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 ?