DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

BHOPAL'S SHAME

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The vernacular press has been reporting for the last few days the
A snacks & soft drinks stall in Bhopal
checks that are being carried out by the local food safety inspectors and their findings of utterly damnable conditions in which food items are prepared for being put out for sale.

The news of the inspectors witnessing washing of raw items of vegetables in sewer water – plain and simple sewage, before sending them off to the market was alarming. This is done by the vegetable growers in their farms close to an area (E-8 Extension Arera Colony) where plushest of gated complexes have come up. That the vegetables that are sent out for sale washed in this manner will be harmful for those who consume them did not seem to have occurred to the farmers and those who do the washing in such sordid and filthy conditions. A report also said that these farms are irrigated by sewage that flows in the drains that pass by. So what most of the Bhopal citizens are consuming are various coli forms and other harmful organisms along with the vegetables.

What the food safety inspectors did was to collect samples of vegetables and greens and send them for a scientific analysis to Indore, a little less than 200 kms away. And, instead of ordering closure of the farms, they are now reported to be instructing, gratuitously, the farm-owners and their workers about what all could happen if such stuff is consumed. No legal process has so far been initiated though it is a clear case of wilfully and knowingly attempting to physically harm people and causing injury to their health.

Earlier, a similar squad of food safety inspectors had raided a few fruit juice stalls and kitchens of some nondescript eateries. While at the juice stalls the squad found rotten apples, pomegranates and other fruits and unclean equipment, at the eateries it found kitchens that were filthy and dirty men working therein with bare unclean hands. Using bare hands to handle food items is a peculiarity in this country. Leave alone the West even in many countries of the neighbourhood bare hands are no longer used even by roadside food sellers. But we seem to think people needlessly make a big fuss about the use of bare hands and refuse to see the rationale behind use of protective gloves.

 The sequence of events shows a very casual official approach towards this vital matter. Almost every individual has to buy snacks or food from the market sometime or other and yet it is fraught with risks to one’s health. There is hardly any check when, in fact, it should be of an intense kind. There is rampant indifference mixed with ignorance about hygiene and cleanliness in dealing with food in bazaars. Here, everybody and anybody can hawk on the streets home-made stuff or open a stall for juice or snacks without any check on quality and the environment they are made in. No wonder, the latest reports indicate an increase in numbers of patients of intestinal disorders in local hospitals. The rotting and infected food stuffs become pretty lethal when the ambient temperature crosses 400 Celsius.

Quite apparently, our people are increasingly becoming callous towards others. Concern for others is a virtue which has almost disappeared. Everyone has become self-centred, busy in taking care of his own interests; others could literally go to hell. No wonder, cases of adulteration in food products are on the rise as was noticed two years ago in case of khoa (thickened milk) during the festive season. Whether those who were nabbed in northern India are undergoing jail sentences or not is not known. Maybe, the cases are still lingering on. Not only the laws are weak, the judicial system is also rusty. And, on top of it all, the Food Safety Organisation is poorly staffed, with not enough number of men and laboratories.


While consuming juices and snacks from stalls can be avoided but buying of vegetable from the bazaar cannot be avoided. One cannot make out from their appearance whether fruits and vegetables bought were washed in filthy water, were artificially ripened or they acquired that unlikely sheen with the help of harmful chemicals or have had an overdose of pesticides. It is the government and public bodies which can and should carry out these checks on a regular basis. But there is such a huge deficit in governance that all these vital functions are not bestowed the required degree of importance. As a result we are building up a sick nation – hollow from inside with hardly any endurance. It is such a shame!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rising numbers of Stray dogs in Bhopal


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Almost all the local newspapers have come out to cover the menace of stray dogs in Bhopal. Yesterday the Times of India published a feature on the subject. That the Bhopal Municipal Corporation is unequal to the problem posed by them need not be emphasised. The Municipality has hardly ever been able to do any of the items in its charter with competence and efficiency. All of us face problems everyday of our lives because of the failures of the civic body. I, for one, find my freedom of movements restricted because the flyover that is under constructed now for months on a nearby vital square that provides an outlet to the other side of the town. In the process the roads have not only been narrowed considerably, they are also full of ditches and function as effective spine-breakers and car-wreckers. That, however, is another story.

The Bhopal Citizens’ Forum has been pursuing this matter of stray dogs with the Municipal Corporation. What it has been offered in the process are only hopes to deal with the problem effectively. When will that actually materialise is anybody’s guess. They seem to be banking on a project of Rs. 6 crore that is under formulation for taking care of the city’s stray animals. Given its level of incompetence, by the time that facility comes up the population of the stray dogs could reach 4 lakhs from the current estimated 40 or 50000.

While the practice of liquidating stray dogs has been given up as a matter of policy, the facilities of sterilisation have not kept pace with the rise in their numbers. We seem to forget that ours are Indian stray dogs and they breed just as we do – prolifically. Given the large litters that they produce, the Municipal Corporation would probably never be able to catch up on their sterilisation with its much less than adequate financial, veterinary and human resources. It will always be for it a chasing game of an unattainable target and, as reports indicate, incidences of dog-bite have already gone up and are expected to rise exponentially. The problem is also compounded by inadequacy or non- availability of anti-rabies vaccines; one tends to prognosticate that the situation will worsen in the future when hydrophobia spreads like an epidemic affecting increasing numbers of people.

Ethical treatment of our fellow-animals is understandable. But, the situation should not be allowed to get out of control like what has happened in Bhopal and several other cities.  Building up of capacities to prevent explosion in the numbers of stray dogs as well as to handle cases of dog-bites, though necessary, have largely been neglected. It is not the inadequacy of funds that prevents public organisations from acting in benefit of the society, it is their wrong and misdirected utilisation and rampant corruption apart from lack of commitment to their respective jobs of municipal hands. A time may soon come when dogs on the city streets prevent normal movement of traffic and prevent people from pursuing their personal businesses with ease and facility. Already, their ceaseless barks give us sleepless nights.

Sporadic reports in the newspapers did not have the desired impact on the authorities of the Municipal Corporation. Now that the print media has got into the act in a big way with all major local newspapers giving the matter prominence, perhaps, there will be some reaction. For the moment, however, there is no functioning government and, consequently, no governance.
Incidentally, the stray dogs are posing no mean problems. Asad Rahmani of the Bombay Natural History Society reported in his editorial in the Hornbill magazine that stray dogs in protected areas have turned feral and have been preying on the animals that constitute the prey base of other bigger predators, especially the big cats. Unless controlled they might affect the tenuously maintained numbers of vulnerable wild life for whose survival enormous amounts of resources are expended.

Photo: From the Internet


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Priyanka Gandhi's "ideological war"

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The campaigns for the ongoing elections have since become too shrill, acrimonious and bitter for ordinary citizens to stomach. Allegations, insinuations, innuendoes, et al, have been flying thick and fast between the two major contending political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


In the process, a war has broken out among the members of the “first family” of the Congress. Priyanka Vadra, the daughter of Sonia Gandhi, the first lady of the Congress, happened to say, seemingly quite needlessly, that her cousin, Varun Gandhi son of her uncle Sanjay Gandhi, had gone “astray” and “betrayed the family”, presumably because of opting to be in the BJP, the party which is fighting the Congress led by her mother. Varun did not reciprocate the ‘compliment’ but said that the decency displayed in not doing so should not be taken as his “weakness”. This led to a further spirited attack by Priyanka. She said it was an “ideological war” and not “a family tea party” and, presumably, attempted to convey that such an attack was par for the course.

Although Priyanka did not elaborate what she meant by “ideological war”, one presumes, the term used embeds the age old semantic difference between the two political parties on what are generally reckoned as “secularism” and “communalism”. Come elections and these two words get bandied around by all and sundry; those aligning with Congress calling themselves “secular” and condemning the BJP and its supporters as “communal”. One has been hearing these two words with such frequency that it is now sickening to hear them knowing, as one does, that neither the Congress is truly secular nor the BJP wholly communal. The Congress now goes on to claim that it alone can protect the unity of the country because of its “secular” credentials whereas the BJP practices divisive policies on the basis of religion. Thus the claim is while communal BJP divides people, the secular Congress acts as a unifying force.

Before examining the claims of the Congress it would, perhaps, be worthwhile to see what exactly is meant by “secularism”. Secularism as it is understood in the West generally means separation of government institutions and officials from religious institutions and religious functionaries. The state is thus neutral in matters that are religious, leaving people to their own geniuses to decide for themselves in matters relating to their faith. Again, secularism entails public activities and decisions have to remain uninfluenced by religious beliefs and practices.

 The situation in India, however, is quite different from Western “secularism”. While India has no state religion its constitution requires equal treatment of all religions and religious groups. In so far as laws are concerned, though the Constitution required it under the Directive Principles of State Policy, the State has so far been unable to formulate and prescribe a “Uniform Civil Code” applicable to all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs or faith. Personal Laws, therefore, take precedence when in conflict with the laws enacted by the Parliament or state legislatures. Hence, while all religious groups like Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, etc. are governed by inherited or enacted civil and criminal laws, only Muslims are governed by Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law. 

Thus, despite being in conflict with the laws in existence to the contrary, the State recognises child-marriages, polygamy, extra-judicial divorces and unequal laws of inheritance among Muslims. To that extent the Indian State is not secular though declared a “Secular Republic” by an amendment of the Constitution in 1976 as it discriminates in the vital matter of applicability of laws to the Muslim community as against all others. The Constitution was largely framed by Congressmen and the Congress, therefore, cannot really claim to be the repository of all secular virtues.

This is further corroborated by several subsequent political developments. Since the very first General Elections the Congress looked at the Muslim community as a “vote bank”, a term that later got wide currency. Many political analysts have gone to the extent of even suggesting that the Congress did not want transfer of population at the time of the Partition as it knew it could use the remaining Muslim population as a secure source of support. That may or may not be true but whenever a Congress government was cornered by Muslims and their clergy it succumbed to their pressures. Shah Bano’s case, among many others, is an example where the government of Rajiv Gandhi, Priyanka’s father, enacted a law to nullify a reasonable Apex Court verdict only to deny alimony to a divorced Muslim wife of 44 years under the Muslim Personal Law. In plain language, it was the State that intervened to allow continuance of discriminatory practices against Muslim women.

Almost at every election the Congressmen went out to woo the Muslims. It would approach the Muslim Clergy, especially Shahi Imam of Delhi Jama Masjid who would issue his fiat to all Muslims to vote for it. Not long ago the Congress-led UPA government had mooted a proposal to carve out a Muslim quota of 5% from 27% reservations applicable to Other Backward Castes. It also attempted a census of Muslims in the defence forces. During the current election campaign Sonia Gandhi went to a mosque to talk to Muslim voters without ever trying to do likewise with the voters of other communities. Quite apparently, the secular claim of the Congress is a big fraud on the people. One wonders how Priyanka missed it, seemingly, more intelligent than her brother as she appears to be.

The Congress alleges BJP of “Communalism”, one of the definitions of which is strong allegiance to one’s ethnic group rather than to society. If one looks at BJP it would seem to snugly fit the definition. It, without being hypocritical, wears its affiliation with Hindu religion on its sleeves. Deviating from the definition, it, however, claims that it owes allegiance to the entire Indian society. Its current main protagonist, Narendra Modi, while asserting that he observes Hindu religion and its traditions, has affirmed his respect for all other religions and their traditions. He also declared recently that he would not be asking for votes on the basis of religion. His assertions would seem to be true as during his 12-year rule in Gujarat not a single communal riot between Hindus and Muslims has taken place.

 Harping on 2002 Gujarat riots, the Congress has used several vicious epithets for him – from “merchant of death” to “killer with blood-soaked hands”, “liar” and so on. In fact, while Modi has been cleared of all charges by the Apex Court-appointed investigators for the 2002 riots, the Congress’s memory lapses in respect of yesteryears when under its long rule in Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots took place almost every other year. Curiously, its blinkered vision does not allow it to see the Godhra massacre of Hindus which precipitated the 2002 riots. It also does not acknowledge its failure to control the 1984 Sikh killings in Delhi.

Understandably, in electoral fights accusations and counter-accusations are common. But, regardless of what Priyanka and her Congress Party say, voters need to know that none of those in the fray is either really “secular” or entirely “communal”. The voters have to choose only those who are capable of delivering a better life to them.

Photo from the Internet


Monday, April 14, 2014

DESTINATIONS: CHINA (1982); NANKING



We were at Xian airport waiting for the flight to Nanking. After
Linggu Pagoda
about a couple of hours we were told to get on to a flight that had arrived a few minutes earlier. All seven of us were bundled into it in a jiffy. While we were settling down Pat Kearney, our consultant, told me that the flight we were on was in fact the one that flew between Xian and Shanghai. As a day’s delay would have upset our schedule the Chinese authorities decided to put us on this flight which was made to make an unscheduled halt at Nanking. This was another instance of Chinese state power and it also showed the keenness Chinese to make a success of the month-long visit of the UPU delegation. They didn’t obviously want any flap. After all, their international reputation, especially with the UN agencies, was at stake. Whether in the process some passengers were offloaded at Xian is not known to me. An hour and a few minutes later we were at Nanking.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen
Located in the South-East of Xian, Nanking has been prominent in Chinese history, having been its capital on several occasions. It was capital during the reign of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century. Later rulers of the same dynasty relocated the capital to Beijing in the 15th Century. In the 17th Century the Ming Dynasty brought the capital back again to Nanking. In the 19th Century it became the capital of the Taiping Kingdom and was known as Tianjing. The city saw on several occasions the capital being moved out and moved in. The establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912 under the Presidency of Dr. Sun Yat Sen (a name we were familiar with in India), after what is known as the Xinhai Revolution, saw Nanking becoming the capital yet again. Later Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang (KMT) made Nanking his capital in 1927. A decade later, sometimes called the Nanking Decade, Nanking was invaded by Japanese troops commencing the Second Sino Japanese War that had seeds in it of World War II. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China of Mao Tse-tung overran Nanking and drove out Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT forces ending its role as the capital of the country. Quite a chequered history for the city!

 Nanking had seen tumultuous times in the 19th Century when the Taiping Rebellion raged in and around it for several years. The rebellion was against the Qing Dynasty that was ruling China at the time. The conflict saw avoidable loss of large number of innocent lives. There was a repeat of the same kind of bloodshed in 1937 when the Japanese invaded the country and were reported to have put hundreds of thousand of innocent Chinese to death. Visuals of are available of Japanese soldiers describing the way they were ordered to kill innocent Chinese.

Nanking hosts one of the most beautiful monuments dedicated to
Sun Yat-sen Memorial
one of its great leaders, Dr Sun Yat-sen. A medical doctor who later became a revolutionary fighting against the Imperial Qing Dynasty, Dr. Sun was instrumental in ending the monarchy after the revolution of 1911. He was made the Provisional President of the new republic with the capital at Nanking. Reckoned as the “Father of the Nation” and one of the greatest leaders of modern China, Dr. Sun, however, had a life of constant struggle and frequent exiles – a life that is the fate of all revolutionaries. No wonder a remarkably massive memorial has been built in one of the most beautiful sites in China on the slopes of a hill. The mausoleum blends the traditional architecture with the modern. One has to go up around 400 steps to get to the vault. The steps are dozens of metres wide on both sides of which are pine and cypress trees. It is a beautiful sight and the parks and gardens are very well maintained.  The Memorial itself is an edifying sight, easily one of the finest tourist sites I ever happened to visit. It was crowded with visitors, mostly local and the ubiquitous People’s Liberation Army soldiers with cameras in hand.

Among other ancient monuments Nanking has is the tomb of founder of the Ming Dynasty. Situated a little away from the town it is known as Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum. Approximately six
Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum
centuries old, ravages of time are quite apparent. In any case, I found the monument somewhat undistinguished. What was more impressive was the Linggu Pagoda which, having been destroyed quite a few times, was rebuilt again and again and the last reconstruction undertaken was in 1929. It was first built in the sixth century AD and was destroyed in warfare after about a millennium. It had again an Indian connection as here, apart from Buddhas and Bodhistvas,  Xuangsang (whom we know as Huen-tsang) and his relic were worshipped. The Pagoda is reputed for the beamless hall built centuries ago that was meant for worship of Buddha. Much later, in 1928 it was converted as a memorial for the 30000 soldiers who lost their lives in the war of 1926-27. Speeches of Dr. Sun Yat-sen are inscribed on the Pagoda.

A modern monument that was shown to us was the Yangtze River Bridge at Nanking. Opened to traffic in 1968 it was first ever massive double-decker bridge that was designed and built entirely
The Yangtze Bridge
by Chinese expertise. It is a rail-cum-road bridge, the upper deck is continuation of a highway and the lower deck is for railways. The bridge facilitated and speeded up rail traffic between Shanghai and Beijing. The superfast Chinese trains now thunder down to Beijing via Nanking through this bridge. It is a massive bridge, more than a kilometre and half long. The Chinese officials were justifiably proud of it. It was, perhaps, one of the biggest projects undertaken by them until 1982. The Three Gorges Dam on Yangtze and some more bridges on it were still in the future.

Nanking, in 1982, was seemingly a quiet, small town. Roads were devoid of motorised traffic as in two other cities we had visited so far. We were put up in a rather small hotel yet it had all the comforts and beautiful grounds all around. The city, I understand,
Beautiful roads but no vehicular traffic
has markedly changed after China’s “Great Leap Forward” into an economy that is more capitalistic than socialistic. It is now a thriving town with industries (which were not there earlier), educational institutions and massive urban expansion. There are high-rises galore and, as happens in a booming economy, a large number of hotels have come up, with some close to the Yangtze Bridge. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Indian Elections: Modi gains from Ayer's faux pas



By being undiplomatic in his language in a talk he delivered at a recent All India Congress Committee session Mani Shankar Ayer, a Cambridge graduate, a former career diplomat and a Tamil Brahmin to boot brought chai (tea) back into politics. Ayer promised to the gathering that the BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi would never become prime minister of the country in the 21st Century. And, he went on to add, “But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him."

The reference was to Modi’s background. A family of modest means belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBC), his father used to run an ordinary tea stall and Modi in his childhood used to carry tea in a kettle to the Vadnagar Railway Station in Gujarat to serve it to passengers as the trains steamed in. This was mocking the socio-
Chai pe charcha
economic background of an opposition candidate at its worst. Ours is a civilised country and none ordinarily would mock the lowly origin of a candidate. But Mani Shankar Ayer is different. Born with a silver spoon, having had the best of education in India and abroad and having worked as a diplomat even in most dangerous of places like Pakistan he had no qualms about making such an undiplomatic, insensitive, arrogant,  scornful and contemptuous statement. No wonder, he was roundly criticised by all right-thinking people and even the Congress Party distanced itself from the statement. The Congress Vice President, the Gandhi scion, even expressed unhappiness about it at a public meeting.

Ayer’s stupid jibe at Modi boomeranged with an uncanny force and the Congress was put on the back foot. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to make use of the deprecatory comment and capitalise on it and derived miles of advantage from it. Hundreds of Modi or “NaMo” (short for Narendra Modi) Tea Stalls came up in the country with photographs of Modi on their signboards. People
flocked to these tea stalls as much for showing support for him as for fun. In the rural towns and settlements these became centres of attraction and people would visit them for taking a hot cup of sugary overly boiled tea and indulge in some spicy political gossip. Not only indicative of the extent of support for the Party and for Modi, these stalls became an embarrassment for the ruling Party and its aspirants who were in the electoral fray.

This was not all. BJP organised what came to be known as “chai pe charcha” (discussions over tea) at many tea stalls and ordinary, no-frills restaurants. The idea rapidly caught on and “chai pe charcha” spread virtually all over the country. Even Modi participated in these discussions. One such “charcha” was held in Rajasthan that had 67 locations in the state connected with video links for question-and-answer session - a kind of teleconferencing. It became a perfect vehicle for public-connect for the BJP, striking the right chord with the people. Modi appeared on giant screens fitted in
several tea stalls and was connected live with the people and entered into public discourses with them expanding his views on several vital issues, such as empowerment of women. In an event organised in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, relayed live at around 1000 tea stalls Modi appeared on huge screens with a cup of tea in hand answering questions and expatiating on accountability in governance. These events got favourable responses from the press in the country as well as abroad. The Washington Post and the New York Times covered them and the French press made an unkind cut on Ayer by saying that in today’s world arrogance born out of lineage is a distinct disadvantage. Not to be left behind, the media houses too sent their news anchors to restaurants to discuss and ascertain the views of young voters on the main contenders.

While Ayer, with his expression of disdain for Modi, handed on a platter to the latter a vehicle for electoral propaganda, he, perhaps, unwittingly brought “tea” back into reckoning in politics. Tea has for long been associated with politics and to trace that one has to
Artists impression of tea caes being dumped into the sea
travel more than a couple of centuries back in time. Resistance against Britain’s power to tax colonies in America as evidenced by the Tea Act of 1773 gave birth to the Boston Tea Party, inducing a
wave of resistance throughout the colonies against tax imposed on tea by the British Parliament. The Act also had its origin in Parliament’s effort to rescue the financially weakened East India Company, a victim of smuggling into America of cheaper Dutch tea, so as to continue benefiting from the company’s valuable position in India.

The hard-line taken by the British Government against the protesters known as Colonists, also called Whigs and sometimes Sons of Liberty, to emphasise the authority of the Mother Government to impose taxes on people in the colonies despite being unrepresented in the British Parliament gave rise to the movement for rejecting the tea that used to be imported from England. In May 1773 the Colonists, disguised as American Mohawk Indians, entered the ship berthed at Boston ferrying tea from India via
Add caption
Britain and dumped the entire consignment into the sea. It signified culmination of resistance against the Tea Act in the entire British America. The stiff resistance against Britain’s rigid and uncompromising attitude bore the seeds of the American Revolution and eventually became the precursor of the American War of Independence.

Much later, in our own times, as late as 2009, once again we heard of The Tea Party protests. The iconic events of 1773 have been used on several occasions to describe anti-tax movements as “Tea Party” movements. But the Tea Party protests of the last decade were ones that were mostly of fiscally conservative and socio-political nature that engulfed the United States. The protests were against several federal laws that were perceived to have sought to enlarge the sphere of influence of the Federal Government. These were coordinated throughout the nation with a libertarian philosophy against what the members of the Tea Party believed to be attempts of President Obama to create a “Big Government” that they thought would tread on people’s liberty. Some of them even later went so far as to call him a “Lefty”. The Tea Party came to wield such power that it had an official nominee of the Republican Party defeated in the 2010 Congressional elections for he was not enough of a libertarian.

There has also been unlikely fallout of Ayer’s off-hand and arrogant dig at Modi. Looking at the reaction and the support Modi received other candidates from the same caste-group or deprived sections shed their diffidence and broadcast their humble origins. Thus “Paanwalas” and “Chawlwallas” came out in the open seeking voters’ support, a phenomenon (though not quite a schism yet) that was unfortunately born out of Ayer’s derisive remark.

Photos: From the Internet