Saturday, July 30, 2016

Our Life, Our Times :: 1 :: Changing Lives Through Technology

Smart phones
“Desh aage barh raha hai” (the country is marching ahead), this is what Prime Minister Modi has been saying at various fora. Many would not agree with what he says. They would be right as in many areas of governmental activities not much change is perceptible. In fact, they have got worse. We would seem to be stagnating and the newspapers in the mornings are a great put-off. There is so much of negativity. Stalled parliament, rowdy legislators, crime, corruption, failures of public agencies, illegal exploitation of natural resources, atrocities on dalits, skyrocketting prices of everyday essentials – everything seems to be falling apart. There seems to be utter chaos and governance seemingly has taken a indefinitely long holiday.

In the midst of all this negativity there is a bit of positivity – a kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Looked at in that perspective, Modi seems to be right. The country is really progressing. Things are really changing at least for the elderly and, presumably, for numerous other sections of the people. What the elderly couldn’t do earlier without being put to severe hardships are now changing – and for the better. It is IT which is rendering that crucial assistance and looks like going places in the midst of everything that would seem to be collapsing. While the dream of Digital India still looks elusive, yet information technology has stepped into many sectors in a big way to make life easier for senior citizens and perhaps the poor. It not only has blossomed into an amazing medium for doing your personal chores, it is also something which is elderly-friendly, generally unlike most Indians or the society at large.

I will give three examples of the change that I have witnessed. Earlier this month we booked air tickets for Delhi (from Bhopal) through our frequently used travel agency. But we received the tickets by e-mail on my desktop. I paid for the tickets online using my credit card. In performing all these activities neither my wife nor I had to move out of the house, thanks to the progress in the area of Information Technology. Even a couple of years ago we had to visit the travel agent’s office around 10 kilometres away at least twice. This time we didn’t have to move out at all

Then, at Delhi as we found that we were needlessly hanging around in the midst of heavy showers we decided to cancel our return air tickets and asked my friend’s daughter in Gurgaon to book for us two seats in Shatabdi Express. We had to do so as we did not have internet facility in our mobiles. She booked the tickets on her mobile visiting the railways’ online tickets booking site, booked the tickets for the day they were available, paid for them by using her credit card and sent the tickets by text to my wife’s mobile. We had paperless tickets and the ticket checker on the train checked them on my wife’s mobile. We were saved from the horror of going to the crowded New Delhi Station in persistent rain and water-logged streets, waiting in a queue for God-knows how long to get the tickets. We didn’t have to stir out and it was amazingly hassle-free.

The third example was of the local All India Institute of Medical Sciences. My wife visited its site for online registration for consultations at Orthopedics department as an out-patient. She was asked to provide her Aadhar number and, lo and behold, her card complete with her photograph came up on the screen. After that it was no problem in proceeding ahead and looking for an available date of the consultant of her choice. She got a date six weeks ahead but the crux of the matter is it was all achieved sitting at home. Later she got a text message on her mobile indicating the reporting time on the day of her appointment. Obviously Aadhar has been linked now to the AIIMSs wherever they are located.
Aadhar has played wonders with the Direct Benefit Transfers of subsidies for cooking gas customers cutting out the corruption involved and a saving for the government of a few billion rupees. Besides, payments for the world’s biggest rural employment scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, have already started directly to the beneficiaries’ Aadhar-linked bank accounts in real time. This too has eliminated ghost labourers and other petty kind of corruption.
 Nandan Nilekani the author of “Aadhar”, the online identity platform for all Indian residents, says, “With the 2014 introduction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Jan Dhan Yojana for financial inclusion, more than 290 million bank accounts are linked to Aadhaar today, and several billion dollars of benefits and entitlements have been transferred to people’s bank accounts electronically in real time.” The mix of Jan Dhan, Aadhar and mobile phones, “JAM” for short, enables “paperless, presence-less and cashless transactions”. Aadhar has since been extended to numerous other central and state level services.

Aadhar along with smart phones (already in the hands of 25 million people) will drastically change the way we look at public services. There’s indeed been a change – in fact progress – all due to technology and proper government initiatives. Changes that improve the level of satisfaction, especially of the poor, are genuine changes.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bhopal Notes 35 :: Critique of State's diesel pticing

We all know how the gasoline prices are seemingly playing on a seesaw – going up and down as and when the prices in international oil markets swing due to reasons that are many. A certain thing, however, is constant, and that is the taxes that governments at the Centre and in the states recover on sales of gasoline products. Looking like not one but several pounds of flesh, these taxes grabbed by the state raises the sale price per litre of oils that move the wheels of commerce and industries as also those of the urban life. General public has no alternative but to lump this kind of extortion and carry on regardless with its normal life.

A recent report in a vernacular newspaper screamed how diesel prices differ from each other in the national and state capitals. It said that the difference between the two makes the consumer in Bhopal pay Rs. 7 more per litre than what their counterparts pay in the national capital. It has been contended that diesel is costliest per litre in Madhya Pradesh than anywhere else in the country. A major oil company of the country has brought it to the notice of the state government that the high price of diesel in the state has been causing fall in sales in the state whereas the sales in neighbouring states have registered a rise. The transporters who run their vehicles on diesel from north to south and from east to west are reported to be avoiding buying the fuel in Madhya Pradesh. No wonder, the sales of diesel have gone down to the detriment of suppliers. Obviously, the state by levying high rates of taxes on the fuel is pricing itself out of the market.

 The basic cost of diesel after refining is Rs. 27.46 per litre. Hereafter the taxes take over. From Additional Excise Duty, to dealers’ commission to VAT and Additional VAT levied variously by the states the price per litre escalates at every stage for the consumer so much so that the taxes, taken together, amount to more than the basic cost of the fuel. Our state currently charges 31% as additional VAT on diesel taking its price way above what is prevalent in other states, especially those that are in the neighbouhood. Unsurprisingly, therefore oil marketing companies have registered a fall in sales and are a pretty worried lot so much so that they have brought this fact to the notice of the state government.

Gasoline is taxed, sometimes heavily, for various reasons. In India it could be for taking care of roads or for restricting its extravagant use to prevent uncontrolled outflow of foreign exchange for buying it in international markets. India hardly produces 20% of what is consumed in the country. Its prices may also be hiked by levying taxes for environmental reasons, i.e. to control emissions to prevent avoidable escalation of global temperatures. This, of course, would be a central act so that taxes are uniformly levied throughout the country. Taxes levied for environmental reasons would not normally be expected in an individual state as that would hardly make any difference to the environment. In any case, Madhya Pradesh government does not seem to have levied 31% additional VAT for this reason as there is no let up in the use by private parties or by the government of diesel guzzling vehicles. Most of the ministers and MLAs use only heavy SUVs that generally consume diesel and there is no indication of any step to curb its use. Besides, the high rate of taxation does not seem to be meant for improvement of roads either as roads in urban or rural areas have shown no improvement for years.

In heavily taxing diesel the state government has neither displayed any inclination for helping the commuting public by taking care of the roads, nor for the imperatives of the state’s and national environment. It has so far shown, on the other hand, scant regard for the environmental norms in matters dealing with forests, water bodies and atmospheric pollution. The only reason for levying such a hefty tax on diesel and petrol that suggests itself is that these fuels are considered cash cows. The taxes are levied for its own purposes by the government for financing several populist measures that it has taken in the social sector of the state’s economy. After all, the government has to fight another election and like any other political outfit it wants to come back to power. Nothing ensures higher incidence of favourable voting at the hustings than measures that are populist and are supposedly meant to uplift the economically weaker sections of the society.

Levying taxes for generating funds for expenditure on improvement of lives per se cannot be held against the government as it would seem to be a step to help the poor. But despite the hefty levies on transport fuels and alcohol, another cash cow, the lot of the poverty stricken masses has not improved. A report of 2015 said that the highest numbers of malnourished under-5 children are in Madhya Pradesh with 74% suffering from anemia and 60% from malnutrition. Infant and maternal mortality rates are also high, in case of the latter it is higher than Jharkhand and Odisha, though, of late, these have shown a decline.

There is, however, a flip side to it. Diesel is basically a fuel largely used in passenger transport and transportation of essential commodities. Hiking the price of diesel by levy of taxes has, therefore, a cascading effect adversely impacting the prices of essential commodities needed by even by the poor. The elevated costs make life difficult for them and could even drive a large section of them below the poverty line adversely impacting the social sector indicators.

A balance is, therefore, necessary to ensure that the high price of diesel does not hit the poor where it hurts. Perhaps, highlighting the stark difference in prices of diesel between Delhi and Madhya Pradesh had behind it this very suggestion. Since other states seem to have kept the diesel prices within reasonable limits none of them figures in the report. Having, apparently, failed to strike that balance, the state would seem to need to do just that to make life a little easier all around.

*Photo: from internet

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Naive prescription for reformation of cities

Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Ayog, wrote the other day in a national daily about the criticality of cities in pulling the country up by its boot straps. They are critical to most of the missions of the government that seek to boost the country’s economic growth and economically lift its people. Whether it is the flagship programmes of “Make in India” or “Skill India” or “Digital India” or “Smart Cities”, in each one of them it is the cities which would play the most vital role in rolling them out and accomplishing them. They will also be critical in tracking economic growth, job creation and delivery of good quality of life to citizens. Kant thinks in today’s world it is not countries but cities that compete for resources and investments and he thereby wants cities to become distinct units of governance and economy. It is, therefore, necessary, he says, to track the performance of cities in terms of GDP, job creation, private and public investments and consumption.

Kant laments that Janaagraha’s annual reviews show Indian cities in very poor light. While London and New York score 9+ in a scale of 0 to 10 Indian cities largely score only a poor 4. “Janaagraha”, Wikipedia says, is a non-profit that aims to strengthen democracy in the country by working for citizen-participation in urban local government. Janaagraha aims to spread awareness of the benefits of engaging local governments and to lobby the Centre to enact legislation to extend the 74th Amendment of the Constitution of India for more representative local urban government.

Kant has enumerated four key systems of good governance of cities: 1. Urban planning and design, 2. Municipal finances and staffing, 3. Effective political leadership 4. Transparency, accountability and citizen-participation. Because of the poor reflection of our cities as witnessed by the Janaagraha assessment Kant comes forward with solutions. To rectify and to overcome all shortcomings Kant has come up with “what” and “how” to achieve that. According to him, chief ministers should attach greater importance and priority to cities and also pay more attention to them. They should prepare a blue print for the city’s long-term development for 20 to 30 years. At the same time, they should devise a short term plan with sectoral objectives for 3 to 5 years fixing roadmaps and milestones allocating responsibilities for delivery. They would also be required to monitor the progress of achievements of objectives and, presumably, if necessary, take action for course correction.

Not satisfied with the current staffing of municipal corporations Kant says that the short terms of municipal commissioners are not conducive to productive work. He is also against the culture of obtaining officials/officers on deputation from the state governments. He feels it vitiates the organisational culture as, he says, the “rolling stock of deputationists” destroys the “coherence” of the organisation. He, perhaps, feels that deputationists seldom develop any stake in the organisation.

All that is well and good! True, cities are reckoned as the drivers of the econonmy. In describing the modus operandi for making cities units of economic growth, however, Kant seems to have missed out on one vital link. He has written about what is wrong with them and how to go about mending the breaches that have occurred but he has not said who will go about correcting everything that has gone wrong. To his “what” and “how” what needs to be added is “who” will accomplish what he wants to be done with the cities, critical as they are, as he thinks, to the country’s economic progress.

Kant wants the chief ministers to pay more attention to the cities. But the fact is that the city administration is already beholden to the state governments for reasons of lack of finances. Some years ago even the prestigious The Economists had opined that the local bodies in India are subsumed in the government that surrounds them. In the highly politicised environment politics in India is the art of sycophancy and every political animal tends to ingratiate himself with the powers that be. Larger interests of the city and its people are supposedly not all that important. Besides, the chief minister has his own agenda – obliging his sycophants, relatives and friends, men from industries or construction or builders’ lobbies. The last are more important as they contribute moolah to the chief minister for his personal use or for use by the party. Because of them the City Development Plan for Bhopal, for instance, has been delayed by ten years. Thus, the World Economic Forum found these sectors highly corrupt in India with mark-up of project costs being as much as 50%. Quality thus suffers: roads develop potholes within months of building/re-laying, water pipes repeatedly leak with unconscionable loss of millions of gallons of precious water and sewers breakdown. But nobody is ever brought to book.

That being the case, and the chief minister being an out-and-out political animal, that too of Indian variety, who will take care of the cities? That is a big question. In the current system every individual or the organisation has developed vested interests. They hardly ever act according to the needs of the general public. In this mess there is no accountability.  One minister in Bhopal admitted to your reporter once that the state had no system of accountability. No wonder, Indian cities are in such poor shape. 

In such perverse processes, planning and design or transparency and accountability – Kant’s first and fourth systems of good governance – are pushed out of the window. There are numerous instances of cities acquiring ungainly sprawls without any concern for urban design or planning, conservation of environment, availability of civic services, etc. The precious commodity of land is distributed using rules or bending them to cronies who have deep pockets and have no hesitation in emptying them as favours to the politicians. The cities are, in fact, milked by the chief minsters and their cohorts to fill their coffers and/or of parties they belong to to achieve aims of capturing and/or retaining power. Expecting the busy-in-politicking chief ministers to actively involve themselves in building citizen-centric cities is a dream that only Kant can see sitting in his Niti Aayog.

Kant’s two other key systems of governance – municipal finances and staffing and effective political leadership – also suffer from the malaise that has been only outlined above. State politics ensures depressed civic taxes to keep the municipality always in financial doldrums – dependent on the state. Vested interests take care of staffing. Deputations are not sinful per se; they are so only when deputation is used to fill posts that can well be manned by the municipalities’ own employees. But no, here too sycophancy and politics take over so that political lackeys could be provided with sinecures. As for political leadership one can only look up to the Mayor who, in fact, in most cases is the chief minister’s or the party’s man and yet is largely ineffective, more so if his party does not have majority in the municipal council.

Politicians have vitiated the system of governance in the country, including of the city governments. Having done so they have only one objective – that of maintaining status quo so that the system could remain a milch cow. Having seen the government functioning from close quarters, Kant strangely expects politicians to disturb the status quo to their own disadvantage - a naive thought by any stretch of imagination.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 34 :: Failures of Bhopal Municipal Corporation

I do not know how much more evidence is required to prove that sooner the local municipal corporation is superceded the better it will be for all concerned, most of all for the citizens of Bhopal. Sheer apathy and neglect on the part of the municipal councilors and municipal officials have caused unprecedented floods causing deaths and huge loss of public and private property.

The papers now say that the officers concerned knew that there would be floods in case the city got heavy rains yet no action was taken. There have been warnings of heavy rains in our region for quite some time and even the indications that the old pattern has undergone a change. Now heavy rains do not mean spells of heavy showers mixed with light showers or drizzles.  Now it is extreme kind of weather which is driven by global warming. That is how the city got an unbroken spell of eight-hour long heavy to very heavy rains that too at night. It only exposed the utter failure of the municipal corporation – its unpreparedness and inability to deal with this kind of emergency.

No lessons from the past floods of 2006 or from the floods in Srinagar or Chennai were ever drawn to preempt such an overwhelming spell of rain. The papers now report that everyone now agrees that water accumulation occurred because of erecting structures over drains. The local politicians, including the councilors, participate in this game allowing unwise construction for a few pieces of gold, as it were. Then, of course, there is unbridled urban expansion with legal and illegal colonies after colonies coming up without any regard to the local topography, natural drainage and civic reach. Looks like, there is none in the state administration or the local body responsible for unchecked colonization of farm lands, forests and hills. That, of course, is another matter.

Coming back to the incapacity and in capability of the civic body the floods, of course, have been a human tragedy – all because of its inability to anticipate events and take timely action. It has failed in this instance but in what other matter has it come out with flying colours? None, in fact, whether it is water supply, road building, sanitation and hygiene, neutering of stray dogs, maintenance of the Upper and Lower lakes or running of the buses in the BRTS corridor – it has failed in every single item of work that it has taken up. Hence, can one trust it to build a smart city? Far from it!

Before that eventuality arises, however, the municipal corporation needs to be superceded and a strong administrator appointed with powers of the mayor and the municipal council for the wellbeing of the people. The quarrelsome elected body has indulged in internecine warfare neglecting civic works and has failed on all counts except perhaps in the only area of making illegal money that has fostered lack of municipal governance in the city. Action in this regard needs to be taken before the situation further deteriorates.

*Photo from internet

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Chinese Railways

Tracks cascading down from Beijing Railway Station

We in India are far too late in modernizing the railways and introducing high speed trains and. Politics and corruption has held us back and has pushed us back along with backward economies which have railways. Whether European, American, Japanese, Koreans or Chinese railways, we are far behind them and it will take decades to even come anywhere near them. One would like to add that even Malaysia has stolen a march over us.

Another view of  Beijing Railway Station
 For the first time in decades PM Modi, in active collaboration with a brilliant Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, is trying to lift the Railways from the morass it has got bogged down in. And yet there is no shortage of critics. For years ministers of railways not only used the ministry as a political tool and garner votes. Budget after budget it was populism that ruled with no steps for lifting up this massive asset of the country.

Nose like that of a aircraft
If one looks at the inese Railways one would realize what the Chinese have achieved in thirty years. I had occasion to travel in Chinese Railways in 1982, though for short distances, they were no better than our railways. The coaches used to be imported from the communist-ruled East Germany. Nonetheless, services for
Cabins too like those in aircraft
the passengers were of a much higher order. I had occasion to seeeven the Shanghai Railway Station. It was not even like our VT but there was a huge lounge with sofa sets and their crocheted toppings. Wall to wall Chinese paintings dominated the hall. No
Seats exuding luxury
clutter of baggage as baggage had to be booked in what we call brake vans.

The change that we see in pictures today is so remarkable. Not only are the Chinese gloating over a futuristic railways that they have, they have become consultants for others, including us. I am putting up a few photographs of Chinese railways for friends to see. All of these have been taken from the internet. Take a look.  

*As indicated in the text all photos are from internet

Friday, July 1, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 33 :: Perfidious administration

A welcome at best hypocritical
With great difficulty an empowered committee was created for conservation and development of the Upper Lake Bhopal. But this was so unwieldy that it has been able to meet only once though, surprisingly, the Mayor is at its head. It met only once when it appointed the Centre for Environmental Planning and Environment (CEPT), Ahmedabad, to prepare a plan for conservation and development of the Upper Lake. CEPT after showing enormous diligence submitted its report to the Mayor in 2013. That was the last one heard of it. For three years neither the Mayor and his Empowered Committee nor the government took any initiative to consider and to make it public. Eventually at the instance of te Bhopal Citizens’ Forum the National Green Tribunal moved in the matter and obtained a copy. The government all the time has been shamelessly claiming that it was “studying” the report, an inordinately long time with hundreds of minions at its disposal to study what is understood to be an explicit and unequivocal report. 

Quite clearly, the report does not seem to coincide with its plans for conservation and development of the Lake. Its intentions have more to do with development and minimal with conservation. Development would entail construction and that would bring in the benefits for the construction lobby and the politicians as also some smaller fries for whom some crumbs will be left for them to lap up. So, for the present, the CEPT report has been put in the freezer.

Rumours have, however, been afloat how the government, in association with the Municipal Corporation, has been abusing the sanctity of the catchments of the Upper Lake. While it is a well known fact that the Chirayu Hospital with its accompanying medical college were allowed to be constructed and established in clear violation of the prevailing norms conservation of wetlands, low density constructions have been allowed at Phanda that falls in the catchment area. After all, a big builder was involved. A rumour was also doing the rounds that an international standard cricket stadium is to be constructed in the village Barkheda Nathu that falls plumb in the catchment area.

The authorities who take to such ill-advised courses seem to be oblivious of the chutzpah of the people in the media. They can always dig up the information even if the same is buried deep somewhere in a cold-storage. Precisely that is what the People’s Samachar reporter apparently did the other day (27th June). He came out with a report indicating the reasons for not making the CEPT report public. Obviously CEPT had recommended that to save the Lake there should be no construction in its catchment area. Even doing away with the low-density development in the catchment area is also one of the recommendations of CEPT. It also said farm houses too should not be allowed.

If the government agrees to all these recommendations it would be putting itself to numerous difficulties. It has all the time carelessly allowed constructions in the catchments of the Lake thumbing its nose at the environmentalists. Besides, its proposed projects in Bhouri – Bakania are going to suffer from serious implications. These may have to be wound up. Not only that what happens to numerous low-rise constructions like those of Aakriti which has a nature-cure outfit in Phanda and a housing project named Aakriti Highlands?

 Instead of landing in such serious difficulties the authorities thought it best to sit tight on the CEPT report. After all, crores of rupees worth of projects were allowed and hence so much is at stake. Many must have made millions in the process. Nobody is going to let go of all those goodies. While the administration sits heavily on the CEPT report, it seems, more constructions are being allowed to make everything look like fait accompli on a later date when things happen to come to a crunch.

The government, ably supported by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation, is playing out this perfidious game with the people of the city. On the one hand it, including the Chief Minster, has been professing their commitment towards “conservation and development” of the Lake on the other they have prepared a divergently (anti-)project to kill it for the benefit of construction and builders’ lobbies and their collaborators. If the catchment is destroyed it wouldn’t be long before the Lake too disappears presenting to the real estate people prime land to exploit in the heart of the city.

 It is, therefore, time this treachery with the people of the city is exposed. There is a need for a concerted effort to have the CEPT report made public to enable the people to know the truth instead of depending on scraps of information that periodically appear in the local press.

1st July, 2016

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