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Friday, 20 May 2022

THE BULLDOZER BLUES

    This last week has been a bit of a traumatic experience for us, the residents of Puranikoti village, as far away from Khargone and Jehangirpuri as Sabarmati Ashram is from the BJP headquarters in Jhandewalan. Now, PK is a tiny village with just 192 "souls" ( as the PWD board proclaims), we don't even have a full time village drunkard so we all take turns at discharging this responsibility. Nor is there much in the way of excitement here: the last time we got really excited was about a year ago, when one of the residents was appointed Chief Secretary, much against the run of play. Since then, however, we have only had the occasional tourist falling off the mountainside or a wandering leopard carrying off a village mongrel, usually named Tommy or Tiger in deference to the state's high literacy rates. 

    So you can imagine our collective surprise when one morning a bulldozer rumbled into the village, fortunately without Anjana Om Kashyap perched on the bonnet.  Puranikoti has no masjids, no halal meat shops, no Bangladeshis or Rohingyas , no Muslims, no houses built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana which need demolition, and no encroachments other than the orchards on forest land, which is an acceptable means of adding to one's immoveable property in Himachal. Why then was this paragon of the acche din trundling into our village?

   We all rushed to locate our title deeds, building plan approvals and the phone number of the local MLA. One die hard optimist even tried to get the mobile numbers of Brinda Karat and Amanatullah Khan, the only known antidotes for rampaging bulldozers in this, the 75th year of our republic. Someone suggested we call the media chaps, till we saw that three OB vans were already following the bulldozer and one had a banner which proclaimed " Bulldozer hai to mumkin hai." The village idiot suggested we ring up Rahul Gandhi for help but someone else pointed out that he was in a Nepal disco dancing with nubile nymphs. The current, pro-forma village drunkard offered to push the bulldozer down the mountain if someone would give him a bottle of "santara"- that was a non-starter because he had already finished off the entire stock in the local "theka" the previous night.

   Imagine our surprised relief then as the malevolent machine showed no sign of stopping in our village but kept going, growling its way down through the forests in the direction of Ghorna village. Perhaps it was going to carve an illegal road through forest land, perhaps its mission was to do a little illicit mining on the side, perhaps the driver's intention was to impress his girlfriend, like that bridegroom in Madhya Pradesh who landed up at his wedding on a bulldozer- who knows? My own view is that it was a flag march to build confidence among the hoi polloi and  instill fear among the anti nationals. In the words of Confucius: man who raise objection will be razed himself. In happier times flag marches were carried out by troops or cops, but no longer- the bulldozer has now become the symbol of the power of the state, and the people love it. There's an opportunity here for a smart political party which applies to have it as its election symbol . I hope the Congress is listening, because the hand now looks like a STOP sign on a one way road. Or Akhilesh Yadav: the cycle looks pretty pedestrian compared to this 200 horsepower behemoth, doesn't it ? No oomph to it.

  If , dear reader, you are getting the impression that Puranikoti is on the edge these days, you would be quite right. But it's not just the bulldozer: there's also this new Gyanvapi trend that's catching on like the latest Covid mutant virus. In the days before Ramrajya arrived, when you bought a piece of land you simply checked the title and possession of the landowner. Now, however, you have to do a Phd in  ancient Indian history and dig up the land to a depth of at least five feet before signing on the dotted line.

  I did neither when I bought my bighas and I'm now a worried man. There are a couple of suspicious looking mounds on the Shukla estate: what if they contain a shivling shaped piece of rock ? Or an ancient idol, discarded by some villager in bygone times in a redevelopment scheme ? Going by current practice, it wouldn't be long before some court would send in a videographer or a court Commissioner, the house would be sealed, and I would be camping outside the Supreme Court along with all those chappies from Kashi, Mathura, Mandya and the Qutab Minar. It's quite possible that soon you may require a certificate from the ASI that there are no buried idols or temples beneath the plot before you can get a home loan, register your property or erect a building on it.

  And even if I am somehow spared the above test, there remains the question of title. When Todar Mal prescribed his revenue laws he certainly did not visualise that the Jamabandi would one day be expected to be the equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls- stretching back to historical infinity. The title of the present or immediate past owner is no longer enough, as the Taj Mahal imbroglio last week shows: one should verify ownership for at least five hundred years, lest a Diya Kumari type suddenly appears out of the ether of Chanel or Cartier and claims that the land was forcibly taken from her ancestors. Now, I'm fairly certain that neither the Mughals nor the Jaipur royal family ever came to Puranikoti ( even the present rulers in Shimla have yet to discover this place),  but there used to be a Raja of Koti and his descendants are still hanging around Mashobra. You get my drift, I hope.

  No, sir, these are difficult times. I'm seriously considering two options to hedge my bets. The first is to install pictures of Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah on my front gate. According to a report in the Jansatta of 19th May, bulldozers stopped their demolition of a house in Delhi's Khichripur when they noticed pictures of these stalwarts on one wall of the house. The photos achieved something even the Supreme Court's stay orders did not, and this is a good low cost option. Why, I may even add a picture of Kangana Ranaut to the photo gallery for good measure- that should stop any bulldozer in its tracks, like it did Karan Johar and Hrithik Roshan ! I'm also considering  withdrawing my savings from the bank before Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman grabs them all, and using them to purchase a bulldozer. Not only can I use it to flatten all those mounds before somebody notices them but it will also establish my credentials as a progressive citizen of the Naya Bharat. There's more than one way to skin a CAT ( or a JCB), you know.

Friday, 13 May 2022

SHIMLA : GOING, GOING, GONE !

    Einstein had once famously remarked that the only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance. A surfeit of either is minacious. A mixture of both, however, can be disastrous. The elected government of Himachal is now displaying that it has both attributes in abundance and it is the residents of the state who are paying the price for this uninformed hubris, which is bound to increase exponentially in the years to come. The ignorance is perhaps remediable, but the arrogance of politicians elected for five years and bureaucrats assured of a thirty- year tenure is becoming endemic in our " electoral autocracy", and can spell disaster for the state.

   Notwithstanding the daily visitations of the impacts of climate change, deforestation and global warming in the state, the government is deaf and blind to the pernicious effects of its distorted "development" model on the ecology and livelihoods of its citizens. Huge swathes of local populations and panchayats have been protesting for years against the Jangi-Thopan hydel project in Kinnaur, the so-called international airport in Balh valley of Mandi district, the Kishau dam project in Shimla district, to mention just a few. Even while these agitations continue, the government has decided in its arrogance and ignorance to push ahead with another blunder- the ill thought-out new Development Plan 41( DP41) for Shimla, which was given Cabinet approval last week and could be notified any day now.

  This decision flies in the face of repeated studies and warnings by its own agencies- an EIA by the State Department of Environment ( 2013), a Comprehensive Disaster Management Plan by the Municipal Corporation Shimla ( 2012), both of which had advised against relaxing the Town Planning rules. Having already more or less destroyed this once idyllic town, the government is now preparing to administer the death blow- it's like a murderer  returning to the scene of his crime to ensure that the job is well and truly done. And it will be, if the courts allow this to be implemented.

   In 2017 the NGT ( National Green Tribunal), acting on a petition by an environmentalist, Jogin Sengupta, had appointed an Expert Committee to make recommendations for future town planning and construction in Shimla Planning Area. Unlike most govt. committees this one had professionals from the Wadia Institute, National Disaster Management Authority, Ministry of Environment and Forests, NEERI, among others. It would be relevant to list out here some of the more significant observations/ recommendations of this committee:

[1] Shimla falls under seismic Zone IV and this is compounded by the fact that 85% of the town is located in landslide prone zone, that most constructions are on steep slopes with gradients between 45* and 75*, buildings are constructed on overburden rather than on on solid rock, barely 20% of them meet the standards for seismic proof construction.

[2] In the event of an earthquake 39% of the buildings shall collapse, and the cascading effects of falling buildings will have a multiplier effect. More than 20000 people shall be killed. This, says the Committee, is an extremely conservative estimate. "It is evident that Shimla and its surrounding areas face great risk to life and property in case of earthquakes and big landslides."

[3] The town has long exceeded its carrying capacity and needs to be urgently decongested.

[4] There should be no new construction of any kind or addition to existing facility in the Green Areas, Core areas or Heritage Areas.

[5] There is an urgent need to increase the forest cover of the town, both for reasons of ecology, water conservation and soil stability.

[6] In view of the above findings and observations the Committee recommended that, far from allowing any relaxations, the boundaries of the Green Belt be extended further, and that new No Construction areas be created in the High Sinking/ Landslide Zones such as Lakkar Bazaar, Dhobighat, Ladakhi Mohalla, Krishnanagar and the area surrounding Clarkes Hotel. 

  The NGT accepted most of these eminently sensible recommendations and, by its order of 2017,   imposed a complete ban on any fresh construction in Shimla's 17 Green Belts and Core Areas, and also restricted construction in the non-core areas to two floors and an attic. The state's appeal against this order is pending in the Supreme Court, but no stay has been granted. Therefore, it is self evident that the new Development Plan 41 is in violation, if not outright  contempt, of the NGT order. ( That the government is not bothered by these minor legalities is explained by the fact that elections to the state are due in December and to the Shimla Municipal Corporation in June this year. And votes matter more than deodars or lives, as we well know by now).

                         


                                                      [ SHIMLA- SPOT THE TREE ]


  The SDP 41 amounts to driving a coach and four through the NGT order and the report of the Expert Committee. It upturns just about every recommendation and stipulation that could have saved Shimla: construction is now permitted in the Green Belts, the Core and Heritage Areas, a jaw dropping six floors is allowed in the non-core areas, for both commercial and residential buildings. The govt. has completely discarded the scientific findings of the Expert Committee- that every seismologist of any worth has predicted that the Himalayas are overdue for a major earthquake of at least 7.3 magnitude, that Shimla is already in seismic zone IV but moving to V with the destabilisation and deforestation of its slopes, that no vertical growth should be permitted, that a town with a carrying capacity of 25000 population is already overloaded with 225000 people ( with an additional 100000 being added during the tourist season), that its roads are wholly inadequate and will not allow rescue operations in the event of any emergency, that its green cover is disappearing at an alarming rate and anthropogenic pressures make natural regeneration of its deodars impossible. Issues about inadequacy of water supply, garbage disposal, climate change- all of which have been flagged by the Committee and the NGT- have been brushed aside with contempt and the arrogance of power.

  And this in spite of the fact that the restrictions imposed in 2000 on new constructions were actually working: the census of 2011 established beyond doubt that between 2000 and 2010 the decadal growth in the population of Shimla came down by 50%, serving a key objective of reducing congestion. All this will now be undone.

  The new Plan, if allowed to be implemented, will not only lead to a rash of new construction but will also unleash a deluge of applications for the "regularisation" of thousands of illegal buildings constructed since 2000. This process is euphemistically termed " retention policy" and every govt. has taken recourse to it in the past as a vote multiplier- Shimla has had seven retention policies so far, and with each new one the town has moved closer to perdition. It will not survive another one, or the new SDP.

  What baffles me, however, is the resounding silence of Shimla's residents: they are like lambs being led to slaughter ( literally, when the next earthquake arrives) but I don't hear anyone bleating, other than people like Mr. Sengupta who filed the original petition in the NGT. Why are the citizens of this historic settlement not starting a civic movement to force the govt. to back off from this madness? Why are they not making this an election issue for both, the state and municipal elections? Why are they not rallying behind Mr. Sengupta ( who is expending his own resources in this cause) with funding, free legal help and a challenge to the new Plan in the courts? Why is it left to just one or two concerned citizens to protect one of India's most historic towns from oblivion?

  With the executive hell bent on ramming through SDP41, it is now only the High Court or the NGT which can save Shimla. Our courts should not disassociate themselves from such grave public issues: after all, judges too are citizens and residents of this town and shall suffer the consequences of suicidal policies as much as ordinary citizens will. I learn that a young environmentalist and scholar, Richa Minocha, has filed a PIL in the High Court this week for staying this apocalyptic Plan. One fervently hopes that the court will accept this petition and stay the SDP 41. We need more citizens to join and support her. We need the High Court too to bury this Plan beneath the debris of the seven storey building which collapsed in Kachighati last year: that would be the most apt head-stone for a piece of regulation that should never have seen the light of day. To adapt and rephrase the wise words of the historian Arnold Toynbee about civilisations to the present context: Cities do not die of themselves, they are murdered by politicians and town planners. 

  

Friday, 6 May 2022

THE BJP IS WINNING ANYWAY, ELECTIONS ARE A SIDESHOW.

   Last week I received a draft petition to the Election Commission of India from a well known writer and activist of civil society about the use of EVMs, with the request to obtain endorsements for it. I forwarded it to about twenty contacts, all well read people, engaged with and concerned about the state of our democracy under the present regime. Only four of them endorsed the memorandum, the others have maintained a strategic silence. And therein lies an unpleasant and disturbing truth- it's time we faced up to it.

  The BJP is winning this game. The official proclamation of the Hindu rashtra may still be some years in the future, but it is taking shape on the ground and will be a fait accompli very soon. The eloquent silence of my sixteen friends is one indication- it is safer to be silent, accept the inevitable, what will be will be.

   The battle for the Hindu rashtra has to be won in the minds of the people first before it can be legitimised in Parliament or in the courts. This requires a three pronged strategy : enlist support for the cause, discourage any opposition to it, and create conditions on the ground for a majoritarian state when its time comes. And this is to be done regardless of election results; if the BJP wins the elections ( which it generally does) that is a bonus. If it doesn't, it will still have laid a platform for the kind of India that other parties will find difficult to oppose. The BJP is going about this job with its usual careful planning and ruthless execution, while other parties are still floundering in a morass of competing egos and power point presentations.

  For a Hindu rashtra to be born it is imperative that a large section of the 80% of the population be convinced that minorities, especially the Muslims, are the anti-national " Other" and need to be shown their place. This is being done through a blend of legislative measures and lumpen elements. Triple Talaq, Hijab and beef bans, CAA and NRC, UCC belong to the first group. To the second belong the shobha yatras, provocative sloganeering outside mosques, bulldozers, dharm sansads and the in-your-face Hanuman Chalisaa. The violent reactions to this relentless persecution, provocation and sloganeering are exactly what the BJP wants for they further demonise the other community in the minds of the Hindus and reaffirm the necessity for a nation for the Hindus. The idea is to generate a fear ( if not hate) psychosis, which is fertile ground for planting the seeds of division, and so far at least the BJP has been successful at this. With each Jehangirpuri, Khargone or Jodhpur the impending harvest looks more promising.

   The BJP appears to have been quite successful in  enlisting support for its perverted weltanschauung. Bearing testimony to this are the daily hate messages on one's Whatapp, the nature and tenor of media reporting, groups of retired govt. officials ( like the Concerned Citizens Group) quick to take on any other group which has the temerity to be critical of the regime, members of Big Capital who benefit from the fact that cronyism is the obverse side of communalism, the daily defections from other parties to the BJP, the stupendous contributions to the Electoral bonds, the victory in all eight seats in Lakhimpur Kheri. Most approve of the BJP's communal and majoritarian vision of the country, the others are either silent or tagging along for the ride on the gravy train. Either way, the support is growing.

   Any opposition to this grand plan is ruthlessly crushed, by the state police in BJP ruled states and by central agencies in others. A Jignesh Mavani will be arrested and hauled 2500 miles to another state, an Aakar Patel or Rana Ayub will be prevented from going abroad, inconvenient TV stations and Youtube channels will be shut down, NGOs will be deregistered, teachers will be sacked for teaching the "wrong" lesson, houses and shops will be bulldozed if you resist the march to the promised land. It is not without reason that our Prime Minister has not entertained a single press conference in his own country in eight years, or that he refuses to take questions at press conferences abroad. It is also not without reason that the latest Press Freedom Index shows that India has further slipped eight places to 150th rank out of 180 countries. But all this is small change for big bucks.

   For the inescapable truth is that the country is steadily moving in the direction the BJP and RSS want it to, a fatigue is setting in among the minorities and the remaining with liberal values; even the Opposition is casting itself in the new mould. A Nitish Kumar has betrayed every principle he grew up with, so long as he can remain Chief Minister ( and maybe become President, if his current posturing is any thing to go by). A Naveen Patnaik will continue to prevaricate, refuse to take a stand and support the government in Parliament. As will a YSR or a KCR, so long as they can continue in power in their own states, ignoring the erosion of federalism, the imposition of Hindi and the misuse of central agencies, all of which are steadily cutting away the ground under their feet.

  Arvind Kejriwal is perhaps the most unethical, duplicitous and opportunistic of the lot: while giving anti- Modi bytes in public, he has abandoned the minorities, has refused to be counted on Shaheen Bagh, the farmers' protests, the NE Delhi riots and Jehangirpuri. In fact, on this last incident, he has out Heroded even the BJP- blaming it all on the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, which is precisely the right wing narrative. He will soon discover, to the country's cost, that one can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds for ever. By not working with the other opposition parties and insisting on ploughing a lonely furrow to the holy grail of the Prime Minister's chair, he will have ceded even more ground to the BJP in the not-so-long run.

   What is perhaps most egregious and alarming is the haste with which other states and parties are adopting the BJP's tool-kit: vigilante violence in West Bengal, imposition of untenable sedition charges against the Rana couple in Maharashtra, the use of Punjab police by Kejriwal to hound Kumar Vishwas and Alka Lamba in Delhi, the use of bulldozers in Alwar in Rajasthan. These are the precise forms of misgovernance the Opposition is supposed to be fighting against! By emulating them these states and Chief Ministers are providing legitimacy to the BJP's narrative.

  The administrative ground for the coming Hindu rashtra is more or less ready. All institutions, including the so-called constitutional ones, have become compliant and willing partners. The syllabi of educational bodies are being redrafted to exclude Faiz, Mughal history, federalism, secularism, social and economic inequalities, and all subjects which should concern any democratic dispensation. All-India Service rules are being manipulated on a regular basis to suit the purposes of the ruling party at the center, the latest being the reinduction of Shah Faesal into the IAS, three years after he resigned, even though the rules do not permit this. He is perhaps needed for the next gambit in Kashmir. All central enforcement agencies are now we-don't-give -a-damn partisan. It took an Assam Sessions judge to recently warn us that we are becoming a police state. ( The observation was predictably stayed by the Assam High Court). Even the Army appears to be falling in line, as evidenced by the haste with which an Iftaar tweet by the Army's PRO in Jammu was deleted. All these may look like straws in the wind, but it's the Devil's Wind we are talking of here.

   The judiciary, frankly, is a mixed bag or a pig in a poke at best. It has given us some memorable judgments, like the Delhi High court on giving bail to Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita under UAPA, or the one on Pegasus, or the order which stayed the banning of Media One channel on "security" considerations. But that UAPA judgment has not been followed up for others similarly accused, including the Elgar Parishad detainees; challenges to fundamental anti-democratic laws on Electoral Bonds, reorganisation of Kashmir, Article 370, sedition, powers of the Delhi govt. etc. are still not being heard or decided. Hundred of habeas corpus petitions are not being heard. Bulldozers continue to run riot. No accountability is being fixed or reparations being ordered for proven victims of state brutality and injustice. Instead, as a recent Delhi High Court order in the Umar Khalid case indicates, the judiciary appears to be more concerned about ring-fencing the Prime Minister from any criticism, and frowning on the use of words like "jumla", "krantikari" and  "inquilab" which are part of our daily lexicon. Will the courts now decide the vocabulary for free speech ? It's difficult to assess where the judiciary is headed, but the portents are not encouraging, especially when push will come to shove, as it inevitably will.

    The country is being readied to welcome the Hindu rashtra. The BJP will continue to win elections, and even where it doesn't, it keeps increasing its vote share, as in Bengal. The southern states may baulk at this but they shall soon be brought in line by the liberal use of Delimitation Commissions, Finance Commissions, a reoriented IAS and IPS, Pegasus Two ( whatever happened to the report of the SC appointed committee?), smart use of the crores in the Electoral bonds. The goons on the streets will do the rest of the persuading.

   I hope my sixteen silent friends realise how close the flames are to their houses, and that silence does not provide any immunity or safe passage. As the poet Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq asks us :

" Ab to ghabra ke yeh kehte hain ki mar jayenge

  Mar ke bhi chain nahin paya to kidhar jayenge ?"


    

 

  

Friday, 29 April 2022

THE SECRETS OF HIMACHAL'S HAPPINESS QUOTIENT

    Notwithstanding 88 episodes of Man Ki Baat and the chanting of Hanuman Chalisa at every street corner, India continues to be one of the unhappiest nations on earth: it is ranked at 136 out of 146 countries. But till now we were not aware of the inter- se ranking of our individual states. Now, however, we have a survey that does so, conducted by the HR firm Happy Plus Consulting . According to this report, Himachal is the happiest state in the country, and UP the unhappiest. That last bit is no surprise, actually. What else can one expect in a state where a man of holy orders is wont to issue unholy orders, where the IPC has been replaced with the JCB and where the state spends more resources on concealing deaths than on preventing them ?

   But coming back to my state. I have spent 46 years in Himachal and fully endorse the finding about its pre-eminent happiness quotient and, having little else to do, will reflect on why the pahariyas are such a joyful lot. One reason could be found in another report- a survey by the online platform AMBROSIA, which tracks all things pertaining to liquor consumption in the country. According to Ambrosia, Himachal is among the seven top states in the country in terms of per capita liquor consumption. And this does not even include the "angoori" and "ghanti" brewed by just about every household in its tribal districts! The connection between boozing and being happy is difficult to dismiss. And it surely cannot be a coincidence that Punjab, the creator of the Patiala peg, is the second happiest state in India. Himachalis are aware, of course, that alcohol does not solve any of life's problems, but then neither does water or milk, so why not give it an, err, shot? And it appears to be working.

   There are other founts of happiness too. Notwithstanding the tippling, your average Himachali is a sensible chap and regards politicians like he would a canker in his apple crop. He changes the party in government every five years lest the blighters take up permanent abode in his orchard. These two fungi- the Congress and the BJP- have been exchanging power alternately for decades: not that there is anything to distinguish the two parties other than the Himachali caps they sport: the BJP cap is of a maroon shade ( soon to become saffron, I learn) while the Congress one is green ( soon to change to rainbow colours if Prashant Kishore has his way). This limited tenure in power ensures that the bulldozers are used only for road construction, illegal mining and deforestation.

   Himachal has been blessed in that the it has not had to suffer the likes of the Bulldozer babas and mamas, or khela hobe didis or disappearing behenjis so far in its short history. It is also fortunate that the chameleon does not figure among its abundant wildlife- as yet. Your typical high altitude villager here, deprived of oxygen from a young age, is a simple creature and likes to see things in just two shades- black or white. A chameleon would confuse him, and detract from his happiness quotient. Which is why the imminent entry of that archetypal chameleon- Mr. Kejriwal- and his party into the state is not good news. The AAP's smoothie of soft Hindutva, xeroxed nationalism, fake probity, and opportunistic secularism would be too complex a blend for the unsophisticated Himachali mind . Methinks the good burghers of the state may have to augment their tippling to ensure that a different coloured cap- white- does not enter the state.

   The businessmen and contractors here, unlike their counterparts in Karnataka, are a happy lot too. The payola and hush money has been kept at reasonable and affordable levels and is linked to the RBI's repo rate to negate any volatility in the market. It was not always so, till in the early 80's a frustrated contractor from Mandi wrote to the government demanding to know what the approved rate of bribery in the state was, and requested for a copy of the relevant govt. notification. Since then the rates have been standardised, which has done much to improve the ease of doing business in the state. Now everyone is happy- the contractor or vendor knows by what percent he has to inflate his bills, the babu can better plan his retirement corpus, and the public knows exactly how many potholes to expect in every kilometer of road. Predictability makes for a sound business environment.

   The primary cause of unhappiness in other states- the police- are a benign lot in Himachal. Their only "encounters' are with the occasional bear in Bharmour, the last lathi charge was in 1982 in Bilaspur ( when I was Deputy Commissioner there and had mis-read some provisions of the CRPC), and they abhor any kind of violence like Amit Malviya abhors the truth. To prove this last point: one evening, when I was still in service, I was loitering on Mall road in Shimla, trying to decide whether I should buy a book from Minerva or have a plate of chhole bhatura in Baljee's. Suddenly a violent fracas broke out in front of Gaiety Theater, a bunch of Haryanvi tourists expressing themselves in their lingua franca- fisticuffs, kicks, brickbats and the traditional references to mothers and sisters. Three patrolling women police constables observed the scene placidly for about five minutes and then one said to the others: " I think we should call the police", and off they went to the police post! If at all Himachal police indulge in violence, it is usually against their own kind, not the public, as was demonstrated last year when the Kullu SP roundly slapped the Head of the CM's security detail. Peace and brotherliness was restored when the SP allowed himself to be walloped in return. Such understanding is rare and the citizens are a happier lot for it.

  Another reason for Himachal's happiness is that it is confident of itself as it is well represented in the country's power structure : in Anupam Kher it has a pre-eminent bhakt ( if a doubtful Kashmiri pundit); the Great Khali was breaking heads and stones in Sirmour district long before he made it to WWE; Mr. JP Nadda, the BJP President belongs to the state; Priyanka Gandhi owns a lovely cottage near Kufri; Mr. Vajpayee used to frequently visit Prini village near Manali where he had built himself a farm house. But here, folks, is the clincher- would you not be ecstatic if you had Kangana Ranaut or Preity Zinta as your next-door neighbour ?

   I rest my case.  

Friday, 22 April 2022

MOVE OVER, ECONOMICS-- CRONINOMICS IS HERE !

   I've always had a sneaking suspicion that my father-in-law always doubted my educational credentials and felt that there were significant gaps in my education. This was based on the fact that I did my Masters in English from Hindu college. I can see where he came from: the English in this Jat citadel was something even Chetan Bhagat would despair of. What we did to the Queen's language should have attracted various sections of the IPC, in particular 303, 376 and 377. But he was wrong- what I missed out on was not English but Economics.

   I know all the basic rules of Economics, of course: that we are all dead in the long run ( and in the short run too, if you happen to be in Ukraine or Lakhimpur Kheri), that every economist has an equal and opposite economist, that when the government wants to rob Peter to pay Paul it can always count on the support of Paul, that the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money, and with capitalism that you run out of people to rob. I've even read Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and flagellate myself every week by plodding through Swaminathan S Aiyer's articles and reading Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman's lips. Nothing works, because I just can't make sense of this dismal science as practiced in our country.

  Take the stock market and its baffling tumescence: it keeps rising and rising even while every financial indicator around it keeps collapsing. It was at about 40000 in March 2020, and then Covid happened. In the next 18 months the bottom dropped out of our GDP, hundred of millions became unemployed, 120 million were forced into poverty, more than 5 lakh people died ( 50 lakhs, according to a stalled WHO report), 4 lakh businesses shut down. But the Sensex kept rising, crossed 60000 last year and is now at 58000. Dalal Street has to be hallowed ground because here even the dead would rise from their graves. I guess somebody is making money out of all this legerdemain but is anyone counting the bankrupted? I can't for the life of me explain how this happens because I myself stay away from shares- gentlemen prefer bonds, you know. But I know of someone who explained this insanity very well, being the head honcho in one of these lunatariums: John Meynard Keynes it was who said: Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

   Consider next our Unicorns, of which we have about 130. Less than 30% of them are profitable, the others naturally pay no dividends to their star-struck shareholders, and yet their market valuation is all above one billion dollars ! How can a loss making company be worth Rs. 7500 crores, for God's sake? The basic laws of economics do not apply to them, however. Every time a Unicorn floats a public issue the market goes ga-ga and dances begin in the TV studios. This, even though a recent Economic Times article reveals that 543 IPOs have been listed in the last ten years, of which 85% have either stopped trading, or dropped below the issue price or turned into penny stocks ! And yet, whenever a new IPO is announced the riot police have to be called out to curb the enthusiasm of the lemmings who want to pour their life savings into it. The most recent example of this virus of capitalism was the PayTM IPO fiasco: the company raised Rs. 18300 crore just four months ago by listing the issue price of its shares at Rs. 2150. It was over subscribed three times. The shares are now trading at just Rs. 659.00 or thereabouts- 70% below the issue price ! Millions have been ruined. As the Kingston Trio sang: when will we ever learn?

  Spare a moment to reflect on the magical properties of our Bankruptcy Code and its prime instrument, the NCLT. You would expect that a bankruptcy law would protect the interests of the investors and creditors of the company which goes belly up. You would be disappointed- it actually serves the interests of the promoters and their ilk. And the magic?- it lies in converting public money into private profits. Ruchi Soya is a shining example of this: a Rs. 31900 crore company which owed Rs. 12146 crore to the banks was acquired for just Rs. 4350 crores by another jholawalla; to make payment of this latter amount he took a loan of Rs.3250 crores from the same banks who were owed money by this company; he then paid off this loan by issuing an IPO for Rs. 4300 crores and getting the funds from the public. The bottom line- said mendicant now owns 95% of a Rs. 40000 crore company by putting up just Rs. 1000 crore of his own funds. And, oh, one more small detail: the banks have lost about Rs. 6000 crore in the whole deal. These are financial contortions worthy of a Houdini.

  This is not an isolated example, it is the norm, and explains why our NPAs continue to increase by a few lakh crores every year. Banks  (read you and me) lose thousands of crores, the promoters who siphoned off the moneys get away scot- free to build on their expertise and float other companies, the banks' directors get cushy sinecures in these new ventures. Here is a short illustrative list of companies which have gone through the bankruptcy/ NPA process and the haircuts taken by banks:

LOAN GIVEN TO-LOAN AMOUNT-NCLT SETTLEMENT-LOSS TO BANKS-BENEFICIARY

DHFL                       91000 crores           37250 crores                53750 crores         Piramal Group

Bhushan Steel          57505 crores            35200 crores                22305 crores        Tata Steel

Essar                        54000 crores             42000 crores                12000 crores        Arcellor Mittal

Bhushan Power        48000 crores             19350 crores                28650 crores        JSW Steel

Lanco Infra               47000 crores             5300 crores                  41700 crores         Kalyan Group

Videocon                  46000 crores             2900 crores                   43100 crores        Vedanta Group        

   Do you notice the delicious irony in the above figures? One fat cat exits with his pockets bulging and another moves in licking his chops.  You and I get another 100 bps less on our savings because the bank has taken another haircut and has to recover its loss from its depositors. This perhaps explains why private sector investment has been declining- a promoter can make make more money by bankrupting his existing company than by starting a new one! One cannot but suspect that these bankers and industrialists are part of the country's most exclusive club, relegating Parliament to second place. There is just one eligibility requirement for admission- one must possess a degree in Croninomics . It's high time the UGC introduced this in its syllabus, for the old style Economics is now as obsolete as decency and honesty.


Friday, 15 April 2022

PURANIKOTI DIARY- OF TOURISTS AND WATER WOES

  CATCH  THE  RAIN  WHERE  IT  FALLS,  WHEN  IT  FALLS.

   We came up to our home in Puranikoti village in Mashobra ( near Shimla) on the 8th of this month, as we have been doing every year these last 13 years. And realised, with a shock, what the Doomsday clock is all about. I have never seen our village as dry, scorched and parched in April as it is this year, and that too after an unusually wet winter with record snowfall. Clearly, something is not right. The terrific heat has made nature skip spring and go straight into summer. The apple and rhododendron trees are at least a month ahead of their normal schedule- the former have shed their flowers and the setting of the fruit has begun. the latter are already ablaze with red like a lady of pleasure on her night out. The willows already have a full canopy, the rock begonias have bloomed and shed their flowers long before their time. The bees and butterflies are no longer taking flight in my garden.

                                       

                                                 

                                                  [ Flowering rhododendrons. Photo by author ]

   The biggest impact of this month long dry spell, however, has been on the water sources in the whole Panchayat of about seven villages. The IPH Department supplies water through tube wells sunk in the forests, the latter acting as a sump for storing the rainfall underground. There are also natural sources in the forests which the villagers have traditionally tapped at their own level for their homes and irrigation of the vegetable cash crops grown here. The system worked well so far but has been thrown out of balance this year. The sources have almost dried up, IPH supply has been reduced to once in two days, the hoteliers and homestay owners are tearing their hair out by their shallow roots, and water wars are looming on the horizon.

   The dry spell this year has exposed the huge deficiencies in the state govt's planning and policies, something which many concerned citizens and conservationists have been flagging for many years. Puranikoti this April is a microcosm of what happens when state govts don't listen and prioritise short term gains over sustainable planning.

   The balance which had been struck between demand and supply of water in our area over decades has been disturbed. On the demand side, the govt has allowed mushrooming of hotels and homestays without considering water availability. In Puranikoti itself we have added about 80 hotel rooms and 25 homestay rooms, meaning an additional demand of at least 50000 to 75000 liters of water every day. This is just not available. These days the place is just crawling with tourists, every room booked, even the nooks and crannies in the rocks occupied by laggards who had forgotten to make reservations!  Private tankers are selling water at Rs. 1000/ for 1500 liters, and God only knows from which contaminated nullahs they are lifting the water. This rate is bound to go up exponentially as summer advances. Local villagers do not take kindly to " outsiders" ( read hotels and tourists) trying to lift water from their already depleted natural sources, especially at a time when they themselves need it the most to save their stressed vegetable and apple crops. There is tension in the air, as palpable as the suppressed sexual undertone in a striptease show.

   As I see it, there are two prime culprits responsible for this mess. The first is the Tourism Deptt. which has been permitting/ registering hotels and homestays all over the state with gay abandon, without considering the carrying capacity of the areas or villages and towns, or without coordinating with other departments to enhance the capacity wherever needed. This short-sightedness has already ruined all of Himachal's towns, without exception, and it is the turn of the villages and rural areas now, to get a taste of "development".

   The second culprit is the state's Forest Deptt. which seems to think its only job is to levy fines rather than prevent a forest violation, or to plant trees of which 70% do not survive, or to grant permission for felling of trees. Given that water scarcity is looming large in the Himalayan states according to every study on climate change, one would have expected that this department would have taken proactive steps to manage its forests with a view to conserving water. But its dozens of PCCFs, Addl PCCFs and CCFs clearly think this is a waste of time. Not only have they not initiated any forward looking programmes, they have let even the existing programmes run to ruins. Once again, I have to go no further than my own village to find proof of this.

   Puranikoti ( indeed, the whole panchayat of Moolkoti) is surrounded by thousands of hectares of the most dense and lush forests of deodar, blue pine and oak trees- an ideal sponge for absorbing rainfall and snow- melt. This is proven by the dozens of nullahs and water courses that snake through the forests, supplying water to the villages and charging the many natural springs here. All that is needed by way of human intervention is to construct a few check dams on these nullahs to impound the flow- off and allow the ground/ forests to absorb the waters.

                                          


                                              [ Lush forests of Puranikoti. Photo by the author]

  Not only is the department not doing this, but it has also failed to maintain the few check dams that existed. Barely a hundred meters from my house is a watercourse that till a few years ago had a stream that flowed happily the whole year round, thanks to three check dams built on it. Today it is dry and waterless except for a few hours when it rains, because all three check dams have collapsed into rubble (see photo below). My personal requests to the Forest Secretary, DFO Shimla and the Range Officer have had no effect. Just this one nullah could have met the needs of a whole village throughout the year- and did, because the villagers had laid their own rubber pipes from it to their homes and fields. Today they are all useless, and this is the story of all the nullahs in Puranikoti ( and, no doubt, the whole state).

                                        


                       [ The dry watercourse and its broken check dam. Photo by the author ]

   In 2008, when Mr. J.P. Nadda ( the BJP President) was the Forest Minister, we had launched a conservation scheme called the Van Sarovar programme. Its aim was to dig/ construct thousands of baoris ( water bodies) in the forests, along the natural contours, to impound and collect the rainwaters, with funding from CAMPA and MNREGA. They would have manifold benefits: provide water holes for wildlife, recharge the groundwater and streams, prevent erosion from the runoffs, make available water to fight forest fires. It was a low cost ( only local stones and earth was to be used), low gestation, employment intensive and immensely beneficial scheme- just what Himachal needs in the times to come. But for some unexplained reasons, the department has allowed this programme to wither away like its plantations.

                                        


                     [ A Van Sarovar structure in Khorli Poi area of GHNP -2017. Photo by author]

   It is time the Himachal govt. wakes up and adopts this and similar conservation measures to preserve and harvest its ample rain and snow precipitations. The Jal Shakti maxim " Catch the rain where it falls, when it falls" should not remain a mere slogan but should be acted upon urgently. Very soon, the annual " water crises" will become a regular and permanent feature, and the first sector to be hit will be Tourism. Already, Shimla has received a big jolt last week with the Tour Operators of Gujarat and Kerala ( which provide 60-70% of the tourist bookings here) announcing that they are boycotting Shimla because of traffic congestion and lack of parking spaces.

  Tourism is Himachal's biggest revenue earner and employment generator. But even a milch cow needs to be carefully nurtured and should not be taken for granted. Right now our milch cow is running on near empty.

                        




  

  

  

Thursday, 7 April 2022

DON'T BLAME THE IAS , A NATION GETS THE CIVIL SERVICES IT DESERVES

    Mr. D Subbarao, a retired IAS officer and ex Governor of the Reserve Bank of India has, in a recent article in The Times Of India and in an interview with Karan Thapar, castigated the IAS in no uncertain terms and accused it of betraying and failing the country. His tirade ( what prompted it ?) goes beyond the usual quick fixes many retired officers are fond of advocating. It's a bit of a fashion these days for superannuated IAS officers to run down the service and to distance themselves from it. But Mr. Subbarao is a sober and moderated person, and so his harsh views need to be examined with some seriousness.

  To encapsulate his words, he says that the IAS has become corrupt and incompetent, that 25% of its members are corrupt, 50% are incompetent, leaving only 25% to shoulder the brown man's burden: what delivery there is, is owing to this last fraction. This, he says quite rightly, was not so in the 60s and 70s and he ascribes the rot to flaws in recruitment, training, lack of specialisation and proper career planning. The cure, he continues, lies in overhauling these processes and lateral induction on a much larger scale than the token numbers attempted so far.

   I am in agreement with him on some aspects, but disagree on most. Mr. Subbarao is right about the corruption and incompetence ( though one may quibble on the percentages which may differ from state to state) but his diagnosis is superficial and not very different from the groove already carved out by others like Deepak Gupta and Anil Swaroop. They make the mistake of peering at the IAS under a microscope but not seeing the larger picture, the context in which it functions. They all concentrate on the obvious-training, career planning, performance evaluation, promotion, etc. Admittedly, there is scope for improvement in these areas, though I emphatically disagree about lateral entry. A huge and diverse country like India can only be managed by a " generalist" civil service with a 360* vision, not tunnel visioned specialists. I have explained this element in great detail in an earlier piece :

 [ https://avayshukla.blogspot.com/2017/10/privatising-ias-is-mistake.html]   

and will not dwell on it here. For none of these factors/ problems address the primary issue, which is one of national character and values, and the effect they have on the civil services.

   If the IAS has failed it is because the country has failed ( or is failing at an accelerated rate). In terms of character, values and ethics India is no longer the nation it was in the 50s, 60s and early 70's. This is true not only of its polity but also of its society in general. The post Independence leaders and influencers like Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Ambedkar, Madan Mohan Malviya, T T Krishnamachari, Acharya Kriplani, Jyoti Basu, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Jaiprakash Narayan ( to mention just a handful), industrialists like JRD Tata, Jamnalal Bajaj, Dinshaw Petit and GD Birla, editors like Desmond Doig, Arun Shourie, Sunanda K Dattaray, Kushwant Singh, Frank Moraes and Russi Karanjia have been mostly replaced by pygmies and carpet baggers. These people may win elections, make 29 billion dollars in one year or run up huge TRP ratings, but they are incapable of promoting public values or morals, or establishing ethical corporate standards, or writing an editorial ( let alone investigating a story). In fact they do the reverse, and have contributed hugely to the deterioration of the national ethos and character. In short,  for the last five decades or so the country has had no principled leadership worth the name- there have only been Pied Pipers who have strutted on the roads for some time, played their tune, and led us to moral bankruptcy and worse as a nation.

   And things are getting worse every passing day under the present government. Over the decades just about every institution has been hollowed out and is on the point of collapse- autonomous bodies, Parliament and state Assemblies, Regulatory agencies, all governmental services, even the judiciary and the defense forces. In none of them is there any inspiring leadership worth its name, almost all are compromised by power, pelf and their biases. The message this sends to the bureaucracy and public at large is that unscrupulousness, sycophancy, corruption pays.

  The average Indian has become completely transactional and self centered, without morals or scruples. Everything is seen in terms of personal benefit and convenience, for which we allow the corrupt state a long rope. Morals and ethics be damned so long as we can make a few more bucks, buy another car or house, evade some more taxes, cheat a few more idiots. This was particularly evident during the Covid lockdowns when the poor and the vulnerable were left to fend for themselves while we watched Netflix in our barricaded housing societies. And now of course we have the ultimate Viagra- minority bashing. We can overlook just about every wrong or mistake of the government- inflation, joblessness, cronyism, covid deaths, police brutality, purloining of our basic rights- provided we can teach Muslims and Christians and their supporters a lesson.

  The perfect proof and demonstration of this was Lakhimpur Kheri. The state allowed 5 people to be ruthlessly killed in broad daylight, did every thing to cover up the crime. It refused to dismiss a Minister who is the father of the main accused and himself mentioned in an FIR. The judiciary appointed an SIT in a half hearted manner and then released the prime accused on bail! And what did the good people of Lakhimpur do just months later in the polls? They elected the same party that did all this back to power, giving it all 8 seats from that area ! Lakhimpur exposes, in microcosm, all that is wrong with India today.

   The IAS is rooted in the Lakhimpur Kheris of this nation, and its members come from there. Why should we expect it to be any different, or better, than any of the other governmental institutions or the rest of a sick society ? Why should we expect its members to be guided by a moral compass that is any different from the one that guides the rest of society to its perdition? A six month semi vacation in Mussoorie is not going to change substantially the values and code of ethics they have picked up in their families and social circles, or to make them unlearn the fundamental lessons they have picked up- that nothing else matters other than money and power, that one should do unto others before they do unto you. They cannot but be influenced by the unprincipled and amoral environment in which they function. The deterioration in the IAS is the inevitable result  and reflection of the degradation of our society, polity and principles, the lack of any pathfinders. No amount of tinkering with recruitment, promotion, training or evaluation processes is going to change this basic reality, Mr. Subbarao, and the IAS will not change for the better unless its external environment changes for the better first.

   Ironically, this external environment is only getting worse under the present BJP regime. The IAS's constitutional status as a federal, not central, service is being eroded everyday, its inconvenient members being hounded by central agencies, attempts being made to reorient its loyalty from the states to Delhi, all independence of thought or action being crushed, even the AIS Rules being amended to establish complete control by the Center over its officers. It won't be long before that 25% ( officers with integrity) plummets to 5%. The service is doomed if things continue in this manner. At the end of the day a country gets the government- and the civil services- it deserves for ( as the old adage goes) what you reap is what you have sown. In India's present context, to expect a civil service which is upright, independent, just, empathetic and honest while the rest of the country is going to the dogs is a pipedream.

   At one point in the interview Mr. Subbarao compares the image of the IAS ( quite unfavourably)  with that of the British civil services, pointing out that people there trust the British Cabinet Secretary's enquiry into the 10 Downing Street covid parties, whereas no one today reposes any credibility in any enquiry by an IAS officer. Absolutely right, but I wish he had also mentioned the factors which ensure the upright reputation of the civil services in the UK and that the Cabinet Secretary's report will be impartial and independent- the high standards of public life, a free and fearless press, a watchful and unforgiving citizenry, a Parliament that does much more than just sing paeans to its leader, an independent judiciary that does not seek sinecures, a govt. sensitive to public opinion, rock solid protection for civil servants which no errant and vengeful Prime Minister can dismantle. None of this is available in India today to motivate a civil servant to behave like his British counterpart. A spine is only as strong as the bones, tissue, muscles and ligaments which surround it, like a protective sheath and keep it in place. The IAS has been losing this sheath for sometime now, a few more years and the "spine" will only be fit for mounting in a Natural History museum in the nation's capital. If we have a nation still left that is, or one that is worth preserving.

  Blaming the IAS is a cop out, an alibi which may make some of us feel good. What we all need to do instead is some serious soul searching, for the rot lies within.