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 cliché, 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

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Killing a once-thriving wetland

The dry exposed bed of the Upper Lake in Bhopal, capital of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, is witness these days to frantic digging. About a fortnight back the provincial chief minister woke up to the fact that the Lake was left with very little water. Ministers and officials, seldom seen around the Lake unless on a joyride on the motorised boats, are labouring along with common people to dig for all they are worth in a bid to deepen it. Not only voluntary labour is being elicited, even monetary contributions are being sought for conservation of the Lake. An evocative slogan “Our Lake, our heritage” has been coined to seek people’s participation.

Located at its heart, the Upper Lake is a veritable signature for the town. It was created in the 11th Century by the legendary Raja Bhoj by damming the then perennial Kolans River to provide drinking water to his subjects. Later, the Afghan rulers added in the 18th Century the Lower Lake to receive the overflow from the bigger Upper Lake. Together, the two lakes constitute the Bhoj Wetland, which was recognised in 2002 as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention of 1971.

It is these very lakes which now are under serious threat. Both have shrunk appreciably this year – the Upper Lake from its 30-odd sq. kms to around 8 sq. kms. and the Lower Lake to around 2 sq. kms. from its original approximately 8 sq. kms. Traditionally the source of drinking water, the Upper Lake served until recently, 40% of the local population. This year, with the progressive decline in its water level, the supplies have been restricted only to around 10% of the population and that, too, on alternate days.

While monsoons have turned increasingly fickle reducing precipitation, official negligence has played no mean part in divesting the lakes of their water. A Rs.2.5 billion project for conservation of the Wetland formulated by the government, with money borrowed from the Japanese Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), commencing in 1995 ran, for want of adequate oversight, for 9 long years, instead of its pre-determined tenure of 5 years. At its termination in 2004 not only Rs. 600 million were left unspent, many vital objectives also remained unfulfilled. Whereas the main objective of “conserving and managing” the Wetland was not achieved, the goal of ensuring availability of water from the Upper Lake in an increased quantity and of satisfactory quality, as is now obvious, also remained unfulfilled. Even the sewers emptying into the two lakes could not be diverted to reduce their pollution levels. Another Asian Development Bank loan has since been negotiated to execute the work.

All this happened under the very nose of the government with its various agencies supposedly overseeing the Project. None was, however, held responsible. Worse, a large proportion of the money for the project was improperly spent on the works that should have been taken up by the state’s civil works department. For instance, a four-lane road along the northern shore of the Upper Lake, fallaciously intended to provide a barrier for human interface with the Lake waters, was constructed at the expense of the Project. Inevitably, it has increased human activity close to the waters facilitating people to dump into it all kinds of rubbish. The progressively increasing vehicular traffic on the road has also increased pollution of the waters by vehicular emissions. Besides, a bridge to connect the properties of the influential, too, was constructed out of the project allocations although it never figured among the intended civil works.

Instead of returning the unspent millions to the JBIC the government negotiated another loan of Rs 240 million out of the left-over funds for a 5-year project, again, for “management and conservation” of the Wetland commencing in 2004. MP Lake Conservation Authority (LCA), created on the termination of the earlier project, was contracted as the implementing agency. It has now transpired that none of the itemised worksslated for execution – important by any stretch of imagination for the conservation of the Wetland – was carried out. The project amount was “safely” kept in deposit in the state treasury and its interest is being used for paying for the establishment of the LCA. No periodical feedback on progress of the works, as mandated under the Project, was given to various authorities, including the JBIC, the Government of India and the Government of MP. Also, none of these authorities ever asked for progress reports from the implementing agency. No eyebrows, however, were ever raised. As usual, none has been held accountable for the non-performance.

Worse, even the report on economic valuation of the Wetland, bankrolled by the World Bank, carried out by an Environmental Economist of the prestigious Indian Institute of Forest Management located in Bhopal, delineating its economic benefits and recommending ways and means for garnering of resources for its conservation and upkeep was never considered for initiation of necessary steps.
The apathetic approach of the government is apparent from the toothless LCA it created, and that, too, for the entire state instead of, as projected, only for Bhoj Wetland. Having neither statutory backing nor finances it lacks the wherewithal to conserve any water body. Several of its CEOs have been non-professionals – officers of the Indian Administrative Service who generally wear several hats simultaneously – have so far made any consequential difference to any of the state’s wetlands.

Largely dependent on the waters of the Lake, people, individually and collectively, have for long been clamouring for government’s attention to the fast degrading Wetland. The local Citizens’ Forum, an informal pressure group of prominent citizens, filed a petition in 2007 with the State Human Rights Commission which brought all the issues relating to conservation of the Wetland to the notice of the government. And, yet there has been no action.

The goings-on during the 14 years appear like a primer on how to kill a vital Wetland that was once thriving. The credit for authoring the lessons goes to those who run the MP government and its various agencies so elaborately devised to conserve the environment, including its water bodies. While it now calls upon people to save the Heritage Lake the government has hardly ever spared any money or effort on its conservation. The unkind cut is that while it has wasted billions taken on credit from foreign sources for conservation of the Wetland, it is now asking people to contribute in cash and kind for the same purpose. That loans are being piled on them, with attendant burden of taxes in the future, in addition to the current misery inflicted on them of restricted alternate-day supply of the precious fluid is, seemingly, of no concern to the government.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Time to shun partisan politics

Ever since Liela Khaled of Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine hijacked a TWA flight in 1969 many planes have been hijacked around the world. India, too, has had its share of hijacks but the one which is never allowed to remain buried in the sands of history is the hijack on Christmas eve of 1999 of IC 814, the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. What distinguished this hijack from others is the fact that, at the end of the tortuous hard bargaining, Jaswant Singh, the then Indian External Affairs Minister, travelled to Kandahar Airport with the three terrorists whom the Indian Government agreed to release in exchange for the freedom of the passengers held there as hostages.

With 177 passengers and 11 crew members the hijackers forced the pilot to fly to Kandahar via Amritsar, Lahore and Dubai. The passengers, one of whom was killed on the way and his body unceremoniously dropped off the aircraft at Dubai, became objects for a trade off against 36 terrorists held in Indian prisons. Unless that was done, the hijackers threatened, they would blow up the plane. The lengthy negotiations that ensued eventually ended with Indian government agreeing to release only three, though dreaded, terrorists, viz. Mushtaq Ahmed Zergar, Ahmed Omer Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar. While Masood Azhar was later alleged to be the mastermind of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, Ahmed Omer Sheikh was widely perceived to be responsible for the kidnapping and, later, murder of Daniel Pearle, the Mumbai correspondent of the Wall Street Journal.

This hijack has been flogged ad nauseam by the Congress Party to run down and denigrate its opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the dog-eat-dog world of Indian politics politicians cannot let go of an opportunity to snap at each other. No sooner had the leader of the Opposition happened to accuse the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the last session of the Parliament of being soft on terror Congressman Kapil Sibal harked back to the 1999 hijack. In a classical instance of one-upmanship, he wanted that the Opposition, National Democratic Alliance (NDA), should apologise to the people for not only freeing three terrorists, some of whom later perpetrated even more vicious acts of terror, including the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, but also had them shamefully “escorted” personally by the country’s External Affairs minister. As is their wont, regardless of their assurances to the contrary given earlier, politicians started barking at each other.

Later, claiming firmness in handling of the Mumbai attackers, Digvijay Singh, another Congress biggy, a general secretary to boot, asserted that his party led-government refused to negotiate with the Mumbai attackers. He went on to claim that, yielding no quarter to the attackers, the government had them eliminated. The innuendo was clearly directed at the NDA. However, the question of any negotiations with the attackers never arose because they had never made any demand. During his interrogation the captured terrorist, Ajmal Amir Quasab, has also asserted that the mandate given to him and others with him did not include putting forth any demand.
In the highly competitive politics truth is often the casualty and bluff and bluster occupy centre stage. That the then fledgling NDA government was faced with an extraordinary situation was never so much as mentioned. The unseemly demonstrations by the relatives of the passengers, covertly stoked by some of those in the Opposition, sustained right through the better part of the week asking for total surrender, including ceding of Kashmir (to Pakistan) and the inexperience of the government which had just assumed power have never been referred to. Curiously, even Jaswant Singh’s unpleasant trip, undertaken only because of his keenness to ensure safe release of the hostages, was also given a malicious twist.

And, the fact that terrorists had earlier been released in exchange for hostages is conveniently forgotten. In the early 1990s five terrorists were released from Kashmir jails to free the abducted Rubaiya Saeed, daughter of the then Indian Home Minster, Mufti Mohammed Saeed. Sibal (or others of his ilk) have never made a mention of it as his Party not only ran until recently a coalition government with the Mufti’s party in Kashmir, the latter has also been one of its allies in the UPA until the other day. That is precisely what politics is about – to obfuscate, dissemble and misrepresent to keep the opposition down.

In their petty squabbles politicians tend to forget that the misfortune that befell the NDA government can chance upon any regime. Given our lackadaisical way of functioning, a bomb blast, a terror attack, a high-profile abduction or a hijack are eminently possible. A number of terrorists, including one captured alive on 26/11 and another in the death row, continue to languish in Indian prisons. An attempt to free them is very much on the cards. There were several attempts to get Masood Azhar out of the Jammu prison. Their failure led to the IC 814 hijack as we never woke up to the threat his incarceration posed.

Jihadies and their promoters in the Pakistani establishment do not distinguish between this regime or that. They seem to have an unqualified antipathy for India, an entity that they keenly desire to Islamise. India’s multi-culturalism, its pluralist society and its economic progress despite all its handicaps are what bug them. What is more, they simply hate India and could even launch attacks out of sheer hatred for it. Already a formation for promoting hatred for India has become operational in Pakistan.

If our politicians are really interested in doing good to the people – and they keep claiming all the while that they do so – they need to shun their narrow partisan agendas and cooperate with each other in devising ways and means to achieve what they claim. The need of the hour is ensuring security of life and property of the people. And, this is precisely what politicians of all shades neglected while they bickered all the time. To make itself secure the country needs to pull itself by its boot-straps. From plugging the porous land and sea frontiers to creation of a well-oiled internal security apparatus with all its concomitant paraphernalia – there is enormous amount of work lying ahead before the country’s political bosses.

With neighbours on its two flanks harbouring hostile elements the country cannot visualise a future without terror and/or devious attempts to bleed it and retard its progress. Unflinching vigilance is necessary – a price that has to be paid to ensure to the citizens freedom from fear and anxiety. It is, therefore, time politicians stopped playing politics with national security. People want no less, for the security disaster that “26/11” was has made them angry – yes, at none other than the politicians.

Published online by Indian News & Features Alliance, New Delhi, on 9th January 2009

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