Monday, September 29, 2014

To promote development we need not destroy nature; Just enforce the laws decreed by Arthasastra

Kedarnath. Then Kashmir. The earth ploughed up into a shambles, death and destruction everywhere, multitudes plunged into misery on a scale that moved the world. Yet, these were the lesser tragedies. The bigger one is that there will be more Kedarnaths and more Kashmirs, for we are too selfish a people to learn lessons from experience. We plunder nature, upsetting the systemic order on which life on the planet is balanced. When catastrophe strikes, the price is paid by ordinary people, not the privileged plunderers. So plundering resumes. This is the tragedy of those who refuse to see that by destroying our todays we cannot build our tomorrows.

The causes of recent disasters tell their own tale. In mountains and planes, geography had provided for excess water to escape through natural drainage channels like rivers, low-lying wetlands and crevices between rock formations. Under the pressure of development these escape channels steadily disappeared. Half the lakes in Srinagar have been filled up and converted into residential and commercial areas.

This is an all-India pattern. In Udaipur, the city of famous lakes, encroachment was so blatant that the Rajasthan High Court declared lake shores as "no construction zones". That was in 1997. The court order was so widely ignored that encroachment in shores and catchment areas steadily increased: 374 hectares in 2002, 665 in 2006 and 863 in 2009. Builders could defy the court openly because they had political backing. Bangalore has no rivers, so its founders and progressive maharajahs had built a string of lakes, locally known as tanks. There were 280 tanks in the 1960s, and only 80 in 1993. Vembanad lake in Kerala is not only majestic in its spread and beauty; it is also the livelihood of thousands of families living on its shores. But the lake has shrunk from 366 sq. km to 200 and what is left is so polluted and silted up that experts predict the possibility of the lake drying up in the next 50 years. Hyderabad city was devastated by floods in 2000 because water bodies like Masab Tank were turned into residential areas. Bombay city was ravaged by flash floods in 2000 as the Mithi river, traditionally a storm water drain, had become a stagnant sewer. Even as the construction boom blocked the natural escape routes of water, "heavy rain events" dumped vastly increased quantities of water on earth because of abnormal increase in carbon emissions. In some Himalayan regions rainfall has been 400 percent above normal.

Much of the construction-prompted destruction takes place with government support, the magic word being "development". In the Manmohan Singh government, after Jairam Ramesh took some steps to protect the environment, he was removed from the ministry. When his successor, Jayanti Natarajan, tried in her own way to protect some forests, she was removed too. According to Manmohan Singh, industrialists and investors must have all the freedom to do what they like with geography because they assured GDP growth, nothing else mattered to the economist.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power on the very slogan of development. He has been taking bold steps on many policy fronts. How will he tackle the conflict between development and nature? His Ministry of Earth Sciences recently launched a plan to study the increased frequency of extreme weather events in the country. That was a good sign. A bad sign was the reconstitution of the National Board for Wildlife avoiding the mandatory number of non-government specialists. The Supreme Court stayed the decisions of the new Standing Committee. Other bad signs: The Ministry of Environment and Forests announced several controversial concessions to the coal industry. Laws pertaining to environment and forests are being examined with a view to "bringing them in line with current requirements". The National Green Tribunal, boldly independent till now, is suddenly under pressure.

A country can be industry-friendly without destroying nature. The US, after obliterating a lot of forests in the early years, now ensures 33 percent forest cover. In India it is 21 percent although the National Forest Policy mandates it to be 33 percent. Unlike the US, we have the backing of an ancient culture. All we have to do is to pay heed to the laws clearly outlined in the Arthasastra. Namely: "For cutting of the tender sprouts of fruit trees or shade trees, a fine of six panaas will be imposed. For cutting their minor branches, twelve panaas and for cutting the big branches 24 panaas shall be levied". That's wisdom.

Monday, September 22, 2014

China needs to see India as an equal. Economic ties are no substitute to solving border problems

It's a remarkable coincidence that Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are brothers cast in the same mould. Both are believers in centralised authority, who spent their initial months in office consolidating their hold on the power structure. Both seek enlarged international status for their countries and for themselves. Both are fighters behind their smiles. Both are shrewd with the capacity to be, when necessary, ruthless. Both manoeuvre and manipulate with skill. Preparatory to his meeting with Xi, Modi did some manoeuvres with Japan, Australia and Vietnam all of which challenged China's stated positions. Preparatory to his meeting with Modi, Xi did some manoeuvres with Maldives, Sri Lanka and in Ladakh all of them aimed at intimidating India.

Then came Sabarmati. Majestic, peaceful Sabarmati, its waters twinkling in myriad lights, its banks bedecked with spectacular displays, Gujarat's finest art, culture and cuisine on show. No visiting dignitary has ever received so warm and so personal a reception from the Prime Minister of India as Xi received from Modi in Ahmedabad. Everything was so companionable that it would not have surprised anyone if star singer Peng Liyuan, Xi's wife, had broken into an operatic number.

But harsh facts remained. The relationship between India and China is unequal -- in China's favour. This is so at diplomatic and economic levels. Never has a top Chinese leader visited India without including nearby countries in his itinerary; India is for them one among many. Never has an Indian leader visited China except on a stand-alone basis; China is never one among many. India exports virtually nothing to China while more than 10 percent of India's total imports is from China, making us an economic dependency of China. Traditional local industries like Sivakasi's fireworks were devastated by cheap Chinese imports.

Most importantly, China's border politics is intriguingly aggressive. Every time a senior Government leader arrives from Beijing, there is a sudden rush of demonstrative "incidents" in Ladakh, this time more demonstrative than before. Xi is the head of China's military and intelligence establishments as well and he could have easily kept the border peaceful at least during the three days he was in India. But he stuck to the familiar pattern of visits coinciding with incursions. Why? Was it China, timeless and unchanging China, expressing itself as was always its wont, Xi or no Xi?

Modi described India and China as two bodies, one spirit. That's wrong. China's spirit is singularly different from India's. For some six millenia the Chinese have seen their country as the Middle Kingdom, the central point of the world (then considered flat). This developed into a national pride unmatched in the world. Xi himself said, when he was Vice President, that national pride "is the historical driving force" of China.

Narendra Modi cannot make that claim for his country. We only have to look at sports to see the contrast. China attained glory with the Olympics in 2008 because even Beijing's street sweepers took it into their heads that the prestige of their country depended on how well they did their job. Corrupt politicians shamed India with the Commonwealth Games. Inefficient bureaucrats messed up the accreditation papers of several Incheon-bound athletes, including star shooter Abhinav Bindra. Modi may talk about new work ethics, but our national characterlessness goes on.

The silver lining is that for the first time in many years the two countries have strong leaders at the helm with the mandate to take bold action. They can achieve what their predecessors could not. But only if Xi is ready to see India as an equal to China, and Modi gives up what some Hindutva hardliners called his "over-effusiveness" towards China. Modi can follow two lines. First, firm up India's relations with ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam, who are resentful of China's attempt to lord it over them. This can be done without going to the extent of doing what China does by equipping Pakistan against India. Secondly, take up China on its declaration that "we are prepared to reach a final settlement" on the border issue. What kind of final settlement? Drawing a line in Ladakh where none exists is one thing, it is quite another to replace a line that already exists along the Arunachal Pradesh border. The most important point is that no meaningful relationship is possible between the two countries if the border tensions continue. History's call to Modi and Xi is clear. Will they rise to it? That depends on whether they are politicians or statesmen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacked by Rajiv, A P Venkateshwaran remained a legend. Remembering a no-nonsense tradition of wit

Retired Foreign Secretary A.P. Ventakeshwaran's passing a few days ago attracted widespread attention. The main reason was that it recalled Rajiv Gandhi's arrogant way of belittling others. His public scolding of Andhra's Congress Chief Minister T. Anjiah offended all Telugu people. His public denigration of Karnataka's respected Congress Chief Minister Veerendra Patil annoyed all Kannadigas. His seemingly casual announcement of Venkateshwaran's removal provoked the Indian Foreign Service Association which, in an unprecedented move, criticised the Prime Minister's action. The media called it Rajiv Gandhi's "most insensitive blunder".

Such being the public reaction, it was natural that Rajiv Gandhi's petulant power play should feature prominently in A.P. Venkateshwaran's career profile. But the man was extraordinary in his own right. At least two factors should be taken into account while considering his contributions. He was, alongside J. N. (Mani) Dixit, the best Foreign Secretary India has had. Secondly, in sharpness of wit and keenness of intellect, Venkat was outstanding, but a copy; the original was his father, A. S. Panchapakesa Iyer. Genes decreed his differentiating brilliance.

Both Dixit and Venkat were Foreign Service legends. Two personalities could not be more different. Mani Dixit made friends easily. And enemies too. Venkat was ever the genial gentleman; it was difficult to see him as an enemy -- unless you were Rajiv Gandhi. When Dixit was tough, he could be unsparing, making adversaries call him Mr. Fixit. Venkat covered even his toughness with wit. Mani could be imperious. Venkat would be chivalrous even as he swung his sabre. Mani had a touch of the politician in him though not to the extent that Brijesh Mishra symbolised. Venkat was a foreign service professional, unwilling to make compromises for politics or vested interests. Two very different men, different character types, different styles, but both equally distinguished in their probity and their sense of honour, both paragons of patriotism. India was richer for them.

Not many knew that Venkat was merely continuing a tradition of nonconformance set by his father. At a time when the ICS was a British preserve into which only the best of the best Indians were admitted, A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer (1899-1963) entered that exalted service. He made his mark at the ICS board interview itself. The Englishmen who made up that board were famous for rattling candidates with seemingly irrelevant questions. "If a lion chased you," they asked young Iyer, "what steps would you take to save yourself?" Instant answer: "Long steps, Sir".

The ICS needed such ready wit. But ASP Iyer was also a proud Indian who would not change his views because he was a member of the ICS. He was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and the independence movement, expressing his admiration openly before his British peers. In one of their exclusive clubs one evening, a British colleague asked him how many children he had. ASP said: "Six. The more the merrier to kick the British out of the country". Naturally he was not exactly popular among the British. They denied him promotions, keeping him as a District Judge for long years. Only after independence was he elevated to the High Court.

As a member of his father's more-the-merrier troop, A. P. Venkateshwaran faithfully maintained the no-nonsense tradition of intellectual independence. His academic record itself was remarkable, with master's degrees in science, economics and political science. Beyond the universities, he learned the values of integrity and candidness. Only in one area, he failed to follow his father. ASP Iyer wrote books. Venkat owed it to the country to write a book, but he didn't. As the only Foreign Secretary who had to leave in controversial circumstances, it was essential that the facts were put on record. There are reasons to believe that his customary lightheartedness had made Rajiv Gandhi blush when the two discussed an IFS officer's application for permission to marry a foreigner. There were also suggestions that Venkat had given a pledge to Rajiv never to breach the confidentiality of his office. For Venkat, nothing was more important than his word.

He enlivened his surroundings with playful humour. In a mail to "friends of my father-in-law", James Peck described how the family went to the confluence of three swollen rivers for the immersion ceremony. "Venkat's ashes were immersed in the strong current. True to his nature, the ashes initially travelled upstream against the current. After brief mischief, the ashes, cajoled by the currents, sashayed along the water's surface toward the sun".

No wonder the sun is brighter these days.

Monday, September 8, 2014

With drum-beats and word-play Modi captured hearts. But wait, it's only 100 days in a Manvantar

Indian culture counts time in mahayug (4,32,000 years) and manvantar ( 71 mahayug or 30,67,20,000 years). We see a single day-and-night of Brahma as equal to 2000 mahayug or 8.65 billion human years. In such a tradition, the completion of 100 days by a Government should not attract even a cursory glance. We should just let it pass as a small collection of krati ( 34,000th of a second).

But the yugas have changed. The rishis of yore did not have to reckon with media. In those propitious times there were (a) no content-hungry channels devoting every krati of their time staging cockfights on camera. And there were (b) no political parties with officially appointed fighter cocks assigned to perform in public. Today these two forces have taken over our lives. So we had the privilege of 24-hour (or was it 72?) saturation feeding on "100 days of Modi". What did they give us? Certainly no new information on the Prime Minister's plans and priorities, no weighing of the multiple factors at play. They gave us two definitive conclusions. One, that Modi represented evil. Two, that Modi was God's gift to the world.

The problem is that we are no longer citizens sharing dreams about our country. We have become units fitted into separate compartments separately labelled as Congress people, BJP people, Leftist people, different types of Dalit people and assorted Nationalist Congress, Janata and Trinamool people. The result is that we judge government actions and inactions, not as citizens but as compartmentalised sectarian units.

In looking at the Modi Government's record, for example, the tendency is to see one side of the ledger and pretend that the other side does not exist. No ledger can exist without both the credit and the debit columns. The Modi Government has several entries on the debit list: The ascent of a single individual as the centralised authority; an increase in communal incidents with little or no action against those responsible; signs of a desire to influence the judiciary; avoidable rousing of linguistic emotions; planned moves to "revitalise" school curriculum, an idea that has caused widespread worry against the background of Dinanath Batra's publicised intention to "Indianise" education. His intolerance of opinions contrary to his has already led to the elimination from the Indian market of scholarly works hailed in intellectual circles everywhere including in India.

Critics of Narendra Modi will be justified if they analyse these debit entries and point out their possible adverse effects. But they will make no impact if they dwell only on the debits. Congress spokesmen did that and cut a sorry figure. For example, Anand Sharma, whose ego walked in front of him during his years of power, tried to do an all-out hatchet job. He roundly dismissed the Modi record as one of "non-fulfilment of promises, undermining of institutions and creating a work culture nurtured by distrust and fear".

Thick minds like Anand Sharma's would not understand that they could win a wee bit more credibility if they acknowledged at least a few of the Modi Government's credit points. Let us set aside for a moment important factors like improvement in business sentiment with market indices going up. But what about the toilet revolution Modi jump-started with a single speech. Defecation, fortunately, is not ideological and anyone could have paid attention to it. Why didn't Indira Gandhi do it? Why didn't Rahul Gandhi realise that he was trying to modernise India without recognising that it was the world's most unhygienic country?

It must also be recognised that Modi has surprised admirers and critics alike by his flair for foreign affairs. If the first overseas trips are any indication, he might emerge as India's most successful foreign minister, Jawaharlal Nehru not excluded. His Japan trip was a triumph not because of the agreements he signed, but because of his style. His felicity with words was clearly a winner: "Not red tape, but red carpet.... no more a land of snake charmers but of people who played with the mouse.... trust is superior to fevicol in binding countries together". Yet, dramatically more successful was his performance on Japanese drums. Was it real! If it was, Ustad Zakir Husain better be on guard.

For stock-taking, though, 100 days do not make sense. The trend now is that Modi is doing many right things, his party and allies are doing many wrong things. Since Modi is smarter than all the others, he might prevail in the end. In 1000 days?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Irom Sharmila, released by law, is arrested by police. And thereby hangs the tale of a national shame

Vietnam: Mai Lai Massacre is known as "the most shocking episode of the Vietnam war". One morning in 1968 a platoon of US soldiers entered the sprawling Vietnamese village, saw men and women and children getting ready to go to market, and began shooting without warning. A man was pushed into a well and a grenade thrown into it. Some 20 women and children kneeled before a temple deity praying. They were all shot in the head. Some 70-80 villagers were pushed into an irrigation ditch and machinegunned. In all more than 400 villagers perished. Eventually 26 soldiers were courtmartialled, though they were softly treated. Only one, Lt. William Calley, was sentenced to life, but he too was freed after less than four years of house arrest.

Iraq: Photographs from the Abu Graib prison in Iraq scandalised the world in 2003 as they revealed how Iraqis were abused by American and British soldiers. Particularly galling was the picture of a woman soldier holding a lash which was tethered round the neck of an Iraqi man lying on the ground naked. Americans themselves protested and the Defence Secretary offered to resign, admitting that unacceptable levels of abuse of prisoners were rampant in Iraqi prisons. Eventually seven soldiers were courtmartialled on charges of abuse and cruelty. The woman with the naked Iraqi on leash was sentenced to three years in prison and given a dishonourable discharge.

Afghanistan: In the summer of 2012 Lt. Clint Lorance of the US army asked one of his soldiers to shoot down two Afghans on motorcycles. He had been told by Army pilots that Taliban fighters were moving about on motorcycles. Interestingly, some soldiers of his own platoon reported the matter to the higherups. They re-assigned Lorance to a desk job and stripped him of his weapon. Eventually he was courtmartialled on charges of murder, attempted murder and misconduct. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the military. A unit of US soldiers in Afghanistan became known as "kill team" because they took to killing Afghans for sport and keeping their body parts as trophies. One sergeant, bored by insomnia one night, went out for a stroll in the wee hours and shot 17 sleeping Afghans for fun. Most probably he returned to his bunker and enjoyed an undisturbed sleep for the rest of the night.

So much for the American way of life. How about the Indian way?

India: Just after midnight on July 10-11, 2004, a unit of Assam Rifles broke into a house in Imphal and seized a 32-year old woman named Thangjam Manorama Devi. She was blindfolded and her hands and legs tied up before the soldiers began assaulting her. Shocked family members were also brutalised. Around 3.30 am the by-now collapsed Manorama was bundled into an army vehicle and taken away. Around 5 pm that day her bullet-ridden, clothesless body with knife wounds was found in a field with tell-tale evidence of rape. An outraged town took to the street en masse, engaging the police in battles and braving teargas and rubber bullets. In a scene that made history, some 30 middleaged women stripped themselves naked and marched to the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal shouting: "Indian Army, rape us too. We are all mothers of Manorama". Eventually, an inquiry was ordered. And eventually nothing happened because there was a law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gave the soldiers complete immunity.

Four years earlier Manipur rebels had bombed a unit of soldiers in a jungle operation. To wreak vengeance, a passing squad of soldiers shot down ten people waiting at a bus stop in Malom town in Manipur. One woman ducked and lay sprawled on the road to escape the bullet. She was spotted and shot in the head. Widespread protests broke out. Eventually nothing happened because there was a law called AFSPA.

AFSPA, a British idea, was enacted in 1958 when armed Naga insurrection was intense. More than half a century has passed and insurrections and rebellions have lost their steam. Judges have pronounced against the continuance of AFSPA. So have UN agencies, Amnesty, most newspapers and several state governments. It's a shame that the Malom Massacre remains an open wound when the Mai Lai Massacre was at least acknowledged as a crime. It's a shame that Irom Sharmila's ordeal continues after 14 incredible years. It's a shame that governments go and governments come, but AFSPA goes on for ever.