New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

30 April, 2013

Not playing by the rules

BRP Bhaskar
 
The joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probing the 2G scam has run into a stalemate. The chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation has admitted to sharing with the political executive a progress report on the coal scandal probe which was prepared on a Supreme Court directive. Parliament has transacted little business in recent days with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party stalling the proceedings demanding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s resignation on the issue of interference in the coal scam investigation.

All these indicate that the government and the opposition are not playing the game according to the rules.

The JPC was set up to look into allegations of corruption in the allotment of 2G spectrum. Several criminal cases in connection with the scam are under investigation or prosecution, and the accused include A Raja, a former minister belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and several senior officials.

JPC chairman PC Chacko recently circulated a draft report which pins the blame solely on Raja and absolves the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister who were apparently aware of his actions. To beat Chacko’s plan to push the draft through the committee, which is equally divided, with his casting vote, the opposition members have written to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar saying they have lost confidence in him and asking that he be removed. To gain majority in the committee, Congress members have asked her to disqualify three opposition members citing conflict of interest. 

The JPC mechanism was first tried in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi’s government faced allegations that the Swedish company Bofors had paid $12 million in kickbacks to secure an order for howitzers. Opposition members pulled out of it saying the chairman, B. Shankaranand, was acting in a partisan manner.

Alladi Aruna, of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which was then an ally of the Congress, stayed on and added a dissenting note to the committee’s report. He said later that Congress members were engaged in a cover-up effort. They did not follow the procedures properly and denied members enough time to study the documents.

The JPC failed to identify the beneficiaries of Bofors payments. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which probed the matter, too could not find them. Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman and friend of the Gandhis, whose name came up during the investigation, slipped away.

Between 1992 and 2003 there were three more JPC probes, all into irregularities in the financial market or the commercial sector. Since no member of the government was under the scanner, the committees could complete their work without any hitch. However, there was no meaningful follow-up action.

The 2G JPC has generated more acrimony than any previous probe. Raja offered to testify before it but Chacko turned down the offer. Chacko also rejected the BJP members’ suggestion to summon the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.    

The poor record of JPCs notwithstanding, political parties still demand setting up of such committees when allegations come up. A proposal to set up a JPC to probe reports of kickbacks in the Agusta Westland helicopter deal, approved by the Rajya Sabha, is awaiting the Lok Sabha’s concurrence.    

CBI director Ranjit Sinha’s admission, in a sworn affidavit, that the agency had shown Law Minister Ashwini Kumar and senior officials of the Prime Minister’s office and the Coal Ministry a report on the progress of the coal scandal investigation before it was submitted to the Supreme Court may prove more troublesome to the government than the confrontation with the opposition in the JPC.

In this investigation, the Coal Ministry is in the position of a suspect since what is being looked into are its alleged wrongdoings. Sharing of the report with officials of the ministry was, therefore, an act of gross impropriety. Since Manmohan Singh personally handled the Coal portfolio at one stage his office’s interest in the investigation cannot be viewed as innocuous.

Sinha’s affidavit does not say whether the agency made any changes in the report at the instance of those who were shown it.  The court is not likely to overlook his silence on this crucial aspect.

The Supreme Court has been keen to ensure that the CBI has functional autonomy, especially in dealing with cases involving members of the political executive. An adverse finding by it on its handling of the coal probe report can have far-reaching consequences. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 30, 2013.

23 April, 2013

New phase in land war

BRP Bhaskar
 
With the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party agreeing to cooperate in the enactment of a new land acquisition law, the government has crossed a major hurdle in the way of its effort to create an industry-friendly environment. However, it is too early for it to rejoice.

The land acquisition law now in force was enacted by the British in 1894. It gives the state the power to seize citizens’ property for public purposes without their consent and casts no responsibility on the state to rehabilitate and resettle the dispossessed.

Invocation of this law, which is inimical to the interests of vulnerable sections of society like the poor and the marginal farmers, has provoked widespread anger and protest in various parts of the country and stalled implementation of many government and private projects.

In September 2011 the government placed before Parliament a draft law which will allow it to acquire property to meet the requirements of state units as well as public private partnerships (PPPs) and private companies. While land owners’ consent is not required when land is acquired for public sector units, acquisition for PPPs and private sector units will require the consent of 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the owners respectively.

A standing committee of Parliament which examined the draft suggested that the government should not acquire land for PPPs and private companies. The government has not accepted the suggestion.

In a bid to meet criticism from the corporate sector and from civil society groups, the government has made some changes in the draft. Some of its provisions are no doubt an improvement on the colonial law. For instance, it provides for a social impact assessment survey before the government notifies its intention to acquire land and for payment of compensation within a specified period. The proposed compensation is four times the market value for property in rural areas and two times in the urban areas.

The draft also contains provisions which can make the position of the poor worse. For instance, it brings mining within the ambit of ‘public purpose’. Many mines are in areas where the tribal population lives. Extension of the measure to these areas will involve violation of the provisions of the Constitution aimed at protecting the tribes and their homelands. 

The draft has a provision which gives the government the power to acquire land temporarily, for a period of three years, without assuming responsibility for rehabilitation and resettlement.  The government has made temporary provisions of many laws permanent features by repeatedly reissuing notifications on the expiry of the time limit.   

At last week’s all-party meeting the BJP pledged support to the proposed measure after the government accepted some of its suggestions.  Land mafia has grabbed vast tracts of land from marginal farmers in recent months, hoping to profit from the liberal compensation formula. The government agreed to the BJP’s demand that if land has changed hands after the bill was introduced in Parliament half of the compensation must be paid to the original landowner. 

The government is keen to put the new law in place to carry forward economic reforms before its five-year term ends next year. While the measure may have a smooth passage in Parliament, its implementation may lead to an intensification of land wars which, in turn, may invite harsh governmental measures, resulting in bloodshed. Determined local opposition to land acquisition has already blocked huge projects of the UK-based Vedanta group and South Korea’s Posco group in Odisha state for several years.

The state government allowed Vedanta to set up a $1.7 billion bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri hills. The tribal population objected to it, citing its traditional cultural and religious links with the hills. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the project cannot be allowed to interfere with the tribes’ religious rights. It said the village councils, and not the state, must decide on their claims. 

For seven years the government has not been able to acquire enough land for Posco to set up the world’s largest integrated steel plant. Repressive measures could not subdue the people. Aware of the people’s mood, the company has been reluctant to take over the land acquired so far. -- Gulf Today, April 22, 2013.

19 April, 2013

DD to telecast independent films: response to online petition

Film maker Onir Dhar wriotes:

This is historic for Indian cinema! Now you can watch independent films on Doordarshan after 10pm. Thanks for your support on our petition.

When 62 film makers joined my petition to save independent cinema in India, we wanted Doordarshan to telecast independent films. More than 19,700 people including you supported our campaign.
After we delivered these signatures to the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Mr.Manish Tewari, he promised us to take action and forwarded our suggestions to Prasar Bharathi (Doordarshan).

My friend and fellow filmmaker Nandita Das has shared her thoughts on the save indie campaign in this video:

Click display images to see this picture

Share Nandita Das's video with your friends and family, asking them to join us 


For the first time, people-power forced Doordarshan to telecast independent films. Now we can do more and ensure that Mr.Tewari doesn’t ignore our demand to have special cinema screens for independent films.

I feel that this is a great move by the Government to encourage independent films and filmmakers. Together we’ve achieved this milestone, but there is a lot more to do.

Please forward my mail to your contacts and ask them to sign and share my petition.

Looking forward to your continued support.

Thank you so much for taking action,

Onir Dhar via Change.org

PS: Forward my mail to your contacts and ask them to sign my petition. http://change.org/saveindie
 

16 April, 2013

Afghanistan forcing a rethink

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Hectic multilateral consultations on Afghanistan are under way in advance of the scheduled withdrawal of American forces, and there are indications that at least some of the players are ready to revise their past approach.

The US pullout, due to begin this year, is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

Indian and Chinese officials are due to meet in Beijing this week to discuss the post-2014 Afghan scenario. This is the first official-level meeting between the two countries on Afghanistan.

The two countries have been holding regular consultations on Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa for some time. However, when China proposed a South Asia dialogue, India baulked, since it did not want to be drawn into discussions on issues such as Kashmir and Tibet.

China explained that it was keen to discuss Afghanistan, where it has investments of more than $3 billion as against India’s $2 billion.  Accordingly, the dialogue theme was narrowed down and talks were scheduled.

China’s concern over Afghanistan’s future is deep. It is in conversation with all those who have a stake in the region. It has been in talks with the United States on the subject. In February, it held trilateral discussions with Russia and India in Moscow. This was followed by another trilateral, this time with Russia and Pakistan, in Beijing.

The only two countries which are not having direct discussions on Afghanistan are India and Pakistan, its immediate neighbours who hold different perspectives. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said recently that India had offered to work with Pakistan on projects in Afghanistan but there was no response.  

Given the history of discord and distrust between the two countries, Islamabad’s approach is understandable. Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban and India’s assistance to the Northern Alliance against Islamic militants in that country are factors with the potential to draw them into the whirlpool of faction fights in Afghanistan.

There is a tendency in both India and Pakistan to view Afghan developments in the limited context of their own prickly bilateral relations. Pakistani fears were stoked when former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta talked of a new US defence policy which hinges upon a strategy which recognises that India has to play a vital role in Afghanistan to ensure peace and stability in the region. His successor Chuck Hagel’s 2011 speech, a recording of which gained much attention recently, has given the Pakistani establishment some comfort. In that speech he said India has always used Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan.

Afghanistan is important to China from the standpoint of energy security. The China National Petroleum Company is due to begin oil extraction from its wells in the northern part of the country next month. It was the first foreign company to sign an oil contract with Iraq after the war in the country. US analysts believe China will likewise step into Afghanistan to pick up contracts as soon as the Western forces are out. It has already indicated interest in laying gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan through Afghanistan.

China’s interest in Afghanistan is not limited to economic factors. It is very concerned over the possibility of spillover of Islamist terrorism into its Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, which is already experiencing ethnic unrest.

Writing in the government paper Global Times, Zhang Jiadong, associate professor at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University, recently envisaged a situation where China, like the former Soviet Union and the US, may get trapped in Afghanistan. “If China does not intervene, Afghanistan will fall into chaos again and endanger China’s security,” he said, “but if China intervenes China’s interests will be damaged as it gets bogged down in the mountains.”

To avoid the trap, he wanted China to seize the initiative in Afghan affairs. Specifically, he suggested that China should enlist the cooperation of the former occupation forces as well as Afghanistan’s neighbours and bring that country into platforms of regional cooperation.

China’s severest test in Afghanistan may come from Pakistan which is not ready to distance itself from the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders are on its territory. Pakistan did not heed US pleas to allow them to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reach an internal settlement. The US dealt with the problem posed by ally Pakistan by exercising military options like drone strikes on Taliban sanctuaries. China may have to deal with this ally without being able to exercise such options. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 16, 2013.

09 April, 2013

Another scandal to ride through

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Governmental and business circles, inured to periodic breaking of scandals, are seeking to brazen out the unearthing of several hundred offshore accounts of Indians in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens by an international team of journalists.

Scions of old industrial houses as well as nouveau riche of the era of globalisation are among the 612 Indian nationals who form part of the 2.5 million individuals and entities in over 170 countries, whose names have been revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in the first batch of reports yielded by a continuing probe.

Launched in 1997 as a project of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, the ICIJ is a network of 160 journalists in more than 60 countries engaged in investigation of corruption and cross-border crime. The team is led by Irish-born Gerard Ryle whose award-winning investigative reports on use of orphaned babies for medical experiments and the Firepower fraud in Australia had attracted attention worldwide.    

The ICIJ offshore operations probe was made possible by more than 260 gigabytes of data which Ryle received by mail while investigating Firepower which was said to cut petrol consumption and vehicle emissions. It included about 2.5 million files and more than two million emails that helped chart offshore activity over several years.

Responding to queries, Finance Minister P Chidambaram said, “Inquiries have been put in motion in respect of the names that have been exposed.” Such pronouncements were made by government spokesmen after information about secret bank accounts of Indians in Switzerland and Liechtenstein came to light but they did not lead to any action.

Opening offshore accounts is not a crime but their structures are designed to conceal actual ownership and they are often used for illegal purposes like tax evasion. Interestingly, almost all the Indian accounts uncovered by ICIJ were opened during the economic boom of the last decade.

The Indian Express, which published information about the account holders, contacted them to find out what they have to say. Some responses suggest that they have something to hide. 

While the ICIJ report named several persons with high political connections in Azerbaijan, Colombia, France and the Philippines, no Indian politician of consequence figures in it. The two MPs in the list, Vijay Mallya and Vivekanand Gaddam, are political lightweights.

Some including Vivekanand Gaddam, Sonu Lalchand Mirchandani of the Onida group, Teja Raju, son of Satyam Computers founder Ramalinga Raju who was jailed in a fraud case, and Gurbachan Singh Dhingra of Berger Paints pleaded ignorance about the accounts in their names.

Some others like Samir Modi of the KK Modi group, Chetan Burman of the Dabur group and Thiagarajan Murugesan of the Paramount group said they had opened offshore accounts to attract investments or boost exports but the plan did not work out. Lankalingam Murugesu, known as ‘papad’ king, said his firm set up an offshore operation for better tax planning but did not use it. “We just thought it is better to pay full taxes,” he told the newspaper.    

Mallya’s firm, Ravikant Ruia of the Essar group whose name has come up in the telecom spectrum scam and Maitreya Vinod Doshi of the Premier Ltd said the Indian authorities had been informed about their offshore accounts. Radhikaraje Samarjitsinh Gaekwad of the erstwhile Baroda royal family and Rahul Mamman Mappilai of the MRF group did not respond.

Two years ago the authorities had received from a foreign government the names of 782 Indians with accounts in the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s branches outside the country. They refused to reveal the names on privacy grounds. The promised investigations did not lead to any action.

Cobrapost, a website, came out with a sting report alleging  the ICICI Bank, the Axis Bank and the HDFC Bank helped in money laundering. The Reserve Bank of India was said to be “seriously looking into the matter” but the Finance Minister gave the banks a virtual clean chit saying, “On the face of it, no real money was transacted and no real money laundering deals took place with any real person.”

When a financial scandal involving private players breaks out, the government goes through the motion of conducting an investigation but it does not result in action against the wrongdoers. The Supreme Court recently remarked that the government’s failure to control black money was indicative of its weakness and softness. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 9, 2013.

02 April, 2013

Quality of mercy is strained

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today
Political and communal passions often run high in India. Since some parties draw sustenance from communal ideologies it is not always easy to distinguish between political sentiments and communal feelings. Their combined impact is straining the quality of mercy.

The constitution vests in the president and the governors of states the power to grant pardon or commute the sentence of a person convicted of any offence. The provision is in accord with the universally recognised principle of executive clemency, which allows justice to be tempered with mercy.

In the 1960s, in a celebrated case, the Governor of Maharashtra pardoned a navy commander, KM Nanavati, who was sentenced to life for killing his wife’s lover, after he had spent only three years in jail. He was a highly decorated officer and a campaign by a popular tabloid which played up the murder as a crime of passion earned him the sympathy of the middle class.

Nanavati was a Parsi and the deceased a Sindhi, and organisations of the two communities openly took sides. In the event, the government acted only after the deceased’s family stated in writing that it had forgiven Nanavati. It also granted pardon, along with Nanavati, to a Sindhi freedom fighter who had been convicted in another case.

Since then, the Supreme Court has laid down guidelines with regard to grant of pardon. In 1980, a constitution bench ruled that the president and the governors cannot exercise the right of pardon arbitrarily. Also, since they act on the advice of the council of ministers, grant of pardon was an executive action and, therefore, subject to judicial review.

In the USA, the highest court has drawn a distinction between judicial power and executive power. “Executive clemency exists to afford relief from undue harshness or evident mistake in the operation or the enforcement of the criminal law,” Chief Justice William Taft said in a judgement. “The administration of justice by the courts is not necessarily always wise or certainly considerate of circumstances which may properly mitigate guilt.”

The thought that courts are not infallible is hard to come by in Indian judicial pronouncements. As things now stand, the last word on grant of pardon rests with the judiciary. The courts can upset the decision of the president or the governor on such grounds as acting without the advice of the council of ministers or on extraneous considerations, transgressing jurisdiction and lack of application of mind.

While the executive and the judiciary are sworn to act without fear or favour, it is unreasonable to expect them to immunise themselves totally against the pressure of public opinion, informed or otherwise. In awarding Afzal Guru the death sentence in the parliament attack case, the apex court had said in so many words that this was necessary to satisfy the collective conscience of the society in an incident which had shaken the entire nation.

The event certainly had shaken the nation but what the capital punishment, which the government carried out secretly in February, satisfied was not the society’s desire for justice but the revanchist sentiments of political elements with a communal agenda wrapped in pseudo-nationalism. They were back in action last week after Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju, who is a former Supreme Court judge, called for grant of pardon to Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt, whom the apex court gave a five-year jail term under the Arms Act.

The case against Dutt arose out of his contacts with some of those involved in the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 in which more than 250 persons were killed. Katju asked that Dutt be pardoned considering his contribution as an actor and his charitable work, factors which modern states generally take into account in deciding such matters. He also pointed out that Dutt had expressed remorse and suffered enough during the past two decades.

Dutt was in prison for a year and a half in the preliminary stages of the case and has to spend three-and-a-half years more in jail in terms of the apex court verdict. Sensing that public opinion in his case is divided, he said he would go to prison and not seek pardon.

The real issue is not the fate of an individual who committed a breach of the law but that of the society which appears to be at the mercy of atavist elements which will not allow justice to be tempered with mercy.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 2, 2013.