Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gujarat’s Snooping Saga: Is it the Tail of the Proverbial Elephant?

            As a rule, I am against discussing private affairs of individuals. I believe morality is not something that should be demanded from any person including our leaders. Morality can be explained, but not enforced. There are no universal values of morality, and most people have double standards when it comes to adherence to moral principles. Therefore, when issues involving morality and concerning politicians are out in the public domain, my first preference is to ignore it. 

            The current disclosures about a snooping carried out by elements of Gujarat Police against a young woman architect looks like an issue that involves morality.  If the bits and pieces of information coming into the public domain are to be believed, this issue involved a relationship that falls under some of the notions of an immoral relationship.   However, for the reasons already stated, let me treat this as a snooping saga, rather than as a stalking saga.

            This snooping scandal, however, has issues far more important than adherence to the notions of morality by a politician aspiring to be the Prime Minister of India. The transcripts of the recorded conversations (as published by Cobra Post) that form the basis of this issue show how the Anti-Terrorist Squad and Crime Branch personnel were misused by the political leadership of Gujarat State, to further their personal agenda. What these conversations suggest is too dangerous for a democratic society. 

            I heard people dismissing the entire issue as a conspiracy of Congress. While I do not dismiss the role of Congress and/ or CBI in making these recorded conversations available to the concerned journalists, it takes the kind of devotion displayed by devotees of Asaram, to dismiss the issue as a Congress conspiracy.  Congress could not have conspired to make Narendra Modi’s blue-eyed (then) Minister Amit Shah and his once blue-eyed IPS officer G.L. Singhal to enter into such a conversation and implicate their Saheb into something as bizarre as this incident.  Nor could have Congress persuaded an IPS Officer to hand over recorded conversations that implicate himself in too many illegal deeds, including coldblooded murders, also known as fake encounters (Apparently, it took the suicide of a teenage boy to make his father repentant of his crimes, and turn an approver).

            Mr. Singhal’s statement to CBI recorded on April 17, 2013 reads as follows: “In the latter half of 2009, when I was posted as SP (Operations) in the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) at Ahmedabad, Shri Amit Shah had directed me several times to watch the movements of Shri Pradeep Sharma, who was then posted as Municipal Commissioner, Bhavnagar. He had also asked me to put a watch on a young woman named Madhuri (Pseudonym used by the websites to protect the identity of the lady concerned). I had deputed some men of the Crime Branch (as ATS was short of subordinate staff) to follow her, as directed by Shri Amit Shah”.  According to the reports on June 09, 2013 Mr. Singhal had handed over recordings to the CBI which was investigating the alleged fake encounter killing of Ishrat Jahan.  

            When read with the transcripts of the recorded conversations, above statement clearly shows that operation involved round the clock aggressive surveillance of two individuals- Pradeep Sharma, IAS and the lady referred to as Madhuri, as per the instructions from Saheb.  The transcripts of the conversations between Amit Shah and Singhal clearly indicate the extent of surveillance over the two individuals. Couple of samples from the transcripts will give the reader an idea about the nature of surveillance:
            “Amit Shah: And where is the lady?
G.L.Singhal: She is sitting at Navrangpura near Have More.
Amit Shah:: With  that boy only ?
G.L.Singhal: Yes sir. With that boy
Amit Shah:: I want him in jail for as many days as Vanjara has been jailed for.
G.L.Singhal: Yes  yes.
Amit Shah: You be courageous and strong.
G.L.Singhal: Undoubtedly sir…
Amit Shah: No matter how big the person, put him in jail
G.L.Singhal: Right sir
            “G.L.Singhal: We have deployed men at hotel as well, at both the places
Amit Shah: Is there only one door or any other than that ?
G.L.Singhal: There are two doors and men deployed at both the doors at the hotel as well
Amit Shah: They should not escape in closed car.
G.L.Singhal: We will come to know sir and in case they come out, we will be informed by our men deployed at the hotel
The websites, however, did not name the Saheb. It was BJP’s official spokespersons who confirmed the real identity of Saheb, with a letter from father of Ms. Madhuri (I will stick to Madhuri, though her real name is now in the public domain) to that effect.  Mr. Soni admitted that it was none other than the CM of Gujarat and PM candidate of BJP, Mr. Narendra Modi who ordered the snooping at his request.  However, he failed to convince about the kind of threat that called for this kind of aggressive surveillance.

            We have already read the statement of Singhal. We have not heard from Amit Shah, though he has access to press, 24x7. We also have not heard anything from Narendra Modi though he speaks at rallies almost every day, and on everything under the sun. All indications are that none of the parties is contesting the contents of the transcripts. Their only defense is that it is a conspiracy of Congress.

            In the meanwhile, there were reports coming out about a company named Ecolibrium Energy Private Limited that received a very favourable break, thanks to Gujarat government. This company is promoted by Soni family and, reportedly, their growth was not completely above board as they had no prior experience in their chosen field of operations (smart grids).  These favours were cited as the reason behind the letter from Mr. Soni, though the company maintains that they have not received any untoward benefits.

            Another parallel development was the affidavit filed by Mr. Pradeep Sharma, IAS in a writ petition filed by him before the Supreme Court of India. He alleged that the victimization he is facing at the hands of Gujarat government is a result of Mr. Modi’s suspicion that he may be having access to a certain CD that could be very damaging for Modi. According to him, Modi suspected that Mr. Sharma may have been privy to certain secrets through Madhuri.  The transcripts do corroborate this allegation of Mr. Sharma.

Now coming back to the main issue, irrespective of what the real reason behind the whole issue was, clearly there was a gross misuse of state machinery. At least two top officials of the relevant time have confirmed that there was no such surveillance and telephone tapping organized through legal measures. Unless Modi or Shah volunteers to share some convincing reasons such as Madhuri was an IM operative out to kill Modi, this action cannot be ‘justified’.  There were too many illegal acts committed under this episode.

We have to see this incidence in the light of certain other allegations against Modi and Shah. Shah is out on bail in the fake encounter case. There are many such cases at different stages of legal process, and Modi has never been clear of suspicion about his role in them. Even the efforts to prosecute Modi for his alleged acts and omissions during 2002 riots are still continuing. In all these cases, Modi has so far managed to convince a section of people that he was doing a favour by indulging in those activities, by demonizing the victims. It does not matter that even if the victims were demons as alleged by Modi and his supporters, Indian laws do not permit such illegal elimination. However, nationalism and religious sentiments were sufficient to keep up the show.

I am under no illusion that such activities are limited to Narendra Modi. I am sure there must be other CMs and leaders from all parties who have misused state machineries, to push their personal agenda. However, when you present yourself to the nation as a real alternative, you should prove it, not by words but deeds. As of now, Modi’s alleged deeds in this snooping saga cannot be whitewashed by the usual nationalist or secular-communal arguments.  

It is in this context that the case assumes importance. Modi has been smart enough to keep safe from the arms of law, in all the serious allegations, for want of proof. Here comes a case where the proof is presented even before the allegation is made. The matter is also before the Supreme Court, and soon the Court will have to take a position. No matter how long Modi remains silent, this issue refuses to die down.

Modi cannot even be sure who his real friends or enemies are. For example, Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna reported that Congress is working on a “Narendra Modi Sex CD”. Report says there are two actresses (one Tamil and one Panjabi) kept ready for the shoot, but failed to report who will act as Narendra Modi. Is this news really against Congress, or is it against Modi? I would think the latter since everyone will now keep talking about the impending release of a sex CD involving Modi.  Similar was the effect of some of the BJP arguments that drew parallel between this case and the sexual assault/harassment case involving Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka.

The tail of the proverbial elephant that managed to successfully pass through the hole is now stuck at the hole!  Will it manage to free its tail and go on to become the King?

PS: I admit my bias against Narendra Modi, and I believe the reasons are strong enough. However, I have tried my best to be objective in my thoughts.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Hartals against Kasturirangan Report on Western Ghats- Some Thoughts

Western Ghats is a mountain range that runs along the western side of India. Six states are blessed to be a part of this great treasure trove of biodiversity. “Western Ghats harbour many endemic species of flowering plants, endemic fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates” (Notification dated 13 November 2013). UNESCO recognized this mountain range as a World Heritage Site and one of the eight ‘hottest spots’ of biological diversity. In order to protect this ecologically sensitive region.

The unchecked encroachment by human population and unbridled activities in the name of development have become a serious threat to the survival of Western Ghats. Human beings are a curse on this earth, with their attitude that they have some divine right to exploit and damage this earth, no matter how much it affects other flora and fauna or even the earth. We do not even know what is in the long-term interests of ourselves and our future generations. Let me not get into those aspects of human vs. nature debate here. Suffice to say, Government of India was forced to appoint a panel under the leadership of Prof. Madhav Gadgil. The report of this Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP Report dated 31st August 2011) was lauded by the environmentalists, but opposed by various other stakeholders including state governments as something that affects an unacceptably large number of people.

“The mandate of WGEEP was to demarcate ecologically sensitive zones and suggest measures to conserve, protect and rejuvenate the ecology of Western Ghats region. Taking into account the comments and suggestions made by different stakeholders including State Governments and Central Ministries on WGEEP Report, the MoEF constituted a High Level Working Group (HLWG) to suggest an all-round and holistic approach for sustainable and equitable development while keeping in focus the preservation and conservation of ecological systems in Western Ghats” (HLWG Report). In effect, the task of HLWG headed by Dr Kasturirangan was to water down the proposals of WGEEP in order to make it palatable to state governments and other stakeholders.

However, as usual, even this watered down report of the HLWG did not find favour with all sections of the society. These watered down recommendations also were opposed on the ground that it affects the lives and rights of people from those areas. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) of Central Government did invite public comments on the report. The report was also forwarded to concerned state governments for their feedback. 
While this process in under progress, MoEF has gone ahead and accepted the report ‘in principle, and notified certain specific recommendations of the report in a draft form (possibly under pressure from the ongoing cases in the Supreme Court, on the issue). Whether it is WGEEP, HLWG, or any other report on the Western Ghats, they are not binding on the people of governments. They are mere recommendations to the concerned governments, even when the governments accept those reports.  Only when the concerned government passes a law or issues a notification under any of the existing laws, these recommendations attain legal validity and become enforceable against people.  Therefore, while people have all the right to discuss the validity or otherwise of the contents of the reports, they have no reason to be aggrieved against them so as to resort to non-democratic means like forced and violent bandhs disguised as hartals, or torching of government offices and public properties.

Let us not look at the Office Memorandum of the MoEF (OM dated 16 November 2013) which accepts certain selected points of the HLWG report. I quote from the OM:

            “The Ministry has accepted the HLWG Report ‘in principle’ subject to the following:

(i)     The definition of the extent of Western Ghats as demarcated by the HLWG is accepted.

(ii)    The Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) as identified and delineated by the HLWG is Western Ghats is accepted.

(iii)    The HLWG has identified approximately 37% of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. The identified Ecologically Sensitive Area covers about 60,000 sq, km. of natural landscape of Western Ghats and represents a continuous band of natural vegetation extending over a horizontal distance of 1,500 km. The Ecologically Sensitive Area is spread across six states of Western Ghats region viz. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The ESA also includes Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites of Western Ghats.

(iv)    The recommendations of the HLWG to completely ban mining, quarrying, and sand mining as also thermal power plants and Red category of industries in the Ecologically Sensitive Area are also accepted.

(v)     Hydro power being a relatively clean source of energy has been recommended to be allowed in the ESA by the HLWG subject to stringent conditions. This recommendation is accepted by the Ministry.

(vi)    Wind energy is permitted in the Ecologically Sensitive Area subject to applicable regulations.

(vii)   The following category of new and/or expansion projects/ activities shall be prohibited in the identified Ecologically Sensitive Area except those cases which have been received by EACs/ MoEF or SEACs/SEIAAs before the date of putting HLWG report on the website of eth Ministry, i.e., 17.4.2013 and which are pending with EACs/ MoEF or SEACs/SEIAAs. Such projects will be dealt under the guidelines and rules applicable at the time of application before the respective EACs/ MoEF or SEACs/SEIAAs.

(a)   Mining, quarrying and sand mining
(b)   Thermal power plants
(c)   Building and constructions projects of 20,000 sq. m. area and above
(d)   Township and area development projects with an area of 50 ha and above and/or with built up are of 1,50,000 sq. m and above
(e)   Red category industries

(viii)       Projects/activities which are not specifically prohibited under the ESA shall be scrutinized and assessed for cumulative impacts and development needs, before granting environment clearance.

(ix)            The Forest Right Act shall be observed in letter and spirit. The consent of the Gram Sabha for projects in ESA will be mandatory as recommended by the HLWG.” (Emphasis supplied)

From the above, it is clear that the ‘in principle’ acceptance of an already watered down report of HLWG is nothing but further relaxation to the bare minimum, to protect the existence of the Western Ghats. It is also very clear that the prohibitions instituted are in respect of such large level activities, and not the basic needs or the people residing there. In fact these prohibitions will only help the inhabitants of the area from the onslaught of mining, tourism resort, and real estate mafia. 20,000 sq. m construction of 1,50,000 sq. m township are not the concerns of local populations but if builders and big businesses.  Also, the mining and quarrying are not in the interest of the local farmers but the powerful mafia operating in the state.

There cannot be any dispute that the above activities can actually destroy the very existence of the Western Ghats.  Can we allow such a situation? Will it not kill our Monsoons and the ecology? Shall we compromise our very existence for the profit of certain individuals? The increasing number of quarries coming up throughout the Western Ghats region will only tell sensible people about the need to adopt urgent measures to protect the ecology. This is also critical for the survival of the predominant farmer communities from those very areas.

The Western Ghats and its inhabitants will also benefit from the proposed incentives for green growth in the area. To quote the OM,
“All the other major recommendations made by the HLWG particularly with respect to the  financial arrangements to incentivize green growth in Western Ghats, participation or and involvement of local communities in decision making, data monitoring systems especially the establishment of Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for Western Ghats are accepted”.

The OM also provides a mechanism for resolution of any grievances relating to declaration of ESAs. It states that “a draft notification declaring the identified region of the Western Ghats as an Ecologically sensitive Area along the lines accepted by the Ministry would be issued and put up on the website of the Ministry for input of the stakeholders”.  

A Notification was issued on 13 November 2013, prohibiting all the activities listed in Clause (viii) of the above OM with immediate effect. This Notification also contained a list of all ESAs identified by HLWG, as an Annexure. The areas “having high biological richness, low forest fragmentation, low population density and containing Protected Areas (PAs), World Heritage Sites (WHSs) and Tiger and Elephant corridors were identified as ESAs by the HLWG.  Even then if there are specific objections there is enough scope to successfully challenge the notification. This Notification is valid till further orders. The Minister of Environment and Forests has again clarified that the final notification on the report will be issued only after hearing the states and other stakeholders. Ministry has given 60 days tome for the stakeholders to respond to the draft notification.

Meanwhile, the hartals and violence occurred in Kerala against the implementation of the HLWG Report. Even the main opposition LDF decided to join the bandwagon of hartal against the implementation.  Unlike more stringent supporters of unbridled rights of the people to exploit Western Ghats, LDF and CPM were seen struggling to balance between the supporting the need to protect Western Ghats and limiting the Hartal against the manner in which the report was implemented. Leaaders of CPM are on record stating the need to implement the report “by taking the people into confidence” and the Leader of Opposition has even demanded implementation of WGEEP report.

As usual, this hartal also will not serve any useful purpose. Most people considered a Monday hartal as an extended weekend, and celebrated it. Only the daily wage earners lost their earnings.  Kerala Government has constituted a committee to interact with people and submit the final recommendations to the MoEF, by early January (as agreed between Govt of Kerala and MoEF). All the objections to the report and implementation could have been placed before this Committee. The Chief Minister had also called an all parties meeting to decide state’s response to be submitted to MoEF (which I understand LDF has boycotted). However, some parties seems to have lost faith in all negotiations and discussions, and consider hartals and violence as the only means of redressing grievances, which is not a good sign for the state.

Let me quote the HLWG report:  “HLWG recognizes that the proposed non-permissible activities may not be enough to fully manage the environmental fallout of development. However, it is also clear that management through prohibition and fiat is often detrimental to the interests of the very people and environment policy is aiming to protect. Therefore, we need a balanced and nuanced approach to say no to the most damaging and high impact activities and at the same time working of systems to incentivize environmentally sound development that benefits local livelihoods and economies”. At least, the mainstream parties and people must support the governments in this endeavor to implement the prohibition of ‘the most damaging and high impact activities” in the Western Ghats instead of resorting to hartals and other anti-people measures. Remember Western Ghats do not have any votes, and it is easier for the governments to shelve such measures for its protection!

Hartal is forcing a group’s will on the entire population, through threat of violence. Agitations against Kasturirangan Report is forcing our greed on the entire Western Ghats ecology! Neither will help us in the long run.

PS: I confess, I am not an expert on these reports or their impact. I am merely sharing my thoughts on the issues as I understand them, to keep the discussion on. Any views, for or against the implementation of report, or Notification, are most welcome.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Kerala CM’s Mass Contact Programmes: An Analysis

        When Mr. Oommen Chandy took over as the Chief Minister of Kerala on a wafer thin majority, lot of Keralites wondered whether he will be able to do anything for the people. Since he took over as CM in the year 2011, one thing he succeeded well is in his unprecedented Mass Contact Programmes which even received accolades from the United Nations Organization.  Mass Contact Programme (MCP) or 'Jana Samparka Paripadi' is a forum where the CM, along with officials from various departments and other ministers, meets the people to receive and find solutions for their grievances against the system.

In the latest Programme at Malappuram district alone, a total of 10,171 grievances were received, out of which 4217 were resolved at district officials’ level. 2609 applications were rejected on various grounds, and 394 reached for CM’s considerations and decision.  That apart, during the Programme, the CM directly received thousands of applications which were also resolved.

The current MCPs are the second round, after completion of a highly successful first round.  Even during the first round, the MCP received criticism from many sections of the intelligentsia and opposition.  While the opposition has political reasons to oppose the programme that gets the CM a lot of goodwill, intelligentsia has other reasons to oppose it.

CPI (M) led opposition has been demanding the CM’s resignation for his alleged role in the infamous solar scam.  Their agitations against the CM have been going on for some time now. Each agitation got replaced by yet another agitation when the former failed to achieve its objectives or popular support. It even reached the level of physical attacks and stones throwing against the CM, at Kannur. Attempts through violence and blockade to remove an elected Chief Minister who is continuing to enjoy majority support in the Legislative Assembly, is not part of the democratic process or spirit. However, that is not the subject matter of this post.

Latest in the series of these agitations is the attempts to block the CM’s entry into the venues of his Mass Contact Programmes. So far, three such programmes were conducted successfully, without much hindrance since these agitations were announced. Apparently, even LDF is scared of preventing these programmes that are beneficial to a large number of people from the poorer sections of the society. Even after repeated failures to prevent these programmes, the opposition continues to boycott the same. As the famous Malayalam saying goes, these mass contact programmes have become something that is’ too bitter to eat and too sweet to spit’! However, due to these agitations, each MCP becomes a matter of concern and subject to unprecedented security arrangements.

Leaving the political opposition aside, I shall now attempt to record some of the objections from the intellectuals and my responses thereto, in the following paragraphs.

One of the most heard criticism is that the CM is doing the job of a Village Officer. Even if we agree that it is true, can we deny that there is a need for the CM to do a Village Officer’s job, if the Village Officer fails to do that? Where does the buck stop? If there was no such need, we would not have found 1000s of applicants belonging to all sections of society and different political hues, thronging these Programmes to get their grievances addressed. There is no point in burying heads in the sand and stating that there is no need for such programmes, to help the needy.

Of course, for the intelligentsia who belongs mostly to the affluent sections, these problems are not critical to warrant the CM’s personal intervention. However, for the poor people, it provides a great opportunity to get their issues resolved.

There are two reasons why the CM has to work like a Village Officer, to make things happen. One reason is the apathy of officials towards the problems of the common man. For various reasons including expectations of bribes, many officials refuse to do what is their duty. The second reason is the legal impediments in helping the needy. A Village Officer can only act within the set rules or refer the matter to the higher-ups for decision. However, by the time a decision is obtained in such matters, it is generally too late. MCPs provide a venue for the officers at various levels to get together and resolve all such issues. The presence of the CM and other ministers helps in expediting policy decisions, where necessary.

Another criticism is that the CM is acting like a King and distributing taxpayers’ money as if it is from his own pocket. Well, even a CM is answerable for any money spent from the government’s treasury. All the financial aids provided to the people during the MCPs are well within the rules. Just that in many cases these aids do not reach the needy due to red tapes and other inefficiencies in the system. The CM’s intervention through MCPs only helps in overcoming these delays.

Yet another criticism is that a CM’s job must be to reform and improve the governance so that there is no need for such programmes. There is some merit in this criticism.  A CM cannot resolve all the issues of people through his direct intervention. The systems must improve, and bottlenecks must be removed. However, MCPs are addressing this need, as well. To quote the CM’s own words, spoken at the Programme at Malappuram district:
“The importance of these Mass Contact Programmes is not in distributing financial aid to some of the needy people. These Programmes reveal the legal impediments at governmental level, in serving the people. The importance is in being able to make reforms in governance procedures based on this learning.  As a result of the last round of Programmes, 45 such orders were issued, out of which 43 were collated and published as a book.”
These words show that the MCP is not just a money distribution scheme. It connects the government with common people, helps in understanding the impediments in serving people, and finds solutions for addressing their problems. It also makes the officials accountable for their actions and inactions. They have to explain why a decision is taken or not taken on an application submitted by a citizen.

        Mr. Chandy is already on record that this government will implement the Right to Services Act that prescribes mandatory time limits for officials to act on an application. Hopefully, reforms such as Right to Information Act and Right to Services Act will reduce the need for such Mass Contact Programmes. In the meanwhile, it is a noble effort from the CM to provide succor to the poor people.

          Sometimes, it is said that MCPs are nothing but cheap tactics for garnering votes. Well, votes are fundamental to electoral politics, and there is nothing cheap or wrong in a current government having votes also as a motive behind their actions. This tactics was available all governments in the past, and is still available to other state governments. Why is it that they all failed where Mr. Chandy succeeded? Also,  in a country like India where CMs are accused of organizing pogroms and riots to garner votes, finding fault with welfare programmes like MCPs as cheap tactics for getting votes, is rather difficult to digest.

         To conclude, there is not one government or governance system in the world that has achieved perfection. The reforms and improvements in the system is an ongoing effort. There will always be unforeseen problems and unsolved grievances of people. It is the duty of a government to ensure that there are suitable forums for these grievances to be addressed. At the same time, government must make policy changes to enable the system to address such issues when repeated in the future. To quote Mr. Chandy again, “the soul of Mass Contact Programmes is in providing the confidence to people that they have a forum where they can raise their grievances and find solutions”. Such a confidence is indeed, critical for the wellbeing of any democracy.

Note: This post is based on various news reports and Twitter debates on the subject.