Sunday, July 30, 2017

Never knew a tiger was so valuable

In natural habitat
People like us who are uninitiated and unversed in matters relating eco-system services rendered by tiger reserves could not have imagined that a detailed study as conducted by an Indo-Australian team would throw up such astounding results in regard to the benefits that accrue by saving tigers in their natural habitat. The Indo-Australian study team was headed by the distinguished professor Dr. Madhu Verma who is in the faculty of the renowned Indian Institute of Forest Management located in Bhopal. Perhaps the babus who work the environment or wildlife wings of various governments too would have been unaware of the facts that have come to light now as a result of the study.

 Yes, we knew that saving tigers would mean saving forests and thereby protecting the environment and bio-diversity. Wherever forests have been cleared the tigers too have disappeared from there. No wonder, the numbers of tigers have fallen to 2000-odd in 2014 from around 40000 at the beginning of the last century. There was massive cutting down of forests during the last century after independence to create farmlands in order to cope with the prevailing food shortages. Perhaps the Himalayan terais, the happy hunting ground of Jim Corbett, were the worst sufferers. With the disappearance of terai forests, tigers too disappeared barring in the sanctuaries that were created later for them. Similar efforts to bring large tracts of forests under the plough in the south, too, sounded the death knell for tigers, particularly in the Western Ghats, except in small pockets.

 Unfortunately, earlier there was very little concern for environment and wildlife in the functioning of the governments. Later, when the precipitous fall was observed in tiger numbers it was Mrs. Indira Gandhi who launched the Project tiger in a bid to save whatever numbers possible. Thanks to the Project, the numbers rose from a low of around 1100 to the 2000-odd tigers that are now confined within several forested reserves that have been created for them.

Even these are frequently under threat from poachers who make a large amount of money from its various body parts. It used to be said that a dead tiger is more valuable than the ones that prowl around the forests. But obviously, as it has now emerged from the new research, the tiger is far more valuable when alive than when it is dead.

The other threat it faces is from governments’ plans for development. Jairam Ramesh, an MIT-trained politician, had proposed when he was Minister of Environment, “go” and “no-go” areas for developmental activities in forested lands. Certain thick and pristine forests that were lush with vegetation and brimming over with wildlife were marked by him as “no go” forests where in no case, as against the “go” areas, land could be allotted for developmental activities. Because of his stiff opposition to exploiting forest lands for development various proposals for mining and industry suffered delay. The government of Manmohan Singh, an acclaimed economist, curiously found Ramesh’s continuance as untenable and he was moved out of the Environment Ministry. And, soon the government dismantled the concept of “no-go” areas in the interest of the development lobby.

 It is the tiger’s misfortune that the forests in which he roams about are rich in minerals, especially coal, that are deeply embedded underneath – all the goodies that create wealth. Every government covets them for that dreadful word “development”. Contextually, therefore, the Indo-Australian study for valuation of the tiger and the eco-system services its reserves render is timely and propitious. Tigers’ habitat is under constant threat, humans being self-willed and self-inclined in this Anthropocene Epoch think of nothing else except their own well-being. Hence, unless monetary values are attached to the tangible and intangible benefits offered by preservation of the tiger and his habitat the authorities may never wake up to the need to hold them dear and preserve them for the community’s well-being.

In early 2015 a report of another study of economic valuation of six tiger reserves conducted by the Indian Institute of Forest Management revealed that these reserves were worth 1,49, 000  crore (US $93 billion app. at current rate of exchange) but generate only 5% annually of what they are worth. The tiger reserves surveyed were Corbett, Kanha, Kaziranga, Periyar, Ranthambore and Sunderbans. While calculating the economic value the experts took into account the range of their eco-system services which included, inter alia, water provisioning, gene pool protection, carbon storage and sequestration. The basic idea of the study seems to have been to encourage the governments to enhance their investments in such forests to ensure the well-being of people by harvesting the benefits of their eco-system services.

The latest research, on the other hand, seems to have been focused on the economic value of a tiger in its natural habitat. The same reserves were taken up for the study but the focus was on the value of each tiger. The Indo-Australian team has come up with a finding that is earth-shattering in at least in one way – that of the values that have been estimated for tiger.

 They have calculated that saving two tigers gives more value than the cost of India’s Mangalayan Mission (Mars Mission). While the Mission cost Rs. 450 crore (app. $70 billion) saving two tigers gives a capital benefit of Rs. 520 crore (a little more than $80 billion). As India is home to 2226 adult tigers (according to 2014 tiger census) the capital benefit for country would be Rs. 5.7 lakh crore – an astronomical sum.

According to them, therefore, saving tigers makes good economic sense. The six tiger reserves that they took up for study gives the country a secure capital of $230 billion and we have 50 such reserves that will give an astronomical value in stock capital for the country. All this capital flows out of the eco-system services that the tigers and the reserves they roam around in render. Yet, as Mrs. Madhu Verma, the leader of the team said, “We still do not have adequate information or understanding of eco-systems, all the species and the various ways in which these enhance human well-being that we can estimate a value for each of them”. The embedded meaning is, therefore, un-assessed stock value could take it much higher than what has been estimated.

Mrs Madhu Verma, perhaps, rightly says that “Ignorance of such values influences public policies decisions including investments and funding that may impact their protection status with serious implications on human well-being”. The study, thus, tried to give a huge nudge to the government of India to allocate more funds for the tiger reserves to ensure healthy eco-systems in them so that flora and fauna prosper and multiply therein.

It has also been indicated that only 2.3% of the geographical area of the country is covered by the tiger reserves. Perhaps, instead of slicing away parts of these forests for developmental purposes like the Ken-Betwa Rivers "inter-linking" project, there is need of increasing the area under such forests to enhance the gains for the countrymen from their tangible and intangible benefits.

Hopefully, the government at the national level will pay enough heed to the results of this study and initiate appropriate action for more investments in tiger reserves for their better management. Let this study not be shelved to gather dust in the record rooms of the ministry concerned, like what happened with Mrs. Verma’s report on economic valuation of the Upper Lake of Bhopal conducted under the aegis of the World Bank around a couple of decades ago. Had the report been acted upon seriously, perhaps, the Lake would not have come to such a sorry pass.

22nd July 2017

*Photo from internet

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Bhopal Notes :: 55 :: Tale of two “cities of lakes”

Proverbially, comparisons are odious but there are occasions when it becomes necessary to make comparisons. I just came across a report on the way the lakes in another “City of Lakes”, Udaipur, are being taken care of. Enough has been written about the way our own lakes, including the ones that fall into the category of “heritage”, are treated. We take pride in calling Bhopal a “City of Lakes” and market it as such. We also claim that the Upper Lake is the pride of Bhopal and it symbolizes the city, to boot. And, yet the treatment that the state government and the Municipal Corporation, the custodian of the Lake, give to it amounts to nothing short of trying to kill it as soon as possible. One might add both the cities are in the list of those which are being upgraded as “smart cities”. While Udaipur has included its lakes for being “smartened up” no such decision has been taken in respect of the lakes of Bhopal by the special organization created for making the city smart.

In a recent report in The Pioneer I came across a write-up on the way the lakes of Udaipur are being taken care of and how attempts are being made to “rejuvenate” them. The lakes obviously are held in reverence as these are now treated as indicative of “inherited smartness” of the town. With smart planning and implementation, the Udaipur Municipal Corporation has already made two of the city’s lakes, viz. Fateh Sagar and Gowardhan lake, free of sewage. Two other important lakes, Pichola and Swaroop Sagar, are next to be taken up for making them sewage-free.

The report also says that a Lake Patrolling Squad has been constituted and is in position in order to prevent illegal constructions around the lakes. The municipality has, in addition, devised a scheme of cash incentives for those who report instances of illegal constructions near the lakes or of sewer drains flowing into any of the city’s lakes through “Action Udaipur App”.

The report claims that Udaipur serves as a role model in regard to immersion of clay or plaster of Paris images of gods and goddesses in the lakes after every festival. Immersions are reported to be carried out only symbolically. Apparently, this has had the desired effect and people, no less religious than those of Bhopal, are cooperating. According to the report, people are very possessive about the lakes. They willingly involve themselves in shramdaan and other activities relating to maintenance of cleanliness, etc. Therefore, it seems, they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to conserve their lakes.

People here in Bhopal, however, are keen to make merry on the lake front but have displayed a “hands-off” attitude in so far as efforts to conserve them is concerned. People’s participation was noticed only once about a decade ago when the Upper Lake was in dire straits. The effort led by the chief minister to deepen the Upper Lake proved to be futile as the work involved was much beyond what five hundred-odd pairs of hands could achieve.

 In none of the aspects referred to in respect of the lakes of Udaipur has the Bhopal Municipal Corporation able to either initiate action for improvement of quality of the waters of the Upper Lake, a source of drinking water, or to prevent illegal encroachment/constructions around it. In fact it has turned a blind eye to these illegal activities and has itself commenced illegal construction within 500 metres of the Full Tank Level. There is no action seems to be in the offing and eight drains continue since one-does-not-know-when to empty their various contaminants, including sewage into the Lake. The Corporation does not seem to have even mooted the problem before the state government for diversion of the  drains or installation of sewage treatment plants.

Besides, the authorities are still struggling to prevent immersion of plaster of Paris images in the Upper Lake. Every year it is the same story. Either the orders are not disseminated clearly or artisans are resistant to change, being non-cooperative; control on the size and material to be used for the images continues to elude the administration. Somehow the Municipal Corporation of Bhopal has failed to elicit cooperation from general public in regard to conservation of the important water body. On the other hand, the Udaipur Municipal Corporation has incentivized reports/complaints from the common people regarding efforts to damage the eco-systems of the lakes.

Perhaps, our local body should draw lessons from the Udaipur municipality in respect of conservation of the lakes of Bhopal. Perhaps it understands that by simply calling the town “City of Lakes” and blazing it prominently in red on the Upper Lake neither conserves it or other lakes, nor does it make the town a city of lakes.

*Photo of Pichola Lake is from internet

Monday, July 17, 2017

Destinations :: Sikkim (1981)

Kalimpong landscape
On way to Gangtok via Kalimpong from Darjeeling our taxi drove through tea gardens. As we were going through Lopchu garden the driver suddenly applied the brakes and as we looked up at the road in front a leopard crossed the road at near-supersonic speed. Yes, there was wildlife there on those hills around thirty five years ago. After all, the place is a part of Himalayan terai (lowland at the foot of Himalayas) region with lush jungles. At most places in India the terais have been decimated and colonized. But, then some wild animals still
Teesta River from Kalimpong
survive one of which is the never-say-die Indian leopard which has survived even after its habitats were gobbled up to settle humans.

The rest of the journey was uneventful It was only a 50-kilometre drive from Darjeeling to Kalimpong but it took around two hours as the roads
Roadside trees
were hilly and necessarily had several twists and turns. Kalimpong falls in the Darjeeling district and is the gateway to Gangtok. Although there is a sizable military concentration, it has very little in its favour except its salubrious climate, situated as it is at an elevation of more than 3500 ft. There are a few missionary schools and an outfit that produces cheese that is well-known in the region.

Kalimpong has a bit of a history. Though insubstantial as a settlement it
Crockety House of Helena Roerich (from internet)
changed hands between Bhutan and Sikkim and eventually in 1864 after the Anglo-Bhutanese war it came in the possession of the East India Company. In 1947 India inherited it from the British and later merged it in West Bengal. It has that strategic importance being located in what is known as “chicken neck” between the Indian land mass and the District of Darjeeling and the states of North-East. Darjeeling District and Sikkim are both vulnerable to Chinese military advances. Kalimpong shot into
Kanchenjunga from Gangtok
prominence in the 1960s as a den of spies. From the Russians to CIA, the Chinese and our own intelligence outfits would prowl around Kalimpong. Espionage activities had intensified around the time an American, Hope Cook, used to be in Gangtok, married as she was to the late King of Sikkim. What the spies were snooping around for is not quite clear. The town is also associated with the name of Helena Roerich, a Russian writer, philosopher, a mystic and also mother in-law of the First Lady of Indian Screen, late Devika Rani.

Gangtok is around 50 miles away. The road winds its way through
Somewhere near Rangpo
beautiful surroundings with whites of the snow caps and greens of the troughs intermingling. Sikkim, as is well known, was merged into Indian Union after a referendum in 1975. It had been an independent state through the 18th and 19th Centuries ruled by a Buddhist priest-king known as Chogyal. Protected by British India, it later became protectorate of India before being merged into India.

Anoter view of Kanchenjunga range
Of Immense strategic value, Peoples Republic of China with which it shares its borders, is all the time trying to nibble at it, as it does on its borders with Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Even currently a kind of stand-off between India and China persists over Chinese intrusion in Bhutan the defense of which is India’s responsibility. That is the political aspect but Sikkim, as it is, is a beautiful place to visit. We could not visit North Sikkim for want of time but that area is supposed to be idyllic. Even whatever we saw in south
A religious place
Sikkim was remarkably beautiful – one might say, nature at its best. Our trip to Rangpo on West Bengal border stands testimony to that. There is another place supposedly a must-see, viz. the Rumtek monastery. We found it rather far and couldn’t be done in a day trip.

Sikkim is largely untouched by human interference as its population is very low, lowest in India and it is the second smallest state of the country. Being in the shadow of the Eastern Himalayas, it hosts Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world. Almost 35% of the state is covered by Kanchenjunga National Park.

Changu Lake
When we went to Gangtok it was in the process of development. The progress was tardy due to political instability. Things are reported to have changed significantly since then.  Though the state’s GDP is the smallest in the country it is reported to be the fastest growing state. Gangtok is now a thriving capital city – multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, having as many as 11 official languages. The state is, like Darjeeling, a melting pot of various ethnicities, tribes
A fly-over and high rises in Gangtok
and various hill peoples – generally those who migrated from Tibet.

While the economy of Sikkim is based on tourism, it is surprisingly the largest producer of cardamom in the world. We also saw orchids being hawked around. Obviously, they were not quite cultivated type and were probably filched from forests around Gangtok. However, the best gifts of Gangtok are the views that it offers of Kanchenjunga from its outskirts. Kanchenjunga is much closer to Gangtok than Darjeeling hence it kind of dominates the place.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit any of the Buddhist temples and
Somewhere near Rangpo
monasteries of which there are quite a few in and around Gangtok. During my official visit later in 1993 we tried to go up to Nathu La pass but had to turn back due to bad weather. On the way we spent some time near Tsamgo or Changu Lake, a very enchantingly and beautiful sight. We were told it becomes more beautiful during winters when the mountains are covered in white snow. Supposedly around 12000 ft. in elevation it was frightfully cold and we literally had to scram from there.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

From my scrapbook :: 3

Talking trees

That trees help us fight climate change has been known for quite some time. They are seen in the role of being carbon stocks and carbon sinks. A report in the periodical “Down to Earth” indicated that scientists are now studying a more fundamental correlation – the direct effects the trees and forests have on climate through rainfall and cooling. The report continued, trees help retain moisture on the ground and produce cooling moisture which directly affects food security and climate change adaptation.

While further research in this regard is continuing, a book “Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohllenben reveals that trees not only can communicate, they can even think and have memories. The author says that forest is a “superorganism’ where “trees communicate and exchange resources      through roots and fungi networks”. Just like an organism they help each other in times of distress. The tree trunk, for instance, vibrates to alert its neighbours in times of water shortages.
Wohllenben goes on to say that trees can also taste, touch, smell, hear and feel just the way animals do. Water molecules are the media through which the tree trunk is made to vibrate just like animals use water molecules to vibrate their vocal chords. As for hearing ability of trees an experiment is reported to have shown that roots of seedlings moved in the direction of the ultrasonic sound waves coming from crackling of roots of other seedlings in the vicinity

Leaves of spruce, beeches and oaks feel pain when they are chewed on. A similar finding was once reported around half a century ago in Readers’ Digest. A lie detector attached to a potted plant made the machine shake violently when a leaf was torn off it. The plant, it seems, had developed the memory as on subsequent days as the researcher (in fact a policeman interested in plant life) would approach the tree to tear off a leaf its heightened distress would progressively be registered on the machine and on tearing off of the leaf it would be most violent. Apparently, as Wohllenben has observed, trees could “learn” and “remember” as exemplified by the mimosa tree that folds its leaves on touch but does not do so when water droplets fall on them regularly – a typical example of learning and remembering.

Another surprising finding was that trees are “social beings” and they can be “sad” and “happy” on the basis of their neighbourhood. Trees socialize largely because it is of advantage to them. A lonely tree cannot create or maintain a consistent local climate. Together, however, they can create a protected environment that shelters them from wind and weather.

Wohlleben goes on to say that isolated trees are “deaf” and “dumb”, having lost their ability to communicate and have a shorter life-span. He also says that trees in planted forests are like “street kids” because their roots are damaged and are incapable of “networking”. Trees surrounded by their “tree parents” live longer and are “happier”. Parents take care of their young ones and even other trees offer help, “nursing” their injured neighbours with nutrients.

The question, obviously raised would be whether trees are intelligent beings. Wohlleben says trees have brain like structures at the root tips which help them decide what to do when they meet an obstruction or face peril of some kind. While a majority of “plant scientists” are skeptical about these findings the contention of the author would seem to be confirmed by the videos of plants growing in dense rain forests rising from the floor avoiding obstruction and, if it happens to be their wont, latching on to another tree and coiling around its trunk or branches.

One might add, the finding of trees' ability to feel pain is not a new discovery. More than 90 years ago Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, an Indian polymath, developed automatic recorders capable of recording extremely slight movements which produced some striking results such as quivering of injured plants. Bose interpreted them as power of feeling in plants. Bose also wrote a book on “The Nervous Mechanism of Plants”.

Trees, hence, are as animate as us who claim to be the “roof and crown” of Creation. We have to have as much regard for them as we have for other living beings and willful destruction of forests should amount to a crime equivalent to downright mass murder.

Mossy Walls

Hyperallergic, a Brooklyn-based blogazine, has reported that the problem regarding air pollution is assuming alarming proportions every day. Around 4.4 million premature deaths occur in the world due to contaminated air that people breathe. India alone accounts for 1.1 million deaths because of the same reason. Things are likely to become worse because of President Trump’s pull out from the Paris Climate Agreement and his decision to put back the coal mine workers to work the neglected coal mines for reviving the coal-fired thermal power stations. Rising number of automobiles are also fouling up the air. This has given fresh impetus to researchers to look for ways to improve the quality of urban air.

One such recent green initiative is the “City Tree” by the Berlin based Green City Solutions. The proposed solution looks quite like the two walls with flowering plants on them that have come up in Bhopal behind Ravindra Bhawan and can be seen as one goes up towards the New Market from the Polytechnic Square. The City Tree is not a tree but a 13 feet tall wall of moss with the possibility of public seating on either side, with solar panels and rain water collectors. It is claimed to have “the same effect as up to 275 urban trees”. With its specific moss cultures with vascular plants that eat particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and ozone, it can offset 240 tons of CO2 per year.

As many as 20 City Trees have already been installed in Paris, Oslo, Hong Kong, Glasgow and Brussels. The progress in planting them is tardy as they do not come cheap – costing around $25000 each. In that kind of money municipal bodies could plant many more roadside hardy
Moss walls in Dresden
trees. This is claimed to be a drawback but there is something in their favour too. There are many areas, even in European towns, where there is no space to plant conventional trees. In such areas City Trees could be of great help, more so as a city’s old areas are more congested generating more automobile emissions. In concrete jungles that are coming up all over our country with no scope for planting trees these moss walls could be of immense help to mitigate effects of air pollution

One wonders in our harsh hot and dry summers whether such mossy walls are suitable solutions. But, while the City Trees will be a greater strain on the human and financial resources of the local bodies, these would, if carefully nurtured, would certainly bring down air pollution in congested areas of our cities. In order to keep the City Trees effective the moss on them will have to be assiduously and carefully taken care of.

*Photos from internet

Friday, July 7, 2017

Our life, our times :: 9 :: Of Indian cars and their market

http://www.bagchiblog.blogspot .com

An India-made Jaguar
For some time I had been thinking of changing my vehicle which I had had for more than seven years.  It was an Estillo from the Maruti Suzuki stable and had rendered me decent service. We do not dare to travel out of Bhopal on account of the reported road conditions. It, therefore, ran all through within the confines of the city. It was good and economical but was small – only of 3 cylinders and was of under 1000 cc. We wanted a slightly bigger vehicle wherein we could sit with greater comfort on the rear seats, now that both of us seldom drive.

So we got cracking looking for a suitable vehicle that not only met our requirements, but was within our budget. Today India is different in so far as cars are concerned; one is spoilt for choice. Time was when there were only three makes of cars that were available one of which wound down pretty early being unable to feed the market. It was the Standard of Madras (now Chennai) which used to manufacture variations of the vehicles produced by Standard Triumph of United Kingdom. One of these was Standard Herald, Indian version of Triumph Herald, introduced in mid 1960s, but by 1970s it did the disappearing act. 

The Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador had a good run for almost half a century until 2014 but in 2017 it sold the brand and trade mark to the PSA Group of France. Ambassador cars were favourites of ministers who used to ride around on these mostly of white colour. Birlas, the owners of Hindustan Motors, had such a stranglehold on the government that they did not allow any other make to appear in the Indian market. At one time the Ambassador was even used to be called “king of the roads”. After economic reforms of 1991 it became a curiosity as it was made on the platform of half a century old Morris Oxford Series III. Some were even exported to England just for fun.

 The third make was of Fiat which later collaborated with an Indian firm Premier Automobiles. It put its Padmini on the roads in the mid 1970s. Built on the platform of its precursor Fiat 1100 it became quite popular in 1970s and 1980s. But it soon collapsed when the new small and fuel-efficient cars were introduced in mid 1980s. Though the Padmini plant owned by the Walchand Group was shut down somewhere around 1990s a few taxi cabs of that vintage can even now be seen on Mumbai roads.

 These three together would produce 15000 to 20000 cars per annum. No wonder, huge number of people used to be waitlisted. There used to be even quotas for the government and government servants to speed up delivery to them. Here, too, people had to wait at least a couple of years before they got their vehicle. It was that classic “license permit raj”. In the meantime in early 1970s Sanjay Gandhi jumped into the fray hoping to cash in on a market ruled by scarcity. He promised a cheap car named Maruti for just Rs. 6000/-. It never saw the light of day and eventually Suzuki of Japan was persuaded to take over his ramshackle plant and his Maruti brand name. Indians, those who could afford a car, therefore, were denied a decent automobile because of government’s tight control for reasons that could only be called bizarre.

It was former Prime Minister Narsimha Rao who opened the automobile sector and in a matter of few years the economy acquired its tiger-ish traits riding the automobile boom. Almost all manufacturers – from South Korea and Japan to the US and Europe – came and setup automobile plants here. The market was starving for decent and modern economical cars manufactured in modern automatic plants. While the earlier Indian manufacturers left the scene having been vanquished, only two new ones – Daewoo from South Korea and General Motors from the US – have called it quits. Nonetheless, the Indian automobile industry is now one of the largest in the world, annually producing around 24 million vehicles as reported at the end of last fiscal. Of these 3 million were passenger vehicles. One can see them on the Indian roads fighting for space and generally causing jams even at unthinkable tier II and III towns. This is a far cry from what we had experienced in 1960s and 1970s. Even the luxury vehicles like Jaguars, Land Rovers, Mercedes, Audi’s and BMWs which one saw running around only abroad are now being manufactured in the country. The country literally is awash with automobiles.

And yet, we had a futile wait of as many as three months before we got a vehicle of our liking. Since 1984 I have been patronising Maruti Suzuki cars. I had as many as four of them one after the other as I found them good – light on the fuel and least troublesome. They would seldom have a break-down and as its service stations have proliferated one didn’t have much of a problem to have the vehicle attended to.

 These plus points made me book another Maruti Suzuki vehicle – this time the bigger one, a sedan named Swift Dzire. As the firm decided to discontinue use of the “Swift” prefix to call it simply “D’zire” with minor changes in its overall make up my booking was converted for this model. And that made me wait for as many as three months with no guarantee that it would be made available anywhere in the near future. That’s when I said enough was enough and I cancelled the booking. Perhaps change in the model and introduction of GST caused some delay but an indefinite delay cannot be tolerated.

There was another reason for the delay. I had asked for the basic model of D’zire. But, the team leader of the dealer said, these basic models take longer time to be delivered as their demand is low and the manufacturer first feeds the high-end market. He said, customers these days mostly ask for vehicles that are “fully loaded” with additional features. Hence these are given priority. The Indian middle class obviously has changed – and changed for the better (?). They now want more sophisticated high-end cars with various luxury features and fixtures.

 Hence, the leading car maker Maruti Suzuki stopped manufacturing its basic 800 cc model with which it started its operations in India. It used to be the cheapest and a pretty good car but now nobody, it seems, wants it. Because of such negative reasons even Tata’s Nano bombed in the market. He thought of making this cheap small car (initially costing only Rs.1 lakh, 1600-odd dollars) having seen families of four commuting on two-wheelers. He took a lot of trouble in producing it cutting down on many non-essentials, made it very light on fuel and had it designed in Italy. He introduced it in competition with Maruti 800, the market share of which promptly tumbled by 20%. But, curiously Nano was shunned by even those for whom it was actually meant. They, probably, are keeping their eyes peeled for a bigger and more sophisticated car.

 Such is the Indian automobile market. Highly aspirational, wouldn’t you say?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Overthrowing the "Maharaja"

Happy tidings have arrived from Delhi indicating the decision of the Central Cabinet to privatise Air India. A very bold decision for a vital economic reform that, perhaps, only this government could take blocking the drain that it had become on government finances.

Though crowned a “Maharaja”, recent reports indicated as if the national carrier Air India had gone bankrupt. An order of a consumer forum given at the state level and later confirmed by the Central Forum for payment of Rs. 15,000/- as compensation to a petitioner for deficiency in services exposed the Airline’s financial ill-health. A cheque issued by it in compliance of the order bounced for the reason that the account had no balance. Like the feudals of yore the so-called “Maharaja” has been hit by inclemency.

It is indeed in bad shape. A news item recently said that the staff are going to cut down on their allowances and perks in order to improve the Airline’s financial health. One supposes this kind of realization among the staff has come rather late in the day. It was the excesses of the pilots, the cabin crew and other serving or retired employees during its heydays that contributed in no mean manner to usher in the current difficult times of the Airline.

A report in the Telegraph of United Kingdom said that some of the “staggering” losses of Air India were due to exceptionally generous staff benefits. Pilots used to stay in five-star hotels in the US and would commute only in limousines, serving and retired pilot and crew would take business class seats ahead of paying passengers. There was a time when paying business class passengers would be shunted off to rival airlines at Air India’s cost to accommodate the airline’s own staff. Thus the largesse distributed after negotiations with the unions practically did the Airline in. On top of that there were the demands of the politicians, bureaucrats and other VIPs for special considerations regardless of the costs. One cannot also forget Air India’s “free companion service” which the supposed VIPs made generous use of.

There were various views that were being aired regarding the Airline’s future. An overwhelming section wanted its privatization as otherwise its revival, if attempted, would set the government back by as much as Rs. 52000 crores. But the thinking in the government was for reviving it, whatever, it took. The government seemed to have been of the opinion that it should have an airline which could be used in times of emergency. There have been several instances when the planes of Air India were used to rescue Indian citizens from hostile and dangerous situations in foreign lands. If privatized the government would have no hold on the airline resulting in developments that could turn out to be uncomfortable for it. More importantly, politicians perhaps did not wish to let go of a milch cow that remained at their beck and call and offered unabashed preferential treatment to them.

Surviving on the bailout package of Rs. 30000 crore provided by the last UPA government in 2013, its continuance as a public sector airline seems to be uncertain. Niti Ayog has suggested outright divestment and privatization of the airline. Nonetheless, the government is trying to monetize the Airline’s vast assets in India and abroad. Only recently The Pioneer reported the Airline’s assets sale plan had badly floundered. No bidders came forward to participate in the auction of the national carrier’s properties at prime locations in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Thiruvanantapuram. The Airline had planned to raise around 80 crores from its fixed assets monetisation plan but this has, for the time being, failed to materialise – a rude setback to the airline.

The larger question, however, is how a thriving and reputed airline as Air India slid down to such a level that it has had to contemplate hiving off of its solid assets to raise a few crores. Pritish Nandi, a poet, a movie maker, a painter, an admirer of Air India as it used to be and a past MP to boot, has put it succinctly in one of his recent blogs that things started going drastically wrong for the Airline as competition arrived. While, according to general belief, competition improves standards and the existing companies prepare themselves to take on the new arrivals.
Unfortunately, this did not happen with Air India, not because it was incapable of facing competition but because it was “strongarmed” by its political masters to cede ground to its competitors in which they had developed stakes. Nandi, therefore, comes to that unmistakable conclusion that Air India did not “lie down” and allowed itself to die; it was “murdered in broad daylight” so that its rivals could gain. While the air traffic was burgeoning, instead of readying itself to meet the new traffic surge, it allowed the “ministry” to give away the traffic to others. The untenable excuse was “globalization and an open skies policy”.
This contention finds an echo in the Neera Radia tapes which the Income Tax department recorded while snooping on Radia’s Vaishnavi Consultants. The department happened to stumble upon the murky dealings of the Civil Aviation Ministry. Radia had become privy to goings on in the Civil Aviation Ministry when Praful Patel and his cronies were trying to get into Air India Rattan Tata to hold and take the blame for the mess they had made. As Tata used to be Radia’s client she had researched Air India and had come to the conclusions that painted Praful Patel as the villain.

According to Radia, the politicians who were involved in the deals would have sold the airline to its competitors. She points her fingers at Jet Airways and King Fisher airlines. The idea was to “strip” its assets and then hand over the Airline to Naresh Goel and Vijay Mallya. The bilateral agreements on profitable routes had already been handed over to a Middle-Eastern airline for which the protagonists raked in, according to Radia’s estimates (and one has no reason to suspect her judgment), around $ 3 to 4 hundred million.

This is not all. Even when the Airline was performing at a loss it was made to place orders with various manufacturers for as many as 111 planes. Radia asks where would they have flown the planes to, (including Boeing 787 Dreamliners with a capacity to fly more than 300 passengers) when all the profitable routes had been sold off. The talk at that time was how could an airline with turnover of just Rs. 7000 crore go on an aircraft buying spree costing Rs. 70000 crore. Some of these aircraft have later been sold and taken back on lease in order to pay back the loans. That does not help much; while the Airline’s finances (as also its reputation) were ruined those in authority, the villains, walked away with the kickbacks.

The CBI has now commenced Preliminary Enquiries (PE) against unknown people to investigate purchase of 111 aircraft for Air India at a cost of Rs. 70000 crore; leasing large number of aircraft without proper justifications; and handing over of profit-making routes to foreign private airlines.

All these investigations might take a few months or even years. But the most crucial man who has never been investigated is Praful Patel during whose tenure irreparable damage was done to the Airline. All that may eventually take place in God’s own time but in the meantime one must celebrate the government’s decision.

*Photo from internet

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