Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A minister on rampage

There are very few Indian politicians who are sensitive to history or, for that matter, to nature, wildlife or environment and other similar branches of administration that take a little refinement in one’s persona. Game parks and nature reserves for them are a waste of good fertile lands. Likewise, protecting wildlife is a wasteful effort as they require forests that, again, have to be maintained and if clean-felled could yield minerals or agricultural products. Similarly, maintenance of old, ill-kept hundreds of years old historical structures with fine stone-work and other embellishments are for them futile and wasteful effort. These, generally, situated close to or inside old cities could for them be demolished and made available for public use. That they are of historical value and are beautiful and sublime heritage of the city or a region, depicting its past culture, exhibiting its earlier way of life through their peculiar and contrived architecture is of no concern to them.

Many may not believe all this as these would seem to belittle our present-day rulers. But all these are evident in the central Indian city of Bhopal which, though not in the same league as Agra, Delhi or Jaipur in respect of heritage buildings, possesses beautiful examples of late-medieval Islamic architecture and a millennium-old lake. Both are in for some damage in the near future as Babu Lal Gaur, Minister for Urban Administration and Development in the provincial government seems to be on rampage. In his earlier avatars as a minister of the same department he was known as “the bulldozer” for having bulldozed all the encroachments. He did a lot of good work by removing unauthorised structures on public property. Of late, he seems to have assumed the same role and, that too, with vigour. However, this time it looks somewhat sinister as the natural and man-made heritage have been chosen for attack.

After having lavished his attention to New Bhopal by upgrading three of its roads he has turned his attention to Old Bhopal, presumably to appear fair to the denizens of the neglected, congested and the dusty Old City. But it is turning out to be somewhat of a setback for the city’s heritage. The Old City is congested and crowded because it has grown, unlike the new city, over the past centuries from a nucleus and it is, quite naturally, littered with heritage structures. The governments, having little sense of history, have mindlessly demolished most of them during the last few decades. The ones now picked up for demolition are those which had managed to escape the JCB machines and have now received Gaur’s attention. Among them are one remaining gate out of around six of the original Walled City built in early 18th Century, Sheesh Mahal, a historical palace in a complex that is known as Royal Ensemble, representative of the distinctive nawabi-era fusion-architecture of Bhopal, built in middle of 19th Century and a British structure of 1862 housing a post office located in the busy Jumerati area. All these are to come under the axe to provide space for parking.

Most unfortunately Gaur made a statement that the structures in question were not of heritage status as these were not listed as such with the Archaeological Department according to what an official of this Department accompanying him had told him. It is surprising as according to a senior postal official the Archaeological Department have planted a placard in front of the post office indicating that it is a monument of historic importance. As regards Sheesh Mahal and Jumerati Gate any imbecile would say that these have to be none other than protected structures. If the three structures are really not listed as protected monuments in the records of the Archaeological Department the records should be updated otherwise action needs to be taken against the official who misled the minister.

Worse in one of his statements Gaur aggressively questioned the “intellectuals” as to where they were when the structures were crumbling. Unfortunately Gaur seems to forget that maintenance of the city’s heritage is one of the prime mandates of the government which has not been fulfilled by his past colleagues in the governments over the last few decades. However, but for citizens’ chorus, which I too had joined, restoration of Taj Mahal would not have commenced and Gauhar Mahal would not have survived. In fact, Gaur is reported to have desired demolition of Taj Mahal’s at one time and Digvijay Singh wanted to raze Gauhar Mahal for raising a shopping mall. Even earlier, refugees from Pakistan were shoved into the glorious Taj Mahal like cattle, then a recently inherited palace from a feudal Nawab, and that’s when the maximum damage was caused to it.

But, it must be handed to Gaur; no minister moves around as he does most mornings of the week with whole jing-bang of officials, issuing directions for improvement of the town. During his several of such trips the Upper Lake came in for special attention. Directions were given on the spot for creating several boat clubs all around the Lake, construction of jetties and a bridge right across the Lake to the Takia Island and planting of some more fountains in the Lake - not for oxygenation of the waters, but to attract tourists. Then, he ordered erection of a statue somewhere in or around the Lake of revered Raja Bhoj who bestowed the Lake to the town a millennium ago and parking a decommissioned naval ship. This would mean another hideous statue going up, like several others ‘decorating’ the cross roads and a, reportedly, rotting naval vessel due for ship-breakers to be transplanted to the Upper Lake to pollute it further.

Gaur’s enthusiasm for attracting tourists to the Lake is admirable but he, from all knowledgeable accounts, is overdoing things – mostly to the detriment of the Lake and the people who depend on it for succour. He should know that being an important source of drinking water tourists should be kept as far away as possible from the Lake.

What is more, his own department of Urban Administration had “expressions of interest” invited on a global basis for development and conservation of the Upper Lake keeping in view the provisions of the Ramsar Convention, especially those relating to “wise use” of the Lake. For Gaur, who is the Minister in-charge of the Department that is processing the proposals received in this regard, to issue fiats of the kind he did was highly improper as the assessors of the proposals are likely to get inhibited from making honest assessments.

It seems the time has come to stop Gaur in his tracks and prevent him from causing more damage to the town’s persona. There’s going to be more work for the citizens who will have to remain vigilant and active.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

India's unending riddle of poverty

Two interesting news items caught my attention the other day. One contained details of a Supreme Court report released last week that sought to redefine poverty in the country. The report authored by a former Supreme Court Judge, Justice DP Wadhwa, widening the definition of poverty, said that every Indian with an income below Rs. 100.00 per day should be considered as poor and eligible for official subsidies, including 35 kgs of grains for his/her family. Swelling the ranks of the poor, Justice Wadhwa’s benchmark for determination of poverty would add 500 million people to the official tally of around 250 to 300 million poor. The Wadhwa report has the potential of acquiring the status of a statute if it is accepted by the Supreme Court after hearings slated for next month.

One can really have no quarrel with the contention of Justice Wadhwa. In Rs. 3000/- a month a bread-winner can hardly provide shelter, food and healthcare for his/her family, leave alone education of his/her children in these days of high inflationary pressures, especially on the prices of food items. No wonder, therefore, hunger and malnutrition are stalking the country. That, of course, does not bother our politicians and that, precisely, what the second interesting news item I referred to indicates.

For them, the days of the rather unwelcome “austerity”, imposed by the government in September 2009, are over. The economic downturn, apparently, is well and truly behind us with the economy, showing remarkable buoyancy, has taken a high-growth trajectory. Hence, no more travel by “cattle class” by our ministers and bureaucrats. From 1st April 2010 onwards, they all will travel in their entitled class by air which, for ministers and senior bureaucrats, is first class, generally, with a free ticket for a companion thrown in. Viewing the uncalled for imposition as meaningless, many politicians accepted it grudgingly. Some others, who resisted, were made to fall in line.

Earlier, during the period of “austerity”, the ministers gave themselves a handsome gift by way of being able to carry unlimited number of companions in planes by business class. If plain MPs already enjoyed the facility, why should the ministers be denied the same? All this happened when reports of hunger and malnutrition had been sequentially rocking the nation. Likewise, with 60% children suffering from malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh, its legislators recently gave themselves a handsome hike in their pay and allowances. Our fat cat politicians are unable to empathise with the widespread poverty. The eminent agricultural scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, commenting recently on the paradox of grains rotting in godowns when people went hungry, said, “Poverty does not seem to stir our conscience”. The statement is actually directed towards the power-wielders and policy makers who are none other than the politicians and bureaucrats.

Be that as it may, Justice Wadhwa’s is the most recent of numerous past efforts to identify the poor. After sixty years of independence a poverty-stricken country such as ours is yet to identify the poor Indian. The question seems to be so complex that it has defied resolution all these years. Estimating the incidence of poverty in India involves the use of a minimum consumption expenditure, anchored in an average (food) energy adequacy norm of 2,400 and 2,100 kilo calories per capita per day. If one went by the criterion of World Bank – those who survived in less than $ 1 (Rs. 46/-) a day – there would be around 300 million poor Indians. However, a recent report submitted by the committee, set up by the Prime Minister for suggesting new methodologies for measuring poverty, headed by Suresh Tendulkar, an eminent economist, pegged the figure at 370 million. The estimates made by states based on household income further pushes up the figure to 420 million. Further, one recalls that Arjun Sengupta, the then Chairman of National Commission for Enterprise in Unorganised Sector, in his report submitted in 2007 on Conditions of Work & promotion of Livelihood in Unorganised Sector, showed that a staggering 836 million (about 77% of the population) lived on a per capita consumption of less than Rs. 20/- (less than 50 cents) a day. According to him, one was classified as poor – below poverty line (BPL) – if he lived in less than Rs. 9/- (25 cents) a day and others whose per capita consumption was less than Rs.13/- were above the poverty line (APL). Again, the World Bank recently estimated that 80% of Indians lived on less than $ 2/- (Rs. 96/-) a day. While $2/- a day is close to Justice Wadhwa’s estimation, the percentage of poor calculated by the World Bank is about the same as discovered by Arjun Sengupta. Apparently, our exceptionally high economic growth rate has had no impact on the country’s poverty.

So, the conundrum continues. Who is poor and how many like him are there in the country is not really known. And yet, the government spends of mindboggling sums of money on poverty alleviation have had no impact on the incidence of poverty. Allocations of money, grains and other benefits for the poor seem to have disappeared into thin air. The question has now acquired criticality with the proposed Food Security legislation. The amount to be spent on this score would depend on the poverty estimation chosen by the government. With the government not quite sure of the quantum of poverty, its liabilities on the food front could go through the roof once the bill becomes law. With a vague number of identified poor and an inefficient and corrupt public distribution system (PDS), it would be very ambitious of the government to fulfill its future legal obligations.

In the meantime, however, people, especially women and children, in several tribal pockets in Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, etc, are dying of hunger and malnutrition. While hunger can be tackled by supply of grains, tackling malnutrition is a different ball game. Malnutrition descends from one generation to another as under-nourished mothers go on producing under-nourished children – eventual dregs of Indian society. With unavailability of nutritious diet, the cycle continues, seemingly, unendingly.

Uncared for and helpless, such people need the government’s immediate attention. Forgetting about identification of the poor in cities, towns and villages, the government needs to concentrate on the areas which are struck by hunger and malnutrition. At least these areas and the people are identifiable as “poverty” is writ large over them. And, they are not in multi-millions. Rendering help to them by supply of grains and nutritious diet and ensuring their regular supplies, seemingly, would be more rational than making them dependent on a fraudulent and undependable PDS. And, the ‘really poor’ have no money to buy food, anyway. Besides, educating and advising them for stepping out of chronic poverty by providing means to acquire economic independence will go a long way to reduce their ranks. No legislation is required for ensuring them food security as precisely this is what the government is meant for.

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