Sunday, May 31, 2015

Be wary of NaMo's "Mann ki Baat"

I heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi's “Mann ki Baat” address to the nation today (31 May 2015). About how this innovation has captured the attention of the nation and people world over, there is plenty that has been said on TV and also written about. The point of this piece is to ask what is Modi's project when he so shares his thoughts and feelings with the “people”.

Just plain listening to Modi's “Mann ki Baat” gives one the feeling that Modi is reaching out, explaining stuff, making people part of his decisions. But pay careful attention to his tone, the undertones particularly, and one notices a rather dark and patronising manner in which Modi renders his messages.

Take today's episode, for instance. Modi spoke of the heat wave; the Kisan Channel that is being launched; the One Rank One Pension promise to Jawans; about success and failures in examinations and how to deal with them; and also announced he would lead the nation in commemorating June 21st the International Yoga Day. It's a kichhdi of issues, really speaking. But that apart, the message is in the way it is delivered: the deliberate halting in his speech, the heaving, the pauses (some quite unnecessary, but aid in stressing the trivial as non-trivial) and the unmistakably Modi under-breath. All of this adds to a singular proposition: Modi is not arguing his case with the people, he is telling them what he will do, he is telling them he is there at the helm of affairs and they need not worry. And does so in a manner that dumbs down the issue to a level that no one can even pick a quarrel; those who do will look bad.

It's no one's case that one needs to take care of oneself, one's family, friends, neighbours and elders, especially in an heat wave. And it's common practice in India, anywhere really, to keep out some water for wandering cows and goats and birds, monkeys and donkeys and the like, to take a sip and beat the heat. But when this becomes an issue that a Prime Minister speaks about it takes a different tone, especially the way Modi says it. He reminds us about the need for compassion for animals, while we take care of ourselves. For the massive audience that he has now commanded, because almost all government channels are being used in the telecast/webcast/radio broadcast of this programme (with private channels volunteering their bandwidths too), there is a simple and effective message that wants to deliver (a sadly predictable) impact: here is a man so sensitive, that he has time to care for animals too, despite being the PM. Nice touch?

Not really. Because, Modi has dumbed down the issue comprehensively, and deliberately. A heat wave is like a flood, a critical emergency. If mishandled, people will die. And people are dying, in hundreds. Its not because they aren't taking care of themselves or their animals that they are dying. It is despite doing that. Heat waves, like most natural disasters, kill the poor primarily as they live in an universe of scarcity: scarce access to water, to liveable shelter, and no possibility of taking a day off from work as that would mean dealing with the double whammy: unbearable heat wave + unbearable hunger. Now a Prime Minister who really cares for the people would want to discuss such grave matters with a grave tone, and explain what his administration is doing to alleviate people's suffering. None of that came through in Modi's address barring suave advise on how to take care of oneself and animals too, totally dismissing the fact that here is a major crisis that the nation is gripped by. The Prime Minister is basking in his innovation of communicating “directly” his “thoughts and feeling” with the “people” when this unprecedented heat wave is alarming many across the world to ask if this is a new norm in a world impacted by climate change. 

“Mann ki Baath” is not in the least a subtle effort at valourising Modi, claimed as the man who has made the Prime Minister's position worthy of respect and widespread regard. These monthly episodes have a message for BJP, that it has found a leader who is popular and that the party has to be reverent to Modi for getting them a mandate only he could manage and can again do. Implying, therefore, that without Modi, BJP is an also ran party. With the sub-text indiscreetly suggesting: Narendra Modi is here for the very long run, and all these episodes are part of a well-orchestrated campaign to ensure that he remains an indispensable feature in the Prime Minister's office.

Consider this new scheme Modi launched today (No, I am not talking about the Yoda day), its that people could now share with him, online, their family photos: of picnics at the beach. He would like to be a part of their “joy” “from a distance”, as he put it. Now imagine lakhs and lakhs of cell phones clicking pictures and sharing on the Prime Minister's portal pictures, which till this morning, would be considered personal, private stuff.

Surely, a Prime Minister coming across as personal is a nice thing, provided, of course, the Prime Minister has done his job. Such as take care of massive unemployment in the rural and industrial sectors, for instance. The heat wave is parching India, and monsoon shows no signs at all of knocking over the Kerala coastline anytime soon. What is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, going to do to save millions from an already crazy heat wave that will only get crazier? What will he do when farmers are forced to leave their farms in millions and go seek out livelihoods, with families in tow, from lowly paid, highly exploitative construction jobs in cities, if at all they can manage it? What will the Prime Minister do to get all Chief Ministers together and put together a comprehensive relief package? None of such critical concerns, which most of us would agree are indeed critical, are addressed in Modi's “Mann ki Baath”!

Meanwhile, for reasons not very clear yet, the MGNREGA scheme is floundering for attention. Scholarly research has proven that this programme, conceived and launched during UPA-II, has helped save millions from chronic persistence hunger, exploitation, and also given them a leg up in their fight against poverty. But our Prime Minister, who has time to peek into peoples' picnic selfies, has no time to prioritise investment in such massive security creation for the rural masses! So what if it was a Congress legacy? The scheme at least gives some security to farmers struggling against an unprecedented heat wave.

The sinister aspect of Modi's “Mann ki baath” comes across in his direct message to defense personnel, serving and retired, that their 4 decades old demand of “One Rank One Pension” will be met. It's the way in which he made the promise that is disconcerting. Typically, in most Governments past, such an important policy statement would be delivered by the Defence Minister. Instead, it's got to be Modi, the man, the “peoples” Prime Minister. For the Jawan, Modi is now a hero, not merely a Prime Minister, and this hero will now find the solution to a vexatious issue that several past governments have failed to deliver. The “I will do it” tone is clear, direct, and demanding: of respect, of deference. Modi wants every Jawan to be grateful to him, to know he is not just any hero, but a super-man who will do the unbelievable.

Such valourisation of an individual's effort is so un-Indian. It is particularly so unlike the Army which demands bravery from all and keeps a very careful watch on indulgences in an individualistic streak. Into such a force, which has instilled discipline distilled from decades of team effort and a policy of deliberately working in the background, that Modi has now introduced a streak of Ayn Randish individualism. It works for Modi, perhaps, but spells disaster for the Army. Many armies around the world who have been careless about such behavioural drifts, have ended disastrously, and wrecked havoc in their nations.

Not to be missed is an overarching element of these one-way, didactic style of rendering ideas and views: that Modi the man is the one who delivers on everything. There is no need for holding any other Union Minister accountable, or sharing the credit with anyone else. One noticed how completely sidelined India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has been in so many of Modi's overseas visits. Not one of the Union Ministers handling important politically important portfolios such as power, surface transport, urban development, etc. convey their Ministry's messages directly to the public anymore. It's always all done by Narendra Modi. Comes across as an unhidden effort to project Modi as the go-to man, as the will-get-it-done man, the man with a broad chest who shelters his colleagues, defends their mistakes, and yes, also takes credit for their work. Its a dangerous approach in which accountability is obscured, and misdirection, that cardinal technique of magic, is employed to divert public attention from so much that has to be so very carefully scrutinised and understood. Misdirection in magic is but momentary, entertaining when performed well, and irritating otherwise. In Modi's case though, it has become his norm of communication and we are way beyond the momentary feeling of irritation and well into an increasingly alarming strategy to divert attention from what the public ought to know so they can be prepared and take care of themselves – government or no government.

So what does one do with a Prime Minister who employs misdirection? What does one do with a man so full of himself that he does not notice he is killing with every one of his “Mann ki Baath” episodes a hoary tradition of Parliamentary governance where projecting the individual as achiever is anathema? What does one do with a man who uses the office of the Prime Minister to overwhelms his mass audiences with trivial concerns (Yoga, one can see. Selfies?) and provides a dumbed down version of critical concerns in such a way that masses can't quite comprehend the depth of the problem at hand? What does one do with a man who does not allow anyone else from his administration to share their “Mann ki baath”?

The answers to these questions aren't easy to find. But they must be found. For in searching out these answers, and in raising many more similar questions, rests the possibility of securing India from another unwelcome episode of authoritarianism. In a country where the electorate is too occupied finding ways to live every day and with little time or resource to hold accountable the elected over their period in office; where sycophancy is the norm, not the exception; where deferment is an expectation of politics, and democratic argumentation scorned upon, even punished brutally; where political leaders rise because of the fear they instil, not respect they command; into that country we now have Modi, a man who triumphantly proclaims his achievements.

Now such a man is reaching out and effectively mesmerising a massive population into believing what Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants them to believe. While quietly, dissenting voices are being snuffed out, by shouting down dissent, and inceasingly frequently smothering those who dissent with brutal abuse of law. Here is a man who is advocating narcissism of the masses, by the masses, and join the party with narcissistic Modi. Rescuing a nation getting afflicted by this disease is a task that cannot wait another day.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

It's gross injustice if only the gullible were to pay

Punishing officials who colluded to allow encroachments of public commons is critical to protecting lakes for posterity

It is indeed a shocking sight to see steel bars protrude out of ugly concrete rubble from what were houses filled with the gaiety and the business of family life. The sight is no different, whether it is the aftermath of an earthquake or the demolition of buildings that have encroached lakes. For families who lost their homes in the Government's ongoing drive to recover encroached lake lands, no amount of rationalising will help console their pain. This brings up deeper questions. Why is it that these houses came up inside the lakes in the first place?

To find an answer, one needs to travel back in time, to 1976, when the most undemocratic urban planing agency ever conceived in post-independent India was established – the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), modeled very much on the Delhi Development Authority. It was the time of Emergency and almost all decisions even about cities were directly controlled by the Chief Minister, and not uncommonly, by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The BDA was set up as an agency accountable mainly to the Chief Minister and thus designed to plan and develop Bangalore in a manner that suited the vision of the high political leadership - not of the people.

What resulted from BDA's planning in subsequent decades were a slew of massive neighbourhoods that were to accommodate the burgeoning population of Bangalore. As demands for more neighbourhoods and infrastructure grew, such as for bus stands, shopping complexes, and stadiums, and the agency was bankrupt and the Government was in no position to advance funds to buy private lands, the BDA did the next best thing: it began “developing” lakes and other commons from within the city area into layouts and infrastructure projects.

Soon this became epidemic. The tight, and almost wholly in-transparent control the agency had on land use planning and development created a variety of problems for the people.  For years there were hardly any neighbourhoods formed, thus spiraling the demand for housing sites.  This was an opportunity for rent seeking. A slew of ex-landlords (large farmers who saw their lands more as money than productive soil) turned real estate agents with bureaucratic and political patronage.  They began "converting" their lands into housing layouts, and while they did that, they packed in a few lakes and grazing pastures as well.  By design the BDA's functioning was not open to public review, and this helped real estate developers to collude with key bureaucrats, planners, Ministers and even Chief Ministers to fudge map and "create" land documents to present the neighbhourhoods as legitimate.  Many unwitting families, desperate in their search for a house site, but unable to get one from the BDA, resorted to buying into these private layouts.

While this was the case with the private layouts, not very different was the case with BDA itself. The agency too was guilty of developing BDA layouts inside lakes, as was recently uncovered in the case of Venkatarayana Kere in Gubbalala village of Uttarahalli Hobli. A Raja Kaluve connecting this lake with the Subramanya kere downstream has apparently been encroached by a vary famous developer – Mantri, and a massive apartment now stands there. This would not have been possible without the collusion of BDA and Revenue officials in sanctioning the plan, and later the BBMP in approving the apartment.

Following a series of Public Interest Litigations in which the High Court of Karnataka has directed the State to ensure lakes are protected, including by removing encroachments and stopping pollution, government agencies have finally begun to do the work they should have decades ago. When the Court undertook a survey of the status of lakes in Bangalore as an outcome of Environment Support Group's PIL advancing lake protection (W.P. No. 817/2008), the extensive nature of encroachment of city lakes and other commons became starkly evident.

This being the situation, a disturbing question that remains unaddressed yet is what should only people who gullibly bought these illegal properties be punished in the worst possible way - by the demolition of their homes and businesses, when officials of BDA, BBMP, Revenue Department, etc. who “approved” such properties as "legal" be allowed to go scot free?  It is critical to protect our lakes, and recover the ones that have been encroached. Perhaps there is a more humane way of doing that, particularly considering so many lower middle class and poor families were forced to be gullible due to the desperation of owning a home.  But if we want lakes not to be encroached again, it is necessary to criminally prosecute public officials and representatives who colluded in this massive scam. Else, only the gullible will pay with everything they have lost and that would be such a gross injustice.

(The Kannada version of this article is published in Prajavani on 2nd May 2015)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Consumer Electronics is a Deadly Business

(A Kannada version of this article is published in the editorial page of Prajavani dated 23 Nov 2013 at: http://tinyurl.com/n27r2ng)

One of the most sought after consumer goods today is a cell phone. It is the one electronic item most frequently used, easily damaged, lost and thus replaced. It is also for many a showpiece, to flaunt one's status. Which psychology is effectively taken advantage of by cell phone manufacturers to make one feel inadequate and go for the newest phone on the market.

This is exactly what Apple capitalised on when launching the new IPhone 5 series. The company targeted the younger crowd particularly, in a massive and growing global market, and racked up unprecedented sales of 90 lakhs phone within 3 days of its launch in September. Perhaps one needs to be a particularly sophisticated cell phone user to figure out what is indeed the difference in functionality in what Iphone 4 series did, and what the 5 series does better. To me both do more or less the same kind of work.

The disturbing question that emerges is what happens now to the old phones, lakhs and lakhs of them? To most it does not make any sense to carry two phones (one old, one new) and in any case it is more sensible to go for a buy back the old phone offer. Apple has a policy not to resell old phones and actually breaks them down. In the process some of the precious material in them is recovered, but most of it is junked. It makes no sense at all that a perfectly working phone has been destroyed. But it is this culture of consumption which is projected as “development” as it constitutes growth for corporations who have an insatiable hunger for profits and market shares, and thus make us buy more, even when we may not need it.

The past decade has seen a massive revolution in cell phone technology. A major impact has been that the rapidly evolving software technology has caused redundancy in the hardware, thus forcing consumers to go in for the latest and fastest and fanciest product. This is not only true of cell phones but of most electronic products. Old TVs and computer monitors based on CRT technologies are quickly being replaced by LCD and LED flat-screens promising better picture quality, major improvements in user interface, and also energy conservation. With perfectly functional equipment becoming redundant so very frequently, and being replaced, what happens to all that is disposed? Not to forget the lakhs of fridges, crores of bulbs and tube lights, music systems, air conditioners, and a host of other consumer electronics being disposed. Where does it all go? Equally important is to ask where from the material to make the new equipment comes? It is in responding to these questions that we come face to face with the most unbelievable story of the material flow of electronic products and the waste they create.

Electronic products are put together with the most toxic materials humanity has ever discovered and produced. Electronics intended for consumers, industrial, defence or space all use a group of elements called Rare Earths. As described they are rare because they are found only in some parts of the world. Today about 90% or more of the rare earths mined and supplied for electronic equipment manufacturing is from China. And most of this supply from China comes from Baotou, a city in Inner Mongolia. A Daily Mail reporter who managed to sneak past the tight security zone in this remote area of China discovered the region to have been reduced to “an apocalyptic sight”. Massive lakes were formed to receive highly toxic material thrown out by factories milling the mined ores for recovering Rare Earths using a variety of acids and other toxic chemicals. Consequently destroying large extents of farmland, grazing pastures, killing people by the dozens and maiming scores more. China's tight control on the leakage of such news has ensured very little is known about the scale of the damage caused, except when leaked out by adventurous journalists or activists.

It is no different in New Caledonia, a very rare archipelago in southwest Pacific Ocean, east of Australia, from where 25% of the Nickel required for electronics, batteries and various other goods produced today is mined. As a consequence some of the most unique ecosystems that contains the highest biodiversity density anywhere in the world is being lost. Not only has mining nickel here threatened the existence of unique tribal identities, but also threatens the existence of the New Caledonian Crow, a bird that makes complex tools for various applications, a skill only humans have surpassed in the animal world. 

The worst though of what mining minerals for the booming electronics sector does is now being witnessed in the massive country of Congo in Africa filled as it is with poor people, but rich in deposits of gold, diamonds and rare metals used in electronics. The cartels and price wars that control the supply of these minerals, and the armies that they support, has ripped apart this thickly forested country apart and thrown it deep into a civil war for couple of decades now. Thousands of people are killed as a result of this conflict every month and the youth do not know what peace means at all.

Violent and toxic is the foundation of the electronics industry today, not just in the sourcing of the resources required for producing new stuff but also in disposal of electronic waste as well. An interesting study by University of Northampton (UK) reveals that almost all the electronic waste generated in Europe and North America is exported to poorer countries in the South, in particular, India, China, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, etc.

UN's International Labour Organisation in its recent report entitled “The Global Impact of Ewaste” has revealed how the global movement of e-waste essentially is “illegal trade (and) is primarily driven by profit, with a multimillion dollar turnover, and the globalization of the illegal e-waste trade has intensified corporate, or “white-collar”, crime”. The report also documents that up to 40% of the highly toxic heavy metals found in landfills are due to e-waste disposed as part of daily garbage.

Bangalore is no exception as analysis conducted by Environment Support Group of water from lakes, streams and wells in and around Mavallipura, where over 40 lakhs tonnes of accumulated garbage lies in two illegal landfills, reveals very high concentrations of dangerous heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury and Lead, several times over the permissible limits. These deadly chemicals are bio-accumulative and destroy life, and could not have come there unless they were disposed as electronic and bio-medical waste.

There are rules, of course, to regulate and contain this massive pollution, like the E Waste Rules of India. But with very weak regulation, most of the e-waste processing and disposal is undertaken in the informal sector, with little or no compliance with occupational and environmental health standards. The problem is massive and growing as recent studies by ASSOCHAM has revealed. Bangalore and other major metros of India generate over 180,000 tonnes of electronic waste, almost all of which is handled informally, and disposed illegally.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Live and Let Pigeons Live

(A response to an article in Deccan Herald entitled “Ban dog walking, pigeon feeding in Cubbon Park” dated 5th October 2013, accessible at: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/361207/039ban-dog-walking-pigeon-feeding.html)

It is in the nature of our society that when someone elderly speaks, people listen with respect. This is particularly the case when that elder has a background of scholarship or administrative experience; the respect is indeed deep and widespread. Therefore, it is extremely important for such persons to speak with a fair degree of caution, and most definitely with as much accuracy as would be possible in given circumstances.

A man of the stature of Mr. A. N. Yellappa Reddy is respected by a lot of people: judges, bureaucrats, politicians and the wide public. Both as former Environment Secretary, and in his retirement, he has worked hard to promote environmental concerns, and rather tirelessly. One remembers when he was Environment Secretary anyone with sincere environmental concern was welcome into his office, even as he was unsparing in his criticism of those who demonstrated contempt for right environmental action. It is such resolve that compelled him to submit his resignation when expedient politics played havoc with environmental considerations in decision making.

During his retirement Mr. Reddy has served on many statutory committees and also judicial forums, guiding decisions and advancing environmental justice. His opinion is respected. When he shares information, people faithfully accept them as fact. This is probably why the Karnataka Horticulture Department has accepted Mr. Reddy's claim that the high densities of pigeons in Cubbon Park is a very serious public health threat, and that “pigeon droppings are harmful to human beings and other birds”. He further claims that pigeons “cause bird flu, and birds being in over 5,000, they can be carriers of diseases like H1N1”; which claim appears to have been rather unwittingly accepted by Cubbon Park Walkers' Association and the Bangalore Political Action Committee.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. A review of scientific literature suggests that the pathway for the transmission of the dreaded H5N1 influenza, for instance, which did kill people in Hong Kong in 1997 was traced to minor poultry markets, which included pigeons. But the diseases was only contracted only by people who ate pigeons. This is very well documented in a paper entitled “Avian Influenza Virus (H5N1): a Threat to Human Health” by J. S. Malik Peiris and others published in the Clinical Microbiology Reviews, a widely respected journal of American Society of Microbiologists. But there are different types of influenza and how exactly the avian influenza is transmitted to humans is still being studied. World Health Organisation has this to say about current understanding: At this point it is not known how persons are becoming infected. Some of the confirmed cases had contact with animals or with environments where animals are housed. The virus has now been found in chickens, ducks, and captive-bred pigeons at live bird markets near locations where cases have been reported. The possibility of an animal source of the infection is being investigated, as is the possibility of person-to-person transmission.”

Clearly, therefore, what is now certain is that unless someone actually eats an infected pigeon, or such other infected bird, it is quite unlikely they would be infected by the dreaded avian flu and its variations. It is also widely reported that avian influenza strains are endemic in wild birds, especially in Asia. So does that now mean we go about attacking wild birds, in addition to pigeons, at least in Cubbon Park?

Pigeons may be considered by some as a nuisance, as it appears to be the case with office bearers of the Cubbon Park Walkers Association. But does that give them the right to decide the fate of pigeons in Cubbon Park in general? Why not spotted doves then, or crows, or even bulbuls? Soon it could just be a matter of opinion, and those with a stronger lobby could muscle in their views into formal decision-making.

It is exactly in this kind of situation that such a person as Mr. Yellappa Reddy must offer a qualified opinion which is well buttressed in science, and in law. From a review of scientific literature it appears that unless one consumes an infected pigeon, the chances of contracting the avian flu are rather remote. In Cubbon Park, it appears pigeons aren't consumed at all. In fact they are protected by animal lovers, Jains particularly. There are ways to keep pigeons out of offices or High Court chambers, intelligent ways, that do not at all warrant their trapping and killing. One highly successful method is to install speakers which repeat calls of predatory birds, which makes pigeons believe they are under the threat of being devoured and they flee. If a decision is taken to stop feeding pigeons, or even trap them, it would be a slippery slope. For once we walk down this path, there is no saying which bird will be trapped, and it won't stop with pigeons, I am sure.

As for the other concern that the Walkers Association has raised, that breathing the smell of dog poop, particularly in the morning, “is unhealthy”, I don't know where this claim was manufactured. My family lives with dogs, our dogs poop every day, we do smell that now and then, and we are fine: healthy and happy!

In a city that prides itself to be the 'science-capital' of India, let there be no decision, especially in law, which mocks scientific understanding.

(Excerpts from this response have been used in an article in the Deccan Herald entitled "Cubbon Park: Ban Suggestions Draws Flak", published on 7th October 2013 and accessible at: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/361581/cubbon-park-ban-suggestion-draws.html.  Thanks to those who have shared their pictures on Google Images.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sporting a Culture of Neglect

It's 6.30 on a very nice and cool morning at Central Stadium, Trivandrum. Thanks to the heavy monsoon showers the previous evening, the sun is out shining through a thin layer of clouds, making the morning splendid. The stadium is abuzz with a range of sport activities. Sprinters are working hard on their routine, while footballers are playing off their shots. In one corner cricketers are busy with their net practice while the Karate team is tensely practising combat techniques. All this appears to be a great setting for the 1st National Kalaripayattu Championship that are being held here.

Just then one of the Kalaripayatru Championship participants gets injured in a practice routine. He has tried a complex maneuver and found a toe nail dangling out.  Its not major but sufficiently bad to put the fellow out of contention if his injury is not treated soon. When I ask around for a first aid kit, none have it. I presume the main office would have one.  Wrong assumption. For the policeman who is sitting at the desk there, not a sports official mind you, pleasantly responds:  “But office opens after 10 a.m. only!” I run around town and find the necessary supplies to deal with this minor emergency.

This is not a stadium in the boon-docks, mind you. It is right next to the Secretariat of the Kerala Government. I bet the large window in the Sports Secretary's office opens right into this sprawling campus, and the officer loves to stand by it while enjoying chai every morning. The view is nice no? Not really. Not if you notice that the P. T. Usha (Athletics) Coaching Centre is in shambles. Remember her? From the 1980s when all of India's Olympic medal hopes rested on her shoulders alone?

This is when I start comparing with the hundreds of crores (millions) of rupees that are invested in cricket. To spruce up the Tendulkar Stand, the Cuttack Cricket Club, the Kumble this and the Dravid that. Then there are these multi million money churning tournaments to benefit Border and Gavakar ! (Are these guys so broke?)

I compare because I have not heard in recent years a similar effort for P. T. Usha. The only lore that is being sung for field and non-cricket athletes in India is in Bollyhood's offering; more recently of the (sadly) one and only Milkha Singh.

When one walks into the main stadium in the capital city of a State, its not much to expect a warm and welcoming feeling, especially if you are in “God's Own Country!” But take one look at the P. T. Usha Coaching Centre and you know Hell would have better comforts. The ground floor of the building is filled with desks and cubicles with clerks peeping from behind their desks heaped with files, looking dead bored. Look for a toilet and you will find a corner room for women, the presence of which is evident by the stench from miles away. Men, I guess, find any corner useful. Greeting you as you enter the stadium's main gate is an overflowing pile of garbage.

When it rained last evening, footballers braved the heavy showers and practised in the soggy field. It was fun watching them have fun in the slushy, muddied field. But if one were to practice like that every day, for it rains here every day here during the four monsoon months, how and what exactly does one practice? If this is how footballers train to be national players in one of the few States where the sport is popular, imagine what it is like for this sport in, say, Cuddalore in Andhra Pradesh for instance?

P. T. Usha would moan in despair if she were to visit this centre, as it could be a traumatic throwback to the horrible conditions she braved to be India's famous athlete. The living quarters of the resident athletes which is housed in this building is dingy, damp and unlit: one can barely make out that the dormitories are stacked with rows of cots and window grills are covered with clothes and underwear hung out to dry. Surely, field athletes don't deserve a dhobi allowance, do they? They aren't cricketers after all.

I have never seen a cricket stadium in such a hopeless state. Almost every cricket stadium in the country has artificial turf laid out now, all over the vast expanse, and the grounds are so clean and well maintained that a ball will roll nicely as if it were on a billiards table. And should it rain, droves of groundsmen will run to cover the field and mop up the mess. Should a cricketer pull a hamstring, or develop a tennis elbow, even while in practice, will the country even stop talking and worrying about the fellow?

At places like the Central Stadium of Trivandrum, athletes can skid, fall and have their limbs splintered, and there is not even a first aid kit to call for. The tragedy of India is that we have made it a habit to talk of our glorious past, and do nothing about it.  Its an escapists' approach.  

Kalaripayattu, considered the mother of all martial arts, and which originated in Kerala, would be the most apt candidate for celebrating our "glorious"  past. Its 1st National Championship surely would have been a great setting to prove our collective intent in retaining traditional folk art forms.  Sadly, all that Kerala offered Kalari athletes in Trivandrum was a hard concrete floor, a far cry from the "wet red clay meant to give a cushioning effect and prevent injury".  It is this kind of floor that Kalari athletes have practised on every day for years, and in the Championship have to be wary because they are greeted by a hard concrete floor.  The athletes tend to ignore these 'small things' and get excited meeting others who has similarly practiced hard. But when you see Championship participants sweeping up the basketball floors so that their events can begin, what can you say.

The hard fact is that the Kalari competitions were held on hard, concrete, floors, because there is no State support at all for this ancient sport! No, not even the wooden floors that a college in a remote Chinese or East European village will take for granted in playing basketball or badminton, not to speak of the unimaginable sports facilities in any average US, Canadian or South African university campuses. On such hard concrete floors Kalari athletes demonstrate their extraordinary skills and combat to win; performing high kicks, spar with sword and shield, perform terrifying acts with the Urmi - flexible sword. These are the very brave at work here and they come in all age groups: little kids, teenagers and young men and women. They are all busy doing their best to have time to worry about the utter lack of infrastructure, even at the National Championship levels!

It appears that in the land of Kalaripayattu's origin, there is not one thing the State has done to ensure that the National Championship becomes an event to remember. Even when the event is being held right next to the seat of power. The least it could have done is to ensure drinking water and clean toilets were provided!

This considering the undeniable fact that most Kalari participants have come from very remote villages, where they have strived to excel only by the grit of their determination, and despite economic hardships. This was horribly evident from a very sad sight of athletes wandering the streets of Trivandrum late in the night in search of a place to stay, something they could afford. They could not find anything cheap within the vicinity of the Central Stadium, a 'high class' neighbourhood, and so ended up five in a room meant for two in one of the nearby hotels. One can only imagine how much sleep they got. No scholarship or corporate sponsorship reaches the doorsteps of these highly deserving candidates, for there is no money that can be made from this sport. 

Our cricketers, like Sreeshant, meanwhile, are so spoilt, and so bored with life, that all they can think of is to hang out in boring malls buying shoes, and show them off in boring bars with perhaps equally bored women. Come on Navjyot Singh Siddhu and Sachin Tendulkar, do something as MPs! Dhoni, Kapil Dev, Leander Paes, Ravi Shastri, get out there in the middle, do something about this state of affairs, and not only for your sport. For all some athletes are asking for is nothing more than a clean toilet in a sports stadium.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Moving beyond the ritual of observing World Environment Day

It is that time of the year, again, when we remind ourselves that we are an intricate part of our living planet.  It is indeed a tragedy of our times that it has come to this: a ritual celebration of being earthlings.  The question we need to ask ourselves is why we need to celebrate our Environment only on a particular day.  What happens on the rest of the days?

If we look around us, and inside our homes and offices, we are constantly reminded of the gross un-sustainability of our current form of existence.  So demanding and extractive of the Earth's natural resources are our ways of living, individually and collectively, that it has now become a serious demand on our formal and informal systems of governance to address how we will shift away from all this; and if at all we can, without seriously compromising our common desire for an consistently improving quality of living (measured largely in possession of material comforts).

The competing demands of providing such a quality of life for all, which governments promise endlessly and fail to deliver, is creating a variety of schisms and conflicts.  This is playing out all around us.

In Bangalore this assumes an immediate cause of concern with the way we throw our "waste" around, especially onto neighbouring villages and in the process creating a variety of public health and environmental nightmares.  It is no different in the way we use and dispose water in highly polluted forms and thoughtlessly even.  As a result, every well, lake, stream and river is comprehensively polluted.  The air we breath is turning increasingly toxic, even allergic, and less said the better about how we treat landscapes and their ecological features (not just trees).

Beyond the urb, our desire to maintain our urbanised way of living is costing million of rural and forest dwelling families their lives and livelihoods.  There is great disturbance in the way we grow food, extract minerals and consume forest resources.  What will all this add up to?

In some ways the answer is already evident in the warming of the globe's atmospheric systems resulting in the rapid melting of polar ice caps and the mountain glaciers:  the short term consequences we are experiencing regularly seem as frightening as the long term impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about a decade ago.

In the midst of all these global changes, governments everywhere seem incapable of comprehending the colossal nature of the impact of our human activity on our living planet, and in helping determine the outcomes for present and future generations.  While we will continue to struggle with such imperfections in our governance mechanisms, it is everyone's innate objective to be alive and not give up.  Therein lies the possibility for hope.

Action must and should be individual and local, but it would be senseless to assume that this is sufficient to cause positive change.  There has to be collective action at different levels.  We need to do more and it is the duty of this generation to begin this process without blaming past generations.  Only such an attitude will ensure future generations will have at least as good a chance to live a reasonably good quality of life, as we now do.

Again, this is assuming too much, considering the disparities that prevail amidst us in this generation.  War, strife and struggle over resources are so deeply divisive, that the lack of a method to address these conflicts in a humane manner is afflicting not just our administrative and governance mechanisms, but our very lives.

There are no easy solutions, only the possibility of taking important steps forward.  I risk suggesting them despite the possibility of sounding naive.  Conserve water that falls free with rain in every manner possible.  Conserve energy derived from fossil fuel and consume as little as one can intelligently manage. Consume only what is essential and give up a consumerist way of living.  Consume food that is grown locally.  Disregard calls for consumption claimed as the basis for economic growth; such arguments cost us the Earth!  Get involved in all decisions that matter to land, water, air, biodiversity and Fundamental Freedoms, not only locally, but regionally, nationally and globally.  Questioning the impact of one's education and work on our living planet is also not a bad idea.

In addition, it is critical that we politically engage with the idea of "progress" that is so aggressively promoted by governments, corporates and their advertisers, all of which results in the accumulation of monetary wealth in the hands of a few.  Deeply introspect on the consequences of such "progress" on the web of life and future generations and the right steps each one must take will become evident.

For whatever be the amount of money one has, there is still great difficulty to find water for drinking, say in Bangalore for instance.

(An edited version of this article appears in the Deccan Chronicle, issue dated 5th June 2013, accessible here.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Maverick's Project in Bangalore: Il-legalising the poor

In an article entitled “For 11 days of Glory” I wrote about 20 years ago, I argued that the Karnataka Government's plan to construct about 1000 flats in the wetlands between Koramangala and Ejipura was fraught with various illegalities: the decision was blatantly violative of land-use norms, would result in destroying forever a critically needed open space in a thickly developing area, amounted to a corrupt practice, and so on. The title of the article was drawn from the State's justification for building these flats: provide housing for athletes who would turn up to participate in the National Games held over 11 days!

It was quite obvious that the welfare of the athletes was not of concern to the State here; instead, it was the contracts that flowed out from the mega civil construction of those times - mega malls, and mega-flyovers, and mega-IT corridors were all yet to come. The place where the massive National Games Township rises tall was an open expanse then – a lake with massive potential of being turned into a critically needed ecological and social space for all. From across the road, people living in the Ejipura slum used this space in many ways. Kids ran around the expanse playing cricket or football, washer-people dried linen, shepherds grazed cows and sheep, and a fairly substantive area was also mucked up with Bangalore's sewage flowing through en route to Byramangala lake.

Several of us were deeply concerned over this unconscionable decision of the Government and organised protests. When we rallied for support there were distinctive responses. Communities living in the slum came in large numbers, really large numbers. But those who lived in upper class Koramangala, a stone's throw away, refused to turn up. It appeared as though the cause of protecting this wetland, a public open space, was merely that of the poor and that only they cared to protest against illegal developments in the city.

As the protests built themselves into massive action, the media gathered and there was plenty of reportage. Since the project was being implemented by the Karnataka Housing Board, there were questions raised why its meagre resources were being invested in promoting housing for the middle class and the rich, for the flats were designed to be sold at high value after athletes used them for 11 days. Why was the agency's scarce resource not being invested instead in re-building poor people's flats at Ejipura, which the same agency had built a decade before, and were on the verge of collapse? And why were these new flats being outsourced to Nagarjuna constructions, a contractor who then was cornering all government contracts?

There wasn't anyone in the Government willing to respond to these legitimate questions. So the protests continued to grow until, one night, there was a fire. It raced through the Lakhsman Rao Nagar slum in Ejipura. Hutments disappeared: thatched, tin, tarpauline clad structures which to thousands was home, were a smouldering mess the next morning.  Kids and women waded through the rubble attempting to recover anything recoverable, crying. Men stood there and watched with dead-pan expressions.

People who lived inside these structures which to them was home, were the ones who had turned up in the protests. Such exercise of their democratic Right had cost many of them their daily wages for several days, which they did not mind at all. But now, their homes had disappeared.

Then Chief Minister Devegowda turned up to offer his condolences to those who were burnt alive, and had not died. It was a gruesome sight to see a woman narrating to him how she was sleeping, and woke up to find her arm aflame. Ritual compensation was offered, promises were made, including that the poor-peoples housing project, those flats teetering on the edge of collapse, would be rebuilt, renovated, made livable again. And that the entire area would be dedicated to housing the poor.

National Games was held but the flats were not ready for the athletes. The apartments were eventually built and sold off, or allocated as residences for Judges and various high officials, and even gifted, to then Indian cricket captain Azharuddin and others such deserving housing.

Two decades later, Maverick Developers swings a deal in the last remaining open space in Ejipura, where poor people live. The space does still beholds those teetering flats, some of which have collapsed killing residents. Maverick claims that they will transform the lot of the poor into something more respectable. They will build them flats, yes, new ones that will be sturdy and nice, and livable. No Lakeview apartments these would be, but still, a flat owned by a poor person in the middle of Bangalore is something! Especially when it is in hep and happening Koramangala! The deal is sweet and too difficult to reject for those now in Government; part two-thirds of the landto Maverick to build a Mall, and in exchange receive flats for the poor in a third of the area! The deal is sold as a win-win deal for a funds starved Government working with rich Corporates willing to do some public good, a grand example of Public-Private Partnership! 

Yes this is the very same Maverick who when Mr. Jairaj was Commissioner of Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (it was not yet Bruhat then) in 2006, had assured that the building that was coming up on public lands at Magrath road, off prime Brigade Road, a place which then was used to park garbage trucks of BMP, was going to be a public utility multi-storey parking lot. But quite magically it had turned into a mall – Garuda Mall. This caused ruckus in the Council forcing the then Mayor Mumtaz Begum to write to Jairaj the following: “Earlier, you had ordered a detailed inquiry into the case and also assured that the portion of the building with deviation would be demolished and strict action would be initiated against the erring officials. However, you have not come out with the action-taken report.” 

As is to be expected, the ruckus was momentary, almost ritualistic. No action was ever taken thereafter, it appears, for Garuda Mall continues with business as usual.

Which brings us now to the decision of the Shettar Government in which the incorruptible Mr. Suresh Kumar is the Urban Minister, and Mr. Ashooka, Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, and also Minister in-charge of Bangalore, have collectively awarded the very same Maverick this killer deal (borrowing some corporate jargon). Prime land is parted away for a song without any due diligence or business valuation. For Maverick its too sweet a deal as its projected commercial benefits accrued over decades from the Mall are worth every paisa of the marginal capital investment in poor people's flats!

How such deals are struck is very simple to understand. It is first concluded in an office where there are no 'people', except those who matter. A convenient policy is invoked. What else, Public-Private Partnership - an ubiquitous tool which corporations across India are generously employing to ruthlessly steal from the poor and gratify the rich and powerful. A policy to which a Government surrenders meekly its very raison d'ĂȘtre, enunciated quite lucidly in Chapter IV of the Constitution of India detailed as Directive Principles of State Policy; in simple terms what the State has to do to justify its existence. But then, deals struck with Maverick are far more sacrosanct than anything etched in the Constitutional conscience of the country. Such promises have to be delivered, and delivered they are, with death-blow force.

In the way of this sordid sell out stand, like two decades ago, poor people of Ejipura, again. They have been protesting this deal for months now and even unsuccessfully tried to secure justice legally.  The response of the State backing Maverick is ruthless.  Bulldozers raze through the apartments and other living quarters through a cold mid-January night. The teetering flats collapse with feeble resistance, leaving the rudely awakened poor residents with no plan B, not even the option of using the pavement as temporary 'home'.  They are beaten, arrested, scattered. Most are poor, working class tenants, informally employed, and have nowhere to go. Overnight, they are all illegal encroachers of public lands, now in the custody of Maverick! Their reason to exist is insignificant before a grand public project: the Maverick Mall! 

This new dawn of 2013 meant at least 5000 people went homeless overnight. An old woman died in the cold, of the cold. Hundreds of little children, tens of pregnant women, youngsters, old people, and men and women alike, found themselves homeless. HOME-LESS.

For Mr. Haris, the sms-happy MLA of the region, even extending water and food to these folks constituted a gross illegality. Papers have reported how he came to the place and threatened dire action against several volunteers who gathered to organise relief, or also protest this dastardly act. A threat he probably executed as many were brutally arrested with demonic vengeance by the police soon after. The same Mr. Haris who feeds the poor in thousands to celebrate his parents' wedding anniversary. The same Mr. Haris who will sell the poor dreams of a better life to come if they would vote for him, once more, in the coming elections.

As this tragedy unfolds before our very eyes, we may choose to look away if it troubles us, or because we don't care. Perhaps even invent a justification for this collective behaviour, like say “They were illegal residents no?” No textbook will capture this travesty of social purpose, for Governments want students to read only about how Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life so we could all live happily ever after.

This episode will be forgotten, at least in the same way that we do about slums that were burnt down to make way for Shoppers Stop two decades ago, killing a pregnant woman and an old woman in the fire.

In the meantime, corporates are falling head over heels to “Wake Up Bangalore, Clean Up Bangalore” in Freedom Park! The project here: segregate waste at source and ensure Bangalore becomes a clean, world-class city. But these corporations that endorse such projects as a part of their 'corporate social responsibility' ventures are nowhere to be found in Ejipura. But you will find them once the Mall comes up. Waking up Who Exactly?

Land designated for housing the poor will soon house a grand temple of consumerist indulgence of the middle classes and the rich – the Maverick Mall! The poor, meanwhile, will be segregated out of the city, where we are told they belong, according to advocates of Public-Private Partnerships in Government and beneficiary Private Corporations.

11 February 2013