Sunday, April 28, 2013

Asiatic lions get a reprieve

Hanging fire for decades the Supreme Court resolved the issue the other day. The issue was about relocation of a few Asiatic lions from their only home in the Gir National Park to the already-prepared Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh (MP). It was stonewalled by Gujarat for all these years claiming, as it did, the lions as its own The Court ordered in favour of the proposal and went by the considerations based on scientific reasoning that one couldn’t really put all one’s all eggs in only one basket. The proposal had been mooted by the wildlife experts of central and the two state governments concerned and the MP government had prepared the Kuno Palpur sanctuary for reception of the Asiatic lions. Gujarat, however, had a change of heart and started opposing the shift with all its might. The Sanctuary patiently waited out the decades nursing its ecosystem in the hope that better counsels would prevail someday.

That day has come now. But, strangely, a matter that is purely administrative in character and should have been decided within the governmental framework had to go all the way up to the Supreme Court at great public expense for the reason of mulish defiance of all scientific reasoning by the Gujarat administration. 

Though the Court gave a decision as logical as it should be, the reactions in Gujarat defy logic. Its people are fuming. The decision sparked protests in Junagadh and a bandh (forced stoppage of all activity – commercial or whatever) has been called at Sasan, close to the Gir Park. One wouldn’t be surprised if some activist adopts the Gandhian method of undertaking a fast unto death. Gir is not far away from Porbandar, the birthplace of the Mahatma. The villagers residing within the Park have been so well brainwashed that they are reported to have said that they would part with their lions only over their dead bodies. The sense of appropriation for themselves and for Gujarat of the rare, critically endangered species appeared to be complete as, indeed, was their instigation at the hands of the propagators of “Gujarat asmita” (Gujarat’s Identity). True, survival and increasing numbers of the Asiatic lions in Gir is a success story worthy of being proud of, yet, the lives of the lions are held together by a slender thread, acutely vulnerable as they happen to be to any mishap – an epidemic, for instance, the like of which had wiped out about 90% of the Tanzanian lions during the last decade of 20th Century.

Once spread over a wide area in India and its neighbouring countries, trophy-hunting and poaching drastically reduced the numbers of Asiatic lions. I recall having read somewhere that a British officer had claimed to have shot as many as half a dozen lions in one outing somewhere close to Hissar, back then in Punjab, in the 19th Century. Much earlier, Mogul Emperor Akbar is reported to have hunted lions near Rewa, now in Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of kilometres away from Gir. Lions shared their extensive habitat in the plains of India with three other big cats – the tiger, leopard and the cheetah – indicating its richness and ampleness of the prey-base in the forests of the country. But over the centuries and decades hunting and poaching took their toll, as also the rapid rise in population necessitating clearing of vast tracts of forests appreciably reducing their once-thriving habitat. 

In the process while the cheetah became extinct the three other big cats saw drastic reduction in their numbers. By the last count tigers were around 1700 in number, surviving in a few pockets across the country and are under severe threat of extinction because of persistent poaching and indifferent management. Though the leopard seemed to have somehow survived, its count, though hardly ever methodically taken, is surely not more than in a few hundreds. Due to shrinkage of its habitat it often comes in conflict with humans in almost all corners of the country and reports of its being trapped or being mercilessly done to death by insensitive villagers and urbanites frequently appear in the press. A project for conservation of leopards on the lines of that of the tiger is indicated if the species is to be saved and propagated in the wild.

The Asiatic lions are, however, much worse off. Having lorded over better part of the sub-continent for centuries human insensitivity drove them into a far western corner of India where the late Nawab of Junagarh, having been instrumental in wiping off lots of them and faced with their precariously low numbers in the early parts of the 20th Century, had the sudden realisation that the beasts needed to be conserved. Howsoever rudimentary in nature the conservation effort was it, at least, stopped the animals’ wanton killings. Post-independence conservation efforts, mainly by creation of a sanctuary for the lions at Gir and later converting it into National Park yielded better results. Today they are around 400-odd in number (by a Gujarat count). Packed within the limited confines of the Park they are too many for it and are reported to be wandering out into neighbouring areas of Amreli district. They have also been sighted in other small settlements in Junagarh district outside the Park and even near Diu. The Park is virtually bursting at its seams, so to say, crawling with Asiatic lions as it would seem.

Having once belonged to the entire country the lions could not be justifiably converted into Gujarati lions with the state exercising exclusive rights over them. The animals surely have found succour from the state government which has nursed and cared for them; but the entire nation, and why, even the world has contributed towards their protection and conservation through personnel, expertise and finances. Since they happen to be located in India the country has the right over them as also the duty to ensure that this endangered species endures and enriches the country’s wildernesses with its presence. Appreciating its obligation in this respect the Centre showed unusual alacrity in conducting a countrywide survey to look for a suitable site for a second home for the lions and pitched on Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in 1993-94. It also pumped in the required finances to prepare the Sanctuary over the last two decades to enable it to host the lions. That no mishap occurred during the intervening period has been a matter of luck for Gujarat or else “Gujarat asmita” would have seen the end of this significant species. The loss would have been not of Gujarat alone but of the entire world.

The orders of the apex court place onerous responsibilities on the MP government, especially the Wildlife Wing of its forest department. Its performance in recent times has not been very encouraging and the same had been forcefully argued out at the apex court by Gujarat lawyers against the proposed shifting of the lions to the state. “Panna” still stalks them as also 12 tiger deaths in 10 months of 2012 and 3 in 2013. Poaching of tigers and their electrocution by farmers has gone on unchecked. Reports have also consistently appeared about poaching and hunting of game from the constituency of the state’s forest minister. While his tenure has been crammed with controversies, the chief minister of the state has displayed definite aversion towards wildlife when it comes to a crunch – a crunch that has political overtones. The foresters, therefore, will have to exert their utmost to ensure safety and wellbeing of the lions, as indeed of other animals in the wild, as  history does not quite foster faith in their commitment to the wild.   

Gujarat government, on the other hand, is yet to come to terms with the judgement of the Supreme Court and is, quite unwisely, mulling a review petition against the apex court’s orders. One hopes better sense will eventually prevail and the judgement will be accepted, if not for anything else, at least for the sake of the lions.   

Photo of Asiatic lion: from the Internet

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Vote against Sri Lanka - India's muddled diplomacy

News came in the other day that the already agitating students of Chennai are going to launch protest rallies when the internationally popular Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty-20 cricket matches take place at the city’s hallowed Chepauk ground. They have also decided to pressurise the Hyderabad Sunrisers, a participating IPL team owned by Kalanidhi Maran, brother of Dayanidhi Maran who represented Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a Tamil party, in the Union Government, to sack Kumar Sangakkara, a Sri Lankan cricketer.

Protest rallies are a democratic right but the demand for sacking a player of a team on whom its franchisee has spent a fortune is surely encroachment on the rights of others. DMK sympathisers of Sri Lankan Tamil’s cause have been encouraged by the BCCI’s (Board of Control for Cricket in India) prompt acceptance of the request of J Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, sent to Prime Minister to direct the authorities concerned not to play Sri Lankan players in IPL matches in Chennai as she could not assure them their security. 

The virtual ban on Sri Lankan players was a curious decision. It is the duty of the state government to provide security to everyone including foreigners. It does not have powers to prohibit their entry or, for that matter, exit unless so advised by the Centre. Constitutionally such a decision has to be that of the Centre. Besides, the illegal ‘ban’ puts quite a few franchisees of IPL to disadvantage eliminating from Chennai matches some key Sri Lankan players. Sangakkara himself is a key player, the captain to boot of Hyderabad Sunrisers and the team will have to keep him out at Chennai. Likewise, there are other Sri Lankans who have been bought by various teams at great cost but will have to cool their heels away from Chennai.

One presumes that the BCCI was advised by the Centre to do the needful. The simplest solution, however, would have been to take the IPL matches away from Chennai. This would have been to the satisfaction of the Tamil Nadu government as also the franchisees concerned. And, it would not have been the first time for the IPL management to have done so. Due to inability of the government of India to provide adequate security on account of the general elections in 2009 the entire tournament was shifted to South Africa. That was an international shift at a short notice; here it would have meant shifting of only the Chennai matches elsewhere in India.

The competitive politics in Tamil Nadu have already caused enormous embarrassment to India. Under DMK’s threat of desertion from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruling at the Centre, the government voted in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka souring up relations with its small neighbour with whom it has had centuries-old ethnic, cultural, political and sporting relationships. Perhaps, the DMK would have parted ways with the UPA anyway, waiting as it seemed for a suitable opportunity. It found this issue handy and it withdrew from the coalition even before the voting in the UNHRC took place. The Indian diplomats were, however, directed to vote in a manner, as senior journalist Swapan Das Gupta said, “to impress upon the DMK and the global Tamil diaspora that India's sympathies lay (strangely) with those who have been trying unceasingly to secure the partition of Sri Lanka... making India a laughing stock in the region.

The UPA thus sacrificed national interests for observing coalition dharma, although the partner for whom the sacrifice was made had already deserted it. It had earlier sacrificed its acknowledged precept of probity and integrity in the government for the same reason just for maintaining itself in power. At that time also members of the same political outfit were in the reckoning.
There was, however, no respite for the UPA; its pummelling continued, this time by the counterpart of the DMK, the Anna DMK, a splinter of the former, which is currently ruling Tamil Nadu. Its chief minister upped the ante and demanded that India should boycott Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet to be held later this year at Colombo. And, politicians being what they are, members of every party joined the chorus in passing of a unanimous resolution in the state assembly wanting India to stop treating Sri Lanka as a friendly nation, to slap sanctions on it demanding a referendum for Tamil Eelam. Thankfully, the government, weak though it is, did not bend and rejected the demands out of hand.
Cho Ramaswamy, a well-known thinker, journalist and editor of Tamil weekly Tughlak feels that Tamil politicians are using Sri Lankan Tamils for their own political gains. According to him, the Tamil question was never an electoral issue in Tamil Nadu. Cho says that even the Sri Lankan Tamils have not made any big noise about declaring President Rajapaksa a war criminal and they never used the word genocide which DMK wanted India to have incorporated in the UNHRC resolution. According to Cho, it is some marginal Tamil parties in the state that have been hammering away at the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. Presuming that their thunder was being stolen away, the two major parties got into the act. Finding a weak Centre, these two parties led by arch political rivals started raising their bids to strengthen their respective support bases.

In a gratuitous article the other day in a prominent newspaper Hardeep Puri, former Permanent India Representative at the UN, justified the recent Indian action at the UNHRC. While doing so he seemed to have been oblivious of India’s unbecoming role in fostering terrorism in Sri Lanka that eventually led to tragic fallout over the country. No wonder, it drew a prompt riposte from Sri Lanka – recalling India’s ill-advised manoeuvres in regard to the recalcitrant Tamil Tigers fighting for what they called Tamil Eelam (Tamil Independence).

The diplomatic muddle at the UNHRC meet impaired the country’s relations with a traditional neighbour that has been ethnically and culturally close to it for ages. The Indian vote against Sri Lanka that was justified by Puri was decided upon without any diplomatic initiatives determined, as it was, by regional political pressures. If internal political compulsions become determinants for the conduct of the country’s foreign relations, why then have a full-fledged highly qualified diplomatic corps?

This is, however, not the first, nor perhaps the last, instance of states influencing the Centre in conduct of foreign relations, especially with neighbours. Foreign relations are a central subject and the states, barring consultative or advisory, generally have had no role to play. What one witnessed in respect of signing of Teesta Waters Treaty with Bangladesh and now in regard to the Sri Lankan Tamil question are extraordinary instances of intransigence of states to the detriment of the Union.

One wonders whether the Indian federalism was being taken advantage of. But, then India has had a federal structure from the inception of the republic and the Centre hardly ever faced, i.e. until the UPA came to power, such a situation where it had to tailor and remodel its foreign policy to suit the extravagant demands born out of exigencies of populism of the politicians of a state. One can think of only two reasons. The first is that the government at the centre is dependent for survival on its powerful regional allies, howsoever unreasonable and demanding they are, and would not let slip power from its hands whatever might be at stake, including adverse national repercussions. Secondly, politics in the country has turned so coarse that the prestige and image of the nation mean nothing to the self-serving politicians, whether at the Centre or in the states.

With the failure so far of the Centre in asserting its powers and authority what comes across is an image of the tail wagging the dog and, curiously, the dog merrily wags.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Recent rumblings about Bhopal Lakes

Sunset on the Upper Lake
Occasionally a wrong step may eventually lead to what one may call course-correction. Something similar happened recently in regard to the Upper Lake of Bhopal. The Urban Administration Department (UAD), under the leadership of its minister, rustled up a project of a couple of hundred crores for conservation and beautification, inter-alia, of the Upper Lake for onward transmission to the government of India for approval. The UAD, under the minister, having been used to treating itself as the owner and decider for its development, conservation and beautification, ignored the Empowered Committee for Management of the Lake and overlooked the fact the Centre for Environmental Planning (CEPT), the renowned institution of Ahmedabad, earlier engaged by it for recommending measures for planning, development and conservation of the Lake was yet to submit its report (for reasons attributable not to it but to the state and government). 

On being highlighted in the vernacular press, the Mayor, who is also the chairperson of the Empowered Committee, is reported to have expressed her unhappiness. Even the Chief Secretary got into the act and summoned a meeting of the Empowered Committee. At the meeting the UAD, however, got a face-saver in the shape of approval of the project but it seems to have been kept on the back-burner. The good that came about from the imbroglio was about the report of the CEPT. Instead of being delayed until the next assembly elections as was being reported, it will now come out by May next. That will, hopefully, put an end to all unilateralism of the UAD, which under the directions of its minister and in association with State Tourism Development Corporation has converted the shores of the Lake into a museum of sorts, planting there an old steam locomotive, a model of a Indian Navy ship and a squat and ugly representation of the legendary ancient king facing the main artery of the town. The department and its handmaiden, the Tourism Corporation, have played havoc with the water body and its ecosystem in several ways details of which need not be mentioned here.

It might be of interest that the UAD in its project has also proposed development, beautification and conservation of the three other water bodies, famously known as the three “cascading lakes”, a part of unique heritage of the city. While the one at the very top, the Motia Talab, is somewhat alive, the two others in descending order are being choked to death by encroachments. Over the years encroachers have had a
Part of Motia Talab with Tajul Masajid in background
free run and houses have been constructed and continue to be constructed even today with the municipal corporation and the UAD acting as bystanders and mute spectators. It seems, the encroachers have secured stay on orders of their removal from the courts and the orders have been in force now for more than a decade. While the municipality, seemingly, is in deep slumber encroachers have gone about grabbing more and more of the two lakes.

Even the so-called marriage-gardens located by the side of the Upper Lake and spewing their waste into it are reported to have obtained stays from the local courts on orders of their removal and these have been in force for years on end. One wonders whether these stays will remain in force till eternity. One can only think of two possibilities: either the lawyers of the municipality are thoroughly incompetent or the whole lot, including lawyers and municipal officials from top to bottom, are corrupt being in the pay of the encroachers. It is astounding that a civic body with all the administrative and financial support it can muster and with all the paraphernalia at its command is unable to get for years the stay(s) vacated to free the lands and structures of the city’s heritage of which it is the custodian. Nothing could be more reprehensible than this.   

Photos: Bandana Bagchi 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The contracting Indian economy

Even as a layman uninitiated in the intricacies of macro-economics I get an unmistakable sinking feeling, the same which I used to get during the days of our pseudo-socialism. Prices would rise relentlessly while the incomes would by and large remain stagnant. Whether it was the essentials, the utilities, services or whatever – the price of everything would every year register a rise making survival difficult for us ordinary folks. Despite the progressive enlargement of the government it would seem as if it was helpless; the absence of governance was all too palpable. The financial squeeze was mostly on the vast numbers of poor and the slowly developing middle classes, whereas the politicians, commanding the country’s resources and with their nexus with business and industry, made merry. 

A similar scenario has again been unfolding for some time. Driven, inter alia, by the oil price hikes and high fiscal deficit of 5.1% due to the profligacy of the government in the social sector, the inflation remains unchecked at a high of more than 12%. The government claims that the wholesale price index has since fallen to around 6% which is meaningless as what affects the people is the consumer price index and that refuses to climb down. Food items, in some cases, have registered around a 15% rise. 

Economics and politics have a close inter-relationship and, hence, the current political instability is going to inflict more hardships on the people. The miraculously galloping GDP growth is currently not even on a trot. The growth rate during the last calendar year hovered below 6% with the last quarter registering a mere 4.5% growth – chillingly close to the abysmal “Hindu Rate of Growth” of around 3.5% that persisted for decades during our pseudo-socialist phase. Although reports of emergence of “green shoots” of revival (of the economy) have appeared in the media one cannot put much stock on them as these are all officially engineered to play down the gravity of the economic distress. 

One fears the worst for the next fiscal. The parties supporting the ruling coalition - the United Progressive Alliance – from outside are likely to arm-twist the government to nurse their own constituencies. The government will have no qualms in playing along sacrificing vast sums of money just to keep itself in power. Fiscal prudence or bold economic initiatives cannot be expected from an anaemic, virtually a minority, government. Growth is likely to suffer and the deficits may increase and so will the difficulties of the common man. 

As it is, investments in the manufacturing sector have dried up. Leave alone foreign direct investments, even the indigenous investments are not forthcoming. The climate in India was never attractive for foreign investors. On top of that the March 2012 budget with its proposal of retrospective taxation and General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) made the foreign investors apprehensive of the government’s intentions. Investments from abroad dried up accompanied by flight of capital. Dollars became scarce and the Rupee declined against all currencies and about 18% against the Dollar. Imports became expensive and the problem got compounded by slow-down in exports. The current account deficit ballooned to around a massive $35 billion.

Unsurprisingly India Inc. finds investments abroad to be attractive. It claims that apart from the policy-paralysis that has set in, the dispensation is utterly opaque. Besides, the cost of capital has climbed sky-high and the extant labour laws are forbidding. Predictably, investments abroad by India Inc. during the 2012-13 have surpassed those made in India. Industrial plants are being set up in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe where mergers and acquisitions, too, have become common. Indian manufacturing base is progressively shifting abroad, especially to China, depriving the country of the benefits of creation of jobs and augmentation of product base. It seems it is cheaper for them to import the finished products from there and sell them in the country. Besides, China is flooding our markets with cheap products of virtually all kinds most of which the country surely has the capability to produce.

The already depressing environment has become more depressing for want of jobs. The nine months of 2012 saw a measly 1% growth in the core industrial sector providing hardly any scope for creation of jobs.  Even during the period of rapid growth only about a quarter of 12 million joining the labour force every year had been accommodated. The manufacturing sector had shed 5 million jobs between 2004-05 and 2009-10 but was unable to create jobs for the rural migrants. In absence of significant job-creation one fears social unrest in the future as the “demographic bulge” will pump in ever increasing numbers into the labour markets. The much-touted “demographic dividend” might in fact result in an extended era of crises of joblessness, crimes and social disorder – the “green shoots” of which are already perceivable in the shape of robberies, thefts, snatchings, rapes and murders. The “overarching” goal of 2013-14 budget “to create opportunities for our youth to acquire education and skills that will get them decent jobs or self-employment” will take some time to materialise.

Despite a spate of cases of corruption involving billions of rupees, the government has determinedly not taken steps to institute a strong and independent Lokpal (ombudsman) - quite understandably, as otherwise most of the ministers would find themselves behind the bars. Rampant corruption in high places has encouraged even lower level petty district officials in amassing millions by illegal means. Describing the pervasive corruption the Apex Court very aptly observed recently that it “...accelerates undeserved ambition, kills the conscience...paralyses the economic health ...corrodes the sense of civility and mars the marrows of governance”. No wonder, even clerks and patwaries (lowest level revenue officials) have been nabbed for amassing millions.

The number of crorepaties (millionaires) has multiplied and is far more than the 48000 determined by the Finance Minister for levy of a nominal additional tax. In fact, there are arabpaties (billionaires) numbering more than 48000 whose assets are both concealed and undeclared or are located somewhere in banks abroad. Seeing so many crorepaties everyone wants to become one by hook or by crook. And, on the other hand, numbers of poor and hungry have also ballooned. As the cost of food items escalates a few millions sink below the poverty line every month. Mindboggling sums are being poured into the social sector to mitigate poverty and elevating the level of healthcare but most of it is siphoned off by unscrupulous petty politicians and bureaucrats. Though the fiscal deficit is thus enlarged people do not get respite from poverty and disease.

No efforts are noticeable for price control. While the middlemen in the cartelised mandies (wholesale markets) laugh all the way to the banks the consumers are squeezed dry and the farmers keep committing suicide. Likewise, there is no tangible effort to revive the manufacturing industry and/or bring back the invested capital from abroad. The famed Indian managerial and technical talent, surprisingly, delivers in the US, but not in the country. No effort is being made to harness them for the country’s wellbeing. Worse, the government has made no efforts to have the illegal billions stashed abroad repatriated despite the assurances of help and cooperation by various European governments, including those of Switzerland and Germany. Perhaps, that would have been of help in neutralising the fiscal deficit. But then, it is futile to expect such action from those who themselves are guilty of salting away the country’s stolen wealth abroad. Politics and politicians seem to be devouring this country.

It is such a pity that with renowned economists at the helm for almost a decade there is such all pervasive gloom from which the aam aadmi (common man) can scarcely find escape.

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...