Saturday, 28 January 2017

DELHI BELLY : CAPITAL FANCIES and BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS.

    Just when one was considering a few words in rare praise of Mr. Virbhadra Singh, Chief Minister of HP, for his unequivocal statement that the state could not afford to pay unemployment allowance, he has reverted to the gold standard of all politicians- mindless populism- by declaring Dharamsala as the second capital of the state. Its a horrendous prospect for a number of reasons. One, it is profligacy on a stupendous scale for a state that already has a debt burden of more than Rs. 40,000 crore ( almost US$ 7 billion, or a thousand dollars for every sorry man, woman and child in the state!). Estimates put the cost of a second capital at Rs. 1000 crore, but that is surely an under-estimation, and it also doesn't take into account the annual recurring expenditure on moving thousands of officials from Shimla for a few months every year. Secondly, it will mean the permanent despoiling and ruination of Dharamsala if the decayed and rapidly deteriorating condition of Shimla is anything to go by. Thirdly, how will the govt. manage  TWO capitals when it can't even administer ONE? Jaundice in Shimla has become an annual visitation( 32 people died this year), illegal construction and encroachment is rampant( the govt. of Mr. Singh has just passed a law to regularise 20000 buildings that violate the laws), it takes just one snowfall to cut off all power and water to the residents, hundreds of trees are either axed or fall due to neglect every year, tourists are fleeced more expertly than an Australian sheep, any attempt to regulate traffic ( 36000 vehicles entered in just 48 hours when it snowed earlier this month) was given up long ago. It is against this backdrop of " urban planning" that the promise of a second capital should be seen. If I was a resident of Dharamshala I would be extremely disturbed at this prospect.
    It surely makes more sense to decongest Shimla by moving some offices to Dharamsala, Mandi or Bliaspur- this would also upgrade the status and infrastructure of these towns. The Electricity Board, the Himachal Road Transport Corporation, the Pollution Control Board and a few Corporations can easily be shifted without any loss of administrative efficiency. Such incremental measures would be more sustainable and cost-effective than grandstanding announcements.
   Which begs the question: why is the CM doing this ? Surely he is aware that such Tughlakesque     " firmans" won't garner any votes for his party-- even oxygen deprived Himachalis won't fall for this anymore. My own personal view is that this is all part of a scorched earth policy. Mr. Singh knows he's not coming back next elections and so he wants to make things as difficult for his successor as possible: this also explains the deluge of announcements he is making on a regular basis: hospitals, schools, sub-divisions and tehsils, bridges and roads, etc.etc. He knows that he won't have to bother about them a year from now but they will give Mr. Dhumal, or Mr. Nadda, or Mr. Bali many sleepless nights later on. Sweet revenge ? I must revisit Chanakya to find out if he had thought of this devilish strategem.

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   The current election campaign is throwing up some interesting side-lights.
The coming together of Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav and his very presentable wife and Priyanka Gandhi may just be the change we have been waiting for: the replacement of decrepit " ancien regimes" by a younger generation more in tune with people's aspirations. 65% of UP voters are below the age of 35 years and they surely deserve to be offered a better menu than the traditional concoction of caste, crime and corruption, which is what Mulayam and Mayawati represent. There is a very powerful symbolism in these four faces on one poster and this may just upset the BJP's applecart in UP. Modi won 73 Parliament seats in this state in 2014 primarily because of the youth voting en bloc for him, but the wind may be veering away from him now. An newly assertive Akhilesh and a resurgent Rahul Gandhi may yet turn out to be a harbinger of the change of generations that we so badly need.

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  The comments by Mr. Katiyar ( BJP) and Mr. Sharad Yadav( JDU) on women were not unexpected, both have time and again proved that they consider women as chattel and to be tolerated only for their looks. What surprises me, however, is how the TV channels have, as usual, got their knickers into a twist. Primetime outrage has become their stock-in-trade: on the 25th of this month ALL five English channels had prime time panel discussions on the subject! They have provided a few lakh worth of free publicity to these two odious individuals. Lets consider the comments. Mr. Katiyar stated that the BJP has more beautiful campaigners than Priyanka Gandhi. I don't find this sexist at all. Inappropriate, yes. In bad taste, yes. Irrelevant, yes. But sexist and demeaning of women, no. There is a hypocrisy here, among all the hysterical outrage. Our entire culture is fixated on emphasising female beauty- fashion shows, beauty contests, model selection. films, even selecting receptionists, air-hostesses and secretaries for the CEO. Mr. Katiyar appears to have made a similar value judgement. We may not agree with him but we cannot roast him for saying that his party has more beautiful women than Priyanka. We may not admit it, but all of us are making similar comparisons( most of the time in a hypocritical and guilty silence!) every time we step out of the house and ogle someone else's wife or daughter.
   The comment that should have received more critical attention, but strangely did not, is that of Sharad Yadav- that the honour of a vote is more important than the honour of a woman. Now, THIS is reprehensible, condemnable and absolutely disgusting. It is also extremely revealing of the mind-set of the typical Indian middle-aged politician: it lays bare the priorities of out netas- that a vote is more important than a woman. It also explains why crimes against women are on such an exponential rise in our country: they are expendable commodities just so long as the votes keep pouring in. Mr. Yadav is the one who should have been castigated on prime time for his antediluvian thinking but he seems to have got away lightly, defended by the likes of Pavan Verma ( JDU spokesman) an ex- career diplomat: I know Mr. Verma slightly and am disappointed to note that the political coprolite has also rubbed off on him. ( Coprolite, by the way, is fossilised shit and represents the values of most of our netas faithfully).

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    The latest Santa- Banta joke is contained in the poll manifesto of the SAD ( Shiromani Akali Dal)- if returned to power their govt. will acquire 100,000 acres of land in Canada to settle emigrating         ( NRI) farmers from Punjab! Now, this would be hilarious if it were not so outrageous and mind blogging. Punjab is reeling under a debt burden of Rs. 1.38 lakh crores, the farm debt is Rs. 90,000 crores, the per capita farmer debt is Rs. 5.70 lakhs, and 7000 farmers have committed suicide since 2011. Surely the SAD should be thinking about doing something to ameliorate the pathetic conditions of its own farmers, rather than making theatrical and preposterous announcements to pander to people who are neither Indian citizens nor tax-payers in this country. The SAD is rattled, it appears, by the hordes of AAP supporting NRIs from Canada who have besieged Punjab in recent days. There is, however, another uncharitable explanation for this absurdity- that the Badals, having captured all other businesses in the state, are now looking to start an air-line and a travel agency to ferry to Canada farmers attracted by this offer! This will also rid the state of its major problem- if there are no farmers left there can be no farm distress, right? Now, I wonder what they're smoking in Punjab these days ?!   

Saturday, 21 January 2017

RESIDENT INDIANS

     It has been my experience that every District collectorate is usually haunted by its own resident lunatic, somewhat like ancient mansions possessing their resident spectres who do not look kindly on new arrivals. These benignly deranged persons are usually quite harmless, and in them the spirit of violence is replaced by the litigatious and bureaucratic urge, as is perhaps to be expected considering the nature of their demesne . They are generally persons who, during their days of sanity, were closely involved or connected with the functioning of some wing of the collectorate- usually the Collector's court pertaining to land disputes- and can never forget the connection thereafter, even when they drift into the twilight zone. Even in their muddled mental state they are well informed about the collectorate's hierarchies and functioning.
     I still recollect quite clearly my first few minutes in the Deputy Commissioner's office in a district bordering Punjab, my first posting at the age of 27. I had barely lowered my UPSC vetted posterior into the hallowed upholstery when there was a shout from the orderly outside, the door was flung open violently and a veritable salamander of an old woman rushed inside, eyes blazing and a thick bundle of papers under her skeletal arm. A vigorous two year training at Mussoorie had not prepared one for an encounter of this kind and I wondered whether I should call out the police or impose section 144.
    Just then the old harridan addressed me in an imperial tone. " Are you Fletcher?" she asked. Now, the only Fletcher I had heard of was an ICS officer who had been Financial Commissioner of undivided Punjab in British times, a proper Koi Hai who had made quite an impression with the local yokels by doing stupid things like intensively touring the villages, settling disputes on the spot and generally keeping the revenue officials on a tight leash- something we IAS types frowned upon. He was-hopefully-long dead. I therefore surmised the reference was to this blister.
    " No," I ventured, " but can I help you?" The aged crone gave me a withering look.
    " You!" she exclaimed, " these papers are worth ten lakhs and I shall give them only to Fletcher! I wouldn't trust you to even sign the attendance register !" And with that she left in a huff. Notwithstanding my bruised magisterial pride I made inquiries and discovered that this old lady had been quite mad for over a decade. She had once possessed 20 acres of irrigated land but had lost it all in litigations. Fletcher had apparently tried to help her out so her poor addled mind constantly harked back to him, and she used to haunt the collectorate looking for him, especially whenever a new Collector joined.
   This particular district was/is the most litigatious in the whole of Himachal. A boy from Una is not considered worthy of manhood till he has filed at least two FIRs and submitted three complaints against a govt. officer. The local residents have a better knowledge of the law than most High Court judges, and when making a complaint also helpfully suggest the precise sections of the IPC/CRPC/Prevention of Corruption Act, etc. that should be applied. One such libelant was perpetually parked at the gate of my residence, noting down the details of all visitors and anything that was brought into the house( vegetables,groceries,sweets, et al). Every evening he would send the list to the govt. at Shimla, seeking an inquiry. Apparently, some like-minded gnome at Shimla used to read them, because I was once asked to explain why I had accepted two kilos of mangoes from the MLA of Amb ! This particular MLA was one Mr. Hansraj Akhrot, peace be upon him, and he was the biggest miser I have ever met. I informed the govt. in reply that getting a kilo of anything from Mr. Akhrot was equivalent to getting back the Kohinoor from the British queen, and I should be commended for inspiring him to part with anything. The gnome in Shimla must have agreed with me because I never heard from him again.
   My second collectorate in Bilaspur also had its own mad-hatter-in-residence. He was allowed the run of the place and could walk into any room. An orderly could stop him only at great bodily risk. The first time I tried to stop him ( being new to the place) he quietly left. He came back five minutes later and handed me my transfer orders, signed and sealed by himself ! Thereafter I gave up.
   Bhagat Ram ( that was his name) had a passion for obtaining signatures. He somehow managed to lay his hands on all kinds of official forms ( for telephones, gas connections,driving licences, ration cards, cement permits,etc.) and would diligently make the rounds everyday, getting them signed from a clerk to the Collector: he desired nothing else. A simple scrawl made him so happy that no one had the heart to refuse him. In return he took it upon himself to maintain discipline and law and order outside my office. He especially disliked politicians( can one blame him ?) and many were the MLAs who were not allowed to enter my office. He once even disallowed the Supdt.of Police, because the latter was not in uniform! He always had a crackling salute for me, however, every morning and evening. I sometimes miss it, even today.


Saturday, 14 January 2017

DELHI BELLY : THE CORPORATISATION OF INDIAN POLITICS.

    Politics and Business are meant to be two different streams of social activity, the former based on ideology ( communism, socialism, liberalism, fascism) and the latter on profit ( capitalism). The former serves public interests and the latter the individual interest. In India, however, the lines between the two have increasingly got blurred to the point where they have practically coalesced into each other, and it is now difficult to distinguish between the one and the other. Consider the evidence.
    ALL political parties( except perhaps the Communists, and they don't really matter any more) are run like family owned businesses and dynastic succession is the norm- in this respect there is really no difference between the Ambanis and the Congress, or between India Cements and the BSP, or between the Birlas and the RJD and so on. Once in a while the carefully planned succession goes awry when other " shareholders"get into the act, but even here the ensuing battles are very similar-witness what is playing out in Tata Sons and the Samajwadi Party: the ordained successor is sought to be ousted by an aging patriarch but refuses to go quietly. Individual legislators- MPs and MLAs- behave like business franchisees using the trade mark of their parties to raise funds for the mother ship and in turn being accommodated by the issue of preferential shares( in the form of tickets for elections) at huge premiums for their kith and kin. They then become like Directors of a company, exercising a complete stranglehold on the party, or the government if they happen to be in power: most of us have given up even counting how many members of the first families are Ministers in the govts. of the Samajwadi ( UP), Akali Dal( Punjab) and RJD( Bihar) parties. The BJP doesn't- as yet- fall into this genus, but it does represent another corporate strategy: a hostile take over by a corporate raider, so successfully executed by Mr. Modi in 2014.
    Monetary profit lies at the core of politics in India today , as it does at the center of business. Here, however, the former has a distinct advantage: whereas companies have to declare their incomes truthfully and pay tax on them, political parties are exempted from both. This strange concession partly explains why more and more industrialists are gravitating towards politics, and why your average Parliamentarian is a crorepati many times over, with his fingers and toes in many business pies. Shell companies are no longer the exclusive preserve of business. There are now hundreds of " shell" political parties ! The Election Commission itself has stated that more than 1900 parties are registered with it but only about 67 contest elections. The remaining ones are just shell outfits created to launder money. A recent expose by TIMES NOW reveals the BSP is allegedly involved in parking Rs. 1300 crores of unaccounted " profits" in a maze of shell companies in the company of other politicians like Mr. Bhujbal. This is just the tip of the proverbial ice- berg: a Hindustan Times report of the 11th of January has revealed that out of 10.26 lakh entities registered with the ROC( Registrar of Companies) as many as 1.33 lakh were mere " Drop Box" companies in Kolkatta and Delhi alone! How many have links to political parties will come out only after the investigations into the demonetisation evasion exercise is completed but it is amply clear that political parties have substantially embraced this corporate strategy of money laundering. That they have mastered it is amply demonstrated by other sting operations by INDIA TODAY TV exposing office bearers of other parties offering to " exchange" banned currency in unlimited amounts for a hefty commission.
    Corporate management is not elected, it is nominated by the shareholders. You would expect that political parties in a democracy would elect their office bearers, would you not? Perish the thought. Not only have they adopted the corporate nomination route, they have in fact gone one better-only the founding family ( not all shareholders) get to make the nominations. I cannot think of even one national or major regional party where this is not true ( again, barring the Communists, but they too have a very limited gene pool). Even the newer political start-ups like The Aam Aadmi Party follow this model. The BJP, however, appears to have discarded this model and has consigned its founders either to mythology or to the Marg Darshak Mandal; it appears to be forging a new template, a kind of diarchy, but its final contours would be clear only after the 2019 general elections.
   Poll strategies today resemble corporate marketing strategies: there is the " product launch" (announcing the candidate with much fan fare and public rallies); assessments of market shares( vote shares); brand ambassadors( mainly Bollywood celebrities inducted into various parties, though Mr. Modi is himself emerging as the most sought after ambassador of his party post PayTM and KVIC); discounts and cash-back incentives( freebies, farm loan waivers, smart phones and Amma canteens). The only difference is that if the product you paid for turns out to be sub-standard( as it usually does) the unfortunate voter cannot have recourse to the Consumer forum.
   The one corporate embellishment that political parties lacked was the institution of the professional " Consultant", a sine qua non at Board meetings. Efforts to rectify this shortcoming had started as early as the Nira Radia days, but it is only now that this vital strategic tool has been acquired. The arrival of Mr. Prashant Kishore with his 200 strong turn-key organisation and a 2/2 strike average in winning elections completes the corporatisation of Indian politics. If he is able to deliver even 50 seats to the Congress in the coming elections in UP, then the dye will be cast, and we can witness an explosion of similar outfits to match the surging numbers of psephologists.
   If this trend continues then we may as well wind up the Election Commission and merge it with either the Company Law Board or the Registrar of Companies. Either that or we can get serious about electoral reforms.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

DELHI BELLY : STOP MESSING WITH SHIMLA'S GREEN BELT.

    It really is astonishing ( but not surprising) that fifteen years after the 17 green belts in Shimla were notified as no- construction zones, their necessity and legality are still being debated. It appears that the state govt., hostage as ever to populism and pressure, would like to denotify them but doesn't quite know how to. They probably are now safe since the Green Tribunal has taken cognizance of the matter, although one was puzzled by the reported view of its Expert Committee that plot owners in the green belts should be allowed to make some constructions on their plots as a matter of equity: the reasoning being that they cannot be treated differently from those who were allowed to make constructions before 2000. This is completely flawed logic and betrays both, a misunderstanding of the law and an ignorance of the pusillanimous and myopic govts. we have been blessed with, which have presided over the destruction of Shimla regardless of their political colour ( which has generally been lily-livered yellow).
   The only greenery which remains in Shimla is the green belt comprising about 400 hectares. Every spur emanating from the main ridge has been systematically denuded- New Shimla, Kasumpti, Knollswood, Strawberry Hill, Nabha, Kelston, Longwood. Encroachments are sought to be regularised every five years, roads under all kinds of pretexts are bulldozed through forests. Past experience has proved that allowing " partial" or " limited" construction in the green areas is not a viable option, for a number of reasons. First, even limited building activity causes huge damage by development of access roads, laying of pipelines, electricity and sewer lines, carriage of construction material, etc. Secondly, there is every likelihood of encroachments and deliberate killing of trees in order to open up spaces and get more sunlight.The twenty thousand irregular structures that have come up in and around Shimla in the last decade are proof of this, if indeed any proof was needed. Thirdly, the agencies of the govt. are incapable of ensuring that land use or building restrictions are complied with: this has been amply demonstrated by the likes of Mr. J.P.Gupta( of Jagson Airlines fame) and Radha Swami Satsang who have built huge edifices and monstrous retaining walls in the green belts with impunity. Even more disheartening is a report I read recently of a " guest house" being constructed in Oakover ( the CM's official residence). I sincerely hope this report is not true because this property enjoys a double layer of protection- not only is it in the green belt, it also falls in the Heritage Zone!                                     There can be only one possible conclusion from all this empirical data - the govt. is incapable of regulating or monitoring limited construction in the green belt ( as has been demanded by the plot owners and recommended by the Expert Committee), and the only solution is a COMPLETE BAN on any kind of construction. I fervently hope the Green Tribunal will so order, in the interest of the larger public good, though it is a bit harsh on those who own land in the area. There is, however, no infringement of their rights because the state has the right to determine land use in the larger interest of urban planning and protection of the environment.
   These plot owners numbering about 61 own a total of about 30 hectares of land in the green area and deserve to be compensated. It is shocking that in 15 years the govt. has not been able to come up with a package for them. Its repeated pleas that it has no money is not only an untruth, it also betrays complete lack of innovative thinking and planning. Here is a road map for the govt. :
* Govt. should purchase the land through a negotiated deal, not compulsory acquisition.  Acquisition is not a good idea, primarily because it will mean valuing the lands at current market prices of similar categories of land in the area. On paper the green belt plots may have a high price but in reality they are worth zero since no construction is permitted on them and therefore there will be no takers for them. Hence the negotiation rather than the acquisition route. However, in order to be fair to the owners of these plots, for negotiation purposes their value may be restricted/frozen at 2000 rates( the date of notification of the green belts).
* About 400 bighas ( 30 ha) would need to be paid for, if all the owners agree. The value would be approx. Rupees 100 crores. This can be paid in a package consisting of the following sub-sets:
       [a] Rs. 50 crores can be paid in cash. It should not be too difficult for the govt. to arrange the funds, considering it has just been announced that it will pay Rs. 28 crores to acquire Bantony castle, a decision which serves no public purpose though its a windfall for the descendants of the Sirmour royal family. ( If the govt. has the money to splurge on privately held architectural heritage it can certainly find the funds to preserve the even more important natural heritage of the town. Shimla can exist without some of its old buildings ( most have already been burnt down) but it will be just one large rock without its trees and greenery). Funds can also be mobilised by ear-marking 50% percent of the green tax being imposed by the Municipal Corporation ( on vehicles entering Shimla) for  this purpose. A temporary green cess should be levied on Luxury Tax and Property Tax. After all, if the residents of the town and the tourists are attracted by its natural environment and green cover they should not mind being asked to pay for its preservation.
      [b] Provide an HIG flat to each plot owner in any SDA or Housing Board development under construction in any part of the state, as per the owner's preference. This has already been announced by the govt.
      [c] Issue TDRs ( Transferable Development Rights) to each plot owner. TDRs are an accepted instrument of urban planning for incentivising/ compensating developers of social housing, slum improvements and land owners subjected to building embargoes. Such persons are issued TDRs which entitle them to higher FAR and FSI in other, permissible areas so as to compensate them for their loss. The TDR in effect becomes a bankable  instrument which can even be sold or traded. It is used extensively in Mumbai.
The plot owners can be offered a negotiated package on the above lines. It is not unreasonable given the circumstances and most would agree to accept it as otherwise the current value of their plots is practically zero. Those who reject it can continue to fight it out in the courts.
  It is high time the state govt. applied its mind to this lingering issue. It should give up its ambivalent attitude, take a pro conservationist stand, refrain from passing the buck to the Green Tribunal, and offer a just and equitable deal to the plot owners who have been in a limbo for the last fifteen years. For once, it should forsake populism- not that the couple of hundred votes involved here will make much of a difference to its declining fortunes, from what I hear.