Thursday, September 29, 2011

A bureaucrat's faux pas

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then your success is sure”, so said Mark Twain (1835-1910) years ago. How true it is till this day! Many a politician and bureaucrat in this country have been successfully ruling over the unsuspecting people with great aplomb and, yes, with utter ignorance.

A barefaced example of this was provided by Manish Singh, Commissioner of the Municipal Corporation of Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, recently in an interview when he was asked about neglect of the old city. He pontificated, “New city will always look more beautiful, developed and organised. This holds true in every part of the world. Since this part of the city came later it has more space for roads, houses, traffic and greenery... In old city there are constraints like want of space, encroachments, crowds and congestion, narrow roads and lanes, etc. and also protests against anti-encroachment drives.

Singh is seemingly unaware that the old quarters in almost all European towns are more beautiful than the newer parts. It is the older parts that the tourists flock to and, therefore, Singh’s, counterparts in such cities, a more alert and active lot, take greater care of these parts. Obviously, he also hasn’t heard of the term “downtown” used in America that originated from Manhattan Island of New York City in the early 19th Century and eventually came to be referred to the historical cores, more often the commercial hearts, of the cities across America. They are never neglected.

Bhopal’s old city is no different; only, unlike in Europe and the USA, it has been neglected by the municipality. It is utter fallacy to say old Bhopal is unplanned. People familiar with the town would know that, for example, besides what is known as the Royal Ensemble, the Chowk area was meticulously planned with roads (with thriving commerce) radiating from its core that houses a historic mosque. Even the area between Hamidia Road and Imami-Peer Gates complex (about an area of four square kilometres) is well-planned, it being divided into squares by several parallel roads.

Only, because of ignorance and palpable apathy, these areas have been allowed to go to seed. They have never been taken care of. Lack of governance has enabled rampant encroachments and total absence civic services.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bleak future of Panna tigers

Despite expenditure of enormous amounts of tax-payers’ money on tiger-conservation somehow we are not able to protect this national animal. Madhya Pradesh appears to be a prime example. Not only substantial numbers were lost in Kanha National Park, the entire population in Panna Reserve was wiped out necessitating relocation in it of tigers from elsewhere. No wonder, the state lost the sobriquet of “Tiger State”.

Panna Tiger Reserve has been in controversies for some years now and virtually all of them relate to its mismanagement. Despite the early warnings from several sources, including the nation’s tiger conservation agencies, the state’s forest department refused to pay any heed. While credible reports from 2002 onwards indicated that the Reserve was rapidly losing its tigers to poachers, the Principal Chief Conservator (Wildlife) obdurately kept claiming that it had 20-odd tigers. Instead of taking steps to check the veracity of the statements, especially emanating from the experts of the central agencies, the forest department, sticking to its guns joined issue with them.

This is not all. When, after the tigers were all gone by the close of 2008, an inquiry conducted by the centrally-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) came to the conclusion that the tigers were lost not for any ecological reasons but were mostly poached, the state government, not satisfied, set up its own enquiry committee. Its findings mostly contained half-truths and concluded that gender imbalance in the tiger population of the Reserve made the males go looking for (the depleting number of) females outside the Reserve, only to be poached. No mention, however, was made of the reasons for the growing gender imbalance or the failure of the Reserve’s director and his staff to notice the same and report it to the headquarters. Needless to say, no effort was also made to fix responsibility for the extinction of the tigers in the Reserve. The SIT, on the other hand, did make a mention of the gender imbalance that had occurred in the Reserve. It had concluded that on account of their smaller home ranges tigresses in the Reserve were consistently poached without let or hindrance giving rise to the progressive gender imbalance.

In any case, the cat is now out of the bag. Ajay Dubey of Prayatna, an environmental action group, has ferreted out information that the forest department recently handed over details of nearly two dozen cases of tiger deaths in Panna to the home department and asked for CBI inquiry into them. After examination, the department picked up three cases which, according to it, seemed worthy of independent investigations.

In one of the cases the forest officials had seized in 2007 a jeep with Uttar Pradesh registration that was forcibly trying to enter the Panna Reserve with armed passengers. A police report was lodged but no follow-up action was taken for several years. The jeep was later released to a close relative of a BJP MLA. It is not clear whether there was any attempt to poach tigers but the case is being handed over to the CBI. In another case, forest officials, acting on a complaint filed by a villager, recovered jaw-trap and bones of tiger. The tiger was reportedly killed between 2004 and 2005 but the offence was registered only in February this year. On being asked to furnish details of the case the director of the Reserve failed to comply. The third case is of a tiger that was killed between 2004 and 2005 a report regarding which was not lodged with the Police.
Evidently, the forest department had received several reports of poaching in the Reserve, but, obsessed as it was with tourism even in its core area it failed to do the needful. Clearly, whatever it kept summarily dismissing as “media hype” were not mere hyped up reports. They were based on facts. Tiger enthusiasts had become so concerned about the indifference of the forest department to the persistent poaching in the game park that some of them took the extreme step of filing cases in the apex court. During the same period, letters were written to Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary Forests by the Chairman and Member Secretary, respectively, of the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India. These, too, were not taken cognizance of. When it was virtually curtains for the tigers in the Reserve in June 2008 the Principal Chief Conservator (Wildlife) was still waxing eloquent about their presence therein in the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine.

Even after the Prayatna expose, the attitude of the department, including that of its minister does not seem to have changed. When asked about the new revelations the forest minister’s reply appeared like that of the proverbial ostrich. He asserted that his department was prevented from doing the needful by a dacoit gang that came and camped in the Reserve. It was, in any case, a patently wrong contention. According to the SIT, the outlaws were in the Reserve between 2006 and 2008 whereas poaching, a fact never given due credence to by the forest department, had been continuing since 2002.

Looks like, the Panna Reserve has nothing but a bleak future in front of it. Even the chief minister, putting humans before tigers in the Reserve, insisted on a moth-eaten buffer being delineated for it excluding the mines worked by his political cronies. This after he received as many as two letters from the Prime Minister for creation of a proper buffer based on scientific assessments. Besides, he made the department overlook the SIT contention that “Without a good buffer….. survival of small tiger population, even under moderate poaching pressure, is difficult”. And, Panna has severe poaching pressure, surrounded as it is by settlements of traditional poaching tribes, viz. Pardhi and Bahelia who, leave alone the Panna Reserve, poach all over the country. Even middlemen in tiger-trade are present in strength around Panna.

Unless the forest department sheds its bullheadedness the survival of the recently trans-located tigers and their progeny, if any, in the Reserve is likely to be in peril. Panna along with Sariska hold out an example to all the states that have tiger reserves of what the consequences can be if the legendary lethargy of official establishments in protection and conservation of this national animal persist. What seemingly needs to be done all around is to enhance the security around the reserves and prompt attention to the alerts received from various quarters, especially the knowledgeable people, about the wellbeing of tigers in the reserves. Poachers are prowling all over, more so in central India and hence there is need for greater alacrity in protecting the animals.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Supremacy of Parliament

(Pasted below is a blog by a friend who is yet to create a bog for himself)

Our Constitution gives us a Parliamentary Democracy with a scheme of distribution of powers between the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive, at the Centre as well as the States. Recently, during Anna’s fast and demand for a strong Lokpal Bill to be put up before the Parliament, Central Ministers of the Congress Party in the Cabinet, questioned the wisdom of challenging the status, powers and privileges of the Parliament and its Standing Committee with regard to bringing in such legislation. It may be a mere coincidence that both these Cabinet Ministers happen to be eminent lawyers by profession as also with a long association with the Congress Party.

Writing in his book, ‘The President under the Indian Constitution”, published in 1963, Sh. K M Munshi, a staunch Congressite, Gandhian and a Cabinet Minister in Pt. Nehru’s Ministry, wrote, “In pursuit of his policy of securing Marxist achievements through democratic forms and processes, Prime Minister Nehru began setting up extra-constitutional authorities to meet the difficulty rather than depend upon the devices prescribed by the Constitution. He set up the Planning Commission nominated by him as an extra-constitutional super-Cabinet in economic matters; transferred the centre of power from the Cabinet to the Congress Working Committee(CWC), and reduced the position of the Congress Parliamentary Party(CPP) to a mere registering body.

He adds, “Sri K Kamaraj, as President of the Congress, by exercising extra-constitutional authority, introduced an extra-constitutional body consisting of members of the CWC, representatives of the CPP, members of the Union Cabinet not already on the CWC and special invitees. The election of Sh. Lal Bahadur Shastri as Prime Minister, instead of being left to the Congress Parliamentary Party, was decided by Sri Kamaraj through the application of the consensus doctrine.”

He further adds, ‘The Constitution was thus twisted out of shape. The Parliamentary Party was deprived of its legitimate role as the controlling body in the State……….. The Cabinet reduced to a rubber-stamping appendix of the CWC.”

Granville Austin, in his book, Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience”, published in 1999, wrote, “ … the federal structure of the Congress Party disappeared as many ministers became New Delhi’s instruments and the PM gained control of the Congress Party machinery. In New Delhi, the distribution of powers among the three branches of government was gravely unsettled. Mrs Gandhi’s grip on the CPP exceeded the power typically enjoyed by PMs in parliamentary systems, where PMs heed as well as lead their followers. The Executive Branch came to dominate Parliament to such a degree that Parliament lost any effective identity of its own. And, authority within the executive became concentrated in the PM’s office and then was exercised from Mrs Gandhi’s residence, to the exclusion of all but few.”

Even in the present context, the National Advisory Council under the UPA-2 Chairperson Smt Sonia Gandhi, is an extra-constitutional body, which is deliberating on tasks exclusively in the domain of the Parliament. It is drafting bills and deciding on matter which ought to be discussed in the Parliament. A Constitutional body such as the Public Accounts Committee has been reduced to petty politics.

It is clear that these extra-constitutional bodies are a greater threat and challenge to the status and powers of the Parliament. As honourable Members of this august body, the Ministers should speak against such practices. Anna never wanted the Parliament to be circumvented. He, however, wanted the public representatives to know and feel the pulse of the common man which, they seemed to have lost sight of. The spontaneous and enormous public response to his demand proved him right.

Arun Gurtoo IPS (Retd.)

43, Baghira Apartments,

E-5, Arera Colony,


Ph. 0755-2467766. Mob. 9425030287

Friday, September 16, 2011

In Soviet-occupied Kabul

In April 1983 I happened to go to Kabul on a Universal Postal Union (UPU) consultancy with the Postal Administration of Afghanistan. I got a rather short notice as I was told about the assignment only in the third week of March. Although Afghanistan was not really stable with the mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation, yet there was no way one could say “no”, having been trained by the UPU to function as a consultant. Besides, we all believed in the concept of Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC).

It rained in Delhi in the first week of April 1983 and it was unusually cool when I took the only flight – of Air India – that was available for Kabul. As the aircraft landed around 2.00 PM I could see it had rained in Kabul, too. The sides of the tarmac were slushy. A couple of broken-down out-of-commission Russian MIGs was parked alongside the runway. As we came out, a very cold breeze hit us. The pilot had announced that the ground temperature was 5 degrees Celsius. Looking around I could see the snow-capped Hindu Kush – just like one can see the Peer Panjals from Srinagar. Fortunately, I was well-protected having reluctantly piled on myself a woollen suit – madness in Delhi’s normal April weather.
As I entered a modest-looking terminal building an Afghani came up to me. He was the UNDP reception officer and promptly wanted to have a look at my visa. Although I told him that I had obtained a valid visa he would have none of it and insisted on seeing it. I handed it over and soon his trained eyes saw it. The visa was only for three days – all written in (for me, undecipherable) Dari. Our departmental official dealing with visas was not told about it. I was aghast, but the officer assured me that no damage had been done. This was the usual practice. For entering Afghanistan one had to acquire an entry visa, for staying a stay visa and before leaving one had to get an exit visa. Obviously, in an emergency none could get out in a hurry. Pocketing the passport, the officer said he would have to submit it to the Ministry of Interior and I was likely to get it back only after a week – a rather unnerving beginning to a two-month assignment.
The officer took me to the German Club where I was to stay for the two months that the consultancy would last. It seems, the UN Staff House had no spare accommodation, being fully occupied. It didn’t matter to me as long as the accommodation was good. Initially, I got a room and a week later I could move into a suite – a more spacious and comfortable affair. I saw later that a large number of Germans were in residence. Germans have had a long and close relationship with Afghanistan since the early part of the 20th Century. They became closer and more cordial after Mahammed Hashim, the then Prime Minister, brought about a distinct change in the relationship in 1935, moving Afghanistan away from the spheres of influence of Britain and Russia.
The Postal headquarters were located in the older part of the city across the Kabul River. It was a peculiar outfit with full complement of staff required for running the postal operations in the entire country several parts of which were not in the government’s control. There was a president at the top and as many as four directors general with assorted lower level officers and clerical staff for supervising and running the system which, in fact, served mostly Kabul. Highly disturbed as the place was, I couldn’t quite figure out why the Administration made a request for a UPU consultancy and, that too, on postal statistics.
My counterpart was one elderly gentleman, Mr. Amini, a retired officer who was well-versed in English. The driver, Daud, who used to ferry me to and from the office, was a very amiable young man. He was fond of my cigarettes and enjoyed them making himself comfortable on the sofa in my office. A fairly decent number of girls were working in the office. I was quite surprised to see them in Western dresses – some would be in denims and others in skirts with short hair and well made-up faces – a far cry from what happened later under the Taliban rule. They were quite outgoing and even came with Amini to meet me. Knowing only Dari, Amini would act as interpreter for them. There was, however, one lady by the name Zermina working in the philatelic branch who was fluent in English. A distant relative of King Zaheer Shah, she later joined him in Italy. She looked us up at New Delhi on her way up.
Before anything else I had to have some local currency. Amini took me to the currency market despite my protestations. I told him since I was with the UN I had to have my dollars converted by the official central bank. He said that was not necessary; in Kabul everyone bought and sold currency at the local market. At the market the rate of exchange would vary from shop to shop which were mostly owned by Sikhs – residents of Afghanistan for generations. They would speak fluent Dari and were, of course, also fluent in Punjabi. Later, I was told by another UN Consultant that every week the UNDP would be determining the exchange rate for dollars checking the rate at the same market. This system was, however, given up even when I was still in Kabul.
During the first week when I called on the Resident Representative of the UNDP I was told that one had to be very careful in moving around the town as most of it, including the settlements on the surrounding hills, were out of bounds. One could move around only in a limited area of 5 or 6 square miles. I myself noticed the heavy presence of the Russian Army on the roads with pickets virtually at every hundred metres. I had heard air force jets flying overhead as also the drone of helicopters. Somewhat unnerving was the instruction not to venture out of the town and not to try and take photographs. Disappointed, I put my camera back in the suitcase.

The Resident Representative, after the preliminaries, handed to me a project report and asked me to flesh it out as I went along with my consultancy work. When I happened to look at it later, I found the UPU, always short of money, was planning to sink another $100,000 in the country on another postal project. When I happened to visit the UNDP office next I told the Programme Director that as virtually the entire country was out of bounds there was no point in throwing good money into another project. I was, however, told the UN couldn’t be sitting around in Kabul twiddling its thumbs. No wonder, the UN Staff House with its scores of rooms and suites was brimming over with consultants of all hues. There were experts on agriculture when no one could venture out into the country and there were experts on even high-hill agriculture when the hills were in occupation of the mujahids.
On the first weekend, a Thursday (the weekly off being on Jumma, i.e. Friday), I happened to meet another Indian, an agricultural scientist, in the German Club restaurant. After tea he suggested a walk. Having been to Kabul several times during his ongoing consultancy he was more familiar with the place. We took a branch road which was not the artery that I was familiar with. Soon I saw at some distance numerous Afghan Army personnel hanging around. As we went closer, I realised that it was one of their major establishments. Most of them gave us a hard stare, perhaps wondering what we were up to. As we took the next turn after a few steps we saw some of the same personnel checking what looked like IDs of the locals and even of some foreigners in a rather rough manner. I was alarmed as I had no ID, my passport having been sent to the Ministry of Interior and the UN ID had not arrived till then. Were they to put me in the coup there wouldn’t be any relief at least until the next Saturday. My wife was to arrive the next day. If I were to be detained who would receive her? I almost got a panic attack. Resolving to bravely look straight at them, I (and my companion) slowly walked past. We were both in Western suits and perhaps that did the trick. They didn’t make any move to accost us. Later, my companion said that though he too did not have his passport but he had the UN ID and, hence, wasn’t overly perturbed. For me it was a hell of a close shave.
Another Indian FAO consultant, a veterinary scientist, Dr. RR Shukla, was in residence in Kabul for quite some time. Since he had initially stayed at German Club he used to get to know about the comings and goings there. That is how he came to know about us and promptly came over to meet us and invited us over to his place. He used to reside in the plushest of localities in Kabul. If, I recall, it was the Wazir Akbar Khan area where all the one-time elite of Zahir Shah’s time had built their palatial houses. They all fled away to the West as things got hot for them leaving their double-storied massive houses on rental, mostly to the UN staff. Their numerous servants were still in residence in several quarters at the rear. The houses were lavishly furnished and were reflective of the life and times of earlier years. Everything was on the house, from furniture to Persian carpets to expensive crystal ware. Fond of good living, Dr. Shukla, a “Saryu-pari” Brahmin from UP, used to live a high life and was a very pleasant company. During those disturbed times the companionship of Dr. and Mrs Shukla was a great relief. Often we would walk down from his house to reach the German Club just before 9.00 in the evening when the town would go under a curfew every night.
The days would seem normal but nights would be somewhat frightening. Leave alone occasional shrieks from the neighbourhood in the dead of the night, firing could be heard from surrounding hills. In a trough as Kabul is situated, the sounds would reverberate at night. Occasionally firing could be heard closer home. After one such episode we learnt next morning that some Russians were shot down during the night near their living quarters. Normally the mujahideens would be active during the night and we could hear the rut-tut-tut of gunfire almost every night. Invariably on the subsequent mornings two Russian helicopters with rocket-launchers mounted on two sides fly around on firing sorties and would raze the suspect villages to the ground. The drone of these helicopters kept us constant company. While the helicopters took care of the surroundings of Kabul, two jets would fly out every morning on sorties to strafe distant mujahideen concentrations.
The lights went out after a huge explosion one night and never came back for three weeks. For days we did not know what exactly had happened until one day somebody in the German Club told us the power plant had been knocked out by the mujahideens. It was quite a serious setback for the Russians. There wasn’t much of an inconvenience for us, though, as in winter-like conditions one didn’t need fans and the Club authorities would provide gas lamps at night. But the townsfolk must have had a terrible time.
Mohammed Akram, a junior level officer, was very fluent in English as well as Hindi – in fact he used to call it Urdu. He had been trained in the Postal Training Centre at Saharanpur. He would be a regular in my room and would have a smoke with me. One day he came in wearing a worried look and promptly sat down and lighting up a cigarette started frantically puffing at it. After quieting down a bit he told me he was deeply disturbed as he had been asked to fly with the mail to Kandahar. He said, barring the airport the Russians had no control over the town and even on the last occasion when a plane-load of mail was taken there it had come under mujahedeen fire. It was a dangerous assignment fraught with risks. Anything could happen; either the plane could be brought down or they could be captured on landing. In either event, he did not know whether he would ever be back. His trouble, however, was over the next morning. He came and told me the flight had been postponed.
Another afternoon he wearily walked in with a harried face. He almost fell onto the sofa, pulled the pack of cigarettes and the box of matches out of his pocket. He had gone to the main square and waited there for a couple of hours for a bus that came there every Thursday to disgorge 15-16 years old children who had been picked up earlier by the agents of the Russians for mobilisation against the mujahideens. His child was not there. He had been going and waiting at the square for several Thursdays in the hope of getting back his son who had disappeared about a couple of years ago. His mother had sent him on an errand and he never came back. Several months later, Akram came to know through his sources in the Interior Ministry that the boy was in the local jail. He could meet the child only once and was told that he was taken somewhere in the Soviet Union and was trained there in warfare. They also tried to brainwash him but the child, it seems, was made of sterner stuff. He, sort of, refused to sign on the dotted line and, therefore, was sent back to Kabul, but into a jail. With tears in his eyes, Akram narrated the entire agonising story. He and his wife had been living for those months with this excruciating pain and, what was worse they did not know how long it would continue.
The roads in Kabul were not as crowded as, I understand, they are now. But they used to have varied kind of traffic. Cars, bicycles, the occasional donkey carts, and hand-pushed carts selling a variety of stuff, all used to share the road-space. In the midst of this confusion there used to be the huge Russian Army, maybe, three or four tonners which would thunder down the roads unconcerned about the civilians using the roads. They would scatter everyone to the fringes and zoom past. Once they almost ran over my wife and me as we were trying to cross the street. Like any occupying army, the Russian soldiers would seem to view everything around them with contempt, standing at their pickets with Kalashnikovs in hand.
Street-life was indeed remarkable. On some pavements one would find European ceramic items and glassware. There was a profusion of very cheap French moulded crystal ware – till then unavailable even in Delhi. Pushcarts would be selling almonds, walnuts, pistachios, etc. like they used to sell roasted peanuts and grams earlier in India. Pistachios, I was told, grew wild on mountain sides and on an announcement over the radio anybody could go and pick them. Delectable Pakistani tangerines and green Afghani apricots would be available in roadside groceries.
One would also find people carrying numerous very large-sized naans slung from their shoulders. It seems, none baked naans at home although it is for Afghanis a dietary must. A community oven was perhaps cheaper and a hassle-free proposition. Amini used to tell me how they would have tea in the morning with naan and cheddar cheese. Having fallen on bad days, they could later have only a piece of naan and an apology for tea.
The bland food of German Club would often drive us to the Indian restaurants where we could get generally the Punjabi fare. There were numerous Afghani joints near about from where the aroma of barbecued meat would float around. I had tried it once but later gave up as it upset my stomach. A particular restaurant that we used to patronise because of its very decent Indian preparations was bombed one evening. I wonder even till today whether the bombing was aimed at Indians. Afghanis, then, were not anti-Indians at all. Nevertheless, that put paid to our excursions to Indian restaurants.
One of the directors general, Bismillah, was a very friendly sort though communicating with him was difficult. He did not know English or Urdu. Belonging to the high-altitude Panjsher Valley, the land of the famous Afghani fair and delicate beauties, he was a very fair-looking middle-aged man, appeared more like an Italian. He was a great friend and admirer of India, perhaps more so because he successfully went through a complicated surgical procedure at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. He was a political appointee and belonged to the ruling Parcham party. He would give me a bear-hug every time I met him and every time I would find his holster in place. Amini told me Bismillah and his ilk lived from day to day – afraid of being attacked by the Opposition anytime. Despite being terribly short of funds Bismillah hosted a farewell dinner for me with Amini, the interpreter, as the only other invitee. He delivered a farewell speech for me – all in Dari.
On the last morning of our stay my wife and I called on the President of the Afghan Posts & Telegraphs. When he heard that we had not been to Emperor Babar’s tomb he promptly organised a vehicle and sent us away with the advisory that we should leave the place before 3.30 PM. The run-down, crumbling grave of the first Mogul Emperor amid overgrown bushes was very saddening. It had become a haunt of mujahids who generally collected there in the evening. By early afternoon the desolate place gave us an eerie feeling and we left much before the given deadline of 3.30 PM. It was good to know that with the aid of the Aga Khan Trust the tomb has been renovated and has since become a picnic spot for the war-ravaged and harrassed Kabulis.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bhopal Municipal Corporation needs supercession

All these years the state’s BJP government has been selling dreams to the citizens of Bhopal. They had been claiming that they would convert Bhopal into a Paris or Singapore. Every time a minister went abroad he would on return tell the people that with the natural endowment of the Bhopal they would make it better than many of the popular foreign tourist destinations. Most vocal in the respect was the current minister of Urban Administration and Development, Babu Lal Gaur. The people now know that all those were empty rhetoric as during the BJP’s rule this beautiful city or what could have been a beautiful city has hit the rock bottom.

The BJP has failed to ameliorate the plight of the people in almost all the three issues, viz. bijli, sadak and paani, on which it rode to power. The citizens of Bhopal are not only being deprived of daily water supplies and being subjected regular power cuts, they are also suffering the daily miseries because of broken down roads with ditches of various depths and dimensions filled with filthy water causing acute insanitation and lack of hygiene exposing them to the risks of accidents as also ill-health.

While BJP is protesting at the Centre about the run-down highways and the local Congress has launched a campaign against the terrible condition of the city roads there doesn’t seem to be anybody who is protesting about the shoddy condition of the roads inside the residential colonies. It is only Hitawada that has been publishing day after day write-ups along with photographs of the deplorable condition of the roads inside the colonies where the unfortunate citizens of this town live out their life.

For years the colony roads have not been constructed; at best they have been subjected to patch-work, expecting people to put up with what are apologies for the same. They have been left to the councillors to take care of who hardly ever have had a proper job done. The allotments to them are inadequate and on top of that they and the contractors siphon off their own substantial shares from the available meagre sums.

Idgah, which suffers the same plight as the areas covered by Hitavada but unfortunately has not been covered by it so far, is also another example of lack of attention to its roads. The two roads that lead to Idgah – one from Bhopal Gate and the other from the All Saint’s School – are full of ditches of various shapes and sizes travelling over which is fraught with peril for the lives of vehicles and those who ride them. They are of deceptive depths and, when filled with rain water, are dangerous. Before Eid they were covered up with rubble consisting, inter alia, of jagged stones that are real threats to tyres of vehicles, including those of the humble bicycle. Now the Municipal Council has decided to give the same treatment to all the potholes in the city, thus extending the risk and danger to all those who have to commute over them. The Ridge Road was repaired not too long ago by the councillor concerned. Only a small patch was concretised but that too now is in terrible condition. It got worn out within two years, so indifferent was its quality. The rest of the road has numerous potholes and deep gashes made by flowing water.

Even the roads that used to be reasonably good were dug up for various civic works but were never put back into original shape although the projects provided money for the same and, in all probability, the contractors were paid in full. The road to Shajehanabad and the one along the Babe Ali Stadium are testimonies to it. The Corporation has been merrily going on digging expeditions on money borrowed from Asian Development Bank and all the roads were ruined. The Asian Development Bank seems to have been a bane for Bhopal. It is only fattening up the municipal officials and all those who approve the projects and the loans and is inflicting only miseries on the citizens.

While an urban renewal mission is being implemented in the town its residential areas have been progressively regressing. What with flooding of roads with rain, fresh or sewer water and accumulation of garbage things have become so scandalous that the quality of life of residents is being adversely impacted. It now seems impossible for the municipality to improve matters, given its lackadaisical ways, defective organisational structure and ineffective ways of functioning. Neither the mayor nor the top bureaucrat and his minions have shown the required mettle. As regards the councillors less said the better. Any amount money spent now to improve matters will not help as the municipality seems to need systemic improvements to enable it to function properly for the benefit of the citizens.

If the degraded condition of the residential areas of the city is to be improved and the life of the citizens ameliorated the Municipal Corporation needs to be urgently superceded and an effective administrator appointed for a reasonable length of time so that the dysfunctional Corporation is put back on rails. There are instances where such urban renewals have taken place under effective leadership of competent administrators. The cities of Nagpur and Surat readily come to mind.

Immediate action would seem to be necessary as any delay in doing so would further degrade the conditions in the colonies of the city which, regretfully, also happens to be the state capital. Unless a people’s campaign is launched nothing worthwhile may happen.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Indian "Class of 2011"

The current year has been a year of protests. The “Jasmine Revolution” of Tunisia was the beginning of it all. It was an intensive campaign of civil resistance, including a series of street demonstrations and strikes by professionals that culminated in the ousting of long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The demonstrations were precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of fundamental freedoms and poor living conditions.

The Tunisian protests inspired similar revolts in the region which went on to acquire the name “Arab Spring”. It was followed by the Egyptian revolution that led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president for three decades. Uprisings also took place in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen and major protests have taken place in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya - where a full-scale violent revolution has broken out and currently the tyrannical Muammar Gaddafi is on the run.

Bobby Ghosh writing in Time magazine reported that “all the revolts were led by young men and women, many of whom are novices at political activism. All use modern tools, like social networking sites on the internet and texting over mobile phones to organise their protests”. Not only does Ghosh call them “The Class of 2011”, he also feels they are the “the internet generation” who have felled two despots and forced other inflexible rulers to make concessions. Confirming Ghosh’s thesis, Fareed Zakaria, a senior journalist of Indian origin based in the United States, said that “the tensions let loose” in the Middle East encompassed “two of the most powerful forces changing the world today: youth and technology”.

A similar phenomenon overtook India recently during the movement launched under the aegis of India Against Corruption (IAC) for establishment of a strong and effective “Janlokpal”, an anti-corruption ombudsman. A few concerned citizens led by a hitherto obscure elderly Gandhian social activist from Maharashtra, septuagenarian Anna Hazare, joined hands to form the non-governmental organisation. Associated with other such organisations it launched a massive movement right across the country, the centrepiece of which was Anna who, using Gandhian technique, launched a fast and continued it for an incredible 12 days until the Parliament unanimously resolved to refer several of the issues mentioned by his team to its Standing Committee. A weak and ineffectual lokpal bill drafted by the government had already been referred to the Committee.

The protesters, mostly the youth of the country, “novices” at political activism, have, like in the “Arab Spring”, used technology to telling effect. Texting on mobile phones, the internet and its social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, all were used for dissemination of appeals to their compatriots. The backroom boys of the movement, some of them techies, management and media experts, managed a veritable ‘war room’ using technology so spectacularly that the crowds rolled in thousands whenever and wherever they wanted them to roll in. Working incredibly long hours, these youngsters gave to the movement all that they had. This was true of Delhi, where the people were induced to join in the protests from surrounding countryside, as also elsewhere in the country where, too, the units of IAC were being managed by similarly-equipped youngsters.

While the “Jasmine Revolution” and “Arab Spring” were against despotic regimes which inflicted miseries on the underclass the ‘Indian Spring’ was against widespread corruption in the country’s polity and the protests were strictly within the Indian democratic framework. The general revulsion among people was against largely corrupt political class and was accentuated by their attempts, including those of the supposedly honest prime minister, at cover-up of the recent series of scams involving mind-boggling sums.

Historically speaking, a bill for establishment of a “lokpal” has been pending in the Indian parliament for the last 43 years. It “wastes the paper it was written on” said the respected journal, The Economist. Somehow the bill happened to survive only as such having been repeatedly tabled but failed to become an enactment. It has always been the pervasive feeling that the bill would never be passed as it would sever the very hands that are always in the till, steeped in corruption as most politicians are. They would avoid passing the legislation as who would ever agree to sign one’s own “death warrant”?

The simmering ire against the self-preserving political class seemingly exploded once Anna came along. He struck a chord and caught the imagination of the people, more so of the youth. Protests, on the streets and in designated spaces became the order of the day all across the country. The universally derided Gandhi cap, a onetime preferred head-gear of corrupt Congressmen, saw a sharp upswing in sales. All because it is always perched on Anna’s head! A large number of youth and even children had “I am Anna” written on the cap in bold letters in languages of their use indicating their commitment to Anna and his anti-corruption movement. The venues of demonstrations in Delhi and elsewhere sported a sea of white caps interspersed by green, white and orange national flags.

Along with people’s ire against corruption, Anna has been able to arouse a palpable patriotic sentiment which is seldom witnessed in the country in such a mass scale. Divisive factors like caste, creed, region and economic status had all been set aside. Some commentators see the blurring of the line between Bharat and India – the country’s well-known rural-urban divide, though detractors billed it as an urban middleclass movement. The movement has infused a never-seen-before political consciousness among the youngsters – whether urban or rural, rich or poor, in the north or south or the east or west. Even the Indian diaspora took up the “Anna Chant”. Protests were held from Los Angeles to New York and from London through European capitals to Melbourne, with the protesters wearing what has now been christened the “Anna cap”.

And, yet the Indian tech-savvy “Class of 2011” has been different in many ways from those of “Jasmine Revolution” and “Arab Spring”. Their single-point agenda has been installation of an independent, powerful "janlokpal" who could deal effectively with the prevailing widespread corruption. Led, as they were, by a Gandhian, they were peaceful, disciplined and, above all, non-violent.

The Washington Post called Anna’s movement an “awakening which could change the face of India’s democracy...and change the national psyche and its tolerance for corrupt, arrogant and unresponsive leaders.” There is much in what it said. One could discern a steely resolve not only among the leaders of the IAC but also among the protesters. One, therefore, hopes that the political class, howsoever self-centred it might be, does not renege from the unanimous resolution that was adopted in the nation’s parliament. In case it does, surely, it wouldn’t be taken kindly by the country, especially its youth.

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