Sunday, September 29, 2013

Destinatrion: Malaysia (1981)

Merdeka memorial
On return from Colombo after an overnight stay at Madras we were up on a flight to Kuala Lumpur after suffering the inevitable rigours of the pre-departure formalities. The plane was an old “war horse” of Air India – a decades-old Boeing 707. Its air-conditioning did not work when it sat on the tarmac. We kept sweating in the sweltering heat after having been made to embark. After all, the aircraft had remained parked out in the sizzling Madras sun for some hours. Even after a reasonable wait the thing did not move. Soon, however, it was clear that it was waiting for a VIP. Thankfully, in a few minutes the VIP in the shape of a lean and wiry, smart and handsome Air Chief Marshal Latif arrived and we heard the engines kicking in. In minutes we were up and above over the serene and blue Bay of Bengal.

A KL street
After around three and a half hours we arrived at Kuala Lumpur, KL for short. There were no aerobridges those days. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport was still in the future. The aircraft parked in its allotted parking bay in the old airport. On disembarkation I saw a large number of very wide-bodied, apparently high-capacity buses parked at a little distance away. As the passengers trickled down the craft two of them came and waited nearby. Seeing such unusually wide-bodied buses for the first time I was naturally impressed. As I got into one of them I had good look at the insides. It was pretty cushy and air-conditioned – a rarity in India those days.

A modern mosque
 The bus whisked us to the arrival area where the customs acted pretty tough. Even though they were told by the IIPA Course Director and his counterpart that we were all government servants and that we had a customs collector among us they gave only one concession. Instead of checking every one of us they would check every alternate participant’s baggage. The process adopted would have enabled my bags to skip the check but, no, the customs official detected that faint fragrance of the Colombo cinnamon sticks. Having the case opened he took a couple sticks out and gave them a good, hard sniff. Realising that there was no drug in the baggage he allowed me to close the suit case. We had entered Malaysia when they were running a strict anti-drugs campaign.

We attended a meeting with the secretary planning of Malaysia. It was quite revealing. Among those that have remained imprinted on my mind were two features. One was that the Prime Minister monitored every plan project of and above $10,000 (Malaysian) – the country later changed over to Ringgit. This was something unheard of in India then. Projects would be initiated and, leave alone the PM, no chief minister would check out the progress. It is only earlier this year when the economy was on the verge of collapse that the PM decided to activate the languishing projects and created a committee to monitor their progress. Our ministers get no time for such mundane work; they are too busy politicking.
Green and open spaces of KL

The other point that I still remember is the way they built the roads. The city had as
beautiful roads insude as it had outside. We bussed around over silky asphalt – not a pothole in sight and not a bump. We were told that before a road is laid all the utilities which dig up roads for laying cables or water and sewer pipes are told to plan for twenty years ahead as they would not be allowed to dig up the roads for any purpose during that period. No wonder we went all over the place over velvety roads which we in India haven’t been able to provide even after sixty odd years of independence. For a young Asian nation to provide such superb infrastructure was remarkable.

There were no malls and things yet in KL but it had superb shopping. Petronas towers which I visited years later with my wife, was yet to come up. Our rupee was not as strong but it was strong enough to buy some good stuff. A Malaysian dollar was around Rs.5/- (an US $ was around Rs. 8/-) and consumer goods were cheap. I suppose, the government wanted people to consume. Things that were just not available in India – like electronic stuff from Japan (South Korea had not yet become what it is today) – were there for the taking and cheaply too. But, then we were told Singapore
The Port Dickson beach
was cheaper most of us restrained ourselves, headed as we were towards it after KL.

Over beautiful smooth slate grey asphalt we travelled to Port Dickson sixty kilometres away. For miles on the two sides of the road were rubber plantations – so dense that deep inside them one could see very little light even at midday. I saw a plantation of Lipton. I didn’t know then that the company had interests in rubber as well. We knew it for only Darjeeling tea. I could well imagine how these plantations have all replaced the tropical rain forests with all their bio-diversity as in India.

Port Dickson is located on Straits of Malacca and is a charcoal mining town. Tin ore was also available nearby. The British had, therefore, enlarged the port. There is a fine stretch of beach which has now a number of resorts and hotels. The town is now a bustling tourist’s centre. When we went, however, we found it was quiet and I recall the part of the beach that we visited was devoid of any dollar-spending Western tourists. Perhaps, it was yet to be marketed abroad.

Palm oil plantation
Palm oil has become big business now for Malaysia. When we were in KL the palm oil industry was more or less in its infancy. They had established huge oil palm plantations. We were taken to one and shown around. They had also constructed lovely small houses for the workers. The industry has given to Malaysia very good returns and it now exports the produce in large quantities. India imports both, crude palm oil as well as refined palm kernel oil. The thriving oil palm industry destroyed the habitat of orang-utan, the most intelligent primate. Earlier found in both, Malaysia and Indonesia, they are now confined to the ever-shrinking rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.

Named after the river that flows by, Batu Caves, 13 kilometres outside KL, was then not its garish self that it is today. True, we saw stalactites hanging from the roof and stalagmites rising from the floor creating interesting formations and Hindu shrines in the dark limestone caves that are around 400 metres long and 100 metres high, but there was no Murugan temple there. The photographs that I see now show the cave in totally different light with a huge image of Murugan and the entire complex richly done up with bright lights inside surely making it easier to negotiate the steps. With 800,000 devotees
From inside Batu caves
visiting it during the Thaipusam festival, it has become somewhat like pilgrimage to the Murugan temple in Palani For me it was a tiring climb up the uneven steps inside the caves which were dark, hot and humid. A non-practicing Hindu, I did not find it of much interest except unusual natural features which in later years I came across in Kutumsar in Bastar and in Switzerland. The most satisfying, however, was the green coconut water that I had after the exertions. The huge fruit was taken out of a massive fridge, deftly sliced from the top to show that it was brimming with water that was cold, sweet and delectably refreshing.

The stay in KL was rounded off with a day-long trip to Genting Highlands. It is the only hill resort of Malaysia at a height of around 5000 ft. above sea level and was established in the mid-1960s. Much cooler than KL, we came across bracing weather. What was more, it had a casino. I, too, took my chances and pumped several gambling machines lined up along the walls. The effort yielded nothing and I lost some valuable cash. The casino was perhaps the only diversion around; the small decked up lake with boats and a brightly coloured miniature bridge appeared pretty puerile. I understand, now it is a
Grnting Hieghts
thriving hill station with lots of hotels and resorts. Apart from attempting to conserve the surrounding rain forests, I am told, a beautiful theme park has now been created.

As is well known Malaysian cuisine is a mix of the three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indian – that reside in the country. In addition, it has been influenced by Indonesian and Thai cuisine, making the native cuisine highly exotic. Everything, from pork to beef, chicken, fish and seafood has the same distinctive taste, though one can discern that unmistakable flavour of Indian masala. What I liked best, however, was satay (skewered grilled meat) and the fried chicken I had on the pavement cafes of Jalan Sastroamidjojo The fried chicken was distinctly different from that on offer at the KFC, delightfully spiced and crisp. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to try it again. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Politics of votes - bane for Indian economy

When the rupee hit 58.78 against a dollar earlier this year P Chidambaram, the Indian Finance Minister (FM), while talking to the media said that there was no need to panic as the currency would regain the losses and then stabilize. Among various other issues he talked on was “I am looking forward to more reforms…I expect a number of decisions in the next few days and weeks.” Among the decisions that he expected were on coal and gas pricing, coal allocation to power plants, FDI limits to various sectors including defense, etc. Ruling out any hike in import duty on gold, he appealed to people to resist the temptation to buy gold as that would immediately have positive effect on Current Account Deficit (CAD). Expressing satisfaction over the decline in the fiscal deficit to 4.8 in 2012-13, he said inflation had moderated and the economy was stronger than what it was last year. He ruled out any expenditure compression in the current fiscal and said that the government investments would continue.

While he tried in vain to put up a brave face it all seemed to be hollow. His efforts and those of the government proved to be futile as things kept sliding out of their hands. The rupee kept losing against the dollar and other major currencies, the current account and fiscal deficits kept mounting and the consumer price index spiraled out of control.

As the rupee declined and the stock market tanked the foreign, capital in debt and equity tapered off and the country lost the confidence of foreign investors. Added to it were the growing expectations that the US Federal Reserve would scale back its bond purchases soon enough slowing the flow of cheap money into higher yielding overseas assets. The rumours were a big blow as foreign money just gushed out of the country depressing the stock market hitting the rupee further. More bad  news came in with the GDP registering an alarming 4.4% growth in the first quarter of the current fiscal – slowest in four years. All the sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, power, etc. grew only at around 3%.

In the pervasive gloom France’s biggest listed bank BNP Paribas SA pegged down India’s growth in 2013-14 from its earlier prediction of 5.7% to 3.7% - perilously close to the pre-reforms much disparaged Hindu rate of growth of 3.5%. The brave front put up by the FM melted away in no time and the man who was asking the country not to panic, seemed to in the midst of a panic attack. As things became desperate he admitted that fiscal deficit and CAD were getting out of hand and exports had tapered off and the rate of inflation refused to climb down – putting a great squeeze on the poor and middle classes. Despite declaring himself earlier against expenditure compression there was talk of austerity in the government – without any signs of it anyway.

Playing the unusual ministerial blame-game, the FM blamed his predecessor, who is now the President of the country, for certain wrong decisions taken between 2009 and 2011 hinting at his budget speech of 2012 proposing amendment to the Income Tax Act enabling taxation on off-shore mergers and acquisition of Indian assets with retrospective effect (Raghuram Rajan, the new Governor of the Indian Central Bank, termed it a “capricious” decision) to overturn Supreme Court’s judgment. The foreign investors became suspicious of India’s intentions and avoided entering the country with investments big or small as established laws and policies could be changed overnight because of one man’s whims. Curiously the Prime Minister failed to foresee the implications and did not intervene.

Repeating ad nauseum that the fundamentals of the economy were sound and that the rupee would soon regain its loss did not help and the currency rolled down fast and hit the 68 mark. As it did so the three economists in the government went into a huddle to parley with the Prime Minister’s economic adviser. In the meantime, however, desperate actions like hiking of import duty on gold was taken, simultaneously imposing a ban on sale of gold coins, medallions, etc. was imposed. Desperately looking for foreign investments the government relaxed (with unwise conditions) FDI caps in 13 sectors including the telecom. The telecom shares promptly registered a rise.

Inheriting a fast growing and robust economy from the National Democratic Alliance government in 2004, the United Progressive Alliance, attempting something different, squandered the opportunity of taking it forward and messed it up by virtually taking a U turn in going in for “inclusive growth” which did not materialise in its nine-year rule, anyway. By its own admission, 87% of people need subsidized food in 2013. In 2004 the CAD was in surplus and the forex reserves were in surplus vis-à-vis net external debt. Today while the reserves have shrunk to around $270-280 billion the government has run up an external debt of $390 billion. The consumer price index (CPI) was around 3-4% and today it has hit 11% with food inflation at 18%. Many have been tempted to relate the current economic situation to that of 1991 with high fiscal and current account deficits, high interest rates and CPI, capital flight due to waning investor confidence, trade imbalances, burgeoning external debt etc.

The government played around with the riches it inherited in 2004 and indulged in profligacy. Not only it launched the MNREGA and JNNURM involving billions of rupees with nothing much to show for asset-creation – giving fillip to corruption. It also waived off farmers’ loans and bailed out the sick Air India. It even permitted massive outflow of dollars for buying property abroad by the rich.

Experts see the current economic predicament as the consequences of high profile corruption scandals involving mindboggling sums of money, eventual policy paralysis slowing down many key economic decisions and, of course, political gridlock. With nothing much achieved, the government continued to dither ruining the once-promising economy. With coffers full, it took the socialistic path to win votes forgetting that 50 years of socialism did not take the country anywhere – regardless of “garibi hatao” campaign. Poverty and hunger cannot be removed overnight by opiates. Only industrialisation can remove them as it did in the West two centuries ago, in Japan a century back and now in China. Even in India millions were lifted out of poverty during the years of high growth after its economic reforms in 1991.

FM recently announced a slew of inconsequential austerity measures like banning meetings in 5-star hotels, purchase of new vehicles, creation of new jobs and filling of vacant posts, restriction on foreign travels, size of delegations going abroad. Besides, ministries have been asked to reduce 10% of their respective non-plan expenditure. These are mere tokenisms and are not likely to make a dent on the current economic disaster. Unless subsidies, including on food, are taken care of nothing much will be achieved.

Chidambaram and Co. are too obsessed with votes and building vote banks. Country’s economy requires hard decisions keeping the country’s future prosperity in view and not the votes ruling combine can muster at the hustings. Political manipulation of the economy has been the bane of the country and, unfortunately, one hasn’t seen the last of it yet.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pollution Control Board reacts to ToI report on Upper Lake

After Times of India published the other day that photograph of filth and discarded plastic on the shore of the Upper Lake near the Boat Club one found for the first time the local Pollution Control Board (PCB) reacting in print in the shape of a write-up authored by its superintending engineer. It urged the youth to “blot out bane of Upper Lake”

While articulating a few truisms he said that “ban on non-biodegradable polythene at the Boat Club is the need of the hour… as that was the only way out to save our scarce and priceless water sources”. He further said “ever since the Lake became the centre of attraction for tourists from Bhopal and outside they come in droves and leave behind lots of plastic waste including polythene bags. Hotels, restaurants and road-side kiosks lining the stretch of road along the Upper Lake … add to the problem”.

The environmentally sensitive people of Bhopal must be grateful to the engineer as the write-up indicates that the PCB is aware of the problem. But nothing has been mentioned about what it is going to do about the problem. He has only indulged in exhortations without realizing that the days for such inanities are, sadly, long past. What is needed is action, and more of it That the PCB has certain responsibilities to protect the environment and wetlands, especially the one in Bhopal which, he admits, “is a major source of drinking water for the better part of the city” find no mention.

One, therefore, feels that it needs to be told a few home truths. In the matter relating to conservation of this important water body there have been a series acts of omissions on its part. These are:

-        The engineer has not mentioned that whether the Board has ever strongly recommended to the state government to ban the use of polythene bags, more specifically near important water bodies

-        It never advised the MP State Tourism Development Corporation not to encourage assembly of large crowds near the Lake

-        The Pollution Control Board never prevented opening and establishment of eateries on the Lake View road though it must have been aware that such eateries are a strict no-no near a wetland, more so, near a drinking water source.

-        It never stopped the plying of motorised boats on this Lake though it is aware such boats pollute the Lake. It even cleared years ago plying of a floating restaurant on it which defied all logic. Like advising the youth against the use of polythene bags it has not even suggested to them not to go for rides on motor boats.

-        Failing to initially advise the government not to make it a hub of local tourism it never seems to have ever protested against installations of specimens of locomotive and a naval warship on the Lake shore to attract more visitors.

-        While there may be some other failures what were more glaring were its inability to prevent increasing human activity near the Important Bird Area of the Wetland by permitting establishment of National Institute of Sports and Sair Sapata outfits close to the Lake. It cannot deny that it is aware of the fact that a wetland is affected most by what happens in its catchments. These developments predictably resulted in shrinking numbers of migratory birds. The Lake had been recognized as a Ramsar Site only because birds from far away countries used to fly in in large numbers to roost.

In view of the above the PCB can be held to be largely, if not wholly, responsible for the current degraded condition of the Upper Lake. If, however, it had made suitable recommendations to the government in regard to these matters and its advice was not acted upon let it place the facts before the people to enable them to know who precisely is or are responsible for pollution of this vital water body.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Item numbers" eat up dollars

A report the other day appeared a little weird in the context of a veritable financial emergency with uncontrolled current account deficit and the rupee heavily losing against the dollar. It said that Sonaxi Sinha, a film actress, was contracted for six crores for an “item number” by a producer of a Hindi film. “Item
Deepika Padukone in an "Item number"
numbers” are raunchy dance numbers with a skimpily dressed lead female dancer supported by many other women wearing similar, if not skimpier, dresses. Sonaxi Sinha’s contract was not worrisome; what was, however, worrying was the producer’s intention of hiring 600 dancers from abroad (presumably white women) to accompany Sonaxi in the dance number. (One wonders how the choreographer is going to fit them within the frame.) This suggested total unconcern for the current pathetic economic situation of the country. Dollars are scarce and the government is trying to control the import of oil and gold, the two commodities on which the country has been heavily spending in dollars, with a view to checking their outgo.

One might argue that Bollywood has tremendous following abroad and the Indian Diaspora just loves it making it a substantial dollar-earner. In 2006 its earnings were reckoned as $1.75 billion which was estimated to rise in 2010 to $3.4 billion. The amount is substantial but some, if not most, of it is not repatriated to the country. Financing in Bollywood is mostly shady, coming largely from unorganised sector like a few moneybags, jewellers and even the underworld. Whatever a film earns in dollars is mostly kept by financiers abroad. There is very little for the government in it.There is little for the viewers too barring some titillation and yet the film makers are able to fill their coffers.

 Maybe, the most of the payments for the 600 dancers for dancing along with Sonaxi will be met out of whatever has been parked abroad from previous earnings.The mechanics of the payment to the 600 dancers is not known. Whether they would be brought to India and paid in rupees (which is highly unlikely) or paid abroad in dollars is not known. In either case, there is
Another "item number" in progress
going to be a substantial outgo of dollars. In addition, there will be other necessary incidental expenses which will also have to be met in dollars. The film producer is surely going to seek substantial amounts of dollars from the government very little of which is going to earn any returns for it, putting pressure on its dollar reserves.

Such unconcern for the precarious finances of the country is deplorable. Mismanagement of our forex reserves, as we have seen, has put enormous pressure on the country’s economy causing all round rise in prices. This affects everyone – you, me and the next man who may not be able afford even otherwise a square meal. With soaring prices things have become impossible. And, worse, there is no end to it in sight in the short term.

It is true that the government is entirely responsible for the mess But the current situation is kind of fait accompli. Yet,m the country has to come out of it and everyone has to lend a helping hand. One, therefore, feels that such thoughtless actions of some of our people need to be condemned in strongest possible terms.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Increasing pollution in the Upper Lake

The other day the Times of India reported the increasing pollution in Bhopal’s Upper Lake. It is choking with discarded plastic bags, bottles and other non-biodegradable waste. The Boat Club area is visited by hordes of people and they thoughtlessly leave behind waste unmindful of the consequences on the very water they might be drinking.

The Times of India’s “I lead India” campaigners have decided to clean up the 2 km stretch along the Boat Club as things have assumed serious proportions. This, however, will not help unless measures are undertaken to prevent pollution and cleaning it up on a regular continuing basis.

Apart from the wastes that are deposited every day by the visitors the Lake receives more than 140 tonnes of solid wastes in direct or indirect form. Limnologists, who have studied the quality of the water of the Lake, have now opined that its consumption is risky for humans. With so much of waste being pumped into the Lake, they fear, its waters will lose potability in (not too distant) future. If that happened it would be a serious setback to water availability in Bhopal 40% people of which are dependent on it for their water. Already, the researchers have found that aquatic life of the Lake has seriously been affected and a decline in its flora and fauna has been noticed.

The Municipal Corporation, the custodian of the Lake, has failed to take care of it. Over the last few years it had initiated crores-worth of projects to stop the inflow of solid wastes from drains that empty into the Lake but with remarkable failure. It banned the plying of motorised boats in the Lake years ago but has failed to implement it. No wonder, motorised boats and the cruise boat ply in the Lake regularly with impunity. One could hardly ever come across a more worthless civic body.

The mounting accumulation of filth and pollutants in the Boat Club area is a gift to the people of Bhopal from the minister of urban administration with whom the local Tourism Corporation admirably collaborated. Much against the well-accepted environmental norms they have, together, literally campaigned to get more visitors to the Boat Club area and consequently more filth pollutants in the Lake. Though they claim they were trying to get more tourists but the efforts resulted in hordes of local visitors landing up regularly at the Lake front only to pollute it. The minister went out of his way to get a vintage steam locomotive installed near the Lake along with a model of a naval warship to attract visitors. One wonders as to why he didn’t get an air force plane and a vintage omnibus for the Lake-side decor. The Tourism Corporation even organised functions at the Boat Club to get hundreds of people to witness the “tamashas” they staged even though a surfeit of venues is available in the town for holding such jamborees using the fig leaf of creating awareness among people for conservation of the water body.

Besides, with encouragement from the minister the Tourism Corporation created a massive amusement facility, “sair sapata” at Prempura close to the Important Bird Area of the Lake unmindful of the consequences on the Lake . Predictably, most of the migratory species have since given up the Upper Lake for roosting threatening the Wetland’s Ramsar status. (Birdlife International should take a note of It)The Ramsar organisation recognises a wetland as a Ramsar site only if it provides favourable conditions for domestic and migratory water fowl which the Upper Lake now fails to do.

The local government has been indulging in doublespeak. While claiming concern for the Upper Lake it has practically shelved all efforts towards its conservation. Even the development and conservation plan prepared at its instance by the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad has been kept under wraps till the next elections. The local people should realise that the Upper Lake and the Bhoj Wetland is under serious threat. I have been constantly writing about it for the last ten years or so. But there has been no change in the official attitude. The Bhoj Wetland Project – a 5-year project that ran for 9 years up to 2004 – achieved precious little. The advent of the new government in 2004 did not make a difference and, in fact, later it enhanced threats to the Lake. It should now be realised that soon the water body as we know it may cease to exist. It cannot be business as usual any more. The need of the hour is to arrange to have people’s pressure exerted on the government for effective action for conservation of the water body.

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