loopholes in them exploited liberally: the endemic corruption and apathy in the machinery of the state ensure this; rarely is anyone held accountable. And the state backs up its callousness with violence on an unprecedented scale for a free society. The message is clear- the common citizen is an animal and will be treated like one- in hospitals, police stations, railway stations and bus stands, public offices, ration shops. Very soon he starts behaving like one.
RELIGION-- This has ceased to become a force that elevates or ennobles or unites; it now debases and divides. Under the supervision of zealots it no longer promotes love but preaches hatred. By segregating the Gods into mutually exclusive silos it has similarly segregated the people and encourages them to war against each other.Religion no longer guides, it commands compliance and terrorises. It has become the tool of politics of the basest kind. Let the poet put it into words:
             Religion's legal tender
             A plea to maim and rape,
             Priests are touts that render
             Tainted service to a shape
             Dark and breathing fire,
             Or clad in royal attire,
             Or an angle in a gyre
             That spins a mystic wake.
   We ceased to be a pacifist, compassionate, religious, sensitive and tolerant society long, long ago. 

   Nirad babu was a great admirer of Latin. Fifty years after he wrote his book, and looking down on what CIRCE has done to us, I can almost hear him whisper:
                   Homo Homini Lupus        Man is Wolf to Man.