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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 38 :: "Jan-bhagidari" - Bhopal style


This year the monsoon has been rather severe. According to the latest reports it has rained about 150% more than the long-term average of rainfall in Bhopal. This was expected as the MET Office had forecast as far back as in March above normal rainfall during the monsoons this year. Since then I knew we would be having horrendous times with our Ridge Road which was in very bad shape. Even some rural roads are better than it. It was so even around two years back when the then newly-elected Mayor visited it. It was then that he had promised that he would have such a road made here that one would be able to dine off it – presumably using it as a full plate. Later, he made the same statement elsewhere too which made it clear that he was another of those rotten politicians who only made promises and did nothing. That, from all evidences, is proving right.

It seems, when some of the residents had taken up the matter with the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) they were told that it would be prepared to do up the road if the residents agreed to chip in with half the cost under “Jan-bhagidari” scheme. The scheme involves people’s participation in financing for creation of infrastructure. People are expected to contribute 50% of the cost. This was a radical departure from what the Mayor had promised. The members of the Ridge Road Association after agreeing to the proposal asked the BMC to prepare estimates. There are many in Ridge Road who are familiar with this kind of work having done such work themselves. Given the resources, they would be willing to carry out the work and they would make a far better job of it than the corrupt BMC. The Corporation prepared estimates of Rs. 50 lakh which was agreed to with the condition that it should transfer 50% of its share to the Association and that the work would be constructed under joint monitoring.. This was not agreeable to the Corporation and the proposal fell through. They wanted the Ridge Road share to be handed over to them and it would be they who would build the road. Quite clearly, they were not prepared to miss out on their cut(s).

I know for sure that the roads in Nishant Enclave (below the 74 Bungalows) where three of my siblings reside were built under “jan-bhagidari” scheme about five years back. The residents are an affluent and influential lot. It was to be a cement concrete road. But the work was so shoddy that it is now hardly better than the Ridge Road. There is no sign of the cement that was used and one gets a shaky and bouncy ride. This is “jan-bhagidari” Bhopal-style, a concept, if I recall, was promoted by Sheila Dixit, one-time chief minister of Delhi. For the BMC engineers, however, it is another source of making money

So, as one climbs up for Idgah from the old Nawabi era gate, now called Bhopal Gate, one feels as if one is in a satellite orbiting Mars. The ditches, the one-time river valleys and the mounds on some of which the Mars rover “Curiosity” had an excursion are all there. Here, however, the pock marked surface with gashes and small mounds is only too close giving one a bouncy ride in a vehicle that rattles to high heavens regardless of its age. These roads are hard on the men who ride the vehicles, hard on the machines that drive them and hard on their wheels.

This town is increasingly becoming out-of-bounds for the seniors. They just cannot get out of the house. Neither can they use their two legs for fear of causing damage to the aged skeletal shock-absorbers nor can they use their vehicles that constantly buffet from pothole to pothole needing much more strength to manipulate the steering than what an elderly can muster.

Thanks to our municipal engineers and their supervisors, we have evolved into a society in which those who are charged to build urban roads wouldn’t build them unless their cut is ensured. Hence till their deep pockets are filled only the brave, muscular and enterprising young men and women can venture out on to the city roads. As for our Ridge Road, I think the residents here have a long, indefinite wait ahead for it to become fit for being called an urban passage. 

*Photo from internet

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bhopal-Notes :: 37 ::Grabbing prime Bhopal lake-front land


Municipal functionaries removing encroachments 
Living in Bhopal, it would seem, people are obsessed with the city’s biggest water body, the iconic Upper Lake. It is more so in my case as every hour of the day I find it spread right out in front of me. It is such a fascinating sight. I have been seeing it for the last twenty years in its various moods – lit up in sunlight and azure under a cloudless sky, somber in the moonlight, dark and grey during the monsoon with black forbidding clouds hovering over it, soft-focussed and diffused when it rains. My first published journalistic effort was on it; I can never tire of writing about it. No wonder, I follow everything that is written about it in the dailies.

The current reports reveal the callousness of people who are supposedly charged with the responsibility of taking care of it and other random thugs of the town who have been out to exploit its surroundings for personal gain by nibbling away on its fringes or grabbing its bed when the water recedes during the dry season. Thankfully the 9th July floods occurred when, providentially, the case of encroachments on the Lake was also being heard in the National Green Tribunal. The heavy rains filled up the Lake to its highest level, i.e. 1666.80 ft. and many of the places grabbed that were being passed off as outside its boundaries were flooded. As there was a controversy about its spread a decision was taken to check the “full tank level” (FTL) of the Lake and teams were sent out to verify the cement markers that were reportedly planted by the municipal corporation to indicate the extent of its spread. Four teams were constituted by the district administration for the survey.

Reports started trickling in every day about the results of the survey only to reveal the mass-scale grabbing of the Lake’s area in almost all directions. The surveyors could not locate many markers, numerous others were found submerged in the waters of the Lake and several others had been overtaken by the spreading water. All these years people have been merrily encroaching in the areas that basically belonged to the Lake and this was surely made possible by the support and connivance of the municipal officials. The municipal councillors concerned also would have got their cut. Thus, those who were charged to ensure the integrity of the Lake actively subscribe to these illegalities resulting in shrinkage of the Lake, pollution of its waters and, of course, damage to its eco-system.

From shanties to fairly big houses, liquor shops to shops to eating joints, warehouses to shops selling marble slabs occupying large areas, all kinds of establishments were found merrily functioning and well entrenched in their illegal occupations. Some of the authors of these illegalities along the artery heading north even assaulted the municipal officials in their agitation when they appeared with their equipment to bring down the unauthorized and patently illegal structures. Policemen, who were present, handled them with patience and a lot of understanding.

Demolition of houses in Khanugaon (Cf: Bhopal Notes :: 32 :: Uncivil people of Khanugaon) were to be taken up but were postponed on the orders of the Mayor. Here, it seems, not one marker was found by the surveyors. These must have been destroyed by those who illegally occupied the land that rightfully should have been within the FTL. The reason for not proceeding with demolition of the illegal constructions is not quite clear; the most charitable explanation could be the human problem of people becoming homeless if their structures were demolished. It was in Kanugaon that its residents had earlier misbehaved with the members of the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum who had gone there to check the location of the retaining wall that was being constructed by the municipal corporation. The Citizens’ Forum and later even the chief minister found the wall well within the Lake. The project was supposedly prepared to provide a 2 kilometre-long pathway and a cycle track for the people with a boat club thrown in near about. Quite clearly, as it now seems, the whole project was formulated to protect the illegal houses from ingress in them of waters of the Lake. A minister too reportedly supported the project. The idea was, clearly, to push back the boundaries of the Lake. And that is why, perhaps, the residents were so wild at the visit of the members of the Citizens’ Forum. Even the area’s councillor was probably involved in it as he too had, reportedly, threatened the members of the Citizens’ Forum and told them to refrain from visiting the area again.

The findings of the surveyors are yet to be placed before the Green Tribunal. It seems there were all-told 943 cement markers all around the Lake and only a few more than 820 or so have been accounted for. Obviously the missing ones have been done away with by those who waded into the Lake’s territory to satisfy their greed. The Bhopal Municipal Corporation has shown nothing but all round incompetence in discharging almost all its functions; it has done more so in respect of the Lake despite being charged with the responsibility of being its custodian. Disappearance of the markers and whole-sale encroachments which were allowed to continue for years are testimonies of its utter ineffectiveness. Reports have been circulating about hefty amounts that were being paid to the municipal and government officials in lieu of their favours.

Apart from sundry encroachments, it allowed establishment of the Chirayu Hospital & Medical College in what now seems to be the area within the FTL. It must have been flooded this year as the rains have been more than normal as it was flooded even last year when the rains were sparse. A case filed against it but seems to have had wrongly alleged that it violated the catchment area; in fact, as it now seems, it is well within the FTL of the lake Nonetheless, the case resulted in  conviction and the Hospital got away very lightly as it was directed to plant a few hundred trees as punishment.

With the exposure of the lackadaisical and careless attitude of the municipal official one can only wait and see what action is taken against those who are responsible for the encroachments and their continuance over the years. The Upper Lake, apart from being a vital source of water for the denizens of Bhopal, is also an important environmental asset for them. It has a far greater role in tempering the city’s micro-climate than what is appreciated. To tinker with its expanse and to allow the pollution of its waters would seem to be a serious crime against the citizens of the city.

One only wishes the National Green Tribunal makes a comprehensive assessment of the measures taken (or not taken) by various authorities concerned, including Bhopal Municipal Corporation, to apportion blame on them for their failure in maintaining the integrity of the Lake and for imposition of suitable penalties. One also wishes t the Tribunal takes into account various tourism activities that are being conducted in and around the Lake by the MP State Tourism Corporation against the environmental norms and issues suitable directions.

*Photoo from internet

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dysinformation leading Kashmiris astray


Najeeb Mubarki, a former journalist with the Outlook magazine  has contributed a piece in the 25th July issue of the magazine in which he has described Indian Army’s presence in Kashmir as “most brutal and deceptive occupations of modern times”. The Outlook magazine, in its efforts to run down the current regime in Delhi, often asks such journalists or dignitaries to contribute pieces particularly if they add fuel to an already raging fire. That, however, cannot be questioned; it is, after all, a free country and everybody including the magazine and Kashmiris have right to air their views regardless of the shade they represent. But describing the Indian presence in Kashmir as “occupation” is certainly travesty of facts. Perhaps, this has been said either out of sheer ignorance of the state’s recent history or a deliberate effort to mislead the reading public.

There can be numerous opinions on whatever the Indian security force are doing in Kashmir. The perspectives are always different depending on the side one is on. But one thing must be realized that the Army is functioning in Kashmir as a part of its duty to the country and Kashmir is a part of the country. To suggest that it is an “occupation” army is an utter falsehood as the country never fought a war against Kashmir and it was never conquered by India.

That part of the history is never mentioned and blinkered commentators never try to dig into it and bring it before the Kashmiri common man to disabuse his mind of the wrong propaganda by vested interests. At the risk of repetition, one has to bring home to the Kashmiris that the question of merging with Pakistan or enjoying “aazadi” had been decided once and for all almost seventy years ago and in this decision the then Indian government played fair and absolutely by the rule. It is all there in recorded history that the late Maharaja Hari Singh was toying with the idea of remaining independent after India’s partition. His procrastinations made Pakistan under Mohammed Ali Jinnah impatient who organized a raid on Kashmir by the tribal warriors, ably assisted by Pakistani regulars and irregulars. On feeling threatened by Pakistan the Maharaja requested for Kashmir’s accession to the Indian state. Indian government refused to accept the request until the Maharaja obtained the consent of people’s representatives. The most popular people’s leader Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah was then languishing in a jail. The Maharaja consulted him who whole-heartedly supported the move to merge with India. In the process a lot of time was lost and the raiders were almost at the threshold of Srinagar. With herculean efforts and enormous sacrifices the Indian Army pushed the raiders out of the Valley which had by then become Indian territory. That is how Kashmir became an Indian state and not a territory occupied by India after waging a war. Describing the Indian Army as an “occupation” army, therefore, is not only false, it also is sinister and seditious.

 Perhaps, in this respect the Indian administration as well as the state administration failed to inculcate in the people of Kashmir the urge to view what the truth was. In the Pakistan-inspired chaos and mayhem created from time to time Kashmiris are instigated by its ISI or its proxies to take an antipathetic, even hostile attitude towards the Indian security forces as this is in the interest of Pakistan. Kashmiris need to remember that if terrorists infiltrating from across the Line of Control and are instigating them to cause disorder and confusion the security forces would not be sitting on their haunches to watch the show. They have the duty to deal with them as effectively as they can even if meticulously collected brick-sized stones are hurled at them by the maddened, unthinking young men who are victims of whipped up emotions. 

Kashmiris seem to have forgotten that it was Pakistan which made at least three attempts to annex Kashmir and every time it was foiled by them. The first attempt was, of course, the one when it tried to grab Kashmir by force in 1947 but succeeded in capturing only half of it and, that too, because of puerile and immature policies of the then Indian prime minister. But then the fact remains that at that time it was the sovereign power of the state came seeking help of the Indian government. The second time was in 1965 when the Ayub Khan-designed Operation Gibraltar was rendered a failure by people of Kashmir who exposed and handed over the Pakistani infiltrators sent across to engineer an insurgency in their Valley. Pakistan has been relentlessly trying somehow to dislodge India from Kashmir. It unsuccessfully tried again in 1998 in the Kargil War. Perhaps, the ongoing turbulence is another effort to lead the Kashmiris astray and work up enough loathing for India to weaken its hold on the state.

Pakistan is doing all this notwithstanding the terrorist attacks it is facing from Taliban. Having sown terror it is now reaping terror. Yet, when militant Burhan Wani was killed on July 8, 2016 he was declared a martyr in Pakistan and the date of his death was declared as Black Day with Pakistan prime minister assuring the Kashmiris of his country’s help till Kashmir became part of Pakistan. Even during the Indian Home Minister’s brief visit to Pakistan for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting protest rallies were organized in Islamabad and the Lashkar e Taiyyaba chief incessantly spewed venom pledging support to Kashmiri resistance. The Hizbul Chief admitted it had 1000 militants operating in Kashmir Valley.

It is a pity that many of the Kashmiris  actively participating in agitations against their own Police and the Central security forces have not read the recent book  “Kashmir – the Vajpayee years” by the top Indian sleuth AS Dulat  - now retired. He is one sleuth who talked extensively to everyone including militants of all hues trying to subvert the administration. Some of the quotes of the militants would surely act as eye openers for those who have become extremely allergic to India:

Hashim Qureishy, hijacker of Indian Airlines flight in 1971 said, “… Hurriyat people should give up accession to Pakistan, as should our people. 65 years have passed, another 500 years will pass, Kashmir will never become Pakistan. You can write it down... and people, (you) don't sacrifice your children.” Abdul Majeed Dar, another militant was so disillusioned with the ISI that not only he contrived to come away to Kashmir but also refused to take its calls. Obviously the ISI found him very precious for their designs in Kashmir and didn't want to let go him and eventually had him killed. Firdaus, assistant of Shabir Shah one of the leading separatist leaders told Dulat that each and every Kashmiri he met in Pakistan felt they were in an alien land. They also advised him to never merge Kashmir in Pakistan. When he was denied SAM missiles by the ISI he realised that it was not interested in escalating the proxy war and was not interested in the fact that the “Kashmiris had gone all out to fight their dirty war”
Kashmiris need to pay heed to these few nuggets delivered by their own extremists as they tell all that is there to know about Pakistan’s diabolical intentions. Hopefully, wisdom will dawn on those who have fallen prey to its mischievous disinformation and propaganda and are needlessly wasting away their lives.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 36 ::Ecologically Threatening Upper Lake Wall To Go


Readers must have come across on several occasions references in these columns to a retaining wall that the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was constructing well within the iconic Upper Lake of Bhopal in an area that goes by the name of Khanugaon. The stated purpose was to create a pedestrian pathway and a cycle track of around two kilometres for the benefit of the locals. What was clearly unstated was the plan to build a new boat club at Khanugaon. Newspapers criticized it, environmentalists as well as local NGOs and Bhopal Citizens’ Forum were up against it. The Bhopal Municipal Corporation was, however, unrelenting and went ahead with the construction 

The matter eventually went to the local bench of the National Green Tribunal where it is still pending. Its latest directions, given around a fortnight earlier regarding survey of the “Full Tank Level’ (FTL) of the Lake and marking of its boundaries after the survey, remains unimplemented so far. Initially the Municipal Corporation dilly dallied in complying with the Tribunal’s orders for various reasons. Eventually, it directed the District Administration to form teams for the survey. This process itself took time as the municipality was again evading the calls to attend the meetings. After a great deal of procrastination four teams were formed to go about identifying the spread of the Lake and mark its boundaries as currently the Lake has attained its FTL of 1666.80 ft. The survey is now expected to commence from 3rd August 2016.

In the meantime, however, the Chief Minister took time off to see for himself what the problem was. Actually, such matters generally do not generate enough interest among the politicians, especially the political head of the state. Perhaps, there was a deeper political game behind it as the pedestrian pathway, a cycling track and a new boat club at Khanugaon was the brainchild of the erstwhile Minister for Urban Administration who has since been stripped off of his ministerial position. The serial adverse reporting in the local press about the controversy that brought the Municipal Corporation into very bad light also must have played a role. The Corporation was not only unwilling to comply with the orders of the Tribunal, it had disdain for the contentions of the NGOs and the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum who asked it to demolish the “ecologically dangerous” retaining wall, reportedly 10 ft. tall at some places obstructing the free flow of water and was claimed to be on the FTL but was surreptitiously constructed well within the boundaries of the Lake. The Commissioner stopped the ongoing work but did not order the demolition. In this connection readers will recall the mention that was made of uncivil behavior of Khanugaon residents with the members of the Citizens’ Forum (Cf. Bhopal Notes 32 dated 23rd June 2016). Obviously, the residents of Khanugaon had much to gain from the wall and the boat club. Hence thei anger against the members of Citizens’ Forum.

Ultimately it took a visit to the site by the Chief Minister to push the matter towards finality. One look at it and he directed demolition of the wall. The Mayor, all the district officers, , the Municipal Commissioner and other sundry officers were present. He gave directions to not only to demolish the contentious wall, he also directed the officers concerned to act according to the directives of the NGT. He also happened to see the submerged markers and ordered that these had to be removed and planted at the places where the Lake had spread itself to to mark its boundaries. What is more, he also directed thatforests should be developed along the Lake shores and that strict action against violators of the sanctity of the catchment area.

This is perhaps the first time that the Chief Minister has intervened in a matter regarding conservation of the environment of the city. The intervention will be fruitful if the whole thing is thoroughly probed to identify the officer who was responsible for this misadventure. The earlier commissioners of the Corporation have reportedly denied any responsibility. The one who approved the project is reported to have said that he was told the wall would be at FTL. Obviously, he had not checked the detailed project proposal. Quite clearly the project was being implemented in deviation of the proposal approved by the Centre. The charges of the vernacular press that the very custodian of the Lake was out to strangulate it are largely true. Worse, in the process public money and public resources were wasted on a project that could never stand against a proper environmental scrutiny. Exemplary punishments for the guilty officials for erecting the wall well within the FTL of the Lake need to be taken. Simultaneously those who have encroached into its catchment area have to be ousted.

Hopefully, the state government will not allow the matter to rest with the issue of oral directives of the Chief Minister. It needs to ensure that such unwise constructions never again take place in and around the Lake, its surroundings are covered by plantations to the extent possible and the catchments are cleared of encroachments in compliance of the directives of the Chief Minister. It also needs to release the report of the Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology on conservation and development of the Lake for the information of the general public.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Our Life, Our Times :: 1 :: Changing Lives Through Technology


Smart phones
“Desh aage barh raha hai” (the country is marching ahead), this is what Prime Minister Modi has been saying at various fora. Many would not agree with what he says. They would be right as in many areas of governmental activities not much change is perceptible. In fact, they have got worse. We would seem to be stagnating and the newspapers in the mornings are a great put-off. There is so much of negativity. Stalled parliament, rowdy legislators, crime, corruption, failures of public agencies, illegal exploitation of natural resources, atrocities on dalits, skyrocketting prices of everyday essentials – everything seems to be falling apart. There seems to be utter chaos and governance seemingly has taken a indefinitely long holiday.

In the midst of all this negativity there is a bit of positivity – a kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Looked at in that perspective, Modi seems to be right. The country is really progressing. Things are really changing at least for the elderly and, presumably, for numerous other sections of the people. What the elderly couldn’t do earlier without being put to severe hardships are now changing – and for the better. It is IT which is rendering that crucial assistance and looks like going places in the midst of everything that would seem to be collapsing. While the dream of Digital India still looks elusive, yet information technology has stepped into many sectors in a big way to make life easier for senior citizens and perhaps the poor. It not only has blossomed into an amazing medium for doing your personal chores, it is also something which is elderly-friendly, generally unlike most Indians or the society at large.

I will give three examples of the change that I have witnessed. Earlier this month we booked air tickets for Delhi (from Bhopal) through our frequently used travel agency. But we received the tickets by e-mail on my desktop. I paid for the tickets online using my credit card. In performing all these activities neither my wife nor I had to move out of the house, thanks to the progress in the area of Information Technology. Even a couple of years ago we had to visit the travel agent’s office around 10 kilometres away at least twice. This time we didn’t have to move out at all

Then, at Delhi as we found that we were needlessly hanging around in the midst of heavy showers we decided to cancel our return air tickets and asked my friend’s daughter in Gurgaon to book for us two seats in Shatabdi Express. We had to do so as we did not have internet facility in our mobiles. She booked the tickets on her mobile visiting the railways’ online tickets booking site, booked the tickets for the day they were available, paid for them by using her credit card and sent the tickets by text to my wife’s mobile. We had paperless tickets and the ticket checker on the train checked them on my wife’s mobile. We were saved from the horror of going to the crowded New Delhi Station in persistent rain and water-logged streets, waiting in a queue for God-knows how long to get the tickets. We didn’t have to stir out and it was amazingly hassle-free.

The third example was of the local All India Institute of Medical Sciences. My wife visited its site for online registration for consultations at Orthopedics department as an out-patient. She was asked to provide her Aadhar number and, lo and behold, her card complete with her photograph came up on the screen. After that it was no problem in proceeding ahead and looking for an available date of the consultant of her choice. She got a date six weeks ahead but the crux of the matter is it was all achieved sitting at home. Later she got a text message on her mobile indicating the reporting time on the day of her appointment. Obviously Aadhar has been linked now to the AIIMSs wherever they are located.
Aadhar has played wonders with the Direct Benefit Transfers of subsidies for cooking gas customers cutting out the corruption involved and a saving for the government of a few billion rupees. Besides, payments for the world’s biggest rural employment scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, have already started directly to the beneficiaries’ Aadhar-linked bank accounts in real time. This too has eliminated ghost labourers and other petty kind of corruption.
 Nandan Nilekani the author of “Aadhar”, the online identity platform for all Indian residents, says, “With the 2014 introduction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Jan Dhan Yojana for financial inclusion, more than 290 million bank accounts are linked to Aadhaar today, and several billion dollars of benefits and entitlements have been transferred to people’s bank accounts electronically in real time.” The mix of Jan Dhan, Aadhar and mobile phones, “JAM” for short, enables “paperless, presence-less and cashless transactions”. Aadhar has since been extended to numerous other central and state level services.

Aadhar along with smart phones (already in the hands of 25 million people) will drastically change the way we look at public services. There’s indeed been a change – in fact progress – all due to technology and proper government initiatives. Changes that improve the level of satisfaction, especially of the poor, are genuine changes.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bhopal Notes 35 :: Critique of State's diesel pticing


We all know how the gasoline prices are seemingly playing on a seesaw – going up and down as and when the prices in international oil markets swing due to reasons that are many. A certain thing, however, is constant, and that is the taxes that governments at the Centre and in the states recover on sales of gasoline products. Looking like not one but several pounds of flesh, these taxes grabbed by the state raises the sale price per litre of oils that move the wheels of commerce and industries as also those of the urban life. General public has no alternative but to lump this kind of extortion and carry on regardless with its normal life.

A recent report in a vernacular newspaper screamed how diesel prices differ from each other in the national and state capitals. It said that the difference between the two makes the consumer in Bhopal pay Rs. 7 more per litre than what their counterparts pay in the national capital. It has been contended that diesel is costliest per litre in Madhya Pradesh than anywhere else in the country. A major oil company of the country has brought it to the notice of the state government that the high price of diesel in the state has been causing fall in sales in the state whereas the sales in neighbouring states have registered a rise. The transporters who run their vehicles on diesel from north to south and from east to west are reported to be avoiding buying the fuel in Madhya Pradesh. No wonder, the sales of diesel have gone down to the detriment of suppliers. Obviously, the state by levying high rates of taxes on the fuel is pricing itself out of the market.

 The basic cost of diesel after refining is Rs. 27.46 per litre. Hereafter the taxes take over. From Additional Excise Duty, to dealers’ commission to VAT and Additional VAT levied variously by the states the price per litre escalates at every stage for the consumer so much so that the taxes, taken together, amount to more than the basic cost of the fuel. Our state currently charges 31% as additional VAT on diesel taking its price way above what is prevalent in other states, especially those that are in the neighbouhood. Unsurprisingly, therefore oil marketing companies have registered a fall in sales and are a pretty worried lot so much so that they have brought this fact to the notice of the state government.

Gasoline is taxed, sometimes heavily, for various reasons. In India it could be for taking care of roads or for restricting its extravagant use to prevent uncontrolled outflow of foreign exchange for buying it in international markets. India hardly produces 20% of what is consumed in the country. Its prices may also be hiked by levying taxes for environmental reasons, i.e. to control emissions to prevent avoidable escalation of global temperatures. This, of course, would be a central act so that taxes are uniformly levied throughout the country. Taxes levied for environmental reasons would not normally be expected in an individual state as that would hardly make any difference to the environment. In any case, Madhya Pradesh government does not seem to have levied 31% additional VAT for this reason as there is no let up in the use by private parties or by the government of diesel guzzling vehicles. Most of the ministers and MLAs use only heavy SUVs that generally consume diesel and there is no indication of any step to curb its use. Besides, the high rate of taxation does not seem to be meant for improvement of roads either as roads in urban or rural areas have shown no improvement for years.

In heavily taxing diesel the state government has neither displayed any inclination for helping the commuting public by taking care of the roads, nor for the imperatives of the state’s and national environment. It has so far shown, on the other hand, scant regard for the environmental norms in matters dealing with forests, water bodies and atmospheric pollution. The only reason for levying such a hefty tax on diesel and petrol that suggests itself is that these fuels are considered cash cows. The taxes are levied for its own purposes by the government for financing several populist measures that it has taken in the social sector of the state’s economy. After all, the government has to fight another election and like any other political outfit it wants to come back to power. Nothing ensures higher incidence of favourable voting at the hustings than measures that are populist and are supposedly meant to uplift the economically weaker sections of the society.

Levying taxes for generating funds for expenditure on improvement of lives per se cannot be held against the government as it would seem to be a step to help the poor. But despite the hefty levies on transport fuels and alcohol, another cash cow, the lot of the poverty stricken masses has not improved. A report of 2015 said that the highest numbers of malnourished under-5 children are in Madhya Pradesh with 74% suffering from anemia and 60% from malnutrition. Infant and maternal mortality rates are also high, in case of the latter it is higher than Jharkhand and Odisha, though, of late, these have shown a decline.

There is, however, a flip side to it. Diesel is basically a fuel largely used in passenger transport and transportation of essential commodities. Hiking the price of diesel by levy of taxes has, therefore, a cascading effect adversely impacting the prices of essential commodities needed by even by the poor. The elevated costs make life difficult for them and could even drive a large section of them below the poverty line adversely impacting the social sector indicators.

A balance is, therefore, necessary to ensure that the high price of diesel does not hit the poor where it hurts. Perhaps, highlighting the stark difference in prices of diesel between Delhi and Madhya Pradesh had behind it this very suggestion. Since other states seem to have kept the diesel prices within reasonable limits none of them figures in the report. Having, apparently, failed to strike that balance, the state would seem to need to do just that to make life a little easier all around.

*Photo: from internet

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Naive prescription for reformation of cities


Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Ayog, wrote the other day in a national daily about the criticality of cities in pulling the country up by its boot straps. They are critical to most of the missions of the government that seek to boost the country’s economic growth and economically lift its people. Whether it is the flagship programmes of “Make in India” or “Skill India” or “Digital India” or “Smart Cities”, in each one of them it is the cities which would play the most vital role in rolling them out and accomplishing them. They will also be critical in tracking economic growth, job creation and delivery of good quality of life to citizens. Kant thinks in today’s world it is not countries but cities that compete for resources and investments and he thereby wants cities to become distinct units of governance and economy. It is, therefore, necessary, he says, to track the performance of cities in terms of GDP, job creation, private and public investments and consumption.

Kant laments that Janaagraha’s annual reviews show Indian cities in very poor light. While London and New York score 9+ in a scale of 0 to 10 Indian cities largely score only a poor 4. “Janaagraha”, Wikipedia says, is a non-profit that aims to strengthen democracy in the country by working for citizen-participation in urban local government. Janaagraha aims to spread awareness of the benefits of engaging local governments and to lobby the Centre to enact legislation to extend the 74th Amendment of the Constitution of India for more representative local urban government.

Kant has enumerated four key systems of good governance of cities: 1. Urban planning and design, 2. Municipal finances and staffing, 3. Effective political leadership 4. Transparency, accountability and citizen-participation. Because of the poor reflection of our cities as witnessed by the Janaagraha assessment Kant comes forward with solutions. To rectify and to overcome all shortcomings Kant has come up with “what” and “how” to achieve that. According to him, chief ministers should attach greater importance and priority to cities and also pay more attention to them. They should prepare a blue print for the city’s long-term development for 20 to 30 years. At the same time, they should devise a short term plan with sectoral objectives for 3 to 5 years fixing roadmaps and milestones allocating responsibilities for delivery. They would also be required to monitor the progress of achievements of objectives and, presumably, if necessary, take action for course correction.

Not satisfied with the current staffing of municipal corporations Kant says that the short terms of municipal commissioners are not conducive to productive work. He is also against the culture of obtaining officials/officers on deputation from the state governments. He feels it vitiates the organisational culture as, he says, the “rolling stock of deputationists” destroys the “coherence” of the organisation. He, perhaps, feels that deputationists seldom develop any stake in the organisation.

All that is well and good! True, cities are reckoned as the drivers of the econonmy. In describing the modus operandi for making cities units of economic growth, however, Kant seems to have missed out on one vital link. He has written about what is wrong with them and how to go about mending the breaches that have occurred but he has not said who will go about correcting everything that has gone wrong. To his “what” and “how” what needs to be added is “who” will accomplish what he wants to be done with the cities, critical as they are, as he thinks, to the country’s economic progress.

Kant wants the chief ministers to pay more attention to the cities. But the fact is that the city administration is already beholden to the state governments for reasons of lack of finances. Some years ago even the prestigious The Economists had opined that the local bodies in India are subsumed in the government that surrounds them. In the highly politicised environment politics in India is the art of sycophancy and every political animal tends to ingratiate himself with the powers that be. Larger interests of the city and its people are supposedly not all that important. Besides, the chief minister has his own agenda – obliging his sycophants, relatives and friends, men from industries or construction or builders’ lobbies. The last are more important as they contribute moolah to the chief minister for his personal use or for use by the party. Because of them the City Development Plan for Bhopal, for instance, has been delayed by ten years. Thus, the World Economic Forum found these sectors highly corrupt in India with mark-up of project costs being as much as 50%. Quality thus suffers: roads develop potholes within months of building/re-laying, water pipes repeatedly leak with unconscionable loss of millions of gallons of precious water and sewers breakdown. But nobody is ever brought to book.

That being the case, and the chief minister being an out-and-out political animal, that too of Indian variety, who will take care of the cities? That is a big question. In the current system every individual or the organisation has developed vested interests. They hardly ever act according to the needs of the general public. In this mess there is no accountability.  One minister in Bhopal admitted to your reporter once that the state had no system of accountability. No wonder, Indian cities are in such poor shape. 

In such perverse processes, planning and design or transparency and accountability – Kant’s first and fourth systems of good governance – are pushed out of the window. There are numerous instances of cities acquiring ungainly sprawls without any concern for urban design or planning, conservation of environment, availability of civic services, etc. The precious commodity of land is distributed using rules or bending them to cronies who have deep pockets and have no hesitation in emptying them as favours to the politicians. The cities are, in fact, milked by the chief minsters and their cohorts to fill their coffers and/or of parties they belong to to achieve aims of capturing and/or retaining power. Expecting the busy-in-politicking chief ministers to actively involve themselves in building citizen-centric cities is a dream that only Kant can see sitting in his Niti Aayog.

Kant’s two other key systems of governance – municipal finances and staffing and effective political leadership – also suffer from the malaise that has been only outlined above. State politics ensures depressed civic taxes to keep the municipality always in financial doldrums – dependent on the state. Vested interests take care of staffing. Deputations are not sinful per se; they are so only when deputation is used to fill posts that can well be manned by the municipalities’ own employees. But no, here too sycophancy and politics take over so that political lackeys could be provided with sinecures. As for political leadership one can only look up to the Mayor who, in fact, in most cases is the chief minister’s or the party’s man and yet is largely ineffective, more so if his party does not have majority in the municipal council.

Politicians have vitiated the system of governance in the country, including of the city governments. Having done so they have only one objective – that of maintaining status quo so that the system could remain a milch cow. Having seen the government functioning from close quarters, Kant strangely expects politicians to disturb the status quo to their own disadvantage - a naive thought by any stretch of imagination.