DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mumbai attack - the flip side

The carnage in Mumbai on 26th November 2008 caused senseless loss of scores of lives and damage of millions to public and private property. In its flip side, however, it triggered certain positivities, which if sustained and taken to their logical conclusion, could make India strong and capable of facing such eventualities in future with strength and fortitude. Signs of some of these positivities became evident as the stunned nation gradually recovered from the traumatic event.

The attack exposed the inadequacies of the internal security establishments, including those of the Mumbai Police. Devoid of appropriate weapons and training in countering terror the policemen became mere fodder for the terrorists’ Kalashnikovs. Despite some extraordinary instances of bravery, many, including police officers, stood no chance and were shot down. As the event unfolded over the 24-hour news channels, the saga of failure of the central and state establishments acquired classic proportions. The inaction of the state authorities, the Navy and the Coast Guard in the face of specific intelligence inputs, the avoidable deaths of the police personnel, delay in getting the National Security Guards (NSG) into the act for want of a dedicated aircraft when all the while death and destruction was being caused by the fidayeens, all incensed the stunned people.

Tempers running high, the generally apathetic people’s ire was directed first against the perpetrators of the heinous attacks and then, justifiably, at the political class. Mumbai has, over the years, suffered a series of bomb attacks in which numerous innocents were either killed, maimed for life or severely wounded and traumatised. And yet it was business-as-usual for the “establishment” – relaxed, lackadaisical and apathetic to peoples’ concerns and their safety. While the politicians had appropriated for themselves the cream of the security establishments – the well-trained and well-armed NSG – common people were left exposed and unprotected with a police force inadequate in their numbers and equipped with lathies (staffs) or with the antique 303 rifles.

Aroused passions led to candlelight vigils, mourning the avoidable loss of lives. Massive rallies held in urban India expressed solidarity with the distressed in Mumbai, asking for the heads of those who were at the helm. In their resentment people came together like never before. Religious divides disappeared, as did the differences of class and caste. From all walks of life, they, together, demanded security for their life and property.

Sensing the charged atmosphere, the chastened political class showed, in the ensuing Parliament session, a rare sense of responsibility. Deciding to shun their unruly behaviour causing frequent interruptions of the House proceedings, they – the government and the Opposition – showed unity of purpose seldom seen before. The usual mutual acrimony was, by and large, avoided and the members settled down to the sombre business of adopting measures to secure the country from similar attacks and enabling it to effectively counter them in the future.

Arming itself legally by enacting tougher amendments to the existing Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – a watered down version of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which it had earlier repealed in pursuit of minority votes – the ruling combine pushed through creation of a Federal Investigative Agency. The new Home Minister, who replaced his axed effete predecessor, set about the onerous task of revamping the internal security establishments. Striving to achieve better coordination and sharing of information among the various intelligence outfits at the Centre and in the states, he initiated steps to reinforce the elite NSG, de-centralise them and ensure their quicker deployment. The Navy and the Coastguard are also in for reinforcement and upgradation. The maritime borders are being brought under radar cover and the porous land frontiers are now going to be fenced.

Perhaps for the first time the inadequate numbers of our policemen and their want of preparedness became subjects of public discourse. Lack of leave and training-reserves and diversion of unduly large numbers for VIP security have rendered the force in every state overworked and ill-trained. Their archaic and obsolete arms –mostly ornamental –came in for scathing comments. The citizens of Mumbai were so outraged by the deaths of senior police officers because of their sub-standard bullet-proof vests that they raised funds for provision of proper protective gear for the city’s policemen. Many states now plan to fill the gaps in numbers and their weaponry.

Shaken out of its wits by “26/11” and the public anger that followed it the government, discarding its lethargy and general unconcern, has pulled up its socks and rolled up its sleeves. While some plan or the other is being announced everyday to strengthen internal security, the rumblings of strikes at terrorist camps across the borders are becoming louder by the hour. One can only wish that need for invasive action is obviated. What, however, would be needed is sustaining the tempo of preparedness to preserve the security of the country with internal unity, economic and military muscle coupled with an unwavering political will.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mumbai attack: the way ahead

It took more than 60 hours to get over the mayhem caused by fidayeen attack in Mumbai on 26th November, popularly termed as India’s “9/11”. Nearly two hundred innocents lost their lives, two luxury hotels, including the iconic Taj Mahal Palace, identified by many as the very essence of India, have suffered such destruction that it will take billions of dollars to restore them.

The wanton killing and destruction, from all available evidences exported from Pakistan, the universally acknowledged “epicentre of terror”, had no credible cause. Yet none, including even the United States, has been able to stop the periodical carnage inflicted from there. Quite beyond its capability to stop them, India has to treat such attacks as something which it has to live with. The country had set much store by Pakistan’s democratically elected government. Predictably, however, it has drawn a blank. No help will ever be forthcoming from it as the formidable terror outfits in Pakistan are, virtually, integral to its polity. Even the US acknowledges them. CIA, reportedly, channellises funds to them through the ISI.

Hence, the talk of having a resolution passed by the Security Council against Pakistan for harbouring terror outfits along with their training camps is futile. The same would seem to be true of a proposal to bring collective pressure of the international community on Pakistan. Terror attacks on India are India’s problems. No country is going to come to its help. It is a jungle out there in the arena of international politics where everyone looks after one’s own interests. It is, therefore, the government and the people of the country who will have to rise as one man to forestall such attacks in the future.
The country has to put its act together, which, unfortunately, it has failed to do during the past sixty years. Its land borders continue to remain porous. The government has failed to seal them to make them impenetrable. The maritime security around the extensive coastline has gaping holes. Over the years the land and sea borders have been facilely breached and yet no lessons were learnt. In 1993 RDX was landed via the sea route as a prelude to the serial blasts in Mumbai. And, yet, in 2006 the investigative staff of an English language news channel, out to test the route the terrorists had taken in 1993, came across none of the checks and controls that were claimed to have been installed. In the pervasive indifference “26/11” was just waiting to happen.

Besides, percolating from the top, the endemic corruption has made the administration moth-eaten and listless. People in the government and its agencies suffer from a severe lack of commitment to the country and its interests. While the primary goal of politicians is capturing and retaining power, generally, to plunder public resources, the huge creaky and corrupt bureaucracy, collectively and individually, is committed to none but itself. Public institutions are politicised vitiating the entire administrative machinery. There is hardly any governance and the elaborate systems designed for delivery of public good have been oriented mostly to benefit the politicians, their lackeys and hangers-on. The anger that “26/11” has aroused among the people against the politicians is, therefore, nothing but welling up of their long-simmering discontent.

In such a situation the need is not of new institutions which the government is thinking of establishing. The country is already suffering from surfeit of them – mostly politicised and rendered ineffective. The need, apparently, is of giving a new direction to the existing ones and to make them functional for public good and not for the good of the politicians and political parties in power. The need is also of infusing into them a sense of purpose and commitment and of achieving among them an ambience of harmony with the singular objective of jointly making the country strong, secure and prosperous. It is needless to emphasise the imperative to develop economic and military muscles.
For all this to happen, however, the initiative has to come from the very top – the politicians at various levels, who are the rulers in our kind of democracy. Shunning political chicanery, corruption and nepotism, it is they who will have to be seen to be working for the country. Giving up the politics of “vote banks”, they will have to work up to the slogan of “Country first” that was so prominently visible during the recent American Presidential primaries. They will have to rework the approach to their job and devote themselves, as during the freedom struggle, to the good of the country and its people. With enemies lurking in the neighbourhood, they will have to inspire the security and other establishments as also the people to eternal vigilance against saboteurs within and marauders from abroad. Only then, perhaps, an impression will filter out that the country cannot be messed around with.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

India's healthcare conundrum

Anbumani Ramdoss, India’s Health Minister recently had occasion to highlight the vast gap in the medical workforce in the country. According to him, while the country had around 700,000 doctors, it needed 800,000 more to meet the standards of the World Health Organisation. He added that the country needed 1.5 million more nurses to achieve, as the Indian Planning Commission has indicated, the nurse-patient ratio of 1:500.

In order to overcome the huge deficit, conditions for establishing medical colleges have been relaxed. Sensing an opportunity for making a killing, poliiticians, their financiers and other influential and powerful business interests have got into the act. Colleges have been and are being opened any and everywhere regardless of the availalability or otherwise of the necessary faculty, equipment, patients and/or hospital-beds. Faculty members of distant institution are hired for few days to meet the needs of inspections, which, too, are rigged. Even fake patients are sometimes made to occupy, on payment, beds lying vacant in the attached hospitals.

A member of the Medical Council of India recently lamented the absence of accredition of medical education in India, the efforts being concentrated more towards securing recognition. The main reason for this aberration, he said, was the “absence of sincerity and moral values in the society”. While the Delhi High Court recently ordered closer scrutiny of Indian medical students graduating from abroad, it is almost time for such a scrutiny even of those who graduate from the mushrooming medical colleges in the country. Being products of an ongoing con-game, they mostly emerge as quacks armed with medical degrees. Instead of providing health care they are more likely to effectively deal with the acute population problem of the country!

Training and education of nurses is no different. Because of shortage of a million nurses, to achieve the ratio of a nurse for every 500 patients colleges have been allowed to be opened with scant facilities of teaching and learning. Producing nurses possessing, at best, rudimentary theoretical awareness with little knowledge or training in clinical applications, such institutions are only fattening their promoters doing nothing for the country or for the noble profession. Only the institutions of excellence that the government proposes to open may redeem to a limited extent the ongoing compromise in the quality of nursing.

The proliferating diagnostic labs are also an area of huge concern. According to the Quality Council of India, although 70% of the modern medical care is based on diagnostic lab tests, 90% of medical laboratories have remained unregulated by any standard. Most of the pathological laboratories do not follow any quality benchmark for want of stringent requirements. Here again, accredition (by government or other recognised agencies) is virtually absent and, hence, quality control is non-existent. Leave alone hygiene or sanitation, even sensitivity towards the need for a sterile ambience is absent. Qualified pathologists or radiologists are frequently unavailable. Inspections are unheard of and the entire system is governed by the hardly relevant Shops and Establishments Act. If this is what happens in urban areas one shudders to imagine the plight of the people in the country’s rural recesses. It is nothing but mockery of healthcare.

Instead of tackling these vital issues, Ramdoss got into avoidable controversies. His personal feud with the former Director of the prestigious institution of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a cardiac surgeon of great repute, ended up with egg on his face and that of his government. Besides, to benefit a party apparatchik he banned production of vaccines by public sector labs, causing their widespread shortage that continues till date.

He, however, successfully imposed a ban on smoking in public places. He is now poised to move into the areas of drugs and alcoholism. Ramdoss’s strategy of mounting attacks on the lifestyle or habits or substances the pursuit and/or use of which cause deadly diseases necessitating heavy public investments for their treatment cannot but be appreciated. He however seems to be oblivious of the problem of food adulteration and use of toxic chemicals to ripen fruits and vegetables and to impart to them farm-fresh appearance. Health problems caused by water and air pollution are also nowhere on his horizon as yet.

India’s healthcare is a conundrum that would need much more than mere tinkering. To take care of health of a billion people, mostly poor, the immediate need would seem to be ruthless governance and rooting out of the prevailing rampant corruption in the health sector. And, the country is now at such a stage when penalisation of the states, the main instruments of healthcare delivery, for non-performance by blocking off their funding seems to have become necessary.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vanishing tigresses of Panna

That the tiger in the Indian wild is critically threatened is a well-known fact. At the beginning of 20th Century 40,000 of these striped animals used to roam the jungles of the country. Wanton killings, rising human population, economic development followed by shrinking habitat brought their numbers to a perilous low of around 2000 towards the end of 1960s. That is when the country woke up to the need for protection of this magnificent beast.

It was at the initiative of the more pro-active of politicians, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that the Project Tiger was launched in 1973. Its objective was to, “ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values…” Succeeding for a short while, the Project helped in boosting up the numbers to around 3500 in the course of a couple of decades. However, lackadaisical approach to its protection coupled with a raging demand for its body-parts in East Asian countries saw their numbers plummet again. The last census, organised on a more scientific basis earlier this Century, pegged their numbers at around 1400 – a number which is in no way viable for fulfilling the Project objectives.

It is in this context that the reports circulating for sometime of vanishing tigresses in the Panna Tiger Reserve in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP) are disconcerting. Sariska, a popular tiger-reserve near Delhi, located in the touristy north-western province of Rajasthan, lost all its tigers to pachers in 2005 and two tigers – a male and a female have had to be introduced in it recently. And, now the same catastrophe seems to have befallen Panna.

Created in 1981, Panna National Park was elevated in 1994 to the status of a Tiger Reserve under the Project Tiger. Situated in the picturesque Vindhyan ranges, close to the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho, the Park is known for tiger habitat that is considered about the finest in the country.

All, apparently, was fine with the Reserve until around 2003 when the slide seems to have commenced. With declining tiger-sightings, the figures dished out of its tiger-population in 2004 were so hotly contested that a re-census had to be ordered. Although the fresh census revealed the presence of 35 tigers, the controversy about absence of tigresses in the Park never really died down. Even the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court, comprising inter alia the well-known Indian “tiger scientist” Valmik Thapar, had commented in 2005 on its mismanagement, predicting that the Park was headed the Sariska way.

The year 2007 saw fresh reports about the vanishing tigresses of Panna. Raghu Chundawat, the famous tiger-researcher of Panna, came out into the open in a national English language news-channel speaking about the absence of tigresses in the Park – an observation that, he claimed, was shared by Park officials. Clearly, poachers were active, as was soon proved by press reports.
The current year, too, witnessed no let up in the incidence of adverse reports. In fact, the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine published in its June 2008 issue vehement denials by a senior MP Forest Department official of the Park’s plummeting numbers of female tigers. Asserting that it had not become a “bachelor Park”, he maintained, it had a healthy population of 30-odd tigers.

The same issue of the periodical, however, carried a “Counterpoint” by Raghu Chundawat who, drawing from his technical knowledge acquired during his extended researches on Panna tigers, claimed that “breeding territories” – generally stable and constant in a secure (tiger) population – have appreciably declined in numbers. According to him, loss of seven such “territories” has been documented, suggesting disappearance of 80 to 100 % of Panna’s breeding tigresses.

Whatever might be the official projections, Chundawat’s contentions received support from the fact that in September 2008 the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), finding an unviable male-female ratio, advised the MP Forest Department to introduce more tigresses into the Park.
Quite obviously, lessons have not been learnt from the Sariska debacle where persistent wrong reporting of tiger numbers resulted in the animal’s disappearance from that popular Reserve. Repeating the same mistakes in Panna in an apparent effort to protect skidding reputation(s) well-meant inputs from experts were being ignored, even rubbished, overlooking the larger interests of the country and significance of tiger’s survival to it. Tiger, after all, is not just a feature in our jungles; it is much more than that – “a metaphor for our ecological foundation”, as Bittu Sehgal, a prominent Indian naturalist, has opined. It also happens to be a “metaphor” for the country’s water, food and economic security besides being its vehicle to fight climate-change with.

The need of the hour, therefore, is to set at rest all the controversies of the past and quickly initiate action to organise relocation of a few tigresses in the Park as advised by the NTCA. The best time to undertake relocation of animals, experts say, is winter, which is just round the corner and should be taken advantage of.

Unfortunately, Panna National Park has, of late, made news for all the wrong reasons. The only good news that came in about it was the recent rejection by the National Board for Wildlife of a proposal to further fragment the Park by laying a railway-line through it. Now that the proposed railroad is out of the way, the Central and the MP governments will do well to implement the stalled proposal of the Park’s extension over the, reportedly, “ideal” tiger country. Utmost care will, of course, have to be taken to ensure protection of the carnivore and its prey-base in the extended Park.



Tuesday, October 14, 2008

123 Agreement - of nuclear wastes and other risks


The controversial Indo-US Nuclear Deal has finally been signed. It was inked the other day by Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State and Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Foreign Minister. Hugely controversial, it had a chequered progression to its eventual sealing after three long years.


During the protracted debate on the Deal whether in India or abroad nuclear power was touted as a clean source of energy though the West does not seem to reckon it as such any longer. In the US nuclear power plants have not been built for decades. France, too, has reduced the contribution of nuclear energy in its total power output. Yet, curiously, never for once was a mention made of the hazardous radioactive wastes that the nuclear power reactors generate. True, these do no emit greenhouse gases, but the wastes generated by them unless safely consigned can imperil life and the environment. Curiously, this was never touched upon even as the US and others are up against the unsolved problem of permanent interment and isolation of nuclear wastes.


Classified into three categories – low level, intermediate level and high level wastes (HLW) – disposal of nuclear wastes has to be managed with great care for protecting people and the environment from their lethal radiation. Around 95% of wastes generated by nuclear power plants are HLW which include uranium, plutonium and other highly radioactive elements. They are low in volume but high in their lethality, if allowed to escape into the environment. Some of these have thousands of years of “half life”, i.e. they take thousands of years to decay to half of their potency. Hence after being stored for around 40-odd years in leak-proof sealed cooling casks, these have to be permanently buried in deep underground geologically suitable repositories – by far an expensive proposition.


The nuclear wastes of the power plants of the US, having been stored above ground for around 40-odd years, are now due for permanent burial. A site in Yucca Mountains in Nevada has been selected for the purpose but the Nevadans are somewhat worried. After all, none can guarantee that the wastes will never leak out. The Yucca Mountains facility is likely to be ready by 2010. But, one doesn’t really know whether the site will ever be used for the intended purpose.


In India Waste Immobilisation Plants have been operating in Tarapur, Trombay and Kalpakkam. Vitrification, a complex technology possessed by only a few nations, has been successfully developed in the country and vitrified wastes are, reportedly, stored in a specially designed Solid Storage Surveillance Facility (SSSF) for about 30 years prior to their disposal in deep geological formations. No one knows whether any such geological formation has so far been identified. Speculations are, however, rife that scientists may eventually pitch in for a site in the deserts of the province of Rajasthan in north-west of the country.


Now that the Nuclear Deal has been sealed numerous nuclear reactors worth billions of dollars are going to be imported from the US, France, Russia and sundry others by an energy-hungry India. It, indeed, has big plans. Currently contributing only 3% of the electricity produced in the country, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh intends to take the share of nuclear power to 33% by 2020. There will naturally be corresponding increase in the waste generated, for permanent interment of which the country will have to find appropriate site(s).


Besides, although so far there have been no accidents like those of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, for which Indian scientists deserve all credit, yet chances of one occurring cannot be discounted with the rise in general sloppiness in every sphere of activity in the country. Proliferation generally breeds all round compromise in quality and that may well happen with the proliferating nuclear power industry. Besides, numerousness of atomic power complexes will act like magnates for the disaffected and the hostile elements in the neighbouring countries. If infiltration and exfiltration continue with such ease as at present, the country will never be short of prowling bombers.


The government, therefore, needs to prepare in earnest for handling various implications of the expected inrush of nuclear power plants over the next decade or so. Apart from looking for appropriate safe geological sites, the government will , inter alia, have to take care of at least two more serious implications: one is, of course, to ensure zero-tolerance of slapdash way of functioning and the other is about virtual sealing of the Eastern, Northern and Western borders to prevent their facile penetration by terrorists.

Since harnessing nuclear power in a big way for civilian use is a high-risk venture the country and its people would seem to need to pull themselves up by the boot-straps.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A "neta" thrashed

One wouldn’t be way off the mark if one were to say that politicians have increasingly proved to be bane for this country. It is they who are largely responsible for most of the ills that the country suffers from. Whether it is corruption, non-governance, lawlessness or whatever – all can be traced mostly to acts of omission and commission of the politicians.


One, therefore, does not find oneself harbouring any sympathy for the Member of Parliament (MP) from Madhya Pradesh who the other day happened to be at the receiving end of a sound bit of thrashing at the hands of the Government Railway Police and the Railway Protection Force near the Bina Railway Station.


Quite clearly, he had no business to collect a crowd around him in a bid to obstruct the Railway Administration from removing the encroachers from the Railway lands. As a member of the nation’s Parliament he, surely, is aware of the massive problem of illegal occupation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime Railway lands by unscrupulous people. The Railways now need these pieces of land for various purposes, including those of further development and generation of revenues. The encroachers had been given sufficient notice to vacate the lands, and yet they did not do so. Instead, presumably at their instance, the MP decided to jump into the fray along with his supporters and came in the way of the authorities who were implementing the government’s directions. As generally happens on such occasions, violence ensued and the MP got beaten up when the police resorted to use of force to restore order.


Objectively speaking, he had no reason to interfere in execution of a government decision which, from all evidences, was taken in public interest. But, this is precisely what our netas (politicians) are wont to do. Self-aggrandisement is what they believe in, regardless of its ill-effects on the general quality of governance in the country. They indulge almost regularly in such acts of indiscretion in pursuit of votes unmindful of the larger interests, fostering pervasive lawlessness. No wonder, laws and rules are seldom enforced, so much so that even the apex court has on occasions given vent to its ire in this regard. The administrative and law enforcement machineries have been rendered effete and powerless – all because of the constant interference of our netas, petty or big.


As the ugly situation was entirely of the MP’s own making, one dares say that it would be travesty of justice if the policemen concerned are brought to book for no fault of theirs. If that were to happen it would further encourage the unruly to breach the laws, demoralise the law-enforcement machinery, prevent development and economic progress and result in undeserved glorification of our self-serving netas.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Playing with plastic waste in MP

“Plastic bags are choking the life out of India”, that is what The Ecologist magazine had said almost eight years ago. It further said, “Non-degradable plastic bags are poisoning and clogging up India’s towns and cities. But solutions are hard to come by largely due to the political influence of India's plastics industry”.


This may mot be entirely true today as many states have imposed bans on the plastic bags of less than 20 microns thickness with varying success. These bags are used in profusion by everybody for carrying edible and non-edible material and have since become a nuisance wherever the authorities have failed to act. They fly around in the breeze, are present in strength in garbage dumps and drains which they choke often resulting in floods causing loss of life and property.


The Government of India sanctioned a huge increase in the national production of plastic in the mid-1980s in pursuit of not only self-reliance but also of the global plastic market. Over 50% of all plastic produced in India is used for packaging. Most of this is discarded once used and has caused a massive environmental problem. The government and the plastics industry claim that between 40 per cent and 80 per cent of all plastics produced in India is recovered. That may be true but the flimsy carry-bags are not attractive enough for recovery and it is these that have now become a menace.


Alive to the problem, the Centre formed in 1996 a National Plastic Waste Management Task Force under the Ministry of Forests and Environment. It, however, achieved little, mostly because of the intransigence of the plastic industry. Nevertheless, on the advice of the Task Force the government issued a ‘notification’, to be implemented in all states, indicating that only bags of 20 microns thickness could be manufactured.


That is how the manufacture, trade and use of polythene bags of less than 20 microns thickness came to be banned in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh etc. In Madhya Pradesh, however, the government has been playing footsy with the problem. It seems to have bowed down to the pressure of the plastic industry and has so far failed to impose the ban as required under the directive of the Centre.


On the World Environment Day in 2006 the chief minister had declared that his government was mulling a ban on polythene. After more than two years his government seems to be still undecided. Discarded plastic continues to be ubiquitous, littering the streets, choking up nallas and killing the omni-present stray cattle. This is not the problem of Bhopal alone; all cities in the state face it. Bhopal, however, witnessed heavy floods in 2006 causing loss of life and property. Among many reasons for the unprecedented floods, one that also stood out was plastic waste choking the drains and nallas.


Currently, the government seems to be moving away from imposition of a ban. Last February a report spoke of a memorandum of understanding with a private firm for manufacture of petrol from the discarded plastic. Nothing, however, has materialised so far as contracted firms, reportedly, had not responded positively. A fresh report indicates that under the “polythene-free Bhopal” initiative, the plastic waste will be carted 400 kms. away to a cement factory to be burned with coal. A truck with 10 tons of plastic has already been sent to the factory enabling the Chairman Pollution Control Board to claim that for the first time in the country plastic, a non-biodegradable material, was being destroyed in a “constructive way”.


Nothing could be more absurd than this. Using scarce, imported and subsidised diesel on disposal of a waste material, the creation of which is eminently preventable, seems to be pretty harebrained. Clearly, the plastic lobby has worked behind the scenes and has won the government over with inducements.


Technologically more advanced countries of the West would have opted long back to extract petrol out of the plastic waste or decided to incinerate it in the same manner had these been economically and/or environmentally viable. Clearly, they did not find them so. From the United States to China and even in the supposedly more backward Sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, countries have opted for banning these infernal bags.


Having a touch of uniqueness about them, our politicians, however, think differently. Reason, logic and larger public interests are seldom in their reckoning. The be all and end all of all their political shenanigans is to seek out resources by fair or foul means to fight elections, satisfy their perceived vote bank and sustain themselves in power. It is all so amazing to see the way they live and work for themselves – oblivious of the wellbeing of the country, its people and their future!




Sunday, August 31, 2008

Baltal - the land of contention

In September 1968, I happened to spend a few hours in Baltal. I was heading towards Ladakh for annual inspection of our departmental units along with a Major of the Army Signals in his jeep. I was then in charge of postal operations in Kashmir and Ladakh. Ahead of Sonmarg, instead of pushing on and up towards the Zoji-la, we got off the highway and gently descended for a few kilometres into a valley that, I was told, was Baltal. Luxuriously dressed in several shades of green, it was a valley of incredible beauty. The green carpet of grass, tall mountains all around clothed in thick tall conifers in a shade of dark-green, with white patches of snow at the very top below a lapis-lazuli sky in the balmy September sun of Kashmir took one’s breath away.

With no habitation, except a very small Army Signals tented unit, the place was nature’s own preserve. A small green hillock around the middle of the valley had what looked like an abandoned bungalow. The Signals men passed on to us the local folklore about it. It seems, Indira and Feroz Gandhi had honeymooned in the bungalow – an ideal place, in the lap of nature’s extravagant bounty with hardly a soul around.

While lunching on their substantial fare we were told the Amarnath Cave was only eight miles away, high above across the mountains. Only a few adventurous tough jawans had been able to make it to the shrine. The climb, though very picturesque, was stiff, and the going treacherous on ice-sheets that, at places, were thin enough to crumble, often into what could be deep crevices. The round trip of 16 miles had to be completed during daylight hours.
I could hear army trucks a few thousand feet above groaning while laboriously working their way up the tortuous road to Zoji-la at around 11,000 ft. To get to the Cave one had to go across mountains of the same, if not greater, elevation on the south-easterly side. According to some, this route to the Amarnath shrine has been used for centuries. If that was so, the Army men would have known. Maybe, some adventurers would occasionally take the route. The regular route has, however, always been via Pahalgam and that, in fact, is also the route of pilgrimage. The valley was in its pristine state as it had not till then become the alternate route to the Shrine.
Forty years ago the Yatra was managed by the J&K government. The Chief Minister used to be personally involved in the arrangements. A few thousand pilgrims would accompany the Chhari Mubarak, the Holy Mace, taking the well-trodden route via Pahalgam. The pilgrimage would be over in a fortnight or so. Of course, there were stragglers who would make it to the Shrine on their own. But they wouldn’t get the same facilities as those who accompanied the Chhari.

Tourism – whether wildlife, beach, religious or whatever – strives for unrestricted growth. In the process, it creates vested interests that treat the activity as mere commerce and try to make a killing. Even governments and public bodies succumb to the temptations, seldom displaying any concern for such niceties as ecology – whether fragile or otherwise.

Apparently, to accommodate the fast growing traffic – now in lakhs – for the Shrine the authorities, instead of regulating and restricting the numbers, opened the alternate route from Baltal. Worse, the Yatra was later made a two-month long affair. And the result is there for all to see. The pictures that come across through the electronic and print media are those of a once-beautiful valley utterly ravaged, with the green of the meadows stripped, trees felled, structures erected, huge gatherings of people, numerous buses and helicopters in flight.
Shorn of all religiosity and the politics over the transfer of the contentious land, one cannot but pity the loss of the once-idyllic valley that was a gift of nature for us to cherish and nurture. Alas, it was sacrificed at the altar of (religious) tourism that, from all evidences, appears to be increasingly becoming environmentally unsustainable.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The seditious allies of UPA


Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, President, Peoples’ Democratic Party of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), recently led in Srinagar a violent crowd of traders and others in a bid to breach the Line Of Control, the de facto international frontier, for crossing over to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-held Kashmir. Kashmir has been engulfed in agitations over an alleged economic blockade of the Valley by Jammu’s Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti. The Samiti is agitating against the reversal of order of allotment of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board in Baltal in Kashmir Valley. The violent demonstrations in the Valley resulted in police firing that claimed two innocent lives.

What is noteworthy in this regard is that there has been no economic blockade of Kashmir. This was proved by the aerial video footage of vehicular movements on Jammu-Srinagar highway telecast by an English language news channel. Even the Home Minister of the Government of India, who is generally considered more sympathetic to the Muslim minority, informed the Prime Minister after his return from the all-parties meet in the state that there was no economic blockade whatsoever.


Ms. Mehbooba is the daughter of a former Central home minister. She also heads a party that until recently jointly ran the government of Jammu and Kashmir and continues to be an ally of the government at the Centre. She, therefore, should have known that, whatever might be the provocation, the state could not have directly carried out trade and commerce with Pakistan without the approval of the national government. By her act, indiscreet as it was, she not only played into the hands of the Pakistani Intelligence-backed separatists, she also needlessly instigated the people of the Valley against their own country spreading calumny and disinformation.


That the father-daughter duo running the PDP is separatist at heart has been suspected for a long time. They have been making weird statements which, inter alia, included the one relating to making Pakistani currency legal tender in the Valley. They did so even when their political outfit was running the J&K government jointly with the Congress. The ongoing agitation fuelled by them about the alleged non-existent economic blockade fully exposes where their sympathies lie.


Strangely, however, PDP continues to be a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that runs the Central government. One recalls how before the confidence vote in the Parliament on 22nd July 2008, the UPA government had Ms. Mehbooba flown over to Delhi in a special Indian Air Force aircraft in the effort to muster every single vote in its favour. That the UPA has in its fold the corrupt and the criminal is well known. In its bid to be more inclusive, it seems, it now also includes the seditious and the secessionist.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tom, Jerry and Bofors

Are the CBI and Bofors like “Tom and Jerry” in the eponymous world-famous animated cartoon-show created by Hollywood? Shouldn’t be quite so, one reckons! But, that is precisely how the newly-appointed Director of the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), Mr. Ashwini Kumar, has, reportedly, described the two recently. If that is what he thinks, it would seem to be indicative of the shape of things to come, at least, during his stewardship of the prime national investigative agency.

Evidently, the CBI, like Tom, will be eternally goofing up its chases of culprits in the Bofors pay-off case, who, like smart and agile Jerry, will always give it the slip. Jerry is always far smarter than Tom, who mostly ends up with eggs all over his face. Mr. Kumar, therefore, seems to be nursing a hope that is at best fond – that of nabbing the culprits one day.

Bofors culprits, including Ottavio Quattrochi, will be always ahead of the CBI – and, quite contrarily, not because they are far more nimble than the CBI. If Mr. Kumar, having spent decades in the Police, has failed to realise it all these years, he has inhabited some amorphous worldof his own making. The culprits in the Bofors pay-off case have been eluding the CBI because it has acted as the “poodle” that Tony Blair was likened to. It has always been obedient of the commands of its masters in the government and refrained from sinking its teeth in the flesh of the culprits, leave alone bite or bark at them.

If the CBI under Mr. Kumar continues to be the “poodle” it has been in respect of the Bofors case, and there is no reason to believe that it will not, criminals of the political variety will always elude it.

And, as far as the Bofors case is concerned, people of this country would much rather like Mr. Kumar to apply the closure instead of continuing to play, as indicated by him, the “cat and mouse” game with it, blowing up millions from the public exchequer in these days of double-digit inflation.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sitting on a powder keg?

As many as 20 bombs were found and defused in Surat – one right where the chief minister had been during his tour – in two days, ending 30th July. This after several bombs had gone off in Ahmedabad causing mayhem and death. Before that bombs had gone off in Bangalore, too, causing, mercifully, only one death and minor damage.


Surfeit of bombs in Surat raises at least two questions. One, despite the red alert having been sounded, the Central or the state Intelligence outfits did not have so much as a whiff of the massive terrorists’ plans to blow off the “diamond city”. Planting of as many as 20 bombs at various places – sensitive or otherwise – in the city must have been a sizable operation involving scores of people. And, yet the Intelligence outfit of the state had no clue. This is surprising, as also depressing, pointing, as it does, to its utter ineffectiveness. True, the Police virtually in every state have become ineffective, mostly because of being thoroughly politicised. Yet, this has been a failure of Himalayan proportions. Obviously, there is something basically wrong with our intelligence outfits. Either their “sources” have dried up or their informers, if any, are plain duds. Clearly there is no “humint”, i.e. intelligence gathered from human sources. Bomb after bomb was recovered and defused and yet the Police or its Intelligence wing had no information. But for the alertness of the general public Surat could well have been devastated.


The other issue that stands out is the facile ease with which the terrorists – home-grown or foreign – are able to acquire or import the deadly materials, transport them from one place to another, assemble the stuff taking shelter in the safe havens of collaborators/sympathisers or of “sleeper cells” and then plant those using local foot-soldiers at places selectively chosen. The organisation and methods of the operations and the secrecy with which they are conducted are remarkable. Worse, the terrorists – widely dispersed as they seem to be – are able to issue threats to all and sundry in various parts of the country, which virtually has been held hostage by their terror. Clearly, with its leaking borders, inept internal security establishments, apathetic general public and, above all, soft and ineffectual politicking governments at the Centre and the states, this country is harbouring within its confines hundreds and thousands of dedicated men whose sole aim is to inflict on it “thousand wounds” and to destroy it from within. Uncannily, this is precisely what the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants used to shout from house-tops in Assam not too long ago.


It is such a sorry commentary on our governments and their governance. Despite scores of bombings in recent years in various parts of the country things have not improved. The systems considered necessary have all been put in place at great cost to the public exchequer; but, these never function, more so, in crunch situations. Every time the innocents have to pay with their life.


If we do not put our house in order and run no-nonsense, businesslike governments at the Centre and in the states, giving no quarter to the pervasive chalta hai syndrome, this country is going to implode sooner than later. We seem to forget that we are surrounded by enemies, whose agents move in and out of the country with great facility to commit acts of violence, killing our people and destroying our public and private property. Unless we put our act together it is they who one day will prove to be our nemesis.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The "poodle" that the CBI is

The Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is again in the news and, as usual, for the wrong reason. After soft-pedalling for years, it has decided to revive the case of accumulation of disproportionate assets against Ms. Mayawati, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. No wonder, she has charged the CBI of doing so at the behest of the ruling combine at the Centre as she has withdrawn her party’s support to it. None is impressed by the protestations of its Director that his organisation functions independently – without being influenced by its political bosses. After all, this has been the general paradigm in which CBI has been functioning for the last so many decades.


It may claim to have found the culprit in the NOIDA double-murder case but its track record of booking corrupt in high places has been dismal. Its history is replete with instances where it knowingly let corrupt politicians slip out of the clutches of the law.


From the times of Indira Gandhi it has been (mis)used for political purposes. It was used by her and Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency as their instrument for harassing all those who wouldn’t fall in line and be party to their gross and vicious acts. The then Director CBI did regular duty at the PM’s House (PMH) and played the role of their hatchet-man only too willingly. Bishen Tandon, the then Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, has given graphic descriptions of the goings-on in the PM’s Office and PMH in his PMO Diaries.


Things haven’t changed over the years. How Ottavio Quattrochi, an Italian ‘soldier of fortune’, a fixer and a friend of the Gandhi family, was repeatedly let off the hook despite his pocketing a hefty commission for fixing the purchase of the Swedish Bofors guns is recent history. Not only was he allowed to walk out free after being arrested in Argentina, his ill-gotten millions, sealed in a UK Bank at CBI’s behest, were curiously allowed to be released.


A former Joint Director, BR Lall, in his recent book “Who owns the CBI”, has exposed the perversity of at least two Directors of his times. K Vijay Rama Rao, an Andhra Cadre IPS officer, would in no case allow Lall to investigate at the PMH even though evidence collected by him in Jain Hawala case led straight to Late Narsimha Rao, the then Prime Minister. In order to scuttle the case, charge sheets against several alleged recipients of hawala money were deliberately filed without any supporting evidence so that the court could throw the case out. The court did just that.


Rao’s immediate successor, tried his best to scupper the investigations in the famous fodder scam of Bihar involving Lalu Prasad Yadav and his cronies. He tried all the tricks, including transfer from Patna of his own investigating Joint Director. His highhandedness and brazen bias provoked the court to isolate him from the investigation of the scam – an unprecedented action by the Supreme Court against the chief of the prime investigating agency of the country. Soon after assuming, charge he broke the security barrier to take a lift form Narasimha Rao, the former PM, as he was leaving a wedding reception. Queried by the media, he brazenly told them he travelled with him only to seek his “blessings and guidance”. He also brought back with fanfare from Switzerland what he claimed were documents which would provide clinching evidence against another former PM in the Bofors case. All those, however, proved to be duds in the court, being only unauthenticated photocopies.


In the current scenario CBI-watchers are sanguine that a case similar to that of Mayawati pending against Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son will get placed in the cold storage. After all, his party’s support may prove invaluable at the time of the confidence-vote. CBI, as is well known, is nothing but a “poodle” of the party in power.


The Transparency International, in its annual assessments, has been rating India as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Politicians, including the current PM, have only paid lip-service to the fight against corruption. Elaborate systems have been put in place at enormous public expense to arm the state for the fight. But, hardly any politician or bureaucrat occupying high office has ever been brought to book.


It is generally believed that politicians are self-serving and corrupt. Indeed, they mostly are. But they cleverly have their nefarious plans implemented by officials who, being no less self-serving and corrupt, willingly collaborate with them. So, politicians and bureaucrats – big and petty – have together made the country what it is today – corrupt to the core. In this process, however, the CBI, headed by members of the Indian Police Service, supposedly the guardians of our law, has made no mean contribution.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Nuclear Deal - some reservations

The die has been finally cast. The UPA government has decided to approach the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to finalise the India-specific Safeguards Agreement. Although there is a huge amount of support within the country for the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, one wished the government had been a little wary of some of its implications. There are several issues which needed in-depth consideration before the plunge was taken.

Firstly, the extraordinary interest shown by the US in the Deal raises suspicions about its intentions. In whatever the US does its national interest is always paramount, in pursuit of which it tends to become overbearing and brash. Its Administration is not really one which is known for altruism – without any motives. There is, surely something more to the Deal than what meets the eye – something vital which is at stake for the US and which, seemingly, hinges on it. Nobody knows what it is. If it’s only commercial, and not political, we could consider ourselves somewhat blessed.

Secondly, the government should have been mindful of various intimidating clauses of the Hyde Act. Touted as a domestic legislation that enabled the Administration to negotiate the 123 Agreement for the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, it contains tell-tale signs of the US intentions to bring India within its fold – a veritable close embrace, seemingly, of more sinister nature than the “Soviet bear-hug”. The very Preamble of the Act has the unseemly provision that India could be a “fit partner” if it, inter alia, had a foreign policy that is “congruent” to that of the United States and that it works “with it in key foreign policy initiatives related to non-proliferation.” Section 105 of the Act demands certification by the US President that “India is fully and actively participating” in the efforts of the US to “contain” Iran’s nuclear programme. More importantly, it requires US Administration to scrap the 123 Agreement if India conducted a nuclear test. The government’s claim that the 123 Agreement overrides the Hyde Act seems a false belief. In a crunch situation the latter can be used to force scrapping of the Deal. One wished the government had been more transparent about the matter.

Then, US ratification of the Deal will surely bring the two countries much closer than they have ever been before. This, at once, is likely to make AlQuaida see India as a collaborator of the US and, consequently, a major target for its foot soldiers for devastating terrorist attacks. AlQuaida surrogates are already operating against the country from Pakistan and Bangladesh where they happen to be well-entrenched with official and unofficial support. For them, our borders virtually do not exist; they have a free run of the country and are able to launch at will terror attacks on our sensitive locations. Unless, like the US, we take strict and uncompromising security measures, empowering, strengthening, upgrading and modernising the entire internal security apparatus, proxy AlQaida warriors could do the same with our atomic power facilities. Hopefully, steps in these directions have been initiated.

Another issue that has remained unaddressed concerns the vital question of disposal of the radioactive nuclear wastes that will be generated by nuclear power plants. Classified into three categories – low level, intermediate level and high level wastes (HLW) – disposal of the nuclear wastes has to be managed with great care for protecting people and the environment from lethal effects of radiation. Atomic power plants mostly generate HLW, some of which take thousands of years to decay to half of their potency. Hence after being stored for around 40-odd years in leak-proof sealed casks, these have to be permanently buried in deep underground geologically suitable repositories. The US is still to find a suitable site for its HLW which are now due for burial, having been around in sealed containers for some 40 years. One feels a little uneasy about our capabilities, as we have made heavy weather of disposal of the dangerous chemical wastes of the now-defunct Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Twenty years on, the wastes are still lying at the site, polluting the surroundings and damaging the health of the people of the area.

It is not yet too late to seriously consider some of these vital issues that cast a shadow over the Deal. They need to be brought out into public discourse for clarity and comprehension even as the Deal cruises along on its pre-determined trajectory towards fruition.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The thick-skinned Indian politician

Politics, perhaps, more so Indian politics, desensitises its practitioners and dulls their sensibilities. Emotions, including those which are considered superior, like shame and embarrassment, hardly ever affect them in any manner. Confronted with disgrace and dishonour after committing the most unethical of acts, our politicians put up a straight face, occasionally, even adopting an aggressive stance.


This was in evidence in ample measure during the preceding few weeks. TR Baalu, a Central minister, for instance, was caught misusing his official position for promotion of his son’s business. He not only canvassed with the Petroleum Ministry but also had half a dozen recommendatory missives sent to it by the PMO. When exposed in the Parliament, far from being embarrassed, he blatantly and aggressively shook off the accusations and denied having committed any “wrong”

Anbumani Ramdoss, another Central minister, likewise, brazened out the expose` in The Pioneer about the huge favours shown to a party apparatchik. Using WHO’s adverse comments on vaccines produced by three PSUs, he peremptorily shut down their production, allowing a free run to a party worker in the starved market in vaccines. That the WHO had also offered to upgrade the manufacturing facilities in the PSUs was unscrupulously suppressed. He also irregularly lavished financial favours on his friend from government funds. Wilting under pressure, Ramdoss ran for cover, ordering an enquiry.

The PM, observing the coalition “dharma”, remained a passive spectator of the shenanigans of his two ministers.

In Madhya Pradesh, having presided over a scam of Rs. 500 crore in the Health Department for two years, the Health Minister, Ajai Vishnoi, refused to resign when his house was raided by the Income Tax authorities, nonchalantly pointing out that only the portion occupied by his brother was raided. That his brother, operating from a PSU in collaboration with senior departmental officials, was the lynchpin of non-supply, under-supply and supply of spurious medicines to the field healthcare units in the state didn’t seem to occur to him.

According to researchers, shame and embarrassment, though ephemeral, are emotions cherished only by individuals who are highly evolved. Our politicians, who are too unennobled, hardly ever harbour such superior sentiments. Sheer power with its pelf is what drives them –ethics be damned!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Green roofs for salubrious cities


The Environmental Planning and Coordination (EPCO) of Madhya Pradesh have taken an admirable initiative for promoting “green construction”. Quite obviously, the state is gradually becoming concerned about the urban environment and the progressive adverse impact on it of the burgeoning construction activity. Numerous multi-crore projects are either in progress or are on the anvil in major towns of the state. In Bhopal, for instance, one such project is already in progress. Clearly, the initiative is indicative of the government’s rising anxiety to forestall the environmental degradation that massive construction activity inevitably entails.

That large scale construction in urban areas causes a rise in ambient temperature is a well-known phenomenon. Many of our towns, like Dehra Dun, Bangalore, Pune and Bhopal, which once were considered green and idyllic with pleasant and equable climate, have now heated up because of massive, thoughtless construction witnessed therein during the last few decades. Much of their old attributes could, however, have been retained had recourse been taken to “green construction”. Apart from being eco-friendly, it would have kept their ambience well within the comfort zone, retaining their salubrious attributes. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen as environmentalism has been a little late in taking roots in this country.

While “green construction”, with all its environmental benefits, can be made a reality by suitably organising/incentivising the relevant aspects of the construction industry governments, in the meantime, could encourage the concept of “green roofs”. These are also to a great extent environment-friendly. Massive constructions taking place in all urban concentrations are propelling demands for energy, besides heating up their environment. Green roofing, if introduced, particularly in large constructions/complexes, could mitigate to a large extent their ill-effects

“Green roofs” are not the ones that are strewn with plants in pots or containers. The term refers to a roof that is partially or wholly covered with vegetation and soil on top of a waterproofing membrane. Not an unknown phenomenon, one recalls at least one building around 20 years ago in South Mumbai on the roof of which fairly good-sized trees could be seen swaying in the breeze from the road below.

Historically speaking, however, green roofs first came up in Germany on top of low-cost apartments during the post-industrial constructions in the late 19th Century. The roofs were topped with gravel, sand and grass to protect the constructions from fire. Germany saw a second wave of “green roofs” during the 1980s to bring the fast-disappearing vegetation back into cities. Subsidies helped create around 63,500 square metres of green roofs by 1996. Made a legal requirement for all large construction projects, Germany today is estimated to have 10% of all its roofs “greened”.

It is not Germany alone where green roofs have taken off in a big way. France, Austria, Switzerland and other European have climbed on to the bandwagon. Switzerland has one of Europe's oldest green roofs, created in 1914, on a water-treatment plant in Zurich. Europe, currently, is estimated to have 15 million square metres of green roofing. Becoming increasingly popular in the US, the 2.5 acre-roof of San Francisco's new California Academy of Sciences building is being greened as habitat for indigenous species. While the largest expanse can be found at the Ford Motor Company’s plant in Michigan, Chicago’s City Hall is another well-known example. Fukuoka, in Japan, has 35,000 plants of 76 species on the terraces of its Prefectural International Hall as a compensatory measure for gobbling up the park it was built on.

World over cities are taking to green-roofing for their obvious public and private benefits. Among the major public benefits are insulation of buildings from extremes of temperature, reducing their energy requirements for heating/cooling thus preventing further global warming, re-creation of brownfield habitats of ecological value fostering regeneration of their bio-diversity; mitigation of air-borne pollution and risks of floods and enhancement of their visual appeal. More importantly green roofs cool overheated cities by reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE) which makes urban concentrations, with their hard reflective surfaces, hotter than their rural surroundings (Chicago’s City Hall roof has been found several degrees cooler than the surrounding roofs). Besides, depressed UHIE reduces ground-level ozone, contributing to a healthier urban community.

Private benefits include, inter alia, substantial savings on energy for internal heating/cooling, provision of drains and storm water management. Besides insulating the building from external noise, green roofs extend aesthetic advantage, providing congenial spaces for rest and recreation. They even have economic value. A hotel in Vancouver saved more than its investments on its green roof by growing herbs it used in its cuisine and a farmer in Chhattisgarh grew his crop on his small rooftop patch. What’s more, they increase the value of the property.
As retrofitting of existing roofs is eminently feasible the central and the state governments could launch a campaign and incentivise green roofing, particularly in large constructions/complexes, for its all-round benefits, more so for the wellbeing of the rapidly growing urban communities. An enactment on German pattern could also be considered

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Resurrecting the humble bike

The ‘2008 Oil shock’ has helped resurrect the humble bicycle, curiously, at the hands of our hypocritical politicians. Providing them photo-ops, it has given them an occasion to display their non-existent closeness with the aam aadmi. Soon after the recent steep petrol/diesel price hike, Shiv Raj Singh Chowhan, Chief Minister of MP, acquired a bike at government expense and pedalled up the Arera Hill of Bhopal to the Secretariat. Not to be outdone by their chief, a few more ministers, along with their side-kicks, huffed and puffed their way up the next day.

Essentially a gimmick, as none has surrendered the allotted fleet of automobiles, the crass act ended up trivialising a dire need – that of converting once again the bicycle as one of the mainstays of urban transport. That it is largely carbon-neutral would be stating the obvious. We, however, seem to have given it up altogether. Time was when we were basically a biking nation. After Independence there was a veritable bicycle revolution and every middle-class home used to own a bike. Even villagers, those who could afford, would pedal down the country roads. In the cities it was the vehicle of the masses. Poona, now Pune, was where swarms of cyclists were a common sight. Everywhere, schools, colleges and offices used to have cycle-stands and the students/staff unions used to fight the administration for sheds over them. The stands today have become extinct as the bicycle itself has become an endangered species, having been pushed aside by its self-propelling, more powerful and expensive, albeit polluting, avatar. Like the bicycle revolution of yore, we are now in the midst of a motorised two and four-wheeler revolution. Middle-class households generally have both; the good-old pedal-bike being seldom in their reckoning. Motorised two-wheelers are common in villages and urban jhuggies. It is a dangerous trend. Bicycles in Beijing used to be ubiquitous. With greater prosperity people took to cars and look what happened! Beijing ended up with the sobriquet of “the air-pollution capital of the world”.

But, bicycles are coming back all over the world in a big way. The global warming-induced climate-change has done the trick. Naturalists, environmental activists and cycling aficionados are reviving the humble bike everywhere. The “Critical Mass”, a group of cyclists of the US Bay Area, has spawned “The Raging Cyclists” in Santiago, Chile. Similar groups have taken off in Canada, Europe and Australia.

Promoting the bike as a clean and efficient alternative to the personal automobile is a practical way for cities to reduce traffic congestion and smog. A number of European cities have set the standard for bicycle use and promotion, via pro-bike transportation and land use policies, as well as heavy funding for bicycle infrastructure and public education. In Copenhagen, for example, 36 percent of commuters bike to work. The city plans to invest more than $200 million in bike facilities between 2006. Amsterdam has always been a biking city.

Governments elsewhere are following Europe’s lead. In November 2007, South Korea announced a new pro-bike campaign, expanding its bicycle infrastructure to substantially increase bike ownership by 2015. Mexico City, using promotional campaigns, plans to have 5 percent of all trips to be by bikes in 2012, up from less than 2 percent today. In the US, aided by $900 million a year in federal funding for promotion of biking for 2005 to 2009, the bicycle facilities are being put in place apace. The US is also working on an inter-city National Bicycle Greenway.

No such initiative is, however, noticeable in this country, barring in New Delhi where the new Master Plan proposes “fully segregated” bicycle tracks along all arterial roads. It does not talk of any other bicycle infrastructural items. Now that the oil prices have gone through the roof and climate-change is closing in, concerned and sensitive citizens in this country need to persuade their local bodies to provide necessary facilities for the untrammelled use of bikes. More importantly, they have to launch educational campaigns to bring home to every one – young and old, rich and poor – the virtues of the use of the humble bike