Friday, 21 June 2013

Floods: India lacks the science to deal with nature

                                                                                                                                                                          photo: from ibnlive
The torrential rains that have lashed across the north of India, especially in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, have caused great havoc with more than 120 people feared dead and over 60,000 people stranded without food and other basic facilities.  Videos of large buildings toppling into rivers have compounded to the fear. There are a lot of contributing factors to the present tragedy — the most obvious ones are that environment safety norms that the government should have maintained were flouted. The May 20 order of the National Green Tribunal for demolishing all illegal constructions on the flood plains and river beds of Yamuna and Hindon in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi is proof of this. Massive deforestation, thanks to unplanned and uncontrolled urbanisation in these ecologically fragile terrains, has also led to landslides in the region. That laws have been flouted and environmental concerns have been ignored points to the fact that the Doctrine of Public Trust when it comes to safeguarding natural resources, in this case rivers, has not been viable judicial tool.

The question that needs to be asked is what are the steps that the government will take from here; what are the lessons learnt and what will be done to minimise, if not prevent, such a catastrophe from happening again? The torrential rains over the last few days were two weeks ahead of its schedule, but it is no alibi for the government as it was not prepared to meet such a situation. While the armed forces pressed into rescue missions have been doing a commendable job, the government’s lack of technological expertise in forecasting such climatic variations has been exposed. The glitches faced by the R15-crore doppler radar system, meant to predict thunderstorms and other changes in weather patterns, acquired by the India Meteorological Department, has not proved the game-changer it was meant to be. While there have been efforts by the department to upgrade technology, the S-band doppler radar replaced the S-band cyclone detection radars, it does not seem to be on top of the game when it comes to weather forecasting. There are lessons that India can take from neighbouring Bangladesh in shoring up its early warning systems. Dhaka has, with the help of organisations like the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, set up advanced long-lead flood forecasting systems. Such systems can help authorities in India to be prepared to meet the challenges such seasonal vagrancies throw up.
Another area where the authorities concerned need to focus is on dissemination of information to the people in affected or flood-prone areas. Timely information reduces the causality during such situations. There are no two opinions that the foothills of the Himalayas are great tourist points and the state governments earn a sizeable part of their revenue through tourism. However, keeping in mind the infrastructural challenges and limitations, the government should think about regulating the flow of tourists to these places. For the government to invest in the state-of-art technology is also an economically prudent move as studies have shown that for every rupee invested in early warning systems the return in the form of less fatalities and minimal damage is beneficial.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Telegram: Matter Serious, No Hope

From smoke signals and cave paintings, used centuries ago, to the latest instant services messages, like SMS, email and fax, communication has undergone a metamorphosis few would have foreseen. In the arena of telecommunication, history is witness to the falling of many a gladiator that once stood tall commanding the awe of anyone who witnessed it. July 15 will witness the fall of a humble giant who conveyed both good and bad news with professional ease and speed — the telegram. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has decided to discontinue telegram services from mid July given that it is a white elephant. However, the news of the scheduled demise of telegram will not be received with a lump in throat by many. That many telegraph offices are not receiving a single customer throughout the year and that many offices have been converted into customer care centres is proof that this mode of communication has for long been put on life-support. With landline telephones and mobiles phones reaching the deepest of crevices in rural India telegram lost the last of reasons for its use.
The quest to ‘make the world smaller’ led to the invention of quicker means of communication. When the telegram was introduced in India in the 1850s it was a game changer so much so that it holds a prominent role in aiding the British in India to suppress the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Even though telephones were introduced a few decades after telegraph was introduced, it was no match to the speed and convenience the latter offered. Until the 90s, which saw the rapid growth in the field of telecommunication, telephones were few and far between. The rapid growth in the sector, however, rendered the telegram obsolete overnight.
Interestingly, cinema has played a vital role in keeping the telegraph alive in popular imagination. Often the message in a telegram is conveyed to the audience by the accompanying background music or the expression on the receivers face. Nostalgia apart, it is a prudent move by the BSNL to shut down telegram services, which are estimated to bleed the company by R300-400 crore annually. Telegram joins the illustrious company of woodblock printing, hourglass, typewriter, pager, VHS, 8-track tape, camera film rolls, etc — things that were once of prime importance and today are of little practical use, but are fondly remembered.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

NCTC: Congress gives terror plan a quiet burial

With home minister Sushilkumar Shinde saying that the government will not bring a Bill on the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) in Parliament it is almost certain that it is curtains on P Chidambaram’s proposal for an integrated counter-terrorism centre. The main reason cited for not pursuing the NCTC idea is that there has been vehement opposition to the centre from various chief ministers. What seems to have turned the tide against the move was the opposition from Congress chief ministers. The June 5 chief minister’s meeting on internal security highlighted one crucial aspect that when it comes to matters regarding internal security there is no cohesion between the Centre and states. The Mumbai 26/11 attacks and the many other attacks that followed exposed, beyond doubt, the gaping holes in India’s security network. With the May 25 Maoist attack still fresh in the mind it was hoped that states, looking beyond federalist confines, would come together to address some of the pressing internal security problems India is facing today.
Law and order is a state subject and state governments fear that the proposed NCTC will compromise the existing structure and give the Centre superseding powers tampering the current autonomy they enjoy. The National Intelligence Grid (NatGRID), meant for gathering intelligence from various sources, was opposed for privacy violations and safety of information. Even the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC), which was praised by Shinde at the June 5 meeting, hasn’t been fully operational. The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS) is yet to take off. More than a dozen chief ministers expressed their reservations and even after the government proposed a watered-down NCTC, after agreeing to keep it out of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and curtailing its power to make arrests, there seems to be not many takers. These also included Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and recently elected Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah.
In the territorial wrangles between different states and the Centre, the point politicians miss is that the extremist forces, both within and outside the country, do not factor state boundaries —they use it to their advantage, and make the most of a dithering government. For any tangible progress to be made, a co-ordinated approach is required in which all states are equal stakeholders. The Centre and states should come together and form a comprehensive plan to tackle terror. The communion between agencies will have to be in tandem with more intelligence gathering at the ground level. Even for a proposal like the NCTC to make a difference, there is a need for getting more forces that can gather information at the ground level and hawk-eyed surveillance wherever possible. Unless such progress is made, for which greater political will is required from all parties, the government will still fail to protect its citizens.

Friday, 7 June 2013

RTI: Politicians don't want you to see through them

Mention transparency in public life and one is reminded of Justice Louis Brandeis’ quote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…” Our political leaders, however, seem to disagree. Their opposition to the ruling of the full bench of the Central Information Commission, placing six political parties under the purview of the Right to Information Act, is proof. The move to bring parties under the RTI is a great step towards ensuring transparency and thereby reducing corruption involving politicians. Contrary to the view held by the parties, the country’s transparency watchdog opined that parties are public bodies as they are allotted prime property at concessional rates and get free air time on the public broadcast platforms of All India Radio and Doordarshan. The parties — the Congress, the BJP, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI and the Bahujan Samaj Party — have been given six weeks to appoint public information officers who will reply to RTI queries.
It is too early to call the judgement a watershed moment that will lead to a reduction of corruption because the six political parties can challenge the ruling in a high court. And the government on Tuesday said that it will approach the high court on the CIC judgement. The JD(U), which is not one of the six parties, has reacted sharply with its president Sharad Yadav saying that the move is not justified and that “political parties are not shops”. The CPI(M) has also rejected the CIC order. The BJP has said they prefer a larger debate on the issue and the ruling Congress has called it an “adventurist” approach and that it will “create a lot of harm and damage to democratic institutions”. Interestingly, the Trinamool Congress has welcomed the CIC order. The fear expressed by parties that they will be flooded with RTI applications on sundry issues is misplaced as the law does not give blanket powers and has sufficient safeguards to deny frivolous requests.
Parties that find this objectionable and suggest that such a move will hamper their free functioning fail to explain how such a moves have led to greater accountability, and thereby better performance, by political parties in many democracies in the West. In the United States, Britain and Canada, to name a few, disclosure laws make it mandatory for political parties to make public all financial details. In this context it should be mentioned that though a relatively newer political party, the Aam Aadmi Party has been more upfront about its means of funding. The question that begs to be asked is: If there is nothing to hide, why fear the RTI?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Lingerie Mannequins: BMC gets its knickers in a twist

Banning, it seems, is the easiest option for many in India. Reinforcing this view is the latest decision of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which unanimously decided to ban mannequins that display lingerie items. Lingerie mannequins, according to the Ghatkopar corporator, Ritu Tawade, who proposed the ban, are “corrupting the minds of people and are against the morals of the society”. How Ms Tawade came to such a conclusion is not clear but she seems to have a lot of people agreeing with her, including the Mumbai mayor. There have been earlier instances of bans being resorted to when an unorthodox view was expressed: be it the banning of literature and art, banning of movies, etc. Rather than having an informed debate and seeking a public consensus on ways of improving a situation when there are conflicting views about a particular subject, the shortcut of banning everything does not fit the mould of propriety that societal norms set.
Circumventing or postponing tough decisions are not the sign of a good leader. Our authorities, it seems, do not believe in this. While banning does not address the problem, it certainly does exaggerate the pretence of action being undertaken by the authorities concerned. When it comes to bans, authorities, in government or ‘protectors of Indian culture’, are often at the forefront. If it is the safety and security of women that the authorities have in mind while taking these ludicrous decisions, they would do better by focusing more on improving the law and order situation in the country. If authorities hope to instil a respect for women with such a move, it should be remembered that bans do not ensure or enable gender justice.
If more people start to see reason in the flawed arguments put forward by the likes of Tawade, soon the sculptures and paintings in the Ajanta and Ellora caves and the Khajuraho temples will be portrayed in a more ‘descent’ way that will not lead to the ‘pollution of the minds’ of people who see it. And what a tragedy that would be.