DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Friday, August 30, 2013

Netas in our netaland




“I spoke to Mulayam-ji at 10.30 PM. Then I spoke to CM (chief minister) Akhilesh Yadav. And at 11.11 PM the Collector received the SDM’s suspension order – within 41 minutes the order came. This is the strength of democracy” thundered Narendra Bhati, a Samajwadi Party member, in a rally he organised at Gautam Budh Nagar in NOIDA  in the state of Uttar Pradesh on July 28, 2013.

Narendra Bhati is also a Member of the UP Legislative Assembly and an aspiring parliamentarian. He was bragging about the way he got the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of New Okhla Industrial Development Area (NOIDA), Durga Sakti Nagpal a young Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, placed under suspension for allegedly having a wall demolished of a mosque coming up on a government plot of land in a village in her jurisdiction. Mercifully, he claimed that his actions symbolised triumph, presumably over the uppity IAS bureaucracy, of democracy, not his own. What he did not mention, however, was that he had enormous controlling interests in the allegedly illegal sand mining in rivers of the district which she (the SDM) cracked down upon incurring his wrath and that of his cohorts in the sand-mining mafia.

The story is indicative of two facts one of which is the way the young, honest and idealistic officers working with missionary zeal for the nation’s wellbeing in accordance with law are broken in to fall in line with the “system” so that the crooked political class could ride them on their back. All their angularities and idealisms are blunted and, finding themselves insecure, most become part of the “system”. The “system”, corrupt and anti-people, is designed and put in place by unscrupulous netas (leaders) like Bhati and bureaucrats who happened to have succumbed to their pressures forgetting about all their ideals or whatever they had joined the government with. Numerous instances have been reported of bureaucrats giving up their initial fervour under the threat of frequent capricious and penal transfers, suspensions or even more severe actions against them for not toeing the line of netas. Choosing softer options they act as handmaidens of self-serving netas and assist them in their nefarious activities.   

The second fact that emerges in high relief is the way crooked politicians operate for personal gain and gains for their cronies interfering with unbiased administration, playing around with innocent bureaucrats’ careers. Over the years the netas have emerged ever stronger so much so that they can twist and bend the laws and established procedures to their personal advantage. Threats and intimidation are often taken recourse to against bureaucratic objections to get their way that is mostly irregular or even illegal. In government establishments in India nothing moves without their approval, more so in the states and their acts are mostly oriented to milking the system. Even netas outside the governing machinery have acquired a say in regard to practically every aspect of administration effectively neutralising the bureaucratic process and the Rule of Law.  

They have become so power-obsessed that they do not want any check on them and their unethical and irregular activities. The Lokpal (Ombudsman) bill is a glaring example; they have stalled it for around forty five years – an enactment that would have objectively looked into their shenanigans. Even the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation has been a bone of contention as the government of the day would not want to let go of its control over it as it is often let loose on people considered inconvenient. Besides, it is used to settle scores with its opponents and, in the current coalition era, to keep a sword hanging over corrupt netas whose support is vital for sustenance of a precariously perched government. Anna Hazare’s movement in 2011 movement was all about this vital agency but he was fobbed off by parliamentarians with a clever subterfuge. Now even the Apex Court is attempting to free it from government control. Quite obviously, in the event of it being unchained, numerous politicians – big and petty – and many legislators in the states and at the Centre would go where they legally belong – behind the bars, criminals as they all are.

No wonder, members of parliament across the entire political spectrum, who generally keep snapping at each other, have exhibited rare unity in agreeing to enact a law that negates the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the iniquitous provision in the Representation of People’s Act that protects a convicted member from disqualification on ground of pendency of appeal. The ruling alliance headed by the Congress is very clearly out to prevent criminals from going to jail! It is such a pity that the party that spearheaded the Freedom Struggle epitomising observance of strict morality in politics has come to plumb such depths of un-ethicality and pursue politics devoid of any values.

Again, MPs displayed the same rare unity in asking the government to amend the Right to Information Act to keep political parties out of its purview. The Central Information Commissioner (CIC) had brought six major political parties under the Act being recipients of government largesse. It hit them where it hurts most as most of them have shady dealings and none has ever declared the sources of their funds. Besides, they also harbour criminals on the basis of their utility in fund-raising and winnability.  As the CIC decision shattered their opacity bringing all their fishy activities in public domain all of them were up in arms against him.  
The netas always gang up whenever their interests are at stake. The former Lok Sabha speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, had been pleading for constitution of an independent body to determine the pay and allowances of the legislators. Stonewalling the reasonable suggestion they made extravagant demands for their pay-hike. Eventually, in 2010 they voted hefty hikes in their pay, allowances and perquisites so much so that the government now is estimated to be spending Rs. 61 crore (6 billion) per annum on each MP. No wonder, more than half of the MPs and many legislators in the states are crorepaties (multimillionaires). And, yet apart from their high salaries, earnings from personal businesses and yields from illegal and corrupt activities, they have no shame in partaking food and beverages from the Parliament canteen at heavily subsidised and ridiculously low rates.

In view of their despicable conduct politicians have come to be viewed with contempt and as proverbial “scoundrels”. Most of them are corrupt to the core and not only crooked, they are also criminals having criminal charges filed against them or have even been convicted. They effectively interfere in the process of balanced administration and have successfully subverted the Rule of Law. Their main occupation seems to be to exploit the system, expropriate undue perks and privileges, plunder the state’s resources, make illegal money any which way using their status to enrich themselves and buy votes in order to return to power again and again. Their immorality has prevented economic progress of the country and in many ways it has percolated down to the society at large bringing down the once-shining image of the country. It is mainly because of their corrupt ways that the country figures near the bottom in the international corruption index.

Democracy, ironically, has been largely vitiated by the very people who are supposed to work it. Unfortunately, the country seemingly has slipped unwittingly into a highly iniquitous and corrupt oligarchy of the political class which has appropriated power, privileges and riches at the expense of the state to the exclusion of all others, destroying everything their predecessors, the nation builders, stood for. Their overwhelming presence doesn’t seem to allow alleviation from the current predicament of the country in the near future.

Monday, August 26, 2013

DESTINATIONS: COLOMBO (1981)




While stationed at Nagpur in March 1980 I was asked by my departmental headquarters for my willingness to undergo training at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA). As I had been at Nagpur for more than two and a half years and as I had never undergone any kind of training after the Foundational Course in the National Academy of Administration around couple of decades earlier I readily conveyed my willingness. I was told it would fetch some extra money in the shape of deputation allowance and that there could also be a short trip abroad. An extra Rs. 300/- may appear like peanuts today but in the days of salaries of a thousand and odd it was substantial. And the lure of going abroad then was immense as one could hardly go out of the country on one’s own.

The orders took a while in coming. It was held up in June in the PMO because of unexpected death of Sanjay Gandhi. Naturally for a few days such minor matters as that of training of mid-level civil servants were pushed into the background. Nevertheless, the orders arrived in time for me to join what is known as Advanced Professional Programme on Public Administration (APPPA) – a programme of nine months for mid-career training in administration and management. That eventually it turned out to be a programme mostly for those ‘hangers on’ of pretty senior levels who either were not willing to go out of Delhi or were not acceptable anywhere in the government is another story. There were very few of my kind.

Towards the end of 1980 we were told that the foreign trip was on and that it would cover three neighbouring countries. So in March 1981 we were off to Colombo via Madras on my first trip abroad. Going past the customs in those days was a big hassle and camera, if any, had to be noted down in the passport to be checked again on arrival back. The meagre foreign exchange sanctioned was already noted there. For a 50 minute flight more time was taken in completing the pre-departure formalities. We were in a highly controlled and virtually sealed country and yet, ironically, smuggling was rampant of items that had heavy customs duty imposed on them. 

As the flight approached Colombo it appeared as if we were flying over a carpet of green. So dense was the plantation of coconut palms right through that it appeared like green baize. The Colombo airport appeared much better organised than what our Palam was in those days. There were well arranged rows of shops and for the first time I saw orchids. These were being sold from a shop stuffed with a variety of exotic flowers and among them were the orchids. Sri Lanka is reputed to have 150-odd species of orchids.

The local High Commission had arranged for our stay in the Sri Lanka Oberon hotel – a five-star outfit. I was put in a good room with a huge ceiling-to-floor window overlooking green spaces skirting which I periodically see a light rail puffing by. My companion in the double room was P Upendra, then of the Indian Railways, who later became a politico, eventually becoming the right-hand man of NT Rama Rao and later of VP Singh in whose government at the Centre he was appointed the Minister for Information & Broadcasting.

The Hotel was fabulous but our allowances did not allow us to avail of all its facilities. We used to get what in those days was known as the split rate – the hotel being paid for by the High Commission/Embassy and a highly inadequate balance was disbursed to us that made even taking breakfast in it unaffordable. We had to perforce eat out off the small street joints which – unlike ours – were clean, hygienic and well-regulated. Their prawn curry was fiery but delicious.

A visit to the department of public administration the next day was very rewarding. The Secretary of the department was very knowledgeable, articulate and suave. Perhaps an Oxonian, he didn’t have that Sri Lankan slant. A very clear-headed man, he gave us a superb coverage in a few minutes about all that his department was doing for appointments of personnel, their training and administration. 

Later, we happened to visit the small Academy of Administrative Studies which was an establishment like our IIPA but far too small. It used to train freshers as well as those already in the government. With the IIPA in Delhi perhaps they need not have duplicated the facilities. It, however, became pretty clear the Lankans were not quite prepared to   Curiously, the Sri Lankan government did not send any officer in our APPPA although we had two Bangladeshi officers and another of the Malaysian Administrative & Diplomatic services, a Chinese Malaysian. Perhaps, they found India too “Big Brotherly”. In word and deed the Indian government may have on certain occasion(s) given them that impression advertently or inadvertently.
Cargill's in Fort, Colombo
seek assistance of India in such matters. From conversations with them I surmised that they much preferred to get their officers trained in England in administrative matters and for technical matters Japan was the country for them. For research in matters relating to, say, rice they sent their agricultural scientists to Japan when they had a Rice Research Institute closer home in India.

Japan was a country with which they had, apparently, very close relations. Japan was in those days mecca of technology. Its technological boom was, however, missed by India because of, inter alia, our xenophobia. In Sri Lanka they were very much in business then and, for instance, they had put up a Noritake pottery with local collaboration. Noritake, as is well-known, is a famous name the world over for its fine bone-china and porcelain tableware. Noritake Sri Lanka, too, was producing stuff which the best of Indian pottery could not have matched at that time. 

Most interesting, however, was the spice market. I am forgetting its name. Perhaps it was Pettah Market. Sri Lanka, like South India, produces all kinds of spices of superb quality. I had never before seen spices, particularly, cardamom, cloves or cinnamon of this quality and in such quantities. Most of the participants, including myself, bought spices of our choice. One of us bought a kilo of cloves, a quantity that came in a huge paper bag. The small quantity of fragrant cinnamon that I had bought put me in a bit of trouble a few days later in Kuala Lumpur. Such was its aroma that the airport police there got suspicious and had my baggage opened up for inspection.

The Fort area of Colombo is the Central business district and appears more like Fort Bombay. The buildings are similar looking housing banks, commercial establishments, hotels, government departments and offices. A department store by the name Cargill’s was located in one of the impressive British-era buildings. On our last afternoon in Colombo I walked into it with all that was left of the local currency. Pitching on some cosmetics I bought a few items for my wife. Back in Delhi, we later found that they were mostly made in India.
A little ahead is Galle Face Green that has lawns stretching for long distances facing the sea. The place was, it seems, cleared by the Dutch long ago to enable a clear line of fire for the canons located in the nearby Fort. A beautiful place that is ideal for an evening stroll and some delectable hot and spicy snacks.    
In an outing we were also taken to the Mount Lavinia Beach not very far away. It is a largely middle class residential area but is famous for its Golden Mile of beaches and hence a hotspot for tourism. We saw a fairly large number of Western tourists lolling on the sands or wading into the sea. Most of them were Germans who reportedly liked the Sri Lankan sun and sand as also its delectable cuisine. This was before Sri Lankan Tourism, in collaboration with Sri Lankan Airways, did some aggressive marketing and commenced poaching of international tourists from India. The aggressive tourism effort, however, dissipated with the onset of Tamil resistance that eventually assumed proportions of a civil war. One can see now signs of revival of tourism. After all, it used to be one of the mainstays of the country’s economy. 

Mount Lavinia has been named after Lavina, a mestizo dancer, whose smile captivated Sir Matland who was Governor General of Ceylon from 1805 to 1811. The couple used to indulge in secret escapades, meeting in the Governor General’s house. The village that surrounded the Governor General’s mansion developed into a bustling suburb and was named after Lavina.

A short sojourn as it was, it was pleasant way of getting out of the country for the first time – part official and part touristic. Soon it was time to get back to Madras on our next leg of the tour – to South East Asia.


Note: Having somehow misplaced all my photographs of Colombo I have one taken from the Internet. 



           

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mafias plunder India's sands




The yellow river-sand is turning out to be no less than gold. There is a veritable ‘sand-rush’ and those who have been able to plunder have become millionaires overnight. The demand for the stuff is seemingly insatiable with construction lobby willing to go to any length to get at it. The mostly black-money financed construction has witnessed unabated, hectic rise all over the country and added to that are the government
Illegal sand mining in NOIDA
infrastructure projects. Reports are coming from the far corners of the country about the loot that is going on of sand from river beds, their banks and coastal beaches. The diminutive sand even assumed the role of currency and played skewed “sand for Vote” role in Moga during the elections to the Punjab legislative assembly earlier this year. The problem is so acute that environmentalists have asked the government for conducting research to find an alternative for sand. Well organised mafias under the patronage of the powerful politicians are hard at work excavating mostly illegal sands for sand-hungry builders and construction companies. Whosoever comes in their way is brought to harm – sometimes with fatal consequences.

The most recent example is that of Durga Sakti Nagpal, a young Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer functioning as Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of the New Okhla Industrial Development Area (NOIDA) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) who took on the sand mafia operating in the flood plains of Yamuna River. A local member of the UP legislative assembly having substantial interests in the operations brazenly claimed to have had the SDM placed under suspension within 41 minutes at the dead of night on the orders of the chief minister. A frightful storm is blowing as a result. Not only the bureaucracy is up in arms, the local ruling party has even taken on the Centre for its moves to intervene in the matter.

 The SDM was lucky since the mafia did not harm her physically. Soon after her suspension a crusader against illegal sand mining in the same district was shot dead while asleep at home.  Earlier in March 2012 a young and brave Indian Police Service officer was crushed under the wheels of a tractor-trolley loaded with illegally mined sand from River Chambal in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh (MP). Numerous reports
Illegal sand mining in Adilabad, Maharashtra
have appeared in the press about illegal sand mining operations in UP, MP, Maharashtra, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal, Uttarakhand, etc. where the mafia have displayed violent proclivities. Two prominent environmentalists of Mumbai have written to the Minister for Environment & Forests (MoEF) that well organised mafias are prepared to kill public-spirited individuals if they interfered with their illegal activities. Law enforcement authorities are helpless as the mafias have intimate links with politicians in power as exemplified by the NOIDA incident where the ruling party is all set to fight it out with the Centre.

Illegal sand mining is a very profitable business. In the NOIDA, Greater NOIDA and Ghaziabad areas the construction activity is progressing at a frenetic pace and the realtors are always in the lookout for cheaper sand. The mafias are concentrating on the mines of Yamuna, Hindon and Ganges Rivers. No royalty is paid on the sand illegally excavated or dredged from the beds of these rivers. While a dumper-full of licensed sand is worth Rs. 20000/- the same volume of unlicensed sand is sold for half that amount to the realtors.
Besides if they have permit for one, they land ten dumpers or trucks earning huge profits. It is the builders who benefit most from illegal sand and with their deep nexus with the powerful and influential politicians regardless of their political colour are able to negate the rule of law. In UP, for instance, the current government of Samajwadi Party and its predecessor Bahujan Samaj Party, both turned a blind eye to the ongoing plunder of sand from ecologically sensitive flood plains of the State’s major rivers. They have, over the years, brazenly ignored the orders of the Supreme Court that mining of minor minerals – sand being one – from even less than 5 hectares of land would require environmental clearance.

Mining in Goa
In their hunger for power and riches the politicians and their allies in the underworld have developed only contempt for environmental protection. They consider it to be an obstruction in the pursuit of their activities that are nefarious by any standard. But none can touch them as they happen to wield power and influence. This situation obtains virtually in every state of the Union. In Maharashta illegal sand mining has been declared a crime under the tough Maharashtra Control on Organised Crime Act and yet despite ceaseless denudation of sands from the state’s coastline adversely impacting its morphology and bio-diversity not one mafioso has been nabbed – such is their clout. In MP the chief minister’s own brother is reportedly active in illegal mining in River Narmada.

One wonders whether the Ministry at the Centre and governments in the states appreciate the serious damage that is being caused to the river systems in the country by unchecked sand-mining. According to experts, reckless mining activities can cause physical harm to the river or stream by erosion of channel bed and banks, increase in channel gradient, and change in channel morphology. These impacts may cause the undercutting and collapse of river banks,  the loss of adjacent land and/or structures, upstream erosion as a result of an increase in channel slope and changes in flow velocity, and downstream erosion due to increased carrying capacity of the stream, downstream changes in patterns of deposition, and changes in channel bed and habitat type.

Mining with heavy equipment like dredgers for removal of channel substrate results in re-suspension of streambed sediment, clearance of vegetation, and stockpiling on the streambed. All these have ecological impacts leading to direct loss of stream habitat, disturbances of species hosted by streambed deposits, reduced light penetration and reduced feeding opportunities, adversely impacting the native riverine
biodiversity. That the failure of men and machines in preventing oil leaks, in uncontrolled dumping or stockpiling of overburden cause poisoning of aquatic organisms and fouling up of the water quality need hardly be emphasised.

Sand mining in Rajahmundri, Andhra Pradesh
Excessive sand-mining from rivers is also accompanied by plummeting ground water tables in the riparian zones. This has happened in Kerala, Andhra and several other states and may also well happen in such zones of Yamuna, Hindon and Ganges, rendering agriculture a losing proposition raising the question of livelihood in the areas.

With outright and brazen breaches of the orders of the Apex Court in regard to licensing of mining of minor minerals in less than 5 hectares of land only after environmental clearance the National Green Tribunal, thankfully, has also got into the act in reinforcing the orders. Hopefully, the states will wake up and enforce the extant orders and decisions or else India’s rivers might suffer irreparable harm subjecting the people to untold privations.

Photos: from the Internet