Thursday, October 27, 2011

India in ferment


India these days seems to be in ferment. If one picks up a newspaper one gets hit by headlines that certainly do not bode well for the country, at least, not in its immediate future. While one can discern a severe churning taking place in the country’s social, political and economic life, the government, at the same time, is largely perceived to be drifting along.

Protests against governmental actions/inactions both, at the Centre and in some states have been raging for months. Tamilnadu in the South has witnessed an agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant that is only few months away from attaining criticality. The pathetic fate of far-away Fukushima in Japan and its ill-fated victims have justifiably induced fear in the surrounding villages of Koodankulam. People in general have become resistant to the idea of nuclear power and fearful of the nuclear power plants. Another anti-nuclear protest by villagers earlier this year in the idyllic Konkan region in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri District against a mega Nuclear Power Park had boiled over for weeks and had even become violent.

Acquisitions of fertile lands under an antique law for mining, industry and power – thermal or nuclear – in pursuit of double-digit GDP growth gave rise to agitations of farmers and tribal communities in several states. The government has been hard put to subdue them. The country has also seen protests in the North-East, in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, as also in the Himalayan states of Himachal and Uttarakhand against construction of dams for irrigation and generating hydro-power. While people, especially rural and tribal communities, have become more alert about safeguarding their rights and livelihoods, the governments, both at the Centre and in the states have been tardy in shedding their autocratic attitudes and have failed to take people into confidence before conceiving projects that impinge on their wellbeing. Today, with information being available at the remotest of outposts ordinarily people refuse to be taken for granted by governments and their functionaries.

A decades-old movement for creation of the Telangana state (to be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh) has gathered strength and is continuing now for months with no solution in sight. The Congress Party which had merged the region with the then newly-created Andhra Pradesh more than half a century ago against the wishes of the locals and against its own better judgement has now been facing the music. With passions running high, life in the state and its capital, Hyderabad, is paralysed with considerable impact on it administration and economy.

The social activist Anna Hazare’s two successive fasts, with unprecedented country-wide support, for enactment of a strong “Janlokpal” (anti-corruption ombudsman) law and later the government’s capitulation are recent history. India Against Corruption (IAC), led by Hazare and his team, are still hitting headlines. It has decided to canvass against Congress candidates at the 2012 state polls if the Parliament reneged from its commitments given during its last session for legislating for a strong “Lokpal” – the reasoning being the Congress leads the coalition at the Centre. Although the context might be different, IAC’s efforts of swinging elections away from the Congress remind one of the campaigns of The Tea Party in the US during the 2010 Congressional elections.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s first tenure appeared sedate until, of course, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, insisted on signing the Indo-US Nuclear Deal even at the cost of losing support of one of his important allies – the Left – risking his government’s survival. The government did survive and win the “Confidence vote” only after the “cash-for-votes” scam exploded in the Parliament in 2008. The Congress-led ruling combine’s brazen efforts to soft-pedal investigations into the scandal invited a scorcher from the apex court. And yet, the trial that was hurriedly commenced, based on seemingly skewed investigations, appear to be farcical as none from among the beneficiaries – the Congress-led UPA government – of the scam has so far been hauled up. After IAC’s massive anti-corruption movement the government’s attitude appears somewhat brassy.

UPA I’s survival by dubious means has come to haunt it in its second avatar. All the scams that are currently hogging the headlines are of UPA I-vintage. The biggest of them all – allotment of 2G spectrum – saw a cabinet minister, a member of parliament (both of a southern ally) and a few corporate honchos into the jail, besides embarrassing the Prime Minister who tried to hide behind the nebulous “coalition compulsions”. He was, nonetheless, forced to act by an aggressive Supreme Court. Later, even the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) got into the act, putting the finger at the loss of incredible hundreds of thousands of billion rupees.

The relentless media exposes of scams of another few hundred thousand billion rupees during the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 forced the Prime Minister into action to have it investigated by a former CAG. Having shot himself in the foot, he lost credibility. And, it led to a curious crisis of confidence that stalled governance and induced a policy-paralysis even as sycophants of Sonia Gandhi undermined his stature by repeated assertions about eligibility of her son to occupy the highest executive position.

Today, the busiest organisations are the courts, especially the Supreme Court, and investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and other police outfits. While virtually every day there are reports of court orders pulling up a public organisation or an individual, every new day brings also the news of a big wig either being put in the coup or refused bail. A large number of politicians of different hues are in Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail. While the Law Minister, strangely, feared for drop in investments with so many corporate heads in jail, the apex court was taken aback when warned by a government lawyer of destabilisation of the government if it went after high functionaries like the home minister, a case for whose prosecution contributing to the 2-G scam is also currently being heard.

A recent headline spoke of “scams, graft (are) hitting growth”. Indeed, GDP growth has slowed down. Scams and graft could well have been very important reasons. No less important has been the reason of inflation which has been biting the industry and the common man, the very aam aadmi, whom the UPA swore by. The prices have gone through the roof and what hurts the most is the food inflation that has moved beyond 10%. The declining value of the rupee has pushed a few more millions below the poverty line. And yet, the government unmindfully has sought to peg the poverty line at a ridiculous Rs. 32 .00 and Rs. 26.00 per day in urban and rural areas, respectively, fuelling fresh controversy. None in the government seems to have bothered to enforce checks on the inflated prices of essentials like vegetables and food grains. While the prices of agricultural produce rule high squeezing the common man the farmers commit suicide and, ironically, the cartels and middlemen make their piles. Even, the middle classes have got the wrong end of the stick with repeated hikes in interest rates to combat the prevailing inflation, pushing, inter alia, housing and automobiles out of the reach of many.

Economic growth has, on one hand, been accompanied by growth in numbers of billionaires, enriched ministers and MPs/MLAs, rising numbers of private aircraft, luxury yachts and high-end luxury cars and, on the other, by huge numbers of discontented and resentful poverty-stricken, malnourished and hungry – by some estimates around 60 million (77% by the reckoning of the late economist Arjun Sengupta) – in rural and urban India. Jobs remaining scarce, petty and other crimes have shown an inordinate rise. Snatchings, thievery, rapine, kidnappings etc. have become common. Worse, while mafias stalk the honest and whistleblowers, murder and rape have registered a sharp rise. Security of life and property has become tenuous.

Polarisation in politics has bred acute intolerance for a contrarian view. Two prominent IAC activists were assaulted – one was beaten up on camera for holding views on Kashmir disagreeable to the extreme right and the other for canvassing votes against the Congress if it did not fulfil its commitment of legislating for a strong Lokpal.

While pursuit of economic growth has made only the rich and the unscrupulous prosperous and happy, it has spread unhappiness and misery among a very large section of the people. At the same time, it has demolished the anchors of Indian society in a mad rush for money; the get-rich-quick syndrome is eating into its moral fibre. Ethical life in India today has been shoved on to, no, not the back seat, but the boot. Reversing this now well-established unholy trend might well be an impossible proposition.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Solace from a tiger in the backyard


A tiger has been roaming around in the jungles near Kerwa and Kaliyasot dams about 25 to 30 kilometres away from the central Indian city of Bhopal. The jungles are lush and provide excellent habitat. These are part of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary that is cradled in a portion of the Vindhya Ranges passing through the districts of Sehore and Raisen adjoining Bhopal. The sanctuary was prevented from being designated as another tiger reserve of the province of Madhya Pradesh by the political executive as the tribal people inhabiting the jungles feared their dislocation as a consequence.

During the past few months reports that would come in spoke of the big cat, apart from terrorising the villagers who live close to these dams, was making meals of their cattle. Scores of cattle were reported to have been killed by it but no harm seems to have ever come to any human. The villagers, perhaps promptly compensated by the government for their losses, have so far been patient and have resisted taking recourse to brutal killing of the beast – like the tiger which was mercilessly showered with lathi blows (the lathi is an Indian stick used in traditional martial arts) and was beaten to death near Rajnandgaon last month where it happened to have strayed in from a sanctuary near Nagpur.

This morning a hugely reassuring news-item appeared in a vernacular daily – something that has not been heard for many years. Falsifying the traditional antipathy of humans for the tiger, the farmers in the villages near the two dams are happy with the presence of the one that has been making frequent forays into what is literally their backyard. Its presence seems to have made the pests disappear, thus saving their crops. In normal years when the tiger wouldn’t be around blue bulls and wild boar would raid their farms and not only eat up their crops but also destroy the rest. With a prowling tiger around, these pests have made a clean disappearing act, enabling the farmers to reap a good harvest. They are also planning to raise a second crop.

To prevent the tiger to find access into this area which it seems to be fond of, the Forest Department has, of late, been planning to erect a fence. That, perhaps, would be working at cross-purposes with the farmers, now that they seem to have become tiger-friendly, having found its presence economically beneficial. Erecting a fence, in any case, was not such a good idea as that would prevent the tiger free movement in its own domain, the forests near the two dams being part of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. There could be several reasons for the tiger to make repeated appearances in an inhabited area. A degrading/shrinking habitat and increase in tiger numbers and/or lack of an adequate prey-base are the ones that immediately suggest themselves. Wildlife experts in the department would do well to investigate the phenomenon.

The repeated tiger-sightings in these jungles, however, speak so very well of the Forest Department’s efforts to maintain them making them congenial for the tiger and, surely, for other fauna as well as flora. They also indicate how Bhopal was once surrounded by lush green forests which the town has been progressively nibbling away at. The government rather thoughtlessly gave away parts of these forests for educational institutions run mostly by media groups, presumably, for a consideration. Even a couple of years back the developers and builders were trying to grab parts of these forests under the Bhopal Development Plan 2021 in connivance with the government agencies concerned. It was only the massive resistance mounted by the civil society groups that forced it to give up the entire plan. That these forests are essential for the town’s salubriousness does not seem to have been adequately appreciated. The greenery in the town has been largely lost with ongoing constructions and road-building so much so that it is now witness to extreme heat in summers. For the sake of the comfort of the citizens of this town it would seem to be incumbent for the Forest Department to keep protecting and nurturing these forests regardless of what it takes.

Photo: The reservoir of Kerwa Dam by Bandana Bagchi

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bhopal's iconic lake under threat


Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, could have been such a beautiful city. It was endowed with everything a place could aspire for – green hills and valleys, several lakes and a few small gurgling streams. Climatically it was bordering on the ideal – equable, with mild summers, plenty of rains and moderate winters. All that has been lost because of “development”, now a dreaded word for those who are sensitive about the city’s environment that they have seen progressively deteriorating. The unrestricted urban expansion has been gobbling up the surrounding farmlands, colonising the green hills, transforming the city’s streams into sewers and its lakes into septic tanks. The developmental assault on the city’s iconic millennium-old Upper Lake, a drinking water source for the locals for centuries, ceaselessly continues unmindful of its vital importance for the city’s environment, water security and green cover .

The other day, quite paradoxically the local edition of a national daily brought out a huge spread on conservation of the Lake when the Chief Minister happened to inaugurate another “tourist complex” on one of its banks much larger than the existing Boat Club on another much frequented bank. . The complex has been given an ethnic name “Sair Sapata” that connotes to me (though I may be wrong) tours and travels. Although the newspaper suggested ways and means of conserving the Lake it cleverly avoided mentioning the need for reducing tourism activities in and around it (which, in fact, are on the rise) on various environmental counts.

The “tourist complex” is located at Prempura, close to the exit point of the waters of the Lake that flow towards a dam. Built over an area of 24 acres at a cost of Rs. 4 crore ($ 800,000) the complex is accessed through a suspension bridge (somewhat like that of Rishikesh on the Ganges in Uttarakhand on the foothills of the Himalayas) across the channel. It currently has a toy train, a restaurant with a glass floor through which the marine life (that have been able to survive the rising pollution of the waters being made of sterner stuff) is visible, four food kiosks, three view-points, a glass house, a two-acre children’s play-ground and several pedal boats. The floating restaurant Lake Princess, reportedly with dining facilities, was re-introduced and the chief minister had a ride on it with several of his cabinet colleagues and officials. The complex is supposed to remain open till 10.00 PM every evening. It seems, people are flocking to it in great numbers and one can see its lights till late in the evening from the Idgah Hills on the other side of the Lake.

While inaugurating the “tourist complex” the chief minister very rightly said that it was a very good “gift to the people of Bhopal”. It would indeed serve as a very good amusement park for the people of the city. Vast numbers of young locals would certainly haunt the place for dining and other recreational activities, just as they collect in large numbers at the Boat Club or in the DB Mall on holidays and weekends. However, one cannot really expect tourists, especially the discriminating ones and those from abroad, to visit the complex as it has nothing much to offer to them. Predictably, even as the complex was inaugurated French tourists were taken on a meandering heritage walk through the lanes of the old city. One therefore tends to think that naming “Sair Sapata” as a tourist complex was a misnomer. Expenditure by the state Tourism Development Corporation (MPSTDC) on such complexes for amusement of the locals would, therefore, seem to be unwise and misdirected when the heritage sites in the city that are of interest to the tourists are crying for attention.

The other day, a few members of the Heritage sub-group of the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum happened to visit the three-century old Rani Kamalapati Palace. It is an important heritage complex of the town with a pan-chakki (water mill) and a hamaam (Islamic bath-house). The Palace is the only structure that has seen a semblance of maintenance primarily because it houses an office of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The rest of the structures that lead to the bathing ghats (platforms) for the legendary queen on the Lower Lake are in utter decay. Likewise, the water mill and the bath-house are also in degraded state. The ASI, which is supposed to maintain it, has no money, getting for restoration and maintenance of all archaeological sites in the state covered by its local superintending archaeologist the measly amount of Rs. 4 crore, which the MPSTDC blew up on one complex, viz., “Sair Sapata”.

Worse, the waters of the Lower Lake that splash on the Palace walls and were once fit enough for a queen to bathe in are so filthy that any tourist who happens to see it would be appalled. They would also be appalled if they happened to visit the city’s heritage sites that are preserves of the state’s archaeological department. One would have expected that in order to promote tourism in the city the MPSTDC would lend a helping hand to the archaeological departments for restoring the structures and improving their surroundings. But it is obsessed with tourism on the Upper Lake (to the exclusion of all other lakes in the city) regardless of the adverse impacts of their handiwork on its ecosystem.

Apart from the Boat Club and assorted eateries including the floating restaurant that have a deleterious impact on the Lake waters “Sair Sapata” is going to seriously threaten the wetland’s bird life. One wonders whether while conceptualising the Complex all the environmental aspects were kept in view. Bhopal’s Upper Lake (known as Bhoj Wetland along with its twin little sister, the Lower Lake) is an Important Bird Area, a reason, among several others, that prompted its designation as a Ramsar Site. The Complex is too close to the bird habitat. A busy amusement centre, with constant comings and goings and screaming and yelling children in the children’s park, so close to it, is surely going to deter the birds to choose the wetland for roosting. Besides, its bright lights after sundown are going to cause disturbance to the roosting birds and make the site for them eminently avoidable.

A vast number of people would perhaps be happy at the amusement park being served to them by the government on a platter. But, the fact is that it is going to deal a lethal blow to the Upper Lake and its ecosystem. One cannot overlook the fact that the Upper Lake, with its adjunct, the Lower Lake, apart from being an important inheritance, also serves us in numerous ways. From keeping us hydrated and water-secure, to bestowing on the city a green cover under climatic conditions it micro-manages, the Lake is a natural asset for the townsfolk with a unique ecosystem serviced by its flora and fauna, both under and above water. Any disturbance in its delicate ecological balance could spell disaster for the Lake – and indirectly, for the local citizenry.

But, none seems to be concerned about such niceties. The political executive, led by the tourism bureaucracy just couldn’t care less. The politicians are concerned about their votes and others have a vested interest in expanding tourism activities. So, environment could be damned. One wonders whether all those who flock to the lakeside complexes or dine floating on the Lake Princess are mindful of the consequences of their patronage of the outfits thoughtlessly sold to them by short-sighted people for short-term gains in the name of promotion of tourism. One wishes if only people could be sensitive enough to shun them all!