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


23 December, 2014

Peshawar pain united people

BRP Bhaskar
Guf Today

The terrorist attack on the Peshawar army school which left about 140 persons, mostly school children, dead momentarily united the people of the Indo-Pak subcontinent in grief as no other event has done in eight decades.

The last time so many hearts fluttered in unison on the subcontinent was when an earthquake devastated Bihar in 1934 and Balochistan in 1935. The entire region was under British rule at that time. Since then it has been partitioned into three nations, and patriotic sentiments, restricted by geography and conditioned by religion, have prevented such wide sharing of sentiments.

The Indian government strongly condemned the terrorist attack and Parliament called upon all nations “to fight against all acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

Political and diplomatic considerations probably influenced the official and political response. But the extreme cruelty of the terrorists, who lined up children and shot them and burnt their teachers alive, shook the people. They poured out their heart in the social networks.

The Pakistani Taliban terrorists targeted the school to settle scores with the army, with which they had a cosy relationship at one time but was now out to liquidate them. They viewed the schoolboys, many of them children of military personnel, as likely future army officers. This gave the attack the character of an internal affair of Pakistan.

Terrorists have wrought havoc in India on several occasions and India has repeatedly asked Islamabad to rein them in. While conveying to Pakistan India’s sympathy over the Peshawar attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for joint efforts by the two countries to deal with the common threat of terrorism.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, set up by the India-based Institute for Conflict Management, terrorism-related casualties in India during 1994-2014 stood at 63,896. Of the dead, 24,401 were civilians, 9,533 security personnel and 29,962 terrorists.

It also provides the following figures of Pakistani casualties during 2003-2014: 19,751 civilians, 6,015 security personnel, and 29,750 terrorists, making a total of 55,516 killed in 11 years.

Going by these figures, Pakistan suffers from terrorism to a greater extent than India. Average annual casualties among civilians (India 1,220, Pakistan 1,796), security personnel ( 178 and 574 respectively) and terrorists (1,498 and 2,705 respectively) are significantly higher in that country than in India.   

Within Pakistan, the interests of the civilian government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Army suddenly coincided, leading to some quick, harsh decisions. Reversing an earlier decision to do away with the death penalty for terrorism, the government ordered the execution of some convicts. The army heavily bombarded terrorist hideouts, killing many.

Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and ISI head Gen Rizvan Akhtar flew to Kabul and sought the Afghan government’s help to deal with the terrorists holed up there. Afghan Taliban leaders are known to be operating from Pakistani soil and Pakistan Taliban leaders are known to be hiding in Afghanistan. Obviously neither country can tackle the problem of terrorism effectively without the other’s cooperation.

Pakistan, which has ignored Indian pleas that it act against terrorists operating from its soil, did not respond to Modi’s call for joint action. Indian feelings were exacerbated when a Pakistani court granted bail to Zaki Ur Rehman Lakhvi, whom India has identified as the mastermind behind the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008. Taking note of the Indian outrage, the Pakistan government detained him and said it would appeal against the grant of bail. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 23, 2014.

16 December, 2014

Development vs Hindutva

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

For many years the Bharatiya Janata Party relied solely on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Hindutva ideology to gather votes. When it first came to power at the Centre in the late 1990s it shelved the Hindutva agenda as it was anathema to most of its National Democratic Alliance partners.

The Hindutva agenda figured in the BJP’s manifesto for this year’s parliamentary elections, too, and Narendra Modi, as a lifelong member of the RSS, is committed to it. However, he steered the party to a spectacular victory without relying on it overly. Instead, he focused on development and attracted many young people with his promise of achche din (good days).

Since becoming the Prime Minister, Modi has coined new slogans like Make in India and Swachh Bharat (Clean India) to keep alive the theme of development. But a host of small, militant outfits under RSS activists appear determined to throw the spanner in the works.

The main items of the Hindutva agenda are enforcement of a uniform civil code, abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status and construction of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, which volunteers recruited and trained by the RSS had pulled down in 1992.

The Constitution enjoins upon the state to work towards a uniform civil code. But successive governments have done nothing in this regard in view of the sensibilities of the Muslims who have been following the Sharia personal law.

Under Article 370, conceived as a temporary measure, laws enacted by Parliament will apply to Jammu and Kashmir only if the President issues an order to that effect. The BJP and its predecessor, Jana Sangh, have been opposed to the provision as it puts J and K on a different footing from the other states.

Constitutional amendments are needed to implement the BJP’s poll promise on the two issues. The party and its NDA allies do not command the two-thirds majority needed to push the measures through the two houses of Parliament. It has, therefore, taken the position that there should be discussion on these issues. 

Since the ownership of the site of the demolished mosque is a matter pending before a court, the construction of a temple at Ayodhya must wait. Yet the BJP-appointed governor of UP, Ram Naik, has raked up the issue, saying construction of a temple there is “the wish of every Indian”. According to him, Modi is working on a plan to resolve the mosque-temple controversy during his government’s five-year term.

Meanwhile RSS affiliates led by saffron-robed BJP MPs have initiated activities with potential to divide the nation on religious lines. They want the minorities to convert to Hinduism or at least accept the Hindutva ideology, which the RSS and BJP equate with Indian nationalism.

Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a minister of state in Modi’s government, in a campaign speech in Delhi, where State Assembly elections are due, said with utter lack of civility that there are two kinds of people in the country – ramzaade (children of Ram) and haraamzaade (b******s). When opposition members raised a storm in Parliament, Modi appealed to them to forgive her as she was a Dalit and a first-time MP. At the same time the BJP decided to retain her as star campaigner.

A little known RSS outfit surreptitiously converted to Hinduism 57 Muslim families of Bengali origin, eking out a measly living as rag-pickers at Agra, offering inducements like an identification card which will help them claim benefits under welfare schemes. Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP and head of a Gorakhpur temple trust, announced plans to convert 5,000 Muslims and 1,000 Christians to Hinduism at Aligarh on Christmas Day.

Another BJP MP, Sakshi Maharaj, embarrassed the party by stating in Parliament that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, was a patriot. He later apologised for the statement, apparently at Modi’s instance.

Unlike the Sadhvi, who was recently inducted into the party to enhance its appeal to Dalits, Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj are experienced parliamentarians with an unsavoury record of fomenting communal tension.

Modi has not spoken a word against the two men in public. Nor has his lieutenant, Amit Shah, who is the President of the BJP. Their ominous silence suggests that the RSS is in command in both the party and the government.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 16, 2014.

09 December, 2014

Rolling out of reforms

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Pressure is mounting on the Narendra Modi government from domestic and foreign business interests to roll out economic reforms promised by the Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said last week the Indian economy had shown signs of a turnaround and imbalances had lessened. It forecast that the economy, which registered a growth rate of only 5.3 per cent during the July-September quarter, could go up to 6.6 per cent in 2013-16 and to 6.8 per cent in 2016-17.

These rates are by no means too modest in the context of current global conditions. However, the Indian government is eager to push the rate up to the eight per cent level achieved before the global meltdown of 2008. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament a few days ago that the government was committed to go ahead with reform measures “to take India back to the original potential of eight per cent economic growth”.

The Western economies have a stake in accelerated growth of the Indian economy since it will boost their own recovery plans. On its part, the Indian government is looking forward to infusion of fresh foreign capital to expand economic activity and generate jobs. The rub lies in some local laws which both domestic and foreign investors consider a stumbling block.

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report ranked India at 142nd among the 189 countries surveyed. This meant a decline from last year when it was at the 140th place. The Prime Minister has reportedly set for himself a highly ambitious goal of putting the country among the top 50.

An action plan drawn up by the Confederation of Indian Industry, with the help of the consulting firm KPMG, contains a set of proposals to make India the “best place for doing business”. It envisages, among other things, rationalisation of the tax regime, easing of land acquisition process and streamlining of procedures for investment approval and provision of utilities.

Some proposals, like the one regarding e-filing of applications, will certainly help cut red tape, reduce corruption and improve efficiency. Some are couched in euphemistic terms. An example is the proposal for creation of an appropriate labour development ecosystem. It talks of 44 Central laws, many of which are old and outdated and impose a heavy compliance burden, and says there is urgent need to realign them to new economic needs. This is a scarcely disguised plea to scrap laws that protect the workers against exploitation.

The OECD’s prescription for curing the economy’s ills also includes many of the CII-KPMG proposals but it presents them in a wider context giving the impression that it is sensitive to the needs of the workers and other weaker sections of the society. It asks the government to boost manufacturing jobs by simplifying labour laws, improving access to education and improving the business climate. It also proposes increasing female economic participation and improving access to quality healthcare.

The proposals of CII and OECD are not new. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had seriously considered similar proposals but could not go ahead with them because of strong opposition not only from the Left parties but also some of its own partners.

Soon Modi will have before him yet another set of proposals drawn up by a World Bank team, which is now in India. It comprises experts on trade and competitiveness practices and was sent by Bank president Jim Yong Kim at Modi’s request to suggest measures to improve the business environment.

The team was reportedly holding discussions with public and private sector stakeholders in New Delhi and Mumbai on the reform initiatives and discussing various reform options and feasibility of their implementation. Its recommendations are bound to be on the same lines as those of the CII and OECD.

Parliament is now in session, and the government may try to push some reform proposals through it. However, major reforms must wait till the budget session which begins in February.

With a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, the BJP has more elbow room than the Congress had. However, it is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, and needs the support of other parties to push any changes in law. Some of the reform proposals may require changes in the Constitution, for which a two-thirds majority in both houses is necessary. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 9, 2014.

04 December, 2014

Time to move forward in S. Asia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a dramatic impact by turning his swearing-in ceremony six months ago into an occasion for an informal get-together of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The air of goodwill that it created was missing when the regular Saarc summit was held in Kathmandu last week.

The mood was spoiled not by any specific bilateral or multilateral issue but the frigidity in India-Pakistan relations. Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent the first day studiously avoiding each other. Cameramen waiting to record the customary handshake were disappointed. They circulated pictures which showed Modi walking past Sharif without even a nod.

Officials of the eight-nation group were ready with three draft agreements — on energy cooperation, regulation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic, and movement by rail. The result of an Indian initiative, the three agreements were to be signed at the summit. But Nawaz Sharif sulked. He argued there had not been sufficient internal preparations to go ahead with them.

On the second day the ice was broken through the efforts of Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. When the leaders came together for their final session, Modi and Sharif shook hands, and the Foreign Ministers signed the agreement on energy cooperation. Koirala said the agreements on road and rail traffic would be signed after Saarc Transport Ministers met and reviewed the draft.

India’s business community, which stands to benefit the most from increased trade among the Saarc countries, was disappointed by the failure to sign the agreements on transportation. The Confederation of Indian Industry said the agreement for regulation of vehicular traffic would lead to seamless movement of cargo, personal vehicles and passengers across land borders. The railways agreement too would harness the region’s economic potential.

The India-Pakistan standoff came in the wake of firing across the international border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir during the past few months and the calling off of scheduled ministerial-level bilateral talks by Modi’s government to show its displeasure over the Pakistani High Commissioner’s talks with separatist leaders of Kashmir.

Border clashes have been occurring regularly since the middle of July, with military and civilian casualties on both sides. Each side routinely accuses the other of firing first. At one stage, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley warned Pakistan that if it did not stop unprovoked firing India would impose an unaffordable cost on it. Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khwaja Asif, responded with a subtle reference to nuclear power.

In 2013, Modi, as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, had repeatedly taunted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government for failing to respond effectively to incidents on the borders with China and Pakistan. In a tweet he said, “India is going through a troubled situation. China intrudes our borders, Pakistan kills our soldiers time & again but Centre doesn’t act!”

The Congress is now paying back in the same coin. Last week a Congress party spokesman said more than 400 ceasefire violations had taken place on the Pakistan border this year and 17 civilians had died, “compared to zero casualty last year and also in 2011.” As a party which has been in power for many decades, the Congress must know better than to exploit an issue of this kind for political gains.

India accounts for about 70 per cent of the area and population of the eight Saarc countries. Its prickly relationship with Pakistan, the second largest economy of the region, has been a hurdle in the way of realisation of the Saarc goal of a free trade zone. None of the other member nations has the clout to steer the group out of the India-Pakistan matrix. The leaders of the two countries themselves must, therefore, take the initiative in this regard.

In the six months Modi has been in office he has spent considerable time on foreign affairs, leading to whispers that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been reduced to a dummy. Modi’s invitation to the Saarc leaders for his swearing-in gave rise to the impression that he accords high priority to development of good-neighbourly relations. However, he is yet to come up with any concrete proposals in this regard.

The United Nations having rebuffed Pakistan’s bid to internationalise the Kashmir issue once again, the time is ripe for India to make a fresh bid to carry forward the bilateral process. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 4, 2014.

25 November, 2014

On the trail of godmen

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Indian lore is rich with tales of spiritual leaders whom the faithful revere for their noble deeds. That tradition makes it easy for fraudsters to pose as saints or godmen and indulge in criminal activities. It is not easy to decide who is genuine and who is fake.

Last week the police arrested Rampal, a self-styled World Guru, who was evading court proceedings in a murder case, after a massive operation at Barwala in Haryana state, 200 km from New Delhi. The arrest was made after a two-week siege of his ashram, where more than 15,000 devotees raised a human wall to keep the police at bay. Rampal said devotees prevented him from surrendering to the law.

Some saints of the modern period achieved considerable international fame. One of them, Osho a.k.a Acharya Rajaneesh, argued that the more sexual a person is the more intelligent and inventive he is, and he came to be known as Sex Guru. The foreign disciples of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, exponent of transcendental meditation, included the rock band Beatles. Both of them faced legal problems in the US.

Osho and Mahesh Yogi were well educated and spoke fluent English. But lack of English knowledge is no bar to international fame.  Satya Saibaba of Andhra Pradesh, who spoke only Telugu, had many followers abroad, including Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. Mata Amritanandamayi of Kerala, whom foreign media has dubbed the Hugging Saint as she embraces devotees, addresses congregations around the world in Malayalam, and her speeches are translated into English by an aide.

Saibaba used to materialise objects like wristwatches, jewellery and holy ash from the air and present them to devotees. Rationalists demonstrated that a magician can perform such miracles but his devotees, who included the Prime Minister’s Scientific Adviser, judges and army generals, stuck to him.

Many gurus have been caught up in controversies. What differentiates them from the saints of yore is the role sex, money, muscle power and political patronage play in their scheme of things. They are also said to broker business and political deals. Some of them have attracted charges of murder, rape and embezzlement.

Swami Premananda, a Sri Lankan, who ran ashrams in India and Europe, died in a Tamil Nadu prison in 2011 while serving two consecutive life sentences on charges of murder and multiple rape. Delhi Police have charged Shiv Murat Dwivedi, who conducted religious programmes as Swami Bhimamandji, with running a business empire which included real estate, money lending and prostitution.

Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi’s yoga guru, rose to prominence when she was the Prime Minister and was sometimes referred to as the Indian Rasputin. He had a stake in a gun factory in Jammu and was said to be own several properties illegally. He died in 1994 when his private plane crashed in circumstances which have not been fully explained.

Chandraswami, who reportedly impressed Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher and other regional personalities with his astrological predictions, was close to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. After leaving office, Rao was chargesheeted along with him in a cheating case but they were acquitted. Though his name came up during the investigation of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination he was not prosecuted.

The Enforcement Directorate instituted several cases against Chandraswami for illegal foreign currency transactions. None resulted in conviction because of the prosecution’s lukewarm approach. The high court rejected its appeal in a 1999 case, stating 13 years had elapsed since the lower court finding and it was too late to start fresh proceedings.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is generally well disposed towards godmen and often defends them in the name of Hindu tradition. When Asaram Bapu, who has over 425 ashrams, was arrested before the parliamentary elections on a charge of raping a minor girl, some party leaders alleged he was being targeted for criticising Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Narendra Modi reportedly advised them to take the line that he should be dealt with according to the law. 

Haryana’s BJP government let the law take its course in Rampal’s case, presumably because it does not see him as a saint of the Hindu tradition. He claims to be a descendant of Kabir, the 15th-century Sufi saint, who, he says, is the Supreme God.

Public exposure of frauds and conviction by courts make little difference to the devotees’ attitude towards godmen. As police took Rampal away from the ashram, reporters heard devotees telling one another, “He will return. He is God.” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 25, 2014.

18 November, 2014

Denigration of Nehru

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, officially designated as Children’s Day a half-century ago in recognition of his love for kids and theirs for him, passed without the customary celebrations last week. It indicated the Narendra Modi government’s determination to downgrade the first prime minister, who now ranks next only to Mahatma Gandhi in the national political pantheon.

A year ago the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government set up a committee with prime minister Manmohan Singh as the chairman to organise year-long celebrations to mark Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary from November 14, 2014 to November 14, 2015. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who is a grand-daughter-in-law of Nehru, resigned from the committee after the change of government.

Modi reconstituted the committee with himself as the chairman. He dropped most of the members considered close to the Nehru-Gandhi family and inducted in their place persons belonging to or acceptable to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

On November 14 the government launched a National Bal Swachchata (Children’s Cleanliness) Mission, an extension of the cleanliness programme Modi had launched on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary.

Modi, who was on a 10-day three-nation tour, limited his tribute to Nehru to a tweet, just as he had done on May 27, his death anniversary.

The national pantheon consists of heroes of the freedom movement. Across the country there are many institutions which bear their names. The Congress, while in power, enlarged it to include Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson Rajiv Gandhi, who too are former prime ministers.

The BJP, while listing the leaders of the freedom struggle in its 2014 election manifesto, omitted Nehru’s name and impliedly accused him of abandoning the spirit and vision of the movement. Modi, in public speeches, repudiates Nehru’s contributions with demagogic declarations that in 60 years of freedom the Congress had given nothing but misrule.

Denigration of Nehru is only one part of Modi’s scheme. Another part involves boosting the image of Vallabhbhai Patel, the first deputy prime minister, to make him look greater than the first prime minister. Last year, as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi sanctioned the construction of a 182-metre Statue of Unity near Vadodara at a cost of Rs29.89 billion as a memorial to Patel, who, as Home Minister, oversaw the merger of about 600 princely states in the Indian Union after the British withdrawal.

The Modi scheme is rooted in the thinking of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which has reasons to love Patel and hate Nehru. In 1947 Patel praised the RSS for its patriotism, while Nehru criticised it for its communal outlook. It was Nehru’s strong pitch for secularism that prevented the RSS from reaping the benefits of the communally charged post-partition atmosphere.

Patel lifted the ban imposed on the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination after securing an assurance that it would stay out of politics. He was reportedly planning to draw RSS cadres into the Congress but died before this could be done.

Modi’s approach is in sharp contrast with that of the first BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, in a lyrical tribute to Nehru on his death, said, “Mother India is mourning for her beloved prince”. On becoming External Affairs Minister in the Janata government, he ordered reinstallation of Nehru’s portrait which bureaucrats had removed following the fall of the Congress government. As prime minister, he drove to Shanti Van, Nehru’s last resting place, on his birth anniversary and offered flowers.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who inaugurated the scaled-down official commemoration of the 125th birth anniversary, said Nehru’s integrity, his love for the country and his contributions as a maker of modern India were unquestionable. RSS loyalists, fed on Modi’s anti-Nehru rhetoric, swarmed Twitter, pouring scorn on him.

Realising that Modi is seeking to either destroy or appropriate Nehru’s legacy, the Congress party quickly drew up an alternative commemoration programme under its own auspices. Its highlight is a two-day international seminar on Nehru’s worldview, which opened on Monday.

Caught between the declining Congress, to which Nehru is an electoral mascot, and the rising BJP, which views him as a continuing obstacle in the way of a Hindu India, his place in history is under challenge. But his record cannot be wished away. When the clouds of partisan warfare dissipate, the nation is sure to recognise his contributions as one who laid a firm foundation for the country’s orderly development within the framework of democracy. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 25, 2014.

11 November, 2014

The Make-in-India mantra

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Will India be the next big manufacturing hub of the world? The question is being discussed at home and aboard following the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India programme and its vigorous marketing.

Modi, who took office in May, outlined the programme first in the traditional Prime Minister’s address to the nation on August 15, Independence Day. “Be it plastics or cars or satellites or agricultural products, come, make in India,” he told the world. When he visited Washington he sought support for the programme from the US administration and industrialists.

In September the government launched the programme with fanfare. A website set up to market it features its logo — a stylised figure of the lion on which is imposed the mantra “Make in India”.

The government describes it as a new national programme, designed to facilitate investment, foster innovation, enhance skill development, protect intellectual property, and build best-in-class manufacturing infrastructure. “There’s never been a better time to make in India,” it proclaims.

The website lists 25 sectors, from Automobiles to Wellness, in alphabetical order, where the government is looking for investment. These include Defence Manufacturing, Media and Entertainment, Oil and Gas, Ports, Railways and Space. Some of these are areas where the previous government was proceeding with caution in view of their sensitive nature.

Doing business just got easier, it proclaims, and mentions a series of steps which the government has taken or is contemplating for this purpose. India is at the 134th position in the World Bank’s most recent Ease of Doing Business list. Modi reportedly has set a modest goal: raising the country to the 85th place.

Modi’s programme is modelled on the one which made China the biggest manufacturing hub of the world. China had to pay a heavy price in terms of environmental degradation for its phenomenal success. It redeemed itself somewhat by launching, under strong international pressure, an ambitious clean-up programme ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

China began reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978. By the time India embarked upon reforms hesitantly in 1991 it had already made much progress in manufacturing by attracting investments from overseas Chinese businessmen as well as others. It is generally believed that with the Communist Party holding the reins China could move ahead faster than India which was struggling with unstable democratic governments.

Modi, who heads a stable government, is making an-out bid to attract global investors as rising costs and an appreciating currency are making China increasingly unattractive. If he succeeds, India’s share of manufacturing, which is now only about 12 per cent of the GDP, will go up to 25 per cent by 2022. Also, part of the labour now in the primary sector may shift to the secondary sector.

To make things easy for investors the government is planning to remove all hurdles in their way and provide in a maximum of 72 hours the clearances needed to start or do business.

It is likely to take a favourable view of the proposals placed before it by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the global financial and business advisory group KPMG to create conditions conducive to large-scale manufacturing. These include streamlining approval procedures, speeding up land acquisition proceedings, creating a proper labour development system, facilitating easy cross-border transactions and rationalising the taxation regime.

While there is a strong case for speeding up the process of clearance, the three-day time-frame cannot be achieved without relaxing legal provisions which safeguard the interests of the workers and protect the environment. Such steps may invite the hostility of the working class movements and involve the risk of ecological disaster.

According to Janice Bellace, professor of legalstudies and business ethics, at Wharton, poor infrastructure, crony capitalism and corruption have done more to dissuade investment than labour laws. She wants Indian labour law reform to focus on ‘decent work’, an International Labour Organisation term which includes security, adequate remuneration and freedom of association.

KPMG has given a boost to the Make in India programme by featuring it in its 100 Most Innovative Global Projects as “one of the world’s most innovative and inspiring infrastructure projects”. Another hopeful development is that Standard and Poor’s, which had lowered India’s credit rating to “negative” in the wake of the economic downturn of the last few years, has now raised it to “stable”.

Last week Home Minister Rajnath Singh, on a visit to Israel, asked that country to set up industries in India in the defence sector. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded favourably. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 11, 2014.

04 November, 2014

Unending black money chase

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime ministers come and go, chief justices come and go, but the Indian black money chase goes on for ever.

The Supreme Court has been seized of the black money problem for several years. The pace of the proceedings is so slow that a final outcome cannot be expected for many more years.

The Bharatiya Janata Party raised the black money issue in its parliamentary election campaign, and Narendra Modi vowed to bring the money hoarded abroad back within 100 days if he became the prime minister.

As the deadline he had set passed with no new development, the government came under attack for dragging its feet the way the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had done.

Responding to the criticism, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the Congress party would be embarrassed when the names of the account holders came out. Later the government revealed three names, whose foreign accounts were under investigation.

The Modi government, like its predecessor, claimed that the double tax avoidance agreements signed with other countries prohibited it from disclosing names of holders of foreign accounts except in connection with legal proceedings. As investigations progressed, more names would be released, it said.

This, coupled with leaked reports that a former Congress minister was under investigation, led to speculation that the government planned to disclose information selectively to derive political benefit.

Hopes rose momentarily when the Supreme Court directed the government to give all the names to it in a sealed cover within 24 hours. On receiving the list, the court turned it over to the special investigation team (SIT) headed by two retired judges chosen by it earlier this year.

SIT chairman MB Shah, who opened the cover, found it was the same list the government had given to it directly earlier. It contained the names of 627 Indians who had accounts in the HSBC Bank in Geneva. The list, extracted from the bank’s records by an employee in 2006, was turned over to India by the French government in 2011.

The SIT chairman said investigation of those figuring in the list would be completed by March 31, 2015, as directed by the apex court.

When information about secret foreign bank accounts is received, the Indian government’s standard practice is to collect tax on the concealed income and close the case. There is no prosecution.

The HSBC list, which contains no big names, is already several years old and the account holders may have taken out all the money by now. According to Income Tax officials, the average amount in the accounts was about Rs500 million, and the government can at best hope to get about Rs30 billion by way tax and penalties.

A fair estimate of the extent of wealth hoarded abroad can only be made when details of accounts in other banks in Switzerland as well other tax havens become available.

Early this year the Swiss National Bank said Indian entities held over two billion Swiss francs (Rs140 billion) in 283 banks in that country. All of it may not be unaccounted money.

Switzerland has said it is ready to provide details of individual accounts if the information is required in connection with any investigation but there can be no ‘fishing expedition’. Obviously due diligence is needed to get information on the black money accounts.

Three years ago, the Washington-based research group Global Financial Security estimated that Indians held $644 billion in tax havens.

Professor Arun Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who once estimated Indian black money, circulating at home and parked abroad, at $2 trillion, rubbishes the government’s claim that the double taxation avoidance agreements hinders pursuit of money held abroad. He commends the example of United States courts which forced the Swiss to reveal the names of about 4,500 American account holders.

In a broadcast on Sunday, Modi said no one knows how much black money is stashed abroad. Sensing that people doubt the government’s ability to bring the money back, he asked them to trust him.

Incidentally, two of the three persons whom the government named publicly as holders of illegal foreign accounts said they had done no wrong. One of them had made substantial donations to both the Congress and the BJP — more to the BJP than the Congress. There lies the crux of the matter.

It is widely believed that black money in secret foreign accounts flow into the country at election time. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 4, 2014.

28 October, 2014

Hyped clean India plan

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has generated popular enthusiasm for the Mahatma Gandhi Swachh Bharat (Clean India) programme which he launched four weeks ago, but it is too narrowly focused to achieve the proclaimed goal in the stipulated five-year period.

On October 2, birth anniversary of the Mahatma, Modi wielded the broom in a sweepers’ colony in Delhi, where Gandhi had stayed in 1946, and declared, “We should aim for Swachh Bharat.”

The Congress party, while in power, had sought to keep Gandhi’s message of Clean India alive with periodic official campaigns and token street-cleaning on his birth anniversary. In 1999, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first prime minister, AB Vajpayee, launched a Nirmal Bharat (which, too, translates as Clean India) programme. It was to run till 2019 but has now been superseded by Swachh Bharat.

Responding to Modi’s appeal, some film and sports celebrities also took up brooms, generating euphoria about the programme. The Central ministries announced various schemes to realise the Clean India dream.

The ministry dealing with drinking water and sanitation proposed increased monetary support to rural households and schools to build toilets. The Human Resources Development Ministry sought corporate funds to provide toilet facilities in schools, especially for girls.

A law enacted by the United Progressive Alliance government last year requires a company to set apart two per cent of its net profit for social responsibility projects if it has a net worth of Rs5 billion or more, a turnover of Rs10 billion or more or a net profit of Rs50 million or more.

Surprisingly, there was no word from the government-owned railways, one of the biggest polluters. Of its 50,000-odd coaches, only a little more than 2,000 have bio-toilets. The rest discharge human waste on the rail tracks.

The railways had recently told the National Human Rights Commission that it needed time till 2022 to equip all coaches with bio-toilets.

Although excavations have revealed that underground drainage system was known to the Indus Valley civilisation that flourished 4,000 years ago, much of the subcontinent has been without basic sanitary facilities throughout known history and defecation in the open is still prevalent, especially in the rural areas where two-thirds of the population lives.

With 310 million people in more than 5,000 cities and towns, India boasts of the second largest urban population in the world. However, most urban areas lack satisfactory sanitation services.

A law enacted in 1993 made employment of scavengers and construction of non-flush latrines offences punishable with imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of Rs2,000. However, no conviction under this law has been reported from anywhere.

Despite the ban manual scavenging continued. When the Supreme Court was considering a batch of petitions questioning it, several states filed affidavits claiming they had no manually serviced latrines. However, the 2011 census report revealed the existence of 2.6 million insanitary latrines, including about 800,000 manually serviced ones.

Uttar Pradesh had more than 326,000 manually serviced latrines, West Bengal more than 180,000 and Jammu and Kashmir more than 178,000.

Reports from Gujarat, of which Modi was the chief minister for 13 years before becoming the prime minister, are far from edifying. An NGO was told in reply to a query under the Right to Information Act, that 98 manual scavengers had died in the state during the past decade and that the families of 43 of them had not been paid compensation.

Official data puts the number of manually serviced latrines in Gujarat at a mere 2,566 but the state has more than 52,000 scavengers awaiting rehabilitation under the new law.

Last year the UPA government enacted a new law which provides for ending manual scavenging as well as rehabilitating those involved in the activity, who are all Dalits.

While the indifference of the general public is a serious handicap in tackling sanitation problems, the brouhaha over the Swachh Bharat programme has led to a wholly erroneous impression that if only people keep their neighbourhood clean all will be well.

The programme does not take into account industrial pollution, which is bound to see enormous growth as Modi pulls out the plugs to attract investments and make the country a manufacturing hub. The industries identified for foreign direct investment include highly polluting ones like chemicals, pharmaceuticals and leather. Dilution of pollution control clearance procedures is one of the steps contemplated to attract investors.

Modi, who was elected to Parliament from the ancient city of Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganga, has vowed to clean the river which the Hindus consider holy. He has created a separate department for Ganga rejuvenation in his government and entrusted it to the saffron-clad Uma Bharti. She recently said cremations on the river bank and dumping of half-burnt bodies in the river would be stopped. She was silent when a Hindu saint’s body was dumped in the river last week, apparently in keeping with a tradition. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 28, 2014.

25 October, 2014

Blood and Iron: a tale of environmental destruction and political corruption

Why is it that resources, which are supposed to belong to the people, do not benefit them? Why do they, instead of becoming a blessing, become a curse to them? 

These questions troubled Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist (Picture on the right). He found the answer in a paradox: the richest lands are where the poorest live.

Since then he has been engaged in an effort to educate the public through different media about the resource curse which is afflicting the poor, especially the Adivasis. His investigations have resulted in a few well-documented short films: Hot as Hell, which focuses on Dhanbad, Blood and Iron, which deals with the damage done by extensive illegal mining in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Coal Curse, which throws light on the coal scam.

Blood and Iron, which was screened in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday as part of the Between the Lines, Beyond the Lines, a film festival organized to celebrate journalistic courage, is a powerful film which shows depredations of  the mining lobby in the mineral-rich Bellary region of Karnataka and adjoining Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.

                                                     A depressing Bellary scene

 Guha Thakurta made the one-and-a-half-hour film, at considerable risk to himself and even greater risk to persons in Karnataka who cooperated with him, when two of the Reddy brothers were ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa. After their arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation, he revised it to include that development too.

The documentary traces the evolution of a nexus of corrupt businessmen, corrupt politicians and corrupt officials which facilitated rapacious exploitation of mineral wealth and led to ruination of the lives of the poor. It shows how the Reddy brothers backed Sushma Swaraj in her unsuccessful fight against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and later helped the BJP to gain power in the state.

Sushma Swaraj blessing the Reddy brothers
Thanks to decisive interventions by the Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission and Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde, the long arm of the law eventually reached up to the Reddy brothers in Karnataka and to Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. 

The film is at once a waning against destruction of the environment as well as political corruption. With the Narendra Modi government all set to pull out the plugs to permit large-scale exploitation of mineral wealth and some of the persons whose names figure in the documentary high up in the new dispensation, it acquires added contemporary relevance.

(A Note posted in Facebook on October 25, 2014)