Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Tiger Summit and the "Tiger State"

With as few as 3200 tigers in the wilds of the world as many as thirteen tiger-range countries met in November 2010 in Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in an effort to save the species. They committed around $300 million during the next five years towards doubling the current world population of the species by 2022. Hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, governments concerned capped a year-long political process with new funding to support the plan, known as the Global Tiger Recovery Programme.

“Too often, conservation efforts languish for lack of political will,” said WWF Director General Jim Leape. “At the Forum here in St. Petersburg we have seen political will at the highest level - heads of government committing themselves to saving the tiger, and laying out concrete plans to turn those commitments into action on the ground... We have never before seen this kind of political support to save a single species,” Leape said. “We now have the strategy needed to double tiger numbers and real political momentum.” Putin in course of a conversation even quoted Mahatma Gandhi who, according to him, had said “A country which is good for the tiger is good for everybody”.

While concern for the tiger was perceptible the world over, the same was somewhat missing in India, the country that hosts almost 40% of the species. Not only the Indian delegation to the Summit was lightweight and even the political will that Leape talked about seemed to be wanting in India. For instance, the Prime Minister, who is the chairperson of the National Board of Wildlife, summoned its meeting in March 2010 after a lapse of almost two years. Likewise, barring the honourable exceptions of the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Gujarat (which has Asiatic lions), other chief ministers are as uncommitted towards conservation of wildlife. No wonder, a prominent conservationist, Belinda Wright, moaned that unless the chief ministers were on board it would be difficult to save the tiger. She was apparently, right as some, like the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (MP), appear to be not quite friendly towards the campaign for saving the tiger.

This was exemplified by his recent alarming articulation. That he was not in favour of creating a buffer zone as mandated by the Central Wildlife Protection Act and as directed by the Prime Minister in his letter of April 2010, especially in the Panna Reserve, has been well known as some of his political cronies have mining interests within the proposed buffer area. A buffer zone, unlike the core area of a reserve, is not inviolate, is protected from major changes in land use and people living in it are provided alternative livelihood options. Mining operations, certainly cannot take place in it. What was alarming was that, siding with his political cronies, he asserted that he could not “sacrifice Panna for the sake of survival of the tigers” as humans were more important than tigers (even in a tiger reserve). The uproar that his statement caused made him back off. Nonetheless, his disinclination towards tiger conservation became evident by his reluctance to talk at some length to the movie icon Amitabh Bacchan during the recent finale of New Delhi Television’s “Save the tiger” campaign. No wonder, he has now opposed the centrally approved conversion of Ratapani Sanctuary into a tiger reserve.

Besides, his government is fighting tooth and nail the pending case filed in the MP High Court by “Prayatna”, an environmental advocacy group, regarding banning of tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Indian Tiger Conservation Authority. Soon after the petition was filed his Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wild Life) exhorted all the tourism players, hoteliers, tour operators, etc to oppose the case. This he did in defiance of the specific directions given by the Prime Minister in his letter to the chief minister referred to above. That unrestricted tourism has been a bane for the tiger reserves in the state has been acknowledged by many tiger experts. What the state promotes is a vicious kind of uncontrolled tourism with its infamous “tiger shows” that corral tigers with dozens of vehicles and elephants loaded with tourists who are hardly wildlife enthusiasts – something which is “irresponsible tourism”.

The state had a study conducted in 2003 for determining the carrying capacity of tourists in its tiger reserves. Mentioning excessive tourism pressure in the reserves, the report made detailed recommendations hardly any of which have been implemented. In its affidavit against the pending petition the government has mentioned that tourism, inter alia, effectively protects tigers and provides employment to locals. These are hypocritical statements as despite uncontrolled tourism in the Panna Reserve all its tigers were poached between 2005 and 2009. “The best model for wilderness is no visitors at all” and, if they must come, better to have “high price and low numbers” says the South African safari pioneer, Colin Bell. And, instead of being made stake holders, the locals are given only menial jobs, if at all. Their knowledge of the forests’ biodiversity is never made use of.

The state’s forest department is trying to relocate tigers to the same Panna Tiger Reserve from where all its tigers were poached between 2005 and 2009. Nothing much has changed since then to warrant an effort to repopulate the Tiger Reserve. Even post-2009 for want of adequate care by the foresters a couple of cubs (out of four) born to a relocated tigress went missing and were later presumed to be dead. A relocated male developed its homing instinct soon after relocation and moved out of the Reserve unnoticed by the foresters and travelled tens of kilometres over hills and valleys, across rivers, farms and urban habitation towards its home in Pench Tiger Reserve at great risk to itself.

Again, earlier this month the Department had to abandon its plans to relocate two tigresses from the Kanha Tiger Reserve which were brought up in an enclosure having been orphaned early in their life. Though they are said to be about six years old they are, perhaps, not yet mature enough. Initially they were kept in a small enclosure which was later expanded to comprise an area of about five hectares. Not nurtured under parental guidance, their ability to fend for themselves and hunt on their own in a strange habitat is, therefore, questionable. In the unchanged circumstances in the Reserve they would be sitting ducks for poachers. This is no way of perpetuating a species.

While the Government of India’s Ministry of Forests and Environment is trying to do its best to save the tigers but Madhya Pradesh, the Tiger State, is not quite on board. The state has been steadily losing its tigers. Tourism occupies centre stage but not enough is being done to protect the tigers – forgetting that once the tigers disappear tiger-tourism would simply collapse. The forest guards are far too few, far too old and are not fighting-fit to pose a challenge to those who stalk the tigers in the forests. The Tiger Protection Force, approved by the Prime Minister in 2007 is nowhere sight.

Clearly, the attitude of state government and its forest officials is out of sync with the worldwide concern for the depleting numbers of this ecologically vital species. From what is happening in the state, it looks like the prognosis of the Tiger Summit that tigers were likely to become extinct by 2022 may well come true, at least, in Madhya Pradesh, if not elsewhere.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Of malls, hypermarkets and consumerism

The other day our entire family visited Hyper City, the new hyper-market in the premises of the mall known as DB City. Promoted by a big vernacular media group, the Mall is situated close to the biggest business district of the central Indian city of Bhopal. Built on the pattern of any other mall, it is gradually filling up with shops, chain-stores, eateries and even a bowling alley, currently a curiosity in the town.

The shops in the Mall are, mostly, purveying branded garments, shoes, perfumes, cosmetics cell phones and suchlike. The Hyper City, however, is a different kettle of fish. In one massive hall there is virtually everything that one may happen to need. From fresh to packaged and processed food, grocery, furniture, wellness and sports equipment, crockery, glassware, quality kitchenware to the latest in electronics, you name it – and it’s all there and at a scale that has never been seen before in this town. The place is packed with stuff and one cannot fail to wonder the scale in which all this stuff is being manufactured or some even being imported, curiously like in America, mostly from China. Obviously, there is a lot of money and people are happily throwing it around.

As my brother remarked, it is a quantum jump for Bhopal. From shopping in the claustrophobic narrow streets of the Chowk of Old Bhopal 50-odd years ago to a swanky hyper market is quite a transition. The townsfolk are exposed for the first time to numerous escalators, automated ramps and modern lifts that are not closed and claustrophobic, but have transparent walls. Naturally, there are crowds of people –old and young, mostly the latter – from all sections of society. I even espied a few who were from the hinterland and some others who appeared to be from some shanty-town of the city. They had all come to gawk at things, features and fixtures that are strange and new to them.

The current generation is lucky as it is exposed to all that the new Century materialism has to offer. Whatever is available in the advanced countries of the East and the West are all available here and, what’s more, almost simultaneously as they come out of the assembly lines of sorts. Opening up of the economy in the early ‘90s of the last century has made all this possible giving a huge heave to the consumerist-culture that has now well and truly set in and is on the upswing.

This was not so in our times. We grew up and lived most of our life in a closed economy – an economy that pretended to be socialistic in character but was far from it. It was such a closed economy that even as late as in the early 1980s we had not seen many of the mechanical and electronic equipment that were freely in use elsewhere in the world, including in the neighbouring South East Asian countries, some of which later came to be known as “The Asian Tigers” for their rapid economic progress. For instance, TVs were a rarity and we had never seen, leave alone use, a simple thing like a calculator. In the offices, photocopiers were unavailable whereas, we later saw, these were in regular use in most offices in S-E Asia. We were still in the ‘stencils age’.

I recall, when, in the course of a professional programme on public administration conducted in 1981 by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, my colleagues and I were taken to South-East Asia I came across escalators for the first time in my life in our hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Later, in Singapore, I saw for the first time a mall. I still remember its name – CK Tang – which was recommended to the entire group by the Indian High Commissioner. The place was stuffed with the goods that were seldom available in the shops in New Delhi. From perfumes to shoes, to branded luggage and apparels, Japanese cameras and electronic items, all were available in great profusion. We hardly were able to buy any of that stuff, anyway, availability of foreign exchange under the socialist economy being so limited.

A year later, in 1982 when I happened to visit Japan I could not help feeling how far behind, materially speaking, we were. But, of course, Japan was an advanced, industrialised country. In the area called Akihabara in Tokyo VCRs, invisible then in Delhi shops, were stacked up on shelves from floor to the ceiling. Food processors, still to make their advent in India, were available in profusion. In Shinjuku, again in Tokyo, as soon as one entered the famous shop by the name Yudobashi one would hear a racket – the salesmen of various famous Japanese brands of cameras calling out to all-comers to sample their stuff, like the meat-sellers used to do years ago in the meat market in my hometown, Gwalior. And, Shinkasen, the Bullet Train that we travelled in to Osaka, was out of this world.

Forget the malls or the chain-stores of Mitsukoshi, basketfuls of calculators or 35mm colour-film rolls would be placed outside small stores. One just had to pick up according to one’s need and pay up. On virtually every street one would find an outfit that processed colour films in a matter of hours on automatic processing machines. In our case, even in New Delhi one had to hand over exposed colour rolls at the Kodak outlet on Janpath which would send them for processing to Bombay. The processed stuff would come back only after three weeks or so.

Things are far different now and the country has travelled a long way since the early ‘80s. The GDP has risen spectacularly and India has become the target of all big producers because of its billion people and is considered the biggest market after China. All the international big names of various industries have, therefore, set up shop in the country, fostering consumption and encouraging consumerism.

That, however, is what is worrying. The malls, hyper-markets and suchlike have a flip side. While the burgeoning middle classes are having a great time, the aspirations of the lower classes are being spurred on. After all, today’s lower classes are tomorrow’s middle classes, who, in course of time, will fall prey to the same consumer culture. Can India really afford such a culture encouraged by the glitz, glitter and the glamour of malls and hyper markets?

One shudders to imagine what our Planet Earth will be like if hundreds of millions of Indians ape the consumerism of the West. About seventy years ago Gandhi-ji had said that we would need the resources of two planets if Indians were to acquire the living standards of the British. We were only three hundred million then – when the country was still undivided. Now we are a billion and more and, despite widespread poverty with abysmally low levels of consumption, ecologically we are already in the red.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Madhya Pradesh - India's environment-unfriendly state

The other day, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, chief minister (CM) of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP), came out with a startling statement. Speaking at the Panna Tiger Reserve he asserted that he was not in favour of creating a buffer zone for it. One could not “destroy” Panna only to let the tigers “survive”, he said. He further asserted that humans were more important than tigers.

Apparently, he has played into the hands of his political cronies who have mining interests in the areas that fall in the proposed buffer and have been opposing the creation of the same. The CM seemed to be quite oblivious of the fact that a national legislation, the Wildlife Act, makes creation of buffer zones mandatory for all tiger reserves. These zones are vital as they allow tigers more space and the freedom to move freely in the sanctuary and help in avoiding man-animal conflicts. The CM also appeared to have forgotten that only last year Panna had lost all its tigers and a multi-million rupee project was conceived by his government to relocate to it tigers from Kanha and Bandhavgarh Reserves. If he holds survival of tigers unimportant, why did he have millions of rupees spent from the public exchequer for these relocations?

This unpleasant episode indicates how poor his understanding is of the importance of tigers in the Indian forests and the ecosystems they sustain in the context of prosperity and wellbeing of the very humans he considers so important. He has opted for short-term gains. Seemingly, he is not equipped to appreciate the fact that the industrialisation of the state that his government is chasing will be jeopardised if tiger does not survive in the forests of the state. He has, apparently, never paused to think that disappearance of tigers from the wild would be the nemesis of the forests, eventually threatening the state’s water sources, its food security and even its industrialisation.

Unfortunately, his government has, of late, taken several steps that threaten the existence of tigers in the state’s forests. Permitting tourists in core areas, approving widening of a highway that fragments tiger habitats of Kanha and Pench reserves are instances that are only illustrative. No wonder, the state topped the charts last year with 13 tiger deaths out of 59 in the country and is likely to better its record in 2010.

That environment has lost its due importance and the necessary priority with the current government of Madhya Pradesh became apparent last year. In its preceding avatar the BJP government under the same leadership was so interested in matters relating to environment that the chief minister had a proposal formulated for declaration of Bhopal as a Global Environment City (GEC). The genesis of the idea was traced back to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 that came to be known as the world’s worst industrial disaster. It caused immense environmental damage and the city acquired notoriety worldwide that despoiled its image. With an intense desire to refurbish that image, the chief minister went to the length of discussing his proposal with the Prime Minister and, later, constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the well-known urban administrator, Mahesh Buch. Eventually, however, nothing came off the proposal. The committee met several times spending a lot of public money but its report was such which its chairman did not deign to sign.

Since then the government seemed to have lost its way and given up nurturing environment. It forgot all that it had put in its proposal for making Bhopal a GEC and adopted measures that were contrary to its own proposals. The most brazen example of this attitudinal change was the Bhopal City Development Plan 2021 that was released late last year. The Plan was an attempt to hand over this beautiful and green city to the building mafia. Instead of nurturing the city’s environmental assets as it had earlier proposed, the Plan tried to play with its ecological health. Land use was mercilessly changed and a stench of massive corruption pervaded the city and the state. Farm lands, banks of lakes, hills etc., that were to be conserved under the proposal for conversion as GEC, were put up for grabs. It was only the civil society which, rising as one man, made the government backtrack and virtually cancel the Plan.

Reckless urban expansion, however, is continuing all over. In Bhopal, for example, the surrounding fertile farm lands in thousands of hectares are being gobbled up for construction of gated complexes for the rich. The land mafia is having a great time. These high-end complexes are dependent on groundwater, levels of which are plummeting every passing year. And, the very hills around the city that were proposed under the GEC for “ecological amelioration” are being de-greened and handed over to public and private builders. Worse, so far the government has failed to enforce adoption of any “green” measure on them.

Besides, for want of a dependable and decent public transport system the residents of these far-flung complexes will have no alternative but to be car-dependent, adding to the already substantial carbon emissions. Bhopal stands second in the state after Indore in these emissions. Rising air pollution is common in all major cities of the province for which it has so far been “business as usual”. No comprehensive attempts to curb the rising emissions have been attempted now that the country has become the third biggest carbon-emitter after China and the US. Looking at what is happening in the urban centres one tends to think that environment impact assessments of even large public or private residential projects need to be made mandatory.

Progressive urbanisation in the state has been accompanied by a massive failure in civic administration. This was reflected in the recent “Rating of Cities” that was carried out under the National Urban Sanitation Policy. The cities of the state figure way down in ratings, with the capital figuring at 253 out of 423 cities rated on the basis of data collected between December 2009 and March 2010. In fact, the civic life of the people in urban Madhya Pradesh is in tatters. The scourge of plastic continues. Instead of banning it like several other states and save on import of crude petroleum, attempts are being made to feed used plastic to cement kilns. That plastic is polluting and chokes drains causing floods is being glossed over.

The state’s water sources are also in a sorry state. River Narmada, the main river of the state, is being heavily tapped for both urban and agricultural use and yet it is progressively losing its discharge which, in any case, is polluted. A ruling party biggy, who travelled down the river from its source to its confluence with Arabian Sea, witnessed to his dismay not only shrinkage of forests at its source but also a flow that had appreciably gone down that receives during its course through the state a large volume of industrial and urban effluents. Despite his report nothing much has been done to take care of the River. Such, however, is the condition of most of the state’s rivers which have reduced flows and have become veritable sewers.

With no glacial-melt the state is dependent on forest-fed rivers. Forests are, therefore, vital for the state in all its economic activities, including industrialisation. That is precisely where the significance of tiger lies. Its survival in the forests of the state is critical for its prosperity and well being in the long term. Clearly, the chief minister has been barking up the wrong tree.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Jhurjhura tigress" dies revealing State's apathy

An NGO, “Udai”, led by Shehla Masood, a wildlife activist has been seeking action against those who were responsible for the death of a tigress in the famed Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP). She handed over a memorandum to the chief minister on the International Tiger Day for action against those responsible for the death of the tigress. The memorandum had more than 36000 signatures on it. The tigress died on 19th may, 2010 after having been hit by a vehicle the night before when some so-far-unidentified important visitors entered the Reserve for an allegedly unauthorised and illegal night-drive. It died in the Jhurjhura area of the Reserve and, hence, has since come to be known as the “Jhurjhura tigress”.

The killing caused a furore in India and abroad. According to the member-secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), enough evidence was available to indicate that two vehicles were involved in the accident. The vehicles entered the Reserve after the closing time at 9.30 PM and, unofficial reports indicate, carried sons of two state ministers who are one-time princelings. Wielding their power and influence they squelched proper investigations. Vociferous demands, including even from the central Ministry of Forests & Environment (MOEF), for a Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) were ignored. The State’s Forest Department handed over the investigations to the provincial Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Keen observers of the ways of the State said that this was done only to effectively put a lid on the case. That is apparently true as the investigations have led nowhere even after five months and the culprits have remained anonymous.

The death of the “Jhurjhura tigress” has been dwelt upon in some detail only to indicate the attitude of utter indifference of the state government, especially its Forest Department, towards protection of tigers. These are the days of declining tiger numbers and every piece of news about them makes it to the media. Sighting of new-born cubs or deaths – natural or due to internecine fights – and even mating or refusal to do so, by relocated tigers, all make it to the media in fair amounts of detail. There are any number of non-governmental organisations that are running campaigns with a view to raising awareness about the need to save tigers. Clearly, there is visible desperation about the plummeting tiger numbers in the country. In the midst of all this almost universal concern the brazen apathy of the State that has given to itself the sobriquet of “The Tiger State” is insensitive, even jarring and bizarre.

This is more so because its recent record in tiger conservation is none too satisfactory. Only last year the Panna Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers. Despite a very early warning – in 2004-05 –by a long-time researcher of Panna tigers, RS Chudawat, and later repeated warnings by central teams of professional tiger-watchers from various tiger conservational organisations such as NTCA , the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court, etc. were not paid heed to. The State’s forest bureaucracy obdurately ignored them and remained in denial mode.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the MOEF to enquire into disappearance of tigers from Panna severely indicted the State and its officials for failure in various areas of tiger conservation. Not to be outdone, the Forest Department set up its own investigative team under the chairmanship of a retired principal chief conservator of forests. Its report blamed the disappearance of tigers on emergence of a skewed sex-ratio with males outnumbering females that induced the latter to migrate out of the core area into the buffers only to be poached. The report did an excellent cover-up job and did not fix responsibility on anybody. In fact, none has so far been held accountable for the loss of Panna tigers. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), the most articulate and vehement in denying absence of tigers in the Reserve till the forest minister admitted in in the State Assembly, was only moved out for a while and was promptly brought back as soon as the State-level panel submitted its report.

The lackadaisical attitude of the State’s forest department was further evidenced by disappearance of tigers from the Sanjay National Park in Sidhi District which once hosted 30-odd tigers and now don’t seem to have any. A Panna-like revival is on the cards but would be successful only if proper care is taken. Even in Panna two cubs born of a recently relocated tigress went missing and are now presumed to be dead. Again, a sub-adult tiger was crushed in April 2009 in the Bandhavgarh Reserve under the wheels of a tourist vehicle that gained entry because of lax control-systems in the Reserve.

Worse, the government nonchalantly gave approval to the widening of a highway connecting Nagpur with Seoni that cuts across the corridor that the tigers and other wildlife use to commute between the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. The road, in any case, had fragmented their habitat, and yet the government gave the approval unmindful of the impact it would have on the tigers and other wildlife. The government’s apathy is also reflected in its apparent lack of enthusiasm to protect and nurse the tigers that have recently been discovered in Madhav National park in Shivpuri and in the jungles around Dewas. Apparently some tigers still survive outside the protected areas which need to be nursed and nurtured and a hawk-like watch needs to be kept over them.

It’s not that the government and its foresters do not know what needs to be done. They know it all having been in the profession for decades. Only they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and shun one-upmanship vis-a-vis their counterparts in various central tiger organisations and institutions towards whom they have adopted an adversarial attitude. After all, in so far as tigers are concerned the objectives of both are the same.

The Forest Department will also have to shed its obsession with tourism. That unrestricted tourism is a bane for the tourist sites, especially the national parks, is being increasingly appreciated. The infamous tiger-shows that virtually corral tigers and the department’s new initiatives of monsoon and eco-tourism with forest patrols may fetch revenue but are not conducive to conservation. Animals also need to be left to themselves, at least, for some time.

The need for escalated efforts to protect wildlife cannot be overemphasised. While higher posts are promptly filled up those in subaltern levels have remained unfilled. Recent regularisation of part-timers has not helped as most are above 45 years in age. The need is of revised recruitment policies for induction of young and energetic guards, properly equipped and armed to enable them to actively participate in the fight to save tigers, a fight which, as commented by an official of Wildlife Trust of India, is increasingly being “fought only with the generals but no soldiers”.

Above all, what is required for saving the tigers is political will as that will bring in its wake a change in attitude of the bureaucracy, including the foresters. This was exemplified by Indira Gandhi whose initiative in launching the Project Tiger brought in a remarkable attitudinal change among the officials. As wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright says, “If CMs (chief ministers) are on board there will still be some hope”. Unfortunately in MP, the CM is not yet “on board” and at the bureaucratic helm are those who (over)saw the disappearance of tigers from Panna. Clearly, tiger is under threat in the “Tiger State”.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Second Mumbai international airport - another view

Recently the members of parliament (MPs) representing all hues from Mumbai displayed rare unity when, together, they met the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. At stake was the clearance of the proposal for the second international airport for the metropolis held up at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) of the Indian government. The Ministry has raised several environmental issues suitable replies to which have not yet been provided. The intention of the MPs was to pressurise the MOEF for expediting the environmental clearances. None dared skipping the meet as this was a proposal, howsoever controversial, that would boost further economic growth of the metropolis even if it happens to be suicidal. They smelt nothing but votes once the second airport came through.

Economic growth is the new deity in India at the altar of which everything has to be sacrificed – whether it is natural resources, the natural world, the environment or whatever. The word connotes development and progress which, in our context, is seemingly limitless and endless.

The proposal for establishment of Mumbai’s second airport has for some time been a subject of public discourse and inter-ministerial squabbles. It is proposed to be located in Navi (New) Mumbai about 35 kilometres away from the existing Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA). Its proponent, City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) of Mumbai, contends that enhancement of aviation facilities for Mumbai has become absolutely essential as the existing airport is fast reaching saturation level. Besides, a second airport is needed for retaining the leadership of Maharashtra in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), thereby “creating a place of pride for itself and add to the prosperity of its people”.

According to the CIDCO website, the new airport, to be built under public-private partnership, is expected to “absorb” the future growth in business and commercial activity of the region. CIDCO also thinks that availability of physical and social infrastructure coupled with “environmental friendly site” makes the Navi Mumbai airport viable in every respect. Further, the growth in resident population in Navi Mumbai, rapid development of its Central Business District, along with economic activities in the Special Economic Zone, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Thane-Belapur and Taloja industrial areas and the huge catchment area ranging from Pune to South Mumbai would assure a steady growth in traffic. It is expected to cater to 20 million passengers by 2020, 30 million in 2025 and ultimately 40 million by 2030. It is going to be one of the world’s few “greenfield”, state-of-the-art airports offering world class facilities to passengers, cargo and airlines. Needless to mention, the Maharashtra government had given prompt approval to the proposal.

That Mumbai is already bursting at its seams is, apparently, of no concern to the promoter. It is already the most populous city in India and the second most populous city in the world with 14 million people huddled within its seven islands. According to Wikipedia, along with the neighbouring urban areas of Navi Mumbai, Thane, etc. it is one of the most populous urban regions in the world.

As regards the quality of life Mumbai offers to its citizens, a telling report of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation recently appeared in the print media. The Corporation’s Environment Status Report for 2009-2010, released on September 3, 2010, reveals that the presence of the highly carcinogenic chemical, benzo(a)pyrene, has increased eight-fold. Benzo(a)pyrene is a component of chemicals called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and is emitted from automobile exhaust, tar, combustion of organic materials such as wood and coal. The report also reveals a jump in the presence of other PAHs that, all taken together, are potent air pollutants and have been identified as, both “carcinogenic and mutagenic”. The BMC attributes the rise in these carcinogenic pollutants to, inter alia, increased construction and rapid industrialisation. And, yet CIDCO would like more construction and further industrial growth.

The CIDCO in its website has said that new airport has been proposed at an “environment-friendly site”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The MOEF, under the new vigorous leadership of Jairam Ramesh, has taken objection to the proposal on several counts. For the new airport about 400 acres of mangrove forests are proposed to be displaced. These protect Mumbai’s fragile coastline against flash floods, serve as hatching grounds for fish and also act as natural purifier of air. It seems, already massive destruction of mangroves has taken place near the suburb of Dahisar. Besides, no lessons seem to have been learnt from the yearly floods, especially that of 2005, largely caused by the diversion of Mithi River to facilitate building of the existing airport 50 years ago. Overlooking history, CIDCO has proposed diversion of not one but two rivers to accommodate the airport. The building of the proposed airport would also require levelling of an 80 metre high hill that, environmentalists say, raises “significant coastal zone management issues”. Environmentalists also feel that the new airport, unless artificially raised by 7 or 8 metres, would be vulnerable to high tides.

The existing CSI Airport of Mumbai was rated only this year by the Airports Council International as the best in the country among those that handle 15 million or more passengers. Globally also it has improved its rating from 87 to 23. Reports have also indicated that there are slots, though inconvenient, even now available which have been rejected by some foreign airlines. Besides, the Civil Aviation Ministry is considering a crack-down on delayed flights to decongest the Mumbai and Delhi airports. Besides, to forestall choking of the airport the nearby international airports of Goa, Ahmedabad and Pune could be modernised and expanded. Pune, in fact, has been cited to be in the catchment of the proposed Navi Mumbai Airport and, yet, there is no proposal for the expansion of its airport.

As is evident, the proposal for the second airport for the metropolis is entirely driven by “growth” – of passenger and cargo traffic, of industry, international trade and commerce, FDI and, above all, for “pride” and “prosperity” of the locals. The airport is expected to propel growth in passenger traffic to 40 million by 2030. Once that is achieved, will CIDCO propose a third international airport for the metropolis to decongest the proposed one? Can one go on adding airports in a city to provide for ever-rising traffic? One gets the feeling that, Mumbai feels a little jealous of Delhi as the latter has since got an upgraded airport that is supposedly “world class”.

From all evidences, the time seems to have come when authorities in Mumbai must cry a halt to all growth, be satisfied with what it has and strive to improve upon it. The new airport will in no way improve the quality of life of the people. And, barring a few low-level jobs the poor will get nothing out of it. Economic growth in India has a strong relationship with enrichment of the rich and rise in the levels of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Besides, bigger a city becomes, greater is the deprivation of its poor. Despite being the richest city in the country with the highest GDP, more than 50% of Mumbai’s population currently lives in slums in conditions that are sub-human.

The proposal for the second international airport for Mumbai would, therefore, seem to be untenable from many points of view, especially those of its environment and well-being of its citizens.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The "Silver tsunami"

Ever since I crossed 70 I have been apprehensive of the future. With the rising life expectancy I just do not know how long I am going to live. The government from which I retired more than a decade ago provides a pension which till now is handsome. I do not know what happens in the future with the continuing double-digit inflation. For the present things are comfortable – the government supplies the basic medicines that I need and I can afford to buy the vitamins, micronutrients and other diet supplements. But their prices are also rising almost every month. That is, however, a minor worry. What gives me nightmares is what would happen if I develop some disabling ailment or if I happen to go into a coma. Geriatric care here being what it is, I may become an unbearable burden on my wife or may have to lie around uncared and neglected oblivious of my surroundings.

My lot, however, is much better than those of many others who have either far scarcer resources or none at all to take care of them. In the lower middle classes, particularly those who retire either from the unorganised sector or were self-employed have a pretty miserable advanced age with hardly any safety net to fall into. Perhaps, worse is the condition of those in the rural areas when they become unable to work in the fields as farmers or farm-labourers. They have nothing to fall back on. There have been reports of young men and women leaving their old parents at home when they go looking for work in urban centres. The parents are left behind with very little for sustenance. I remember during one of the Kalahandi (a district in Orissa) famines years ago things were so bad that all the younger people left the villages leaving behind all the elderly and infirm. As nothing was available they were left to fend for themselves until they met their inevitable end. The story was so well written that it became a real tearjerker.

Things are likely to get worse for the elderly in the country. Statistics show that in post-independence India their population has been increasing along with the general growth. Though the country is stated to have a large majority of youngsters, the so called “demographic dividend”, yet the rising population of over-60 is increasingly becoming a cause of concern. Over the last few decades their numbers have been steadily increasing and today it is estimated to be more than 10% of the total population. The small percentage, however, hides behind it a very large absolute number. A sharp decline in mortality and a steadily declining fertility rate have contributed to the process of population aging.

Consequently, a larger number of elderly are going out of the workforce every year. Better healthcare and nutritional levels, particularly among the middle classes, have enhanced the life expectancy. Hence, surviving through the 70s is really no big deal. Their presence, however, does cause a strain on the household budget as well as the national economy. Carrying a large army of unproductive population will strain any economy. Even in the developed world very scary projections have been made. Rich countries are up against a rapidly ageing workforce. Nearly one in three American workers will be over 50 by 2012 when America is considered a young country compared to Japan and Germany. China is also aging rapidly, mostly because of its one-child policy. Hence, many observers find the phenomenon to be a serious threat and they have given it a name; they have called it the threat of “silver tsunami”.
The problem has yet to be appreciated and seen in its proper perspective. In the West they were preparing to deal with it when they were overtaken by the recession. When the economy happened to be sliding no one could give a thought to the problem of the “silvers”. As the Economist (February 6th 2010) says, “Companies are still stuck with an antiquated model of dealing with ageing which assumes that people should get pay rises and promotion on the basis of age and then disappear when they reach retirement.” Corporations would sometime try and find relief from the burden by encouraging workers to take early retirement. But, such a model, however, could not work for long because of shortage of young people with necessary skills and experience, particularly in the educational, scientific and engineering establishments, making it difficult to shed older workers.

Nevertheless, to quote the same Economist again, “many industrial companies are re-jigging processes to accommodate older workers”. BMW decided to staff one of its assembly-lines with over-50s and then raised their admittedly low productivity by making their life in the workplace more congenial. Others, like Bosch, are trying to capture the knowledge, experience and skills of the elderly to close the skill-gap among younger workers.

The corporations in the capitalist world are always much smarter in tackling an oncoming problem when they see one. Some of them are what are called “gerentophile”. For example, Asda, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, is Britain’s biggest employer of over-50s. Another Danish supermarket has experimented with shops employing only people who are 45 or above. Elsewhere some companies keep a pool of retired workers who are called upon to work on individual projects. Then there is the concept of semi-retired people who double-up as part-timers.

In India, however, things seem to be different. There is just no evidence that India Inc has become conscious of the brewing “Silver tsunami”. Perhaps, the need has not been felt yet as the Indian technical pool is still, by and large, young. The Central and state governments in India, however, make the best use of the best of the technically qualified men either in their own respective fields or in several others where they could make valuable contributions. Over 80 years old Dr. MS Swaminathan, the famous agricultural scientist, E Sridharan, Metro Rail Chairman are undoubtedly the best examples. A vast majority of ordinary humans are, however, out of this catchment and are left to their own devices. With an economy on the up and up some do find a source of income. Others, however, have to fall back on their familial resources or their own savings, failing which, with the liquidation of the joint-family system, they lead a miserable aged life.

There is every indication that with the growth in population, which is likely to continue for a few more decades, the problem will become only more acute in India. Whatever has so far been done is too little and suffers from several inhibiting factors. The National Old Age Pension Scheme is hardly ever properly implemented and often the beneficiary remains deprived mostly because of corruption and the bureaucratic processes involved. In January last it was decided to evaluate the Scheme in order to make it more effective. Perhaps, the government could also examine the need for its expansion to cover more helpless and economically weak elderly.

Unlike in the rich world geriatric care in India is virtually non-existent. It seems, the Central and state governments have disowned their responsibility towards the “silvers”. There is no reason why a beginning should not be made now. There is need for its institutionalisation at least in urban areas. And, in villages if there are “anganwadis” for children why “anganwadis” cannot be established for “silvers” living out their “second childhood” in miserable destitution.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

BRTS - Is Bhopal getting into a mess?

Bhopal looks somewhat like New Delhi these days with roads dug up and wet earth lying along their sides. The main arteries are being worked on their flanks for widening them, in the process, denuding the roadsides of their green canopy. Thousands of trees have been sacrificed for the purpose – which, perhaps, many do not know – of facilitating introduction of the multi-crore Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS for short. General public was, maybe still is, as ignorant about it as their representatives in the Municipal Corporation and the State Legislative Assembly.

This came out recently at a meeting hosted by a prominent newspaper house of the city that was arranged to discuss this very project with selected invitees.
The transport sector being a substantial contributor of greenhouse gases that are believed to have been the cause of global warming and the changing climate the Government of India adopted BRTS as a kind of a spearhead in its mission to renew urban India that is being increasingly cluttered and clogged up by millions of private two and four wheelers. The scheme essentially hopes to push people from using personal transport to public transport. The objective seemingly is to provide under the scheme unhindered passage to the buses of decent quality in dedicated bus lanes taking commuters to their destinations with relative ease and rapidity. In the process, hopefully, the commuters will save time and energy by commuting in modern, comfortable high-end buses. Not only the roads will be decongested, it will help in stabilising the country’s progressively increasing emissions and enlarging carbon footprint.

A system first conceived and tried in the Bogota, capital of Columbia, the country of Shakira, BRTS has been replicated elsewhere in the world as also in Delhi, Jaipur, Pune etc. A scheme that proved successful in the countries of the West, that have had from the inception of their cities broad roads to accommodate dedicated lanes for big, commodious buses, may not prove to be so in every expanding city, particularly, those which are of medieval vintage in South Asia. The lay of the land in every city is different. A system that proved successful in the West can be transplanted lock stock and barrel in our parts only with, inter alia, clear thinking and planning, coordinated approach, educated and aware users, effective governance – the factors that are generally absent in our system.

As became evident at this meeting, the bus corridor has been planned right through the middle of the town yet it is not quite clear until now how many of the numerous problems confronting the project are going to be overcome. For instance, how the corridor is going to negotiate the core of the old city with its narrow, encroached-upon roads with several priceless heritage structures. None really knows whether the corridor would bulldoze its way through or take the aerial route of flyovers. Then, there are rotaries – big and small – on dozens of junctions which had been enlarged and spruced up at considerable expense a couple of years back and then reduced in size again, spending more money, only recently. What is going to be the fate of statues erected in their middle, holy cows for many, is yet to be decided. Likewise, the Link Road No. 1, supposedly the pride of Bhopal, beautified at great cost only last year with green sides with fancy bus stops and central verge would need to be uprooted. Besides, there does not seem to be any clarity about the bus stops that are planned at the middle of the corridor which, apparently, will necessitate foot over-bridges at every stop. Power situation being what it is and unlikely to improve, escalators, if provided, are likely to get jammed because of disuse. Climbing up and climbing down the foot over-bridges is likely to discourage many from using the System. Then, since the System is going to run right through the middle of the town it is going to have numerous stoppages that will slow down the progress of the buses, virtually killing its “Rapid” attribute. And, one is not sure whether enough planning has gone into feeding the System from various far-flung areas by introduction of linkages with feeder services.

JNNURM was announced in 2005. All these years there seems to have been no planning and coordination in regard to implementation of the BRTS project. Public money was wasted on those very roads for their beautification and sprucing up several rotaries on them which would later make way for the BRTS. The Link Road No.1 alone saw an amount Rs. 7 crore needlessly spent on it. Or was it the case of the left hand not knowing what the right one was up to? It seems, the BRTS project was kept a well guarded secret and none knew about it. Strangely, for such a massive project affecting lakhs of citizens and at the cost of several crores of rupees the people were never consulted.

What is more, the city and its people have not been prepared for taking to buses in a big way for their commutes. Honestly speaking, the city has had no culture of public transport; there has been no effort to encourage it. The backbone of the city’s public transport – the ramshackle mini buses – that one sees on the roads is a phenomenon of not more than a couple of decades old. The way these are maintained and operated deters the middle classes – supposedly the ultimate users of the BRTS – from using them. In fact, the middle classes shun them. These despicable rattling moving metal boxes are largely responsible for driving people to acquire their own vehicles – new or used two or four wheelers.

A beginning was made by the city administration to introduce better buses taking a cue from Indore. Good looking, Tata Star buses were introduced a few years back under the aegis of Bhopal City Link Limited on several routes. As the buses started cutting into the incomes of the minibuses, soon the Service was reduced to a farce with many of the buses rendered out of commission by the goons of the vested interests. As the management threw up its arms, today the Service is not even a pale shadow of what it was with its buses in as bad a condition as the minibuses. Their services are infrequent, unpunctual and irregular. The management that operates the service has neither the capability nor the wherewithal to maintain and run the service. The local administration has stood by helplessly watching its decline. At Indore, however, the Service is not only running but is reported to be flourishing.
Given the city’s administrative culture one wonders whether the sacrifice of thousands of mature trees, expenditure of thousands of crores for the bus-corridor and the soon-to-be-procured high-end low-floor buses with dozens of foot over-bridges, perhaps, with escalators will eventually be worthwhile. Planning and coordination-wise, administratively and organisationally the city is so weak that its administration hardly ever inspires confidence. The BRTS is being managed by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation. None has ever asked whether it has the human resources with technical acumen to implement the project in a manner that in a couple of years’ time the roads are de-clogged and the BRTS takes commuters by hordes to their destinations freeing the rest of the roads from traffic snarls. From all evidences, it does not have any of that. It will be awfully sad if after commissioning of the corridor buses on it run virtually empty and the jams that one sees now continue – and progressively become worse.

I, for one, am very apprehensive. Crores have already been poured into the project with only destruction and denudation to show for them. An enormous mound of details is yet to be sorted out. People of Bhopal are going to have a long, hard time during which their patience is going to be tested by the torturously slow progress of the work. I think, for the citizens of Bhopal the moment of truth is here and now. They have to decide either to put pressure on the administration to speed up the work or just ask it to lay off. Or else there is going to be hell to pay in the shape of ... well, somewhat like what Delhi-ites are suffering now. With the Games, for the Delhi-ites there is light at the end of the tunnel; for us in Bhopal it is likely to be a long dark claustrophobic tunnel.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Needed enhanced ecological literacy

That ecologically India has been facing tough times has been known for some time. Things have not been happy and what is perhaps more forbidding is that they are going to become more difficult in the future, generally worsening the plight of the people. Many of those who are suffering perhaps do not even know what is really hitting them. Global warming may have been the reason for most of the misery, yet one cannot entirely rule out thoughtless human interventions with nature.

The following story covering three regions of the country culled out of one single issue of the prestigious environmental periodical “Down to Earth” will try to unravel the problems that their respective inhabitants are trying to face up to and are perhaps, in the process, fighting a losing battle.

Those who have had occasion to see the Konkan coast of Maharashtra would know how picturesque it is. The entire coast is peppered with some exotic beaches like those of Ganapatipule, Malwan, Vengurla and so on. That beautiful coast is being nibbled away by the rising Arabian Sea.

Scientists from Pune who have been studying the coast have found that the sea level on the West Coast of India has risen by five to six centimetres over the last decade making the tides creep up more and more inland and the levels of several creeks have risen alarmingly. They ascribe it to global warming and thoughtless constructions on the coast. The people of the region feel that ever since the Coastal Management Regulatory Board was created about ten years ago more ports and jetties have been built, bridges constructed across creeks and the ambitious West coast highway has been launched.

As a consequence salt water has become intrusive and charges with impunity to more than one kilometre inland. In the process, it erodes beaches, damages mangroves and fills up creeks with sand and other detritus. The sea has gobbled up tens of hectares of precious land with coconut groves, casuarina plantations and lands that were used by coastal villagers for drying fish and beaching their boats. While the coastal flatlands have been affected the most, the residents of villages on the rocky coastline have reported slow but progressive submergence of distant rocky outcrops. Needless to say, the phenomenon is causing misery and anxiety to the villagers who see the prospects of losing their hearths and homes and even their livelihood in not too distant future.

Barring the coastal region, the state of Andhra Pradesh on the Deccan Plateau is generally a dry region. Agriculture, therefore, has largely to depend on irrigation by tapping river waters or extraction of groundwater. Farmers have largely to depend on groundwater as it is economical and is easily accessible. Surface water resources are limited and unevenly distributed. It is the groundwater which has been failing the state for the last decade and more. The monsoons have been erratic with rains mostly infrequent. The reduced and irregular rains could well be because of global-warming induced climate change.

Deficit rainfalls have failed to recharge the underground aquifers. More than half of the 6.7 million hectares of cultivated lands are irrigated by groundwater. No wonder more and more bore wells are being sunk only to get less and less water. It has been estimated that now even 260,000 bore wells in Andhra Pradesh cannot match the amount of water that used to be extracted earlier from 100,000 bore wells. With plummeting water levels – in 2010 the average fall of the groundwater level in the state has been of the order of 12 metres below ground level in the past year – not only the existing wells are being drilled deeper, new wells are being bored at the rate of 50000 every year.

Farmers have been known to have invested heavily on drilling multiple bore wells many of which failed to yield water. Most of the investments have been made on loan. The problem has been becoming increasingly more acute as many farmers have switched over to water-guzzling crops like paddy, tomatoes etc. When the rains fail they, in desperation, sink multiple bore wells in the hope of striking water. A farmer in Mahaboobnagar district was reported to have sunk 39 bore wells in a period of six years of which only two are functional to service his one out of five hectares of land to grow, of all the things, heavy-on-water paddy. No wonder, indebtedness has increased many folds and as many as 4500 farmers are reported to have committed suicide in the state from 1997 to 2006. Although an excellent piece of legislation was enacted to regulate groundwater use, bureaucratic lethargy, corruption and the farmers’ proclivity to take the easy way out of hiring a geologist and sinking a well have brought the crisis to a head. Once again, coupled with depleting precipitation, recklessness of ignorant farmers and inertia of the government to guide them towards a reasonable cropping pattern are enhancing human miseries.

Away in the north-east of the country, reputed to be a bio-diversity hotspot, the Government of India has pitched in for exploiting the region’s numerous rivers for their latent potential for producing as much as 25000 MW of clean, emission-free hydro-power and as many as 39 MOUs have been signed. However, its plans to build a series of more than 160 mini and mega dams have somehow come unstuck.

One of the mega dam projects on the rivers originating in Arunachal Pradesh is the one on the River Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, which is coming up near Dhemaji in Assam. Slated to produce 2000 MW of hydro-power, the project has run into trouble. An eight-member committee set up by the Assam Government of experts from IIT-Guwahati, Guwahati University and Dibrugarh University has recommended a thorough review and redesign of the 115-metre high dam.

The panel has recommended lowering of the dam height and reduction of its capacity to generate power as otherwise it would have environmental and economic impacts downstream. According to the experts, the height of the dam could adversely impact downstream areas leading to siltation and destruction of bio-diversity. More alarming is the finding that the spillway for releasing flood waters is inadequate. Environmental groups and the All Assam Students Union have demanded the immediate stoppage of work. They believe that even if the dam were to be redesigned it would create socio-economic problems.

Claiming that the concept of downstream effect was a recent one, the Minister for Environment & Forests is non-committal about any review as 40 % of the work of the project has already been completed. Until a decision is taken, the fate of the inhabitants of the area, its flora and fauna hang in balance. The earnest quest for clean energy may eventually be the undoing of the many affected people.

These are only a few illustrative instances – there are many more that escape attention or do not find prominence in the media – where people are finding themselves in misery under the overarching influence of global warming. What, apparently, is required is enhancing all round ecological literacy – call it human ecology, if you will – among ordinary people as also those in the public and private organisations who plan measures that interfere with nature, seemingly, aiming at general well-being.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cheetah in India

After prolonged deliberations Government of India has decided to reintroduce the Cheetah in the country. As many as eighteen cheetahs will be sourced from Africa and will be introduced into three sites, viz. Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (both in Madhya Pradesh) and Shahgarh landscape near the international border in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. A project costing $ 65 million has been formulated and is likely to be implemented within three years. Each of the three sites will be allocated $ 22 million for preparation and restoration. Presumably each site will get three pairs of imported cheetahs which will be nurtured and encouraged to breed under the supervision of wildlife experts.

The decision was taken on the basis of the recommendations of wildlife experts, national and international, who met at Gajner in Rajasthan in September 2009. The rationale behind the decision was restoration of India’s natural heritage for “ethical and ecological” reasons. In the words attributed to Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Minister for Forests & Environment, “It is important to bring back cheetah, as it will restore grasslands of India. The way tiger restores forest ecosystem, snow leopard restores mountain ecosystem, Gangetic dolphin restores waters in the rivers, (the) same way cheetah will restore grasslands of the country.” (For a long time it has been felt that the Indian grasslands have been degrading because of over-grazing by antelopes and, of course, livestock.) Moreover, revival of the cheetah will bestow on India the distinction of being the only country with six of the eight big cats – a classification that is not quite scientific but is informally used to distinguish the larger felid species from smaller ones. With the exception of cougar and jaguar, the country will host the cheetah along with other big cats – lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards.

Once upon a time India used to host cheetahs – a name that has been derived from the Sanskrit word “chitrakaya” meaning speckled – in great numbers. Emperor Akbar is reported to have maintained a stable of them in scores, tamed and trained for hunting antelopes. Even in the British colonial days these were kept in captivity and were mainly used for hunting, thus gaining another name – Hunting Leopards. Over time, however, the animals were mercilessly hunted down – like lions and tigers. Besides, the loss and degradation of their habitat contributed to their complete elimination from India by the middle of the last century.

Extinction of the species in India made it lose the “Indian” prefix. The Asiatic Cheetah (sub species: Acinonyx Jubatus Venaticus) earlier used to be largely known as “Indian Cheetah”. Currently, however, it has lost even its “Asiatic” prefix as it is mainly concentrated in Iran and, hence, is commonly known as “Iranian Cheetah”. Once roaming over the wilds of a huge range, from Middle East to the entire Indian sub-continent, the (Asiatic) Cheetah is now mostly confined to Iran in its Kavir desert region. There have been some stray sightings in Balochistan and Sindh provinces of Pakistan. According to researchers, not more than 100 Asiatic cheetahs are now estimated to be around, 70-odd of which are in Iran.

Reports had earlier appeared about India’s keenness to relocate a few Iranian cheetahs in reserves that are found suitable for them. Perhaps, it was felt that belonging to the same sub-species, the Iranian cheetahs will have a greater chance of survival in Indian conditions. It seems, the idea had to be abandoned because the Iranian cheetahs are critically endangered and withdrawal of even a few from the acutely limited stock would threaten the survival of the species. The country, therefore had to take recourse of procuring them from Africa where most of the game parks – and there are surfeit of them mostly located South of Sahara – have cheetahs in good numbers. Considered endangered, the African cheetah’s population is currently estimated to be around 12000 – enough for India to try and have eighteen of them relocated from there. Namibia is currently hotspot for the Cheetah as the efforts made by Cheetah Conservation Fund are increasingly proving to be successful. Nonetheless, as cheetahs in Namibia are reported to be sharing their habitat with farmers, man-animal conflicts are frequent leading to frequent kills. It has been estimated that all the three sites taken together have the potential to host 160 cheetahs, with Kuno-Palpur having the maximum potential – of hosting 70 cheetahs. Realisation of the potential will, however, depend on how well the sites are managed and made conducive to the animal’s proliferation.

There have, however, been reservations about the whole process. Firstly, of course, misgivings are always there about introduction of an alien species, an effort which not only is dicey, it also can cause all kinds of complications. Besides, the Indian record of wildlife conservation is not quite enviable. The country’s “Big Five” are under serious threat. The Asiatic Lion, numbering around 350, is concentrated in one sanctuary and cohabits with humans and their livestock. One single mishap could wipe off the entire species. Tigers, at the last count, were a precarious 1411 in number. Eleven adults have been lost in the first five months of 2010 along with a few cubs. The elephants are under threat from poachers, villagers and vehicles, including railway trains. The rhinos are vulnerable and are still under threat from poachers who are keen on their horn – supposedly an aphrodisiac. Leopards are being lost virtually at the rate of one every day. A cat comparable to cheetah, though belonging to genus “panthera”, has not been cared for so far, with no conservation policy for it yet in place. Its shrinking prey-base and habitat is driving it towards human settlements resulting in conflicts in which it invariably loses. Prerna Singh Bindra, a well-known naturalist, author and columnist, feels that the way the leopards are being killed it could well beat the tiger in the race to extinction. In the first 50 days of 2010 India lost as many as 60 leopards – more than one a day.

Worse, both the states, viz. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, in the sanctuaries of which cheetahs are to be relocated, have had indifferent record of providing protection to big cats. Rajasthan had its debacle in Sariska Tiger Reserve as did the Madhya Pradesh wildlife administration had its own in Panna Reserve. In both the reserves, immensely popular as they were, tiger became extinct despite the local Reserve administration’s claims of their presence.

The record of the forest departments of various states in conservation of wildlife, therefore, is nothing to write home about. In this scenario one views the decision to introduce African Cheetah in Indian grasslands with trepidation. Relocation per se may not be a problem as Indian wildlifers have acquired some expertise, having relocated a number of tigers to Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves and some rhinos from Kaziranga National Park to a neighbouring game park. After relocation the cheetahs may be nursed well enough and may even proliferate. But, what eventually would be vital is how the animals are monitored for their wellbeing and provided the necessary protection, particularly from poachers. Generally weak and, one dare say, even callous, the foresters’ lackadaisical attitude, corruption, turf wars, inadequate and ill-trained forest staff are the bane of Indian game parks, protected areas and other forests.

One can only hope that the foresters will shake off their lethargy and pull themselves up by their boot-straps to face the challenge of reviving the cheetah in the country where once it chased chinkaras and blackbucks with considerable freedom.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This Raavan is welcome

Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment & Forests, while addressing the media said the other day in Bhopal that he was generally called “Vikaas ka Raavan” (a destructive daemon in so far as development was concerned). He did not mention any names. It could, however, be inferred that he meant his colleagues in the government.

Raavan was the ten-headed mythical daemon king of Lanka, now Sri Lanka, portrayed negatively in the Hindu epic Ramayana basically for infamously kidnapping Sita, the revered wife of Lord Ram. Raavan was also a great scholar, a maestro of Indian musical instrument Veena and was profoundly devoted to Lord Shiva. Ramesh, apparently used the simile taking the negative aspects of Raavan as, many a time, for reasons of conservation of the country’s environment, he has had to take positions against proposals seeking to further the process of development (vikaas).

Many of us who are concerned about our deteriorating environment dread the word “development” and its Hindi equivalent “vikaas”. In the name of development, progress and economic growth forests are being plundered, land rendered barren, rivers polluted and the air is being fouled up. The benefit of all these go to only the big business and their political supporters who make money on the side while cutting deals on behalf of businessmen/industrialists with the government. Other beneficiaries are the bureaucrats and the engineers who, regardless of the damage that construction projects cause to the environment, are all for them as these allow them to make tons of money, if the project is in the public sector, by short-changing the government. A vast majority are, however, left out in the cold without any benefit. In fact, they get the rawest of deals as it is they who are put to all kinds of trouble. Not only they do not get anything out of such projects, they also have to make the ultimate sacrifice by moving their hearths and homes from their ancestral lands for compensations that are, at best, puny and are seldom paid timely or in full and on many occasions with promises of rehabilitation that generally remain unfulfilled.

This is precisely what has been happening in projects of big or small dams, mining projects, setting up of steel or aluminium plants, power plants or whatever. The word “development” may have connotations of progress and prosperity, but it also suggests ruination of the environment and misery to the faceless and, now not-so-mute, poor. No wonder all the environmentally vital areas of the country, endowed with dense forests and rich ecosystems in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar, have become conflict zones – conflicts of the poor who own or are settled on the lands or in the forests with the sponsors of projects. This has also provoked conflicts within the government. After all, there are ministries having development as their raison d’ĂȘtre and, hence, for their own perpetuation they have to push for more development. When proposals emanating from such ministries are shot down by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), its helmsman, Jairam Ramesh, gets a mouthful and is called all kinds of names, one of which is “Vikaas ka Raavan”.

Before Jairam Ramesh arrived on the scene the MoEF, perhaps, had a quieter time. The ministers, who held charge of the Ministry in the governments of United Progressive Alliance I (UPA I) and, before that, in National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were perhaps not very much interested in conservation of environment. From all evidences, it was for them, kind of, another job. No wonder very large tracts of forests and lands as also numerous rivers were degraded or polluted because of lack of alacrity on the part of the Ministry. The proponents of developmental projects had little difficulty in having their proposals seen through the Ministry. All kinds of stratagems – fair or foul – were used, occasionally even invoking the clout of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In fact, the PMO is reported to have issued directives that no hindrances could be placed before any developmental project, which would have to be cleared as quickly as possible. After all, the government of UPA I, too, was chasing that elusive double-digit GDP growth-rate. The MoEF, therefore, during UPA I often came to be reviled as a “rubber stamp”.

That’s precisely what the Ministry has ceased to be with the advent of Ramesh at its helm. He has infused a tremendous lot of vigour into it and has made the Ministry what it should have been all these years – a vital cog in the process of effective governance for balanced economic development that takes into account all the environmental considerations in order to pass on to posterity a country where future generations, apart from availing of the plentiful fruits of development, could, inter alia, also breathe air that is fresh, drink water that is uncontaminated and watch in its native habitat that majestic animal that we call tiger. Projects for development are now being critically examined by several rejuvenated re-constituted bodies with a view to scrutinising their impact on the environment – forests, wildlife, rivers, air and what have you. Unused to this kind of resistance the development-oriented ministries find MoEF as a roadblock and, therefore, let out shrill, often abusive, cries.

Given to committing faux pas, Ramesh avoidably landed himself in trouble on several occasions. His pot shots on the Home Ministry taken from China about paranoia in regard to Chinese workers in India were eminently avoidable. So was his act of holding a piece of rock at the Union Carbide factory at Bhopal and claiming it was not contaminated was a gaffe of the first order. Nonetheless, he has brought environmental issues on the front pages of newspapers and has saved many a forest from being decimated. Two recent instances readily come to mind. Adani Industry’s application for mining coal in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve for setting up a 1980 MW power plant at Gondia was rejected for the reason that coal-mining would destroy rich forests and tiger habitat in the area. Likewise, Ramesh’s Ministry rejected the proposal to amend the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification to eliminate a massive mangrove zone to accommodate the second airport for Mumbai. The promoters were asked to look for an alternative site.

Many an environmentalist heaved a sigh of relief when Ramesh was once again accommodated in the Upper House of the Parliament. Regardless of his several indiscretions India and its environment need him. Many of us, therefore, would like this Raavan to be around for quite some time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Innocents caught up in climate-change jam

Not many would have heard of the Nenets who inhabit the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle between the Kara Sea and the Gulf of Ob. I too hadn’t until I came across a feature on them in Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society of UK.

The 120,000 square kilometres peninsula is one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses which for a thousand years or more has been home for the Nenets. They have so far been moving around with ease in this vast bog of tundra that is dotted with lakes, using survival techniques that have changed little with time. As summer approaches they retreat to the north and descend down south as the cold weather sets in, timing it well to be able to cross the mighty Ob when it is still frozen with their herds of reindeer, whereafter the animals give birth.

They may not be able to observe this routine for long. With the rise in global temperature all this – transhumance, as it is called – is changing. Their seasonal migrations are becoming more forbidding as walking is difficult through the mud, with the sleds increasingly becoming useless. Not only the Ob is freezing about a month later and the permafrost beneath the tundra is thawing leading to collapse of soil systems and river banks, the warming is also depleting the foraging grounds for the reindeer. With the delayed arrival of the winter the Nenets and their herds have to wait for Ob to freeze. The waiting adversely affects the reindeer as they need to cross the river to give birth. The delayed winters also create food shortage. With the temperatures not hitting -50o Celsius any longer the reindeer get bothered. And, what bothers reindeer bothers the Nenets as their lives are intertwined. The future for them is vague and the days of herding for the Nenets are now apparently numbered. Already there are visible signs of serious threat to their livelihood.

Another community likewise affected equally, if not more, by climate change is the one which inhabits the Tropics in the Sunderban forests. Straddling the massive delta of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna on the Bay of Bengal spreading across India and Bangladesh, Sunderbans are spread over an area of more than 10000 square kilometres. More than half of it has the world’s largest mangrove forests which have been declared as two different World Heritage Sites for the two countries. The forests are also home to a substantial population of the threatened Royal Bengal Tiger.

A 2007 report of the United Nations Economic & Social Council (UNESCO) said that a 45 centimetres anthropogenic rise in the sea level by the end of the current century is likely to destroy 75% of the Sunderban mangroves within the current century. However, certain inhabited islands have already disappeared having been overtaken by the sea. Among them are Lohachara and the New Moore islands. Another island, Ghoramara, has lost around half of its landmass turning more than half of the Island’s population of 12000 into climate refugees. They have all fled – some to the mainland and others elsewhere in Sunderbans. The remaining have had to give up cultivation in the fertile soil or gathering honey from the jungle and have taken to fishing. Researchers have heard the same story retold everywhere in the Sunderbans. As the sea-water comes in floods it destroys the crops, the soil takes on the sea’s salinity and renders it unproductive. Moving away and looking for a safer place is the only alternative to cope with the rising sea. Of late, such movements have, however, had to become devastatingly more frequent, stressing the once-simple rhythm of life of these poor people.

These are illustrative instances of two communities among numerous others, basically indigenous people, which are facing hardships and misery on account of global warming. There are still others who are caught up in the measures adopted worldwide to mitigate the impact of climate change, disrupting their life that they have led for ages. For instance, in Borneo 10000 people have been uprooted from their homes to make way for dams to produce hydroelectric power. This is part of Malaysia’s efforts to contain global warming. In the process, however, the local Penan people lose their ancient homeland and their traditional way of life. Hunters and gatherers as they were, they have been forced into agriculture which they are not adept in. Unable to cope with the drastic change, they may not be able to survive separation from their native environs and traditional way of life.

Again, in Brazil the Guarani Indians are being pushed away from their ancestral lands for growing sugarcane for being converted into ethanol – a bio-fuel that has been used in Brazil for decades as a cleaner substitute for fossil oils. Brazilian President considers ethanol an effective weapon in the fight against global warming. Having banned sugarcane cultivation in the Amazon to save its pristine forests Brazil is now pushing it in its southern parts which are home to Guarani. The takeover of their lands by sugar plantations and cattle ranchers has reduced them to a state of desperation. Occupying small parcels of lands, they complain of pollution of their rivers and consequential loss of fish stocks. Guarani now are either starving or have become alcoholic with murders and suicides having risen in number.

Ironically these communities and many such others have had no role in warming of the globe and they have contributed the least, if at all, to the world’s rising levels of greenhouse gases. Indigenous people as they are called, they have generally been leading carbon-neutral lives. Most of them are innocent and are even unaware of what has hit them. There are about 370 million such people who hardly impinge on the planet’s climate as against around 350 million of the United States who are responsible for about 25% of the greenhouse gases. And yet these unfortunate people are suffering the most having serious threats posed to their life by climate change or are being made to sacrifice their traditional, simple and harmless lifestyle in a bid to cool the Earth.

Those in the developed world, which is solely responsible for the impending catastrophe, spare not a thought for these unfortunate people. The miseries of these innocents mean nothing to them. “The American way of life is not negotiable” thundered George Bush (Sr.) with considerable haughtier at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. But, he and others of his ilk can, surely, play around with the lives of the voiceless poor of the world. Having practically nothing they have to sacrifice the most while those who plunder Nature to live in the lap of luxury wouldn’t forgo one bit.

That’s the way of this world where the law of the jungle prevails – heavily weighted against the poor and the meek!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

GDP growth with growing poverty

The forecasts for India’s high economic growth have been coming thick and fast. Only late last year the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted a 5.9% growth for India in 2009 and 7.2% 2010. In his budget speech earlier this year the Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherji, had promised to put the economy on a trajectory of high growth and there have been several occasions when he predicted that India’s GDP would grow at the rate of more than 8%. Now, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that India was likely to grow at 9.5% during fiscal 2010. The projection was based on “robust corporate profits and favourable financing conditions” that were likely to fuel investments. The corporate tax collections registered a growth of 21.7% in the first quarter of the current fiscal and already the job-market is opening up. Reasonably good rains, despite an indifferent start, have raised hopes of a bumper harvest. Things for the country, everyone says, seem to be looking up.

That is all very well but there are issues attached to a consumption-led GDP growth. In chasing double-digit or near-double digit growth rate the country is consuming natural resources at a fast clip without corresponding benefits, as will be seen later, to a very large section of its population. According to a report prepared by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the California-based Global Footprint Network (GFN) in 2008, “With a per person footprint of 0.75 global hectares and per person bio-capacity of 0.4 global hectares, India is running an ecological deficit of approximately 100 percent". (The ecological footprint measures human demand on the biosphere in terms of the land and sea area required to provide the resources we use and to absorb the waste we generate. Bio-capacity refers to the capacity of a given biologically productive area to generate an on-going supply of renewable resources and to absorb its spill-over wastes.)

Like per capita emission of green house gases per capita ecological footprint of an average Indian is much lower than the world average. The per person ecological footprint of an average Indian was 0.75 global hectare in 2003 when the world average was 2.2 global hectare. At the same time, because of rising population India’s total national ecological footprint has doubled since 1961, contributing to the degradation of its natural capital. As a corollary, while India’s overall wealth as measured by GDP has risen for reasons of better exploitation of resources over the years, its per capita bio-capacity has shrunk reducing its per capita ecological footprint. More and more people are sharing a shrinking bio-capacity. As the need for development grows natural resources like forests come under threat, jeopardising the livelihood of the poor, especially the tribal poor, who sustain themselves on the forest resources. As most of the densely forested areas sit on mineral-rich mines these have become conflict zones – whether in Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or anywhere else. What is more, these have become the reasons for conflicts between the Ministry of Environment and Forests and other ministries which relate to economic development. The catchy phrase “India now consumes two Indias”, therefore, says it all about the Indian “resource overshoot”.

Releasing the CII-GFN report, Jamshed Godrej, the then Chairman of CII-Godrej Green Business Centre, said almost two years back that it was important to “impress upon policy makers and business that no country can continue being unsustainable”. Countries with ecological deficits consume more than what the ecological systems within their borders can provide. In order to economically grow, they can either use up their own natural resources before starting to import from abroad or do vice versa. China is doing precisely that as it scours the world for natural resources. From Australia to Africa, from Latin America to the conflict-ridden Afghanistan, no place is far away for it for importing resources with its couple of trillion dollars of currency reserves. Sometimes it does so for want of those resources at home, at others it saves the domestic resources for a rainy day and gets them from abroad. What, however, is compelling is that it must run its well-oiled “factory of the world” for achieving that double-digit growth howsoever ecologically and environmentally unsustainable it happens to be. Ecologically speaking, the world has to pay the price as China chases for its citizens a life which, if not better, is at least comparable to that of an average American.

The CII-GFN advisory for policy-makers seems to be important as India’s demand driven growth is not only gobbling up the country’s natural assets and making us behave like China in looking for resources abroad, it is also skewing up the societal balance widening the gulf between the rich and the poor. The numbers of Fortune 500 Indian companies are relentlessly growing along with the numbers of Indian Dollar billionaires – 52 by the latest count, holding combined assets worth 25% of our GDP. No wonder, virtually every luxury automobile brand, from Rolls Royce, Mercedes, BMW to Audi and Harley Davidson to Yamaha motorbikes, all have set up shops in the country finding a ready market. The super-rich gift away private jets to spouses and covet helipads on top of their luxurious multi-storied residences, the kind of which one used to associate with the West-Asian oil-Sheikhs. And yet the government grants incentives and tax-concessions to them amounting to hundreds of thousands of crores. Having entered the national and state legislatures in fair numbers protagonists of big business have developed a cosy relationship with political and bureaucratic classes to be able to facilely swing policies in their favour.

As the few make hay in the Indian sunshine a vast majority are racked by malnutrition and hunger. The United Nations Development Programme update for 2009 shows that 320 million Indians, almost 25% of the population, live in extreme poverty. The World Bank’s global economic prospects show that 827 million of the Indian population live on less than $ 2 a day. This is somewhat more charitable than the findings of Arjun Sen Gupta-chaired National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector according to which 836 million Indians (77% of the population) live on Rs. 20 ($ 0.45) a day. Even the government’s own Suresh Tendulkar Committee has, to its surprise, thrown up a figure of 37% of the population that still lives below the poverty line. A few more millions will be pushed below it with the recent deregulation of petro-product prices. Figuring at 66 out of 88 in Global Hunger Index, India lags far behind in respect of many indices (in some respects below sub-Saharan Africa), whether it is maternal or infant mortality rate or underweight or undernourished children. Clearly, the government will not be able to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. With such stark facts staring it at its face, the government, according to experts, has surprisingly been trying to project a reduced incidence of poverty so as to be able to spend less under its ambitious Food Security Act. Looking at it and the incentives and other freebies for those listed in “Fortune 500” one gets the government’s drift.
It is needless to say that the progressively increasing Gross Domestic Product is not being distributed equitably among all. A few – rich, powerful and influential – are making the most of it and a vast majority remains helpless and deprived. Economic progress of this kind is meaningless – particularly when the natural world is being plundered and ravaged and, yet, most continue to live out a life of misery and want.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gas on Bhopal gas

Any natural or man-made disaster raises controversies. A disaster of the scale that Bhopal witnessed because of the leak of the lethal methyl isocynate (MIC) on one cold December morning in 1984 was sure to raise controversies of huge proportions. That is precisely what it did, and more so after the June7, 2010 ultra-mild verdict handed out to the accused officials of Union Carbide of India Ltd. (UCIL). In the process, facts and fiction got merged and one doesn’t really know what is true and what is not and what to believe and what not to. A few of these are subject of this article.

From its very genesis the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) plan to set up the pesticide plant at Bhopal was surrounded in controversies. It submitted its proposal for establishment of this factory to the then Department of Industrial Development in 1970. Finding it unacceptable on account of the obsolete technology that was proposed to be “dumped in India” the proposal was put on ice. The entire department was against granting an industrial licence to the company. Curiously, more than five years later the proposal was suddenly approved during the Emergency in September 1975. Officials were horrified and the air was thick with talks of political intervention. Looks like the UCC knocked on the doors of somebody powerful and influential – whose identity can only be guessed.

Land for the factory was allotted in Bhopal away from the town. There was no habitation in a radius of around two kilometres. The Madhya Pradesh (MP) government also declared the area as an “obnoxious Industrial zone” and that no settlement would be allowed in it. But as generally happens with governments, over time all declarations, assurances and decisions were forgotten. Soon slums sprouted around the factory and later they even got attached to the factory compound wall. Keen as he was on their votes, Arjun Singh, the then Chief Minister (CM), instead of taking steps to resettle them elsewhere, generously handed to the slum-dwellers their rights to the land they illegally occupied, as it turned out a few months later, to their own serious peril. The tragedy, perhaps, would have been of far less magnitude had the initial assurances of keeping the area free of habitation been kept.

That the UCC and its Indian offspring, Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), were very close to the state’s official establishment is a fact that is talked about even today. Arjun Singh was obliged to them for helping him kick-start the state’s industrialisation. The Company officials are reported to have had easy access to him and the movers and shakers had their children and cronies appointed in the factory. It was considered a privilege for the state’s politicians and bureaucrats to get an invite for parties at the UCC Guest House. The UCIL factory and its top brass were, therefore, held positions of importance in Bhopal.

No wonder, Arjun Singh did not react to the reports of a veteran journalist of Bhopal, Raj Kumar Keshwani, who, having seen the inadequacy of safety arrangements in the UCIL plant, repeatedly wrote in newspapers about how Bhopal was sitting on a powder keg. He even had questions asked in the state assembly about the inadequate safety measures at the plant. These were subjected to vehement denials. Whether the Company fed wrong information to the state government is not known. The warnings, however, were not heeded either by the government or the UCIL.

According to the local lore the number of casualties was much more than what was officially acknowledged. There was a distinct attempt by the state administration to keep the numbers down. It is corroborated by the figure of 3000 dead that was used in 1989 – five years after the tragedy – for an out-of-court settlement. If one takes only the figures of deaths, there is a wide variance between the official and unofficial figures. Officially, 15000 died; the unofficial figures are in the range of 20000 to 25000. Even Fali Nariman, the reputed counsel for the UCIL, recently accepted that the figures of casualties cited at the time of settlement of compensation were not dependable. No real or methodical count was ever taken.

Countless words have been written about the assurance of “safe passage” to and from Bhopal given to Warren Anderson and his arrest and subsequent release. Who gave the assurance is not quite clear. The Centre now claims that there are no records and that it must have been an oral assurance but it is not known who gave it. Likewise it is not known who gave the orders to MP government to bail him out and fly him to Delhi. The fact, however, is that an assurance was given and that Anderson was quickly released and flown to Delhi. He even met the then Foreign Secretary, MK Rasgotra, who was the Centre’s interlocutor and has admitted as much. Arun Nehru, then a Minister, said that Anderson had, reportedly, also met the Home Minister and the President.

A perceptible effort has been made to keep the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, out of this particular controversy. Spokespersons and leaders of Congress had earlier blamed Arjun Singh for bailing out Anderson. However, having watched the proceedings for sometime Singh broke his silence and cryptically (and perhaps erroneously) said that he had no “locus standi” in the affair. Obviously somebody ‘very big’ had intervened. Although the Group of Ministers (GoM) (constituted in May 2010 to recommend action on various “Bhopal” issues) maintained that even the “contemporary media reports” indicated that Gandhi was briefed about Anderson only after the latter had left India a report in the respected newspaper Hindu stated otherwise. It categorically said in its report from New Delhi dated 7th December 1984 that PC Alexander, Gandhi’s Principal Secretary, brought the facts of arrest to Gandhi’s notice before the Centre intervened. Gandhi was campaigning in MP for the ensuing elections and it was, as the report said, “highly unlikely that the CM would have taken action without informing him”. The “needle of suspicion” for letting off Anderson unquestionably points to someone who ... well, you’ve guessed it right!

The 1989 settlement between UCC and the Government of India (GoI), too, was not free from controversy. Having assumed in 1985 the sole power to represent the victims in civil litigation against UCC the GoI filed a $ 3 billion compensation suit on behalf of the victims in the US Federal Court. After the case was sent to Indian courts in 1986 the GOI in 1989 settled out-of-court with the UCC at the Supreme Court, without ever consulting the victims, for a compensation of only $ 470 million – around only 15% of the original amount – for 3000 dead against the official figure of 15000. Hearing of the settlement was held by the then Chief Justice RS Pathak in camera at the Supreme Court where the lawyers and representatives of UCC came, reportedly, straight from the Prime Minister’s house. The settlement also extinguished all financial liabilities of the UCC and the rights of the victims to file civil and criminal cases against it, though the last was later overturned by the same Court. Soon after the “settlement” Justice Pathak was nominated for appointment at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The Centre’s “settlement” for an amount much less than what was claimed earlier in the US Federal Court has all along been suspect.

Many would have later escaped their suffering from the contaminants and toxic wastes that were left by the UCIL authorities on the plant site had the then MP government allowed completion of the work of cleaning it up. The Eveready company, successors of UCIL, were cleaning and remediating it and they continued to do so until 1998 when the state government decided to over the land. The UCC had taken the land on lease and the government should have insisted on taking it back only in its original condition, free of all contaminants. The take-over was highly suspicious and has needlessly burdened the state exchequer, now as it seems, by 350 crores (Rs.350 billion).

The June 7, 2010 decision of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal handing out 2 years’ imprisonment to the UCIL accused that triggered a host of controversies brought into sharp focus the judgement of September 1996 of the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice AM Ahmedi. The judgement watered down the charges against the accused in the Bhopal Gas case from that of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” to “causing death due to negligence”. His contention that he could not support such a charge (that of culpable homicide) unless it indicated prima facie that the plant was run on that fateful night by the accused with the knowledge that it was likely to cause deaths of human beings. As if storing MIC in thousands of tons in an inefficiently run neglected plant that had obsolete technology to start with and with run-down safety measures were not enough to prove that and the culpability of the accused! The decision was felt to be suspect. The feelings gained support when Justice Ahmed was appointed life Chairman of the UCC-funded Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital.

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