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COVER STORY

13-10-2017

Bullet train

Train to nowhere

Briefing

Global experience

Chinese lessons

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

If there is a global championship for running High Speed Rail (HSR) networks, China will win hands down. Japan may have been the pioneer and France an early starter, but China is the superpower in this game. A relatively late starter, China started its HSR programme 39 years after the Shinkansen first started operations in 1964. The Japanese Bullet Train network had the highest annual ridership among all such railways in the world until 2011, when the Chinese HSR, just eight years old at that time, surpassed the Shinkansen. Although the old warhorse started with speeds below 200 kilometres an hour, the modern definition of an HSR is any train system that travels at a minimum speed of 250 km/hr. In that race for speed the bullet train is expected to maintain a speed of 320-350 km/hr. In June 2017, a train with a maximum speed of 400 km/hr was unveiled on the Beijing-Shanghai line.

Fast passenger trains have been around for many years. The speed record for a steam locomotive was set in Britain in 1938 when a train achieved a top speed of 203 km/hr, although over a short stretch of less than a kilometre. Earlier, in Germany in 1933, the Flying Hamburger attained a top speed of 150 km/hr and an impressive commercial speed (speed at which the journey is completed, inclusive of stopping time at stations en route) of 130 km/hr. In 1938, a train between Bologna and Naples attained a commercial speed of 160 km/hr.

All these trains ran on existing conventional tracks, until the Shinkansen appeared in Japan on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics. Construction of the new 515-km electrified alignment between Tokyo and Osaka commenced in 1959. The concept of the Tokaido Shinkansen—the original bullet train—provided the base for the expansion of fast train services in Japan. This was achieved by not only expanding the Shinkansen network—now more than 2,700 km—but increasing the frequency of services, to the point that it is akin to a high-speed suburban railway system. No other HSR system in the world—not even the Chinese—has matched the impressive safety record that the Shinkansen has achieved over 53 years.

The Shinkansen set the norm for passenger-dedicated lines (PDL), which nearly all HSRs now follow. K. Balakesari, former Member, Railway Board, told Frontline that it was only logical because “differential train speeds of trains on a single track result in poorer utilisation of track capacity, slowing everything that moves along it”. Additionally, segregating freight traffic from passenger lines, as the Chinese government has done successfully, speeded up both kinds of traffic by not allowing one to hinder the other. Although achieving higher speeds is certainly a key objective, the more important goal from a systemic point of view is to increase efficiencies by scaling up throughput on tracks. More trains on the same tracks during the same length of time increases capacity utilisation, Balakesari pointed out. He added that ever higher speeds were an obvious advantage that flowed from this approach, a source of prestige for the prevailing political regime.

According to the latest data available for global comparison, in April 2015, the Chinese HSR network accounted for a whopping 60 per cent of the length of all HSR systems in operation or being implemented in the world. The country’s HSR network, already at 19,000 km in 2015, is to expand to 31,000 km by 2020, by which time China’s nearest competitor globally would be Spain, with a total length of under 5,000 km of HSR (see accompanying table and pie chart).

‘Walking on two legs’

Two aspects of the Chinese HSR programme are particularly striking, not just in comparison with what is being attempted in India but elsewhere too. The first is that, unlike in India, the Chinese HSR system was not delinked from the conventional railway system. Instead, it was incorporated into a systemic approach to improve the national rail system in all its dimensions. Thus, the HSR was conceptualised as part of an overall programme in which there was a hierarchy of speeds for different parts of the railway system. Even before the HSR came into being the Chinese government had undertaken a significant programme that focussed on increasing the speeds at which other trains—not just passenger, but also goods—were travelling. The HSR was at the apex of these speeds, but it was accompanied by the attention and focus that the Chinese government gave to rail transportation in general. Ten years after commencing HSR operations, the Chinese route network totalled 10,000 km, and by 2015 it had nearly doubled; by 2020 it will have added another 11,000 km to its HSR network.

This Chinese approach is probably best evoked by Mao Zedong’s famous slogan “Walking on Two Legs”. Between 1997 and 2001, well before the HSR trains started running in China, the maximum speed of conventional trains was progressively increased, from 100 km/hr to 160 km/hr. And this was no piecemeal approach; such passenger trains ran over 13,000 km across China.

Note the striking contrast between India and China. Two decades after China extensively upgraded speeds all round on all classes of passenger trains, there are only a few trains in India that attain these speeds. Even more importantly, while improving conventional train speeds, China started trials for high-speed services using new track designs and EMU (Electric multiple unit) train sets. The integration of all aspects of the national rail component systems was unveiled in the Chinese Ministry of Railways’ document “Mid to Long-Range Network Plan” in 2003. It presented, for the first time, a unified perspective reflecting a systemic approach to rail transportation in all its dimensions, in which the HSR was only one. The critical role of the state is illustrated by the administrative structure of China’s high-speed rail programme. China Rail, directly under the Chinese Railway Ministry, runs the CRH(China High-Speed Rail). This is unlike most other HSR projects across the world, which probably explains why China rules the world of HSRs.

Referring to the Chinese HSR system under construction, the World Bank’s Beijing office, in a study published in 2010, observed: “It is perhaps the biggest single planned programme of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country.” The key role of the Chinese railways in the Chinese government’s economic stimulus programme in the wake of the global economic crisis is indicated by the fact that investment in the railways increased from $26 billion in 2007 to $49 billion in 2008, $88 billion in 2009, and $100 billion in 2010.

Why China rules the high-speed world

The second aspect of the Chinese programme—probably unique in the history of modern railway management—was the state acting as a powerful engine. This had several implications. First, according to a World Bank study of 2014, the Chinese system is the cheapest in terms of average cost per km, ranging between $17-21 million per km, which is 47 to 86 per cent lower than costs in Europe, the most notable competitor, apart from the Shinkansen. Incidentally, the Shinkansen’s costs are the most difficult to come by, and there have been scandals in the past—including one relating to the first Shinkansen line, after which the Japanese National Railway, which then operated the Shinkansen, had to resign for grossly understating costs.

Cost comparisons across countries and projects ought to be made with some caution as no two lines are similar. The topography, in particular, has an impact, because HSR tracks need to be as straight as possible in order to provide for train stability at high speeds. The costs associated with civil works such as bridges, viaducts and tunnels also depend on the route. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the dramatic difference in costs is because of China’s programme being state-led and its significant economies of scale and design.

Moreover, China invested heavily in not just tracks and coaches but also in developing in-house capability. This was achieved, according to a study, by establishing several large research institutions specifically focussing on research in rail transportation. Moreover, while China imported coaches, signalling and other equipment in the early years, it made use of its enormous scale by insisting on technology transfer and training of its own nationals by companies such as Kawasaki, Alstom and Siemens. Later, but quite quickly, it developed its own technology, so much so that its companies own a significant number of global patents in rail transportation systems and components. Today, armed with the expertise and know-how gained in the last two decades, Chinese companies are poised to scout globally for HSR projects.

Another significant aspect of the Chinese state-led strategy that is very different from other HSR systems is the Chinese state’s apparent willingness to adopt a more patient approach to recouping investments through fares. Chinese fares, according to a World Bank study of 2014, are significantly lower than fares in other HSR systems. For instance, while Chinese fares on trains travelling at 200-250 km/hr speeds were about 16 per cent of the fares on the Japanese rail system, on the Shinkansen-type trains (at speeds of 300-350 km/hr) the Chinese fares were only about one-fourth.

According to the World Bank, although operating and maintenance costs are generally low in HSR projects because of greater automation and better utilisation of assets, the capital costs are huge. The logic of the Chinese government’s willingness to recover capital costs over a longer-time horizon appears to be its appreciation of the larger picture.

In that picture, there are other benefits that it is eyeing. Since roadways are generally regarded to be relatively inefficient in terms of land use when compared with the railways, it perhaps makes better sense to divert road users to trains. The land for a six-lane highway would be more efficiently used by trains than by vehicles on the road. The logic is that trains carry more people and goods for the same unit of land utilised.

Also in this picture are the benefits flowing from a less environmentally damaging transportation system. Overall, incorporated into this logic is the belief that transportation is a basic economic infrastructure that serves a wider socio-economic purpose.

Instead of narrowly focussing on project-related cost-benefit analysis, as most private investors would do, the Chinese have kept their eyes on the overall economic rate of return, in which wider gains are kept in sight. The manner in which China has leveraged investments in its overall rail infrastructure—not just in high-speed travel—to promote wider socio-economic goals offers important lessons for India.

This is particularly important if the Narendra Modi government has any intention – or the political will – to engineer an economic stimulus to kick-start a faltering economy.

Cover Story

The nowhere train

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

WHAT pretends to arrive as a gift and comes with great fanfare can only be a curse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project to bring home India’s first high-speed train—given the dilapidated state of the Indian rail network—has the hallmark of an ill-fated gift.

Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, formally launched the project to introduce the Shinkansen—popularly known as the bullet train—between Sabarmati and Mumbai on September 14. The commencement of work on India’s Shinkansen—the global pioneer of High Speed Rail (HSR) in 1964—was greeted with the euphoria that India had gained entry into the exclusive club of nations with an HSR. The project for the 508-kilometre line is expected to cost Rs.110,000 crore—at the rate of Rs.217 crore per km. But there are no worries, said Modi that day.

“In a way the project is virtually free,” Modi gushed, referring to the fact that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) would be providing a loan of Rs.88,000 crore for the project at a “nominal” interest rate of 0.1 per cent per annum. Moreover, the repayment schedule, spread over 50 years, including an initial moratorium of 15 years, gave the project an almost-free ring. “In Shinzo Abe, India has found a friend no bank in the world could match,” Modi bubbled over enthusiastically. Modi’s sales pitch on the eve of the Navaratri festive season hid more than it revealed, for several reasons.

For one, the JICA is well known to hunt the world, scouting exclusively for projects in which Japanese companies are bidding. A veteran who has worked at senior positions in two leading global consultancies told Frontline that agencies such as the World Bank view the JICA with some scepticism. “The JICA generally funds projects in which Japanese companies are in the fray and there are often hidden costs associated with the services they provide,” he said. Moreover, the fact that India’s first bullet train project has been awarded on a “nomination basis”, without a competitive bidding process, is clearly out of order. The no-bid route is obviously costlier and it is possible to find out—at least approximately—how much more India is paying for the “almost free” largesse from Japan.

The illusion of ‘almost free’

A report on China’s HSR programme prepared by the World Bank’s Beijing office in 2014 provides just such a yardstick for comparison. Although no two projects are strictly comparable because of the specificities—particularly topographical—of each case, the Rs.110,000-crore project implies a cost $16.998 billion at exchange rates prevailing on September 21. This implies a per km cost of $33.46 million. According to the World Bank report, the per km cost in China was between $17 million and $21 million. Thus, at the lower bound of the Chinese costs, the Indian project is 59 per cent higher; at the upper bound, the costs are higher by a whopping 97 per cent.

These calculations show that if the Chinese costs are treated as a base case, India is paying between $6.330 billion and $8.362 billion more for the project. Even discounting for the fact that the Chinese cost estimates pertain to three years ago, these appear high by any standard. Moreover, there is evidence to show that Chinese costs have been continuously declining, primarily because of the tremendous economies of scale that it has gathered in the short period of 14 years since it started its HSR programme (see separate story). In effect, even if the loan is almost free because of the illusory effect of the low interest rate, it appears that the high project cost has front-loaded returns for the Japanese companies implementing the project.

But the negative interest rate in Japan, a crucial result of “Abenomics” since Abe came to office in 2012, implies that even a 0.1 per cent rate of interest is profitable for Japanese banks. The fact that a loan such as the one extended for the Indian bullet train project expands business opportunities for Japanese companies is an obvious additional gain. But the real benefit from the loan will not accrue from the rate of interest charged to the Indian Railways’ subsidiary that would be implementing the project, but from the exchange rate between the rupee and the Japanese yen.

A financial analyst with some understanding of Japanese banks and corporations told Frontline: “The long-term tendency is for the rupee to depreciate with respect to the yen, given the experience that the Japanese currency has appreciated by about 60 per cent in the last 10 years.” He pointed out that one of the key determinants of a market-determined exchange rate, apart from capital inflows and outflows, is the inflation differential between the two economies. Given that the Japanese economy has been in prolonged stagnation, nearing a condition of deflation, and that Indian inflation is still high, the prognosis is for the rupee to depreciate in the long term vis-a-vis the yen. Significantly, the market’s perception of what is the “true” level of inflation would not be coloured by what official Indian statisticians may compute. With inflation targeting in Japan under Abe currently at 2 per cent and Indian inflation even assumed conservatively at 6 per cent, the difference works out to be significantly higher than what has been presented by Modi.

Thus, it appears fair to conclude that what the Japanese may appear to lose because of the apparently low interest rate would be more than compensated by the depreciation of the rupee. In effect, India would have to pay more rupees for the yen it has borrowed for the project now. The inflated cost of the project is the icing on the cake for the Japanese companies getting their foot in the door through a no-bid contract.

Modi’s acolytes have made the suggestion that India could hedge against an appreciation of the yen and therefore avoid losses in the future. This apparently ingenious suggestion is not only irresponsible but suggests an utter lack of understanding of either the market for the Japanese currency or the way hedging works. Many Indian companies, including IT services companies, which have fairly large exposures in foreign currencies, regularly do hedging. But no company hedges its entire exposure simply because hedging costs can be fairly high, apart from posing downside risks. The financial analyst quoted above pointed out that hedging costs for the yen are generally higher than, say, for instance, the U.S. dollar, because the yen is the most volatile of major international currencies. In addition, he pointed out that hedging on the yen is typically done for a period of six months. He guffawed loudly when asked about hedging on a yen-denominated loan with a tenure of 50 years.

Misplaced priorities

Modi’s dramatic move to usher India into the high-speed age could not have come under more ironic circumstances. The recent spate of railway accidents and the incessant reports of derailment of trains have cast a gloomy shadow over his bullet train ambitions. In 2016, the Indian Railways recorded 186 fatalities, the worst year in almost a decade. Since Modi assumed office in 2014, despite three Railway Ministers, there have been 325 deaths compared with 85 in the three-year period before this. The question that sceptics are asking is: why is this expensive project being pursued when the entire railway system in all its dimensions is in utter decay, particularly because of long-term neglect of its basic infrastructure?

Not all of these sceptics are Luddites objecting to such a project simply because they are against new technology. In fact, many critics of the project agree that increasing speed on the Indian rail network is a desirable objective because it increases throughput on tracks, which increases the overall efficiency of the system. The average speed of a goods train in India is about 25 km/hr and that of an express train is about 50 km/hr. What could be the objection to increasing these speeds which Indian trains have been at for decades now? Last year, Gatimaan Express, from Delhi to Agra, which had the ability to reach a top speed of 160 km/hr, was actually only a few minutes faster than the first Shatabdi Express that travelled from Delhi to Jhansi via Agra in 1988!

The constraints on speed arise from two sets of factors. The first pertains to the state of the tracks, signalling equipment, passenger coaches and goods wagons, all of which are either over-aged, outdated or simply unsafe to run at speeds that would be considered normal in a modern rail system. The second kind of constraint on speed arises from the excessive load and congestion on Indian tracks. In a recent interview on TV, Bibek Debroy, who headed a committee to restructure the Indian Railways, said traffic in the northern to eastern corridor was so dense that railway personnel did not get “even five minutes to do maintenance work on tracks”.

Speaking to Frontline, K. Balakesari, former Member, Railway Board, said: “Statistically speaking, it may be impossible to predict the number of fatalities in the Railways, but the incidence of derailments, even when there are no deaths, is definitely a matter of concern because they are a warning that something is wrong in the system.” The problem has been aggravated by the fact that since Lalu Prasad’s tenure as Railway Minister a decade ago, the Railways started loading wagons beyond their prescribed carrying capacity. This has continued ever since. “Has there been a study of what happened to these assets as a result of rampant overloading?” Balakesari asked. He also pointed out that in about 70 per cent of rail accidents, the blame was put on the staff. “There is something seriously wrong in putting money on infrastructure and then blaming the staff,” he said. He suggested that the severe stress on the overloaded rail system had also imposed severe stress on the railway staff who were under great pressure to deliver. This “human aspect” of safety is not adequately appreciated, Balakesari said (see interview highlighting the plight of Indian loco pilots).

A Task Force Report on Safety published in January 2017, meant for “internal circulation” but which is available with Frontline, thanks to a trade union source, paints a picture of all-round neglect. Not just tracks, but even passenger coaches need wholesale replacement, it observed. For instance, the Integral Coach Factory (ICF)-type coaches, the mainstay of passenger services for several years, are prone to telescoping on impact following a collision, and needed to be replaced years earlier; it was only in late 2016 that the Railway Ministry finally decided to banish them from service. Even their replacement, Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, are almost a decade old, but there are no attempts to replace them with better, modern, light coaches based on research and development within the country. A Railway source confirmed that little or no action had been taken on the several recommendations made by the Task Force.

Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus at the Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, told Frontline that the fundamental question was one of the Railways’ priorities. “You can go to any railway station in India and see especially poor people sleeping on the platforms, and the areas around railway stations are horrible.”

Railway compartments, he said, “are filthy and jam-packed, with people travelling like animals. Is this how we treat millions of our people who travel every day to our factories and farms?” If these issues were addressed, or at least being addressed in good measure, nobody would object to the introduction of HSR in India, he said.

Dinesh Mohan, a regular traveller to China for the last three decades, said: “In 1988, when I first went to China, the stations and trains were cleaner and services much better than what we have in India today.”

“The Ministry of Railways in China has established three research institutions, each employing 3,000-5,000 research personnel,” he pointed out. Apart from these, at least 10 universities have centres of excellence in railway-related studies, he said. “In China, all this was achieved over the last 20 years, but in India we do not have a single institution that employs 100 persons doing railway-related research. China has at least 15,000 such professionals,” he observed. No research institution, university or even an IIT specialises in railway technologies, he remarked.

Gross underinvestment

As the accompanying piece by R. Elangovan, a trade union leader and a keen student of the Indian rail system for several years, observes, systematic underinvestment in every aspect of the system has brought it to the brink. Strikingly, data show that the biggest phase of decline in derailments occurred in the period between 2003 and 2008 when investments in track replacement were undertaken. Since then progress has flagged; the problem has been compounded by the persistent and egregious flogging of national rail assets. While government investment has been cut, the dependence on public private partnerships (PPP) as a route to salvation has proved to be misplaced and costly. In fact, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s last Budget papers revealed that most of the planned investments failed to materialise because they were to come through PPP.

The example of the progress on the two dedicated freight corridors—the Eastern Corridor between Ludhiana and Dhankuni in West Bengal and the Western Corridor between the Nhava Sheva port (Mumbai) and Dadri in Uttar Pradesh—illustrates all that is wrong in terms of priorities. The Eastern Corridor is to traverse a length of more than 1,500 km, mainly for transporting coal and steel. The Western Corridor, extending over a distance of 1,856 km, is mainly for container traffic. The two projects were sanctioned in 2006 amid expectations that, upon completion, they would divert 55 per cent of freight traffic from existing lines, which would help in relieving the severe congestion in the rest of the network. The projects were initially conceived in PPP mode, but they failed to materialise, at which point the World Bank and the JICA stepped in to fund the two corridors. According to the Railway Minister’s admission in Parliament earlier this year, only 29 per cent of the finances for the project has been released and only 26 per cent of the work has been executed. The tardy progress raises a disturbing question: what is the point of running one train at a great speed over 508 km when 110,000 km of the Indian rail network is crying out for attention?

Railway Minister Piyush Goyal whose tenure began recently—and was welcomed into office with several more derailments—has defended the project by ingeniously arguing that the project is separate from the Indian Railways’ “normal” operations. He has assured that investments into the railways would continue apace despite the bullet train project. That may have been plausible before Jaitley took control of rail finances, following the Debroy Committee’s recommendation that a separate Railway Budget—condemned as a vestige of a colonial practice—be dispensed with. The fact that all funds, whether for the Railways in general or for the bullet train, will come from the same source renders this logic vacuous.

Is it viable?

It is remarkable that so little information is available about this marquee project. So far, no financial viability report appears to have been prepared. This is indicated by the fact that we still do not know where the train would stop between Sabarmati and Mumbai; nor do we know what the fares are likely to be. But the ballpark figures suggest that the fare would have to be in the region of Rs.5 per km, which implies that the fare between the two terminals would cost at least Rs.2,500. A quick check at an airline booking portal reveals that a flight between Ahmedabad and Mumbai ranges between Rs.1,900 and Rs.2,500, which implies that the bullet train fares would not be competitive vis-a-vis air fares.

Of course, stoppages en route would improve the train’s catchment from cities and towns not connected by air. But there is a catch here too: stoppages at intermediate stations would mean that the average speed of the train would come down significantly, which would result in making it unattractive for travellers from Mumbai and Ahmedabad who have the airline option.

In a country where even the Shatabdi intercity trains are mainly preferred by business travellers because of their higher fares, it stands to reason that the bullet train may largely appeal to this same class of passengers. But if the journey time between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is about two and a half hours, and if those travelling on work need to reach an office, there is only a small window of time available for the bullet train to satisfy this segment of demand—say, between 5-8 in the morning and about 6-9 in the evening. What would this expensive toy do during the rest of the day?

As Balakesari points out, there is no such thing as a “viable” HSR project, simply because the capital costs are so huge. Nowhere in the world have such projects generated financially profitable investments, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future, unless they are supported by funds provided by the state. This is not to say that HSRs are not desirable simply because they cannot generate short-term financial profits. As China has shown, the gains from lumpy investments in such projects may accrue in other realms. These could be in terms of positive environmental benefits and socio-economic benefits that reduce regional disparities or by simply making the overall economic system more efficient.

It appears that India, in exploring its options, would have done better than to jump at the Japanese “almost-free” gift by exploring the possibilities of collaboration with China. It could have done even better by learning what China did before it undertook its massive HSR programme. Instead, Modi appears to have favoured the optics of the spectacle that the Japanese embrace offered over durable, long-term gains.

Bullet train project

Chasing a chimera

R. ELANGOVAN cover-story

THE spate of train accidents across the country, including at least three derailments in August, have highlighted the alarming safety standards in the Indian Railways. The change of guard at the ministerial level appears to be an attempt at refurbishing the image of the government instead of demonstrating any serious intent to address the rapidly escalating burden of poor safety.

Although there is a risk that frequent reports of accidents may have numbed the mind to the distressing state of affairs, a brief recapitulation of the incidents in the past few months will serve to highlight everything that is wrong with the Indian Railways. And this will show why running bullet trains indicates a lopsided ordering of priorities by the Narendra Modi government.

The derailment of Kalinga Utkal Express on August 19 resulted in the death of 23 persons and injuries to 200 passengers; the derailment of (Azamgarh-Delhi) Kaifiyat Express on August 23 resulted in injuries to 74 passengers. On November 20, 2016, in one of the worst rail accidents in recent times, Indore–Rajendranagar Express (Indore-Patna) derailed in Kanpur; more than 150 people were killed and 183 injured. Following the Kalinga Express accident, four junior-level employees, including a station master and trackmen, were dismissed, and two officers and two supervisors were suspended. The Chief Track Engineer was transferred and the Northern Railway General Manager, Member (Engineering), and the Divisional Railway Manager, Delhi, were sent on leave. The Chairman of the Railway Board resigned. Ashwani Lohani, Chairman, Air India, has taken over as the Railway Board Chairman. Following this, Suresh Prabhu, whose business acumen was supposed to provide dynamism to railway affairs, was replaced by the equally dynamic Piyush Goyal as Railway Minister. But there is no evidence of recalibrating policies, let alone arresting the spate of rail accidents.

Although accidents at level crossings, train collisions and fires in trains are among the most common types of accidents, train derailments constitute over two-thirds of all rail mishaps in India; accidents at unmanned level crossings constitute the next most serious type. In 2014-15, there were 369 deaths caused by derailments; in 2016-17, the trend continued with 357 deaths. Why are derailments so high in the Indian Railways?

According to a report of the Task Force on Safety dated January 2017, which remains hidden from public scrutiny, train derailments are increasingly attributed to “rail fractures” and “weld failures”. The report pointed to the urgent need to address the “backlog in rail/track renewals and the technology of rail welding”. According to the Railway Minister’s White Paper of February 2015, the Indian Railways has a track length of 1.14 lakh kilometres, of which 4,500 km has to be renewed (in the Railways, “renewal” is a euphemism for replacement of overaged tracks) every year as they have lasted well past their useful life. According to the Lucknow-based Research Designs & Standards Organisation (RDSO), a track that weighs 52 kilograms a metre can take a load of 525 gross million tonnes before it needs to be replaced; a 60 kg/m track can take a load of 800 gross million tonnes after which it has to be replaced.

The White Paper, however, noted that “financial constraints” have hampered progress to the extent that the additional length of tracks renewed has been declining in the past six years (see chart). In July 2014, the Railway Minister said that underinvestment in track renewals in the past few years had resulted in mounting backlog. A backlog of over 5,300 km track length needed to be renewed, but he set the target at 2,100 km (but achieved 2,424 km). In the three years starting 2015-16, only 9,062 km of track renewal was achieved, implying a shortfall of 4,438 km, according to the 4,500 km a year norm the White Paper had defined. Thus, the arrears of track renewal are now more than 10,000 km, that is, about 10 per cent of the total track length.

The White Paper observed that the mounting arrears of track renewal implied a “disproportionately high maintenance effort”, which resulted in “reduced reliability of assets”. This invariably meant more funds for more maintenance and more staff. But, while refusing to release funds for new tracks—which directly implies more effort at maintaining poor-quality tracks—the Railway Ministry has reduced the workforce that is responsible for track maintenance and supervision. Inexplicably, the sanctioned number of trackmen, which was four lakhs in the Indian Railways, has been reduced to 2.75 lakhs. The Task Force report observed that 46,985 posts in all grades were vacant as on April 1, 2016, including 41,467 trackmen and 2,434 keymen. Keymen are those who inspect a length of track every day to detect and report flaws in the track, a critical job in a situation of overaged tracks. So, we have a situation in which the Railways neither makes capital investments to replace overaged tracks, nor is willing to compensate for this failure by, at the very least, ensuring proper maintenance of tracks. This is a sure recipe for a disaster that the Railway Minister knows is waiting to happen.

After several derailments in the early 2000s, a judicial inquiry committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Justice H.R. Khanna. On the basis of its recommendation, a non-lapsable Special Railway Safety Fund of Rs.17,000 crore was created. The Union government contributed Rs.12,000 crore and the Railways mobilised Rs.5,000 crore through a safety surcharge. This was implemented between 2003 and 2008. The safety work involved replacement of worn-out assets relating to bridges, signalling systems, tracks and rolling stock.

With special funds, track renewal was carried out over and above the annual target. As a higher length of track was renewed during this period, it had a real impact on the number of derailments as statistics provided by the Railways show. The number of derailments declined from more than 200 in 2002-03 to 85 in 2008-09. Why this happened is clear from the fact that, on an average, during this period, 4,655 km of track was replaced annually. The neglect of the critical task of track replacement is indicated by the fact that in no single year has this length of track been replaced since then.

In fact, Suresh Prabhu’s much-hailed Railway Budget targeted a measly track renewal of only 1,500 km, which was later revised to 2,668 km, which itself is less than half the norm of 4,500 km/year. With the abandonment of the practice of presenting a separate Railway Budget, the target was fixed at 3,600 km in the 2017-18 Budget, again 20 per cent short of the norm.

What is clear is that track renewal needs to be accorded top priority so that the backlog can be cleared at the earliest, while laying the foundation for a better rail system. As far as improvement in welding technology is concerned, the recommendation of the task force for divisional mobile flash butt welding should be arranged without delay. But there appears to be no urgency in implementing this recommendation either.

Signalling disaster

Safety of trains depends on the integrity of signalling systems. Proper functioning of the signal gear ensures safe running of trains. Like tracks, the signalling gear has also become outdated and requires replacement. Referring to the tardy progress, the Task Force observed that the Railways is currently replacing signal gear at only about 100 stations every year, even as more than 200 become overage every year. A glaring example was the catastrophe in Itarsi (August 2015), which was caused by the delay in the replacement of signalling equipment. According to the Task Force report, an amount of Rs.7,800 crore is needed to clear the arrears. At the current rate at which funds are provided, it would take seven to eight years for replacement, the committee opined.

Investment in advance signalling systems is a different matter. In this context, it is important to recognise that the old equipment stock requires a higher maintenance effort and cost. The Task Force stated that “there has been constant decline in staff for signal maintenance per unit (of) asset over the years”. Indicative of the government’s apathy is the fact that there are 3,454 vacancies in the signal maintenance staff category. In the Chengalpattu yard (Tamil Nadu), for instance, serious cases of signal malfunctioning have been reported by workmen in the past six months. On July 27, following a thunderstorm, the signal in the yard indicated “all clear” for all routes, although clearance was to be given on only one route. This illustrates the importance of rigorous and periodic monitoring of all equipment, even though they may be well within their codal life.

In the case of the accident involving Kalinga Utkal Express, the loco pilot driver noticed a signal to proceed although the track ahead of the signal had been removed. He applied the emergency brake, but it was too late. A similar incident happened at Royapuram in Chennai on May 3, 2017, to a light engine driver in the Southern Railway. Though the track had been removed ahead of the signal, he had received a signal to proceed. In this case, he applied brakes and averted an accident. No driver would wantonly proceed at a danger signal because, after all, he would be the first casualty. There have been several instances when the “alright” signal suddenly flies back to “danger” for which a loco pilot is blamed and punished. The Task Force made several useful observations. For instance, it noted that SPAD (signal passed at danger) is directly related to loco pilot fatigue. It also quoted the Khanna Committee report’s comment about the enquiries on the SPAD cases: “Inquiries into SPAD are perfunctory and only indicate who was guilty, and not why it happened.”

Short-staffed and unsafe

The Task Force found that the majority of incidents in the Railways happened after home rest or full rest or leave of a loco pilot. “This is due to the fact that quality rest is missing during such long home station rest as the loco pilot is preoccupied with attending to personal and family matters,” it observed. Had the Task Force explored a little more, it would have found the truth about the quality of rest and why during their rest periods loco pilots undertake domestic chores. The Chairman, Railway Board, deposing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways in December 2016, which examined the issues of railway safety and security, stated there were 11,442 loco pilot vacancies (almost one-fourth of the sanctioned strength) and 6,574 assistant loco pilot vacancies (15 per cent of the sanctioned strength). In addition, there were 2,714 vacancies for the post of shunter, which is one-third of the sanctioned strength. In all, there are 1.22 lakh vacancies in these categories, which are essential for the safe running of the Indian rail system.

The Chairman, Railway Board, said: “But the point always arises as to how Railways is managing the system with 15-16 per cent vacancies because that is too large a number of vacancies to manage the system. It means we are not managing our system efficiently. Sir, let me clarify this. We have a thing called leave reserve which is around 12.5 per cent.Whatever is the calculation worked out of staff strength with reference to the requirement, we add 12.5 per cent so as to arrive at the leave reserve percentages to take care of replacements when some persons go on leave. So, with these vacancies, perhaps I am not sanctioning the leave to the extent that people would have desired, but not that I am not running a system which is an inefficient system or I am not able to run it.”

How much of the unsafe situation in the Indian Railways arises from the manner in which its workforce, especially those who perform critical tasks such as driving the trains, is treated in terms of pay and working conditions? The lackadaisical attitude to rail safety is best illustrated by a recent example. The Southern Railway sought clearance from the Board to recruit 680 loco pilots. The board cleared only 280. Similarly, when the Southern Railway proposed to recruit 2,800 group C personnel, including safety category technicians, the Board cleared only 400 personnel. The problem is this: technologies such as Train Protection Warning Systems require funds, but until new technologies are deployed, it does not make sense to reduce the number of personnel who perform these tasks. Safety is the prime casualty of this mindset.

The Anil Kakodkar Committee on Railway Safety recommended in 2012 that an investment of Rs.1 lakh crore in specific safety-related works be undertaken within five years. But, even in 2017 it remains a mirage. The Railways sought funds for track renewal, creation of infrastructure for Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, elimination of level-crossing gates by providing road overbridges (ROB) and road underbridges (RUB), and upgradation of signal systems and other facilities that would improve safety. Specifically, it sought the creation of a non-lapsable special fund on the lines of the one created in 2003-08. Its proposal for a Rs.1 lakh crore Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, if implemented, promises to improve safety significantly.

A sleight of hand

Having taken over rail finances by abolishing the Railway Budget, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has proceeded to continue the neglect of the Railways. He promised a national rail safety fund in his 2017-18 Budget. But, like much else in his Budget, this too appears to be a token effort. First, the allocation is over a five-year period, implying mobilisation of Rs.20,000 crore a year for what was envisaged by the Kakodkar Committee. Of this, Rs.5,000 crore is to be transferred from the National Investment Fund, which collects a part of the proceeds from the government’s disinvestment programme. Second, Rs.10,000 crore is to be transferred from the diversion of funds from the national road safety fund; but this is nothing new, the Railways has been tapping this source to eliminate level-crossing gates in the past. Third, Rs.4,000 crore is to come from the depreciation reserve fund, which already belongs to the Railways. Fourth, the remaining Rs.1,000 crore is to come from the Railways’ own savings.

What is clear from Jaitley’s grand plan is that there is no commitment that any contribution would be made from government finances to fund these critical projects. This is in sharp contrast to the 2003-08 period, in which the government actually contributed to track renewals, which indeed did yield results. The Railways’ plight vis-a-vis the Union government is similar to a master feeding his dog with soup made with its own tail!

Railway revenues have been affected badly by reduced net savings. There is sluggish growth of freight and passenger earnings. Though its operating ratio is within 100 per cent, it cannot mobilise resources for its investment needs. The expansion and strengthening of the railway network is in the interest of the nation. The National Transport Policy Development Committee had recommended an investment of Rs.35 lakh crore in 20 years to expand and strengthen the system to meet future demands. Despite all the incentives given to the private sector, private investments have not been forthcoming. The Twelfth Plan was wound up, and the Modi government’s own five-year plan with an investment of Rs.8.56 lakh crore was announced. In the first three years, Rs.5.6 lakh crore rupees should have been spent by this logic, but only Rs.3.45 lakh crore was planned and even this planned outlay has not been spent.

The Railway Board Chairman told the Parliamentary Committee that the expenditure on railways as a proportion of overall expenditure on the transport sector had declined from 56 per cent in the Seventh Plan to 30 per cent in the Eleventh Plan. As a result, the expansion of the network has been “severely stunted”, which has resulted in an “undue burden” on existing infrastructure. This was also one of the primary reasons for the “chronic congestion” in the Indian rail network, he said.

As a result, 40 per cent of the railway sections are running at more than 100 per cent of their line capacity. As many as 161 sections out of 247 high-density sections on the Indian network are oversaturated. The chronic underinvestment in capacity has meant that in the past 64 years, the route kilometre has grown by only 23 per cent, whereas passenger and goods traffic has grown 17 times. In fact, the Railway Ministry admitted to the Parliamentary Committee that “chronic and significant underinvestment” was to be blamed for this situation.

Flogging frail assets

The scheme for the savage flogging of existing assets, without making any commitment towards investment in augmenting capacity, was perfected when Lalu Prasad was at the helm in the Railway Ministry. In the name of “optimum utilisation of assets”, rolling stock, especially rail wagons, were loaded far beyond their rated capacity, with scarcely a thought given to the infrastructure on which they were running. Lalu Prasad’s magic formula to turn around the Railways—which won him accolades from the media as well as management gurus—rested on allowing railway wagons to carry 10 tonnes more than their capacity. His successor, Mamata Banerjee, criticised him roundly, but continued the same policy when she was at the helm; in fact, it continues even today. Studies by the RDSO reveal that the rampant overloading of railway wagons is primarily responsible for the increasing number of “invisible rail fractures” on the rail network, which are responsible for the derailments.

The Railways needs about 5,500 new coaches a year, but its annual production capacity is only 3,200 coaches. In the name of optimum utilisation, to meet the increasing demand the same rakes are utilised for another train. This has led to loss of punctuality due to pairing trains running late. The earlier policy of maintenance after every run was amended to allow trains to run 4,500 km before their maintenance was taken up. Lalu Prasad as Railway Minister even went to the extent of introducing 84-berth sleeper class coaches and 63-berth third AC coaches. After a lot of criticism, they were withdrawn.

The Anil Kakodkar Committee recommended in 2012 that the manufacturing of Integral Coach Factory-type coaches be stopped. Instead, it recommended that the infrastructure for manufacturing LHB coaches and facilities for their repair and maintenance in yards and workshops be established. These were to cost Rs.10,000 crore. ICF-type coaches are prone to mount on one another during derailments; LHB coaches were preferred because they do not have this telescopic effect. Besides, they are fire-retardant. But the Railways continued to manufacture ICF-type coaches until 2017. The number of LHB coaches in the Railways is much smaller. Out of the 65,000 Indian Railway coaches, only about 4,000 are LHB-type coaches. Even these are produced through outsourced contracts, which compromise safety.

Accidents at unmanned level crossings constitute the single biggest cause of deaths in rail accidents. The Kakodkar Committee recommended that Rs.50,000 crore be spent over five years to build ROBs and RUBs so that such crossings may be eliminated. The Task Force estimated that the completion of the ongoing ROB/RUB projects required Rs.39,000 crore. And, it is clear that Jaitley has no intention or plan to finance this essential task.

The bullet train project is being undertaken at a time when a significant proportion of the Indian Railways’ assets are in a state of utter disrepair. Tracks that carry trains are worn out, coaches and wagons need wholesale replacement, and signalling equipment requires urgent modernisation. Most importantly, the vast majority of train passengers are treated worse than animals. To add to these woes is the mammoth task of modernising the rail system so that India can rightfully claim its place among nations with truly modern railway systems. Seen from this perspective, the bullet train is a curse, not a boon.

R. Elangovan is vice president, Dakshin Railway Employees’ Union.

Politics of spectacle

Style over substance

“I don’t think small. When 125 crore people are with me, I cannot think small,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while dedicating the Sardar Sarovar dam—built across the Narmada over a span of 56 years—to the nation on September 17. The day also marked his 67th birthday. The Prime Minister’s highfalutin proclamation came barely three days after he along with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe laid the foundation for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project, expected to cost an estimated Rs.1,10,000 crore.

Modi had consistently projected this as his big idea. In fact, on May 2, 2013, approximately a year before he was elected Prime Minister, Modi propounded this idea. He did this at an interactive meet between him as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and members of the Indian Merchants’ Chamber (IMC) and the All India Business Council (AIBC) in Mumbai. It was nearly an hour-long session, which opened with Modi’s lengthy presentation in Hindi.

A broad translation of the portions where Modi held forth on the linkage between “thinking big” and the “bullet train” went as follows: “It is of no use we keep doing things in a small scale. We have to think big, in big scale and in a big canvas. Instead, what do we do? We think in terms of going up by 0.1 per cent, then 0.2 per cent. Finally, we would reach a stage where we think in terms of growing by 0.001 per cent. This is not going to help. I met the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh of the Congress] recently and we were talking exactly on this point. I told him that no discussion is happening on the whole of China [hailed as a nation with high growth]. They do not show the whole of China to us. They only show what the world will appreciate. So I told him [Manmohan Singh] that we too have to do such things that would showcase our strengths to the world. For example, I told him, do a small thing. Start the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed bullet train. What will be the outcome of this? The world will know about our strength. It is not as though anybody is going to come and sit in this train. But to tell the world that we are not any less we need to do things like this.”

The sum total of the articulation of his idea is unambiguous. To him, “thinking big” is essentially about showcasing “our strengths” and not necessarily bringing any benefit to the people. An excerpted video clip of this presentation is doing the rounds on social media after the September 14 launch of the bullet train project. The fact that Modi had linked yet another big idea of his—of building a Statue of Unity to commemorate Sardar Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and fixing its height at 186 metres, twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty (United States)—has also been highlighted on social media, exposing the deep fascination for spectacle that the politician, termed widely “as the most powerful ever after Indira Gandhi”, nourishes within his political self.

Modi’s penchant for thinking big has a chilling similarity with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as depicted in the professor of sociology and author Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy (University of California Press, 1997). Summing up the key aspects of Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s cultural history tome, the reviewer Vitalie Sprinceana points out that in the Mussolini regime, politics starts to be less concerned with the act of governing people in an efficient way, for instance, in solving their economic problems. “Instead, it is focussed more on the spectacle of power, on the visual and impressive display of symbols, myths and rituals. Verbal and non-verbal forms of discourse are more than mere means of political legitimation—they are fundamental to the construction of the power of the regime. Politics itself assumes the form of an artistic act—to govern means to Mussolini to create (a new man, a new Nation, a new Empire), and Mussolini views himself as the creative soul of the nation, the guide to a future renewal of the country, the propeller of new ways of living. In terms of everyday life this aestheticisation of political power takes the shape of a domination of form—visual appearance, effects—over the content. It also means that politics ceases to be measured by political criteria,” she writes.

Behind Modi’s “think big” syndrome is an effort to create a situation where politics ceases to be measured by political criteria and people’s concerns. The bullet train and Statue of Unity are not the only examples of this effort. The promises made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Modi’s leadership day in and day out also belong to this category. Consider the following. Modi and other leaders of the BJP had repeatedly promised, through the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign and even after the formation of the government, that the farmers’ income across the country would be doubled by 2022. Three years into that promise, both Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have asked farmers to look elsewhere. While Jaitley said it was for State governments to initiate measures to double the farmers’ income, Modi has exhorted cooperative societies to come up with their own facilitation.

Critics see the grand proclamations of Modi and his party as diversionary tactics in the context of farmers’ protests. Across northern India, farmers are restive since they are not getting remunerative prices for their produce. The intense agitations that started in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in April-May 2017, have spread to other States such as Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have apparently been cautioned by intelligence reports that this could turn into a major law and order problem. In Uttar Pradesh, the newly elected Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government announced a farm loan waiver programme in its first Cabinet meet in March 2017.

Again, at the level of the larger economy, the Modi regime has been repeatedly claiming that notwithstanding the global recession, India’s economic situation is good and that it has the potential to improve. However, even as Modi was holding forth on the bullet train project, Jaitley had to admit that the economy had decelerated to the slowest pace in three years and that there was a need for more concentrated and specific efforts to revive growth. The general consensus among a large number of economists was that the demonetisation drive launched by Modi in November 2016 would aggravate economic deceleration. The government had strongly denied it. However, more and more government agencies are now forced to admit that demonetisation has aggravated economic deceleration.

RSS warning

Apparently, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of the Sangh Parivar, has taken note of the repeated reverses suffered by the Modi government. At a recent coordination meeting of 40-odd Sangh Parivar outfits, the RSS leadership reportedly warned the BJP to be wary of a repeat of the 2004 electoral defeat suffered by the then BJP-NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Vajpayee government faced the 2004 Lok Sabha elections with a feel good “India Shining” campaign only to be humbled by a practically leaderless but broadly united opposition. By all indications, the BJP leadership, including party president and Modi’s close associate Amit Shah, has taken the RSS warning seriously.

According to Sivanand Tiwari, former Rajya Sabha member of the Janata Dal (United), the BJP leadership and other Sangh Parivar outfits could come up with two responses to this unenviable situation. “First, they would fall back on their time tested ploy of communalising society and polarising communities in the name of religion. This was employed to the hilt in the 2014 ascent of Modi, along with the raising of a vision of development. Now that Modi and his Ministry are increasingly displaying their inability to live up to their development vision, they would be planning to aggressively pursue the polarisation-communalisation route. The revival of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation could well become an instrument for this. The second response would be by way of appropriating the gains made by other governments as their own through clever propaganda and media management. Even as Chief Minister, Modi had shown his mastery over this stratagem when he took credit for the Amul dairy, set up originally in 1946 and nurtured under several regimes, including the Congress. But then Modi’s propaganda and media management is what prevailed in the end.”

Tiwari’s view is endorsed by former BJP Union Minister Arun Shourie, who terms the Modi Ministry essentially as an event management company where everything is turned into a spectacle for one individual and a clutch of political courtiers.

There is a stream of opinion that the ruling BJP in Gujarat, which is to face the electorate later this year, needs a booster and that is why Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam and initiated the work on the bullet train. However, field reports suggest that the BJP continues to be on a strong wicket in the State, essentially because of the absence of a cohesive opposition and a popular leader in the Congress.

Thus, the new spectacles on display in September 2017 are aimed at reinforcing the omnipotence of the big leader. That task is evidently of utmost importance given the warnings that are emanating from different quarters of the country and the RSS.

Essay

The privacy ruling

A.G. NOORANI the-nation

This is not an attempt to gild the lily, as it were. The implication of the unanimous ruling of a nine-member bench of the Supreme Court on August 24 will seep in only over time as the judgments are closely analysed. A judgment on behalf of Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, and Justices R.K. Agarwal, S. Abdul Nazeer and D.Y. Chandrachud was delivered by Dr Justice D.Y. Chandrachud. Justices J. Chelameswar, S.A. Bobde, Abhay Manohar Sapre, Rohinton Fali Nariman and Sanjay Kishan Kaul delivered separate judgments. They unanimously passed an order which said: “The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.”

Article 21 says: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

The implication is plain. The right to privacy is covered not only by Article 21, a fundamental right, it is also “a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution” which embodies all the fundamental rights. The right to privacy is, therefore, the foundation on which all the fundamental rights rest. Take it away from the citizen and he is reduced to a non-person.

There are two aspects that have not received the notice they deserve. One is that the court has buried, beyond exhumation, the doctrine, so dear to Richard Nixon and his tribe, that the Constitution should be read strictly according to the “original intention” of its framers. They were known as the “strict Constructionists”, conservatives to the core. To its credit, the Supreme Court of India never for once accepted this view.

The other aspect is that the judgment knocks for a six any law that prevents a citizen from eating beef. Even the Supreme Court will not be able to retrace its steps because all the judges define in liberal terms the contours of the right to privacy in the widest terms. More, five of the nine—a clear majority—explicitly and in so many words uphold a person’s right to eat whatever he wishes to eat. Unlike Article 19, which confers fundamental rights on citizens (such as the right to freedom of speech and expression), Article 21 applies to all persons. An American or a European will be entitled to demand his beef steak; an Indonesian, his rendang; and an Indian, his nihari and kebabs, authentic only when made with beef. Mutton is used under compulsion or by ones who know no better. The legendary Tunday Kebabs of Lucknow can now be had freely. It is surely time that the oppressive laws on eating beef are tested on the anvil of this ruling.

Justice Chandrachud said: “The development of the jurisprudence on the right to privacy in the United States of America shows that even though there is no explicit mention of the word ‘privacy’ in the Constitution, the courts of the country have not only recognised the right to privacy under various Amendments of the Constitution but also progressively extended the ambit of protection under the right to privacy. In its early years, the focus was on property and protection of physical spaces that would be considered private such as an individual’s home. This ‘trespass doctrine’ became irrelevant when it was held that what is protected under the right to privacy is ‘people, not places’. The ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ test has been relied on subsequently by various other jurisdictions while developing the right to privacy. Having located the right to privacy in the ‘person’, American jurisprudence on the right to privacy has developed to shield various private aspects of a person’s life from interference by the state—such as conscience, education, personal information, communications and conversations, sexuality, marriage, procreation, contraception, individual beliefs, thoughts and emotions, political and other social groups. Various judgments of the court have also analysed technological developments which have made surveillance more pervasive and affecting citizens’ privacy.” It is unthinkable that any court outside India would deliver the kind of judgments on cow slaughter that the Supreme Court has over the years.

Right to be let alone

In keeping with these observations, Justice Chandrachud said: “What, then, does privacy postulate? Privacy postulates the reservation of a private space for the individual, described as the right to be let alone. The concept is founded on the autonomy of the individual. The ability of an individual to make choices lies at the core of the human personality.…Privacy enables the individual to retain the autonomy of the body and mind…

“Read in conjunction with Article 21, liberty enables the individual to have a choice of preferences on various facets of life including what and how one will eat, the way one will dress, the faith one will espouse and a myriad other matters on which autonomy and self-determination require a choice to be made within the privacy of the mind. The constitutional right to the freedom of religion under Article 25 has implicit within it the ability to choose a faith and the freedom to express or not express those choices to the world. These are some illustrations of the manner in which privacy facilitates freedom and is intrinsic to the exercise of liberty.” He remarked meaningfully: “Privacy protects heterogeneity and recognises the plurality and diversity of our culture.”

Three other judges concurred in this. So did Justice Chelameswar, who said, as explicitly: “I do not think that anybody would like to be told by the state as to what they should eat or how they should dress or whom they should be associated with either in their personal, social or political life.”

This makes a majority on this explicit ruling. Justice Katju’s warning is significant: “The majoritarian concept does not apply to constitutional rights and the courts are often called upon to take what may be categorised as a non-majoritarian view, in the check and balance of power envisaged under the Constitution of India.” He was, of course, aware of the majoritarian laws on eating beef.

One is appalled that a top law officer of the BJP regime said that no new rights can be added. Justice Chandrachud listed 15 rights and Justice Bobde 11 which the Supreme Court had spelt out in the past from the text of the Constitution. But it is the outlook and ignorance which shock. The Americans have been through all this. Time and again Chief Justice Marshall would remind fellow justices that “it is a Constitution that we are expounding”, a basic law “intended to endure for all ages to come” ( McCulloch vs. Maryland (1819) 4 Wharton 316).

Hence the necessity for adapting its meaning to “various crises in human affairs”. In 1955, nearly a century and a half after Justice Marshall’s reminder, Chief Justice Earl Warren (whom many regard as one of the greatest Chief Justices after Marshall) sagely predicted that “when the generation of 1980 receives from us the Bill of Rights, the document will not have exactly the same meaning it had when we received it from our fathers” (Earl Warren, The Law and the Future, Fortune, Volume 106, 1955, page 126).

Implicit guarantees

The right to privacy, one can confidently predict, will acquire fresh nuances when the inroads made by the data computer are challenged. None should underestimate the Supreme Court’s resourcefulness in meeting the new challenges to freedom, nor its ingenuity in applying the Fundamental Rights.

While the Burger Court retreated somewhat from the frontiers delineated by the Warren Court, in some respects it widened them. In the Richmond Newspapers case of 1980, the court disapproved of a criminal trial being closed to the public in the absence of an “overriding interest” which required it. The significance of the court’s ruling lies in the fact that it spelled out for the public a right to attend trials from the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and free press, as distinct from the Sixth Amendment guarantee of “a public trial” to an accused.

The court declared that “ notwithstanding the appropriate caution against reading into the Constitution rights not explicitly defined, the c ourt has acknowledged that certain unarticulated rights are implicit in enumerated guarantees. For example, the rights of association and of privacy, the right to be presumed innocent and the right to be judged by a standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial, as well as the right to travel, appear nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Yet, these important but unarticulated rights have nonetheless been found to share constitutional protection in common with explicit guarantees. The concerns expressed by Madison and others have thus been resolved; fundamental rights, even though not expressly guaranteed, have been recognised by the court as indispensable to the enjoyment of rights explicitly defined.”

In the famous birth control case of 1965, Griswold v s Connecticut, a Connecticut statute made the use of contraceptives a criminal offence. Estelle T. Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and another officer of the League were arrested, tried and convicted of the offence. Each was fined $100. The Supreme Court set aside the conviction.

The doctrine that it enunciated transcended in importance the facts of the case. It was the high noon of the Warren Court. Delivering the opinion, Justice Douglas said: “Specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance… Various guarantees create zones of privacy. The right of association contained in the penumbra of the First Amendment is one, as we have seen. The Third Amendment in its prohibition against the quartering of soldiers ‘in any house’ in time of peace without the consent of the owner is another facet of privacy. The Fourth Amendment explicitly affirms the ‘right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures’. The Fifth Amendment in its self-incrimination clause enables the citizen to create a zone of privacy which government may not force him to surrender to his detriment. The Ninth Amendment provides: ‘The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.’”

The right to privacy in the bedroom was not created by the Constitution. It belonged to the people and was “retained” by them. “We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights—older than our political parties, older than our school system.”

All the nine judges of the Supreme Court agreed that the Constitution, though 67 years old, has not passed the age of childbearing. It can yield new fruits. Justice Chandrachud put it extremely well:

“Would this court in interpreting the Constitution freeze the content of constitutional guarantees and provisions to what the founding fathers perceived? The Constitution was drafted and adopted in a historical context. The vision of the founding fathers was enriched by the histories of suffering of those who suffered oppression and a violation of dignity both here and elsewhere. Yet, it would be difficult to dispute that many of the problems which contemporary societies face would not have been present to the minds of the most perspicacious draftsmen. No generation, including the present, can have a monopoly over solutions or the confidence in its ability to foresee the future. As society evolves, so must constitutional doctrine. The institutions which the Constitution has created must adapt flexibly to meet the challenges in a rapidly growing knowledge economy. Above all, constitutional interpretation is but a process in achieving justice, liberty and dignity to every citizen.” On this also the court was unanimous.

Global experience

Chinese lessons

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

If there is a global championship for running High Speed Rail (HSR) networks, China will win hands down. Japan may have been the pioneer and France an early starter, but China is the superpower in this game. A relatively late starter, China started its HSR programme 39 years after the Shinkansen first started operations in 1964. The Japanese Bullet Train network had the highest annual ridership among all such railways in the world until 2011, when the Chinese HSR, just eight years old at that time, surpassed the Shinkansen. Although the old warhorse started with speeds below 200 kilometres an hour, the modern definition of an HSR is any train system that travels at a minimum speed of 250 km/hr. In that race for speed the bullet train is expected to maintain a speed of 320-350 km/hr. In June 2017, a train with a maximum speed of 400 km/hr was unveiled on the Beijing-Shanghai line.

Fast passenger trains have been around for many years. The speed record for a steam locomotive was set in Britain in 1938 when a train achieved a top speed of 203 km/hr, although over a short stretch of less than a kilometre. Earlier, in Germany in 1933, the Flying Hamburger attained a top speed of 150 km/hr and an impressive commercial speed (speed at which the journey is completed, inclusive of stopping time at stations en route) of 130 km/hr. In 1938, a train between Bologna and Naples attained a commercial speed of 160 km/hr.

All these trains ran on existing conventional tracks, until the Shinkansen appeared in Japan on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics. Construction of the new 515-km electrified alignment between Tokyo and Osaka commenced in 1959. The concept of the Tokaido Shinkansen—the original bullet train—provided the base for the expansion of fast train services in Japan. This was achieved by not only expanding the Shinkansen network—now more than 2,700 km—but increasing the frequency of services, to the point that it is akin to a high-speed suburban railway system. No other HSR system in the world—not even the Chinese—has matched the impressive safety record that the Shinkansen has achieved over 53 years.

The Shinkansen set the norm for passenger-dedicated lines (PDL), which nearly all HSRs now follow. K. Balakesari, former Member, Railway Board, told Frontline that it was only logical because “differential train speeds of trains on a single track result in poorer utilisation of track capacity, slowing everything that moves along it”. Additionally, segregating freight traffic from passenger lines, as the Chinese government has done successfully, speeded up both kinds of traffic by not allowing one to hinder the other. Although achieving higher speeds is certainly a key objective, the more important goal from a systemic point of view is to increase efficiencies by scaling up throughput on tracks. More trains on the same tracks during the same length of time increases capacity utilisation, Balakesari pointed out. He added that ever higher speeds were an obvious advantage that flowed from this approach, a source of prestige for the prevailing political regime.

According to the latest data available for global comparison, in April 2015, the Chinese HSR network accounted for a whopping 60 per cent of the length of all HSR systems in operation or being implemented in the world. The country’s HSR network, already at 19,000 km in 2015, is to expand to 31,000 km by 2020, by which time China’s nearest competitor globally would be Spain, with a total length of under 5,000 km of HSR (see accompanying table and pie chart).

‘Walking on two legs’

Two aspects of the Chinese HSR programme are particularly striking, not just in comparison with what is being attempted in India but elsewhere too. The first is that, unlike in India, the Chinese HSR system was not delinked from the conventional railway system. Instead, it was incorporated into a systemic approach to improve the national rail system in all its dimensions. Thus, the HSR was conceptualised as part of an overall programme in which there was a hierarchy of speeds for different parts of the railway system. Even before the HSR came into being the Chinese government had undertaken a significant programme that focussed on increasing the speeds at which other trains—not just passenger, but also goods—were travelling. The HSR was at the apex of these speeds, but it was accompanied by the attention and focus that the Chinese government gave to rail transportation in general. Ten years after commencing HSR operations, the Chinese route network totalled 10,000 km, and by 2015 it had nearly doubled; by 2020 it will have added another 11,000 km to its HSR network.

This Chinese approach is probably best evoked by Mao Zedong’s famous slogan “Walking on Two Legs”. Between 1997 and 2001, well before the HSR trains started running in China, the maximum speed of conventional trains was progressively increased, from 100 km/hr to 160 km/hr. And this was no piecemeal approach; such passenger trains ran over 13,000 km across China.

Note the striking contrast between India and China. Two decades after China extensively upgraded speeds all round on all classes of passenger trains, there are only a few trains in India that attain these speeds. Even more importantly, while improving conventional train speeds, China started trials for high-speed services using new track designs and EMU (Electric multiple unit) train sets. The integration of all aspects of the national rail component systems was unveiled in the Chinese Ministry of Railways’ document “Mid to Long-Range Network Plan” in 2003. It presented, for the first time, a unified perspective reflecting a systemic approach to rail transportation in all its dimensions, in which the HSR was only one. The critical role of the state is illustrated by the administrative structure of China’s high-speed rail programme. China Rail, directly under the Chinese Railway Ministry, runs the CRH(China High-Speed Rail). This is unlike most other HSR projects across the world, which probably explains why China rules the world of HSRs.

Referring to the Chinese HSR system under construction, the World Bank’s Beijing office, in a study published in 2010, observed: “It is perhaps the biggest single planned programme of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country.” The key role of the Chinese railways in the Chinese government’s economic stimulus programme in the wake of the global economic crisis is indicated by the fact that investment in the railways increased from $26 billion in 2007 to $49 billion in 2008, $88 billion in 2009, and $100 billion in 2010.

Why China rules the high-speed world

The second aspect of the Chinese programme—probably unique in the history of modern railway management—was the state acting as a powerful engine. This had several implications. First, according to a World Bank study of 2014, the Chinese system is the cheapest in terms of average cost per km, ranging between $17-21 million per km, which is 47 to 86 per cent lower than costs in Europe, the most notable competitor, apart from the Shinkansen. Incidentally, the Shinkansen’s costs are the most difficult to come by, and there have been scandals in the past—including one relating to the first Shinkansen line, after which the Japanese National Railway, which then operated the Shinkansen, had to resign for grossly understating costs.

Cost comparisons across countries and projects ought to be made with some caution as no two lines are similar. The topography, in particular, has an impact, because HSR tracks need to be as straight as possible in order to provide for train stability at high speeds. The costs associated with civil works such as bridges, viaducts and tunnels also depend on the route. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the dramatic difference in costs is because of China’s programme being state-led and its significant economies of scale and design.

Moreover, China invested heavily in not just tracks and coaches but also in developing in-house capability. This was achieved, according to a study, by establishing several large research institutions specifically focussing on research in rail transportation. Moreover, while China imported coaches, signalling and other equipment in the early years, it made use of its enormous scale by insisting on technology transfer and training of its own nationals by companies such as Kawasaki, Alstom and Siemens. Later, but quite quickly, it developed its own technology, so much so that its companies own a significant number of global patents in rail transportation systems and components. Today, armed with the expertise and know-how gained in the last two decades, Chinese companies are poised to scout globally for HSR projects.

Another significant aspect of the Chinese state-led strategy that is very different from other HSR systems is the Chinese state’s apparent willingness to adopt a more patient approach to recouping investments through fares. Chinese fares, according to a World Bank study of 2014, are significantly lower than fares in other HSR systems. For instance, while Chinese fares on trains travelling at 200-250 km/hr speeds were about 16 per cent of the fares on the Japanese rail system, on the Shinkansen-type trains (at speeds of 300-350 km/hr) the Chinese fares were only about one-fourth.

According to the World Bank, although operating and maintenance costs are generally low in HSR projects because of greater automation and better utilisation of assets, the capital costs are huge. The logic of the Chinese government’s willingness to recover capital costs over a longer-time horizon appears to be its appreciation of the larger picture.

In that picture, there are other benefits that it is eyeing. Since roadways are generally regarded to be relatively inefficient in terms of land use when compared with the railways, it perhaps makes better sense to divert road users to trains. The land for a six-lane highway would be more efficiently used by trains than by vehicles on the road. The logic is that trains carry more people and goods for the same unit of land utilised.

Also in this picture are the benefits flowing from a less environmentally damaging transportation system. Overall, incorporated into this logic is the belief that transportation is a basic economic infrastructure that serves a wider socio-economic purpose.

Instead of narrowly focussing on project-related cost-benefit analysis, as most private investors would do, the Chinese have kept their eyes on the overall economic rate of return, in which wider gains are kept in sight. The manner in which China has leveraged investments in its overall rail infrastructure—not just in high-speed travel—to promote wider socio-economic goals offers important lessons for India.

This is particularly important if the Narendra Modi government has any intention – or the political will – to engineer an economic stimulus to kick-start a faltering economy.

Demolishing a legacy

arts-and-culture

IN April this year, the iconic Hall of Nations, said to be the first pillarless building to be built in India, was demolished along with four other structures in Hall of Industries at New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan exhibition complex. It was built in 1972 to celebrate 25 years of Independence and had become a cultural landmark on the city’s skyline. Original drawings by Raj Rewal and photographs of the construction taken by Madan Mahatta remain testimony to its history. Built by the team of Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj, its demolition opened a much-needed discussion on preservation of modern heritage. It underscored the urgent need for conservation of contemporary architecture and the importance of recognising that culturally.

As the Hall of Nations had won praise from all over the world, the government received letters from around the world requesting that the edifice not be demolished. But the entreaties were ignored. The manner in which the demolition was carried out overnight, even as a case was being heard in the Delhi High Court, raised questions about the government’s intention.

The current dispensation’s abhorrence of anything to do with Jawaharlal Nehru is no secret and people wondered if this was one more attack on his legacy. “From Nadir Shah to the Taliban, [dictators] have destroyed heritage and architecture that challenged their beliefs. The Babri Masjid too was demolished to maintain the hegemony of the majoritarian culture. It would be no surprise if the Hall of Nations was also demolished from similar motives,” said an architect.

Architects were also doubtful that financial considerations could have led to the demolition. “It occupied not more than 5 per cent of the total complex,” said the civil engineer Mahendra Raj. He suggested that perhaps the Hall could be rebuilt to send a message. The demolition left architects wondering whether there were more buildings that would meet the same fate and how to prevent such a catastrophe.

For a while now, there has been an attempt to create a list of exceptional architectural edifices built after Independence that can be considered as modern heritage. There are differing viewpoints on whether such a list should be created. The list put out by INTACH has 62 buildings, including buildings of religious significance and those associated with lives of great persons. The LIC building designed by Charles Correa in 1986, Crafts Museum, India International Centre by the American architect Joseph Stein, Akbar Bhavan, Sri Ram Centre for Performing Arts and the Baha’i Temple are on the list.

Kuldip Singh says, “We need a little introspection if we have to save a building which is considered to have great value for history or as art heritage. We need to build some kind of environment for positive work on these buildings as the first step and also ensure their maintenance. Take, for example, the NDMC building. It has nine floors that have been converted into a billboard. It is lit up from behind and displayed as LED screens. All this is against the policy laid down by the Supreme Court, which forbids putting advertisements on buildings, especially in the vicinity of ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] monuments. And this is next door to Jantar Mantar. This kind of arbitrariness and [abuse of] bureaucratic power [is unbecoming]. There is nobody to stop it. What can I do? Go to the court? Is this the way? Do we decide these things in the courts now?”

Mahendra Raj said: “A lot of our establishment, the private sector and building promoters are philistine, architecturally illiterate, and that poses a very serious problem. Unless we are able to create an environment where architecture is celebrated and preserved, we are messing up our cities.”

Divya Trivedi

United States

Going after the Dreamers

VIJAY PRASHAD world-affairs

PRESIDENT Donald Trump decided, despite promises made here and there, that he would renounce former President Barack Obama’s policy towards children who had come to the United States without papers. These children, now close to a million, had entered the country with their parents. Obama’s executive action, named Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allowed these young people to apply for a work permit and claim some important benefits of United States residency. To take advantage of DACA, these young people had to come out of the shadows and register voluntarily with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. government, in other words, was able to get information on almost a million people who did not have papers. This act of good faith, to register with the government, will now make it easier for the government to find, arrest and deport them.

These young people, the Dreamers, will be arrested merely for having registered with the government and will be sent to countries where they have never lived and whose languages—in many cases—they do not speak. Since their parents did not register, and still mostly live in the shadows, these Dreamers will be separated from their families and sent off on their own. Little wonder then that there is widespread anger at this action by Trump, not least because he had promised often not to take this action.

Data on the Dreamers are quite astonishing. Over 90 per cent of them have jobs and pay taxes (almost $2 billion, according to one study earlier this year). The Dreamers that one encounters are often supremely grateful for Obama’s policy since it allowed them to take advantage of state-subsidised college tuition even though later in life they have not been afforded social protections (such as food stamps and government medical insurance schemes). These young people, then, pay into the U.S. exchequer without being able to take advantage of whatever social security net remains for the U.S. population.

Trump and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, make the claim that DACA is illegal. It circumvents U.S. immigration law and gives immigrants without documentation the hope that they, too, can take advantage, at some later date, of such a scheme. To prevent producing an impression that the U.S. government encourages undocumented immigration, the Trump administration wishes to crack down on DACA. It will take at least six months for the government to unravel the DACA programme, but even then there are going to be important, and rarely discussed, practical problems before the administration. One study finds that it will take a minimum of $12,500 to arrest and deport each of the Dreamers.

Since there are effectively a million Dreamers, the total bill for the repeal of DACA will be $12.5 billion, more than twice the total annual budget of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. How Trump’s administration proposes to raise this kind of money to conduct these deportations has not been made clear. A conservative Cato Institute study found that the total cost to the U.S. economy for the DACA repeal would be $200 billion. It found that the average Dreamer is 22 years old, either employed or studying. Since leaving school might result in deportation, a very large number (17 per cent) of the Dreamers finish college and pursue advanced degrees. “It is important to note that these estimates are conservative,” wrote the authors of the report.

Negative impact

In fact, the negative impact on the U.S. economy might be much greater than the $200 billion that they estimate. California will be the hardest hit. The departure of the Dreamers will cause a loss of nearly $85 billion to the State.

Obama’s executive action was meant as a stop-gap measure. Obama had, at the time, asked the U.S. Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which was first introduced in Congress in 2001 and then each year afterwards. It proposes to deal with the significant problem of undocumented people who live in the U.S. The total number of undocumented or unauthorised immigrants in the country is just over 11 million. There has been a slow decline in the entry of undocumented migrants since the U.S. economy slowed down in the wake of the 2007-08 credit crisis.

Whereas previously the largest number of undocumented migrants came from Mexico, the numbers from Central America and Asia have now begun to outnumber them. A Pew Research Center study from 2016 found that Indians constitute the largest growing category of undocumented migrants to the U.S. at this time, though in numbers they are behind immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala). There are now half a million undocumented Indians in the U.S., an increase of 43 per cent since 2009.

Across the U.S., desperate protests are taking place against Trump’s actions. In New York City, hundreds of people gathered outside Trump Tower to make the case for the migrants, while small towns saw smaller vigils. The protesters are worried not only for the Dreamers but also for the future of their country. Bilingual signs, mostly in Spanish and English, proclaiming that the Dreamers must stay are raised as Dreamers bravely come to the microphones and tell their stories of desperate anxiety. Activist groups such as United We Dream and groups of lawyers and social workers have reached out to Dreamers, informing them of legal options and drawing up petitions to make sure the resistance against Trump’s repeal grows. The options are limited. Trump has the right to repeal DACA. Only popular pressure can stop him.

Despite the noises from the Democratic Party promising to resist Trump’s inhumane agenda, major Democratic legislative leaders cut a deal with him just a few days after he announced his DACA repeal. Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi met Trump and cut a deal on the legislative agenda. Trump, Schumer and Nancy Pelosi all made unclear noises about passage of the DREAM Act in the future. Kamal Essaheb (National Immigration Law Center), Greisa Martinez (United We Dream) and Angel Padilla (Indivisible Project) urged these Democrats not to tell the Dreamers to “wait”. Time is of the essence. Firm commitment to genuine immigration policy is imperative, they suggest.

Five former U.S. Secretaries of Education, those who ran the Department of Education in the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote an open letter to Congress urging passage of a comprehensive immigration law that would provide shelter not only to the Dreamers but also to their parents and others who had no documentation.

Protests on the streets have not adopted a narrow perspective, to ask for an extension of DACA or for the protection only of the Dreamers. The slogans are a variant of “Protection for All”, which means that there is momentum from the streets for reforms in U.S. immigration law to protect everyone without documentation. The phrase for this is “comprehensive immigration reform”, a term that has come to be emptied of any meaning. Over the past 30 years, politicians have promised to crack down on immigration and to ensure that those who are within the U.S. as undocumented immigrants will get some kind of protection. The legislative leaders seem to have worked out some kind of deal with Trump to protect some undocumented immigrants if he gets some motion on his campaign promise for a strengthened border. This is all merely illusionary. The 11 million undocumented migrants will see no comfort in these deals.

Meanwhile, the President’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, reflects the opinions of Trump’s base. “There’s no path to citizenship, no path to a green card, no amnesty. Amnesty is non-negotiable,” he told Charlie Rose. This is the firm attitude of Trump’s base. They want arrests and deportations, they want a wall, they want to see more and more punishments meted out to migrants. Their vehemence will drive Trump’s obstinacy. This is what makes the fate of the Dreamers so perilous.

Gorkhaland movement

Anger in the hills

THE situation in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal is going from bad to worse. On September 15, the bandh called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the most powerful political force in the region, demanding a separate State of Gorkhaland crossed three months. Violence, uncertainty and desperation stalk the region. After two rounds of talks between the State government and the political leaders of the hills failed to resolve the crisis, the leaders of the Gorkhaland movement are looking to the Centre to intervene and come up with a solution. The State, however, has so far shown little inclination to involve the Centre in the talks.

Neeraj Zimba, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader, told Frontline: “The situation is very bad here. Until and unless tripartite talks are held, with the Centre also getting involved in the dialogue process, things will not normalise. Very likely the bandh will continue. It is now up to the State government to call for tripartite talks.” According to him, the general mood of the people was against ending the bandh: what began as a political issue has transformed into a social one. “The people have already sacrificed so much in the last three months that they do not want to turn back now. They must be given something tangible to call off the bandh—tripartite talks may just be that,” Zimba said.

On August 29, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sat down for talks with the hill leaders and a breakthrough seemed imminent. Until then the GJM had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the State government’s overtures, albeit unofficial. It wanted the Centre to intervene, but the Centre lobbed the ball back into the State government’s court. On August 13, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in a meeting with representatives of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee (or GMCC, a 30-member body set up on June 29 with representatives of all hill parties), appealed to the hill leaders to call off the strike and start a dialogue with the State government.

The second round of bipartite talks held on September 12 yielded no concrete results. The State government, while standing firm on the point that it would not consider a separate State being carved out of the Darjeeling hills, conceded certain demands of the hill leaders. It agreed to compensate the families of those who got killed or injured in the ongoing agitation; initiate a high-level probe into the recent bomb blasts; and relax the admission and form-filling deadlines for students from the hills. “Darjeeling is and will remain a part of Bengal. Having said that, there is a desire and an aspiration for the people here for Gorkhaland… I feel the dialogue process should aim to find a permanent solution,” Mamata Banerjee said after the meeting.

Rift IN GJM

The meetings with the State government brought into the open a serious rift within the top GJM leadership over the question of ending the bandh. After the first meeting, GJM assistant general secretary Binay Tamang, who represented the party at the meeting, announced a suspension of the bandh from September 1 to September 12, when the next meeting was due. Soon after Tamang’s announcement, GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, who has been evading arrest since the beginning of the agitation, proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the bandh would continue and the agitation would be intensified.

Subsequently, Tamang and an influential central committee member of the GJM, Anit Thapa, were expelled from the party. Tamang remained defiant and said that he was one of the founding members and would continue to remain in the GJM. He threatened to expose the corruption within the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), an autonomous elected body established in 2011, and the wealth amassed by top GJM leaders. The GJM leadership alleged that Tamang and Thapa were in collusion with the West Bengal government and were planning to start a new political party of their own.

But Tamang again represented the GJM at the second meeting and signed the charter of demand handed over to the Chief Minister as the GJM Chief Coordinator. Gurung, in an audio message released from his hideout, expressed disappointment at the outcome of the meeting and once again reiterated that the bandh would continue until a tripartite meeting took place.

This open struggle in the GJM has added confusion to an already chaotic situation. An influential political source in Darjeeling said: “There is no leadership at the grass-roots level any more, and that is why the entire Gorkhaland movement has become directionless and ineffective. Most of the top GJM leaders are at present on the run, and the next rung of leaders are not capable of leading the movement. The political rivals are waiting and watching, clearly with the intention of joining the winning side.”

The hill leaders themselves seem to have washed their hands of the bandh. Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa “left it to the people to decide” after the second meeting. The GMCC had placed the onus on the GJM to end the strike on the grounds that it was Bimal Gurung who had called it, but there are many who are now beginning to doubt whether even Gurung will be able to prevail upon the people. “Bimal Gurung is no longer a factor. Even if he now wants the bandh to be lifted, I believe the people will not pay any heed to him,” said Zimba.

Gurung on the run

Many feel that the GJM supremo’s absence in these turbulent times has weakened the party and given the opposition parties a chance to make their present felt. The complete sway of the GJM in the hills had earlier prevented these parties from asserting themselves. On June 15, the indefinite bandh was called and the police raided Gurung’s house. Gurung has since been in hiding. Though he has been trying to control the movement through video messages and press statements, his actual physical absence in an agitation in which eight Gorkhaland supporters have lost their lives (as of September 19) has been conspicuous. Tamang rubbed it in: “If he [Gurung] and Roshan Giri [GJM general secretary] are true Gorkha leaders, I challenge them to come to ground zero in Darjeeling and lead the movement from the front. A true leader never stays in the background and puts the lives of his followers in danger.”

In all this turmoil, there was temporary relief for Gurung when on August 17 a court in Kolkata ordered that his name be dropped from the list of accused in the Madan Tamang assassination case. (Madan Tamang, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League and an outspoken critic of the GJM, was hacked to death in May 2010 in broad daylight, allegedly by GJM supporters.) The court, however, ruled that charges be framed against the 47 other accused, including Gurung’s wife, Asha, Roshan Giri and Binay Tamang. The respite for Gurung was short-lived. Soon afterwards, he was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act following three back-to-back IED blasts in the hills, in which a civic police volunteer was killed. His trusted aide Pravin Subba and party youth wing president Prakash Gurung were also booked. The GJM denied any hand in the blasts.

In a move to increase pressure on the GJM, the West Bengal Police issued “lookout” notices against several top party leaders including Gurung and Giri. On September 6, a court in Darjeeling district issued arrest warrants against Gurung and seven other leaders, including Asha, Giri, and GMCC coordinator Kalyan Dewan. The day before, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had approached the court over a police complaint registered in connection with the violence in Darjeeling on June 8 when the Chief Minister was holding a Cabinet meeting there.

Bengal-Sikkim tension

The hunt for Gurung resulted in a temporary souring of relations between West Bengal and Sikkim. On September 1, the West Bengal Police busted a high-level GJM meeting at Namchi, the district headquarters of South Sikkim. Several GJM leaders were nabbed and one person was killed in the operation. Gurung, however, managed to give the police the slip. The Sikkim Police claimed that the West Bengal Police had not followed proper procedures and did not possess the requisite documents for the raid. They even filed a first information report against the Superintendent of Police, Kalimpong. West Bengal Tourism Minister Gautam Deb, who is president the Trinamool Congress’ Darjeeling unit, accused the Sikkim government of trying to protect Gurung.

This was not the first time that the two States had serious differences over the issue of Gorkhaland. When the current agitation for Gorkhaland was launched in June, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling wrote to Rajnath Singh urging him to facilitate the creation of a new State so that Sikkim’s “developmental tempo can be maintained undisturbed”.

Normalcy claim

Even as the hills remained on the boil, Mamata Banerjee claimed that “normalcy has largely returned in Darjeeling”. She said: “All tea gardens will be opened and employees will be given bonuses… if the gardens are not opened, we will take necessary action.” Meanwhile, pitched battles between the security forces and Gorkhaland agitators continued to break out sporadically, and even heritage buildings like the Roy Villa, where Sister Nivedita breathed her last, were not spared from attacks. Sandip Jain, editor of Himalayan Times and a resident of Kalimpong, told Frontline: “Even going out to get some vegetables is a life-threatening proposition, with the agitators on the one side and the security forces on the other. People are too scared to venture out, such is the uncertainty here. So how can the Chief Minister say normalcy is returning?”

In another move to counter the agitation, the State government, on September 20, reconstituted the GTA by nominating Binay Tamang as the new chairperson. Mamata Banerjee said: “Today we have taken a very important decision.... Under Section 65 of the GTA Act we have appointed a board of administrators comprising eight members to look after the functioning of the GTA.” On June 23, all the elected members of the body, including Gurung, had resigned. Mamata Banerjee declared that the newly reconstituted body would function until fresh elections to the GTA took place. The GJM, as was expected, rejected the new set-up. Ramesh Alley, former deputy chief executive of the GTA and a central committee member of the GJM, told Frontline: “This has come as a bolt from the blue. Binay Tamang himself was a member of the GTA when the GTA was rejected for the sake of Gorkhaland. This will not be accepted by the people of the hills, and there will be protests.”

The way ahead

Three months of continuous bandh have completely crippled the economy and life in general in the region. According to the Chief Minister’s statement in the Assembly, losses, as of August, amounted to as much as Rs.550 crore since June 15. Many schools in the hills have been compelled to resume classes for the sake of those appearing for board exams either in Siliguri or in Kolkata. Tea and tourism industries, the two main pillars of the economy of Darjeeling, are teetering on the brink of ruin. The GTA, set up in place of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), has been rejected by the GJM, and it is now time to think of an option acceptable to both the hill people and the State government. The well-known social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, thought the concept of an “autonomous State within a State”’ as laid out in Article 244A of the Indian Constitution could be considered for the sake of lasting peace. “The State may forcibly break the Gorkhaland movement and lift the bandh; but that peace will not last long. If the government is really interested in bringing about a permanent solution, it should address the identity of the Gorkhas seriously. Article 244A of the Constitution will provide maximum possible autonomy: the people of Darjeeling can have their own legislature and government, but the overall control of the region will still be with the State of West Bengal.”

Colonial continuity

WHEN the fundamental rights clauses of the draft Indian Constitution were being debated in the Constituent Assembly, the socialist leader Somnath Lahiri stood up and alleged that these provisions seemed to have been drafted from the point of view of a “police constable”. Stung by the accusation, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was driven to come out with vehement denials. He went on to mock those members of the Constituent Assembly who seemed to believe that independent India would have no more use for the police or for jails.

The exchange between Lahiri and Patel—variants of which were to recur throughout the Constituent Assembly Debates—highlight the central thesis of Abhinav Chandrachud’s Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech and the Constitution of India that “the enactment of the Constitution did not make a significant difference to the right to free speech... that Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2) belonged to the status quo aim of the Constitution, not the transformational one... [and] the enactment of the Constitution made merely a rhetorical change, not a substantive one, to the right to free speech in India” (page 13). Examining the jurisprudence of Indian free speech from the perspective of the categories that are normally invoked to limit it—sedition, obscenity, defamation, contempt of court, hate speech, and national unity and integrity—the author argues that a close comparison between pre-constitutional and post-constitutional free speech law reveals a continuity punctuated by the enactment of the Constitution rather than a (progressive-oriented) rupture.

The argument from colonial continuity has three different aspects, which are dealt with to different extents in the book. First: the constitutional text itself. Article 19(2) contains eight subclauses that delineate the areas in which the state can restrict free speech, ranging from defamation and contempt of court on the one hand, to public order and morality on the other. Using primary materials from the debates in the drafting committees as well as in the Constituent Assembly, Chandrachud demonstrates that, often, the intention behind the framing of Article 19(2) was to ensure that the jurisprudence of (limited) free speech, which had been developed by the colonial courts over the years (sometimes following common law, and sometimes departing from it), would continue more or less unhindered. In a few areas, however, the dissenting wing of the Constituent Assembly—led by K.M. Munshi on the one side and Lahiri on the other—scored important victories: for example, in managing to keep “public order” out of the 19(2) catalogue, and thereby ensuring that particularly unpopular laws, such as sedition, would become presumptively unconstitutional when the Constitution came into being. These victories, however, were undone by two sets of amendments, whose political history the author discusses in some detail: the First Amendment, which did add “public order” to Article 19(2) (along with the word “reasonable” before “restrictions”), and the 16th Amendment, which he calls the “anti-DMK amendment”, which added “national unity and integrity”. In its final form, Article 19(2) is worded in a way that is potentially even more restrictive than what colonial free speech jurisprudence required.

Speech-restricting laws

Secondly, there is the issue of colonial speech-restricting laws that continued to exist in independent India, and indeed, speech laws framed by a succession of republican governments, ostensibly operating within the Constitution. Through the course of the book, Chandrachud points out that most of the speech-restricting laws that are used extensively today have their roots in colonial times. In fact, these laws were framed as a specifically colonial response to concrete situations. The sedition provision (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) was enacted to contain the Wahhabi movement; Section 295A (insulting religious sentiments) was drafted in response to rising Hindu-Muslim communal violence in northern India; Section 153A (hate speech) followed the logic of a colonial regime that saw India as an agglomeration of communities and not individuals; and so on.

The author’s argument, however, goes further: the legislatures of independent India framed laws that mimicked—and sometimes even went beyond—their colonial counterparts. The Jawaharlal Nehru government enacted a Press Act in 1951, which was even more stringent than its colonial inspiration, the Press Emergency Powers Act of 1931, specifically used to target political dissent. Indira Gandhi made sedition even more draconian than it already was, by amending the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and removing the requirement of a warrant as a precondition to arrests for sedition.

When the legislature defined “obscenity”, after the judgment of the Supreme Court in Ranjit Udeshi vs State of Maharashtra, it did so in terms of the Victorian-era “Hicklin test”. The film censorship regime put in place through the 1952 Cinematograph Act closely mirrored its colonial counterpart. And some laws, such as the notorious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (struck down by the Shreya Singhal vs Union of India judgment in 2015), did not even have any colonial origin or basis.

Limitations on free speech

Thirdly, there is the role of the Supreme Court (and the High Courts) in interpreting and giving life to the words of Article 19(1)(a) and 19(2). Through an analysis of the law of contempt of court, in particular, Chandrachud shows that the analytical framework within which the post-Independence courts operated was more or less a continuation of their colonial counterparts—and often, with very similar justification. The colonial regime—as well as its courts—justified extensive limitations upon free speech on two broad grounds: first, the rule of colonial difference—that is, that the “natives” were illiterate and emotional, and unable to receive speech in a rational manner; and secondly, that the basic unit in Indian life was the community, and that consequently, laws had to be oriented towards maintaining harmony and balance between communities.

As the author points out, we see both tropes at work in the judgments of the Supreme Court: the first features predominantly in its verdicts upholding film censorship, and the second is found in judgments upholding book bans, perhaps most prominently in Baragur Ramachandrappa vs State of Karnataka (2007).

Chandrachud’s central thesis, the argument from colonial continuity, holds up well, especially in view of some of the more recent orders of the Supreme Court, such as upholding the constitutionality of criminal defamation and its directions in the national anthem case. More specifically, his excavation of the role of the three prominent actors—the Constituent Assembly, the (successive) Parliaments of independent India, and the Supreme Court—is comprehensive and persuasive. Where one might disagree with him is the relative weight he accords to the three actors. For example, the author attributes the constitutionality of sedition to the First Amendment, which introduced the restriction of “public order” in Article 19(2), and implicitly affirmed the view of sedition that had been endorsed by Maurice Gwyer CJ in the colonial Federal Court, but overruled by the Privy Council. This, in my opinion, is far too generous to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962), which upheld sedition.

As I have argued elsewhere, the phrase “reasonable restrictions” under Article 19(2) required the court to examine whether there existed a relationship of proximity between the speech-restricting law and public order. In the case of sedition, which criminalises “disaffection”, “contempt” or “hatred” towards the government, there is no such relationship of proximity. By “reading in” a requirement that seditious speech has a tendency to create public disorder, the Supreme Court bent over backwards to uphold the Section in a manner that the constitutional text certainly did not require it to do. Similarly, there was nothing in the Constitution that required the court to endorse the Hicklin test for obscenity, or draw a distinction between films and books that allowed it to uphold prior restraint on films under the Cinematograph Act. In other words, the point is this: whatever the intentions of the framers in maintaining colonial continuity, and however conservative the final text of Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2), the Supreme Court could have crafted a progressive free speech jurisprudence, faithful to the broader transformative purpose of the Constitution and its endorsement of individual autonomy (for example, by granting universal adult franchise), even within the confines of the constitutional text and structure. That it has not done so is entirely its own responsibility, and entirely within its power to rectify, whenever it chooses to.

Republic of Rhetoric offers an engaging blend of political history, legal history and constitutional doctrine in its treatment of the past, present and potential future of free speech in India. It will doubtless be an important text in the context of the perennially recurring battles over free speech.

Kashmir myths

THE book Kashmir : Exposing the M yth Behind the N arrative by former civil servant Khalid Bashir Ahmad centres around the idea of debunking a narrative that has cast a shadow over Kashmir’s history for a long time. Ironically, since its release in mid August, the book has got only limited attention, relegating its “real intent” to the background. It was seen as a challenge to Kalhana, the author of Rajatarangini , the historical chronicle of the north-western subcontinent, particularly Kashmir, written in 1148 C.E. Ahmad has also critically analysed Nilamat a Purana, an ancient text that contains historical, geographical and other details on Kashmir, as also accounts by later historians Jonaraja and Srivara, and tried to deconstruct the pattern of history writing.

The chapter “Mind’s Eye” explains how Kalhana chronicled the history of 3,000 years before his time through mythology and how it could have been possible for him to record the “real history” only of a few hundred years. “As with the case of Nil a mata Purana and other Sanskrit works which suffered interpolation and distortion, the Rajatarangini too did not escape textual interference at the hands of those who attempted to either interpret it or use it as the basic source material,” Ahmad writes (page 8). The author notes that Kalhana had a bias against the local language and used Sanskrit which he was deeply in love with.

Notwithstanding the author’s argument that only a portion of Rajatarangini could be taken as history, Kalhana is credited with giving Kashmir an identity with his narrative. As a versifier who presented the existence of the valley, Kalhana is someone no Muslim scholar in Kashmir has challenged. It is on this count that Ahmad’s book attains significance in the list of contemporary history books.

‘Muslims as victims’

The author’s intention is to uncover how a community has ruled over the majority for thousands of years and how it has been difficult for it to accept the reality that Kashmir is a Muslim-majority State.

Right from the chapter “Aborigines” to the “Epilogue”, the author tries to demolish the narrative Kashmiri Pandits have woven and how one side of the story is not “exposed”. The book discusses the pattern of governance in Kashmir, in which Kashmiri Muslims, the author says, have been victims, and analyses how the situation has not changed despite representatives of the majority community coming to power after 1947. He takes the lid off the “machinations” of the Pandit community by saying that even during Muslim rule they were at the helm and framed policies aimed at persecuting Muslims. According to the author, it has been a Kashmiri Pandit project to portray Muslims as persecutors, Islamic fundamentalists and usurpers of their ancestry.

In the chapter “Malice”, the author makes a strong defence of Sultan Sikandar (1389-1413), the sixth ruler of the Shah Mir dynasty who is known infamously as “But Shikan” (iconoclast) for his supposedly wanton destruction of temples and persecution of subjects. Ahmad proves that the conversion of Hindus to Islam began three centuries before the establishment of the Muslim Sultanate and climaxed by the end of the 15th century.

He is critical of Baharistan-i-Shahi, a chronicle whose authorship is unknown, for showing the Sultan in a bad light, and this is cited by Kashmiri Pandit writers to date. “The king whom Baharistan-i-Shahi accuses of idol breaking, in fact, installed 18 lined stone inscriptions in Sharda script containing his invocation to Hindu god Ganesha, besides constructing dharma matha and repairing dilapidated temples of antiquity.”

The author cites many examples of how ancient temples have existed in Kashmir. He raises an important point that if Sultan Sikandar was responsible for mass conversion, why had Pandits not joined the faith when Budshah Zainul Abidin asked them to do so. The author also questions the silence of writers on how Buddhism was wiped out in Kashmir by Mihirkula, a Hun who came to Kashmir in 530 C.E.

Power politics

The chapter “Power” sets the tone of the book on how Kashmiri Pandits emerged as key players in power politics. The author notes that after the migration of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990, they have preferred to be called Kashmiri Hindus in order to win the sympathy of co-religionists. Interestingly, they came to be known as Pandits during Mughal rule on the basis of a demand they themselves made perhaps because of a sense of inferiority vis-a-vis other Brahmins of India.

“One such person who endeared himself to one of the last remnants of the Mughal Empire King Mohammad Shah was Jai Ram Bhan who was his courtier. Bhan persuaded Mohammad Shah to issue a royal decree designating Kashmiri Brahmans as Kashmiri Pandits thus drawing a line of distinction between Kashmiri Brahmans and those of India” (page 58).

Kashmiri Pandits ruled through the Mughal and Afghan periods to such an extent that Pandit Nand Ram Tiku became the Prime Minister of Kabul. They were so influential that they got Governor Nooruddin Khan removed from Kashmir in 1765. When Atta Mohammad Khan revolted against Afghan rule and ensured Muslim participation in the administration, Pandits went to Kabul and got the Army to unseat him. This continued during Sikh rule and Dogra rule and, in fact, it was Birbal Dhar, the author notes, who invited a reluctant Ranjit Singh in 1819 to conquer Kashmir.

The first massacre of industrial workers took place in Srinagar in 1865 when shawl workers rose against unjustified taxation and 28 Muslim workers were brutally killed by the Dogra Army. It happened at the instigation of Raj Kak Dhar, the head of the Dagh Shawl department.

The book touches upon events that have hitherto been unknown to the general public. For instance, after the Dogra ruler Gulab Singh virtually bought Kashmir under the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846, Kashmiri Pandits were on his side. As the oppression against the majority community reached a crescendo on July 13, 1931, and 23 people were killed in police firing in the central jail, Pandits sided with the government.

‘New narrative’

The author tears to shreds the “new narrative” post-1990 which suggests that Hindus were killed and temples destroyed in the aftermath of the killing of Muslims in 1931. But Ahmad says Kashmiri Pandit authors themselves make no mention of the so-called loot and mayhem in the histories written from 1931 to 1990. Discrimination against Kashmiri Muslims was glaring, notes the author, and describes how Pandits sabotaged the Glancy Commission report. The Commission was set up by Maharaja Hari Singh in November 1931 to address the grievances of Muslims. The author argues with the support of figures to show that the administration was dominated by Kashmiri Pandits despite the fact that Muslims constituted 95 per cent of the population.

The Pandit agitation of 1964 gets much attention in the book. The community erupted when a Kashmiri Pandit girl, Parmeshwari, married a Kashmiri Muslim, Ghulam Rasool. The author gives a detailed description of how the agitation unfolded under the patronage of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and how it was used to denounce the majority community.

The account of the migration of Kashmiri Pandits is also interesting. The author strongly argues that the majority community was not responsible for it and that the government, then led by Governor Jagmohan, played a role in it. Citing many responsible Kashmiri Pandits, he says Muslims tried to persuade them against it in their own capacities. He also counters, with the support of official data, the “inflated” figures about killings and migration. So is the case with the damaging of temples, which he shows as manipulated on the basis of facts on the ground.

Larger agenda

The book also focusses on how the demand for Panun Kashmir, a separate homeland, is part of the larger agenda of right-wing Hindu organisations to reconquer Kashmir.

The role of Kashmiri Pandits while holding forth in the media and being active participants in dethroning elected governments in Jammu and Kashmir adds meat to the idea behind the book. The author looks at the constructed narrative in the media today and the part played by the community in demonising the majority community in order to seek the support of Hindus across India.

An important issue the author raises is that if Kashmiri Pandits claim that Kashmir belongs to them, it also belongs to Muslims who were its original inhabitants. Conversion does not change the claim of ancestry. But if the only logic is that since the Muslims changed their religion they lost rights over land, it is not tenable, according to the author.

Using research tools the author portrays the Pandit community as a “villain” although a lot of them lost home and hearth through migration. However, it merits attention whether modern scientific tools of research can “demolish” the history of 5,000 years in a wink. As pointed out earlier, the book covers issues that scholars and historians have so far been silent about vis-a-vis the early period of Kashmir.

The book needs to be read keeping in mind a community’s bias that has not changed despite so much change in the world of geopolitics.

Letters

Letters to the editor

letters

FL29 cov gauri lankesh

Gauri Lankesh

THE murder of Gauri Lankesh was an attempt to silence critics of Hindutva and rationalists campaigning against superstition and orthodoxy (Cover Story, September 29). She was a relentless fighter against the growing communal chauvinism and intolerance in this country. While it is still not known who planned her murder, there is evidence relating to those who celebrated and justified her murder. There is also the eerie pattern of killings that was seen before her murder. The murderers of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi are cowardly people who could not effectively counter their arguments and so silenced them using deadly weapons. Gauri Lankesh’s death comes as a warning that the freedom of the press that Indian journalists enjoyed until recently is rapidly eroding.

N.C. Sreedharan, Kannur, Kerala

THE brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh is a big blow to the media world and freedom of expression. The fact that those who killed Pansare, Kalburgi and Dabholkar have still not been brought to book has only emboldened those who target rationalists at will. Such killings are an anachronism in any civil society.

K.R. Srinivasan, Secunderabad, Telangana

THE use of violence and force to muzzle or physically eliminate those who do not subscribe to their parochial views has been the hallmark of bigots and fundamentalists of all hues across the world. The brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh only reinforces this. Coming as a setback for progressive forces and a shot in the arm for obscurantists, the ghastly incident is a reminder of the grave consequences one has to face for being outspoken and standing up for one’s convictions. The fact that such dastardly incidents recur frequently and that the perpetrators have been able to get away from the clutches of the law is a blot on Indian democracy.

B. Suresh Kumar, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

FREEDOM of expression, which is enshrined in the Constitution, is at the very root of Indian democracy. Gauri Lankesh should have been provided with security. The state should ensure that such incidents do not recur.

N.R. Ramachandran, Chennai

THE murder of Gauri Lankesh is another glaring example of the danger of raising the voice of dissent against the Hindutva philosophy under the present dispensation. Her murder has threatened freedom of the press, and this strikes at the very heart of democracy. Although, the Karnataka government promptly announced that the investigation would be carried out by a special investigation team, the culprits are still at large. One sincerely hopes the culprits are nabbed soon.

Jayant Mukherjee, Kolkata

THE best tribute to Gauri Lankesh that comes to my mind are these words of Che Guevara: “Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons.”

There is a clear indication that the world’s largest democracy is slowly and steadily getting transformed from a freethinking society into a flawed democracy. Who knows how many people the perpetrators of these heinous acts will silence before they are caught.

Bidyut Kumar Chatterjee, Faridabad, Haryana

DABHOLKAR, Pansare and Kalburgi were killed for fearlessly voicing their views on superstition and irrational practices in the name of religion. Now, the journalist Gauri Lankesh, who expressed views that ran counter to those held sacred by obscurantist forces, has been killed. It is upsetting that such killings are taking place in India, which is basically a democratic, peace-loving and religious nation. The killing of intellectuals and journalists has been going on for quite some time, instilling fear in their minds of the dreadful consequences that could follow if they persist with voicing their opinions. But democracy loses its meaning and substance in the absence of dissenting voices.

The following words of D.H. Lawrence are apt: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins [but]…. [w]e’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

A. Michael Dhanaraj, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

THE killing of Gauri Lankesh is condemnable. The attacks on mediapersons just for reporting the truth and for their social activities are inhuman. Responsible journalists are expected to expose the corrupt and denounce acts of violence. As the media is one of the four pillars of democracy, attacking those who work for the media is unethical.

A.J. Rangarajan, Chennai

NEET

FL13ANITHA

THE article “Price of inequity” ( September 29) exposed how the Tamil Nadu government’s inept handling of the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) issue and its false proclamations and make-believe assurances and the Centre’s irresolute stand misled the students of Tamil Nadu and resulted in the death of S. Anitha. She is a victim of policy aberrations, inactive officialdom and social and economic deprivation. The rote system of learning is not unique to the educational system in Tamil Nadu; it is an omnipresent malaise in Indian education.

Anitha could have not comprehended NEET as the questions were from the CBSE syllabus, and the test was therefore relatively easier for students of that board. This belies the notion that NEET ensures a level playing ground.

How is a national exam like NEET justifiable with different question papers for different States? The concept of uniformity in assessing students’ calibre was conspicuous by its absence. The corrupt political system is the cause for the problems in all aspects of life, including education.

B. Rajasekaran, Bengaluru

THE advocate Balaji Srinivasan exposed how the Supreme Court failed to hear all affected parties when it decided on NEET (“Supreme Court was misled on NEET”, September 29). If details regarding the socio-economic background of those who took the test and what preparations they made for it, including how much specialised coaching they underwent, were made public, it would help one know how far NEET is neutral and able to give every participant an equal chance. State medical colleges are intended to provide the necessary personnel for hospitals under the control of the State government. How far NEET will help in this matter has to be ascertained.

S.S. Rajagopalan, Chennai

Defence industry

THE debate whether to privatise Indian ordnance factories can be settled (“Creeping privatisation”, September 29). Take the example of Dassault Aviation of France, the manufacturer of Mirage fighter jets. It competes with other private firms. The Indian ordnance factories’ problem lies in quality. Even the small arms they make fail to compare favourably with those that foreign companies make.

Sunil Pradhan, Khariar, Odisha

Hurricane Harvey

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THE U.S. is prone to storms and cyclones at regular intervals that result in enormous damage, running into billions of dollars (“An American deluge”, September 29). Neighbours help neighbours, and the government machinery there seems to be inadequate to the task of dealing with such disasters. Is India prepared for such storms? If such a storm were to hit Indian shores, would it drown a city like Mumbai or Chennai? India is not even prepared to deal with urban floods, which have become a regular occurrence during the monsoon season. The financial capital of India, where people get stuck in their offices overnight because of heavy rain, needs cyclone shelters. India needs to do more to deal with natural disasters, be it in rural or urban areas, as the future is uncertain.

Deendayal M. Lulla, Mumbai

Triple talaq

FL13TRIPLETALAQ

THE Supreme Court’s verdict on instant triple talaq came as a ray of hope for Muslim women in the country (“Instant talaq illegal”, September 15). The psychological impact of triple talaq is greater than the impact of divorce. The practice reflects the gender bias in the Muslim community. It has been reported that men often say triple talaq in a fit of anger, but more often they say it when they want to break the marriage and seek another wife.

There are many outdated and unconstitutional laws in the country that need to be amended. The onus is now on the Muslim Personal Law Board to acknowledge the court’s verdict and be prepared to revoke the outdated practice.

Janga Bahadur Sunuwar, Bagrakote, West Bengal

Gorakhpur

THE deaths of over 60 children in the BRD Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur is a blot on the State government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, which failed to rise to the occasion (“A political burial”, September 15). Instead of finding out the facts of the case and taking appropriate steps, it is indulging in petty communal politics. Although a few arrests have been made, it appears that corrective measures are still not in place.

The government has failed on many fronts and is now trying to cover up its poor performance with diversionary tactics. It is time the Chief Minister concentrated on the urgent problems of the State rather than on trying to promote Hindutva. He has yet to fulfil even some of the promises his party made during election time.

D.B.N. Murthy, Bengaluru

Prasar Bharati

FL13TRIPURA

PRASAR BHARATI’S attempt to censor the Independence Day speech of Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar was a case of being more loyal than the king (“Sarkar vs Sarkar”, September 15). Asking the Chief Minister to “reshape” his speech was a gross infringement of federalism and an insult to the democratically elected leader. The autonomy of Prasar Bharati has been proven to be a chimera as it only replicates its master’s voice. The silver lining in the dark clouds was that the embargo unwittingly helped spread the Chief Minister’s message far and wide.

Ayyasseri Raveendranath, Aranmula, Kerala

Cover Story

The nowhere train

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

WHAT pretends to arrive as a gift and comes with great fanfare can only be a curse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project to bring home India’s first high-speed train—given the dilapidated state of the Indian rail network—has the hallmark of an ill-fated gift.

Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, formally launched the project to introduce the Shinkansen—popularly known as the bullet train—between Sabarmati and Mumbai on September 14. The commencement of work on India’s Shinkansen—the global pioneer of High Speed Rail (HSR) in 1964—was greeted with the euphoria that India had gained entry into the exclusive club of nations with an HSR. The project for the 508-kilometre line is expected to cost Rs.110,000 crore—at the rate of Rs.217 crore per km. But there are no worries, said Modi that day.

“In a way the project is virtually free,” Modi gushed, referring to the fact that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) would be providing a loan of Rs.88,000 crore for the project at a “nominal” interest rate of 0.1 per cent per annum. Moreover, the repayment schedule, spread over 50 years, including an initial moratorium of 15 years, gave the project an almost-free ring. “In Shinzo Abe, India has found a friend no bank in the world could match,” Modi bubbled over enthusiastically. Modi’s sales pitch on the eve of the Navaratri festive season hid more than it revealed, for several reasons.

For one, the JICA is well known to hunt the world, scouting exclusively for projects in which Japanese companies are bidding. A veteran who has worked at senior positions in two leading global consultancies told Frontline that agencies such as the World Bank view the JICA with some scepticism. “The JICA generally funds projects in which Japanese companies are in the fray and there are often hidden costs associated with the services they provide,” he said. Moreover, the fact that India’s first bullet train project has been awarded on a “nomination basis”, without a competitive bidding process, is clearly out of order. The no-bid route is obviously costlier and it is possible to find out—at least approximately—how much more India is paying for the “almost free” largesse from Japan.

The illusion of ‘almost free’

A report on China’s HSR programme prepared by the World Bank’s Beijing office in 2014 provides just such a yardstick for comparison. Although no two projects are strictly comparable because of the specificities—particularly topographical—of each case, the Rs.110,000-crore project implies a cost $16.998 billion at exchange rates prevailing on September 21. This implies a per km cost of $33.46 million. According to the World Bank report, the per km cost in China was between $17 million and $21 million. Thus, at the lower bound of the Chinese costs, the Indian project is 59 per cent higher; at the upper bound, the costs are higher by a whopping 97 per cent.

These calculations show that if the Chinese costs are treated as a base case, India is paying between $6.330 billion and $8.362 billion more for the project. Even discounting for the fact that the Chinese cost estimates pertain to three years ago, these appear high by any standard. Moreover, there is evidence to show that Chinese costs have been continuously declining, primarily because of the tremendous economies of scale that it has gathered in the short period of 14 years since it started its HSR programme (see separate story). In effect, even if the loan is almost free because of the illusory effect of the low interest rate, it appears that the high project cost has front-loaded returns for the Japanese companies implementing the project.

But the negative interest rate in Japan, a crucial result of “Abenomics” since Abe came to office in 2012, implies that even a 0.1 per cent rate of interest is profitable for Japanese banks. The fact that a loan such as the one extended for the Indian bullet train project expands business opportunities for Japanese companies is an obvious additional gain. But the real benefit from the loan will not accrue from the rate of interest charged to the Indian Railways’ subsidiary that would be implementing the project, but from the exchange rate between the rupee and the Japanese yen.

A financial analyst with some understanding of Japanese banks and corporations told Frontline: “The long-term tendency is for the rupee to depreciate with respect to the yen, given the experience that the Japanese currency has appreciated by about 60 per cent in the last 10 years.” He pointed out that one of the key determinants of a market-determined exchange rate, apart from capital inflows and outflows, is the inflation differential between the two economies. Given that the Japanese economy has been in prolonged stagnation, nearing a condition of deflation, and that Indian inflation is still high, the prognosis is for the rupee to depreciate in the long term vis-a-vis the yen. Significantly, the market’s perception of what is the “true” level of inflation would not be coloured by what official Indian statisticians may compute. With inflation targeting in Japan under Abe currently at 2 per cent and Indian inflation even assumed conservatively at 6 per cent, the difference works out to be significantly higher than what has been presented by Modi.

Thus, it appears fair to conclude that what the Japanese may appear to lose because of the apparently low interest rate would be more than compensated by the depreciation of the rupee. In effect, India would have to pay more rupees for the yen it has borrowed for the project now. The inflated cost of the project is the icing on the cake for the Japanese companies getting their foot in the door through a no-bid contract.

Modi’s acolytes have made the suggestion that India could hedge against an appreciation of the yen and therefore avoid losses in the future. This apparently ingenious suggestion is not only irresponsible but suggests an utter lack of understanding of either the market for the Japanese currency or the way hedging works. Many Indian companies, including IT services companies, which have fairly large exposures in foreign currencies, regularly do hedging. But no company hedges its entire exposure simply because hedging costs can be fairly high, apart from posing downside risks. The financial analyst quoted above pointed out that hedging costs for the yen are generally higher than, say, for instance, the U.S. dollar, because the yen is the most volatile of major international currencies. In addition, he pointed out that hedging on the yen is typically done for a period of six months. He guffawed loudly when asked about hedging on a yen-denominated loan with a tenure of 50 years.

Misplaced priorities

Modi’s dramatic move to usher India into the high-speed age could not have come under more ironic circumstances. The recent spate of railway accidents and the incessant reports of derailment of trains have cast a gloomy shadow over his bullet train ambitions. In 2016, the Indian Railways recorded 186 fatalities, the worst year in almost a decade. Since Modi assumed office in 2014, despite three Railway Ministers, there have been 325 deaths compared with 85 in the three-year period before this. The question that sceptics are asking is: why is this expensive project being pursued when the entire railway system in all its dimensions is in utter decay, particularly because of long-term neglect of its basic infrastructure?

Not all of these sceptics are Luddites objecting to such a project simply because they are against new technology. In fact, many critics of the project agree that increasing speed on the Indian rail network is a desirable objective because it increases throughput on tracks, which increases the overall efficiency of the system. The average speed of a goods train in India is about 25 km/hr and that of an express train is about 50 km/hr. What could be the objection to increasing these speeds which Indian trains have been at for decades now? Last year, Gatimaan Express, from Delhi to Agra, which had the ability to reach a top speed of 160 km/hr, was actually only a few minutes faster than the first Shatabdi Express that travelled from Delhi to Jhansi via Agra in 1988!

The constraints on speed arise from two sets of factors. The first pertains to the state of the tracks, signalling equipment, passenger coaches and goods wagons, all of which are either over-aged, outdated or simply unsafe to run at speeds that would be considered normal in a modern rail system. The second kind of constraint on speed arises from the excessive load and congestion on Indian tracks. In a recent interview on TV, Bibek Debroy, who headed a committee to restructure the Indian Railways, said traffic in the northern to eastern corridor was so dense that railway personnel did not get “even five minutes to do maintenance work on tracks”.

Speaking to Frontline, K. Balakesari, former Member, Railway Board, said: “Statistically speaking, it may be impossible to predict the number of fatalities in the Railways, but the incidence of derailments, even when there are no deaths, is definitely a matter of concern because they are a warning that something is wrong in the system.” The problem has been aggravated by the fact that since Lalu Prasad’s tenure as Railway Minister a decade ago, the Railways started loading wagons beyond their prescribed carrying capacity. This has continued ever since. “Has there been a study of what happened to these assets as a result of rampant overloading?” Balakesari asked. He also pointed out that in about 70 per cent of rail accidents, the blame was put on the staff. “There is something seriously wrong in putting money on infrastructure and then blaming the staff,” he said. He suggested that the severe stress on the overloaded rail system had also imposed severe stress on the railway staff who were under great pressure to deliver. This “human aspect” of safety is not adequately appreciated, Balakesari said (see interview highlighting the plight of Indian loco pilots).

A Task Force Report on Safety published in January 2017, meant for “internal circulation” but which is available with Frontline, thanks to a trade union source, paints a picture of all-round neglect. Not just tracks, but even passenger coaches need wholesale replacement, it observed. For instance, the Integral Coach Factory (ICF)-type coaches, the mainstay of passenger services for several years, are prone to telescoping on impact following a collision, and needed to be replaced years earlier; it was only in late 2016 that the Railway Ministry finally decided to banish them from service. Even their replacement, Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, are almost a decade old, but there are no attempts to replace them with better, modern, light coaches based on research and development within the country. A Railway source confirmed that little or no action had been taken on the several recommendations made by the Task Force.

Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus at the Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, told Frontline that the fundamental question was one of the Railways’ priorities. “You can go to any railway station in India and see especially poor people sleeping on the platforms, and the areas around railway stations are horrible.”

Railway compartments, he said, “are filthy and jam-packed, with people travelling like animals. Is this how we treat millions of our people who travel every day to our factories and farms?” If these issues were addressed, or at least being addressed in good measure, nobody would object to the introduction of HSR in India, he said.

Dinesh Mohan, a regular traveller to China for the last three decades, said: “In 1988, when I first went to China, the stations and trains were cleaner and services much better than what we have in India today.”

“The Ministry of Railways in China has established three research institutions, each employing 3,000-5,000 research personnel,” he pointed out. Apart from these, at least 10 universities have centres of excellence in railway-related studies, he said. “In China, all this was achieved over the last 20 years, but in India we do not have a single institution that employs 100 persons doing railway-related research. China has at least 15,000 such professionals,” he observed. No research institution, university or even an IIT specialises in railway technologies, he remarked.

Gross underinvestment

As the accompanying piece by R. Elangovan, a trade union leader and a keen student of the Indian rail system for several years, observes, systematic underinvestment in every aspect of the system has brought it to the brink. Strikingly, data show that the biggest phase of decline in derailments occurred in the period between 2003 and 2008 when investments in track replacement were undertaken. Since then progress has flagged; the problem has been compounded by the persistent and egregious flogging of national rail assets. While government investment has been cut, the dependence on public private partnerships (PPP) as a route to salvation has proved to be misplaced and costly. In fact, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s last Budget papers revealed that most of the planned investments failed to materialise because they were to come through PPP.

The example of the progress on the two dedicated freight corridors—the Eastern Corridor between Ludhiana and Dhankuni in West Bengal and the Western Corridor between the Nhava Sheva port (Mumbai) and Dadri in Uttar Pradesh—illustrates all that is wrong in terms of priorities. The Eastern Corridor is to traverse a length of more than 1,500 km, mainly for transporting coal and steel. The Western Corridor, extending over a distance of 1,856 km, is mainly for container traffic. The two projects were sanctioned in 2006 amid expectations that, upon completion, they would divert 55 per cent of freight traffic from existing lines, which would help in relieving the severe congestion in the rest of the network. The projects were initially conceived in PPP mode, but they failed to materialise, at which point the World Bank and the JICA stepped in to fund the two corridors. According to the Railway Minister’s admission in Parliament earlier this year, only 29 per cent of the finances for the project has been released and only 26 per cent of the work has been executed. The tardy progress raises a disturbing question: what is the point of running one train at a great speed over 508 km when 110,000 km of the Indian rail network is crying out for attention?

Railway Minister Piyush Goyal whose tenure began recently—and was welcomed into office with several more derailments—has defended the project by ingeniously arguing that the project is separate from the Indian Railways’ “normal” operations. He has assured that investments into the railways would continue apace despite the bullet train project. That may have been plausible before Jaitley took control of rail finances, following the Debroy Committee’s recommendation that a separate Railway Budget—condemned as a vestige of a colonial practice—be dispensed with. The fact that all funds, whether for the Railways in general or for the bullet train, will come from the same source renders this logic vacuous.

Is it viable?

It is remarkable that so little information is available about this marquee project. So far, no financial viability report appears to have been prepared. This is indicated by the fact that we still do not know where the train would stop between Sabarmati and Mumbai; nor do we know what the fares are likely to be. But the ballpark figures suggest that the fare would have to be in the region of Rs.5 per km, which implies that the fare between the two terminals would cost at least Rs.2,500. A quick check at an airline booking portal reveals that a flight between Ahmedabad and Mumbai ranges between Rs.1,900 and Rs.2,500, which implies that the bullet train fares would not be competitive vis-a-vis air fares.

Of course, stoppages en route would improve the train’s catchment from cities and towns not connected by air. But there is a catch here too: stoppages at intermediate stations would mean that the average speed of the train would come down significantly, which would result in making it unattractive for travellers from Mumbai and Ahmedabad who have the airline option.

In a country where even the Shatabdi intercity trains are mainly preferred by business travellers because of their higher fares, it stands to reason that the bullet train may largely appeal to this same class of passengers. But if the journey time between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is about two and a half hours, and if those travelling on work need to reach an office, there is only a small window of time available for the bullet train to satisfy this segment of demand—say, between 5-8 in the morning and about 6-9 in the evening. What would this expensive toy do during the rest of the day?

As Balakesari points out, there is no such thing as a “viable” HSR project, simply because the capital costs are so huge. Nowhere in the world have such projects generated financially profitable investments, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future, unless they are supported by funds provided by the state. This is not to say that HSRs are not desirable simply because they cannot generate short-term financial profits. As China has shown, the gains from lumpy investments in such projects may accrue in other realms. These could be in terms of positive environmental benefits and socio-economic benefits that reduce regional disparities or by simply making the overall economic system more efficient.

It appears that India, in exploring its options, would have done better than to jump at the Japanese “almost-free” gift by exploring the possibilities of collaboration with China. It could have done even better by learning what China did before it undertook its massive HSR programme. Instead, Modi appears to have favoured the optics of the spectacle that the Japanese embrace offered over durable, long-term gains.

India-China

The BRICS factor

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

It was not a coincidence that the 71-day-old Doklam standoff ended just before the start of the BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, in the first week of September. It would have been difficult for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be present at the summit if the dispute, the most serious between the two countries in the last three decades, had remained unresolved. For the Chinese leadership, a BRICS summit without Indian representation at the highest level would also have been viewed as a serious diplomatic setback. Therefore, the simultaneous announcement by the two sides of “withdrawal” from the Doklam plateau was timed and planned in such a way that it allowed both sides to “save face”.

The External Affairs Ministry issued a statement without going into any specifics that “following diplomatic communications, expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the faceoff site in Doklam has taken place”. It was a quick withdrawal by the few Indian army personnel who were still stationed there. The Chinese side had reported that the Indian army presence was gradually dwindling as the crisis was dragging on. India had started preparing the grounds for a withdrawal. The statement by the External Affairs Ministry made no claims of the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Doklam. China has been insisting that there is no confusion or doubt about its sovereignty over Doklam. The Chinese side has only indicated that it is stopping road construction due to the onset of inclement weather. From September to April, the entire area is covered in snow. Road construction activities take place only during the summer months.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry was much more direct in the statement issued a day after the “understanding” reached on Doklam. The statement emphasised that it was diplomacy coupled with “effective countermeasures” at the military level that made the Indian Army withdraw all its personnel and equipment. The Chinese troops “continue with their patrolling and stationing” in the Doklam area and will “adjust and deploy” its military resources in the area to safeguard its borders, the statement said.

Importantly, the Chinese side made it a point to state that road-building activities were only temporarily suspended and that in the future, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would “make proper building plans in light of the actual situation”. Clarifying the situation on the ground, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “Chinese border troops continue to be stationed in Doklam” and “continue to patrol the area”. The statement took care to highlight the withdrawal of “trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side”.

The Chinese leadership has been carefully avoiding any actions that could smack of triumphalism after the withdrawal of Indian troops, although it was clear that the entire episode had left a lasting imprint on bilateral ties. The Indian media generally has been trying to portray India’s withdrawal from Doklam as another “diplomatic victory” for Modi.

Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping for more than an hour after the conclusion of the BRICS summit. After the meeting, senior officials from both sides have acknowledged that the atmospherics at the meeting were not very “warm”. The Chinese side was particularly upset that the Doklam crisis was triggered soon after Xi and Modi had a cordial meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

India and Pakistan were admitted as full-fledged members of the SCO at the summit. As members of prestigious groupings such as BRICS and SCO, India and China are supposed to solve bilateral issues through negotiations and not by resorting to force or political brinkmanship.

Xi was busy making preparations to host the BRICS summit. The important 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party Conference is also scheduled in October. China had notified the Indian side about its road-building project in Doklam in the month of May but India preferred to send its troops to the part of the Doklam plateau to which the claimant is Bhutan. The last thing the Chinese leadership wanted was another crisis on its hands, preoccupied as it was with the ongoing drama in the Korean peninsula. China’s stated goal is to rise to superpower status through peaceful means. The last thing the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership wants is a war not of its choosing at its doorstep.

Both Xi and Modi cultivate the persona of strong leaders. According to some sources, Modi had realised that the policymakers he trusts, led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, had blundered on Doklam. Besides, India was in splendid diplomatic isolation on the issue. Indian diplomats more conversant with China and its politics were roped in to salvage the situation. After the meeting between Xi and Modi, the two sides reportedly agreed that “Doklam” like situations should not be allowed to crop up again along the disputed border.

Military officers and Foreign Ministry officials from both countries will be now meeting more regularly to resolve issues relating to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and preserve peace and tranquillity along the border. Modi described the talks with the Chinese President as “fruitful”. Xi was slightly more forthright. He told Modi that India “can view China's development in a correct and rational way”.

Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told mediapersons that the two leaders agreed that efforts should be made to ensure that defence and security personnel of the two countries “must maintain strong contacts and cooperation” at the borders. He said that such contacts were necessary “to ensure that the sort of situation which happened recently should not recur”. The Chinese Defence Ministry, in an earlier statement, had said that India needs to learn a lesson from the Doklam incident. “We remind India to learn lessons from this incident, tangibly abide by the historical treaties and the basic principles of international law, and to meet China halfway, jointly guard the peace and tranquillity of the border areas, and promote a healthy development of military relation,” it said.

After the recent events, India may find it difficult to arm-twist Bhutan into getting involved in Sino-Indian border disputes. During the entire period of the Doklam standoff Bhutan issued only one statement and a demarche supportive of the Indian position on Doklam, all the while insisting that the impasse should be resolved peacefully. Public opinion in the kingdom, according to reports, is no longer tilting towards India. The Bhutanese are upset with India on a host of issues. The infrastructural projects promised by India are either running behind schedule or going overbudget. Modi’s demonetisation hit the kingdom’s economy adversely as the Indian rupee is official tender there.

Bhutan had also objected to India’s proposal for road connectivity between Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. It has been keen on establishing diplomatic relations with China for a long time now. It will be difficult for New Delhi to stop Bhutan from exercising its sovereign rights for much longer. Doklam was a wake-up call for the Bhutanese. They do not want to get sandwiched in a fight between their two giant neighbours.

The Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, in a speech delivered in the first week of September, once again talked of a “two front war”, pitting India simultaneously against China and Pakistan. “We have to be prepared. In our context, therefore, warfare lies within the realms of reality,” he said in the speech just a day after Modi and Xi had a cordial meeting. The two leaders had agreed to establish a “forward looking” approach to bilateral ties, putting the Doklam incident on the back burner. But the Army chief again painted China as an “adversary” who was busy nibbling away at Indian territory. He is of the view that the concept of “nuclear deterrence” nay not be sufficient to deter war in the region. “Nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence. Yes, they are. But to say that they can deter war or that they will not allow nations to go to war, in our context, that may also not be true,” he said in his speech.

The Chinese side would have put forward their other complaints during the meeting between Xi and Modi. Beijing is extremely unhappy with the support extended to Tibetan separatist groups in India, exemplified by the permission given to the Dalai Lama to make a highly publicised visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh earlier in the year. The former American Ambassador to India too was allowed to visit the area last year. Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu made a statement in April this year saying that Tibet was not a part of China. Tawang is the second holiest place for Tibetan Buddhism.

India is also involving itself in the South China Sea territorial disputes, siding with the United States and Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in India in the second week of September soon after the Doklam dispute was resolved. The budding military alliance involving India, Japan and the U.S., coupled with New Delhi’s unabashed support for the U.S.’ containment policy against China, has the potential of precipitating more tensions between Asia’s two biggest countries.

Tokyo and New Delhi will also be joining hands on the African continent with the launch of the $40 billion India-Japan-Africa Corridor. Japan will be providing $30 billion and India the rest. Tokyo is also trying to sell expensive defence weaponry and nuclear reactors to India. But there is still considerable domestic opposition in Japan to the sale of weapons and nuclear technology to India as it is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Beijing views the Africa Corridor as a counter to its ambitious Belt Road project in which Africa plays a pivotal role. India’s continuing refusal to be part of China’s Belt Road project has baffled the Chinese leadership. All countries in the region, barring Bhutan, are part of the Belt Road initiative. China is India’s biggest trading partner; in contrast, Indo-Japan trade ($15 billion annually) is only a quarter of the bilateral trade between India and China. Japan participated in the Belt Road Summit in Beijing held in May this year. Japanese companies want to be part of the multi–billion-dollar projects envisaged under the Belt Road initiative. Joining the project would have galvanised India’s economy, especially that of eastern States such as West Bengal. China will be investing a total of $60 billion in Pakistan; it has already invested $20 billion. The Indian government seems to be happy with the investments and loans Japan has promised for high-speed railways and other infrastructure projects.

As the BRICS summit has shown, there is also ample scope for cooperation if the Indian and Chinese governments so desire. The BRICS grouping is a challenge to the unipolar world. Xi said in Xiamen that the five BRICS countries should play a “more active role in global governance”. Egypt, Tajikistan, Mexico, Guinea, and Thailand have been designated as “dialogue partners” of the BRICS grouping. This is the map Beijing has set for the possible expansion of the grouping.

There is talk of setting up a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of the year. It will be a replacement for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was proposed by the Obama administration and scrapped by U.S. President Donald Trump. The TPP had noticeably excluded China and Russia. The RCEP will include all the major Asian countries including Japan, the Asean countries and Australia. Unlike the Belt Road Initiative, it is not being led by China. Beijing hopes that New Delhi will be less suspicious of the RCEP and join it.

The BRICS countries have been discussing the “unfairness” of the global financial and economic architecture. “We resolve to foster a global economic governance architecture that is more effective and reflective of the current global economic landscape, increasing the voice and representation of emerging markets and developing economies,” the BRICS Declaration at Xiamen stated. The two speeches Xi made at the summit reviewed the progress made by the BRICS grouping in the last decade and the plans for the future. The Chinese President spelled out the blueprint for the development of the grouping for the “golden decade” it was now entering.

The Indian government was particularly elated that the BRICS finally issued a statement saying that the militant groups, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and the Haqqani faction of the Taliban based in Pakistan, are a “regional concern” and that those extending “patronage” to these groups should be held to account. India has long wanted BRICS to condemn terrorism. Modi had gone to the extent of describing Pakistan “as the mother ship” of terrorism at the BRICS Goa summit last year. Pakistan has been quick to reject the accusations, although its Defence Minister, Khurrram Dastigir Khan, did admit that the government was still engaged in “cleaning” out the “remnants” of some terrorist outfits that continued to operate from its territory. China, like India, is also worried about Islamist forces spilling over into its territoryfrom Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some diplomatic observers believe that it was the hard bargaining from the Indian side that produced a declaration that pinpointed terror groups operating from Pakistani territory.

China and Russia are more worried about the situation in Afghanistan, where radical Islamist forces could strike root. India is hoping that the Chinese side will cooperate when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meets again to decide on the issue of designating the JeM chief Masood Azhar as an “international terrorist”. China may not be ready as yet to lift it “technical hold” on the issue. As it is, Islamabad is unhappy with its “all weather” friend China agreeing, in the BRICS statement, to name Pakistan as a country harbouring banned terrorist groupings.

Kenya

Back to the booth

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

THE Kenyan Supreme Court's unexpected decision in the last week of August to nullify the election victory of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta in the general election held on August 8 is being hailed as a landmark judgment, unprecedented in the politics of the African continent. A six-member bench voted four to two in favour of cancelling the presidential election and ordering a new one within 60 days. The court said that the “recently concluded election was not conducted according to the Constitution” and was therefore “invalid, null and void”. It blamed the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), as the Kenyan election commission is called, for not following the basic principles of transparency and the rule of law in conducting the election.

The Supreme Court, among other things, found fault with the procedure the IEBC used for the tallying of votes. The IEBC’s lawyers admitted in court that the “official website” that released the results was not in fact the “public portal” the public was initially led to believe it was. The IEBC also conceded that on many occasions it had bypassed the electronic system while tallying the votes. The international media and the majority of the international observers, including those from the African Union, had pronounced the elections generally fair and free. They relied on the results relayed by the “official portal” of the IEBC to come to this conclusion. The IEBC had argued in the Supreme Court that despite some of the glaring errors that were pointed out, the margin of Kenyatta’s victory was so big that the errors would not have altered the final outcome.

Missing forms

According to the official results of the presidential elections in August, Kenyatta won 54 per cent of the votes polled, with Raila Odinga, his strongest challenger, trailing by more than nine percentage points. The IEBC declared Kenyatta the winner on August 11, but the official forms with the break-up of votes and the tally from all the constituencies was only given to the opposition parties by August 14. Some of the forms did not have the mandatory barcodes. “If some of the forms have barcodes, then shouldn’t all the forms have barcodes?” the Chief Justice asked the IEBC. More than 10,000 of the forms have been declared missing. Kenya had opted for electronic voting in order to pre-empt ballot stuffing and other forms of rigging. The Kenyan government had spent more that $500 million to make the electoral system foolproof. It will have to cough up a similar amount in order to conduct the election in a more credible way in the rerun which has been scheduled for October 17.

Wafula Chebukati, the IEBC Chairman, told the media after the court judgment that the basic integrity of the commission was not questioned. The major thrust of the court’s observations, he said, was on the faults committed in the transmission of the final results, not on its overall supervision of the election.

Even before the ballots were cast, Odinga was alleging that the election would be rigged. A key election official, who was in charge of supervising the electronic balloting, was found tortured and killed under mysterious circumstances just before the election. The election commission had admitted that there were attempts to hack the computerised polling system before the vote. After more than 30 people were killed in the violence immediately after the election results were announced, African and world leaders quietly urged Odinga to accept the results or take his allegations of electoral skulduggery to the judiciary. He heeded the advice of other opposition leaders and the international community to forsake violence and avoid a repeat of the events of 2007 and reluctantly took the matter to the highest court of the land. He had earlier threatened that the case would be decided “in the court of people’s opinion”. In the last election, too, he had gone to court alleging that it had been rigged. His case was thrown out even though he lost with a narrower margin in that election. Many Kenyans are of the opinion that there were more instances of electoral malpractices in that election than in the one held this year.

Odinga and his supporters in cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa were jubilant with the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the election, especially since they were least expecting it. He said that the Supreme Court had “set an exceptional example for the whole of Africa”. He thanked it for “standing up for the truth”. Odinga had harsh words for the IEBC and said that his party would not contest the elections until the body was radically overhauled. “There are more fundamental decisions to be made in the days ahead, including who will conduct the next election. It is now clear that the entire IEBC is rotten,” he said. He has described Kenyatta’s presidency as “a computer-generated” one.

Kenyatta had no option but to accept the Supreme Court’s decision, though he cast aspersions on it. He said that “millions of Kenyans queued up and made their choice and six people have decided that they will go against the will of the people”. The President and his supporters were particularly critical of Chief Justice David Maraga, who was among the three judges who recommended the holding of a fresh election. Kenyatta said that though he did not agree with the decision he would abide by it. “We respect it. We don't agree with it,” he said. The Supreme Court has not charged Kenyatta with personal involvement in the electoral malpractices and had only charged the election commission of “committing irregularities and illegalities in the transmission of results”. But Kenyatta is an angry man. Speaking to his supporters a few days after the verdict, he described the Supreme Court judges as “crooks and vagabonds” and pledged to “fix the judiciary” after the next election. Most observers of the Kenyan political scene expect Kenyatta to win again in October.

Election history

Kenya has had a chequered election history. The violence that erupted after the 2007 election was among the worst the country has witnessed. More than 1,300 people were killed and 600,000 were displaced. That election was blatantly rigged. Odinga, who many Kenyans felt was the rightful winner, was made the Prime Minister following a peace deal between the rival parties.

Mwai Kibaki retained the presidency despite the charges of rigging and fomenting violence that were raised against him. Kenyatta and the present Deputy President, William Ruto, were charged with instigating violence in 2007 and were facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). But they escaped possible punishment after they were elected as President and Deputy President in the 2013 election. The ICC said that witnesses had turned hostile and the Kenyan government was not cooperating. The Kenyan government has been a close ally of the United States. A different yardstick is applied to indicted leaders in Africa and Asia who are close to the West. Ruto was an ally and running mate of Odinga in the 2007 election. Ruto, a leader of the Kalenjin ethnic group, deftly shifted loyalties, calculating that an alliance with Kenyatta would give him a much better chance of winning and a better chance of staying clear of the not-too-long arm of the ICC.

The present election is probably the last realistic chance for the 74-year-old Odinga to fulfil his ambition of becoming President. This is the third time he has contested only to be pipped at the post by a combination of circumstances.

The legendary Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Raila Odinga’s father, and Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, were the two pre-eminent figures of Kenya’s freedom struggle. After independence, the two leaders fell out as ethnic politics began to occupy centre stage in the country. Kenya after independence gravitated closer to the West. Oginga Odinga, popularly known as Double O, was a progressive who was close to the Soviet bloc and was sidelined and kept out of office even though he was the undisputed leader of the Luo, one of the five major ethnic groups in the country. The Kikuyus constitute the biggest ethnic group. The other three are the Kalenjin, the Luhya and the Kamba. The Kikuyu and the Kalenjin have been able to corner the spoils of power for a long time. These ethnic groups make up more than 62 per cent of Kenya’s population.

Raila Odinga is no leftist though he has been claiming his father’s legacy. There were hardly any ideological and political differences between the competing candidates in the 2017 election. His and his allies’ main argument was that it was now their turn to be at the helm of affairs and serve their constituencies, which they alleged have been grossly neglected by all the previous governments. The IEBC has stated that the names of only Kenyatta, representing the ruling Jubilee Coalition, and Odinga of the National Super Alliance will be on the ballot. The six other candidates who contested the presidency in August will no longer figure in the race.

The IEBC is expected to remove some of its senior officials who are viewed with suspicion by the opposition. Raila Odinga has recently upped the ante by stating that he will participate in the election only if the IEBC’s CEO, Ezra Chiloba, is sacked and prosecuted. Kenyans are waiting with their fingers crossed as the new election day approaches. Before the election in August, many Kenyans had left cities such as Nairobi for the relative safety of their villages, fearing a repeat of the bloodshed that followed previous elections.

Bullet train project

Chasing a chimera

R. ELANGOVAN cover-story

THE spate of train accidents across the country, including at least three derailments in August, have highlighted the alarming safety standards in the Indian Railways. The change of guard at the ministerial level appears to be an attempt at refurbishing the image of the government instead of demonstrating any serious intent to address the rapidly escalating burden of poor safety.

Although there is a risk that frequent reports of accidents may have numbed the mind to the distressing state of affairs, a brief recapitulation of the incidents in the past few months will serve to highlight everything that is wrong with the Indian Railways. And this will show why running bullet trains indicates a lopsided ordering of priorities by the Narendra Modi government.

The derailment of Kalinga Utkal Express on August 19 resulted in the death of 23 persons and injuries to 200 passengers; the derailment of (Azamgarh-Delhi) Kaifiyat Express on August 23 resulted in injuries to 74 passengers. On November 20, 2016, in one of the worst rail accidents in recent times, Indore–Rajendranagar Express (Indore-Patna) derailed in Kanpur; more than 150 people were killed and 183 injured. Following the Kalinga Express accident, four junior-level employees, including a station master and trackmen, were dismissed, and two officers and two supervisors were suspended. The Chief Track Engineer was transferred and the Northern Railway General Manager, Member (Engineering), and the Divisional Railway Manager, Delhi, were sent on leave. The Chairman of the Railway Board resigned. Ashwani Lohani, Chairman, Air India, has taken over as the Railway Board Chairman. Following this, Suresh Prabhu, whose business acumen was supposed to provide dynamism to railway affairs, was replaced by the equally dynamic Piyush Goyal as Railway Minister. But there is no evidence of recalibrating policies, let alone arresting the spate of rail accidents.

Although accidents at level crossings, train collisions and fires in trains are among the most common types of accidents, train derailments constitute over two-thirds of all rail mishaps in India; accidents at unmanned level crossings constitute the next most serious type. In 2014-15, there were 369 deaths caused by derailments; in 2016-17, the trend continued with 357 deaths. Why are derailments so high in the Indian Railways?

According to a report of the Task Force on Safety dated January 2017, which remains hidden from public scrutiny, train derailments are increasingly attributed to “rail fractures” and “weld failures”. The report pointed to the urgent need to address the “backlog in rail/track renewals and the technology of rail welding”. According to the Railway Minister’s White Paper of February 2015, the Indian Railways has a track length of 1.14 lakh kilometres, of which 4,500 km has to be renewed (in the Railways, “renewal” is a euphemism for replacement of overaged tracks) every year as they have lasted well past their useful life. According to the Lucknow-based Research Designs & Standards Organisation (RDSO), a track that weighs 52 kilograms a metre can take a load of 525 gross million tonnes before it needs to be replaced; a 60 kg/m track can take a load of 800 gross million tonnes after which it has to be replaced.

The White Paper, however, noted that “financial constraints” have hampered progress to the extent that the additional length of tracks renewed has been declining in the past six years (see chart). In July 2014, the Railway Minister said that underinvestment in track renewals in the past few years had resulted in mounting backlog. A backlog of over 5,300 km track length needed to be renewed, but he set the target at 2,100 km (but achieved 2,424 km). In the three years starting 2015-16, only 9,062 km of track renewal was achieved, implying a shortfall of 4,438 km, according to the 4,500 km a year norm the White Paper had defined. Thus, the arrears of track renewal are now more than 10,000 km, that is, about 10 per cent of the total track length.

The White Paper observed that the mounting arrears of track renewal implied a “disproportionately high maintenance effort”, which resulted in “reduced reliability of assets”. This invariably meant more funds for more maintenance and more staff. But, while refusing to release funds for new tracks—which directly implies more effort at maintaining poor-quality tracks—the Railway Ministry has reduced the workforce that is responsible for track maintenance and supervision. Inexplicably, the sanctioned number of trackmen, which was four lakhs in the Indian Railways, has been reduced to 2.75 lakhs. The Task Force report observed that 46,985 posts in all grades were vacant as on April 1, 2016, including 41,467 trackmen and 2,434 keymen. Keymen are those who inspect a length of track every day to detect and report flaws in the track, a critical job in a situation of overaged tracks. So, we have a situation in which the Railways neither makes capital investments to replace overaged tracks, nor is willing to compensate for this failure by, at the very least, ensuring proper maintenance of tracks. This is a sure recipe for a disaster that the Railway Minister knows is waiting to happen.

After several derailments in the early 2000s, a judicial inquiry committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Justice H.R. Khanna. On the basis of its recommendation, a non-lapsable Special Railway Safety Fund of Rs.17,000 crore was created. The Union government contributed Rs.12,000 crore and the Railways mobilised Rs.5,000 crore through a safety surcharge. This was implemented between 2003 and 2008. The safety work involved replacement of worn-out assets relating to bridges, signalling systems, tracks and rolling stock.

With special funds, track renewal was carried out over and above the annual target. As a higher length of track was renewed during this period, it had a real impact on the number of derailments as statistics provided by the Railways show. The number of derailments declined from more than 200 in 2002-03 to 85 in 2008-09. Why this happened is clear from the fact that, on an average, during this period, 4,655 km of track was replaced annually. The neglect of the critical task of track replacement is indicated by the fact that in no single year has this length of track been replaced since then.

In fact, Suresh Prabhu’s much-hailed Railway Budget targeted a measly track renewal of only 1,500 km, which was later revised to 2,668 km, which itself is less than half the norm of 4,500 km/year. With the abandonment of the practice of presenting a separate Railway Budget, the target was fixed at 3,600 km in the 2017-18 Budget, again 20 per cent short of the norm.

What is clear is that track renewal needs to be accorded top priority so that the backlog can be cleared at the earliest, while laying the foundation for a better rail system. As far as improvement in welding technology is concerned, the recommendation of the task force for divisional mobile flash butt welding should be arranged without delay. But there appears to be no urgency in implementing this recommendation either.

Signalling disaster

Safety of trains depends on the integrity of signalling systems. Proper functioning of the signal gear ensures safe running of trains. Like tracks, the signalling gear has also become outdated and requires replacement. Referring to the tardy progress, the Task Force observed that the Railways is currently replacing signal gear at only about 100 stations every year, even as more than 200 become overage every year. A glaring example was the catastrophe in Itarsi (August 2015), which was caused by the delay in the replacement of signalling equipment. According to the Task Force report, an amount of Rs.7,800 crore is needed to clear the arrears. At the current rate at which funds are provided, it would take seven to eight years for replacement, the committee opined.

Investment in advance signalling systems is a different matter. In this context, it is important to recognise that the old equipment stock requires a higher maintenance effort and cost. The Task Force stated that “there has been constant decline in staff for signal maintenance per unit (of) asset over the years”. Indicative of the government’s apathy is the fact that there are 3,454 vacancies in the signal maintenance staff category. In the Chengalpattu yard (Tamil Nadu), for instance, serious cases of signal malfunctioning have been reported by workmen in the past six months. On July 27, following a thunderstorm, the signal in the yard indicated “all clear” for all routes, although clearance was to be given on only one route. This illustrates the importance of rigorous and periodic monitoring of all equipment, even though they may be well within their codal life.

In the case of the accident involving Kalinga Utkal Express, the loco pilot driver noticed a signal to proceed although the track ahead of the signal had been removed. He applied the emergency brake, but it was too late. A similar incident happened at Royapuram in Chennai on May 3, 2017, to a light engine driver in the Southern Railway. Though the track had been removed ahead of the signal, he had received a signal to proceed. In this case, he applied brakes and averted an accident. No driver would wantonly proceed at a danger signal because, after all, he would be the first casualty. There have been several instances when the “alright” signal suddenly flies back to “danger” for which a loco pilot is blamed and punished. The Task Force made several useful observations. For instance, it noted that SPAD (signal passed at danger) is directly related to loco pilot fatigue. It also quoted the Khanna Committee report’s comment about the enquiries on the SPAD cases: “Inquiries into SPAD are perfunctory and only indicate who was guilty, and not why it happened.”

Short-staffed and unsafe

The Task Force found that the majority of incidents in the Railways happened after home rest or full rest or leave of a loco pilot. “This is due to the fact that quality rest is missing during such long home station rest as the loco pilot is preoccupied with attending to personal and family matters,” it observed. Had the Task Force explored a little more, it would have found the truth about the quality of rest and why during their rest periods loco pilots undertake domestic chores. The Chairman, Railway Board, deposing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways in December 2016, which examined the issues of railway safety and security, stated there were 11,442 loco pilot vacancies (almost one-fourth of the sanctioned strength) and 6,574 assistant loco pilot vacancies (15 per cent of the sanctioned strength). In addition, there were 2,714 vacancies for the post of shunter, which is one-third of the sanctioned strength. In all, there are 1.22 lakh vacancies in these categories, which are essential for the safe running of the Indian rail system.

The Chairman, Railway Board, said: “But the point always arises as to how Railways is managing the system with 15-16 per cent vacancies because that is too large a number of vacancies to manage the system. It means we are not managing our system efficiently. Sir, let me clarify this. We have a thing called leave reserve which is around 12.5 per cent.Whatever is the calculation worked out of staff strength with reference to the requirement, we add 12.5 per cent so as to arrive at the leave reserve percentages to take care of replacements when some persons go on leave. So, with these vacancies, perhaps I am not sanctioning the leave to the extent that people would have desired, but not that I am not running a system which is an inefficient system or I am not able to run it.”

How much of the unsafe situation in the Indian Railways arises from the manner in which its workforce, especially those who perform critical tasks such as driving the trains, is treated in terms of pay and working conditions? The lackadaisical attitude to rail safety is best illustrated by a recent example. The Southern Railway sought clearance from the Board to recruit 680 loco pilots. The board cleared only 280. Similarly, when the Southern Railway proposed to recruit 2,800 group C personnel, including safety category technicians, the Board cleared only 400 personnel. The problem is this: technologies such as Train Protection Warning Systems require funds, but until new technologies are deployed, it does not make sense to reduce the number of personnel who perform these tasks. Safety is the prime casualty of this mindset.

The Anil Kakodkar Committee on Railway Safety recommended in 2012 that an investment of Rs.1 lakh crore in specific safety-related works be undertaken within five years. But, even in 2017 it remains a mirage. The Railways sought funds for track renewal, creation of infrastructure for Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, elimination of level-crossing gates by providing road overbridges (ROB) and road underbridges (RUB), and upgradation of signal systems and other facilities that would improve safety. Specifically, it sought the creation of a non-lapsable special fund on the lines of the one created in 2003-08. Its proposal for a Rs.1 lakh crore Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, if implemented, promises to improve safety significantly.

A sleight of hand

Having taken over rail finances by abolishing the Railway Budget, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has proceeded to continue the neglect of the Railways. He promised a national rail safety fund in his 2017-18 Budget. But, like much else in his Budget, this too appears to be a token effort. First, the allocation is over a five-year period, implying mobilisation of Rs.20,000 crore a year for what was envisaged by the Kakodkar Committee. Of this, Rs.5,000 crore is to be transferred from the National Investment Fund, which collects a part of the proceeds from the government’s disinvestment programme. Second, Rs.10,000 crore is to be transferred from the diversion of funds from the national road safety fund; but this is nothing new, the Railways has been tapping this source to eliminate level-crossing gates in the past. Third, Rs.4,000 crore is to come from the depreciation reserve fund, which already belongs to the Railways. Fourth, the remaining Rs.1,000 crore is to come from the Railways’ own savings.

What is clear from Jaitley’s grand plan is that there is no commitment that any contribution would be made from government finances to fund these critical projects. This is in sharp contrast to the 2003-08 period, in which the government actually contributed to track renewals, which indeed did yield results. The Railways’ plight vis-a-vis the Union government is similar to a master feeding his dog with soup made with its own tail!

Railway revenues have been affected badly by reduced net savings. There is sluggish growth of freight and passenger earnings. Though its operating ratio is within 100 per cent, it cannot mobilise resources for its investment needs. The expansion and strengthening of the railway network is in the interest of the nation. The National Transport Policy Development Committee had recommended an investment of Rs.35 lakh crore in 20 years to expand and strengthen the system to meet future demands. Despite all the incentives given to the private sector, private investments have not been forthcoming. The Twelfth Plan was wound up, and the Modi government’s own five-year plan with an investment of Rs.8.56 lakh crore was announced. In the first three years, Rs.5.6 lakh crore rupees should have been spent by this logic, but only Rs.3.45 lakh crore was planned and even this planned outlay has not been spent.

The Railway Board Chairman told the Parliamentary Committee that the expenditure on railways as a proportion of overall expenditure on the transport sector had declined from 56 per cent in the Seventh Plan to 30 per cent in the Eleventh Plan. As a result, the expansion of the network has been “severely stunted”, which has resulted in an “undue burden” on existing infrastructure. This was also one of the primary reasons for the “chronic congestion” in the Indian rail network, he said.

As a result, 40 per cent of the railway sections are running at more than 100 per cent of their line capacity. As many as 161 sections out of 247 high-density sections on the Indian network are oversaturated. The chronic underinvestment in capacity has meant that in the past 64 years, the route kilometre has grown by only 23 per cent, whereas passenger and goods traffic has grown 17 times. In fact, the Railway Ministry admitted to the Parliamentary Committee that “chronic and significant underinvestment” was to be blamed for this situation.

Flogging frail assets

The scheme for the savage flogging of existing assets, without making any commitment towards investment in augmenting capacity, was perfected when Lalu Prasad was at the helm in the Railway Ministry. In the name of “optimum utilisation of assets”, rolling stock, especially rail wagons, were loaded far beyond their rated capacity, with scarcely a thought given to the infrastructure on which they were running. Lalu Prasad’s magic formula to turn around the Railways—which won him accolades from the media as well as management gurus—rested on allowing railway wagons to carry 10 tonnes more than their capacity. His successor, Mamata Banerjee, criticised him roundly, but continued the same policy when she was at the helm; in fact, it continues even today. Studies by the RDSO reveal that the rampant overloading of railway wagons is primarily responsible for the increasing number of “invisible rail fractures” on the rail network, which are responsible for the derailments.

The Railways needs about 5,500 new coaches a year, but its annual production capacity is only 3,200 coaches. In the name of optimum utilisation, to meet the increasing demand the same rakes are utilised for another train. This has led to loss of punctuality due to pairing trains running late. The earlier policy of maintenance after every run was amended to allow trains to run 4,500 km before their maintenance was taken up. Lalu Prasad as Railway Minister even went to the extent of introducing 84-berth sleeper class coaches and 63-berth third AC coaches. After a lot of criticism, they were withdrawn.

The Anil Kakodkar Committee recommended in 2012 that the manufacturing of Integral Coach Factory-type coaches be stopped. Instead, it recommended that the infrastructure for manufacturing LHB coaches and facilities for their repair and maintenance in yards and workshops be established. These were to cost Rs.10,000 crore. ICF-type coaches are prone to mount on one another during derailments; LHB coaches were preferred because they do not have this telescopic effect. Besides, they are fire-retardant. But the Railways continued to manufacture ICF-type coaches until 2017. The number of LHB coaches in the Railways is much smaller. Out of the 65,000 Indian Railway coaches, only about 4,000 are LHB-type coaches. Even these are produced through outsourced contracts, which compromise safety.

Accidents at unmanned level crossings constitute the single biggest cause of deaths in rail accidents. The Kakodkar Committee recommended that Rs.50,000 crore be spent over five years to build ROBs and RUBs so that such crossings may be eliminated. The Task Force estimated that the completion of the ongoing ROB/RUB projects required Rs.39,000 crore. And, it is clear that Jaitley has no intention or plan to finance this essential task.

The bullet train project is being undertaken at a time when a significant proportion of the Indian Railways’ assets are in a state of utter disrepair. Tracks that carry trains are worn out, coaches and wagons need wholesale replacement, and signalling equipment requires urgent modernisation. Most importantly, the vast majority of train passengers are treated worse than animals. To add to these woes is the mammoth task of modernising the rail system so that India can rightfully claim its place among nations with truly modern railway systems. Seen from this perspective, the bullet train is a curse, not a boon.

R. Elangovan is vice president, Dakshin Railway Employees’ Union.

Politics of spectacle

Style over substance

“I don’t think small. When 125 crore people are with me, I cannot think small,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while dedicating the Sardar Sarovar dam—built across the Narmada over a span of 56 years—to the nation on September 17. The day also marked his 67th birthday. The Prime Minister’s highfalutin proclamation came barely three days after he along with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe laid the foundation for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project, expected to cost an estimated Rs.1,10,000 crore.

Modi had consistently projected this as his big idea. In fact, on May 2, 2013, approximately a year before he was elected Prime Minister, Modi propounded this idea. He did this at an interactive meet between him as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and members of the Indian Merchants’ Chamber (IMC) and the All India Business Council (AIBC) in Mumbai. It was nearly an hour-long session, which opened with Modi’s lengthy presentation in Hindi.

A broad translation of the portions where Modi held forth on the linkage between “thinking big” and the “bullet train” went as follows: “It is of no use we keep doing things in a small scale. We have to think big, in big scale and in a big canvas. Instead, what do we do? We think in terms of going up by 0.1 per cent, then 0.2 per cent. Finally, we would reach a stage where we think in terms of growing by 0.001 per cent. This is not going to help. I met the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh of the Congress] recently and we were talking exactly on this point. I told him that no discussion is happening on the whole of China [hailed as a nation with high growth]. They do not show the whole of China to us. They only show what the world will appreciate. So I told him [Manmohan Singh] that we too have to do such things that would showcase our strengths to the world. For example, I told him, do a small thing. Start the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed bullet train. What will be the outcome of this? The world will know about our strength. It is not as though anybody is going to come and sit in this train. But to tell the world that we are not any less we need to do things like this.”

The sum total of the articulation of his idea is unambiguous. To him, “thinking big” is essentially about showcasing “our strengths” and not necessarily bringing any benefit to the people. An excerpted video clip of this presentation is doing the rounds on social media after the September 14 launch of the bullet train project. The fact that Modi had linked yet another big idea of his—of building a Statue of Unity to commemorate Sardar Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and fixing its height at 186 metres, twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty (United States)—has also been highlighted on social media, exposing the deep fascination for spectacle that the politician, termed widely “as the most powerful ever after Indira Gandhi”, nourishes within his political self.

Modi’s penchant for thinking big has a chilling similarity with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as depicted in the professor of sociology and author Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy (University of California Press, 1997). Summing up the key aspects of Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s cultural history tome, the reviewer Vitalie Sprinceana points out that in the Mussolini regime, politics starts to be less concerned with the act of governing people in an efficient way, for instance, in solving their economic problems. “Instead, it is focussed more on the spectacle of power, on the visual and impressive display of symbols, myths and rituals. Verbal and non-verbal forms of discourse are more than mere means of political legitimation—they are fundamental to the construction of the power of the regime. Politics itself assumes the form of an artistic act—to govern means to Mussolini to create (a new man, a new Nation, a new Empire), and Mussolini views himself as the creative soul of the nation, the guide to a future renewal of the country, the propeller of new ways of living. In terms of everyday life this aestheticisation of political power takes the shape of a domination of form—visual appearance, effects—over the content. It also means that politics ceases to be measured by political criteria,” she writes.

Behind Modi’s “think big” syndrome is an effort to create a situation where politics ceases to be measured by political criteria and people’s concerns. The bullet train and Statue of Unity are not the only examples of this effort. The promises made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Modi’s leadership day in and day out also belong to this category. Consider the following. Modi and other leaders of the BJP had repeatedly promised, through the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign and even after the formation of the government, that the farmers’ income across the country would be doubled by 2022. Three years into that promise, both Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have asked farmers to look elsewhere. While Jaitley said it was for State governments to initiate measures to double the farmers’ income, Modi has exhorted cooperative societies to come up with their own facilitation.

Critics see the grand proclamations of Modi and his party as diversionary tactics in the context of farmers’ protests. Across northern India, farmers are restive since they are not getting remunerative prices for their produce. The intense agitations that started in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in April-May 2017, have spread to other States such as Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have apparently been cautioned by intelligence reports that this could turn into a major law and order problem. In Uttar Pradesh, the newly elected Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government announced a farm loan waiver programme in its first Cabinet meet in March 2017.

Again, at the level of the larger economy, the Modi regime has been repeatedly claiming that notwithstanding the global recession, India’s economic situation is good and that it has the potential to improve. However, even as Modi was holding forth on the bullet train project, Jaitley had to admit that the economy had decelerated to the slowest pace in three years and that there was a need for more concentrated and specific efforts to revive growth. The general consensus among a large number of economists was that the demonetisation drive launched by Modi in November 2016 would aggravate economic deceleration. The government had strongly denied it. However, more and more government agencies are now forced to admit that demonetisation has aggravated economic deceleration.

RSS warning

Apparently, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of the Sangh Parivar, has taken note of the repeated reverses suffered by the Modi government. At a recent coordination meeting of 40-odd Sangh Parivar outfits, the RSS leadership reportedly warned the BJP to be wary of a repeat of the 2004 electoral defeat suffered by the then BJP-NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Vajpayee government faced the 2004 Lok Sabha elections with a feel good “India Shining” campaign only to be humbled by a practically leaderless but broadly united opposition. By all indications, the BJP leadership, including party president and Modi’s close associate Amit Shah, has taken the RSS warning seriously.

According to Sivanand Tiwari, former Rajya Sabha member of the Janata Dal (United), the BJP leadership and other Sangh Parivar outfits could come up with two responses to this unenviable situation. “First, they would fall back on their time tested ploy of communalising society and polarising communities in the name of religion. This was employed to the hilt in the 2014 ascent of Modi, along with the raising of a vision of development. Now that Modi and his Ministry are increasingly displaying their inability to live up to their development vision, they would be planning to aggressively pursue the polarisation-communalisation route. The revival of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation could well become an instrument for this. The second response would be by way of appropriating the gains made by other governments as their own through clever propaganda and media management. Even as Chief Minister, Modi had shown his mastery over this stratagem when he took credit for the Amul dairy, set up originally in 1946 and nurtured under several regimes, including the Congress. But then Modi’s propaganda and media management is what prevailed in the end.”

Tiwari’s view is endorsed by former BJP Union Minister Arun Shourie, who terms the Modi Ministry essentially as an event management company where everything is turned into a spectacle for one individual and a clutch of political courtiers.

There is a stream of opinion that the ruling BJP in Gujarat, which is to face the electorate later this year, needs a booster and that is why Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam and initiated the work on the bullet train. However, field reports suggest that the BJP continues to be on a strong wicket in the State, essentially because of the absence of a cohesive opposition and a popular leader in the Congress.

Thus, the new spectacles on display in September 2017 are aimed at reinforcing the omnipotence of the big leader. That task is evidently of utmost importance given the warnings that are emanating from different quarters of the country and the RSS.

First-hand account

Arduous work, little rest

DIVYA TRIVEDI cover-story

THE loco pilot, or engine driver, is the lifeline of a train. The key member of the running staff employed on a moving train, the pilot, along with assistants, guards and firemen, ensures the smooth and safe running of a mail, passenger or goods train. But the conditions under which they have to work can only be described as inhuman. Often required to work for 20 hours a day, they are provided little or no protection from extreme weather conditions like rain or heat. Until last year, there was not even a toilet in the engines. A driver lost his life when he got down to relieve himself on the tracks and got hit by an oncoming train in Assam. Though the facility of bio toilets was announced with much fanfare last year, it is expensive and there are not enough bio toilets to address the needs of 60,000 loco pilots in the country.

To better understand the pathetic conditions in which railway running staff work, Frontline spoke to R.K. Sharma, who worked as a guard with the Indian Railways for 36 years. His son has been working as a loco pilot/driver of passenger trains for 22 years. Sharma has completely lost hearing in his right ear and can only partially hear with his left. His condition might well be an outcome of his job where noise levels are beyond deafening. After retirement, Sharma devotes his time to union activities in the Northern Railway.

What is the nature of work of a guard and loco pilot?

The person who signals with a flag is the guard. He is responsible for all the passengers on a train, especially in case of accidents. The driver’s job is arduous. After many years of negotiations with the Railway Board, the total duty time is mandated at 10 hours with eight hours as running duty, even when trains are late. In reality, the driver ends up working for 15-20 hours. A typical scenario is like this: If a train arrives several hours late, the driver ends up waiting at the station in addition to his duty hours; then he drives 470 kilometres from Delhi to Amritsar where he has to make 300 signal exchanges—at the station, within the cabin, with the gateman—at 110 kmph [kilometres per hour] speed. Now, isn’t there fatigue? The driver cannot blink! He has to look left and right and be watchful of gate accidents. The eyes of the driver are always wide open, like that of an owl. A single blink can be costly, putting the lives of thousands of passengers in jeopardy. The physical exertion is tremendous, and heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure are common diseases among railway staff. The nature of the job is such that they become medically unfit and are asked to take up another job, which results in a monetary loss.

Is the compensation adequate?

It is all right, but the Fifth Pay Commission created an anomaly, which was continued in the Seventh Pay Commission as well. The Grade Pay for assistant drivers is Rs.1,900. After promotion they get Rs.2,400 as Grade Pay and then Rs.4,200 as shunting driver. The drivers for goods, passenger and mail, all get Rs.4,200 as Grade Pay. Our demand is to have separate Grade Pays. They get overtime but they don’t want OT, they want to be relieved on time so they can go home.

What about bullet trains?

Sounds like a good initiative. If it is on an elevated corridor, then it lessens the chance of accidents. What it would mean for Railway staff depends on the service conditions. We’ll have to wait and watch.

Does the running staff get enough holidays and rest?

We do not get calendar day rests like other employees of the Railways. The non-running staff, like parcel clerks, booking agents and station masters, all get 56-hour rest. We get five rests of 22 hours in one month [110 hours] or four rests of 30 hours [120 hours]. After completing a journey, we get an eight-hour break. If a driver has gone from Delhi to Amritsar overnight eight hours on the 9:30 p.m. Jhelum Express, he arrives at his destination at 5 in the morning. He would naturally use the washroom, eat some breakfast, drink some tea and then head to sleep. That would take two hours at least. His next duty is assigned at 1 p.m. for which he has to be up two hours before. So essentially, he gets four hours of sleep only. Is that enough to compensate for a full night’s duty?

Besides, there is no provision to wake him up on time. Alarm clocks don’t work because they tend to wake up everybody else in the running room as well. Even the trackman, who has a tough job, gets two hours’ break in the afternoon. The reservation clerk has duty for six hours. Why this discrepancy? We are demanding calendar day rests like other employees.

What should be done to improve the lot of the railway workers?

The infrastructure is seriously compromised owing to constant wear and tear and needs to be replaced urgently. The Lohe ka Pul [wrought iron bridge] in Old Delhi outlived its utility 20 years ago but is still in use. It was built in 1833. Trains ply on it at reduced speeds. The day it breaks, there will be a colossal tragedy. The private company L&T [Larsen & Toubro] was supposed to build a replacement bridge next to it. But the work is going nowhere because of differences between Ministries. But they have built the pillars. So there are pillars standing in a line but nothing else.

A parliamentary committee report stated that there were 1,41,396 vacancies in every category of loco running staff, out of which 18,633 are for loco pilots. These should be filled at the earliest.

The archaic rules and regulations also need to go. Back in the day when metre gauge was in use, a train derailed and 400 passengers died. Instead of owning up the mechanical defect, the Railway Board blamed the storm and released an order stating that all trains have to be stopped when they see a storm brewing and passengers are ordered to open the windows. The order still finds a place in the Indian Railways General & Subsidiary Rules (2010) manual. It is an absolutely foolish order and we have challenged it. Powerful hurricanes in the United States do not derail trains, and they want us to believe such [nonsense]?

Labour Issues

Dismantling protection

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

SOON after coming to power in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government promised to overhaul the labour laws and initiate wide-ranging reforms. In its view, the absence of labour reforms was the biggest roadblock to development and industrial growth. Three years down the line, employment generation is stagnant and there is not much to show by way of skill development, but the government’s plan to overhaul labour laws, a brainchild of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that did not materialise, seems to be gaining greater traction.

The government’s reform plans initially did not succeed owing to the resistance from all central trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) trade union affiliate. But it has not given up because of its confidence that it has the numbers in the Lok Sabha.

This government remains committed to single-window clearances, which are central to the concept of “Make in India”. At the core of its plans are labour law reforms through legislative intervention. The commitment to rationalise and simplify labour laws was reiterated in the 2017 Budget, in which Finance Minister Arun Jaitley proposed legislative reforms to “simplify, rationalise and amalgamate” the 38 existing labour laws into four codes on wages, industrial relations, social security and occupational safety, health and working conditions.

On August 10, the Code on Wages Bill 2017 was introduced in the Lok Sabha. It subsumes four laws—the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, and the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976. With the enactment of the Bill, all these individual laws would stand repealed. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has pointed out that the Bill dilutes the enforcement machinery and does not declare a national uniform minimum wage for the country—Section 9(1) of the Bill stipulates that “different national minimum wage may be fixed for different States or different geographical areas”—and leaves the formulation of minimum wages to the discretion of the government despite consensus agreements at Indian Labour Conferences (44th and 46th) about wage fixation formulae.

Further, the definition of “employer” in the Bill makes it difficult to identify the “principal employer” as it simplifies the definition of an employer as one who employs one or more employees in his establishment. In the original 1948 Minimum Wages Act, the employer was clearly defined as a person who “employs, whether directly or through another person, or whether on behalf of himself or any other person, one or more employees”.

The changed definition, according to the CITU president K. Hemalatha, ignores the reality of contract labour and would end up absolving the principal employer of the responsibility and obligation to contract workers. The Bill has also done away with the concept of “schedule employment” (dealing with trades and employment) which specified a list of industries where the concept of a minimum wage applied. It was well known that the wages in industries in the list of “schedule employment” were far higher than those outside the list. In the Section dealing with deductions, the Bill introduces the concept of “any other tax”, which can be levied by the Central or State governments, apart from income tax.

The codes also stipulate that the “audited accounts of companies shall not normally be questioned”, thereby removing the right of workers or their unions to question the accuracy of the balance sheet of a company or even demand clarifications in order to ascertain “surplus” while bargaining for bonus above the minimum level as mentioned in the Bonus Act.

It also specifies that the fixation of bonus, eligibility for payment of bonus or the application of the code in respect of bonus in a public sector establishment shall be deemed to be an industrial dispute within the meaning of the ID Act, 1947; the Bill is silent on whether issues such as payment of wages, minimum wages or gender discrimination may be possible subjects of industrial dispute.

Under the proposed codes, inspectors are to be replaced by facilitators who would conduct inspections only in accordance with the schemes notified by the appropriate government in accordance with the Web-based inspection schedule under the scheme. The CITU has argued that the experience of Web-based portal inspection under the Shramev Jayate scheme had exposed the limited reach of the scheme: the data captured was hardly 30 per cent of the total number of establishments in the Central sector.

The facilitator has the power to search or seize documents from defaulting employers but cannot initiate action against them. Instead, the facilitator will have to apply to the authority concerned for any realisation of the claim under dispute. The penalties for violating the code range from a fine of Rs.10,000 to Rs. 1 lakh, which trade unions say is the mildest conceivable penalty for defaulting employers.

Industrial Relations Code Bill

On September 14, leading Central trade unions such as the CITU, the All India Trade Union Congress, the Indian National Trade Union Congress and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha raised strong objections with the Labour Ministry to some of the features in the draft Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2017, a copy of which had not been circulated to them.

The Code Bill is not in public circulation, but the Ministry circulated five issues as agenda items in its discussion with the unions, who objected to all of them. To begin with, they turned down the subcategorisation of workers as supervisors and workers.

The rationale for their opposition was that by making a section of senior and skilled workers “supervisors” or “managers”, and by moving them to the “non-unionised” category, the managements would deprive them of their trade union rights.

“All employees receiving wages/salary in lieu of work done should be treated as workers/employees with attendant rights to be organised in trade unions and related other rights,” the unions said.

The Bill also disallows the entry of outsiders as office-bearers of any registered trade union in the organised sector and restricts the number of outsiders to two in the unorganised sector. The unions said that restricting outsider organisers in the trade unions of the unorganised sector would impede the effort to organise workers in trade unions, apart from exposing and subjecting them to more exploitation.

The recognition of trade unions would be contingent on the basis of a verified membership of 50 per cent of the workers in the muster roll, according to the draft Bill. This was rejected by the unions, who said it would embolden employers to act unilaterally. More so, they argued, when most governments could get elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes polled, such conditions on recognition of trade unions were unrealistic.

They said that the recognition of a trade union by the employer must be made mandatory in all establishments; that when there was more than one union in any establishment, recognition should be accorded by secret ballot and the trade union getting more than 65 per cent of the votes should be treated as the sole negotiating agent. In the event of any trade union not getting more than 50 per cent of the votes, all trade unions with more than 10 per cent should be recognised and accommodated in the negotiating council on the basis of proportional representation. This, the Central unions said, was prevalent in most public sector units in the country.

Threshold levels

The codes also propose raising the threshold level of employment to 300 for establishments, below which employers would not be required to seek permission from the government concerned for retrenchment, layoff and closure. The Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments have already amended their labour laws to raise the threshold level of employment. The central trade unions have said that the government should lower the present threshold from 100 to 50 in the context of greater automation at workplaces requiring less labour. Ironically, the Bill has proposed an enhancement of the retrenchment compensation from 15 to 45 days. The unions have welcomed this but have also pointed out that this was meaningless in the context of employers being given a free hand to hire and fire in organisations employing up to 300 employees.

Central trade unions rejected many features of the previously circulated Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2015. These include the need for a trade union to have 10 per cent of the workers of an establishment or industry or 100 workers, whichever was less, in order to apply for registration; at present, seven or more members can apply for registration.

The Bill also gave sweeping powers to the Registrar to grant, reject or cancel union registration. It also gives powers to employers to unilaterally change the service conditions of the employee even as a conciliation procedure is under way. Other features include increasing the notice period for a strike in public utility services, imposing hefty penalties and fines and even imprisoning workers for participating in an “illegal” strike. The Bill also restricts the right of a worker to take recourse to adjudication or a tribunal as it specifies that the consent of the employer is necessary.

NITI Aayog report

Before Arvind Panagariya quit as NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson, one of the things he did was to sign on a report on “Ease of Doing Business: An Enterprise Survey of Indian States”, jointly commissioned and authored by the NITI Aayog and IDFC, a Mumbai-based think tank. Some 3,326 manufacturing enterprises in 19 States that were set up in and after 2014 were surveyed, along with 25 industry associations. The focus of the survey-cum-report was to identify the constraints preventing enterprises from taking off. Earlier, the World Bank had, in a report on ease of doing business, ranked India at 185 in a list of 187 countries. The NITI Aayog report said the actual experience of enterprises showed that the situation was much better than what the World Bank survey claimed. While it identified a slew of impediments—ranging from provision of electricity to no-objection certificates pertaining to construction—it was seen that most States ruled by the BJP had used single-window clearances for setting up enterprises.

Significantly, the survey confirmed what trade unions had been saying all along: that the preponderance of employment was in very small enterprises; 131 million workers were employed in “Own Account Enterprises” managed by owners who did not employ a single regular worker; and small firms employing less than 50 workers accounted for 84 per cent of the total workforce, compared with 24.8 per cent in China. Only 7 per cent of the enterprises employed more than 200 workers.

At least four States—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat—did not report any obstacles in starting a business in terms of getting land and construction-related permits for environment approval and for tax compliance. More than 400 enterprises reported a turnover of Rs.10-50 crore and a very small number reported a turnover under Rs.1 lakh. Yet, the survey’s basic premise was that labour regulation stood in the way of labour-intensive manufacturing.

In fact, the BMS came out strongly against the NITI Aayog-IDFC report, stating that their understanding was flawed. Citing the example of the Rajasthan government, whose radical reforms in 2014 had had no positive outcome on either employment or industrial growth, the BMS appealed to the government to not look at the economy in a piecemeal manner.

“We have no dispute with the codification but there are problems with some features. Industry has already tweaked the labour laws and due to the unemployment situation, workers are accepting these conditions. We have opposed the disinvestment of the public sector and the privatisation of Air India. Today, two-thirds of employees in Central and State government are contract employees. Governments are supposed to protect the law, not infringe it,” Virjesh Upadhyay, BMS general secretary, told Frontline.

Notwithstanding the BMS’ inconsistent opposition to the government, a trade union leader said that the BMS often entered into negotiations with the government on the eve of a joint action by the other central trade unions. “They can’t be trusted,” said the leader.Trade unions led by the Left and Centrist parties are planning a sit-in protest ( mahapadav) in December. The BMS is planning a march to Parliament in November.

The replacement of Bandaru Dattatreya with Santosh Kumar Gangwar as Labour Minister was surprising as the former had gone out on a limb backing demonetisation, a decision that broke the backs of workers and resulted in huge job losses. The passage of the Code on Wages Bill may well signal the beginning of the end of all protective labour laws.

Communalism

Bias in the open

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

ON April 1, some unsuspecting dairy farmers from Mewat in Haryana returning from a cattle fair in Jaipur were set upon by cow vigilantes on the Jaipur-Delhi highway at Alwar in Rajasthan. Accused of being cattle smugglers, they were beaten up even as a crowd silently watched. The police post at Behror was not far away from the site of the attack.

One of the farmers, 55-year-old Pehlu Khan, was beaten so severely that he died two days later in hospital. In his dying declaration, he named half a dozen persons who had beaten him up. Some of them were employees of a nearby gaushala (shelter for cows) which has known affiliations with Hindutva outfits. Thirteen persons were arrested; Pehlu Khan could specifically name six of his attackers—Om Yadav, Hukum Chand Yadav, Sudhir Yadav, Jagmal Yadav, Naveen Sharma and Rahul Saini—as their names were being called out by the mob.

The police filed a charge sheet on the basis of his dying declaration, circumstantial evidence, statements of eyewitnesses that included Pehlu Khan’s sons and three others who were roughed up by the mob, and videos of the attackers that were taken by people present on the spot. The police reached the spot while a good section of the crowd was still there and took Pehlu Khan to the hospital where he gave a statement in front of the doctors.

Interestingly, the case was handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the State government in July even though the family had not demanded one. On September 1, the CID submitted its report to the government giving a “clean chit” (the term used by the police officially) to the six accused who were named by Pehlu Khan. The CID found no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, linking them to the incident. The six persons were given a “clean chit” on the basis of statements of eyewitnesses present at the scene of the crime, videos, photographs and mobile phone records.

Of the 13 booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), three were released on bail earlier. Four persons are still in police custody.

Qasim, an Alwar-based lawyer representing Pehlu Khan’s family, told Frontline that the CID’s report would be challenged in court. “We were satisfied with the police’s investigation and felt that justice was almost done. The FIR [first information report] was registered and the charge sheet filed on the basis of Pehlu’s statement as well as other evidence like videos. He was conscious when he gave his statement to the police in front of the doctors. There is a statement of the doctor as well, which the police recorded as evidence. His ribs were broken, but he was able to speak. Our judicial system also says that a dying man does not lie. No one asked the State government to hand the case over to the CID. We knew this would happen,” he said. Neither Pehlu Khan’s family nor his lawyers have seen the CID report as yet.

AIKS protest

The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which rallied agriculturists and dairy farmers on Pehlu Khan’s lynching, called the investigation by the CID, which “exonerated the six accused as not guilty in the Pehlu Khan murder case”, as “motivated”. Office-bearers of the AIKS, Hannan Mollah and Amra Ram, said that “it is becoming increasingly evident that any grave crime committed by a person related to the Sangh Parivar will be exonerated by any investigation agency in present-day India. The dying declaration of Pehlu Khan named those persons as his killers or conspirators, but the investigation agency ignored that and made a case to remove their names. This is the real face of the investigating agencies today under a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government.”

The AIKS demanded that the “biased report of the CB-CID be scrapped” and an impartial inquiry conducted in its place under the supervision of the High Court. It had raised money for the families of Pehlu Khan and Azmat Khan, another dairy farmer who was also severely assaulted by cow vigilantes on April 1.

Ironically, the State Home Minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, had declared in the Assembly that Pehlu Khan’s was a family of cattle smugglers. It so happened in 2011 that his sons were charged for cruelty against animals on complaints by cow vigilantes in Haryana. Not in the least surprising since it was commonplace for cow vigilantes to accost cattle traders of the minority community and accuse them of smuggling cattle for slaughter. All this was done with the active connivance of the police.

With the passage of stringent laws for cow protection, cow vigilantism has been on the rise in parts of Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab and the National Capital Region of Delhi. Javed, a member of the Sanjha Manch, a broad coalition of progressive organisations, said that the “clean chit” given by the CID was a huge setback for the Meo community. “Where is the question of tutoring Pehlu Khan as is being alleged by some? We were not even there near him in hospital. We will rally people again as this cannot be allowed to pass. Aawaaz to uthani padegi [we will have to raise our voices in protest],” he told Frontline.

He said Meos were being harassed on a regular basis even for purchasing milch cattle for their own subsistence. “There have been huge panchayats in Mewat where the community has taken resolutions against the smuggling of cattle for any purpose, but our people are being harassed at every level. There is no source of employment here other than transporting cattle, which most of our youths are engaged in,” he said.

Almost every agriculturist in the State owned some livestock that were traded at cattle fairs held in the State. Rampant cow vigilantism had created a fear psychosis among cattle traders. As buffaloes were more expensive than cows, dairy farmers preferred to buy the latter and that was what Pehlu Khan was doing that fateful day.

Livelihood concerns

Despite the Union government’s rhetoric on agriculture, there is little sympathy with the livelihood concerns of the agricultural community as a whole. In July, livestock owners and farmers heaved a huge sigh of relief as the Supreme Court upheld a stay granted by the Madras High Court on a notification of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that put a ban on the sale and trade in bovine species at livestock fairs for purposes other than agriculture. The Central government notification was in response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court regarding the checking of smuggling of cattle across the border. The notification incidentally covered all animals—bulls, bullocks, heifers, cows, buffaloes, steers, calves and camels. With agriculture in dire straits all over the country, farmers were found to increasingly rely on their livestock for sustenance in crisis periods.

According to a content analysis of the English media by IndiaSpend, Muslims were the target of bovine-related violence between 2010 and 2017; members of that community constituted 86 per cent of the 26 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many as 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after the National Democratic Alliance government under Narendra Modi was sworn into power in 2014. Fifty per cent of the cow-related violence was in States governed by the BJP, with Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi reporting the majority of the cases. In the first six months of 2017, at least 20 bovine-related attacks were reported.

The murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on June 22 on a Delhi-Mathura train on the Faridabad route in Haryana was yet another instance of targeting the minorities. Junaid Khan was stabbed to death after an altercation over a seat took an ugly turn, with the attackers using communal slurs against Junaid Khan and his brothers who were travelling with him. They were returning home after shopping for Eid in Delhi. Four of the six accused in the case are out on bail. The Haryana Railway Police dropped charges of unlawful assembly, rioting and common intention against some of the accused, facilitating their bail.

Of the 18 youths who were charged with the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Bisada village, Dadri district, Uttar Pradesh, on September 28, 2015, over the allegation that he was storing beef, almost all of them, including the son of a BJP functionary, have been given bail. Only three remain in custody. Like Pehlu Khan, Mohammad Akhlaq was also in his fifties; he was the sole breadwinner of his family. His murder created a national outrage but there has been no let-up in minority bashing since his wanton killing. The list of those awaiting justice is long even as cow vigilantism and communal profiling continue unabated.

First-hand account

Arduous work, little rest

DIVYA TRIVEDI cover-story

THE loco pilot, or engine driver, is the lifeline of a train. The key member of the running staff employed on a moving train, the pilot, along with assistants, guards and firemen, ensures the smooth and safe running of a mail, passenger or goods train. But the conditions under which they have to work can only be described as inhuman. Often required to work for 20 hours a day, they are provided little or no protection from extreme weather conditions like rain or heat. Until last year, there was not even a toilet in the engines. A driver lost his life when he got down to relieve himself on the tracks and got hit by an oncoming train in Assam. Though the facility of bio toilets was announced with much fanfare last year, it is expensive and there are not enough bio toilets to address the needs of 60,000 loco pilots in the country.

To better understand the pathetic conditions in which railway running staff work, Frontline spoke to R.K. Sharma, who worked as a guard with the Indian Railways for 36 years. His son has been working as a loco pilot/driver of passenger trains for 22 years. Sharma has completely lost hearing in his right ear and can only partially hear with his left. His condition might well be an outcome of his job where noise levels are beyond deafening. After retirement, Sharma devotes his time to union activities in the Northern Railway.

What is the nature of work of a guard and loco pilot?

The person who signals with a flag is the guard. He is responsible for all the passengers on a train, especially in case of accidents. The driver’s job is arduous. After many years of negotiations with the Railway Board, the total duty time is mandated at 10 hours with eight hours as running duty, even when trains are late. In reality, the driver ends up working for 15-20 hours. A typical scenario is like this: If a train arrives several hours late, the driver ends up waiting at the station in addition to his duty hours; then he drives 470 kilometres from Delhi to Amritsar where he has to make 300 signal exchanges—at the station, within the cabin, with the gateman—at 110 kmph [kilometres per hour] speed. Now, isn’t there fatigue? The driver cannot blink! He has to look left and right and be watchful of gate accidents. The eyes of the driver are always wide open, like that of an owl. A single blink can be costly, putting the lives of thousands of passengers in jeopardy. The physical exertion is tremendous, and heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure are common diseases among railway staff. The nature of the job is such that they become medically unfit and are asked to take up another job, which results in a monetary loss.

Is the compensation adequate?

It is all right, but the Fifth Pay Commission created an anomaly, which was continued in the Seventh Pay Commission as well. The Grade Pay for assistant drivers is Rs.1,900. After promotion they get Rs.2,400 as Grade Pay and then Rs.4,200 as shunting driver. The drivers for goods, passenger and mail, all get Rs.4,200 as Grade Pay. Our demand is to have separate Grade Pays. They get overtime but they don’t want OT, they want to be relieved on time so they can go home.

What about bullet trains?

Sounds like a good initiative. If it is on an elevated corridor, then it lessens the chance of accidents. What it would mean for Railway staff depends on the service conditions. We’ll have to wait and watch.

Does the running staff get enough holidays and rest?

We do not get calendar day rests like other employees of the Railways. The non-running staff, like parcel clerks, booking agents and station masters, all get 56-hour rest. We get five rests of 22 hours in one month [110 hours] or four rests of 30 hours [120 hours]. After completing a journey, we get an eight-hour break. If a driver has gone from Delhi to Amritsar overnight eight hours on the 9:30 p.m. Jhelum Express, he arrives at his destination at 5 in the morning. He would naturally use the washroom, eat some breakfast, drink some tea and then head to sleep. That would take two hours at least. His next duty is assigned at 1 p.m. for which he has to be up two hours before. So essentially, he gets four hours of sleep only. Is that enough to compensate for a full night’s duty?

Besides, there is no provision to wake him up on time. Alarm clocks don’t work because they tend to wake up everybody else in the running room as well. Even the trackman, who has a tough job, gets two hours’ break in the afternoon. The reservation clerk has duty for six hours. Why this discrepancy? We are demanding calendar day rests like other employees.

What should be done to improve the lot of the railway workers?

The infrastructure is seriously compromised owing to constant wear and tear and needs to be replaced urgently. The Lohe ka Pul [wrought iron bridge] in Old Delhi outlived its utility 20 years ago but is still in use. It was built in 1833. Trains ply on it at reduced speeds. The day it breaks, there will be a colossal tragedy. The private company L&T [Larsen & Toubro] was supposed to build a replacement bridge next to it. But the work is going nowhere because of differences between Ministries. But they have built the pillars. So there are pillars standing in a line but nothing else.

A parliamentary committee report stated that there were 1,41,396 vacancies in every category of loco running staff, out of which 18,633 are for loco pilots. These should be filled at the earliest.

The archaic rules and regulations also need to go. Back in the day when metre gauge was in use, a train derailed and 400 passengers died. Instead of owning up the mechanical defect, the Railway Board blamed the storm and released an order stating that all trains have to be stopped when they see a storm brewing and passengers are ordered to open the windows. The order still finds a place in the Indian Railways General & Subsidiary Rules (2010) manual. It is an absolutely foolish order and we have challenged it. Powerful hurricanes in the United States do not derail trains, and they want us to believe such [nonsense]?

Migrants & trains

'Jungle' compartment

cover-story

THE afternoon heat cast an overbearing weight on New Delhi railway station. Passengers lounged in the shifting shadows to keep from getting baked. Drowsiness came easily in the sticky atmosphere. Some dozed lightly on newspapers, cardboard cutouts or even scraps of paper. Others sat on their haunches, listlessly staring at nothing in particular. All were waiting for a train to arrive.

Most short-distance trains that migrant workers from Delhi take are either infamously late or ply only once or twice a day. In either case, passengers need to spend inordinately long periods waiting at railway stations. But this is not the worst part of the journey. In fact, it is a good time to rest tired muscles and stretch a bit.

Once the train arrived, there would be no rest. The scattered crowds would transform into a single super-organism that would rush forward in one direction. Most migrant workers travel by the general compartment, but some of them have other names for it.

General nahi jungle ward hai. Hamare Minister kyon nahi yatra karte is mein [not general, call it the jungle ward. Why don’t our Ministers travel in them]?” quipped Shambhu when this journalist nudged him out of his wakeful slumber to discuss the perils of his daily travails.

A little distance away, Hari Singh was waving (imaginary or real) flies out of his face with a gamchha [thin towel]. His relative Khaman Singh was staring at the tracks below, fighting to stave off a nap. “ Agar so gaye toh train ja sakti hai [if I fall asleep, I might miss the train],” he said. Residents of Fatehpur Sikri, they were returning from a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi. They had taken Himsagar Express from Katra and after a more or less comfortable journey of 15 hours, arrived to face a humid Delhi. They make the journey every year. Did they not think the station looked cleaner than before? “What’s that? Delhi, Agra and Mathura are the dirtiest stations in the world. Stations beyond that are much cleaner. It seems as if all the dirt congregates in Delhi!” said Khaman Singh. They had to kill a few hours before catching the shuttle to Palwal and the onward journey. They had a question for the Railway officials. “If a train is starting from its source station, why should it be late?”

On the other side of the station, Niranjan Kumar, Jogender and their friend idled in a semi-circle as only people who have known each other for a while can. Niranjan Kumar was from Madhubani in Bihar and worked as a tailor in the capital while Jogender was from Nalanda and dealt in scrap paper. From Bata Chowk to Delhi, a journey they have to make, is not much of a distance but the local train stops at every conceivable spot. They try to board the express trains that ply on that route but these are always crowded. The general coach is nothing to write home about: passengers have to do most of the journey standing.

Niranjan Kumar said it was not impossible for the government to solve these issues if the political class had the will. “The number of general coaches is few compared with the number of people that use them. They should at least add two more coaches to ease the burden. Besides, if there is only one train that goes to some destinations every day, then it is common sense that it will be overburdened. They should make the train ply two to three times a day at least,” he said.

At a distance removed from all the men, sat Krishna on a bench. She does not like travelling and that too alone, but of late she had not been keeping well and so had to travel from Hapur to Delhi for treatment at the G.B. Pant Hospital. Her train was an hour late, but she was not worried. It was par for the course. Coming to Delhi meant a whole day gone. She was thankful for the ladies coach in the train; if it was not there, she would have been distraught. She complained of unclean toilets and said often she had to simply hold it in unlike the men who can relieve themselves on the tracks. “Men go whenever they have to. Women go when they are near a usable toilet or get privacy,” she said. She suggested that the Railways add more coaches and increase the frequency of local trains.

Sona Mewati, a graduate student in Delhi, travels to her hometown Kanpur on and off by train. She said that every time she boarded a train, she was mentally prepared to contract an infection. “I travel by all classes and each one has its own set of problems,” she said.

“From Moradabad to Chandausi, doodhiyas [milk suppliers] travel on a daily basis. The train is called ‘doodhiya train’. They hang their steel cans along with their bicycles outside the windows of these trains. Why not give them a separate milk train?” asked Gaman Singh from western Uttar Pradesh, tongue firmly in cheek.

Divya Trivedi

HSR in Europe

European experience

EVER since Japan began running bullet train services between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964—just ahead of the Tokyo Olympics—more than halving the six-hour journey between the great urban centres, High Speed Rail (HSR) networks have become one of the infrastructure aspirations of governments across the world and, certainly, Europe, which has embraced them with zeal. Between 1985 and 2013, the European Union’s (E.U.) HSR network rose from 643 to 7,343 kilometres; it gained in speed, frequency and capacity too over this period.

HSR networks have been seen as fulfilling a number of objectives: introducing additional capacity to national transport systems by releasing capacity on conventional lines, and producing environmental benefits by steering travellers away from car and air travel. “Travel by HSR produces only one-third of the carbon emissions of car travel and one quarter of the emissions of an equivalent trip by air, taking into account the average loadings typically achieved on each mode,” estimated a 2010 report by the United Kingdom’s House of Commons Transport Committee. It argued that things would only improve as HSR became more efficient.

The push for HSR travel in Europe really began following the 1974 petrol crisis, when governments sought to provide a level of predictability for their energy needs. Italy launched the first HSR between Florence and Rome in 1977, which was swiftly followed by countries across Europe. Germany and Spain also have substantial high speed networks (the latter is Europe’s longest HSR network). Britain joined the club in 2003 with High Speed 1, which ran to the Channel Tunnel from central London, connecting Britain with continental Europe. Other E.U. nations with HSRs include Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Finland and the Netherlands, while recent plans include a Chinese-funded project connecting Belgrade and Budapest. In France, there are nearly 2,650 km of Lignes a grande vitesse (LGV) on which the renowned TGV high speed intercity trains run. The most recent lines were launched earlier this summer—between Paris and Rennes, and Paris and Bordeaux.

It is hard to argue over the transformative impact that high speed trains have had in some cases: the French city of Lille, once hard hit by the collapse of domestic industries, has seen its fortunes transformed since becoming a hub for HSR networks across Europe, including from the U.K.

Costly projects

Still, the French case highlights the complexity of the challenge facing HSR. It is notable that aside from a forthcoming upgrade due to happen in the south of France later this year, their central government has no further plans to fund such networks, with SNCF, the state-owned railway firm which is heavily in debt, in no position to do so either.

While HSR networks are attractive in theory, they can be extremely costly projects at a time when central and local governments across Europe are under heavy pressure over spending, and justifying austerity regimes. This is certainly the case in France where the head of the armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, quit following differences with President Emmanuel Macron over budget cuts. The two new lines involved an investment from SNCF of around 11.4 billion euros, at a time of limited public appetite for travel on high speed trains which are becoming increasingly expensive to use.

TGV has also been facing increasing competition from conventional but cheaper rail services, France’s long-distance bus services, low-cost air travel and car-based alternatives such as car sharing. The need to tackle this increasingly competitive environment was reflected by SNCF’s decision earlier this year to rebrand TGV as inOui (a rebrand that raised eyebrows at home), with plans to improve customer services, including ticketing and Wi-Fi.

The problems are not only confined to France. According to a European Commission report published in 2015, there is a huge range in cost per kilometre for HSRs in Europe, with the average being a whopping 17.5 million euros and the rate of return varying greatly. “Specialists tend to consider that the future HSR projects are unlikely to offer the same profits as those provided by early investments,” said the report.

A 2014 report by the French Court of Auditors provided a snapshot of the problems facing the network in France. It suggested that the expansion happened too fast and to too great an extent, with not all the points en route meeting the criteria for needing an HSR, including large population and high speed frequency. It also raised questions about the economic benefits of the system as it was run currently and noted that none of the lines that had been launched had yet met their targets in terms of passengers they carried.

Controversial in Britain

Such reservations have provided fuel to groups opposing extensions of HSR networks elsewhere, such as in Britain where the ongoing development of such infrastructure remains controversial. Britain, which has long been accused of falling behind the mainland in terms of development of high speed infrastructure, currently plans to build the second HSR, High Speed 2, a Y-shaped project linking London with Birmingham and the East Midlands as well as Leeds and Manchester in a two-stage project by 2033.

Costs for the project are estimated to be an eye-watering £56 billion (far higher than the 2010 estimates of £32.7 billion). The plans are seen by their endorsers as part of the solution to a combination of pressures, including rising consumer demand for travel between these densely populated regions, limits on capacity on existing routes, and Britain’s environmental commitments that recently led the government to pledge that it would ban the sale of new cars with conventional combustion engines from 2040.

A grassroots campaign, Stop HS2, which began before the project gained the necessary approvals, argues that the decision to proceed with the project was made in a “policy vacuum, without any assessment of what was best for Britain’s transport infrastructure”, and that the project lacked a business case, and could be environmentally detrimental including to natural areas. The group also questions whether connecting the north of England to the capital is really the way forward for the country, already concerned about the over-focus on London. The funds could be better spent connecting northern cities, feeding into the Northern Powerhouse the government has been pushing for. There is already much concern in Britain over the imbalance in spending on transport infrastructure between the north and the south: the think tank IPPR North recently found that infrastructure spending on the north was less than half that of London, with the difference amounting to around £59 billion over the past decade.

Others have expressed concerns too: a 2015 House of Lords report warned that when it came to “one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the U.K.”, the government had “yet to make a convincing case for proceeding with the project” and that it was unclear that it was the most effective solution to Britain’s problems, arguing that overcrowding was less of an issue on long-distance trains than it was on commuter trains which the new project would not impact. Indeed, the French example would suggest the project could divert funds that might otherwise be spent on such work.

The parliamentary committee report called on the government to consider the fairness of the large subsidy that would be required for HS2 as many would derive no benefit.

Another think tank, the New Economics Foundation, pointed to this as an issue and suggested what the funds (at the time £33 billion) could be spent on. This includes major upgrades to two important north-south railways, and between cities and towns in the north and the Midlands that would give a lift to regional employment, and improving transit project funding in four cities in the Midlands and the north as well as cycling infrastructure in these regions.

“Spreading the capital across many diverse projects, in a way that is responsible to local as well as national needs could reap much wider economic social and environmental dividends,” it said.

Even a former Labour Cabinet Minister who had been involved in the decision to approve HS2 has expressed scepticism about the project, which he argued had been given the go-ahead based on “almost entirely speculative” estimates of what it would involve. Writing in Financial Times in 2013 on why he no longer supported the project, Peter Mandelson pointed to the reasons his party had pushed the policy while in government: on the “eve of a general election and keen to paint an upbeat view of the future… such publicly built infrastructure projects tend to provide so much of the answer to our short and long term economic and employment needs”.

Lord Mandelson’s comments point to perhaps the main problem with Europe’s HSR networks: the shape they take—including the stops along the line—is often hugely driven by political motivations, with economic rationale playing a secondary role. While feted as a means of solving many national crises—from economic, employment to logistical—they can often simply be a way of ensuring diversion away from less glamorous but nonetheless essential work.

Communalism

Bias in the open

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

ON April 1, some unsuspecting dairy farmers from Mewat in Haryana returning from a cattle fair in Jaipur were set upon by cow vigilantes on the Jaipur-Delhi highway at Alwar in Rajasthan. Accused of being cattle smugglers, they were beaten up even as a crowd silently watched. The police post at Behror was not far away from the site of the attack.

One of the farmers, 55-year-old Pehlu Khan, was beaten so severely that he died two days later in hospital. In his dying declaration, he named half a dozen persons who had beaten him up. Some of them were employees of a nearby gaushala (shelter for cows) which has known affiliations with Hindutva outfits. Thirteen persons were arrested; Pehlu Khan could specifically name six of his attackers—Om Yadav, Hukum Chand Yadav, Sudhir Yadav, Jagmal Yadav, Naveen Sharma and Rahul Saini—as their names were being called out by the mob.

The police filed a charge sheet on the basis of his dying declaration, circumstantial evidence, statements of eyewitnesses that included Pehlu Khan’s sons and three others who were roughed up by the mob, and videos of the attackers that were taken by people present on the spot. The police reached the spot while a good section of the crowd was still there and took Pehlu Khan to the hospital where he gave a statement in front of the doctors.

Interestingly, the case was handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the State government in July even though the family had not demanded one. On September 1, the CID submitted its report to the government giving a “clean chit” (the term used by the police officially) to the six accused who were named by Pehlu Khan. The CID found no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, linking them to the incident. The six persons were given a “clean chit” on the basis of statements of eyewitnesses present at the scene of the crime, videos, photographs and mobile phone records.

Of the 13 booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), three were released on bail earlier. Four persons are still in police custody.

Qasim, an Alwar-based lawyer representing Pehlu Khan’s family, told Frontline that the CID’s report would be challenged in court. “We were satisfied with the police’s investigation and felt that justice was almost done. The FIR [first information report] was registered and the charge sheet filed on the basis of Pehlu’s statement as well as other evidence like videos. He was conscious when he gave his statement to the police in front of the doctors. There is a statement of the doctor as well, which the police recorded as evidence. His ribs were broken, but he was able to speak. Our judicial system also says that a dying man does not lie. No one asked the State government to hand the case over to the CID. We knew this would happen,” he said. Neither Pehlu Khan’s family nor his lawyers have seen the CID report as yet.

AIKS protest

The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which rallied agriculturists and dairy farmers on Pehlu Khan’s lynching, called the investigation by the CID, which “exonerated the six accused as not guilty in the Pehlu Khan murder case”, as “motivated”. Office-bearers of the AIKS, Hannan Mollah and Amra Ram, said that “it is becoming increasingly evident that any grave crime committed by a person related to the Sangh Parivar will be exonerated by any investigation agency in present-day India. The dying declaration of Pehlu Khan named those persons as his killers or conspirators, but the investigation agency ignored that and made a case to remove their names. This is the real face of the investigating agencies today under a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government.”

The AIKS demanded that the “biased report of the CB-CID be scrapped” and an impartial inquiry conducted in its place under the supervision of the High Court. It had raised money for the families of Pehlu Khan and Azmat Khan, another dairy farmer who was also severely assaulted by cow vigilantes on April 1.

Ironically, the State Home Minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, had declared in the Assembly that Pehlu Khan’s was a family of cattle smugglers. It so happened in 2011 that his sons were charged for cruelty against animals on complaints by cow vigilantes in Haryana. Not in the least surprising since it was commonplace for cow vigilantes to accost cattle traders of the minority community and accuse them of smuggling cattle for slaughter. All this was done with the active connivance of the police.

With the passage of stringent laws for cow protection, cow vigilantism has been on the rise in parts of Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab and the National Capital Region of Delhi. Javed, a member of the Sanjha Manch, a broad coalition of progressive organisations, said that the “clean chit” given by the CID was a huge setback for the Meo community. “Where is the question of tutoring Pehlu Khan as is being alleged by some? We were not even there near him in hospital. We will rally people again as this cannot be allowed to pass. Aawaaz to uthani padegi [we will have to raise our voices in protest],” he told Frontline.

He said Meos were being harassed on a regular basis even for purchasing milch cattle for their own subsistence. “There have been huge panchayats in Mewat where the community has taken resolutions against the smuggling of cattle for any purpose, but our people are being harassed at every level. There is no source of employment here other than transporting cattle, which most of our youths are engaged in,” he said.

Almost every agriculturist in the State owned some livestock that were traded at cattle fairs held in the State. Rampant cow vigilantism had created a fear psychosis among cattle traders. As buffaloes were more expensive than cows, dairy farmers preferred to buy the latter and that was what Pehlu Khan was doing that fateful day.

Livelihood concerns

Despite the Union government’s rhetoric on agriculture, there is little sympathy with the livelihood concerns of the agricultural community as a whole. In July, livestock owners and farmers heaved a huge sigh of relief as the Supreme Court upheld a stay granted by the Madras High Court on a notification of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that put a ban on the sale and trade in bovine species at livestock fairs for purposes other than agriculture. The Central government notification was in response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court regarding the checking of smuggling of cattle across the border. The notification incidentally covered all animals—bulls, bullocks, heifers, cows, buffaloes, steers, calves and camels. With agriculture in dire straits all over the country, farmers were found to increasingly rely on their livestock for sustenance in crisis periods.

According to a content analysis of the English media by IndiaSpend, Muslims were the target of bovine-related violence between 2010 and 2017; members of that community constituted 86 per cent of the 26 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many as 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after the National Democratic Alliance government under Narendra Modi was sworn into power in 2014. Fifty per cent of the cow-related violence was in States governed by the BJP, with Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi reporting the majority of the cases. In the first six months of 2017, at least 20 bovine-related attacks were reported.

The murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on June 22 on a Delhi-Mathura train on the Faridabad route in Haryana was yet another instance of targeting the minorities. Junaid Khan was stabbed to death after an altercation over a seat took an ugly turn, with the attackers using communal slurs against Junaid Khan and his brothers who were travelling with him. They were returning home after shopping for Eid in Delhi. Four of the six accused in the case are out on bail. The Haryana Railway Police dropped charges of unlawful assembly, rioting and common intention against some of the accused, facilitating their bail.

Of the 18 youths who were charged with the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Bisada village, Dadri district, Uttar Pradesh, on September 28, 2015, over the allegation that he was storing beef, almost all of them, including the son of a BJP functionary, have been given bail. Only three remain in custody. Like Pehlu Khan, Mohammad Akhlaq was also in his fifties; he was the sole breadwinner of his family. His murder created a national outrage but there has been no let-up in minority bashing since his wanton killing. The list of those awaiting justice is long even as cow vigilantism and communal profiling continue unabated.

Sardar Sarovar

Unkept promises

LYLA BAVADAM the-nation

Fifty-six years ago, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone at Gora in south Gujarat for a 49.4-metre dam on the river Narmada.

Disputes among Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra over sharing water from the river led to delays in the project until the setting up of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) in 1969 which resolved them. Over the decades, the dam grew in height gradually and it now stands at 138.68 m—89 m taller than originally intended. The argument was that the taller the dam, the better for irrigation and drinking water supply, and power generation. But the fact that it would entail much more rehabilitation responsibility never seemed to have been taken seriously.

The increase in the height of the dam is at the core of the controversy over Sardar Sarovar. In 1991, the dam’s biggest funder, the World Bank, was forced to commission an independent review after seeing the extent of resistance to the dam. The Morse report, as the review is commonly referred to, flatly said resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of people in such vast numbers was not possible and that the environmental impact had not been properly assessed. The Bank withdrew from the project. But work on the dam continued, though the corresponding R&R did not.

The R&R policy of the NWDT of 1979, the special Rehabilitation Policy of the Madhya Pradesh government of 1993 and the special rehabilitation package announced by the Supreme Court on February 8, 2017, have not been implemented in their totality. Besides corruption and inefficiency, there was seemingly a deep-seated belief that the people affected by the project—largely rural and tribal populations without formal education—can be easily swindled of their rights.

On September 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam. Days before the inauguration, water was released from upstream dams so that the Sardar Sarovar would be at its full capacity. A citizen petition to the President on the same day puts it in perspective: “To close the dam gates and fill the reservoir to celebrate Narendra mahotsav (festival of Narendra), causing the forcible drowning [of] thousands of families in the process, is one of the greatest human rights violations in the history of free India. Such bizarre and colossal abuse of power is unheard of in any democratically governed country.”

As water filled Sardar Sarovar, more than 7.70 MAF (million acre feet) of water was held back in the dam’s 214-km-long storage area. The submergence zone has drowned 192 villages and one town, affecting about 40,000 families. For many of the project-affected people (PAP), R&R is still on paper.

The official website of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited says: “The submergence at Full Reservoir Level (FRL) is 37,690 ha (86,088 acres), which comprises 11,279 ha agricultural land, 13,542 ha forests and 12,869 ha riverbed and waste land. In all, 245 villages of the three States, viz. 193 villages of Madhya Pradesh, 33 villages of Maharashtra and 19 villages of Gujarat, are affected. Only 3 villages of Gujarat are fully affected, while the remaining 242 villages are partly affected. In Madhya Pradesh, out of 193 villages, more than 10% agricultural land will be submerged only in 79 villages, in 89 villages less than 10% agricultural land or only houses will be submerged under FRL, due to back water of 1 in 100 years flood. In 25 villages, only government waste land will be submerged.”

NBA’s fight

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which has been fighting for the PAP for 32 years, says about 40,000 ha of land will go under water when the reservoir is full. In effect, this land can be considered lost for ever because it will not be habitable even when reservoir levels drop. Although the government refers to 193 villages affected in Madhya Pradesh, it has in fact lumped a township together with 192 villages.

There are also certain important distinctions to be made in the R&R that the government has failed to do. Adivasi hamlets that are dependent on forest land and riverbed cultivation, big and prosperous villages in the Nimar plains that have thrived because of the rich silt, and the communities of artisans and small traders there—all these require specific resettlement and not the one-size-fits-all resettlement that is on paper.

Knowing what sort of land is being submerged is crucial to any R&R programme. Official statistics say that 11,279 ha is agricultural land and dismisses the rest as wasteland, riverbed and forest land, thereby expressing the authorities’ utter ignorance of the way rural livelihoods are earned. Farming on riverbeds, gathering forest produce, and grazing cattle on so-called wastelands are integral to village life.

There has also been a slow whittling away of the legal provisions and the basic human principles of R&R. For instance, the initial rehabilitation package was relatively well thought out, with entire villages being resettled as a whole on arable land that was as close as possible to the original location. Over the years, the track record of rehabilitation has deteriorated to the extent that there are still people who are not recognised as PAP despite having lost land and home years ago.

Left in the lurch

In February this year, the Supreme Court allowed cash compensation to be introduced instead of the earlier insistence on land for land. The court granted permission on the condition that rehabilitation should be completed by July 31 this year. The order suited the State governments very well, and just before the monsoon the Madhya Pradesh government sent evacuation notices to more than 18,000 families living in the submergence region. These families were eligible for cash compensation. But there are about 40,000 families that are practically invisible as far as the new order is concerned. They are not eligible for any compensation because of poorly carried out surveys.

Over the years, Sardar Sarovar has grown from being just an infrastructure project to something much larger. For the government of Gujarat and for the Bharatiya Janata Party, it was something to prove a point and the party has tried to make it its own (even though it was started during a Congress regime). The date of the dam’s inauguration reflected this. September 17 is Modi’s birthday; the year is crucial too since Gujarat goes to the polls towards the end of 2017.

The Sardar Sarovar dam was held up as an exemplar of the Gujarat model of development. The public was reminded about this when Chief Minister Vijay Rupani recently made a jibe at the State Congress saying: “Without any apparent reason, the Congress did not give necessary permission and clearances to Gujarat under the leadership of Modi ji , who was the Chief Minister. When Modi ji became the Prime Minister in 2014, within 17 days he cleared all files that had been pending for 90 months and gave permission to install gates on the Narmada dam [thereby increasing the dam height to its present 138.68 m].”

The Gujarat government has been pushing the greater good against individual rights argument, but the NBA says that the majority were dispossessed so that a minority could benefit. The latter is the reality. Take, for instance, the claim that electricity and agricultural and drinking water will be the priority usage of the Narmada waters and especially so in the drought-prone regions of Gujarat. In reality, the canals first pass through heavily industrialised and urban areas which will grab most of the water before it can reach water-starved Kutch and Saurashtra. Likewise is the announcement that 18 lakh hectares in Gujarat would be irrigated by the Narmada waters and 9,000 villages and four crore people would benefit from it. When the dam was inaugurated, Modi even promised that water would flow to the India-Pakistan border some 600 km away to serve Border Security Force personnel. His rhetoric precedes the ground reality that just about 30 per cent of the total canal network has been constructed and parts of the built sections are already in disrepair.

The political tom-tomming continues. There is no doubt that the inauguration of the dam is the first salvo against the opposition before the upcoming Assembly elections. What is to be seen is whether the State’s voters will see the project for what it is or whether they will be taken in by the development lie.

Education, the worst casualty

the-nation

In the general upheaval of submergence and displacement, one of the least-talked about matters has been the splintered education of project-affected children. Simantini Dhuru, director of the Avehi Abacus Project and founder member of the All India Forum for Right to Education, went to three villages in Barwani district’s (Madhya Pradesh) submergence zone as an independent observer to see how the administration is handling the education of displaced children.

Her observations lend weight to the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s (NBA) assertion that rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) is not being carried out according to law. As many as 38 village schools and anganwadis have been forcefully shifted.

The local administration says they are in the submergence zone, but the villagers’ retort is that “if so why haven’t we been resettled?” Most people have opted to stay in their villages because many rehabilitation sites lack even basic facilities.

The Right to Education Act says that primary schools should be within a one-kilometre approachable radius of a village while secondary schools need to be within a 3-km approachable radius of a village. In complete contravention of the Act, the school in Chhota Barda village has been shifted some 8 km away.

The school in Chikhalda is 6 km away and accessible only via an isolated forest road with no culvert. The Karondiya school is across a nullah and has no access road at all.

Attendance in the primary schools has dropped, with parents unable to afford Rs.500 a month for a seat in a van or unwilling to let their small children walk three hours daily to and from school. Secondary school attendance is about 35 per cent of the norm, with most of the children studying in Classes 9 and 10. They do not want to lose a year by missing out on school attendance. Ironically, while children and their families made the effort to travel the 8 km to school, often there were no teachers because the government had deputed them to collect data on the rehabilitation status. Using teachers for this work is again a contravention of the Act.

Simantini Dhuru said that while the school buildings were new there were no basic facilities. Toilets are yet to be constructed in some places. Blackboards are frequently missing. The external surroundings, infested with snakes and scorpions, are still jungle-like.

The Right to Food Act is also being breached, with the meal provider for the midday meal scheme being unable to cope with the task of ferrying food over the extended distances.

Lyla Bavadam

Right to Information

Draft rules and dissent

AKSHAY DESHMANE the-nation

ON March 31 this year, the Union government released the draft Right to Information (RTI) Rules, 2017, for public consultation. The draft rules, all 22 of them, were ostensibly proposed to implement the RTI Act in a better manner. However, within days of their release the rules became controversial, with civil society groups and opposition parties criticising them and an international non-profit even terming one of the rules a “death sentence” for RTI users.

But the criticism of these draft rules, which are yet to be notified, was not only limited to civil society and the opposition parties. Frontline has learnt that voices critical of the new rules have been raised within the government too. M. Sridhar Acharyulu, a serving Central Information Commissioner, has sent a 10-page response to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal government department that drafted and released the rules.

Acharyulu’s response, accessed by Frontline, expresses the former law professor’s suggestions and deftly worded criticisms about the draft rules in extensive detail. It raises questions about several problematic rules, seeks their withdrawal or redrafting, and flags at least one as “illegal”.

The Central Information Commission (CIC), a 10-member quasi-judicial body, is the topmost adjudicating authority for all requests made by Indian citizens seeking information from public authorities under the RTI Act. Government officials are legally obliged to follow directions and orders passed by the Central Information Commissioners. However, the commission was not consulted by the DoPT when the RTI rules were drafted, even though their actual implementation is the chief responsibility of the commission itself. This is a fact that Acharyulu emphasises at the beginning of his response.

In recent years, dissenting voices from the CIC have been, at best, sporadic and rare. Acharyulu’s detailed and nuanced response to the new rules is, therefore, significant for its straight talk to the DoPT, which reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The response may be broadly divided into two sections: the first contains his suggestions for the possible introduction of new, detailed procedures that are not there in the draft rules and the second comprises comments on the draft rules proposed by the DoPT. In the comments, Acharyulu raises questions and makes suggestions for rules he is evidently not impressed by.

Controversial rule

Consider draft Rule no. 12, the most controversial one that the international non-profit organisation Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative referred to as a “death sentence” for RTI users. This draft rule is controversial for the following reasons. It specifies the conditions under which an RTI user can withdraw his appeal for information from the CIC. Section 1 of the rule empowers the CIC to permit withdrawal of appeals for information by RTI users and Section 2 states that the proceedings pending before it “shall abate” if the person making the appeal dies before a decision is arrived at. This has alarmed RTI users and pro-transparency campaigners who have pointed out that silencing and attacking those who ask uncomfortable questions could now become easier (See “Diluting a right”, Frontline, May 12, 2017, for a detailed explanation).

Acharyulu has supported section one but asked for the second section to be “deleted”. Calling it “Ultra vires SS 19, 20”, or beyond the powers of the sections 19 and 20 of the RTI Act, he explains his reasons for seeking the deletion thus: “Suppose before death of the appellant, Commission issues (a) show cause notice and explanation submitted warrants penalty, why should the PIO [Public Information Officer] not be punished if applicant dies? Or if the information has been directed to be disclosed, why can’t compliance be enforced? In a civil case the rights do not cease to exist on death of parties. Right to Information is civil right, and RTI Act is not criminal law. If applicant is killed by mafia about whom the information was sought, why should it not be disclosed? Will law allow killing of applicant and also the appeal and RTI?”

Incidentally, a rule with identical sections was first proposed for incorporation in 2007 by the CIC itself. Repeated attempts to incorporate it failed as it was always controversial. The second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s tenure also witnessed a similar effort and controversy and the government yielded by withdrawing the rule.

DoPT officials told Frontline in mid September that the government had taken note of the mounting criticism to Rule 12 and was likely to withdraw it. This will be reflected in the rules that finally get notified. A DoPT official said that a fresh draft of the rules, which excludes Rule 12, was already being discussed internally. The CIC was also being consulted, the official added.

Rule 12 is not the only one that has invited criticism from veteran RTI users and experts. It appears that the controversial Rule 17, which Acharyulu as well as the prominent RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal has objected to, may still remain in the final list of rules to be notified. Rule 17 concerns “posting of appeal/complaint/non-compliance before the Information Commissioner”. This rule seeks to empower the Chief Information Commissioner to direct a bench of two or more Information Commissioners to conduct a hearing in any given case of his choice, either at the request of any IC or on a suo motu basis.

Acharyulu has taken strong objection to this, calling it “illegal” and suggesting that introduction of such a rule means that the executive wants to “dilute or reduce or destroy powers” of individual commissioners. He has suggested either fully doing away with the rule or redrafting it. “The Act did not provide for constitution of Division Benches or larger benches. Making rules for larger Bench, which is not provided by Act, is illegal and ultra vires RTI Act. If by practise or convention, constituting bench is felt appropriate by the Commission, for the same involves an intricate question of law or larger public interest, IC should be left with power to decide and only on his reference or request, the Chief can constitute larger Bench. Executive government cannot dilute or reduce or destroy powers of individual commissioner or enhance the powers of [the] Chief Information Commissioner against the law by Parliament,” he said.

There are six other draft rules which, though less controversial, have come under Acharyulu’s scrutiny for their significant impact on citizens’ ability to use RTI for getting information. One that directly impacts citizens is draft Rule 4, which details the fees to be paid by RTI users for accessing information. The Central Information Commissioner argues that the current Rs.2 per page or Rs.4 per sheet rate is “double than market” rate and that the “government cannot charge exorbitantly or double than a private commercial shop”.

Mode of payment

Draft Rule 6, another rule of similar nature, details the mode of payment. In his suggestions on this rule, Acharyulu has noted a practice among some PIOs that adds unnecessary bureaucracy and wastes taxpayer’s money. He describes it thus: “Some PIOs are spending Rs.100 in demanding Rs.10, which is already paid to the Government of India on purchase of an IPO [Inland Postal Order]. If each PIO spends Rs.100 demanding new IPO for Rs.10 every day, imagine how much public money is wasted. Even if applicant gives fresh IPO in response, still state suffers loss of Rs.90. The common sense also should be used along with legal power!”

To prevent this, Acharyulu has suggested adding a couple of clarifying sentences to draft Rule 6 to make it explicit that no application can be rejected if the applicant has attached an IPO with it.

Noting that Hindi and English, the languages mandated to be used for official proceedings of the commission, do not suffice, Acharyulu has suggested that other “constitutionally recognised languages” be permitted. “If both the parties and the commission know either Telugu or Tamil, why should they not conduct in such language?” he asked.

The remaining three are draft Rules 10, 15 and 16. Rule 10 concerns certain conditions attached to the power of appeal. This rule is also not contained in the powers vested from the RTI Act. This could be left to the discretion of the Information Commissioner, Acharyulu suggested.

On procedure

Rule 15 details the procedure for deciding what decisions to take about the complaints received from RTI applicants. Seeking the total deletion of this rule, the former law professor wrote: “It has to be left to CIC to deal with complaints in its own discretion. The Executive Government cannot interfere with this power specifically provided by RTI Act.”

Rule 16 pertains to compliance with the orders of the commission. Arguing in favour of the deletion of this rule in entirety, he argued that since there was no official format for filing RTI applications, complaints and appeals, compliance with the commission’s orders also does not need it.

While Acharyulu’s comments and suggestions about the existing draft rules proposed in the RTI Rules, 2017, are exhaustive, his suggestions for making fresh rules to streamline everyday working of the right to information system are even more detailed. Covering vast ground, the Central Information Commissioner has sought the preparation of new rules and guidelines for the following: a) implementation of section 4; b) detailed rules for Central PIOs to effectively tackle RTI requests; c) comprehensive guidelines on dealing with first appeals; d) rules on staff and resources for the CIC and RTI wings of public authorities; e) rules to clarify determination of public authority under RTI Act; and f) rules on maintenance of records and missing files.

Acharyulu has applied his academic rigour and practical experience of adjudicating RTI appeals to the new draft rules released by the government. It remains to be seen if those who draft the final rules for notification stay true to both the letter and the spirit of the RTI Act, which is a landmark and historic piece of legislation that has empowered citizens in an unprecedented manner.

A 'joke' by the NGT!

the-nation

THE Art of Living Foundation organised a cultural event on the Yamuna floodplains in March last year that prompted the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to impose a penalty on it for causing irrevocable damage to the floodplains. Not only has Sri Sri Ravi Shankar refused to pay the fine, he has mocked the NGT for having the “audacity” to penalise him. He scoffed at the NGT in a Facebook post after he was fined in April 2017. “If at all a fine has to be levied it should be levied on the Central and State governments and the NGT itself for giving the permission. If the Yamuna was so fertile, fragile and pure, they should have stopped the World Culture Festival at the very beginning,” he wrote. He added that if they had any objection, they could have stopped the event in the beginning because the application was pending with the NGT for two months. “It defies all principles of natural justice that you give permission and then slap a fine for not flouting any rules! This is like giving a challan to someone on a green signal!” he wrote.

He described the entire exercise by the NGT as a “joke” and said: “A historic programme deserving of applause and appreciation is unjustly projected as a crime! Witnessed by 1.8 billion people all over the world and a massive turnout on the ground, a floating stage of 7 acres without any foundation (a marvel in itself), the event polluted neither air, water nor land.”

Organising a mega three-day event of such huge proportions on the floodplains of a river gasping for breath was in itself illogical; also, the rules prohibit any construction on the floodplains, permanent or otherwise.

None of that mattered because in this case, apart from Central agencies, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi also bent over backwards to help organise the event.

The violation of environmental laws came to the fore only after a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) approached the NGT to stop the event. The plea lay idle for weeks and by the time the tribunal took note it was already too late, as the NGT itself noted in its order in March last year. The NGT said it could not stop the event as it had become a “fait accompli”. However, it imposed a fine of Rs.5 crore on the foundation as environmental compensation and said a detailed study would finally fix the quantum to be paid for the damage caused to the river.

Despite a stern order, the foundation deposited only Rs.25 lakh then and asked for time to pay the rest, which it subsequently did with great reluctance.

However, a detailed study by an expert committee of the NGT fixed the quantum of damage at Rs.42 crore: Rs.28.73 crore for physical rehabilitation of the river plains and Rs.13.29 crore for biological rehabilitation. The expert committee, which submitted a 47-page report, said the event had not just damaged the flood plains but had ruined it.

“The ground is now totally levelled, compacted and hardened and is totally devoid of water bodies, or depressions, and almost completely devoid of any vegetation,” it said in the report, adding that the actual [rehabilitation] cost could be much more and that it would take at least 10 years to restore the floodplains. The event had caused ecological destruction of varying magnitude of approximately 300 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of the plains on the western side and about 120 acres on the eastern side, according to the report.

However, the foundation has not only refused to pay the fine but it has even denied that any fine has been levied. “There is no question of any fine to be paid by The Art of Living as no fine whatsoever has been imposed by NGT on the Art of Living till date. Please note that no fine was imposed in March 2016 or in April 2017. The issue of whether or not there has been any environmental damage is still being heard by the NGT. We have submitted overwhelming scientific evidence with the NGT to conclusively establish that no damage whatsoever has been caused,” said Gautam Vig, director, Art of Living.

He told Frontline that Google Earth images from 10 years ago and a scientific study by its own expert committee, the contents of which are available on the foundation’s website, conclusively prove that the event had caused no environmental damage to the river. “Whatever so-called damage is being attributed to the Art of Living has always been the feature of that part of the river plain,” he said.



Vimlendu Jha, executive director of Swechha, an NGO that had petitioned the NGT to stop the event, said: “This is a classic example of how every single agency, which should have simply done its work in order to implement laws, failed to do its duty just because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has political muscle. It speaks volumes about the manner in which governments function in this country.”

Purnima S. Tripathi

Frontline special

Selling spirituality

AKSHAY DESHMANE the-nation

ONE morning in early May this year, a large and brightly lit room in the Constitution Club of India, an influential club in the national capital, was brimming with reporters and camerapersons. They had gathered for the annual press conference of Patanjali Ayurved Limited, India’s fastest-growing fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, and Baba Ramdev, its public face, was expected to make some important announcements.

A few minutes past noon, Ramdev began speaking: “Last year, in 2016-17, the Patanjali Group registered a turnover of Rs.10,561 crore, which, in the world of FMCG, is historic.” This was a 100 per cent rise compared with the previous year, he explained, and the company planned to exceed the performance in the future. “In 2017-18, this pace of 100 per cent rise will only be improved upon; it won’t be less than this, so you can estimate what it will be. In the next one or two years, Patanjali will be the number one [FMCG] brand in India,” Ramdev said.

Predictably, these numbers put Ramdev and Patanjali in the headlines yet again, and colourful epithets were deployed to describe the rise of both. Indian FMCG’s new Bahubali, said one, describing Patanjali. Baba worth 10 thousand crore, screamed another, obviously referring to Ramdev.

This was only the latest instance of the ongoing and unrelenting rise of India’s well-known yoga guru and emerging spiritual business tycoon. While the Patanjali boss is perhaps the most popular yoga guru involved in business, in recent years a significant number of other “godmen” have also emerged as quasi-entrepreneurs in their own right. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are the other prominent names in this list.

Interestingly, none of them explicitly identifies himself as an entrepreneur. Even Ramdev has no executive position at Patanjali, nor does he own any shares. Indeed, he claims the FMCG firm exists only for “charity”. But the methods adopted by Patanjali and other organisations controlled by such men resemble those adopted by entrepreneurs and private firms. They provide goods and services in demand in India’s ever-rising market for spiritual needs, which, some estimates speculate, may be valued at Rs.2.5 lakh crore, or $40 billion. So whether it is FMCG products or breathing techniques or yoga and meditation “programmes”, these spiritual entrepreneurs satisfy a varied set of consumer demands in the spirituality market—all for a price, of course.

Modern Indian gurus

Meera Nanda, the reputed philosopher of science, has explained this process in her book The God Market: How Globalisation is Making India More Hindu. Having surveyed a vast variety of modern Indian gurus, she explains: “The modern gurus, who are practically CEOs of huge business empires, know that they operate in a highly competitive spiritualism market and try to differentiate their products and services accordingly. Spiritual seekers, too, shop around for just the right guru, often trying out many before settling on one. Depending upon their bent of mind and their spiritual needs, they go for one of the three main types of gurus: type I, the miracle-making gurus; type II, the philosophical gurus who specialise in expounding on Vedic wisdom; and type III, the yoga-meditation-alternative-medicine gurus who may or may not combine yogic postures and breathing techniques with new age techniques of astrology/tarot, vastu/feng shui, reiki, pranic healing, aromatherapy, etc.” Meera Nanda does not believe that these are “watertight” categories, and some gurus may “mix” their services according to the needs of their followers.

Sociologists and anthropologists believe the market for spiritual needs has exploded, especially in the past quarter century, as India underwent economic liberalisation. Studies among employees of the information technology (IT) sector, which has long been seen as the success story of India’s economic liberalisation measures, point to possible material reasons for an unprecedented rise in demand in the spirituality market.

For instance, in the research the social anthropologist Carol Upadhya of the National Institute of Advanced Studies conducted among IT professionals in Bengaluru in the early 2000s, she found that they believed that “the price of their new-found wealth is the inability to maintain social and family relationships or even to have a meaningful existence outside of work”. In her reading: “[T]his lack of a sense of social connection or community may account for the fact that a large number of IT professionals attend courses offering ‘fast food’ packaged spirituality, such as ‘Art of Living’.” The research the British sociologists C.J. Fuller and John Harriss conducted among IT professionals in Chennai around the same time yielded similar insights. They pointed out that non-resident Indians and resident middle-class Indians both seek to fill their “cultural vacuum” by turning to “godmen” and religious teachers.

Conscious of these social conditions and the market opportunities created as a consequence, spiritual entrepreneurs have chosen their business models accordingly. Apart from making a pitch for Swadeshi goods and roaring against “Western capitalist MNCs” (multinational corporations), Ramdev has priced Patanjali’s products reasonably since it is in intense competition with existing players in the market. Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) has evolved its own model. After interviewing Ravi Shankar and his followers in 2003, the British publication The Economist reported: “AOL has what you might call an appealing business model. Besides attracting donations from its often well-heeled disciples, it also sells classes to businesses in the guru’s breathing and meditation techniques. These, he says, are proven to raise productivity and reduce absences through sickness. His followers agree. One is Nikhil Sen, who runs Britannia, a food firm that recently went through a bruising boardroom battle. He describes how AOL’s courses helped staff adjust to the difficult conversion of a factory in Delhi from making bread to making biscuits.”

While keeping the business of spirituality centre stage and claiming to retain a non-political and ideological stand, these spiritual entrepreneurs and their outfits have actually been effective in becoming platforms to promote “soft Hindutva” to a large and influential captive audience. The rise in religiosity and conservative tendencies within Indian society appears to have only aided the efforts these platforms have made to push forward soft Hindutva.

Meera Nanda observes: “Ramdev’s admirers and followers get more than medical advice: they also get a lesson in Hindu traditionalism and Hindu pride. Interspersed with yogic postures and medical virtues of herbs and food items, Ramdev offers a steady harangue against Western culture, Western medicine, and Western corporations. He equates the promotion of the physical health and well-being of Indians with the promotion of desh ka swabhiman (national self-pride) through a revival of its ancient sciences. He has made no secret of his association with the Sangh Parivar: a picture of him doing the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] salute at a convention of the women’s wing of the RSS is available in the RSS weekly, The Organiser. But Ramdev’s open embrace of Hindu right-wing ideas has not diminished the enthusiasm of the masses, which is a strong indication of how normal and ordinary the world view of Hindu supremacy and revival has become.”

Perhaps aware of this, Ramdev has been even more belligerent about advertising his common cause with all issues dear to Hindutva ideologues.

At the press conference in May, he also announced that his successor at Patanjali would be, like him, an ascetic, not a corporate professional. He revealed that the company would spend money on the education of the children of martyred soldiers. Soon after the press briefing, Ramdev displayed to the assembled journalists more than 200 Patanjali products. Curiously, a statue of a white cow was part of this exhibition. Clearly, the yoga guru and business tycoon understands well the importance and effects of symbolism.

Frontline Special

Politics of divine intervention

ONE of the proposals that came up when the M.N. Venkatachaliah Commission on Constitutional Review was set up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2000 was to include “spiritualism” in the preamble of the Constitution. Although the stated premise for the proposal, made by a group of Hindu sanyasins of Karnataka, was that this “would help arrest moral degradation in society”, its larger political import became part of the discussions among observers of the Commission. It was pointed out during the discussions that the acceptance of the proposal could impart a kind of legitimacy to the relationship and association that the political class, especially those who have attained positions of power, have with the so-called spiritual gurus. Perhaps realising the dangers awarding such legitimacy would pose to the fundamental tenets of the Constitution, the proposal did not become part of the recommendations of the Commission. However, it did bring into focus the nexus between spiritual leaders and the political leadership that has existed in different forms in independent India.

This association has had a qualitative evolution, mirroring the country’s larger political course in some ways. It is a trajectory that has progressively reflected the twin issues of corruption and decadence. In the early years of Independence, the relationships between the political class and spiritual leaders were marked by intellectual and progress-oriented discourses. These were gradually replaced by vested interests to promote the pursuit of power and wealth employing any abject means. This trajectory is also represented by a number of key associations between individual political leaders and spiritual practitioners. In many ways, these individual associations also depict the shift in the larger political course, including in terms of political economy. Consider these associations: Jawaharlal Nehru with Swami Agehananda Bharati and Swami Akshay Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi with Dhirendra Brahmachari, P.V. Narasimha Rao with Chandraswami, Vajpayee and L.K. Advani with Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans and Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, Narendra Modi with Baba Ramdev, Asaram Bapu and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The gradation is revealing at multiple levels, but primarily at the levels of integrity and quality.

In the course of a long interaction with this writer in the 1990s, Swami Akshay Brahmachari, freedom fighter and founder of the Satya Ashram in Uttar Pradesh, spoke about the degeneration in the “Indian league of politics and divinity” . He drew on his personal experience as well as his observations to underscore this decline. He believed that Mahatma Gandhi was more a spiritual practitioner than a politician despite his apparent involvement in political matters. This belief led Akshay Brahmachari to join the freedom struggle and active politics. A proponent of Vedanta and Gandhism right from his teenage, he was an active participant in the political and organisational affairs of the Congress. He would often paraphrase Bengali writer Abu Sayeed Ayyub’s description that “Nehru was a social engineer, and Gandhi a spiritual healer”, adding that he sought to imbibe both the personalities into his own self. In both these roles his main area of operation, geographically, was the Lucknow-Barabanki-Faizabad-Ayodhya region while at the conceptual level, he steadfastly maintained that secularism and communal harmony were the guiding principles of both Vedanta and Gandhism. He sought to advance his teachings and practice of Vedanta from the Satya Ashram, which he set up at Chinhat between Lucknow and Barabanki. He was elected secretary of the Faizabad District Congress Committee when he was in his 30s and a member of the Provincial Congress Committee of Uttar Pradesh later.

As a member of the Provincial Congress Committee he took a firm stand against the surreptitious installation of the idol of Rama inside in the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1949 by Hindutva elements led by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sangh Parivar. He cautioned the Union government, including Nehru and his Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, that this was nothing but a criminal incursion that sought to advance a heinous Hindutva communalisation project by terrorising the Muslim minority community. Akshay Brahmachari followed up these statements made through letters and memoranda with mass mobilisation and agitation highlighting the need to protect social harmony and the rights of the minority communities. Nehru completely agreed with Akshay Brahmachari and supported his actions although sections of the ruling Congress in Ayodhya and other parts of Uttar Pradesh were hand in glove with the Hindutva communalists. Akshay Brahmachari persisted with his spirited opposition to Hindutva communalism until his death in 2010.

This writer had several interactions with Akshay Brahmachari through the 1990s and the 2000s. During one such interaction in 1998, immediately after the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre, Akshay Brahmachari talked at length about the “Indian league of politics and divinity”. He recalled that Nehru, a self-professed agnostic, had described himself as “religious, but not of the temple going type”, and said Nehru’s close association with several spiritual practitioners, including himself and Agehananda Bharati, was a clear testimony to this. “Panditji maintained a steady dialogue with spiritual practitioners of different denominations. While the communication with those like Agehananda Bharati—an Austrian Hindu monk belonging to the Dasanami Sanyasi order and a reputed academic—was essentially at the level of intellectual discourses on subjects ranging from interpretations of Vedanta, materialism and secularism. With those like me, who had a wider connect to the grassroots, he dwelt on direct social and political issues. All these interactions were solemn and purposive and were guided by the fundamental stimulus of evolving a better, harmonious and progressive India.”

Akshay Brahmachari even made a comparison between the spiritual leaders in Nehru’s fraternity and those close to Vajpayee and Advani in 1998. “The so-called spiritual leaders these people are in cohorts with, the ones such as Mahant Ramchandra Paramahans and Nritya Gopal Das, are certified lumpens as per the police records of Ayodhya and Faizabad. There are dozens of cases against them with such grave charges as land grabbing and attempt to murder. Ramchandra Paramahans openly boasts that he had a hand in the smuggling of the idol of Rama into the Babri Masjid, which is evidently a criminal act. Yet, he is accorded an important place even in meetings attended by Vajpayee and Advani. Just as Nehru’s fraternity with spiritual practitioners signified a virtuous acme, the band leaders such as Vajpayee and Advani have put together mark a nadir of nefariousness.”

Akshay Brahmachari, a Gandhian who wanted to assimilate the qualities of the “spiritual healer and the social engineer” in his personality, did admit during the course of the discussions on that day that Nehru’s successors, including his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister for approximately 15 years over three terms, and P.V. Narasimha Rao (Prime Minister in the 1991-96 period), had paved the way for the “nadir of nefariousness that he perceived during the 1998 regime”. The notorious proximity that Dhirendra Brahmachari had with Indira Gandhi and the equally controversial association Narasimha Rao had with Chandraswami were evidently exiguous in terms of spiritual and intellectual value or social significance. The relationship both these Prime Ministers had with the super-rich Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (Andhra Pradesh) was also similarly bereft of spiritual eminence. Sai Baba’s self-aggrandisement propaganda was such that he ascribed to himself the title of God the Creator of the Entire Universe. Both these leaders ignored the accusations of serial sexual abuses against him. Indeed, a far cry from the relationship Nehru had with Swami Agehananda Bharati and Akshay Brahmachari. Like the leaders of the Sangh Parivar, these Congress Prime Ministers, too, employed their godmen associates to strategise for elections, harm their political opponents and, more importantly, strengthen their financial power by advancing questionable patronage regime deals.

Narendra Modi, who would follow Vajpayee and Advani to power, did not figure in Akshay Brahamachari’s comparative analysis that day. That was because Modi was still not a big-time player in the BJP at that time and his connections with godmen such as Asaram Bapu—who along with his son Narayan Sai would be later charged with serial rapes of followers and their relatives—had not been widely noticed. However, there is little doubt that under Modi’s regime, both at the Centre and in the State of Gujarat before that, self-anointed godmen and godwomen got freedom and patronage to operate in whatever manner they wanted. Many of those who had the support of the person in power indulged in a spree of criminal activities and the “nadir of nefariousness” sunk to unprecedented depths. Asaram Bapu is a clear case in point. Right from the time he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has been a regular patron of Asaram Bapu and his veneration of the con guru has been recorded ever so many times. Modi’s association with Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the jailed Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda leader, is well recorded and lays bare a politician’s ingratiation to seek electoral support.

Business interests

Beyond the more and more palpable criminality of the so-called spiritual leaders, which is getting repeatedly exposed through a combination of factors, including disillusioned followers who have made bold to stand up to the con gurus, the support they have received from sections of the media and the dispassionate adjudication of some cases relating to criminal activities of the spiritual pretenders, the substantive financial empires built by almost all of them also stand out. This amassment of wealth is undoubtedly facilitated by the proximity to political leadership of all hues. This is a phenomenon that had been noticed right from the time of the Indira Gandhi-Dhirendra Brahmachari association. The business interest of Dhirendra Brahmachari, the self-professed “yoga guru and world peace promoter”, was of all things, in setting up a gun factory. Investigations in the 1980s had pointed to serious irregularities in the functioning of the Shiva Gun Factory set up by Dhirendra Brahmachari in Jammu. It was alleged at that time that the gun barrels used for manufacture in the Jammu factory were imported illegally.

Chandraswami, too, had connections with arms dealers such as Adnan Khashoggi. But the biggest case against him was the St Kitts affair. He, along with his associate Kailash Nath Aggarwal alias Mamaji, Narasimha Rao and former Union Minister K.K. Tewari, was accused of forging documents to implicate Ajeya Singh, son of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh. The documents allegedly forged by Chandraswami sought to prove that Ajeya Singh had opened a bank account in First Trust Corporation Bank in St Kitts and deposited $21 million. Chandraswami was acquitted in the case in 2004 for lack of evidence. But the controversies over the political conspiracies he hatched and his collusion with the Narasimha Rao regime to expand his own business interests as well as that of his friends and associates remained in focus for decades.

While the benefits Dhirendra Brahmachari and Chandraswami reaped from their Congress connections are legendary, the patronage regime that developed under the BJP governments of Vajpayee and Modi was much bigger, in terms of the scale and quantum of money involved. These BJP governments also patronised a number of self-anointed godmen and godwomen. The Modi regime, in particular, extended its promotion of crony capitalism into the realm of godmen entrepreneurship. If Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani are Modi’s favourites in the conventional business sector, Baba Ramdev, who had converted his yoga shivirs (yoga summits) into political platforms for Modi and the BJP, is undoubtedly the Prime Minister’s most preferred godman entrepreneur. The rise of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali empire in a short span of three years is an affirmation of this. Baba Ramdev’s transformation from being a yoga guru to India’s biggest fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) operator, who produces everything from soaps to noodles to energy boosters, is amazing. Patanjali’s turnover for 2016-17 was Rs.10,561 crore. According to Baba Ramdev, Patanjali’s growth is expected to double by next year. He was confident that “Patanjali would be in the leading position, and in most product categories it would be number one”. To achieve this, several Patanjali centres have enhanced their target for production. Mega production units in Noida (Uttar Pradesh), Nagpur (Maharashtra) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh) are being set up to manufacture goods worth Rs.60,000 crore.

Along with stories of political patronage that is facilitating all this, there are also allegations of illegal operations in these centres and suppression of those who have sought to expose this. Investigations into charges against Asaram revealed massive questionable financial dealings. Estimates are that the financial empire built up through illegal transactions could be valued at around Rs.10,000 crore. Asaram’s operations included the racket of black money cash loans, property trading and even investments in foreign companies in blatant violation of FEMA regulations. It was also estimated that the lending racket of black money cash loans involved around Rs.1,600 crore and the investments in foreign companies violating FEMA regulations is to the tune of Rs.1,500 crore.

Evidently, the crime graph of the self-anointed spiritual leaders is becoming starker. The usual crime stories of dacoity, land grab and rape are being supplemented with documentation of financial crimes too. This trajectory mirrors the larger parameters of the country’s political economy, especially the way it has developed since the early 1990s since globalisation.

This qualitative dimension has yet another eerie similarity with the power acquirement narrative of the current dispensation. After all, Modi’s emergence into the world of power, along with his close associate Amit Shah, who is the BJP president, was in the background of one of the most criminal minority genocides in world history.

Frontline special

Tainted guru

ANUPAMA KATAKAM the-nation

THE godman Asaram Bapu may not be as flamboyant as Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda who was recently convicted for rape, but he was also allegedly involved in several crimes. In September 2013, 76-year-old Asaram Bapu was arrested on the charge of having raped a 16-year-old girl. Subsequently, several allegations of sexual assault, illegal confinement, black magic, land- grabbing and murder were levelled against him. He is currently serving time in jail for rape.

With the Gujarat courts dragging their feet on the other cases, there has been little progress in them. Despite several serious and shocking charges and extremely incriminating evidence against Asaram Bapu, it is curious that the cases have not been fast-tracked. Additionally, it raises the question whether there is a need for stricter laws specifically for “gurus” and godmen who exploit the vulnerable.

It is expected that after the ruling against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Asaram Bapu will be the next godman to be tried. In fact, the Supreme Court had earlier this year asked the Gujarat government to expedite Asaram Bapu’s case. Recently, it rapped the State government for not examining the victim. The godman faces charges of rape and illegal confinement in two cases, one in Rajasthan and the other in Gujarat.

Asaram Bapu began his “spiritual movement” in Gujarat, which soon spread to other parts of western and northern India. He built a network of 400 ashrams in 12 nations and has a legion of followers. He enjoyed the patronage of senior politicians, bureaucrats, police officials and well-known businessmen. It is believed that he also enjoyed a certain amount of protection from his powerful associations. However, his smooth run hit rough weather in 2008 when four boys were found dead in two ashrams. This opened a can of worms and out tumbled sordid tales of sexual assault and the alleged possibility of children being used in sacrificial ceremonies.

It was the rape of a minor girl in an ashram in Jodhpur that led to his arrest. The victim’s parents filed charges and with witnesses bearing testimony to the crime, the godman was promptly booked and arrested. This story took a dark twist when three witnesses who spoke to the police were shot dead one after the other. Their families live in hiding, fearing that Asaram Bapu’s followers will eliminate them. “It’s the influence he continues to wield even from behind bars,” a former follower said.

Deaths in the ashram

On July 3, 2008, two boys aged 10 and 11 went missing from the Motera Ashram’s gurukul. Two days later their mutilated bodies were found by the Sabarmati riverbed near the ashram. According to informed sources, a part of one boy’s body was burnt and organs from the other’s body had been removed. The deaths led to a Statewide strike. “I have never seen the State shut down in this manner. People were really angry because the police would not register a complaint. It was at this time that the allegations of black magic began,” says Dakxin Chhara, a film-maker based in Ahmedabad who followed the issue.

Later that month two nursery students were found dead in the ashram’s toilets. Forensic examination revealed bite marks on one body. A reliable source said that a senior student was arrested in this connection. Strangely, the children’s parents did not press charges against the boy or Asaram Bapu.

The outrage that followed the killings led to an inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and later the setting up of the D.K. Trivedi Commission. Initial investigations conducted by a special force did not find any evidence of occult practices on the ashram premises. Six people were arrested in connection with the killings. The commission’s independent probe of the deaths revealed much more. Two aides of Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai told the commission that they had seen father and son perform strange rituals around dead bodies and that they had seen unusual tools used for these ceremonies. For reasons best known to them, the victim’s family initially backed away and their lawyer said they would not press charges. But a few years later, the boys’ parents took the ashram to court. The case is pending in the Sessions Court.

The D.K. Trivedi Commission summoned Asaram Bapu and his son several times but they refused to depose. According to informed sources, the father-son duo threatened the then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, that they would bring the government down if they continued to be harassed. Eventually, in 2012, they were forced to depose. The godman told Justice Trivedi that linking him to these crimes was a planned conspiracy against the ashram and the Hindu religion.

Several of Asaram Bapu’s followers admitted their children to the gurukuls attached to the ashrams. A source familiar with the case said that in August 2013, a couple’s 16-year-old daughter was summoned by Asaram Bapu as she was apparently unwell. They took her to his chamber to be treated. He asked them to leave her with him. The victim said that once the parents had left, Asaram Bapu removed his clothes and forced himself on her, according to a Special Investigation Team (SIT) report. The area was secluded and her screams could not be heard. Reportedly, he told her that he was God and that she should offer herself to him and threatened to kill her and her family if she resisted.

It took her a few weeks to confide in her parents, and when she did, they tried to confront Asaram Bapu. He refused to meet them. The parents then filed a complaint, and the guru was booked under Section 376 (rape) and several other charges, including a few under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act. Asaram Bapu was arrested a month later and has since been in the Jodhpur jail.

The victim’s family lives with 24-hour security. “That he (Asaram) is in jail does not mean the family is safe. Every killing took place after his arrest. People attached to this case have either disappeared or have been killed. He is a dangerous and powerful man,” said an Ahmedabad-based lawyer who was involved in the Motera boys’ case.

Asaram Bapu and his son also face charges of rape from two sisters in Surat. One of the women said that she was raped for three years by the guru. The other charges the son with rape. A SIT of the Gujarat Police, on the basis of depositions from about 100 witnesses, booked Asaram Bapu, his wife, daughter and four sevikas (volunteers) for rape, illegal confinement, criminal conspiracy and unnatural sex.

Dead and missing witnesses

When Asaram Bapu was arrested, his followers threatened to take revenge. It was not an empty threat. Three close associates of the guru who stepped forward as witnesses were shot dead.

Amrut Prajapati was killed on May 23, 2014. An ayurvedic doctor, he was Asaram Bapu’s personal physician. Prajapati had worked in various ashrams for 15 years. When he left the ashram in 2005, he was repeatedly threatened by the guru’s henchmen. He was even kidnapped once and beaten and warned not to reveal any information. Prajapati, however, went ahead and deposed as a witness. He was shot dead by gunmen in Rajkot outside his clinic.

Akhil Gupta, Asaram Bapu’s cook, was shot dead in Muzaffarnagar on January 12, 2015. He was a confidante of the guru and helped in the organisation’s finances. He told the SIT that he left the ashram in 2008 as he was not comfortable with the misdeeds of the father and son. Gupta was the prime witness in the 16-year-old’s rape case. He was shot dead while going home from work.

The third witness to be killed was Kirpal Singh. He had been a follower of Asaram Bapu since the early 2000s. He reportedly knew one of the alleged rape victims. Singh was a key witness in the rape case. He was shot on July 10, 2015, in Punwara.

A fourth witness, Rahul Sachan, also a key witness in the rape case, went missing on the afternoon of November 21, 2015. He is feared dead. Sachan was a former assistant of the godman and had reportedly quit the ashram as he was also privy to information which he did not approve of. Sachan had also been demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the assault and murder of witnesses. Charges have not yet been filed in these cases.

Asaram Bapu’s popularity

An informed source said Asaram Bapu was once a sugar trader in the Kalupur market in Ahmedabad. Born Asumal Sirumalani in Sindh, Pakistan, Asaram, like thousands of Sindhis, came to India during Partition. His family settled in Ahmedabad and began a business trading in various commodities in the wholesale market. Some sects among Sindhis are known to patronise gurus, and Asaram’s family godman was Lila Shah, who lived in the Himalaya. It is not known when Asaram took the “spiritual path”, but in 1971 he surfaced on the banks of the Sabarmati in a small hut-like structure where he would hold sermons and dish out ayurvedic medicines to the local people, according to the source.

“His biggest draw was [that] he did not distinguish between caste and community. Therefore, he was extremely popular among the backward classes of Gujarat, who bear the brunt of a regressive caste system that tends to define their existence,” the source said.

In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case, Asaram Bapu incurred the wrath of activists and the media when he said that the victim was partly to blame for the assault. It remains to be seen if the authorities will expedite his case and deliver justice to his victims.

Frontline special

Brand Amrita

R. KRISHNAKUMAR the-nation

THE “children” of Mata Amritanandamayi will celebrate her 64th birthday on October 8 and 9. The event on her 60th birthday, still fresh in public memory, saw over half a million people from all parts of the world converge at her ashram, a mini city located at one of the most scenic parts of Kerala between the backwaters and the Arabian Sea in the southern district of Kollam.

Hundreds visit the place every other day, at times over 15,000 on special occasions, including Christmas and New Year. The ashram at Vallikkavu is home to around 5,000 monastic disciples, householder devotees and visitors. Built up in the last three decades on the coastal land where she was born, “Amritapuri”, with its residential high-rises, shops, office complexes, temples, hospitals, schools, colleges and hostels, is also the headquarters of the Mata Amritanandamayi Mutt’s (MAM) international operations. The magnificent pillar-free hall where she gives her “darshan” itself is spread over 30,000 sq ft and is arguably the largest such prayer space in south India. The ashram is also the centre of operations of “Embracing the World”, her charity NGO with projects in several countries and “special consultative status to the United Nations”.

Mata Amritanandamayi’s USP is to welcome each of her visitors with a warm embrace. By a popular estimate, she has already hugged nearly 36 million people worldwide. It is her therapy for aching souls and a means to get them hooked to her cause that she describes simply as “love” or “compassion”. It is also what makes her one of the best-selling spiritual brands in India, “The Hugging Saint”.

During her public darshans, an exhibition of sheer stamina and willpower that is an eternal cause of wonderment for her devotees, she sits in the limelight late into the nights at a stretch on most days and delivers her three-second hugs to devotees waiting in surcharged queues, as eager volunteers drag one person out and pull the next one into her embrace.

There is never a dull moment on such occasions, and visitors see the spectacular transformation of a very ordinary woman into a charismatic mother figure, who sits there on a throne-like platform clad in striking white clothes, wearing a brown beaded necklace, matching bangles, a sparkling nose ring and a prominent round bindi on her forehead, surrounded by scurrying men and women who wait for even a twitch of her fingers or on her face, to read it as her wish or command.

On some days she dresses up and appears before devotees as the god Krishna; on other occasions, she is “Kali”, the mother goddess, when as per the wisdom of her cult, she is “most amenable to listen to her children’s worldly woes and wishes”. At most venues, she is also a conductor who sets the tone and pace of the captivating bhajans with a flaying of the arms or an abrupt turn of the pitch or pace or shrill cries of “Krishna” or “Govinda”, with all those around her forming the chorus.

A powerful hug at times, a chance to rub your forehead at her shoulders or be cradled on her lap, a few whispered words, a bunch of flower petals, a banana or an apple or a piece of chocolate from her hand—on any given day, there will be many in the queue seeking their moment of epiphany in such gestures from “Amma”, their “mother”.

She never lets visitors down even at impossible venues, where the queue extends into ungodly hours. “Amma” will be there for her devotees, at the end of hours of their impatient wait, with her gentle smile and compassionate gaze, accepting aartis and prayers like a goddess, hearing and consoling people through her gestures and words, doling out presents, directing her flock with a look or a wave of her hand, singing bhajans or giving speeches on the simple truths of a spiritual life.

Discourses on spirituality are often delivered as simple fables, stories that would be ideal even for a children’s book and later fill a chain of pamphlets, leaflets and magazines that spread Amma’s gospel online, as DVDs or in print.

Reports say, on foreign tours, where audiences are smaller, the embraces last longer. In what could be a striking contradiction to the purpose of spiritualism that these tours exude, invariably they also serve two other, perhaps less nobler, intentions: they are at once fundraising journeys as well as talent-hunting forays that bring in the crucial financial and human resources for Amritanandamayi’s multifaceted global empire, which includes a chain of ashrams, hospitals and educational institutions back home.

Her events are all well advertised and a sizeable retinue follows her whenever she moves out—throughout India and across several other countries. Highlights of her foreign tours include long road rides; well-organised darshan schedules either in her own string of “Mata Amritanandamayi Centres” or in prominent hotels or convention centres; fundraising events; sale of magic beans, crystal balls, blessed “Amma dolls” and trinkets; paid meals; and, surely, the free hugs. The hugs, from many accounts, even when people come expecting them, put most of them into a momentary state of bewilderment, especially if they are not used to such displays of soulful affection from a total stranger.

Seekers have said after an encounter with Amritanandamayi that they felt as though they had met a “god”, “saint”, “guru”, or “divinity” or that they felt a profound sense of “comfort”, “warmth”, “calmness” or “clarity”. Others come back confused, want to believe it all, yet struggle with their rationality and linger, happy with the opportunities that she offers to serve the poor and the needy. Some others prefer not to reflect on it at all, because they are generally disenchanted with the world otherwise or are emotionally and financially needy and want for their cares to be lifted and soothed for a while.

Many have emerged untouched by her embrace. But they are anyway not the flocking types and, after an encounter with “Amma” and her entourage, usually disperse into a sceptical world that pales into insignificance before the heady realm that seems to grow around her by the day.

Amritanandamayi was born on September 27, 1953, as the daughter of not-so-wealthy parents in a fishing village. By her own account, her seagoing neighbours used to share the fire from their hearths and their daily food on days when the catch was poor, “so that no one in the village would go hungry”. As a young girl, she was quite a handful for her parents, sleeping on the beach sands, going into trances, meditating on lord Krishna and composing and singing in his praise, and challenging tradition by hugging strangers who came seeking her counsel and refusing to marry, ever. A copy of her official biography, published by the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust in 1986, refers to some of her early “miracles”. They include, turning water into milk; creating an incessant supply of a kind of sweet, scented prasad from a jar of water; warding off a storm from an immediate neighbourhood full of early devotees; dancing on the beach to provide a sumptuous fish catch for local fishermen; pacifying a rowdy snake with a kiss with her tongue; of cows, parrots, snakes, cats and dogs coming to her aid for mundane things; and delivering people from madness, epilepsy, and “ghosts”.

A striking tale, part of the “Amma” lore, is her curing a leprosy patient by licking his wounds and nurturing him back to good health.

But that stream of fantastical deeds seems to have tapered off from public knowledge as she and her organisation aged into respectability and international prominence. In its place, today, there is this stream of Amma’s modern-day “miracles”. The list is long, among them the mega ashram complex itself; a state-of-the-art tertiary care hospital, one of the best in south Asia, the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) at Kochi; a multi-campus, multidisciplinary university, the Amrita Viswavidyalaya; a network of schools, Amrita Vidyalayams, with nearly 100,000 students at any given time; a global charity organisation, “Embracing the World”, which was inspired originally by the experience of an orphanage she built soon after the ashram was set up.

Social activities

The NGO has projects in nearly 40 countries today and claims to deliver 10 million meals every year for the poor in India, and over 1,50,000 meals through “Mother’s Kitchen” groups in over 50 cities in the U.S., among other activities in several countries. The stone-laying ceremony of a 2,000-bed Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre was conducted in the Greater Faridabad area in Delhi in May last year. The Kochi hospital and its satellite clinics are said to have treated more than three million patients “totally free of charge” since 1998, and spent more than Rs.433 crore ($69.68 million) on charitable healthcare until 2014. The university serves over 18,000 students in partnership with 30 leading universities in the U.S. and Europe. Most such institutions are run as charitable trusts.

Mata Amritanandamayi’s social activities came into sharper focus worldwide when the areas surrounding her ashram became the part of Kerala worst hit by the 2004 tsunami. It was the first such event in India, and the devastation was so huge that it tore away feeble support systems and left the survivors literally to fend for themselves. The Math offered food and shelter to hundreds of people, much before a shocked government machinery could do anything. Her NGO later said it had distributed six million free meals and tonnes of uncooked rice to disaster survivors. In all, MAM said it spent more than Rs.200 crore ($32.18 million) for relief and rehabilitation of the survivors, including building over 6,000 houses for them.

From then on, her organisation began to involve itself regularly in relief work, managing to raise enough funds whenever natural disaster struck India or any other part of the world. Governments and politicians began to treat Amritanandamayi with more interest and respect as her charitable undertakings spread.

Meanwhile, she also became an acknowledged world religious leader, being a regular invitee at the Parliament of World Religions and U.N. bodies, which she has addressed on several occasions from 1993 on issues ranging from religious differences to the environment, education, peace, slavery and human trafficking. Even as MAM grew its operations on a global scale, it had established firm roots back home in Kerala and other Indian States, becoming an umbrella organisation for its network of grass-roots “communes”, known as “Amrita kudumbams” (or “Amrita families”). These congregations meet frequently, conduct regular prayer sessions at neighbourhood homes, organise voluntary work, promote the sale of the Amma magazine, Amritavani, or collect donations for Amma events or charity work.

Such groups in all parts of the world act as the core of the Amrita cult, with many individuals and families among them donating a large part of their personal income and resources to Amma’s cause and gradually becoming emotionally and financially hooked to the organisation. There are a number of families that have bought flats at the ashram and have found sanctuary in its activities. Many young men and women have found jobs in MAM institutions or have tried to follow their guru’s monastic path by dedicating themselves as disciples.

Impressive acquisitions

Foreign devotees were the most generous of the early donors and the ashram has gained impressive assets in India and in other parts of the world, including sizeable real estate acquisitions. A report in The New York Times in 2013 said MAM had at least eight ashrams in the U.S. alone, with a 164-acre (one acre is 0.04 hectare) campus near San Ramon in California, founded in 1989, being the oldest among them. A Rolling Stone feature on Amritanandamayi in 2012 mentions the acquisition of a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland to serve as MAM’s D.C.-area ashram. The NYT report also quoted an ashram spokesperson as claiming that the organisation raised about $20 million a year from sources worldwide.

Back home, there have been complaints about it taking hefty donations for admissions for courses run by its hospitals and educational institutions and paying poor salaries to the majority of staff members. But like those of many other religious groups in India, the total assets of the organisation have so far remained a mystery and there are constant demands for a proper audit of the funds and for an explanation about its assets and their sources.

Isolated attacks against Amritanandamayi at her prayer meetings and the death of a couple of devotees/visitors at the ashram have led to controversies in recent years. But the Amritanandamayi ashram faced its worst ever scandal in 2014, triggered by the revelations in a controversial book written by Gail Tredwell (aka Gayatri), a former member of Amritanandamayi’s inner circle of disciples, who jumped ship, so to say, 15 years ago, after living with “Amma” for 20 years. In her book, revealingly titled Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness, and in media interviews before and after its release, she alleged physical and emotional abuse, embezzlement of funds, and rape (by an Amma aide) at the ashram, claiming she “had no choice but to publish her story” and that she “morally owed it to the public and the numerous devotees to share what she knew”.

In her interviews, she talked about her “complete dependence on the ashram, emotionally, psychologically and financially” when she stayed there for 20 years from the age of 21, that it was “not easy to leave”, that though many others would like to leave “their options were dismal” and that in her case, finally it was a leap of faith to opt out at the age of 41, “without any money, friends or relatives”.

The ashram and many of her former fellow residents have denied all the allegations, and a whole body of counterclaims have been published online since then. In an interview in 2014, Amritanandamayi herself said: “Amma has nothing to hide. I am an open book before the world. All the activities of Math can be seen and examined by anyone…. Any person will become angry if their desires are not fulfilled. The intellect’s ability to judge things properly is destroyed. Then they say many things without thinking. An individual who feels that ashram life is not for him (or her) has the freedom to leave the ashram anytime to get married. Even now, Amma is only filled with love for that daughter. I am praying that goodness and wellbeing come [for her]. The truth will shine forth in time.”

Frontline special

Panacea at a price

RAVI SHARMA the-nation

HE is the guru who gave himself a double prefix and was named one of the “Seven Most Powerful People in India” by Forbes magazine in 2009. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar commands a mighty financial and spiritual empire—The Art of Living (AOL) —that has grown and continues to grow exponentially ever since he founded it, rather quietly, on Bengaluru’s outskirts, circa 1981. The name of the organisation he started was perhaps inspired by the title of a book called The Science of Being and Art of Living written in 1963 by his guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom he abruptly left in 1980.

Today, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has a global presence: there are over 10,000 centres across 156 countries and more than 370 million people have been “touched” by any one of his many programmes that “provide techniques and tools to live a deeper, more joyous life”. He has a following that can rival any godman’s, although it is restricted to the middle- and upper-class educated sections of society.

His Bangalore International Centre on Kanakapura Road alone is spread over 100 acres (40 hectares), he runs a 244-bed ayurveda hospital, and his Sri Sri Tattva facility manufactures ayurvedic and proprietary medicines, cosmetics and food products. AOL’s India budget alone is around Rs 8 crore a month, which, a spokesperson said, “is mostly allocated for the running of the 425 free schools in tribal and rural areas and the 25,000 full-time staff and instructors”.

There is also a maze of sister organisations such as the International Association for Human Values, Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Vidya Mandir, Vyakti Vikas Kendra India, Sri Sri Rural Development Program and the Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Trust, among others, all of which have been established to “promote and support courses promulgated by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the AOL organisation worldwide”.

According to reports, the global annual turnover of the organisation is in excess of Rs.1,000 crore. AOL is also active in agriculture, where it is engaged in educating farmers on the benefits of saving native seeds, and river rejuvenation.

AOL philosophy

“Clarity in mind, purity in heart and sincerity in action. This is our formula. We follow yoga Vedanta as a philosophy and service as our main motivation goal,” he told Frontline during a 30-minute interaction at his centre in Bengaluru.

“Religion is like the skin, spirituality is the banana” is a famous quote of his. But going beyond spirituality, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been actively involved in political and peace negotiations, be it with militants in the Northeast or separatists in the Kashmir Valley or in Ivory Coast and in Sri Lanka. He even attempted to get Colombian rebels to surrender. He has initiated rehabilitation training for over seven lakh prison inmates. “I see inside every culprit there is a victim crying for help; this yoga Vedanta, this knowledge, has the power to transform,” he told Frontline.

But should a person like him, who preaches and swears by spirituality, be involved in matters of state? “Yes, certainly,” he said. “Gurujis are in touch with common men every day. I am in touch with 2,500 to 3,000 people on a normal day and 30,000-40,000 people on occasions and weekends. We hear their problems and their issues. At times we bring these issues to the notice of the people in authority. It is our duty. If there is corruption, water issues, deforestation, we have to take an active role. Activism is part of our duties. When you are in activism you have to communicate what you feel is just and what you feel is the need of the people to the people concerned. Some in authority are receptive, some are not. And it is not party-wise. It depends on the individuals. Some in authority are quite sensitive, sincere. Some of our appeals fall on deaf ears. Swamis in the past too were part of the social system. They started gurukuls. They were the ones who brought in ayurveda. Adi Sankara [the 8th century philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta] travelled the length and breadth of the country. He was a sanyasi. Yes he walked. But if in those days there was air travel he would have used air travel (laughs). He would not have said: ‘No I won’t go by air travel, I’ll walk.’ They used whatever means of transportation was available.”

What Sri Sri Ravi Shankar did not mention was that gurujis of all hues need to be in politics. They need to hobnob with politicians and the powers that be for their own well-being and protection. And political patronage for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been plentiful. He has been quoted as saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been “bashed unjustly for years and years”. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was also present at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2014 when Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. And a posse of BJP heavyweights, including Modi, a number of his Cabinet colleagues such as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and the then Minister for Urban Development M. Venkaiah Naidu, BJP president Amit Shah and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, all attended AOL’s three-day World Culture Festival in Delhi in March 2016, an event which caused irreparable damage to the ecologically fragile Yamuna floodplains, according to the National Green Tribunal (see box).

Early years

Born into a Tamil Iyer family in 1956 to Visalakshi and R.S. Venkat Ratnam, Ravi Shankar had his early initiation, according to M.N. Chakravarti, a former journalist and teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM), when he attended a TM class in Melkote in Karnataka as a 20-year-old.

Speaking to Frontline, Chakravarti said he and Ravi Shankar even travelled to Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh where they were roommates for nearly six months. They naturally got to know each other well, visiting each other’s houses in Bengaluru often.

According to Chakravarti, Ravi Shankar’s father was an extremely ambitious man who “pushed his son to accept and take up a role he was not really interested in”. “His father was a sort of star mom. He would keep pushing Ravi. Anyway Ravi was destined to take it up and eventually get millions of followers too.”

By 1977 he had become a staunch disciple of Mahesh Yogi, organising conferences on Vedic science and ayurveda and yagnas for him. He accompanied Mahesh Yogi, flying to various destinations, and was made in charge of the Maharishi’s Institute of Vedic and Management Sciences in Bhopal. Whether he considered himself to be the Maharishi’s successor is in the realm of conjecture. Suddenly, in 1980, he left Mahesh Yogi’s institute—although he has always maintained that he left of his own volition, knowledgeable sources said he was sent away and that when Mahesh Yogi got to know that he had started his own ashram in Bengaluru, he even refused to speak to his former disciple.

The story is that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had divulged, albeit inadvertently, sensitive information to an American “devotee” (who, it was later discovered, was an intelligence operative trying to ferret out information on Mahesh Yogi’s ashram and activities) he had befriended at the institute.

Both the American agent and Ravi Shankar were sent out on some trumped-up charges involving voucher payments. In 1982, Ravi Shankar undertook a 10-day period of silence in Shimoga (Shivamogga) in Karnataka and emerged with the Sudarshan Kriya®, a powerful breathing technique that became the centrepiece of Art of Living courses. Much to the chagrin of even some of his most ardent supporters and followers, he later patented it. To many of his then most ardent followers, this was another step in the “commercialisation of spirituality”.

Charges and criticisms

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s critics question the need to charge a fee for teaching a breathing technique. The rationalist Narendra Nayak said: “Do you have to pay to learn to breathe? Respiration governs several processes of the body. It is basically hyperventilation—when you pant like a dog, you lose carbon dioxide, it brings the pH levels up, respiratory alkalosis occurs, there is a decrease in ionised calcium and this results in a tingly feeling that is mistaken for nirvana. People like him perpetrate their hypocrisies but are the icons of the great Indian middle class.”

Besides disbelievers, a number of former AOL believers have also been critical of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the goings-on at AOL. Their charges range from nepotism and being pressured incessantly to organise successful events “come what may” with a certain number of paid participants to teachers being left stranded when they become a liability (since they have no legal contract, they are helpless).

There are also charges that donations and land meant for welfare projects are used to build the AOL corporate and the Sumeru group of companies, which is owned by his nephews Arvind Varchaswi and Ajay Tejasvi and their father Narasimhan.

Besides, there are allegations of financial irregularities in the organisation and acquisition of land by means fair or foul. According to some former believers, AOL falsely claims that some techniques were discovered by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

A retired official told Frontline that a few years ago he had been pressured by local goons to sell his 15-acre farm situated in the vicinity of the AOL ashram in Bengaluru. Although he had developed the land spending over Rs.1.25 crore, he was offered only Rs.33 lakh.

Under pressure after his fencing was repeatedly broken and the sprinkler systems were destroyed, he finally sold it for less than half of what he had invested on it. A few years later he realised that the same land was under the control of AOL. When he met Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, he was told: “That is your land. Come do seva.”

Blogs such as Confessions of a Guruholic (aka Klim’s Blog), Beyond the Art of Living (aka Skywalker’s Blog), Further Beyond the Art of Living and Leaving the Art of Living have published a litany of charges. In 2010, AOL complained initially in India and then in the United States asking that handwritten notes on the teaching of Sudarshan Kriya uploaded by bloggers be deleted.

AOL U.S. also subpoenaed Google and WordPress to reveal the identities of the bloggers in order to prosecute them for defamation, copyright breaches, trade libel and disclosure of trade secrets. Bloggers later called the Kriya notes a mix of cult mythology and self-explanatory banalities. In a ruling by the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose division) in 2012, AOL got two blogs removed but nobody’s identity was disclosed.

Expensive learning

Learning spirituality and yoga from AOL is expensive. The basic programme designed for beginners, the three day ‘Happiness Program’, which includes “powerful breathing techniques and wisdom that can change your life, guided relaxation through breathing, light yoga and stretching and insights into the nature of the mind, and guided meditation”, costs Rs.5,300 (on a twin sharing basis), while courses for the already initiated are twice as expensive. Overseas it costs even more. In the U.S., where over 200 cities host AOL courses, events and weekly follow-ups, the Sri Sri Yoga, Art of Silence, Sahaj Samadhi Meditation or the Panchakarma Cleanse, can set you back anywhere between $350 and $2,000.

Frontline had a look into the financial statements of a handful of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar-inspired organisations such as the Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth, the Art of Living Foundation and a few other affiliate entities registered in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. (The AOL entities in the U.S. and the U.K. are just the tip of the iceberg as AOL, as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar himself proudly stated, has a presence in 156 countries.)

According to Nonprofit Explorer, a body that researches tax-exempt organisations in the U.S., the Ved Vigyan Maha Vidya Peeth clocked a net income of $1,943,943 for the fiscal year ended December 2015; its total revenue was $4,683,472 and functional expenses totalled $2,739,529. The entity operates from Nashua, New Hampshire, and has been tax exempt since 1994, being classified under Personal Social Services (Human Services-Multipurpose and Other).

Contributions totalled $1,021,226 (21.8 per cent of total revenue) and programme services brought in $2,964,352 (63.3 per cent), while investment income amounted to $6,67,894 (14.3per cent) and rental property income $30,000 (6 per cent). Executive compensation accounted for $2,20,000 while other salaries and wages totalled $107,761.

The entity had net assets worth $20,660,371, with $20,834,597 in total assets and $174,226 in total liabilities. .

The Art of Living Foundation, headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, has been tax-exempt since 1995. For the fiscal year ended 2015, its net income was $1,441,251, with total revenue at $5,230,018 and functional expenses at $3,788,767. The notable sources of revenue were contributions, which brought in $1,987,218 (38 per cent) and programme services, which totalled $3,001,132 (57.4 per cent). Salaries and wages accounted for $5,87,828. The foundation’s net assets were $16,159,480, with total assets at $16,406,500 and total liabilities at $247,020.

The Art of Living Health and Education Trust is another non-profit organisation based in the U.S. Incorporated in 2008, the trust has Anurag Jain as its president and Ajay Tejaswi as its secretary. Created to “fund programmes that foster, promote, and support quality healthcare and value-integrated education around the world”, it is located in Washington and has been tax-exempt since 2009. The trust’s total revenue in the fiscal ended December 2015 was $131,353, while total functional expenses were $175,981. Revenue came purely from contributions.

Yet another U.S.-based organisation is the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), which is headquartered at Washington and has been tax-exempt since 2000. For the fiscal ended December 2015 the total revenue was $2,265,730, total functional expenses $1,569,410 and net income $696,320. Contributions accounted for $1,361,923 (60.1 per cent) and programme services $9,03,632 (39.9 per cent). Salaries and wages accounted for $514,728. The net assets stood at $2,088,019, with total assets at $2,142,193 and total liabilities at $54,174.

The Art of Living Foundation (U.K.), which is registered as a charity and has its registered office in Middlesex, according to the statement of accounts with the Companies House (the U.K.’s registrar of companies), clocked £185,645 in revenue for the financial year ended March 2016, most of which came from courses.

Expenditure amounted to £236,659, resulting in a loss of £51,014.

Pharmaceutical policy

Built on bias

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

THE Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government made some major policy announcements in the area of healthcare and drug prices this year. The National Health Policy (NHP) 2017, assuring universal healthcare, was unveiled in March, and in April the government declared its intention to promote generic drugs as opposed to branded drugs. These interventions roughly coincided with the imposition of caps on the prices of cardiac stents and orthopaedic knee implants, both of which were implemented by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA). In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at a meeting in Surat that doctors should only prescribe generic drugs. This, he said, would alleviate the huge burden of health expenditure on people. Soon, the nodal body, the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, began assiduously expanding the number of Jan Aushadhi outlets, irrespective of the fact whether the drugs were available there or not ( Frontline, August 4).

It was now evident that the government was thinking about a comprehensive pharmaceutical policy given the implications of the National Health Policy, 2017. A draft pharmaceutical policy, not yet in the public domain but under limited circulation, outlines the broad contours of what the government has in mind. The draft, a copy of which is available with Frontline, was discussed at a closed-door national consultation on August 30. Explaining the reason for a new policy, the draft says the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy (NPPP), 2012, had envisaged that the DoP would take steps “to initiate a holistic policy on the pharmaceutical sector in due course”.

It says: “It is high time, therefore, for formulation of a comprehensive pharmaceutical policy to guide and nurture the pharmaceutical industry to enable it to maintain and enhance its global competitive edge in quality and prices”. The reason for this vision was not concern for affordable healthcare but the industry’s worries, namely declining compound annual growth rates, non-adherence to quality standards and norms, growing competition from other countries, reducing the dependence on imports of key raw materials and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), and increasing indigenous discovery of new molecules. The NPPP 2012 had recommended a law for the pharmaceutical sector but curiously this does not find mention in the draft policy.

Ease of doing business

The draft policy, which has come under criticism by public health experts, dwells lightly on the regulatory aspects of the industry given the problem of drug pricing and unethical marketing practices. To date, there is no statutory framework or legislation to check unethical marketing practices by pharmaceutical companies. The emphasis continues to be on self-regulation. The draft talks about self-reliance in manufacturing, quality control of indigenously manufactured drugs, shortage of Nationally Accredited Laboratories, problems of perfunctory inspection of manufacturing premises and processes, non-compliance with World Health Organisation criteria for good manufacturing practices (GMP) or good laboratory practices (GLP), but does not lay down a concrete road map to achieve self-reliance.

In the same breath, it laments that approvals for new drugs take a long time, stating that it was contrary to the concept of “ease of doing business”; that the extent of R&D used by indigenous manufacturers is limited to new processes and there was a disproportionate focus on generic formulations where tough competition has already emerged; and that the competitive advantage was being undermined by the takeover of Indian companies by foreign companies, though ever since foreign direct investment in the pharmaceutical sector was liberalised investment in only one greenfield project had been received while the rest were in brownfield projects. It also talks about making quality drugs accessible at affordable prices and raises concerns of varying mark-ups for the same salt used. There were about 2,500 pharmacopeial salts while there were over 60,000 brand names with varying prices, it observed.

It also raised concerns about unethical marketing practices whereby doctors were lured to recommend particular brands with incentives such as sponsoring them on educational conventions, a phenomenon that Frontline had reported (see “Faulty prescriptions”, May 3, 2016).

The policy draft states that the pharmaceutical industry, essentially a “private enterprise-driven industry” with a negligible contribution of public sector undertakings (PSUs), was largely fuelled by exports and is India’s third largest foreign exchange earner. Quoting the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, the draft policy says the growth rate of the industry had come down from 14.36 per cent in 2010-11 to 8.68 per cent in 2014-15.

The first drug policy was formulated in 1978 following the recommendations of the Hathi Committee (1975), which underscored the need for self-sufficiency and availability of essential medicines at reasonable prices. It had delineated the role of the public sector vis-a-vis the private sector. The background given by the draft also mentions how between 1954 and 1966, the country was self-sufficient in the manufacture of intermediates—APIs and key starting materials for drug manufacturing. “The PSUs were laying a strong foundation and playing an important role in this. The DPCO 1966 had put all 18 APIs under price control,” the note said.

Despite the accolades to the PSUs, the note literally sounds the death knell for the pharma PSUs by stating that “the PSUs in the pharmaceutical sector have served their purpose. The robust formulation industry that has spawned and captured world’s imagination is on the solders [sic] of the giant PSUs that gave the initial push in material manufacturing as well as provided the manpower in the initial phases. Today however, their utility is very limited.... The indigenous private industry is by now healthy and robust, very competitive and fully capable to meet the societal and governmental needs.”

Despite a healthy and robust private pharmaceutical industry, the document laments that from 1996, globalisation changed everything as manufacturers began looking towards cheaper APIs, which could be imported now. The indigenous APIs and intermediaries, though better in terms of quality, were not price-competitive. Over the years, the competitiveness and capability to manufacture APIs went down. The draft claimed that it aimed to correct the dependence on imported APIs and KSMs and restore indigenous capabilities to manufacture them.

As reported by Frontline (“Perilous prescription”, February 3, 2017), the Cabinet had decided to do away with the pharma PSUs, including profit-making ones such as Rajasthan Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited. The draft policy, however, draws attention to the concerns of the pharmaceutical industry about compulsory licensing and the government’s moves to control prices of patented medicines. It talks about mega bulk drug parks, which State governments would be encouraged to set up in a PPP mode; for quality control, it says bioavailability and bioequivalence tests would be made mandatory for all drug manufacturers but it suggests self-certification as an option until renewals are done for existing licensees and also for manufacturing units until the Central drug regulator developed the capacity for annual inspections.

It recommends procurement for the National Health Mission from WHO GMP and GLP adopted units only; yet it liberalises the approval process of drugs by the Central or State drug regulator. The draft policy recommends public procurement of generic drugs in their salt names, which has been welcomed by public health activists. It also says that trade margins will be prescribed after stakeholder consultations.

Health Ministry ‘srole diminished

The draft policy admits that 65 per cent of medical costs are on drugs, which are mainly out-of-pocket expenses. As a remedy, it recommends that the list of medicines be prepared by the Department of Pharmaceuticals (the National List of Essential Medicines, or NLEM, is basically prepared under the aegis of the Ministry of Health and of Family Welfare) and the NPPA fix the price ceilings. The objective does not appear to be price control but ease of doing business as it suggests that “for ensuring accessibility and affordability of drugs, ease of doing business and more coordinated synergies, all the regulators, commissions pertaining to pharmaceutical industries/sector would be brought under the ambit of one department”.

It talks about strengthening the NPPA, which would be assisted by an advisory body for pricing nominated by the government and the advice would be recommendatory. Prices fixed by the NPPA will not be revised unless directed specifically by the government or any higher court. The Drugs (Prices Control) Orders (DPCOs), implemented by the NPPA, will contain only “off patent” medicines in its schedule; in patent medicines will not be subjected to price ceilings by the NPPA. “They would be regulated by compulsory licensing under the Patents Act or through emergency powers under para 19 of the DPCO, that too, only when expressly directed by the government in the Department of Pharmaceuticals to do so.” It lists out “interventions” in 11 paragraphs, which indicate that “this policy would significantly contribute to the ease of doing business in the pharmaceutical sector”.

Price control regime

It was learnt that the NPPA, which presented its views at a national consultation on the draft policy on August 30 and agreed with some of the policy prescriptions, felt that the draft did not explore affordability options. The linkage with NHP 2017, it stated in its presentation, was necessary to provide affordable healthcare; there was a need for an affordable healthcare Act; a need to differentiate between new drugs and tweaked scheduled drugs. The exemption to indigenously produced APIs and intermediaries from price control for five years would take a large number of NLEM drugs out of price control; and there was no mechanism suggested to check levels of indigenisation. All dosage forms and strengths of NLEM medicines, including essential medicines, should be brought under price control; the NPPA should be empowered to bring additional drugs under price control based on volumes, trade margins and doctors’ preferences and that it should have flexibility in pricing methodology. The government, it held, should not be the reviewing authority and an independent appellate authority should be made; the NPPA had an expert committee and that an advisory body in the DoP did not sound “logical”; it would dilute the NPPA, cause additional financial burden and delay decision-making processes; the NPPA should also be allowed to revise its decisions if there was a data error.

Irrational formulations

In fact, the draft policy glosses over the fact that the NHP 1983, had pointed out how drugs were not sufficient to ensure healthcare but the use of “rational” drugs was. It, therefore, held that the “Indian pharmaceutical industry had a vital role in serving the basic health needs of the people”. The subsequent promulgation of the historic DPCO, 1966, which was brought under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, saw the simultaneous expansion of the industry, including those producing API with the help of the pharma PSUs that had been around since 1954.

The Patent Act of 1970 further provided for process patent rather than product patent, which gave the necessary impetus to the industry. The drug policy was revised in 1986 and 1994, which saw a radical shift. The 1990s saw neoliberal economic policies, which had an effect on the overall health and drug policy sectors. The number of drugs manufactured by PSUs was limited to five; foreign investment limits were raised to 51 per cent; new drugs were exempted from price control for 10 years and price fixation and revision was entrusted to the NPPA. Quality control was under the mandate of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In 2002, the pharmaceutical policy had a major ideological shift—from being a “controlled regime” to a “monitoring regime”, the span of price control over drugs and pharmaceuticals was reduced substantially, and apparently it was in the name of catering to the interests of the weaker sections that the government arrogated to itself the right to monitor rather than control. In 2005, the Patent Act was revised to provide for product patents. In 2012, the pricing policy came into place while the NLEM was kept under the domain of the Ministry.

S. Srinivasan, founder of Low Cost Standard Therapeutics, a Vadodara-based public, non-profit charitable trust, told Frontline that all pharmaceutical policies in India needed to be assessed from the point of view of these factors: whether such policies would lead to increased affordability and availability of all essential and life-saving medicines; whether it would ensure self-reliance of the API sector in India ; whether it would ensure that only rational medicines are available as part of free health for all; whether it would use Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibilities, reinforce Section 3d to avoid evergreening and frivolous patenting or use compulsory licensing measures to promote competition in patented medicines and shut the door on all TRIPS Plus clauses in Foreign Trade Agreements such as data exclusivity, patent term extensions, and investor state dispute mechanisms.

“The policy stumbles on all these yardsticks. In clever and not so clever phraseology, it tries to bury NPPA, DPCO and price control measures. And also in the process goes against Supreme Court directives to put essential drugs under price control. There is no discussion of promoting rational drugs and getting rid of irrational fixed drug combinations [FDCs]. The market for 344 FDCs is only about Rs.3,000 crore, whereas the market for all irrational FDCs is in the range of Rs.25,000 crore,” he said. The policy, he said, talked about compulsory licensing half-heartedly without a road map. He said: “The policy drafters do not seem to be sanguine about the dangers of TRIPS Plus measures being discussed in regional comprehensive economic partnerships negotiations and other Free Trade Agreements. Its idea of quality promotion is naive and is built around introducing WHO GMP and bioavailability/bioequivalence measures.”

The policy, said Srinivasan, got a few things right—price control on all strengths and dosage forms of a drug, aimed to control trade margins and unethical drug promotion. The “pharmacy of the world” and the people of India deserved a better policy. This policy needs to be redrafted seriously after wide consultations with all stakeholders, including patients, he said.

Anant Phadke of the All India Drug Action Network said in the case of generic production (pushed by none other than the Prime Minister) all that needed to be ensured was that the manufacturing process of the generic producer was as good as that of the innovator. “This can mostly be done by meticulous observance of GMP and tested mainly by parameters given in the pharmacopoeia,” he said.

The report of the Ranjit Roy Expert Committee (July 2013), he said, had pointed out that instead of following the strict rules of the United States Federal Drug Authority (USFDA), India should follow the guidelines of Japan’s National Institute of Health Sciences and the WHO, which permitted exemptions for bioequivalence studies in cases of high solubility and low permeability oral-dosage forms, in addition to exemptions to high solubility and high permeability solid oral-dosage forms given by the USFDA.

It is clear that the draft is aimed at securing the interests of industry more than anything else. A policy document, running into all of 18 pages, does not do justice even to the industry. Its sweeping denunciation of the role of PSUs is as worrying as its prescription for the NPPA. Clearly, the DoP seems be to calling the shots, which may not be entirely in the public interest.

Public health

Blueprint for privatisation

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

FOR the first time in independent India, it has been openly admitted in a national health policy document that critical gaps in healthcare would be filled by the private sector. The draft three-year action agenda (2017-18 to 2019-20) of the National Institution for Transforming India, or NITI Aayog, talks of making a quantum jump in health outcomes in the next 15 years and about public-private partnerships (PPPs) as “growth enablers”. A concerted push to make PPPs an integral part of the health delivery system seems to be under way, the ostensible reason being to strengthen health systems without a corresponding increase in health budgets.

A project proposal and a draft model concessionaire agreement (MCA), drawn up by NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in June this year advocates adopting the PPP model in healthcare and health delivery services. The framework for such a partnership is outlined in a project which goes out of its way to accommodate and facilitate private players in the healthcare system in the name of augmenting select healthcare services for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in tier 2 and tier 3 cities, which, as is commonly known, already have better infrastructure compared with smaller mofussil towns and cities. The concessionaire agreement is to be drawn between State governments and selected private partners in the form of a PPP for the treatment of NCDs.

These services are primarily aimed at preventing and treating NCDs to “augment” the government’s NCD response capacity, especially at the secondary level, to “decongest tertiary facilities at the State level and expand access to secondary and basic tertiary level services at the district level.”

Letters were sent to Chief Secretaries of States in the first week of June asking for responses to the proposed MCA document that attempts to put in place a “robust, scalable and a sustainable PPP model in the health sector”. Interestingly, the model and the agreement aim at “prevention and treatment services for non-communicable diseases—(cardiac sciences, oncology and pulmonary sciences)”. This fits in with the growing global emphasis on NCDs, despite the fact that communicable diseases such as multidrug- resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), vector-borne diseases and hunger-induced morbidity still constitute a major challenge to the morbidity and mortality burden in developing countries such as India. The objective to create infrastructure and develop capacity in the assigned district hospital to provide basic tertiary care and advanced secondary care related to the three NCDs does not, therefore, indicate a seriousness regarding the health challenges facing the country, more so in the context of more than a hundred infant deaths in two district government hospitals (BRD Medical College, Gorakhpur, and District Hospital, Farookhabad) that have underscored the need for greater government expenditure on health as a whole.

The reasons cited for this PPP push in the area of NCDs include goal number 3 of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals which aims at a one-third reduction in premature mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment. Other reasons include “large infrastructure gaps”, especially in rural areas, significant gaps in human resources, especially at the level of specialists, and constrained fiscal space for States to provide increased allocations for NCDs. Quoting the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 71st Round (January-June 2014): Key Indicators of Social Consumption in India, which found that 72 per cent of the rural populace and 79 per cent of the urban populace sought healthcare in the private sector owing to shortage of infrastructure and human resources, the draft note makes a strong argument for augmenting infrastructure and addressing the gap in the “operational capacity” and in human resource. The implementing authority (the State government) would not only hand over built-up space or vacant land to the project, but allocate “designated constructed area for establishment of allied commercial services as cafeteria, bookshops, ATM, that add value for visitors at the hospital”.

NITI Aayog had engaged the World Bank as a technical partner and apparently held wide consultations with the States, industry and other stakeholders in the run-up to the draft MCA. In order to give a direction to enhanced private sector engagement through PPPs to address the “growing burden of NCDs”, NITI Aayog’s project aims to “improve access to quality screening, diagnostic and treatment services related to cardiology, oncology and pulmonology in district hospitals through public-private partnerships”; decongest tertiary facilities at the State level; reduce out-of-pocket expenditures on diagnosis, treatment and care; and create infrastructure and augment capacity at district hospitals to provide tertiary care and advanced secondary care in the three NCD specialities in the medium and long term. Under the scheme, the services can be accessed by everyone; the patients referred by the State government will receive cashless NCD services and the costs will be reimbursed to the private parties at agreed rates. Another category of “patients”, designated as “self-paying” patients, will pay at agreed rates. The concept of “free treatment” at government hospitals does not appear to be part of the scheme though the draft aims at reducing out-of-pocket expenditure.

Augmenting private players at public cost

The district hospitals to be short-listed for the project in tier 2 and tier 3 cities are expected to have not less than 250 functional beds. As part of “augmenting the capacity of the district hospitals”, hospital authorities are expected to allocate 30,000 square feet for a 50-bed facility and 60,000 square feet for a 100-bed facility as the minimum space for setting up the PPP facility. The project framework further suggests that for a 50-bed facility, a minimum of 75 per cent of the space requirement should be met by the built-up structure of the hospital and for the remaining, vacant land within the premises of the hospital could be allocated by the State government. State governments, the framework suggests, have the freedom to change the minimum requirement of built-up space to be allocated within the district hospital depending on the situation and space available. But in the same vein, the NITI Aayog proposal says that “lesser the allocated space within the existing structure of the district hospital, higher will be the construction cost and time required to construct and operationalise the facility,” which means that district hospitals will have to allocate more space, all in the name of augmentation. This means that space that could have been used by the district hospital for providing healthcare, presumably free healthcare, for the treatment of diseases that were the priority in that particular area, would now be siphoned off to set up a PPP facility.

The processes by which these formulations have been arrived at are equally revealing. The document states that the minimum services to be offered at the district hospital was “determined through a series of intensive consultations over a period of three months with the working groups constituted by the NITI Aayog (including the participation of key private health providers, MoHFW, a few States and an expert group of healthcare providers), four regional workshops organised by the CII [Confederation of Indian Industry] and inputs from representatives of the MoHFW, select State governments and district hospital representatives”. The choice of minimum services to be provided was based on feasibility factors that included availability of specialists, infrastructure, patient load, equipment, etc. Clearly, only a few States and a few stakeholders were involved in the process.

PPP services

Clinical services and clinical support services will be provided around the three specialities of oncology, cardiology and pulmonology. State governments are expected to “endeavour to establish linkages with population based screening programmes under the NPCDCS [National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases and Stroke] at the level of sub centres/health and wellness centres, PHCs [primary health centres] and CHCs [community health centres]”. Perhaps to ensure the success and viability of the PPP project by a constant flow of patients, the NITI Aayog document says that “State governments will ensure appropriate communication to all PHCs and all the NCD clinics functional at the CHCs under the NPCDCS for referring patients to specialised services under the project”. In what seems to be a further push for such arrangements, State governments have to “establish linkages with existing national and State initiatives such as the emergency transportation/ambulance services for patient referrals and health protection schemes such as RSBY [Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana]/National Health Protection Schemes/State level insurance schemes to leverage upon the facilities and resources to arrive at greater synergies”.

District hospitals will also “share” ambulance, blood bank, physiotherapy, biomedical waste disposal, mortuary, parking, inpatient payment counter, hospital security and sanctioned electric load services with the NCD services under the project, which means that the already overburdened services in district hospitals will be linked with those offered under the PPP project.

Further, the project envisages that the “private partner will in co-ordination with the Medical Superintendent of the District Hospital develop an inventory of services that would be shared with the district hospital” and “will develop a Standard Operating Procedure [SOP] in consultation with the district hospital authorities documenting the process of accessing the support services. The MS will approve this SOP and it will be binding on both the private partner and the district hospital authorities.” The operative word here, “will”, negates any element of choice that a hospital administration might have in the best interests of the institution run on public money. Revenues will be generated by the State government and the paying patients.

The proposal also recommends a concession period of 30 years for the project to become financially viable and attractive enough for private partners to invest in. Under the section detailing the “financial structure” of the PPP, the NITI Aayog document clearly states that there would be “no reserved beds or no quota of beds for free services”. The State government will reimburse the private partner for the patients referred to and approved by the designated authority in the district hospital. The proposal also lays down the volume share of diseases to be treated at the inpatient departments thus: 75 per cent cardiac cases, 10 per cent oncology and 15 per cent pulmonology cases. It says that these “assumptions might change from State to State or district to district based on epidemiological profile and existing patient load”, though the recommended percentages, it says, are based on national data.

Apart from the conceptual tilt towards NCDs in the project, there is a more specific bent towards a particular kind of NCD that are lifestyle-related and are likely to afflict the upper middle classes. In a paper titled “Trends in Coronary Heart Disease Epidemiology in India” published in Annals of Global Health (Volume 82, Issue 2, March-April 2016), the authors, Rajeev Gupta, Indu Mohan and Jagat Narula, write that the geographic distribution of coronary vascular disease mortality in India indicated that in less-developed regions, in the eastern and north-eastern States with low human development indices, there was a lower proportionate mortality compared with better-developed States in the southern and western regions.

The project proposal conveys the impression that all State governments will be on board with such a proposal, which clearly involves the overburdening of existing services for emergency transportation and for patient referrals. It is revealing that sections in the document explaining the run-up to the project framework indicate that not all State governments, or all stakeholders such as public health experts and representatives, had been consulted before drafting the concessionaire, the guidelines and the project proposal. The CII, on the other hand, seems to have been deeply involved in the consultations.

Challenged in Rajasthan

If the NITI Aayog proposal was about carving out spaces in district hospitals for private healthcare operators in the garb of addressing NCDs, in Rajasthan, entire PHCs face the danger of being handed over to private providers. The experience of PPP in healthcare has not been encouraging as two petitions filed in the Rajasthan High Court with similar content, one by the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) and the other by Narendra Gupta, convener of JSA (Rajasthan) show. The core concern is that PPP is a privatisation scheme aimed at destroying the public healthcare system.

The issue concerns some 213 PHCs that were handed over to private parties under the “Run a PHC scheme” mode. The Rajasthan government, through short-term e-tender notices issued in December 2015, invited bidders (the bidder could receive up to Rs.30 lakh per annum to run a PHC) for this scheme. The JSA contends that PHC-related issues were the responsibility of the government. The State chapter of the organisation had successfully campaigned for free medicines and free check-ups, resulting in the formation of two schemes in the State. The petitions also contend that the principle of handing over PHCs to private operators in PPP mode was against the National Health Policy 2002. (The NHP 2017 endorsed this mode wholeheartedly.) The JSA petition also points out that the Central government had, through the Health Secretary, written a letter in August 2015 to express concern over the manner in which the Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued. In July 2015, the BJP government led by Vasundhara Raje had floated a similar tender but it did not take off. The Health Secretary had cautioned that similar schemes in other States had not worked out and suggested that the government take up a few PHCs as a pilot project. The National Health System Resource Centre also examined the RFP and recommended that the State government experiment with a few PHCs.

The petitions point out that preventive and health-promotion activities, an important component of primary health services, will not be carried out competently by private providers.

Another concern was that the referral system, from the sub-centre level to the medical college level, would be broken if PHCs were privatised, as private operators would refer patients to private hospitals. The tender did not make it mandatory for private operators to refer patients only to public hospitals. Moreover, PHCs in the 17 districts selected for PPP mode were not in desert or tribal areas with a significant tribal population. The “critical gaps” in health delivery services, therefore, were not being filled. “The PHCs have been selected so that they can serve as feeder centres for the private medical college and for the purpose of referring the patients to private medical colleges and hospitals,” says the JSA petition. The majority of the selected PHCs were on State or national highways.

The matter is in court, and the State government is supposed to give a status report in September providing information regarding the working of the PHCs which have been given to private players on PPP mode.

NITI Aayog speaks about a course correction and a critical analysis of the factors that undermined the implementation of PPP projects in the past. But the radical course correction under way in healthcare is not in the public interest. While the government waxes eloquent about making generic medicines available and healthcare affordable, the direct push to involve the private sector in healthcare in an already hugely privatised healthcare system ignores the interests of the public.

Interview

‘It’s about the unmaking of modern India’

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

SHE is endlessly polite. And always unfailingly gentle. A niece of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal can easily afford to revel in nostalgia. Yet, like a seasoned boxer, she has chosen to fight one more round knowing full well that the challenge in front of her, and all of us for that matter, is more daunting than ever before. It takes just a mention of contemporary India for her to express in a gentle tone how acutely disappointed she is with the way India is shaping up and how divisive forces are besmirching the nation’s fair name in the global community.

Her decision to return the Sahitya Akademi Award to protest against the killing of the rationalists M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq on the charge of storing beef inspired more and more writers and poets to return their awards and started a new debate on freedom of thought and expression. The spark for the fight civil society put up in the wake of the killing of Gauri Lankesh was provided by Nayantara Sahgal’s early protest.

Her latest novel, When the Moon Shines by Day, is a scathing indictment of right-wing forces. Although she refrains from mentioning any Hindutva leader by name, the parallels she draws leave no room for doubt as to who she has in mind. When the Moon Shines by Day may have arrived at a time when the nation has entered its darkest times, but she says there is hope.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview she gave Frontline:

In early 2015, you were the first to draw attention to India’s pluralist ethos being in danger. Are you not sad that your worst fears are coming true?

Not only I, but millions are sad and despondent. It is much worse than the Emergency. Violence has taken the place of debate. Debate is outlawed. For anyone who disagrees with the government, there are ruthless consequences. It is seen everywhere. Innocent men are being murdered in the name of gau raksha. We have seen Mohammad Akhlaq murdered on the excuse that he was storing beef. It all started with the murder of three rationalists. Now, we have the Gauri Lankesh murder. Where is the rule of law? Where is the freedom to write, to criticise? It is very different from other times, like the Emergency or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. It is very different because we are now ruled by a different ideology. People fear that there is a fundamental change.

In a democracy, governments change. Parties contest and lose elections. Governments must change. Policies also change according to the need of the moment. All that is usual. There is no quarrel with that. It happens in every country. The quarrel is that the fundamentals of India are changing. This government does not realise that we have been a pluralist society and polity, greatly enriched by other lifestyles, respectful of different streams of being an Indian. Today, we are told that we must become a Hindu Rashtra. It is fundamentally different from what we have always stood up for.

Are we not practically a Hindu Rashtra today? We see these so-called gau rakshaks getting away with murder in the name of cow protection.

The actions that are taking place point towards that. Today, for instance, history is being rewritten. Any opinion that does not rhyme with the Hindutva ideology is wiped out. They are cutting out the whole Mughal Empire [from history]. Not just Aurangzeb, they are now targeting Akbar. Everything non-Hindutva is sought to be shown as evil or foreign.

At another level, Jawaharlal Nehru is being wiped out. They hate what he stood for, what he did for the country. But they have not targeted Mahatma Gandhi yet. They understand that it might be going too far to attack him yet. But they will be able to do so once they are able to amend the Constitution.

Complete erasure of Nehru

You say Mahatma Gandhi has been spared by Hindutva forces, but we have instances of Godse temples being built, his statue being garlanded.

These things are going on simultaneously without much disapproval from the government. However, there is no official rejection of Mahatma Gandhi by the government unlike Nehru, who is dismissed with only a passing mention in history books. Nehru was one of the founding fathers of the country; the one chosen by Gandhi ji himself. But they want to wipe out his memory. They are looking at complete erasure of what he stood for so that today’s schoolgoing generation would not know him.

The Hindutva forces had no role to play in our freedom struggle. Like the Muslim League, the Hindutva forces had an equal role to play in the creation of Pakistan. Today, they want to give our nation a religious identity. Hence, Nehru is anathema to them.

Will it be fair to say that in today’s circumstances, nationalism and religion are the new opium of the masses?

Not at all. We certainly cannot and should not say that. It is an ideology the government is feeding itself on and trying to foist on the masses. But there is resistance everywhere, from writers to film-makers to artists and activists, everybody is speaking out against an ideology of hate and division. The masses do not believe in this ideology, and they are speaking out.

You have been pretty vocal in your criticism of the Narendra Modi government. However, the Congress-led opposition has not exactly covered itself with glory.

You know it is curious that people have risen and spoken from different parts of the country, but political parties fail to understand the urgency of the matter. However, it seems there are signs of change. It might just be about to change if you look at some of the recent events carefully. I don’t belong to any political party. I am an outsider, a mere observer, but it seems things might just improve. Sharad Yadav [Janata Dal (United) leader] is moving away from Nitish Kumar to revive the “Mahagathbandhan”. I have noticed Sitaram Yechury [Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary] saying that it is time to change tack, not go it alone in elections. So, if the opposition does come together, keeping their differences aside, things will get better.

As far as the Congress is concerned, I personally feel the party is full of talent, knowledge and experience. It has extremely able men and women. If they are allowed to come forward, they are capable. Any one of them could lead the party. If it is Rahul Gandhi [Congress vice president] they want, they have to rally behind him. Now, after the Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley, where he delivered a speech] tour, he has announced that he is ready to take up the job. I can only wish him and the party well.

You returned the Sahitya Akademi Award given for “Rich Like Us” following the murder of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare. Gauri Lankesh’s murder proves that things have not improved.

I am pained. One sees and hears these things with anguish, with a sense of hurt. Where are we headed? But again, as I say, people are speaking up. Not just rationalists or journalists, all others too.

Coming to your latest work, “When the Moon Shines by Day”, will it be fair to call it incidental fiction? I say this because the work has such a strong contemporary ring to it… there are history books being banned and the like.

Well, it is a work of imagination. Having said that, every novel of mine has a contemporary flavour. It is based in the politics of the present. My work, in the past, was about the making of modern India. In this case, it is about the unmaking of modern India. The unmaking was evident in a novel like Rich Like Us. It had the Emergency in the backdrop. I wrote about how people reacted in that situation. This story is about contemporary times.

‘People are not keeping quiet’

Having seen both the Emergency and the current onslaught on pluralism and free speech, how do you think people are reacting to the challenges today? Are they kind of falling in line with the government, as some fear?

People are not keeping quiet. What we see is there are huge organised protests among different social groups across the country. Whether Dalits who refused to pick up cow carcasses in Gujarat [after the Una lynching incident] or writers who spoke up [after Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award] or activists who are on a country-wide trip of protests, people have reacted, have opposed.

We have had “Not in My Name” protests, the Karavan-e-Mohabbat tour. There have been huge protests on Gauri Lankesh’s murder, too. People are not keeping silent. It is truly remarkable when one considers that the consequences of not keeping quiet can be grave in today's times. Yes, the common people are afraid. They are afraid with good reason. They are not only being lynched by mobs, but a system is being built which does not respect any other way except Hindutva. When men are lynched, there is an uproar in our society, but nothing has happened to criminals. Just the other day, the accused in the murder of Pehlu Khan [who was lynched by cow vigilantes in Alwar, Rajasthan], those he had named in his dying declaration, were let off.

You say people are speaking up, but a large section of the media seems to have fallen in line with the dispensation.

We have two great pillars we rely upon: the judiciary and the media. Unfortunately, today three-quarters of the electronic media are owned by one business house. Many of the channels have become chamchas of the government. It is a shame. It is very unfortunate for Indian democracy. At such a time, we salute those who have stood up and remained outspoken despite the risks. We have a very strong tradition of independent print media, times when editors and columnists were courageous despite the challenges. They shine in comparison to today’s television channels. It is a lot of rubbish on TV.

Early in the novel you say, “Without art and literature we would not know the truth”. Yet it is these very forms that are being threatened today.

Art and literature are targeted by all authoritarian regimes. There is a simple reason. They have a long life. Today, if you report a piece of news, which the authoritarian government does not like, it is cut out, it is edited. However, you cannot do that with art. It is a work of imagination. It outlives the regime, outlives the artist. If you remember I have referred to the work of Picasso in my new novel because art can be dangerous to dictatorship. No dictator likes art or free speech.

You have written in the book, “Religion joined to nation is a marriage made in hell. We know this in Germany.” We do not seem to have learned anything from Germany if today’s events are anything to go by. Please comment.

On the contrary, I feel we seem to have learned everything from Germany! We are following their script. The line you refer to is spoken by a character in the novel. Here in India, we know how the Hindu Mahasabha and even the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh always upheld European dictators. For them, Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler were great examples to be emulated. From way back, they have considered them icons. They are trying to follow the same pattern.

You also say, “In matters of cruelty, I am beyond surprise”. It rings a bell in the times of mob lynching, even Myanmar brutalities.

We have seen terrible cruelty in our times. Yes, there are so many incidents of mob lynching. Innocent men being killed as they go about their everyday affairs. Writers being killed because you don’t agree with what they write. These are frightening times.

How long did it take you to pen the book? It seems to resonate with contemporary energy.

I am glad you feel that way. The book took just a few months. I get other assignments for writing every now and then. I review some books, do some pieces on invitation. Besides, I have my own business and family matters to attend to. I wrote Rich Like Us over six months. This book, with all the intervening gaps, took maybe four or five months. Personally, I believe that a book has to resonate with the reader. If it starts a thought process in the reader, the author is successful. If the reader laughs or cries, you have made it as an author. You do not forget such a book quickly.

Every few years you come out with a new book. When your next book arrives at the bookstores, do you think India would still be called a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic?

I hope so. For a writer, it is his business to write, to reflect. I reflect on political situations. What I very much hope for is a strong opposition, which will be able to project itself in a united way. The point of unity is what we must maintain in our democracy. We must stay a united, pluralist society. That should be our concern.

Freedom of expression

A Santhal suppressed

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

WHEN the author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance was first released in 2015, there was just a ripple of curiosity, a nod of appreciation. And the inevitable murmur of protest from the moral brigade. It was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2016 and discerning readers saw in Sowvendra a brave new voice from the predominantly tribal belt of Jharkhand, while others found in him a storyteller with a difference whose writings carried the scent of the soil. The book seemed destined to be a steady earner, moving off the shelves like the sun sets rather than set a river aflame. Sowvendra himself accepted all the compliments in his usual self-effacing way.

The peace and quiet and hopes of a steady business, however, ended with a Facebook post and an online article by Sowvendra. There was moral outrage and allegations of Sowvendra maligning the Santhals of Jharkhand. The complainants included the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and JMM (Jharkand Mukti Morcha) coalition government of Jharkhand, the opposition parties and an academic from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

First, they expressed their ire online. Sowvendra decided to stay offline, away from Facebook. And for a brief while, he did not take phone calls or answer WhatsApp messages. He even refused media interactions. It turned out that he was acting like an ostrich to the rampaging multitudes. Soon his opponents hit the streets of Ranchi, burnt effigies of him and banned his book.

And just when one thought his woes could not possibly get worse, Sowvendra, a medical officer who works in tribal areas, was suspended from his government job. “They issued a show-cause notice on August 11, giving me 24 hours to respond. However, they suspended me without giving me an opportunity to explain myself,” recalls Sowvendra. “They can lodge an FIR, file a charge sheet, anything. I went off the mobile phone and Facebook. It was too much to take. I do not know when the suspension will be revoked. I am hopeful because there is no evidence of wrongdoing on my part.”

By all accounts, The Adivasi Will Not Dance was banned without being read by the people who protested against it. Sowvendra was suspended from service for not seeking permission to pen a work of fiction.

Sowvendra is too shaken to relate his side of the story. All he can manage is “I am too embarrassed to recall all that I went through. I am too embarrassed for my opponents, the kind of filthy language they used, the allegations they hurled. It is all too distressing. And to think there was an assistant professor of Jamia Millia Islamia, too, among those casting aspersions.” Sowvendra was accused of penning obscene verses, indulging in pornography, and projecting the Santhal culture in a wrong manner. “I cannot hurt the tribal cause. I am a tribal myself,” is all he offers in his defence in a telephonic conversation from Pakur town, about 400 kilometres from Ranchi.

When the ban was mooted unanimously in the Jharkhand legislative Assembly, the government referred to a short story titled “November is the Month of Migration” in the collection. The story is on the plight of a desperately poor woman who offers herself to a policeman in return for a plate of food and a few rupees. The story hurts. It rankles. And, as Sowvendra discovered, it provokes. The government found it offensive to the dignity of a tribal woman. Some even found the story pornographic. Soon, Chief Minister Raghubar Das ordered that copies of the book be confiscated. He also ordered legal action against the author under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which carries a jail sentence for up to two years.

However, Sowvendra is not alone in his fight. “I have been very fortunate [in] the way people in general, and authors, activists and journalists in particular, have joined my fight. I feel much better,” Sowvendra says.

Solidarity and support

Indeed, there was an outpouring of support for him not just from social activists and fellow writers such as Tabish Khair, Sudeep Sen, Rahman Abbas, Anees Salim, Shovon Chowdhury and Ruchir Joshi, but also bankers, chartered accountants, doctors, professors and journalists.

Meetings in support of Sowvendra were held in places as far off as Kolkata and Aligarh, Panaji and New Delhi. Hailing Sowvendra as the brave new voice of Indian writing in English, some even went on to draw parallels with Premchand and Mahasweta Devi.

Fellow Adivasi writers like Mridul Haloi, Sandeep Sufi and Sudip Chakravorty spoke up too. There were online petitions of protest against the ban on the book. Supporters of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner found the ban “absurd” and said it set “a dangerous precedent”. “The book does include some sexually explicit scenes, but calling them ‘indecent’ would be extreme prudishness. If books that include lovemaking scenes were to be banned, hundreds of thousands would have to be banned, not to speak of the Kamasutra,” said an online statement signed by over a hundred writers, academics, artists and professionals. Even Amnesty International came out in support of Sowvendra.

“I still fail to understand how a book published two years ago suddenly upset people. Maybe it was an article I penned for Scroll, where I talked of the Santhali script, that ignited it,” Sowvendra says.

Ol-Chiki and Santhali identity

As Sowvendra recalls, the protests against the portrayal of Adivasis in the book started after the author posted on his Facebook account an article he had penned about Ol-Chiki, the standard script accepted by the government of India to write the Santhali language. Many Santhal groups, though, want the language to be written in Roman script. Sowvendra was caught in the crossfire in the age-old battle for identity based on the script of the language. “I can see a connection. Maybe the obscenity charges are a facade. But anybody who accuses me of projecting the Santhali women in a wrong way does not know me. I am a tribal. I won’t do anything to hurt the community,” he says, alluding to the piece he had written earlier this year in which he voiced his concern over the plight of the community. “The position of the Santhals is still not worth singing and dancing about. Those who have the means to better themselves, they are doing well. Those who have nothing, well, they have nothing.”

Sowvendra should know. Hailing as he does from Ghatsila, which was one of the centres of the Santhal Revolt in 1855, his opinion should matter. “If we ban books, so many stories will remain untold. The world should have its mirror,” Sowvendra states, and adds, “I am a tribal. I will never insult my brethren.”

Frontline special

The paradox in Tamil Nadu

HIS flamboyance would have easily earned him stardom in Bollywood; his articulation and attitude would have made him the first choice for corporate head honcho. The 60-year-old Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev—the tall, dapper mystic with flowing white beard, often dressed in a loose kurta over a dhoti, a custom-made shawl thrown carelessly across the shoulder and a turban tied firmly around his head—skilfully blends spiritualism with business and social activism.

Whether at the multicrore Isha Yoga Centre’s event where he teaches yoga and “inner engineering” or at the various fora where he speaks on economic and social issues, Jaggi Vasudev keeps his audience, who hang on to his every word, in thrall. A hefty fee, euphemistically termed as donation, is charged for the Isha Foundation’s events, whose opulence inspires awe and wonder. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended one such function held at the Isha Yoga Centre at Velliangiri near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

Currently, Jaggi Vasudev is on a mission, a month-long programme on inter-linking rivers, “Rally for Rivers”. He launched it on September 3, driving the fuel-guzzling Mercedes Benz G63 AMG himself, from Kanyakumari to Haridwar. “Rivers are veins to earth,” he said.

There are several spiritual gurus and godmen in Tamil Nadu, a State known for the self-respect movement which strongly advocated rationalism and atheism. What perplexes rationalists is how the people of the Dravidian heartland, where social reformists such as “Periyar” E.V. Ramasamy lived and preached rational thinking, could be home to men who sell spirituality for money with their illogical claims.

Sociologists point out that people’s unflinching religiosity and power-centric politics mix seamlessly in the State. Whenever these godmen appear in public, even powerful people pay their obeisance to them. Ordinary people believe that they can find remedies for illnesses and misfortunes through the “godmen”. “When people experience so much dissonance around them, they deify these godmen, who have no inhibitions in wearing the mantle of divinity. Poverty, ignorance, fear and superstitions help these so-called spiritual leaders to continue their acts of fraud,” says Ramu Manivannan, Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Madras in Chennai. “Instant salvation and eternal bliss are promised here,” he says.

These spiritual gurus do not confine themselves to what constitutes sainthood in the traditional sense. They build hospices, plant saplings, run schools and build temples, among other things and turn their institutions into billion-dollar corporate entities on the way to emerging as alternative power centres. Their larger-than-life images are far removed from institutionalised orthodoxy.

Image construction

Ramu Manivannan attributes this trait of image construction to the Tamil people’s inherent love for personality worship. “It is a kind of monism that reduces all phenomena to one principle or that reality is a unitary organic whole. Dravidian parties constructed the idea of charismatic leader and personality through popular mediums and MGR [M.G. Ramachandran] and Jayalalithaa are its products,” he points out.

Nithyananda and the late Premananda belong to a different breed of godmen, having constructed their fiefdoms on the basis of sleaze and “miracles”. They lack the sophistication of a Jaggi Vasudev and they cater to the “spiritual needs” of lesser mortals. There is a third set of spiritual leaders, the pontiffs of centuries-old monastic institutions such as the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt of Kancheepuram headed by Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the Vaishnavite mutts in Srirangam, Nanguneri and Sriperumbudur, and the Saivite adheenams in Madurai, Tiruvaduthurai and Kundrakudi.

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi was an accused in the Sankararaman murder case. Sankararaman was murdered inside the Varadarajaperumal temple in Kancheepuram on September 3, 2004. The pontiff was arrested on November 11, 2004. After a prolonged trial, a Puducherry court, where the case was transferred from Chengalpattu in Tamil Nadu, acquitted the seer in November 2013. The Puducherry government did not prefer an appeal against the verdict. However, the pontiff seems to be in trouble today since the demand for re-opening the case has begun to gain momentum.

D. Ravikumar, writer and senior functionary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), says the Bhakthi cult is the mainstay of these godmen. “In Tamil Nadu, where the anti-Brahmin rhetoric is high, the State and its leaders tacitly promote non-Brahmin godmen, primarily for those living outside the margins of Hindutva’s caste codification, before taking up the administration of the big ‘Vedic’ temples under its control.”

This perhaps explains the rationale behind the presence of a horde of godmen with nomenclatures such as “Beer Samiyar”, “Suruttu [cigar-smoking] Samiyar”, “Vibhuthi [holy ash] Samiyar”, and “Sudukattu [graveyard] Samiyar”. “These men cater to the needs of those who live below the poverty line,” says A. Marx, a social activist-cum-writer.

Ramu Manivannan says atheism propagated by the Dravidian movement has failed because of its high-pitched rhetoric against Brahminism. “But atheism, to promote reason in public domain and social justice, has survived. The Dravidian movement preached atheism but did more to raise political awareness. Its success in relation to Hinduism has to be seen within the specific context of its resistance to Manusmriti’s oppressive social structure,” he says.

Bangaru Adigalar

The Adi Parasakthi Siddhar Peedam at Melmaruvathur near Chennai is run by a person belonging to a Backward Caste. Bangaru Adigalar, the head of the peedam, began his career in spirituality in a humble way. Sources in Melmaruvathur told Frontline that he converted a small hut into a temple dedicated to Adi Parasakthi when he was 25 years old. The 76-year-old spiritual leader is considered a “Poorna Avatar” (total reincarnation).

Melmaruvathur, which was a village along the Chennai-Tiruchi Highway, has been transformed into a bustling township with a string of educational institutions, hospitals and charity homes, and the small temple attracting several thousands of devotees every day, all managed by the trust owned by Adigalar, also called ‘Amma’ (mother) by his devotees, and his family. “In fact, his spiritual empire faced controversies, including allegations of financial irregularities and Income Tax department investigations. His son is emerging as the heir apparent,” says a professor who once worked in one of the colleges in Melmaruvathur.

“The trait of showing impeccable loyalty to their leaders has been thoroughly exploited not only in politics but in the realm of faith too,” says Marx. He wonders how the progressive and literate Tamil society could be so irrational. “There is nothing holy about this,” he adds.

Literacy, Ramu Manivannan clarifies, is not an antidote to religion though reasoning. “Religion is not only about beliefs.... All literates are not reason-oriented, they are as superstitious and god-fearing as illiterates. Dravidian ideology may be based on reason but as a movement it had to invent false hopes. People all over the world follow their spirit, and spurious godmen are part of the larger reality,” he says.

The godmen wield enormous clout with politicians and they have emerged as alternative power centres. Whenever rationalists, activists or victims attempt to expose them, the spiritual leaders resort to intimidation. Activists allege violation of environment protection rules by the Isha Yoga Centre situated at the foothills of the Western Ghats and say the centre has grabbed vast tracts of land from tribal people and from reserve forests and encroached upon an elephant corridor. the Salem-based environmental activist Piyush Sethia, who led a fact-finding mission to the site where top educational institutions and private resorts jostle for space, told Frontline that nothing was legal about these mega constructions. “The elephant corridor, through which the elephants from the mountains migrate in search of water and fodder, has been totally blocked,” he says.

M. Siva, one of the conveners of the Velliangiri Hills Tribals Protection Society in Coimbatore, says they have been fighting a war against many of these institutions—spiritual, educational and recreational—which are destroying the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats. “They are creating a concrete jungle in this ecologically sensitive pocket, devouring streams and lakes and destroying the elephant corridor that opens up here,” he says. As per the Elephant Task Force report in 2004, the Coimbatore Forest Division has the maximum number of elephants living in a minimum area of land.

He says that of the 566 square-kilometre Coimbatore Forest Division, 482 sq km has been classified as elephant forests. About 330 elephants use this sector, which has been brought under the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA). “But rules are followed more in the breach here. In the past decade, 120 elephants and 130 people have lost their lives in the Coimbatore Forest Division alone. It has become a man-animal conflict zone,” he says.

The story of Nithyananda

A diploma holder from the Industrial Training Institute in Tiruvannamalai, a place renowned for sages such as Ramana Maharishi and Seshadri Swamigal, Nithyananda, born A. Rajasekaran in a non-Brahmin family, chose to follow the path of Swami Premananda, the fallen godman of the 1990s, who died in prison while serving a double life sentence for rape and murder.

Nithyananda’s former disciple K. Lenin says: “He conditions you psychologically and then theologically, slowly brainwashes you and makes you believe that he is the saviour. He ordains himself as the ‘paramahamsa’ [supreme]. He, like any other guru, conducts classes on meditation and delivers discourses. The display of opulence makes you vulnerable and converts you into his vassal and later a victim like me.”

Lenin joined Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam when he was 30 years old, and was given the spiritual name “Sri Nithya Dharmananda”. He went on to emerge as Nithyananda’s trusted disciple. A native of Attur in Salem district, Lenin ran the ashram’s publication section, which raked in crores of rupees.

“He [Nithyananda] identifies his victims, destroys the self in them,” Lenin says. He chooses “his victims” carefully and employs his acts in such a way that by the time the gullible ones realise it, it would be too late to extricate themselves from the intricate web of deceit. He removes refinement from the orthodoxy and instils negativity in the minds of his followers, mostly women and adolescent girls. He makes them sign “non-disclosure agreements” (to discourage sharing of information about the activities in the ashram to outsiders), Lenin alleges. “Even tantric sex is performed there,” he says.

A woman who did not wish to be identified says: “He made us give a part of ourselves to him in our divine pursuit to eternity.” Another woman disciple alleged that Nithyananda had raped her. When Lenin supported her, both of them were expelled from the cult. Subsequently, some video clips showing Nithyananda and a woman actor together were leaked to the media. This shook the very foundation of Nithyananda’s multicrore establishment. Irate mobs damaged his properties located across Tamil Nadu after the sleaze video was beamed by a television channel.

“Cases of sexual abuse, cheating and intimidation were registered against him and are pending before the Supreme Court for which both the woman and I are facing threats.” The Supreme Court, on February 6, 2017, stayed the start of the trial against Nithyananda in the case filed in 2010, which the ashram termed as “a major conspiracy against Swami Nithyananda”. The Karnataka High Court quashed some cases filed against him in 2012. Lenin says that 44 cases have been registered against him at various places, including one in Haridwar.

“We have survived harassment by him because of the strong support we receive from a leading Chennai-based auditor and his legal firm,” he says. Nithyananda and his disciples made an attempt to take over the traditional Madurai Tirugnana Sambandar Adheenam, but local people thwarted it.

Karuppu Karuna, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) functionary and a writer in Tiruvannamalai, who supported the local people in their protest against an attempt by Nithyananda’s disciples to occupy a hillock, says he and his family faced severe intimidation and trolling for this. “We had to retaliate by organising a public protest against them.”

Karuna is not the only one to be targeted. Piyush Sethia, who uploaded a photo of Nithyananda with a woman devotee in his Facebook page, came under vituperative attack from his followers, who used multiple fake IDs to troll Piyush and his family members. “Even my daughter was dragged into it. I requested the Salem City Police to file cases under the provisions of the POSCO [Protection of Children from Sexual Offences] Act, but they refused to oblige. The Police Commissioner refused to meet me, indicating high-level connections the swamy enjoys,” he says.

The Premananda case

The story of godmen in Tamil Nadu cannot be complete without a mention of Premananda, alias Premkumar alias Ravi alias “Tiger Swami” who hailed from Sri Lanka. He fled that country during the ethnic violence in the 1980s and set up an ashram near Tiruchi.

Tales of his mystical powers spread far and wide and powerful politicians of the time began to patronise him. His close contacts with the family of Sasikala Natarajan, a close associate of the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa (she is now in jail in connection with the disproportionate assets case) made him a very important person in 1992. But his perceived divine powers deserted him when an inmate lodged a complaint of rape against him in November 1994. Although the police were reluctant to take up the case initially, they yielded to pressure from activists and the media.

Premananda was charged with raping 13 inmates, molesting two and murdering an engineer in the ashram. Such was his impunity that a woman doctor-disciple was kept in his ashram to terminate the pregnancies of girls Premananda had raped. His victims were all Sri Lankan Tamils. The trial of Premananda ended in conviction with the Pudukottai District and Sessions judge, R. Banumathi, now a judge in the Supreme Court, sentencing him on August 20, 1997, to double life imprisonment and a fine of Rs.67.30 lakh for rape and murder.

The fall of Premananda did not deter other godmen. “Kalki” Bhagwan, born V. Vijay Kumar, in a village near Gudiyatham in Vellore district in 1949, was a clerk in the Life Insurance Corporation before “renouncing worldly comforts” to emerge as a “divine man” in the late 1990s. He established an ashram at Nehamam village in Tiruvallur district with its headquarters at Varadaiapalam in Andhra Pradesh. He started preaching his “Kalki Deeksha Dharma” (Oneness Movement) and at one point reportedly commanded a following of 20 to 30 lakh devotees, in India and abroad. Since the early 2000s, rumours started doing the rounds that the cult had employed hypnosis-prompting devotion. Besides, parents began alleging that their wards were brainwashed to embrace monastic lives. Charges of extortion under the ruse of donations were also levelled. Income Tax investigations and the resultant controversies forced Kalki to retreat to attain “anantha mukthi” (mass enlightenment for humanity). He stopped public sermons and rituals.

Peddlers of spirituality and their salvation are not confined to Hinduism. Christian evangelical theologians give sermons and organise prayer festivals and congregations at which they warn of an apocalypse, “chase away” evil spirits from the possessed, and “absolve” the devotees of their sins. Some of them, like Paul Dhinakaran, who inherited his father’s massive evangelical empire Jesus Calls Ministry of Prayer, have ventured into the field of education. The group established the Karunya University, a Christian minority institution, also at the foothills of the Western Ghats near Coimbatore, which, activists claim, is mired in controversies.

Siva says: “Many institutions, such as the Isha Yoga Centre, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University of the Amritanandamayi Math and Karunya University, are located in the eco-sensitive area. We have been fighting against them. I was even arrested on a false complaint for exposing their irregularities.” He says the harassment continues.

Fact file

the-nation

Demolishing a legacy

arts-and-culture

IN April this year, the iconic Hall of Nations, said to be the first pillarless building to be built in India, was demolished along with four other structures in Hall of Industries at New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan exhibition complex. It was built in 1972 to celebrate 25 years of Independence and had become a cultural landmark on the city’s skyline. Original drawings by Raj Rewal and photographs of the construction taken by Madan Mahatta remain testimony to its history. Built by the team of Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj, its demolition opened a much-needed discussion on preservation of modern heritage. It underscored the urgent need for conservation of contemporary architecture and the importance of recognising that culturally.

As the Hall of Nations had won praise from all over the world, the government received letters from around the world requesting that the edifice not be demolished. But the entreaties were ignored. The manner in which the demolition was carried out overnight, even as a case was being heard in the Delhi High Court, raised questions about the government’s intention.

The current dispensation’s abhorrence of anything to do with Jawaharlal Nehru is no secret and people wondered if this was one more attack on his legacy. “From Nadir Shah to the Taliban, [dictators] have destroyed heritage and architecture that challenged their beliefs. The Babri Masjid too was demolished to maintain the hegemony of the majoritarian culture. It would be no surprise if the Hall of Nations was also demolished from similar motives,” said an architect.

Architects were also doubtful that financial considerations could have led to the demolition. “It occupied not more than 5 per cent of the total complex,” said the civil engineer Mahendra Raj. He suggested that perhaps the Hall could be rebuilt to send a message. The demolition left architects wondering whether there were more buildings that would meet the same fate and how to prevent such a catastrophe.

For a while now, there has been an attempt to create a list of exceptional architectural edifices built after Independence that can be considered as modern heritage. There are differing viewpoints on whether such a list should be created. The list put out by INTACH has 62 buildings, including buildings of religious significance and those associated with lives of great persons. The LIC building designed by Charles Correa in 1986, Crafts Museum, India International Centre by the American architect Joseph Stein, Akbar Bhavan, Sri Ram Centre for Performing Arts and the Baha’i Temple are on the list.

Kuldip Singh says, “We need a little introspection if we have to save a building which is considered to have great value for history or as art heritage. We need to build some kind of environment for positive work on these buildings as the first step and also ensure their maintenance. Take, for example, the NDMC building. It has nine floors that have been converted into a billboard. It is lit up from behind and displayed as LED screens. All this is against the policy laid down by the Supreme Court, which forbids putting advertisements on buildings, especially in the vicinity of ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] monuments. And this is next door to Jantar Mantar. This kind of arbitrariness and [abuse of] bureaucratic power [is unbecoming]. There is nobody to stop it. What can I do? Go to the court? Is this the way? Do we decide these things in the courts now?”

Mahendra Raj said: “A lot of our establishment, the private sector and building promoters are philistine, architecturally illiterate, and that poses a very serious problem. Unless we are able to create an environment where architecture is celebrated and preserved, we are messing up our cities.”

Divya Trivedi

Interview

‘It’s about the unmaking of modern India’

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

SHE is endlessly polite. And always unfailingly gentle. A niece of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal can easily afford to revel in nostalgia. Yet, like a seasoned boxer, she has chosen to fight one more round knowing full well that the challenge in front of her, and all of us for that matter, is more daunting than ever before. It takes just a mention of contemporary India for her to express in a gentle tone how acutely disappointed she is with the way India is shaping up and how divisive forces are besmirching the nation’s fair name in the global community.

Her decision to return the Sahitya Akademi Award to protest against the killing of the rationalists M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq on the charge of storing beef inspired more and more writers and poets to return their awards and started a new debate on freedom of thought and expression. The spark for the fight civil society put up in the wake of the killing of Gauri Lankesh was provided by Nayantara Sahgal’s early protest.

Her latest novel, When the Moon Shines by Day, is a scathing indictment of right-wing forces. Although she refrains from mentioning any Hindutva leader by name, the parallels she draws leave no room for doubt as to who she has in mind. When the Moon Shines by Day may have arrived at a time when the nation has entered its darkest times, but she says there is hope.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview she gave Frontline:

In early 2015, you were the first to draw attention to India’s pluralist ethos being in danger. Are you not sad that your worst fears are coming true?

Not only I, but millions are sad and despondent. It is much worse than the Emergency. Violence has taken the place of debate. Debate is outlawed. For anyone who disagrees with the government, there are ruthless consequences. It is seen everywhere. Innocent men are being murdered in the name of gau raksha. We have seen Mohammad Akhlaq murdered on the excuse that he was storing beef. It all started with the murder of three rationalists. Now, we have the Gauri Lankesh murder. Where is the rule of law? Where is the freedom to write, to criticise? It is very different from other times, like the Emergency or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. It is very different because we are now ruled by a different ideology. People fear that there is a fundamental change.

In a democracy, governments change. Parties contest and lose elections. Governments must change. Policies also change according to the need of the moment. All that is usual. There is no quarrel with that. It happens in every country. The quarrel is that the fundamentals of India are changing. This government does not realise that we have been a pluralist society and polity, greatly enriched by other lifestyles, respectful of different streams of being an Indian. Today, we are told that we must become a Hindu Rashtra. It is fundamentally different from what we have always stood up for.

Are we not practically a Hindu Rashtra today? We see these so-called gau rakshaks getting away with murder in the name of cow protection.

The actions that are taking place point towards that. Today, for instance, history is being rewritten. Any opinion that does not rhyme with the Hindutva ideology is wiped out. They are cutting out the whole Mughal Empire [from history]. Not just Aurangzeb, they are now targeting Akbar. Everything non-Hindutva is sought to be shown as evil or foreign.

At another level, Jawaharlal Nehru is being wiped out. They hate what he stood for, what he did for the country. But they have not targeted Mahatma Gandhi yet. They understand that it might be going too far to attack him yet. But they will be able to do so once they are able to amend the Constitution.

Complete erasure of Nehru

You say Mahatma Gandhi has been spared by Hindutva forces, but we have instances of Godse temples being built, his statue being garlanded.

These things are going on simultaneously without much disapproval from the government. However, there is no official rejection of Mahatma Gandhi by the government unlike Nehru, who is dismissed with only a passing mention in history books. Nehru was one of the founding fathers of the country; the one chosen by Gandhi ji himself. But they want to wipe out his memory. They are looking at complete erasure of what he stood for so that today’s schoolgoing generation would not know him.

The Hindutva forces had no role to play in our freedom struggle. Like the Muslim League, the Hindutva forces had an equal role to play in the creation of Pakistan. Today, they want to give our nation a religious identity. Hence, Nehru is anathema to them.

Will it be fair to say that in today’s circumstances, nationalism and religion are the new opium of the masses?

Not at all. We certainly cannot and should not say that. It is an ideology the government is feeding itself on and trying to foist on the masses. But there is resistance everywhere, from writers to film-makers to artists and activists, everybody is speaking out against an ideology of hate and division. The masses do not believe in this ideology, and they are speaking out.

You have been pretty vocal in your criticism of the Narendra Modi government. However, the Congress-led opposition has not exactly covered itself with glory.

You know it is curious that people have risen and spoken from different parts of the country, but political parties fail to understand the urgency of the matter. However, it seems there are signs of change. It might just be about to change if you look at some of the recent events carefully. I don’t belong to any political party. I am an outsider, a mere observer, but it seems things might just improve. Sharad Yadav [Janata Dal (United) leader] is moving away from Nitish Kumar to revive the “Mahagathbandhan”. I have noticed Sitaram Yechury [Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary] saying that it is time to change tack, not go it alone in elections. So, if the opposition does come together, keeping their differences aside, things will get better.

As far as the Congress is concerned, I personally feel the party is full of talent, knowledge and experience. It has extremely able men and women. If they are allowed to come forward, they are capable. Any one of them could lead the party. If it is Rahul Gandhi [Congress vice president] they want, they have to rally behind him. Now, after the Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley, where he delivered a speech] tour, he has announced that he is ready to take up the job. I can only wish him and the party well.

You returned the Sahitya Akademi Award given for “Rich Like Us” following the murder of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare. Gauri Lankesh’s murder proves that things have not improved.

I am pained. One sees and hears these things with anguish, with a sense of hurt. Where are we headed? But again, as I say, people are speaking up. Not just rationalists or journalists, all others too.

Coming to your latest work, “When the Moon Shines by Day”, will it be fair to call it incidental fiction? I say this because the work has such a strong contemporary ring to it… there are history books being banned and the like.

Well, it is a work of imagination. Having said that, every novel of mine has a contemporary flavour. It is based in the politics of the present. My work, in the past, was about the making of modern India. In this case, it is about the unmaking of modern India. The unmaking was evident in a novel like Rich Like Us. It had the Emergency in the backdrop. I wrote about how people reacted in that situation. This story is about contemporary times.

‘People are not keeping quiet’

Having seen both the Emergency and the current onslaught on pluralism and free speech, how do you think people are reacting to the challenges today? Are they kind of falling in line with the government, as some fear?

People are not keeping quiet. What we see is there are huge organised protests among different social groups across the country. Whether Dalits who refused to pick up cow carcasses in Gujarat [after the Una lynching incident] or writers who spoke up [after Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award] or activists who are on a country-wide trip of protests, people have reacted, have opposed.

We have had “Not in My Name” protests, the Karavan-e-Mohabbat tour. There have been huge protests on Gauri Lankesh’s murder, too. People are not keeping silent. It is truly remarkable when one considers that the consequences of not keeping quiet can be grave in today's times. Yes, the common people are afraid. They are afraid with good reason. They are not only being lynched by mobs, but a system is being built which does not respect any other way except Hindutva. When men are lynched, there is an uproar in our society, but nothing has happened to criminals. Just the other day, the accused in the murder of Pehlu Khan [who was lynched by cow vigilantes in Alwar, Rajasthan], those he had named in his dying declaration, were let off.

You say people are speaking up, but a large section of the media seems to have fallen in line with the dispensation.

We have two great pillars we rely upon: the judiciary and the media. Unfortunately, today three-quarters of the electronic media are owned by one business house. Many of the channels have become chamchas of the government. It is a shame. It is very unfortunate for Indian democracy. At such a time, we salute those who have stood up and remained outspoken despite the risks. We have a very strong tradition of independent print media, times when editors and columnists were courageous despite the challenges. They shine in comparison to today’s television channels. It is a lot of rubbish on TV.

Early in the novel you say, “Without art and literature we would not know the truth”. Yet it is these very forms that are being threatened today.

Art and literature are targeted by all authoritarian regimes. There is a simple reason. They have a long life. Today, if you report a piece of news, which the authoritarian government does not like, it is cut out, it is edited. However, you cannot do that with art. It is a work of imagination. It outlives the regime, outlives the artist. If you remember I have referred to the work of Picasso in my new novel because art can be dangerous to dictatorship. No dictator likes art or free speech.

You have written in the book, “Religion joined to nation is a marriage made in hell. We know this in Germany.” We do not seem to have learned anything from Germany if today’s events are anything to go by. Please comment.

On the contrary, I feel we seem to have learned everything from Germany! We are following their script. The line you refer to is spoken by a character in the novel. Here in India, we know how the Hindu Mahasabha and even the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh always upheld European dictators. For them, Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler were great examples to be emulated. From way back, they have considered them icons. They are trying to follow the same pattern.

You also say, “In matters of cruelty, I am beyond surprise”. It rings a bell in the times of mob lynching, even Myanmar brutalities.

We have seen terrible cruelty in our times. Yes, there are so many incidents of mob lynching. Innocent men being killed as they go about their everyday affairs. Writers being killed because you don’t agree with what they write. These are frightening times.

How long did it take you to pen the book? It seems to resonate with contemporary energy.

I am glad you feel that way. The book took just a few months. I get other assignments for writing every now and then. I review some books, do some pieces on invitation. Besides, I have my own business and family matters to attend to. I wrote Rich Like Us over six months. This book, with all the intervening gaps, took maybe four or five months. Personally, I believe that a book has to resonate with the reader. If it starts a thought process in the reader, the author is successful. If the reader laughs or cries, you have made it as an author. You do not forget such a book quickly.

Every few years you come out with a new book. When your next book arrives at the bookstores, do you think India would still be called a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic?

I hope so. For a writer, it is his business to write, to reflect. I reflect on political situations. What I very much hope for is a strong opposition, which will be able to project itself in a united way. The point of unity is what we must maintain in our democracy. We must stay a united, pluralist society. That should be our concern.

India-Pakistan

Feuding twins

A.G. NOORANI literature

IN our hauteur as a faux “Great Power” we underestimate the enormous soft power we enjoy in our neighbourhood. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru because of his espousal of non-alignment. Alliance with the United States was a matter of necessity. Non-alignment was the ideal. He also admired “the noise and chaos of Indian democracy”. Admired also was our secularism.

Now, all three are under threat—democracy, secularism and non-alignment. India’s prestige has suffered. The famous poet Fahmida Riaz loathed the religious fundamentalists in Pakistan. Like many others she was disenchanted when she saw in India that the secularism she admired was under threat from the Hindutva brigade. Hence, her lament: You turned out to be exactly like us.

The other poem is the anguished cry of a disappeared person. In Kashmir, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons has rendered high service in voicing their grievances. Punjab was also witness to this crime as a Report by Human Rights Watch and Ensaaf proves. Nor is it unknown to other parts of India.

Poems capture the reality more accurately and poignantly than prose can. At the 5th Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) this year, hosted by Oxford University Press, Karachi, two Urdu poems were read out which moved me a lot. They described the ills that India and Pakistan share—the rise of religious fundamentalism and disappeared persons.

The first was by Fahmida Riaz, who spent some time in India. A spirited dissenter in Pakistan, she brought the house down when she recited her poem Naya Bharat (New India) at a mushaira in New Delhi. Anyone who reads it will understand why the audience responded as it did.

The second poem is a “vagabond” one; an awara nazm as it is called in Urdu. I owe the texts of both to Professor Asif Farrukhi, a co-founder of the ILF and the Karachi Literature Festival. The other co-founder is the internationally respected publisher Ameena Saiyid, managing director of Oxford University Press, Karachi.

Reproduced here are the poems in Urdu in the Roman script with imperfect English translations by this writer.

Archaeology

Vadnagar’s wall of fame

heritage

Vadnagar is a fortified town with a population of about 25,000 people in Mehsana district of Gujarat, about 85 kilometres from Ahmedabad. Within its fortification, signs of prosperity are plenty, but outside it poverty is everywhere. Uniquely, the town has been in existence continuously from the 6th century BCE, but its more recent claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The town’s antiquity has been established in excavations conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), from 2014 to 2017, and the Gujarat State Archaeology Department between 2005 and 2012.

According to archaeologists who took part in the excavation, the town witnessed structural activity continuously from the 6th century BCE and grew within a fortification that was first built perhaps during the Mauryan period (4th century BCE to 3rd century BCE) as an earthen rampart. Later dynasties built and rebuilt a massive fortification wall made of kiln-fired bricks until the period of the Gaikwads of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is generally assumed that the Mauryans, the Indo-Greeks (2nd century BCE to 1st century BCE), the Saka-Kshatrapas (1st to 4th century C.E.), the Guptas (4th to 5th century), and the Solankis (10th to 13th century) ruled the region one after another. The Maitrak dynasty ruled it from 470 C.E. to 788 C.E.

Importantly, the excavations have brought to light that Vadnagar was a Buddhist centre, with monasteries/viharas, a stupa and cells that housed monks. Artefacts in terracotta from the excavations depict scenes from the Jataka tales, which are episodes from the Buddha’s life; Buddha heads; sealings, mostly with Brahmi inscriptions, datable from the 1st century BCE to the 4th century C.E.; and bullae. The digs also yielded a hoard of coins and stone images.

Vadnagar was a big manufacturing centre, too, noted for its bangles and columnella from conch shells. Shell bangles of remarkable artistic beauty were made especially during the rule of the Solankis. Ceramics unearthed from the trenches establish that Vadnagar’s prosperity began in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. and continued until the 19th century. The discovery of fine pottery during every phase of Vadnagar’s cultural history, archaeologists say, revealed its foreign contacts and its internal trade, which was extant for centuries without interruption.

Although it was done in a limited area, it was “a good excavation, with excellent results”, said Jitendra Nath, Director (Excavations), ASI. “Our excavation in what we call locality C revealed the various stages of the town’s cultural history. They include its pre-rampart stagewhen Vadnagar was still a village, said Abhijit Suresh Ambekar, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, ASI’s Excavation Branch-V, Vadodara. “An earthen rampart was built in the second century BCE as protection for the village. The Kshatrapas, whose rule began in the 1st century C.E., built a fortification wall on the earthen rampart.” The wall grew in size with successive dynasties building over it and strengthening it. There are as many as 140 courses (a row of bricks is called a course) of baked bricks on the wall, as revealed in the excavations.

Ambekar, who was the director of excavation in the 2016-17 field season, said: “Most importantly, the prosperity of Vadnagar never degenerated. It faced no economic problems. Our excavation has thrown up evidence that during both the post-Kshatrapa period and the Solanki rule Vadnagar had extensive trade contacts with other countries.”

In one of the trenches, at a depth of 525 cm, pertaining to the post-Kshatrapa period, a hoard of 270 coins was found. The motifs seen on the obverse of these coins are a trident, three arches, a river and dotted lines. There is an engraving of Garuda on the reverse. “At this juncture, these coins can be placed in the period of 5th to 6th century C.E.,” he said.

The excavations in locality C also yielded two stone balls, identified as catapult balls. They belonged to the Kshatrapa period and weighed 5.84 kg and 3.12 kg each. A wooden mechanism was used to propel these stone balls from the fortification wall to target enemy positions. There is evidence in Jaina texts that Ajatashatru, a Magadha king, used these stone balls against the Lichchavis, Ambekar said.

Excavation in locality C, one of the three main areas where excavations were carried out, brought to light a section ofthe fortification wall that had 140 courses of bricks. Here, the wall rested directly on the earthen rampart, which was in the shape of an inverted vase, and extended further northwards. So the ASI team dug to a depth of 12 metres in order to expose the earthen rampart fully and study its pre-earthen rampart phase. Ambekar said: “Here, we could expose the different stages of the cultural history of Vadnagar. The findings reveal that there was a pre-rampart stage, prior to the 2nd century BCE.”

Buddhist past

On the basis of archaeological remains, the earliest date for the establishment of the settlement could be around the 6th century BCE, says Y.S. Rawat, who led the excavation between 2005 and 2012 as Director of the Gujarat State Archaeology Department. The main aim of the excavations in this period was to find out the Buddhist remains of Vadnagar. “We firmly established that the site had many Buddhist remains,” he told Frontline. The excavations, a major part of which was in the locality called Ghaskol, revealed a Buddhist monastery, a stupa and artefacts relating to episodes from the Buddha’s life. “So many Buddhist remains in the form of minor antiquities were found. We established the sequence of the growth of the town during the rule of successive dynasties and its various structural phases, how the town came into existence, how it prospered and so on,” Rawat said. In the ancient days, Vadnagar was known by several names—Arkasthali, Anantapur, Anandapura, Chamatkarpura, Nagra, Nagaraka, Skandapura and Vrddhanagara. The first reference to the town in a historical document is found in a rock-cut inscription at Junagadh, belonging to Mahakshtrapa Rudradaman. The inscription, datable to 150 C.E., records Vadnagar’s name as Anarat.

The famous Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited Vadnagar around 640 C.E. and referred to it as Anandpur. “He recorded the existence of ten Buddhist sanghas (monasteries/viharas ) there and said about a hundred Buddhist monks were staying in those monasteries,” said Rawat.

The late S.R. Rao of the ASI (who discovered the Harappan settlement of Lothal in Gujarat) reported in the 1960s the presence of Early Historical period at Vadnagar. The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda conducted an excavation here later. Ambekar said the university’s excavation identified Vadnagar’s three cultural phases: the phase prior to the Christian era; the red-polished ware culture from the 1st century to the 4th century; and post red-polished ware period.

The ASI’s Excavation Branch-V, Vadodara, first took up excavation in different areas of the town in 2014-15. “The Union Ministry of Culture and the ASI were keen to bring out the hidden features of the Buddhist history and its development in Gujarat,” said M. Nambirajan, Regional Director (West), ASI. Union Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma, along with Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, inaugurated the excavation for the third field season, in 2016-17. Nambirajan said: “This excavation brought to light parts of the Buddhist monastery adjacent to the site excavated earlier by the Gujarat State Archaeology Department. In another locality, we exposed brick structures. Another interesting find was the fortification wall built in different phases and the mud rampart which is its earliest remains.”

Excavation is a challenge in this small and thickly populated town. “We are laying trenches wherever open spaces are available and the residents are cooperating with us. Since only limited space is available for excavation, we are using modern technology such as ground penetrating radars [to find out where the remains are],” Nambirajan said.

Radar survey

Scientists from the National Institute of Rock Mechanics (NIMR), Kolar/Bengaluru, visited the site in May 2017 along with ASI officials and a scientist from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. They identified a site (a school complex) near the Vadnagar overhead water tank for using geophysical methods to explore archaeological remains of old settlements below the present-day built-up town. The NIMR planned to carry out a ground-penetrating radar tomography survey with three 30-metre-deep boreholes, Nambirajan said.

Three objectives decided the areas of excavation in 2016-17. First, Buddhist monasteries in major sites were always found to have been built in a single complex. “So we decided to excavate close to the monastery that had been excavated in Ghaskol locality, and we named it locality A”, said Ambekar. Secondly, to expose the plan of the residential houses, the ASI decided to excavate about 70 metres to the east of the Ghaskol monastery and named the area locality B. Thirdly, to study the complete cultural sequence of Vadnagar from its pre-rampart era and the defence arrangement for the town, the ASI laid trenches across the fortification wall in an area about 60 metres to the west of the monastery at Ghaskol, which it called locality C.

In addition to these three localities, the ASI excavated an area south of the monastery. Ambekar said: “This became crucial to prove our hypothesis that Buddhist monasteries were built as a single complex. The trenches turned out to be promising. The remains we got from this area show that they were a part of a Buddhist vihara. We exposed two cells that could be part of the vihara . A vihara has four sides—east, west, south and north. In the middle is an open court-yard/hall. We found the two cells on the southern side. We exposed them within the available area.” The vihara’s structural remains showed that it had been built in the 2nd century C.E. A copper coin belonging to the 1st century C.E. found below the remains confirmed the date when the vihara was built.

It was tough excavating in locality A because it was packed with residential structures and there were hardly any open spaces. The ASI archaeologists found an open area north of Ghaskol measuring 20 metres by 20 metres where Rabari families had erected a cattle shed in which they were dumping manure. Of the 11 quadrants they laid there, six revealed four cell-like structures built of bricks, with two square cells and two rectangular cells. Locality A revealed structures of a residential nature. “We could identify here three structural phases belonging to the Kshatrapa period. Besides, we could get evidence of structural activity from the 1st century C.E. to the Solanki period [10th century to 13th century]. Most importantly, we could collect 61 terracotta sealings here,” said Ambekar.

The earliest of the terracotta sealings, found at a depth of 1,160 cm to 1,175 cm, show a swastika with Nandipada attached to its arms in the centre. It has Brahmi letters that can be paleographically dated to the 1st century C.E. Since the sealing is broken, the script cannot be read fully. In the sealings recovered from deposits at the lower level and dated to the 4th century, archaeologists found the names Ishwarsenasya and Ishwarvarmana inscribedin Brahmi script; the language is Sanskrit. Those found in the upper deposit, of the 2nd century to the 3rd century, had the name Rudradevasya inscribed on them in Brahmi script. The language is Sanskrit. The Epigraphy Division of the ASI in Mysuru studied the sealings and found that one of them had the legend “Anandpur Rajo” written in Brahmi script. This confirmed that Vadnagar was called “Anandpur” in the 2nd century.

“A noteworthy finding here is that the sealings with the name Ishwarvarman are found in all the three structural phases of the Kshatrapa period, suggesting that the same issuing authority continued through the three phases,” said Ambekar. “There is an inscription in cave number 10 at Nashik which mentions an Abhira king called Ishwarsena. Whether Ishwaradatta, Ishwarvarma, Ishwarsena and Ishwarsenasya are the names of the same king, we do not know yet,” he added. There were four rulers in the Kardamaka family of the Kshatrapa dynasty who had similar names: Rudrasen I (regnal years 199 to 200), Rudrasen (regnal years 255 to 277), Swami Rudrasen III (333 to 348) and Swami Rudrasena IV. It was difficult to hazard a guess to whom the sealings belonged.

A metal piece with Brahmi letters was found at a depth of more than four metres. The Brahmi script could be read as “Sri Drashil” and it could be dated on paleographic grounds to the 4th century. A few terracotta sealings with the Brahmi script datable to the 5th century were found as well. The script on one sealing can be read as “Sharbalasya”.

Bangle-making centre

A striking discovery made in all levels of locality A was shell bangles, heaps of them, both decorative and plain. The decorative pieces of shell bangles had floral, creeper and perforation motifs carved on them, and these bangles could be be dated from the 5th century onwards. Other patterns on the shell bangles included zig zags, incised linear lines and “badi chudi”. Some bangles had leaves, fish and human couples carved on them. An interesting find was a fragment of a shell bangle with the carving of a peacock.

Equally arresting was the unearthing of large quantities of columnella, which are artefacts made out of debitage of conch shells after bangles are made from them. Each columnella weighed between 250 grams and 1 kg. Dice made of ivory were also found. “The discovery of shell bangles and columnella in large quantities shows that Vadnagar was an important manufacturing centre of shell bangles. The artisans at Vadnagar could have sourced the shells from Kutch. The shell bangle industry flourished up to the Solanki period when bangles of great artistic quality were made,” said Ambekar.

Terracotta heads

Locality A also yielded two beautiful terracotta pendants, each carved with a human face. They are noteworthy because their facial outline and hairstyle have a close resemblance to that of the Buddha, and an urna is visible between the eyebrows. (An urna is a mark made on the forehead between the eyebrows on Buddha sculptures and is considered an auspicious sign.)

A head, made of terracotta, closely resembled the face of the Buddha. The head features an ushnisha (in Buddhist iconography, ushnisha signifies flame of knowledge). The head has elongated earlobes reaching up to the jaw. The eyebrows merge with the sharp ridge of the pointed nose. The eyebrows are carved in elongated round curves which is a common feature in Buddha images, Ambekar said.

A notable artefact that has echoes of Buddhism is a terracotta pendant engraved with a human face with a tri-ratna motif carved on the hair knot. (In Buddhism, the tri-ratna motif indicates that a person depicted with it is a super human being.) The face has round eyes and fully closed eyebrows that merge at the top of a broad nose. The ends of the lips are turned up slightly to produce a pleasant mirth. The cheeks are fleshy and the ears are delicately carved in such a way that the face has a pleasant mirth about it. Another terracotta pendant depicting a human face has a tri-ratna motif on the hair knot.

An artefact that stands out for its craftmanship is a bullae made of terracotta. Basically, a bullae is a small, circular tablet carved with geometric, floral or animal designs. A bullae is moulded in clay and has a hook or perforation for a thread to pass through. Bullaes are light in weight and are regarded as pendants if they have human motifs. Some bullaes do not have holes. This bullae too does not have a hole for a thread to pass through. On the obverse of this bullae is carved the bust of a king. He has a sharp nose and his flowing hair is knotted at the neck. He looks serene. On the reverse of the bullae is a faded inscription. The artefact could be dated to the 5th century, said the deputy superintending archaeologist.

Another interesting artefact is a human face made of terracotta, carved with precision and artistically made. “This form of human face is artistically different from other human faces found in the excavation and this face indicates Gandhar art influence,” said Ambekar, who was so mesmerised by this face that he called it “the face of Vadnagar”.

The quest for the complete cultural sequence led the archaeologists to excavate to a depth of more than 19 metres in two quadrants from the top of the mound in locality B. A wall with 113 courses of bricks of a residential structure came into view, and a closer observation revealed that three different kinds of masonry had been used in building this wall with bricks of different sizes. However, the team could not reach the natural soil because water gushed out, and the last four courses of the wall were found to be below the water table. The team tried to retrieve the cultural deposits from the waterlogged trench, but had to stop when the deposits started collapsing.

Ambekar said: “The wall with 113 brick courses belonged to the different phases of the cultural history of Vadnagar. Here we found a lead coin that belonged to the period of the king Bhumaka. This find is important because it reveals that the brick fortification wall was built over the earthen rampart during the Bhumaka period, datable to early 2nd century C.E. Bhumaka was the second ruler of the Kshatrapa family. He ruled around 125 C.E. The coin has a depiction of a thunderbolt on the obverse and the engraving of a lion and a wheel with what looks like a circular Brahmi script inscription on the reverse.” It was in these quadrants that shell bangles and a large quantity of columnella were found. The building of the wall continued until the Solanki period of the 11th century, he added.

prosperous town

Today, Vadnagar is a prosperous town where several communities live. Their occupations are cattle-keeping, running dairies, agriculture, business and making handicrafts. The town has an arts and science college, a polytechnic and an Industrial Training Institute. A medical college has just been set up and it is slated for inauguration on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti. The town is ringed by scores of ponds and lakes. In a few places, the ancient fortification wall is still intact to a height of about eight metres. Five gates of the fortification wall can still be seen. There are historically important places such as a stepped well, a big tank, a keerti toran and so on, which were all built during the Solanki period. There are 25 old houses, called havelis, besides architecturally attractive houses that are about 150 years old.



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Migrants in Middle East

Migrant woes

EACH flight that takes off from India to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has in it many Indian workers hoping to fulfil a dream: to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

Tens of thousands of workers in the prime of their youth from across India make a beeline for jobs in West Asia. Until June this year, almost 1.84 lakh such workers took the emigration clearance required (ECR) route to reach these destinations. In 2016, 5.07 lakh workers landed in countries in West Asia; in 2015 the number was almost 7.6 lakh. The ECR stamp means that the labourer is legal, but thousands more end up on tourist visas and work in the 18 West Asian countries.

The story turns sour for many, going by the statistics provided by most migrant labourers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Most labourers end up in harsh work environments, many land in jails, some die and others are tortured. Despite these distressing stories, many still flock to West Asia in search of a better future. In the last three years, the Government of India filed 182 mercy petitions across the world. The fact that just two countries—the United Arab Emirates (74) and Oman (57)—accounted for the lion’s share of these petitions tells a story that is unmistakable: one of intolerant regimes and barely human legal processes.

Only 14 mercy petitions were filed in countries other than West Asian countries. In 2016, a total of 3,380 workers died in various countries. Again, the majority of Indian workers died in West Asia: Saudi Arabia (1,559), UAE (825), Kuwait (295), Oman (272), Qatar (152) and Baharin (107). The only other country which recorded three-digit Indian worker deaths in 2016 was Malaysia, with 170.

Legal structures are weak for domestic workers, construction labour and fishermen in the GCC countries. Although the Abu Dhabi dialogue was the first multilateral forum to broach the subject, this positive factor was largely undone by the mechanism it put in place: it decided to have country-specific negotiations instead of specific and clear-cut goals for each of the worker-recipient countries to work towards.

As a result, it is common to come across instances of passports of workers being impounded and kept with the licence holder or contractor, poor pay for long hours of work, and near-zero access to legal services.

Besides, the conduct of court proceedings is in Arabic, a language alien to most workers from outside the region. India has memoranda of understanding (MoUs) in place on workers with many of these countries but none of these addresses the burning issues that are constantly highlighted by the continuing abuse and exploitation of Indian migrant workers.

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Oct 9,2020