Saturday, 22 July 2017

ARE TRIUND AND KHAJJIAR GOING THE ROHTANG WAY ?

   I was aghast to see a photograph in the Tribune about two weeks back of a long traffic jam in Khajjiar in Chamba- the line of vehicles in this exquisite dale was at least a kilometer long! The SDM Dalhousie further informed the reporter that during the season about 5000 vehicles go to Khajjiar every day. Two days later it was reported that 1000 tourists go to Triund ( above Mcleodganj) every day. What are we doing to our few remaining natural features ?


                          [ Traffic jam at Khajjiar in June 2017. Courtesy The Tribune ]

   Rohtang pass has become a by-word for pollution and the NGT has not helped its cause by allowing 1400 vehicles there everyday. Now that the state govt. has introduced electric buses for the pass, NO OTHER VEHICLES should be allowed ( except for genuine travellers to Leh, Kaza and other places beyond the pass). The NGT should not succumb to pressures from the unholy nexus of hoteliers and taxi unions- their livelihoods ( based on extortion of tourists, mostly) are not more important than the preservation of our natural heritage for future generations. No new taxi permits should be issued for Manali sub-division- it already has more than the area can support. Nor should permits for new hotels be sanctioned: Manali already has more hotel beds than DelhI !And whatever happened to the rope-way from Palchan to Rohtang- the tenders were first floated way back in 2010 and it should have been up and running in three years. The NGT's local Commissioner in Manali, Mr. RakeshwarLal Sood, should monitor its progress with greater urgency, for ultimately this is what will save the Rohtang from the internal combustion engine and the external combustion lobbies.
   Coming back to Khajjiar, I've been there more times than I can remember and never sighted more than a couple of vehicles there. Even though the lake itself must have disappeared by now( every govt. department has tried to arrest its siltation, and with each such intervention it has become smaller!) the glade or vale or meadow is a thing of beauty, unsurpassed even in this state blessed by nature and cursed with commerce. The very idea of 5000 vehicles and 20000 chhola bhatura type of tourists running amok there is a blasphemy. The question, therefore, is: what is the govt. or the district administration doing about controlling this polluting flood ? Obviously, nothing, or we wouldn't have so many vehicles there in the first place. Why should we always be passive, indifferent and safe,  waiting for the NGT or the High Court to do something to stem the rot rather than take the initiative ourselves ? Why do we get fat 7th Pay Commission salaries ? Why are we always silent in the face of pressures from politicians, taxi drivers, bus operators, hoteliers and tourists who have destroyed their own cities and are now hell bent on ravaging what is rightfully our heritage? Cannot the state Forest department, which has more PCCFs, Addl. PCCFs and CCFs than we have wild life in our forests, be more proactive and visionary in protecting places like Khajjiar and Triund ?
   To my mind, the first thing to be done is to assess the carrying capacity of these places and restrict the number of visitors to that number. Secondly, impose a COMPLETE BAN on private or commercial vehicles going to Khajjiar. Instead acquire a few electric buses for the purpose as is being done for Rohtang. Third, erect barriers and do not allow any form of plastic to be taken to either of these places, not even PET bottles. Four, impose a heavy user fee for the visit ; if these urbanites can pay five hundred rupees at a multiplex to see the curves of Rakhi Sawant they should not mind paying a similar amount to view the undulations of our mountains and valleys- which, incidentally, are completely natural. Such restrictions are even more necessary for Triund which at 9000 feet is close to the snow line and has no water- garbage and human waste are the biggest threats to its pristine grandeur. I've been there at least thrice ( which I remember) and can state with all confidence that it cannot support more than 50 visitors a day. No night stay should be permitted there, in order to avoid generation of more human waste. There were no structures there a few years ago, except a Forest rest house and a much needed tea stall a kilometer below it, but I now read that a number of dhabas etc. have come up there now. This is nothing but sheer laxity, negligence if not collusion of the forest and revenue officials, for all land there is forest land. They should be demolished immediately lest it become another Marhi. There was also a proposal to build a ropeway from Mcleodganj/ Dharamsala to Triund, primarily to kill another daft idea: build a road to Triund! The technical and financial feasibility reports were ready eight years ago, so why this delay?
   Unplanned mass tourism and excessive "development" are ravaging Himachal's natural environment and assets . Mr. Virbhadra Singh's roads and Mr. Dhumal's hydel projects have already devastated most of the natural beauty of the state; let us at least make an honest effort to save the few blessed places that remain. There has to be a vision beyond money, votes and the Apex scale.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME: HAS ITS TIME COME ?

    [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express on 15.7.2017 under the heading CAN WE AFFORD FREE MONEY FOR ALL ?]

   It is said that no power can stop an idea whose time has come. The idea that is exciting economists globally these days is Universal Basic Income ( UBI): there was even a whole session devoted to it at Davos . The concept of UBI is simple: a regular, periodic payment to ALL citizens by the government, without any conditions or stipulations of income or employment. Its beauty is its simplicity ( or universality) requiring no complex bureaucratic underpinning for its implementation.
   The idea is neither new nor novel. It was first mooted by Thomas More in his 1516 book Utopia and since then it has found favour with the likes of Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine , John Stuart Mill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Milton Friedman. The beauty of the concept is that it is politically neutral: it appeals both to the right and the left. The latter considers it as a tool of social justice postulated on the belief that public wealth is created by all peoples over generations, not only by the rich, and so should be distributed equitably; it is also a means to tackle poverty and unemployment. The right sees it a more efficient way to utilise funds for welfare, compared to the current regime of huge , untargeted and leaking subsidies.
    By no means is there unanimity, however: both sides of the political divide have their criticisms too. Some on the left feel that UBI is an excuse for the govt. to opt out of its responsibility for social intervention in key sectors such as health and education, by simply handing out a monthly dole. Conservatives on the  right oppose it on the ground that it will promote indolence and provide a disincentive for seeking employment. Whatever be the merits, however, the fact is that governments are willing to give it a try, even though the Swiss rejected it in a referendum last year. Pilot programmes have been introduced in Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, the USA and Italy. In India too it has entered public discourse via the views of the Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, contained in the Economic Survey of this year: he appears to support it, though not immediately, perhaps.
   What is driving this resurrected interest in this 500 year old idea is undoubtedly the widening income/ wealth disparities post globalisation and the looming spectre of technology driven unemployment. The west has already started shedding millions of jobs because of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, and even technology’s pioneers like Bill Gates and Elon Musk have warned that things are going to get worse. India’s position is even more critical, given our historical levels of poverty, mind boggling inequity and already existing massive unemployment. The country is simply not able to create the minimum ten million new jobs needed every year.
  The unemployment rate in 2016 was 7.97%, which is a hopeless underestimation since it assumes that 50% of the population is engaged in agriculture: in actual fact at least 75% of these agriculturists are significantly underemployed but remain in agriculture because of lack of options. The even more worrying thing is that the rate of job creation over the last three years has been falling: from 4.97 lakh jobs created in 2014 it has dwindled to 1.35 lakhs in 2015-16. It would be worse now, post demonetisation, the beef ban, the liquor-on-highways ban and GST. Technology too is beginning to bite: IT sector alone is expected to shed 600,000 jobs in the next three years. PRAHAR, a non-profit, has predicted that we are likely to lose seven million jobs by 2050 whereas the population by then would have grown by 600 million.The social effects of such large scale unemployment and its fall-out on poverty ratios and the country’s stability is the biggest argument for introducing UBI and validating the views of Gates and Musk.
   The primary argument trotted out against UBI is: can we afford it? Vijay Joshi, an internationally renowned economist at Oxford has calculated that if a UBI payment of Rs. 17500.00 were to be paid to each household annually it would cost 3.5 % of the country’s GDP. As against this just the non-merit subsidies amount to 7.7% of GDP. On paper, therefore, it is affordable and it still leaves the merit subsidies on vital areas such as education, health, PDS and nutrition untouched. But perhaps a case can be made out to subsume PDS in UBI also as it is perhaps the most wasteful and inefficient of subsidies and also involves huge costs in procurement, storage and distribution. But mathematics apart, there are other concerns that militate against UBI: should the state withdraw so completely and leave the poor to market forces ? What about the accountability of the state ? Will this not lead to the ultimate withering away of the welfare state ? Is the country logistically prepared for such a huge exercise to ensure there is no repeat of the demonetisation travails ?
  That last question at least can be answered somewhat confidently. There are now about 350 million Jan Dhan accounts and the Aadhar penetration has reached 1200 million individuals. Linking of bank accounts and Aadhar has now been made compulsory by 31.12.2017, therefore the basic system for remitting UBI payments directly to beneficiary accounts is more or less available, theoretically. In actual practice, however, there may be grey areas that can cause untold misery and chaos, especially in rural areas and to the most marginalised ( who, by definition, need UBI the most): lack of bank branches in villages, poor internet connectivity, inoperative Jan Dhan accounts, lack of awareness of the banking process, a huge migratory population. Furthermore, as Joshi has pointed out, the removal of subsidies itself is a tricky exercise; without proper sequencing it can cause havoc and destitution. The country cannot afford to go through the disorganised and unplanned trauma of demonetisation again.
  The ideal, and sensible, way to go about it is to launch a few pilot projects in carefully selected areas ( blocks rather than districts) that represent the different profiles- social, economic, demographic, infrastructural- that constitute the smorgasbord identity of our country, and then analyse how well the programme caters to each. The government should give up its distrust of NGOs and learn from their experience too. SEWA Bharat, an NGO, has in fact been implementing two UBI schemes in Madhya Pradesh, with assistance from UNICEF, for some years and its experience has been fascinating. The govt. can get a lot of valuable inputs from SEWA. What it should NOT do is another surgical strike at the midnight hour.

  

Saturday, 15 July 2017

THE IAS AND ITS TEN COMMANDMENTS : A BRIEF HISTORY.


   It all actually started with Moses, he of the flowing white mane and AMS ( Anger Management Syndrome), when he descended form Mount Sinaii clutching the tablet on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments.  It WAS a tablet, and not an IPad or Notebook, my extensive research has revealed, and the ten edicts were burnt on to it, not downloaded from the Cloud. In fact there was very little of downloading or uploading going on it those hoary days, except the uploading of salt from the Dead Sea ( it was very much alive then) onto ships by the Tatas, owned by a patriarch called Cyrus the Great, better known as Cyrus Mystery. In any case, the point I am making in my own befuddled way is that the Commandments laid down a code of conduct by which the Israelis were expected to live and die ( mostly the latter in those intolerant days) and which they now use to build settlements on the West bank and Gaza.
   Even more important, however,the Ten Commandments of Moses established a trend which has continued to this day. Every organised group of people now are required to have a set of rules   (engraved in stone, naturally) by which they are expected to function and through which they retain their distinct identity. The doctors, for example, have the Hippocratic Oath, the Mafia has its Omerta, 18th century Europe had the Code Napoleon, the Freemasons have the peculiar handshake and twitching eyebrows, the BJP has its own dictum ( " Who says you cannot fool all of the people all of the time? " ), the  Congress, notwithstanding all its scams, has a simple credo ( "The buck stops here") ), the Income Tax Dept has also devised one, post demonetisation ( " Zindagi ke saath bhi, zindagi ke baad bhi") and so on. I hope you get the point.
   The IAS could not be long exempt from this universal imperative and therefore, after sorting out the initial teething problems ( should their dress code be the loin cloth or the safari suit ? should a lady Director be designated a Directory ? does a round of golf or rubber of bridge at lunch-time qualify as public service? etc.), it too has come up with its own code. It is not known when and where the IAS Commandments originated, but it is suspected to have been brewed in Happy Valley of the National Academy at Mussoorie, along with the local hooch known as " chhang". Happy Valley, incidentally gets its name because of this "chhang": probationers who go into it every day to face the tortures of horse riding and " shramdan" return happy and elated after imbibing a kettle or two of the concoction, somewhat like the sceptics in Mathew Arnold's poem who went to church to scoff but stayed to pray. Commandments 3,4 and 6 do reveal the distinct imprint of "chhang". Later, when the probationers were dispersed all over India in the manner of Jumlu Devta scattering an assortment of Gods all over Kullu district from the heights of Chanderkhani Pass , these Commandments permeated the entire service and have come to stay.                                                         This Code has not yet been notified in the official gazette or included in the Directive Principles of the Constitution, but it has stood the test of time and enabled the service to retain its distinctive style and elan. It has stopped in its tracks latter day reformers who have presumed to  "improve" this twice born service by shenanigans such as renaming the Planning Commission as the Nutty Ayog or replacing the Empanelment process with an Impalement process.Coincidentally, it also contains ten edicts or commandments, and is reproduced below for the benefit of those who aspire to be a number on the civil list:

[1]  Thou shall not take My name in vain, except through proper channel.
[2]  Blessed are the meek for they shall never know what hit them.
[3]  Do unto others before they do unto you. Forget that shit about turning the other cheek.
[4]  Love thy neighbour but grab his departments( and his car, house and private secretary). Leave his wife alone, she is not part of the perks , you benighted idiot!
[5]  Thou shalt rest from thy labours on the seventh day, it being the Sabbath- and on the sixth, fourth and third, being second saturday, public holiday and casual leave.
[6]  Covet not thy colleague's wife- before ascertaining his seniority.
[7]  Thou shalt be transferred every second year lest thy sins catch up with thee. If they have already caught up with thee then thy shall not be transferred at all, in order that they can be given a proper Christian burial.
[8]  Honour thy father and thy mother but glorify thy Chief Minister and Minister.
[9]  Thou shalt not steal- but the good Lord will turn a blind eye to gifts at Divali and New Year's.
[10]  Trust only in the Lord-provided He is not in the IPS or IRS.

HALLELUJAH !

Saturday, 8 July 2017

DELHI BELLY: THE HEART OF THE MATTER

   For a Prime Minister whose tag line is " Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas", who weeps publicly at the thought of his humble origins, who has promised to double farmers' income in four years, who has elevated the "viklang" to the status of a "divyang", Mr. Modi's government displays very little genuine compassion when it comes to these people or the public at large. In its hurry to leapfrog into the next millenium, it has demonstrated an insensitivity bordering on the callous towards the day-to-day problems of the average citizen, born perhaps out of a disconnect and the arrogance of a victor. It has been acting in haste and stalling at leisure, as the occasion demands. In either case it is the common citizen who is suffering.
   Take Aadhar, which is being rammed down the gullets of 1.30 billion people. By mandating its linkage with just about ALL government schemes in every nook and cranny of a country which is heavily under banked and where tens of thousands of villages have no inter-net connectivity, it has caused untold misery- lakhs of people have been deleted from MNREGA rolls, or denied PDS benefits, or deprived of subsidy for gas connections. Even school children have been denied mid-day meals because they did not have an Aadhar card. Some of these may have been "ghost" entities, but the majority are Aadhar casualties. In a largely illiterate country with millions of rural people migrating to towns in search of jobs, it is a nightmare for them to establish ID or address, to open bank accounts or obtain gas connections, to avail of any govt. scheme for the poor.                                                                                                                                      This has naturally bred a huge market for corruption. In its haste to roll out the scheme, and lacking the capacity to do it itself, the government franchised it out to private companies who have inadequate data security back-up. Aadhar cards are now being reportedly sold ( without proper ID or address proof) for 1000-15000 rupees. Last year a Pakistani terrorist was found to have an Aadhar card! The 6th June issue of the Hindustan Timed reveals that UIDAI has had to terminate the contracts of 34000 agents ( out of a total of 650000) for malpractices. Even worse, analysts fear that individual security may be compromised on a colossal scale for it is possible for these private agents to copy and retain the biometrics of an individual before passing on the data to UIDAI.
   Demonetisation ( a needed scheme, but ill conceived and implemented) has thrown millions out of work, in the poorest sections of our populace- the daily labourer, the small and marginal farmer, local artisans. The sheer inflexibility and unresponsiveness displayed by the govt. has now prompted the Supreme Court to order it to provide another window to genuine cases for returning their old notes.
   The most recent move- GST- is following the same, well trodden path to large scale misery. The usual practice globally has been to provide a " transition period" of upto a year before introduction of GST in order to educate both industry and the consumer on its effects, processes and prices. Such an introductory phase was even more needed in India given the unorganised nature of its trade, low digital awareness and infrastructure and past record of its tax authorities. By refusing to do so in its typical inflexible way the govt. has again disrupted the economy when it had not even fully recovered from the DM blow. Once again it is the poorest and most marginal who have been hit: " Mandis" are not buying from farmers, truckers are sitting idle, the pharmaceutical supply chain has been disrupted, PDS ( ration) shops are shutting down for want of a GST registration number ( even though foodgrains are exempted from GST !), and prices have started rising. Big business is prepared for GST ( it always is) but some thought should have been given to the mom and pop stores, the labour and small manufacturer involved in the downstream linkages. The problem is not only about unwillingness to pay taxes ( as Mr. Jaitley seems to believe with his head firmly stuck in the sand) but also about capacity to handle the complex maze of the new law.
   Its not about just the economy, however: Mr. Modi's regime has displayed the same lack of compassion and empathy when it comes to social issues. For the first time assistive devices for the physically challenged- eg. wheelchairs, Braille books, physiotherapy equipment- have been taxed under GST- whatever happened to the Prime Minister's rhapsody about " Divyangs"? Forget any tangible step to help the farmers who continue to kill themselves in their thousands, he has not even condoled publicly their deaths. Not a word about the six who were killed in police firing by his government. Or about the increasing numbers of Muslims lynched by the mobs inspired by his party's bovine brand of politics. Or about the millions thrown out of employment by the government's cattle and beef policies. Or about the dozens blinded by the security forces in Kashmir and the hundreds killed there since he teamed up with the PDP- actually, a correction: he did have something to say to the Kashmiris- choose between terrorism and tourism ! Just the balm which a wounded state needs, don't you think? Surely some healing words are in order when your own citizens are dying by the hundreds, never mind who is at fault. Proforma speeches are no substitute for genuine compassion, and clever acronyms do not amount to substantive action, but these are all we have got so far.
   Proof of the govt's skewed priorities was provided last year when two reports were released: one, the Global Hunger Index and second, the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business. The former revealed India had slipped from 83rd place in 2000 to the 97th position in 2016, below even Bangladesh and Nepal; the second report showed that we had improved our position by one place: from 131 to 130 during this period. No importance was attached to the hunger index and govt. took it in its stride. All the official concern was on the business report, which was an obvious disappointment for officialdom given the hype created with Make in India, Stand Up India and Digital India. The Commerce Minister expressed concern, review meetings were held and even the PM asked union Ministries and the states to immediately analyse the reasons for the slow progress. Wide spread hunger and malnutrition are not important, start-ups are.
   Never have we had a government so lacking in compassion and genuine concern for its citizens. It is a cold and calculating dispensation. The bitter truth is that the present government is focused on a regulatory over-drive, rather than on welfare. Its all about linking Aadhar, PAN, bank accounts, mobile phones, gas connections, restrictive laws, sedition cases, bans, disciplining educational institutions, terrorism, black money and "surgical strikes." The poor can wait till we first have one united country, and, as Nishi Saran so perceptively noted in a recent article, the country is being united by hate, not love. This government cannot see beyond winning elections ( at which it is admittedly very good). Its holy grail is power, and the Trinity it worships is GDP, Hindutva and Nationalism. Sometimes I wonder: has India got its first Bionic government, where the heart has been replaced by an EVM or a POS swipe machine ?  

Sunday, 2 July 2017

DELHI BELLY : NOW FOR GST-II.


    Most economists are aware that the Indian economy is like an ice-berg: one tenth is visible above the surface and nine-tenths is hidden from the gaze of the tax man. Mr. Arun Jaitley, by promulgating GST at the bewitching hour on the 30th June, has taken care of the former but the problem of the latter part still remains. This under water, or underground, economy is, however, subject to a different kind of "taxation",  one in which the lucre does not go to the consolidated fund of the state but finds its way into the pockets ( and lockers) of various government functionaries from a whole host of departments: police, excise, income tax, revenue, transport, local bodies, PWD, forests, industries, etc. to name just a few. Each has its own slabs of rates and sub-rates, which again vary from state to state. All this creates massive confusion which is not good for the economy: any businessman or tax avoider wants a stable regime of under-the- table payments so that he can build them into his quotes or ensure that he doesn't get ripped off by his chartered accountant or tax consultant. It is time, therefore, to address this huge problem by bringing in GST II or the Graft and Sleaze Tax.
   If this sounds weird, let me inform the puzzled reader that a public movement for rationalising this kind of extortion and palm greasing has already been launched in this great country of ours. In an article in the 1st July issue of the Hindustan Times it has been reported that the folks of Nagaland have banded together under an organisation called ACAUT ( Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation) to demand a uniform rate of extortion by the rebel and militant outfits operating there ! There are nine such groups in this unfortunate state and they all levy different rates of " taxes" on the populace, which range from 12% to 24% of one's salary or income. In an improvement over Mr. Jaitley's tortured formulation, no one is exempt: even policemen pay up ! The long suffering citizens of Nagaland say they are "not against paying taxes to the parallel governments but demand a common structure."
   Why limit this demand to Nagaland ? Since, as I explained ( to the harsh cacophony of much trolling) in a recent article, corruption is an integral part of our culture and genes; let us therefore acknowledge it and rationalise it for the benefit of the larger economy. So far we have done so in piece meal and in yogic knee- jerk reactions by introducing VDS and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and whatnot- it is time now to catch the bull by the you-know-what and pass legislation to regulate this plunder. To promulgate, in other words, the GST II.
   The proposed Graft and Sleaze Tax would lay down one uniform rate of bribery throughout the country for notified transactions and approvals by government officials: award of projects, approval of building plans, issue of licences, traffic challans, registration ( or non-registration) of cases, purchase of rations, scrutiny of tax returns, transfer of property etc. It will be a long list since the government dominates every little cranny of our lives and its functionaries know how to extract a pay-off for every conceivable activity: from mid-day meals to releasing bodies from morgues.
   Fixing the slabs may present a bit of a problem since certain departments who have large " capital" budgets, or those who have unfettered powers to lock anyone up, have traditionally had high rates of " taxation" and may resist lowering them. But since the concept of equity and Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas lie at the heart of all government decision making, Mr. Jaitley must be firm and remind these greedy G-men that lower rates result in better compliance ! I would personally prefer just two slabs- 15% for non-plan deptts. and 20% for plan deptts. There would be only one exemption, primarily to correct a distortion that has crept into the present " tax" regime- dead men, or those who have been missing for more than seven years, would not be subject to any Graft and Sleaze Tax. They will , in any case, have to account to the Almighty in due course ( provided, of course, St. Peter has linked their Aadhar and PAN numbers to their names in the celestial register, since regrettably their bio-metrics can no longer be verified, post cremation or burial). But that's HIS problem: Mr. Jaitley has enough of his own, including that little matter of keeping Mr. Subramaniam Swamy away from the FM's chair.
   With the passing of GST-II corruption shall become seamless, across states and departments. Inter-state investment flows will improve, project costs will become more reliable and will not be held hostage to cost escalations just because the next Chief Engineer or Minister does an Oliver Twist and asks for more, manufacturers and suppliers will be able to standardise the dilution of quality and adulteration in their products thus improving ease of business, and the Eighth Pay Commission can build this into its calculations while computing increase in salaries of government servants. It will be a win-win for Mr. Jaitley whichever way you look at it. Time for him to book Parliament for another midnight twist-sorry, tryst. ? 

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.