Monday, December 28, 2015

Only politicians can bring politicians to book; so, let's welcome the era of vendettas

For more than a year now the most overworked word in our national discourse has been "development". Not any longer. The most fashionable word today is "vendetta". Everybody is on the vendetta spree. Reigning ministers, retired ministers, sons and sons-in-law are all accusing their adversaries of carrying on vendetta. All sides fire away all the time. Cannons to the right of them/Cannons to the left of them/Cannons in front of them/Volley and thunder.

The great patriot Robert Vadra was among the first to express righteous indignation over the government's vendetta against his loved ones. Another great patriot, Kartik Chidambaram, ridiculed the Enforcement Directorate for searching some business premises said to be associated with him. His father, P. Chidambaram, a certified Grand Patriot, complained about his son being harassed because he was his son.

The advantage with patriots is that they genuinely belive that the public is an ass unaware of what is happening around them. The Modi government showed this tendency when it turned against the Aam Aadmi government in Delhi from day one. That party and its leadership had lost a great deal of credibility. With their inexperience and inner contradictions, they could have been left to stew in their own juices. But the BJP just couldn't stomach the idea that a puny little party defeated it in the elections in the nation's capital.

The harassment that began from the Lieutenant Governor's office gave the Kejriwal government a measure of public sympathy. Then the arrest and jailing of state ministers for one reason or another. This was a clear case of vendetta, giving the AAP government the halo of a pygmy being bullied by a giant. The pygmy hit back and the mighty Arun Jaitley himself was caught in the cross currents. The BJP's own Kirti Azad and Shatrughan Sinha getting into the fray, the picture is far from pretty for the ruling party.

We the public should be grateful for the culture of vendetta that has broken out. This is the only way we can get an insight into how our parties and leaders have been indulging themselves at our cost. Till recently they were observing a sort of "honour among thieves" code: You protect my family's shenanigans, I'll protect your family's. Now that they are exposing one another, tons of evidence about corruption and misuse of power will come out. Investigative journalism and sting operations can only go so far. It is politicians in power who have access to files. And files hold the secrets they want to hide. Hence the unprecedented raid on Delhi CM's office. (No raid, says BJP).

The likes of Robert Vadra and Kartik Chidambaram got so much wealth-making business because of their family connections and were so strongly protected by the system that only an opposition vendetta can bring them to justice. Among Congress chief ministers Haryana's Hooda was the one who faced the most allegations of helping the nation's son-in-law. Only a non-Congress party in power can investigate and bring him to book. If that is vendetta, so be it.

The National Herald case became sensational because it brought Sonia Gandhi and her son to court. There was poetic justice in this case which no one seems to have noticed. The NH might have been founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, but it was built and sustained as a newspaper by M. Chalapathi Rau, a doyen of Indian journalism. Nehru gave all the respect to MC, but the picture changed after Indira Gandhi started giving power to her clerks and stenographers. Among these shady characters was Yashpal Kapur. Raj Thapar (who, along with her husband Romesh, constituted a power couple in Delhi, Indira being one of their close friends) described how Yashpal "that oily cupbearer, was growing in stature by the minute and his corruption was becoming legend, and his ability to get Indira sign on the dotted line was becoming bazaar gossip". (All These Years, 1991).

This slimy operator became the manager of National Herald. He harassed and humiliated the venerable Chalapathi Rau and finally got rid of him, Indira backing him. In 1983 Chalapathi died in a wayside teashop in Delhi, unrecognised by anyone around.

For the inhumanity shown to Chalapathi, atonement was long overdue. It is fair that the heirs of the dynasty were forced to stand in court and ask for bail. Sonia Gandhi should have amended her bravado statement and said: "I am Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law, I'll pay for her sins and for the sins of her oily cupbearers".

Monday, December 21, 2015

Read about capital stocks, and Mother Earth, and the corruption of taste. And we'll know India

These are times when the best refuge is history and the counsel of the wise -- times when things that should not happen, like the killing of writers, happen, and the killers are not pursued; when men are lynched in the name of faith and the lynchers are not pursued; when hate speeches are made and the perpetrators are not pursued; when the CBI, caged parrot turned hunting falcon, is trained to select its victims with unerring political judgment; when Teesta Setalvad is hounded with the same diligence with which Russian-French-British fighter jets hound ISIS terrorists; when even Hardik Patel is silenced with sedition cases. Yes, these are times when we need reminders about the purpose of life and the aim of nations.

In the days of innocence the purpose of life was to attain peace and the aim of nations was to help this process. In today's dog-eat-dog world peace for some is war for others while self-respecting nations chase peace and progress by exploiting other nations. In India a clear aim for the nation has been clearly proclaimed: Development. But what is development and how does -- or should -- a nation achieve it?

One of the most original economist thinkers of our time, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, defined development by saying that a country had four capital stocks: Material goods, natural capital (water, soil, forest), human capital (health, education) and social capital (mutual trust, harmony). Simultaneous progress of these four is development. If GDP alone is chased, he said, it would be promotion of one capital and destruction of the others. That would not be development.

It is difficult to disagree with that theory. If water, soil and forests are degraded, health and education are neglected and mutual trust and harmony among the people are non-existent, then how can increased industrial production and trade bring about development? In India three of our four capital stocks are in dire circumstances while the fourth is still to achieve its potential despite the finance ministry's brave claims.

The Stiglitz argument resonates in the works of our own writers who have no particular grounding in economics but whose folk wisdom and familiarity with rural realities equip them with insights that are profoundly humanistic. Aware of India being a "country with 64,000 castes, 33,000 deities and 12 calendars," Chandrasekhara Kambar recently cautioned: "Something is fundamentally wrong. Our relationship with the earth has changed. The earth was our mother, but now we see her as a cheap woman who can earn us quick money".

Kambar, leading Kannada playwright-novelist, is unequalled in his portrayal of the village and folk traditions. His latest novel is called Shivana Dangura, Shiva's drum that is supposed to beat the final warning. His thesis is that industrialisation at the cost of agriculture is the way to destruction. "Agriculture is the origin of all our festivals. Our scriptures come from agriculture. Without agriculture we have no peace". He is alarmed at the migration of villagers to the cities and the conversion of agricultural land to factory sites. "What a family of ten peasants earns in a year after great toiling is much less than what an IAS officer earns in a month. What is the use of such an economy"?

Kambar does not say that industrialisation is bad. Basically he is asking what many intellectuals keep asking -- whether the Western model of capitalist-industrial growth is the model we must follow. "Let us have the modern world, their thoughts, their debates. But let us not lose that we have. Give the farmers education, give them health. Only then will we have a world that can protect us from destruction". Of course it will be too late for the thousands of farmers who have taken their own lives as a result of the policies our governments pursue.

Sensible governments would have paid more attention to the ideas of intellectuals if only because their knowledge base was as wide as their perspectives. But the intellectual has always been suspect in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats. This is more pronounced now with a constricted ideology, viscerally opposed to intellectuals, wielding power. What such forces do was summarised by Edward Gibbon as he described the degradation of the Roman Empire. "The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the Sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste".

Rome, 5th century. India, 2015.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Our greed brings Pralaya upon our cities. But we refuse to learn our lessons. So, what next?

According to many religious traditions, the end of the world will come through pralaya, the great flood. Bhagavatham talks about different kinds of floods -- Nithya pralaya or everyday death of life forms, Maimithika pralaya which destroys three worlds but leaves out the Sun and Prakruta pralaya or the ultimate one that wipes out all the worlds.

But we as a nation have advanced beyond the divine scheme of floods. We have repeatedly demonstrated our ability to bring on something close to Prakruta pralaya entirely on our own. There was nothing scriptural in the floods that devastated Mumbai in 2005, UP-Bihar-Orissa in 2011, Rishikesh in 2013 and now Chennai. It was all our own work.

Remember how, only two years ago, Uttarkhand virtually collapsed before unstoppable flood waters that triggered landslides? All of India rushed to its aid. But remember, too, how it happened. The Environment Ministry in Delhi had declared 135 km along the river as an eco-sensitive zone. The State Government immediately passed a resolution against it. The result was that hotels, resorts, residential blocks as well as hydropower projects came up along the river banks that were too weak to support them. The rains came, the earth crumbled and death and destruction swept the state into the record books.

All states in our country have a history of ignoring warning signals. All states have a record of promoting the real estate mafia which is in collusion with the political-bureaucratic mafia. That's why all states are in danger of falling victim to nature's fury. When greed is the principal motivator, concepts like planned development lose all meaning.

The capital city of Delhi itself is the prime example of how we hurt ourselves through unplanned development. When the World Health Organisation said that Delhi was the world's most polluted city, the Government found an easy solution to the problem: It just rejected the WHO report. Now locals have started complaining of lung diseases and alarming levels of pollutants in the air. So what's being done? Nothing other than the Aam Aadmi Government's odd-even day restrictions on cars.

It's no consolation that Beijing is just as notorious for its smog. Two factors put China in a superior position. First, they ruined the air but gained enormously in the bargain, becoming the world's second leading economy and acquiring military power even the US was forced to recognise. Secondly, they have shown that they can take remedial measures at the flick of a switch as it were. Last week they issued a Red Alert on pollution, forcing government agencies to keep 30 percent of their vehicles off the streets, other cars to follow odd-even days restrictions, schools to close on certain days and putting limits on factory works and constructions sites; even fireworks and outdoor barbecuing were banned. Officials declared that these measures reduced the pollutants by as much as a third.

The question is whether India has the will and the system to enforce such restrictions and to stop activities that force Nature to explode. So far there has been no hint of a new resolve either in Delhi or in the state capitals. Migration from rural to urban areas is a basic problem across India. It has become a problem because we neglect the agricultural sector and leave the rural population with little scope for improving their conditions while we invest urban living with both the economic advantages and the glitz that attract people.

In the process the urban centres grow wildly, violating not only nature's laws but also the rules and regulations set down by our governments. Marshlands are turned into construction sites while lakes are filled up for apartment complexes and office towers. Even the drainage system in inner cities are encroached by builders. The result is that the natural outlets for water to flow away are blocked. The Chennai airport and the Koyembedu bus terminal were built on former lake beds just as Bangalore's sprawling Kempe Gowda bus terminal. Nearly 30,000 acres of forest land in Karnataka disappeared in the last two years alone.

Four times in the last three decades Chennai was ravaged by floods. What lessons did we learn? What would be the consequences if a similar flood engulfs, say, Kochi or Mumbai? Even as Chennai recovers from its devastation, similar catastrophes stare us in the face, making all our talk of development meaningless. There will be no salvation unless we realise that life is not made up of only todays. There are also tomorrows.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Cabinet Secretary India lost. But KVR proved, yet again, that honesty was the best policy

'Walking encyclopaedia' is an epithet that has lost its sheen because of over-use. But it became an inevitable honorific in the case of K.V. Ramanathan because all those who came in contact with him were astonished by the encyclopaedic sweep of his knowledge. He could tell you in one sitting all you wanted to know about the steel industry, about male-female biases in the performing arts, about gas pipeline and the science of administration, about fertilisers and the nuances of musical raagas, lalit kala traditions and educational policies, and about M.S.Subbulakshmi. What's more, he kept no index to refer to. All facts, figures, background history and plus-minus assessments were stored in his memory. KVR was a phenomenon.

He was an IAS man. But don't hold that against him. He did what only a small minority of IAS officers cared to do -- sacrificed personal advantage for the sake of principles. But he went beyond the IAS, too. For nearly three years beginning 1988, he was the Chennai Resident Editor of The Indian Express. In 2003 he took over the editorship of the historically important Sruti music magazine following the death of its legendary editor N. Pattabhi Raman. He ensured that Sruti continued as the authoritative chronicler of, and guide to music and dance.

One battle he fought as an IAS officer threw light not only on his professional integrity but also on the way India was being re-calibrated for the benefit of the Gandhi family. This happened between 1978 and 1982 when he was Secretary in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers. The public sector Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers was setting up new generation gas-based fertiliser plants near Mumbai. Through a rigorous selection process characterised by many layers of evaluation, the Janata Government of the day selected the American company C.F. Braun as the technology supplier for the project. The World Bank which was financing the project concurred with the Government's evaluation. As Secretary of the Ministry concerned, KVR was the driving force behind the processes of negotiations and decisions.

No one paid attention at the time to the company that had lost out to C.F. Braun. But everyone did as soon as the Janata Government fell and Indira Gandhi returned to power. For the losing company was Snamprogetti represented in India by a man who was to become India's most powerful businessman and political wire-puller for several eventful years -- the Italian go-getter Ottavio Quattrochi.

The Gandhis in power meant Quattrochi in power. Indira Gandhi went through a review process and had the C.F.Braun contract cancelled. Snamprogetti was appointed the technology supplier in its place. The World Bank withdrew from financing the project. Undaunted, the Government of India went ahead with plans to give Snamprogretti contract for six more fertiliser plants and that too, without competitive bidding.

Poor Ramanathan. What chance did an Indian have against an Italian in those days. And this was no ordinary Italian. During the Rajiv Gandhi years, he was the most influential broker between big business and the Indian Government. He was the middleman associated with the Bofors scandal. KVR was exposed to the power of this man. Pressure was brought on him by bigwigs known to be close to the Prime Minister to make the switch from C.F. Braun to Snamprogetti smooth and easy. But the Secretary of the Ministry would not budge from the position that the initial decision of the Government was taken on objective and technical principles and could not be changed for other considerations. He was of course over-ruled. When the Parliamentary Accounts Committee later grilled him about the Government's change of stance, he replied in a classic phrase. The shift from Braun to Snamprogetti was, he said, "for superior non-technical reasons".

The Indian tradition of punishing exemplars of integrity pursued KVR too. He was transferred to the Planning Commission. And in 1985 he was overlooked for the Cabinet Secretary's post which was his due both seniority-wise and on account of record in service.

Quattrochi progressed for a while, but then ran into trouble with criminal cases pursuing him. He was saved at every turn by India, on orders from above, making itself a butt of ridicule in foreign courts. K.V. Ramanathan, supremely at peace with himself, went on to serve his countrymen with pride and distinction. He died last month, but the moral his life taught us will live on -- that whatever needs to be achieved through unfair means will perish, that honesty, really, is the best policy.