Monday, February 28, 2011

Environment Minister's "no-go" areas under attack

In India systems that are installed are seldom worked. There are numerous examples but, in the immediate context, the example of the Ministry of environment & Forests (MoEF) should suffice. According to Wikipedia, “the Ministry is responsible for planning, promoting, coordinating and overseeing the environmental and forestry programmes” of the country. Its main activities being conservation and survey of flora and fauna of India, forests and other wilderness areas, prevention and control of pollution, afforestation and land degradation mitigation.

It is a comprehensive charter and if the minister in-charge takes up his duties sincerely India would be a “green” country in most respects. However, that has not been so, at least, until now. Before the current Minister, Jairam Ramesh, took charge, the Ministry under the now-discredited Andimuthu Raja of the DMK party, an ally of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance government, was known as a “rubber stamp”. The “system” was hardly ever worked for the larger good. Environmental clearances for industrial, power and other projects submitted by other ministries were freely given without any questions being asked regardless of what impact they were to have on the country’s environment. The “greens” kept shouting but there was none to hear them.

Ramesh, on the other hand, has taken his job far more seriously. He has given the ministry a direction and, some say, even teeth, it had lacked before. Barring a few gaffes, his performance has been so good that the country’s environmentalists thought that the ministry and the country’s natural assets were in safe and competent hands, perhaps, for the first time. Unlike Raja, he subjects all the proposals for setting up projects, particularly in the midst of the country’s dwindling forests, a very close look. No wonder, the environmental clearances take more time than what they used to take earlier, inviting the wrath of several ministries.

Working in accordance with his ministry’s mandate, Ramesh adopted a suggestion of Coal India Ltd, a Public Sector Undertaking, made at a meeting with the Minister for Coal. The suggestion was to conserve India’s fast-diminishing rich forests and segregate them into mineable and non-mineable areas. Accordingly, his Ministry released a series of maps of coalfields superimposed over forests on its website, identifying ‘go' and ‘no-go' zones for mining. It showed 35 per cent of the area of nine coalfields in six States, including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa – the mining hotspots – as “no-go”, including them in Category A. These areas are mostly dense forests where mining is unviable because of the environmental damage it would cause. The remaining 65 per cent of the coalfields are in forests, falling in Category B, that can be mined – the “go” areas – but only if environmental and forest clearances are obtained. This has led to the cancellation of many proposed mining areas by the Coal Ministry.

Most of the coal resources in India are beneath the generally good forests, which according to the Forest Survey of India are just 40% of the country’s total forest cover, which is only 21% of the country’s geographical area. There are 206 coal blocks spread across 4,039 sq km in nine coalfields, involving a production potential of 660 million tonnes, which have been designated as no-go areas. Currently, around 70% of the energy used in India is sourced from coal.

Feeling deeply uncomfortable with adoption of a suggestion that emanated from his own minions, the Minister of Coal reacted sharply. He used the vital linkage between coal and economic growth with great aplomb. His chant that already there was a gap of 83 million tonnes between demand and supply of coal and that it was projected to rise to 200 million tonnes in 2013-14 became shriller. He not only took the matter to the Prime Minister but also mustered support from, inter alia, other core sector ministries of power and steel and argued that the non-availability of coal from no-go areas would seriously hit the projections of growth at 9% per-annum. While Dy. Chairman, Planning Commission, agreeing that growth would be seriously hit, desired a “sensible” definition of the no-go areas, Finance Minister asked Ramesh to be more “lenient”. The Law Minister said that such categorisation of forests would be illegal. Even the Prime Mister’s Office was upset and warned that these no-go areas could deprive the Central and state exchequers of several billion rupees and, worse, could turn into Maoists’ strongholds.

Several ministries had been banking heavily on the coal from the proposed no-go areas for ultra mega power projects (UMPPs) of 4,000 MW to meet the perennial power crisis. The Eleventh Five Year Plan had recommended power generation target of 78,577 MW by 2012 through these UMPPs. All those plans were seemingly being stymied by Ramesh. A chorus went up for unlocking of the coal in the no-go areas so that the growth projection could be met. With a high-decibel fracas developing, the Prime Minster, as is his wont, appointed a Group of Ministers to sort the matter out.

None, it seemed, realised the implication of what they were screaming for. India has already a very small area under forests – a measly 21% of its geographical area against the Government’s own goal of attaining 33%. Of this total, only around 7% is of the dense variety. If these, too, are exploited nothing short of an environmental disaster will ensue. Not only the country would suffer water shortages and face progressive desertification, it would also witness decimation of forests, land degradation, soil erosion, air pollution etc., and more so because of coal industry’s proclivity for opencast mining.

A prime example of such an eventuality is Singrauli in east Madhya Pradesh, adjoining the states of Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which has emerged as the “energy capital” of India. Its rich coal deposits made it what it is today. Once covered with dense natural forests that were seemingly impenetrable, the generous deposits of coal and limestone proved to be its nemesis. Its cement factories and coal-fired power plants necessitated large-scale deforestation, converting forest ecosystems into savannahs and marginal croplands. The rainfall has become erratic and meagre, the soils are highly weathered and impoverished with widespread signs of desertification. A rapid depletion in the biodiversity, too, has occurred. It has become a critically polluted area. Its five super thermal power plants, which supply 10% of India’s power, are responsible for 16% or 10 tons per annum of total mercury pollution through power generation. Singrauli, reportedly, accounts for 10% of total Indian and 0.3% of global carbon dioxide emission.

Likewise, in the district of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh state its coal deposits are playing havoc. Half of the state’s coal is estimated to be in Raigarh. Only forty-odd years ago the district, then in Madhya Pradesh, was known for its pristine forests and tussar silk produced by its tribal community. With a current coal-based thermal power capacity of 1420 MW the district is planning to increase it to 16155 MW. Forty-odd power projects are in the pipeline which will push up the district’s capacity to 20000 MW – 23 % of the country’s coal-based power capacity. Ubiquity of fly-ash has prompted the Regional Director of Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board to say that Raigarh’s future will be covered in toxic fly-ash spewed by the chimneys of its coal-fired power plants. “Everyone makes power and takes away our coal to leave behind waste and pollution”, he says – a price the state is going to pay for its break-neck pace of development.

With the world seriously contemplating decarbonisation, the insistence of the ministries of the Government of India to unlock the “no-go” forest areas seems a trifle out of sync. One can appreciate the dilemma that Ramesh is in. Neither can he be a “growth-maniac” nor can he be an out-and-out environmentalist. For some time to come, as Ramesh says, the centrality of coal-based power will remain unquestioned, yet it’s time the country begins to strike a middle path. After all, the Earth’s commons are involved. One tends to feel that it’s time the ministry for coal is considered for disbandment as it, naturally, will work only for its own perpetuation even if that happens to be at the cost of the country’s forests. As, there is already a separate department for atomic power, a ministry of energy, that includes renewable and non-renewable sources, would seem to be more in line with today’s needs, which, progressively, could plan for a judicious mix of power from the two sources, progressively reducing the dependence on the latter.

Friday, February 18, 2011

In India mafias flourish and eliminate the honest

The other day something very unusual happened in the state of Maharashtra. Almost all its officers, numbering around 150,000 went on a day’s strike. They were protesting against killing of Additional District Magistrate of Nashik, Yeshwant Sonwane. Sonwane, an uncommonly upright and courageous district officer, was burnt to death by members of the oil mafia when he caught them on camera pilfering kerosene from a tanker. The protest was organised under the aegis of the Maharshtra Gazetted Officers’ Mahasangh. Its President said that the Mahasangh’s members were not really on a strike but were “shunning work” to protest against the gruesome act which had shaken the employees.

This was neither here nor there as, given the current ethical standards of government employees, many of them are corrupt and may even be in league with or are in the payrolls of several mafias for whom the state has been a happy hunting ground. This is further corroborated by the fact that Sonwane was building a case against one Popat Shinde, who has since died of third-degree burns and was the main accused in Sonwane’s killing. Sticking his neck out, Sonwane had conducted raids on Shinde’s dhaba (roadside eatery) – not an eatery, in fact, but a site for pilfering oil from tankers – earlier in 2010 and had seized 4000 litres of kerosene and 3000 litres of petrol. He had filed a report in this regard and had asked the Police to seal the seized oil and take action against Shinde under Essential Services Maintenance Act. Nothing was, however, done and Shinde was merrily roaming around free, indulging in his illegal business until he got severely singed while attempting to burn Sonwane alive. Obviously, he had friends in the government in the departments concerned, including the Police and, maybe, even in the political establishment. Reportedly, as many as six First Information Reports lodged with the Police and an “externment” order issued against him were never acted upon The indignation of most of the officers “shunning work” was, therefore, either out of sheer shock or totally spurious.

Further proof in this regard came soon after Sonwane’s death in the shape of a crack-down on the oil, land, milk and sand-mining Mafiosi by the government. All these mafias seem to have been having a free run of the state and, apparently, the state government had knowledge of them. More than 200 locations were raided in several districts of the state and as many as 170 were held. Until now, it seems, the government was a mute witness and the Mafias operated with considerable freedom to make money, cheat the government and the people. The new chief minister, chastened after the brutal killing of Sonwane, has assured the staff and their unions that security will be provided to those who do risky jobs. What, however, is needed immediately is to improve governance and ruthlessly eliminate the mafias who have become bold enough to even kill those who interfere with their nefarious activities. Simultaneously, severe action is necessary against those in the government, including politicians, who assist the mafias or are in league with them.

Sonwane’s sacrifice was extolled by the Indian Petroleum Minister as “heroic”, which, in fact, meant nothing. Sonwane was the second honest and courageous man who was audaciously killed by those who live by adulterating petroleum products. In November 2005 Shanmugam Manjunath, a much younger man, a management graduate to boot, was severely beaten up and riddled with bullets by a petrol-pump owner. A product of Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow, Manjunath was a popular student and was known for his sincerity and integrity. He had joined Indian Oil Corporation as a manager at Lucknow soon after he graduated out of the Institute in 2003. A no-nonsense and honest-to-the-core young manager – a rarity in these days of corrupted values – he had ordered closure of two IOC petrol pumps in Lakhimpur in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh (UP) for selling adulterated fuel. When he ordered closure of the third he was mercilessly beaten up and then shot. His body was found forced into the backseat of his small car. The culprits were nabbed but would not have been brought to justice had it not been for his friends in the IIM. Their efforts, in view of the government’s utter inaction, ensured a quick trial which was completed in nine months – uncommon in the annals of Indian judicial proceedings. All the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. Strangely, while his friends and colleagues treated Manjunath as a martyr the Government of India remained a detached spectator. Afraid of the violent mafia of that region, Manjunath’s own company failed to take any action to provide security to its honest employees. The UP government made some noises but their action soon petered out.

Apart from sporadic attempts to check adulteration of petroleum products nothing much has been done over the years by the government or its agencies. That adulteration has been promoted by the skewed prices of petrol, diesel and their adulterants spawning mafias all across the country has been common knowledge for long. Despite knowledgeable circles’ repeated indictment of the pricing and taxation policies of petro-products and subsidies attached to the sale of adulterants, the governments at the centre never reacted positively. Outlook India published in April 2005, six months before Manjunath was brutally gunned down, an interview with KLN Sastri, Executive Director of the Oil Coordination Committee (OCC), the country’s top oil policy body, in which he mentioned that in the 1980s the “range and availability” of adulterants was around 10% but in the late ‘90s the same had climbed up to 40 to 45%. Around the same time Tata Consultancy Services came out with an astounding disclosure that 40 to 45% of subsidised kerosene channellised through Public Distribution System was being diverted for adulteration causing a loss of 5000 crores (Rs.500 billion) of subsidy. At current prices, it should be a mindboggling sum, not counting the increase in percentage of PDS kerosene being diverted due to further fall in ethical standards as also of governance. The fact remains, despite the exposures the governments at the Centre and in the states did nothing and an honest young life was lost.

According to Sastri, all major oil PSUs, including Gas Authority of India and Oil and Natural Gas Commission, “played no mean part, more often knowingly, in abetting adulteration”. It seems, under political pressure they were colluding in adulteration of even petrol by naphtha. Besides, when on OCC’s report about a major private player, presumably Reliance Industries limited, releasing super Light Diesel Oil and other products for adulteration, the then conscientious Secretary Petroleum set up an industry group for a thorough investigation, he was promptly moved out. The then minister petroleum from a southern ally of the National Democratic Alliance government, found him inconvenient.

The massive operations of adulteration in which the oil mafias have been involved across the country could not have been possible without the blessings of politicians at different levels. The highly regarded “The Hindu” recently reported that Rs. 25,000 crores (Rs.2500 billion) were paid in bribes in January 2011 by the oil mafia for issue of a government resolution excluding furnace oil tankers from the monitoring system. The report even named two men who paid the bribe to some ministers, including one from the Centre. The furnace oil business in Maharashtra is reported to be of the order of Rs. 100,000 crores (Rs.10000 billion).

The Prime Minister has been talking off and on about the need to eradicate corruption. Recently, he asserted “Corruption strikes at the roots of good governance... It dents our international image and it demeans us before our own people. This is a challenge which has to be faced frontally, boldly and quickly.” This happened to be one of his many statements on this menace during the last few years. Yet, so far, he has not displayed any gumption to meet the menace “frontally” or “boldly”. Strangely, under the rule of an economist of his stature and credentials of integrity mafias flourish and eliminate the honest.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Spurious in India

The other day the Bhopal edition of a national daily reported a raid on a local manufacturing unit of spurious Unani medicines. Unani is a traditional system of medicine which has been practiced in the country for centuries. Although the name suggests that the system is Grecian, it in fact is a Greco-Arabic system that is widely taken recourse to in South Asia. No wonder, it is generally patronised by Muslims, who would seem to have adopted it as their own. Certainly not as expensive as its allopathic counterparts, Unani for the poor is a default medical system. And, quite heartlessly, there are people who apparently are prepared to harm the hapless poor for a few quick bucks by having them treated by fake medicines.

There was another similar report the same day. An industrialist in a remote corner of the town was nabbed for manufacturing and supplying fake electrical items with names of well-known brands tagged on to them. Even ceiling fans of, inter alia, Usha brand-name were being manufactured by him. Obviously, the budding industrialist knew that the stuff he manufactured wouldn’t sell unless he gave them a brand name. So, he thought nothing of counterfeiting the recognized brands.

But these, perhaps, pale into insignificance before the report of farmers committing suicide because of ruined crops owing to spurious fertilizers and pesticides. Poor farmers bought them taking loans at usurious rates of interest in the hope of augmenting their produce and protecting their crops in the hope of good returns. But that was not to be. The ignorant farmers were cheated and sold duds, ruining their finances. Worse, there have also been reports of spurious seeds being sold to them, even by some public sector firms. Having been heavily shortchanged the farmers facing financial ruin are sometimes driven to take the extreme step of ending their life. However, it is not the farmer alone who, along with his family, suffers because of such widespread dishonesty; the entire nation suffers by way of reduced agricultural output that frustrates its efforts to build up its food stocks.

This is not all. Items of food that are used in large scale are adulterated with toxic materials and are sold openly. Late last year, during the festive season, the local collector organized raids and detected trade in spurious khoya, thickened milk, which is widely used for making a number of upper Indian sweets. A year before that, a sting operation by one of the more conscientious TV news channels exposed the massive trade in spurious milk products all over north India. It included khoya, of course, and even ghee (clarified butter) and paneer (cottage cheese). Many arrests were made in several north Indian states.

Among the most adulterated food items are the Indian spices which are routinely sold by grocers all over the country. While the middle classes and others who can afford to buy the branded packaged products – generally genuine – at a higher cost are able to avoid sickness and ill-health by consuming spurious spices, there is no respite for the poor who have to depend on the neighbourhood grocers. Sale of spurious spices has been an age-old practice. Ground red-chilly, for example, would be mixed with generous proportions of powdered brick and the powdered coriander seeds would contain liberal quantities of horse dung.

Governance being weak, people go to tortuous lengths to produce fake stuff to make quick money regardless of the consequences of their unscrupulous acts on others. On the one hand, the state surveillance is ineffective, even non-existent, on the other, the relevant laws are old and archaic providing for penalties that are so light that they are not enough of a deterrent. An unscrupulous entrepreneur would rather take the risk of spending a few months in the coup and paying a light fine of a few thousands to make a pile.

The utter lack of governance seems to have promoted all around an amoral culture with almost absolute lack of ethical values giving rise to a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust as nobody knows when one is cheated, swindled, robbed or even killed for a few nickels. In this milieu a straight individual is taken for a ride or is dispossessed of most of his assets –liquid or fixed. There is an enormous trust-deficit prevailing in the society. One is generally suspicious of the next man and one has to watch one’s every step. The gullible and the careless end up as losers.

Here, cheats, swindlers and the like are more pious and, with corruption spreading like galloping cancer, religiosity has broken all bounds. Places of worship are multiplying and hundreds of thousands gather at shrines during religious festivals Recently, on a festive occasion a hundred-odd died in a stampede when millions milled around to view a, supposedly, spurious divine luminescent phenomenon near a legendary temple on top of a southern forested hill. Even people’s blind faith has become exploitable for unethical gains.

India had won its independence from the colonial power largely on the basis its moral force. Non-violence, “soul-force”, et al practiced during the struggle for freedom had won encomiums from world leaders. Gandhi’s truth and non-violence were the guiding forces which eventually won the country its freedom without any bloodshed. Truly, in those days, which stretched into the first two decades after independence, ethical standards were so high that scarcely was there a person who would be corrupt, and, if found so, would promptly be ostracized. No wonder, soon after independence the country, despite its abject poverty, was acknowledged by the international community as repository of ethics and morality. Immediately after the end of World War II, unleashed by the self-aggrandising and immoral Axis Powers, India provided a welcome change.

A decline in ethical standards, however, commenced around the 1970s and took progressively a precipitous plunge thereafter. It largely started off as political corruption and later, unchecked and unbridled, permeated the society at every level, so much so that today India is among the most corrupt nations in the world. The governments – central or of states – and public bodies make phony efforts to fight the menace of corruption. Even the corruption- watchdog the Centre recently appointed has a history of corruption.

While politicians and top officials at the Centre, the states and even in the civic bodies loot the public exchequer, they also foster sleaze among those who deal with them. Industrialists, businessmen and traders, in league with politicians and officials, make merry at the cost of the people. The recent missive to the government by corporate houses asking for a check on corruption is, therefore, specious and spurious as it is they who are largely responsible for corrupting the system.

Even the democracy that we have is spurious. Politicians work for their own perpetuation in office, instead of working for the larger good. Politics of vote banks has permeated the entire polity. Besides, the country’s parliamentary democracy is progressively morphing into an oligarchy. As Patrick French, the British author of “India- an intimate portrait of 1.2 billion people”, has revealed, seats in the Indian Parliament are progressively going by heredity. The electoral system being what it is, a non-political contestant has scarcely a chance. It’s now the private preserve of the movers and shakers and wheelers and dealers.

The “social contract”, under which people ceded their sovereignty to the government hoping for installation of a just and equitable social order based on the rule of law, has been severely breached by the (central and state) governments and other public institutions. They and their several agencies are promoting, by way of their acts of omissions and commissions, socio-economic disparities. While a few are reaping the fruits of the country’s economic surge, a very large section of the population continues to be deprived, languishing in heart-rending poverty and under-nourishment. The fetish-ised 9% “inclusive (GDP) growth”, therefore, sounds hollow and the claim of being an emerging super-power is nothing but – well, yes, spurious!