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Saturday, 23 January 2021

THE DAY AFTER COVID.

   Covid-19 has cut a big swathe through human civilisation, if we call it that anymore after what happened in Washington and what has been playing out on Delhi's borders. It is leaving in its wake, apart from almost a million dead bodies, the ruins of a liberal world order, whose promise had petered out some time ago. Having defeated both its rivals, Fascism in the 1920s and Communism in the second half of the 20th century, it appeared that Liberalism would sweep the globe, with its attendant benefits of human rights, democracy, welfarism, globalism etc. Some of this sheen had begun wearing off even before Covid, but the pandemic has now taken us back by a century. The twin spectres of Communism and Fascism are walking the ramp again, wearing the haute- couture of democracy, and India may yet be the show stopper in this nihilistic parade. Trump may have fallen but Trumpism is alive and kicking, literally.

  It is not, however, my desire to spoil your weekend with Yuvall Noah Harari type thoughts but to divert your mind to some lighter learnings from, and effects of, the pandemic. Take for instance Mr. Amitabh Bacchan; till last week he must have  been the most hated man in India . Every time you wished to make a phone call you had to listen to his "man ki baat" caller tune for two minutes, exhorting you to wear a mask and wash your hands. It didn't matter that you were desperate to call the hospital because you were dying of a heart attack, or  the police because someone was gutting you with a knife. You first had to listen to the Big B instructing you how not to die of the Covid.

  And the supreme irony was: Bacchan is the last man who should have been advising us, because he himself got Covid some months back ( and thankfully recovered to tell his tale, as it were). So how come someone who himself contacted Covid was  advising us on how not to contact it? Even if Mr. Harsh Vardhan was paying him crores for it ? ( I do not know for a fact that he was being paid big moolah for it, but I assume so since he has one basic principle for endorsements- put your money where my mouth is). But his public service had not gone unnoticed: a lawyer in Delhi had filed a petition in the High Court asking that Mr. Bacchan's voice be put on mute because, with his Covid past, he is not the ideal brand ambassador for an anti-Covid campaign. For once the govt. realised its gaffe and has now replaced him with a lady: we shall no longer hear his baritone and will have to contend only with the dulcet tones of our Prime Minister on his monthly musings- or is it amusings? He has gone the way of Saurav Ganguly and Fortune rice bran oil. His lady substitute has a new message- why we should take the vaccine- but going by the numbers she could be replaced soon too. So who's next? Baba Ramdev?

  And what about the COVAXIN fiasco? The virus must be chuckling behind its double membrane at the disarray in the enemy camp, the outrage of citizens at being asked to take the vaccine without completing the human trials. Not necessary, says the Director General of ICMR, we have tested it on rats and assorted apes, and if it's good enough for them its good enough for you. The citizenry do not agree and some have suggested there is only one way to find out: give the vaccine first to the alpha males. Starting with the President and Prime Minister and working its way down to all Chief Ministers, Ministers, MPs, MLAs, and of course, the head of ICMR. The CM of Madhya Pradesh has already declined the honour, as did six eminent doctors on an India Today show on the 7th of this month: only Dr. Naresh Trehan had the guts to say that he would not take it. But then, since all VVIPs with Covid prefer to recover in Medanta rather than kick the bucket- or. more appropriately, the bedpan-  in AIIMS, I guess he can break ranks. All major world leaders have taken the shot- when will our stalwarts " put it in the arm" as the latest phraseology has it? That way, even if the vaccine doesn't work, the country benefits: if it works, good for humanity: if it doesn't, good for Indians.

  The delayed effects of the lockdown are now beginning to manifest themselves, and it is clear that Mr. Modi's hasty diktat has had an unexpected denouement : UNICEF has revealed that on New Year's Day the storks were on overtime pay. 1st January saw the arrival of 59,995 babies in India ( and 3.71 lakhs globally), almost twice that of China. That makes for almost 22 million for a whole year for us, far above a normal year, what the farmers would call a bumper crop. Not only did folks misinterpret " work at home", it appears that they also misunderstood Mr. Modi's subliminal message about pots and pans, when he asked us to start banging away at 4 o'clock. But our PM can take some comfort from the fact that in at least one marker our curve is going, well, upwards. It also proves that the animal spirits are thriving in the confines of our homes behind the masks, even though there may have been a few surprises when the masks and other accoutrements came off, and Mrs. Kapoor turned out to be Mrs. Talwar. Not that anyone's complaining- except Mr. Talwar, that is.

  And here's some good news about Covid- a study shows that the " work at home" regimen may have resulted in fewer deaths from stress in the office. Research in Sweden's Lindbergh University Medical Centre reveals that working with idiots can kill you. Working with people who ask for correction fluid to correct an error on their computer monitor, or put vital documents into the shredder instead of the copier,  has been established to cause heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure. Since now most people work from home and have no contact with the office idiot, it is expected that death rates in cities like Tokyo, New York, Delhi and London will plummet. In fact, my own curiosity has been aroused and I now intend to track down all the people who have worked closely with me for 35 years in government. A high mortality rate amongst them can only confirm what Neerja has always felt about me- that when I left Husainganj in the late 50's the place lost its village idiot.

  Finally, there is a rumour going around that Mr. Ambani, having been thwarted in his bid to become the Kisan King, is thinking of entering the hooch business. The new venture will be called PIO and will follow the same business model of JIO- every second peg will be free and the namkeens will be on the house. After all other distilleries and even bootleggers have shut shop and the happy customers have passed out the government will, after a voice vote in Parliament, declare liquor as a life saving drug and exempt it from any tax. The rates for the hooch will then go up a few pegs. And India will go- what else, bottoms up! 

Life will never be the same after COVID. Keep watching this space, folks! 

Saturday, 16 January 2021

THE JURISPRUDENCE OF THE SELF- GOAL.

   In my last post ( The Farmer's Protest Does Not Require A Judicial Intervention, Jan. 9, 2021 ), while hoping that the Supreme Court would keep its hands off the farmers' protest, I had concluded by saying: " For what is on the line this time is not only the Supreme Court's credibility but also its dignity." As things have turned out, however, I should also have added  " and its authority."

  It has taken just three days for the worst apprehensions and suspicions of the farmers to be confirmed, viz, that running out of options the government would toss the ball into the SC's lap: the public statement of the Agriculture Minister on the 8th Jan. that " the farmers could go to the Supreme Court ", was a dead give away that this is what the govt. was planning. But one did not expect the Court to pick up the ball so willingly and, worse, kick it out of play.

  For the simple fact is that its order of the 12th January has made a bad situation worse. Most jurists are aghast at the staying of a law without finding even a prima- facie legal reason to do so; the hasty appointment of a Committee of govt. apologists as arbitrators, inevitably raising the question: who provided the names?; giving credence to the Attorney General's outrageous charge that Khalistanis had infiltrated the protests by asking him to furnish an affidavit; suggesting that women protestors have no place in the protests, and thereby putting on full display its ignorance of farming in which 70% of the labour is done by women.

  To continue with the football analogy- why was the Court so desperate to come off the bench and jump into the field? Neither the govt. nor the farmers had petitioned it, the protests did not raise any legal questions which needed to be adjudicated upon, the farmers had repeatedly made it clear that they did not want any arbitration by the Court and that they only wished to interact with the govt. which they had elected. They had rejected any more Committees. The Court should instead have gone on with the business of deciding on the other, legal petitions which had challenged the vires of the laws. As Mr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has pointed out in an article in the Indian Express, this tussle is a political process between the govt. and the people in which the judiciary has no legitimate role. By intruding into it the Supreme Court is " seeking to break the momentum of a social movement."

   The only answer to these baffling questions is: by this legal legerdemain the Court has tried, unknowingly perhaps, to bail the government out of a sticky situation and inflicted a self-goal that has plunged it into needless controversy. None of its decisions make any sense or instill confidence in its sagacity. The staying of the three laws are only meant to tar the continuance of the protests as no longer justified: it is a hollow gesture that only flatters to deceive. The four member committee, all public supporters of the laws, is a non-starter for, as Mr. Mehta comments wryly, their appointment violates the first rule of mediation- " the mediators must be acceptable to all parties and appointed in consultation with them." The Court might just as well have appointed Arnab Goswami, Sambit Patra and Kangana Ranaut ( as one twitter wise guy has pointed out) for all the credibility it will inspire in its report.                                                                                                  Bringing the Intelligence Bureau into play as the twelfth man is again intended to tar the farmers with an "anti-national" taint. The IB is to the govt. of the day what a bespoke tailor is to a gentleman- it will cut the cloth whichever way you want it. In an interesting video aired on Newsclick! on the 13th evening Abhisar Sharma has detailed instances when the IB has sought to pressurise people, including judges, by unsubstantiated reports, and an instance when the Supreme Court itself rejected its reports as untrustworthy. One can't but ask the troubling question: is the IB input just a prelude to banning the protests and the subsequent use of sovereign violence ?

  The purpose of this unwise legal exercise appears to be twofold: tarnish the reputation of the farmers, turn public opinion against them by making them out to be unreasonable and obstinate, and force them to call off their protests. But the farmers are no fools- they have seen this farce for what it is and have walked off the field: they have refused to engage with either the Court or its committee, perhaps they may refuse to engage with the Agriculture Minister next. Worse, the Supreme Court's authority will be severely dented because there is no way the protestors will comply with the Court's dubious order : they have already said so. So will the Court initiate contempt against 200,000 men, women and children, give or take a few thousand ?

  In an effort to bail out an insensitive and despotic executive the Supreme Court has only confounded the issue and made any possible solution impossible; in the words of the Chief Justice ( which may haunt him in the days to come ), it is now part of the problem, not the solution. Had it kept its hands off the protests the government might have climbed down a rung or two, considering the massive support the protests are gaining; now, however, it will hunker down behind the facade of the Committee and refuse to negotiate. The farmers will have no option but to continue their agitation, confronted by an intransigent govt. and feeling betrayed by the Court.

  The Hon'ble judges had an opportunity to quench the flames but they have instead fanned them. Instead of a still- born mockery of a committee it should have advised- not ordered- the govt. to take the laws back to Parliament for the examination and discussions which never took place before they were rammed through. The Court itself should have posted the constitutional challenges to the laws for urgent hearing. Now, unfortunately, that will not take place for at least two months- the time given to the committee to submit its recommendations. The real issue has once again been side-tracked. The only gainer in this grotesque process is the govt.

  The Supreme Court has now become irrelevant to the course of unfolding events in this people's struggle, but doesn't know it. And it has no one else to blame but itself. 

  I recollect a scene in a movie about ancient Rome, which I saw many decades ago. Mark Antony was being sent to Egypt by Caesar to enforce the laws of Rome there. Witnessing the soldiers marching off, Caesar had one final advice for his young general : " Take good care of your armies, Mark Antony, for they make your laws legal."

  Have we also come to that ?

  

Saturday, 9 January 2021

THE FARMERS' PROTEST DOES NOT REQUIRE A JUDICIAL INTERVENTION.


   The Supreme Court cannot be a broker of peace between the farmers and the central government. There is no politically correct way of saying this: the Supreme Court's credibility and majesty is no longer what it used to be. It is bad enough when political parties, media, international bodies, eminent  lawyers  express a lack of trust in the court, but what do you say when even judges do so? It happened at that famous but futile press conference by four SC judges in 2018. It happens every week when distinguished retired judges publicly voice their disquiet time and again. And now it's happened again: just last week Justice Rakesh Kumar of the Andhra Pradesh High Court expressed his dismay at the sudden transfer of the Chief Justice of the High Court,  remarking that it conferred "an advantage" on Chief Minister Jagan Reddy in the more than 30 serious cases against him, and criticised the lack of transparency in the Collegium's decisions. He even made the point that High Court judges too, like the Collegium members, are Constitutional appointees. He expressed himself obliquely, of course, in language which is careful and proper, but no one can doubt either its meaning or his displeasure and disgust. Any intelligent person can read between the lines and come to just one conclusion. This order will be stayed, of course, but the bitter taste will not go away.

  In traits such as non-transparency and selectiveness the Court appears to be acquiring the habits of the government, which has prompted one writer to coin the phrase " executivisation of the judiciary." The two are becoming indistinguishable. Which is why I, for one, am not all pleased that the SC has decided to take a shallow dive into the cauldron of the farmers' agitation and is attempting to adjudicate on the matter. It should not, it should limit itself to examining the legality of the three farm laws which have been challenged in a number of petitions. But it should stay away from this protest itself, and for a number of reasons.

  It would be fair to state that the implicit trust of a large section of citizens in its decisions is now missing: they may have legal validity but are perceived by many to be devoid of the all important moral legitimacy that an apex court should command ( and did, until a few short years ago). Legality and legitimacy are not the same thing. This is not the place to go into the reasons- what the court has done and what it should have but has not- beyond stating that I cannot recollect a single decision on any major policy or action of the govt. which has been set aside by the Court in the last couple of years. The order of the 5th of January clearing the Central Vista project is but the latest in a long line of judicial indulgences. It is a supreme- pun intended- irony that whereas in this judgment it finds nothing wrong with the govt. not consulting stakeholders before  changing the land use of the area and granting environmental approval, on the farmers' agitation it advises the govt. to talk to the farmers! Surely, an inconsistency that does not inspire much faith in its obiter dicta. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Court's repeated munificence to the executive has led to further erosion of its moral capital, further compounded by precipitate contempt actions against a select few who are also, incidentally, thorns in the government's side.

  The reason I make this point is that the farmers are perhaps no longer inclined to trust the court. Let us not forget that the court has taken up the farmer protest issue ( as opposed to the petitions against the farm laws) , not of its own volition, but on petitions filed by the govt's proxies who want the protest to be declared illegal and the blocking of roads a cause of "inconvenience" to other citizens. The deja vu here is palpable, it is Shaheen Bagh playing out all over again, where the Court had effectively taken away all public places from citizens and handed them over to the executive and the police in a breathtaking denial of the universal history of democratic protests. The excesses of governments are not checked by drawing room discussions but by protests in the streets, but the hon'ble judges appear to have missed this.

  The first hearing in the Court could have only reinforced the misgivings of the farmers. There was a proforma acceptance that the right to protest is a constitutional given, but the shades of Shaheen Bagh too were present in the observation that it should not affect the rights of other citizens ( translation- do not block roads). There was a lukewarm suggestion that the govt. could consider holding the three laws in abeyance, but before the matter could come to a boil the heat on the executive was turned off and the case adjourned till after the indispensable winter vacations. Did the massive agitation and economic disruption not require a day-today hearing by the vacation bench ? By adjourning the matter the Court lost its one chance to demonstrate that it could intervene impartially. Now it has lost its relevance as events have spiraled out of its control.

  The second hearing on the 7th of this month was no less comforting for the farmers: the court expressed its fears that the huge gatherings could result in a Tablighi Jamat kind of super spreader event for Covid-19. Once again, fault was found with the protesters, not the government, whose intransigence and high-handedness was apparently not commented upon. It is also strange that the Court drew an analogy with the Jamat event but not with the Namaste Trump event in February 2020 in Ahemedabad, the Bihar election rallies or Mr. Shah's road shows in Bengal recently, all equally super spreader events. One doesn't need a weather vane to see in which direction the wind is blowing.

  Secondly, there are no legal issues involved in the protests that could command the Court's precious time when major constitutional cases are yet to see the light of day for months and years- CAA, vivisection of Jammu and Kashmir, Electoral bonds, habeas corpus: a recent RTI application revealed that there are 1072 applications for bail and suspension of sentence pending in the court. Is somebody's  "convenience" in travelling to Murthal to have an alloo paratha in Sukhdev dhaha more important than these grave legal challenges to the executive? If the Court was really interested in defusing the protests it should have peremptorily directed the government at the first hearing itself to hold the farm laws in abeyance and then hold multi stakeholder parlays to arrive at a consensus. By allowing the protests to drag on for a few more weeks ( which suits the government) it has not instilled much confidence in the farmer groups.

  Thirdly, there is a growing perception that if only the Court had acted more firmly with the central government in the past, ruled on the grave constitutional challenges before it instead of adjourning them for months and years, acted as a break on the demolition derby let loose by the BJP governments, protected human and fundamental rights with greater vigour- maybe that would have made the government more cautious and circumspect in hijacking all constitutional and Parliamentary norms. Instead, the Court's largesse has only emboldened the executive to do as it wishes, confident that if push comes to shove it can obtain a judicial endorsement at any time. The farmers know this, and therefore will not trust the Court to find an equitable solution. Can we blame them?

  Fourthly, and with respect, the Court is not really in a position to decide on the issues raised by the farmers and resisted by the executive. These are matters of agriculture production, economics, price fixation, food safety and equity on which no two experts agree. The Court would be out of its depth here, just as it was with BCCI, firecrackers, HSRP number plates and loan moratoriums. There is no judicial nostrum or panacea which can impose an agreement on the opposing factions, given the total lack of trust between the farmers and the central govt. If the Court does arrive at a decision- any decision- in all likelihood it will be defied by either one or the other of the parties and its enforcement shall only lead to more trouble. The majesty of the Court cannot but be diminished by this.

  At the end of the day, the issues involved are political or, at best, belong to the realm of political economics: there is an equal dose of both in them and neither the knowledge or training of judges equip them to adjudicate on the merits of the matter. No more stultifying committees are needed- the Swaminathan Committee report has been lying in some dusty corner in Krishi Bhavan crying out for attention for the last 15 years: it should suffice for some time. The best that the Supreme Court can, or should, do is to cajole, compel and coerce both parties to sit at the negotiating table and talk - not "man ki baat" or press conferences, but talk. Lock them up till they arrive at an agreement. This, and no more, should be the limited brief of the Court. It should do nothing, under the garb of a tattered Constitution, to delegitimise these peaceful protests, or to appoint Committees which act as vaccine containers to put issues in cold storage for perpetuity, or to permit the use of unnecessary force by the executive ( as has already started happening). For the rest, let the two sides sort out the matter through a democratic, maybe even a political, process. Mr. Modi et al have dug a big hole- literally- for the farmers but find themselves in it. Let them climb out of it of their own- without the help of the Court.

  If the Supreme Court does only this, and nothing else, it would have earned the trust and respect of a grateful nation. For what is on the line this time is not only the Supreme Court's credibility but also its dignity.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

TOO MUCH DEMOCRACY, MR. KANT, OR TOO LITTLE ?

    So now we finally know why the Modi govt. has messed up the Farm Bills issue big time: it has advisors like Mr. Kant who no doubt firmly believe that a few more jackboots on peasant throats would have made them gladly swallow the legislation without any demur. And, for all we know, he's the one who is also advising our resident sage: " We kant back down now!"

    Amitav Kant is one of the most powerful and influential policy makers in the present dispensation and his words cannot be wished away like those of Mr. Giriraj Singh. He has come a long way from his Kerala Tourism days, but posterity will always wonder what happened to him between the brilliant  "God's own country" and the alarming " India has too much democracy." He may just be his master's voice sending up a trial balloon or he may be making a down payment to insure a second extension of service. In either case he appears to have crossed that gradually fading line between a civil servant and a politician.  The IAS is justly proud of the fact that it is a jack of all trades, but when one of its tribe elevates this to master of all he is treading on thin ice. But this is unfortunately what happens when you get invited to too many Conclaves where fawning comperes treat you like the Delphic oracle, and one soon starts believing that one is Nostradamus, Solomon and Adam Smith combined.

    For, if only Mr. Kant had taken off his saffron-tinted blinkers, he would have realised that the reverse of what he said is the stark truth: it is not too much, but too little democracy which is the problem with reform and governance today. Democracy is not just periodical elections or a brute majority in Parliament, as he seems to think, but the existence of robust constitutional values. Its ingredients include a willingness to consult and engage, federalism, tolerance of dissent, freedom of the press, a tireless quest for equity, social harmony, respect for autonomy of institutions, transparency, a pledge to abide by  the rule of law. If only Mr. Kant would take the trouble of stepping out of his bio bubble in NITI AYOG he would notice that most of them do not exist in his master's New India.

   The present regime consults nobody, not even Parliament or reportedly its own Ministers, even as it forcibly imposes one calamitous policy after another on the hapless nation: demonetisation, GST, the lockdown, electoral funding, reading down of Article 370, reduction of status of J+K, CAA, NRC, the amendments to the UAPA, the three Farm Laws. Internationally recognised domain experts are ignored with contempt and banished abroad, we are left with the Surjit Bhallas and Gurcharan Dases. It allows no debate in Parliament: not even one in five draft bills are referred to Parliamentary committees, where earlier 70% of them went through this process of scrutiny. The inevitable results of such steam-rolling are widespread agitations like the anti-CAA and the ongoing farmers' protests.

   Federalism has ceased to exist: states ( especially opposition controlled states) are not consulted on legislation or policy matters; they are brow beaten into surrender by fiscal arm twisting or outright denial of legitimate funds ( such as the GST compensation) or re-engineering the TORs of the Finance Commission, or denial of Ways and Means limits ;  central investigating agencies are let loose on  "uncooperative " states to a point where at least five states have now barred them from operating without permission;  state police are intimidated by excessive deployment of CAP personnel during "raids" even though law and order is a state subject ; state governments are preempted and prevented from investigating cases that may embarrass the central govt. by bringing in the CBI, ED or NIA, as in the Sushant suicide case or the Bhima Koregaon case. In opposition ruled states there is now no difference between a Governor and a party apparatchik. Huge resources are deployed in undermining elected state governments and federalism has now become naked adversarialism: the last vestige of trust has been exterminated.

  The space for free speech has been drastically curtailed: dissent has been rechristened as anti-nationalism and sedition, and dozens of academics, social workers, students, activists and journalists have been incarcerated for being critical of the government. The only free " press" now is on social media and digital platforms, and the government has now initiated steps to bring them under control too by bringing them under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Hate speech laws are being applied selectively, sending a clear signal that remarks against a particular community will attract no punishment. Our own govt. will do nothing to curb the hate speech on TV which only amplifies its own narrative, even as one of its pet channels has been fined 20000 pounds by the UK watchdog last week, even after it tendered 280 specious apologies! Our own regulator is happy being a lapdog.

   Just about every constitutional institution, nurtured over decades, has bitten the dust, the judiciary and CAG not excluded. What the government wants, the government gets, with reemployed bureaucrats  falling over themselves to carry out the imperial commands. Parliament, it appears, has become as obsolete as its building and as redundant as the coccyx on the human anatomy: it's a part of our evolution but has outlived its purpose. Universities have been bludgeoned into silence. Such is the decay of these institutions that just last week the Central Information Commission ruled that the citizens have no right to know who is donating how much money to a political party! I can only wonder: was this judgment given with a straight face ? Was the honourable CIC able to sleep that night? Going by this amazing logic, the next step could be a ruling that the voter does not have a right to know how many votes were cast for a political party in an election. The leitmotif is clear- the less the citizen knows, the stronger Mr. Kant's version of "democracy".

   This is further strengthened by a complete lack of transparency in the manner in which the govt. functions, whether it is about the Electoral Bonds, the Rafael pricing or off- set details, the PM CARES Fund, the Chinese intrusion into Ladakh, the EVM-VVPAT reconciliation, or even Mr. Modi's degree from Delhi University. Crucial reports and results of surveys are simply buried if they do not suit the govt's narratives or claims. No international organisation of any repute believes our statistics any more and have developed their own markers.The public's right to know is haughtily dismissed with silence by the executive, with convenient adjournments by the Supreme Court and a quivering pen by institutions like the Election Commission, the CAG and Central Information Commission.

   Which is why Mr. Kant's obiter dicta is so astounding. Especially when the consequences of this lack of democracy are becoming more and more visible every day, in cold facts and figures which can no longer be brushed under a yoga mat , redacted by a Niti Ayog or sanitised by Arnab Goswami.

   It's not just that our economy has shown a negative growth of 23% or that the unemployment rate has never been higher in independent India or that the GST has been a failure or that demonetisation has knocked the bottom out of our small scale sector which accounts for 80% of non-agriculture employment. Other indicators of democracy or social well being have taken an even bigger hit in the last six years:

* In the Freedom Index we are now at 111 out of 162 countries, a fall of 17 places since 2014. Incidentally, this is a comprehensive assessment of the state of Personal, Economic and Human freedoms in a country, aggregated by the globally respected CATO Institute.

* The Human Development Report of UNDP places us at 131st position among 189 countries, again a fall of 2 places in one year.

* In the Global Hunger Index the country is ranked at 94 out of 107 ( even though the govt. claims we have 90 million tonnes of foodgrains in stock!)

* The Internet Freedom Index ranks us at a miserable 52, which is not surprising considering that Kashmir has had the longest continuous internet shutdown in the world since last August. This is the third straight year of decline.

* In Environmental Protection our country is at an abysmal 168 out of 173 nations, and we can only go further down under the stewardship of Mr. Javadekar.

* In the Economic Freedom Index we have plummeted- there can be no other word to describe this- from 79 to 105.

* The World Press Freedom Index places us at an alarming 142nd rank out of 180 countries, and things are only getting worse, what with as many as 50 scribes being arrested simply for being critical of the various state govts during the pandemic.

* The most disturbing report about the state of our country, however, comes from the central govt. itself- the NFHS ( National Family Health Survey)'s fifth report, which covers 2019-20. It has found that malnutrition, stunting, wastage and underweightage among children ( between the age of 1 and 5 years) has GONE UP in 15 states and union territories. It is the first time this decline has been seen since 1998 and it negates all the progress made since then. The explanation is simple: it has been caused by a consistent decline in incomes, rendering households unable to buy protein foods- meat, eggs, vegetables, pulses, milk. These findings confirm the other economic and health indicators. This is not something for which the BJP govt. at the centre can blame the UPA or Nehru or the pandemic( the normal scapegoats),  as all these children were born after 2014. And these figures can only get worse next year, once the impact of the pandemic has been factored in.

   Mr. Kant's Niti Ayog, as the govt's primary stink-sorry, think- tank has to bear responsibility for the mess we are in. None of the big ticket programmes launched by this govt. has shown any success so far- Digital India, Skill India, Make in India, Smart Cities, Insolvency Code, RERA, to mention just a few. Instead, social and economic inequality has only worsened at a compounded rate, thanks to the consistent pro corporate policies which have become the unabashed norm. Just 1% of the country's rich control 45.40% of its wealth, the top 10% control 74.30%. According to the Billionaire's Insight Report 2020 ( brought out by UBS and PWC every year) the net worth of India's billionaires increased by 35% to US$ 423 billion- at a time when 120 million people have been pushed below the poverty line and tens of millions have lost their jobs. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Social Mobility Report, it is estimated that it will take seven generations for a member of a poor Indian family to achieve the average national income! That's a very long time to wait for Mr. Modi to deliver on his many promises.

   And the CEO of Niti Ayog would have us believe that all these stupendous failures are because we have too much democracy ?

   Do a retake, Mr. Kant, and remove your blinkers. If the country is regressing in every field- economic, social, developmental- it is because of the rapid erosion of democracy in the last few years, not because of too much democracy. Ambedkar famously described democracy in India as a thin top dressing of the Indian soil- much of it has been removed since 2014. We need to restore it- and not deny it with incompetent dilletantism and worse.

   Contrary to what he may think, genuine democracy begins AFTER the votes are counted and the winner declared, and we have had too little of that of late. Which explains the many protests breaking out ( and suppressed) all over the country, the farmers' revolt being only the latest but perhaps of greater consequence. Mr. Kant and his govt. may consider these are a sign of too much democracy, but they would be wrong- the protests are indicative of too little, not too much, democracy.

   I would have advised Mr. Kant to go back to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, for a refresher course on India's history and Constitution, but I won't. They have probably already changed the syllabus there, from " people's democracy" to "corporate democracy".

Thursday, 24 December 2020

BOOK REVIEW-- THE FORESTER'S DILEMMA

                           IN PURSUIT OF A MAN-EATER  by  SUNEET BHARDWAJ.

     Ruskin Bond had once remarked that India has more writers than readers. That, I feel, is a bloody good thing, especially as journalism has fallen by the way side on our journey to a New India. Among the writers, I am happy to note, are an increasing number of bureaucrats and civil servants. Most of them, however, pander to the muse only after they retire, so it is refreshing to come across a book by a young serving  civil servant, and that too on a subject that steers clear of politics, administrative shenanigans and prescriptions for reform, which is generally the leitmotif of us retired babus.



     Suneet Bhardwaj is a 2012 batch Indian Forest Service officer of the Himachal cadre and he has just published his first book, IN PURSUIT OF A MAN-EATER. It is an engrossing account of the search ( in which he was personally involved) for a man eating leopard in the mountainous Thunag village of Mandi district. This leopard had accounted for three victims, and though it was never positively identified, the shooting of two leopards in the area over a week did result in a cessation of the human killings. Suneet confesses that he still does not know whether both, or either, or neither of the leopards was the actual man-eater. This is how, unfortunately, Russian roulette plays out in the jungles: in animal-human conflict situations it is perhaps better to be safe than to be sorry.

   But the search for the man-eater is just a peg on which the author hangs a larger tapestry, in which the real interest and value of this book lies: the ecology of the leopard and the dilemma of a forest officer when faced with such a situation. Suneet has done his research well, made good use of his training at the Wildlife Institute of India at Dehradun, and drawn valuable conclusions from his as yet limited experience.

  He explains why a leopard, though the smallest of the bigger carnivores in India ( tiger, lion) is undoubtedly the most dangerous of them. This is because it has a much wider habitat, unlike the tiger or lion which inhabit specific, limited areas, usually Protected Areas; the leopard is a far more adaptable animal and can live in scrub forests or mountainous areas; it is a master of camouflage and, unlike the bigger carnivores, it hunts at night. All these traits enable it to live in close proximity with humans and results in more human-animal conflicts ( as in the Thunag case). Suneet reminds us of Corbett's man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag which had killed almost 400 people before being put to rest. But, as he says, such a number is not conceivable these days. 

  In describing in some detail the actual search for the Thunag man-eater the author takes the reader through all the steps and alternatives: the cage trap, the machan, the tranquiliser gun, the tracking on foot. Sadly, in this case none of them worked, because the leopard was too canny and always a step ahead of the hunters. But in the process Suneet reveals honestly the forester's classic dilemma in such situations: should he kill the animal or try to save it?

  A forester's basic instinct, born of training and aptitude, is to try and capture the predator, not kill it. This, however, may take days and weeks and if the animal is not removed soon, or if its attacks continue in the interim period, public anger and political pressure to shoot it will mount. At such a point, persisting with efforts to capture the animal ( instead of killing it) becomes counter productive too- as Suneet notes wryly, the villagers' anger can turn into hostility towards the natural world, and undo years of painstaking efforts at educating them on the importance of conservation. For the forest officer it's a difficult choice to make: every human killed or injured is one too many, but at the same time time the man- eater may not be a deliberate villain but forced into this role by an injury ( usually inflicted by humans), old age or an accidental confrontation. A forester is, however, rarely allowed the time and  space to evaluate all these reasons/ options dispassionately, what with an ignorant media, opportunist politicians and fame seeking shikaris lusting for blood. As Suneet cautions: " Extermination of top carnivores will do more harm than good" and " Media and politics have to align with Nature conservation and education."

  In a lighter vein, Suneet also lists out the positive aspects of having a man-eater on the prowl in an area: the liquor stores, lovingly called "thekas" in the local dialect, close early in the evenings as everyone rushes to the safety of their homes; fewer drunks fall off hillsides, trying to find their way home on the narrow, winding paths; housewives are happy to have their husbands home to help out with the household chores! But the most interesting effect, as noticed by the author in Thunag and the villages around it, was the sudden spike in the construction of proper toilets. Inspite of govt. schemes and official claims about defecation free villages, people still prefer to go out in the open. A prowling man-eater, which hunts in the darkness of late evenings and early mornings, makes this a very dangerous proposition, and Suneet noticed that toilet construction in the area picked up steam during that period. Some good always comes of evil, is the old adage, I believe. Maybe the government could consider temporarily releasing a man-eater or two in those panchayats which are lagging behind in the Swacch Bharat targets!  

  " IN PURSUIT OF A MAN-EATER" is a very readable book full of empathy for the creatures of the wild and for the simple villagers who share the forested spaces with them. It fairly depicts a forester's perspective in an age when human and biotic pressures are becoming unsustainable. And finally, it opens an instructive window into the lives of villagers in the mountains. Suneet Bharadwaj should continue writing ( when he is not sitting on machans, that is ! )

IN PURSUIT OF A MAN-EATER

Published by notionpress.com

Rs. 250.00

Saturday, 19 December 2020

DILLI CHALO ! -- TO THE BORDERS OF DEMOCRACY.

   In Mr. Modi's New India coming is as difficult as going, as the chappie told the sexologist. When I came upto the mountains in June this year to take a break from Covid and Kejriwal it was like an obstacle race: what with police barriers, health checks and the need to obtain that priceless E-pass which stated that I would be quarantined if I was coming from a "hot spot." That made me break out in a cold sweat since I knew from experience that it would be some middle pass constable at the barrier in Parwanoo who would determine if I.P.Extension, Delhi 110092 was a hot spot or not. And since said constable would not know the difference between a hot spot and a G-spot, I would in all likelihood spend the better part of my remaining life in a quarantine centre which could, at any time, be declared an NRC detention centre by Mr. Amit Shah. An understanding D.C. Shimla, however, took care of that problem as also of the long queues at Shoghi, and we finally reached Puranikoti, offering thanks to the Lord in the manner of the pilgrim fathers when the Mayflower hove- to off the coast of an unsuspecting America.

  I had thought that returning to Delhi a few months later would be a cake-walk. It wasn't. Our doughty farmers had decided to have a few nights- out and sleep- ins at the Singhu border to personally witness the dawn of the Achhe Din above the Delhi skyline; the Haryana and Delhi police, with their customary generosity, had resolved to give them a cold bath with their water canons for free; and Mr. Modi had made up his mind that this was his Margaret Thatcher cum Ambani moment. The result was that the border was sealed like an Amazon parcel.

  We made it to I.P.Extension after surviving many detours, including one through Ghaziabad where they stopped building roads at the turn of the century ( the 18th century , that is.) I was keenly looking forward to spotting many Khalistanis, Pakistanis, Urban Naxals, Maoists, terrorists and fragments of the Tukde Tukde gang on the way, as had been promised by many union Ministers, but was disappointed: there was only one suspicious looking chap near the vividly named village of Pasinakalan, hiding with a camera behind a bush, but enquiries revealed that he was an anchor from one of the tukde tukde TV channels, grabbing a byte, or perhaps a bite, because the farmers would not share their pizzas with him.

  And so I am now in my Delhi flat, waiting for starvation to set in as the farmer blockade intensifies; it's a good time to reflect on the upper and middle-class Delhi-wallahs in their sterile bubbles. Citizens of Delhi are a class apart ( may their tribe NOT increase). They don't give a fig, or an avocado, about the farmers' issues as they get their food from Big Bazaar and JIO retail, their news from Arnab Goswami and Navika Kumar, and their cheap thrills from Netflix and Amazon Prime. They are outraged by farmers having pizzas and foot massages at the Tikri border, not by the 10000 farmer suicides every year or by women and children sleeping in the open at night with temperatures dipping to four degrees celsius. Wannabe Adanis all, they hate any disruption of their vacuous cycle of life, centered around Gymkhana Club, the Audi parked outside their Greater Kailash house, dinner at Sana-Di-Ge in Chanakyapuri , the evening stroll in Lodhi gardens. They are the frogs who think the water will always be at a comfortable 24 degrees celsius, even as the BJP lights one fire after another under them.

  It was freezing cold on the drive to Delhi, but the cockles of my aging heart were warmed by the compassion being shown by our Prime Minister towards the kissans and the jawans in equal measure. The former were repeatedly assured that their were demands would be considered sympathetically, even as he proclaimed at every opportunity that there would be no roll back of the three Acts. He dedicated himself to our brave soldiers even as they were made to shell out- voluntarily, of course- more than Rs. 200 crores from their salaries towards the PM CARES fund. He is constantly talking to farmers- the problem, however, is that the kissans he harangues are usually a couple of thousands of miles away from where the protestors are camping at the Delhi borders. Even his vaunted oratory can't carry that far. It is an imprimatur of his empathy that, according to media reports, twenty farmers have so far perished at Delhi's borders- killing with kindness, you would say ?

  As for Delhi itself, it almost appears that history is visiting us again. Modern Delhi has been the site of seven cities before the present one: Mehrauli, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Ferozabad, Dinpanah and Shahjehanabad. Thanks to the arrogance and ineptitude of this government, an eighth city now appears to be coming up at the Singhu- Kundli border. It already has a population of two lakhs or so ( more than any of the earlier seven cities, it may be noted), gyms, massage parlours, laundromats, stalls stocking everything from Parle biscuits to shoes, outlets serving pizzas, biryani, coffee, tea and Indian "thalis", even its own newspaper, appropriately named Trolley Times. The protestors are also setting down roots here- literally. The have planted vegetables on the road dividers and the berms of the highway, and expect to harvest them next year, no doubt a gentle reminder to the govt. that as you sow so shall you reap ! And this is only the beginning, for let us not forget that we are dealing here with a community- the Sikhs- who have been the pioneers of the Indian diaspora in the developed world, known for their ingenuity and organisational skills. Soon it will be time to give the new city a name: since the township has been born of the arrogance and pride of one supreme leader, I would suggest " Hubristan", or, if an Indian sounding one more germane to the issues at hand is preferred, then why not  "MSP nagar" ? 

  The times also stir up a wisp of dejavu. Delhi is- or soon will be- under siege by the farmers, exactly 163 years after it was last besieged by the soldiers of the East India Company in 1857. Then, as now, the siege was led by the sturdy Sikhs who marched along the same Ambala- Karnal- Panipat- Delhi route that today's farmers are taking. I sincerely hope we Delhi-wallahs have read our history, if nothing else. In 1857 Delhi had to surrender, if you are old enough to recollect.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

PRIORITISING THE NRI VOTE ALONE IS DISCRIMINATORY

    It is no secret that an overwhelming proportion of the Indian diaspora abroad roots for Mr. Modi, mesmerized by his hallucinatory vision, "Sholay" persona and unkept promises. The current of nationalism courses strongly in their veins, perhaps to assuage the latent guilty feeling of having deserted their country for a better life abroad. And yet, safely insulated by a few thousand miles and cushioned from the daily shocks in this country, they like to believe that India is becoming a Valhalla under Mr. Modi. The grass, after all, is always greener on the other side- especially if you don't have to do the mowing.

   The BJP is far too shrewd to have missed this joker in the rigged pack of cards it has been dealing out for the last six years. According to official figures, there are 10. 17 million NRIs who are registered to vote in Indian elections ( but rarely do so because under present rules they have to come physically to their respective polling booths to cast their vote). The importance of this captive vote bank for the BJP cannot be over emphasized: it translates roughly into 20000 votes per Parliamentary constituency, which perhaps is more than the average winning margin for a seat! The BJP is not wrong in considering this an almost captive vote bank.

  This is the actual backdrop against which we must assess the latest proposal of the Election Commission of India ( ECI ) to allow NRIs to vote in all elections via the ETPBS ( Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System ). The dog whistle is loud and clear and the ECI has an acute ( albeit selective) sense of hearing. On the face of it, this appears to be a progressive step but is not: it is a cold blooded, calculated, discriminatory gambit and raises many questions.

  First, why should NRIs be given the right to vote at all as long as they stay abroad ? They have no stakes in this country  and are usually in queue for citizenship of their adopted country . They pay no direct or indirect taxes in India. Many of them do derive some income in India from bank deposits, equity holdings, rents, savings accounts etc. but most of them pay no tax on this also, either in India or in the country where they are resident/working. Yes, they do send almost US $ 70 billion in remittances, but then the recipients of this money in India do get to vote, so why should the NRI enjoy a privilege that other citizens do not ? The battle cry of the American war of Independence was " No taxation without representation ! " The logic in the case against NRIs is " No representation without taxation." The poorest migrant labourer from Bihar has a better claim to the vote than the richest NRI because he pays a tax even when he buys a kilogramme of salt, whereas the latter pays nothing ( in India ) on the millions he makes in Silicon valley. But millions of labourers rarely get to vote ( as we shall see) because of systemic deficiencies.

  Second, why should NRIs have any say in determining who, or which party, forms a govt. here when they will be completely untouched by the effects of any decision taken by this govt.? The citizen who lives in India has to suffer the consequences of his choice, and therefore has a vital stake in govt formation. The NRI is safely cushioned from the consequences of his vote, therefore his nationalism, or capitalism, or Marxism, or Luddite-ism, should not be allowed to influence the process here. It is like allowing a non- shareholder of a company to cast his vote at the AGM.

  The ECI's recommendation to allow electronic postal voting for NRIs alone is also wrong because it is selective, discriminatory and elitist on three counts. There are tens of millions of citizens in this country who are unable to vote because they cannot access their polling booths: the ECI has not shown any urgency or concern to give them a similar facility as it has now recommended for the NRIs.

  According to the Census 2011 there are 45.40 crore migrants ( mostly labour) of which 28 crore are eligible to vote- they constitute 35% of the total registered voters in the country ! But most of them are unable to vote because they are by definition migratory, moving from state to state or place to place, have their votes in their villages but cannot afford to go back to their villages to cast their vote.

  The number of people suffering from certified disabilities is 21.90 million; they too find it difficult to vote in a country where public spaces are not at all disabled friendly. Merely providing a wheel chair at a polling booth is only a symbolic gesture, the real challenge is getting from the residence to the booth, and in negotiating the long queues there.

  A third category which is discriminated against is Senior Citizens. Even if we ignore the people in the 60 + category ( 104 million ), that still leaves 13.73 million people in the 80 + group, for most of whom even stepping out of the house is fraught with risk.

  The vast majority of voters in these three vulnerable categories go unrepresented in our electoral process because they are unable to access the polling booths. Which, incidentally, is the primary reason why their welfare seldom features in the govt's policies. One would have expected that the ECI and the central govt. would have devised a scheme to first extend the benefit of ETPBS to them, before doing so for their blue eyed NRIs. For these are voters living right here, not thousands of miles away: surely they should have at least an equal if not greater say in choosing a government to rule them. The technological architecture- Aadhar, internet connectivity, mobile phones, ID verification process - is already available to enable the ETPBS for them also, so why this obsession for the NRIs alone?

  By all means give the ETPBS to the NRIs if you must, but give the benefit first to the citizens who reside here but have been disenfranchised by either the vagaries of fate or our own policies. This would ensure greater participation of the actual citizens of the country in our democratic process.