New on my other blogs

"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen


30 April, 2012

Probes that get nowhere

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Just as the Congress party, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance, thought the Bofors scandal, which brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government more than two decades ago, had been finally laid to rest, it has come back to haunt it and its head.

The scandal relates to kickbacks paid by the Swedish arms maker Bofors to secure its biggest ever deal of $1.3 billion for the supply of 410 howitzers to India and a supply contract for almost twice that amount.

Led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the opposition rushed in to make the most out of the Congress party’s discomfiture. But a worse embarrassment was in store for the BJP. A court slapped a four-year jail term on its former president, Bangaru Laxman, in another corruption case.

The Bofors scandal was broken by the Swedish radio which said the company had bribed Indian politicians. The names of Rajiv Gandhi and Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, a friend of the Gandhi family, came up in later media reports. VP Singh, who became prime minister following the Congress party’s defeat, referred the matter to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which registered a corruption case.

In 2004, long after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the courts exonerated him but the continuing proceedings against Quattrocchi remained a source of worry for the party, now headed by his Italian-born wife, Sonia Gandhi. Last year the courts granted the CBI’s request to drop the proceedings against Quattrocchi as he could not be brought to India.

Former Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom, who had leaked a large number of documents relating to the kickback payments to Geneva-based Indian journalist Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, leading to a series of investigative stories in The Hindu, rekindled memories of the scandal last week with an interview to her to mark its silver jubilee. 

Lindstrom said he had turned whistleblower as he could not count on Bofors or the Swedish and Indian governments to get to the bottom of the deal in which rules were flouted, institutions bypassed and honest Swedish officials and politicians kept in the dark.

Lindstrom’s leaks did not yield expected results as there was no one in the Indian government or investigating team who shared his passionate desire to get to the bottom of the matter.

The CBI, which is directly under the Prime Minister, has a fair record of successful prosecution of offenders in ordinary crimes. However, its performance in cases involving top politicians, senior bureaucrats and high police officials is generally poor.

Recognising that the agency is susceptible to political influence, the higher courts have taken upon themselves the task of overseeing investigation of some sensational cases and asked it to report directly to them. The 2G spectrum cases in which two former ministers, a member of parliament and several high officials figure among the accused are among them.

The CBI’s failure to pursue the Bofors investigation vigorously even under non-Congress governments shows the issue of political control is not a simple one. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, which served a full five-year term, too could not get to the bottom of the matter.

Lindstrom, in his interview, made two significant revelations. Fearing the media campaign might force India to cancel the contract, Bofors had sent its top executives to disclose the names of beneficiaries of kickbacks but no one of consequence received them. Politicians who met him and vowed to unravel the truth if they came to power did nothing when they had the opportunity.

Lindstrom has raised the Bofors issue again without high expectation. “Maybe we will get nowhere,” he said, “but silence cannot be the answer.”

The moral of the Bofors story is that politicians tend to view cases of corruption as grist to the mill of election propaganda rather than as acts of misdemeanour that call for punishment.

Ironically, while those involved in the Bofors affair, a real scandal, have got away, Bangaru Laxman has been convicted in a spurious arms deal. He took bribe not from an arms dealer but from a journalist posing as one in a sting operation conducted while the NDA was in power. Since there are two higher courts to which he can appeal, the present verdict cannot be taken as the last word. Eleven other cases filed on the basis of the same sting operation are still before the trial court. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 30, 2012.

23 April, 2012

New kid on the missile block

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Indian public opinion responded with a display of patriotic fervour last week as the country blasted its way into the elite club of countries with long-range missile capability by successfully test-firing the indigenously designed and built Agni V, with a range of 5,000 kilometres.

 “We are today a missile power,” said VK Saraswat, head of Defence Research and Development Organisation, which handles the Agni missile programme. Sections of the media interpreted it to mean the country now has the capability to fire an intercontinental missile.

China greeted the arrival of the new kid on the missile block with a quaint mix of sneer, suspicion and sobriety. The state-owned Global Times said India, swept up by missile delusion, apparently is hoping to enter the intercontinental ballistic missile club, although ICBMs normally have a range of over 8,000 km.

The newspaper quoted a researcher at the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences as saying Agni V actually has the potential to reach targets 8,000 km away, but the Indian government is downplaying its capability to avoid causing concern to other countries.

“China and India should develop as friendly a relationship as possible,” the newspaper said. “Even if this cannot be achieved, the two should at least tolerate each other and learn to coexist.”

A 17.5m tall, solid-fuelled, three-stage vehicle with a launch weight of 50 tonnes, Agni V cost more than Rs 2.5 billion to build. It can carry a one-tonne nuclear payload.

India did not inform China in advance about the launch. But China was following developments closely. Its media carried reports on the launch preparations and took note of a day’s delay caused by bad weather.

Apart from China, parts of Europe and capitals as far apart as Tehran, Jakarta and Manila fall within the range of Agni V but there was hardly any criticism from the rest of the world.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation said it did not consider India a missile threat to its allies or territory. The United States responded with a call for restraint, addressed to all nuclear-capable states.

With the border dispute which led to a short war between India and China a half-century ago still unresolved, the relationship between the two countries remains uneasy. In view of China’s cosy relations with Pakistan, Indian defence planning takes into account the possibility of having to fight on two fronts at the same time. 

Pakistan’s response to Agni V was muted presumably because it makes little difference to the military balance between the two countries. Both countries possess intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles and have thus been, in a sense, in a situation of mutual deterrence already.

Both China and India hiked up their defence budgets this year – China by 11.2 per cent to touch a record $106 billion, and India by 17.63 per cent to reach a new high of $39 billion. The huge gap between the outlays reflects the differing strategic perceptions of the two countries. 

China justifies its huge military spending, pointing out that it is only 1.2 per cent of its gross domestic product and is in keeping with its security environment and economic and social development. It already has a missile with a range of 13,000 km, which puts North America within striking distance.

India’s defence budget is about 1.9 per cent of its GDP. Military and strategic experts have been arguing it must be raised to three per cent to effectively deter both China and Pakistan. However, military spending of that order can be ruled out as it will hamper the country’s developmental efforts.

China knows that India is not seeking military parity with it and poses no threat to it. Its concerns actually stem from the fear of India’s possible involvement with the USA which has stepped up its presence in the Pacific.

India has cause for worry too. Its problem is not that it cannot match China’s military manpower and hardware but that it is heavily dependent upon outside sources for equipment. It is now the world’s largest importer of arms.

What India perceives as China’s arrogance and China terms India’s persecution mania are pointers to the psychological hurdles the two countries must cross before they can establish healthy bilateral relations. Close cooperation in a forum like BRICS, which includes, besides them, Brazil, Russia and South Africa, may help in this regard.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 23, 2012

16 April, 2012

A colonial legacy that must go

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Indian government is under increasing pressure from within the country and outside to curb the gross human rights violations resulting from prolonged use of the armed forces to deal with internal disorder.

Deployment of army personnel to deal with uprisings is a colonial practice. The British rulers were fighting rebellious elements in the northeastern region, as also the northwestern region which now forms part of Pakistan, till their very last days in the subcontinent.

Since insurgency in the northeast continued to be a problem, the government re-enacted in 1958 the colonial-era Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and brought it into force in the northeast. Following a spurt in terrorist activity, the law was extended to parts of Jammu and Kashmir in 1990.

AFSPA allows military personnel deployed in areas, which the government has declared as “disturbed”, to fire upon and even kill anyone acting in contravention of law and search any premises and arrest without a warrant anyone who has committed or is suspected to have committed certain offences. It grants security personnel immunity against legal action.

Although the law prescribes a six-month time-limit for an order declaring an area as “disturbed” the government has circumvented the restriction by repeatedly re-promulgating orders. Thus the draconian measure has been in force continuously for well over half a century in the northeastern states and more than two decades in Kashmir.

As a result, the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution remain abridged in these areas. The bulk of the people of the northeast are tribesmen with distinct cultures of their own. J and K is a state with a Muslim majority. These demographic factors give the story of denial of democratic rights an additional dimension.

In the affected areas there have been continuous anti-AFSPA protests, the most poignant of which is the 11-year-old fast by Manipur poetess Irom Sharmila whom the authorities are keeping alive through forced nasal feeding. Since public opinion in the mainline states is muted, the government has found it easy to ignore the local protests.

The large number of cases of missing persons reported from areas where AFSPA is in force and the unearthing of an unmarked mass grave in Kashmir have fuelled civil rights groups’ demands for repeal of the law.

Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has demanded that AFSPA be withdrawn in view of the decline in militant activity in the state. In its report to the Central government, the team of interlocutors headed by journalist Dileep Padgaonkar has drawn attention to the recommendations of various bodies, including the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, to repeal AFSPA or at least amend it to bring it in line with the criminal law. It wants the army to remain in the barracks and policing functions to be transferred from the paramilitary units to the state force under a phased programme.

Last week Home Minister P Chidambaram flew to Kashmir to persuade the Chief Minister to accept a modified version of AFSPA. This appears to be part of an attempt to soften public opinion in view of the adverse observations made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, at the end of his recent visit to India.

Heyns, who had met government representatives as well as rights activists in different parts of the country during the 12-day visit , described AFSPA as a symbol of excessive state power which “clearly violates international law” and asked that it be scrapped. This recommendation is sure to figure in the report he submits to the UN Human Rights Council.

It is not the Central government alone that wants to keep the AFSPA alive in some form. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power in several states, is an even more ardent advocate of its ruthless application than the Congress, which heads the ruling coalition at the Centre. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) favours its withdrawal from Kashmir, but wants it to continue in Tripura, where it is in power.

Sudhir Vomnatkere, a retired major-general who had headed the Army’s human rights cell, in a recent interview to a website threw light on a little known aspect of AFSPA. When an area is declared as “disturbed”, there is political darkness under which “corruption of various kinds – political, economic, financial, money, women, drugs, smuggling etc” can go on, he said.  Clearly, AFSPA must go – in the interests of democracy. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 16, 2012.

09 April, 2012

Royal visitors from richest Gulf state

While the attention of the entire media was focused on Pakistan President Zardari and his son who were on a private visit to India, the Emir of Qatar and his consort arrived in New Delhi,  almost unnoticed, on Sunday on an official visit.

A small Gulf state with a population of 1.7 million, Qatar was ranked by the US magazine Forbes earlier this year as the country with the highest per capita income in the world.

The magazine put Qatar’s 2010 GDP per capita, after adjustment for purchasing power, at US$ 88,000, way ahead of the UAE with $47,500, which was in the sixth place.

Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thami of Qatar is a shrewd ruler. He has allowed the United States to set up in his country a forward headquarters of its Central Command, which plays a critical role in all Western military activities in the West Asian and South Asian regions. He has also set up and sustained the Al Jazeera television station which is engaged in correcting the distortions in Western media coverage worldwide.

On his India visit the Emir is accompanied by his consort, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, who, incidentally, is Unesco’s Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education.  (Please see writeup at the Unesco website)

The photograph of the royal couple reproduced above was taken by The Hindu’s V. V. Krishnan on their arrival at New Delhi. It shows the Emir in traditional Arab costume and Sheikha Mozah in a Western dress.    

New tack in Maoist areas

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

More than 150 young people, including 40 women, all with good academic records, selected as Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows, begin this week two months of training after which they will be deployed in 78 tribal districts worst affected by Maoist insurgency.

The fellows, aged between 22 and 30, include engineers, doctors, lawyers, computer personnel and journalists. They were picked from more than 8,500 applicants through a rigorous process in which their educational qualifications and performance in written tests, group discussions and personal interviews were taken into account.

Many of them are products of prestigious educational institutions and have opted out of well-paid jobs in the corporate sector to work for two years in backward areas, assisting district collectors in the implementation of welfare programmes. They will receive Rs 50,000 a month during training and Rs 65,000 a month thereafter.

The fellowship scheme, a brainchild of Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, has been drawn up in the belief that accelerated development of the areas will make it difficult for rebels to enlist the support of the poor villagers, most of them tribesmen. With insurgency reportedly on the decline following harsh police measures, the time is considered opportune for such an initiative.

Several groups swearing by the teachings of Mao Zedong have been active in India since the 1970s. The largest of them, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), formed in 2004 through the merger of three previous formations, is engaged in what it calls “people’s war”. In 2009, the government launched a coordinated anti-insurgency campaign, which is widely referred to as Operation Green Hunt, in five states along the Red Corridor.

The Home Ministry had reported in 2008 that 223 districts in 20 states were affected by the Maoist movement. Last year it brought down the number of affected districts to 182, although the number of affected states remained the same. Five of the 39 members of the CPI (Maoist) central committee were killed and 13 arrested during this period.

Among those killed were Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad and Molajula Koteswar Rao alias Kishenji.

Azad was killed while on his way to meet Swami Agnivesh, a social activist, who was trying to persuade the Maoists to talk to the government.

While the government also reported a drop in killings by the insurgents, they still retain the capacity to strike at targets. Blasts and attacks on security personnel reported from states as far apart as Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal in recent months are believed to be acts of reprisal for the killing of Azad and Kishenji.

A few weeks ago Maoists in Odisha (formerly Orissa) kidnapped an Italian tour operator and a legislator belonging to the ruling Biju Janata Dal. The state government, which has been in negotiations with them since then through intermediaries, last week expressed readiness to free some arrested persons to secure their release.

There are reports that Maoists have recently made inroads into the northeastern states. This is a cause for worry as the region has witnessed insurgency by local tribal groups for several decades. In the south, Maoists are also said to be trying to establish a base in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu-Karnataka tri-junction.

Jairam Ramesh attaches much importance to the fellowship scheme which represents the first attempt to induct professionals into government activity on a large scale. Each district coming under the scheme will get Rs 300 million for a special integrated action plan for road works, water supply, farm support, children’s welfare etc. The two fellows posted in the district are expected to coordinate and evaluate the implementation of schemes there.

The young people, imbued with ideals, have volunteered for service in the troubled interior, knowing they have to face violent elements. But they may have to be ready for rearguard action, too, since the bureaucracy does not take kindly to anything which may limit its freedom of action. Corrupt officials are sure to view them as obstacles in their way. It remains to be seen if the political leadership can ensure conditions in which the fellows can perform their functions well.

The government has to bring about a measure of clarity in its approach to the insurgency problem.  It may be unrealistic to expect it to forswear the use of force while threats from armed groups remain. But, then, it is equally unrealistic to expect a constructive effort like the fellowship scheme to succeed while Operation Green Hunt, which involves serious human rights violations, continues. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 9, 2012.

03 April, 2012

Looking beyond wars

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The European countries which fought one another off and on for close to 1,000 years have been at peace with themselves for two generations and the political and economic union they forged two decades ago is rewriting the continent’s history. The threat of a catastrophic third World War, which was widely talked about after the second one, has receded, hopefully never to return. But the possibility of war is still a topic of discussion in India and its neighbourhood.

Half a century after India and China fought a short war — the only one in their history of 5,000 years — so-called think tanks and defence analysts in the two countries periodically speculate on a possible new military confrontation as the border dispute which precipitated the 1961 conflict remains unresolved even after many rounds of discussions.

Pundits presume China’s growing assertiveness in the wake of its emergence as a global power and its perceived rivalry with India, which is on the same developmental track, are factors that may lead to fresh conflicts, if only on a limited basis. The Chinese leadership’s assertion that there is room for both the countries to develop has not made an impression on their minds attuned to conventional wisdom.

India and Pakistan fought three wars in 25 years as independent nations but there has been no resort to arms in the 40 years since then, barring a brief confrontation on the icy heights of Siachen in 1999. Last week, writing in a Pakistani daily, a former army brigadier spoke of a likely Indian attack on Pakistan, coinciding with an Israeli attack on Iran. He also envisaged India seeking US support to “de-nuke, balkanise and de-Islamise Pakistan” before its planned pullout from Afghanistan.

Reports from the US indicate that forebodings about India-Pakistan relations prevail in official and academic circles in that country. James Miller, who is seeking confirmation as Undersecretary for Defence, told a Congressional committee last week that Pakistani military and intelligence services’ support to militants targeting India “has the potential to result in military confrontation that could rapidly escalate into a nuclear exchange.”

Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, writing at the CFR website said another Mumbai-type terrorist attack could lead India and Pakistan to the brink of war and require the US president to play an important mediating role.

Frank Panter, a high-ranking Pentagon official, was quoted as saying the US might have to develop an alternative route with India’s help if Pakistan refused to reopen the Nato supply routes to Afghanistan which it had closed four months ago in protest against bombing raids on targets in its territory.

Since Afghanistan emerged as a trouble spot following the Soviet invasion of 1979 India and Pakistan have been invariably on opposite sides. India now works closely with the US to ensure that country’s post-war stability but it will be a folly to ignore the vital differences in their strategic interests in the region.

With the Kashmir dispute in the limbo and Pakistan-based terrorist groups remaining a source of worry to India, there is indeed plenty of room for wild speculation. However, those looking beyond short-term possibilities can see signs of a change for the better in India-Pakistan relations with economic factors moderating political sentiments.

Of particular significance in this regard are India’s offer to provide Pakistan 5,000 megawatts of power and to supply petrol across the border and the Pakistan government’s determination to go forward with its proposal to grant India most favoured nation status. Pakistan’s business community, which views grant of MFN status with disfavour, has welcomed the offer to provide power as a harbinger of better relations between the two countries.

In the early years of Independence, India was Pakistan’s largest trading partner, accounting for half of its exports and nearly one-third of its imports. Adverse political and economic conditions kept pushing bilateral trade down over the years.

Official and academic studies in Pakistan have shown that gains from increased trade with India will far outweigh the losses. Indian official and commercial interests have recognised that, as South Asia’s second largest market, Pakistan has to be accorded its due place in the economy of the region. However, given the ground realities, the development of healthy economic relations must necessarily be a slow process.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 3, 2012.

02 April, 2012

The dangerous implications of India's nuclear romance


Efforts are on to squelch the months-long peaceful movement by villagers living in the neighbourhood of the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu which has delayed its commissioning. What brought the people out of their homes is the fear that the plant is a threat to their lives and livelihood. Repeated assertions by spokesmen of the national science and technology establishment, from former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam downwards, have not convinced them that the plant is accident-proof. Instead of talking to the people and addressing their concerns, the Government of India appears set to crush their movement using crude force.

At the best of times, it is not easy to have open and honest deliberations on the nuclear issue. Since nuclear technology has military applications, all countries routinely conduct much of the work in this area in total secrecy. The Indian nuclear programme has been directly under the prime minister since its inception, and Parliament does not look into the working of the Department of Atomic Energy closely. The institutional mechanism set up to oversee nuclear safety is under the department itself. So long as the government fights shy of creating an independent nuclear safety mechanism outside the department's control, its claims about the safety of the nuclear installations cannot be taken at face value.

The arguments advanced by the official establishment to allay fears about the safety of the Kudankulam plant are irrational and unscientific, not to say dishonest. How can Abdul Kalam guarantee its safety when the Russian equipment suppliers are not ready to do so? In a bid to belittle fears of radiation emanating from the plant, the government points out in an advertisement placed in the newspapers, that the people are already exposed to radiation present in nature and used in medical treatment. It is absurd to cite the presence of natural radiation and its use for medicinal purposes to justify exposing the people to a possible nuclear catastrophe.

One factor that complicates decision making on the Kudankulam project, the first stage of which is almost ready to be commissioned, is that the government has already spent about Rs. 150 billion on it. When India signed an agreement with the Soviet Union in 1988 for setting up the project, the cost was estimated at Rs. 40 billion. It shot up as a result of the inordinate delay in starting and completing the work, occasioned partly by the Soviet Union's collapse. But can a democratic government approach an issue involving people's lives and livelihood the way an auditor looks at a statement of expenditure? That a lot of money has been sunk is no justification for continuing with a project about which grave doubts remain in people's minds after Fukushima.

Anti-nuclear groups, which include persons with expertise in the area, have suggested that part of the investment in the ongoing nuclear projects can be salvaged by converting them into natural gas-based plants. After the Three Mile Island accident, the US had converted the Shoreham nuclear plant in Long Island, New York, the William H Zimmer nuclear plant in Ohio and the Midland Cogeneration Facility in Michigan to run on fossil fuel.

The argument that India cannot ensure energy security without nuclear power rests on questionable grounds. Currently nuclear power constitutes only three per cent of the country's energy requirement. Even if the projects conceived in the pre-Fukushima period are implemented on time (which, going by the record, is most unlikely), the expectation is that nuclear plants will supply 25 per cent of the power by 2050. This means there is enough time to recast the energy plans in the light of current realities.

Two years ago many countries were working on new nuclear plants. Last week the Germans backed out of a commitment to supply equipment for two plants in Britain citing the Fukushima disaster and the European economic crisis as the reasons. Today, India shares with China the dubious distinction of being the only countries determinedly pursuing the nuclear path, undeterred by Fukushima. The ruling establishments in the two countries are guided by visions of reaching the heights of the global economy. As the most populous nations, it is quite legitimate for them to aspire to be the world's largest economies. The moot question is what route to take to reach the destination.

Currently India and China are on a track cut by the Western countries which, having brought large parts of the world under their heel, had access to cheap energy sources. This raises two problems: large-scale consumption of energy and large-scale expulsion of poisonous wastes. Neither China nor India is engaged in scientific pursuits to find solutions to these problems. Instead they are claiming the right to follow the disastrous path of the developed economies. Their scientific efforts are limited to demonstrating that they can do what the West had done.

The motivation behind India's nuclear romance is not the need for energy security, as the ruling establishment claims, but the overweening desire for big power status. Its achievements in the fields of nuclear and missile technology have generated a sense of pride not only in its scientific and technical personnel but in the nation as a whole. This sense of pride effectively camouflages the stark fact that very little original work is being done in the fields of science and technology.

As a country blessed with sunshine, India stands to benefit the most by a breakthrough in solar energy technology, which is already available but is not cost- effective. Yet the government has neglected this area, transfixed as it is by delusions of nuclear grandeur. The fall of the Soviet Union, which had made great advances in some critical areas, like space technology, pushing the US to the second place, holds a lesson for India: big power status built up overlooking the interests of the masses is liable to collapse like a house of cards.

The Kudankulam line-up reveals the contours of a division within the country. Ranged on one side are various elements of the establishment: the central and state governments, the science and technology bureaucracy, the political parties, etc. On the other side are poor, marginalized people, backed by small, scattered groups of human rights defenders. A similar line-up can also be seen at other centres where nuclear plants are coming up as also at places all across the country where national or multinational corporations are trying to squeeze the poor people out to set up mega projects.