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