DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bhopal - mitigating parking woes


The local edition of Times of India recently came out with a series of features on parking problems in Bhopal. It covered several localities, mostly, what they called “congested”. Among them were No 10, MP Nagar Malviya Nagar and, of course, New Market. Curiously, there was no mention of the areas like Peer Gate, Moti Masjid, Budhwara and such areas of Old Bhopal that continue to remain deprived of attention of the authorities in this regard.

However, the newspaper missed a very important point relating to provision of parking facilities in these areas. It never seems to have appeared to it, and that is where the authorities are going to find land for the burgeoning number of 2 and 4 wheelers in the town. In the last ten years there has been a very strong surge in their numbers and thousands are being added every month regardless of rising fuel costs, congestion on the roads, unruly traffic and rising volumes of noxious, polluting and earth-warming gases in the city’s air. Jungles of two-wheelers are ubiquitous in the town, especially in centres of trade and business. Clearly, the parking problem is progressively becoming so formidable that the Municipal Corporation will be hard put to cope with the demand for parking places – whether spread over empty and vacant lands or in multi-storeyed parking lots.

What, therefore, are needed are measures to curb the rise in number of vehicles. True, acquiring a vehicle is basically aspiration-driven. Everyone aspires to own a vehicle and none could really hold it against them. But what one witnesses today is possession of multiple vehicles by families – a couple of four-wheelers (if not more) or one or more 4-wheelers in combination with one or more two wheelers. Many families, especially in the Chowk area, have as many as half a dozen two wheelers. With growing prosperity among the middle classes owning multiple vehicles has become commonplace. This indulgence is witnessed regardless of availability or otherwise of space in the house to accommodate all the vehicles. No wonder, in most of the residential areas one finds today cars parked for most part of the day and at night out on the narrow colony roads. Among many families of traders even the housewife has a four-wheeler for her exclusive use which is seldom used. This confirms the contention of Sunita Narain, the editor of the prestigious environmental magazine “Down to Earth”. According to her a vehicle sits on its four wheels for 90% of the time either at home or in a parking lot.

While raising the cost of petrol/diesel, hiking taxes on vehicles and making the parking fees prohibitive have been the common measures recommended for limiting the rise in the number of vehicles, a measure that has received attention lately is ensuring that the purchaser of a vehicle has space at home to park his vehicle. The purchaser of a new four wheeler will have to prove it to the vehicle registering authority that he has enough space at his place to park his vehicle. Difficult of enforcement, such a provision if enforced is likely to be expensive as the government will have to provide for manpower for verifications of claims by the purchaser. Many, therefore, consider it as impracticable.

What, however, is urgently required is to reduce the number of vehicles plying on the roads, particularly at peak traffic hours. For that many towns have adopted various measures. Some have ordered plying of vehicles of even numbers on some days and those with odd numbers on others. Others have adopted a far harsher method of imposing what is known as “Congestion tax”. A fee of 5 Pounds was levied on every vehicle that entered the highly congested Central London as congestion tax a few years ago. The fee may have been hiked by now. I recall as far back as in 1981 a car, even a taxi, could not enter the High Street of Singapore unless it had four occupants, including the driver. Each town and country puts together regulations according to its needs and keeping in view its capability of enforcing them.

We in Bhopal, however, suffer from a seemingly incurable malady of non-governance. This is more pronounced in so far as managing traffic on the roads is concerned. Traffic Police seem to have thrown in the towel. It is not that they are incapable. They, in fact, suffer from lack of manpower and, of course, interference from our revered “netas”. When the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum requested some of our ministers and MLAs that, given the uncontrolled, disorderly and riotous traffic on the roads, the Traffic Police should be allowed to freely enforce the extant rules they met with a veritable Chinese Great Wall. They were plainly told the “netas” could not keep quiet when their friends, relatives or constituents requested for intervention on being caught on the wrong side of the law. Not only their prerogative, it was their duty towards their constituents and near and dear ones. Nothing could be a more frank admission of subversion of governance by our elected leaders for personal interests. In such an environment Traffic Police can do very little. In all probability, therefore, respite from the chaotic traffic on the city roads in the foreseeable future is unlikely despite the recent claims of “sushasan” (good governance) by the state government in full page ads on the birthday of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The best option, therefore, that commends itself is strengthening of the public transport system. Bhopal for a long time did not have a public transport system barring the ramshackle minibuses that were and still are a horrific terror on the roads. Under the JN National Urban Renewal Mission the Centre mercifully provided for modern and decent low-floor buses. Their fleet has been gradually enlarged and some more are likely to be added, including air-conditioned ones. Good, decent and punctual buses will only nudge people away from their personal vehicles, be it a two wheeler or a four wheeler. As roads become more and more congested (which is very likely when BRTS is commissioned) and traffic becomes more riotous pushing the figures of casualties northwards people will surely take to the buses. The managements of the transportation services will have, however, to inspire confidence of the commuting public in their services by running well-maintained buses punctually to attract the middle classes. Disruptions in services, as happened, recently would need to be strictly avoided. This will be of benefit in several ways, such as helping the commuter to save on daily commutes, saving precious fuel 70% of which is imported, reducing congestion on the roads and reducing emission of carbon in the atmosphere of an already warmed-up globe. A well-oiled public transport system will also help in mitigating the ever-increasing parking woes of the people. The Corporation may also find a bit of a respite from pressures for provision of larger and larger parking spaces. Since the Red and Purple buses are currently being run under the management of the Municipal Corporation it is in its own interest to strive for their ever-rising acceptance among the commuters.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Too many foreigners weighing down India

A group of 140 overstaying Pakistani Hindus have expressed the desire to remain in India and make Delhi their home. They came to India from Sindh on tourist visa and for fear of being targeted are afraid to go back. With visas expired, they live in utter penury in Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi and have only one appeal for the Government of India that their visas should be extended. They would also like the government to provide them proper accommodation. These people from 27 families waited for years for their visas and were so desperate that once they got them they walked across to India. According to them they always felt unsafe in their own country and were subjected to discrimination. Not only they had no religious freedom, their children were ill-treated in schools, i.e. if they were allowed to join one. Always being told to convert to Islam, they would like to give up their home country and live in India, they said, just as numerous Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Tibetans live here.

They are mistaken if they think they are the only Pakistani Hindus who want to permanently make their home in India. Before them, hundreds and thousands of them came here with or without valid visas and never went back. And, all of them did not come only at the time of partition. Off and on, whenever, there were atrocities against Hindus, India would see an influx of Sindhi Hindus from Pakistan. A large number of them came after the 1971 War that resulted in dismemberment of Pakistan, arousing in it great antipathy for India and, of course, local Hindus. Even in normal times the process of ethnic cleansing has been continuing. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are two states which seem to have been receiving them in large numbers. In fact, the two states have been welcoming them more or less with open arms, presumably, for political gains. They constitute a solid vote bank for the BJP. An August 2011 report said that around 3500 Sindhis who migrated more than a decade ago on long-tem visas and residing in Madhya Pradesh are still awaiting citizenship. If anything, this is a great under-statement. There are far, far more than 3500 Sindhis in the state who do not have proper documents. Many of them have merged with the local population without observing official niceties and have established themselves in business.

Those now camping in Majnu ka Tila are right when they say numerous Bangladeshi and Nepalese are also living in India. Hindu Bangladeshi refugees always made a beeline for India whenever they were subjected to atrocities. Their numbers were never accurately determined but it is estimated that a million came post partition, another million in 1950s and around 5 million in 1960s, most came after the 1965 war with India. During the struggle for independence in 1970-71 about 10 million East Pakistani Hindus crossed over to India to avoid a veritable genocide. Not all of them went back; around 1.5 million are estimated to have stayed back.

But there has been no respite for India even after Bangladesh came into being. Migration, in fact infiltration, into India has been continuing and, currently, 20 million illegal Bangladeshis, mostly Muslims, are reportedly in residence in India. There is practically no state in Upper India which does not have their colonies. They have swamped several districts of Assam and border districts of West Bengal changing their demographics. In Assam as many as six districts now have Muslims in majority and in two in West Bengal. In Assam a violent socio-political movement was launched for their eviction. While the porous borders have helped easy accessibility, poor enforcement and rampant corruption has ensured the illegal immigrants to avail of the benefits they are not entitled to. Their presence in large numbers, largely by design, especially in the states of West Bengal and Assam (where their number is reported to be 5 million out of 26 million) has given rise to fears of Islamic fundamentalism and consequential security threats to India. There have been frequent reports of these illegal immigrants promoting the idea of a “Greater Bangladesh” inclusive of the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.

The case of Nepalese in India, however, is entirely different. They are here in pursuance of the Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950. Each, seemingly, fell into other’s lap out of fear on the emergence of the Red Dragon on their northern borders. The rise of Communist China in 1949 and its subsequent invasion of Tibet heightened their security concerns. Under the Treaty, Nepalese citizens in India have all the rights of an Indian citizen and they do not require visas to enter India, except a valid identification card while entering India by air. Both countries have also agreed to grant, on a reciprocal basis in each other’s territories, the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, etc. Curiously, however, while the citizens of Nepal have been exercising the rights granted under the Treaty Indians have not only have to have visas for entering Nepal but also are prevented under Nepalese laws to own and acquire property in Nepal. An estimated 10 million Nepalese are, as a consequence, residing and working in India, doing all kinds of jobs, including in the public and private sectors and in the Army, strengthening their country’s economy by remittances – largely informal – which amount to approximately 10% of its GDP.

Although the Nepalese find the 1950 Treaty unequal, strategic concerns apart, it appears to be highly unfavourable to India. The open borders between the two countries have allowed Nepalese to flood the country and take away from the locals millions of jobs in formal and informal sectors and share the resources that are increasingly becoming scarce. Besides, the open borders have been freely used by the Pakistani jihadists to spread mayhem and chaos in the country. While Nepal exports its so-called labour as a national policy, illegal Bangladeshis are plain and simple intruders having no right to be in India in such large numbers. Sadly, the Centre has hardly made any effort to prevent their ingress and has made, if at all, very feeble efforts to send them back. Even a rich country like the US adopts a very uncompromising attitude against those who breach its frontiers. Pakistan, on the other hand, is solving its communal problem by easing out its unwanted Hindus in hundreds and thousands. India, however has never taken up with Pakistan the question of crude treatment meted out to its Hindus even though President Musharraf during a press conference in Delhi had the audacity to make a comment about treatment in Indian Muslims. Surely he was aware that India hosted far more Muslims than Pakistan. He was, however, put in his place by one Maulana Madani who bluntly told Musharraf not get overly concerned about the wellbeing of Muslims in India.

This is not all. Apart from millions of Pakistani Hindus, Nepalese and Bangladeshis, there are a few thousand foreigners including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have overstayed their visas having entered the country with valid documents. Add to that hundreds and thousands of Tibetan, Afghan, Sri Lankan and Burmese refugees to complete the picture. In India’s 1.2 billion people its neighbours have, thus, made the substantial contribution of close to 10%. Had the country – virtually a sub-continental refuge – not been weighed down by these foreigners, its economic profile perhaps would have been far different.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bhopal's dysfunctional municipal corporation

A report in a local newspaper a few days back spoke about the callousness of the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) in handling complaints of felling of trees in the city. A large number of trees have been illegally felled and complaints were duly lodged with the BMC but no action was taken. Only BMC has the authority to permit felling of trees and for taking punitive legal action in case they are illegally felled. Thousands of complaints are reported to have been lodged but no action has been taken. The excuse of the BMC is that it does not have the required manpower. Fear has, therefore, been expressed that unless strict action is taken against those who fell trees without permission the city is going to be denuded of its trees.

This is not a solitary instance of the Corporation’s apathetic ways and of drifting along, doing nothing to improve the conditions in the city. Take for instance the matter relating to maintenance of the the Upper and Lower lakes the responsibility for which rests with the Corporation. Although the Upper Lake continues to be the source of drinking water for around 40% of the city’s population the Corporation has miserably failed to ensure its proper upkeep. Same is the case with the Lower Lake. Sewer lines still continue to pour into them despite expenditure of several crores of rupees that has been made to plug them. Encroachments around them, not prevented over the years in good time, abound and have led to shrinkage of their spreads. The Corporation, despite possessing the authority, the powers and the wherewithal, has remained a mute witness. Whether the inaction is because lack of availability of the required manpower resources or generous greasing of palms is a matter for investigation.

Again, the project of bringing waters of the Narmada River to the city. The government had once promised that Narmada waters would be brought to the town by November 2008. This was an extravagant assurance given in the face of acute shortage of water felt by the citizens during the summer of that year. However, three years on, according to a recent report, the BMC has not been able to complete construction of numerous water tanks to receive waters of the River. Only 40% of the work has been completed. Although the project was to be completed by December 2011, it is now likely to be completed by December next year, that is, if the people of this town are lucky. Adequate water supply for the citizens of this town still remains a distant dream.

Much has been written in recent times about the roads in the city. Apart from the roads that are to be converted into the BRTS corridor, most areas in new and old Bhopal have been dug up for various kinds of works such as laying of sewer or water pipelines. No one knows when they will be re-done. The works are being carried out on borrowed money – either loans from Asian Development Bank, the Department for International Development of UK, HUDCO or on grants under JNNURM. It would be interesting to ascertain to what extent the city is indebted to these lending institutions and whether the works carried out on loans have brought any improvement in the city or the lives of its denizens. Generally, the contractors carrying out these works are expected to put back the dug up roads in their original condition. But that seldom happens, as they, in active cooperation of municipal officials, do not do that and earn extra profits. As the Corporation is perennially short of funds chances of the excavated roads getting back to original condition in the foreseeable future are bleak. The only silver lining is that the government, nervous about the next elections, has asked the PWD to do them up. But how many of them it takes up and re-lays remains to be seen as the total kilometreage that has to be covered is pretty daunting. There are already reports of lack of funds for the purpose.

Instead of random digging of the roads it would have been desirable for the Corporation to take up only as much of the works as it could manage within the available financial resources. But, no, it has gone and dug up virtually the entire town causing inconvenience to every citizen, exposing them to dust and ill health. What is more, the roads inside the colonies too have been dug up. These are supposed to be maintained by the respective municipal councillors who take their own time to do them up and that too in their own shoddy way. Obviously, the upturned shoddy roads inside the colonies are going to stay as such for quite a while unless the astrological configurations of those who reside in them change for the better soon enough.

Between dug up roads and rampant encroachments on them it has become difficult for people to negotiate their way down to their respective destinations. Despite the availability of the required staff encroachments are never prevented. It could be either because of sheer incompetence or pervasive corruption. The Corporation does launch drives occasionally to remove encroachments but these are restricted to few areas and are, in any case, few and far between. Despite involvement of avoidable costs neither action is taken against the official who ignores or allows encroachments to occur nor is any fine imposed on the encroacher. Public money is thus repeatedly wasted. The Urban Administration Minister had once admitted that there was no system of fixing responsibility for the encroachments that occur on public spaces. No wonder, these occur repeatedly, mostly at the same places, allowing municipal officials to get away without any penalty for their negligence or corrupt ways. The larger interests of the people are, obviously, of no consideration.

The BMC has also failed to maintain cleanliness and sanitation, more so in the residential colonies of the town. Piles of garbage and overflowing sewers making the dusty roads slushy are more of a rule than exception. Barring the arterial roads and VIP areas, the rest of the town remains filthy and people are exposed to insanitation and health hazards. A local daily had covered a few weeks back all the wards one-by-one exposing the apathy and neglect of the Corporation in maintaining civic services in the town. Despite the exposure things have not improved. Looks like, the Corporation takes such exposures in its strides; it has become so brazen.

System-wise the Corporation is well-served. There are zones and wards with their respective heads and other paraphernalia. But nothing seems to work. The zonal heads have now been given Nano cars, presumably, to enable them to carry out their functions of monitoring and inspections more effectively. But there has hardly been any perceptible enhancement of civic amenities. Even earlier the Corporation was reported to be spending tens of crores of rupees on hiring vehicles for its officers but that had not improve matters. All its civic services have continued to remain in utter mess. In no way has the Corporation been able to lift the quality of life of the citizens of the town which, currently, is plumbing the depths.

Unless a radical change for the better overtakes it, the Corporation will have no business to continue to exist in its dysfunctional way.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The scourge of "paid news"

“Paid news” has drawn its first blood. A sitting legislator, Umlesh Yadav, of Uttar Pradesh assembly has been disqualified by the Election Commission of India (EC) from contesting any election for three years as she did not include in her election expenses the amounts spent by her on advertisements which were published as news items in two Hindi papers.

The EC received a reference from the Press Council of India (PCI) which had held the two newspapers guilty of ethical violation. The PCI, apparently, had appointed an inquiry committee to investigate the complaint against the two dailies for having published “paid news” in favour of Ms. Yadav a day before the polling in her constituency in the 2007 Assembly elections. Eventually, the PCI forwarded the case papers of the adjudication to the EC for such action as it deemed proper. The order disqualifying the legislator was issued as a consequence.

In another case, the Election Commission is hearing allegations against Madhu Koda, the former chief minister of Bihar, who is alleged to have failed to file proper returns of his election expenses. The Income Tax department in a report is supposed to have stated that he paid Rs. 1.25 crore (Rs. 1.25 billion) to a TV channel for telecasting news favourable to him during the 2009 general elections. The “paid news” allegation cropped up against Koda when the Enforcement Directorate of Ministry of Finance and Income Tax (IT) authorities raided his residence and came across diary entries regarding payments made to media houses for reporting/telecasting reports in his favour. According to the IT department, against the permissible expenditure of Rs.25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million) Koda allegedly spent Rs.9.00 crore (Rs.9 billion).

Another politician of note, Ashok Chavan, the former chief minister of Maharashtra, has just lost his case against the EC in Delhi High Court. He had challenged the EC’s powers to investigate expenses incurred by him during the 2009 assembly elections. As the prestigious newspaper Hindu reported, his was a case that “embarrassed major newspapers that had run scores of hagiographic full pages of ‘news’ on Mr. Chavan during the poll campaign...pages without a single advertisement on them...and so much as a mention of his rivals in his Bhokar constituency...” While dismissing the petition as “devoid of merit” the court directed the PCI to put on the internet its own report on “paid news” which it had had to suppress under pressure from the media houses that were seen to have indulged in unethical practices. Chavan has since gone in appeal to the apex court.

The PCI has since received a fresh case of “paid news”, this time from Goa. A sting operation conducted by one Mayabhushan Nagvenkar has put Goa’s OHeraldO in the dock. Armed with transcripts of his audios and telephonic talks with the marketing manager of the newspaper Nagvenkar has approached the PCI.

The PCI defines paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”. According to senior journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who headed its sub-committee to investigate the evil phenomenon of paid news, substantial sections of the media have become participants and players in practices that contribute to this growing use of money-power in politics. “The entire clandestine operation has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and TV channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. Worse, these illegal operations have become organised involving ad agencies and PR firms besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies. (The) So called ‘rate cards’ or ‘packages’ are distributed that often include rates for publication of ‘news items’ that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents.”

He says, numerous favourable or complimentary paid ‘news’ reports on certain candidates appeared in newspapers (and were broadcast on TV channels) across the country in the run-up to the last general as well as state assembly elections without disclosing the fact that these were transactional news items. The deception by the media houses, according to Guha Thakurta, assumed three facets. The reader was led into believing that it was independent news content and not an advertisement, the candidates concerned did not include the expenditure on the “ad” in their election expenses and the media houses, having received the moneys in cash, did not include them in their balance sheets.

Samir Lal, a former senior journalist who left the profession having got fed up with commercialisation of the newspaper industry, is more scathing about the goings-on in it. He says, “Indian media industry has unapologetic clarity about the nature of its business: it sells media platform to commercial clients, not news to readers.” With proprietors not interested in selling what good journalists produce, the crisis in India is not one of the media industry but of the profession of journalism. “News today is sleight of hand: paid news by politicians, private treaties with advertisers, celebrity coverage for a fee, PR feed masquerading as reportage, the business story slanted to serve the stock market, the deserving story not done”. With the marketing departments of media houses setting the agenda for the editors, India’s media barons are not really in news business. And yet, Lal says, news is unavoidable – to fill the gaps between the ads.

“News holes”, that’s what Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and activist, calls them which are filled up by news after the advertising layout is decided. This happens even in as prestigious a newspaper as the New York Times which has been accused of “distorting, censoring and suppressing truth” – influenced as it is by the American establishment and the great US corporations. Stephen Lendman, a renowned American researcher and author, says that the US media delivers “a daily diet of ‘managed news’, infotainment and ‘junk food news’...” keeping people uninformed about what matters most.

The description above snugly fits the Indian media too. News today serves various commercial interests or those of the establishment in accordance with predilections of the owners, who hardly bother about the interests of the readers. Chomsky found Indian media, barring the singular exception of The Hindu, “pretty restricted, very narrow and provincial and not very informative, leaving out lots of things.” While most of the national dailies have their respective patrons and/or benefactors whose agenda they necessarily have to push, the regional and sub-regional press are generally out for sale. Though it is the second biggest market for newspapers with around 40-odd thousand newspapers published in the country and the reading public consuming 99 million copies (in 2007), its independence is something which one cannot vouch for. No wonder, the country was placed in 2010 at 122nd out of 178 on assessment of press freedom made by the Reporters Without Borders – For Press Freedom, a non-profit that works for freedom of information. The claims that are frequently made of the Indian media being independent, unbiased and pillars of our vibrant democracy have, therefore, to be taken with fistfuls of salt.

It is a pity that the report of the Paranjoy Guha Thakurta sub-committee was somehow buried by none other than the PCI which is statutorily charged with the responsibility of governing the conduct of the Indian print (and broadcast) media. Flexing their muscles the large media houses, who would have otherwise been in the dock, successfully foiled the attempt to bring out the truth. The new PCI chief, Justice Markandey Katju, has already condemned his own institution as “ineffective” but has also asked for more teeth and enlargement of its scope to include even the electronic media. It would perhaps be more desirable for him, for the present, to have the Council reconstituted, if necessary by amendment of the Press Council Act 1978, and reduce the overwhelming representation of the media organisations (almost 66%) in it to enable it to be more objective in dealing with the aberrations like those of “paid news”.