Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The end of "Indian Spring" 

Arvind Kejriwal, of the erstwhile NGO India Against Corruption, has made quite a splash since he went political. Even before he named his outfit as “Aam Aadmi Party” (AAP) he had commenced his campaign against the entrenched political establishment. His exposes, virtually like serial ‘bombs’, have already scorched Robert Vadra, the son in-law of Sonia Gandhi,  Chairperson of the ruling formation United Progressive Alliance, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, the suave but loyal to the point of being a sycophant of Sonia Gandhi, Nitin Gadkari, the reigning president of the principal Opposition,  the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Reliance Chief and the richest Indian Mukesh Ambani, and, lately, sugar mill owners of Western Maharashtra, presumably targeting the Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar, currently Agriculture Minister at the Centre. The Ambanis came in for further treatment in Kejriwal’s accusations regarding their alleged unaccounted wealth in foreign banks details of which, though suppressed, were allegedly available with the government. 

Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, Aug 2011
Widely reported, discussed and debated in the print and electronic media, Kejriwal’s accusations need no repetition here. Suffice to say that most of his allegations, like those against Vadra, Khurshid, Gadkari etc., were on the basis of documentary evidences either ferreted out by him/his colleagues or given to him by people who got adversely impacted by the wrong-doings of the accused. By administering practically a weekly dose of accusations against some politician or the other or people of substance, he literally put fear of God in the corrupt among them. Setting a veritable cat among the pigeons, he made many politicians anxious making them wonder whether they would be next in line for the crucifixion.

Predictably, the social activist-turned politician came in for choicest of abuses from politicians, especially those of the Congress. While Khurshid called him a guttersnipe, others  felt their prognostications about Kejriwal’s political ambitions had come true. But they were not quite prepared for his, what they called, “hit and run” tactics – throwing allegations at the chosen target and then moving on. His singular crime, however, was that he exposed the machinations of Robert Vadra in his new-found business of real estate that helped him in accumulating, what people claimed, the fastest billions. Congressmen, displaying classical sycophancy, came out in droves to defend Vadra although they confessed that he was not a Congressman.  Yet, instead of asking the government to investigate the allegations, they hurled invectives at Kejriwal.

Probably for the first time ever somebody had the gall, the insolence and the chutzpah to make accusations against a ‘personage’ belonging to the (Gandhi) “Dynasty”. Associating Kejriwal with the BJP and accusing him of impropriety, Digvijay Singh, Congress General Secretary, revealed that his party knew about all along the wheeling and dealing of the son in-law of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee but always acted “appropriately”, never breathing a word about it – a confessional as queer as one could be.

Going political for Kejriwal was, apparently, a necessity. His 9-day fast in July earlier this year failed to achieve any result. The political class just ignored it and the government did not yield to his demand of creation of a special investigation team for investigating the 15 Central ministers who were alleged to have had cases of corruption against them. Perhaps, it was ill-timed, too, as Parliament was not in session. Realising that the government was intractable and that it was best to fight the politicians politically and beat them in their own game he decided to create an apolitical party to fight elections. 

 That, however, meant severance of the ties with the Gandhian, Anna Hazare, who has always been averse to politics and politicking. Parting ways with Anna, while Kejriwal got busy in his weekly exposes Anna was trying to collect like-minded people around him for his own brand of anti-corruption movement. Sadly, in the process the movement that mobilised the middle classes for the first time ever in 2011 got not only divided losing its innate strength but also lost its focus.

 The IAC movement of April and August 2011 led by Anna had a singular aim, that of eradication of corruption through the instrumentality of enactment of a law for creation of an independent and powerful Lokpal (ombudsman). In the backdrop of reports of massive corruption in conducting the Commonwealth Games and allocation of 2G spectrum it caught the imagination of the people, firing the youth and the rising numbers of middle classes. As the movement gathered strength the media, too, got into the act and gave extensive 24-hour coverage. The tech-savvy members of the IAC made deft use of the social media making the movement somewhat akin to the campaigns in North Africa and West Asia for regime change that eventually came to be known collectively as “Arab Spring”. The government at the Centre was flustered and indulged in nervous acts exemplified, inter alia, by the attempt to wean away from the movement yoga-guru Ramdev who too had muscled in into it. The attempt boomeranged and the political class was virtually brought to its knees. A “sense of the House” resolution was quickly rustled up and unanimously passed agreeing action by the government on some sticking points and communicated to Anna.

 Acquiring a larger than life image, Anna broke his 11-day fast and retired to fight for the cause another day. Standing as a colossus, he along with his IAC activists had mobilised public opinion charging up the whole nation against political and bureaucratic corruption.  A patently middle class movement, IAC’s offshoots cropped up virtually in every nook and urban corner of the country. Young and old joined it putting the government on the back foot.  

Journals abroad connected it with other such movements of the middle classes in emerging markets. From Chile to China to North Africa and Middle East to India middle classes rose against the established systems for reasons as varied as environmental degradation (in China), overbearing role of public sector in the field of education (in Chile), against autocratic dictatorships in “Arab Spring” countries and rampant political and bureaucratic corruption in India. The rise of middle classes, especially in developing Asia, has given them a new-found power to swing changes in their respective polities. The most rapid rise has been in India and China they and the political class, unlike in the past, is now compelled to pay greater attention to their views as the same is backed up by significant strength.

From the run-away success of the movement one had hoped that the IAC would eventually emerge somewhat like The Tea Party in the US – minus its ideology – playing a significant role in choosing and canvassing for clean and incorruptible candidates and try and have those who were suspect defeated at the hustings. By itself the IAC clearly had no way of getting round the prevailing electoral system. For it the best option, therefore, seemed to have been to bring as many clean candidates from the existing political parties into the parliament as possible to get rid of the scourge of corruption.   

Alas, that was not to be. A set of circumstances, from Anna’s failing health to alleged manipulation of the media by the government against the IAC to an ill-timed campaign in July 2012 and eventually its coming apart ensured the death of the movement that had raised such hopes. The dramatis personae of the movement are all intelligent and committed people and yet they somehow could not see eye to eye about its progression. With two branches of it going their separate ways their respective strengths got mitigated and, so has been their impact. Losing steam, the ‘Indian Spring’ came to an end.

With the formation the AAP the last nail in the coffin of the IAC (as people knew it) has been hammered in. The 2014 elections not being far away, Kejriwal has given himself a daunting task to organise his outfit well enough to enter the money-centric Indian electoral process. Only time will tell how he fares in his enterprise.
The IAC split, however, was a big let-down for the people, a severe jolt to the civil society which had rallied round in strength and gave it its unstinted support. It is highly unlikely that such massive support would ever be conjured up for an anti-corruption movement in the foreseeable future.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Yellow beacons for the IAS

The Madhya Pradesh bureaucrats are not quite happy about the current arrangements regarding provision of vehicle beacon lights in the state. Displaying their ingrained sense of entitlement, they have demanded that all the senior members of the IAS working in the Secretariat should be allowed to use beacon lights atop their official vehicles. They argue that the police officials of much junior levels are authorised to use the beacons but those at the helm, i.e. those of the IAS cadre, are deprived their use. Most of the bureaucrats commute to their respective offices in official vehicles – no longer the squat and stocky white Ambassador but newer, bigger and swankier luxurious sedans – devoid of any beacon. This not only is not fair as it detracts from the superior position they occupy in the official hierarchy, it  also, apparently, reduces them in the estimation of the hoi polloi as they have to commute in vehicles that have no trappings of their importance, influence and power.

Apparently, the whole thing is a well-considered proposition as it has been put across not by an individual officer or even a small group but the august IAS Association of the State. It, therefore, must have been made after due deliberation and after weighing the pros and cons. Only after that the Association went public about the demand. Soon enough, a retired chief secretary of the state weighed in with a comment in favour of the proposal and asked, “What is the harm if the beacons are provided to all senior IAS officers?”Yes, indeed, what is the harm? Beacons atop the bureaucrats’ official vehicles would, after all, be only an insignificant addition to the numerous other more substantial privileges that they have extracted over the years at substantial public expense. What could then be th harm with this inconsequential addition? There is, however, a small snag. Were the IAS officers to be allowed the privilege, other members of the All India Services – Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service – would also demand it which the government would be hard put to resist. If that were to be agreed to the rising numbers of government vehicles with beacons atop, instead of unhindered commutes, would have to jostle for road-spaces which, in any case, are likely to shrink in course of time on completion of the ongoing BRTS project.

It is surely common knowledge that lights atop vehicles are considered emergency vehicle lighting to indicate to other road users, as Wikipedia says, “the urgency of their journey, to provide additional warning of a hazard when stationary, or in the case of law enforcement as a means of signalling another driver to stop for interaction with an officer.” Road-users have to afford right-of-way to an ambulance rushing a patient to a hospital or a fire tender that is on its way to put out a fire or to a policeman chasing a hard core criminal or even a VIP rushing to the local airport.

 Laws regarding restricting the use of these lights vary according to jurisdictions. In India, however, the laws, though restrictive, have been progressively relaxed (as in everything else that has anything to do with governance) and lights atop vehicles allotted to politicians and bureaucrats of the central government or governments of states have become more an item of prestige, an instrument to flaunt to the general public the user’s power and importance. Hence, there is a veritable scramble for these lights by politicians and bureaucrats. A few months ago a Parliamentary Committee had recommended affixing of these lights on vehicles of all members of Parliament. Mercifully, the chairperson of the UPA had the good sense to have the proposal rejected. The latest demand of the MP IAS Association in this regard is not different in character.   

Apart from such indiscriminate and thoughtless relaxation of the law there is widespread unauthorised use of these lights. Almost all the petty politicians have now acquired vehicles and they think nothing of having a beacons affixed on their roofs. Even some officials have had the enterprise to have them irregularly attached on their vehicles. Not too long ago the state’s home minister launched a campaign to clamp down on unauthorised use of yellow beacons. He gave instructions that the drive should commence with the official vehicles of the state secretariat before non-officials were tackled. Obviously, there is misuse – some say massive – of these lights even by government officials. The minister’s directions to target the officials first must have put the wind up of the IAS fraternity and provoked it to put across the demand before they lost their unauthorised privilege. Besides, while covering the minister’s statement, the media reported that numerous junior field officers of the police and other vital departments (lowly by IAS standards) are entitled to beacon lights. The members of the IAS may have taken umbrage even at that.

One would think that such petty oneupmanship doesn’t quite befit the members of the premier service of the country. They are expected to serve the interests of the people and not lord over them. The semantics, unfortunately, have lately undergone drastic changes and everything has become topsy-turvy. Instead of rendering service to the people the so-called public servants now demand more and more privileges for themselves and obeisance and respect from the public, their pay-masters.

I personally wouldn’t have any issue about the additional privilege. Let them go ahead and put as many lights as they wanted atop their official vehicles, but, for heaven’s sake, they should deliver. Let them go out in their beacon-flashing vehicles and see how from highways to city roads, to hospitals, to schools are crying for attention. Practically every kind of public service is being denied to the people. If they did that, that would be recompense enough for the sacrifices that people make in making available various privileges in cash and kind to them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Chase tigers and (re)discover forests

In Kerwa-Kaliasot forests
According to a recent report the Madhya Pradesh forest department happened to have re- discovered the Kerwa and Kathotia forests that adjoin Bhopal. A 15-day operation by it with the help of as many as six elephants borrowed from different tiger reserves to track down three tigers that were moving around the jungles helped in the “startling rediscovery”. The officials who participated in the operation, necessarily, on elephant backs went deep inside the forests with a view to catching the tigers to radio-collar them and, later, to relocate them were astonished to find a forest pulsating with life and amazing natural features They, however, inexplicably terminated the fortnight-long operation and returned to base.

The report, quoting a forest official who participated in the operation, said, “The forest is very healthy, it’s a mixed – mosaic forest. It is open, still dense with very good undercover. There are good natural shelters for the animals and some amazing gorges inside the woods...Not much was known about the jungle till we started the operation.” For the three tigers there is, reportedly, a good prey base. Various other animals like leopards, bears, hyenas, jackals, foxes, porcupines, jungle cats and civets were also spotted.

While the findings of the forest officials during the operation have not been officially disclosed one can only surmise the reason for its abrupt termination. There seem to be two possibilities: either the foresters failed to trap and radio-collar the tigers or they were so impressed by the quality of the forest that they gave up the thought of trapping for eventual trans-location of the tigers and decided to allow them to remain where they were in their comfort zone.

But the outstanding revelation by the report cited above is that the Forest Division of Bhopal was unaware of the kind of forest that thrived in its jurisdiction. It is a strange situation where a field forest unit has remained oblivious of the kind of forests it was presiding over and apparently did not care to know or ascertain the assets it was supposed to guard and conserve. And, yet, what is a fact is that without knowing its quality it became passive spectator to the progressive human encroachments in it. Over the years, it did not prevent or even protest against the construction of massive legal institutions like the Law Institute University, the National Judicial Academy and establishment of the Sanskar Valley School in the midst of the jungles under its charge. It also did not prevent the construction of assorted farm houses and mansions of the powerful and influential.

Not only would the ignorance about the quality of the forest seem to be criminal, the passive indifference to the progressive encroachments in it would seem to be more so, which, in fact, amount to dereliction of duty of massive proportions. If it was because of the prevailing will of the bureaucracy or its political masters that wouldn’t mitigate the criminality of the apathy and indifference. Whoever, was responsible had attempted to needlessly colonise a healthy tract of forest for no apparent rhyme or reason in these days of increasingly depleting forest wealth of the country and progressive disappearance of wildlife. After all, there is lot of land available around the city in almost all other directions where these massive institutions could be located
With such a rich forest and such abundance of wildlife therein no wonder the felines as also other animals come in (often violent) contact with the humans who have encroached into their domain. Quite clearly, it is not they who are straying into human habitation; it is the humans who should not have been where they happen to be in the forests.

Sometime ago I had written about “Bhopal’s elusive leopard”, a wandering leopard that was eventually captured after a week-long effort by the officials of the forest department. It was later released in the Satpura National Park. My piece, published in one of the domestic citizen journalists site ( – India section; 14th October 2012), had elicited adverse criticism from one of the readers, presumably a member of the forest department of the state of Madhya Pradesh, who found that I had needlessly used the Department as a punching bag. Now that a confession of sorts has come from the forest department about its utter lack of knowledge and awareness of the Kerwa and Kathotia forests, hopefully, the critic will realise that what I wrote was largely true. Not always can the handicaps of the forest department be dished out for its inability to protect either the forests or the flora and fauna they host and shelter.

 Now that the Kerwa and Kathotia forests have been found to be rich and vibrant with life the state government needs to include them in a “conservation area” to enable their proper care. Steps need to be taken for their effective conservation, restricting tourism and other avoidable human activities, enabling the inmates of the jungles to be safe and at peace in their own environment. It is not every day that a city finds a lively wilderness next to it; in that manner Bhopal would seem to be so lucky to be so well endowed. (In this connection also see “Bhopal - with tigers in its peripheries” in

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