DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"New politics" of Aam Aadmi Party

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Shiv Vishwanathan seems to have got it right. For those who do not know him, he is a social scientist and an intellectual of repute, who generally comments on matters of random interest, politics and society. Writing in The Hindu a few days before the Delhi Election results came out, he could see the “Return of the AAP” – AAP standing for the AAM Admi Party, the party of the common man. Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having become that “majoritarian phenomenon”, Vishwanathan saw the AAP becoming a formidable prospect for the Delhi elections. In the current environment, it was courageous of him to go on record about it. He saw even BJP’s electoral super-strategist Amit Shah being outplayed by AAP despite the several electoral victories that the former notched up for the BJP. Shah wanted as many as 60 seats out of 70 for the BJP. In a dramatic reversal, however, his party won only measly 3 in one of the worst performances of his Party. While Viswanathan was spot-on, the joke on Twitter was “Nano had more seats than the BJP in the Delhi Assembly”.

Apparently, it was not Modi’s controversial narcissistic buttoned-up suit or  or former Commisioner of Police Kiran Bedi’s induction or arrogance and over-confidence of the two BJP biggies Modi and Shah alone that caused the Party’s decimation. If all this were to be conceded it would be unfair to the “muffler-man” Kejriwal, who was quite a contrast to the immaculately attired Narendra Modi. For all one knows, Kejriwal, chief of the AAP, sartorially tweaked his “aam aadmi” (common man) appearance adding a tinge of rusticity only to make the contrast more apparent. A tenacious man, as he is, nothing could perhaps distract him from his objective. Even after the hammering his outfit got at the Parliamentary elections nine months ago he just did not give up. He was committed to his cause and he went about consolidating his vote bank. Even after being called a “bhagoda” – a deserter – by all and sundry, including those who gave him a substantial mandate in the Delhi elections in 2013, he did not get frustrated or indulged in self-recrimination. Instead, he used the gap between the two (Delhi) elections, inexplicably extended by the BJP at the Centre, to rebuild his organisation. After all, he nursed within him that unflinching commitment to his ideal of a corruption-free India. He had the comfort of a large number of dedicated supporters, volunteers and admirers of his unpretentious interfaces with them. They probably gave him the strength to take on the mighty BJP that denied him all the seats his Party contested in the Lok Sabha (Parliamentary) polls only nine months ago.

He regrouped and his outfit came up so strongly that Shiv Vishwanathan saw it as good enough for giving BJP a run for its money. It is a matter of surprise that if Vishwanathan could gauge the rebuilding of AAP how the hard-boiled politicians in BJP and Congress couldn’t see it – especially Prime Minister Modi, who not only won for the BJP four elections within nine months and claims to have never ever lost his own. Perhaps, it was sheer over-confidence and even Amit Shah, the BJP President and playing Sancho Panza for Modi, could not dream of the upset that was lurking around in the city state. They were sure of a win in, what they thought, was a conventional political battle but, as Shiv Vishwanathan saw it, it was not conventional politics but a new politics – a kind of politics devoid of any ideology and in which citizens occupied the centre stage.

AAP was not preparing for a conventional electoral campaign – a campaign of public rallies and meetings. Its campaign comprised the volunteers going to the people door-to-door seeking out their problems and working out resultant issues and answering the accusations of AAP’s adversaries from detailed answers put down in notebooks. The committed volunteers were so thorough that they spared enormous amount of their time for ‘home work’ as well outdoor campaigns. It was a self-less and self-effacing campaign by unpaid volunteers – common men and women – for which numerous of them left for the duration of the campaign whatever they were occupied with in eking out a living. Scarcity of financial resources prevented media ads, whether electronic or print. It was only banners and posters – sometimes even volunteers acting as ‘human’ posters. It was, kind of, shades of India Against Corruption led by Anna Hazare in 2011 – a fantastic civil society movement that was wrecked by – of all the people – Kejriwal by his untimely and uncalled for 9-day fast in 2012 and later by ditching Anna and forming the AAP.

With their sincerity and commitment they steadily chipped away at voters’ resistance that was generated for AAP’s indiscretion in pre- maturely giving up its rule in 2013. Not only they, even Kejriwal himself begged voters to excuse him. He erred, he said, and that to err was human and then went on to say that after all he and his colleagues did not indulge in corruption and did not loot and plunder the nation’s resources – but only made a silly mistake.

Ideology did not figure in the campaign. The Party was neither leftist nor rightist or what is now fashionable “left of the centre” or “right of the centre” or, for that matter, it was not even centrist. The words secularism and communalism were not bandied about. Repeatedly asked by a prominent TV news channel interviewer about the AAP’s ideology, one of its important and vocal leaders said that they had none and, if at all, they had one, it was “Bharat” (India) – and saving its people from the stranglehold of corruption. The commitment to nothing other than the country and its people and the overwhelming desire of the AAP leaders to rid the country of the scourge of rampant corruption, offering a hassle-free life attracted the voters towards it. The clean-looking campaigners seemingly appeared convincing and were able to change the voters’ inclinations and turn the tide in AAP’s favour.

The unreserved commitment to people – regardless of caste, creed, religion, etc – made Muslims desert their supposedly traditional protector, the Congress and Dalits their party of the Dalit Czar Mayawati. The long-suffering petty traders and businessmen seeking freedom from the haftas of policemen and municipal officials, of course, voted for AAP as they were aware of its effective control over petty corruption during its 49-day run in the government in 2013. While a sizable bloc of government servants adversely reacted against Indian Premier Modi’s tough administration, the internal dissensions within BJP transferred some of its votes to AAP. No wonder, the Party ended up with a strike rate, as the television channels reported, of 95.5%, recording wins in as many as 67 out of 70 seats.

While Modi’s “juggernaut” has been halted (perhaps for the good of him and the people) and the Congress has been sent back to the drawing board, the AAP has the task cut out for it – and that is nothing but to deliver on its promises in Delhi before looking for extended new pastures. Having hit the ground running Kejriwal, probably, is already at it. One cannot but wish him Godspeed.

Photo: from the Internet

Monday, February 9, 2015

“Twinkle Star” – a good children’s supplement

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I am sure many of my local readers visit the Boat Club or the Shahpura Lake for Rahagiri. That is well and good; but, I am sure, quite a lot wouldn’t have cared to know what these lakes are and how these are vital for the environment we live in. In environmental terms, both these lakes, as indeed numerous others that we have in the town or in the state or in the country, are wetlands rendering various services to us that most of us do not even realise and, much less, appreciate. In fact, in many ways, unknowingly we act irresponsibly and harm these wetlands and reduce their capacity to be of help to us in leading a healthy and fulfilling life. 

I don’t know how many among my local friends subscribe to Hitavada, an English daily, which is brought out from Bhopal. It is a very old newspaper of Central India published initially from Nagpur. But a few years ago, when the print media commenced a flourishing run, it commenced its operations in Bhopal. Surely, the satellite technology also helped and, what is more, the readership of English language newspapers also grew so much so that the city now supports as many as five English language newspapers, three of which are national dailies.

 All this is, however, besides the point I wanted to make. And, that is that I have found Hitavad very good for not only for news for the elderly but also for our younger friends. Like none other in the town, Hitavad brings out every Saturday a small supplement by the name “Twinkle Star” for young people that is generally packed with features that provide information, knowledge and other items of children’s interests. More importantly, it generally contains a feature on our environment that explains the concept behind it and issues related to it in very simple and lucid language.

Written by the Programme officer located at Kanha of Corbett Foundation I have found the articles very useful and I am sure youngster would also find them so. For example, in the last week of December this supplement carried a feature with the title “Wetlands – the lifeline of our cities”. The article explains how wetlands function as our lifeline in numerous ways. Take for example our own Upper Lake, the other name of which is Bhoj Wetland. It is considered our lifeline because it provides drinking water to around 40% of our city’s population besides rendering other services like making available to us fresh-water fish, tempering the local climate, recharging groundwater, providing to the people a place for relaxation and recreation – acting like a kind of a stress-buster. Earlier this month the Wold Wetlands Day was celebrated on the the 2nd February the theme of which was “Wetlands for our future” – obviously, hinting that our future wouldn’t be secure unless we have healthy wetlands with us – if not for anything else but for that precious fluid we call “WATER”.

In the last issue of “Twinkle Star” the Programme Officer wrote about “Value of Nature”. It is a very good write-up on nature which is ever-present with us and yet we do not take care of it, though, we know that we wouldn’t survive without it. Nature, as he says, “has been ignored...cut, burnt, choked and destroyed for our industrial gains” but is seldom taken care of. The underlying idea is that if nature is not taken care of and we allow it to be degraded our quality of life too would be degraded making us sick, distressed and unhappy.

 The same with true of wetlands, which too are parts of nature and yet we do not take care of them. In Bhopal we are not treating right this invaluable gift of Raja Bhoj. We forget that while we may exploit it (for whatever reasons) if we do not do so in moderation our Upper Lake, pride of the town as it is, will not be of use to us for long. Already, researchers have revealed that at its current rate of exploitation it would not be of use to us after another 60-odd years.

I think “Twinkle Stars” is doing a good job in educating young and old with regard to matters relating to environment, as also others that help to acquire knowledge and information. I thought its get-up could be improved to make it more attractive for children. Another such very useful supplement known as “Gobar times” is issued along with the fortnightly magazine “Down to Earth” edited by the noted Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain. It is also packed with information on matters that ly relate to environment.

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Photo of Upper Lake, Bhopal taken at night


Sunday, February 8, 2015

DESTINATIONS: KASHMIR (1957): Banihal- the gateway

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In the summer of 1957 my father suddenly decided to take a trip to Kashmir. My (late) second brother was posted there and, more importantly, he had s spacious house. My mother was very excited and naturally so. She had not stirred out of Gwalior since father relocated there in 1935. For all of 22 years, she stayed cooped up in that small town.

My mother was duly warned by her Kashmiri friends about the road to Kashmir that was considered to be very treacherous. Landslides were common that sometimes took the buses down the precipitous slopes resulting in casualties. If it happened to rain, it would become even worse in the slushy and slippery roads. We took note of all the well meaning information and advice. We were, however, quite confident that we would be safe as the brother in Kashmir and my sister had had a trip earlier in a group of five in a new Studebaker in 1949 - only two years after the road became the sole link of the country with Jammu & Kashmir.

It was the first week of June when we caught a train for Delhi. Kashmir Mail, the only train then for Kashmir, used to leave from Delhi Junction for Pathankot, then the railhead for Kashmir. The tracks had not till then been extended to either Jammu Tawi or Udhampur. It was therefore a long bus ride of about 300 miles from Pathankot to Srinagar.

After an overnight journey to Pathankot we took a bus around mid morning for Srinagar. At Jammu, however, we were told that the road was blocked owing to a landslide near a place that was known as Khooni Nala (deadly stream). There was no alternative but to camp at Jammu in an accommodation provided by the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism. Numerous buses seemed to have got stuck and hundreds of tourists and locals stranded - some for two or three days. Means of communications being what they were, not an inkling was given to us about the road-block at Pathankot. Mercifully after a day's halt we were able to recommence our journey as the block had been cleared. The bus could start only around midday necessitating, as it appeared, another halt on the way.

That halt happened to be at Banihal village, earlier known as “Vishalta”, – the gateway to the Valley of Kashmir which was on the other side of Peer Panjals. Thankfully we had crossed all the dangerous and risky patches of Khooni Nala, Ramban, Ramsu, etc during the daylight hours driving through innumerable awe-inspiring hairpin bends, going across small fragile-looking bridges and culverts from one mountain to another. Banihal was then a village and as we reached late in the evening we could manage only a room offered by a villager with that typical rustic aroma about it. It was capacious enough to accommodate all of us and good enough to spend a night in. But, even at that dark and forbidding hour we could hear heavy vehicles - those that were much ahead of us - labouring up the mountain-side on their way to Srinagar.

The morning was bright and sunny revealing an incredibly beautiful sight. Banihal and its surroundings were green and sitting at the foot of the Peer Panjals, the mountain seemed to loom over it. But, at the same time, its situation offered an incredibly beautiful sight with bright colours of green of the land, the whites of the mountain tops and the gorgeous lapis lazuli of the early morning skies clashing with each other. Today Banihal is a town of a few thousand and last year a railway train pulled into its spanking new station from Qazigund in Kashmir through one of the longest mountain tunnels bored through the Peer Panjals.

The bus was ready to leave and we all climbed into it. Soon the grinding climb commenced up the Pir Panjaal. We could occasionally see the Banihal Tunnel high up, close to the top of the range more than 9000 ft. above the sea level. As we kept climbing up we came across East Germans (East Germany was a separate country then, under the sphere of influence of now-defunct Soviet Union)working on a two-way tunnel later to be named as Jawahar Tunnel that is even now in use and is at a height of around 7000 ft.

We laboured up the mountain with the bus straining and groaning in going up the steep slope over the rough, generally unmetalled road. Obviously, a heavy road-roller couldn’t have been taken up the slopes with numerous hairpin bends. Every bend brought us closer to the Banihal Tunnel that also seemed to gain in dimensions. And, then we were inside the tunnel of around the length of a couple of hundred metres - a remarkable feat of engineering at that elevation in those early years. Not used much before the partition, travellers used a more convenient road traversing what is now Pak-occupied Kashmir entering the Valley through Uri and then running along the banks of Jhelum. This road was then known as Banihal Cart Road and after independence became the only link of Kashmir with the country. After commissioning of the Jawahar Tunnel the Banihal Tunnel was reportedly closed for motor vehicles

As we came out of the dark tunnel, a beautiful day greeted us with bright sun falling over the green Kashmir Valley sprawling in front of us with splashes of white snow on the mountain-sides and what looked incredible, at levels below ours. As the bus started rolling down the slope its windows grazed against the mountain-sides and some of the accumulated snow fell into our laps. The progress downhill was pretty fast and soon we were down by around 4000 ft and were at more or less the same elevation as that of the Valley.

Soon the bus came to a halt at what seemed like a smallish town and an overwhelming aroma of frying eggs floated down to us. It was Qazigund, the first town in the Valley, known for its delicious parathas and omlettes and virtually every bus going up or down would stop by for them. We too did so. After a most satisfying breakfast we again got into the bus and were driven through some fascinating country to be in Srinagar in another couple of hours.

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Photo of Jawahar tunnel from the Internet



Saturday, February 7, 2015

TIGER CENSUS 2014

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A lot of cheer has been brought to tiger and wildlife lovers by the latest Tiger Census conducted in late 2014. There seems to have been a revival in its numbers after the dismal count of 2006 when it had registered 1411 tigers. A marginal increase to 1706 was registered in 2011. In 2014, however, the growth was robust of around 30 per cent taking the tiger tally up to 2226. Singing paeans for the conservation efforts undertaken between the last two censuses, there is apparently an environment of backslapping among the tiger bureaucracy, the tiger NGOs as well as conservationists in general.

That 2226 tigers in a country that used to host around 100,000 of them at the turn of the 20th Century and around 40000 in 1947 is nothing much to write home about does not appear to throw cold water on their enthusiasm. We have been pretty profligate in the matter, particularly after we started ruling ourselves in 1947. The tiger numbers rapidly declined because vast tracts of forests were felled for increasing food grain production, for industrial growth and to meet the needs of a rapidly rising population. Within 20 years or so after independence the number of tigers in the country was estimated to have fallen down to around the same as what it is today – about 2500. Tiger numbers were in decline even during the time of Jim Corbett, the famous hunter who used to roam around submontane region of Kumaon a district in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh and hunt down man-eaters. He had also gone on record about it. Our authorities, however, did not pay heed to what he had said and the numbers came plummeting down from around 40000 to 2500 in mere twenty-odd years.

I still remember the “grow more food” campaign initiated during the 1940s and 1950s because of general shortage of food for reasons of the after-effects of World War II and inclement weather in the then food bowl of the country in its eastern parts. Vast tracts of impenetrable jungles given over to wild animals in the Himalayan Terai region were felled to raise crops for the rising needs of an increasing population and the needs of the post-partition influx of millions of refugees from Pakistan. As was expected the country lost heavily not only its rich wildlife – from elephants to tigers to rhinos– as also varied plant life of the region. Such clearances of forests had been carried out elsewhere in other regions as well causing disappearance and/or degradation of wildlife habitat seriously impacting their numbers. Apparently a desperate act to meet the human needs, no consideration was shown towards the other living beings.

It was only in the 1960s when it was realised that there was serious decline in tiger numbers that the process of tiger conservation was initiated, culminating in 1972 when the government decided to institutionalise tiger conservation through its Project Tiger. A census that year had revealed existence of an abysmal number of only 1827 tigers in the country. Launched in 1973, Project Tiger has become one of the most successful conservation measures through creation of protected areas known as Tiger Reserves which seek to maintain a viable population of the species in each in their natural environment. And yet, despite adding to the number of Tiger Reserves, investment of enormous financial and human resources the number of tigers has fluctuated above or below the 3000 mark since 1972, having never been able to get to even 4000.

That the number is going to increase in the future regardless of the efforts made is doubtful. The current government at the Centre has won the last elections on the plank of “development” and, hence, generation of more power and setting up more industries are its prime movers. Its minister for environment and forests, Prakash Jawadekar, had declared soon after his appointment that his ministry would not function as “roadblock” for development projects, indicating that projects for mining, setting up of industries and creation of infrastructure would not be held up for vital environmental clearances. Recently he gave away environmental clearances to 50 projects. Before him, Minister Veerappa Moily of the Congress government had cleared as many as 70 development projects within 20 days. He was brought in as his predecessor Jayanti Natarajan was considered a “roadblock” and had accumulated a large pendency of developmental projects which was suspected to have caused the economic slow-down. As the previous and the current governments are greatly persuaded by the concept of economic growth reckoned in terms of rise in gross domestic product (GDP) and with the Prime Minister keen on implementing his “Make in India” slogan damage to environment and forests is certainly on the cards. Unfortunately, the natural resources for both, power and industry sit underneath dense forests – generally the habitat that is conducive to wildlife. In this energy-hungry country more and more coal is going to be mined for want of any other alternative source of energy and for industrial growth more and more minerals are going to be mined resulting in denudation of more and more forests. In such a scenario does the tiger have a chance?

Politicians in power are seldom environment-friendly. They have always at the back of their minds the votes that can be harvested. In Madhya Pradesh Panna Tiger Reserve might not have lost all its tigers in 2008 had the political executive intervened to stop poaching o tigers on the advice of the experts. The chief minister also delayed demarcation of the buffer zone of the Reserve to facilitate mining by his crony. While doing so he said that he wouldn’t put people’s livelihood on the line only to save the tigers in the reserve. e alsoHH And, for preventing relocation of resident tribal people he has refused to convert Ratapani Sanctuary near Bhopal, the capital, into a tiger reserve despite approval from the Centre. Since the sanctuary has added to its tiger numbers forests near Bhopal get the spill over threatening theirs as well as human life.

That is another threat to their survival. If more are packed into their current confines they will either fight for territory or migrate out of the reserve. In either case they expose themselves to risks.Already fights for territory have taken the lives of at least two tigers and another simply walked out of the reserve only to be brought back mercifully without coming to harm. If tiger numbers are to be raised the government must see its way through to provide more space for them.

In the Management Effectiveness Evaluation report on Tiger Reserves 2014 the reserves have been rated in four categories. Only 15 out of 39 reserves have been rated very good and just 12 as good. The rest are all satisfactory (8) or poor (4). Efforts need to be made to ensure a rating of very good for at least 24 (60%) reserves raising their economic value by the next census. It has to be brought home to the state governments concerned that there is money in tiger reserves as has been shown by the first ever economic valuation of six reserves in 2014. Their economic value has been pegged at Rs.1.50 lakh crore – a very substantial amount.

Somebody has very aptly said that man– its sole predator – is solely responsible for the current precarious numbers of the tigers and, therefore, it is only man who can save tiger in the wild. An “umbrella” species, tigers provide space for several species to flourish in the vast areas they cover. A tiger website says “In India, more than 350 rivers originate from tiger reserves. These reserves also sequester carbon, provide oxygen and slowly release ground water to regulate floods. Protecting the tiger will in turn protect these vital habitats.” Vital as these roles are for us humans what is needed is strong governance in the reserves for their all-round development, if necessary, with the help of external experts.

 Clearly, the country has to treasure and value whatever it has.  But, Modi’s “achchhe din” (happy times) for the tigers in the wild do not seem to be anywhere near the horizon yet.

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Photo: From the Internet