Saturday, October 30, 2010

The world’s favourite dumping ground

The worst offenders have the best lobbies to protect them. Perhaps it is a law of nature. The more one has to hide, the greater the paraphernalia one needs to hide them. Laws of this kind work extremely well in India because our bribability quotient is pretty high.

How else can we explain the recent spectacle of a shipload of New York City municipal waste being dumped in Kochi port? Or a condemned ship with most of its parts deadly with radioactive material coming to our west coast for scrapping? It is well known that medicines banned in the West are freely sold in India and that poor Indians are used for field testing that are not allowed on American citizens. Such things happen because same Indians like to get rich at the expense of their fellow citizens and their country. And because the state shirks its responsibility.

The same principle has made India the favourite hunting ground for promoters of Bt. brinjal and endosulfan. Both are long-running scandals, but Monsanto has added a new, revealing twist to the genetic engineering mess: they don’t want labelling of GM products made mandatory in India. Companies voluntarily labelling products as not containing genetically modified organisms is all right, but no legal requirement should be there, they say. In other words, an internationally suspect corporation like Monsanto (and its Indian avatars) must have the right to hide what it wants to hide; people do not have any right to know what they are eating.

Even if we leave out the European Union (Monsanto was banished from Europe), countries like China, Japan and Australia have enforced mandatory labelling rules. India has done nothing of the kind, showing the power of the lobby on the one side and the “influenceability” – to put it mildly – of the Indian establishment on the other.

These factors are even more dramatically evident on the endosulfan front. Actually India should have been in the forefront of the global campaign to get this poisonous pesticide banned. It was only in India that endosulfan was sprayed from the air across acres of cashew plantations for as long as 20 years. This callous operation by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala ruined the soil and water of the area. Pitiable deformities and horror diseases spread among the people living in the area.

But the pesticide lobby rejected pictorial evidence provided by TV channels and on-the-spot surveys done by researchers. Instead, it spread the story that there was no proof to show that endosulfan was the cause of the tragedy. Ministers in the Centre and the state mouthed this argument; Union Minister of State for Agriculture repeated it last week though he should have known better since he comes from Kerala.

Two factors expose this irresponsible ministerial posture. First, if endosulfan is not the cause of the neurological disorders and hormonal imbalances, then what is? Mosquitoes? No minister has bothered to look into this. Scientific panels have indeed linked the pesticide with genetic disorders, but these were brushed aside in favour of “official” panels who echoed the lobby line.

Secondly, India is the world’s largest remaining producer of endosulfan. In addition to several private companies, the Government of India’s Hindustan Insecticides runs three manufacturing units. With this vested interest, when India becomes the lead country opposing the ban much of the world is demanding (sixty countries have already banned it), we present a reactionary, retrograde profile to the world. The pesticide lobby doesn’t care, but India should.

The first thing the Government should do is to privatise Hindustan Insecticides and cut endosulfan out of its products line. Then it must ensure that the poisonous pesticide is not manufactured or used in India at all; Kerala banned it but the stuff still finds its way into the state in various disguises. Obviously the lobby is powerful enough to defy the laws it finds inconvenient. Even over the twisted, tangled bodies of helpless victims, the worst offenders have the last laughs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thrishna and Gill; Thrishna and MLAs

Thrishna encapsulates a concept the philosophical sweep of which cannot be captured in the English equivalent, desire. It is like the term agni which is larger, deeper, more multi-layered in its meanings than fire. The English words are essentially literal whereas the Sanskrit terms are civilisational.

Thrishna in its fullest, widest sense is on display in contemporary India. The Bhagvat Gita had seen with astonishing clarity what was going to happen in the 21st century in Bharat that is India. Identifying thrishna as a rajas guna, it tells us that all actions born out of rajas are directed towards securing sensual enjoyment and therefore cause bondage resulting in several lives.

That friendly warning never curbed the thrishna of the Commonwealth Games organisers. All their actions were directed towards self-aggrandisement. Even after the Games, they persist in activities that will lead to bondage. Sports Minister M. S. Gill wanted to go and spend a week in Glasgow to study how Scotland was preparing for the next Games four years away. Why on earth would he want to study that after contributing his share to the mess in Delhi? Fortunately for the tax payer, the Prime Minister shot down Gill’s self-serving desire.

The tragedy of self-seekers is that they can never stop. Nothing is enough. They are never at peace because, as Panchatantra teaches us, only he finds peace who is no tormented by greed. In his thrishna for more and then more, Gill was ready even to compromise his constitutional position. As Chief Election Commissioner, he was obliged to be strictly apolitical and non-partisan. But after he laid down the job, he accepted a political appointment under the Congress party. How are we to know that his decisions as CEC were not influenced by his desire to win that party’s backing in due course?

The last CEC, Navin Chawla, accepted a Governor’s posting as soon as he retired. At least he had no reputation to lose because he was known all along as a star of the Emergency and an unquestioning camp follower of the Congress dynasty. Judges, Speakers and Comptrollers & Auditors General are all supposed to be never beholden to parties. That worthy democratic convention has been roundly violated in our system because of the debilitating power of thrishna.

Sri Krisha was specific when he said that the thirst for pleasure, power and wealth propels people into activities meant to satisfy the desires, then into further activity to acquire more. Krishna equated thrishna with kama and said it was a fire which only burned more when it was fed.

That was a remarkably apt description of what Karnataka’s MLAs were going to do some yugas later. Ironically the aptness has been brought out by the BJP which of course claims copyright on the wisdom of the Gita. When the electorate gave the BJP a minority status in the Assembly in 2008, the party proceeded to acquire a majority status through the simple activity of buying MLAs in the marketplace. That activity has now led to further activity to acquire more MLAs from the open market. The more their kama is fed, the more the fire burns.

Evidently political parties have discovered that buying and selling can effectively defeat both the democratic and judicial systems, especially if you have a colluding Speaker on your side. In the ongoing second round of trading in Karnataka, the going rate is said to be in the range of Rs 50 crore per MLA. That’s more money than the equivalent weight of steel or cement fetches. Electoral reform can end these collective insults to voters. A rule, for example, that an MLA who resigns is disqualified from re-election for the next five years. But to ask legislators to pass rules that curb them is like asking a thief to call the police.

The much-touted “first BJP Government in the South” has certainly created history. The innocent had thought that the culture of the South would change the BJP for the better. In truth, the thrishna of the BJP has changed the South for the worse.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Evil as spectator sport

One chief minister, four days, two confidence votes. That certainly puts Karnataka in the history books. But the twin victories are more Pyrrhic than the one Pyrrhus won against the Romans at unsustainably high cost. They have merely proved John Kennerth Galbraith’s theory that television has turned politics into a spectator sport. Honourable members assaulting security marshals and one honourable member doing an honourable striptease standing on an honourable desk must have fetched record TRP ratings.

One set of politicians called the vote the triumph of democracy. Another set, the murder of democracy. In the process they proved yet again that all parties follow the same code: “When I do wrong, it is right. When you do wrong, it is very wrong”.

With great self-righteousness BJP president Gadkari said there was horse-trading by the opposition parties. The current season of horse-trading was in fact started by the BJP when MLAs were openly purchased to turn Yeddyurappa’s minority government into a majority one in 2008. The rates were high because money mined in Bellary was in plentiful supply. The other parties found matching money this time, hence the vulgar scenes last week. Therefore, what Gadkari meant was: When I do it, it’s democracy; when you do it, it’s horse-trading.

Again with great self-righteousness Arun Jaitley accused Governor Bharadwaj of using the Raj Bhavan for political purposes. True, but who is he to complain? In 2001 it was the BJP Government, with Jaitley as Law Minister, that decided to sack Tamil Nadu Governor Fateema Beevi. Her offence? When Karunanidhi was arrested, the Governor did not send the critical report that Delhi wanted. In 2003 UP Governor Vishnukant Shastri, an RSS leader and a BJP favourite, did not invite Mulayam Singh Yadav to form the Government although his party had won the largest number of seats in the Assembly.That was because the BJP was in cahoots with Mayawati then. Jaitley, too, meant: My wrong is right. It’s your wrong that’s wrong.

It is a pity that Governor Bharadwaj played into the BJP’s hands by talking too much and doing what governors should not do – hold press conferences, partake in channel chats and talk politics like “I am fed up of this kind of corruption”. His indiscretions diverted attention from the BJP’s iniquities.

Those iniquities are unprecedented as well as numerous. It was bad enough that the Yeddyurappa Government was born in the immorality of MLA-buying. It then turned politics into an openly unprincipled, power-at-any-cost exercise in greed. Greed was a feature of most governments in the state in the last decade or two. But not on the scale, and not with the brashness, of the Yeddyurappa-Reddy dispensation. The ground for the latest implosion was prepared by the Bellary Reddys who “rebelled” when their abuse of power came under attack. The final spark was provided by charges of land deregulation by the Chief Minister to financially benefit his sons and other land-grab charges involving Katta Subramanya Naidu, Minister holding several lucrative portfolios, his wife and son; this son was even put in jail by the Lok Ayukta police. Between unscrupulous mining barons and unscrupulous land sharks, Karnataka has become a lost paradise – and the BJP will go into the history books for that too.

Unfortunately for the people, the opposition consists of the JD(S) which will never command popular support because of the negative credibility of party patriarch Deve Gowda, and the Congress which has never been as bereft of credible leaders as it is today. In other words, the voter has no one to vote for.

That situation is unlikely to change. The relatively popular elements in the JD(S), including former chief minister Kumaraswamy, will not have the courage to keep Deve Gowda out of the picture. The Congress has lost its will to power and therefore will not put its untainted leaders, including the younger ones, at the helm. This is the era of the unworthy who win by default. Taxpayers in Karnataka are forced to sustain a circus that’s felonious and venal. At least Gadkari and Jaitley must recall Tilak’s words: “Defending an evil does not make it good”.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Good Indians vs Evil Indians

The Devas finally came to the rescue of India. The Rakshasas have not yet been destroyed, but they have been exposed sufficiently enough to save India’s honour before a watchful world. We can now walk with our heads held high as befitting citizens of a great country.

Such was the hold of the demons that the Devas had to appear in multiple avatars – as Bharat Bala, as Shyam Benegal, as Prasoon Joshi, as the all-conquering Keshav and as hundreds of nameless but astonishingly coordinated school children. Together they made the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games a moment of pride for us, effacing if only for a while the shame of greed and incompetence that preceded it.

All of us had always known that India had the abilities and the skills to organise the most challenging of events. But our political sphere allows the scum of society to occupy commanding heights of organising committees. In the case of the Commonwealth Games, it was clear that a Disorganising Committee was making a hash of it. But that Committee reckoned without the assurance of our protectors that “for the destruction of evil-doers, for firmly establishing righteousness, Sambhavaami yuge yuge”.

So the avatars came. And how magnificent India looked before the world. The seven years and seven-thousand crores spent by the Disorganising Committee brought us disgrace. The ten months and one hundred fifty crores spent by the creative cultural team for the opening ceremony brought us glory.

That difference came about because of the difference in attitude. The primary interest of the Rakshasas was to feather their nests. Pride in their country was a sentiment totally alien to them. The Devas, by contrast, were motivated by nothing but pride in their country and culture. Some of them who led the team did not even take a rupee as fees. This is India at its finest. The pity is that all too often the vilest outgun the finest.

More worryingly, there seems to be no stopping the Chief of the Rakshasa Brigade. People like Jaipal Reddy and M.S.Gill, having discovered that they were outstanding non-performers, kept away from the limelight at the opening ceremony. But not the unashamed Kalmadi. That he was allowed to speak at the august function was an affront to the country. He made it worse by acknowledging the presence of Abul Kalam Azad ( May his soul rest in peace!) and later by thanking Prince Diana (will her soul now rest in peace?). This man is a serial blunderer too.

But even he, given to selective deafness and selective blindness, must know that he is hated by the people of this country. The crowd at the opening jeered him. Some days earlier, when he was dining at an upmarket Delhi restaurant, upmarket people from nearby tables went up to him and abused him. The internet is full of scorn and derision.

Nothing seems to penetrate his skin, though. He is said to be busy with p.r.campaigns designed to convince the world that the opening ceremony was a smashing success because of his untiring efforts behind the scenes. Claiming credit for other people’s work is an integral part of the fixer’s techniques. He will claim credit for everything that goes well with the Games, putting the blame for things that go wrong on Mani Shankar Iyer’s and other available shoulders. That’s the style of this kind of operators.

But the machinations of the guilty men should in no way lead to their exoneration. They need to be held accountable and punished, not acquitted. If their political godfathers, who let them run wild in the first place, continue their misplaced sponsorship even after the Games are over, then the godfathers’ role in the shenanigans will also have to be tracked and exposed. We are a land blessed by the Devas. Rakshasas belong to the nether regions where they can organise a Paataala Olympics.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A witness who walked tall

Out of the blue, as it were, a new and wholly unexpected voice broke above the newspaper din in India in 1959. In a politics-obsessed world, this voice began talking about development projects – Bhakra Nangal, Damodar Valley, Hirakund, Nagarjunsagar – and then about “brand names of distinction” like HAL, HMT, BHEL, ONGC etc. These were all new terms at that time and the overall picture that came through was that of a massive change under way in the thinking as well as structural composition of India. It was as good as a scoop.

That was B. G. Verghese’s entry into public attention. He had entered journalism ten years earlier, unplanned and unprepared, and spent time writing editorial notes until he got himself transferred to reporting. His ground-breaking reportage on “the temples of Modern India” was a departure for journalism itself. Verghese’s editors in the Times of India recognised this and published his series on the front page. (Those were days when the TOI was a NEWSpaper led by some of the finest journalists India has known).

The freshness of his “Bharat Darshan” tours and the importance of the message his reports conveyed remained the trademarks of Verghese’s journalism ever since. It made him a unique institution not comparable to anybody else in the vast galaxy of Indian journalism. It gave his career a historical edge. Hence the relevance of his just-published autobiography, a big-ticket 573-page tome called First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India (Tranquebar).

Frank Moraes, once Verghese’s editor, titled his political autobiography Witness to an Era. Both men were witnesses to great events and both were professionals to the core. But there the comparison ends. Moraes was ideologically partisan: Pro-American, pro-big business, anti-communist. Verghese has strong views, but no ideological hangups.

Verghese crammed several lives into one. He was a reporter, an editor, a traveller, a bureaucrat as information adviser to the Prime Minister, visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, Fellow of the Administrative Staff College of India, Chairman of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission and of course author.

The journalist prevails over all others in the writing of this autobiography. So his account of events, his references to the dramatis personae and his summing-up observations have the appeal of honesty, not the evasiveness of diplomacy.

His stint as adviser to Indira Gandhi allows him to speak frankly about the reality of high-level activities – how drafts for after-dinner speeches are finalised only after the dinner has started, how the Government does not work out a world view and relies instead on tired slogans, “the haphazard manner in which government functioned and the Prime Minister’s inexperience in so many matters”.

Verghese’ assessment of Indira Gandhi is a highlight of the book. He pays tribute to her qualities of leadership, the dignity of her deportment, her pride in India. But he is unsparing in his condemnation of the Emergency, the “savage and thoroughly illegal demolition orgy” of Sanjay Gandhi and of Indira’s own “split personality”.

B.G.Verghese is a serious person, concerned with serious, “un-sexy” topics like water resources. That makes his humour more appealing. The quality of his mind is reflected in the lightness with which he describes his introduction to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

“There was no airconditioner in the room as the previous incumbent was a mere deputy secretary who ‘as per rules’ was not entitled to feel overly hot. The official theory was that the blood grew thinner with ascending seniority, entitling the officer to one, two or more airconditioners. The same theory worked for arm rests, back rests and foot rests….. Nor did I allow my chaprassi to hover around the car park in the morning to relieve me of my briefcase the moment I arrived. Official research had established that senior officers carry so much responsibility that the weight of a briefcase could do incalculable damage to their spine”.

His briefcase tightly held in his own hand, Verghese kept his spine straight and walked tall.