Sunday, December 20, 2009

Copenhagen quibbles as Planet Earth sizzles

The Environmental News Network of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in one of its recent newsletters cited a report of the Telegraph of UK that polar bears of the Arctic have turned cannibals. According to the report, new photographs show that polar bears are beginning to cannibalise each other as global warming destroys their hunting grounds. The images taken in Hudson Bay, Canada, show a male polar bear carrying the head of a cub that it had killed for food.

Living in the frozen Arctic, polar bears, a beautiful but highly endangered species, mostly subsist on seals, hunting them from platforms of sea ice. The melting of sea ice, warmed by rising global temperature, has deprived them of the platforms, particularly in their southern range, the Hudson Bay being a part of it. Now, mostly land-bound, hunting seals have become difficult for them leading to malnourishment and starvation. Cases of drowning are also being frequently reported as the bears, though excellent swimmers, have to swim far out into the sea in search of food. If this is what is happening in December, which is well into the Arctic winter, one can imagine what's going to happen during the summer. Already the sea ice in the southern range of the Arctic is melting earlier in the spring and forming later in the autumn reducing the time available for the bears on the ice, adversely impacting their energy stock to survive through the summer.

The entire Arctic region, which is the habitat of polar bear, is increasingly showing signs of the effects of global warming. As recently as on 14th December 2009 Al Gore, Nobel Laureate and former Vice President of United States, told the UN Climate Conference being held in Copenhagen that new data suggests that the Arctic polar ice cap may disappear in the summers as early as five to seven years from now. Polar scientist had told him only on the previous day that the latest data suggest a 75% chance of the entire polar ice cap melting in summer within the next five to seven years. Arctic Ocean sea ice has shrunk to record low levels during the past several summers. Global warming has raised temperatures twice as fast in the north as elsewhere, say the scientists.

While the Hudson Bay habitat of the polar bear is in the process of disappearing, their habitat elsewhere in the Arctic is also under threat. Melting ice is making the Arctic more and more accessible for exploitation of its vast natural resources, threatening and degrading their habitat. Global warming seems to have got its first major victim. Large carnivores being sensitive indicators of the health of their ecosystems, cannibalism setting in among the polar bears is a matter of great concern. Soon it may lead to disaster for the species, even to its extinction.
With the unmistakable signs of habitat loss for other species gradually a similar fate is likely to overtake them all ...yes, even us, humans!

One wonders whether this is really it – the shape of things to come!

Whether bells are, after all, tolling for life on earth!

Are we slowly but surely approaching apocalypse?

And, what are we, humans, doing about it? Only quibbling – over steps for mitigating carbon concentration from the atmosphere! Sitting at Copenhagen, pretty close to the melting Arctic, leaders of humanity do not seem to see eye to eye even now for taking effective measures to save the earth! When life on the planet is in peril, we, the humans, having divided ourselves among several nation-states – few rich, many poor and some surviving on the very edge and highly vulnerable – are bickering over who will do what and how much to cool the planet to make it hospitable for life.

Time seems to be running out fast. Global warming, which only a few years back was like a distant clap of thunder, suddenly looks very real and far too ominous. It is time each one of us gets our act together to fight it and do our utmost to prevent it from engulfing the entire humanity. The signals are loud and clear and there is hardly any time to be lost. No longer can it be "business as usual". Copenhagen or no Copenhagen, all of us – governments, organisations and individuals – have to chip in. Everyone has to take well-measured determined steps, whatever the costs, for mitigating carbon from the atmosphere – the root cause of global warming.

It is a long and hard battle that we have to fight – the battle that will eventually decide whether we survive or perish!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The devastated Afghani

I came across an article recently on Afghanistan by Hugh Sykes who works for the BBC News. While describing the politics relating to the country “stranger than fiction”, he narrated the miserable conditions that prevail in it today. According to him, even after a lapse of more than 8 years of the launch of “War on terror” and billions of dollars poured into the country to prop up Hamid Karzai, life in Afghanistan has not improved. He quoted a passage from a novel Blood Meridian, a one-time best-seller, (by Cormac McCarthy the famous American novelist and playwright) which was about Mexico around 150 years ago but, he said, fits the present-day Kabul so snugly. The passage was: “Old alms seekers, with their seamy palms out-held and maimed beggars, sad-eyed in rags and children asleep in the shadows with flies walking their dreamless eyes... Naked dogs that seem composed of bone entirely and small orphans abroad like irate dwarfs”. To complete the Kabul picture, Sykes said, one had only to add, “children in rags tug at your coat and you fish out a battered Afghan note...Then there are 10 small children grabbing at your hand and you cannot get away as the children are blocking the pavement...A woman with a baby under her burka sees you giving money to the children and begs for some herself... The daylight thickens into night and there are no street lights. A young man, desperate for work, weeps...and through his accusing tears says: you have been here eight years now, and what have you done?” (Lyrical but very distressing!)

That is precisely what I ask too. For eight long years Afghanistan has been kind of “killing fields”. Before that the murderous Taliban who did the Soviets in but, later, did likewise with the Afghanis – their own kind. It wasn’t like that when I spent two summer months in 1983 in Kabul (doing a consultancy on behalf of the Universal Postal Union). Back then, under the occupation of the now-defunct Soviet Union, Kalashnikov-toting Red Army men used to be ubiquitous. They had pickets around every hundred metres on the arterial roads (perhaps, now substituted by the men of the “Coalition of the willing”). One could feel the Mujahideen activity up and beyond the surrounding hills. Blasts and rat-tat-tat of gunfire could be heard almost every night. During the day, however, life was normal – yes, far too normal for the prevailing conditions. Importantly, no child would ever tug at your jacket for the stapled-together Afghani currency notes. Nor would a burqua-clad woman – generally seen in the Old Town across the Kabul River – would ever think of asking you for alms. (The newer areas had signs of once-having-been plush where women were mostly westernised) Most of them were in dire straits, but, clearly, their pride would not permit them to beg. A dangerous place then, with death lurking at every corner, many must have been shot out resisting the Red Army, yet in the midst of the ongoing fireworks all around, Kabul was hospitable and apparently well-fed.

That was then! It is so sad now – more so when one sees what man can do to man and ruin a people in a matter of few years – the saga of post Zaheer Shah Afghanistan. Currently, a lethal mix of bigoted murderers and western forces is ravishing the country and devastating its beautiful people. So down and out now that it will be a miracle if Afghanis are ever able to pull themselves out of the depths they have been dragged down to. Obama’s proposed pull-out by 2011 will leave behind ghosts or, at best, zombies.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

India's food safety conundrum

For the millions of those who get hyped on Diwali, it was a nasty shock. Diwali is for many the festival of lights, eats and commencement of a new year. Gifts, mostly sweets, are exchanged with friends and family. This year, however, on Diwali the sweet shops had no sweets of the most popular variety, the ones made of mawa, also called khoya. Made of thickened milk, mawa is extensively used for making various kinds of Upper Indian sweets. The stuff had just disappeared from the markets. The reason was confiscations that followed detection of quintals of spurious mawa in transit by rail and road and in various storages. Made in several up-country towns, the spurious stuff was meant for various parts of the country.

Massive raids followed by arrests in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and even in Mumbai yielded thousands of quintals of adulterated mawa and other milk products. Sting operations conducted by an English language national news channel prompted the authorities to scramble for action. From what one saw on the small-screen, adulteration appeared to be widespread, more or less, regular practice. Very candid on camera, adulterators said genuine khoya is seldom available in the market. Whatever was on offer was adulterated with harmful chemicals like caustic soda, detergents, etc. The cameras picked out various nooks and corners of the so-called kitchens showing nauseating details of the entire process of adulteration in filthy surroundings devoid of any semblance of hygiene.

In the absence of any let or hindrance, the unscrupulous are free to carry on their business unmindful of the consequences of their dreadfully unethical acts on the unwary consumer. On several occasions during the recent past TV news channels had conducted sting operations and unearthed the business of adulteration of milk products. Not too long ago, some of them had uncovered manufacture of synthetic milk, mostly, in the nation’s Capital, Delhi, and its surroundings. The business had so proliferated in and around the Capital that even the most reputed and dependable dairies could not avoid purveying what was basically a harmful synthetic product. Likewise, a few months ago, thanks again to TV channels, manufacture at Jaipur of spurious ghee of a popular brand, meticulously canned with fake labels, for supply all over the state and its surroundings was caught on camera. Like on this occasion, a few arrests were made. However, most of the culprits are, probably, out on bail and have resumed their nefarious business.

Although elaborate laws have been enacted for prevention of food adulteration, there is hardly any enforcement – the enforcement staff being not only thoroughly inadequate, it is also mostly corrupt. On top of that, political connections of many of the dealers and retailers neutralise the efforts of conscientious law-enforcers. The case of summary transfer of Sanjana Jain, a junior district officer of Dewas, last summer when cholera was raging in the town readily comes to mind. She fell afoul of a minister for catching red-handed his crony, a reputed retailer of sweets, carrying on his shady business. Besides, the legal procedures are so convoluted that cases take a long time to process and, in the unlikely event of a conviction, the light penalties (two to three years of imprisonment with fines of two to three thousand rupees) hardly act as deterrents.

The field is therefore wide open for the dishonest, unscrupulous, and miscreants to play with the lives of people for their personal gains. Leave alone milk products and sweets, they have not left the spices and seasonings. Deadly dyes and chemicals are freely used as adulterants that can cause several kinds of bodily disorders, including cancer. Even vegetables and fruits, consumption of which is recommended by medicine-men for leading healthy life, have not been spared. Videos of farmers injecting chemicals into vegetables for quick and early ripening of gourds, brinjals, etc., were shown last year by a Hindi news channel. Chemically treating green vegetables and fruits to impart to the farm-fresh appearance and injecting toxic sweeteners and red dyes into papayas, pomegranates and such others are practices that are now common. Using dangerous chemicals for ripening of bananas, plums, etc. is now old hat. With traders out to injure and kill all and sundry one wonders how we manage to add millions every year!

While the demands of an exploding market and the get-rich-quick syndrome among all those involved in the business of raw food is playing havoc with the health of the people, purveyors of cooked stuff are doing no better. Consuming any cooked item away from home is generally considered risky, unless one happens to visit a starred establishment. One is neither sure of the ingredients nor of the environment in which it is cooked. The lacks of sanitation and hygiene as also use of contaminated stuff have made street-food taboo. What the myriad kiosks, push-carts, dark and ill-kept petty establishments and such offer is virtually poison. This is a depressing fact when one considers the freedom with which even the weak-stomached Westerners partake with great relish the native cuisine dished out on the streets in countries of the Middle East and South-East Asia. The reason is strict State control and supervision. In our case, for want of strict monitoring, street-food is largely patronised by the deprived and the undiscriminating.

This unhappy state of affairs is the result of almost total withdrawal of the State from this area of administration. As is evident, the vigilant TV channels have done more to expose adulteration and contamination of all that is ingested as food than any of the governments in several states. The State seems to have let go of its controls and is not even trying to re-establish its authority to ensure some semblance of governance in this area. Its manpower and other technical resources are not equal to the massive job that stares it in its face. While secretariats are overstaffed with chief and other secretaries, there are not enough food inspectors and lab-technicians to keep tabs on contaminated raw and/or cooked food put up for sale. With no attention being paid to the public health and nutritional aspects of the matter public healthcare facilities get swamped by patients.

For retrieving the situation from what looks like virtual state of anarchy at least two measures are necessary. Firstly, devising a multi-disciplinary approach, it is necessary organise a food safety and surveillance and monitoring system for the entire country with adequate qualified staff and modern laboratory equipment for regular testing of food/commodities and contaminants. Secondly, the need is to make the Food Safety Act 2005 more stringent to infuse into it adequate degree of deterrence. After all, the culprits in this villainous business are culpable of wilfully causing injury, why even of homicide.

The current situation brooks no delay. The Centre needs to immediately swing into action.
(Published by Indian News Features Alliance, New Delhi, on 22nd November 2009)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rising religiosity hurting Indian environment

The news that came out of Delhi recently was depressing. The water supply in the metropolis was disrupted as the supply lines were clogged. North, West, North-West and parts of South Delhi suffered severe shortages because of the pollution in the Hyderpur Canal which supplies water to the eponymous treatment plant. “The presence of paints, particulate matter, chunks of plastic and flowers from the idol immersions that were carried out have left our pumps choked”, said the Delhi Jal Board (Water Board). Despite there being eight water pumps water needed for treatment could not be lifted. The inevitable shortages occurred as the required amount could not be given the necessary treatment.

And, the pumps got clogged because of the thousands of idols that were immersed in River Jamuna after the recent festivities. This is a new sociological phenomenon which is becoming increasingly evident every year in the upcountry after Ganesh Chaturthi and Navaratri festivals. During the festivals Ganesh, the Elephant God, and Goddess Durga with her progeny are worshipped, respectively. Their clay idols lovingly made with piety and passion, finished with plaster of Paris, coated with toxic enamel paints, embellished by faux ornaments and decked up in colourful synthetic clothes are installed for worship in regular or temporary temples. At the end of the ten days’ festivities these are subjected to ritualised ceremonial immersions in the nearest water bodies.

Every year the numbers of idols installed in the urban and rural areas, particularly in the upcountry, have been on the rise. The ardour and devotion of the people disrupt normal life, upset the working schedule, cause traffic bottle-necks and (later) also pollute the very water that sustains the community. A couple of decades back the festivities used to be on a much lower scale and were not so disruptive or polluting. Lately, however, with a strong revival of religious traditions and an unprecedented surge in religious fervour, things are increasingly getting out of hand.

The way we have been going for some years now, the kind of mishap that happened in Delhi had to happen sooner or later. Clearly, the festivals have now started hurting the community. Whether it is the Hoogly River in West Bengal, the Arabian Sea near Mumbai or other inland rivers or water bodies, all have had the privilege of experiencing the unkindly, even malign after-effects of these festivities. Although, post-immersions, the idols are unceremoniously stripped of all valuables, yet what remains of them adds to the pollution of the waters that are already polluted with urban and industrial effluents. The Delhi Jal Board has only complained about the disruption of the supplies that it is supposed to make. That the River flowing through the Capital was being polluted is, seemingly, not any of its concerns.

This has been happening in all parts of the country where these festivals are observed with such vigour. And, the fate virtually of all the rivers and other water bodies in such parts is almost the same as that of the Jamuna. The Hindu community is, strangely, unable to appreciate the threats that it is posing to the country at large with its progressively magnifying religiosity. It seems to be killing the very environment that sustains the larger community. Whether it is land, water or air, the piety that is flaunted all over the country is polluting them all, though the Hindu religious tradition has always been worshipful of nature.

Take the periodical Kumbha Melas, for instance, when pilgrims in millions take bath every day either in the Ganga at Haridwar or in Kshipra (now on the brink of extinction) at Ujjain or near the source of Godavari at Nashik or at Allahabad where the Ganga, Jamuna and the mythical Saraswati meet. Extended pilgrimages of massive proportions which demand detailed planning and comprehensive logistics, they force the governments of respective states to step into the operations that essentially are religious. What happens to the rivers, howsoever holy they are considered to be, and their ecosystems have not so far been matters of concern for those who are behind the pilgrimages and the ritualised holy baths as also those who facilitate them.

Likewise, the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the Himalayas has been the cause of damage to the delicate Himalayan ecology. Earlier, a pilgrimage of roughly a week with participation of a few thousands, it has now assumed enormous proportions. It now runs for around two month and is joined, by the last count, by around 500,000 pilgrims. While the affluent few take a helicopter ride to the mouth of the 14000 ft. high Holy Cave for a quickie darshan (obeisance), most are ferried by countless diesel-run buses to Srinagar/Pahalgam to eventually trek to the cave. Things are not much different with the annual trudge of millions to the Sabarimala temple situated in the midst of densely forested hills in Kerala. The pilgrimage, for that matter any pilgrimage, has become an industry with hoteliers and tour operators feeding them with their inviting offers. The hyped-up religious festivals, on the other hand, have become occasions for marketing of all kinds of merchandise – from cars, diamond jewellery to garments – and even holidays. The environment, however, is always a casualty.

There could be any number of reasons for this gush of religiosity. It could be because of a more pro-active role played by organisations connected with the Hindu religion; it could also be because of a reaction against frequent Islamic terrorist attacks in the heartland of the country. Even the political power captured by Bharatiya Janata Party, branded by the West as the “Hindu Nationalist Party”, in several states, coupled with the post-liberalisation rise in the levels of disposable incomes among the Hindu middle classes may have been factors in fuelling the heightened religious zeal. The electronic media, particularly, the TV with its outreach deep into the urban slums and rural homes telecasting gold foil-wrapped Hindu traditions, too, may have given a fillip to the rising tempo.

Whatever may be the reason(s), the whole thing, viewed objectively, appears to be sheer madness. Self-regulation and self-restraint being conspicuous by their absence, every passing year a new vigour, seemingly, is injected into the festivities. Religion and its practices being matters of very sensitive nature, no government would come out and cry a halt. Besides, there is that ‘small’ matter of votes. No political party would ever dream of alienating such a large community and losing such a sizable chunk of votes. Hindu religiosity, thus, would seem to be spiralling out of control with consequences that may, sooner than later, prove to be catastrophic for its pious and the devout.

Nonetheless, one can see a ray of hope. For the first time ever, Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, has put a cap on the number of tourists travelling to Himachal Pradesh. Though inordinately late, it is a very wise step and needs replication elsewhere. World over natural assets are subjected to sensitive treatment, limiting the intrusions by humans in order to ensure their sustainability. The cap that the minister has imposed is surely based on a well-researched carrying capacity of the region. Similar caps need to be imposed for other natural assets, too, which happen to be tourism hotspots, as also those which, post-festivities, get the brunt of the idols. Such measures will be unexceptionable as they would be aimed at protecting the natural riches of the country and their vital ecosystems. If, in the process, the minister has to interfere with the peoples’ religious practices, so be it. After all, that will be for the larger good. What, however, would be needed are courage and the conviction to do the right by the country!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Nature Reserves and Tourism

All over the world, countries are creating nature reserves as more and more land, with all that nature has to offer, is harnessed for industry, agriculture or plain urban expansion. The intention is to conserve a slice of nature with its native biodiversity and other special features so that these are not lost to humanity forever. While study and research are generally permitted, efforts are made, by and large, to keep them insulated from human impact. Tourism, therefore, in such reserves is mostly “no no”. Yet, authorities permit treks on trails, either natural or specially created, imposing, generally, a cap on the number of trekkers consistent with the reserve’s carrying capacity. The idea, as is obvious, is to allow nature to thrive in all its magnificence undisturbed by the destructive and deleterious influences of humans.

India, too, has reserves of various kinds – from biosphere reserves, wild life reserves, dedicated tiger reserves, protected areas to nature reserves – where nature was supposed to play out its, shall we say, symphony to the script. That did not quite happen mostly because of human interference. Not only human settlements happened to be located within the reserves, tourism, especially eco-tourism of our malefic kind, did not allow nature full and unrestricted play. Pressures of rising population within the reserves and without, as also rising incomes fostering inordinate increase in footfalls of the well-heeled and insensitive coupled with lax and ineffective enforcement mechanisms, prevented the state from acting up to the objectives of conservation. Abandoning its earlier policy of conservation, the Government of India fell for the temptation of easy lucre that rising numbers of visitors bring. The consequences that followed were inevitable. Natural ecosystems were ravaged. The tourism industry in India has seldom exhibited restraint or the gracious traits of “responsible tourism”. Thriving on numbers, it is constantly in pursuit of “mass tourism” unmindful of the threat it might pose to the very goose that lays the golden egg.

The state’s inability to care for nature reserves has so tightened the stranglehold of tourism that without spin-offs from it such reserves, seemingly, cannot be sustained. A ready example is the new Dumna nature reserve which is, reportedly, being developed near the central Indian town of Jabalpore primarily as a tourist spot. Spread over about 900-odd acres of forested land with a healthy population of wildlife the Dumna reserve constitutes the catchment for a lake by the name Khandari. The Jabalpore Municipal Corporation, the owners of the land, had wisely handed over the work of developing the reserve to the state Forest Department who have made provisions of fishing and have developed nature trails. What, however, seems to be highly disconcerting is that the state Tourism Development Corporation has been asked to construct an eatery, a children’s park and other facilities including parking on a two-acre plot right inside the reserve. The Tourism Corporation is surely happy to spread its tentacles at Jabalpore which is the staging post for the world famous Kanha Tiger Reserve. Keen on numbers and, necessarily of an invasive kind, one never knows how far into the forest the tourism development outfit insinuates itself.

Once again, as it would seem, tourism has jumped ahead of conservation in priority. Soon the nature’s tranquillity and quietude at Dumna will be traumatised and shaken up. The mellow music of nature will be drowned by the harsh noise of vehicles of the picnickers (with scant respect or curiosity about nature’s offerings) and the shrieks and screams of their children at play. The intrusive humans will smother the freedom of nature to be by itself and thrive.
This is not why nature reserves are created and this is not how they are maintained. Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, defines nature reserves as a protected area of “importance for wildlife, flora, fauna or features of geological or other special interest, which is reserved and managed for conservation and to provide special opportunities for study or research”. Nowhere tourism is given the pride of place in such ecologically important sites.

Even China, where mass tourism was virtually the rule in its extensive nature reserves, has now realised the benefits of proper upkeep of natural sites and sustainable tourism therein. As tourism in Sichuan, a province of diverse ecosystems and historical interests, grows, Chinese are restricting the numbers of tourists in accordance with its carrying capacity. “We want to put conservation first” seems to be the new watchword. The province’s Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve is a tourism hotspot which apart from being a World Heritage Site is also a World Biosphere Reserve. In 2006 two million people visited it and yet the number of visitors daily was not allowed to cross the imposed cap of 18000 and every effort is made to mitigate the impact of this sizable horde. A fleet of hop-on, hop-off bio-diesel buses shuttle the people around allowing them the freedom of walks on nature trails. Wardens and CCTVs infest the place. Tourist accommodations are kept away from the reserve and local people are encouraged to build guesthouses of traditional style to offer the visitor an exotic experience. Eco-tourism is nothing if it does not benefit the local community!
Chinese have learnt to conserve the environment the hard way. Over exploitation of their natural resources and break-neck pace of industrialisation wrought havoc with their air, water and the forests and resulted in increasing desertification. There were popular protests against the general environmental devastation. Frightened by the peoples’ fury and nature’s violence they had to pull back and they did do so from the very edge. Having done so, they are going the whole hog to preserve their environment. And, as in all other spheres, they will do all that is necessary whatever that takes.

No such fear, however, is in evidence in India. Here it is “business as usual”. Climate change may already be upon us, our air may be foul, water contaminated and our forests may be shrinking but environmental conservation is yet to register on us as a necessity. As in everything else, things will happen if only there is that ever-elusive political will. The new Central Minister for Environment, Jairam Ramesh is the only semblance of hope. Labouring to crank up the rusty machinery, he is like the distant light at the end of the tunnel. One hopes the best for him. If he, for any reason, happens to fail, redemption will be unlikely.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kargil - as I remember it

The Tenth Anniversary of the victory in “Kargil War” somehow got soggy in controversy. Instead of commemorating a crisp, well-fought and spectacular victory achieved at great human costs against the Pakistani intruders on the snowy heights of Ladakh, India’s northern-most territory, the ruling coalition in India headed by the Indian National Congress quite unwisely happened to politicise it. Reckoning it as a war that was fought and won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now occupying the Opposition benches in the Parliament, it attempted to downplay the Anniversary. That the (surreptitious) diabolical Pakistani incursions through the icecaps of the Himalayan heights posed a great threat to the nation and its integrity happened to be coolly overlooked. But for the hype created by the Defence Forces, the media and sundry patriotic pockets in the country the ruling party at the Centre, in a display of uncamouflaged ingratitude to the guardians of our frontiers, had almost succeeded in giving the Anniversary a miss. It was virtually at the last moment that the Prime Minister seems to have decided to go and lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Memorial at the India Gate on 26th July, the date on which ten years ago Indian defence forces wrested back the last of the territories occupied by the Pakistani invaders.

Those who have not been to Ladakh may not be able to fully appreciate the significance of the Indian victory. A plateau with an average elevation of around 10,000 ft (about 3000 mts.) with most of the surrounding mountains above the snowline, Ladakh is an arid mountainous region of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) spanning the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges and the Upper Indus valley. In those rarefied heights where normal activities for a plainsman are a torture, waging a war would seem to be an impossible proposition. Known for its rugged beauty and quaint culture, it has now become a tourism hotspot.

I happened to visit Ladakh more than 40 years ago when it was still a restricted area. Outsiders were not allowed to enter without a permit. I, too, had to obtain one even though I was in the service of the Government of India. So, one beautiful September morning I left Srinagar, the capital of J&K, wangling a ride with an Army Signals major in his jeep proceeding to Leh as a part of an Army convoy, the then district headquarters of Ladakh. With a brief halt in the green and captivating Baltal valley, which now seems has been sacrificed at the altar of religious tourism, we laboured up the highway to the famed Zoji- la, the Pass on to which Gen Thimayya of the Indian Army, in a brilliant tactical move, had hauled Light Stuart Tanks to surprise the Pakistani intruders in 1948.

Once we crossed the 11575 ft high Zoji-la, the landscape underwent a dramatic change. Gone were the green Kashmir conifers covering the sides of the mountains and green grass over the meadows. It was now a series of rugged, bare seemingly inhospitable mountains with an occasional trickle of a stream in the plunging depths of the valleys, and the highway, arcing along the contours of the rocky mountainside, climbed up or went down in loops to cross over to interminable series of naked mountains. We travelled sometimes metres away from the Cease Fire Line, which post-1971 became the Line of Control (LOC),that was violated through 1998-99 precipitating the Kargil War. Stopping for coffee at Drass, reputed to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world and overlooked by Pakistanis occupying the heights on its north, we headed down the same highway that Pakistan attempted to cut off in 1998 to disrupt the logistics of Ladakh.

On our way up we stayed only for a while in Kargil. The local Brigadier was hosting a delegation of members of parliament to a lunch on the banks of the Suru River that flows through the town. We, too, were made to join in. It was a lovely setting by the side of the narrow stream in the generous shade of low hanging trees, a rare luxury in the midst of the surrounding dryness, coupled with the lavish Indian Army fare laid out.

However, the severity of the conditions in which the Army had to function became apparent a few miles away as we came upon a bridge guarded by three soldiers, two on one side and one on the other. With no habitation for miles around, they were by themselves for weeks without a change of scene. With several such crucial points to guard lonesomeness of the soldiers could only be imagined.

On our way back from Leh, as we rolled down from the heights of Fatu-la, at around 13700 the highest pass on this highway, we skirted what looked like a tallish hillock only to discern in the half light a huge a settlement down below. It was the Indian Army brigade at Kargil sprawled a few hundred feet below on a huge flat ground so unlikely in the hilly surroundings. Looking at it from that elevation one could imagine what medieval army encampments would have seemed like at dusk. Several thin wisps of smoke rising up in the air, scattered blinking lights and stray men moving around, almost ant-like, consummated the scene.

Back then Kargil was a small village, dusty, dirty and so dry that the cracked lips made smiling a painful exercise. With around a dozen shops, it was mostly dependent on the Army for supplies and provisions. It has now grown out of all proportions, more so because of the “War-tourism”. The “Kargil War”, somewhat like the Kuwaiti War, was a highly televised war bringing it to the bedrooms across India, raising among the people a curiosity about those rugged heights where the soldiers bravely fought, gave their lives and yet won the “War” for them. No wonder, the benefits of tourism, now a thriving industry, have trickled down giving the place, I am told, a prosperous appearance. One improbable blessing of the “War”!

It was during the day that I happened to realise that what had looked like a tallish hillock the previous evening was a tall, well-shaped mountain dominating the town. Known by its elevation as “13620” it had a forbidding presence and, worse, its heights were occupied by the Pakistanis who could watch every move of the supremely vulnerable brigade down below. Dislodged from it during the 1965 War, it was handed back to them as a sequel to the Tashkent Agreement. The Major, who had won it for the country, it seems, wept like a child when he heard of the hand-over. He had lost many of his brave men who, fearlessly facing enemy bullets, struggled up the feature and clawing their way up inch by inch. A strategic gain, achieved with super-human effort and endurance and at the cost of fresh young blood, was given up on the negotiating table! That dark sinister-looking mountain, as I saw it sitting out on the grounds in front of the Signals Mess, has remained so deeply imprinted on my psyche that the intervening forty-odd years have not been able to wash it away.

The 1999 “War” along the heights from Drass to Kargil would have been, if anything, fiercer. Having seen Kargil with the malefic “13620” towering over it, I wonder how a government can play politics with the sacrifices of the cream of the country’s youth. Surely, people wouldn’t allow it, as the courage, fortitude and the spirit of sacrifice displayed at Drass or Tiger Hill or Tololing are now the very stuff of the nation’s military folklore. Deeply embedded in the nation’s consciousness, efforts to dislodge them would be a futile exercise.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Indian bureaucracy -"slow", "suffocating" and spineless

Reams have been written in recent years about the Indian bureaucracy. Established by the British in order to consolidate their hold on the vast territories that they acquired in the country, its main component the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was once described as the “steel frame” of the Indian government. Post-independence, however, the Indian bureaucracy progressively got politicised and became increasingly sleazy and venal. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) – the successor of the famed ICS – dominates the entire spectrum of Indian Administration, both at the Centre and in the states. Occupying virtually all positions of consequence, its members, lavishing on themselves generous perks, slowly and inefficaciously grind out, if at all, measly lumps of favours for the common folk.

A recent survey by the Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy found the Indian bureaucrats “a power centre in their own right at both the national and state levels, and are extremely resistant to reform that affects them or the way they go about their duties". According to its report, while the Singapore civil servants were the most efficient among their Asian peers, their Indian counterparts were found to be “suffocating”, working with whom was a “slow and painful” process.

But that is not all that can be said about the Indian bureaucracy. There is another quality of it that seems to have been missed by the Consultancy, and that is it has progressively become spineless. The much-vaunted “steel frame” has become a frame seemingly made of fragile twigs that the sparrows use to build their nests. Attempting to feather their own nests they have sold their soul to their political masters. Those, whose raison d’ĂȘtre was aiding and advising their political superior, have actually ended up doing, for better or for worse, the latter’s bidding, thus becoming the latter’s foot soldiers.

The history of sixty years of the IAS is littered with instances that illustrate this attribute. But a recent instance from the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP) lends a contemporaneous touch to it. Sanjana Jain, a spunky woman in the revenue and administrative services of MP, recently stood up to a bully of a politician, a minister to boot and was promptly let down by the senior bureaucracy of the state.

Until recently, a sub divisional magistrate in Dewas, a district headquarter in the state, Sanjana while functioning as the Returning Officer of Sonkutch constituency for the MP Legislative Assembly elections in November 2008 happened to have a confrontation with one Tukoji Rao Puar, a minister in the state government. He tried to browbeat her to cancel the candidature of the adversarial Congress nominee for this constituency. The minister, barging into her office, entered into an unseemly argument with Sanjana and, losing his equanimity, threw a bunch of papers at her. This was caught on camera and was telecast virtually by all the news channels. At the instance of the Election Commission a report was duly filed with the police and the minister was arrested, though, was bailed out later.

Post-elections, the officer was reverted to her administrative post and, under orders of her superiors, happened to be checking out a food-joint in Dewas – a city, currently, prone to cholera and other infectious diseases – when she fell afoul of the same politician who had again become a minister. The food-joint owner was found to be indulging in many irregularities and was operating without the necessary permissions. He, however, happened to be a lackey of the minster. Soon, he pulled his influence with the politician, who, true to his form, again entered into a lengthy argument with the officer charging her of bias against his party men. As the officer did not succumb to the minister’s pressure, the matter was taken right up to the chief minister.

That the lady took on this politician even after the earlier unpleasant incident speaks volumes about her guts, courage of conviction and commitment to her duties. Very few of her colleagues, including her seniors in the IAS, have seldom displayed the same. As expected by her and her colleagues, she was peremptorily transferred by the state administration under pressure from the political executive. That, however, is neither here nor there. She made her point and, hopefully, created a benchmark for official conduct, which many of her junior and senior colleagues might like to strive to work up to. The ruling party, on the other hand, came out in poor light. Surely, people will not easily forget this sordid episode of a minister preventing an official from taking administrative action to ensure public health and general wellbeing.

The most condemnable attitude, incidentally, was displayed by the state’s bureaucracy. It was sickening to see its lack of spine. It did not come to the rescue of a field officer who was literally stopped in her tracks from doing her duty. Not only was she bullied by a brash minister before a crowd of onlookers, she was also reported to have been insulted in front of a defaulter whom she had been able to catch breaching the relevant extant laws. The bureaucracy, members of which are called public servants, failed to put up a fight, forget the officer, even for the cause of the public, and caved in in the face of political pressure. Such brazen political interference in administrative work may have acquired run-of-the-mill character for the higher bureaucracy but it should have been the business of those who wield power over junior functionaries to sift chaff from the grain and be more judicious and circumspect before handing out decisions. What the needlessly penalised officer was attempting to do was, after all, of direct benefit to the people – trying to ensure their health and wellbeing. Besides, her efforts would also have saved public expenditure on maintaining public health. It is not unknown to the bureaucracy that it is largely the unscrupulous operators in the food sector who, generally, are responsible for choking up the public healthcare facilities, especially during the hot and humid season when adulterated and rotten stuff are often dished out to the unwary customer.
As it is MP is a state which suffers from a severe deficit of governance. By giving short shrift to the courage and righteousness of the officer, who happened to be the unwitting victim of crude exercise of power by a rash politician, the state bureaucracy has further demoralised the state’s official machinery, giving fillip to further non-governance. And, quite reprehensibly, it has left the people at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians and their crooked supporters.
(Published by Indian News & Features Alliance, Delhi, on 19th June 2009)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A spunky bureaucrat and an intemperate politician spunky bureaucrat and an intemperate politician

One cannot but appreciate Sanjana Jain, a spirited woman in the revenue and administrative services of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP), who stood up to a bully of a politician, a minister to boot. For her straightforward way of functioning she has been penalised with a peremptory transfer.

Until recently, a sub divisional magistrate in Dewas, a district headquarter in the state, Sanjana was deputed as the Returning Officer of Sonkutch constituency for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections in November 2008. It was while functioning as such that she was treated crudely by Tukoji Rao Puar, who was then a minister in the MP Government. He barged into her office and tried to browbeat her to cancel the candidature of the adversarial Congress nominee for this constituency. As the officer quite rightly expressed her inability to comply, the minister entered into an argument with her and, in a fit of rege, threw a bunch of papers at her. This was caught on camera and was telecast virtually by all the news channels. At the instance of the Election Commission a report was duly filed with the police and the minister was arrested, though, was bailed out later. The case is still under process.

Apparently, after the elections, the officer reverted to her administrative post and, as ordered by her superiors, happened to be checking out the other day a food-joint in Dewas – a city, currently, prone to cholera and other infectious diseases – when she fell afoul of the same politician who had become post-election a minister again. The food-joint owner was found operating without the necessary permissions and was found to be using illegally fuel meant for domestic consumers. He, however, happened to be a lackey of the minister. Soon, he pulled his influence with the politician, who, true to his earlier form, entered into a lengthy argument with the officer charging her of bias against his party men. As the officer did not succumb to the minister’s pressure, the matter was taken right up to the chief minister.

That the lady took on this politician even after the earlier unpleasant incident during the elections speaks volumes about her guts, courage of conviction and commitment to her duties. Very few of her colleagues, why, very few of her senior colleagues even in the superior Indian Administrative Service, have displayed such courage. As expected by her and her colleagues, she was peremptorily transferred by the state administration under pressure from the political executive and posted at the Academy of Administration in the Capital. That is neither here nor there. She has made her point and, hopefully, created a benchmark for official conduct, which many of her junior and senior colleagues might like to strive to work up to.

The ruling party, on the other hand, has come out in poor light. Surely, people will not easily forget this sordid episode of a minister preventing an official from taking administrative action to ensure public health and general wellbeing. What is, however, deplorable is that this politician, a former princeling of Dewas, after having been arrested and bailed out subsequent to the earlier incident, happened to have indulged again in this kind of ugly and unbecoming conduct. As a matter of course, there has been no action against him. After all, “a king can do no wrong”. Having suffered severe setbacks in the state in the recently concluded General Elections, one would have expected the ruling party to chastise the minister.

It is a pity that the senior bureaucrats of the state administration did not come to the rescue of a field officer who was literally stopped in her tracks from doing her duty. Not only was she bullied by the minister before a crowd of onlookers, she was also reported to have been insulted in front of a defaulter whom she had apprehended breaching the relevant extant laws. This is not a happy augury. Such instances of needless, in fact condemnable, political interference in administrative work may have acquired run-of-the-mill character for the higher bureaucracy but it should have been the business of those who wield power over junior functionaries to sift chaff from the grain and be more judicious and circumspect. What the needlessly penalised officer was attempting to do was of by far of great importance and direct benefit to the people by way of trying to ensure their health and wellbeing. Besides, her effective action would also have saved the state’s expenditure on maintaining public health, as it is largely the unscrupulous operators in the food sector who, apart from committing sundry irregularities, are generally responsible for choking up the public health facilities, especially during the hot and humid season. Surely, the state’s bureaucrats are aware of this basic fact.

That such penal transfers demoralise the officialdom at all levels, particularly the cutting edge, and that they also have their own inevitable pernicious impacts on the people at large hardly need any emphasis. What is more, in such a milieu the politicians and their crooked foot-soldiers, getting a field day, are likely to wreak havoc on the process of unbiased administration. Instead of properly appreciating the implications of the episode and standing up to the politicians the state’s senior bureaucracy collapsed in a heap before its political masters. In succumbing to political pressure in this case it cast abroad a baleful and sinister message for the people and the few remaining functionaries in its ranks who are sincere and honest. Clearly, henceforth none can expect straightforward honest and unbiased administrative action if it interferes with the interests of the politicians in power or their myriad supporters. Likewise no officer, even those who are committed to their job, would hereafter stick his/her neck out to take administrative measures in general public interests.
Both, the chief minister and the chief secretary of the state have done bad turn to the state and its people

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Another environmental mishap of Madhya Pradesh

Environmental matters in India seldom get priority. This is more so in the states where they are mostly kept on the back-burner. The central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, for example, once thickly forested and wetter than many Indian states, has had a series of environmental mishaps because of its governments’ lackadaisical ways.

The world is aware of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, known as the world’s biggest “Industrial Disaster”, when a lethal gas leaked out from the now-defunct Union Carbide factory on a cold December night in 1984 killing hundreds and maiming thousands. The local environment was so fouled up that the affected people are still suffering from the after-effects of the poison they were exposed to. The post-mortem of the disaster had revealed that the tragedy was eminently avoidable had the authorities been a little more proactive. “Whistle blowers” had blown their whistle repeatedly, and every time more and more loudly; and yet the government was not shaken out of its lassitude.

That was 25 years ago but things, apparently, haven’t changed in the meantime. Something similar happened in the case of disappearance of tigers from Panna Tiger Reserve. A long-time researcher of Panna tigers, Raghu Chundawat, had blown the whistle way back in 2005 about missing tigresses of Panna. His repeated public and, presumably, private pleas fell on deaf ears. The Wildlife wing of the MP Forest Department (MPFD) continually remained in denial mode, i.e. until October 2008 when the newly-created National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) advised the state to relocate a tigress from Bandhavgarh. Though two tigresses were relocated into the Reserve in quick succession from neighbouring parks, yet the revival of the big cat in the Reserve is uncertain as the lone tiger that was to be provided female company has now become untraceable – a sad denouement for a state that is known by its sobriquet “the Tiger State”. Needless to say, tiger is the flagship species of India’s wildlife conservational effort. Besides, on its survival depends survival of India’s forests and concomitant ecological, food and water security.

The NTCA has, lately, appointed a Special Investigation Team to investigate the reasons for disappearance of tigers from Panna. Not to be outdone, the Forest Department, too, wants an enquiry of its own. This, undoubtedly, is the right approach. Not only the professional wildlife administrators and the government should know the reasons for a disaster of such a magnitude, even the people have a right to know how and why efforts made over last few decades to conserve tigers at their expense have, in substance, come to nought.

What, however, appears intriguing is that there appears to have been no effort so far to investigate another disaster – the one that relates to drying up of the 1000-year old Upper Lake in Bhopal. This, too, is a major environmental disaster which could prove to be catastrophic for the city in the future. The Lake today is not even a pale shadow of what it was last summer. Its vast spread of water, once virtually like an ocean, has now been reduced to the size of a small pond. Having lost 90% of its water, huge expanses of its bed now lie exposed – bone-dry and looking increasingly sinister by the day. Once the lifeline for 40% of the city’s population, it has now ceased to be so, being unable to contribute to the city’s water supplies. This did not happen even in 2002 when it suffered a double whammy. Not only was the rainfall inadequate, huge leaks had developed in a dam designed to hold the water.

Although the authorities preferred to turn a blind eye, many had foreseen the oncoming calamity. Individually and collectively people of the town have been raising the issue of utter neglect of the Upper and Lower lakes, the two lakes which, together, make up the Bhoj Wetland, a Ramsar Site. Bhopal Citizens’ Forum, a socially-conscious group of citizens, had filed a petition in 2007 with the State Human Rights Commission on the neglect and lack of effort to conserve the Wetland. The Commission got all the connected departments/agencies to respond to the petition. While the petition is still pending, the government departments/agencies, seemingly, did precious little during the interregnum.

Before that, around the turn of the Century, a World Bank-funded study conducted for economic valuation of the Wetland by an Environmental Economist of the prestigious Indian Institute of Forest Management had predicted that unless enough care was taken of it, it could die in another thirty years. It, perhaps, did not take into account the indifference of the state government to such mundane matters. Although submitted to it, the government gave the report its coldest of shoulders, thereby whipping the Wetland to gallop towards its end faster than predicted.

Inadequate rains are being touted as the reason for the calamity. The local Met office had put out that Bhopal and its catchments had received only 70% of the average rainfall during the last monsoon. No one is buying the official line. Reports have since appeared of the Lake’s feeder channels being encroached upon and dammed. There are evidences which are now coming to the fore of official apathy and ‘non-management’. Currently the management – if at all it can be called that – of the Wetland is so diffused that it is difficult to pin-point responsibility. No one knows who is in charge. Although the local municipality has been designated as its custodian, it has not been administratively and financially empowered. Besides, its writ does not run in the areas that are in the Wetland’s catchments as they fall outside the municipal limits.
A feeling of fear pervades the city that the Wetland may ultimately disappear. If that were to happen, its implications will be enormous. The Lower Lake that it feeds, too, will disappear. Already, it has shrunk appreciably. Also, the underground aquifers will dry up causing much of the green cover of the town to wither away. While the micro-climate of the town will be adversely affected, the disappearance of the Lake will seriously impair water-availability for an ever-rising population. More importantly, it will broadcast to the whole wide world the inability of the state and central governments, despite running two back-to-back Japanese Bank of International Cooperation-funded multi-million dollar projects, to conserve a water body that they got recognised as a site under the Ramsar Convention.

As in the cases of other environmental disasters an enquiry is necessary to ascertain reasons for the current pathetic state of the Wetland. Only such an enquiry can establish whether it was caused by natural, human or systemic failure. Such an investigation by a body of experts may also identify the systemic shortcomings in management of the Wetland and suggest effective mechanisms, with clear demarcation of institutional and individual responsibilities, to prevent such mishaps of this scale in the future. Above all, such an enquiry will predicate the state’s resolve – so far unseen – to purposefully deal with matters relating to environment.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Citizen journalist - the new kid on the block

I had never imagined that I would ever come anywhere near the field of journalism. Having spent 30-odd years in the government I agreed with the assertions of many of my colleagues that I had, like them, become practically “useless” for all purposes. Destiny, however, seemed to have willed something else for me.

I established base at Bhopal (India) to spend the (post-retirement) home-stretch. With no pre-occupation and a mind still mercifully agile I progressively became conscious of my surroundings. The lack or, in many ways, total absence of civic amenities in this what-could-be-a-beautiful town irked me. With time available in profusion, I resurrected my Silver Reed portable typewriter and hammered away to churn out letters to the editors of local dailies. Some did seem to have impact, a majority did not. From civic issues I slowly graduated to topical, national and environmental issues and despatched my thoughts to national dailies. That venerable newspaper, The Statesman, highly regarded for its quality of content and language edited by the legendary CR Irani, would publish them, often, lo and behold, the title of my letter figuring as the headline for the “Letters” section. My life seemed to have been made!

Consumed by the obsession to express my views more effectively I took lessons in computing – along with kids old enough to be my grand-children. The computer, with its awesome capabilities, made things far easier. Egged on by my elder brother, I tried my hand at writing articles. Some of them, when finished, appeared good. Soon enough the City Supplement of the local edition of Hindustan Times started carrying my pieces, mostly on civic issues. Even Manuj Features, the erstwhile features agency spawned by the Makhalal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism, accepted my output and disseminated them to its subscribers. I had emerged as a casual columnist.

It was nothing intellectual that I wrote. I only gave expression to my reactions, positive or negative, to issues– local, topical, national or environmental – as an ordinary individual that I thought needed expression, generally, with relevant information culled from various sources. It was neither sycophantic, nor was it in any way “muckraking”. I wrote like a civic-minded non-professional within the given constraints of limited space seeking, as Sarah McClendon (1910-2003), the well-regarded American journalist, once said while claiming to be a citizen journalist, “To give more information to the people …for their own good”. Unknowingly, more than half a dozen years ago I, too, had become, somewhat of a “citizen journalist”, a term which, back then, was still far away from common parlance in this country.

Conceptually speaking, citizen journalism involves, as Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, so-called progenitors of “the golden age of journalism” said, in citizens "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information…The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires". Citizen journalism has, therefore, been variously described as “public” or “participatory” journalism or even “democratic journalism”.

JD Lasica, a leading authority on “social media” and “user created media”, has broadly classified citizen journalism, inter alia, into (1) Audience Participation: with comments, blogs, photos or video footage, (2) Independent news and information websites: such as consumer reports etc., (3) Full-fledged participatory news sites (4) Contributory and collaborative media sites.

Although the idea that the average citizen could engage in journalistic effort has a pretty long history yet the professionals, with their training and corporate resources, seldom yielded any space to amateurs. Avid readers of newspapers would have noticed the progressively shrinking space for even readers’ views. And, of course, a non-professional can hardly ever break through the barrier of professionals who form into a coterie, monopolising news analyses in the corporate media.

However, with the progressive erosion of trust in the mainstream news-media, public journalism gathered strength. Technology gave fillip to it as an ordinary citizen could capture news and news-worthy incidents with photographs or video footage and distribute them globally. The journalism that was “by the people” began to flourish with the emerging internet and networking technologies. The audience of the conventional media, which so far had been harangued and sometime misled by partisan considerations, took it upon itself to report and project more objective news and views. In South Korea, OhmyNews founded by Oh Yeon-ho in 2000 with the motto "Every Citizen is a Reporter” became popular and even commercially successful. In this context mention must also be made of the Independent Media Centre (a.k.a Indymedia or IMC) that came into existence in 1999 during the anti-WTO protests at Seattle as a participatory network of journalists that reports on socio-political issues. Featuring as a milestone in the history of citizen journalism, Indymedia has pursued open publishing and democratic media process allowing all and sundry to contribute.

Not yet bound by any law, as perhaps professional journalists are in certain countries, the citizen journalists, ideally speaking, have to abide by some basic principles that demand a great degree of rectitude from them. To be purposeful and effective citizen journalism has got to be so. Hence, accuracy of facts, thoroughness, fairness of content and comment, transparency – the principle being “disclose, disclose, disclose” – and independence and non-partisan proclivities are attributes that generally are desirable and mostly insisted upon.

Technology having given a kind of head-start, citizen journalism has come a long way. Growing appreciation of its importance has fostered a mushroom growth of websites world over inviting and hosting content in the shapes of news, comments, blogs, photos or videos from the audience. Even the traditional media organisations – big or small, print or electronic – having gone online, have staff blogs and also invite audience participation in actual journalism. While a new phenomenon of “Mojo” – mobile journos – is on the horizon, using fast and versatile 3G networks, a prospective citizen journo would find umpteen hosts of his choice on a web-search.
Although a recent phenomenon, citizen journalism websites have become popular in India. Here, too, as elsewhere, citizen journalism was the result of “digital era’s democratisation of the media – wide access to powerful, inexpensive tools of media creation and wide access to what people created, via digital networks.” While was launched in 2005, many popular sites like,,, etc. that came up around the same time seem to be flourishing. Their role-model being, they generally report on more serious issues like climate change, health topics, science, politics, environmental or social problems.

Regardless of what the sceptics think citizens’ reportage has gathered nothing but strength. World over – in the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and South Asia – new start-ups are appearing by the day. Yet credibility of the reportage is what the progress of citizen journalism hinges on. At a conference in Seoul in 2007, hosted by OhmyNews, the hugely successful citizen journalism medium, certain preconditions were set forth for user-created content centring on credibility, trustworthiness, influence and sustainability. Like in traditional media run by trained professionals, that, perhaps, cannot always be ensured.

Besides, the question that is raised often is whether an ordinary citizen can be a reporter. Rory O’Connor of Guardian says why not. “After all, I've been a professional journalist for decades - yet I never took a course in it, received a license for it or got anointed on high. So here's my advice - if you don't like the news, report some of your own.”

I have, for the last few months, been doing just that – reporting to OhmyNews, GroundReport, HumanTimes, merinews, Mynews. The response has been encouraging and experience rewarding.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Et tu Manmohan?

It’s election time in India and there is a veritable war on. The war is, mercifully, only of words but attacks on each other by the leaders of the two major parties – the National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – are becoming frequent and the skirmishes trifle more spiteful for comfort. Since “all is fair in love and war” accusations and counter accusations have been progressively turning acerbic and even unethical. What is worrying is that even those who are reputed to possess good and bright heads on their shoulders have been indulging in this kind of spewing of vitriol. The intellectual and cultured Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is an example who, while rebutting the accusations of LK Advani, made a statement that was certainly not honourable. In fact, it was eminently avoidable.

Advani, the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House in the Parliament), has been calling Manmohan a “weak” Prime Minister since much before the polls were announced. He had his reasons for doing so. Manmohan was neither elected the leader of the Congress Party in Parliament nor that of the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). An indirectly-elected member of the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House), Manmohan was nominated as Prime Minister by Sonia Gandhi, a plain MP in the Lok Sabha but who is also the President of the Congress and the Chairperson of the UPA.

The understanding that seemed to have been arrived at between Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi suggested that while he would run the government, she would manage the Party and the rainbow coalition of the UPA. The arrangement had weaknesses built into it. No prime minister in a parliamentary democracy can ever run a government with a reasonable degree of authority and freedom without the blessings of the party chief. This is more so in this country with its feudal orientation, especially in the Congress Party which forsook long ago its inner-party democracy. Overtaken by dynastic predominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the prime ministers belonging to Congress Party – even if it is the highly-rated academic, Manmohan Singh – have to pay their obeisance to Sonia Gandhi, who has been in control of the levers of power in the Congress for more than a decade.

That apart, as the political power flows from the Party chief, the ministers belonging to the Congress have been paying scant regard to the Prime Minister. Many senior ministers, on numerous occasions, bypassed the Prime Minister and reported to or took orders from the Party Chief. Politically, it suited both – the Party Chief and the ministers. The Prime Minister had no alternative but to keep his counsel. This weakening of the institution of the prime minister was further accentuated by the self-willed ministers of the motley group of regional parties that, in their attempt to claim pieces of the cake, allied with the Congress to enable it to form the government. While Manmohan had to overlook their corrupt and parochial ways, he also, seemingly, surrendered his prerogative to choose his ministers for specific portfolios. Some of the allies dictated their terms and demanded for their chosen party-men the most lucrative of ministries. Besides, the Left Combine supporting Manmohan’s government from “outside”, stifled his agenda for economic reforms. He couldn’t shake them off for the sake of sheer survival. His government’s survival became so important that he remained a mute spectator at the maladroit methods adopted by his coalition managers for buying legislators for garnering support once the Left decided to end its live-in relationship with the UPA.

Advani’s accusations about Manmohan being a weak and “nikamma” (worthless) prime minister, therefore, were largely true. His ceaseless barbs, however, somehow seemed to find the target and something snapped within Manmohan. The good Doctor, generally soft and mild-mannered, cracked under pressure. In an attempt to give it back to Advani, he recalled the 1999 hijack of IC 814 to Kandahar in the aftermath of which, failing to talk the hijackers into releasing the 167 passengers and crew held hostage, the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, with Advani as Home Minister, ended up releasing three dreaded terrorists, including Masood Azhar who has now assumed greater notoriety as the chief of the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish e Mohammed. Further, to run down Advani and his NDA, Manmohan, rather gratuitously, made not quite truthfully an uncharacteristic egotistical claim that his government never entered into any negotiations with the 26/11 attackers of Mumbai. He asserted his government instead sent commandos of the National security Guards to deal with them.

The release of terrorists to secure the freedom of the scores of hostages has always been used as a stick by the Congress to beat the NDA with. Now that a ‘war’ is on all the biggies of the Congress, in a cacophony, have been harking back to it and attacking Advani. That the NDA government, inexperienced as it was then, was up against a tight situation and had to choose between the lives of innocent hostages and the terrorists held in Indian prisons, mostly without having been charged, while the relatives of the passengers kept baying at it for release of the terrorists with, reportedly, covert support of the Congress, has never been appreciated. Only recently, however, one man had the guts to admit the difficult situation that the NDA was faced with. P Chidambaram, Manmohan’s current Home Minister and another of his bright heads, honestly stated in response to a journalist’s query that he wouldn’t know what he would have done had he faced such a situation. After all, lives of 167 innocents were involved.
Then, to claim that the UPA never entered into negotiations with the Mumbai attackers was neither ethical nor desirable. The surviving attacker of 26/11 has confessed that he and his other murderous colleagues were given a clear mandate only to cause death and destruction and not to negotiate. No wonder, they never tried to negotiate for any trade-off. Curiously, Manmohan fictionalised the traumatic event merely to politically attack Advani, in the process exposing the deep inroads that partisan politics has made into his psyche that, otherwise, is brimful of intellect.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Water crisis of Madhya Pradesh - a lesson for others

The Congress the other day flayed the BJP government of Madhya Pradesh (MP), holding it responsible for the current water crisis in the state. Its spokesperson for the state-level committee alleged that while the state was reeling under an acute scarcity of water the chief minister was busy in strategising for the oncoming general elections. He also alleged that crores of rupees were sanctioned for water conservation and recharging of aquifers but all the schemes failed because of pervasive corruption. He, reportedly, cited statistics and claimed, inter alia, that 15000 villages in the state’s 175 tahsils (administrative units below the district level) were facing grave water crisis.
Although it made a political statement, the Congress was, not very much off the mark. The state has, indeed, become acutely water-scarce. Reports have been pouring in from almost all parts of the state, except its northern districts, about sufferings of the people on account of the shortage of drinking water. Shrinking water bodies, plummeting groundwater levels, desperate moves of several municipalities to restrict routine supply of water are indicative of the prevailing cataclysmic conditions in the state. Even the government reports speak of acute water scarcity in 41 out of state’s 50 districts. Besides, 38000 hand-pumps in 55000 villages have become non-operational. With ponds and other reservoirs slowly drying up, one shudders to imagine the severity of the conditions in rural MP in May and June when the summer peaks.

Urban areas, too, are not better off, the worst affected being those located in Malwa Plateau. In many of these places routine distribution has been disrupted with water supply being restricted to once in three days or even worse, as in Ujjain where it is supplied once a week. All the water sources of Ujjain, including the once-perennial Kshipra, having dried up the city, for the present, is entirely dependent on water-tankers, just as many other small and big towns on the Plateau.

Bhopal, the state capital, known also as “the City of Lakes”, is in as miserable a state. The entire city now depends for water on the nearby Kolar Dam and, very marginally, on the practically dried-up Upper Lake – hitherto the city’s lifeline. Its around 90 square kilometres spread has shrunk by 90%. Vast areas of the lake-bed now lie exposed. The municipality was forced to cut down normal daily supplies to alternate-day supplies from as early as the middle of last October – soon after the monsoon withdrew from the state.

The acute scarcity of water is being blamed on inadequate rains. One, however, suspects that mismanagement of sources of water and its distribution have been equally, if not more, responsible. This is exemplified by Bhopal where, for want of proper governance, public and private wastes are legendary. Although by last August it had become clear that despite rains water was not flowing into the Upper Lake, no conservational measures were taken and it was “business as usual”. Worse, it now transpires that the streams that feed the Lake were heavily silted, elevating their beds to spread rainwater laterally over the farms in the catchments instead of allowing it to flow into the Lake. There are also reports of erection of check dams in the Lake’s catchments. The free flow of rainwater to the Lake was thus hindered, apparently, without anybody, including the state’s multiple water-management authorities, getting wise about it. If this is what could happen in the Capital, things must have been as bad, if not worse, elsewhere in the state.

There, precisely, seems to lie the nub of the problem. The government has organised management of water through its several departments – the Public Health Engineering, Water Resources Department, Department of Environment, etc. and sundry autonomous bodies and agencies – and, yet, it has failed to achieve its objective. Profusely manned at great cost by the tax-payers’ money, the lumbering, top-heavy government, with its apathy and negligence, has failed the people.

Things have not come to such a sorry pass overnight. They have slid over a period of time. When the state came into being in 1956 it was reckoned as a backward, mostly tribal state. Tribes and forests being largely inseparable, the state was then one of the most-forested areas of the country and consequently relatively water-rich. With passage of time, however, it progressively started losing that advantage because of unchecked rise in population, thoughtless clearing of forests for agriculture, industrialisation, mindless unplanned urban expansion and reckless exploitation of groundwater for agricultural, industrial and urban use. To all these was added the lackadaisical way of functioning of the government that produced a deadly brew. It is, therefore, sheer politicking to blame the current government for the mess. It has been happening right down the last half a century. That water was slowly becoming scarce all over the state never ever registered with any of the governments, regardless of their colour. There has never been any planning and management of this precious fluid.

That the Planet has been using up fresh water faster than it can be replenished has been generally known for quite some years. The need for its wise use, checking wastes, its conservation, its recycling and proper management has been emphasised by international environmental and other bodies time and again. As late as in 2005, John Briscoe, a World Bank expert, had warned that India was facing an “extremely, extremely grave situation” as “rivers dry up, groundwater is depleted and canals are polluted”. Making matters worse, he perceptively added, “There is widespread complacency in the government”. To head off the grave situation Briscoe had urged India to dramatically change the way it managed water. Surely, suitable directives must have, accordingly, been issued by the Centre to all the states. However, no sign of any change in the way water was being managed in Madhya Pradesh has ever been seen. What has been visible is a “Band-aid” approach – like the recent decision to have water pumped up the Vindhyas from an already-depleted Narmada River 60-odd kilometre away.

Water scarcity in once heavily-forested Madhya Pradesh should be an example for others indicating the consequences of lack of foresight, planning and initiative in management of the life-sustaining fluid. What happened in China due to mismanagement of water and its sources is also well-known. Things are going to become more difficult with climate change-induced reduced precipitation, droughts and degradation of cultivable lands. Ever-rising demand due to rising population, rapid urbanisation and an exploding middle-class will throw up greater challenges. While water throughout the country is becoming scarce, cost of its supply to industries and households is becoming astronomical. Clearly the “Band-aid” approach like that of MP will not work. Local water bodies will have to be revived, conserved recharged and immaculately managed. Hopefully, state governments will show enough gumption to tackle the acute problem that has already made its presence felt. Better management of water and water-resources all across the country is imperative. In fact, our survival, to a large measure, would seem to depend on it.

Published by Indian News & Features Alliance, New Delhi on 2nd April 2009

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Water-scarce Madhya Pradesh needs a "Water Authority"

The holy and ancient city of Ujjain, situated on the banks of the Kshipra River in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, is thirsting for water. All the water sources, including the once-perennial Kshipra, have dried up. Until recently water was being supplied once in eight days but things are going to get worse. The city may go without water until a 24-kilometre pipeline, connecting a barrage to the nearby Gambhir Dam, is commissioned sometime next April. Nothing, however, can be said for sure; the projects undertaken by the government can be interminably delayed.

Bhopal, the state capital and also known as “the City of Lakes”, is in as miserable a state. The entire city now depends for water on the nearby Kolar Dam and, very marginally, on the practically dried-up Upper Lake that was hitherto the city’s lifeline. Whether Kolar is going to be able to sustain the town during forthcoming summer months is open to question as leakages and wastages – public and private – have remained uncontrolled. One fears that this indifference might lead to the same scenario in Bhopal as was scripted in Ujjain.

Although the acute scarcity of water is being blamed on inadequate rains one suspects that mismanagement of sources of water and its distribution have been equally, if not more, responsible. This appears to be true, at least, in respect of Bhopal. Two statistics would seem to prove the point. The local Met office had put out that Bhopal had only 70% of the average rainfall during the last monsoon. However, the rainfall certainly was not so deficient as to make the Upper Lake shrink by 90% of its spread. Vast areas of the lake-bed now lie exposed. This did not happen even in 2002 when, apart from scanty rainfall and continued normal off-take, large quantities of water leaked through the centuries-old dam into the Lower Lake.

Last year by August it had become clear that despite rains water did not seem to be flowing into the Lake. It now transpires that the streams that feed the Lake were heavily silted, elevating their beds to spread rainwater laterally over the farms instead of allowing it to flow into the Lake. There are also reports of erection of check dams in the Lake’s catchments. The free flow of rainwater to the Lake was thus hindered, apparently, without anybody getting wise about it.

Likewise, the Lake itself had heavy accumulation of silt, so much so that 5000 truckloads of it excavated manually have been removed. And, yet the ongoing two-month long voluntary effort, it is widely felt, wouldn’t add up to much. The Lake needs much more than amateur labour. Not only deployment of heavy machinery is necessary for dredging the beds of the Lake and the streams that feed it, its catchments also need to be taken care of by way reforestation/afforestation to invite greater precipitation as also for rendering natural eco-system services. To do what all is required needs money, which, reportedly, the government is in no mood to cough up.

Evidently, it is not yet alive to the looming threat. Addicted to ad-hoc-ism, it has never had any forward-planning and has hardly ever taken matching steps to conserve and better-manage water supplies to meet the rapidly escalating demands. The resource is depleting faster than it is being replenished. No wonder, a major part of the state – once heavily forested and water-rich – has become water-scarce. As many as 41 out of 50 districts have become deficient in water. While hand-pumps in most of the 55000 villages of the state have either gone dry or spew only noxious fluids, most of the cities and towns, barring those in the northern fringes of the state where last monsoon was bountiful, depend on tankers ferrying water over long diatances. Most pitiable is the condition of villages and towns in the state’s Malwa Plateau which once was so water-rich that it used to grow cotton – a water-intensive crop. It is now acutely short of water as exemplified by the temple town of Ujjain – a major city on the Plateau. Fracases because of water have become common.

John Briscoe, a World Bank expert, had warned in a report in October 2005 that India was facing an “extremely, extremely grave situation” as “rivers dry up, groundwater is depleted and canals are polluted”. Making matters worse, he said, “There is widespread complacency in the government”. Briscoe went on to say, “About 15 percent of the country's aquifers are already in critical condition, a number that could increase to 60 percent by 2030”. Besides, heavily subsidised electricity for farmers also encourages them to switch to groundwater, which can be cheaply siphoned with electric pumps. To head off the grave situation Briscoe had urged India to dramatically change the way it managed water.

Surely, suitable directives must have accordingly been issued by the Centre to various states. There has, however, been no sign of any change in the way water is managed in Madhya Pradesh. It now needs to heed the recent warning of the UN contained in a comprehensive assessment in its World Water Development Report that “while water supplies are under threat, the demand for water is increasing rapidly because of industrialization, rising living standards and changing diets that include … meat, that require larger amounts of water to produce.” Add to these the declining rainfall due to climate change, rapidly rising population and increasing urbanisation and one gets a forbidding picture. Apart from hardships caused to people, the UN is concerned that water-scarcity could inhibit economic growth.

The government of Madhya Pradesh, however, seems to be unmindful of the looming threat and has so far not taken any step to reorganise management of the vitally important subject of water. It is dealt with by several departments and agencies, none of whom can be pinned down for the current predicament the state finds itself in today. Instead of attacking the problem head-on the government continues to adopt the “band-aid” approach which, in the current context, can no longer be effective.

A comprehensive overhaul is necessary. The all-important subject of water needs holistic treatment instead of fragmented attention from mostly diffused and unaccountable multiple governmental/civic agencies. The need of the hour is establishment of a financially, administratively and legally empowered pyramidal “water authority”, with linkages down to the lowest unit, that takes care of the whole gamut of issues relating to water – from management and regulation of water-systems, watersheds and surface and groundwater sources to management of its demand, treatment, distribution and conservation to exploring new sources, recycling of wastewater and so on.

World over, including in India, such authorities have been created for handling at one point this matter of utmost importance for human wellbeing. The state could emulate Kerala which has established such an authority for comprehensive handling of issues related to water. Establishment of such a dedicated authority is unlikely to cause any dent on the resources of the state as financial and manpower resources can easily be found by winding up the ineffectual MP Lakes Conservation Authority and redeployment from departments and other agencies that currently inefficaciously deal with this subject.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

India's "Dark Underbelly" set to bloat

While it has swept away the Oscars and the Golden Globe awards, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” has offended some and hurt the sensibilities of many Indians. It has been exuberantly praised and has also been subjected to caustic criticism. Its technical qualities have been unreservedly extolled but its exploitation of the sordid life in Indian slums has come in for wholehearted denunciation. No wonder, it has been accused of purveying “poverty porn” and is alleged to have prostituted India’s “dark underbelly.

This is not a new phenomenon. Indians have always been touchy about depiction of the age-old poverty with all its ramifications. Even Satyjit Ray, the master film-maker, was accused of “exporting (Indian) poverty” through his much-acclaimed Pather Panchaali, “The Saga of the Road “. This sensitivity towards so pervasive a phenomenon is inexplicable. It is something which cannot be obscured from view – camouflaged or veiled. It is there for everyone to see, though it may not strike many of us as appalling – so thoroughly benumbed are we by its constant assault on our senses that we do not even happen to notice it. To us it is a part of the rural and urban landscape. Not so, however, for a Westerner, who finds such hopeless poverty curious and an object of enquiry.

Poverty generally resides in India’s myriad villages and rapidly multiplying urban slums. Time was when slums were virtually unknown in most of the towns except in the metropolitan cities. I, for one, saw a slum when I happened to visit Bombay (now Mumbai) more than half a century ago. And, slum-wise even Bombay was then considered to be no patch on Calcutta (now Kolkata). Our small town in Central India was free of them, though it indeed had areas where the impoverished lived. Those were the remnants of old villages which were overtaken by the town when it expanded. Today, slums are ubiquitous – visible in every urban Indian settlement, housing 20 to 30% or even more of the urban population. With their agglomeration of haphazardly built shanties they stick out like sore thumbs from every unlikely corner. If anything, they are burgeoning, fuelled by migrations from the depths of the rural hinterland that is devoid of economic opportunities. Rising population, fragmented uneconomic holdings, progressive impoverishment and absence of openings for making even a stark living have fostered a steady exodus from villages in search of livelihood. Drawn by the seemingly more affluent urban centres the poor and ignorant fall prey to the urban land mafia, who, backed by unscrupulous politicians, oblige them for a consideration to illegally build shanties on public lands. The politics of votes assuring grant of ownership of the illegally encroached public lands or rehabilitation in ready-built tenements, foster further influx. Thus the cycle goes on, promoting creation of massive shanty-towns of closely-built bare, unhealthy and unsanitary shelters that have become the hall mark of the Indian urban scene.

This is the Indian “underbelly”, with its nether universe of crime and criminals, illiteracy, hunger, mafia-controlled professionalized begging, prostitution, decadence and filth, the exposure of which by Boyle, with a touch of escapism, has offended the sensitive and the phoney-patriot. Although, dark and gloomy with desperately deprived and sometimes depraved souls, yet many slums have developed, despite severe handicaps, certain positivities of industry, enterprise and above all a “market”, a fact which caught the eye of the current Home Minister, which, he said, alone was reason enough for viewing Boyle’s film. What’s more, the inmates of some slums provide goods and services which, apart from being exported, are frequently the mainstays of middle-class homes. Nonetheless, it indeed is the Indian “dark underbelly” the candid display of which has embarrassed some of those who, pumped up by the country’s consistent 8%-plus growth, fancy it as having acquired a stature fit enough to occupy a place on the international high table.

Despite its frequent embarrassing exposure for viewers across the world it seems a trifle strange that nothing drastic has been attempted to redress the situation. Barring some cosmetic effort under the ongoing Urban Renewal Mission to improve sanitation and hygiene in the slums or to rehabilitate the “slumdogs” into indifferently built tenements nothing fundamental has so far been attempted. What, seemingly, needs to be done is to tackle the rural economy to make it attractive for the villagers to find a life of dignity in villages, discouraging them from looking for greener pastures in urban India that currently do not exist. Since Independence in 1947, billions of rupees have been spent for poverty alleviation and uplift of rural masses and yet it has not made any dent on rural poverty. The Central Minister for Panchayats (rural local bodies) recently gave out that while in 1994 as much as Rs 76 billion ($1.55 billion app. at current prices) was spent on rural development, anti-poverty schemes and social security, the outlay for the purpose in the last 15 years has gone up by 16 times and yet there is very little to show for results. All the money, seemingly, disappeared into a bottomless pit – enriching the rural political and bureaucratic elite, keeping the village folk destitute. The minister lamented that the expenditure “is not translating into human wealth” and blamed the bureaucracy for the failure. However, everyone, including the self-serving and scheming politician and the apathetic middle-class, must share the blame for glossing over the unremitting fraud that went on.

Pervasive corruption coupled with a still rapidly rising population are neutralising the governmental efforts in poverty-reduction. While there is scant legal or moral check on political and bureaucratic corruption, the National Population Policy does not recommend effective action for population control. According to 2004 estimates the population is still growing at the rate of 1.44% and the total fertility rate, at 2.85%, is way above the replacement level. No wonder, around 250 million people (a figure contested by many) live below the “poverty line” determined by the government on the basis of consumption of calories – 2400 calories being the basic minimum. Despite large investments on poverty alleviation the country, therefore, would seem to be “spot-jogging”, somehow managing to remain where it was during the past few years.

What is, perhaps, more disconcerting is that the current unseemly and sizable Indian “dark underbelly” is set to bloat. “India: The Urban Poverty Report 2009”, brought out with the assistance of the UNDP, predicts 50% of the country’s population, as against 27.8% in 2001, will be urban-based by 2030. Most of them will be rural migrants, mostly finding shelter nowhere else but in urban slums. Already, the illegal migrants, predominantly from Bangladesh numbering about 30 million, have raised numerous shanty-towns in metros, secondary and tertiary towns. And, the immigration continues unabated. Besides, India is going to be the likely haven for many poor environmental refugees from the neighbouring countries when global warming takes its toll submerging the precariously placed coastal areas and islands.

The slums are, therefore, likely to see exponential growth in the next few decades unless effective steps to forestall the process are taken. Some steps, basically illustrative, could be clamping down on the population growth and fertility rates by whatever democratic means possible, uplift of rural economy by revamping its communicational, educational and healthcare infrastructure, simultaneously creating in it openings for self-employment and job-opportunities, improving the urban infrastructure so as to be able to effectively handle migrations – progressive urbanisation being virtually unstoppable, preventing illegal immigrations, effective governance by states and the Centre and above all, eradicating corruption.

The governments alone cannot do it. Everyone has to chip in – the private sector, the non-governmental organisations and the people of all classes. Only then, perhaps, the country would be able to get rid of that obnoxious “dark underbelly” the exposure of which seems to shame it before the world.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sunrise over a dying lake

The ongoing community effort to de-silt the 1000-year old Upper Lake in Bhopal does surely have some positive sides. While it could help deepen the Lake, it also displays some beneficial facets that have hardly ever been witnessed before. One must hand it to the chief minister for the initiative. He had the campaign launched and had an evocative slogan “Our Lake, our heritage” coined for saving the Lake.

Although belated, the initiative, surprisingly, has had some positive fallout and one sees, to use a clichĂ©, some signs of a dawn somewhere on the horizon. The campaign seems to have galvanised all and sundry, enhancing awareness of the vital importance of the Lake and the dire need to save it. It has mobilised the chief minister’s ministerial and political colleagues, fostering in them – out of genuine concern or plain sycophancy – a kind of awareness of the existence of this vital water body and the need to nurture it. Hitherto their indifference was palpable.

More importantly, it has brought in senior bureaucrats to the Lake bed to wield pickaxes and shovels, a feat which has seldom been achieved. Their involvement is more important as they are the toughest lot to be sensitised. It is largely their unconcern which has brought the Lake to such a sorry pass. Politicians come and go, but the bureaucrats are permanent. The former, at least, have fear of votes; the latter have no qualms whatsoever.

For the last 14 years, during the execution of two back-to-back projects for “conservation and management” of the Bhoj Wetland, which includes the Upper and Lower lakes, two political parties happened to be in power. Both (one of which ruled for nine long years) showed utter disregard for this vital Wetland – that is, until recently when the water crisis appeared ominous for the fortunes of the party currently in power at the imminent general elections. During this long period it is the bureaucrats who should have been more sensitive and pro-active. But, they, cocooned in their cushy warmth, occupying positions of power and authority in two (failed) projects and in the state administration, did nothing for its conservation.

Apart from the officialdom, the campaign has been able to elicit huge support for the ‘cause’ from all sections of the society. Even the generally apathetic middle classes, mostly absorbed in the business of making a living, have displayed an unparalleled involvement. All the expenditure (if at all) made out of the project allocations for public awareness campaigns were, seemingly, wasted, as they never made any impact and educed responses of the kind being currently witnessed. It is a happy augury as the apathy of the general public even for the matters of their immediate concern is legendary.

The campaign may well set a trend – by far, a much needed one – of conserving the state’s water bodies which are largely in disarray. Already the feeder streams of the Upper Lake have been taken up for de-siltation and a similar campaign was launched at Ujjain, followed, though, by disconcerting reports of improper site-selection. Hopefully, water bodies elsewhere will be taken up for conservation after more prudent selection based on the advice of experts.

The current frenetic activity on the Upper Lake proves, if ever a proof was needed, the enormous power politicians wield in this country. They have only to appreciate that they are the movers and shakers, exercising enormous influence over their political colleagues and the bureaucracy. As things stand today, the faintest of cues from them could orient the entire administration towards providing succour to the generally deprived community.

It would be pity if the whole thing remains a one-off campaign and the energy that has been generated on the dry bed of the Upper Lake is allowed to ebb away. The good result that might be achieved needs to be sustained and followed up by the government making the Wetland generate resources for its own maintenance and upkeep or by allocating adequate funds for the purpose as also organising a constant well-ordered oversight to avoid the kind of denouement it has witnessed. For survival, heritage needs sustenance, not mere slogans or voluntary labour.

The need, in fact, is also of going much beyond – that of conserving water by controlling its consumption, plugging leakages, preventing public and private waste and arranging its recycling. Globally, water is the fastest depleting resource. It has to be conserved regardless of what it takes

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...