Saturday, 24 June 2017

GOVT'S KASHMIR POLICY IS HURTING THE INDIAN ARMY

                 
   The Govt’s inflexible, mute and muscular  policy on the internal disturbances in Kashmir is getting nowhere fast, forcing a plaintive Chief Minister to wail: “ Kashmir hamare paas hai, zamin hamare paas hai”, stopping just short of asking the obvious question: “lekin kya Kashmir ke log hamare paas hain?” The Center appears to be playing the role of a real estate developer in the Valley, grabbing the land and to hell with its occupants. Things have only got worse during its three year rule and Kashmir is, surely and not so slowly, being pushed into the lap of radicals and Islamists. The demand is gradually shifting from a tenuous, ill-defined “azadi” to a Nizam-e-Mustafa and adopting of sharia law: a reaffirmation of an identity that is not being acknowledged. The number of local militants has more than doubled to almost 150; India Today reports that about 3000 new Wahhabi mosques have sprung up, spreading incendiary jihadist ideology. Two mainstream politicians have been killed in the last month and banks are looted on a regular basis. 16 policemen have been killed this year alone, the highest number so far. More than 60 Whats App groups with a membership of perhaps 5000 dangerously motivated youth have begun to actively coordinate anti-govt. protests. Even school girls have turned stone pelters. This precipitous slide will not even be acknowledged by Delhi’s rulers who seem to have carved their indifference in stone.
   While the politicians continue to win elections on the back of this ersatz nationalism, it is the security forces, particularly the Army, which is paying the price- in blood and reputation. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal the number of soldiers killed in 2014 was 32; it shot up to 68 in 2016 and had reached 17 till March this year. Since March 2015, when Mehbooba assumed office, 457 people have been killed, including 134 security force personnel. Almost 40 soldiers have died since the surgical strikes. But the BJP has won 4 states and 3 Municipal Corporations since then, so obviously the policy- or lack of it-is working for someone ! Hence the current policy: If it ain't broke, don't fix it !
   Casualties apart, however, there is the growing concern that the Indian Army, one of the finest fighting forces in the world, is taking a beating to its reputation, ethos and values. The reason is that it is now being used as a police force in Kashmir, a role which any armed, highly trained, professional force is uncomfortable with. Armies are meant to counter external forces, not suppress their own citizens for extended lengths of time. The latent danger in this is that, over time, army personnel can acquire the same disregard for legal processes and human rights for which our police is infamous. This is the reason why the Army is kept insulated from the civil administration on a day-to-day basis and not involved in the maintenance of law and order, except in emergencies. But by deploying our jawans as a third line of police( after the state police and the CRPF) for years on end, the govt. was just asking for an incident like the “ human shield” to happen.
   When Farooq Ahmed Dar was strapped to a jeep and paraded through seven villages by Major Gogoi, alarm bells should have gone off everywhere. This was abduction and kidnapping, pure and simple, for Dar was no criminal, there were no charges against him, he was not even a stone pelter but a citizen who was returning after casting his vote. Law abiding forces don’t take hostages, terrorists do. One cannot uphold the law by breaking it, for that is the road to a Duterte like tyranny. But even worse was the reaction to the incident. The Army we know would have admitted that this was an aberration and would have apologised to the Kashmiri people, Major Gogoi would have been spoken to, and that would have been the end of a regrettable chapter. Instead, the govt. lauded the Major as a hero, the COAS justified his unlawful behaviour, he was allowed to appear on TV programmes, and the Army even awarded him a commendation. Retired Generals of various vintages, moustaches quivering on prime time TV, conferred on him the status of a war hero. Moderate voices like those of General Panag and Hooda were drowned out in this nationalistic hysteria.
   The COAS, General Bipin Rawat, has been making ill advised statements more suited to a politician. By accusing the Kashmiris of waging a “ dirty war” he has toed the govt. line but brought into question his understanding of his role: one doesn’t wage “ war” against one’s own citizens, nor does one treat them as enemies, as the General does. By terming students and stone pelters as “ overground supporters of terrorists” he has again revealed a shocking mind set that largely explains the political controversies that the Army has now got embroiled in, perhaps for the first time in its history. Any professional army simply does the job- sometimes difficult, sometimes distasteful- assigned to it by the government of the day, but it should refrain from aligning itself with any political judgements. And it should certainly not term its own citizens as terrorists without distinguishing between terrorists and protesters.
    By cosying up to the govt. and stepping into the realm of politics the Army is walking into the trap set for it . Mrs. Gandhi infamously wanted a “committed” bureaucracy: the BJP is more ambitious- it wants a committed Armed Forces. Towards this end it seeks to make the Army another emblem of its own version of   "nationalism”, along with the cow and yoga. And by the rules it has itself set out, any questioning of these symbols is anti-national. This is why we have all this sound and fury every evening on TV when any adverse question of, or comment on, the Army is vilified as unpatriotic. For the BJP has its own version of “ patriotism” too, as pointed out by Appu Esthose Suresh in a recent article: a concocted, toxic blend of nationalism and Hindutva.

     Clearly, the ruling party is using the Army as its own human shield to buttress itself from any criticism of its Sphinx like silence and continued use of force against the citizens of the Valley. It has deliberately created a narrative, with the help of war mongering TV channels, that any  criticsm of the Army is an insult to it. It is not. Firstly, the criticism is usually of the govt., not the army- by deflecting it on the latter a deliberate untruth is being created, Trump style. Secondly, in a healthy democracy no institution is above questioning or criticism: the right response to this is transparency, not exaggerated jingoism. Equally regrettably, the Opposition is using the Army as its current whipping boy in order to attack the govt. By allowing itself, under prodding by the politicians and a rabid media, to take sides, the army is unnecessarily getting caught in a cross-fire not of its making. Its hitherto spotless image is being tarnished.                                                    The Armed Forces should be alert to this danger, and not allow themselves to be coopted into any political party’s design or narrative. They should strongly resist being “ appropriated” by any political outfit for electoral gains, continue to do whatever difficult job is entrusted to them by the govt. of the day without unnecessary comments, and keep politics at arm’s length. If they do not, they shall identify themselves too closely with a particular political party and make themselves vulnerable to political attacks. The Opposition has  already started questioning the Army’s loyalties, neutrality and respect for law; the COAS has even been called, most regrettably, a “ street goonda.” These are ominous portents, and it is for our Generals ( including the very vocal retired ones) to ensure that the Armed Forces are not dragged into the partisan political discourse that is the bane of our times. They should realise that the politicians are only making use of them, reaping the rewards while the soldiers pay the price. What kind of a deal is that ?   

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

THE ODDITIES OF AUDIT

       [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express of 9.1.2017 as " The Oddities of Auditors ]

   The difference between a Chartered Accountant and an Auditor is that whereas the former looks for Cash in Hand the latter looks for Hand in Cash. And this precisely is what makes the Auditor the bane of every DDO ( Drawing and Disbursing Officer, poor sod) in the government. Every once in a while the Audit party descends on govt. offices like a biblical plague, armed with annual targets of audit paras and a tunnel vision that would do a mole proud. Your typical auditor is adept at looking through key holes, but as all of us who have done our share of peeping through key holes during our college days would testify, this kind of opticism ( to coin a word) suffers from a loss of perspective and context: it may help one to focus on a particular part of the female anatomy but it loses the larger picture. Audit parties also like to be well looked after and it is acknowledged in govt. circles that a well turned tandoori chicken is worth at least a dozen “dropped” audit paras. However, if the said avian has flown the coop this is taken stern note of by the mole, and the resultant observations can be quite remarkable.
  Sometime in the 1940's a British forester arrived at a remote forest rest house in upper Shimla district at the fag end of a severe winter. He noticed obvious signs of a bear ( the area abounds in Himalayan black bears) which had spent the winter in the deserted rest house and, as the anecdotal and precise British are wont to do, recorded the following in the register: “ It appears that Mr. Bruno has been staying here these winter months as there are signs of his presence all over the verandah and the grounds.” When the accounts of the rest house were audited the Audit party noted that the Department had been extremely lax in allowing Mr. Bruno to stay in the rest house without paying the room rent, and directed that the rent for the entire winter months be recovered from him, and in future no one should be permitted to stay there without obtaining a permit ! The HP Forest Deptt. is still looking for the errant Mr. Bruno to settle the para.
  On a more recent occasion an Audit party was auditing the accounts of a small Municipal Committee in Chamba district. To lighten its onerous burden it desired that some refreshments be provided ( at the expense of the Committee, of course). Since the lamb which is being led to the slaughter has very few choices, some gulab jamuns were duly served( note that the mandatory chicken was missing). When this particular bill came up for scrutiny Audit pounced on it with a vengeance and demanded to know the reasons for this “wasteful” expenditure. The Secretary of the MC, however, was equal to the task: he replied that the gulab jamuns had been purchased to feed to stray dogs in order to poison them ( this was before Mrs. Maneka Gandhi discovered her true passion in life). Now, auditors are a resilient sub-set of homo sapiens and, though initially taken aback by this impertinent reply, they quickly bounced back with this counter punch:           “ How many dogs were killed ? Please furnish documentary proof in support thereof.”  The Secretary, an experienced pugilist himself, delivered the TKO with this upper cut:  “ No dog appears to have died as it is reported that they have become immune to such gulab jamuns !” Ouch!!
  My own favourite anecdote was related to me many years ago by the then Director of the Delhi Zoo. Now, this Zoo has a large number of peacocks and at one point of time their numbers grew to more than what it could handle. The Director, quite sensibly in any one’s opinion but that of Audit, decided to sell the surplus birds. The process involved some minor expenditure which was duly reflected under the heading “ Retailing of peacocks.” When Audit saw this entry all its members emitted a collective Hallelujah for their tunnel vision had detected the mother of all audit paras. And what a para it was: “ Why was the retailing of peacocks necessary ? What happened to their original tails? Has responsibility been fixed for the loss of the original tails ? Has the quantum of loss been estimated? Were tenders invited for fixing ( retailing) new tails on them? Is the quality of the new tails similar to the original tails?”
  The Director sought an immediate transfer, thankful for his narrow escape- he confessed to me that he could not even imagine what would have happened if he had retailed a lion or a tiger !
  Acquiring the peculiar mentality of an auditor is no child’s play: it requires years of arcane training at the Yarrows Academy in Shimla and many more years asking probing questions. Rome was not built in a day, nor was Mr. Vinod Rai’s Coal scam report prepared overnight; it was preceded by years of probing questions by him on government functioning: Why were three biscuits served at the meeting when the rules permitted only two ? Why were tenders in newspapers ( costing Rs. 20000/) not published before purchasing pens ( costing Rs. 2000/)?  Why was expenditure on flavoured condoms ( for birth control) booked under the Family Planning Programme head and not under Food for Work ? Indeed, the Auditor is a prime example of reverse evolution and even the Gods do not tangle with him as the following parable indicates:
Two auditors died and arrived at the pearly gates. Just ahead of them were two clergymen but St. Peter motioned them aside and took the auditors into heaven at once. The clergymen protested: “ Why them ahead of us ? Haven’t we done everything possible to spread the word of the Lord?”
“ Yes”, said St. Peter, “ but these two guys have scared the hell out of more people than you ever did !’
Amen to that.


       

Thursday, 15 June 2017

THE STEEL FRAME : RUSTED, BUT NOT BROKEN

   June 12th, 2017 has to be a red letter day in the history of the civil services in India. For the first time ever 65 retired bureaucrats from a cross section of All India Services, who had occupied the highest echelons of the government, have written an open letter to Prime Minister Modi protesting against the growing authoritarianism, vigilantism, suppression of free speech, lawlessness, targeting of minorities and intellectual intolerance that has become the calling card of the present govt. at the center. Such a protest is remarkable because it did not happen even during the Emergency. The reason perhaps is that the Emergency was perceived as primarily directed at the country's political structure whereas the current actions of the BJP are seen to be destroying the social, cultural and legal foundations of the country, ripping apart a social fabric and communal harmony that has stood the test of time, inspite of countless riots and killings.
   It is not in the nature of civil servants to speak out, constrained as they are by draconian Conduct Rules and an overpowering political dispensation which is a toxic mix of punishment and patronage. ( This is not to defend their silence but to explain it). The carrot of a post retirement sinecure also has something to do with it, but it is not the whole explanation. Your average bureaucrat has few concerns beyond his posting, the perks attached to it, his Annual Confidential Report and empanelment at the Center. If he does not speak out on seminal issues it is not because he does not want to offend the powers that be ( and see !), but because the idea never occurs to him. His is not the silence of the lamb but the silence of the honey-badger, who doesn't give a shit ! The habit persists even after retirement: forget writing letters, posts or articles, they are even reluctant to comment on them ! Since my retirement in 2010 December I have published more than 150 posts and articles, but I can count the comments by my colleagues and peers on the fingers of two hands. Bureaucrats are used to living in a cocoon of perks and privileges and are loath to step out of their comfort zone. So when 65 of the most senior ones decide to go public and raise their voice it is time to take them seriously: the state of the nation's affairs must be close to breaking point for them to have broken with their nature and tradition. The significance of this letter does not lie in the fact that it will achieve anything or get a positive response from the govt. but in the fact that the civil service has stood up to a powerful Prime Minister for the first time. It is a timely message to Indian society at large, especially to the apprehensive but silent supporters of liberal and democratic values. It signals that the time has come for them- the artists, academics, writers, intellectuals, media, retired Generals- to also organise themselves and speak out, before they are silenced for ever.
   There will inevitably be sceptics and trolls who will deride and traduce this effort ( the counter campaign has already begun), asking questions like: What were they doing while in service ?Why did they wait to retire before speaking out ? What will writing a mere letter achieve ? There are answers to all these questions but it is not necessary to give them here, because such trolling is the classic diversionary tactic of the BJP sympathisers- attack the player, not the ball. The issue is not why they spoke out now, but whether they speak the truth and whether they have done the right thing by speaking out. The answer to both is an unequivocal YES.
   There is hatred, violence and fear abroad, on a scale never experienced before in this country. The machinery of the state colludes with vigilantes of all hues and the law abiding citizen is left to their mercies. Institutions are being destroyed systematically, both from within and without. Non-state actors dictate our diet, clothes, relationships, films and view of history. The apparatus of the state is used selectively to suppress dissent. The validity of a faith is tested on the crucible of just one religion only. It appears that the country is being given a simple binary choice- Democracy or Development ? ( Actually, it should be phrased Democracy or Promise of Development, since no real development has taken place in the last three years. But even this doesn't really mater, because the choice is also being dictated by Big Brother). In any case democracies don't work on binaries and this is not a choice but an ultimatum. This letter has been long overdue.
   A couple of caveats, however. According to my rough calculations there would be about 2000-2500 surviving retired IAS officers but there are only 65 signatories to the letter.  Mr. Jawahar Sircar and others should have made a greater effort to involve more of these officers in the campaign- they would have found very wide support. 500 signatures would have negated the criticism already being made- that these 65 are a minuscule minority and do not represent the civil services. After all, the BJP respects only numbers, not ideas! Secondly, the signatories should immediately issue a public appeal to political parties not to co-opt this letter into their anti-govt. campaigns, and they should scrupulously keep them at arms' length. Politics is the kiss of death for any citizens' movement.
   This letter will probably have no impact on a government and a party that keeps on winning one election after another, and sees this as the only validation it needs. But it will come as a mild shock to Mr. Modi who, like all authoritarian figures, likes to bask in the sunlight of public adulation. It will further affect his image in the global media, already disapproving of his style of leadership and human rights record. It might just provide another slim arrow in the Opposition quiver which was woefully empty till Mandsaur happened. But if you're waiting for the govt. to take note of the letter and alter course-- don't hold your breath.
  Breathe in- and speak out.

Monday, 5 June 2017

UPROOTING TREES TO DIG OUR OWN GRAVE.

         [ This piece was published on the editorial page of the New Indian Express on 24.5.17 ]

   It has just been reported that a Panchayat in Kerala has done what the entire might and resources of the Indian union could not- revive a whole river. The Kuttemperor river in Alappuzha district had ceased to exist a decade ago, smothered by effluents, sewage, plastic, weeds and devoured by encroachments. The villagers of Budhanoor Panchayat, with no budget but plenty of commitment and voluntary labour, spent months clearing out the old river course- and the river has recharged itself and is now flowing again as before ! It will again sustain the livelihoods of thousands of families. NO thanks to the governments, state or central.
  I am not surprised. The current govt. has demonstrated a remarkable insensitivity to the natural environment, even though Mr. Modi is supposed to have spent years in the Himalayas during his salad days: quite clearly, he was not impressed by nature. How else does one explain how his govt. is systematically dismantling the regulatory framework built by the previous govts. to protect our forests from a pillaging industry, and according approvals to projects that can only devastate the environment and our core green areas further ? I refer to three projects that have been sanctioned recently.
  The first is the PM’s personally blessed highway to connect the “ char dhams” in Uttarakhand: Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, which today are finally accessed on foot only. All these are above ten thousand feet and located in the most fragile geological landscape. The road construction will involve the felling of at least 4000 deodar ( cedar)trees, many of them hundreds of years old, and result in dumping of millions of tonnes of soil and debris in the river valleys, choking them and causing landslides and floods downstream. Has Mr. Modi forgotten the Kedarnath disaster of just four years ago?
  And, as if this was not enough foolhardiness, he has now announced that the govt. shall also build a broad gauge rail line ( at a cost of Rs. 40000 crore) to further connect these pilgrim destinations ! Any sane person will only rebound in horror at this display of Kim  Jong Un type of megalomania. This 300 km line will lead to even more despoliation of forests and excavation of the mountains. Moreover, the four dhams are already reeling under an unbearable human footprint and anthropogenic pressures, the glaciers there are already melting at an alarming rate because of loss of green cover and man made warming, pollution is already stifling these rivers. These places have crossed their carrying capacity long ago. And this myopic govt. wants millions of more people to converge there !
  The third ill-advised project is the linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh to provide irrigation to an additional 6.35 lakh hectares in Bundelkhand. This has always been a controversial project which is being rammed through the supine Forest Advisory Committee without even conducting a full fledged EIA ( Environment Impact Assessment). Shocking figures of the devastation it will cause are only now emerging: 6017 hectares of prime forest land shall be diverted and more than 18,00,000 trees will be axed. Most of this forest land- 5803 hectares- falls in the Panna tiger reserve, which is a Critical Tiger Habitat. A spineless National Tiger Conservation Authority says that the loss of this area will be made good by planting an equal area. This is a farrago of untruths ( as Shashi Tharoor would no doubt have dubbed it): in the first place, what is being destroyed is an ecological habitat which contains 1255 species of plants, 34 mammals and 280 bird species, whereas what the govt. will provide is a poor, sterile plantation at best. Poor, because( and this is the second codicil) the survival rate of plantations is rarely more than 40% and compensatory afforestation has been a failure throughout the country, though it has enriched many a contractor, politician and govt. official. Sterile, because it takes dozens of years to create a habitat, by which time the native flora and fauna here would have disappeared permanently.
  We live in a country already on the brink of environmental catastrophe as borne out by successive droughts; heat waves which have killed more than 9000 people in the last seven years; farmer suicides ( 300,000 in the last twenty years, according to the NCRB ) which show no sign of abating; one and a half  million deaths every year due to air pollution. We have lost an astounding 10.60 million ha. of original forests in just the last 14 years, more than 60 million people ( mainly tribals and the poorest of the poor) have been displaced ( developmental refugees?) since Independence by projects that benefit urban India, 60% of our blocks are water stressed, we are killing off our wild-life faster than they can adapt- the list of endangered species has more than doubled in just two years, going up from 190 to 443 ( IUCN figures). It is, therefore, no surprise that the World Bank Index of Environmental Quality places us at 155 out of 178 countries. According to a new method of calculating a nation’s Ecological Footprint ( biologically productive area in hectares a country needs to fuel its resource consumption and absorb its waste)  India is the third worst country in the world, after China and the USA, needing 1.30 billion hectares for the purpose- land that we just don’t have. Our biological footprint, therefore, is in deficit by 0.67 ha. per person. What this means is that India needs approx.. 800 million more hectares of land than we have to absorb our consumption and waste. On a per capita basis even Pakistan and Bangladesh are better placed than us.
   The litany of environmental degradation in the country is long and depressing, and it is getting worse under a govt. that can’t see beyond GDP figures or think beyond vote shares. We will pay a heavy price in the years to come for our wilful depredation of natural resources, but who cares as long as the next election is won ?  






Thursday, 18 May 2017

HORSES FOR COURSES .

  Horses and the IAS have never been on the same page or the same paddock, as it were. Their relationship is somewhat like that of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un: wary apprehension on the one side and undisguised contempt on the other. Until the 1980's horse riding was compulsory for all IAS probationers incarcerated in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, and if they failed in this activity they would remain Deputy Secretaries for life, with no parole. The " raison d'etre" for imposing such a vigorous activity on people whose greatest physical exertion in later years would comprise of nothing more than bending over backwards ( the                   "sir-namaskar aasan") or brushing files under the carpet, was aptly summed up by Mrs. Indira Gandhi when some stout probationers represented to her that the sport should be made optional. She is reported to have said: " An officer who cannot control a horse cannot control a crowd."
   And so, since no one, not even a pedigreed mule from Rohtak, argued with Mrs. Gandhi, uncounted generations of probationers were condemned to throbbing posteriors, cracked skulls and hyphenated legs which would have made any Shakespearean buff cry out in delight- " Yonder cometh a bloke in parenthesis !" We also acquired a healthy respect for these formidable quadrupeds, standing six feet at the fetters, loaned to the Academy by the Indian Military Academy or the Army Remount Corps and retaining all the contempt which the Army has for bureaucrats, even the budding ones. Riding became the biggest obsession in the Academy, second only to the urgent need to identify potential spouses from those states where one wanted an allotment but had not succeeded. In the process it threw up a whole collage of personalities, incidents and tales that we can now look back on with amusement, confident in the knowledge that our days of crowd and horse control are now well behind us.
  Take, for instance, Hazari Singh a retired Army Havildar, half dragon and half bear trap, our riding instructor. His avowed mission in life was to demonstrate that IAS probationers were the lowest form of invertebrates, and that it was a pure aberration in the Darwinian law of Natural Selection that such genetic mutants should be astride an animal as splendid as a horse. He lost no opportunity to constantly reaffirm this to us. If someone handled a horse roughly Hazari Singh would let out a roar in a voice that could be heard in Dehra Doon: " Aaram se, saar, that is an expensive animal, not some cheap trash selected by the UPSC!"
  For the smart alecks amongst us he had a trick up his sleeve: an eight year old, midnight black mare named Jaya whose memory, even today, induces incontinence among hard boiled Collectors and deep fried Secretaries. If Hazari Singh perceived any one of us to be a bigger streptococcus than normal, that lost soul was ordered to mount Jaya. Thereafter that poor sod was like clay, and Jaya the potter: she could ( with Hazari Singh's fond blessings, of course) do anything with him as she pleased, for she had a mind that was immutable, even by the standards of the female of the species. Madhavan mounted Jaya one day- and disappeared for two whole days! Even today, well into his dotage, he becomes incoherent when asked where Jaya had taken him.
  Varun Maira, who possessed a remarkable resemblance to a sack of potatoes, was once ordered to do a three feet jump on Jaya. The lady preferred carrots to potatoes, and at the last possible moment when Varun, like a lumbering 747 had committed himself to take-off, Jaya stopped! Varun continued over the jump in a perfect parabola, sans Jaya, and landed heavily on his head. Any apprehensions of a possible brain injury were dispelled by a smirking Hazari Singh: " No problem, saab, there is nothing inside that head that can be damaged!" He proved to be extremely prescient, I must admit, for Varun's subsequent career graph has been impressive- he retired as Chief Secretary, a post in which, as we all know, brains are considered to be a liability!
  About that time I had, with great difficulty, persuaded a comely female in Lucknow to agree to marry me. It was touch and go and therefore it was incumbent upon me to go to Lucknow every couple of months to ensure that she didn't change her mind. It was not easy to get leave unless one obtained a medical certificate from the Doc. On one such occasion I showed the Doc some bruises and cuts on my knee and asked for three days' leave over the weekend. " How did you get these ?" inquired the Doctor.
  I had acquired them while trying to scale the wall of the Ladies' Block the previous night but honesty was certainly not the best policy at the moment. " I fell off a horse, sir," I replied, in the tone of that stupid English King who lost his kingdom for doing something similar.
  " Ah !" said the medico with a glint in his eye, " the riding ground is swarming with germs ( I don't think he meant us probationers). You should immediately have three tetanus shots over the next three days. No leave, I'm afraid, can't take a chance." In those primeval days AT shots were given on the posterior, with a needle as thick as an RSS lathi, and so I spent the weekend lying on my stomach. Fortunately, my fiancee didn't change her mind, though now she wishes she had.
  And finally, there was George Mehra. He was straight out of a Zane Grey western, always with a cigar stuck in his mouth, and when he walked past you one could distinctly hear the testosterone sloshing around inside him. George was/is a satyr- half horse and half man- and loved riding: he was the only one among us who was on first name terms with Jaya. He spent eighteen hours a day in the saddle, even taking short naps there. Hazari Singh gave him the supreme compliment by announcing that he was a mis-fit in the IAS! For once, though, he was wrong. In later years George was to become famous when, as Collector of a notorious district, he personally beat up a politician on a main road for passing comments about his wife. Nobody tangled with him for the next thirty years after that . Maybe Mrs. Gandhi was right, after all ?

Friday, 12 May 2017

LESSONS FROM A JUDICIAL DEADLOCK

                                             

   The face-off between Justice Karnan and the Supreme Court has rapidly deteriorated from a Punch and Judy show to a Three Stooges burlesque with juridical invectives and challenges being hurled about with gay abandon by both sides. There has been very little public discussion of this, presumably because this needless drama is perhaps seen as an internal matter of the higher judiciary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The judiciary is the one remaining key-stone of our sorry democracy, when all the other three pillars have begun to crumble, and therefore the citizens have a right to involve themselves in this theatre of the absurd for two reasons. One, the likes of Justice Karnan hold, literally, the power of life and death over us and their behaviour, conduct and mental equilibrium concerns all of us. Second, in the absence of any other checks and balances on superior court judges, the Supreme Court’s ability or will to rein in a maverick judge has to become a subject of scrutiny by the nation. The question has to be asked: After all, how safe is the average citizen from a judge who has been defying the highest court of the land for months now, a judge who has ordered the registration of cases, seizure of passports and even imposed prison sentences on no less than seven Supreme Court justices ? The SC has now sentenced him to six months in jail for contempt but the unspoken question that haunts many of us- is Justice Karnan a one-of-a-kind aberration or are there more of his like embedded in the system?
   This unfolding drama, it has to be admitted, is partly the result of the judiciary’s own hubris and over-reach. The Constitution provides adequate safeguards to preserve the independence of the judiciary, but over time the Courts have added more layers of protection, to a point where the judges today have become almost divine entities. They are accountable to no one but themselves, they cannot be questioned, they appoint themselves, they are immune from any prosecution or investigation unless they themselves approve it, they are immutable and inviolate. The Contempt of Courts Act provides the final coating of teflon which the public or the media can penetrate only at their own peril. They have conferred on themselves almost a supernal status, and this has now boomeranged on them and come back to haunt them. It is precisely this celestial immunity which Justice Karnan has been using to cock a snook at the Supreme Court, trading arrest warrant for arrest warrant, medical examination for medical examination, passport for passport ! And, at least for now, the Supreme Court has been unable to find a way out of this “ chakravyuh”.
    This is not the first time that a superior court judge has gone wayward. In the past too there have been charges made and questions asked, the details of which it would be prudent not to elaborate here. But I do not recollect any tangible or substantive action being taken in any of those cases. There has recently been the case of retired Justice Katju, in which fortunately a way out was found by his tendering an apology. But these instances only  reinforce the feeling and aura of invulnerability among them, making them, literally, a law unto themselves. All the required ingredients were in place and Justice Karnan was simply waiting to happen, as inevitably as the being created by Dr. Frankenstein when the potion was just right.
   The dilemma the Supreme Court has found itself in is a constitutional one. A superior court judge can only be removed by impeachment by Parliament. This was tried once but was aborted: a fractured Parliament, riven by caste, regional and political rifts will always ensure that this clause can never be implemented.The Supreme Court 0stensibly has found a way out of this imbroglio by sentencing Justice Karnan to imprisonment for six months for contempt. But since he retires next month this amounts to his removal, and questions have already been raised by  many legal authorities whether this is unconstitutional. Knotty legal questions still remain: removal from service usually entails forfeiture of pension in government- will he be entitled to a pension now when he retires? Will he be disqualified in future from any service under the government ? Is the SC order in conflict with the constitutional provisions ? How robust and objective is the collegium system of appointment if it selects judges who show scant respect for even the Supreme Court? Will Justice Karnan now play the Dalit card and create further rifts within the judiciary itself? I have a feeling we have not heard the last on this matter.Justice Karnan has already moved a petition asking the SC to recall the order for his arrest, and the Court has agreed to hear it. In all probability a via media will be manufactured, the errant judge will be allowed to retire( perhaps prematurely to avoid more of his broadsides) and all will be well in Camelot again- till the next Justice Karnan surfaces somewhere else. It is time to address the real malaise and not just apply a band-aid.
  I am reminded of a mythological tale I heard in the remote Sainj valley of Kullu district in Himachal during one of my treks many years ago. Many centuries ago( so the local legend goes) the valley was ruled by a giant “ rakshas” known as Rakti Beej. He had been given a “ vardan” by the Gods that he could not be killed, for every time a drop of his blood fell on the ground a new Rakti Beej would sprout from it. Secure in his invulnerability, Rakti Beej set about killing all the Gods one by one! Finally, they appealed to MahaKali to save them. She grabbed Rakti Beej with two of her hands, cut his throat with the other, and collected the falling blood in a cup with the fourth, preventing it from falling on the ground. Thus was Rakti Beej finally defeated. Absolute power can be a double-edged sword, as even the Gods discovered !
    Unfortunate as this episode is, it presents us with an opportunity to devise a process by which judges who cross the line can be eased out of service without nuking the system. In most well administered countries moral pressure and the force of public opinion itself are enough to make a delinquent judge quit on his own. In recent times Lord Dennings, a British judge, stepped down after charges of racism were made against him. This, however, is unlikely to happen in India for two reasons: first, public criticism of a judge is stifled by the laws of contempt and hence the force of public opinion is missing, and secondly, we as a nation have no sense of moral responsibility. Therefore, we need to invent a  system to ensure that this type of situation never recurs, and that there must be a way to remove recalcitrant judges other than by way of impeachment alone. We need to revisit, for example, the Judges Inquiry Bill ( 2006) which proposed a committee of judges to enquire into cases of judicial misconduct. Parliament torpedoed this Bill on the ground that judges cannot be a judge in their own cause. So how about adding a couple of non-judge legal luminaries to this committee ? Surely this is not an unsurmountable impediment ? But for this to happen the judiciary must acknowledge that too much protectionism is not healthy for its own body fabric. It must accept that judges too are mortal and not infallible and that when they err gravely there must be a process to discipline them and remove them from service without having to invoke the brahmashastra of impeachment. The judiciary cannot evolve such an alternative system by itself- it must come down to ground and sit with the Executive to find the solution. And it must accept that too much power ultimately self- destructs, and takes all with it.






Friday, 5 May 2017

CLUELESS BBC LOCKS HORNS WITH RHINOS

        [This piece was published on the op-ed page of the New Indian Express on 3.5.2017]

   Britain exterminated all its wildlife a hundred years ago, it still slaughters six million pheasants every year for “Sport”, and its last remaining carnivore( if you can call it that), the fox, will be doing its own Brexit within a decade. So its a bit rich for the BBC to be advising us on how to conserve wild-life, which is what it has had the gall to do in a recent documentary, KILLING FOR CONSERVATION, a short film ostensibly about efforts to protect the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga. Strangely, though, in this 20 minute misrepresentation the reporter ( Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s South Asia correspondent) completely upends the focus- from wildlife conservation to a flawed view of human rights! Short on facts and woefully lacking in perspective or understanding of what wildlife conservation entails, he is outraged by the killing of poachers ( he terms them “extra judicial executions!”), the eviction of illegal settlers from within the Kaziranga National Park( KNP) and alleged tortures for which he has no shred of evidence. To me he appears to be a bit schizophrenic, for while acknowledging that “ man is the most vicious predator” and that Kaziranga “ is an incredible story of conservation success”, he still goes on to find fault for just about everything the Park authorities do, and condemns them ( and the WWF, for good measure!) for their success.
   Lets just recapitulate the context here. Kaziranga National Park is vast, 900 sq. kms of the most difficult and inaccessible terrain, of which 228 sq. kms has been exclusively set aside for the protection of the Greater One Horned Rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros Unicornis), the horn of which fetches upto Rupees twenty million in China. Two thirds of the world’s population of these rhinos are in Kaziranga. The efforts of the KNP constitute one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world: the rhino population has doubled in the last 22 years- from an alarming 1164 in 1993 to 2401 in 2015. But the poaching has not stopped- 151 rhinos have been killed in the last 10 years, 89 in just four years between 2013 and 2016, something which Mr. Rowlatt was not bothered to find out. In fact, there has been a sharp spike in poaching in these years, which cannot but be a cause for concern.
  The BBC, in the throes of liberal humanism, castigates the KNP management for arming its forest guards and for permitting them to shoot at poachers within the Park boundaries. The documentary makes no mention of the fact that poachers are armed with AK-47 rifles or that insurgents of outlawed factions have also taken to poaching the rhinos for the enormous sums that can accrue to them. ( Ironically, the BBC itself covered another story recently to show how money from drugs and wildlife poaching follow the same trail to fund terrorism !).
  Yes, 55 poachers have been killed inside the Park in the last four years- that is the price you pay for breaking the law, and that is the price the nation extracts for protecting one of our most valuable natural heritages. The documented study of major parks in Africa has established that poaching has considerably declined in areas where forest staff were armed and authorised to “ shoot to kill”. Any genuine lover of nature would be happy that the Assam govt. has had the decisiveness to so empower its forest staff. The BBC film stresses, again without any solid proof other than statements of a few relatives of those killed, that innocent local villagers often stray within the Park boundaries and are shot. This is dishonest reporting. In the first place, the Park’s boundaries are defined and well known to the locals- there is no question of their “ straying” into it. Secondly, why should an innocent person go into the park at night, which is when most of the encounters have taken place ? And finally, according to the Park’s Director, only 4 of the 55 poachers killed since 2013 were local villagers- all the others were outsiders, clinching proof that they were there for the money and had no business to be there.
  The same lack of diligence and journalistic ethics is on display when the BBC reporter highlights the eviction of families from within the Park boundaries by force. He does not mention that all due legal processes were followed and that a large number of these families were illegal squatters ( an endemic problem in Assam) with no rights to the land. The reporter is wrong when he portrays the evictions as illegal, but I agree that the displacement could have been handled differently, with better planning and vision. Experience has shown that Conservation/ Protected Areas succeed in their objective only if the local ( especially displaced) villagers are co-opted into the effort. There is an inevitable loss of livelihoods and usufruct rights when such Areas are notified and governments must have proper plans in place for their rehabilitation. A stellar example of this is the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014. The affected villagers here were given training and financial help in eco-tourism, handicrafts, vermi-composting, raising nurseries for medicinal plants, and provided sale outlets. They now derive gainful employment and incomes from the tourists/ trekkers that the GHNP attracts in ever-increasing numbers. They have now developed a vested interest in preserving the Park’s bio-diversity and natural uniqueness and have become stakeholders. This is the way for the Kaziranga authorities to go. Do not relinquish the gun, but don’t depend on it exclusively.
   The BBC documentary is irresponsible and misleading journalism, but so is the Govt’s reaction to it. It has blacklisted the reporter and barred him from entry to any of our Protected Areas. It has also sought to revoke his visa. This is not only overkill but also censorship. The battle of ideas should not be fought in passport offices or with bans but with facts, full disclosures and counter points. It does not behove the govt. to be churlish or bear a grudge- this puts it on the backfoot and makes it appear defensive. Kaziranga is doing a fine job of protecting one of our natural icons and one ill informed reporter with a bias should not detract it from its course.


Friday, 28 April 2017

A BRIEF GUIDE TO OFFICIAL DINNERS.


                      

The IAS, unlike its progenitor the ICS, will bequeath few memories other than those of Chief Secretaries getting raided for disproportionate assets or being voted the most corrupt by their own colleagues. But as the service now heads for an inevitable merger with either the Vivekananda Foundation or the Observer Research Group, it is heartening to note that it will leave behind at least one innovative institution—the Official Dinner ( or OD). There are two major practitioners of the OD: the Army and the IAS. The former has an advantage in the matter of finding funds ( and reasons) for justifying ODs, because it can debit all expenses to Raising Days, Regimental Days and Shobha Deys, but the IAS has to be more inventive because it is under the ever watchful gaze of some whistleblower or CAG just waiting to ambush them with a book titled THE ACCIDENTAL INVITEE or NOT JUST A DINER-THE DIARY OF  A NATION’S AUTONOMOUS GOURMET. It is for this reason that the IAS is given a higher payscale than the Armed Forces: explaining the loss of a dozen tandoori chickens from the pantry of Hotel Holiday Home requires far more management skills than accounting for a dozen missing jawans on the LOC.
Recruits to the IAS are initiated into the arcane ritual of the OD in the Academy at Mussoorie. Its presiding capo di tuti capi ( or Director) hosts mock ODs frequently where the basics are spliced into their DNA. I still remember two of them: one, “ never open your mouth till the food is near it”, which perhaps explains why the IAS is so reluctant to open its collective mouth and speak out. The second rule stipulated that one should never speak ACROSS the table, but only to the persons on either side, even if the guy on the left happened to be a carbuncle from the IFS or the bloke on the right a blister from the IPS, and one was desperate to chat up the lady across the table with a view to marrying her because she had been allotted one’s home state ( UP, in most cases) while said one was exiled for life to Nagaland. We were also taught the difference between a butter knife and a fish knife ( the former for marinating one’s political bosses and the latter for gutting colleagues), between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon ( the former for raking it in and the latter for being politically correct). The uses of the versatile “chamcha” is something we discovered for ourselves later, and adopted as the most valuable of all cutlery. The most draconian rule was that when the Director stopped eating and put down his knife and fork, everyone stopped eating too. Since the Director, as befitted a Godfather, was the first to be served and the 400th probationer served about 20 minutes later, by the time the former finished masticating about 200 of us had not even sniffed the soup. This accounts for the fact that the IAS is always first in line at the feeding trough: it’s a hard lesson learnt well.
   Since the IAS controls 600 districts, 100 Ministries and a few thousand programmes, finding a reason for throwing an OD is never a problem. There are a few, however, that deserve special mention:
THE PSU( PUBLIC SECTOR UNDERTAKING) DINNER: held after every Board meeting, it is meant to console the officers for the huge losses they have notched up. Intended to occupy the commanding heights of our economy, our PSUs were dislodged from there even quicker than the Pak soldiers from the heights of Kargil. Now in the valley of death their officers will not go, however, without a fight- sorry, bite- hence the dinners, slotted under “ Any other item” in the agenda.
THE EAP ( EXTERNALLY AIDED PROJECT) DINNER: EAPs are a kind of international CSR where other countries give us moneys as aid, and then take them back through consultancies, technology transfer and equipment. We are usually left with only enough money to host a dinner every quarter, on which we spend every remaining dime lest they take that back too.
THE CENTRAL TEAM DINNER: when Secretaries in Govt. of India can no longer stand their wives’ cooking they usually take off to a state to “ review progress” on various schemes. The review consists of visits to temples, golf resorts, shopping on the Mall and a seven course dinner at night. The strong batch- mate network and an innovative menu ensures glowing reports for the state govt.
THE FAREWELL DINNER: modelled on the Last Supper, it is given for senior officers who are about to kick the waste-bin- i.e., retire. It even has a Judas in attendance- the guy who is hoping to succeed the retiree. There is, however, a notable departure from the Biblical allusion: whereas Christ went on to a glorious crucifixion and rose again on the seventh day, the IAS worthy rises again the very next day, reemployed in some Commission or Tribunal. The farewell dinner is usually organised by Judas himself to ensure that the retiring potentate is artfully estopped from coming back into the service. It is not surprising, therefore, that on occasion officers have to be brought screaming and shouting to their farewell dinners. In my case the Chief Secretary had to send a bulldozer to ensure my presence ( actually, the roads were snowed in, but I have a sneaking suspicion the CS was covering all contingencies!).
THE RAJ BHAVAN DINNER: no IAS officer ever wants to attend one of these ghastly death-watches, but an invitation from the Governor is actually an order. We go to such dinners half choked by “ bandh galla” coats originally tailored in the Academy when we were chinless wonders, now wrapped around Adam’s apples of the extra large variety which would have shocked both Eve and the serpent. These dinners are solemn, if not funereal, affairs; the victuals are really quite good though the only spirit in attendance is one of nationalism. Ministers bump into senior bureaucrats, the Governor bumps into the furniture and everybody escapes as soon as he can after the national anthem has been played for the third time.
   All ODs share two traits. One, there has to be a Chief Guest, who is generally a senior Minister or the Chief Secretary: although having one dampens the evening, it is a tactical necessity to ensure that Finance doesn’t object to the bill when presented. The Chief Guest ( at least in Himachal, which I haunted like Banquo’s ghost for 35 years) just HAS to wear either a maroon ( BJP) or green ( Congress) Himachali cap, depending on which party is in power. The smarter ones have now started investing in Aam Aadmi caps, just in case.
   Second, and this is something Mr. Vinod Rai may like to look into when he has time from his six current assignments, is a peculiar feature in all OD bills: the number of chickens consumed ! The per capita average is two, which appears high even if we factor in the disappearance of all other shades of meats post Yogi Adityanath. Are IAS chaps such solid trenchermen, what with their selection grade ulcers and apex scale haemorrhoids ? Not really. The answer lies in the fact that since all liquor is impermissible at govt. dinners, and cannot be so billed, therefore this Hippocrene beverage is billed as chickens ! A peg of single malt is worth a whole chicken, a scotch two legs, a shot of rum is equivalent to a wing, a glass of wine equals a breast ( its for the ladies, see) and so on. Quite ingenious, and definitely deserving of the two additional increments the IAS gets over its peers. And this  also provides the answer to that much asked question: Why did the pair of chickens cross the road? Answer: they didn’t want to become a single malt !

   Now that I live on a pension and am unable to cross that road too often I generally make do with KFC chicken nuggets.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

RETURN OF THE " ANIMAL SPIRITS" .

  Most folks would recollect that a few years back Dr. Manmohan Singh, while addressing a gaggle of industrialists, had bemoaned the fact that India lacked entrepreneurship, and that what it needed was an infusion of the " animal spirit." Well, he must be a happy man now, because our polity is now flooded with animals- fish, fowl and mammals- like never before. Anyone scanning the morning paper could be excused for thinking that we are more a menagerie than a nation. Never have animals dominated the national discourse as they do today.
  It all started, you will remember, with the Supreme Court dubbing the CBI as a caged parrot. This did surprise some of us better travelled lot, because to us the CBI resembles more the trained falcon, cowper and all, on the wrist of its master rather than the parrot, which is known to have a mind ( and vocabulary) of its own. But the SC was proved right, perhaps in a manner not intended by it. The last two Directors of the CBI are now being investigated for wrong doings and may soon become " caged parrots" in Tihar. Maybe the Court knew a thing or two we didn't ?
  Barely had the parrots taken to the skies when the buffalo appeared. One fine morning the sturdy buffaloes of Mr. Azam Khan, one of the then 3.5 Chief Ministers of UP, decided to take a walk and disappeared. This resulted in the greatest mobilisation of the uniformed forces since Kargil and the national media was agog with theories: had they defected to the BSP ? Had they become Tundey Kabab in Lucknow? Was this a case of kidnapping or simple police napping ? Fortunately the bovines returned on their own ( this was before the hey days of " ghar wapasi" ) in a couple of days, Azam Khan took a deep puff of his chillum, and the UP police went back to their daily ritual of extorting money and locking up innocent folks.
  Soon after, a lady in Madya Pradesh complained to the police that a parrot in her neighbourhood had outraged her modesty by passing lewd remarks at her. Bound by an earlier Supreme Court order that the police just HAVE TO register an FIR if a complaint is made to them, the police ( who, as we all know, are scrupulously law abiding) immediately arrested the parrot and took it to the police station for interrogation. This particular avian, however, apparently was better versed in the laws than most lawyers in UP: it insisted on the right to be silent, and gave nothing away. No cuss words. No four letter words. It simply whistled- a gender neutral whistle. By the evening the police had to release the bird for want of evidence.
   Something similar happened with the black Labrador dog of Mr. Somnath Bharti, the AAP Minister in Delhi, a few months later. His wife ( Bharti's, not the dog's) alleged that the dog had bitten her on the former's explicit command. Attended by a thousand TV cameras, both the dog and Bharti were taken to the police station where he ( the dog, not Bharti) was repeatedly ordered to bite the junior most constable there. Now, as all of us who have had the privilege of consorting with Labradors know, this breed is incapable of biting; they just love everybody, even policemen, and so this particular specimen simply kept wagging its tail. The cops finally concluded that the dog was innocent and that it was more likely that the wife had been bitten by Bharti. But since the denture marks did not match, they also had to let the Minister go. The Lieutenant Governor was not happy at this instance of the tail wagging the dog, since his instructions were to put Bharti in the dog-house, but it all ended up with the dog in the Bharti-house !
  Next came the unfortunate episode about that poor police stallion, Shaktiman, in Dehra Doon. This noble beast was battered by a BJP troglodyte MLA and ultimately died. As expected, no action was taken against the real beast, the MLA, and the discourse shifted to the question: should horses be used by the police to control crowds in a democratic country ? Never mind that we routinely kill a few thousand every year in police actions. But the real answer to this question had been provided by Mrs. Gandhi many years ago,when a bunch of IAS probationers complained to her that horse riding should not be a compulsory activity in the Academy at Mussoorie. Mrs. Gandhi famously refused with the words: " If you can't control a horse, how will you control a crowd ?" Maybe the Lok Sabha Speaker should be imparted a few lessons in horse riding ?
   Enter the bull. Till a few years ago the perceived wisdom was that the good burghers of Tamil Nadu worshiped only three things in life: Jayalalitha, lotteries and film stars. Jallikattu proved us all wrong. The depth of passion displayed by the state for the Bull for more than a month had us all riveted to our idiot boxes and almost resulted in a constitutional crisis. This bull in the china(mma) shop has finally established itself as the Holy Cow in Tamil Nadu.
   The rhesus monkeys of Shimla then made a brief appearance in the headlines. They've been there since the times of Kipling but now out-number the tourists from Karol Bagh and Kotkapura. It is reported that they've even started attending Cabinet meetings!Though the state govt. has denied this canard, some recent decisions of the Cabinet ( like granting unemployment allowance when there is no money for salaries) do indicate a simian footprint. There was an outrage when the apes were declared vermin but I'm sure there's no real cause for concern: very soon, the Gau Rakshaks will float a subsidiary- perhaps the Vannar Sena- to protect them and thereafter the monkeys can continue to contribute to policy decisions in this idyllic state.
   The UP elections saw the humble, inoffensive donkey emerge on the national stage, being equated with Gujarat politicians by Akhilesh Yadav. Apart from the fact that the donkeys had every right to take umbrage at being compared to politicians, Mr. Yadav was zoologically incorrect too: what he called donkeys are actually wild asses of the Rann of Kutch- a distinct and endangered breed, which hopefully will continue to survive without the help of our politicians or Amitabh Bacchan. But the reference to them did elevate our political discourse to new levels. 
   There is one animal, however, which completely overshadows all others in this circus: the Cow. It has become the symbol of nationalism, Hinduism, Hindutva, patriotism, tradition and Indian-ness. Ironically, this docile, compassionate animal has somehow also become the cause of much violence in its name ! Parliament has spent more time debating the cow than the GST, the Budget or Kashmir. It has won BJP the UP elections, and we are all now waiting with bated breath to find out whether UP will now be cast in the image of Mr. Modi, Yogi Adityanath or the Cow.
   So, as you can see, animal spirits are in full flow in digital India. The only quadruped missing from this list so far is the pig, but perhaps that's because they are so much like us. Churchill was quick to figure this out when he said: " I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."
  Are we becoming an Animal Farm ? The Gaikwad episode would certainly indicate so, in more ways than one.  

Saturday, 8 April 2017

STOP LEGITIMIZING VIGILANTISM AND CULTURAL CLEANSING

   Dadri is back with us. Earlier this week a group of "gau rakshaks" stopped a truck carrying cows in Alwar ( Rajasthan), beat up the occupants and killed one of them. The police registered a case against the Muslims for cow smuggling and arrested all of them. Only a case of " man-handling" was lodged against the killers and none arrested. The Home Minister of Rajasthan defended the vigilantes and said they were needed to curb crimes against the cow! A Union Minister even denied the incident in Parliament ! It was only after a national outrage that the police registered a case of murder and. It now emerges in the media that the cows were not being smuggled at all- the truck had the necessary permit from the administration to transport the cows! Meanwhile, the count for people killed by gau rakshaks has gone up to ten. Gau raksha is big extortion business now, as a sting by Srinivas Jain of NDTV some time back showed. Cows are seized on roads and markets and released only on payment of ransom disguised as " service charges."
   This is not an isolated case, but one that keeps repeating itself in practically all ( mainly) BJP ruled states over the last couple of years. Nothing ever happens to these vigilante goons who are vociferously defended by Ministers and senior BJP functionaries. The police is thoroughly compromised if not complicit. The frenzy is maintained by deliberately provocative measures such as amending laws to provide for life sentences for cow slaughter, or by Chief Ministers publicly stating that those who kill cows will be " hung". The ban on illegal slaughter houses in UP has gone completely out of hand: hundreds of meat shops have been forcibly shut, not only by the administration but by " gau rakshaks", some have been burnt( Hathras), and thousands rendered unemployed. Restaurants and hotels serving legal meat have been intimidated into shutting shop, on the ostensible ground of Navratras. Over 500 of them were ordered to close in Gurgaon, right under the nose of the central govt. Shiv Sainiks openly boast on prime time TV how they shut down the shops, but no action is taken against them. The Haryana govt. has just announced that ALL meat ( including eggs) shops shall have to shut on 9th April ( Mahavir Jayanti). This sets the stage for more closures on other Hindu festival days and gives another handle to these bhakts. Cow slaughter has been legally outlawed since 1955, then why this frenzy now ?
   Nor is this distorted and venomous cultural nationalism limited to cows and beef. It is now being extended to the policing of young boys and girls, under the garb of " anti-Romeo squads". An intensification of the Valentine Day bashings by outfits like the Ram Sena, it is now being conferred legitimacy by being made state policy- first in UP ( post Adithyanath) and now being adopted by the police of other BJP states. Even Delhi has announced that it will set up such squads. The result is a repugnant invasion of privacy, police high handedness and corruption, and the emboldening of the same goons: visuals of innocent couples being mercilessly beaten up or dragged to police stations and released after paying bribes are a sickening constant on news shows. And generally it is the couples against whom action is taken, not the ones who harass them.
   The same goondaism, without any force of law, is being displayed on matters relating to singing of the national anthem, films that do not conform to a particular version of history or mythology, any questioning of the strait-jacketed " nationalism" invented by the ideologues of the ruling party, or any " offence", imagined or otherwise, to the Hindu religion. Those who do not toe the line are beaten up. film sets destroyed, police let loose. Most of our corporatised media have been effectively silenced and do not protest beyond depicting a stray incident or two.
  These vigilantes are beginning to resemble the Hitler Youth or Mussolini's Black Shirts, and it is time to worry where we are headed. Over the last two years an environment of intolerance, hatred and anger has been created and lumpen elements are being insidiously encouraged to take the law into their own hands. What cannot be done legally is sought to be implemented through fear and intimidation, with the state machinery generally standing by as silent or complicit spectators. There is no law which prohibits two members of opposite sexes from meeting in a public place, and there cannot be. But to do so today means risking life and limb. There is no law which says that legally acquired buffalo meat or mutton cannot be sold, but to do so in large swathes of the BJP controlled " Hindu heartland" means inviting trouble and worse. There is no law which permits self styled groups to enforce existing or imagined laws- but the police allow them a free run. A way has been found around the laws. The BJP has become adept at speaking in two voices: one in Parliament and one on the streets. There should be a third voice- that of the Prime Minister- but it is never heard except at election rallies.
   Vigilantism draws sustenance from two factors: one, the belief that its own value systems are superior to those of others, and two, the confidence that its practitioners will not be caught or punished. The BJP is providing justification for both, and for the moment it appears to be reaping the benefits. But this is a dangerous game and can quickly get out of hand. Hatred can develop a momentum of its own and, like a fire, feeds on itself. The increasing incidents of assaults on Africans or people from the north-east stem from the same vigilantism: it doesn't matter whether they are racist or not. The point is that they are hate crimes based on contempt for others' culture. When you constantly reiterate that your own culture is the only one that counts, when you show complete intolerance and contempt for what others eat, drink,wear,worship or who they consort with, when you believe that you have the right to use violence to force others to conform- that is cultural, or worse, ethnic vigilantism, whether you practice it against a foreign national or one of your own. The govt. must realise that when it allows an environment of lawlessness to exist to suit its own purpose, sooner or later it will spawn total criminality, and this is happening now on a daily basis. 
   The stand of the BJP was clearly demonstrated through a powerful symbolism last year: when one of the Dadri accused died in jail ( of natural causes) his body was draped in the national flag, he was declared a " martyr", and his funeral was attended by a Union Minster who even donated Rs. 10 lakhs to his family, Perhaps the time has come to remember the poignant words of the Urdu poet:

" Ab kahaan jaoge dhoondne mere katil ko,
  Mere katl ka ilzam mujh par hi daal do."

[ Where will you now go to find my killer,
  Put the blame for my murder on me." ]

Monday, 3 April 2017

DON'T WRITE OFF KEJRIWAL JUST YET.


   [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express on 3/4/2017 ]   

   The knives are out for Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP- if you follow the mainstream ( English), elite media you would believe that he has been wiped out as a political entity. This same media will politely ignore some telling figures released by ADR( Association of Democratic Rights), our own election watchdog: of the 403 newly elected MLAs in UP 322 are crorepatis( multi-millionaires) and 143 have serious criminal cases registered against them ( 107 relate to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women). In the five states that went to elections 75% of the seats were won by one of the top three wealthiest candidates ! These figures are the reason why Kejriwal and AAP will continue to be relevant with the people.
  Yes, he lost Punjab ( and Goa, where he shouldn’t have gone in the first place) but not without a fight: AAP and its ally won 22 seats out of 70 with a vote share of 23.7% . It also came second in 27 seats. It is the principal Opposition in the state. Not a bad showing for a three year old party confronting three mainline parties who between them have more funds than many states do ! The problem with the “ Breaking News” culture is that it expects instant successes , to match the instant solutions it offers every night on its panel discussions. It forgets, for example, that Kejriwal had won just 28 seats in Delhi on his first attempt too. Its ironic that TV channels first build up a hype, and then slaughter you for not living up to it!
   That being said, AAP could have done much better, given the Akali-BJP votes were up for grabs, just as the Congress vote was in Delhi earlier which it hoovered up so spectacularly. Since the Punjab Congress was hanging on to its vote share Kejriwal had to poach on the Akalis, which he failed to do. No judicial commission is needed to find out where he went wrong, the reasons are common knowledge in every “ Shere Punjab” dhaba: excessive back seat driving from Delhi, the expulsion of the man who built up the organisation in Punjab, cosying up with ex-Khalistanis, too many Duterte-like threats of locking up all and sundry, proximity to Panthic elements, the ego clash with the biggest ego east of the Indus, Navjot Singh Sidhu.
   Kejriwal should not now rush off to Bangalore for another bout of naturopathy but should sit in Delhi and accept with all humility that he made mistakes. He should accept that his style of agitational politics has lost its novelty and is becoming repetitive, that his opponents have learnt how to counter it, a strategy which Napoleon knew all about when he famously said: “ You should not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” He should acknowledge that he needs to create genuinely vibrant state organisations and refrain from micro-managing them. He needs more Yogendra Yadavs and Prashant Bhushans around him, not just Sanjay Singhs and Aashish Khaitans, if he wants the educated middle classes and working youth to support him.
   He should stop attacking Mr. Modi personally: the Prime Minister has a Teflon coating which is impermeable for the moment. Perhaps most important, he should completely overhaul his style and substance of campaigning: he is no longer a revolutionary but a Chief Minister and should observe the responsibility that comes with the post. People tire of negativity very soon and the halo of victimisation fades quickly, What the AAP needs is a booster dose of positivity in its outreach, a vitamin supplement to balance the antibiotic, as it were. And the irony is that Kejriwal has plenty of this, if only he would prescribe it.
   AAP has done exceptional work in Delhi in the areas that matter: universal health care, education, slum improvement, water and power supply. Delhi is the only metro that has had the courage to successfully implement the odd-even car scheme. Its persistent demand for more autonomy to union territories finds resonance with the citizens. Its tenacious stand against corruption is its USP. These are the achievements that Kejriwal needs to take to the people, instead of the disruptionary politics he is being identified with. The strident opposition to demonetisation was a misreading of the people’s pulse; it is unfortunate that he is now following it up with another ridiculous claim that EVMs were tampered with in the recent elections. The misguided promise of waiving off residential property tax in Delhi is a mistake: the voters are wearying of the politics of sops and subsidies.
   With the Congress being rolled back everywhere The AAP has a golden opportunity to occupy the space being vacated by it, it has built up a constituency that cuts across caste and class barriers, its bona fides are not doubted. All that is needed is for it to change its style: of leadership, public engagement and governance. It must also curb its over vaulting ambition to become a national party overnight. It should eschew all state elections till 2019 and concentrate on Delhi and Punjab. In the former it finally has an enlightened and open-minded Lieutenant Governor and therefore the opportunity to deliver all round good governance. If it can win the Municipal elections next month its ability to do so shall be further enhanced. In Punjab it should function as a constructive, not disruptive, opposition. It should quietly go about building its organisational structures in the states where it plans to contest the Parliamentary elections in 2019. The country and its citizens need a party like the AAP, but one which dares to reinvent itself. In 2013 Kejriwal had the courage to make the change from activism to politics. Can he take this leap of faith again ?


Saturday, 1 April 2017

IN PURSUIT OF AN " UNNATURAL " HAPPINESS

   Having assiduously contrived a world of conflict, disease, crime and environmental apocalypse we are now just as assiduously chasing after that will o' the wisp- HAPPINESS. There is now even a World Happiness Report. The report for 2017 places India at no. 122 out of 155 countries ( though I'm sure this did not factor in the national delirium when Yogi Adityanath was appointed the Chief Minister of UP ). We have slipped 4 notches from the previous year, no doubt because of the machinations of foreign-funded NGOs. Interestingly, we are behind even Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Iraq. There are no prizes for guessing which are the happiest countries: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland. The principal parameters considered were: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support systems, freedom to make life choices and a sense of how corrupt one's society is.
   Make no mistake- Happiness is now serious business ! There have always been innumerable God-men peddling their " Quality of Life" wares and raking in the moolah, but now even governments are jumping onto this bandwagon. The UAE ( United Arab Emirates) has a Ministry of Happiness. Our very own Madhya Pradesh recently created a Directorate of Happiness. Bhutan does not measure GDP, it measures GDH ( Gross Domesic Happiness) The private sector too is into it in a big way and this is the latest rage in consultancies. The central idea is that happy employees are more productive and make happy customers: a 2013 Gallup poll concluded that unhappy employees cost American companies US$ 500 million in lost productivity. This is even more true of the service sector where there is more interaction between employee and customer. Smart Phone Apps have appeared- Moodscope, Track Your Happiness- that let you ( and your boss!) gauge and monitor your current state of happiness. As the Economist put it in an article recently, " Happiness is becoming an instrument of corporate control." So naturally there are spoilsports emerging from the woodwork, privacy activists who advocate that such monitoring is an invasion of one's privacy. A pointer here for some members of our present ruling dispensation- you can tell us what to eat, speak,wear, think, but you certainly can't ask us what to FEEL !
   On a more serious note, however, why is it that Indians are such an unhappy lot ? I'm sure that there is no paucity of reasons, from livelihood issues to health problems to social tensions, from endemic corruption to rank bad governance.  But if we look at the top " happy" countries and the parameters considered for rankings, we can safely make some conclusions: citizens of a country are happy if they are well governed, looked after by either the family or the state, enjoy good health and live in a stable social order. Unfortunately, none ( or very little) of these conditions exist in India. But there is an even more important underlying, unstated precondition for happiness in today's world: we need to live in harmony with the natural world and environment, to preserve its beauty and uniqueness, for this is the only counter balance to an increasingly urbanised, crowded, stressful, dog-eat-dog world in which we find ourselves. It cannot be a coincidence that the top happy countries mentioned have all taken care to conserve their natural environment even as they have gone about their " development" activities.
   Our lives are dominated by- nay, controlled by- mindless materialism and consumerism which is literally destroying the air we breathe, the water we drink and the earth we call home. Our manic obsession with GDP numbers may have cloned a large number of Ambanis and Advanis but it makes for a nation which is becoming less " happy" each year. We are destroying nature on a colossal scale and the depredation of natural assets/ features in the quest for " ease of business" has ensured that the waters in most of our rivers are unfit even for agriculture, let alone for drinking; 67% of urban waste flows directly into our rivers; 50% of the blocks are water stressed; 1.50 million Indians die prematurely of respiratory diseases every year ( including 48000 in Delhi alone, by some estimates);  in just two years, between 2010 and 2012 the list of endangered species in India has doubled: from 190 to 443; the country lost 10.60 million hectares of original forests in the last 14 years, and even as I write this it has been revealed that 5000 deodar trees ( more than two hundred years old) are being felled to widen the road from Uttarkashi to Gangotri ! This is right next to a glacier which has already receded more than a kilometre in the last few years, for God's sake! More than 60 million people ( mainly tribals and the poorest of the poor) have been displaced since Independence to facilitate projects and industry; our cities generate 60 million tonnes of garbage every year but only 30% of that is treated  It is no surprise then that our fall in the Happiness Index closely matches our position in the World Bank Survey of Environmental Quality: India is at no. 155 out of 178 countries.
   Whatever little debate we hear on the subject is about " lifestyle environmentalism" and not about the " livelihood environmentalism" which is what actually impacts on the lives of 80% of our population. The concept of " environmental equity " is yet to arrive in this country. It is the poor who bear the brunt of this devastation of nature in the form of pollution, hygiene, garbage dumping, ambient illnesses, lack of open spaces in urban areas ( in Delhi, the posh South and Central Delhi provide 35 sq. mtr. of open space per capita whereas in the poorer East Delhi it is only 2.73 sq. mtr.). It stands to reason that if the poor cannot be happy, the nation too cannot. And this not just about a vision- less government: it also about us and our insatiable gluttony for everything material.
  We really have no right to be happy. We are distancing ourselves from the healing powers of nature at an alarming rate. It is not just the physical attributes of the natural world which can add more happiness to our lives, but also the values it teaches us; of a simple life, of taking only what we need and not what we crave, of avoiding conflict unless it is a matter of life and death, of forsaking ego, of tailoring consumption to sustainability, of differentiating between pleasure and happiness. The Anthropocene Age is about to bury us in an avalanche of consumption, plastics and packaging. Interestingly, as I was writing this piece I was also reading John Steinbeck's classic travelogue TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE, a fascinating account of his journey through America, and I came across these prescient observations on the consumption mania that had already seized North America in the sixties:
  " American cities are like badger holes ringed with trash...surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.... Waste seems to be the index.....I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness-- chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an ( American) Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move."

That was 55 years ago.  

Saturday, 25 March 2017

DELHI BELLY :PRESERVE THE BRIBE AS A HISTORICAL LEGACY !

   We appear to be going through an intense and populist phase of cultural revival these days and this is therefore as good a time as any to put on record my opposition to the efforts by Mr. Modi and his team to eradicate the system of bribes in our two thousand year old country. I see this as an assault on our glorious past and a move that seriously jeopardises our GDP growth rates.
   Bribes have been an integral sub-set of our hoary culture for hundreds of years, a practice which is respected and admired. It has been an indispensable part of  religion. Ours is a transactional religion where we give in order to receive. We regularly bribe our Gods to grant us things- a child, a house, a job,even a contract- which we usually don't deserve either on merit or on sperm count. Our temples are overflowing with gold and cash: Tirumala reportedly has an annual income that exceeds that of even the Vatican. During the recent demonetisation exercise even the government had to turn to these temples to tide them over the cash flow problem. The govt. wants their hoards of gold to buttress the country's bullion reserves.All this wealth is essentially a pay-off to the Gods. Indians are the least philanthrophic of races, but we will even borrow money to "donate" to our temples, for a consideration, of course.
   It would therefore be unrealistic to expect that this urge would be confined only to places of worship, and not be reflected in our daily lives. We accept corruption as a way of life and nothing proves this better than the fact that we keep on electing and re-electing corrupt politicians to office every five years. No stigma ever attaches to them, we treat them as- you guessed it- demi Gods who are entitled to all the lucre they can gather.
  The India of today is a historical consequence of bribes. It was not the Mughal armies that captured our fair country but the strategic distribution of bribes on a colossal scale. The Marathas and Rajputs were vanquished by paying off assorted generals and gate keepers, enabling the Mughal armies to easily capture the great forts of Golconda, Parli, Wardhangarh, Nandgir, Chandan, Allahabad, to name just a few. Dara Shikoh's son was betrayed ( and killed) for a bribe, thus ensuring that Aurangzeb could cement his rule. Even the British conquest of India was facilitated by Robert Clive's bribing Mir Jaffar at Plassey: it took just 3000 British troops and a lot of money to deliver India to the British crown.
   Our ancestors ( peace be upon them) had made bribery a fine art: they recognised that, like all fine art forms, it possessed subtle nuances and therefore categorised them into different types based on occasion and purpose: the nazrana, the shukrana, the mehentana and so on. Some were for specific favours, some for creating generic goodwill, others intended to simply establish the lofty status of the giver. But back then negotiations were conducted with savoir faire and refinement, over a game of chess, " banarsi paan" being served en passant, with even a gyrating tawaif being thrown in for good measure. None of today's vulgarity of Samsonite suitcases, dark  and smoke filled back rooms, or initials in a diary. This is what happens when an art is converted into a science. There is a legend in my family of an ancestor who was organising his daughter's wedding in his mansion when he received news that a gang of dacoits was planning to plunder his house at the same precise time as the wedding. This would have been an intolerable loss of face for the zamindar in front of all his guests. So said forefather summoned the gang leader and offered him a sum of money he could not refuse in return for not raiding his house. All amicably settled with a bribe, and this is the crux of our ancient tradition of bribery: it was not about the money alone, but about status and recognition of one's respective position in society. For them, bribery was like the quality of mercy described so well by Shakespeare: it is not strained, it is twice blessed for it blesses both the giver and the taker !
   Economists, those purveyors of the dismal science who can never agree on anything, typically disagree on this subject too. One group ( the Harvard lot) claim that bribes knock about 2% off our GDP. The others( the Hard Work lot) differ- they are of the view that bribes add to productivity and national wealth. I tend to agree with the latter.  Corruption makes bureaucracies more efficient. Given the lethargy of our govt. machinery and the thicket of laws and regulations that enmesh us, absolutely nothing would get done in this country without pay-offs: no roads or bridges, no passports or driving licences, no industry or trade, no public transport or bank loans, no export or import, no govt. jobs or old age pensions. If we are growing at 7.1% or 7.5% or whatever mythical figure the govt. would like us to believe, it is because of the bribes that grease the wheels of development. Just look at the latest empirical data-- the moment govt. clamped down on black money (the accumulated stock of bribes and wealth generated by bribes) by way of demonetisation our growth rate has fallen, the economy has slowed down and unemployment has shot up ! I believe things will improve by the second quarter of 2017, once the bribes start flowing again. Its not love which makes the world- or, to be more accurate, India- go around: its black money and bribes. This constitutes 15%-20% of our GDP but is the catalyst which generates the other 85%. Now that Mr. Jaitley has no doubt realised this by seeing that more money has been deposited in banks than what was demonetised by him, he will perhaps now abandon his attempts to demolish this central pillar of our history and culture. He should just consider it as another Service Tax , a more efficient one, for when we pay a bribe we get what we expect whereas when we shell out Mr. Jaitley's service tax we rarely do.
   So perhaps we need a mass movement to preserve this sapient part of our culture, to protect it from modern freakonomics, to save it from a Western paradigm whose biggest cultural achievement to date is the  MacNugget. After all, if we can fight to retain Jallikatu, Santhara, Dowry, Female foeticide  and Triple Talaq as  cultural legacies, why not the fine art of Bribery ? !