DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Indore High Court demolishes BRTS



Indore BRTS corridor
The Indore Bench of the MP High Court by its judgment of October last effectively demolished the BRTS of the city by allowing the use of the corridor by four- wheelers. It, later, further modified its order by directing that while in the corridor no vehicle would be permitted to overtake another. Thus a facility built up at great cost to promote and popularise public transport for economic and environmental reasons was given a severe jolt by none other than the country’s judiciary. The administration has reportedly gone in appeal to the Apex Court.

As in Delhi, there was hue and cry in Indore on account of the restricted space made available for the mixed traffic after demarcation of road-space for the BRTS corridor. Not only there were frequent jams, there were also frequent accidents, often fatal. The commuters were increasingly becoming frustrated as their commutes took progressively longer time. The prolonged delay in construction, implementation and making available adequate number of buses also helped in stoking people’s rage and dissatisfaction with the whole concept. Eventually, a social activist filed a Public Interest Litigation petition in the Indore Bench of the MP High Court which yielded the decision under reference.
Though conceptually speaking, BRTS as a system of mass mobility is supposed to be flexible taking in its stride varied permutations and combinations, yet the decision of the Court did not seem to have helped in Indore. Even after the order of the court chaos, according to reports, reigned supreme in the corridor. From four wheelers to two wheelers to occasional bullock carts were seen using the corridor. Obviously, it is free-for-all and the traffic in Indore being what it is – unruly, undisciplined and rash – accidents have occurred with unmitigated frequency.

Introduction of any new system always has some teething troubles unless it is so well and meticulously planned that all its elements are tied together to a T to enable its faultless performance from day one. In our country if that has not been possible in most projects implemented by the central or state governments, the question of
Bhopal BRTS corridor
precision planning by the incompetent and inadequately provided municipal corporations wouldn’t arise. Both the BRTS systems in MP, for reasons best known to the government, were allowed to be implemented by the respective municipal corporations without any supervision and monitoring. This was a major lapse on the part of the government especially when very large sums of moneys were involved in creation of physical assets that are expected to yield in the future economic and environmental benefits apart from easing the daily travail of commuters of the state’s two major urban centres.

Not only creation of the corridor was mismanaged, no effort was ever made to manage the traffic. When the Indore corridor was commissioned effort should have been to manage, supervise and guide the commuters at least for some time if not for ever. Having seen them in action we all know how the Indore drivers behave. It is not their fault really as the traffic wing of the Police has left them to their own devices. They were never insisted upon to know the traffic rules and they were hardly ever checked as to whether they were observing the rules of the roads. Most of the drivers either do not know or ignore the rules of accessing a main road, negotiating a round-about or even going past a zebra crossing with people on it. Penalties for breaches are negligible and are generally determined by a populist political dispensation. The pivotal role of traffic management was somehow lost sight of and the traffic administration on the roads has been conspicuous by its absence both in Bhopal and Indore. No wonder there is a free-for-all.

One of the judges of the Bench stated in a television interview that BRTS has failed wherever it was introduced in India. He asserted quite erroneously that it had failed even
Ahmedabad BRTS corridor
in Ahmedabad. Perhaps, he was misinformed as the Ahmedabad BRTS has fetched kudos even abroad and representatives of a few governments from Africa and South-East Asia came to look at this success story. Unfortunately what succeeds elsewhere does not generally succeed in India, much less in Madhya Pradesh. The reason seems to be that while there is a penchant to act in breach of rules the governance is awfully weak.

 What the High Court has done is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of prescribing stiffer management of traffic its decision has rendered a facility created at great cost to public exchequer utterly redundant forgetting that in the short term there was likelihood of inconveniences but in the long term BRTS would have been of great benefit to all its users in our ever-enlarging cities. Besides, the court also seems to have lost sight of the fact that in India the rationale of introducing BRTS was to nudge four and two-wheeler users towards public transport in order not only to curb the mounting import bill on oil but also curb the rising carbon emissions of the country. 

It is, therefore, necessary for the administration to enforce strict traffic management to ensure functioning of the BRTS just as it was conceived for the benefit of a vast section of the population that is dependent on public transport for easy mobility and speedy commutes. At the risk of repetition, one has to mention that strict traffic management in both, the mixed lanes and in the corridor is of the essence. The minority of road-users who use personal vehicles cannot be allowed to hog all the road-space to the detriment of the vast majority.

Photos: from the Internet





Saturday, December 28, 2013

AAP's game-changing victory

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The stunning victory at the Delhi Assembly elections of a motley group of hitherto mostly unknown people getting together to form the Aam Aadmi Party, the common man’s party, (AAP) has shaken the very foundations of Indian politics. With the basic manifesto of a fight against pervasive corruption and political chicanery it emerged as the second largest party spectacularly demolishing the ruling Indian National Congress. Having ruled over Delhi for 15 long years the Congress took power for granted and had become arrogant and supercilious. All that was crushed by the unexpected rout at the hustings

Barging into the political arena with a bang the AAP shook the established political class out of its wits. Going to the people from door to door and mohalla to mohalla (neighbourhood to neighbourhood) it set up a new standard of operating procedure that even the established mainstream parties have noticed and admired. The party brought into play the people’s choices in the democratic process. Shunning power, it even went to the people for advice whether it should govern with support from outside of Congressmen whom it called corrupt. With total disenchantment with the established political set up, people opted for AAP even if with the outside support of the corrupt.

Hitherto, the people were in a democracy but were practically out of it. They  went through the motions of electing their representatives to the legislatures for making laws and enforce them with equity but the elected assumed the roles of the feudal lords of yore – becoming in effect ‘rulers’ and not people’s representatives. Over time they became a set of powerful and influential few who appropriated for themselves perks and privileges of office at the cost of people’s welfare. Pervasive poverty and illiteracy accompanied by the “mai-baap” (paternalistic) syndrome helped in perpetuating the iniquitous order. No wonder, today the elected political class has become one of the richest segments which uses power and influence for its own advantage occasionally doling out sops to the masses.

Comfortably ensconced in their cocoon the leaders became unaware of the ground realities. Keeping themselves away from the masses they lost touch with the people so much so that when Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Vice President, happened to say after the severe reverses at the hands of the “new-kid-on-the-block” that he desired to emulate the AAP model and to “engage with the people” it was taken as a profound statement – so profound that sycophantic noises were made in the Party to suck up to him. The “dynastic” party leaders, in their persistent efforts to take care of themselves, had clean forgotten that a political party in a democracy is a mouthpiece of its supportive people and has, therefore, to always remain “engaged” with them. In their wheeling and dealing for power and pelf the party leaders had overlooked the fact that they were where they were because of the people. Democracy, plainly, had been made to stand on its head.

There is a flip side of it too. Even the people had got used to the feudal ways of the ruling parties. Common man would never see ministers from close quarters unless it was for a sham “mass contact” mission the eventual result of which would be mostly a cipher. So, when Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the third-time chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh, passed by in his car with windows rolled down after his recent victory at the hustings it became news. A photograph appeared of Chauhan peeping out of his car window and waving at people. Today “news” is something which surprises people, being something out of the ordinary.

It was, obviously, an extraordinary sight as even ministers, leave alone chief ministers, of the various states in the country are hardly ever seen with the glasses, generally heavily tinted, of their car windows rolled down. They, especially chief ministers, travel in that Indian symbol of power, the traditional Ambassador manufactured by Hindustan Motors and made bullet-proof for them, accompanied by a cavalcade of several vehicles, mostly of the SUV-type, and zip through the city streets that are blocked to all other traffic – vehicular or pedestrian – for their quick, uninterrupted and safe passage. People hardly ever see their faces as they keep a safe distance from the common man.

That, after the swearing-in ceremony, Shivraj Singh Chauhan waded into the assembled crowd in Bhopal’s Jamboree Maidan too made the news. The newspapers duly reported the very unusual event. It is another matter that a few decades ago on being elected the leader of the legislative assembly the chief ministers used to be sworn-in in the hallowed precincts of the governor’s house. Apparently, that was not felt to be democratic enough.

The whole thing has now been taken outdoors to grounds like the Jamboree Maidan where special arrangements are made over a period of a week or so to provide a garishly decorated podium at considerable costs to the public. All this is done not only for the main protagonists like the governor and the chief minister and his ministers to be sworn-in but also for the party bigwigs and sundry chiefs of various political parties that are considered friendly or are potential allies in forming governments in this era of coalitions. Several kinds of arrangements, from public address systems, marquees to tentage, transport, refreshments and drinking water, are also made for the foot-soldiers of the party and the people. It is apparently, a massive public function where the main actors are confined to the podium and the people are kept at bay, amply and securely barricaded. But, Shivraj broke that all and hence the news item.

Sourcing of funds for this massive show of popularity as also political strength is somewhat blurred as much
of it is covered under the head of “security” for the governor and other political biggies. The buck, therefore, necessarily has to stop at the public treasury.

There is an element of hypocrisy in the entire exercise. While for most of the term the chief minister or his ministers are hardly ever visible to the people or are hardly ever available to them, the swearing-in to hold the public office and to uphold the Constitution is conducted in their (people’s) rather distant presence. For most of the five-year term they behave like maharajas of yore, keeping shut in their bungalows or offices or bullet-proof vehicles, guarded 24-hours by Kalashnikov-wielding commandoes and yet they try, at great public cost, to flaunt their democratic pretensions.

The advent of the AAP is likely to change that all and people may, henceforth, get their due importance since the raw politicos have proved that “engaging with people” has its own dividends. Under their substantial presence in Delhi no attempt at the usual horse-trading was made by the BJP which missed being in power by the skin of its teeth.

AAP’s victory, therefore, is a game-changer. Indian democracy now appears to be on the mend. Not only the hitherto apolitical common man has participated in the political process in a big way its representatives, the AAP, seemingly, have ushered in a new political paradigm – an era of cleaner and people-centric politics in the country.

Photos: from the Internet




Friday, December 27, 2013

Buffaloes save their herder from a tigress



A Bandhavgarh tigress
I don't know how many saw the report of this rather unusual happening in the forests near Bandhavgarh

A tiger had made a kill and had taken it into the bush. A herder who had taken buffaloes for grazing got somewhat curious and went too close to the kill unaware of the fact that the tiger was hiding close by. As he neared the kill the tigress pounced on him and tried to drag him into the forest. As he screamed for help around a dozen buffaloes he had taken for grazing gathered around and attacked the tigress forcing it to leave the cowherd and flee. The herder escaped with minor injuries.


This is an incident which looks like one of its kind. Even in the nature channels that I keep watching I have seldom seen buffaloes coming to the rescue of even one of their kind ambushed by a lion in the African wild. Here a man, grabbed by a tigress, was rescued from literally the jaws of death by buffaloes which, kind of, ganged up against the tiger to save their herder.


Photo: from the Internet

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sumatran tiger threatened by oil-palm



Looks like India's escalating imports of palm oil from Indonesia will see the end of the Sumatran Tiger. While we in India would seem to be lucky in still hosting some tigers, we, however, might well be the reason for extinction of the tigers in Sumatra.

Despite frequent reports of tiger deaths due to poaching, negligence of the forest staff and due to natural reasons, we still have around 1700 tigers in our forests and their population, from all accounts, is increasing. Cubs have been sighted in Panna Tiger Reserve which had been cleaned up by the poachers not too long ago. Cubs have also been sighted in Ranthambore in Rajasthan where there seems to be a problem of plenty. Tigers are reported to have moved out of the Reserve and have been known to have migrated to the adjoining Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

Although we crib and criticize every time a tiger is lost in the context of what is happening in Indonesia, another tiger country, we are considered to be doing rather well for conservation of the species. Our efforts at tiger conservation are earning kudos in Indonesia. Not only the political executives are being commended for their foresight and farsightedness, the conservationists are being congratulated for their efforts that have yielded positive results. Many have, therefore, suggested that Indonesia should look westwards towards India to save the Sumatran tigers.

Down to around 300 in 1970s, the Royal Bengal Tiger has recovered in numbers. With a far more superior way of counting, the count is now more reliable and is pegged at 1700-odd. Not a figure to write home about considering the vastness of the country, yet given the numerous challenges, it is a healthy count with,
perhaps, scope of improvement. Experts have opined that the country cannot host more than 2500 to 3000 tigers now, given the state of its forests. As is well known, most of our tiger habitats are in dense forests beneath which are our mineral wealth, especially coal, that great driver of development and economic growth. These forests are, therefore, always under threat from the mining and “development” lobbies.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is miserably down to just 400-500 of the Sumatran tigers. Having lost Balinese subspecies 1930s and Javanese in 1970s the only species it now has the Sumatran which is confined to a few patches of tropical forests of the island. These remnants of the Indonesian species are fighting a losing battle against human greed which is promoting progressive encroachments into their habitat.

Although some reports of increase in their numbers are reported from isolated pockets which are now conservation areas, yet their days seem to be numbered with increasing deforestation and mushrooming oil-palm plantations. The government, however, claims that the rate of deforestation has gone down yet the fact remains that from the point of view of tigers it has been of little help. They are now confined to isolated small patches of forests with no scope for fresh genetic infusion into their small in-bred numbers putting them under serious existential threat. As it is, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has included it in the “critically endangered” list.

Oil palm plantations are perhaps the single largest reason for decimation of the Sumatran species of tigers. Their profitability and contribution to the coffers of the country have been the persistent reasons for disappearance of the country’s once-abundant forests. More and more forests are being cleared legally or illegally to accommodate oil palm cultivation progressively reducing the tiger habitat. Over the last 25 years Sumatra has lost two-thirds of its lowland forests that are the most conducive habitat for the island’s tigers.

We in India are largely responsible for the falling numbers of the Sumatran tigers. Two Asian biggies, China and India, are the biggest importers of palm oil from Indonesia, India of late having overtaken China. Demand in this country for the oil appears to be insatiable. Palm oil constitutes about 80% of the cooking oil used in India and the increasing imports at the rate of approximately 3 to 4% per annum are fuelling deforestation and replacement of natural forests by oil palm plantations in Indonesia in a bid to raise palm oil production The production has now hit 50 million tonnes in 2012, India alone having imported more than nine hundred thousand tonnes.

Used mostly as edible oil, palm oil is cheaper than other vegetable oils and is generally consumed by the economically weaker sections of our society. With more and more disposable income becoming available to them the demand for palm oil has been constantly going up necessitating greater imports. A big chunk of the oil is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, like creams, moisturizers, lipsticks, shampoos, etc. With rise in the number of middle classes the consumption of cosmetics has also been going up. The multinational cosmetic manufacturers have established manufacturing bases in the country and their products are being aggressively promoted in the media. More than 13 to 14% of the imported palm oil is used in manufacture of these cosmetics

The trend being what it is, destruction of the tropical forests in Indonesia is not going to stop any time soon. Perhaps, it would help if we in India tempered down our demand for the oil. If we did that we would not
only be saving the natural tropical forests of Indonesia, we would also be saving their rich flora and fauna, including the Sumatran tiger.

If we have been able to save our forests and the tigers therein to a great extent, it should not be too much to ask for measures to protect the tigers in Indonesia.  After all it is a matter of protecting the “Global Commons” we share. Like in our case, the forests in Sumatra will survive if their tigers survive. Tigers, with their presence, in natural forests are a vital cog in preventing and mitigating global warming. Let us, therefore, not invite the odium of knowingly contributing to the extinction of the Sumatran tiger with all its undesirable consequences.


Friday, December 13, 2013

The lies that ads sell

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The recent elections in Madhya Pradesh set off a veritable ad war. In making extravagant claims of accomplishments of the government during the last five years the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took recourse to exaggerations and bluffs. Photographs of green farms and silky smooth highways were picked up from the internet and passed on as achievements of the government. Keeping a keen eye, the men of the Opposition –
MP Chief Minister Shivraj
the Indian National Congress –pounced at the opportunity screaming that the ads of the saffron brigade were a “collage of lies”. The Congress in the opposition has been quite bitchy even otherwise. This was election time and it lost no time to go all out to embarrass the party in power and unleashed a frontal attack. 
That the efforts of the Congress did not yield any result is not quite relevant. But, quite plainly, it too has been economical with truth in making claims and promises to the people in case it happened to wrest power from the BJP. Electioneering being virtually a war of words everything would seem to be fair in it; lies, slander, defamation, denigration and even vilification of the opponents are kind of par for the course. Whoever is able to convince the voters even with lies and untruths carries the day.
At elections candidates are out to sell themselves and they would seem to promote themselves any which way using whatever means that delivers the desired result. When it comes to the crunch, promotion of an individual or a product in the market is largely based on only a wee bit of fact mixed with a hefty portion of fiction. In these days of plummeting ethics and commercialisation of virtually everything (including votes) it is the claims and counter claims of achievements, mostly wild, are targeted at the audience. After all, the idea is to manipulate thinking and behaviour of the objects of their efforts.
The Congress contestant Scindia
That is what advertising is all about. It has been defined as a form of marketing communication “aimed to encourage, persuade or manipulate an audience (viewers, readers, listeners; sometimes a specific group) to take or continue to take some action.” The action desired aims at driving consumer behaviour towards choosing the advertised ­­­object – be that a commodity or an individual. In today’s highly competitive society truth has virtually fallen by the wayside, more so at the market place. Manufacturing ads in text or in audios or visuals has become an industry and the copywriters are bright young people with an acutely imaginative mind, specialising in communicational skills that enable conveying an idea – true or false – with as much of brevity as possible. After all they are out to not only to persuade people, they, in fact, wish to influence them to make the desired move or decision. They are “creative” people selling dreams - visually and textually.
One cannot avoid their creativeness or inventiveness. These are visible all over – in newspapers, billboards, posters, et al. They are, however, most pervasive and, one dares say, effective on the television which is the prime audio-visual medium today. Almost everyone has a TV set, whether in a shanty or in a palatial house. With its great reach through the satellites viewers in far flung parts of the country and even abroad get exposed to the “creativeness” of these creative people. Some of them are indifferent to their imaginative messages and some others take them – even if misleading – as gospel truths. The gullible fall victims of these creative ads and succumb to their claims that are mostly exaggerated and often false.
Thus one finds ads suggesting regular use of an energy drink of malted milk enables a school-going child to get celebrated as the “student of the year”; use of a particular brand of sanitary napkins enables a teenage girl to top the board examinations; application of creams, lotions and face washes lighten and whiten the skin in a jiffy; use of shampoos laced, inter alia, with dry fruits are claimed to be anti-dandruff and prevent hair-fall making (women’s) hair silky and lustrous; brushing teeth with a brand of toothpaste kills germs crawling like ants all over on the gums and in the gaps between the teeth, lending to them a sparkling white sheen; use of a particular brand of pressure cooker imparts an amazing taste and flavour to a dessert of grated carrot, popularly known as gaajar ka halwa and so on. The commercial breaks every ten or fifteen minutes in half-hour slots are the occasions when one is carpet-bombed with ads, brief stories contrived by imaginative copywriters, generally in an effort to con the viewers into taking to the product.
Some of the advertisers, particularly of cosmetics, unfortunately try to exploit the weaknesses of their audience. We the non-white people of Africa and Asia are, by and large, colour-conscious, having a distinct weakness for fairer complexion. While some Africans crave to lighten their skin tones, the craze is no less, for example, in Indonesia. And, in India the classified ads section of newspapers are full of matrimonial ads that look for only fair-complexioned brides – regardless of caste, community or economic status. A report earlier this year was extreme in nature and somewhat unnerving too. At an IVF clinic in India a childless woman desired a Caucasian donor so that the child blended with her husband’s fairer family.
This craze for fairness is being exploited by manufacturers of beauty products for which India seems to have become a significant market. Indian manufacturers like Lakme, Himalaya and some multinationals like Nivea, Garnier, Ponds, Vaseline, etc are in the market, aggressively pushing their varied products. In their chase for that El Dorado of unblemished beauty, Indian women – young or old – and, yes, even men are spending huge sums out of their not always generous pay-packets. Seeking flawless skin with an even tone and that elusive fairness coupled with protection from ultraviolet rays young and old are consuming newer and newer generation of beauty lotions and potions. The way the fairness creams are being advertised, it seems, a few generations later Indians will overcome their brown complexion. Of late, Dove owned by Unilever has entered the market in a big way and is trying to outdo all others’ equally competitive products with its smooth copies and attractive videos.
Indian women seem to have fallen lock, stock and barrel for the beauty products so much so that currently the cosmetic market in the country is estimated to be worth US $I.5 billion and is likely to double up to approximately $3 billion by 2014. Hopefully, the users are aware of the risks involved in indiscriminate use of these products purveyed by now almost a thousand-odd manufacturers and are not taken in by their glib copies in slick ads. According to Dr. Frank Lipmann of the Voice of Sustainable Wellness of the US, most cosmetics and personal care products contain five major toxic ingredients and these are “hidden” carcinogens; endocrine or hormonally disruptive; penetration enhancers; and allergens. Unlike in the case of tobacco, cosmetic products contain no warning although these could be life-threatening to “the user and the foetus following maternal use and absorption through the skin into maternal and foetal blood”
 None of these risks is ever mentioned in any of the cosmetic ads. After all, most ads are “collages of lies”. Even Samuel Johnson found in their soul only “promise, larger promise” and HG Wells branded them as “legalised lies”.

Photo:  from the Internet


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Has India become richer?


The feature “50 year ago” of The Hindu on 22nd November 2013 contained the following report:

 "Almost all the grocery shops in the city remained closed following raids on rice, shall (?) and oil shops during the last three days by people in certain localities in the name of consumer resistance to high prices. As essential commodities in Calcutta and suburbs registered over a 30% increase in the past 15 days consumers started offering resistance in an organised manner. But this was soon followed by violent acts due to the fact, as some traders put it, anti social elements took command of the situation."

Rise of only 30 % in prices had then induced an agitation verging on public violence. Today, the retail inflation is reining far too high at or above 10% and the prices of essentials including all edibles, from grains to oils, to meats and vegetables, are reported to have risen within the last few months by as much as 285%. Surprisingly, there is no stir against the steep rise in prices. Even the working classes, which are always more vocal in protesting against the runaway prices, have kept quiet. Those who have seen such resistances earlier in the 1950s and 1960s would surely find this quietude and equanimity displayed in this volatile matter by large sections of affected people, including the under-classes, is somewhat strange.

Politicians had been predicting since the rainy season that the prices of vegetables would fall post-rains. The monsoons withdrew in September and at the end of November prices of vegetables continue to rule high. Even the lowly potato that was selling only a few days ago at Rs. 15/- a Kg has climbed on to Rs. 40/- and is likely to climb further. With prices of onions and potatoes, the two staples, going through the roof life ought to have become difficult for the economically weaker sections. But there is no whiff of any resistance. Everybody seems to be taking the whole thing in stride.

There seem to be two possibilities for the absence of any stir in this regard. Either the general population has come to the conclusion that there wouldn’t be any point in kicking up a row about the unconscionable rise in the cost of living as, at least for the present, there is just no government in the country, the politicians being all busy electioneering. Or, as Manmohan Singh’s government claims, with its social sector spending the under-classes have now substantial incomes that have boosted demands all around in rural and urban areas pushing up all the prices. They would, therefore, hardly hany reason to complain. Which of the two factors is working is difficult to fathom. It could be one of them or both. But one finds it rather strange that despite an unacceptable level of retail inflation there is an unseemly and an uncharacteristic quietude all over the country, as if all is well with it. Have our countrymen become richer? 

The Centre does not seem to be bothered either. That this unsustainable high level of inflation has a deleterious effect on the country’s economy impacting its fiscal position and weakening its currency does not seem to attract their attention. No measure to counter the runaway inflation has been taken or announced and the government seems to be playing for time till the elections next year. In the meantime, regardless of the pervasive tranquility, the hoarders and middlemen in the wholesale markets of grains and vegetables are making merry – suckering up the farmers and cheating the consumers. It would be silly politicians to touch them as some of them, if not most, could well be the financiers of prospective contestants at the hustings.

Looks like, people are going to be stuck with the high prices of various commodities for quite some time in the future. They are unlikely to come down even after the elections as no politician, much less the food minister, seems to be keen on taming them.

Photo: From the Internet










Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pampered "separatists" of Kashmir

http://bagchiblog.blogspot.com


It was way out of the ordinary for the Pakistani High Commissioner to invite leaders of several “separatist” groups of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) to come to Delhi to meet his Prime Minister’s adviser Sartaj Aziz who came to India recently to participate in Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Even more extraordinary was the Indian government’s latitude in allowing them to travel to Delhi to keep their appointments with Aziz. At least one of the separatist leaders – the most vitriolic one – was till recently under house arrest. Obviously, the Government of India went out of the way to lift the restrictions to enable him to travel to Delhi.
Syed Alishah Geelani
The leaders included the who’s who of the separatist groups. They were Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yaseen Malik, the hard-line Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Asiya Andrabi of Dukhtar-e-Millat, the women’s separatist organization of the state. Meeting Aziz separately, the groups asked him for a lasting solution to the Kashmir “dispute” as if by articulating this wish the Pakistan government and its Army would rush into the quagmire to find a “lasting” solution. They seem to be having the misconception that they represent the people of Jammu and Kashmir although they have never contested any of the elections that have taken place in the state.
While there is an elected government in place, these small separatist groups have only been obstructing peace and progress of the state by calling for frequent shut-downs and strikes under the threat of terror and indulging in violence. They are, in fact, fifth columnists who take orders from their masters across the borders. One of them, Yaseen Malik, had even been caught on camera sharing a platform with Hafiz Saeed, the chief of Laskar-e-Toiba, a radical outfit of Pakistan that organizes terror attacks in India in collaboration with the ISI of the Pak Army. And, Asiya Andrabi talks to Sartaj Aziz in Indian capital about her wishful thinking relating to accession of J&K to Pakistan. It is as seditious as sedition can be but the government did not seem to have reacted to the reports for action against her.
It is the softness of the Indian government that allows such meetings, both in India and Pakistan so much so that the Pakistani establishment reckons them as “routine consultations”. There can be nothing “routine” about these meetings and, for all one knows, these are held to foment more trouble within J&K. There is no earthly reason for the leaders of these minor groups to meet the representative of a foreign inimical power for “consultations”. When the Government of India is not in the “talk” mode with Pakistan the “consultations” of the latter with the separatists of J&K on Indian soil seems ludicrous and outrageous.
Only the other day, on a call given by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, October 27 last was observed as a “Black Day” as on that day the Indian troops, allegedly, commenced their “occupation” of Kashmir. This was stated by SA Shamsi of Jamait-e-Islami, which organized a dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad, attended by leaders of Pak Occupied Kashmir. The Kashmiri separatists, whether in India or in Pakistan, have by their statements made the history of post-Accession Kashmir stand on its head.
 Everybody knows whatever these cranky separatists wearing blinkers have been broadcasting are absolute falsehoods. Indian Army had no reason to enter Kashmir had Maharaja Hari Singh, the then ruler of the State of Jammu & Kashmir, not acceded to India in 1947 at the same time asking the latter for assistance to throw out the Pakistani regulars who along with tribal raiders had invaded his State. The Indian government did not send its troops until the Maharaja had also obtained the consent of the most prominent democratic leader of Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. The Maharaja had to do it as otherwise the Government of India wouldn’t extended its help.
Inviting the Indian Army was thus a joint decision of the Maharaja and the most popular leader of Kashmiris. Besides, the Indian Army had gone into Kashmir when it had become Indian Territory. By no stretch of imagination, therefore the Indian Army in Kashmir is an "Occupation Army". It is there to protect its own territory that includes Jammu & Kashmir. In fact, it is Pakistan which has illegally occupied a big chunk of Indian Territory in Kashmir by sheer violent aggression. If there is any "army of occupation" in Kashmir it is the Pakistan Army which is in forcible occupation of what is known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
 Even the objective commentators in Pakistan have expressed grave doubts about Pakistani position on Kashmir. In a recent article, Ayaz Mir, the level-headed and objective journalist, has admitted that three wars, including the one of 1947,  waged by Pakistan have met with only failure in meeting their objectives, that is, of wresting the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir from India.
What is more surprising, however, is that Imran Khan, the Teheriq-e- Insaf chief, supported the dharna and the Black Day saluting the Kashmiri people for their sacrifices in rejecting the "Indian occupation". Having been educated in Oxford and having been honoured and feted in India several times during his frequent visits apart from his numerous cricketing trips he should have known the history of Kashmir better. Perhaps compulsions of politics make politicians reach for their oft-used blinkers and Imran now is a diehard politician.
Prof. Waqar Ashraf, one of the participants at the dharna in Islamabad reportedly said, "Freedom is a right wherever one lives and Kashmiris’ right should be given to them. They cannot be forced to live in a country they did not wish to belong to and even the UN Charter is against it.” One can have no quarrel with this line of thinking. Kashmiris, like other citizens of India, have the right to choose the place and the country where they wish to live. They have the absolute freedom to leave and go and live in any country where they find conditions more congenial. None and, surely, neither government of J&K nor the Government of India, would ever stop them from exercising this basic right.
Similar sentiments were felt when a row was kicked up on the non-inclusion of Parvez Rasool, a Kashmiri cricketer, in the playing eleven of the Indian cricket team while on tour in Zimbabwe earlier this year. Very strong comments on this veritable non-issue were reported from Kashmir emanating from the state's knowledgeable chief minister down to some anti-Indian Kashmiris. Some of the latter said they were not happy when Rasool was included in a team that represented India. Some others said that they were certainly not happy when the lad was picked to play for India and that they would not be happy even if he did well for India, especially so while playing against Pakistan.
It is quite clear where such people’s sympathies lay broadcasting as they did their acute antipathy for the country they lived in. They seem to have forgotten the gratitude and happiness of their forebearers when this country went and rescued them from the clutches of the Pakistani marauders in 1947 sacrificing many precious lives. If, however, they have aversion for this country they, too, have the liberty to migrate out to whichever country they find more inviting. None in this country would begrudge their decision to do so. One recalls, similar advice was tendered to people with similar attitudes in their respective countries by the governments of Australia and Netherlands.



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Destinations: Singapore

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A short hop from Kuala Lumpur and we were in Singapore - a flight of around an hour. There was a proposal to use the railway train from Kuala Lumpur. We were given to understand that it was very comfortable where one could book one’s specific seat or berth. The first class of the train reportedly offered far more comfort than the similar class of railway compartment in India. Somehow the plan had to be dropped as berths for so many people were just not available. We, otherwise, would have had a chance to see a bit of the Malaysian jungles. Famous all over the world for its facilities and services, the train is likely to be speeded up soon as a decision is in the offing to make it a high-speed line with trains touching more than 300 kms per hour, nipping off some hours from the current 7 hours’ travelling time.

Singapore skyline from Oberoi Imperial
Singapore has a long history but its modern avatar took birth in 1819 when it was acquired by Sir Stamford Raffles to function as a trading post for the East India Company with the permission of the Johor Sultanate that had sovereignty over it.  Eventually, in 1824 the Sultanate yielded sovereignty over the territory to the British and in 1826 Singapore became one of the British Straits Settlement territories. (One can see shades of Indian history) Occupied by the Japanese during the World War II, it was recaptured by the British who later withdrew from the Settlements in 1946. Singapore joined the Malaysian federation in 1963 only to be expelled in 1965. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the then Malaysian Prime Minster, pushing for affirmative action in favour of “Bhumi putras” (sons of the soil) could not stomach the multi-culturalism of the Singapore patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee was against discrimination and ghettoisation of ethnic communities – Chinese, Indians and the native Malays. Contrary to Malaysian expectations, the new City State of Singapore started taking giant leaps towards progress and prosperity after its expulsion.
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 We landed not at Changi Airport but at the old Paya Lebar airport. The airport at Changi was still in the works. We were told that the area around the airport had potential for urban development but projects could not be undertaken due to the air traffic passing over it. Singapore is hungry for land and any land that could be used for residential or commercial purposes could not be allowed to remain unexploited. Even in 1981 the authorities were planning for an airport at Changi where the planes would have to approach the runway not over land but over the sea. Perhaps, that’s what they have achieved by creating an airport at Changi.
Put up in the Oberoi Imperial, a five star affair, we again faced the same problem of inadequacy of funds. With the split rates of daily allowances we could not have had even breakfast at the hotel. While the room had all the trappings of a 5-starred outfit the pretentious provisions of the government for officers on tour abroad proved pretty inconvenient and tiresome. We had necessarily to dine out.

 In 1981 Singapore was not yet one of the “Asian Tigers” but, on hindsight, it appeared to be well on its way towards achieving that sobriquet. It was a vulnerable tiny city state and, located as it was on the busy sea lane between east and west, it had always been fearful of being overwhelmed by super and regional powers. And yet within the limited confines of its territory devoid of natural resources export oriented industries were being set up, housing projects were being implemented, and a tough administration had been largely successful in tying up all the loose ends of the administration to optimize utilization of its limited land base, minimize consumption and boost productivity Its main economic activities were in those days were oil refining and banking.
                                                                                                                                                                    
Jurong township
A remarkable effort to industrialise the small city state was in Jurong – an uncharted territory of swamps and marshes not many years ago. Away from central business district and residential areas, the place was found fit for industrialisation. Now it is a thriving industrial estate with scores of industries that were set up along with even low cost housing with all the necessary paraphernalia like schools, hospitals, dispensaries etc for a decent and fulfilling life of the residents. When we were taken around to view the place it was shrouded in dust because of the ongoing frenetic construction activity. Now, of course, things should be much different – built and fully functional and aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

Competence was expected in every aspect of administration and officers were expected to be businesslike. No frills or no beating about the bush, one had to be straightforward in dealing with every matter relating to the state. A small incident was very illustrative. At tea at the Singapore Institute of Public Administration I asked an Englishman sitting by my side what he was doing at the Institute. On being told that he was teaching English to officers when I said that it was an English-speaking country, he said that was true but Lee was very finicky about the language used on paper. If even a secretary wrote pompous or archaic English he would land up at the Institute for a brush-up. Seems inconsequential but tells a lot about the man behind Singapore’s push towards prosperity. 

The government being highly competent and largely corruption-free the management of the city couldn’t be better. The tough administration penalises for deviations – minor or major – with fines, sometimes very stiff. Lee used to say that Singapore is a “fine” country. One wouldn’t find a speck of dust or any litter anywhere. I had to look for a trash bin to discard my cigarette butts. For us it was an experience used as we are to presence of muck, dirt, litter and trash in our midst. Unlike in India I happened to notice beautiful tropical gardens developed under the flyovers. Unlike our civic bodies Singapore administration is very high on aesthetics. Even as late as earlier this year I found muck and trash under one of the South Delhi flyovers where migrant families were also living – and presumably multiplying.

High-rises and greens
 Likewise, the traffic on the roads was excellently managed although number of cars was not negligible. To avoid congestion even in those early days a car could get on to the High Street only if it carried not less than four passengers including the driver. This applied even to taxis. I don’t know whether it was true but we were told that one could own only one vehicle at a time. If one owned a car he/she wouldn’t get another from the government or corporate house or any other source. If a vehicle was allotted by the employer one couldn’t buy a vehicle for one self. The same was true of houses; one couldn’t own multiple houses. One could understand the law in view of scarcity of land. There were definite plans for reclamation from the surrounding seas but mostly for productive purposes.

 In this land-scarce country the Indian High Commissioner had a huge rambling old ill-maintained bungalow with extensive grounds. A batch-mate of mine from the Foreign Service was the High Commissioner who gave the group very welcome samosas and good Indian tea. His tips for shopping were very helpful, shopping having been on everybody’s mind. Singapore those days was known for all kinds of stuff – electronic or non electronic – and was known to be cheap an image Singapore was keen to wipe away.

The High Commissioner had suggested the CK Tang mall which was supposed to be good but one had to bargain rather hard. Situated in the Orchard Road, the heart of Singapore, its facade was not pretentious like the ones we see today. Nonetheless, the insides were something which I found fabulous. It was my first experience of a mall and it was amazing to see a whole floor dedicated to cosmetics and women’s perfumes. From it an escalator took off for the men’s section on the first floor. Different MNC brands had cornered huge areas. The sales persons, generally Chinese girls, were very friendly and persuasive. Packed with electronic stuff and cameras that were virtually non-existent in the pseudo-socialist India of Indira Gandhi it was indeed very tempting. Only the lean wallet held most of us back. Within my limited means I shopped like never before. In any case, in 1981 it was a whole new experience in shopping.

Singapore by night
I patronised Tang’s food court and enjoyed the delectable Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. The night time hawker style food market was another experience. As darkness fell scores of hawkers with their colourful lanterns on push carts and offering delectable stuff would converge on the streets. But nothing would ever be touched by bare hands. Like in Kuala Lumpur, none of the sales persons would ever touch any foodstuff with bare hands. Out on the streets also I saw fruit sellers selling pieces of papaya, melons, guavas etc wearing plastic gloves – a practise that has not been adopted in India yet. I tried to persuade the local sweet shop to have gloves or tongs used by his salesmen but to no avail.

Soon the pleasant stay came to an end. We were up one early morning to catch a Cathay Pacific flight for Bangkok where we had a daylong lay-over before hitting Delhi.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Airport musings

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In order to escape the noisy, ear-splitting Diwali of our Idgah Hills in Bhopal, where residents have loads of money to burn by way excruciatingly loud bombs by hundreds for days before and after the ‘D’ Day, we took a flight to Goa via Mumbai. We chose Goa for our escape as Diwali there is reported to be far less raucous and much more civilized and, I dare say, certainly more dignified. The flight to Mumbai was at 7.40 in the morning arriving at Mumbai before 9.00 and the flight to Goa was more than 5 hours later at 2.30 PM.

Called Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, the Santa Cruz Airport of earlier times, does not have a lounge for passengers transiting through it. We are pretty prompt in Indianising the old Western names but we are very tardy in upgrading the facilities. This is true of this Airport as it is true of many other outfits and institutions. Hence we had to wait at the crowded, rather inadequately provided departure lounge for all of those five hours and more.

Sitting on a chair that was not meant for being sat on for long hours I saw through the skylight a large number of planes fly away.The Santa Cruz airport, barring its international arrival area, those days used to be wide open to the public. Anybody could get into it. For example, all of us could go right up to the glazed walls of the arrival lounge from where we could see bigger planes mostly of foreign airlines and Air India parked up in front. Almost all international airlines - from SAS to BOAC to KLM and Pan American down to Quantas would touch down at Bombay. It is here that I happened to see an Air India Super Constellation one of which had crashed near Djakarta in 1955 before the famed Bandung Non-Aligned Conference killing many Chinese delegates. We saw all these planes through the glass panes as none even in those days could step on to the tarmac. However, those who were keen on an unrestricted and better view would go on to the terrace of the then single storey structure of the Airport and crowd around its parapets to ogle at the aircraft landing or taking off or even those that were stationary.

Obviously, the airport was a pretty busy one, a far cry (naturally) from what it used to be more than fifty years ago. Watching the planes fly away one after another my mind flew across more than fifty years to 1955 when my sister and I were visiting  during the summer vacation an uncle of ours who used to live and work in what was then Bombay and who was very fond of watching planes flying in and flying out. Whenever he could squeeze out some time he would take us out to show us the sights of Bombay. And whenever there was nothing much to do after his office in the evenings he, along with our aunt, would drive us down to the Santa Cruz airport. Parking the vehicle in front of the Airport building we would all saunter down to the arrival lounge for domestic flights. Civil aviation in India in those days was in its infancy and, hence, not many flights would be arriving. The arrival area was, therefore, largely unoccupied.

 Today getting into the Santa Cruz airport, or for that matter into any airport in the country, just like that is impossible. Those were the terror-free innocent days when men were simpler and uncomplicated. Securing of lives and property, both public and private, was not an activity of such a mammoth proportions as it has become today. True there were deviants even then; there were thefts, robberies, rapes and murders - the crimes that could be taken care of by the usual policemen. But, the menace of organised terror that seeks only to kill people in as large a number as possible had not yet made its appearance. All public and private places vulnerable to terror attacks have therefore had to be closed to the casual visitors and specialised security personnel have had to be engaged to guard them.

 Providing security from stray unexpected bombings in dense urban areas or premeditated armed attacks such as those on the Indian Parliament in 2005 or on Bombay in 2008 or preventing hijacking of passenger aircraft like the one of Indian Airlines in1998 or for crashing into predetermined targets like in 2001 on the World Trade Centre in New York have become
the most obsessive activities of governments the world over. On the back-room boys, on installation of systems for relentless vigilance and logistics of the foot soldiers of the security organisations mind boggling sums are being spent in order to provide failsafe security to people all over the world. All because some people of a particular faith do not like people of other faiths - a persuasion that is unquestionably medieval in character. One cannot but hark back to the statement of Ajmal Qasab, the young Pakistani participant in the Mumbai terror attack who, to his misfortune, was captured alive. Sent along with others on a suicide mission he said they were mission was to kill as many as possible from among Hindus, Jews and others for no apparent reason. As it appears now, preparations for this attack had been going on for at least three years. His parent jihadi organisation seems to have an assembly line that produces in continuum terrorists who are prepared to remorselessly kill or get killed in the service of their faith which, incidentally, makes loud claims to be a religion of peace. So efficient is the brainwashing of young minds by the purveyors of terror.

Sitting there in the departure lounge of the Mumbai Airport I wondered how things have changed and how life has become restricted with public organizations   becoming more and more restrictive, taking away the small pleasures and the absolute freedom that we once used to enjoy without any let or hindrance - all because of a few thousand creepy and sneaky terrorists who never come upfront to attack but do so by stealth and surprise.

Today at the same Santa Cruz airport  or any other airport of the country, forget about a casual visitor, even a passenger holding a valid ticket has to clear at least three layers of security checks before emplaning. And then one cannot carry any fluids, not even drinking water, in the plane. In the US even shoes have to be taken off for security checks as a suicide bomber once hoodwinked the security personnel by carrying a bomb into a plane concealed in his shoes.

From what is happening all around looks like there is going to be no let up in terror – hatred of one community for another relentlessly enlarging its area of influence. Those carefree and innocent days of half a century ago seem like gone forever.

Photo of an Air India plane is taken from the Internet




Monday, November 11, 2013

Indo-Pak peace process, why flog it when it is dead



A
run Jaitley, leader of the Opposition in the Upper House of Indian Parliament, very tersely said 
recently in New York that “terror and dialogue can’t coexist”. This was in the context of the Indian government’s keenness to continue Indo-Pak dialogue. Even as he was speaking infiltration bids continued on the Line of Control (LoC), the border between the two Kashmirs.

Thankfully, a belated statement from the External Affairs minister came earlier indicating that it was really no time for India to resume dialogue with Pakistan. The statement has come almost three weeks after a case of
massive infiltration in the Keran Sector of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kupwara region in Jammu & Kashmir. The infiltrators numbered 30 to 40 militants. In the fortnight-long military operations that ensued 5 Indian soldiers were injured and some 8 militants were killed, the rest are presumed to have either returned to where they came from or killed. A large cache of arms and ammunitions was recovered.

It seems better sense has since prevailed on the Indiaqn Government which appeared to have been hell-bent on resuming the “composite dialogue” with Pakistan, a dialogue that got stalled after the January 2013 ceasefire violations. Since then not only a new democratic government is in place in Pakistan but there have been around a hundred ceasefire violations by Pakistan Army and its “affiliates” – all violent and some very barbaric. 

Nevertheless, Manmohan Singh went and shook hands with the Pakistan Prime Minister at New York. It was no more than a photo-op, though, mercifully, the PM was reported to have stated that the talks could not be resumed unless Pakistan refrained from violence on the LoC. That unfortunately is not within the control of the civilian government. It is the Pakistani Army that calls the shots and it is this rather intractable entity that determines the time and place of resuming its operations on the LoC. 

There has been a perfidious history of such meetings. These have either been accompanied or followed by hostile activities by Pakistan in the state of Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere in India. Kargil War in 1999 was an example of it. Even as the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee bussed to Lahore on his peace initiative the Pakistan Army and its proxies were surreptitiously moving into the Indian Territory with a view to snapping the supply lines to Siachen. Now again, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh quite gratuitously went and shook hands with his Pakistani counterpart the latter’s Army and its proxies had moved into the Keran sector of J&K. The common factor, both in 1999 and 2013 is Nawaz Sharif who was also reportedly connected with the 1993 Mumbai bombings that claimed as many as 250 victims. 2005, however, saw the attack on Srinagar Tourist Reception Centre when Parvez Musharraff happened to be the military dictator in Pakistan. That too took place a day before the bus-link to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir form Srinagar was inaugurated, another initiative for peace by the PM. Unmindful of the mindless terror the service was inaugurated but without any tangible dividends.

When the PM, somewhat incredibly, conveyed to President Obama that Pakistan was the epicenter of terror, perhaps, it would have been better if he had named the Pak Army as well, as it, with the assistance of the terrorists, the “non-state actors” and their several organizations it maintains and runs, is the one which plans, trains and equips to unleash terror in India at times and places of its choosing. Somehow the government under Manmohan Singh has allowed an impression to go around within the country and abroad that it is soft and is incapable of adequately responding to the indiscretions of the Pak Army on the LoC. The PM himself has repeatedly refrained from holding the Pak Administration and its Army responsible for Indian casualties on the LoC. It is the watchful Indian media, the Opposition and the civil society that forced his government to change its stance when Indian soldiers were gruesomely beheaded well within Indian Territory and held Pakistan responsible for their gory death. The Indian President was more forthright and, calling a spade a spade, asserted that the so-called non-state actors do not “parachute down from heaven”

One wonders as to why, despite the repeated violations of the 2003 Cease Fire and violence on the LoC, the PM has been keen on pushing ahead with the long-suffering “peace initiative”. Aware as he is that any amount of talks with the democratically elected government would never be allowed to proceed, leave alone yield any positive results as the country’s armed forces are deeply radicalized and are anti-India down to
their very core. They would never allow peace to prevail between the two countries. Apart from ensuring their wellbeing, the continued enmity serves to achieve their radicalized religious objectives. Hence, if one has to talk to Pakistan, one must talk to its Army. That, however, is impossible as no self-respecting democracy would ever negotiate with the armed forces of another democratic country.

Indian people have been deeply outraged by repeated violence on the LoC resulting in frequent Indian casualties and yet the ruling combine, unmindful of the public sentiments, was keen on talks with the Pakistani PM. MJ Akbar, a senior Indian journalist, made a telling comment by asserting that the UPA has displayed “phenomenal indifference to public rage”. He not only had in  mind the Indian PM’s keenness to continue the peace process with Pakistan, he also had in mind the UPA’s attempts to negate the judgment of Supreme Court regarding disqualification of convicted MPs and the decision of Chief Information Commissioner to bring political parties within the ambit of Right To Information Act.  

With a pathological hatred for “Hindu India” that has been assiduously cultivated since the partition and nurtured and strengthened with the liberal doses of the tonic of “Jihad” since the late 1970s the Pak Army brass, their radicalised subalterns and proxies would never buy peace with India even if the whole of J&K is gifted away to them on a silver platter. Regardless of all efforts – back channel negotiations, people-to-people contacts, a liberalized visa regime or trade and commerce – the radicals in the armed forces and outside would never allow normality in the region It is they who call the shots, the peaceniks, if any, are few and far between and they squirm at the prospect of violent retaliation.

It, therefore, appears logical that we should let Pakistan be in its rigid, unchangeable manner. The accident of geography and history has made us neighbours necessitating, at least, minimal relations – without any frills as, understandably, the relations between the two can never be like those of US and Canada – stable and mutually beneficial.

Contextually speaking, therefore, India must shake off its weak and infirm image, secure its land and sea borders, be watchful of their breaches and equip itself with adequate military muscle to pose enough of deterrence for any misadventure. 

Notes:
1. This blog was written about two weeks earlier
2. Both the photographs have been taken from the Internet