Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hunger and riches in "incredible India"

A national daily presented the other day two contrasting pictures of India. On its front page were the findings of a research indicating the extent of hunger and malnourishment in the country and in one of the inside pages was a report on the explosion on its roads with millions of private vehicles causing traffic jams in its urban centres. One wonders whether these contrasting pictures in a single edition of a daily have caught the attention of those who frame and implement the country’s economic policies. They show, if anything, the growing economic inequality in the country, which can directly be attributed to the policies pursued since economic liberalisation. The government has taken some initiatives to deal with the pervasive hunger and malnutrition but the measures that have been taken seem to have failed to yield the desired results.

The daily cited the data collected by researchers of Global Hunger Index (GHI), a multi-dimensional statistical tool that was adopted and further developed by International Food Policy Research Institute, that reveal India has 213 million hungry and malnourished people. At the same time, it reported that the Food & Agricultural Organisation, a specialised agency of the United Nations, puts the figure at 230 million using, as it does, standard calorie intake formula for measuring adequacy of food. Since the GHI’s hunger index is based on a broader formula, its figures are marginally lower. The shameful inescapable fact, however, is that more than one-fifth of the country’s population suffers from hunger. Worse, the country hosts the largest number of hungry people in the world – about a quarter of world’s 820 million. The dismal statistics reveal that 21% of population is undernourished, nearly 45% of under-5 children underweight and 7% of them dying before they reach the age of 5. India is thus one of the most hunger-ridden countries – worse than even Sudan, North Korea, Nepal and Pakistan and better than only the Sub-Saharan countries of Congo, Chad, Burundi.

The report also cites the findings of the National Family and Health Survey carried out in 2004-05 according to which 23% of married men, 52% of married women and 72% of infants were anemic. The daily further reports that “global research has now firmly established that depriving the foetus of essential nutrients – as will happen in an under-nourished pregnant woman – seals the fate of the baby once it is born” making him susceptible to diseases, physical and mental retardation. So continuing to allow people to go hungry and malnourished is not just misery for them but also putting at stake the country’s future generations. It’s, therefore, time the government sat up, took notice and shook off its lassitude.

The other picture presents a vastly different view – that of the other side of the country’s economic spectrum. It displays the progressively increasing number of cars on the roads of urban India that result in almost daily traffic jams in not only metros but also in tier-II and tier-III towns. With a car density of only 15 per thousand (in 2006) things on the urban roads are bad enough. One wonders what will be the shape of things if this density becomes 100 per thousand. Delhi is reported to have already reached that density and its citizens are paying for it by way of huge, long drawn-out traffic snarls on a regular basis. Despite the rising inconveniences of the commuting public car makers are bullish about the Indian car market. Its phenomenal growth shows hardly any signs of abating.

Acquisition of a car today depends not so much on necessity as on the rising aspiration of the India’s middle classes, so much so that everybody from a petty trader to an office personal assistant acquires a four-wheeler. Perhaps, of greater interest is that of late the country’s biggest car manufacturer, Suzuki, has discontinued manufacture of the basic entry model with which it launched its operations in India. It now puts out models that are more sophisticated to cater to a discerning market that has since become a place of ruthless competition. It is now a far cry from the pre-liberalisation days when only three manufacturers monopolised the market and the number of vehicles produced was in mere thousands. Today about two dozen manufacturers are jostling to grab a piece of the ever-enlarging cake. During the last financial year as many as 2.5 million cars were sold in the country. The market is so lively that even the European and British luxury brands have set up shop here.

This apart the growing affluence of the middle classes is reflected by massive spreads in the newspapers of ads for high-end housing. Even prestigious foreign journals, such as The Economist and Time are used to entice NRIs and PIOs to buy what is on offer in India in the shape of luxuriously appointed houses and apartments (some even with private gardens) in gated complexes. In fact, gated complexes are proliferating all over the country around urban centres on farm lands and are snapped up by businessmen, industrialists, politicians, foreign returnees and the corrupt chasing, as they are, the Indian version of their “American Dream”.

The remarkable co-existence of abject poverty and growing affluence of the middle and upper classes made Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, wonder about India’s future. Finding no clear roadmap for “where India is going today” he asked, “Does it see itself evolving like the US where even the middle class has not been sharing gains of the growth? Where the rich live in gated communities waited upon by the vast majority of the poor who earn in a lifetime but a fraction of what they receive in an hour?”

Various measures taken by the government for poverty alleviation, some of them in mission mode, have not yielded the results that were expected. This is amply testified by the statistics, particularly in the areas of poverty, nutrition and education. The reasons could be pervasive corruption and/or lack of governance. It is felt, while the rural missions could continue with better inspection and monitoring, the government could, perhaps try, in addition, the world’s favourite new anti-poverty device, the conditional cash transfer programmes (CCTP). Under these programmes governments give stipend and food to the poorest if they meet certain conditions, like sending children to schools or vaccinating the babies. These programmes have spread far and wide as they cut poverty, improve income distribution and help the next generation. Rules-based and generally uncorrupt, CCTP has benefited a number of countries in Latin America and Africa as it is good at providing what rural people lack: food, water, primary schools and simple health care. And, yet the key element for its success, as in several other missions, would be good governance.

bagchiblog: Killing a Ramsar Site

bagchiblog: Killing a Ramsar Site

Killing a Ramsar Site


One can be reasonably sure that on the 2nd of February next the ministers concerned of Madhya Pradesh government will mouth some platitudes about conservation of the Upper Lake and its adjunct the Lower Lake which together constitute Bhoj Wetland. In practice however, the local officialdom is more concerned about its “development” and by that they mean providing means for attracting more and more visitors to its shores or to its close proximity. Conservation is a word which does not seem to figure in their lexicon in so far as this fantastic natural asset of Bhopal is concerned, particularly when it is a Ramsar Site – a wetland of international importance, the only one in the state.

For the uninitiated, on 2nd February 1971 a convention was adopted by participating countries at Ramsar, an Iranian city, for “Conservation of wetlands of international importance, especially as waterfowl habitat” in recognition of their fundamental ecological functions and their economic, scientific, cultural and recreational value, the treaty eventually coming into force on December 21, 1975. The objectives set before the contracting parties were conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands, i.e. to stem the progressive encroachment on them and prevent their loss “now and in future”. Ramsar Day or World Wetland Day is celebrated every year on 2nd February to highlight the ecological importance of wetlands to the human community. India is among the 156 contracting parties.

Bhoj Wetland was designated as a Ramsar Site in November 2002, one of the main reasons being that it was an Important Bird Area (IBA), identified by Birdlife International and habitat for varied species of waterfowl. With its ecosystem stabilized over the last millennium of its existence, the Upper Lake presently represents all the features of a near-natural wetland. Its diverse flora provides sustenance to a large population of avifauna so much so that until recently many thousands of water-birds – domestic and migratory – could generally be observed annually.

Unfortunately, the Wetland is progressively losing this very attribute – the one that helped it in its recognition as a Ramsar Site. Of late, reports have appeared in the local press that birds seem to be avoiding this Wetland for roosting and are overflying to more congenial nearby water bodies. Local bird-watchers have noticed that among the hitherto regular migratory visitors black-necked storks, white storks, tufted pochards, common teals, mallards, bar-headed geese, etc. did not visit the wetland this year at all. Mohammed Khalique, a well-known local bird-watcher reported that he happened to find only one bar-headed goose that somehow lost its way into the wetland when in 2006 the species was seen in hundreds. Another bird-researcher, Sangita Rajgir, reported steep fall in the numbers of several migratory species that could be seen in thousands even five years ago.

Unsurprisingly, increasing human interference is being blamed for the loss of birdlife of this Wetland. Contamination of the waters due to yearly immersion of thousands of effigies of gods and goddesses painted with toxic paints after the Ganesh and Durga festivals as also chemical-based farming in the catchments and progressively intensifying tourism activities like plying of motorised boats and frequent assembly of people in large numbers in and around the Upper Lake have all contributed to make the Wetland inhospitable for water-birds. The addition of the tourism complex Sair Sapata, not even a kilometre away from the bird area, has become a big factor for the flight of birds from this IBA. Anticipating its likely impact, the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum had organised a photographic exhibition in December 2008 of photographs of birds of Bhoj Wetland taken by one of its member, reputed photographer AC Chandra. The intention was to sensitise the administration to the need to protect this IBA. All that, however, was to no avail as none in the government had eyes and ears for it. Even the Sports Authority of India complex that was built close to the bird area for year-round sporting activities has played no mean role in causing disturbance to the resident birds.

If today this Ramsar Site has ceased to be a bird area of significance the local government has to be held squarely responsible for the policies it adopted for its acute exploitation for generating tourism revenues. The most active in this regard were its Department of Urban Administration & Development and the State Tourism Development Corporation. Their collective acts of omissions and commissions have led to this unfortunate situation, putting under threat the Wetland’s Ramsar Status. Any talk of conserving this wetland on Ramsar Day by any of their representatives would, therefore, be pure and simple hypocrisy.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Row over Dow


The row over Dow chemical sponsorship of the London Olympics 2012 has, of late, assumed larger proportions. While the Indian government asked the Indian Olympic Association to lodge a protest with the London Organising Committee for Olympic Games (LOCOG) 2012 for allowing Dow Chemical as a sponsor, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/ Dioxin (VAVA) has also asked LOCOG on behalf of 300,000 members of VAVA and three million victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam which to drop Dow Chemical as a sponsor.

The Indian Government’s protest was based on the linkage of Dow Chemical to the Union Carbide Corporation from the erstwhile Bhopal factory of which a lethal gas escaped in December 1984 killing and maiming many thousands. The VAVA, however, has protested for the reason that Dow was one of the companies which supplied toxic chemicals – collectively called Agent Orange – for use by the US military in the Vietnam War (1961-1971) devastating the country’s ecology and environment, leaving millions dead and suffering.

The Dow Chemical Company (TDCC) signed an agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2010 under which the former was declared the official World-Wide Partner for Olympics and for the Olympic Movement upto 2020. According to the agreement, Dow is also supposed to partner the National Olympic Committees across the globe. For the 2012 Games Dow is footing the bill for a temporary decorative wrap over London's Olympic Stadium. It, however, removed its logo from the wrap after widespread protests and demonstrations against its association with the Games.

The company's sponsorship deal has led to outrage among victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Rashida Bi of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh said that her organisation had requested the Prime Minister and the IOC Chairman three months ago to register the country's opposition in the matter but her request went unheeded. "It is unfortunate that lawmakers in England are protesting against Dow's sponsorship of 2012 London Olympics but no step is being taken by the Centre or the IOC," said Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action. Some of the former Indian Olympians branded the Dow sponsorship as “offensive to the spirit of the Olympic Games” in a press conference held jointly by organisations fighting for relief of Bhopal gas disaster survivors. Even the Ministry of External Affairs in a letter to the Prime Minister's Office said that the company's sponsorship was a very sensitive issue and that there was strong public opinion against it.

TDCC is in the eye of the storm as the offending factory of Bhopal was owned by the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) which is now its wholly-owned subsidiary. The process of acquisition commenced in 1999 and TDCC acquired UCC as a sequel to a transaction that closed in 2001 for $11.6 billion. Sebastian Coe, Chairman of LOCOG, has, therefore, defended the association of Dow with the 2012 Games. According to him, its links with the company that was responsible for the gas leak in Bhopal came long after the 1984 tragedy. He further said, “Dow were never the operators or the owners of that chemical plant in 1984, nor were they the operators or the owners of the plant in 1989 when the final settlement was agreed... Dow became the major shareholders in that company only in 2001, some 17 years after the tragedy. And the final settlement was upheld on two separate occasions by the Indian Supreme Court.”

From all appearances, Sebastian Coe is right. Clearly, Dow became the owner of the UCC in 2001 when the latter had no liabilities relating to the Gas Tragedy of 1984 – all its obligations having been discharged. One buys assets and not liabilities; had the liabilities persisted Dow might have refrained from acquiring UCC. Thus, legally speaking, Dow wouldn’t seem to be involved anyway with the Gas Tragedy. Its ethical liability also would seem to be extremely tenuous. Many, obviously, are accusing it of spending billions on supporting the Olympic Movement during the next decade yet turning a blind eye to the plight of the victims of apathy and neglect of its subsidiary’s. But, legally that would cut no ice and, hence the song and dance about removal of Dow as a sponsor appears misplaced.

So, one does not quite understand why the company is being targeted. The facts being what they are, it can in no way be held responsible for the plight of the gas-leak survivors. If any entity that needs to be blamed it is the Indian National Congress that was governing during the crucial period at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh in the capital of which the gas-leak occurred. From fishing out a proposal kept on the ice for five years for establishment of the chemical plant with obsolete technology in the ‘70s to allowing its erection in Bhopal and encouraging building of shanties around it for political gains; to ignoring repeated alarms raised in the local press about its shoddy maintenance; to pegging the number of deaths at only 15000 when they were many more and are now proposed to be revised to 25000; to assuring Warren Anderson, Chairman of the UCC that he wouldn’t be arrested and then smuggling him out of India after being arrested and charged with manslaughter; to finalising settlement for a mere $470 million in 1989 after having lodged a claim for $3 billion towards compensation for the dead and surviving, simultaneously extinguishing the rights of the suffering survivors to pursue their claims for compensation; to restraining the Central Bureau of Investigation from appealing against the ruling of the Supreme Court given in 1996 that reduced the charges against management of the UCC factory as only acts of criminal negligence; to stopping remediation of the factory site by UCCs successor company and taking it back against the prevailing law exposing surviving shanty-dwellers to consequential environmental hazards it was the Congress that was responsible ruling, as it did, right through these years both at the Centre and in the state.

Even the current Congress-led government at the Centre decided against becoming a party in the ongoing compensation case of the gas victims in US courts, with the Law Minister saying “Our courts are competent and capable of resolving (the matter)”, as if he didn’t know that orders of Indian courts wouldn’t be enforceable in the US. Besides, the same government allowed the Bhopal Memorial Hospital, a top-class facility created for the benefit of gas-leak survivors, to go to seed with many of its departments virtually shut down having been starved of men and equipment. Congress’s has been a long saga of serving the cause of the UCC and apathy towards its victims.

Objectively speaking, VAVA’s protests are more justifiable as Dow played a direct contributory role by manufacturing and supplying to the US Army weapons of mass destruction aerial bombing of which led to mass scale deaths and destruction during the decade-long Viet Nam War. In case of “Bhopal”, however, it is our own politicians who did the victims in. Hence, why blame Dow?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Minister and the Bhopal Lake




After his visits about two years ago to Hyderabad and Srinagar, Babu Lal Gaur, Minister for Urban Development & Administration (UAD) kept harping that the city’s Upper Lake would be developed on the lines of Hussain Sagar Lake and Dal Lake, respectively. The peripatetic UAD Minister seems to have a penchant for implanting on the local Lake whatever he happens to see elsewhere. It seems his obsession with the Hyderabad and Srinagar lakes has since petered out. Now that he and his daughter in-law, the Bhopal Mayor, have visited Chilika Lake in Odisha, reports have come in that the Minister will now strive to develop the Upper Lake like Chilika. That it is the second largest lagoon in the world with a far greater spread and the waters of which, unlike those of the Upper Lake, are brackish (that host the endangered Irrawadi dolphins) do not quite matter to him.

One must, however, give it to him that wherever he might be Bhopal remains in his consciousness. At times, however, it makes him commit excesses. He seems to want to do too many things at the same time. While, for instance, recommendations of international consultants invited earlier for comprehensive development of the water body and its catchments are reportedly still under consideration, the UAD minister not only had a rather ugly statue of the legendary Raja Bhoj installed on what must have been an old watch-tower projecting into the Lake, he went and had a model of an Indian Navy ship planted near the Boat Club. He was recently reported to be in negotiations with the Railways to locate an old steam locomotive too on the banks of the Lake. All this apart, he wants also to erect a museum close to the Lake depicting history of its development through a millennium, notwithstanding the fact that an Interpretation Centre about the Bhoj Wetland Project already exists next to the Boat Club. Perhaps, the Minister is not quite clear about how he would like to “develop” the Upper Lake, which under his stewardship may witness some remarkable hodgepodge around it. One can, however, see through his designs which aim at nothing except attracting hordes of tourists to the Lake.

That collection of large number of people is not conducive to proper conservation of a vital wetland like the Upper Lake does not quite occur to him. Numerous foreign and domestic experts on conservation of wetlands invited by the now-nonexistent Lakes Conservation Authority in seminars and workshops had suggested umpteen number of times prevention of collection of unduly large numbers of people around the Lake for reasons of preservation of its ecological health. But the Minister, in collaboration with the local Tourism Corporation, is hell-bent in doing just the opposite.

Though the minister’s penchant for “development” of the Lake is admirable yet one would have liked him to talk the language of its conservation instead of development. One craves to hear from him of maintenance of its catchments in conducive conditions with farms taking to organic farming precluding the flow of chemicals into the Lake; likewise one craves to hear from him of removal of encroachments from the Lake-shores that are progressively reducing its spread; one also craves for his directions for saving its bird area (bird-life being essential for a wetland’s health) that is now losing its avian guests because of disturbances to their habitat (by Sair Sapata tourism complex, for one); and how one craves to see orders issued forth from him to plug the sewers emptying into the Lake to restore to its waters their pristine purity.

Sadly, these will remain just cravings never to be fulfilled as sustainability of the Lake – not concrete and tangible – never quite appeals to the Minister who, being a politician, finds a melange or mishmash is something he could boast about and which would fetch him precious votes.