New on my other blogs

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


29 October, 2013

To Russia, China with love

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The outcome of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visits to China and Russia last week testifies to the maturing of India’s relationship with the two countries, which, with Brazil and South Africa are its partners in the BRICS grouping. He was able to deepen ties with China, thanks to the spadework done by officials.

At an earlier phase in India’s diplomatic history, personal equations had played a major part in defining its relations with these countries. Ties with the Soviet Union were extremely formal until Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev established warm personal relations with Jawaharlal Nehru. The camaraderie that Nehru established with prime minister Zhou Enlai at Bandung kept Sino-Indian relations on an even keel until the 1962 border war drove the countries apart.

There has been a shift in the relative position of these countries in the global context since then. The Soviet Union has disappeared and its successor, Russia, does not possess the clout that it had. China, which the United States forcibly kept out of the world stage for a quarter century, has catapulted itself into the Number 2 position and is aiming for the top slot. Leaders still try to cultivate personal friendship but they know it cannot override political, economic and strategic factors.

At the end of the tour, Manmohan Singh said the visits had served their purpose and he was satisfied with the results.

His meeting with Vladimir Putin was the 14th successive annual Indo-Russian summit. A joint statement issued later referred to the cooperation between them in varied spheres such as space, energy, investment, high-tech trade, science, education, culture and tourism.

While Manmohan Singh was in Russia, the Indian government announced the commissioning of the first of two units of the Koodankulam nuclear project supplied by that country but the planned agreement for the supply of two more units did not materialise as the terms could not be settled in time.

The China visit yielded many agreements, some of which represent a significant advance. The most important of them aims at ensuring peace along the 4,000-kilometre long disputed border, which was the scene of a bloody conflict in the early 1960s. Beijing’s official assessment was that the visit sent a positive and powerful message that the two countries are committed to working together.

During the half-century that has elapsed since the war, the two countries have been in talks on the border issue with little progress. China has been arguing for some time that since the issue is highly complex a quick resolution cannot be expected and a framework should be established to prevent border incidents.

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the border defence cooperation agreement has codified the good practices evolved in the handling of developments along the line of control. It also provides for the establishment of a hotline between the two military headquarters and increased contacts between the military commands.

On the contentious trans-border rivers issue, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding which expands the scope of the existing expert-level mechanism beyond providing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra during the flood season.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party invited Manmohan Singh to address its Party School, which nurtures the country’s future leaders. He took the opportunity to stress that the Chinese and Indian economies can be complementary and outlined certain specific areas where they can cooperate for mutual benefit.

“We both know that the benefits of cooperation far outweigh any presumed gains from containment,” he told China’s emerging young leaders. “Therefore we should engage with each other in a spirit of equality and friendship and with confidence that neither country is a threat to the other.”

Reciprocating the sentiments he expressed, Wang Yi said there are unprecedented opportunities for cooperation and the leaders of the two countries have agreed on deepening strategic partnership. The national television quoted a Party School student as saying Manmohan Singh made many useful suggestions and he would “try to advance bilateral cooperation from my position”.

Looking beyond the prism of bilateral relations, Manmohan Singh and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang decided to work on the proposed BCIM economic corridor project, which will bring Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar together and link up with the Asean, China-Asean and India-Asean free trade areas to create the world’s largest free trade area. Tantalising as its prospects are India is inclined to hasten slowly, pending detailed examination of its implications for the northeastern states.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 29, 2013.

22 October, 2013

Law proposes, politics disposes

BRP Bhaskar
Eager to help rapacious business interests for their own reasons, central and state governments are preparing to throw open the surviving rainforests of the Western Ghats, known for their rich biodiversity, to continued exploitation.

The Western Ghats extend from the Gujarat-Maharashtra border to the southern tip of the subcontinent, covering a linear distance of 1,600 kilometres. Thirty-nine areas identified by Unesco for preservation as world heritage sites under its Man and Biosphere programme are located there.

Like other forest areas across the country, this region too has witnessed large-scale encroachments and destruction in six-and-a-half decades of Independence. At the instance of prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had attended the Stockholm environment summit of 1972, Parliament enacted laws to protect the forests and the environment but depredations have gone on with the connivance of politicians and officials.

Taking note of the Supreme Court’s observation that lack of expertise hampered its ability to adjudicate on environmental issues, the central government enacted a law in 2010 to set up the National Green Tribunal, a specialised judicial and technical body. The tribunal was constituted only after the court repeatedly directed the government to do so.

It is not unusual for the central and state governments to pass laws and not implement them. In the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Centre, responding to popular demand, enacted the National Environment Tribunal Act in 1995 to punish polluters. The law was not enforced. Two years later a law to set up a National Environmental Appellate Authority was enacted. It too was not enforced. A Kerala law providing for a tribunal to award compensation to villagers for damage caused by the Coca-Cola company, which was referred to the Centre for approval, is in the limbo.

Jairam Ramesh, who piloted the National Green Tribunal Bill through Parliament as Minister of Forests and Environment, was shifted out soon afterwards, apparently to placate businessmen who found him too committed to ecology. Under the malleable Ms Jayanti Natarajan, who took his place, the ministry has been in continuous confrontation with the tribunal.

One of Jairam Ramesh’s positive initiatives was the constitution of an expert panel, headed by renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, to report on measures to save the Western Ghats. Jayanti Natarajan kept the panel’s report under wraps until forced by the Central Information Commission and the Delhi High Court to publish it.

In its 328-page report, the Gadgil committee proposed that a Western Ghats Ecology Authority be set up to ensure protection of ecologically fragile regions falling in six states. Commercial interests, backed by political parties in the states, raised a furore over its recommendations, which also included checks on construction of dams, mining activities and polluting chemical industries. In Kerala, the Syro-Malabar Church, whose members form a large chunk of the farmers in the hill region, also joined them.

The Centre then appointed a new panel, headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan, a space scientist with no expertise or experience in the field of ecology, to review the Gadgil report and make fresh recommendations. It watered down the Gadgil proposals but could not go so far as to satisfy the commercial and political interests fully.

Gadgil wanted 90 per cent of the Western Ghats to be a no-go area. He divided the ecologically fragile regions into three zones and proposed different sets of regulations for each. Kasturirangan asked that the entire area be treated alike. Gadgil wanted decisions on permitting mining and other activities in the protected area to be left to the village councils. Kasturirangan opposed it.

The Green Tribunal had directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests in April to implement the Gadgil recommendations within three weeks. The ministry did not act on the directive. Even after the Kasturirangan report was received it remained inactive. Early this month the tribunal fined the ministry Rs25,000 for its inaction which was holding up clearance of projects and asked it to clarify its position on the two reports by November 12.

Last week the ministry announced acceptance of the Kasturirangan report. Once again there was a hue and cry from the business class and the political parties. The loudest noises come from Goa, where the driving force against attempts to save the forest is the influential mining lobby, and from Kerala, where political parties in league with land grabbers and quarry owners are in the lead.

An open battle between environmentalists and commercial and political interests is on the cards with Gadgil exhorting the people to come forward to protect the forests. The last word may be that of the judiciary. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 22, 2013.

15 October, 2013

Elusive social justice

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A high court judgement acquitting 26 men, whom a lower court had sentenced to either death or life imprisonment for the murder of 58 Dalits, including 27 women and 16 children, has brought to the fore the question of social justice.

The case arose out of a massacre, allegedly by members of Ranvir Sena, a militia set up by Bhumihar Brahmin landlords to terrorise farmhands into submission, at Lakshmanpur Bathe, 100 kilometres from Patna, capital of Bihar state, in 1997. The victims included pregnant women and infants.

The Patna High Court freed the accused, saying they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt as the prosecution witnesses, most of them local Dalits, are not reliable. The state government has said it will go in appeal to the Supreme Court. The Dalits are afraid the killers will strike again.

Voicing the Dalits’ despair, a man who lost seven members of his family told a reporter: “After 58 murders, no one is guilty. The courts are theirs, the government is theirs, the lathi (police baton) is theirs. The poor have nothing. This is injustice.”

The Ranvir Sena, set up in 1994, was banned the following year but has continued to operate with the patronage of influential people.

The 2011 Census put the number of Dalits — members of erstwhile untouchable communities — at 201.4 million, or 16.6 per cent of the total population. Four states account for nearly half of the Dalits: Uttar Pradesh (20.5%), West Bengal (10.7%), Bihar (8.2%) and Tamil Nadu (7.2%). In UP, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which draws its support primarily from the Dalit community, is a major political player and its leader, Mayawati, has been its chief minister more than once. Dalits form 31.9% of Punjab’s population but the BSP has not been able to make much headway there.

Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi recently said Mayawati was preventing the emergence of other Dalit leaders. She hit back saying the Congress was anti-Dalit. However, she continues to support the Congress-led government at the Centre from outside.

Gandhi said the Congress would build up hundreds of thousands of Dalit leaders to carry forward the process of empowering the community. He gave no inkling of awareness of the flaw in his party’s efforts in this regard. It has helped to elevate individual Dalits to the high offices of the president, the chief justice, chief ministers and Speakers of legislative bodies. However, in the absence of determined efforts to ensure social justice, a primary objective of the Constitution, of which BR Ambedkar, a Dalit, was the chief architect, its contributions do not rise above the level of tokenism. 

Police often refuse to register complaints of atrocities against Dalits. Slackness of investigators and prosecutors results in extremely low rates of conviction.

Ambedkar had embarked upon his mission of emancipating the Dalits by burning the Code of Manu, a treatise dating back to the first or second century BCE, which provided ideological underpinning and religious sanction for the highly iniquitous caste system. The state apparatus, dominated by beneficiaries of the system, has been slack in translating the constitutional guarantee of equality and equal opportunity into reality. Manu figures, in approving terms, in more than 300 Supreme Court judgements of the past six decades.

Statistical data provides an appalling picture. Every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit. Every day at least two Dalits are murdered, 11 beaten up and two Dalit houses destroyed. More than 54% of the Dalit children are undernourished. As many as 83 out of 1,000 live-birth Dalit children die before their first birthday. Men belonging to so-called upper castes systematically subject Dalit women to sexual violence as a means of punishment, control and dominance.

Although manual scavenging is banned by law, about 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, are still engaged in the demeaning activity. More than 10,000 of them are in the national capital. 

Untouchability, prohibited by the Constitution, is still practised in many villages. In an extension of the practice of this evil, cooperatives in Gujarat’s Mehsana district do not accept milk from cows owned by Dalits.

Recent migrants have carried the caste baggage with them to the West.  Last year the UN Human Rights Council, acting on representations by NGOs and findings of its own Rapporteurs, directed India and the United Kingdom to take certain specific steps against caste discrimination.

Significantly, the older Indian communities in the West Indies and Fiji were able to develop untroubled by caste and religious differences due to virtual absence of Brahminical elements among them. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 15, 2013.

08 October, 2013

Fodder scam lesson

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Politicians have blocked the passage of a tough law to deal with corruption in high places but two court verdicts of the past week show that the existing legal provisions are sufficient to bring offenders to book if only the authorities have the will to act.

In these cases trial courts convicted and jailed two former Bihar chief ministers, two members of Parliament and three senior Indian Administrative Service officers on corruption charges.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, who headed two governments between 1990 and 1997 and Jagannath Mishra, who was at the helm thrice before him, are the convicted former chief ministers. They, along with Lok Sabha member Jagdish Sharma, were convicted in one of about 50 cases registered in connection with the Bihar fodder scam.

In another case, Rajya Sabha member Rasheed Masood was convicted for allegedly selling seats in several medical colleges.

Yadav, Sharma and Masood became the first MPs to lose their seats in terms of the Supreme Court ruling disqualifying persons convicted and jailed for two years or more from seeking or holding elective posts.

If the tortuous course of the cases against these leaders indicates how systemic failures help the corrupt to get away, it also makes clear that if existing laws are implemented effectively the guilty can be brought to book.

The fodder scam cases arose out of continuous loot of the treasury for at least two decades. What began as a small-time activity of low-ranking officials gradually grew into a huge fraud of which top bureaucrats and political functionaries up to the level of the chief minister also became beneficiaries.

The modus operandi was to fabricate records of livestock in farms under the animal husbandry department and draw funds to buy equipment for the non-existent farms and fodder and medicine for the non-existent cattle. The loot was of the order of Rs9.40 billion.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, the constitutional authority who scrutinises government accounts, informed the Chief Minister of Bihar in 1985 that there was heavy delay in the submission of monthly accounts by the state treasury and this indicated the possibility of temporary embezzlement. Later chief ministers too were warned similarly but no one took remedial action, possibly because the high-up had been drawn into the scam by then.

In 1992, Bidhu Bhushan Dwivedi, a police inspector, stumbled upon the racket and submitted a report which hinted at chief ministerial level involvement in it. He was transferred and suspended. The high court later reinstated him and he became a key witness in the scam cases.

The fraudsters’ goose was cooked when Amit Khare, a young IAS officer serving as deputy commissioner, acting on information, raided animal husbandry offices in his district and seized records which contained clinching evidence of the scam. The media attention that followed made it impossible to sweep the dirt under the carpet. Khare is now a joint secretary in the central government.

Acting on a public interest petition, the Supreme Court entrusted the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Yadav, who was chief minister at that time, had to step down. He later served as a minister in the central government but the cases against him continued. Those convicted with him include 13 government officials, three of them members of the IAS, and 20 fodder suppliers.

The case against Rasheed Masood dates back to 1990-91 when he was Health Minister in the VP Singh government. He had begun his parliamentary career as a Lok Dal member and was in the Samajwadi Party before joining the Congress.

According to Transparency International, 86 per cent of the participants in the survey it held to prepare the Global Corruption Barometer 2013 said Indian political parties were corrupt. Other institutions in the list, in descending order of perceived corruption, are: Police (75 per cent), Parliament/legislatures (65 per cent), Public officials (65 per cent), education system (61 per cent), Medical and health (56 per cent), Business/private sector (50 per cent), Judiciary (45 per cent), Religious bodies (44 per cent), Media (41 per cent), NGOs (30 per cent) and Military (20 per cent).

When corruption is so pervasive, tracking and jailing the offenders is a mammoth task. A stiff law cannot, by itself, take the country far if the political and bureaucratic machinery, which must implement it, is highly corrupt. The most important fodder scam lesson is that a few honest men can make a difference.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 8, 2013.

01 October, 2013

Suspect activities

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There have been some disquieting revelations about the goings-on in the Indian army. To make things worse, major political parties are seizing the opportunity unabashedly to score debating points.

Last March the army sent to the government the report of a high-level inquiry which had found that Gen VK Singh, Chief of the Army Staff from March 2010 to May 2012, had set up a new unit called Technical Services Division (TSD) and funded it to destabilise the government of Jammu and Kashmir, spy on politicians and Defence ministry officials and influence the appointment of the next army chief.

The officers’ board, which conducted the inquiry, recommended that the government institute a criminal investigation in the matter. The government ordered no investigation. However, the new army chief, Gen Bikram Singh, shut TSD down.

The army inquiry board’s report was brought to light by the Indian Express last month. Responding to it, the Defence ministry said measures were in place to prevent undesirable activities. Since the matter involves national security, the government will take action after examining the report carefully, it added.

VK Singh said the newspaper report was false and motivated and seditious. However, he admitted the army had made payments to politicians in Kashmir. He claimed that this was done to ensure stability and that the army had been doing so since Independence.

Eight former army chiefs, in a joint statement, refuted his claim. They said no payments were made to any politicians, political party or NGO in their time. They asserted they would not have allowed such payments.

Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his father, Union minister Farooq Abdullah, demanded a probe into the reported activities of the TSD.

Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Mohammed Yasin Malik filed a petition in the state high court seeking a probe into the TSD’s role as well as the alleged killing of 117 civilians by the army in the state in 2010.

The newspaper report on the army inquiry board’s findings came immediately after VK Singh appeared with Bharatiya Janata Party’s presidential candidate Narendra Modi at an ex-servicemen’s rally in Haryana. Congress and BJP leaders issued public statements calculated to extract political mileage out of the development.

VK Singh’s term as army chief was marked by a series of controversies. He once said he had informed Defence Minister AK Antony about a bribe offer he had received from arms deal intermediaries but the government had not acted upon the complaint. Antony said he asked Singh to give a written report but he did not give one. Singh also dragged the government to court over a dispute relating to his age. If he had succeeded in the litigation he would have got more time in the top job.

Former J&K governor Gen SK Sinha said what VK Singh did was against the traditions of the army and he should have been sacked when he went to court. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said Singh, while heading the army’s eastern command, had given him some advice on counter-insurgency measures but he did not act upon it as he did not think it was in the national interest.

The army board’s report raises the question whether VK Singh’s actions were consistent with the army’s traditions. Under British rule, strong ties existed between the civil and military leadership — several Governors-General were in fact former army chiefs — but the military remained apolitical. With a view to ensuring civil supremacy over the military, India’s constitution has designated the president as the office of Commander-in-Chief of the defence forces.

Some experts have pointed out that the defence minister’s lack of interest in or knowledge of security matters has sometimes resulted in bureaucrats emerging as the effective civilian leadership, to the chagrin of the military brass.

In a book published in 2005, Gen S Padmanabhan, who was army chief during 2000-2002, says that the Defence Secretary, with his nearness to the Defence Minister, often exercised power on behalf of the minister and was regarded as the de facto minister. He adds, “The ‘supremacy of the civil over the military’ was thus effectively changed from supremacy of the political authority to that of the civilian bureaucracy.”

Two former chiefs of the Indian navy, Admirals Vishnu Bhagwat (1996-98) and Arun Prakash (2004-06), have also recorded dissatisfaction with the relationship between the ministry and the service headquarters.

The systemic problems they have pointed out need to be addressed speedily to ensure proper management of national security affairs. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 1, 2013.