Monday, 18 April 2016

NOTES FROM A REALLY SMART CITY

     I come from Kanpur in UP. In the immortal words of Bill Bryson: someone had to. Though why it had to be me I can't understand. But it could have been worse: I could have come from next door Unnao, in which case I'd be sharing the stage with Sakshi Maharaj and giving consular advice to our Muslim brethren on how to move to Pakistan, preferably in more than one piece. And though I no longer reside in Kanpur I go there once a year to visit my Dad and furtively check his will to ensure that my name has not been struck off the list of beneficiaries
     Kanpur is one heck of a smart city, and unlike Mr. Akhilesh Yadav I am not all surprised that it does not feature on Mr. Naidu's list of ( to be made) Smart cities: it doesn't need to, for it already has all the required attributes of one.
    For one, Kanpur and its four million citizens, don't need a government: since 1857, when Nana Fadnavis was given a rousing reception here by throwing 400 Britishers down a well in today's Nana Rao park, the city appears to have thrived without any sign of a government. God only knows what the dozens of Commissioners, DIGs, Judges and their minions do, for they certainly don't maintain civic facilities, roads, power, water supply, law and order, public transport etc. etc. The Kanpurias do all this themselves, in one happy chaotic system which exemplifies the ideal of Anarchism- the total withering away of the state.
   No one goes to the police for settling disputes: they just hire goons. Electricity is obtained by tapping into power lines, water by digging their own bore wells, transport by hopping onto one of the 40000 cycle rickshaws that ply without any permit, entertainment by attending political rallies and beating up each other. The Supreme court and the National Green Tribunal are a distant nuisance as the many industries joyously throw their muck into the Ganga to join the the thousands of crores which the govt. has already thrown into it. The difference, however, is stark: the muck is visible, the money is not.
    The good burghers of Kanpur love the IAS. Every family wants the son to join the IAS and the daughter to be married to an IAS officer. Most sons, however, end up as LDCs in the AG office if they are lucky, or as lawyers if they are not. The law is a respected profession here and I'm told there are more than 30000 lawyers in the district courts. Now, this may appear excessive, but consider this: in Kanpur it takes five lawyers to prepare an affidavit: one to look up the legal terminology, one to draft the document, and three to hold down the deponent so that he doesn't run away to any of the other 29995 lawyers.  There isn't adequate space for so many lawyers in the district courts and so the bar has devised an ingenious system for beating the odds: half of them are on strike at any given time.
   So much for the sons of soil buried beneath tons of toil. The daughters just HAVE to have an IAS groom, and for this their doting fathers will go to any length short of kidnapping ( kidnapping has been tried but abandoned since its extremely difficult to get rid of an IAS officer once he is ensured free hospitality). In deference to the market economy, everything has been monetised, and there is a graded scale of dowry payment: 1X for appearing in the UPSC exam, 2X for clearing the prelims, 4X for passing the mains, 6X for getting selected, 8X for getting UP as the home state. One of my batch mates( who was in the 8X category) was approached by a prospective suitor who offered him a choice of three car models ( there were only three back then) if he said "Aye": an Ambassador, a Fiat Padmini and a Standard Herald. Said batchmate took the Ambassador; he has since then upgraded the model ( the wife, not the car).
   Kanpur has a very innovative approach to education, as I discovered when in 1970  I joined Christ Church College ( yes, there were colleges even back then) for an MA in English. My first choice was Delhi Univ. but it would have nothing to do with any potential Naxalite from Calcutta. On my first day at CCC I discovered that in Kanpur English was taught in Hindi and the essence of the course was to be a good translator. But even here there was much to be desired. For example, the word " Misunderstanding" was usually translated as " Ladki neeche khadi hai" ( The girl is standing below). My three years in St. Xavier's College, Calcutta, instinctively urged me that this was not correct, and so at the first chance I moved on to Hindu College, Delhi, where the understanding of English is better; " Misunderstanding" in Hindu College means a " broad minded girl"- not entirely correct perhaps, but certainly an improvement on a girl who merely stands under the stairs!
   Kanpur is well represented among the elite of India: Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi ( of Moorkh Darshak fame) is our reluctant representative in Parliament, PAN PARAG Pan Masala is our answer to e-Commerce, Sunil Gavaskar is our municipal son-in-law since his wife Marshneil belongs to the city, Aseem Trivedi the cartoonist is our Freedom of Speech champion. We don't as yet have any distinguished alumni in Tihar jail, but we do have a prime candidate in Mr. Sri Prakash Jaiswal, the ex-Coal Minister and are hopeful that this minor deficiency will be rectified once the coal scam cases are decided by the CBI courts.
   For me Kanpur's biggest claim to fame, however, is its street food- at the risk of offending Vir Sanghvi I must declare that it is the best in the country. All of it has been copied by every other state but nowhere else can you get the original, authentic taste of its culinary standard bearers: the TUNDA KABAB and BOTI, the KACHORIS of Double Hathras, the MOTICHOOR LADDOOS of Banarsi Mishthan Bhandar, the PEDAS of Sita Ram, the MAKKHAN MALAI of Birhana Road, the gossamer light tendrils of whipped cream which can only be churned out by the falling dew of early morning ( given the vulgar name of Daulat-ki-chat in Delhi), the PURI-AALOO of Arjun Singh, the BADNAM KULFI and FALOODA of Parade. One can stay in the city for two weeks, eat three times a day and yet never eat the same dish twice. 
   Kanpur is a city sans any historical baggage or hoary cultural traditions; it doesn't have the intellectual overburden of Allahabad, or the religious fripperies of Benaras, or the effete urbane refinement of Lucknow. What it has instead is a generic vigour, the ability to innovate and adapt, the art of cocking a snook at the mandarins of governments, and the momentum to carve out its own path. It is unstoppable. It demonstrates Newton's first law of motion- that an object, once set in motion, will continue to be in motion unless it is stopped by some external force. That external force does not as yet exist. And that's precisely the reason why, long after Lucknow, Allahabad and Benaras have declined into genteel oblivion Kanpur will continue to be a Smart city, whether Mr. Venkayah Naidu likes it or not.
   And that is also the reason why I keep going to Kanpur.My Dad's will is just an excuse- I have a feeling he has decided to dump my name from the document the moment he can locate the DELETE button.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

I.P.L , DROUGHT AND PRIME TIME : LOOKING BEYOND THE ABSURDITIES.

   For a country addicted to the theater of the absurd, we appear to have plumbed new depths of absurdity with the current cacophony about shifting IPL matches out of Mumbai. It would appear that the country has never been so divided on any issue since the Partition, with even the courts forsaking their tens of thousands of pending cases to examine whether the stadiums should use potable water or treated sewage water, whether the latter can be sent to Latur and whether BCCI is our primary national enemy or Pakistan. BCCI is more concerned about its depleting revenues than the depleting water table. And Mr. Fadnavis, of course, is more occupied with ensuring dance bars remain shut than saving his farmers who, at last count, were being depleted by five heads PER DAY. And the media, which ignored the developing catastrophe for months, has now arrived on the scene with the panache of vultures ( who, it must be stated in all fairness, usually arrive after the object is dead).
   All this is perfectly understandable in the context of our corrupted polity, unaccountable bureaucracy, debased national conscience and an acquisitive society that has completely lost all compassion. It is much easier to quick-fix a villain ( Mallya, Lalit Modi. Kanhaiya Kumar, BCCI) than to admit to our own systemic failings and to deal with them. Even the courts appear to have walked into this trap set for them by the powerful forces who manipulate the national agenda, And so they have lavished all their wisdom on questioning the propriety of BCCI  utilising 7 million litres of sewage water on stadium pitches when lakhs of farmers/ hectares in Vidharba and Marathwada  thirst for every drop. This is precisely what the government( central and state) wanted the courts to ask. For the real questions- the ones that need to be asked- will take some answering: Why is sugarcane( a hugely water- intensive crop) being grown in a region that is traditionally deficient in water? Why are the sub soil water reservoirs being depleted of 183 trillion liters of water every year for this crop, a quantity which just cannot be recouped by nature? Why is it that inspite of having spent Rupees 30000 crores over the last ten years on irrigation the state has managed to add less than 1% to the command area?
   These questions will never be asked. The national conscience has been assuaged by the shifting of 16 matches out of Maharashtra, blood money of Rupees 5 crores extracted out of BCCI and the dying farmers requested to defer their suicides because the Met department has predicted a surplus monsoon. The momentous decision of the Mumbai High Court will lead to the saving of enough water as is needed to produce 2.8 tonnes of sugarcane. Q.E.D. We can now move on, with a clear conscience, to the celebration of the things that actually make India great- Ambedkar Jayanti ( an additional, much deserved holiday for overworked govt. employees), e-NAM ( an digital trading portal for those farmers who have not yet killed themselves), Gram Uday se Bharat Uday  ( a movement for social harmony post Messers Giriraj and Shakshi Maharaj), the renaming of Gurgaon to Gurugram( presumably Murthal shall now be renamed Molesthal), and so on.
   But the misfortune of this country is that there still exist old world die-hards like me who would request Mr. Javadekar and his ministerial colleagues to reassess their approach to the environment and not to regard it merely as an obstruction to the ease of doing business. In just the last four years Mother Nature has sent us four significant warnings: the Uttarakhand disaster, Srinagar floods, Chennai floods, 2500 heat wave deaths in 2015. The latest is this drought which will get much worse in the coming days.The Cauvery has completely dried up in stretches; the level of the Ganges has  fallen to such an extent that last month ( in March, when the summer had not even set in !) the 2100 MW power station at Farakka had to be shut down, triggering a black out in large parts of eastern India; the availability of water in the 92 nationally monitored reservoirs is only 39.45  billion cubic meters against their capacity of 157.80 bcu; the winter snowfall in J+K, HP and Uttarakhand has been almost 50% below average.
   These are reasons enough, Mr. Javadekar, for you to reconsider the manner in which you are diluting the Forests Rights Act and proposing to amend and weaken the three pillars of our environmental regulatory edifice- the Indian Forest Act, the Wildlife Act and the Forest Conservation Act. Mr. Minister, you need to spend sleepless nights over the fact that your own SFR report states that between 1999 and 2013 the country has lost 10.60 million hectares of original forests. The govt. should revisit its decision to notify only 27% of the Western Ghats as Eco-Sensitive Zone instead of the 37% recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee: this alone will protect an additional 13000 sq. kms of the ghats on which all the rivers of the southern peninsula are dependent. Stop whittling away our precious Protected Area network for industries, projects and highways. Give up the China inspired folly of damming our mountain rivers out of existence. Don't rush into inter-linking of rivers without carrying out honest EIAs.
   MOEF should take the initiative in persuading the Agriculture Ministry to develop a Crop policy for the country that is based on climate and hydrology, not avarice and the peddling of influence: there should be no place for sugarcane in Maharashtra or paddy in Punjab, both of which are water stressed states. Steps should be taken to reverse the depletion of underground aquifers; the adverse impact of indiscriminate free power for agriculture should be assessed: this is a primary reason for over exploitation of underground water. Equally important is to develop a national Drought Code which can conserve and prioritize scarce water resources in times of droughts. There is much to be done beyond the court hearings and prime time discussions, and much more at stake than mere TRPs.
    Take care of the natural environment and it will take care of the GDP.


   The next time there will be no IPL to fix as a scapegoat. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

THE POPULIST CHALLENGE TO THE JUDICIARY-- A DANGEROUS PORTENT



     The institutions provided by our constitution to safeguard democracy are in a mess, except perhaps one. Our polity has become vapid, venal. opportunistic, populist and, of late, unashamedly majoritarian. The bureaucratic structure has been bludgeoned into indifference, if not abject submission. The media is sometimes effective but commercialised to a degree that its credibility is now suspect. The only institution in which the people can still repose some faith is the higher judiciary- specifically the Supreme Court, High Courts and the NGT( National Green Tribunal)- though even with them the deterioration in quality, transparency and priorities is a matter of concern. Notwithstanding this however, the Judiciary has ( most of the time) defended the Constitution admirably. It is, in fact, the only institution which stands between the country and anarchy today. It is, however, faced with a new danger- defiance of its authority under the garb of a "people's mandate".
     This has been happening insidiously for some years now, both at the center and the states, but it is only recently that it has been given an official mandate. Its legitimisation was conferred by none other than our Union Finance Minister when, some months back, he referred to a judgement of the Supreme Court as the " tyranny of the unelected". Mr. Jaitley is not only erudite and articulate, he is also an exceptionally gifted lawyer who chooses his words with care; we should not assume, therefore, that these words were simply flights of oratory. They were meant to convey a veiled message to the Court, viz. that public policy can only be framed by the "elected" ( read politicians) and that any interpretation of the constitutional validity of such policy is also to be determined by those who are " elected", namely, Parliament and state legislatures( and therefore, by implication, not by the Courts). Subsequent events seem to bear out the purport of this new doctrine which is fraught with danger for our republic.
     A constitutional democracy is much more than majoritarianism or the " tyranny of the majority" which is what Mr. Jaitley appears to be espousing. The sheer weight of numbers, in the legislatures or in the streets( which is increasingly the same thing) cannot nullify the rights, responsibilities,separation of powers, differentiated roles of organs of the state, protections and safeguards which the Constitution provides. The job of ensuring this is that of the judiciary: if it also fails, then all is lost. But the politician would have won. The recent instances of an almost open defiance of the judiciary, therefore, should be viewed with concern by every discerning citizen of the country.
     This dangerous trend is very much in evidence in some important cases over just the last two months. In all of them there were existing orders of the Supreme Court/ NGT which were sought to be either defied outright or by- passed or nullified by legislation by both, state and central governments.
    The most cynical of all these instances relates to the reservation for Jats in Haryana. The Supreme Court has time and again laid down the law on this vexed subject, viz. that total reservation cannot exceed 50%, and that reservation for OBCs must be based on tangible data on backwardness( for which state and central Commissions have been established). Successive govts have been attempting, for crass reasons of vote bank politics, to give the Jats reservations as OBCs, even though the National Backward Classes Commission has categorically recommended that they are NOT backward. Both the state High Court and the Supreme Court in 2015 struck down laws granting them reservation on these precise grounds. Instead of respecting these judgements, however, the BJP has capitulated to the thugs of the national highways and has defied the Courts by passing an Act on 29th March giving 10% reservation to the Jats and raising the total reservation to 67%. The Center is also poised to bring legislation, via a private member's Bill, to do away with the statututory requirement to consult the NCBC in such matters. Both are a direct challenge to the SC. To be sure, this is not the first time that states and the center have sought to undo or circumvent the law to favour some politically powerful and muscular community or the other- in the past the SC has had to strike down similar reservations in Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and UP. But it begs the question: is it only the Supreme Court's responsibility to abide by the Constitution?
     In the " Jallikattu" case the center again created a legal flashpoint. This particularly barbaric          " festival" of Tamil Nadu in which bulls are brutalised on the occasion of Pongal had been held by the SC to inflict cruelty on the animals and it had banned this sport. Spurred on by a potential ally ( Jayalalitha) in the coming elections to allow it as a mark of respect for the people's wishes the center earlier this year amended the relevant Act to permit bulls to be used for sport. It did this in the full knowledge that the amendment would be struck down by the SC, but it went ahead anyway. This again raises the question: was the govt. simply testing the waters or is this part of a deliberate ploy to weaken the Court by salami tactics?( The Animal Welfare Board of India challenged the amendment and it has been struck down by the SC. The central government is now concentrating its efforts to get all the members of the AWBI to resign for opposing a govt. policy!).
    Take the most recent case of the imposition of President's rule in Uttarakhand, where the govt. was dismissed just 24 hours before it was to take a trust vote in the legislature. Nothing as blatant as this has happened since Mrs. Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975. This action also flies in the face of the doctrine which was first expounded by the SC in the SR Bommai case of 1994 and is now considered to be well settled law- viz. that the only place to test the majority of an elected govt. is on the floor of the legislature. By not allowing this to happen the BJP govt. again appears to be sending a signal to the judiciary: you may pronounce your orders based on the Constitution, but we shall do what is in our interest because we are elected and you are not! This way lies certain disater.
    The state govts are also not to be left behind in this race to show the Supreme Court who is boss. Mr. Fadnavis of Maharashtra seems to have made it his personal mission in life to defy the SC and to impose his regressive brand of morality on the state. To set an example he has chosen the ten thousand dance bars of Mumbai which provide much needed, honest employment to lakhs of women. He banned them on grounds of "indecency" the moment he came to power. The ban was naturally and quite rightly struck down by the High Court and the Supreme Court. You would expect that Mr. Fadnavis would respect the orders of the courts, wouldn't you? You would be wrong. For the last eighteen months this lamentable Chief Minister has ensured that the dance bars do not reopen: the moment the Court strikes down one order he comes out with another, and so on. In this infantile game of " catch me if you can" he is showing immense disrespect for the majesty of the law.

    The Badals in Punjab are playing out an even more dangerous version of Fadnavis's game.  The case of the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal is one which has been festering for more than two decades, ever since the Supreme Court directed Punjab to construct its portion of the canal so that the waters of the Sutlej could start flowing to other states as per their water sharing agreements. This was first shown the finger by Amarinder Singh in 2002 who passed legislation abrogating unilaterally all agreements on water sharing. Challenged in the Supreme Court and expecting inevitable dismissal of this rogue legislation, the Badals will be hard put to explain why they have not complied with the earlier SC order in the nine years they have been in power. There is also an election in the offing, to win which they have nothing to show other than the thousands of crores their extended family has amassed. The solution? One which is becoming increasingly popular with politicians- confront the Supreme Court brazenly by stating that the people are opposed to the court's rulings. This statement came in the form of another law rammed through by the Badals last month, returning to the farmers all the land acquired for the construction of the SYL. The logic is impeccable- how can the canal be built if there is no land available for it? In other words, make the SC order unimplementable. Last heard, this had also been challenged in the SC.

     And the contagion is now spreading to powerful non-state actors. The BCCI is refusing to implement the recommendations of the Lodha Committee( approved by the Supreme Court) on the administration of cricket in India. It has been two months now but not a single recommendation has been implemented; instead the BCCI has flooded the Court with all manner of applications and objections.
   Sri Sri Ravi Shanker of AOL fame continues to defy the NGT as regards the fine/ compensation of Rupees five crores imposed on AOL for ravaging the Yamuna flood plains in Delhi. He first announced, in a rather un-Godly manner for a Godman, that he would rather go to jail, then he negotiated an arrangement by which he would pay Rs. 25 lakhs immediately and the rest by the 1st of April 2016. All Fool's Day has come and gone and he appears to have played the trick on the NGT by not paying up. Now he says that he will only pay up after the assessment of the damage, IF ANY, is done ( BY HIS OWN PEOPLE, NO LESS!). He has magnanimously offered to furnish a Bank Guarantee instead! The NGT is dithering over this last offer.

     The problem with these repeated challenges to the judiciary is manifold. Firstly, it shows scant respect, if not downright contempt, for the judicial system: if elected governments themselves repeatedly disregard the law as laid down by the courts then the whole democratic fabric of the nation itself starts unravelling. Secondly, there is something unethical and irresponsible about passing the buck to the Courts for problems created by the political executive and further compounded by their lack of political will to resolve within the limits of the Constitution. Thirdly, such blatant brinkmanship conveys the fallacious and mischievous message to the public that the government is willing but the courts are standing in the way of the public getting what they want. In the long run this can only erode the majesty and stature of the courts: once this happens, the consequences can only be lawlessness, anarchy or fascism.

    It must be said that the blame is not entirely that of the governments or the powerful entities who have long manipulated our judicial system. A large part of the blame has to be accepted by the Courts themselves. They have not asserted themselves in the same manner as they do when their individual or class privileges are concerned. There is no reason why contempt notices were not issued against Messers Jaitley, Badal and Fadnavis for their statements and actions. ( Even the Supreme Court of Bangladesh-a far less evolved nation- has recently convicted two of its Union Ministers for contempt of court and for denigrating the stature of the Court by their statements). There is no reason why the Supreme Court cannot send out a clear message to ALL governments that any order or legislation by them that contravenes the law laid down would invite censure and costs. There is no reason to justify the NGT's accommodating attitude to AOL. In this case the NGT has given all concerned far too much leeway: the so-called cultural festival should never have been permitted, the officers of the DDA and MOEF who gave permission for the event in defiance of the NGT order of January 2015 should have been proceeded against for contempt of court, Sri Sri should be sent to jail a-la Sahara Shri if he does not pay up as committed by him. I would be the first to acknowledge that the NGT is doing a commendable job in trying to preserve the natural environment, but its fulminations are becoming predictable as they are not being backed up by strict action. Imposing fines won't turn a hair on a bureaucrat's head because the fines are paid by the tax-payer. Fines should be imposed on the person( not the organisation), and a few need to be sent to jail for serial offences or negligence. The NGT is in danger of becoming what Dryden described as " willing to wound but afraid to strike." It is important that our courts dispel the rapidly growing impression that there are different laws for different people, and that they are loath to take on the elected classes.

The politicians, plutocrats and revisionists are making their moves. To the many layers of populism laid by the previous governments is being added the even more fissionable layer of majoritarianism by the present one. All their elements will sooner or later come to the higher courts- firebrand nationalism, bans of various kinds, status of minority institutions, religious conversions, autonomy of institutions, and much more that we cannot even conceive of at the moment. The future of this nation as a democratic republic depends on how our higher judiciary responds to these emerging legal and social challenges.