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

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