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COVER STORY

03-02-2017

Death in the delta

Drought in Tamil Nadu

Briefing

Cover Story

Withering lives

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

IT was after 8:30 p.m. that we reached the house of Aravindh in Kulimaathur village in Tiruvaiyaru taluk of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. We knocked on the door; a young girl, obviously his sister, opened it. We enquired if it was Aravindh’s house when her father, S. Asaithambi, stepped onto the verandah. Asaithambi went inside the house and returned with a framed picture of his son with a legend that read: “K.S.A. Aravindh Mazhavarayar. Flowered: 23.09.1991. Fell off: 15.12. 2016.”

Aravindh, 25, was a diploma holder in information technology but was interested in farming, the family’s occupation. He could drive tractors, for which he had a licence. Breaking down as he narrated the events that led to his son’s death, Asaithambi said: “I told him not to dig the borewell but he went ahead. Rains had failed so the borewell had to be drilled deeper and deeper, up to 68 feet. We struck no water.” Aravindh then drilled another borewell, which too did not yield water. The work on the two borewells cost Rs.40,000. The family had been cultivating rice on 2.6 hectares of land taken on lease from a trust 25 years ago. It also owned five hectares. The north-east monsoon, between October and December, failed and there was no water in the Odai irrigation canal, which is fed by the Cauvery river. A nearby drainage canal called Konakarungal Aru, too, dried up.

“Except for a couple of light spells it did not rain at all,” said Asaithambi. This led to a total loss of the “samba” paddy crop, which should have been harvested in January 2017. “The samba had stunted growth” for want of water, he said.

Asaithambi added: “The kuruvai paddy crop too turned out to be a washout. For more than three years, we could not cultivate kuruvai at all. Last year, we cultivated some amount of samba. This year, we lost both kuruvai and samba paddy because the river and the canal had no water. We drilled borewells to save the paddy. But there was no water in the bore either.” He estimated that he lost Rs.3 lakh, which he spent on raising the samba on the 2.6 hectares of leased land.

Asaithambi said: “Aravindh kept telling his friends about the loss. On December 15, he came home around 9:30 p.m. and started vomiting. I asked him what happened. He said he had swallowed a weedicide/herbicide. We rushed him to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital. But he died around midnight.”

It was more or less a similar situation that forced 48-year-old V. Murugaiyyan, a marginal farmer, to hang himself on December 14, in his tiny house at Pirinji Moolai village in Vedaranyam taluk of Nagapattinam district. Murugaiyyan sold his wife’s jewellery for Rs.80,000 and used the money to lease 1.2 hectares for paddy cultivation. As the rain failed, the paddy did not grow. Murugaiyyan’s wife, Rani, said: “My husband was heartbroken. We spent Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 on each acre to plough it with a tractor, buy fertilizer and do direct sowing of paddy. He went to the fields twice on December 14. He saw that the crop had withered. He was depressed. He came home in the afternoon. I asked him to have lunch. But he said he wanted to chew betel leaves and areca nut. He sent me to buy them from a nearby petty shop. When I was gone, he hanged himself with a rope in this room. Our son was in the backyard.” The 10-year-old boy is hearing impaired and mentally unstable. Murugaiyyan is survived by his wife, a 17-year-old daughter who is a Plus Two student, his son, and father-in-law, K. Thangavel.

Although there should have been a nip in the air at this time of the year, on January 4, a blazing sun seared Keezhapatti village near Konappadhai (meaning road with several twists and turns) in Thuraiyur taluk of Tiruchi district. The Kolli hills and the Pachaimalai hills were at a distance.

Hot winds blew across the dreary landscape. In the middle of a field, close to the road, a man was seated in a chair in front of an ettram, a diesel-powered contraption with wheels and a lever. As he operated the lever, a long pole swung around. A bucket was attached to a stick tied to the pole. The bucket dipped into an 80-foot-deep rock-cut well. A labourer, standing at the bottom of the well, scooped out mud and stones, and poured them into the bucket, which was hoisted up. The mud was poured into a mound and the action was repeated. S. Chinnathambi, his brothers and their friend were working like navvies around the well.

A depressing sight prevailed around the well as the maize crop had failed. The sorghum looked shrivelled. On the adjacent plots, the paddy crop and chilli, tomato and lady’s finger plants had withered. “If we do not deepen the well, even the small quantity of water that is available now will not last,” said Chinnathambi. No water has flowed in the nearby Puliancholai river for the past four years. The farmer said: “There was no kodai [summer] rain. There was no mari [during the rainy season] rain. Only when it rains over the Kolli hills, water will flow into the Puliancholai and there will be prosperity.” He and his brothers cultivated paddy and sorghum every year. Depending on their requirements, they would grow tomato, chilli and lady’s finger. All this was until four or five years ago. As if he had read this reporter’s mind, he said: “We cannot use men to deepen this well because it is 80 feet deep.”

In nearby Marugur, shepherds R. Marimuthu and S. Periyasamy herded their goats into a field where the sorghum crop had failed and looked shrivelled. “In this area, farmers cultivate sorghum, cotton and chilli. They used to raise paddy but they stopped paddy cultivation as water is not available. Rains have failed for the past few years. This year, it did not rain enough even for the dhoti we wear to get wet. We are suffering because there is no water for our goats to drink,” Periyasamy said.

Unprecedented in severity

All the 32 districts of the State are in the grip of an unprecedentedly severe drought after both the south-west and north-east monsoons failed. While Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts receive rainfall from both the monsoons, much of the State receives rainfall only from the north-east monsoon.

Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s statement on January 3 gave an insight into the gravity of the situation. If the average rainfall that the State receives from the north-east monsoon from October to December is around 440 millimetres (44 centimetres), it received only 16.83 cm in 2016. “Of the 32 districts, 21 recorded 60 per cent deficient rainfall. That is, they received only 40 per cent of the rainfall from the north-east monsoon. In the remaining 11 districts, the rainfall deficiency was 35 to 59 per cent,”

In Tamil Nadu, in the three Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and the Cauvery belt which includes Erode, Karur, Namakkal Pudukottai and Tiruchi districts, farmers cultivate the kuruvai paddy crop between June and September when Karnataka, the upper riparian State, starts releasing the Cauvery water, which flows into the Mettur dam in Salem district in Tamil Nadu. The Mettur dam is, therefore, the lifeline for the Cauvery belt farmers in Tamil Nadu. They raise another paddy crop called samba between September and January with the help of rains from the north-east monsoon which, if it does not play truant, will last from October to December. The Karnataka government should have made available to Tamil Nadu 192 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery waters at the Biligundulu measuring station on the border between the two States as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on February 5, 2007. Instead, Karnataka provided only 66.10 tmcft in 2016 . This included 31.10 tmcft after a series of Supreme Court rulings. Besides, the north-east monsoon over Tamil Nadu was a big failure. Hence acute distress set in all over the State. Karnataka should make available to Tamil Nadu 192 tmc ft of water in a water year from June 1 to May 31 as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

Series of measures

On January 10, Panneerselvam announced that all the 32 districts would be declared drought-affected because the entire State had received “extremely deficient rainfall” from the north-east monsoon. He announced a series of measures to combat the suffering of farmers: their land tax would be waived; their crop loans would be converted into medium-term loans; farmers who lost 33 per cent of their crops would receive compensation; working days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) would go up from 100 to150; families of 17 farmers who committed suicide in the past two months would receive Rs.3 lakh each, and so forth (see separate story).

The impact of the drought is nowhere as dramatic and tragic as in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and Tiruchi district, which form the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. The impact is equally acute in Ariyalur, Karur, Erode, Namakkal and Pudukottai districts. Not only have the kuruvai and samba paddy crop become a “washout”, but the yield of other crops such as black gram, red gram, sorghum, maize, onion, tomato, citrus fruit (lemon), lady’s finger, chilli, cotton, turmeric and grapes has been very poor. The refrain is the same everywhere: “Every year since 2011 we have been losing the kuruvai crop, this year we lost both kuruvai and samba.”

Snake gourd, bottle gourd, ash gourd and pumpkin creepers have wilted. Medicinal plants grown in Vedaranyam taluk in Nagapattinam district have withered. Jasmine and marigold have failed to bloom. All these districts are in the grip of a drinking water famine. There is scarcity of fodder for the cattle. The air is thick with despair.

The severe all-round distress resulted in 102 farmers committing suicide or dying of heart attack between November 4, 2016 and January 8, 2017. Those who took their lives did so by hanging themselves or by consuming a pesticide/ weedicide/herbicide. Some of them collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the wilted crops. Thirty-five farmers have died in Nagapattinam district, which forms the tail-end of the Cauvery basin; 18 died in Tiruvarur district; and 16 in Thanjavur district. Farmers have taken their own lives in Ariyalur, Cuddalore, Dharmapuri, Kancheepuram, Erode, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tiruvalluvar, Tuticorin and Villupuram districts. They includes a few women.

Bone dry

Rivers, irrigation canals, channels, lakes, ponds and tanks all over the State are bone dry. There is no water in the Cauvery, the Coleroon and the Cauvery’s tributaries such as the Vennaru, the Vettaru, the Koozhaiyaru, the Koraiyaru, and the Mulliyaru. Irrigation canals such as the Periya Vaikkal, the Kalyani canal, the Kannanur canal, the Kallanai canal, and the Adappar drainage canal are running dry. The Kalyani canal, near Soorakkottai in Thanjavur district, which is usually brimming with water during the Pongal season (middle of January) and becomes a picnic spot, is totally dry. Every dam and reservoir, including the Mettur dam, the Vaigai dam in Madurai district, the Manimuthar, Papanasam and other dams in Tirunelveli district, the Pechiparai and Perunchani dams in Kanyakumari district and the Tirumurthi dam in Coimbatore district, has reached dead storage level. Engineers of the Public Works Department (PWD) are scraping the bottom of these dams/reservoirs to supply drinking water to the nearby areas.

The Water Resources Department of the PWD has not bothered to desilt or de-weed the rivers, irrigation canals and channels, lakes and ponds in the State for the past many years. It is a terrible sight to see the Periya Vaikkal (canal) choking with nut grass at Vallur in Tiruvarur district, the Kallanai canal in Thanjavur district overgrown with grass and bushes, the Kannanur canal taken over by vegetation, the Adappar drainage canal swarming with grass, and the Koozhaiyaru in Tiruchi district filled with weeds and vegetation.

What has devastated the farmers who tried to cultivate the samba crop on patches of fields where groundwater was available is that borewells, too, have let them down. They are either drying up or they have to be drilled to a depth of a few hundred feet.

All crops have failed

S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, said: “Two monsoons have failed. There is no Cauvery water. There is no groundwater. This is a classic case where all crops have failed. Considering the entire gamut of problems [including the impact of demonetisation on agriculture] we are facing in the Cauvery delta region, 2016-17 appears to be the worst season in the past 65 years.”

P.R. Pandian, president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, called it the “worst-ever drought in Tamil Nadu”. He attributed the condition to “a three-pronged assault”: deficient rain from the south-west monsoon, failure of the north-east monsoon; and the Karnataka government’s refusal to release 192 tmcft of water that Tamil Nadu was entitled to.

As one drives around Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi districts, it is the same unrelieved pictures of dry rivers, canals, lakes and ponds, and wilted paddy everywhere, interspersed with patches of samba cultivated with groundwater. Crop after crop has turned brown. Ponnammal, an elderly woman, who was leading three goats tied to a leash at Varavukkottai village on the Thanjavur-Mannargudi road, said: “The situation is so bad that farmers are allowing cattle to graze in the paddy field.”

P.M. Murugaiyyan, 61, a retired assistant agriculture officer (AAO) of the State Agriculture Department, was seated in a tea stall at Vallur village, near the culvert of Periya Vaikkal watered by the sprawling Tirumeni lake in Tiruvarur district, when this correspondent met him. “I have never seen a drought like this in the past 30 years... . Those who have borewells have cultivated samba in patches. But the water level is going down fast,” he said. R. Dayalan, his friend and a farmer, chipped in: “In our village, Maharajapuram, out of 300 farmers, 10 to 12 have bore sets. Only they have cultivated paddy.”

Murugaiyyan said the abundant growth of nut grass ( koraippullu in Tamil) and kattu amanakku ( Jatropa gossipifolia), had choked the Periya Vaikkal and large-scale encroachments had reduced the area of the Tirumeni lake, which had a water spread of about 250 hectares. He had worked in nine nearby panchayat blocks, each having an ayacut of about 200 to 300 hectares. As AAO, he taught farmers how to use insecticides and pesticides, what fertilizer to use, what crops to cultivate, and so on. “Fifty hectares of the lake have already been turned into farmland and residential houses. The area at the edge of the lake has been converted into patta land. So the water level in the surrounding areas has gone down,” he said. Borewells are also drying up.

Washout

Farmers across the delta districts and Tiruchi describe the crop situation as a “washout”. They are all traumatised by the complete failure of the kuruvai and samba crops. Be it G. Krishnamurthy and N. Ravichandran, friends and farmers from Kottur in Tiruvarur district; V. Ramu from Painganadu village, a police officer seated in an outpost near the bone-dry Kannanur canal, which marks the beginning of the Tiruvarur district’s territory; N. Damodaran, a farmer from Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district; or G. Ramalingam, a retired deputy Inspector of Surveys at Sattiyangudi, also in Nagapattinam district, say they lost kuruvai for the past five years and that both samba and kuruvai were a washout in 2016.

Krishnamurthy and Ravichandran led us to Kottur, from Adhichapuram in Tiruvarur district, where there were huge swathes of paddy fields. They quickly got off their motorbikes and pulled out a clump of grass that had completely overtaken the wilted paddy stalks. Krishnamurthy said: “Instead of paddy, there is grass. This grass has grown despite the use of a herbicide. So we cannot even harvest one padi [a measure in Tamil] of paddy. The truth is that we cannot even harvest one pidi [a fistful] of paddy.” Ravichandran, the younger of the two, said every farmer in Kottur lost Rs.40,000 an acre. A normal yield would have fetched about 40 bags of paddy an acre.

Krishnamurthy said: “No kuruvai cultivation has been taken up for the past five years. There has been only one crop of samba a year for the past 10 years. This year, we lost even the samba crop. We are not able to sow black gram or red gram either. It is a total loss.”

What is even more alarming is the future of farm labourers; Kottur has so many of them. “Some of them are eating rats. But for the 20 kilograms of free rice supplied by the government through ration shops, we would be starving,” said Krishnamurthy. “We have no money to drink tea,” Ravichandran said.

Withering kuruvai and samba crops on vast areas greet us at Thatchanam, Alathampadi, Manali, Vikkirapandiam, Tiruthuraipoondi, Tirunelvelikaval, Tirukollikadu and other villages.

Depleting water table

At Painganadu, 80-year-old V. Ramu was broadcasting groundnuts in his freshly upturned field when this writer stepped into his field wearing footwear. “Don’t step into the field with chappals on your feet,” he said admonishingly and asked: “What do you want?” He, however, calmed down quickly, and explained how the water table in the borewell had gone down. “It is depleting and so the motor is unable to pump water,” Ramu said. He was worried that if the borewells went dry he would be unable to water the groundnut crop. “Samba has been a washout,” he said. He got a yield of two bags instead of the normal 30 bags of paddy from one acre.

The money crunch was evident in the adjoining field where 55-year-old R. Mohan, a graduate, was sowing groundnut mixed with an insecticide, as C. Baskar was ploughing his field with a pair of bullocks. Mohan decided to sow groundnut after it rained on December 28. “I am broadcasting the groundnuts myself because I want to save on Rs.200 that I would otherwise pay for a farm worker. I have not seen the new Rs.2,000 note. There has been no cultivation of kuruvai after Jayalalithaa [the late Chief Minister] came to power [five years ago]. We got some samba last year.”

Like Ramu, Mohan is also worried about the water table going down. His borewell was 200 ft deep and pumped hot water, which could not be used for irrigation.

Nagapattinam district is the worst affected in terms of not only the magnitude of crop loss but the number of farmers who took their own lives or died of shock on seeing their wilted crops. Thirty-five persons, including three women, lost their lives. In Keezh Velur panchayat union, 11 collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the condition of their crops.

It is not surprising that Nagapattinam is the worst affected district because it is situated at the tail-end of the Cauvery basin, on the coast. So it is difficult, even in a normal season of rainfall, for Cauvery water to flow into its tributary, the Vennaru, in the district. Cauvery V. Dhanabalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Sangam of Nagapattinam, said that for 11 years in a row from 2001 to 2016, the district was ranked as the worst affected by a series of natural calamities. They included the tsunami in 2004, cyclones, floods in 2015, droughts, and so on. He said the non-availability of Cauvery waters from Karnataka and the failure of the north-east monsoon had rendered 1.36 lakh hectares of cultivable land, irrigated by the Vennaru, fallow. “We lost kuruvai in the past five years. We thought we could at least cultivate samba this year, but there was no water in the district to irrigate the fields,” Dhanabalan said. It was a struggle for one lakh small and marginal farmers and six lakh agricultural labourers in the district to earn their livelihood, he said.

Statistics provided by O.S. Maniam, State Minister for Handlooms, when he visited the Nagapattinam district on January 6, reveal how grim the situation is. The district normally receives 111.782 cm of rainfall from the north-east monsoon; in 2015 it received a rainfall of 135.672 cm. In 2016, the district received only 26.24 cm from the north-east monsoon, a shortfall of 76 per cent. More than that, the entire ayacut irrigated by Cauvery waters, was affected because the sluices of the Mettur dam, which were opened on September 20, were closed even before the water from the dam reached Nagapattinam district.

It is, therefore, a terrible situation that obtains in village after village in the district, whether it is Esanur, Vazhakkarai, Tirukkuvalai, Vidangalur, Sattiyankudi, Thevur, or Keezh Velur.

It is cracked fields and withered paddy crops that greeted us at Esanur. Selvamary, her mother-in-law M. Mary, and friend Arokiya Mary said they could not cultivate kuruvai or harvest samba. At Vazhakkarai, a young farmer, S. Nagendran, using a portable diesel-powered motor, was struggling to pump water from pools of rainwater that had stagnated in a narrow irrigation channel into his field where the samba crop had some life. “It rained hard overnight some days ago. The crop can be salvaged if the paddy is about to be harvested. If it is a sapling or is in the panicle stage, it cannot be saved,” he said. All round the plot where he was trying to save his crop were stretches of fields overgrown with grass.

Seventy-year-old G. Ramadoss Naidu is a farmer at Vidangalur. “I have not seen a brutal drought like this in all my life,” he said. In his estimate, every aspect of agriculture in the district has been ruined. Even 30 per cent of the normal water did not flow in the Vennaru. Ramadoss Naidu said: “For the past 10 years, we could not cultivate kuruvai. We used to cultivate some samba when it rained and there was water in the river. We could not even raise samba this year. In sum, we could not harvest a single ear of paddy. The entire district has been devastated.” He took us to his field and plucked thick strands of grass, which had commingled with paddy. And he commanded us to look at the fields across the road. Arugampul (Bermuda grass) had colonised vast stretches of paddy field there.

Less than a kilometre away, on the border between Vidangalur and Sattiyankudi villages, goats were grazing in the withered fields.

Hype and reality

cover-story

THE news of more than 102 deaths of farmers was met with disbelief in many quarters. Agriculture Department officials said there was “media hype” surrounding these claims that farmers were dying of heart attack. According to them, the farmers’ families would get a solatium from the State government if they could make out a case that the farmers had died of shock on seeing the condition of their crop. While conceding that it was “a severe drought” that affected the State, Agriculture Department officials pointed out that the farmers who had committed suicide or died of heart attack were also stricken with “internal problems in their families”. It is not to discount the fact that some farmers might have committed suicide unable to cope with the stress, they said. “But it is media hype when claims are made that eight farmers or 12 farmers had died of a heart attack in a single day,” an official said.

Leaders of Left parties, who had prepared a list of 102 farmers who had died, conceded that “it could be a mixture of genuine distress deaths and bogus claims”. According to them, it was not possible to verify every claim whether it was genuine or bogus. But the number of dead did not surely touch 126 as claimed by some newspapers and television channels, they said. A scrutiny of the age of the farmers who died of a heart attack show that a large number of them were in their late 60s or early 70s and some were even 75 years and above. Vadamalai of Puthagalur village, Vazhkkai, Nannilam taluk, Tiruvarur district, was 85 years old when he died. A leader of the Left party said: “It is the local media [television channels] which are making these tall claims without taking into account the age of the farmers who die.” On January 10, when Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam announced his government’s intention to declare all the 32 districts in the State drought-affected, he said his government would pay a solatium to those farmers who had taken their own lives.

“In the last two months, 17 farmers committed suicide. Although these suicides of farmers could have occurred due to various reasons, the families of the dead would be given a solatium of Rs.3 lakh each from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund,” the Chief Minister said. “There are reports in the media that farmers have died of shock because of the impact of the drought. Detailed reports about these deaths have been sought from District Collectors. After these reports are received, due relief would be provided to the families of the dead farmers.”

T.S. Subramanian

Water scarcity

Dry and dreary

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

WITH the north-east monsoon failing all over Tamil Nadu, it is not surprising that a debilitating drought has gripped all the 32 districts of the State, including Chennai, the State capital. With reservoirs and dams heading towards dead storage, it is only a matter of weeks before the entire State will face drinking water famine. The dams that are approaching the dead-storage position include Mettur dam in Salem district, Vaigai dam in Madurai district, Papanasam, Manimutharu and 10 other dams/reservoirs in Tirunelveli district, Krishnagiri dam in Krishnagiri district, Pechiparai and Perunchani reservoirs in Kanyakumari district and Sathanur dam in Tiruvannamalai district.

Chennai is heading towards a massive drinking water supply crisis. The situation is so alarming that the combined storage level in the four reservoirs that supply water to Chennai city stood at 1.504 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) on January 12 against the total capacity of 11.057 tmcft. The four reservoirs that provide drinking water to Chennai are situated at Puzhal (Red Hills), Sholavaram, Chembarampakkam and Poondi. Their combined storage level as on January 12 was sufficient to supply Chennai only for four weeks. The alarming situation compelled Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in Vijayawada on January 12 and request him to step up the release of the Krishna water from the Kandaleru reservoir in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. He also thanked the Andhra Pradesh government for ensuring the flow of Krishna water to Chennai from January 9.

The situation is equally alarming in other districts. Madurai district has 13 blocks, with five coming under the Periyar dam-Vaigai dam assured irrigation command area. The sluices of the Vaigai dam were not opened for irrigation this season in view of the extremely poor storage position in its reservoir. As a result farmers in Madurai east, Madurai west, Melur, Vadipatti and Alanganallur blocks could not cultivate both kuruvai and paddy crops.

Tirumangalam, Tiruparankunram, Kallikudi, Usilampatti, Sedapatti, Sellampatti, Kottampatti and T. Kallupatti, all rain-fed areas, are the remaining eight blocks where farmers grow pulses and millets. Fifty per cent of these crops have already dried up. Agriculture Department officials have undertaken an assessment of the situation. In a season of normal rainfall, paddy is cultivated in about 50,000 hectares in these 13 blocks. But sowing was done only in 6,000 hectares this season for want of water and it is anybody’s guess how much of paddy will be harvested in January.

Waterbodies in villages such as Silaiman, Keezhadi, Manalur and Thoothai Maranadu, which are situated on the banks of the Vaigai river, have dried up. Drinking water is supplied to these villages in tankers. The Maranadu “kanmai” (lake), which irrigates more than 1,200 hectares, is also dry. The bed of Kattikulam tank, which irrigates 800 hectares, is overgrown with Prosposis juliflora trees. The tank is bereft of water.

In Tiruchi district, irrigated by the Cauvery river, its branches and irrigation canals, farmers have lost both kuruvai and samba paddy crops this season. There is no water flowing in the Cauvery or its branches such Kudamuruttiaru and Kuzhaiyaru. In rain-fed areas such as Siruganur, Peruganur and Tiruppattur villages, sorghum and maize have withered. At Siruganur, a well and an adjoining tank were incredibly dry when this correspondent visited the village. Across the road, a group of women were cutting down the sorghum plants because they had shrivelled before reaching maturity. The plants will become fodder for cattle. G. Chellambal said, “We lost sorghum. In the nearby villages, cotton farmers lost heavily because the yield was not good. The red gram has failed. It did not rain at all here. We did direct sowing and we got nothing.”

A couple of kilometres away, at Tirupattur village in Mannachanallur panchayat union, a marginal farmer, K. Gandhi had cultivated maize on one acre (0.4 hectare) but the crop dried up for want of water. He showed the Frontline team the shrivelled corn cobs. “I lost Rs.20,000. This includes Rs.3,600 spent on buying seeds, Rs.5,500 spent on fertilizer and Rs.6,000 spent on labourers who de-weeded the field. I am yet to pay Rs.4,200 for ploughing,” Gandhi said.

Some distance away, in the interior part of Tirupattur, A. Natarajan cultivated cotton but the crop did not take off for want of water. There are no irrigation canals in this rain-fed area. There are only open wells. As the monsoon failed, farmers were hit hard. Natarajan’s cotton plants, which should normally grow to a height of five feet, were only three ft tall. “I would have got about 100 cotton bulbs from every healthy plant. We did not have enough water, so the plants are not healthy. I will not get even 10 bulbs from each plant,” Natarajan said. The cotton collected from these plants was sent to the textile mills in Tiruppur, he explained. “I spent Rs.50,000 to cultivate these plants in one acre. I shall get only Rs.5,000 now,” Natarajan said.

A. Radhakrishnan and his four brothers had invested Rs.1 lakh each in their citrus plantations. They also cultivated snake gourd, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, double beans and pumpkin. None of these has given a good yield.

The drought situation is really grim in Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Virudhunagar districts. Most of the waterbodies in these districts are dry. There is no water in the domestic or irrigation wells. The situation is no better in the fertile Tirunelveli district, which is another rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. (The districts in the Cauvery delta are the main rice-growing areas of the State.) Storage levels in the 12 dams/reservoirs in the district, including the Papanasam and Manimutharu dams, are nearing the dead-storage level. Owing to a couple of spells of rains recently, some water flows in the Tamiraparani river.

Salem district is no better. Mettur dam, the lifeline of agriculture in the Cauvery delta and Cauvery belt districts, is approaching its dead-storage level.

A report datelined Salem and published in The Hindu on January 12 said: “Owing to the failure of the monsoon and the refusal of the Karnataka government to release water from its Krishnarajasagar and Kabini reservoirs into the Cauvery river despite the Supreme Court directive, the quantum of inflow into the Mettur dam has remained meagre since mid-October.

“The storage level went down to 9.908 tmcft on January 11 against the dam’s full capacity of 93.47 tmcft, and this is the lowest storage level registered this season, according to Public Works Department sources.”

The full-reservoir levelof the Mettur dam is 120 ft; the level now stands at 35 ft. Its dead-storage level is 20 ft, below which is just slush.

There is not a drop of water in the east canal and west canals of the Mettur dam, which irrigate an ayacut of 18,000 hectares in Erode, Salem and Tiruchi districts. So cultivation of paddy, tapioca, millets and pulses has been upset this season in Salem district. No water is available for the cattle. There is no fodder either. Farmers have already begun distress sale of cattle.

Letters to the Editor

letters

Narendra Modi

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MODI the dictator is a better way to describe the Prime Minister than Emperor Modi, for there were emperors with a soft heart (Cover Story, January 20). A dictator never feels remorse. The demonetisation process has taken the lives of more than 100 people, but to date Narendra Modi has not expressed his condolences to the bereaved families, who are mostly from the lower middle classes. One by one, all the tall claims the Prime Minister made in his November 8, 2016, speech have turned out to be false. More skeletons will fall out of the closet in the days to come. Modi thinks that he can win over the minds of people with demagoguery, but people have begun to see it for what it is.

S.S. Rajagopalan, Chennai

MODI came up with the slogan “minimum government, maximum governance” in his election campaign in 2014. Unfortunately, we are seeing Modi dismantling the democratic principles built over the years by the stalwarts of the independence movement. A year ago, L.K. Advani cautioned us that India was moving towards autocratic rule and that is what we are witnessing now. Demonetisation is a classic example of this.

N.C. Sreedharan, Kannur, Kerala

WHEN the government appointed Lt General Rawat as the new Army chief, it bypassed two officers, but there was no need for the issue to be politicised (“Farewell to norms”, January 20). This is the second time in a few months that politics has been played around an issue concerning the Indian Army, which is the last thing it wants from politicians. The government has the prerogative to choose who will lead the armed forces. And considering that India has seen a deterioration in its relationship with Pakistan in the last year or so, it is critical that someone who has significant experience at the Line of Control leads the Army. In this context, it was a right decision to appoint Rawat.

Bal Govind, Noida, Uttar Pradesh

THERE is no iota of doubt in my mind that what prompted Lt Governor Najeeb Jung to resign was Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal constantly crossing swords with him on every issue (“Under close watch”, January 20). However, Kejriwal should not feel Jung’s absence as a great relief because hopefully the new LG will be tougher than Jung and teach Kejriwal a lesson for dragging Modi into all unrelated matters and revelling in criticising him. People will not accept Delhi Congress chief Ajay Makan’s conclusion that Jung was unceremoniously removed from office. They are aware of the tendency among some Congress leaders to blame the BJP for everything that goes wrong in the country.

K.R. Srinivasan, Secunderabad, Telangana

MODI has discharged his duties with care and met his obligations with earnestness, and hence the country looks up to him with reverence. As demonetisation was carried out to end black money, corruption and terrorism, we hope to get a positive outcome in the long run.

A.J. Rangarajan, Chennai



Demonetisation

CASH remains important for the vast majority of people in the country for small everyday transactions (“Cashless and clueless”, January 20). Cash transactions also ensure privacy. Every transaction of citizens need not be tracked by Big Brother. One understands the need to track high-value transactions to detect tax evasion or money laundering. The vast majority of cash transactions are legitimate, and the majority of cash users are law-abiding citizens. Making life difficult for a small percentage of criminals at the expense of millions of law-abiding citizens is an extreme step. A cashless economy is a difficult proposition because its prerequisites such as literacy, connectivity and cybersecurity are inadequate in the country. Reforms on the scale the present government is considering must be sensitive to the needs of low-income households.

H.N. Ramakrishna, Bengaluru

THE demonetisation monster has sent shock waves across the country, with people in rural areas, the urban poor and the middle class bearing the brunt of it. The government’s argument that demonetisation has made life difficult for terrorists is farcical. The attack at Nagrota and the jailbreak at Nabha tell a different story. The BJP’s claim that the results of the local body elections in Maharashtra show that people have accepted the demonetisation drive should be taken with a pinch of salt. The entire opposition should unite on a war footing, both inside and outside Parliament, to take the message to the common man that Modi’s demonetisation is calamitous and will ruin the economy.

S. Murali, Vellore, Tamil Nadu

THE government’s demonetisation measure takes me back to the late 1960s when there was a nationwide debate over the RBI’s move to change the wording on currency notes from “I promise to pay the bearer on demand” to “I promise to pay the bearer”. Now, that wording should be “I refuse to pay”. The current times are also reminiscent of the Emergency when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a wage freeze. Widespread resentment was the result, and it led to the defeat of the Congress party in the next election.

The proponents of capitalism believe that production for consumption instead of production for demand is the solution to economic depression. Demonetisation is a retrograde step as it imposes a freeze on spending. Stagnation will be the result. Black money is invested in real estate and other non-productive industries, the profits from which are stashed in overseas banks. The best way to counter the menace of black money is to liberalise the flow of “white money” into the market, not curb its flow. There is black money with political parties and in the election process. Demonetisation is adversely affecting the nation.

S. Neelakantan, Salem, Tamil Nadu

Demonetisation & drought

cover-story

THE impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s November 8 demonetisation on the drought has not got the attention it deserves. S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, questioned the timing of the announcement. “Demonetisation of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes should not have been announced during the crop season. Agricultural operations have suffered because there is no money,” he said.

The hardest hit were farmers who used ground water and initiated the cultivation of paddy, sugarcane, sorghum, maize, turmeric, cotton and various vegetables. They suddenly found that they had no money to buy urea for top-dressing the soil after it had been irrigated with ground water. Those who had land holdings of a few hundred acres and employed labourers found that they had no money to pay those who tilled the land. The withdrawal limit of Rs.24,000 a week was hardly enough for them to pay the workers.

The absence of money circulation also meant that farmers were unable to pay the premiums for their crop insurance in district central cooperative banks or primary agricultural cooperative credit societies. Furthermore, these two institutions continue to remain inoperative in rural areas even two months after the demonetisation was announced.

P.R. Pandian, president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, said on January 12 that there was no money circulation at all in villages consequent to the demonetisation. “All business activities have been crippled,” he said. “Nobody is able to buy or sell land. We are not able to get loans from cooperative banks. When the government announces drought relief measures, we are not able to avail ourselves of the relief from the cooperative banks. We are not able to get the subsidies the government has announced on diesel and urea from the cooperative banks,” Pandian said. The farmers were also not able to get the loan amounts sanctioned by the cooperative banks. Besides, all ATMs were non-functional in rural areas. In sum, business and trading activity had come to a halt in the rural areas, he said. There is a sharp decline in customers in tea stalls, and there are fewer passengers travelling in buses, said G. Ramadoss Naidu, a farmer of Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district.

The loss of income in the wake of the drought has also contributed to the loss of business in grocery shops, textile stores and so on. “I have been sitting idle all day,” said a grocery shop owner around 8.30 p.m. at Keezh Tirupanthuruthi village in Thanjavur district. In Mannargudi town, K. Sankar, who runs the popular Iyengar Coffee [stall], said, “There is a terrible drought now. My business has come down sharply.”

Hulling mills are reporting a drop in the arrival of paddy. This has driven up the price of the 62-kilogram bag of paddy. The price of rice is bound to go up in the coming weeks, say rice mill owners. B. Saravana Kumar, a rice mill owner in Thanjavur district, said paddy yield had fallen sharply. If a 62-kg bag of paddy was sold at Rs.800 to Rs.835 last year, its price has now gone up to Rs.1,050. “The starting price is Rs.1,050. It goes up to Rs.1,250”, he added. If a variety of “fat” paddy called CR1009, popular in Kerala, was priced between Rs.770 and Rs.790 for a 62-kg bag, the starting price for it was Rs.1,000 now. It would be converted into rice in the mills in Tamil Nadu and sold in Kerala, he said. The base price of the thinner variety of PPT paddy was Rs.1,050 and it went up to Rs.1,300. “The demand for paddy is high this season. But there is virtually no supply,” Saravana Kumar said.

Another major fallout is the increase in migration of labour from villages to towns as avenues of work dry up. For instance, agricultural workers in the Cauvery delta districts were now migrating to other districts where some farming with the help of ground water was under way. Agricultural workers in the villages around Mannargudi were looking for jobs in beer-manufacturing plants in the region. They were also travelling to Kerala to find employment in tea estates and cardamom plantations, and to Andhra Pradesh to find work at construction sites. The drought has hit hard the Dalit agricultural labourers who form a sizable presence in Nagapattinam district. “These labourers have lost an income of about Rs.10,000 a month,” a landowner said. The dry conditions have also affected all the bird sanctuaries in the State. In Tiruvarur district, Vaduvur lake has just a few patches of water. The lake is home to just a few hundred birds now when it should have been teeming with several thousands at this time of the year. Five bird sanctuaries in Ramanathapuram district and one in Sivaganga district have had no winged visitors.

T.S. Subramanian

Women victims

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WOMEN too are among the list of farmers who have died. On January 6, as the vehicle carrying Frontline team pulled into Nagapattinam district on the highway, seeing the signboard “Neermullai” photographer B. Velankanni Raj said: “Our list shows that a farmer from Neermullai had died of heart attack,” he said.

The farmer’s name was V.S. Jagadambal. As we made inquiries about her residence, an elderly woman murmured, “They claim that she died of heart attack on seeing the withered crop in the field.”

When we finally located Jagadambal’s residence, we found a house with tiled roof and a pucca, spacious house built of bricks and concrete in the same compound.

Her grandson, P. Bhoominathan, said Jagadambal was unwell for a day and she died the next day, on November 26, 2016. She was 65 years old.

When this reporter asked Bhoominathan whether Jagadambal had fever that day, the grandson was unable to reply. His stock reply was, “She was unwell and she died. She was in mental agony after the paddy crop had withered.”

Bhoominathan took us to the paddy fields, which were adjacent to the two houses. Nearby was the Nallaru irrigation canal, but it was dry.

“We lost Rs.25,000 an acre. We first did direct sowing of paddy. But the crop did not grow properly because there was no water to irrigate it,” said Bhoominathan. They broadcast the seeds again after ploughing the field with a tractor. But the crop was stunted for lack of water. “It rained a week ago. But it was too late. Only grass grew luxuriously along with the stunted paddy,” Bhoominathan said.

Lakshmi Raju, who was in her early 50s, took her life by consuming pesticide on December 25, 2016. She lived with her husband, Raju, daughters and a widowed daughter-in-law at Vinayakapuram in Sembarai village, Lalgudi taluk, Tiruchi district.

Raju had leased 2.5 acres for paddy cultivation on the edge of Thinniam village, about one km away. The rains failed. And the groundwater was salty. Since there was not enough water to irrigate the crop, the crop was stunted, Raju said. The family was in debt too. “Lakshmi wanted to know why I took the land on lease. I told her that if it rained, we can salvage the paddy,” Raju said.

Lakshmi consumed pesticide following an argument with Raju. She died in the ambulance that was taking her to the government hospital at Vaaladi.

Grim future

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THE ramshackle hut of Kaliyaperumal of Orkudi village, a couple of kilometres from Keezh Velur, Nagapattinam district, has all the telltale signs of poverty. He was found dead on the night of December 31, 2016, in the paddy field adjoining his hut. He was in his sixties.

It was late in the evening when the Frontline team reached his home on January 6. The field where he fell dead was parched and riven with cracks. The crop had gone to seed for lack of water. His wife, Arivin Kodi, looked a picture of grief.

Kaliyaperumal had leased three acres of land around his hut and spent a lot of money in preparing the land, manuring it and raising the paddy. But everything came a cropper. His son, who was in his thirties, had died seven years ago.

Kaliyaperumal is survived by his wife, daughters and daughter-in-law. They are daunted by the grim future that looms ahead.

What constitutes a drought

cover-story

THE Government of India’s Manual for Drought Management recommends that rainfall deficiency, the extent of area sown, normalised difference vegetation index and moisture adequacy index are “the four standard monitoring tools” that can be applied in combination to declare an administrative unit drought-affected. Since information on these indicators is available at the level of taluk/tehsil/block, drought may be declared by a State government at the level of these administrative units on the basis of observed deficiencies, the manual says. At least three indicators can be considered for drought declaration but the most important criterion is rainfall deficiency.

A State government can consider declaring a drought if the total rainfall for the State’s entire duration of the rainy season from June to September (the south-west monsoon) or from October to December (the north-east monsoon) is less than 75 per cent of the average rainfall for the season and there is an adverse impact on vegetation and soil moisture, the manual says. The government can consider declaring a drought if, along with other indicators, the total area sown by the end of July/August is less than 50 per cent of the total cultivable area. The declaration of drought could be linked with other indicators if the area of sowing was less than 50 per cent of the cultivable area by the end of November/December .

Moisture adequacy index (MAI) values “are critical to ascertain an agricultural drought”, says the manual. The MAI values should be applied in conjunction with other indicators such as rainfall figures, area under sowing, and so on.

Other factors that a government should consider for declaring a drought are the drinking water supply situation, the extent of fodder supply and its prevailing price compared with normal price; unusual movement of labour in search of employment; the prevailing agricultural and non-agricultural wages compared with normal times; and supply of foodgrains and the prices of essential commodities.

“The State government is responsible for declaring a drought,” the manual says. It is necessary to declare a drought through a formal notification for the response measures to begin, it adds. Collectors can notify a drought only after the State government declares it all over the State or parts of it. States that receive rain from the south-west monsoon should declare a drought in October. In the case of States that receive rain from the north-east monsoon, the drought declaration should be done in January. If the situation warrants, it can be done earlier.

T.S. Subramanian

Nothing to bank on

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The death of Asokan, 56, of Pudukkudi, near Tirumakkottai near Mannargudi, Tiruvarur district, comes across as an irony of life. Asokan died on December 2 on the premises of the Indian Overseas Bank at Tirumakkottai where he had gone to get money for the jewellery he had pledged for farming. There was a big crowd in the bank thanks to the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation move. He was standing in the queue for a couple of hours when he collapsed and died.

His wife, Vedavalli, said, “There is no water in the canal now [Periya Vaikkal, fed by the water from the Tirumeni lake]. There is no harvest because the entire crop has withered.” The couple has a son and two daughters. “Our plans were to educate our children because we could not depend on farming. There was no steady income from it,” Vedavalli said wistfully. “There is no joy in our lives. The bank officials are insisting on rules when we told them to return our jewellery.”

Arunachal Pradesh

Revolving door

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never won the mandate of the people of Arunachal Pradesh in an Assembly election. Yet, for the second time the party has managed to form the government in the north-eastern State, which has borders with China, Myanmar and Bhutan, with the help of deserters from the Congress and regional parties.

The first BJP-led government was formed in the State in 2003, when Gegong Apang, the then lone Arunachal Congress legislator in the 60-member Assembly, joined the saffron party and led a coalition government for 42 days. This time around the BJP has got a full-fledged government after Chief Minister Pema Khandu, along with 32 legislators of the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), joined the BJP on December 31, 2016. They joined the BJP after the PPA suspended Khandu and six PPA legislators for alleged anti-party activities.

Following the defection of the 33 PPA legislators and two Congress members, the strength of the BJP in the Assembly increased to 47. It also enjoys the support of two independent legislators.

Former Chief Minister Nabam Tuki is the lone Congress legislator in the current Assembly. The PPA, a regional party formed on April 10, 1979, has currently 10 members in the House.

The Congress polled 49.5 per cent of the votes in the 2014 Assembly elections to win 42 seats to rule the State for a third consecutive term and Nabam Tuki became the Chief Minister. The BJP polled 31 per cent of the votes to win 11 seats in the elections, which were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections when a Modi wave swept the country. The PPA polled 8.96 per cent of the votes and won five seats. Independents won two seats.

The State has had four Chief Ministers in the past one year. The political tug of war led to President’s Rule and even reached the Supreme Court.

However, rumours refuse to die in the corridors of power. Speculative reports in a section of the media that Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju might replace Khandu as Chief Minister prompted the State unit of the BJP to issue a clarification that “there is no question of replacing Chief Minister Pema Khandu, who enjoys full support of [the] entire BJP party”.

A statement issued by State BJP president Tapir Gao said: “Pema Khandu enjoys support of 47 BJP and two independent MLAs in the 60-member House. The State unit of the BJP endorsed full support to the leadership of Shri Pema Khandu.” The BJP’s national president, Amit Shah, and senior leader Ram Madhav, who is in charge of north-east affairs, also expressed full faith in the leadership of Khandu.

The political resolution adopted at the BJP’s National Executive meeting held in New Delhi on January 6 and 7 also welcomed Khandu into the BJP parivar. “The year [2016] has ended on another happy note with 33 MLAs from the PPA in Arunachal Pradesh, including the Chief Minister, opting to join the BJP. The National Executive welcomes the new BJP Chief Minister Pema Khandu into the BJP parivar,” stated the release issued from New Delhi. On January 7, the Chief Minister’s Office issued an official release stating that “the BJP National Executive officially welcomed Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu into the BJP parivar”.

Unique case

The recent political developments in Arunachal Pradesh present a unique case where the Chief Minister himself has led the defection to another party. Pema Khandu, 37, became Chief Minister for the first time on July 17, 2016, following his election as the leader of the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Legislature Party the previous day. He and a few other rebel Congress legislators had just returned to the party’s fold.

Politics in Arunachal Pradesh has always been knotty. On January 26, 2016, President’s Rule was imposed in Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds of political instability and constitutional breakdown. But on July 13, 2016, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court restored the Nabam Tuki government after it quashed the decision of the then Governor, J.P. Rajkhowa, which had led to the imposition of President’s Rule. In effect, Kalikho Pul, who meanwhile had become Chief Minister on February 19, 2016, with the help of 30 rebel Congress legislators and the outside support of 11 BJP legislators and two independent legislators, had to make way for Tuki to be reinstated at the helm.

In less than three weeks after the formation of the Pul government, rebel Congress legislators joined the PPA alleging that the “Congress high command sidelined them”. Tuki managed to woo all of them, including Pul and Khandu, back to the Congress fold. He stepped down to facilitate the unanimous election of Khandu as the Chief Minister on July 17. Pul was found dead on August 9; his body was found hanging in the official residence of the Chief Minister.

In a dramatic move on September 16, 2016, Chief Minister Khandu and 42 Congress legislators defected to the PPA, which led to the installation of another PPA-led government in the State. Justifying the merger, Khandu said that the change was in tune with the aspirations of the people. But the Khandu-led PPA government lasted only until December 30, 2016, when the PPA president suspended Khandu, Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein and five other party legislators. This time Khandu said the people of the State wanted a stable government “in line with” Narendra Modi’s government.

The PPA is a constituent of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). The BJP floated the NEDA on May 24, 2016, with 10 regional parties to achieve its goal of a “Congress-mukt north-east”. However, the BJP’s open welcome to Khandu is likely to strain the party’s relations with the PPA. All eyes are now on the PPA to see if it will remain with the NEDA or exit the BJP-led platform to avenge the political humiliation.

Tough challenge

For the BJP it will be a tough challenge to please party legislators, old as well as new, who have been left out in Khandu’s new Ministry. The Constitution’s 91st amendment limits the size of the Ministry in the State to 12, including the Chief Minister.

Political instability in Arunachal Pradesh has established that crossing the halfway mark in the Assembly can in no way ensure the stability of a government. Rather, it creates more instability with too many aspirants for ministerial berths. This has also brought into focus the debate over the efficacy of the anti-defection law in preventing legislators from shifting loyalties without going back to the people who give their mandate in favour of a particular party or coalition of parties to govern them.

The BJP’s strategists have in mind how the limited size of the Ministry was leveraged by disgruntled Congress legislators in north-eastern States such as Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya to effect frequent change of guard or to raise the banner of revolt as happened in Assam during the third term of the Congress government headed by Tarun Gogoi. For this reason, the incumbent Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, appears to have delayed the expansion of his Ministry. The first BJP-led government in the State has been functioning with 10 Ministers for the past eight months though Sonowal can induct eight more Ministers.

Development has taken a back seat in Arunachal Pradesh because of the political instability, as could be gathered from Chief Minister Khandu’s own admission. “Development is not possible without a stable government. Now when we have it... you can very well expect development to rush in,” he said, addressing residents of Wakka village in Longding district which was ravaged by a fire that broke out on December 22. A 70-year-old woman, Bangman Gangsa, died, 52 houses were gutted and more than 100 families were rendered homeless.

He apologised for not being able to visit the village on December 30 as planned and explained that political compulsions forced him to cancel the visit. He, however, assured the residents that the “small” hiccup that his government had to encounter in the last few days had been resolved and that a stable government was in place, stated an official release issued on his visit on January 3.

The very first Cabinet meeting of the BJP government, held on January 4, approved the work of the Itanagar-Banderdewa four-lane highway and the compensation estimate prepared by a government-constituted committee, and directed the release of the compensation amount to the beneficiaries through the Deputy Commissioner. The real challenge for Khandu is to keep his team together until the next Assembly elections, which is due in 2019 along with the Lok Sabha election.

Buckling under pressure

Jayati_Ghosh

IS there no one left in our important institutions who is still capable of speaking truth to power? The last year saw a depressing—even frightening—erosion in the credibility of the major institutions that in different ways are vital for the functioning of our democracy. It is true that the Congress party when in power did not cover itself in glory in terms of respecting such institutions, except when forced to do so. But the current “low, dishonest” phase of history (in W.H. Auden’s apt phrase) that we are experiencing in India surely marks a new low.

The basic source of the problem is a rampant national leadership that brooks no dissent and is content to create its own echo chamber version of reality, which it is then able to impose on the population through effective use of the increasingly pliant mainstream media. But the malaise goes wider and deeper. It is not only the wishes of the leader or regime that matter in a democracy that supposedly has checks and balances, but the willingness of those at the helm of other institutions to go along with those wishes, forgetting that their primary responsibility is not to the leader but to the people the institution is supposed to serve, and to society in general. In India, we have a long tradition of abasement to authority, but we have also had in the past shining examples of leaders with integrity who have refused to be cowed down and upheld both the independence and the dignity of their positions and the institutions they administered.

Sadly, such independence, or even willingness to speak up at all, now seems to be almost lost, as all sorts of important institutions are bent to the will of the ruling dispensation. Some of this was because the ruling party was quick to appoint as heads of such institutions those who were eager to show their obedience and fealty to power and follow commands issued by “those who matter”. Certainly, this could be said to be the case with the recent appointments to institutions such as the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), along with other cultural institutions such as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

It is also unfortunately true of organisations that are important for maintaining trust in the justice system of the country. During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments, opposition leaders and especially the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were apt to decry the Congress party’s use of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as a political tool. But the BJP itself has now honed this practice to such a degree, and is using the institution so openly as a means of political vendetta or for suppressing any dissent, that the CBI risks losing all credibility. This has consequences that go well beyond the short-term gains or losses to any political party. It will be hugely damaging to future social stability and cohesion if people start to doubt the objectivity of law-enforcing and investigative agencies.

But far from being contained, the disease is spreading even to economic institutions that are supposed to be far removed from petty political considerations, and, in the process, the credibility and social legitimacy of these institutions have been reduced. The Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) involvement in the drastic demonetisation exercise is a striking, if depressing, example. While it is obvious that the central bank cannot and should not be completely “independent” since monetary policy is very much part of the overall macroeconomic strategy of the state, in this instance the RBI has allowed itself to become an entirely subservient political tool in the hands of the government.

As India’s central bank, the RBI is the agency charged with managing and monitoring the supply of money in the economy, particularly the “base money” in the form of currency. Indeed, currency notes are promissory notes expressing the liability of the RBI Governor. Yet, it appears obvious that the RBI was not even a junior partner but only a minion of the Narendra Modi regime with respect to demonetisation. It is obvious that the extreme decisions made and the bizarrely erratic implementation, with constant rule changes and foolish errors, could not have been undertaken by professional bankers and those with a knowledge of the workings of both currency systems and banks, which presumably those on the board of the RBI possess.

The RBI’s board is currently functioning without most of the independent Directors’ posts being filled. Thus the independent Directors are currently in a minority relative to the government’s nominees. It is rumoured that the board met on the afternoon of November 8 and took the “decision” to demonetise currency notes of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 value, even as the Prime Minister had already booked the evening slot on national television to make his announcement. Did no one on the board, least of all the Governor, have the courage to point out that replacement notes could not be provided quickly and this would lead to huge liquidity shortages that would affect economic activity? Did all of them truly feel that this would actually and effectively end black money, and if they had any doubts, did they even consider raising them?

The RBI Governor, who was the official in charge of this entire scheme, was conspicuously silent on the issue for almost an entire month after it was announced, surfacing only to make the most banal statements at the necessary press conference after a meeting of the Monetary Policy Review Committee on December 7, 2016. Subsequently, the RBI’s official pronouncements on the matter have mirrored or echoed the shifts in the government’s own positions. The result is not just embarrassment for the RBI; it contributes to the erosion of public faith in the central bank and in the banking system, an erosion that may yet have long-term adverse consequences for society and for the economy.

The latest institution to succumb to political pressure appears to be the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), which surely should have been better placed to withstand the pressure as it is run and staffed by professional economists and statisticians. In a somewhat surprising move, in early November the CSO had already agreed, in response to a request from the Finance Ministry, to provide its advance estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) growth by the first week of January instead of the first week of February as usual. This would then facilitate the presentation of the Union Budget a month earlier than usual, on February 1.

The political implications of this shift of dates—with important Assembly elections in five States to be held from mid February onwards —are now evident but would not have been so obvious then. However, this decision of the CSO to bring forward its advance estimates (which incidentally are problematic to begin with) meant that it lost out on the ability to use important data that typically provide the wherewithal for its calculations. Thus, advance estimates released in February would have been able to take note of the company accounts data for the third quarter (October to December) as well as the Index of Industrial Production data and information on other sectors that would provide a better projection of the likely national income over the entire year. Instead, the advance estimates for this year necessarily have to be based only on data for the first six months.

In a normal year, this would have been less than ideal, but still acceptable. But this is not a normal year. Instead, November witnessed a massive disruption to the economy in the form of demonetisation, which has undoubtedly already taken a huge toll especially on informal economic activity. Since even the CSO estimates informal activity to account for around 45 per cent of GDP, this in turn must affect the estimates of GDP. It is one thing to estimate likely GDP without knowing about the demonetisation, but to ignore its effects after the fact, on the weak grounds of inadequate data, is pusillanimous. The more ethical thing to do would have been to say that advance estimates could not plausibly be provided without some indication of the impact of this move, which would require waiting until early February for release, as usual.

Yet, this was not the choice of the CSO, which instead released detailed data for all the sectors, apparently oblivious of the economic tsunami the demonetisation unleashed. In an interview shortly after the release of these estimates, Chief Statistician T.C.A. Anant ruled out any significant changes in the final estimate of GDP numbers even when the newer data would be factored in. “Our general experience has been aggregate processes tend to display a considerable degree of stability and the estimates which we released in advance have tended to be in very close proximity to the final figure.”

This may have been true in previous years but is extremely unlikely, indeed next to impossible, in the current year, as should be obvious to anyone. Yet, by sticking to this rigid but unrealistic format, the CSO has provided estimates of GDP growth at 7.1 per cent in the current year, thereby assuming no significant deceleration in the second half of the year.

It is not just a simple extrapolation of the first half of the year to the second half in this unusual year that raises eyebrows. What is more surprising is that the CSO apparently expects a reversal of the current downswing in investment in the second half of the year! According to its estimates, even though gross fixed capital formation contracted by 4.4 per cent over April-September, it will expand by 4.2 per cent in October-March of 2016-17. This still leaves an annual decline of 0.16 per cent for the financial year as a whole. The decline would have been much greater even if the first six months had been projected to the full year, and if demonetisation had been factored in even partially, the projected decline in investment would have been much sharper. We already know that investment proposals fell by 40 per cent in November, so the only way there could be a significant revival in investment was with a massive public investment push. Perhaps the CSO knows something that the rest of the public does not?

In any case, the political usefulness of this statistical exercise cannot be missed. The CSO’s advance estimates suggest nominal GDP growth of 11.9 per cent for the current year, slightly higher than the 11 per cent projected in last year’s Budget. This gives the Finance Minister greater leeway in supposedly meeting his fiscal deficit targets. Of course, these estimates provide some ammunition to the government in dealing, at least temporarily, with critics who have argued that demonetisation has had and will have a devastating effect on the economy. If even purely technocratic exercises like statistical measurement of levels of economic activity in the country can be converted into propaganda tools to serve the ruling government, the consequences are immense. Just as faith in the central bank can be eroded, so can faith in these statistical systems, especially when they eventually turn out to be false. The result may not be only cynicism, but a more widespread anger that could be all the more dangerous for being invisible to those who have created their own bubble of illusion.

Real and surreal

literature

A prolific writer who is deeply interested in writings from every part of the globe, S. Ramakrishnan is a practitioner of almost all the genres of literature.

Taking two very dull characters he breathes life into this story about marital discord. The idiosyncratic and totally insensitive proofreader drives his wife to insanity. A mechanical robot who thinks of nothing other than his job, he forever keeps her on tenterhooks. The passive cruelty is palpable in their banal lives, inexorably unbearable though not very visible. The wife develops such a hatred for printed paper that she dunks pages in water and watches them turn into pulp. Engrossed in the abstract world of letters, the proofreader is oblivious to the real world around him.

A very contemporary story, even in terms of tone and narration, it reveals what marital disharmony can do to a person. The events may seem highly exaggerated but are related in such a matter-of-fact, credible tone that they seem humdrum, even ordinary. The woman’s distress, real and surreal, is evident throughout the text and had to be captured without ever calling attention to it. The challenge was not only the simplicity of the text but the unemphatic style that the author has employed to narrate outrageous events.

Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy

West Bengal

Babies for sale

the-nation

AN inter-State baby-trafficking racket recently busted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), West Bengal, has brought to the fore a shocking and sinister nexus between certain private nursing homes, doctors and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Acting on a tip-off in the last week of November, the police rescued three babies from a nursing home in Baduria in North 24 Paraganas district, which led to the unravelling of one of the biggest and most well-entrenched infant-smuggling networks in recent times.

“After a child was born, the parents of the child would be told that their baby was either dead or stillborn. The newborn would then be put in a biscuit carton and trafficked to other places,” CID officials said at a press conference in Kolkata. Before being sold, the babies would be kept in the premises of an NGO that had its network in Delhi too. “While a male newborn was sold for Rs.2 lakh, a female baby was sold for Rs.1 lakh,” said the CID officials. The racket has apparently been in existence for the past two years, and as many as 30 babies have been trafficked to other States, and even other countries.

The trafficking gang would operate through a network of some of the ayahs of the nursing homes, middlemen, NGO operators, owners of old-age homes and adoption agencies, and a few doctors. Its main targets were poor people who could not afford to go to better establishments to deliver children. After news of the racket surfaced, several families approached the police in the hope that their lost babies could be recovered.

“We have arrested around 21 people, including three doctors. Thirteen babies were recovered and two dead bodies of babies were found. We are examining every possible angle and trying to develop the case further. It is a terrible crime to smuggle newborn babies after telling the parents that they have died and then sell them. Some of the babies died and were buried in the compound of an NGO. The babies were kept in biscuit cartons. The accused have no respect for human life. For them these babies are just commodities,” Rajesh Kumar, Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) in charge of CID, West Bengal, told Frontline. Among those arrested were also two court officials accused of forging adoption papers.

Of the 13 babies rescued, 10 were found in a home for the elderly and mentally ill called Purbasha in Thakurpukur in South 24 Paraganas district. The owner of the home, Reena Banerjee, was arrested along with Bimal Adhikari, who not only was a member of the establishment that ran the home but also personally oversaw the baby-smuggling operations. Adhikari, one of the key accused in the case, also has a licence to run a specialised adoption agency, which was issued by the State government’s Department of Women and Child Development. His organisation, Joka Millennium Adoption Old Age Home and Rehabilitation Centre, is one of the few establishments in the State that has the licence to house 20 children.

The newborns rescued from Purbasha were kept in unhygienic surroundings, without proper food or facilities, and at the time of rescue they were extremely weak. Rupa Kapoor, member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), who had come down to Kolkata to investigate the matter, was appalled by the sight that greeted her. “It was like a filthy godown where the children were kept temporarily before being sold off. The milk that was given to them was past the expiry date and the bottles did not even have lids. It is a wonder that the babies survived,” she told Frontline. Rupa Kapoor also said that all the babies were “dark complexioned. I realised that either they could not be sold or they were being kept there to be killed. This extreme cruelty of killing a child when not being able to sell her was what shocked me the most.” All 13 babies were reportedly doing fine after undergoing treatment.

During the course of the investigation, the CID discovered skeletons of two babies buried in the premises of an NGO called Sujit Dutta Memorial Welfare Trust in Machlandapur in North 24 Paraganas. Behind the facade of an educational institute for poor children, the NGO functioned as an illegal abortion centre and a link between nursing homes and buyers of infants. Bimal Adhikari was one of the main coordinators between the NGO and some of the nursing homes in the region.

“I got to know from local villagers that everybody knew what was going on inside the Machlandapur NGO. Even the goings-on in Sohan Nursing Home in Baduria (from where three babies were recovered) was known to all the local people. The nursing home is on the main road and it is impossible to smuggle out babies in biscuit cartons without any involvement at the local level,” Rupa Kapoor said. According to her, while the legally operating NGOs and nursing homes are being regularly monitored by the administration and police authorities, the new ones that have mushroomed are not being observed properly. “Kudos to the CID of West Bengal for busting the racket, but I feel this is just the tip of the iceberg. There will have to be more preventive action rather than reaction after complaint,” she added.

The NCPCR has submitted its report to the Ministry of Child Development in which it has stressed the need for more stringent monitoring and evaluation of organisations, continuous verification of NGOs, and background checks of all people working in them.

Three doctors, Santosh Kumar Samanta, Nityananda Biswas and Dilip Ghosh, have been arrested in connection with the baby-smuggling racket. Ghosh, who was formerly with the State-run RG Kar Medical College and Hospital, forayed into politics recently, contesting the 2015 civic polls in Bidhannagar municipality on the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket.

Rajesh Kumar said that the CID was working on ascertaining the extent and spread of this racket. “So far we have pinpointed three nursing homes and a few NGOs. We are trying to collect more evidence. This kind of crime is going on in several parts of the country and is not restricted to West Bengal, but the State government has been proactive to put an end to this,” he said.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has set up a “probe committee” on baby trafficking, headed by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee. Members of the committee include Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Sujan Chakraborty, Congress member of the Legislative Assembly and Leader of the Opposition Abdul Mannan, Chief Secretary Basudeb Banerjee, Home Secretary Moloy De, Director General of Police Surajit Kar Purakayastha and Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar.

“What is happening is worrying… that is why we have set up a high-powered committee which will submit reports to me every month,” Mamata Banerjee announced in the Assembly.

Sujan Chakraborty, however, is sceptical of the efficacy of such a committee. “What needs to be addressed is the utter mismanagement in keeping a check on such crimes. The child welfare committees of West Bengal are being politically run. Besides, we are not really sure what this so-called probe committee is about. Is it to probe the racket? Is it to prevent such crimes, or is it meant to make suggestions for the future? Nothing is clear. We have not even received any formal letter. What needs to be done immediately is to spread awareness on the issue,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Short Story

The Proofreader’s Wife

literature

IT had been several years now since she had begun to hate printed pages. They had grown even more loathsome than the cockroaches hidden in the crevices of the bathroom wall. Sometimes she would tear the pages up till her anger was spent. But the pages never protested. Unlike cockroaches, they never scampered away or attempted to escape, giving up their whiskers in the bargain.

Other than the soft rustle when they were being torn, the pages never raised a noise. Even that she couldn’t bear. So she soaked the pages in water. As far as she was concerned, this was the worst punishment you could mete out to them. If she dunked them in the iron bucket as she started to cook in the morning, by evening they would turn to pulp.

As the pages disintegrated, where did the printed words go? Like salt dissolving in water, did they also disappear? She would stare intently at the bucket. Sometimes when she thought about it, she would wonder: What was the relationship between words and paper? Did the pages agree to have lines printed on them? Was there a gulf between the pages and the words? When her mind began to travel like this, she would often get angry with herself for entertaining such wasteful thoughts.

Her house overflowed with printed pages. Until seventeen, when she had got married to Mandiramurthy and come to Chennai, she had never seen anything other than textbooks. Also, since there was no girls’ high school in her village, she had stopped at the fifth standard.

For six or seven years she had worked, either sticking labels on matches or breaking lumps of rubber. There had been a radio in the match factory. She had loved the film music that was aired on it. In those days she had so badly wanted to own a radio that she had joined a chit fund. But whenever she got the funds, there were always other expenses. So, at the time of her marriage she had insisted on getting a radio. But Mandiramurthy didn’t like the radio, so it was always kept switched off.

When she came to Chennai as a new bride, she used to be scared of Mandiramurthy. At the time he was working in Royal Printing Press. There was always a pencil and an eraser in his pocket. Sometimes a red pen too could be found.

She didn’t know anything about proofreading. Sometimes at night when Mandiramurthy propped himself on a pillow on the floor and marked the pages with a pencil, she would watch him intently. He would look as if he was speaking to himself. Sometimes she could even hear him laugh out loud. Till late in the night, he would proofread. Then he would open the back door, take a piss and come back to lie down.

Even when his fingers roamed over her body, the thought of proofreading would unnecessarily come to her mind. He wasn’t much interested in sex. He would do it as a ritual, and after his body was spent, he would turn his face away and fall asleep—all this irritated her. Even in sleep, she had sometimes noticed his fingers moving, his face in tight concentration.

Mandiramurthy never spoke much to anyone. From six in the morning, he would proofread. When he started for work, he would put the corrected pages along with his lunchbox into his yellow bag. His office was in the Royapettah area. He didn’t have many friends. He never went out either. His only habit was chewing betel leaves. He had a small leather pouch for that. Every ten minutes, he would take out a couple of leaves, pinch off the stalks and pop them into his mouth.

Once he had taken her to his office for a function. She had been awestruck when she saw a huge machine rolling out reams of paper, which slid off endlessly, as if the skin of an onion was being peeled again and again. The whole roll of paper would be printed upon. He would have to proofread the entire lot, wouldn’t he? When she asked this, her husband had told her not to be silly and had taken her off to the binding section.

Four or five women of her age had been stacking the paper and sticking them. She had asked about their salary. Without replying to the question, Mandiramurthy had said that it wouldn’t suit her. When she had gone to the toilet at the end of the press, she had found pages strewn everywhere. Everyone seemed to be stomping around on them.

To the south, she had found a small iron door, open. When she had peeped in, she had found it to be full of waste paper. She had been frightened. Were pages bubbling over, as if from a spring? What would happen to all this paper? Even after she went to the toilet, she couldn’t wipe out the thought.

She never understood why Mandiramurthy was the lone proofreader in the office. One day she had picked up the pages that he had corrected. Every other line had mistakes, circled and corrected. When she had looked at the pages, they had seemed like the doodles of children. Sometimes she felt as if her husband was more intelligent than all the writers. Perhaps it was she who didn’t understand him well enough. She had placed back the papers with trepidation and started to serve his meal.

How did Mandiramurthy’s eyes spot even the smallest error? Was this trait of his confined only to paper, or did the scrutiny extend to her too? In the early days, she would sit out in the evening and watch the goings-on on the road. She had noticed his face hardening as he walked home. As soon as he entered, he would take out the pages and sit down to proofread. She never knew when he drank the coffee and ate the snacks she gave. Why he was so sunk in words puzzled her.

Mandiramurthy didn’t much care about food either. Sometimes he would start for work in a wet veshti. Whenever she asked hesitantly about looking for a different job, he would reply with a glare: what was wrong with this job? She never could explain.

Mandiramurthy hadn’t missed a day’s work. Even when she was ill, he would make kanji for her and leave for the office. She would lie on the mat, gritting her teeth. Why had she got married to a person like this? She fumed—how could this man, who was so concerned when a single letter was misprinted, forget to look after her?

He never gave much thought to all this. Once in a blue moon he himself would offer to take her for a film. She would then hastily change her sari and come out. She had seen him look intently at the billboards and even the wrappings of groundnuts and his lips would often murmur the errors to himself.

She had never heard him laugh in a cinema hall. His face was always frozen in thought. He was always anxious to return home the minute the show ended. He never touched her the nights they saw a film. She never understood why.

It was over fifteen years since they had got married. To date they didn’t have a child. She was used to staying home alone. Once in a while she would take a lime and set off to have a darshan of Lord Dakshinamurthy. She would even forget what to pray for and stand still in front of the deity.

On the days when she was livid, she would ask the lord to wipe out printed paper from the whole world. Her anger soon began to include pencils, erasers and so on.

A couple of years ago, when she had nothing to do, she had torn up, one by one, all the printed pages at home. In the evening, when Mandiramurthy had come home to a room littered with paper, he had scolded: “Thangamma, if you like tearing paper up, then go to the dustbin. You’ll find plenty there. Don’t do this again.”

He had gone straight to his table and started to correct the pages from his bag. She had wailed loudly. He hadn’t seemed to have heard her cries at all. He had gathered the proofread pages. She hadn’t slept that night. She had felt as if the words had dropped off the pages and stuck to her arms, legs and all over her body.

Soon after, Mandiramurthy had taken her to the doctor. With a confused look, she had said she was scared. The doctor had given her medicines for a week to sleep. Even when she slept, her eyes tightly shut, she could faintly see him proofreading. Unable to even cry, she would fall asleep.

For a year she had to be taken every week to the general hospital. She would walk silently on the streets. Neither would utter a word till they reached the hospital. He would sit her down in the outpatient ward and would go off to gaze at the vagai tree on the opposite side.

The minute they returned home with the white and yellow capsules he would set off to his press. Even the capsules had words printed on them. She would look intently to figure out if they were proofread or not. A thought usually surfaced: as the capsules dissolved in her stomach, would the words too dissolve? She would close her eyes and swallow the capsules.

Paper too increased her hatred and anger. She became obsessed with wiping out all the printed pages in the world. So she stopped talking to him. Even when he asked for water, she just stared at him, pretending she had not heard. He himself would get up and drink the water.

At night, even if he noticed her sitting still on the mat, not wanting to sleep, he wouldn’t stop working. One day she stood behind him and watched him work. Like an enraged beast mauling its prey, he kept on striking out and correcting the words with his pencil. Incensed, she asked: “What is there only in this paper?” Without turning around, he said, “I don’t know.”

When she looked intently at the papers, words seemed to split and break away and dance. Suddenly she embraced him and started to weep. The pencil fell from his hand and the lead broke. He prised her arms away, picked up the pencil and started sharpening it carefully. There was a one-thousand-page novel in front of him, waiting to be proofread. Thangammal’s sobs rolled down, filling the entire house.

This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy), an anthology, in translation, of 88 short stories written between 1913 and 2000.

Secularism

A sad betrayal

A.G. NOORANI the-nation

THE judgments given by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court on January 2, 2017, consciously avoided ruling on whether advocacy of Hindutva vitiates an election. It thus did a grave disservice to the nation. By choosing in advance to rule, instead, on a much more limited issue, it shirked its responsibility. Pending before the court were two references to a larger bench of five judges. One was on the issue of Hindutva. It was 20 years old. The other was on the limited issue of appeals to voters on the grounds of religion and caste. The court refused to touch the first. It struck off the Hindutva issue and gave a narrowly divided ruling (4-3) on the limited issue.

To appreciate the gravity of the matter and the enormity of the lapse, it is necessary to recall the entire record of the court’s rulings on Hindutva since 1995 in the light of the harm that that poisonous ideology has done to India’s secular ethos, the fons et origo of the matter.

To begin with, Hindutva is not synonymous with Hinduism. The concept of Hindutva was propounded anew by V.D. Savarkar in 1923 in his book Hindutva, written in and smuggled out of prison. It was first published by V.V. Kelkar of Nagpur in 1923 under the pseudonym A Maratha. The second edition (1942) asserted his authorship. It was published by S.S. Savarkar for Veer Savarkar Prakashan from his home, Savarkar Sadan, in Bombay (now Mumbai).

V.D. Savarkar was an atheist. He did not believe in any religion, Hinduism included. His commitment was to Hindus as a “nation”, and he went on to propound the two-nation theory explicitly in 1937 before Jinnah did. Hinduism is ancient and noble. Hindutva is modern and vicious; it was born in fact in 1923 in the book on Hindutva.

Both the publisher and the author made plain that it was a new concept different from the great and ancient religion. S.S. Savarkar wrote in the Preface: “Apart from the religious aspect involved in the conception of the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’, Veer Savarkar had to coin some new words such as ‘Hindutva’, ‘Hinduness’, ‘Hindudom’ in order to express totality of the cultural, historical, and above all the national aspects along with the religious ones, which mark out the Hindu People as a whole. The definition is consequently not meant to be a definition of Hindu Dharma, or Hindu religion. It is a definition of ‘Hindutva ‘Hinduness’. It is essentially national in its outlook and comprehends the Hindu People as a Hindu-Rashtra—a Hindu State.” (Emphasis added, throughout.) Thus, advocacy of a Hindu state is the same as advocacy of Hindutva and vice versa. The Preface records: “Such eminent Hindu leaders as the late Lala Lajpat Rai and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and several others hailed it as the most original and scholarly contribution to the Hindu ideology.” The Lala had advocated the two-nation theory early in the 20th century. The Preface hails the “discovery of a new truth” as a “bedrock on which a consolidated and mighty Hindu Nation could take a secure stand”.

V.D. Savarkar himself was at great pains to emphasise that Hinduism must not be “confounded with the other cognate term Hinduism” (page 3); that “Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism” (page 4); and that “Hindutva is not identical with Hindu Dharma, nor is Hindu Dharma identical with Hinduism” (page 121).

What is Hindutva?

What, then, is Hindutva? V.D. Savarkar wrote: “These are the essentials of Hindutva—a common nation (Rashtra), a common race (Jati) and a common civilisation (Sanskriti). All these essentials could best be summed up by stating in brief that he is a Hindu to whom Sindhusthan is not only a Pitribhu (Fatherland) but also a Punyabhu (Holyland). For the first two essentials of Hindutva—nation and Jati—are clearly devoted and connoted by the word Pitribhu while the third essential of Sanskriti is pre-eminently implied by the word Punyabhu (Holyland), it is precisely Sanskriti including Sanskartas, i.e. rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments that make a land a Holyland” (page 116).

Muslims and Christians do not and cannot worship India as a Holyland. But, if they did, Savarkar told them, “Ye would be most welcome to the Hindu fold” (page 115). If they did not, they would be outside the pale. This is the root of the demand for ghar wapsi—return to your home or “the Hindu fold”. Clearly, to advocate Hindutva is to urge non-Hindus to discard their religion and enter “the Hindu fold”. Savarkar asked them to adopt Hindu “rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments”. If this is not an appeal on the ground of a religion, what else is it? If this be called a plea for a “way of life”, it is for the Hindu way of life. I leave it to the reader to describe an attempt to portray Hindutva as a “way of life” shorn of the long accepted and recognised meaning and connotation of the term Hindutva. This is a plea for Hindu, not Indian, nationalism.

Effect on RSS, BJP

Savarkar’s book Hindutva influenced the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar. Under L.K. Advani’s leadership, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adopted the ideology of Hindutva after it adopted, on June 11, 1989, the plank of a Ram Mandir on the ruins of the Babri Masjid. Its election manifestoes espoused it since 1998—“Our National Identity, Cultural Nationalism”—and explained that “the cultural nationalism of India … is the core of Hindutva”.

Its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, had tried deceptively to expound it by the name of “Indianisation” but that received short shrift. The Standing Committee of the National Integration Council adopted a statement, on October 16, 1969, which said: “We condemn the spread of the idea that any community requires to be Indianised.” An all-party conference was convened under its auspices on November 3, 1969, with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the chair. It denounced “Indianisation”. The Jana Sangh alone opted out. Indianisation was a subterfuge.

On February 22, 1970, Golwalkar, the RSS supremo said: “The one hope of redemption is nationalism which, in the case of Hindusthan, is Hinduism.” Hindutva signifies a bold reversion to this theme.

It began to be expounded by the BJP and the RSS openly as the communal climate became worse after Advani launched his rath yatra in 1990 on the plank of Hindutva. Communal riots and much bloodshed followed in its wake, more so after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Nonetheless, the BJP began espousing Hindutva with greater stridency. Advani made no secret of the fact that Hindutva was meant to attract the Hindu vote. It was communalism in excelsis.

Supreme Court’s record

The Supreme Court could have nipped the mischief in the bud. It tried, initially, but changed that shortly thereafter with disastrous consequences. Here is a record of the Supreme Court’s odyssey datewise in seven cases from 1995 to 2017.

1. July 14, 1995: Dr Das Rao Deshmukh vs. Kamal Kishore Nanasaheb Kadam & Ors. (1995) 3 Supreme Court Cases; 123, decided by Justices G.N. Ray and Faizan Uddin. The court ruled: “In deciding whether a party or his collaborators had indulged in corrupt practice regard must be had to the substance of the matter rather than mere form or phraseology. In Kultar Singh’s case, this court has recognised that there are several parties whose membership is either confined to or predominantly held by members of some communities or religion and that an appeal made by candidates of such parties for votes may in an indirect way concavely be influenced by considerations of religion, race, community or language. So long as the law recognises such parties for the purpose of election and parliamentary life, this situation cannot be avoided. Such view has also been reiterated in later decisions of this court.

“It has been very strenuously contended by the learned counsel for the appellant that appeal to vote for ‘ Hindutva’ should not be confused with appeal to vote only for a member of one community, namely the Hindus. Criticism of partisan treatment meted out to the Hindus by the ruling Congress party or appeasement policy in favour of one community or followers of a particular religion impairing national integrity and appeal to oppose such improper and anti-national policy should not be held to be an appeal to vote only on the basis of a particular religion. It has been contended that the thrust of the speeches was that unequal treatment meted out to Hindus and deliberate hurting of sentiments of Hindus have encouraged divisive forces and anti-national elements in the country and Hindus should be aware of such divisive forces and try to unite against such divisive and anti-national forces in selecting proper candidates who would safeguard the unity and integrity of the country.

“In our view, it is not necessary to consider the philosophy of Hindu religion and its tenets of tolerance and respect for different religious faiths for the purpose of appreciating whether appeal was really made for Hindutva which is something different from outward practices and some of the following professed by followers of Hindu religion.”

2. December 11, 1995: Judgments were delivered in as many as five cases on the same day by the same bench comprising Justices J.S. Verma, N.P. Singh and K. Venkataswami. The earlier case was not even referred to in the judgments delivered by Justice Verma. He embarked on two misleading routes to gross error. In the first, Dr Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo vs. Prabhakar K. Kunte (1996) 1 SCC; 130, he cited two cases in which the words “Hindus” and “Hinduism” were defined and equated them with Hindutva. Two earlier rulings by the Supreme Court were recalled and the following conclusion was reached:

“These Constitution Bench decisions, after a detailed discussion, indicate that no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms ‘Hindu’, ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’, and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage. It is also indicated that the term ‘Hindutva’ is related more to the way of life of the people in the sub-continent.” This is factually wrong. Hindutva never came up in those two cases. “It is difficult to appreciate how in the face of these decisions the term ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ per se in the abstract can be assumed to mean and be equated with narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry, or be construed to fall within the prohibition in sub-sections (3) and/or (3A) of section 123 of the R.P. Act (page 159).”

One was a case, decided in 1966, concerning the applicability of the Bombay Hindu Places of Public Worship Act 1956 to the Swaminarayana Sampradaya Satsanghis. Chief Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar’s elaborate discussion on “Who are the Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion” was in this context. He dwelt on “the life and career of Swaminarayan” and held that the sect he founded “is not a religion distinct and separate from Hindu religion”. Ergo, the Act applied. ( Sastri Yagnapurushdasji vs Muldas Bhudardas Vaishya, AIR 1966 SCC 1119.)

A decade later, the same issue arose in a case under the Wealth Tax, Income Tax and Expenditure Tax Acts. A Hindu had married a Christian woman after the partition of his joint family. Was their son a Hindu? Under the four codifying Acts on Hindu Marriage, Succession, Minority, and Adoptions and Maintenance, “any child one of whose parents is a Hindu by religion and who is brought up as a Hindu is a Hindu”, the court noted. It also considered generally what the word “Hindu” denotes ( CWT vs R. Sridharan (1976), 4 SCC 489).

The Supreme Court has ruled time and again that a precedent must be read in the context of the facts of that particular case. Hinduism may be hard to define. Not so Hindutva, unless, of course, one identifies it with Hinduism. Justice Verma did just that: “ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind, that it is not to be equated with or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism.” Has the BJP extended time, effort, and money all these years to espouse “a way of life”? That certainly is not how Hindutva is “ordinarily” understood.

Justice Verma proceeded to quote an obscure book. The quotation and his inference deserve to be set out in full: “In Indian Muslims—the Need for a Private Outlook by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (1994), it is said: ‘The strategy worked out to solve the minorities problem was, although differently worded, that of Hindutva or Indianisation. This strategy, briefly stated, aims at developing a uniform culture by obliterating the differences between all of the cultures coexisting in the country. This was felt to be the way to communal harmony and national unity. It was thought that this would put an end once and for all to the minorities problem’.”

From this the judge concluded: “The above opinion indicates that the word ‘Hindutva’ is used and understood as a synonym of ‘Indianisation’.” But if the Maulana was to be quoted, he should have been quoted fairly and understood properly.

Far from supporting the judge’s conclusion, the quote refutes it thoroughly. It was not in praise of Hindutva or its euphemism ‘Indianisation’ but in their censure. The paragraph preceding it lamented that Hindus did not treat Partition as ‘just an incident in past history’. The subsequent strategy ‘to solve the minorities problem’, through Hindutva or Indianisation, sought to impose ‘a uniform culture by obliterating the differences between all of the cultures co-existing in the country.’ Unlike Justice Verma, who quotes this to imply approval of this process, the Maulana disapproved of it.

This becomes all too clear from the very next sentence after his comment that it was thought that the obliteration would end the minorities problem. That sentence reads: “However beautiful this suggestion may appear to be, it is certainly impracticable.” Justice Verma did not note this sentence at all (page 81). The Maulana’s book is no authority on Hindutva. Its Bible is Savarkar’s book Hindutva, which Justice Verma studiously ignored. He ignored all the standard works on Hindutva also. Why?

Justice Verma cited the court’s ruling in Kultar Singh vs Mukhtiar Singh AIR 1965 SC 141 which concerned use of the word “Panth” by the Akali Dal. The word does not signify a religion but a community as such. It was held: “This party is recognised as a political party by the Election Commission notwithstanding the fact that all of its members are only Sikhs. It is well-known that there are several parties in this country which subscribe to different political and economic ideologies, but the membership of them is either confined to, or predominantly held by, members of particular communities or religions. So long as law does not prohibit the formation of such parties and in fact recognises them for the purpose of election and parliamentary life, it would be necessary to remember that an appeal made by candidates of such parties for votes may, if successful, lead to their election and in an indirect way, may conceivably be influenced by considerations of religion, race, caste, community or language. This infirmity cannot perhaps be avoided so long as parties are allowed to function and are recognised, though their composition may be predominantly based on membership of particular communities or religion. That is why we think, in considering the question as to whether a particular appeal made by a candidate falls within the mischief of section 123(3), courts should not be astute to read into the words used in the appeal anything more than can be attributed to them on its fair and reasonable construction.”

Kultar Singh’s case on “Panth” cannot be equated with pleas for Hindutva. But this did not deter Justice Verma from confidently concluding: “Thus, it cannot be doubted, particularly in view of the Constitution Bench decisions of this court that the words like ‘Hindutva’ are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the people of India, depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith.

“Considering the terms ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ per se as depicting hostility, enmity or intolerance towards other religious faiths or professing communalism, proceeds from an improper appreciation and perception of the true meaning of these expressions emerging from the detailed discussion in earlier authorities of this court. … It may well be, that these words are used in a speech to promote secularism or to emphasise the way of life of the Indian people and the Indian culture or ethos, or to criticise the policy of any political party as discriminatory or intolerant.” The errors are many and glaring: 1. An earlier case in point is ignored. 2. Ignored also is the Bible on Hindutva by its author. 3. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is cited not only in utter irrelevance but he is palpably misquoted. 4. Two decisions on “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are relied on irrelevantly. Hindutva is not synonymous with Hinduism, as everyone knows. 5. The court’s ruling on the Panth is pressed into service on Hindutva. 6. Other analyses of Hindutva were ignored. There were plenty of them. 7. The entire exercise was irrelevant and the discussion was obiter, pure and obvious. For, on the facts all the three speeches of Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena supremo, were held to be appeals for votes for his candidate “on the ground of his religion as a Hindu” and were therefore violative of the law. The appeal was dismissed. Why then did Justice Verma take all this trouble in an exercise in futility? The ruling studded with errors galore cries for reversal, not least because of the harm it does to political discourse.

Separation of state and religion undermined

3. Manohar Joshi vs Nitin Bhaurao Patil & Anr (1996) 1 SCC 169. The issues were discussed again. Here are parts of some of the speeches in issue. “To save ‘Hindutva’ vote for BJP-Sena nominees” (Pramod Mahajan, BJP MP). “Mr Rajiv Gandhi does not know his own religion and thus has no right to speak on Hinduism” (Pramod Mahajan). “The result of these elections will not only depend on the solution to the problem of food [and] clothes but the same will also decide whether in the State the flame of Hindutva will grow or will be extinguished. If in Maharashtra the flame of Hinduism is extinguished, then anti-national Muslims will be powerful and they will convert Hindustan into Pakistan. If the flame of Hindutva will grow then in that flame the anti-national Muslims will be reduced to ashes” (Pramod Mahajan). “Rajiv Gandhi speaking on Hindutva is like a prostitute lecturing on fidelity. The country is again heading for Partition. It is, therefore, necessary that in these circumstances and to keep the flame of Hindutva alive, the alliance of BJP-Shiv Sena should be elected” (Mahajan). (Referring to Rajiv Gandhi): “wife Christian, mother Hindu, father a Parsee and therefore himself without any [Hindu] culture/teaching [vevarsi]” (Pramod Mahajan).

Justice Verma also said: “In our opinion, a mere statement that the first Hindu state will be established in Maharashtra is by itself not an appeal for votes on the ground of his religion but the expression, at best, of such a hope. However despicable be such a statement, it cannot be said to amount to an appeal for votes on the ground of his religion.” If this be the law there is nothing to prevent a Sikh leader from advocating a Khalsa state in Punjab or a Muslim from advocating an Islamic state in Kashmir. The wall of separation between state and religion in a secular polity was demolished.

4. Prof. Ramchandra Kapse vs Haribansh R. Singh (1996) 1 SCC 206. It was held that a candidate could not be held responsible for the contents of the election manifesto of his party, the BJP.

5. Suryakant vs Mahadik vs Saroj Sandesh Naik (1996) SCC 384. The speech “was an appeal by a Hindu to a congregation of Hindu devotees in a Hindu temple during a Hindu religious festival with emphasis on the Hindu religion for giving votes to a Hindu candidate espousing the cause of Hindu religion. Thus according to the pleadings in the election petition the speech made by the appellant was clearly an appeal to the voters on the ground of his religion. The evidence which proves the speech made by the appellant in a Hindu temple during a religious festival addressed to Hindu devotees forming the religious gathering has to be understood in this context. The word ‘Hindutva’ used in the speech of the appellant at that time, place and occasion has to be understood only as an appeal on the ground of Hindu religion, that is, by the candidate on the ground of his religion. As earlier stated, the word ‘Hindutva’ in the abstract and in a different context addressed to a different gathering may have different meaning related to Indian culture and heritage unrelated to religion, but in the present context it has only one meaning as indicated.”

6. Ramakant Mayekar vs Celine D’Silva (1996) 1 SCC 399. Justice Verma went out of his way repeatedly and wrongly to censure Justice Variava, a respected judge of the Bombay High Court who became a judge of the Supreme Court. “The tenor of the impugned judgment, particularly the above extract, leaves no doubt that the High Court was of the view that any appeal for votes wherein mention was made of ‘Hindutva’ is by itself sufficient to amount to an appeal for votes for the Hindu candidates of Shiv Sena-BJP on the ground of their religion and is a corrupt practice or creates enmity and hatred amongst different classes of citizens on the grounds of religion and community. The above extract from the decision itself is sufficient to indicate the erroneous perception in this behalf which is clearly contrary to law. … the use of the word ‘Hindutva’ in the abstract was understood by the High Court to amount to an appeal for votes on the ground of Hindu religion if the candidate happened to be a Hindu to constitute the corrupt practice.”

A powerful plea was made for a reversal of Justice Verma’s judgments on Hindutva. He rejected it brusquely on March 22, 1996 ( Mohammad Aslam vs Union of India & Ors. (1996) 2 SCC 749). “A careful and dispassionate reading of the decision would show that the apprehensions and misgivings expressed in the writ petition are imaginary and baseless. We may add that the deficiency, if any, in the statutory prohibition enacting the corrupt practice in Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, has to be cured by legislation.”

Attempt to resist bias

All this proved too much for other judges of the Supreme Court. A few days later, on April 16, 1996, came a ruling by a different bench comprising Justices K. Ramaswamy, S.P. Bharucha and K.S. Paripoornam in Abhiram Singh vs C.D. Commachen & Ors. (1996) 3 SCC 665. All the previous cases were referred. The court said: “As stated earlier, when and under what circumstances, speeches of the leaders of the political party or the appeal of any other person with the consent by a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting on the ground of religion, race, caste or community or language, etc. or promotion or an attempt to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of citizens of India on the ground of religion, race, caste, community or language with the consent of the candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of the candidate or prejudicially affect the election of any candidate, constitutes corrupt practice under sub-sections (3) or (3-A) of Section 123. Its content and scope also require to be clearly laid down authoritatively lest miscarriage of justice in interpretation of “corrupt practice” involved in every election petition would ensue. The purity of election process gets fouled and [ sic] becomes fraught with deleterious effect in a democratic polity.

“Thus, without expressing any opinion on these questions, we are of the view that the entire case requires to be heard and decided by a larger Bench of five Judges since the decision thereon impinges upon the purity of election process and requires to be decided authoritatively.

“We, therefore, direct the Registry to place the case before our learned brother, the Chief Justice for constituting a larger bench of five judges, and, if possible, at an early date so that all the questions arising in the present appeal could be decided authoritatively and expeditiously.” Clearly, two issues were to be referred to by a larger bench. One was responsibility for speeches of the party earlier. The other was “the content and scope” of the speeches. To leave no room for doubt the judges stressed the bearing on the “purity of the electoral process” and the deleterious effect in a democratic polity. Two decades rolled by without any Chief Justice constituting the bench. Meanwhile, Lok Sabha elections were held in 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 without any check on the BJP’s propaganda.

The references by a larger bench in two cases were heard on limited issue. In Narayan Singh vs Sunderlal Patwa (2003) 9 SCC 300, a Constitution Bench observed in its order dated August 28, 2002, that the High Court in that case had construed Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, “to mean that it will not be a corrupt practice when the voters belonging to some other religion are appealed, other than the religion of the candidate”.

In the referring order in Narayan Singh, the court observed that in the nine-judge bench decision in S.R. Bommai vs Union of India, there were certain observations which were contrary to the decisions of three-judge benches. The order of reference said inter alia: “In view of certain observations made in the Constitution Bench decision of this Court in Kultar Singh case we think it appropriate to refer the matter to a larger bench of seven judges to consider the matter.”

Recent judgment

In a judgment delivered on January 2, 2017, it was said: “The present civil appeal was initially referred by a bench of three judges to a Constitution Bench on 16 April 1996 [(1996) 3 SCC 665]. When the civil appeal came up before a Constitutional Bench (2014) 14 SCC 382, one of the questions which fell for consideration was the interpretation of Section 123(3). Following the reference to seven judges made in Narayan Singh, the present civil appeal was also referred on the question of the interpretation of Section 123(3). The order of reference dated 30 January 2014 (not of 16 April 1996) explains the limited nature of the reference, thus: ‘Be that as it may, since one of the questions involved in the present appeal is already referred to a larger bench of seven judges, we think it appropriate to refer this appeal to a limited extent regarding interpretation of sub-section (3) of Section 123 of the 1951 Act to a larger bench of seven judges.’ The reference to seven Judges is limited to the interpretation of Section 123(3).”

Why the emphasis on the “limited nature”? The 1996 reference covered the wider issue of Hindutva also. It was whittled down to exclude Hindutva and confine the reference to the issue raised in Narayan Singh’s case. The reference to “the content and scope” of the speech was ignored.

The Reference Order in 1996 was truncated. When the case came up for hearing on October 25, 2016, Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur said: “We will not reconsider the 1995 judgment and also not examine Hindutva or religion at this stage”—which the Order of Reference on April 16, 1996, clearly required a larger bench to do. “At this stage, we will confine ourselves to the issue raised before us in the reference.” He might, and ought to have, added “as truncated by us”. He added gratuitously: “In this reference there is no mention of the word Hindutva.” Indeed not; for the words in the Order of April 1996 directed a reference of an omnibus nature which included Justice Verma’s judgment. His conclusion was emphatic: “We will not go into Hindutva at this stage.” At what stage, then, pray? ( Asian Age, October 26, 2016). Applications for intervention by Teesta Setalvad and others with pleas to reconsider the Hindutva ruling were rejected.

Divided verdict

The seven-judge bench gave a divided verdict on January 2 in Abhiram Singh vs C.D. Commachen & Ors. At issue was interpretation of Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which forbids “[t]he appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of, or appeal to, religious symbols or the use of, or appeal to, national symbols, such as the national flag or the national emblem, for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate.”

Section 123 (3A) reads: “The promotion of, or attempt to promote, feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language, by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate.” Around the same time Section 153A of the Penal Code was also amended in a “package deal”, as the judges remarked Hindutva surely violates both Section 123 (3) and (3-A).

Justices B.N. Lokur and L. Nageswar Rao held that Section 123 “must be given a broad and purposive interpretation so as to cover not only a plea to the voters by the candidate or his agent or someone on the ground of his religion or caste—as all earlier cases had said—but also on grounds of the voter’s religion, caste, etc. This was the result of a “purposive” interpretation which gives free rein to the judges’ subjective inclinations.

Usurping of legislation function

Justice S.A. Bobde concurred: “The word ‘his’ occurring in the Section refers not only to the candidate or his agent but is also intended to refer to the voter i.e. the elector.” This was a quantum jump in which Chief Justice T.S. Thakur joined enthusiastically. He quoted revealingly this passage in an earlier case [(2015) 8 SCC 1] in which the Supreme Court said: “In the background of the constitutional mandate, the question is not what the statute does say but what the statute must say. If the Act or the Rules or the bye-laws do not say what they should say in terms of the Constitution, it is the duty of the court to read the constitutional spirit and concept into the Acts.” This is a naked usurpation of legislative power by the court.

Against this background, the powerful dissent by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, with which Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Uday Umesh Lalit concurred, comes as a relief. It has been established for centuries that a penal provision must be construed strictly. There is no room for stretching it in the name of “purposive” interpretation. Justice Chandrachud said: “The vote is solicited for a candidate or there is an appeal not to vote for a candidate. Each of these expressions is in the singular. They are followed by expression ‘on the ground of his religion…’ The expression ‘his religion…’ must necessarily qualify what precedes; namely, the religion of the candidate in whose favour a vote is sought or that of another candidate against whom there is an appeal to refrain from voting. ‘His’ religion (and the same principle would apply to ‘his’ race, ‘his’ caste, ‘his’ community, or ‘his’ language) must hence refer to the religion of the person in whose favour votes are solicited or the person against whom there is an appeal for refraining from casting a ballot. …

“The Constitution is not oblivious to the history of discrimination against and the deprivation inflicted upon large segments of the population based on religion, caste and language. Religion, caste and language are as much a symbol of social discrimination imposed on large segments of our society on the basis of immutable characteristics as they are of a social mobilisation to answer centuries of injustice. They are part of the central theme of the Constitution to produce a just social order. Electoral politics in a democratic polity is about mobilisation. Social mobilisation is an integral element of the search for authority and legitimacy.”

He pointed out that “there is no warrant for making an assumption that Parliament while enacting Section 123(3) intended to sanitise the electoral process from the real histories of our people grounded in injustice, discrimination and suffering. … if the provision is construed to apply to the religion of the voter, this would result in a situation where persons contesting an election would run the risk of engaging in a corrupt practice if the discourse during the course of a campaign dwells on injustices suffered by a segment of the population on the basis of caste, race, community or language.” The three dissenting judges concluded: “No case has been made out to take a view at variance with the settled legal position that the expression ‘his’ in Section 123(3) must mean the religion, race, community or language of the candidate in whose favour an appeal to cast a vote is made or that of another candidate against whom there is an appeal to refrain from voting on the ground of the religion, race, caste, community or language of that candidate.”

Majoritarian view

The majority view spelt a majoritarian, not a secular polity. Consider just two facts. On August 10, 2013, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar referred to police bias against Muslims. “How will they see this country as their own country?” (See the writer’s article “Muslims & Police”; Frontline, December 12 and 26, 2016.)

All hell broke loose in Mumbai’s press the day after Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, said in the city on January 1, 2017, that Muslims must get Rs.7,000 crore in the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s budget of Rs.37,000 crore. Would a Muslim candidate be disqualified if he had spoken as Sharad Pawar or Asaduddin Owaisi did?

However, as far back as on July 2, 1980, the United States Supreme Court upheld a law that set aside 10 per cent of the public works contracts for businesses owned by members of racial minorities. H. Earl Fullilove, a white New York contractor, challenged the law on the ground that it discriminated against whites.

Chief Justice Warren Burger said that affirmative action programme by Congress may “deprive some people who may themselves be innocent,” but that a limited “sharing of the burden by innocent parties is not impermissible” under the Constitution: “The Congress has not sought to give select minority groups a preferred standing in the construction industry, but has embarked on a remedial program to place them on a more equitable footing with respect to public contracting opportunities. There has been no showing in this case that Congress has inadvertently effected an invidious discrimination by excluding from coverage an identifiable minority group that has been the victim of a degree of disadvantage and discrimination equal to or greater than that suffered by the groups encompassed by the minority business enterprise program.” ( Fullilove vs Klutznick; 448 U.S. 448, 1980).

Would an elected legislator be unseated if he had made such a demand during his election campaign? It is woefully clear that it is not politicians alone who need to be educated about the rights of the minorities. Chief Justice J.S. Khehar should repair the omission of his predecessors and constitute a larger bench on Hindutva. Justice J.S. Verma’s judgment is full of grave errors. The earlier judgment which pronounced against Hindutva on July 14, 1995, he did not refer to, let alone overrule. It stands. Only a larger bench can restore clarity and public confidence.

Litigation

Judicial setback

V. VENKATESAN the-nation

“BE you ever so high, the law is above you” is the precept the Supreme Court has often cited to justify its decisions. On January 11, however, it seemed to give this precept a new twist when it reasoned that to help democracy survive in India, high constitutional functionaries deserve immunity from investigation on the basis of information that suggests commission of cognisable offences by them.

This reasoning, which appears bizarre and is clearly inconsistent with the rule of law, came from a bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Amitava Roy on an interlocutory application (I.A.) in a pending case filed by Common Cause, a non-governmental organisation, seeking a court-monitored investigation into alleged payoffs by the Sahara and Birla group companies to high-profile political leaders and civil servants.

Information about the payoffs surfaced during raids conducted by the Income Tax Department on these companies, which led to the recovery of several incriminating documents.

In its I.A. (No.3 of 2016) Common Cause sought directions to the Income Tax Department for the production of records of the seized material and for an investigation by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into the evidence of corruption, bribery and black money brought out by them.

The Aditya Birla Group is a corporate giant having major business activities in mining, textiles, metals, cement, chemicals and so on. During the investigation into coal block allocations to the group company Hindalco Industries, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted simultaneous search operations in four cities—New Delhi, Mumbai, Secunderabad and Bhubaneswar—on October 15, 2013.

Documents seized during the search are said to have revealed massive bribery of politicians and officials of various Ministries by the group over several years. The search at the group’s office on Parliament Street, New Delhi, yielded incriminating documents and unaccounted cash amounting to Rs.25 crore.

The CBI, instead of conducting a thorough scrutiny of the seized documents, transferred them to the Income Tax Department, which examined them, questioned those involved, and prepared an appraisal report.

Of the seized documents, one is a handwritten notebook containing 49 pages. It contains records of transactions relating to receipt and payment of unaccounted cash amounts under various heads during the July 2010-March 2012 period. The second is a bunch of 16 loose sheets which record several unaccounted transactions. Pages nine and ten contain records of certain money transactions.

The Income Tax Department interrogated senior officers of the Birla group, including deputy general manager (accounts), Anand Kumar Saxena, who made some startling revelations. He claimed that the 49-page notebook was maintained by him and that he had made the entries in his handwriting to record the unaccounted cash transactions of the group. He also said the Rs.25 crore seized from the New Delhi office of the group was unaccounted cash that had not been recorded in the regular books of accounts of the company. He stated that he was the custodian of the almirahs in which the cash was kept and that he was in charge of handling cash received at this premises from time to time and keeping it in safe custody.

He also said that he followed the direction of Subhendu Amitabh, group executive president, when it came to receiving the cash and also regarding its disbursal or payment to various individuals. He said he received the cash from local hawala operators on a regular basis. Saxena also gave the names and designations of four senior officers of the company through whom such disbursal or payment in cash was made.

The Income Tax Department disbelieved the claim of Subhendu Amitabh that the Rs.25 crore belonged to him and that it was his unaccounted income. The I.A. disclosed that emails seized by the Income Tax Department from Subhendu Amitabh’s laptop showed evidence of bribery of officials of the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI).

The seized records, according to the I.A., revealed payments or proposed payments of Rs.7.50 crore made from January 9, 2012, to February 2, 2012, under the heading “Project-J—Environment and Forest”. The I.A. noted that during the tenure of the then Minister for Environment and Forests, as many as 13 projects of the Aditya Birla group companies were cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

Subhendu Amitabh’s laptop was also found to contain evidence of highly incriminating money transactions, according to the I.A. An email dated November 16, 2012, contained the cryptic entry, “Gujarat CM – 25 crore (12 Done –rest?)”. When he was questioned about this, Subhendu Amitabh told the Income Tax Deparment that “these were purely personal notes. Not meant for SMS or email transmission. And the first note is only to note for my knowledge and consumption—a business development at Gujarat Alkali Chemicals, a company engaged in caustic soda.” The I.A. submitted that the transaction could have been easily verified by checking the accounts of Gujarat Alkali Chemicals since this has to be an “on the book transaction”.

If, on the contrary, the words “Gujarat CM” are to be interpreted as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, then the reference is obviously to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of the State then.

Raid on Sahara Group

The Income Tax Department raided the Sahara India group offices in Delhi and Noida on November 22, 2014. During the raids, incriminating documents and cash amounting to Rs.137 crore were seized. Common Cause’s counsel, Prashant Bhushan, got hold of a few pages of the seized documents which contain a record of cash transactions from May 2013 to March 2014. The pages were signed by the Income Tax Officer, one person from the Sahara group, and two witnesses at the time of the seizure. Some of the relevant documents are printouts of the three excel sheets showing cash receipt of over Rs.115 crore and cash outflow of over Rs.113 crore during the 10-month period, which was in the run-up to the general election. The I.A. claims that the documents contain enough information to initiate a thorough investigation.

Unlike the Jain hawala case in the 1990s, which also revealed payoffs to key personalities in public life cutting across political divides on the basis of diary entries, the case of Sahara stands on a better footing because it yielded a seizure of Rs.137 crore in cash. The excel sheet recovered from the computer of Sachin Pawar of the Sahara group shows great amount of detail: date and place of payment, person to whom cash is paid, and the person who has delivered the cash. It also shows corresponding cash received from different sources, primarily one M/s MARCOM. Unlike the Jain hawala case, which did not result in any convictions because the diary entries were not corroborated by the CBI, the Sahara-Birla payoff papers appear capable of yielding corroboration, only if the investigating authorities make an attempt.

The spreadsheet, it was alleged, carried details of two payments amounting to Rs.10 crore to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, one payment to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, and nine payments amounting to Rs.40 crore to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who is also referred to as Modiji. Other recipients who were allegedly paid by the company include the then Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, who has denied the allegation.

The I.A. submitted that these details could be corroborated by checking the call records of the persons who delivered the money and to whom it was delivered. A copy of a note giving mobile numbers of the Sahara group employees who were involved in this was annexed with the I.A.

The Sahara group had approached the Income Tax Settlement Commission for relief. The Income Tax Department quotes Pawar as claiming that he recorded the incriminating entries in order to implicate another employee, V.S. Dogra, and get him punished by the management. The department, however, found Pawar’s version totally unconvincing. It noted that the seized documents appeared to be true and that the claims of having recorded transactions on a regular basis over a period of four-five years only for the sake of implicating Dogra was unbelievable.

The Settlement Commission, however, settled the case and absolved Sahara of all criminal and civil liability on specious grounds, despite the fact that Common Cause had sent the Commission a letter on November 8 requesting it not to allow any settlement. Both the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) under the Ministry of Finance had found a large number of suspicious cash transactions on a very large number of accounts linked with the Sahara Group, the I.A. reveals.

The Citizen’s Whistleblowers Forum, headed by Justice A.P. Shah, former Chairperson of the Law Commission, has urged the Chairperson of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) to investigate the Sahara-Birla payoff papers and to challenge the order passed by the Settlement Commission granting immunity to Sahara.

Common Cause’s I.A. was filed in a pending matter, which challenged the appointment of K.V. Chowdary as the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). Chowdary was appointed Adviser to the SIT on Black Money on November 14, 2014, after he demitted office as Chairperson, CBDT. He was given supervisory charge on the subjects handled by Member (Investigation), CBDT, including investigations and subsequent actions. The I.A. alleged that there was a serious lapse on the part of the Income Tax Department under Chowdary when it failed to share the seized Sahara documents with the CBI and the SIT on Black Money.

The I.A. pointed out that after the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Lalita Kumari case (2014), it is a settled law that the registration of a first information report (FIR) is mandatory when the information discloses a cognisable offence. If the information given is found to be false, there is always an option to prosecute the complainant for filing a false FIR, the court had held.

The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the I.A. stems from its concurrence with Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi that for democracy to survive it is necessary to keep important constitutional functionaries such as the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers immune from investigations based on unproven allegations. While this may be true, in the Sahara-Birla pay off case the allegations against the constitutional functionaries were based on information that was duly verified by the investigating institutions, and this set the stage for further inquiry. The Supreme Court’s refusal to direct and monitor further investigation, therefore, marks a serious setback to making institutions, and those who run them, accountable.

Cover Story

Withering lives

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

IT was after 8:30 p.m. that we reached the house of Aravindh in Kulimaathur village in Tiruvaiyaru taluk of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. We knocked on the door; a young girl, obviously his sister, opened it. We enquired if it was Aravindh’s house when her father, S. Asaithambi, stepped onto the verandah. Asaithambi went inside the house and returned with a framed picture of his son with a legend that read: “K.S.A. Aravindh Mazhavarayar. Flowered: 23.09.1991. Fell off: 15.12. 2016.”

Aravindh, 25, was a diploma holder in information technology but was interested in farming, the family’s occupation. He could drive tractors, for which he had a licence. Breaking down as he narrated the events that led to his son’s death, Asaithambi said: “I told him not to dig the borewell but he went ahead. Rains had failed so the borewell had to be drilled deeper and deeper, up to 68 feet. We struck no water.” Aravindh then drilled another borewell, which too did not yield water. The work on the two borewells cost Rs.40,000. The family had been cultivating rice on 2.6 hectares of land taken on lease from a trust 25 years ago. It also owned five hectares. The north-east monsoon, between October and December, failed and there was no water in the Odai irrigation canal, which is fed by the Cauvery river. A nearby drainage canal called Konakarungal Aru, too, dried up.

“Except for a couple of light spells it did not rain at all,” said Asaithambi. This led to a total loss of the “samba” paddy crop, which should have been harvested in January 2017. “The samba had stunted growth” for want of water, he said.

Asaithambi added: “The kuruvai paddy crop too turned out to be a washout. For more than three years, we could not cultivate kuruvai at all. Last year, we cultivated some amount of samba. This year, we lost both kuruvai and samba paddy because the river and the canal had no water. We drilled borewells to save the paddy. But there was no water in the bore either.” He estimated that he lost Rs.3 lakh, which he spent on raising the samba on the 2.6 hectares of leased land.

Asaithambi said: “Aravindh kept telling his friends about the loss. On December 15, he came home around 9:30 p.m. and started vomiting. I asked him what happened. He said he had swallowed a weedicide/herbicide. We rushed him to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital. But he died around midnight.”

It was more or less a similar situation that forced 48-year-old V. Murugaiyyan, a marginal farmer, to hang himself on December 14, in his tiny house at Pirinji Moolai village in Vedaranyam taluk of Nagapattinam district. Murugaiyyan sold his wife’s jewellery for Rs.80,000 and used the money to lease 1.2 hectares for paddy cultivation. As the rain failed, the paddy did not grow. Murugaiyyan’s wife, Rani, said: “My husband was heartbroken. We spent Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 on each acre to plough it with a tractor, buy fertilizer and do direct sowing of paddy. He went to the fields twice on December 14. He saw that the crop had withered. He was depressed. He came home in the afternoon. I asked him to have lunch. But he said he wanted to chew betel leaves and areca nut. He sent me to buy them from a nearby petty shop. When I was gone, he hanged himself with a rope in this room. Our son was in the backyard.” The 10-year-old boy is hearing impaired and mentally unstable. Murugaiyyan is survived by his wife, a 17-year-old daughter who is a Plus Two student, his son, and father-in-law, K. Thangavel.

Although there should have been a nip in the air at this time of the year, on January 4, a blazing sun seared Keezhapatti village near Konappadhai (meaning road with several twists and turns) in Thuraiyur taluk of Tiruchi district. The Kolli hills and the Pachaimalai hills were at a distance.

Hot winds blew across the dreary landscape. In the middle of a field, close to the road, a man was seated in a chair in front of an ettram, a diesel-powered contraption with wheels and a lever. As he operated the lever, a long pole swung around. A bucket was attached to a stick tied to the pole. The bucket dipped into an 80-foot-deep rock-cut well. A labourer, standing at the bottom of the well, scooped out mud and stones, and poured them into the bucket, which was hoisted up. The mud was poured into a mound and the action was repeated. S. Chinnathambi, his brothers and their friend were working like navvies around the well.

A depressing sight prevailed around the well as the maize crop had failed. The sorghum looked shrivelled. On the adjacent plots, the paddy crop and chilli, tomato and lady’s finger plants had withered. “If we do not deepen the well, even the small quantity of water that is available now will not last,” said Chinnathambi. No water has flowed in the nearby Puliancholai river for the past four years. The farmer said: “There was no kodai [summer] rain. There was no mari [during the rainy season] rain. Only when it rains over the Kolli hills, water will flow into the Puliancholai and there will be prosperity.” He and his brothers cultivated paddy and sorghum every year. Depending on their requirements, they would grow tomato, chilli and lady’s finger. All this was until four or five years ago. As if he had read this reporter’s mind, he said: “We cannot use men to deepen this well because it is 80 feet deep.”

In nearby Marugur, shepherds R. Marimuthu and S. Periyasamy herded their goats into a field where the sorghum crop had failed and looked shrivelled. “In this area, farmers cultivate sorghum, cotton and chilli. They used to raise paddy but they stopped paddy cultivation as water is not available. Rains have failed for the past few years. This year, it did not rain enough even for the dhoti we wear to get wet. We are suffering because there is no water for our goats to drink,” Periyasamy said.

Unprecedented in severity

All the 32 districts of the State are in the grip of an unprecedentedly severe drought after both the south-west and north-east monsoons failed. While Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts receive rainfall from both the monsoons, much of the State receives rainfall only from the north-east monsoon.

Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s statement on January 3 gave an insight into the gravity of the situation. If the average rainfall that the State receives from the north-east monsoon from October to December is around 440 millimetres (44 centimetres), it received only 16.83 cm in 2016. “Of the 32 districts, 21 recorded 60 per cent deficient rainfall. That is, they received only 40 per cent of the rainfall from the north-east monsoon. In the remaining 11 districts, the rainfall deficiency was 35 to 59 per cent,”

In Tamil Nadu, in the three Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and the Cauvery belt which includes Erode, Karur, Namakkal Pudukottai and Tiruchi districts, farmers cultivate the kuruvai paddy crop between June and September when Karnataka, the upper riparian State, starts releasing the Cauvery water, which flows into the Mettur dam in Salem district in Tamil Nadu. The Mettur dam is, therefore, the lifeline for the Cauvery belt farmers in Tamil Nadu. They raise another paddy crop called samba between September and January with the help of rains from the north-east monsoon which, if it does not play truant, will last from October to December. The Karnataka government should have made available to Tamil Nadu 192 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery waters at the Biligundulu measuring station on the border between the two States as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on February 5, 2007. Instead, Karnataka provided only 66.10 tmcft in 2016 . This included 31.10 tmcft after a series of Supreme Court rulings. Besides, the north-east monsoon over Tamil Nadu was a big failure. Hence acute distress set in all over the State. Karnataka should make available to Tamil Nadu 192 tmc ft of water in a water year from June 1 to May 31 as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

Series of measures

On January 10, Panneerselvam announced that all the 32 districts would be declared drought-affected because the entire State had received “extremely deficient rainfall” from the north-east monsoon. He announced a series of measures to combat the suffering of farmers: their land tax would be waived; their crop loans would be converted into medium-term loans; farmers who lost 33 per cent of their crops would receive compensation; working days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) would go up from 100 to150; families of 17 farmers who committed suicide in the past two months would receive Rs.3 lakh each, and so forth (see separate story).

The impact of the drought is nowhere as dramatic and tragic as in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and Tiruchi district, which form the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. The impact is equally acute in Ariyalur, Karur, Erode, Namakkal and Pudukottai districts. Not only have the kuruvai and samba paddy crop become a “washout”, but the yield of other crops such as black gram, red gram, sorghum, maize, onion, tomato, citrus fruit (lemon), lady’s finger, chilli, cotton, turmeric and grapes has been very poor. The refrain is the same everywhere: “Every year since 2011 we have been losing the kuruvai crop, this year we lost both kuruvai and samba.”

Snake gourd, bottle gourd, ash gourd and pumpkin creepers have wilted. Medicinal plants grown in Vedaranyam taluk in Nagapattinam district have withered. Jasmine and marigold have failed to bloom. All these districts are in the grip of a drinking water famine. There is scarcity of fodder for the cattle. The air is thick with despair.

The severe all-round distress resulted in 102 farmers committing suicide or dying of heart attack between November 4, 2016 and January 8, 2017. Those who took their lives did so by hanging themselves or by consuming a pesticide/ weedicide/herbicide. Some of them collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the wilted crops. Thirty-five farmers have died in Nagapattinam district, which forms the tail-end of the Cauvery basin; 18 died in Tiruvarur district; and 16 in Thanjavur district. Farmers have taken their own lives in Ariyalur, Cuddalore, Dharmapuri, Kancheepuram, Erode, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tiruvalluvar, Tuticorin and Villupuram districts. They includes a few women.

Bone dry

Rivers, irrigation canals, channels, lakes, ponds and tanks all over the State are bone dry. There is no water in the Cauvery, the Coleroon and the Cauvery’s tributaries such as the Vennaru, the Vettaru, the Koozhaiyaru, the Koraiyaru, and the Mulliyaru. Irrigation canals such as the Periya Vaikkal, the Kalyani canal, the Kannanur canal, the Kallanai canal, and the Adappar drainage canal are running dry. The Kalyani canal, near Soorakkottai in Thanjavur district, which is usually brimming with water during the Pongal season (middle of January) and becomes a picnic spot, is totally dry. Every dam and reservoir, including the Mettur dam, the Vaigai dam in Madurai district, the Manimuthar, Papanasam and other dams in Tirunelveli district, the Pechiparai and Perunchani dams in Kanyakumari district and the Tirumurthi dam in Coimbatore district, has reached dead storage level. Engineers of the Public Works Department (PWD) are scraping the bottom of these dams/reservoirs to supply drinking water to the nearby areas.

The Water Resources Department of the PWD has not bothered to desilt or de-weed the rivers, irrigation canals and channels, lakes and ponds in the State for the past many years. It is a terrible sight to see the Periya Vaikkal (canal) choking with nut grass at Vallur in Tiruvarur district, the Kallanai canal in Thanjavur district overgrown with grass and bushes, the Kannanur canal taken over by vegetation, the Adappar drainage canal swarming with grass, and the Koozhaiyaru in Tiruchi district filled with weeds and vegetation.

What has devastated the farmers who tried to cultivate the samba crop on patches of fields where groundwater was available is that borewells, too, have let them down. They are either drying up or they have to be drilled to a depth of a few hundred feet.

All crops have failed

S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, said: “Two monsoons have failed. There is no Cauvery water. There is no groundwater. This is a classic case where all crops have failed. Considering the entire gamut of problems [including the impact of demonetisation on agriculture] we are facing in the Cauvery delta region, 2016-17 appears to be the worst season in the past 65 years.”

P.R. Pandian, president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, called it the “worst-ever drought in Tamil Nadu”. He attributed the condition to “a three-pronged assault”: deficient rain from the south-west monsoon, failure of the north-east monsoon; and the Karnataka government’s refusal to release 192 tmcft of water that Tamil Nadu was entitled to.

As one drives around Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi districts, it is the same unrelieved pictures of dry rivers, canals, lakes and ponds, and wilted paddy everywhere, interspersed with patches of samba cultivated with groundwater. Crop after crop has turned brown. Ponnammal, an elderly woman, who was leading three goats tied to a leash at Varavukkottai village on the Thanjavur-Mannargudi road, said: “The situation is so bad that farmers are allowing cattle to graze in the paddy field.”

P.M. Murugaiyyan, 61, a retired assistant agriculture officer (AAO) of the State Agriculture Department, was seated in a tea stall at Vallur village, near the culvert of Periya Vaikkal watered by the sprawling Tirumeni lake in Tiruvarur district, when this correspondent met him. “I have never seen a drought like this in the past 30 years... . Those who have borewells have cultivated samba in patches. But the water level is going down fast,” he said. R. Dayalan, his friend and a farmer, chipped in: “In our village, Maharajapuram, out of 300 farmers, 10 to 12 have bore sets. Only they have cultivated paddy.”

Murugaiyyan said the abundant growth of nut grass ( koraippullu in Tamil) and kattu amanakku ( Jatropa gossipifolia), had choked the Periya Vaikkal and large-scale encroachments had reduced the area of the Tirumeni lake, which had a water spread of about 250 hectares. He had worked in nine nearby panchayat blocks, each having an ayacut of about 200 to 300 hectares. As AAO, he taught farmers how to use insecticides and pesticides, what fertilizer to use, what crops to cultivate, and so on. “Fifty hectares of the lake have already been turned into farmland and residential houses. The area at the edge of the lake has been converted into patta land. So the water level in the surrounding areas has gone down,” he said. Borewells are also drying up.

Washout

Farmers across the delta districts and Tiruchi describe the crop situation as a “washout”. They are all traumatised by the complete failure of the kuruvai and samba crops. Be it G. Krishnamurthy and N. Ravichandran, friends and farmers from Kottur in Tiruvarur district; V. Ramu from Painganadu village, a police officer seated in an outpost near the bone-dry Kannanur canal, which marks the beginning of the Tiruvarur district’s territory; N. Damodaran, a farmer from Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district; or G. Ramalingam, a retired deputy Inspector of Surveys at Sattiyangudi, also in Nagapattinam district, say they lost kuruvai for the past five years and that both samba and kuruvai were a washout in 2016.

Krishnamurthy and Ravichandran led us to Kottur, from Adhichapuram in Tiruvarur district, where there were huge swathes of paddy fields. They quickly got off their motorbikes and pulled out a clump of grass that had completely overtaken the wilted paddy stalks. Krishnamurthy said: “Instead of paddy, there is grass. This grass has grown despite the use of a herbicide. So we cannot even harvest one padi [a measure in Tamil] of paddy. The truth is that we cannot even harvest one pidi [a fistful] of paddy.” Ravichandran, the younger of the two, said every farmer in Kottur lost Rs.40,000 an acre. A normal yield would have fetched about 40 bags of paddy an acre.

Krishnamurthy said: “No kuruvai cultivation has been taken up for the past five years. There has been only one crop of samba a year for the past 10 years. This year, we lost even the samba crop. We are not able to sow black gram or red gram either. It is a total loss.”

What is even more alarming is the future of farm labourers; Kottur has so many of them. “Some of them are eating rats. But for the 20 kilograms of free rice supplied by the government through ration shops, we would be starving,” said Krishnamurthy. “We have no money to drink tea,” Ravichandran said.

Withering kuruvai and samba crops on vast areas greet us at Thatchanam, Alathampadi, Manali, Vikkirapandiam, Tiruthuraipoondi, Tirunelvelikaval, Tirukollikadu and other villages.

Depleting water table

At Painganadu, 80-year-old V. Ramu was broadcasting groundnuts in his freshly upturned field when this writer stepped into his field wearing footwear. “Don’t step into the field with chappals on your feet,” he said admonishingly and asked: “What do you want?” He, however, calmed down quickly, and explained how the water table in the borewell had gone down. “It is depleting and so the motor is unable to pump water,” Ramu said. He was worried that if the borewells went dry he would be unable to water the groundnut crop. “Samba has been a washout,” he said. He got a yield of two bags instead of the normal 30 bags of paddy from one acre.

The money crunch was evident in the adjoining field where 55-year-old R. Mohan, a graduate, was sowing groundnut mixed with an insecticide, as C. Baskar was ploughing his field with a pair of bullocks. Mohan decided to sow groundnut after it rained on December 28. “I am broadcasting the groundnuts myself because I want to save on Rs.200 that I would otherwise pay for a farm worker. I have not seen the new Rs.2,000 note. There has been no cultivation of kuruvai after Jayalalithaa [the late Chief Minister] came to power [five years ago]. We got some samba last year.”

Like Ramu, Mohan is also worried about the water table going down. His borewell was 200 ft deep and pumped hot water, which could not be used for irrigation.

Nagapattinam district is the worst affected in terms of not only the magnitude of crop loss but the number of farmers who took their own lives or died of shock on seeing their wilted crops. Thirty-five persons, including three women, lost their lives. In Keezh Velur panchayat union, 11 collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the condition of their crops.

It is not surprising that Nagapattinam is the worst affected district because it is situated at the tail-end of the Cauvery basin, on the coast. So it is difficult, even in a normal season of rainfall, for Cauvery water to flow into its tributary, the Vennaru, in the district. Cauvery V. Dhanabalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Sangam of Nagapattinam, said that for 11 years in a row from 2001 to 2016, the district was ranked as the worst affected by a series of natural calamities. They included the tsunami in 2004, cyclones, floods in 2015, droughts, and so on. He said the non-availability of Cauvery waters from Karnataka and the failure of the north-east monsoon had rendered 1.36 lakh hectares of cultivable land, irrigated by the Vennaru, fallow. “We lost kuruvai in the past five years. We thought we could at least cultivate samba this year, but there was no water in the district to irrigate the fields,” Dhanabalan said. It was a struggle for one lakh small and marginal farmers and six lakh agricultural labourers in the district to earn their livelihood, he said.

Statistics provided by O.S. Maniam, State Minister for Handlooms, when he visited the Nagapattinam district on January 6, reveal how grim the situation is. The district normally receives 111.782 cm of rainfall from the north-east monsoon; in 2015 it received a rainfall of 135.672 cm. In 2016, the district received only 26.24 cm from the north-east monsoon, a shortfall of 76 per cent. More than that, the entire ayacut irrigated by Cauvery waters, was affected because the sluices of the Mettur dam, which were opened on September 20, were closed even before the water from the dam reached Nagapattinam district.

It is, therefore, a terrible situation that obtains in village after village in the district, whether it is Esanur, Vazhakkarai, Tirukkuvalai, Vidangalur, Sattiyankudi, Thevur, or Keezh Velur.

It is cracked fields and withered paddy crops that greeted us at Esanur. Selvamary, her mother-in-law M. Mary, and friend Arokiya Mary said they could not cultivate kuruvai or harvest samba. At Vazhakkarai, a young farmer, S. Nagendran, using a portable diesel-powered motor, was struggling to pump water from pools of rainwater that had stagnated in a narrow irrigation channel into his field where the samba crop had some life. “It rained hard overnight some days ago. The crop can be salvaged if the paddy is about to be harvested. If it is a sapling or is in the panicle stage, it cannot be saved,” he said. All round the plot where he was trying to save his crop were stretches of fields overgrown with grass.

Seventy-year-old G. Ramadoss Naidu is a farmer at Vidangalur. “I have not seen a brutal drought like this in all my life,” he said. In his estimate, every aspect of agriculture in the district has been ruined. Even 30 per cent of the normal water did not flow in the Vennaru. Ramadoss Naidu said: “For the past 10 years, we could not cultivate kuruvai. We used to cultivate some samba when it rained and there was water in the river. We could not even raise samba this year. In sum, we could not harvest a single ear of paddy. The entire district has been devastated.” He took us to his field and plucked thick strands of grass, which had commingled with paddy. And he commanded us to look at the fields across the road. Arugampul (Bermuda grass) had colonised vast stretches of paddy field there.

Less than a kilometre away, on the border between Vidangalur and Sattiyankudi villages, goats were grazing in the withered fields.

Hype and reality

cover-story

THE news of more than 102 deaths of farmers was met with disbelief in many quarters. Agriculture Department officials said there was “media hype” surrounding these claims that farmers were dying of heart attack. According to them, the farmers’ families would get a solatium from the State government if they could make out a case that the farmers had died of shock on seeing the condition of their crop. While conceding that it was “a severe drought” that affected the State, Agriculture Department officials pointed out that the farmers who had committed suicide or died of heart attack were also stricken with “internal problems in their families”. It is not to discount the fact that some farmers might have committed suicide unable to cope with the stress, they said. “But it is media hype when claims are made that eight farmers or 12 farmers had died of a heart attack in a single day,” an official said.

Leaders of Left parties, who had prepared a list of 102 farmers who had died, conceded that “it could be a mixture of genuine distress deaths and bogus claims”. According to them, it was not possible to verify every claim whether it was genuine or bogus. But the number of dead did not surely touch 126 as claimed by some newspapers and television channels, they said. A scrutiny of the age of the farmers who died of a heart attack show that a large number of them were in their late 60s or early 70s and some were even 75 years and above. Vadamalai of Puthagalur village, Vazhkkai, Nannilam taluk, Tiruvarur district, was 85 years old when he died. A leader of the Left party said: “It is the local media [television channels] which are making these tall claims without taking into account the age of the farmers who die.” On January 10, when Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam announced his government’s intention to declare all the 32 districts in the State drought-affected, he said his government would pay a solatium to those farmers who had taken their own lives.

“In the last two months, 17 farmers committed suicide. Although these suicides of farmers could have occurred due to various reasons, the families of the dead would be given a solatium of Rs.3 lakh each from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund,” the Chief Minister said. “There are reports in the media that farmers have died of shock because of the impact of the drought. Detailed reports about these deaths have been sought from District Collectors. After these reports are received, due relief would be provided to the families of the dead farmers.”

T.S. Subramanian

What constitutes a drought

cover-story

THE Government of India’s Manual for Drought Management recommends that rainfall deficiency, the extent of area sown, normalised difference vegetation index and moisture adequacy index are “the four standard monitoring tools” that can be applied in combination to declare an administrative unit drought-affected. Since information on these indicators is available at the level of taluk/tehsil/block, drought may be declared by a State government at the level of these administrative units on the basis of observed deficiencies, the manual says. At least three indicators can be considered for drought declaration but the most important criterion is rainfall deficiency.

A State government can consider declaring a drought if the total rainfall for the State’s entire duration of the rainy season from June to September (the south-west monsoon) or from October to December (the north-east monsoon) is less than 75 per cent of the average rainfall for the season and there is an adverse impact on vegetation and soil moisture, the manual says. The government can consider declaring a drought if, along with other indicators, the total area sown by the end of July/August is less than 50 per cent of the total cultivable area. The declaration of drought could be linked with other indicators if the area of sowing was less than 50 per cent of the cultivable area by the end of November/December .

Moisture adequacy index (MAI) values “are critical to ascertain an agricultural drought”, says the manual. The MAI values should be applied in conjunction with other indicators such as rainfall figures, area under sowing, and so on.

Other factors that a government should consider for declaring a drought are the drinking water supply situation, the extent of fodder supply and its prevailing price compared with normal price; unusual movement of labour in search of employment; the prevailing agricultural and non-agricultural wages compared with normal times; and supply of foodgrains and the prices of essential commodities.

“The State government is responsible for declaring a drought,” the manual says. It is necessary to declare a drought through a formal notification for the response measures to begin, it adds. Collectors can notify a drought only after the State government declares it all over the State or parts of it. States that receive rain from the south-west monsoon should declare a drought in October. In the case of States that receive rain from the north-east monsoon, the drought declaration should be done in January. If the situation warrants, it can be done earlier.

T.S. Subramanian

Nothing to bank on

cover-story

The death of Asokan, 56, of Pudukkudi, near Tirumakkottai near Mannargudi, Tiruvarur district, comes across as an irony of life. Asokan died on December 2 on the premises of the Indian Overseas Bank at Tirumakkottai where he had gone to get money for the jewellery he had pledged for farming. There was a big crowd in the bank thanks to the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation move. He was standing in the queue for a couple of hours when he collapsed and died.

His wife, Vedavalli, said, “There is no water in the canal now [Periya Vaikkal, fed by the water from the Tirumeni lake]. There is no harvest because the entire crop has withered.” The couple has a son and two daughters. “Our plans were to educate our children because we could not depend on farming. There was no steady income from it,” Vedavalli said wistfully. “There is no joy in our lives. The bank officials are insisting on rules when we told them to return our jewellery.”

Cover Story

Withering lives

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

IT was after 8:30 p.m. that we reached the house of Aravindh in Kulimaathur village in Tiruvaiyaru taluk of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. We knocked on the door; a young girl, obviously his sister, opened it. We enquired if it was Aravindh’s house when her father, S. Asaithambi, stepped onto the verandah. Asaithambi went inside the house and returned with a framed picture of his son with a legend that read: “K.S.A. Aravindh Mazhavarayar. Flowered: 23.09.1991. Fell off: 15.12. 2016.”

Aravindh, 25, was a diploma holder in information technology but was interested in farming, the family’s occupation. He could drive tractors, for which he had a licence. Breaking down as he narrated the events that led to his son’s death, Asaithambi said: “I told him not to dig the borewell but he went ahead. Rains had failed so the borewell had to be drilled deeper and deeper, up to 68 feet. We struck no water.” Aravindh then drilled another borewell, which too did not yield water. The work on the two borewells cost Rs.40,000. The family had been cultivating rice on 2.6 hectares of land taken on lease from a trust 25 years ago. It also owned five hectares. The north-east monsoon, between October and December, failed and there was no water in the Odai irrigation canal, which is fed by the Cauvery river. A nearby drainage canal called Konakarungal Aru, too, dried up.

“Except for a couple of light spells it did not rain at all,” said Asaithambi. This led to a total loss of the “samba” paddy crop, which should have been harvested in January 2017. “The samba had stunted growth” for want of water, he said.

Asaithambi added: “The kuruvai paddy crop too turned out to be a washout. For more than three years, we could not cultivate kuruvai at all. Last year, we cultivated some amount of samba. This year, we lost both kuruvai and samba paddy because the river and the canal had no water. We drilled borewells to save the paddy. But there was no water in the bore either.” He estimated that he lost Rs.3 lakh, which he spent on raising the samba on the 2.6 hectares of leased land.

Asaithambi said: “Aravindh kept telling his friends about the loss. On December 15, he came home around 9:30 p.m. and started vomiting. I asked him what happened. He said he had swallowed a weedicide/herbicide. We rushed him to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital. But he died around midnight.”

It was more or less a similar situation that forced 48-year-old V. Murugaiyyan, a marginal farmer, to hang himself on December 14, in his tiny house at Pirinji Moolai village in Vedaranyam taluk of Nagapattinam district. Murugaiyyan sold his wife’s jewellery for Rs.80,000 and used the money to lease 1.2 hectares for paddy cultivation. As the rain failed, the paddy did not grow. Murugaiyyan’s wife, Rani, said: “My husband was heartbroken. We spent Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 on each acre to plough it with a tractor, buy fertilizer and do direct sowing of paddy. He went to the fields twice on December 14. He saw that the crop had withered. He was depressed. He came home in the afternoon. I asked him to have lunch. But he said he wanted to chew betel leaves and areca nut. He sent me to buy them from a nearby petty shop. When I was gone, he hanged himself with a rope in this room. Our son was in the backyard.” The 10-year-old boy is hearing impaired and mentally unstable. Murugaiyyan is survived by his wife, a 17-year-old daughter who is a Plus Two student, his son, and father-in-law, K. Thangavel.

Although there should have been a nip in the air at this time of the year, on January 4, a blazing sun seared Keezhapatti village near Konappadhai (meaning road with several twists and turns) in Thuraiyur taluk of Tiruchi district. The Kolli hills and the Pachaimalai hills were at a distance.

Hot winds blew across the dreary landscape. In the middle of a field, close to the road, a man was seated in a chair in front of an ettram, a diesel-powered contraption with wheels and a lever. As he operated the lever, a long pole swung around. A bucket was attached to a stick tied to the pole. The bucket dipped into an 80-foot-deep rock-cut well. A labourer, standing at the bottom of the well, scooped out mud and stones, and poured them into the bucket, which was hoisted up. The mud was poured into a mound and the action was repeated. S. Chinnathambi, his brothers and their friend were working like navvies around the well.

A depressing sight prevailed around the well as the maize crop had failed. The sorghum looked shrivelled. On the adjacent plots, the paddy crop and chilli, tomato and lady’s finger plants had withered. “If we do not deepen the well, even the small quantity of water that is available now will not last,” said Chinnathambi. No water has flowed in the nearby Puliancholai river for the past four years. The farmer said: “There was no kodai [summer] rain. There was no mari [during the rainy season] rain. Only when it rains over the Kolli hills, water will flow into the Puliancholai and there will be prosperity.” He and his brothers cultivated paddy and sorghum every year. Depending on their requirements, they would grow tomato, chilli and lady’s finger. All this was until four or five years ago. As if he had read this reporter’s mind, he said: “We cannot use men to deepen this well because it is 80 feet deep.”

In nearby Marugur, shepherds R. Marimuthu and S. Periyasamy herded their goats into a field where the sorghum crop had failed and looked shrivelled. “In this area, farmers cultivate sorghum, cotton and chilli. They used to raise paddy but they stopped paddy cultivation as water is not available. Rains have failed for the past few years. This year, it did not rain enough even for the dhoti we wear to get wet. We are suffering because there is no water for our goats to drink,” Periyasamy said.

Unprecedented in severity

All the 32 districts of the State are in the grip of an unprecedentedly severe drought after both the south-west and north-east monsoons failed. While Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts receive rainfall from both the monsoons, much of the State receives rainfall only from the north-east monsoon.

Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s statement on January 3 gave an insight into the gravity of the situation. If the average rainfall that the State receives from the north-east monsoon from October to December is around 440 millimetres (44 centimetres), it received only 16.83 cm in 2016. “Of the 32 districts, 21 recorded 60 per cent deficient rainfall. That is, they received only 40 per cent of the rainfall from the north-east monsoon. In the remaining 11 districts, the rainfall deficiency was 35 to 59 per cent,”

In Tamil Nadu, in the three Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and the Cauvery belt which includes Erode, Karur, Namakkal Pudukottai and Tiruchi districts, farmers cultivate the kuruvai paddy crop between June and September when Karnataka, the upper riparian State, starts releasing the Cauvery water, which flows into the Mettur dam in Salem district in Tamil Nadu. The Mettur dam is, therefore, the lifeline for the Cauvery belt farmers in Tamil Nadu. They raise another paddy crop called samba between September and January with the help of rains from the north-east monsoon which, if it does not play truant, will last from October to December. The Karnataka government should have made available to Tamil Nadu 192 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery waters at the Biligundulu measuring station on the border between the two States as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on February 5, 2007. Instead, Karnataka provided only 66.10 tmcft in 2016 . This included 31.10 tmcft after a series of Supreme Court rulings. Besides, the north-east monsoon over Tamil Nadu was a big failure. Hence acute distress set in all over the State. Karnataka should make available to Tamil Nadu 192 tmc ft of water in a water year from June 1 to May 31 as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

Series of measures

On January 10, Panneerselvam announced that all the 32 districts would be declared drought-affected because the entire State had received “extremely deficient rainfall” from the north-east monsoon. He announced a series of measures to combat the suffering of farmers: their land tax would be waived; their crop loans would be converted into medium-term loans; farmers who lost 33 per cent of their crops would receive compensation; working days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) would go up from 100 to150; families of 17 farmers who committed suicide in the past two months would receive Rs.3 lakh each, and so forth (see separate story).

The impact of the drought is nowhere as dramatic and tragic as in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and Tiruchi district, which form the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. The impact is equally acute in Ariyalur, Karur, Erode, Namakkal and Pudukottai districts. Not only have the kuruvai and samba paddy crop become a “washout”, but the yield of other crops such as black gram, red gram, sorghum, maize, onion, tomato, citrus fruit (lemon), lady’s finger, chilli, cotton, turmeric and grapes has been very poor. The refrain is the same everywhere: “Every year since 2011 we have been losing the kuruvai crop, this year we lost both kuruvai and samba.”

Snake gourd, bottle gourd, ash gourd and pumpkin creepers have wilted. Medicinal plants grown in Vedaranyam taluk in Nagapattinam district have withered. Jasmine and marigold have failed to bloom. All these districts are in the grip of a drinking water famine. There is scarcity of fodder for the cattle. The air is thick with despair.

The severe all-round distress resulted in 102 farmers committing suicide or dying of heart attack between November 4, 2016 and January 8, 2017. Those who took their lives did so by hanging themselves or by consuming a pesticide/ weedicide/herbicide. Some of them collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the wilted crops. Thirty-five farmers have died in Nagapattinam district, which forms the tail-end of the Cauvery basin; 18 died in Tiruvarur district; and 16 in Thanjavur district. Farmers have taken their own lives in Ariyalur, Cuddalore, Dharmapuri, Kancheepuram, Erode, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tiruvalluvar, Tuticorin and Villupuram districts. They includes a few women.

Bone dry

Rivers, irrigation canals, channels, lakes, ponds and tanks all over the State are bone dry. There is no water in the Cauvery, the Coleroon and the Cauvery’s tributaries such as the Vennaru, the Vettaru, the Koozhaiyaru, the Koraiyaru, and the Mulliyaru. Irrigation canals such as the Periya Vaikkal, the Kalyani canal, the Kannanur canal, the Kallanai canal, and the Adappar drainage canal are running dry. The Kalyani canal, near Soorakkottai in Thanjavur district, which is usually brimming with water during the Pongal season (middle of January) and becomes a picnic spot, is totally dry. Every dam and reservoir, including the Mettur dam, the Vaigai dam in Madurai district, the Manimuthar, Papanasam and other dams in Tirunelveli district, the Pechiparai and Perunchani dams in Kanyakumari district and the Tirumurthi dam in Coimbatore district, has reached dead storage level. Engineers of the Public Works Department (PWD) are scraping the bottom of these dams/reservoirs to supply drinking water to the nearby areas.

The Water Resources Department of the PWD has not bothered to desilt or de-weed the rivers, irrigation canals and channels, lakes and ponds in the State for the past many years. It is a terrible sight to see the Periya Vaikkal (canal) choking with nut grass at Vallur in Tiruvarur district, the Kallanai canal in Thanjavur district overgrown with grass and bushes, the Kannanur canal taken over by vegetation, the Adappar drainage canal swarming with grass, and the Koozhaiyaru in Tiruchi district filled with weeds and vegetation.

What has devastated the farmers who tried to cultivate the samba crop on patches of fields where groundwater was available is that borewells, too, have let them down. They are either drying up or they have to be drilled to a depth of a few hundred feet.

All crops have failed

S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, said: “Two monsoons have failed. There is no Cauvery water. There is no groundwater. This is a classic case where all crops have failed. Considering the entire gamut of problems [including the impact of demonetisation on agriculture] we are facing in the Cauvery delta region, 2016-17 appears to be the worst season in the past 65 years.”

P.R. Pandian, president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, called it the “worst-ever drought in Tamil Nadu”. He attributed the condition to “a three-pronged assault”: deficient rain from the south-west monsoon, failure of the north-east monsoon; and the Karnataka government’s refusal to release 192 tmcft of water that Tamil Nadu was entitled to.

As one drives around Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi districts, it is the same unrelieved pictures of dry rivers, canals, lakes and ponds, and wilted paddy everywhere, interspersed with patches of samba cultivated with groundwater. Crop after crop has turned brown. Ponnammal, an elderly woman, who was leading three goats tied to a leash at Varavukkottai village on the Thanjavur-Mannargudi road, said: “The situation is so bad that farmers are allowing cattle to graze in the paddy field.”

P.M. Murugaiyyan, 61, a retired assistant agriculture officer (AAO) of the State Agriculture Department, was seated in a tea stall at Vallur village, near the culvert of Periya Vaikkal watered by the sprawling Tirumeni lake in Tiruvarur district, when this correspondent met him. “I have never seen a drought like this in the past 30 years... . Those who have borewells have cultivated samba in patches. But the water level is going down fast,” he said. R. Dayalan, his friend and a farmer, chipped in: “In our village, Maharajapuram, out of 300 farmers, 10 to 12 have bore sets. Only they have cultivated paddy.”

Murugaiyyan said the abundant growth of nut grass ( koraippullu in Tamil) and kattu amanakku ( Jatropa gossipifolia), had choked the Periya Vaikkal and large-scale encroachments had reduced the area of the Tirumeni lake, which had a water spread of about 250 hectares. He had worked in nine nearby panchayat blocks, each having an ayacut of about 200 to 300 hectares. As AAO, he taught farmers how to use insecticides and pesticides, what fertilizer to use, what crops to cultivate, and so on. “Fifty hectares of the lake have already been turned into farmland and residential houses. The area at the edge of the lake has been converted into patta land. So the water level in the surrounding areas has gone down,” he said. Borewells are also drying up.

Washout

Farmers across the delta districts and Tiruchi describe the crop situation as a “washout”. They are all traumatised by the complete failure of the kuruvai and samba crops. Be it G. Krishnamurthy and N. Ravichandran, friends and farmers from Kottur in Tiruvarur district; V. Ramu from Painganadu village, a police officer seated in an outpost near the bone-dry Kannanur canal, which marks the beginning of the Tiruvarur district’s territory; N. Damodaran, a farmer from Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district; or G. Ramalingam, a retired deputy Inspector of Surveys at Sattiyangudi, also in Nagapattinam district, say they lost kuruvai for the past five years and that both samba and kuruvai were a washout in 2016.

Krishnamurthy and Ravichandran led us to Kottur, from Adhichapuram in Tiruvarur district, where there were huge swathes of paddy fields. They quickly got off their motorbikes and pulled out a clump of grass that had completely overtaken the wilted paddy stalks. Krishnamurthy said: “Instead of paddy, there is grass. This grass has grown despite the use of a herbicide. So we cannot even harvest one padi [a measure in Tamil] of paddy. The truth is that we cannot even harvest one pidi [a fistful] of paddy.” Ravichandran, the younger of the two, said every farmer in Kottur lost Rs.40,000 an acre. A normal yield would have fetched about 40 bags of paddy an acre.

Krishnamurthy said: “No kuruvai cultivation has been taken up for the past five years. There has been only one crop of samba a year for the past 10 years. This year, we lost even the samba crop. We are not able to sow black gram or red gram either. It is a total loss.”

What is even more alarming is the future of farm labourers; Kottur has so many of them. “Some of them are eating rats. But for the 20 kilograms of free rice supplied by the government through ration shops, we would be starving,” said Krishnamurthy. “We have no money to drink tea,” Ravichandran said.

Withering kuruvai and samba crops on vast areas greet us at Thatchanam, Alathampadi, Manali, Vikkirapandiam, Tiruthuraipoondi, Tirunelvelikaval, Tirukollikadu and other villages.

Depleting water table

At Painganadu, 80-year-old V. Ramu was broadcasting groundnuts in his freshly upturned field when this writer stepped into his field wearing footwear. “Don’t step into the field with chappals on your feet,” he said admonishingly and asked: “What do you want?” He, however, calmed down quickly, and explained how the water table in the borewell had gone down. “It is depleting and so the motor is unable to pump water,” Ramu said. He was worried that if the borewells went dry he would be unable to water the groundnut crop. “Samba has been a washout,” he said. He got a yield of two bags instead of the normal 30 bags of paddy from one acre.

The money crunch was evident in the adjoining field where 55-year-old R. Mohan, a graduate, was sowing groundnut mixed with an insecticide, as C. Baskar was ploughing his field with a pair of bullocks. Mohan decided to sow groundnut after it rained on December 28. “I am broadcasting the groundnuts myself because I want to save on Rs.200 that I would otherwise pay for a farm worker. I have not seen the new Rs.2,000 note. There has been no cultivation of kuruvai after Jayalalithaa [the late Chief Minister] came to power [five years ago]. We got some samba last year.”

Like Ramu, Mohan is also worried about the water table going down. His borewell was 200 ft deep and pumped hot water, which could not be used for irrigation.

Nagapattinam district is the worst affected in terms of not only the magnitude of crop loss but the number of farmers who took their own lives or died of shock on seeing their wilted crops. Thirty-five persons, including three women, lost their lives. In Keezh Velur panchayat union, 11 collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the condition of their crops.

It is not surprising that Nagapattinam is the worst affected district because it is situated at the tail-end of the Cauvery basin, on the coast. So it is difficult, even in a normal season of rainfall, for Cauvery water to flow into its tributary, the Vennaru, in the district. Cauvery V. Dhanabalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Sangam of Nagapattinam, said that for 11 years in a row from 2001 to 2016, the district was ranked as the worst affected by a series of natural calamities. They included the tsunami in 2004, cyclones, floods in 2015, droughts, and so on. He said the non-availability of Cauvery waters from Karnataka and the failure of the north-east monsoon had rendered 1.36 lakh hectares of cultivable land, irrigated by the Vennaru, fallow. “We lost kuruvai in the past five years. We thought we could at least cultivate samba this year, but there was no water in the district to irrigate the fields,” Dhanabalan said. It was a struggle for one lakh small and marginal farmers and six lakh agricultural labourers in the district to earn their livelihood, he said.

Statistics provided by O.S. Maniam, State Minister for Handlooms, when he visited the Nagapattinam district on January 6, reveal how grim the situation is. The district normally receives 111.782 cm of rainfall from the north-east monsoon; in 2015 it received a rainfall of 135.672 cm. In 2016, the district received only 26.24 cm from the north-east monsoon, a shortfall of 76 per cent. More than that, the entire ayacut irrigated by Cauvery waters, was affected because the sluices of the Mettur dam, which were opened on September 20, were closed even before the water from the dam reached Nagapattinam district.

It is, therefore, a terrible situation that obtains in village after village in the district, whether it is Esanur, Vazhakkarai, Tirukkuvalai, Vidangalur, Sattiyankudi, Thevur, or Keezh Velur.

It is cracked fields and withered paddy crops that greeted us at Esanur. Selvamary, her mother-in-law M. Mary, and friend Arokiya Mary said they could not cultivate kuruvai or harvest samba. At Vazhakkarai, a young farmer, S. Nagendran, using a portable diesel-powered motor, was struggling to pump water from pools of rainwater that had stagnated in a narrow irrigation channel into his field where the samba crop had some life. “It rained hard overnight some days ago. The crop can be salvaged if the paddy is about to be harvested. If it is a sapling or is in the panicle stage, it cannot be saved,” he said. All round the plot where he was trying to save his crop were stretches of fields overgrown with grass.

Seventy-year-old G. Ramadoss Naidu is a farmer at Vidangalur. “I have not seen a brutal drought like this in all my life,” he said. In his estimate, every aspect of agriculture in the district has been ruined. Even 30 per cent of the normal water did not flow in the Vennaru. Ramadoss Naidu said: “For the past 10 years, we could not cultivate kuruvai. We used to cultivate some samba when it rained and there was water in the river. We could not even raise samba this year. In sum, we could not harvest a single ear of paddy. The entire district has been devastated.” He took us to his field and plucked thick strands of grass, which had commingled with paddy. And he commanded us to look at the fields across the road. Arugampul (Bermuda grass) had colonised vast stretches of paddy field there.

Less than a kilometre away, on the border between Vidangalur and Sattiyankudi villages, goats were grazing in the withered fields.

Hype and reality

cover-story

THE news of more than 102 deaths of farmers was met with disbelief in many quarters. Agriculture Department officials said there was “media hype” surrounding these claims that farmers were dying of heart attack. According to them, the farmers’ families would get a solatium from the State government if they could make out a case that the farmers had died of shock on seeing the condition of their crop. While conceding that it was “a severe drought” that affected the State, Agriculture Department officials pointed out that the farmers who had committed suicide or died of heart attack were also stricken with “internal problems in their families”. It is not to discount the fact that some farmers might have committed suicide unable to cope with the stress, they said. “But it is media hype when claims are made that eight farmers or 12 farmers had died of a heart attack in a single day,” an official said.

Leaders of Left parties, who had prepared a list of 102 farmers who had died, conceded that “it could be a mixture of genuine distress deaths and bogus claims”. According to them, it was not possible to verify every claim whether it was genuine or bogus. But the number of dead did not surely touch 126 as claimed by some newspapers and television channels, they said. A scrutiny of the age of the farmers who died of a heart attack show that a large number of them were in their late 60s or early 70s and some were even 75 years and above. Vadamalai of Puthagalur village, Vazhkkai, Nannilam taluk, Tiruvarur district, was 85 years old when he died. A leader of the Left party said: “It is the local media [television channels] which are making these tall claims without taking into account the age of the farmers who die.” On January 10, when Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam announced his government’s intention to declare all the 32 districts in the State drought-affected, he said his government would pay a solatium to those farmers who had taken their own lives.

“In the last two months, 17 farmers committed suicide. Although these suicides of farmers could have occurred due to various reasons, the families of the dead would be given a solatium of Rs.3 lakh each from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund,” the Chief Minister said. “There are reports in the media that farmers have died of shock because of the impact of the drought. Detailed reports about these deaths have been sought from District Collectors. After these reports are received, due relief would be provided to the families of the dead farmers.”

T.S. Subramanian

Water scarcity

Dry and dreary

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

WITH the north-east monsoon failing all over Tamil Nadu, it is not surprising that a debilitating drought has gripped all the 32 districts of the State, including Chennai, the State capital. With reservoirs and dams heading towards dead storage, it is only a matter of weeks before the entire State will face drinking water famine. The dams that are approaching the dead-storage position include Mettur dam in Salem district, Vaigai dam in Madurai district, Papanasam, Manimutharu and 10 other dams/reservoirs in Tirunelveli district, Krishnagiri dam in Krishnagiri district, Pechiparai and Perunchani reservoirs in Kanyakumari district and Sathanur dam in Tiruvannamalai district.

Chennai is heading towards a massive drinking water supply crisis. The situation is so alarming that the combined storage level in the four reservoirs that supply water to Chennai city stood at 1.504 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) on January 12 against the total capacity of 11.057 tmcft. The four reservoirs that provide drinking water to Chennai are situated at Puzhal (Red Hills), Sholavaram, Chembarampakkam and Poondi. Their combined storage level as on January 12 was sufficient to supply Chennai only for four weeks. The alarming situation compelled Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in Vijayawada on January 12 and request him to step up the release of the Krishna water from the Kandaleru reservoir in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. He also thanked the Andhra Pradesh government for ensuring the flow of Krishna water to Chennai from January 9.

The situation is equally alarming in other districts. Madurai district has 13 blocks, with five coming under the Periyar dam-Vaigai dam assured irrigation command area. The sluices of the Vaigai dam were not opened for irrigation this season in view of the extremely poor storage position in its reservoir. As a result farmers in Madurai east, Madurai west, Melur, Vadipatti and Alanganallur blocks could not cultivate both kuruvai and paddy crops.

Tirumangalam, Tiruparankunram, Kallikudi, Usilampatti, Sedapatti, Sellampatti, Kottampatti and T. Kallupatti, all rain-fed areas, are the remaining eight blocks where farmers grow pulses and millets. Fifty per cent of these crops have already dried up. Agriculture Department officials have undertaken an assessment of the situation. In a season of normal rainfall, paddy is cultivated in about 50,000 hectares in these 13 blocks. But sowing was done only in 6,000 hectares this season for want of water and it is anybody’s guess how much of paddy will be harvested in January.

Waterbodies in villages such as Silaiman, Keezhadi, Manalur and Thoothai Maranadu, which are situated on the banks of the Vaigai river, have dried up. Drinking water is supplied to these villages in tankers. The Maranadu “kanmai” (lake), which irrigates more than 1,200 hectares, is also dry. The bed of Kattikulam tank, which irrigates 800 hectares, is overgrown with Prosposis juliflora trees. The tank is bereft of water.

In Tiruchi district, irrigated by the Cauvery river, its branches and irrigation canals, farmers have lost both kuruvai and samba paddy crops this season. There is no water flowing in the Cauvery or its branches such Kudamuruttiaru and Kuzhaiyaru. In rain-fed areas such as Siruganur, Peruganur and Tiruppattur villages, sorghum and maize have withered. At Siruganur, a well and an adjoining tank were incredibly dry when this correspondent visited the village. Across the road, a group of women were cutting down the sorghum plants because they had shrivelled before reaching maturity. The plants will become fodder for cattle. G. Chellambal said, “We lost sorghum. In the nearby villages, cotton farmers lost heavily because the yield was not good. The red gram has failed. It did not rain at all here. We did direct sowing and we got nothing.”

A couple of kilometres away, at Tirupattur village in Mannachanallur panchayat union, a marginal farmer, K. Gandhi had cultivated maize on one acre (0.4 hectare) but the crop dried up for want of water. He showed the Frontline team the shrivelled corn cobs. “I lost Rs.20,000. This includes Rs.3,600 spent on buying seeds, Rs.5,500 spent on fertilizer and Rs.6,000 spent on labourers who de-weeded the field. I am yet to pay Rs.4,200 for ploughing,” Gandhi said.

Some distance away, in the interior part of Tirupattur, A. Natarajan cultivated cotton but the crop did not take off for want of water. There are no irrigation canals in this rain-fed area. There are only open wells. As the monsoon failed, farmers were hit hard. Natarajan’s cotton plants, which should normally grow to a height of five feet, were only three ft tall. “I would have got about 100 cotton bulbs from every healthy plant. We did not have enough water, so the plants are not healthy. I will not get even 10 bulbs from each plant,” Natarajan said. The cotton collected from these plants was sent to the textile mills in Tiruppur, he explained. “I spent Rs.50,000 to cultivate these plants in one acre. I shall get only Rs.5,000 now,” Natarajan said.

A. Radhakrishnan and his four brothers had invested Rs.1 lakh each in their citrus plantations. They also cultivated snake gourd, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, double beans and pumpkin. None of these has given a good yield.

The drought situation is really grim in Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Virudhunagar districts. Most of the waterbodies in these districts are dry. There is no water in the domestic or irrigation wells. The situation is no better in the fertile Tirunelveli district, which is another rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. (The districts in the Cauvery delta are the main rice-growing areas of the State.) Storage levels in the 12 dams/reservoirs in the district, including the Papanasam and Manimutharu dams, are nearing the dead-storage level. Owing to a couple of spells of rains recently, some water flows in the Tamiraparani river.

Salem district is no better. Mettur dam, the lifeline of agriculture in the Cauvery delta and Cauvery belt districts, is approaching its dead-storage level.

A report datelined Salem and published in The Hindu on January 12 said: “Owing to the failure of the monsoon and the refusal of the Karnataka government to release water from its Krishnarajasagar and Kabini reservoirs into the Cauvery river despite the Supreme Court directive, the quantum of inflow into the Mettur dam has remained meagre since mid-October.

“The storage level went down to 9.908 tmcft on January 11 against the dam’s full capacity of 93.47 tmcft, and this is the lowest storage level registered this season, according to Public Works Department sources.”

The full-reservoir levelof the Mettur dam is 120 ft; the level now stands at 35 ft. Its dead-storage level is 20 ft, below which is just slush.

There is not a drop of water in the east canal and west canals of the Mettur dam, which irrigate an ayacut of 18,000 hectares in Erode, Salem and Tiruchi districts. So cultivation of paddy, tapioca, millets and pulses has been upset this season in Salem district. No water is available for the cattle. There is no fodder either. Farmers have already begun distress sale of cattle.

What farmers' leaders say

Falling water table and a dry river

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

WHETHER it is 82-year-old S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, 80-year-old farmer V. Ramu from Painganadu in Tiruvarur district, 70-year-old farmer G. Ramadoss Naidu from Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district or 48-year-old activist P.R. Pandian, the assessment is the same: that they have not seen a drought in Tamil Nadu as devastating as this one in their lifetime.

Pandian, who is president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, said the drought conditions were a result of “a three-pronged assault”: deficient rainfall from the south-west monsoon, failure of the north-east monsoon, and the Karnataka government’s refusal to comply with the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal of February 2007 (the award entailed that the upper riparian State should provide Tamil Nadu 192 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water in a water year from June 1 to May 31.) As a result, paddy, maize, sorghum, cotton, turmeric, citrus fruit, onion, tomato, lady’s finger and several crops have withered across the State.

Pandian said that although the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) government in Karnataka headed by Jagdish Shettar had agreed to the setting up of the Cauvery management board to ensure the implementation of the final award, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre was averse to setting up the board. He said: “As a result, the entire issue got diverted and the final award could not be implemented. The Cauvery delta farmers were eager that the Centre should set up the board.” Pandian blamed the Centre for the loss of lives of farmers in Tamil Nadu.

The Narendra Modi government took a bizarre stand in the Supreme Court in October 2016, that the apex court had no power to review the final award of the tribunal. The Centre argued that the tribunal’s award was final and opposed the hearing of appeals filed by Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It maintained that Article 262 (2) of the Constitution and provisions of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, barred the Supreme Court from entertaining appeals against the tribunal’s final award. On December 9, 2016, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Dipak Misra, Amitava Roy and A.M. Khanvilkar, brushed aside the Centre’s stand and upheld the court’s constitutional power to hear the appeals filed by Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu against the final award.

Pandian said: “Had the Cauvery management board been set up, it would have ensured the implementation of the final award and the farmer deaths would not have occurred. No farmer can truly recover from the shock of seeing his crop wither.”

The samba crop, usually cultivated on 13.5 lakh acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) in the core Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, was a “total washout this season”, he said. He suggested that the State government prepare far-sighted, long-term plans to restore the groundwater table in Tamil Nadu.

With the groundwater table receding fast in the three delta districts, Ranganathan wonders what will happen to the samba crop sown directly in areas where groundwater was available.

“We do not know how much of the samba will survive. We have reached the lowest ebb as far as the availability of groundwater is concerned. Many farmers are buying water in tankers because they somehow want to save the standing crop,” Ranganathan said. The upshot was that the 5-horsepower motor, used to pump out water from borewells, was unable to do so because the water table had gone to a depth of more than 400 ft. “If farmers use more powerful motors, transformers would get damaged as they would not be able to take the overload. So it has become a big struggle to keep the crops alive,” he said.

Ranganathan said: “I have never seen more hardship faced by the people than now. Both kuruvai and samba crops could not be raised because the south-west monsoon and the north-east monsoon failed. The Cauvery is dry. Groundwater is not available either. All factors have combined to hit the crops and the farmers hard. This is one of the worst seasons experienced by Cauvery delta farmers.”

P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), complained that the high-level teams deputed by Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to various districts were tasked to assess only the extent of loss of various crops. (On January 3, the Chief Minister announced that high-level teams comprising Ministers and senior IAS officers (Collectors and officials from the Agriculture Department and the Revenue Department) would visit 31 districts other than Chennai district to assess the status of the crops and the drought situation and submit reports to the government.)

Shanmugam said: “The teams, therefore, did not make an all-round, comprehensive assessment of the impact of the drought on various fronts. They had no instructions to assess the impact of the drought on agricultural workers. A District Collector said that Collectors had not been told to make inquiries about farmers who committed suicide. Migration of farm labour is taking place. But the teams did not study this phenomenon. Cattle do not have fodder to eat or water to drink. The price of fodder has shot up 100 per cent. All this is related to drought. Irrigation canals, lakes and ponds have not been de-silted for years. It is not as if drought means only failure of crops.

“The teams did not evaluate the brutal impact of the drought on numerous fronts. They took a totally wrong approach when they studied only the crop loss in the districts.”

Cauvery V. Dhanabalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Sangam, Nagapattinam, blamed the Karnataka government for the drought in Tamil Nadu. Karnataka said it would release only the surplus water from its reservoirs to Tamil Nadu. Its strategy was to keep using the Cauvery water from its dams/reservoirs and ensure that the dams never had surplus water, he said. “Worse still, Karnataka farmers use the Cauvery waters round the year to cultivate sugarcane,” he alleged. In Tamil Nadu, too, farmers cultivated sugarcane, but they used groundwater, Dhanabalan alleged. He wanted the Tamil Nadu government to demand a compensation of Rs.6,000 crore from the Karnataka government for the loss of kuruvai and samba crops. Tamil Nadu should insist that the Centre set up the Cauvery management board to ensure the implementation of the final award. Rivers, irrigation canals, channels, ponds and kanmais should be de-silted and cleared of all vegetation that had grown on their beds.

A series of check dams should be built on the Cauvery basin between Tiruchi and Mettur to conserve water. Shutters and regulators in dams should be maintained properly.

Perambur and Kalla Perambur lakes, both situated in Thanjavur district, should be de-silted and deepened, Dhanabalan said.

Lives on lease

cover-story

AT least 102 farmers across Tamil Nadu are said to have committed suicide or died of heart attack because of crop failure. All were marginal farmers or agricultural labourers who had taken three or four acres on lease after paying Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000 an acre. They had spent more money to buy fertilizer, for sowing and to pay for additional labour. When the crop failed because of a highly deficient north-east monsoon, it was the end of the road for them. There was no way they could have got back the money they had invested in sowing the crop, which had withered.

Worse, most of these marginal farmers had pledged jewellery or borrowed money from moneylenders at usurious interest rates.

They had lost money heavily in the previous years too for the “kuruvai” paddy crop, which had failed for five successive years from 2011. Personal tragedies like the death of a child or the upkeep of a physically disabled or a mentally unstable child drained the rest of what life offered them. In such circumstances, it is not surprising for depression to creep in. Most farmers took their lives by consuming pesticides that were available with them. Some just collapsed in their fields on seeing that their crop was stunted or had withered.

Interactions with the families of victims revealed that there were different kinds of lease agreements. If the land was to be leased for a big amount, the lessor would return the money to the farmer. Whenever the money was returned, say after two to four years, the lessee had to give the land back to the lessor. So the lessee could cultivate the land until the lessor returned the money.

A generally prevalent lease agreement is for a year, from the Tamil new year of Chithirai month (April). The lessee had to return the land to the lessor at the end of a year irrespective of whether he had earned money or not from the land. A third type of agreement, an old one, is for the lessee to provide a certain quantity of paddy to the lessor every year for the period of the lease. No money transaction is involved in this.

T.S. Subramanian

Parched lives

cover-story

VELLAIYAN took on lease a piece of land to cultivate paddy near his house at Madha Kovil Street in Keezh Tirupanthuruthi village in Tiruvaiyaru taluk, Thanjavur district. The north-east monsoon failed and there was no groundwater either. Vellaiyan was found dead in his field. He is survived by his wife and schoolgoing children.

D. Rajendran, in his late 40s, of Thevur village, Keezh Velur panchayat union, Nagapattinam district, collapsed and died of a heart attack in the afternoon of January 6 in his field. He was heartbroken when he saw that the paddy he tended to had withered for lack of water. Ironically, Rajendran died when he was waiting for a team comprising a Minister, the District Collector and officials of the Agriculture and Revenue Departments that was to visit his field for an assessment of the crop loss. The Frontline team reached his home at Thevur the same evening. His body was kept in his thatched hut. He is survived by his wife, Indira, daughter Rajalakshmi and son Kesavan.

One of the mourners who had gathered in front of his house said that Rajendran had leased five acres of land for Rs.1.5 lakh and that he had borrowed the money from a moneylender at a high rate of interest. Since the irrigation canals were dry, Rajendran spent money in drilling a borewell. But it did not yield water. “It was a total loss for him. He was not eating properly for a few days. He was heartbroken. He collapsed in his field in the hot sun,” said Ilanthamizhan, a resident.

Dead crop

cover-story

AZHAKESAN, 45, of Adhichapuram, Kottur in Mannargudi taluk of Tiruvarur district blacked out in his field on seeing the withered crop. He died of a heart attack soon after. Azhakesan is survived by his wife, Arokiya Mary, daughters Ilakkiya and Yogapriya, son Akilavanan and parents, Thangaiyya and Amirthavalli. Ilakkiya is studying in an engineering college and Yogapriya and Akilavanan are in school. Seventy-year-old K. Thangavelu, his neighbour and district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said Azhakesan had taken two acres on lease for Rs.9,000 an acre. He bought seeds and hired a tractor four times to prepare the land.

He adopted the practice of sowing paddy directly because there was no water in the nearby irrigation channel to prepare a nursery and transplant the saplings. “He used to consult his wife on everything. She told him not to take the land on lease,” Thangavelu said.

On November 4, Azhakesan visited his field and saw that the crop he had raised had withered following the failure of the north-east monsoon. “Farmers in the neighbouring field saw him lying unconscious and brought him home. We rang up 108 ambulance [government-run emergency service]. The medical staff in the ambulance said he was already dead. We informed the village administrative officer [VAO] about Azhakesan’s death. We sent the body for post-mortem. The report was that he died of a heart attack,” said Thangavelu.

After Azhakesan’s death, the residents of Adichapuram blocked the road to pressure the government to take steps for the welfare of farmers. “The tahsildar and the Revenue Department officials arrived on the scene but nothing worthwhile happened,” said K. Ramaiyya, 40, a social worker and farmer.

What appalled Thangavelu was the officials’ attitude towards the family of Azhakesan. “When Arokiya Mary presented a petition to the tahsildar seeking financial relief from the Uzhavar Paadhukappu Thittam [Scheme for the Protection of Farmers], he said the petition should be given to the special tahsildar in charge of the scheme. When she approached the special tahsildar, he said financial relief could be given under the scheme only to farmers who had died in accidents. Then the tahsildar told the special tahsildar to merely accept our petition. The special tahsildar ‘accepted’ our petition and rejected it,” he said.

With its only breadwinner dead, the family of Azhakesan faces a bleak future.

Declaration of drought

Crucial steps

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

ALTHOUGH Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s announcement on January 10 that his government would declare all the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu drought-affected is a victory for political parties that were pressing for it, they welcomed the announcement with caution and reservations. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) had demanded that the State be declared drought-affected. Panneerselvam heads the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government.

The highlight of the Chief Minister’s package of concessions are: all districts will be declared drought-hit because the rainfall from the north-east monsoon was extremely deficient in all parts of the State, land tax to be paid by farmers will be waived, and crop loans obtained by farmers from cooperative banks and commercial banks will be converted into medium-term loans. An important concession relates to compensation to be paid to farmers who lost 33 per cent of their yield. The Chief Minister said a compensation of Rs.5,465 an acre (0.4 hectare) would be given to farmers who cultivated paddy or other irrigated crops, Rs.7,287 will be given for long-term crops, and Rs.3,000 for rain-fed crops. A memorandum would be prepared and submitted to the Centre for financial assistance since a huge outlay is required to combat the fallout of the drought. To provide employment to agricultural labourers, the number of working days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) would be increased from 100 to 150 days, the Chief Minister said.

Since the State government had paid a premium of Rs.410 crore as its share in the new crop insurance scheme, farmers would be able to benefit from it, he said. Thus, if the crop loss was 100 per cent for paddy, insurance claims between Rs.21,500 and Rs.26,000 could be received for an acre. It would be Rs.25,000 an acre for the districts in the Cauvery delta. The Chief Minister listed the insurance amounts that could be claimed depending on the percentage of loss of yield for paddy. Farmers can claim up to Rs.45,000 an acre for sugarcane, up to Rs.20,000 for sorghum, and up to Rs.50,000 for turmeric. An allocation of Rs.3,400 crore would be made for de-silting irrigation canals, lakes and ponds through the Department of Rural Development and Local Administration, Panneerselvam said. “Farm labourers affected by the drought will benefit from this,” he added. Some 17 farmers had committed suicide for “various reasons” in the past two years, and their families would be given a solatium of Rs.3 lakh each from the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund, he said.

The Chief Minister’s package was a sequel to his decision on January 3 to send high-level teams comprising Ministers, District Collectors, and officials of the Agriculture Department and the Revenue Department to visit all the districts and submit reports to the government on the crop situation. The teams gave their reports to the government on January 9. The next day, Panneerselvam announced his government’s intention to declare all the districts drought hit.

Earlier, all parties across the political spectrum had demanded that the government declare the entire State drought hit. They attacked the Chief Minister for the delay in doing so. The CPI(M) announced demonstrations to press its demand. On December 30, K. Balakrishnan, president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam affiliated to the CPI(M), P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the sangam, A. Lazar, president of the State Committee of the CPI(M)-affiliated All India Agricultural Workers’ Union, and V. Amirthalingam, its general secretary (in-charge), and others met Revenue Minister R.B. Udayakumar, Food Minister R. Kamaraj, Agriculture Minister R. Duraikannu and Handlooms and Textiles Minister O.S. Manian and submitted a memorandum to them.

The memorandum urged the government to set up a high-level committee to assess the drought; pay the crop insurance amount to farmers for 2015-16; de-silt irrigation canals, lakes and ponds; and distribute 30 kilograms of rice a month free of cost to the families of agricultural workers. It wanted a compensation of Rs.25,000 an acre for withered paddy and Rs.50,000 an acre for sugarcane and adequate compensation for rain-fed crops such as maize, ragi, groundnuts and betel leaves. The memorandum wanted the number of working days under the MGNREGS to be raised from the present 100 to 200 and demanded that workers be paid Rs.400 a day. A solatium of Rs.10 lakh from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund should be paid to families of farmers who committed suicide or died of shock when they saw their withered crops, it said.

M.K. Stalin, working president of the DMK, and other leaders of the party met Panneerselvam on January 4 and discussed with him the drought situation, suicide by farmers and the need to pay compensation to their families. Earlier, on December 27, Stalin accused the government of being lackadaisical in its approach to declaring the State drought hit and preparing the ground for receiving financial assistance from the Centre.

TMC president G.K. Vasan, TNCC president Su. Thirunavukkarasar, and MDMK general secretary Vaiko demanded separately that the government declare the State drought-affected.

The CPI(M), the DMK, the CPI, and the TMC welcomed the Chief Minister’s announcement that all the districts would be declared drought-hit, but with reservations. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the CPI(M), and Vasan attacked the government for its announcement that crop loans farmers had taken from cooperative banks and commercial banks would be converted into medium-term loans. “This would increase the farmers’ debt burden,” they said. They were disappointed that farmers who lost 33 per cent of their yield would be paid only Rs.5,465 an acre and Rs.3,000 for rain-fed crops. “It should be Rs.25,000 an acre for paddy,” Shanmugam said.

Ramakrishnan accused the AIADMK government of belittling farmers’ suicides when it said that although there were “various reasons” for the death of 17 farmers, their families would [still] be paid a solatium of Rs.3 lakh each. He demanded that the families of all farmers (who died of shock) be paid solatium. There should be no irregularities in the use of the Rs.3,400 crore set apart for de-silting irrigation canals, lakes and tanks, Shanmugam and Ramakrishnan said. They said agricultural workers should be engaged in the de-silting work.

Stalin said although Panneerselvam’s announcement came late, he appreciated the fact that the government was “making attempts to understand the farmers’ problems”. He wanted Rs.30,000 to be paid for an acre for loss of paddy instead of Rs.5,465. He lambasted the Chief Minister for claiming that only 17 farmers had committed suicide. Stalin said the families of farmers who died should be paid Rs.3 lakh each and one of their kin given a job in the government.

The DMK leader also demanded transparency in spending the money allotted for de-silting of waterbodies and upgrading the water distribution system. Vasan lamented that no relief was provided to agricultural workers. The number of working days under the MGNREGS should increase to 200, he said.

Pharmaceuticals Sector

Perilous prescription

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

AT first glance, the logo embossed on the facade of the building and the main gate of Rajasthan Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited’s (RDPL) plant located in the Vishwakarma industrial area on the Jaipur-Shikar highway does not look anything out of the ordinary. An employee points out that a closer look will reveal the images of a tablet, a capsule, an injection and a cough syrup bottle engraved in the logo, symbolising the work undertaken at RDPL, a company that was incorporated in 1978 as a joint venture of Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL) and the Rajasthan State Industrial Development and Investment Corporation with equities of 51 and 49 per cent respectively. The plant began production in 1981. RDPL was set up to make available quality medicines at affordable prices to the Medical and Health Department of Rajasthan in order to distribute them among the poor. In 2010, RDPL became a Government of India unit when the equity share held by IDPL was transferred to it. The unit produced tablets, capsules, liquid orals, ORS (oral rehydration solution) and ophthalmic medicines in a Schedule “M”-compliant facility. (Schedule M of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, contains regulations for good manufacturing practices (GMP) and requirements of premises, plant and equipment for pharmaceutical products.) Both RDPL and IDPL are slated for closure following a Union Cabinet recommendation to the effect on December 28. What was shocking was that none of the RDPL staff, probably save its Managing Director, knew this was coming. The 150-odd workers and their families now stare at a bleak future. Nearly 50 per cent of the workers have more than 10 to 25 years of service left. But the issue is not only about what will happen to the manpower. The move has come as a blow to the concept of the state ensuring the availability of affordable, and possibly free-of-cost, quality medicines for all.

The Union Cabinet also recommended the strategic sale of the surplus land of Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Limited (BCPL, the first pharmaceutical public sector company to be set up in India) and Hindustan Antibiotics Limited (HAL, in Pimpri, Pune). BCPL and HAL were the two public sector undertakings identified by the NITI Aayog, the Central government’s policy think tank, for sale of the government stake in companies to private entities in the name of efficiency.

The note put out by the Press Information Bureau unambiguously stated: “The Union Cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has approved the sale of surplus land of Hindustan Antibiotics Limited (HAL), Indian Drugs & Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL), Rajasthan Drugs & Pharmaceuticals Limited (RDPL) and Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Limited (BCPL), as would be required, to meet their outstanding liabilities. In this way, the national assets would be utilized in the best national interest. The sale would be through open competitive bidding to government agencies and the outstanding liabilities will be met from the sale proceeds. Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS)/Voluntary Separation Scheme (VSS) will also be implemented in these Public Sector Undertakings. The remaining part of the land will be managed in accordance with the guidelines of the Department of Investment & Public Assets Management (DIPAM) and Department of Public Enterprises (DPE). After meeting the liabilities, steps will be taken to close IDPL and RDPL. The option of strategic sale will be explored for HAL and BCPL. The Department of Pharmaceuticals, the administrative department for these undertakings, will take time bound follow-up action.”

The writing was on the wall. Four healthy pharmaceutical companies in the public sector were slowly destroyed, not for any fault of their own or their employees but owing to a combination of neglect, oversight and indecisiveness. Take the case of RDPL; it was a profit-making PSU as the webpage of the plant claims. The companies were established with the idea of making India self-sufficient in the production of essential and life-saving medicines at affordable prices for all, but that concept was rendered redundant. In short, it was an open invitation to private pharmaceutical companies to fully establish their control over the pharmaceutical sector with little or no countervailing effect from PSUs.

RDPL, as documents available with Frontline show, was not a loss-making unit, at least until 2013. At the time of visiting the factory, it was noticed that production was on although the morale of the employees was low. “We want to work. This is what we conveyed to the State government as well as the Department of Pharmaceuticals at the Centre. But the government is determined to close down the company,” a staff member told Frontline, requesting anonymity. Employees said they were committed to their work as they did not view RDPL as a profit-making entity but as having a public role to play.

From 2013-14, the company began running into losses. Its total liability to date is Rs.50 crore, mainly in the nature of bank loans and accumulated interest. The employees had not received their salaries for over seven months. The company went into the red or was pushed into the red mainly because government orders had stopped.

In March 1998, the State government came up with a purchase policy according to which medicines required by the government would be procured from PSUs at the lowest rates offered by them. RDPL was preferred, given the investment of the State in the unit. The unit regularly received orders worth Rs.30 crore to Rs.40 crore every year from the State government. After the creation of Rajasthan Medical Service Corporation Limited (a nodal agency of the government of Rajasthan) in 2011, the policy was discontinued and orders began declining. The corporation began procuring from other agencies, including private pharmaceutical companies. RDPL’s downhill journey started three years ago mainly because of a lack of government procurement orders and working capital, which took a toll on production, supply and profit. The company could not alter its rates as they were fixed by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority. Employees said that the Karnataka government purchased exclusively from Karnataka Antibiotics and Pharmaceuticals Limited. RDPL, on the other hand, got no support from the State government and the Centre. It had, by all accounts, including annual reports of the Department of Pharmaceuticals, the capacity to produce quality pharmaceutical products along with quality control arrangements ensuring highest quality standard formulations with the efforts of highly qualified technical persons to oversee production and quality control. It had, in addition, nine acres (3.6 hectares) of land for future expansion. The RDPL plant was one of the oldest establishments in the industrial area. But despite setbacks in the matter of orders, the plant ploughed on. In 2011-12, RDPL received Rs.25 crore worth of orders; in 2012-13, it was Rs.20 crore; in 2013-14, it came down to Rs.16 crore. In the subsequent year it dipped to Rs.3 crore, and since last year, the plant has not received any orders. In mid-October, the Managing Director of the company stopped attending office and it was rumoured that he had put in his papers. The resignation, it was learnt, was yet to be accepted. He constituted a five-member committee to run the day-to-day affairs of the company. The employees union as well the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Welfare Employees Association made several representations to the State and Central governments requesting the restoration of the preferential purchase policy and to make funds available in order to restart normal production. The plant had started work for making its operations compliant with the World Health Organisation’s system of GMP and had even been sanctioned funds. It was in the midst of all this that the Union Cabinet recommended, on December 28, RDPL’s closure.



This correspondent saw new equipment lying unopened and machinery in perfect working condition during the visit to the plant. In fact, syrup bottling and packaging operations were on. In their efforts to revive the unit, the employees sent proposals to the Centre seeking an equity share capital of Rs.10 crore, approval to manufacture on a loan-licence basis, sanction of loan or grant as working capital, and salary dues and bulk orders from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The State government was requested to frame an exclusive policy for purchase of medicines from RDPL and to place regular orders. Clearly, the employees felt the company could be brought out of the red with minimum intervention.

Appeals go unheard

On December 26, two days before the Union Cabinet announcement, the five-member committee appointed by the absentee Managing Director met the Joint Secretary in the Department of Pharmaceuticals, New Delhi, and gave him a representation highlighting the issues, including that of a missing company head. The committee had sent a detailed note regarding funds on November 25. A sum of Rs.16.33 crore was required immediately and Rs.44.70 crore subsequently. The board of directors of the company, which has both State and Central representatives, recommended that the Ministry provide a minimum funding of Rs.5.10 crore for settling an insurance claim arising out of a fire, payment of statutory dues, salary of up to at least three months and legal expenses. The company had orders in hand worth Rs.8 crore to Rs.10 crore and the value of materials was worth Rs.48 lakh. The committee requested for materials worth Rs.10-12 lakh, which, it said, would help make finished goods worth approximately Rs.100 lakh. The proposals went unheeded.

The closure of RDPL was surprising as the company had never been referred to the Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) and no revival package was given at any stage. The employees said 60 per cent of them were around 40 years old and were averse to taking VRS or VSS. They wrote to Arjun Meghwal, Union Minister of State (Finance), reminding him of the role played by RDPL and the government’s commitment to “Make in India”. (Meghwal was elected to the Lok Sabha from Rajasthan.)

“The union affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) told the Managing Director that the employees would run the unit. He told us to keep out of it,” said Kapoor Chand Sharma, president of the RDPL employees union. Interestingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Jaipur wrote to the Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers, Ananth Kumar, in July 2014 about the state of RDPL and the Minister responded that he had instructed the Secretary (Pharma) to do the needful. In fact, the union approached all Union Ministers from Rajasthan for intervention to help RDPL get back on its feet.

The December 28 announcement, therefore, invited predictable reactions. Tapan Sen, general secretary of the CITU and Rajya Sabha MP from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said it was a plan to sell the huge land assets by disposing of IDPL (which had five branches) and RDPL. He told Frontline that there was deliberate neglect of these companies and the government was succumbing to private pharmaceutical giants, both domestic and foreign. BCPL, he said, was a 150-year-old heritage company set up by the renowned scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray and had earned a margin, too. It needed protection, he said. Both HAL and BCPL had proved time and again their capability to produce life-saving medicines whenever there was an outbreak of disease and in emergency situations. This was a sale of national assets, he said.

The Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives Association of India has criticised the Cabinet decision by saying that the National Democratic Alliance government had made a commitment when it formed the government that it would revive PSUs.

Report optimistic

The Department of Pharmaceuticals’ annual report for 2015-16, while outlining the initiatives taken to improve the performance of Central public sector enterprises, observed that of the five enterprises under the control of the department, IDPL, HAL and BCPL were sick and had been referred to the BIFR, while RDPL reported losses for the first time in 2013-14. Of the five, Karnataka Antibiotics and Pharmaceuticals Limited was the only profit-making enterprise. The same report stated that a revival package for IDPL and HAL was under the active consideration of the Government of India. The government was also exploring the idea of a pharma park in the Rishikesh (Uttarakhand), Hyderabad and Chennai units of IDPL. As for RDPL, it was noted that the company had “embarked on expansion, modernisation and upgradation (Phase II) to qualify for WHO-GMP certification to become eligible for exploring international markets as well as for participating in the internationally funded projects of government of India and other governments.” On BCPL, the report noted the completion of two projects, the commissioning of a third and the impending commissioning of two more projects. Clearly, all these did not warrant their closure or sale of their surplus land.

On RDPL specifically, the report observed that the company had “quality management, well-equipped laboratory with modern equipment” and that it was working towards obtaining ISO 9001:2008 and WHO-GMP certifications. The company had enhanced its manufacturing capacities by installing new machines and workers had acquired skills and expertise for high productivity. It had, according to the report, acquired a name in the institutional market in the country as a reputed manufacturer of high-quality life-saving drugs and other specialised medicines. RDPL was selling not only to the State government, but to Central government institutions such as the ESIC (Employees State Insurance Corporation), the Railways, Defence and other PSUs, including State government institutions. It was also a partner in the implementation of the “Janaushadhi” programmes for making available quality generic medicines (unbranded) at affordable rates. Its products included anti-infective, anti-malarial, antacid, NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), analgesic, anti-pyretic, anti inflammatory, anti-emetic, anti-spasmodic, and anti-diarrhoeal medicines. It is also learnt that when an outbreak of swine flu occurred, it was RDPL that rose to the occasion and manufactured medicines that were produced and sold to the government at very low rates. In 2008-09, when the first outbreak of swine flu was reported, RDPL staff worked multiple shifts in order to meet the challenge. “Whenever there was an emergency, they relied on us. We produced medicines during the plague outbreak in Surat,” they said. In 2015, Gujarat and Rajasthan were among the States that were worst affected by swine flu.

Medicines for millions

The story of IDPL, incorporated as a Government of India undertaking in 1961, is equally interesting. The webpage of the company says: “It was the vision of the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru that the drug industry must be in the public sector.” It quotes Nehru as saying: “I think an industry of the nature of the drug industry should not be in the private sector anyhow.”

The motto of IDPL is summed up in the signature message “Medicines for millions”, on the webpage. As the largest pharmaceutical PSU with plants in Rishikesh, Gurgaon and Hyderabad and two subsidiary units in Chennai and Muzaffarpur, the company could indeed produce medicines for millions.

The objective, says the website, was to create “self-sufficiency in respect of essential life-saving medicines, to free the country from import dependence and to provide medicines to the millions at affordable prices and not to make millions from medicines”. It played a major role in all the National Health Programmes such as family welfare, war on malaria and efforts to combat dehydration.

In 1994, during the plague outbreak, it was the only company that supplied tetracycline to the entire country. Likewise, it supplied chloroquine during malaria outbreaks, and as recently as 2005, IDPL supplied doxycycline capsules in record time to deal with an outbreak of leptospirosis, which had become a national emergency after the floods in Maharashtra. The webpage quotes the WHO as saying that “IDPL products have been examined for quality very carefully by the developed countries and many of them want to buy from here”.

Dr Jayashree Gupta, who was Chairman and Managing Director of IDPL from 2006 to May 2010, said that it was conceived as a profit-making venture. It was declared sick in 1992 but it could have been revived had the government not been indecisive. It was in the 1990s that private pharmaceutical companies began coming up but none of them had bulk facilities to manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). They bought APIs, set up formulation plants and marketed them as well. She told Frontline that “mid course correction” was required. “It was a ghost house when I took over. At some point of time the company had 13,000 employees; when I took over, there were 350. Employee morale was down as pay revisions and promotions had not happened. I gradually worked on those areas and we managed a turnaround of production and profits. There was 1,500 per cent growth when I left IDPL. All the plants needed upgradation. The government gave some money to make them Schedule M compliant but it was not enough to upgrade all plants. We upgraded sections within three plants. Once people were motivated, work took off.”

During Jayashree Gupta’s tenure, a rehabilitation package was prepared and sent to the Board for Reconstruction of PSEs. The board cleared the package but the Cabinet did not approve it. As was the standard practice, during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (2009-14), a Group of Ministers was constituted. At Rishikesh, which had a township around the plant, electricity was disconnected owing to non-payment of bills. “It was a hurdle every day,” Jayashree Gupta recalls.

The foundation stone of the Pimpri (Pune)-based HAL was laid by none other than Alexander Fleming in 1954. HAL was India’s first drug manufacturing company to be set up with help from WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Its motto is “Cure for Millions: Care for all”. In 1996, when it was referred to the BIFR, there were 3,000 employees. Today, there are 1,100 employees. The company manufactured all basic antibiotics. When ciprofloxacin (generic name for the antibiotic) was launched by a private pharmaceutical company at Rs.35 a tablet; within a year HAL launched the same drug at Rs.7-8. It is the only laboratory in the public sector to discover a new drug, hamycin, to cure skin infections. A medical representative said that before 1996, HAL competed with other PSUs and supplied medicines to government hospitals. But after 1996, orders for medicines stopped. HAL employees have not got their salaries for 26 months.

In fact, Amitava Guha, a member of the All India Working Committee of the CITU who had worked in the pharmaceutical sector, said Kallam Anji Reddy, the founder of the multinational Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, worked as a chemist at IDPL, Hyderabad.

“The medicine market depends on marketing. This aspect was discouraged in the public sector. The medical representatives have been pushing for increasing the business of the public sector but the government is not interested,” he said. HAL, he said, was the only company that had been producing penicillin G, the life-saving antibiotic. He said the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala was taking steps to revive Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited, which manufactures 35 items of generic allopathic medicines, which are supplied to government hospitals in States outside Kerala as well.

Therefore, it is quite another matter how Nehru’s political successors viewed the drug industry, particularly from the 1990s onwards. Basic health care continues to be out of reach for millions of Indians. What the Congress governments could not do, that is, do away with the public sector in pharmaceutical industry, the BJP-led government has done with extraordinary ease. There are proposals even to do away with the BIFR, one of its objectives being the revival of viable units.

Public sector units are needed in the pharmaceutical industry because of their ability to produce bulk drugs at cheaper rates. A 400 gram de-worming formulation by RDPL, called Albendazole, costs Rs.1.48 while the same manufactured by GSK, called Zental, costs Rs.21. Similarly, the medicine for swine flu, for which RDPL got the manufacturing licence, costs Rs.16 a capsule while that sold by Cipla as Tamiflu costs Rs.48.

RDPL is also the only PSU to get the licence to manufacture anti-retrovirals at cheap prices required for human immuno-deficiency virus patients, but as the plant was not WHO-GMP-compliant, the production of the drug was stalled.

The Cabinet decision has serious ramifications. The PSUs in pharmaceuticals are required for a population that is barely able to afford medical treatment of the most basic kind. The privatisation of health care is for the benefit of a few, not the majority, and any government that has pretensions of caring for its people should revisit such a disastrous decision.

Shariah-compliant banking

Well worth a try

POOR and middle-class people, cutting across caste, class and community, were hit hard by the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation decision, but the Muslim community was the worst affected. This was mainly because of its low participation in banking activities, abysmal poverty, and low literacy levels. Predictably, the demonetisation experience has added fuel to the demand for Shariah-compliant banking instruments for this huge section of the population.

A few test cases from Vellore district in Tamil Nadu are illustrative. The survey was done by the Indian Centre for Islamic Finance, an organisation that has been spearheading the demand for Shariah-compliant banking instruments:

Khuddus, aged around 65, who buys old scrap materials from homes in the fort area of Vellore town and sells them to traders for some margin or commission, saw his daily earnings dip to Rs.20-30 from Rs.400-500.

Irfaan (40) of Kasturi Market in nearby Arcot town, who used to sell fruits and vegetables for a commission, saw his daily earnings plummet to a measly Rs.50-60 a day.

Iqbal (45), a meat seller of Ranipet town in the district, saw his daily earnings disappear in the first week of demonetisation. It revived in the subsequent weeks to a few hundreds but the payment was on credit. Like the others, he is struggling to meet even the basic needs of his family.

A Muslim woman aged 60, who is single and is surviving on government pension, stood in a queue every day in the first week of demonetisation to withdraw her measly pension amount but to no avail. She managed to withdraw some money only in the second week.

The survey also included people from Varanasi engaged in making Benarasi sarees, those from the brass industry in Moradabad and the glass industry in Firozabad, the lockmakers of Aligarh and the chikan and zardozi craft workers from Lucknow: their earnings had totally disappeared and their savings, which they mostly kept at home in the form of Rs.500 or Rs.1,000 notes, had become invalid.

Shafeeq Rahman, a Delhi-based researcher on issues relating to Muslims, said Muslims suffered more for reasons of faith as many of them did not have bank accounts as Islam prohibits accrual of interest on savings. Only 63 per cent of Muslims, he says, have bank accounts compared with the national average of 78 per cent and a measly 9 per cent have post office accounts as against the national average of 14 per cent. This means that 37 per cent of the Muslim population remains outside the banking system and was taken unawares by the note ban.

According to Rahman, Muslims also suffered more because of their low literacy levels (the literacy level of Muslims, at 69 per cent, is lower than the national average of 73) and low incomes: 63 per cent of them earned less than Rs.1.20 lakh annually and only 6 per cent earned Rs.3 lakh or more. He said that of the 55 deaths following the demonetisation decision in November, 12 were in the Muslim community. His study also revealed that Muslims largely remained engaged in small-scale business activities or were self-employed, mostly in the unorganised sector with no accounting or auditing of their earnings, and hence with low participation in banking activities. And hence, they were the ones who faced the biggest blow in the wake of demonetisation.

H. Abdur Raqeeb, general secretary of the Indian Centre for Islamic Finance and convener of the committee on Islamic banking in India, said it was time Prime Minister Narendra Modi revisited the issue of Islamic banking. “If the Prime Minister is really keen on achieving his ‘digital India’ vision along with a cashless economy in his bid to rid the country of corruption, he should pay heed to the plight of Muslims in this country and do something about it,” he said. According to him, Islamic banking is wrongly understood as solely for Muslims and hence opposed by some sections. He said it was an ethical way of investment in which countries across the world have evinced interest. “The United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore and France have incorporated Islamic banking in their banking system. Why can’t India do so?” he asked. According to him, when Shariah-compliant mutual funds and stocks were operational in India, it was inexplicable why the government could not provide some such instrument in the banking system so that Muslims could become a part of the mainstream banking system.

“Shariah compliance simply means interest-free investment; also the money should not be invested in stocks or funds that deal with tobacco, alcohol or gambling. This is just another way of doing transactions, and attributing any communal angle to the exercise is not correct,” he said.

In fact, owing to the consistent campaign by his organisation and Modi’s insistence on financial inclusion, the Reserve Bank of India set up a committee called the “Committee on Medium-term Path on Financial Inclusion” in July 2015, which was chaired by the then RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan. The committee, in its report submitted to the government on December 28, 2015, categorically stated that “exclusion based on beliefs can be explored by delivering simple interest-free financial products through a separate window in conventional banks”.

Delineating interest-free banking, the report explained: “The central concept in interest-free banking and finance is justice, which is achieved mainly through the sharing of risks. Stakeholders are supposed to share profits and losses, charging interest is prohibited... a strict code of ethical investment operates for interest-free financial activities.” The report gave a comprehensive list of nine financial products that could be offered for this sort of financial activity, saying that while this sort of financial activity had gained momentum in other parts of the world, including some Asian countries, the interest shown by India was inexplicably lukewarm. It said this resulted in the non-availability of banking products to a large section of society, which, for reasons of faith, remained unable to access banking services and as such faced financial exclusion.

The committee recommended that “commercial banks in India may be enabled to open specialised interest-free windows with simple products like demand deposits, agency and participation securities on their liability side and to offer products based on cost-plus financing and deferred payment, deferred delivery contracts on the asset side”.

In view of this unambiguous recommendation and the subsequent move towards a cashless economy, it is expected that the Prime Minister will revisit the idea and take some measures and will not succumb to pressures from communal elements in his dispensation as he had done in the past.

Shariah-compliant mutual fund

In December 2014, the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took a path-breaking decision to start an Islamic banking window in State Bank of India. The government announced in November 2014 that a Shariah-compliant mutual fund would be made available through SBI Mutual Fund. Called Shariah Equity Fund (an open-ended equity fund), the fund offer was to open on December 1, 2014, and close on December 15, 2014. It would have been a joint venture between SBI and AMUNDI. But leaders such as Subramanian Swamy opposed it, and the move was stalled. Subramanian Swamy wrote a letter to the Prime Minister ( Frontline has a copy of the letter) demanding that the idea be abandoned immediately. Opposing the move and openly attacking Raghuram Rajan, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader said that encouraging Shariah-compliant financial institution would be “politically and economically disastrous for the country”. He urged the Prime Minister to intervene immediately, saying: “I trust you will ensure that the dubious funds in West Asia do not enter our country through legally baptised channels of Shariah-compliant financial institutions.” Following this letter, SBI Mutual Fund withdrew the fund offer. In prominent advertisements in leading dailies, it announced “that it has been decided to defer the launch of new fund offer of SBI Shariah Equity Fund”. No reasons were given, no explanations offered.

Raqeeb hopes the Prime Minister will rise above sectarian mentalities and take steps to usher in financial inclusion in the true sense of the word. “If the country can have Shariah-compliant stocks, which are held by companies such as Reliance and Tatas, if ICICI Bank and Kotak can have Islamic banking in the Gulf, then why can't we have Islamic banking in India?” he asked.

According to Raqeeb, of the 6,000 Bombay Stock Exchange-listed companies, roughly 4,200 are Shariah-compliant, mainly in the software, pharmaceutical and automobile ancillaries. He said the BSE had a Shariah-compliant index, BSE TASIS Sharia 50 Index, which included companies such as Reliance Ind, Bharti Airtel and Tata Tele.

Islamic banking is an idea whose time has come. Ethical financial activities is a concept which even the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh swears by.

Food Security

Deprivation by design

IN food-deficit Kerala, which has one of the most effective public distribution systems (PDS) in the country and where the production of rice, the staple food, is only about 15 per cent of its requirement, the much-delayed implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) from November 1 under pressure from the Central government has generated a lot of concern and disquiet.

There were complaints galore all over the State regarding the draft list of eligible beneficiaries under the Act, which was released by the State government in October. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) has announced a series of agitations demanding restoration of the universal statutory rationing system and a minimum entitlement of at least 5 kilograms of rice a month to all families in the State. The LDF, which came to power only in May 2016, is burdened with the task of implementing the NFSA immediately as it was delayed by the previous Congress-led government by three years. Retail ration dealers, unsure of the viability of their business under the new system, are restive; wholesale dealers have approached the court against being pushed out of the PDS altogether, and headload workers have just ended a strike that affected ration delivery for over a month.

Much of all this may only be teething troubles in a State moving into a new PDS. But there are genuine concerns about its food security in the long run under the NFSA regime. According to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the agreement from the time of Independence was that the Centre would ensure Kerala’s requirement of rice in return for Kerala’s contribution to the national economy as a foreign exchange earner producing a variety of cash crops.

Addressing a public meeting in Kannur a few days before the LDF announced its decision to start the agitation, the Chief Minister said that the statutory rationing system that existed in Kerala was the result of united struggles by the people led by leaders such as A.K. Gopalan. “However, the Centre has now taken the position that, with the introduction of the NFSA, it cannot give an exception to Kerala alone from the Act’s provision which restricts the supply of subsidised rice only to those who have a place in the priority list. With this, a large number of needy families who were in the State’s BPL [below poverty line] list are not getting the foodgrains they require for everyday needs.”

The NFSA, which envisages various structural changes in the PDS in India, was introduced by the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Congress. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government was in power in Kerala then. All States were required to implement the Act, identifying eligible households and changing respective distribution systems, among other things, within a year of the new Central law coming into effect on July 5, 2013. Although the UDF government issued an order accepting the law in principle, it did not implement it and deferred introducing any major change in the existing PDS. Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which too has a history of a strong universal PDS, thus became the only States reluctant to implement the NFSA.

After all the other States had reportedly implemented the Act and had made good use of the concessions offered by the Centre to establish new facilities and get foodgrains meant for distribution at concessional rates, the Union government, in July 2016, began to tighten the screws on the two “defaulting” States. Two months after the LDF government came to power in Kerala, the Centre stopped the additional supply of subsidised foodgrains to the State.

Kerala was thus forced to start the procedures for implementing the Act on a war footing from November 1, 2016, under threat that the Centre would stop supply of subsidised foodgrains meant for the APL, or above-poverty line, (State subsidy) sections too. The State would then be forced to pay Rs.22.54 a kg of rice for people in its APL (State subsidy) category instead of the Rs.8.30 a kg it was paying already. This would mean an additional expenditure of Rs.60 crore a month, State Civil Supplies Department officials said.

Thus, the statutory rationing system that had been in existence in Kerala from 1965 came to an end from November 1, 2016. The system in Kerala was established in the face of extreme food scarcity that existed in several parts of the State from the time of the Second World War and after hard struggles waged by the people since then. The State’s dependence on other regions for food was the reason for the scarcity. (See “A successful system under threat”, Frontline, October 31, 1997.)

Change to targeted PDS

Until 1997, Kerala’s PDS was universal, covering 97 per cent of the State’s population. However, from June that year, at the behest of the Central government, Kerala, along with other States, introduced the targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) dividing beneficiaries into BPL and APL categories. Subsequently, there was a further division of the BPL category with the creation of the “poorest of the poor” among them under the “Antyodaya Anna Yojana” (AAY) households.

Under the TPDS, the Central government had been providing 16 lakh tonnes of foodgrains a year to the State. This included 12 lakh tonnes as yearly allotment (which the State used to draw on a monthly basis and often in advance as and when required during a year) and an additional ad hoc allotment of four lakh tonnes a year (that used to be drawn often on a quarterly basis). Under the scheme that existed until November 1, according to Civil Supplies Department officials, at least 2.85 crore people (of a total population of 3.34 crore) were entitled to PDS benefits in some form or the other—ranging from free rice to at least a nominal quantity of rice at Rs.5 a kg.

However, under the NFSA regime, the Centre has allotted only 10.25 lakh tonnes for the 1.54 crore people in the priority and Antyodaya households (known as “eligible households”) and a mere four lakh tonnes for the rest of the population numbering 1.8 crore. Thus, under the new system, there is a decrease of two lakh tonnes in the Central allotment for Kerala, State officials said.

It is now widely recognised that the universal PDS as it existed in Kerala from 1965 was not merely a concession to the poor but a system essential for food security in an acutely food-deficit State (see “A system in peril”, Frontline, September 29, 2000). Among the States, Kerala is considered perhaps the most vulnerable to even short-term foodgrain deficits in the country. This became evident once again in December, with the sudden increase in the open market price of rice in Kerala following the introduction of the NFSA and a simultaneous shortfall in supply of rice from Andhra Pradesh. Government officials said the State needed to brace itself for difficult days ahead, with a drought year being predicted.

Different numbers

With the Central government determining the number of BPL people on the basis of its own criteria, only 25 per cent of the people of the State were included in its list of BPL beneficiaries under the TPDS. However, the State government continued to treat 42 per cent of its population as being in the BPL category (as identified for the implementation of the Integrated Rural Development Programme schemes) and had continued to bear the subsidy burden for an additional 17 per cent of the population.

In a recent newspaper article, State Food Minister P. Thilothaman said that the changeover from a universal to targeted PDS in 1997 itself had led to a lot of complaints. Kerala’s once strong network of ration shops then became extremely vulnerable as they required a certain minimum offtake of ration articles by customers in order to remain viable. But under the TPDS, as the price gap between PDS articles meant for the BPL and APL categories increased sharply, and those in the latter category began to shift more and more to the open market where better quality articles were available at a slightly higher price, TPDS retail outlets began losing their charm.

As many ration shops with a large number of APL cardholders declared their task as unviable and the commission for shopowners went down dramatically, a large chunk of ration articles began to be diverted to the open market. Gradually, this led to large-scale corruption involving wholesale and retail ration dealers and government officials and, according to the Minister, eventually to the regular diversion of 40 per cent of subsidised ration articles to the open market.

Ration dealers’ lobby

According to an estimate of the department, the State spends nearly Rs.874 crore a year to provide subsidised ration articles to 81 lakh cardholders. Several studies commissioned by the government have reported that the diversion rate of PDS articles to the open market ranged between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

There are widespread allegations today that it was a powerful lobby led by private wholesale ration dealers who stayed the hand of the previous UDF government and delayed the implementation of the NFSA in Kerala “as long as they could”. Under the new law, doorstep delivery of foodgrains to ration shops is to be handled only by the Civil Supplies Department, other government agencies or cooperative societies. The Act envisages no role for private middlemen wholesale dealers (a peculiar phenomenon in Kerala that grew with the statutory PDS system from its early days) who ruled the system until now.

“The transfer from an existing system to a new one is bound to create some problems. Here, the vested interests tried very hard to prevent the replacement of a system immersed in corruption by a transparent and corruption-free arrangement,” the Minister said. Indeed, even after the new LDF government decided to implement the Act in Kerala from November 1, it encountered several hurdles: for example, a continuing agitation by retail ration dealers demanding a viable commission under the new Act; and, curiously, nearly a month-long strike by an independent Kolkata-based Food Corporation of India (FCI) workers union, which had the majority of FCI workers in the State under its control and disrupted ration delivery demanding the continuation of “atti kooli” from the government under the new NFSA system. (“Atti kooli” is an unofficial system of extra wages that private wholesale dealers paid these workers for their special skill of “precision loading” ration articles onto trucks at FCI godowns. This helped the dealers save transportation costs. Haphazard loading meant a truck would carry only eight tonnes of foodgrain instead of 10 tonnes or even 12 tonnes it could otherwise, a Civil Supplies Department official said.)

Cost of delay

The three-year delay in implementing the Act for whatever reasons is now reckoned to have cost Kerala much. Strangely, the UDF government failed to challenge even the norms adopted by the Centre to decide the maximum number of beneficiaries under the Act or to decide the quantum of benefits in such a food-deficit State. Since coming to power, the LDF government has been repeatedly pointing out that the Centre had declared at the time of enactment of the Act that the new law would benefit 75 per cent of the people in rural areas and 50 per cent of the people in urban areas—offering food security to about 67 per cent of the people in the country. However, it included only 46 per cent of Kerala’s population in the list of eligible beneficiary households under the Act.

Only 52 per cent of the rural population and 39 per cent of the urban population in Kerala is in the list of NFSA beneficiaries numbering a maximum of 1.54 crore people, a limit fixed as per the norms set by the Planning Commission. With the Centre thus deciding the maximum number of beneficiaries who could be included, with no challenge from the then UDF government, a large number of needy people who enjoyed TPDS benefits would be thrown out of the food security net, officials said.

The Central government had decided Kerala’s eligible allocation as 14.25 lakh tonnes, reportedly on the basis of the average annual offtake of foodgrains for the last three years under normal TPDS. The previous government had apparently even failed to inform the Centre that Kerala had been drawing four lakh tonnes every year as ad hoc allotment in addition to the normal offtake. This would have meant an average total annual offtake of 16.01 lakh tonnes instead of 14.25 lakh tonnes. Moreover, officials point out, the sanctioned allotment does not also consider the State’s requirement in providing nutritious meals for children and maternity entitlements.

At a disadvantage

Kerala is also at a disadvantage because it has failed to make use so far of the promised Central assistance to establish infrastructure facilities such as warehouses, transport facilities, biometric units, and facilities for end-to-end computerisation, doorstep delivery of foodgrains to retail ration outlets and strengthening of the State civil supplies corporation. Officials said that the State even failed to make use of the opportunity to obtain ration articles at low prices by providing a temporary list of beneficiaries, including people already in its Antyodaya, BPL and APL (State subsidy) categories as was done by other States. As a result, Kerala had to pay Rs.8.30 a kg and Rs.6.10 a kg respectively for rice and wheat it got all this while instead of the subsidised rate of Rs.3 and Rs.2 a kg which, they claimed, was availed of by many other States. Moreover, it also lost nearly Rs.231 crore as handling charges offered by the Centre for the implementation of the Act.

“There was a lack of alertness on the part of the previous UDF government in pointing out the reduction of over two lakh tonnes of foodgrains from the State’s share of yearly allotment or the harmful provisions in the Act when seen from the context of a food-deficit State. After the LDF government took over, even though many leaders, including the Chief Minister, approached the Centre pointing out these anomalies, the Centre has taken a position that fresh concessions cannot be given to one State alone. But the fact is that while the NFSA insisted on a number of conditions that were harmful to the interests of the State, it failed to take into account the fact that Kerala was a chronically food deficit State and the special circumstances that had led to the introduction of statutory rationing system in the State from the mid 1960s. Kerala, which is not self-sufficient in food production, is, therefore, now in a situation where it cannot do anything outside the provisions of the new law,” Food Minister Thilothaman said.

Neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which, like Kerala, was resisting the imposition of the Act by the Centre, has also agreed to implement the law but has announced that it will simultaneously continue with its existing universal PDS, protecting the entitlements of all existing beneficiaries through its own means. Kerala obviously cannot take such a position, given its chronic food deficit and financial woes.

Interview: Shariq Nisar

‘Islamic banking will help develop entrepreneurship’

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

IN parts of western and central Uttar Pradesh, some right-wing activists have read a communal tinge into the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation decision, which, they argue, has hurt the Muslim community very badly. A section of the community does not hold bank accounts and is in the habit of stashing away money as accrual of interest on savings is prohibited in Islam. Although there are no statistics to support the argument, many people believe that had a profit-and-loss sharing banking system, popularly called Islamic banking, been followed, Muslims, especially the poorer sections of the community, would not have been hit so hard.

Dr Shariq Nisar, a professor at Rizvi Institute of Management Studies and Research, Mumbai, and former senior visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, United States, thinks Islamic banking is a viable option whose time has come. He has been advocating this kind of banking for the past 15 years. A financial expert and activist, Nisar recently addressed a seminar on “Demonetisation and its Impact on Society”. He took questions from Frontline before his talk. Excerpts:

There is a school of thought that looks at demonetisation through a communal prism, gloating over the inconvenience it has caused to the Muslim community.

Many people have been happy not because they did not face any inconvenience but because they thought others were more inconvenienced. Many upper- and middle-class people [who mostly pay income tax] were happy because they thought politicians and bureaucrats, who had become filthy rich, were the main sufferers because of demonetisation. There was also the impression spread through social and other media channels that it is terrorists and their backers who have suffered. Some said the Prime Minster’s action was to target Muslims and their so-called shadow economy.

I don’t subscribe to the views that this action [demonetisation] had any particular community in mind. But, yes, I have no doubt that Muslims have been particularly affected by this decision and that is because a whole segment of the informal economy has been affected, of which Muslims are a substantial part.

I see some trends emerging from this. We can force people to deposit their savings with banks but we have not been able to impress upon banks to find ways to finance the general public and entrepreneurs. Only 8 to 10 per cent of the people have been able to borrow from the savings channelised in the banking system from across the country.

Could you elaborate on the impact of demonetisation, especially on Muslims? Since many of them do not maintain bank accounts, they are said to have been affected more than others by “notebandi” (note ban).

Notebandi has affected the whole Indian economy, especially the informal sector, which accounts for 90 per cent of the workforce. Since Muslims’ proportion in the informal sector is relatively high, they are obviously more affected. It is now becoming clear that the decision on notebandi did not foresee the possible adverse consequences for a huge section of the population.

No doubt Muslims have been badly affected, but it should be seen in the context of our economic structure. According to latest government data, 80 per cent of the country’s households have no regular wage earner or salaried person. It means 80 per cent of the households are dependent on informal work for livelihood. Muslims in great numbers are part of this informal segment. Various manufacturing units in north India—the saree industry of Mau and Varanasi, the carpet industry of Bhadohi, brassware of Moradabad, the lock industry of Aligarh, and other manufacturing units in Firozabad, Agra, Khurja, Bareilly, Meerut, and Saharanpur—have a disproportionately large number of Muslim workers, artisans and craftsmen. Their livelihood has been affected as these are 100 per cent cash works. Cash crunch has ruined these families. One might argue that demonetisation would eventually increase minimum wages and compensate for the short-term loss suffered by these people. But this is unlikely to happen because an increase in wages will make businesses uncompetitive.

Manufacturing has almost stopped at most places. It is not seen now because stocks are coming from godowns, but we will know the real impact as we go along. However, it is not that only workers are affected, business owners, too, have been affected but they are relatively better off to withstand such a crisis.

I don’t think not having a bank account has as much an impact as not getting work in view of the cash crunch. After all, despite half the population of the country having no bank account, almost the entire amount of money that was derecognised has come back into the banking system. This is proof of the government’s lack of imagination. It is reported that the government was expecting a windfall gain. I wish it had trusted its own findings that not more than 5-6 per cent of black money is kept in cash form; adjusting that much cash was not a challenging task, although it came at some cost. I believe much of that money is already withdrawn from the banking system and re-hoarded in the form of new currency.

More than 60 per cent of Muslims do not earn more than Rs.10,000 a month. And only 6 per cent are in the taxpaying bracket. It is argued that it is the weaker section that is the worst hit by demonetisation. Are weaker sections in the Muslim community far worse off than their counterparts in other religions?

Fewer than 4 per cent of the people pay tax in India. Accordingly, Muslims’ proportion among taxpayers is better in comparison with other communities. Yes, it is the weaker section that has suffered the most. Almost all the banned notes have returned to the banking system, but what about those who lost their daily earnings for shortage of cash or had to spend a huge amount of their productive time in queues to withdraw cash to meet their contingencies? I don’t see this as a Muslim issue but an issue between the rich, affluent, resourceful people of this country and those who are poor and vulnerable. There are no two opinions that the poor and vulnerable have suffered the most.

In the wake of the demonetisation crisis, is Islamic banking an idea whose time has come? More so because Muslims are among the worst sufferers of demonetisation as many of them do not keep their savings in banks to avoid accumulating “riba”? What are the tools necessary to carry it forward?

Muslims refrain from using the current banking system because it works on the basis of interest-based dealings, which is prohibited in Islam. Many secular and democratic countries have taken actions to address this issue. The Reserve Bank of India [RBI], too, has been thinking positively on this, but it is mainly dependent on political leadership to take the call. It is unfortunate that the Muslim community, while being forced to move towards the formal economy, is denied an opportunity to choose financial products that suit its ethical and religious concerns. It is like someone is interested in equity and we tell them we will give them only debt.

I look at Islamic banking beyond the community, as a business concept that seeks to generate wealth through sharing of risk and reward. It does not believe in lending money and earning profit out of it. Our current banking system is modelled in such a way that it finances those who are already rich. Only the risks are shared with the general public when the banks need to be recapitalised. Islamic banking is more suitable to develop entrepreneurship and it will help curb concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

We need to keep in mind that Islamic banking is known by different names in different countries. For example, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman and Kuwait do not allow the name “Islamic” to be used. On the other hand, the United Kingdom and Singapore prefer to call it “Islamic” to attract customers. In Sri Lanka, Islamic banking was termed “PLS” [profit and loss sharing] when the regulator allowed it in that country. Similarly, in India regulators prefer to call it “interest-free banking” as the raison d’etre of Islamic banking is prohibition of interest.

Some people who wish to evoke passions find the term “Islamic” more suitable for their purpose. People could be easily mobilised in favour of or against it.

The main idea behind the concept of Islamic banking is that the capital provider must also share the risk along with the entrepreneur, otherwise it becomes unfair for entrepreneurs to endure both the enterprise and capital risk.

One must not forget that the system of interest has indebted the entire global population and is the main reason for concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Globally, there are five dozen people who own 50 per cent of the wealth. In India, 1 per cent of the people have nearly 59 per cent of the country’s wealth. How come we have reached such a pass? It is because our financial system allows capitalists to earn without bearing any risk, and this comes at the cost of entrepreneurship and employment, which leads to disproportionate distribution of wealth in society. Today, the debt owed by all countries is more than 300 per cent of the entire world gross domestic product [GDP], and this will lead to even greater concentration of wealth in the years to come. Today, the most important economic problem is not the lack of produce but lack of proper distribution of wealth and that problem cannot be solved without proper and fair distribution of risk in society. Islamic banking is a promise in that direction.

How viable can it be in a secular country? There is a criticism that it can lead to an alternative banking system, ultimately causing havoc to the existing system. Do you agree with this?

Viability of this should not be seen in the nomenclature used to identify it. It can be known by any name that is acceptable to the public. The term Islamic banking was coined in the 1970s. It does not mean that Islamic banking was not practised throughout Islamic history. It is high time the concept of risk and reward sharing was introduced in our economy, otherwise our whole economic fabric will be destroyed to produce a few billionaires.

It is childish to believe that the introduction of Islamic banking will lead to alternative banking. In fact, it will bring Islamic banking into the mainstream where the mainstream financial players will offer products and services with the approval, guidance and full monitoring of the regulators. Not allowing Islamic banking [especially when it is already approved and practised in more than 75 countries] may actually lead to the emergence of a parallel economy on the pretext that the government is biased against a particular community and, therefore, not providing an opportunity to its people. We must not forget that Islamically oriented products are already approved by the capital market regulator [Securities and Exchange Board of India] and people of various faiths have widely subscribed to them. In fact, more non-Muslims in India have invested in Shariah-compliant products than Muslims. We should also not forget that not allowing this business will only come at the cost of business opportunities to our own financial institutions. After all, why do multinational financial institutions such as HSBC, Citi, Deutsche, and BNP Paribas have Islamic banking subsidiaries and windows? Because they do not want to miss business opportunities. They are doing Islamic finance business across the world. In the globalised world, restricting the business of financial institutions is bad economics.

A decade ago, Dr Raghuram Rajan, who was RBI Governor until a few months ago, headed a committee set up by the Planning Commission on financial sector reforms. The committee had recommended Islamic banking.

Yes, the committee addressed two important concerns. One, it acknowledged that Islamic banking was already practised in India under different formats and expressed the view that a formal approval of this concept would help improve financial inclusion. The committee also noted that introduction of interest-free banking would not bring any systemic risk to the Indian financial system. This was an important statement in view of the concern raised by certain sections about Islamic banking.

The RBI Act and the Banking Regulation Services Act prohibit setting up of Islamic banks. Only an Act of Parliament can allow Islamic banking, which is not likely with the current dispensation at the Centre. Is there a way out?

No Act or regulation prohibits Islamic banking in the country. This was [and may be is] the view of the RBI when it was added as an additional respondent in the public interest litigation petition filed by Dr Subramanian Swamy against the Kerala government-promoted Islamic finance through a non-banking financial company [NBFC], Al-Baraka Financial Services Limited. The Kerala High Court, after hearing all the arguments, rejected the PIL filed against the company. The company is functioning as Islamic Finance NBFC with the approval and guidance of the RBI.

The Deepak Mohanty Committee has recommended the introduction of interest-free banking and has also identified products that will work under existing regulations. It has also highlighted areas where Islamic banking principles cannot be accommodated under existing regulations. But I agree that introduction of Islamic, or interest-free, banking, is a political decision, without which the RBI will not proceed. I also agree that it is unlikely that the government will do something for a political segment that does not vote for it. The current dispensation [at the Centre] will not do anything to upset its core constituency.

Is it not necessary to tell the masses that Islamic banking can be used by people of all faiths in a secular country like India?

Yes, you are absolutely right. It is actually a fact that across the globe, people of various faiths have chosen to use Islamic banking facilities and services mainly because they do not see it as a product for a particular community. Rather, they look at its features and use it if it is found suitable. Even in India, Shariah indices are offered and managed by both the National Stock Exchange and the Bombay Stock Exchange. Many investors, wealth managers, brokers, and mutual funds use these indices for managing investments. Indian Shariah-compliant mutual fund schemes [approved by the SEBI] have more non-Muslim investors than Muslims. These are all financial products and the regulators make sure that they are not offered exclusively to any particular group or community.

Legal Issues

Ruling on ordinance

V. VENKATESAN the-nation

ORDINANCES are legislative measures adopted by governments both at the Centre and in the States during the interregnum between two sessions of Parliament or State Assemblies and are necessitated by some urgency.

Ordinances can be legally issued by the President under Article 123 of the Constitution if he is satisfied that circumstances exist for him to take immediate action. Such ordinances will cease to operate at the end of six weeks from the reassembly of Parliament or earlier if they are disapproved by resolutions passed by both Houses of Parliament, or if they are withdrawn before that date. Article 213 has a similar provision with regard to ordinances promulgated by the Governor during the interregnum between two sessions of the State legislature.

In Krishnakumar Singh vs State of Bihar, the Supreme Court’s seven-judge Constitution Bench held on January 2 that the presidential satisfaction with regard to the circumstances rendering it necessary for him to promulgate an ordinance immediately was subject to judicial review. Second, the majority of five judges held that an ordinance should be placed before the legislature. Third, the bench held that acts done under a lapsed or disapproved ordinance would not survive unless they were irreversible or reversing them would be against the public interest.

The seven-judge bench comprised Chief Justice T.S. Thakur (who demitted office on January 3) and Justices Madan B. Lokur, S.A. Bobde, Adarsh Kumar Goel, Uday Umesh Lalit, Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao. The majority opinion was delivered by Justice Chandrachud, while Chief Justice Thakur rendered a concurring opinion.

Justice Lokur, in his dissent, held that it was not mandatory to place an ordinance in the legislature and that the failure to do so would not result in the ordinance not having the force and effect as an enacted law or being of no consequence whatsoever.

He also held that if an ordinance ceased to operate, any action taken under the ordinance would be valid during the currency of the ordinance since it had the force and effect of a law, but it could not survive beyond the date of expiry of the ordinance. On this, he agreed with the majority view. Chief Justice Thakur concurred with the majority but held that it was not necessary to go into the question whether it was mandatory to place the ordinance in the legislature.

The background

In 1989, the Governor of Bihar promulgated an ordinance to enable the State government to take over 429 Sanskrit schools in the State. The question before the bench was whether the seven successive repromulgations of the Bihar Non-Government Sanskrit Schools (Taking over of Management and Control) Ordinance, 1989, suffered from any illegality and constitutional impropriety, and whether the benefits conferred by it survived after the last ordinance lapsed.

The Patna High Court held that the repeated repromulgation of an ordinance was unconstitutional. Relying on the decision of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in D.C. Wadhwa and Others vs State of Bihar and Others in 1987, the High Court dismissed the writ petition filed by the employees, who sought the continuance of the benefits, including payment of salaries, conferred by the ordinance beyond its expiry, but protected them against any recovery of salaries already paid to them.

Chief Justice Thakur concurred with the majority that repeated repromulgation of ordinances was a fraud on the Constitution, especially when the government of the time appeared to have persistently avoided the placement of the ordinances before the legislature.

While Justice Lokur reasoned that the first three ordinances in the series were constitutional because the employees did not challenge them, Chief Justice Thakur disagreed, saying that if the edifice was affected, there was no way the foundation could remain unaffected by the vice of unconstitutionality. Therefore, he agreed with the majority that all the ordinances were constitutionally invalid. The Chief Justice, in his concurrent opinion, agreed with Justice Lokur and the majority judges that there could be no enduring rights in favour of those affected by ordinances. He held that the ordinances could not have created any enduring rights for Sanskrit schoolteachers, particularly when they were a fraud on the Constitution. The Chief Justice, however, reasoned that teachers who were paid their salaries under the ordinance and who organised their lives and affairs on the assumption and in the belief that the amount paid to them was legitimately due and payable could not at this distant point of time be asked to cough up the amount disbursed to them. “Payments already made shall not accordingly be recoverable from those who have received the same,” he held.

The majority judgment, written by Justice Chandrachud, held that there could be no manner of doubt that it was mandatory to lay an ordinance before the State legislature. The expression “shall be laid” used in Articles 123 and 213 was a positive mandate, which brooked no exceptions, the majority judges held.

Legislation by the ordinance route was intended to meet extraordinary situations of an emergent nature during the recess of the legislature, the majority judges held. They added that the requirement of laying an ordinance before the legislative body subserved the legislative control over the ordinance-making power and the constitutional purpose of ensuring that the provisions of the ordinance were debated upon and discussed in the legislature. The legislature has before it a full panoply of legislative powers and as an incident of those powers, the express constitutional authority to disapprove an ordinance. If an ordinance had to continue beyond its tenure, which was prescribed by Article 213(2)(a), a law had to be enacted by the legislature incorporating its provisions, the majority judges held.

The placement of an ordinance before the legislature, therefore, was a constitutional necessity, the underlying object and rationale being to enable the legislature to determine the need for and expediency of an ordinance, whether a law should be enacted to replace it or whether the ordinance should be disapproved.

Failure to lay the ordinance in the legislature once it reconvened was a serious infraction because it could impact the ability of the legislature to deal with it. Not placing the ordinance in the legislature was a colourable exercise of power and an abuse of constitutional authority, the majority judges held.

President’s satisfaction

The majority judges held that the court should act with circumspection when the satisfaction of the President or a Governor to promulgate an ordinance was challenged. “The court will not enquire into the adequacy or sufficiency of the material before the President or the Governor. The court will not interfere if there is some material which is relevant to his satisfaction,” the bench held.

The majority judges, however, added that the interference of the court could arise in a case involving a fraud on power or an abuse of power. This essentially involved a situation where the power had been exercised to secure an oblique purpose, they observed. “It is only where the court finds that the exercise of power is based on extraneous grounds and amounts to no satisfaction at all that the interference of the court may be warranted in a rare case. However, absolute immunity from judicial review cannot be supported as a matter of first principle or on the basis of constitutional history,” the bench held.

The majority judges were clear that repromulgation of ordinances was constitutionally impermissible since it represented an effort to overreach the legislative body, which was a primary source of lawmaking authority in a parliamentary democracy. “Repromulgation defeats the constitutional scheme under which a limited power to frame ordinances has been conferred upon the President and the Governors,” they held.

The danger of repromulgation lay in the threat it posed to the sovereignty of Parliament and State legislatures, which had been constituted as primary lawgivers under the Constitution, they said. Open legislative debate and discussion provided sunshine, which separated secrecy of ordinance-making from transparent and accountable governance through law making, they added.

In deciding to mould the relief, the effort of the court would be to determine whether undoing what had been done under the ordinance would manifestly be contrary to the public interest or constitutional necessity, demonstrated by clear and cogent material, the majority judges held. Therefore, they refrained from ordering recovery of the benefits conferred by the ordinance on the Sanskrit teachers in Bihar, even while holding that the repromulgated ordinances were unconstitutional.

Protest put down with brute force

AN anti-demonetisation protest by cadres of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Chennai on December 31 was brutally put down by the Tamil Nadu police.

The attack took place in front of an ATM of a bank at Medavakkam and left 15 cadres injured, some of them seriously. It was alleged that the policemen under the guise of dispersing protesters abused the women among the protesters verbally and physically. Senior functionaries of the CPI(M) said the Pallikaranai police arrested 14 of their cadre for “organising a peaceful protest against the demonetisation”. The police action, DYFI cadre claimed, should also be viewed from the disturbing fact that hundreds of posters in the name of the BJP, denouncing and calling the DYFI “anti-national”, appeared in and around Pallikaranai the next day.

It all started when the Medavakkam unit of the DYFI announced a protest in front of an ATM at Pallikaranai on December 31 to condemn the Narendra Modi government for the distress caused to the poor and the working class people by the November 8 demonetisation. It approached the Pallikaranai police for permission, which was denied. However, following repeated pleas, the police granted permission but with a long list of dos and don’ts.

Early on December 31, scores of cadres assembled in front of the ATM and raised slogans against Modi and the BJP government. They also distributed handbills to people on demonetisation and its failure to achieve its objectives. When cadres attempted to burn an effigy of Modi, the police prevented it. “It was not new. Since the day demonetisation was announced, the Left has been fighting it on the roads and streets,” said a DYFI member.

While the agitation was going on peacefully, a posse of policemen, led by the Pallikaranai inspector K. Natarajan, descended on the scene. Then all hell broke loose. Without any warning, the police started beating the protesting cadres with canes and sticks. “Even long rubber tubes were used,” said Deepa, one of those who sustained injuries. The protesters were pushed to the ground, kicked and beaten badly. The police hit them in the head, neck and shoulders, leaving many writhing in pain with bleeding injuries. Women cadres were abused, said Deepa. The entire area looked like a war zone.

The police also dragged some of those who organised the protest into their van, took them to the police station and herded them into a tiny lock-up. Cadres claimed that there too the police used force, with a sub inspector taking the lead.

Following the intervention of senior CPI(M) leaders, who took up the issue with higher police officials and brought it to the attention of the media, the cadres were spared further incarceration and enlarged on bail. However, cases were filed against 14 of them, including senior party functionary G. Selva, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.

Selva, who is the CPI(M)’s Chennai Virugambakkam area secretary and member, South Chennai district secretariat, said that as a senior party member he had gone to Medavakkam on hearing of the police brutality and had not taken part in the protest. “There were also charges that the police during the protest used derogatory remarks against the women cadres. Some of them were said to have been abused and molested while they were taken in a police van to a nearby wedding hall where they were detained until late in the night. Hence, we sought an explanation from the Assistant Commissioner of Police P. Govindaraju, who was present there, and also the list of those who were arrested and the charges that were framed against them. But the officer replied using foul language,” he said. A heated argument ensued and amid that a strong posse of policemen from the Special Task Force arrived in three vans. “Before we could realise what was happening, the policemen, led by Inspector Natarajan, started beating us. Many of us suffered bleeding injuries,” he said. Selva sustained a serious head injury, besides bruises all over his body from the lathi blows. He lost consciousness and was rushed to the sub health centre nearby. A gaping wound on his head required several stitches. He was later taken to the Government Hospital where he underwent a minor surgical procedure.

The issue caught public attention, especially through social media. CPI(M) State secretary G. Ramakrishnan demanded that the policemen responsible for the attack be punished. The CPI(M), the DYFI, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and many other likeminded and secular organisations staged agitations across the State condemning the police high-handedness. Senior party functionaries claimed that it was a planned move to muffle the voice of dissent against the Modi government. “Fascist forces have infiltrated the law-enforcing agency. It is a political compulsion for the party that is in power in the State today to show its loyalty and commitment to the Centre. What else would you derive from such an inhuman attack?” one leader said.

But there was more to the police action than just putting down a protest. The cadres claimed that they were targeted since they had taken up various social issues in Pallikaranai, which is a sprawling marsh that is in the grip of the real estate mafia and encroachers. “We are fighting against all anti-social activities here, which put the local police, who are in liaison with these mafia groups, in discomfiture. They have been waiting for this moment,” said a volunteer who has been in the forefront of struggles in the area.

The State Human Rights Commission has taken up the Medavakkam issue suo motu, while petitions have been dispatched to various other fora, including the National Commission for Women. Senior leaders of the CPI(M) met Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and demanded action against the policemen concerned.

Strangely enough, those who staged a protest in Madurai on January 3 against this incident were also subjected to police brutality.

Uttar Pradesh

State of flux

IT is a unique mixture of confidence and uncertainty that permeates the major political forces in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State in India, ahead of the Assembly elections to be held in seven phases between February 11 and March 8. The manifestations of this are such that different sections of the three important players—the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the principal opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power at the Centre in 2014 aided by a stupendous victory in the Lok Sabha election in the State—reflect confidence and scepticism alternately. Factors that boost confidence and instil scepticism also alternately dominate the political and organisational set-up in these organisations from time to time. Of course, they play out with different dimensions and nuances in each of the three parties. The interplay of confidence and doubt within the S.P.’s political and organisational spaces revolves essentially around two factors. The first is the track record of the Akhilesh Yadav government, especially the personal style and drive of the young Chief Minister, which is widely acknowledged as commendable. And the second, the fierce internecine tussle within the party in the last six months, which has acquired unprecedented proportions with the Chief Minister and his father, S.P. founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, battling each other for control over the party organisation and the power to allocate seats to candidates. In the early stages, the perception was that the tussle was between the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleague Shivpal Yadav, who is also the younger brother of Mulayam Singh Yadav, but as it gathered momentum with manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres and expulsions and counter-expulsions of supporters on both sides, the contours of a much bigger conflict became visible. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s cousin and Rajya Sabha member Ramgopal Yadav positioned himself with Akhilesh Yadav and guided many of the moves of that faction.

Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity

However, the S.P. leadership exudes confidence because there is a consensus among political commentators that Akhilesh Yadav rates as one of the Chief Ministers who have generated the least anti-incumbency sentiment in the electoral history of the State. Popular opinion on the performance of his government also matches this, with its work on improving electricity and road connectivity, especially rural road connectivity, receiving across-the-board appreciation. There have been no allegations of corruption against the Chief Minister and whenever his colleagues faced charges, Akhilesh Yadav was quick to initiate inquiry and, at times, punitive action. Of course, as in the case of all S.P. governments in the State, the track record on law and order came in for criticism, but even here some of the final-year initiatives of the government, such as the functioning of an IT-enabled dial 100 system and special measures to restrict harassment of women, were perceived as being effective.

The net result of all this is reflected in the pre-poll surveys carried out by different agencies, including the media. In every survey, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the most popular choice for Chief Minister, with a support share of 30 to 40 per cent. Other contenders, including BSP chief Mayawati and BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath, have a support share in the range of 18 to 29 per cent.

In a sense, the internal tussle in the S.P. was also perceived by large sections of the population as an extension of the Chief Minister’s efforts to eradicate the image of the party as being “lawless”. Both S.P. workers and sections of non-partisan observers point out that a dimension of the dispute is about accommodating leaders with known criminal records, such as Atique Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari, in the party. Akhilesh Yadav has taken an open stance against giving space for such leaders. He had taken a similar position in 2012 too when he denied the party ticket to D.P. Yadav, a leader from western Uttar Pradesh who is known as “Bahubali Neta” (muscleman politician).

Sunil Yadav, a close associate of the Chief Minister who was expelled from official positions in the government and the party as part of the internal tussle, said: “Akhilesh ji wants to clean the party and its government of goondagardi, tanashahi aur len-den ki rajneeti [hooliganism, autocracy and wheeler-dealing] as he understands that this is what the people, especially the young people of the State, want. He knows that this is what is required for the better future for the State as well as the party. And that is exactly why his stance has resonated with an overwhelming majority.”

As things unfolded in the last week of December 2016 and the first week of January 2017, Sunil Yadav’s contention on the overwhelming support enjoyed by Akhilesh Yadav in the party got underscored. After he was anointed the national president of the S.P., replacing Mulayam Singh Yadav, the balance of power within the party shifted dramatically in his favour. As party vice president Kiranmoy Nanda put it succinctly, 99 per cent of the MLAs, 96 per cent of the MPs and 90 per cent of the executive members of the national committee support Akhilesh Yadav. Technically, the takeover by Akhilesh Yadav as party national president meant there was a split with Mulayam Singh Yadav terming the convention that effected the organisational change “unconstitutional”. It also led to both factions making claims before the Election Commission of India for the long-standing party symbol, “cycle”. Even as the arguments on this is going on, the dominance of Akhilesh Yadav in the S.P. is evident. As many as 220 of the 229 MLAs of the party have reportedly signed up in his favour.

However, despite this the fact remains that at the ground level the S.P. has not been able to begin its election campaign effectively. Nor has it been able to give out firm indications on the selection of candidates. Evidently, this is the primary factor that has accentuated the scepticism within the S.P. After the elevation of Akhilesh Yadav as national president, there were several rounds of conciliatory talks between Mulayam Singh Yadav and him. Apparently, the senior Yadav agreed to allow Akhilesh Yadav to have the final call on allocation of seats but wanted the national president’s post to be returned to him. However, team Akhilesh Yadav was not ready for this. According to a senior leader, a few BJP agents had smuggled themselves into the good books of “Netaji” (Mulayam Singh Yadav) and their aim was to destroy the S.P. “So, we shall accede to his request only after the elections are over,” the leader said.

Evidently, the state of flux has put back the S.P.’s campaign on the ground. So much so that S.P. workers across the State aver that it would require Herculean efforts from the party, particularly its main vote-catcher Akhilesh Yadav, to drive home the advantage from the lack of the anti-incumbency factor. There is also apprehension about the persistence of the split during the elections, driving large segments of the Muslim support base of the party to the BSP and a segment of even the Yadav voters—the core base of the party—to the BJP.

Growing disconnect in

the BSP

Under normal circumstances, this sense of disarray in the S.P. should have benefited the principal opposition, the BSP. However, a number of factors seem to be limiting the party’s efforts to take advantage of the situation. First, the connect between the top leadership of the BSP, dominated by the personality of Mayawati, and the lower hierarchy is no longer as creative and effective as it used to be. BSP activists across Uttar Pradesh complain about this growing disconnect. The desertion of a clutch of State-level leaders from the party, including former State president Swami Prasad Maurya and former national secretary R.K. Chaudhary, was indicative of this sense of unrest.

However, Mayawati has sought to overcome these reverses by making her party the first major political force to announce its list of candidates. The BSP’s list for 401 out of the 403 seats in the State contains 97 Muslims, 87 Dalits, 106 Other Backward Class (OBCs) members and 113 upper-caste candidates of whom 66 are Brahmins and 36 are Thakurs.

The emphasis on a higher number of seats to the Muslim community and the upper castes is in keeping with her aim to add other community votes to the party’s core constituency of Dalits. This was a tactic that worked for the BSP in 2007 when it won the election on the slogan of “Dalit-Brahmin Bhaichara” (Dalit-Brahmin fraternity). However, the Dalit base of the BSP has undergone fluctuations since 2013 when the Hindutva communal polarisation engineered by the BJP and its allied organisations in the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) drew to it sizable sections of Dalit communities. This Dalit consolidation under Hindutva suffered reverses after the suicide of the research scholar RohithVemula in University of Hyderabad and the resultant national outrage it caused against the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre. Still, given its diminished connect with the grass roots, the BSP leadership has not been able to quantify exactly how far this disillusionment with the BJP is working in its favour.

Overly confident BJP

On its part, the top leadership of the BJP, including Prime Minister Modi and national president Amit Shah, has been predicting a stupendous victory for the party in the Assembly elections. Leaders have even quoted publicly and at inner-party functions the number of seats the BJP is likely to win. Apparently, in a party meeting Modi put the figure at 275 out of 403 while Amit Shah has talked about 300 plus seats. The recently appointed State BJP president Keshav Prasad Maurya went one step ahead and said in a public meeting that the party’s tally would cross 330 seats.

Top BJP leaders say that these projections are based upon a number of factors. To start with, these leaders say the BJP had commissioned as many as eight surveys by different agencies, which uniformly recorded this trend. They further argue that the primary reason for this confidence is the calculation that the sociopolitical factors that influenced the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha election remain more or less unchanged. A combination of Hindutva polarisation on the one side and a hyperdriven campaign on the development-man image of Modi on the other gave the BJP and its allies 73 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State and an astounding 42.03 per cent of the vote.

In the Assembly elections after 2014, the BJP lost an average of 10 percentage points. It was the highest in Delhi, where it lost close to 12 percentage points. In other States such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana the loss was 7 to 9 percentage points. “If this is the yardstick, even if we lose close to 10 percentage points in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP will romp home in the first-past-the-post electoral system that we have. More importantly, Prime Minister Modi’s demonetisation drive has evoked such support that we may even see a revival of the Modi magic in 2017, though it had dipped in 2015 when the BJP lost Delhi and Bihar,” said a national BJP leader closely associated with the election work in Uttar Pradesh. In his opinion demonetisation has recast Modi’s political identity as a socialist seeking to help the poor by punishing the rich.

However, this cocky assuredness that is manifest at the top level of the party leadership is not reflected at the level of Lok Sabha members, Legislative Assembly members and party functionaries on the ground. In fact, these segments of party activists have sought to flag some concerns they face on the ground, especially on account of demonetisation. “This drive has given rise to a situation where the commonest of common people are using expletives against Modi and the central regime. What electoral impact it will have needs to be seen,” a senior BJP leader based in Lucknow told Frontline. A group of Lok Sabha members from eastern Uttar Pradesh apparently sought to raise this aspect of the demonetisation decision in a meeting with Amit Shah a couple of weeks ago, but they were reportedly put down rudely by Shah.

The Lucknow-based leader pointed out that the BJP had lost almost all Assembly byelections since 2014, including seats vacated by leaders who went on to become Lok Sabha members. “Down the line in the party,” he said, “there is a creeping feeling that the top party leadership is missing out on some X factors, including the wide acceptance of Akhilesh Yadav cutting across the caste and communal divide.” According to the leader, this sense persists despite many survey results showing a sweep by the party.

Other players

Evidently, there is a strange balance of hope and fear in all major political players in the State. Amidst all this are two other, not-so-major, players, the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, each of whom has realised that its efforts at building its own political constituency and vote base have not resulted in tangible gains. Both parties are looking forward to forging alliances with the S.P. It remains to be seen how far the S.P. will be able to respond to their overtures given the unrest within its own leadership and rank and file.

Arunachal Pradesh

Revolving door

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never won the mandate of the people of Arunachal Pradesh in an Assembly election. Yet, for the second time the party has managed to form the government in the north-eastern State, which has borders with China, Myanmar and Bhutan, with the help of deserters from the Congress and regional parties.

The first BJP-led government was formed in the State in 2003, when Gegong Apang, the then lone Arunachal Congress legislator in the 60-member Assembly, joined the saffron party and led a coalition government for 42 days. This time around the BJP has got a full-fledged government after Chief Minister Pema Khandu, along with 32 legislators of the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), joined the BJP on December 31, 2016. They joined the BJP after the PPA suspended Khandu and six PPA legislators for alleged anti-party activities.

Following the defection of the 33 PPA legislators and two Congress members, the strength of the BJP in the Assembly increased to 47. It also enjoys the support of two independent legislators.

Former Chief Minister Nabam Tuki is the lone Congress legislator in the current Assembly. The PPA, a regional party formed on April 10, 1979, has currently 10 members in the House.

The Congress polled 49.5 per cent of the votes in the 2014 Assembly elections to win 42 seats to rule the State for a third consecutive term and Nabam Tuki became the Chief Minister. The BJP polled 31 per cent of the votes to win 11 seats in the elections, which were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections when a Modi wave swept the country. The PPA polled 8.96 per cent of the votes and won five seats. Independents won two seats.

The State has had four Chief Ministers in the past one year. The political tug of war led to President’s Rule and even reached the Supreme Court.

However, rumours refuse to die in the corridors of power. Speculative reports in a section of the media that Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju might replace Khandu as Chief Minister prompted the State unit of the BJP to issue a clarification that “there is no question of replacing Chief Minister Pema Khandu, who enjoys full support of [the] entire BJP party”.

A statement issued by State BJP president Tapir Gao said: “Pema Khandu enjoys support of 47 BJP and two independent MLAs in the 60-member House. The State unit of the BJP endorsed full support to the leadership of Shri Pema Khandu.” The BJP’s national president, Amit Shah, and senior leader Ram Madhav, who is in charge of north-east affairs, also expressed full faith in the leadership of Khandu.

The political resolution adopted at the BJP’s National Executive meeting held in New Delhi on January 6 and 7 also welcomed Khandu into the BJP parivar. “The year [2016] has ended on another happy note with 33 MLAs from the PPA in Arunachal Pradesh, including the Chief Minister, opting to join the BJP. The National Executive welcomes the new BJP Chief Minister Pema Khandu into the BJP parivar,” stated the release issued from New Delhi. On January 7, the Chief Minister’s Office issued an official release stating that “the BJP National Executive officially welcomed Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu into the BJP parivar”.

Unique case

The recent political developments in Arunachal Pradesh present a unique case where the Chief Minister himself has led the defection to another party. Pema Khandu, 37, became Chief Minister for the first time on July 17, 2016, following his election as the leader of the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Legislature Party the previous day. He and a few other rebel Congress legislators had just returned to the party’s fold.

Politics in Arunachal Pradesh has always been knotty. On January 26, 2016, President’s Rule was imposed in Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds of political instability and constitutional breakdown. But on July 13, 2016, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court restored the Nabam Tuki government after it quashed the decision of the then Governor, J.P. Rajkhowa, which had led to the imposition of President’s Rule. In effect, Kalikho Pul, who meanwhile had become Chief Minister on February 19, 2016, with the help of 30 rebel Congress legislators and the outside support of 11 BJP legislators and two independent legislators, had to make way for Tuki to be reinstated at the helm.

In less than three weeks after the formation of the Pul government, rebel Congress legislators joined the PPA alleging that the “Congress high command sidelined them”. Tuki managed to woo all of them, including Pul and Khandu, back to the Congress fold. He stepped down to facilitate the unanimous election of Khandu as the Chief Minister on July 17. Pul was found dead on August 9; his body was found hanging in the official residence of the Chief Minister.

In a dramatic move on September 16, 2016, Chief Minister Khandu and 42 Congress legislators defected to the PPA, which led to the installation of another PPA-led government in the State. Justifying the merger, Khandu said that the change was in tune with the aspirations of the people. But the Khandu-led PPA government lasted only until December 30, 2016, when the PPA president suspended Khandu, Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein and five other party legislators. This time Khandu said the people of the State wanted a stable government “in line with” Narendra Modi’s government.

The PPA is a constituent of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). The BJP floated the NEDA on May 24, 2016, with 10 regional parties to achieve its goal of a “Congress-mukt north-east”. However, the BJP’s open welcome to Khandu is likely to strain the party’s relations with the PPA. All eyes are now on the PPA to see if it will remain with the NEDA or exit the BJP-led platform to avenge the political humiliation.

Tough challenge

For the BJP it will be a tough challenge to please party legislators, old as well as new, who have been left out in Khandu’s new Ministry. The Constitution’s 91st amendment limits the size of the Ministry in the State to 12, including the Chief Minister.

Political instability in Arunachal Pradesh has established that crossing the halfway mark in the Assembly can in no way ensure the stability of a government. Rather, it creates more instability with too many aspirants for ministerial berths. This has also brought into focus the debate over the efficacy of the anti-defection law in preventing legislators from shifting loyalties without going back to the people who give their mandate in favour of a particular party or coalition of parties to govern them.

The BJP’s strategists have in mind how the limited size of the Ministry was leveraged by disgruntled Congress legislators in north-eastern States such as Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya to effect frequent change of guard or to raise the banner of revolt as happened in Assam during the third term of the Congress government headed by Tarun Gogoi. For this reason, the incumbent Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, appears to have delayed the expansion of his Ministry. The first BJP-led government in the State has been functioning with 10 Ministers for the past eight months though Sonowal can induct eight more Ministers.

Development has taken a back seat in Arunachal Pradesh because of the political instability, as could be gathered from Chief Minister Khandu’s own admission. “Development is not possible without a stable government. Now when we have it... you can very well expect development to rush in,” he said, addressing residents of Wakka village in Longding district which was ravaged by a fire that broke out on December 22. A 70-year-old woman, Bangman Gangsa, died, 52 houses were gutted and more than 100 families were rendered homeless.

He apologised for not being able to visit the village on December 30 as planned and explained that political compulsions forced him to cancel the visit. He, however, assured the residents that the “small” hiccup that his government had to encounter in the last few days had been resolved and that a stable government was in place, stated an official release issued on his visit on January 3.

The very first Cabinet meeting of the BJP government, held on January 4, approved the work of the Itanagar-Banderdewa four-lane highway and the compensation estimate prepared by a government-constituted committee, and directed the release of the compensation amount to the beneficiaries through the Deputy Commissioner. The real challenge for Khandu is to keep his team together until the next Assembly elections, which is due in 2019 along with the Lok Sabha election.

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Oct 9,2020