Sunday, 14 November 2010

DMK and Telecom

So A Raja has finally quit. After trying till the end to brazen it out, with the full backing of his party, the DMK. 
The strategy of getting former officials to come out in the open against him seems to have worked.
I am quite sure that these former officials did not speak out now because enterprising newspapers and television news channels are tracking them down. These people were very much in circulation and the media must have been in touch with them. I think they started speaking out after getting a green signal from the Congress/government. It was all part of the tactics to corner Raja into resigning on his own.
Or getting the DMK to replace him.
But what difference will it make if one DMK minister is replaced by another DMK minister? None whatsoever.
Raja was certainly not acting on his own or for himself alone. The DMK has a vested interest in wanting to keep the communications ministry with itself. Look at the chronology.
When UPA-1 was formed, Dayanithi Maran of the DMK insisted and got the communications portfolio. At that time eyebrows and questions about conflict of interest were raised because he was the brother of Kalanithi Maran, who owns Sun TV. The communications ministry is the nodal ministry for DTH rollout (which was on the cards at that time) and for the allocation of airwaves etc.
Then Maran famously fell out with his grand-uncle’s family and had to quit. But DMK continued to retain the communications portfolio and Raja was brought in. The 2G scandal broke out towards the end of UPA-1’s tenure and when UPA-2 was formed there was pressure on the Prime Minister not to take two DMK ministers – Raja and T R Baalu (who had been roads minister in UPA-1).
The DMK was not willing to give up both portfolios but ultimately succumbed on the roads ministry but insisted on telecom and – let’s not forget this – Raja heading it. Since the allegations under Raja were more serious than against Baalu (he was seen as obstructionist and favouring Tamil Nadu in the roads sector, though there were other whispers too), the Prime Minister was extremely reluctant to take Raja back. If I remember right, the Congress had said they would give Raja any other portfolio, but not telecom. But even that was not acceptable to the DMK. Ultimately the Prime Minister had to succumb to pressure from his party, which was being armtwisted by the DMK – its largest ally in the UPA.
Amid all this brouhaha, the focus was on getting Raja out. What’s being missed is that there is no talk of taking the telecom portfolio away from the DMK. In the light of what I have narrated, it is clear that DMK has a vested interest in the communications ministry. So if Raja is replaced by some other DMK person, the new minister will only continue doing what Raja was.
Raja, it is now becoming clear, brazenly defied the PMO on the issue of 2G spectrum. He clearly did this with the confidence that the government could not act against him. Any new DMK replacement will also do so. More importantly, another DMK minister will not allow a fair probe into the 2G scam.
If the PM wants to clean up Indian telecom, he must take the communications portfolio away from the DMK.
But realpolitik may not allow that.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Killer Buses or Killer Drivers?

So the Delhi government is going to phase out the notorious Blueline buses from 14 December. It is, we are told, a step towards improving the safety of Delhi-ites.
Delhi's transport minister Arvinder Singh Lovely was quoted in the Hindustan Times as saying "I cannot leave the residents of Delhi at the mercy of the Blueline bus drivers." In The Times of India he pointed out that the Blueline buses had been off the roads in most of Delhi during the Commonwealth Games but within days of their resuming service, one person had been killed by a Blueline.
I contest this belief that removing Blueline buses from Delhi's roads will reduce fatal road accidents by bus drivers.  In fact, I find this line of reasoning quite, quite ridiculous.
Are these buses on autopilot which malfunction and leads to them running amok on Delhi roads and killing people? Obviously not. The buses are driven rashly by drivers. Take Bluelines off the roads and these drivers, who will be jobless, will get employment driving some other kind of bus or alternative to the Blueline or some commercial vehicle. What is the guarantee that they will not drive rashly then? (I blame my profession, the media, for some of this facile conclusions. In their search for catchy titles, they end up making non-issues the central issue. Killer Bluelines. Killer BMWs. But never killer bus drivers, killer rich brats). Wouldn't Delhi roads be safer by not allowing such killers to drive, rather than removing buses (which can't move on their own) from the roads? Or suspending the permits of the owners of these buses? But these are politically difficult steps, since the bus owners have enormous clout - political and monetary - and can bail themselves and their drivers out of any problem. So do the easiest - and most foolish thing - take buses off.
We've already had experience of the futility of these kind of bans. First there were Redline buses introduced in 1992 when DTC drivers went on strike and the government decided to bring in private operators. These buses were also death on wheels - they notched up a huge number of accidents. According to Hindustan Times, in one year alone they killed 300 persons. The next year, the Redlines were taken off the roads. Then Blueline buses were introduced. And the killer story was being repeated.
So clearly taking one set off buses off the roads did not help. And it will not help even now.
Unless you change the people driving these buses. The same drivers were driving these buses. And under the same system of operation. The Blueline buses are not under the DTC but get permits from the Transport Department to ply on certain designated routes. I am not clear what the business model is, but the owners want to do the maximum number of trips and so drivers are under pressure because of which they drive rashly (I am not justifying or rationalising their behaviour, merely identifying the root cause).
Has thought been given to this when working out an alternative to Bluelines? I suspect not.
There are alternative that people talk about - a corporatised private bus fleet, a revival of the km scheme (the DTC used to have a scheme long before Redlines were first introduced under which privately-owned buses were driven by an employee of the bus owner but had DTC conductors who gave out DTC tickets. The bus owners were paid on the basis of km and the age of the bus. But this too had its share of problems.)
If the alternative arrangements are going to be just another variation of the current system, then we will have killer drivers - I will not use the term killer buses - back on Delhi's roads.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Selective about Scams

Much is being made of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi snubbing the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee honcho Suresh Kalmadi, under fire for mismanagement and corruption).
This is the first sign of the government’s resolve that it will not let the guilty in all the Games-related scams go unpunished. The country was assured that action would be taken immediately after the Games and that seems to have started (the logic behind not axing Kalmadi and other scam-tainted people earlier was that it was too close to the Games and that the event would suffer).
So why am I not too impressed by the cold-shouldering of Kalmadi.
For one, because it has come too late. That things were wrong with the way the Games were being organized were evident one year earlier when the government brought in several IAS officers into the Organising Committee to get things going after Michael Fennel, head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, publicly criticised delay in October 2009 (see this story: Whispers about scams were doing the rounds long before the media got evidence of it and splashed it. So why wasn’t action taken then instead of waiting for media exposes and then expressing helplessness two months before the Games? 
And the real test will be - not the social boycott of Kalmadi - but actually bringing all the guilty to book and not making scapegoats of some, while others get away.
There is, however, a larger second point I want to make.
Why haven’t the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi snubbed other politicos at the centre of corruption charges?
The most glaring example, of course, is telecom minister A Raja, whose name crops up in the context of the 2G spectrum allocation scam, which is expected to cost the exchequer Rs 60,000 crore. Forget socially boycotting him, the Prime Minister takes Raja into the UPA-2 cabinet in the same ministry as he held in the UPA-1 cabinet, which is when the scam occurred. Giving a scam-tainted minister another ministry is hardly an attack on corruption, but it would have given this government some semblance of respectability. But no, even that was denied to this country.
If that weren’t bad enough, look at what happened on the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner. The CVC is to be appointed by a panel that includes the Leader of the Opposition. This is to bring in a measure of impartiality into the appointment prevent charges of the CVC – who heads an office which has a crucial in checking corruption – being the stooge of the government of the day. But the following story will illustrate how even this important requirement is being treated in a cavalier fashion by none other than Manmohan Singh.
Sushma Swaraj – the Leader of the Oppostion – was called on Friday to a meeting with the Prime Minister and home minister (the panel to select the CVC) and presented with three names for the CVC’s post. She said she had no objection to two of the names but pointed out problems with the name of P J Thomas. She gave her reasons – not only did Thomas’ name figure in a scam in Kerala (he belongs to the Kerala cadre of the IAS) but more importantly, he was telecom secretary under Raja and, as CVC, would have to probe the 2G scandal. The Prime Minister and the home minister said they wanted Thomas. She said they could choose any of the other two. They didn’t agree. She then suggested that the panel of names be widened so that they had more choice. But they said there was no time to do that, since the new CVC was to be sworn in on Tuesday. She pointed out that there was time till Monday. But they didn’t agree and wanted to finalise Thomas’ name that day itself. At which point, she remarked that they didn’t just want his name finalized that day, but that very moment. Prithviraj Chavan, the minister of state in charge of personnel, public grievances and pension, and asked him to prepare a letter appointing Thomas as CVC. Swaraj then insisted on recording her dissent. Swaraj has gone public with this sequence of events and the government hasn’t really contradicted it.
Maybe the BJP’s fears that Thomas may scuttle the probe will prove unfounded; maybe Thomas may prove to be impartial. But the manner in which Thomas was appointed does make one uncomfortable.
If the government did not want the other two retired bureaucrats to be CVC why did it include their names in the panel? Clearly the government had made up its mind to appoint Thomas and expected the Opposition to go along with it silently. Unfortunately, because the main opposition party is the BJP, others are not raising enough of a stink.
What is this if not a sham and a mockery of the principle behind making it necessary to get the approval of the Leader of the Opposition? Is the Leader of the Opposition meant to rubber stamp the government’s choices on crucial appointments?
So far from boycotting Raja, the government appears to be going out on a limb to protect him.
In the light of this, the snub to Kalmadi is laughable. And the flurry of action against the Games-related scams evokes only a cynical sneer.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no sympathies for Kalmadi; I think he represents all that is wrong with Indian politics and sports (I am giving a link to a story we did in The Telegraph on the way Kalmadi has risen to dominate Indian sports
But this crusade against corruption in the Games will ring true only if it extends to ALL scams. We cannot afford to be selective about scams. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Demolition and The Verdict

After seeing my earlier post, a friend asked how I felt as a person when all that was happening.

This was something an RSS functionary had asked me some time after that tumultuous day in 1992. And I am giving the same reply I gave him - I first reacted as a journalist and I was excited - after all there was action; history was being made and I was there to report it; and above all, my story was right.

Let me elaborate.

I was working for a weekly newspaper, Sunday Mail, back then. The paper went to press on Friday evening and my story for Sunday was to be filed by Friday afternoon. On the basis of whatever I had got from November 30 (when I had reached Faizabad/Ayodhya) and December 4, my story (which was the lead) had said `Kar seva will mean construction' and detailed how the sadhus and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders had upped the ante.

But on Saturday afternoon, at a press conference, almost the very same people had assured that the kar seva would be symbolic and peaceful. I was worried - after all my story was going to be wrong!! All the other dailies had that as the headline. Mine was going to be the only one that said trouble was afoot.

So I was a bit low on December 5 evening and December 6 morning. Journalists had been given I-cards to go to the top of Manas Bhavan, which overlooked the kar seva site. But with nothing happening, many of us wandered down and positioned ourselves around the kar seva site.

So when the first stones stared being thrown at the Babri Masjid and it became obvious that there was going to be trouble, I was relieved (that my story wasn't entirely wrong) and excited. My first thought, I must admit, was `thank God my story is vindicated.' Vicarious, but true.

As I rushed around with other journalists trying to take in as much of what was happening as I could, I was only a journalist gathering information on a live event. I couldn't even react to the momentousness of the situation.

But later, after we were all holed up in Sitaji ki Rasoi, not being able to move around or even take notes (as the earlier post describes) the import of what was happening struck me.

This was the first time I was seeing mobs up close. I had seen mobs during the 1984 riots but from a distance, so never got the frenzy on their faces like I did in Ayodhya. I shivered and the cold of December had nothing to do with it. As I heard the first dome fall, I felt strange. There was a numbness within me.

That was the first time I was reacting as a person. And like I told the RSS functionary, I felt very sad. I just knew what was happening was wrong.

I felt even more sad when we were being taken back to Faizabad (where we were all staying) and saw diyas lit in practically every house, and the next day when a few of us managed to return to Ayodhya (from Faizabad where we were all staying) and saw that the looming black structure was no longer there. A few days before, I had been inside Babri Masjid; now there was only a skyline where it stood.

The sadness intensified as I moved around Ayodhya, probably on Tuesday, and found the house of Mohammed Hashim Ansari, one of the litigants in the case that was decided by the Allahabad High Court on Thursday, burnt, as were shops of Muslim artisans who made padukas. Mosques had also been damaged.

This was not the way the problem should have been resolved. I didn't have an answer then and don't have an answer now to the question - how should it have been resolved.

And there was anger - with politicians and community leaders on both sides, as well as the intellectuals who have stoked the fires in their own way.

They are still doing it. The two main parties have responded to the judgement with maturity. There's nothing to be said about Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, who are talking about Muslims feeling betrayed. They are irresponsible politicians who will never turn responsible.

But look at the statements from are the so-called intellectuals, who are talking in the same vein, some going so far as to say they feel like second-class citizens in India. These are provocative statements, guaranteed to stoke trouble. The average Muslims don't care about the masjid (just as the average Hindu doesn't really care about the mandir). They have other problems to deal with. Why are these people fomenting trouble where none exists?

The Sunni Wakf Board has decided to contest the judgement in the Supreme Court. It would have been best for these people to leave it at that. The appeal process and the final judgement may take years. Statements like these only serve to create wounds and lacerate them constantly.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Memories of 6 December 1992

I finally found clippings of the stories I had done from Ayodhya in December 1992. Scanning them and putting them up will take time so I keyed in the blow by blow account of the demolition that I had written for Sunday Mail, for which I was then working.
The only changes I have made relate to punctuation. Some interpolations (to explain things for readers now) are in brackets and italicised.
Here goes:

Blow by blow account of operation demolition
Sunday Mail December 13-19, 1992

6 am. December 6. I woke up to the faint sounds of Jai Shree Ram and bhajans in Faizabad. Groups of kar sevaks with saffron head-bands and scarves were trekking their way to Ayodhya, seven km away. Faizabad residents were out on their balconies to encourage them and give them refreshments. There was a look of eager anticipation on all faces as they walked down the roads greeting each other.
In Ayodhya, the atmosphere was festive. I could hear the town before I reached it. Bhajans and Jai Shree Rams resounded through the town. On the streets, all I could see were saffron-splashed kar sevaks with large tilaks on their foreheads, some of them dancing on the roads. It was like Holi day when people go around in groups chanting Holi hai. One saffron-coloured mini bus with kar sevaks wound its way through the town with its loudspeaker playing the bhajan, "sri ram jai ram jai jai ram" followed by a jeepful of policemen, some of them clapping their hands in time to the music. Ayodhya children, sitting on the verandas of their houses were also singing the bhajan.
But amidst all this apparent goodwill, there was a discordant note. Some kar sevaks were shouting provocative slogans: "hamari ladayi kisse hai, Babar ke santhanon se" and "teen nahin ab teez hazaar, nahin rahegi koi mazaar".
10 am. BJP leaders L. K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi arrived in a cavalcade. As they get out of their cars, they were mobbed but managed to get to Ram Katha Kunj, from where they were to make their speeches.
Seen from atop Manas Bhavan (where the journalists were to watch the kar seva from) which adjoins the disputed atmosphere, there was a carnival-like atmosphere at the entire complex. As if to match the sunny weather, the sadhus and sants were dressed in robes the colours of which ranged from canary yellow to deep saffron. On the platform (chabootra) built during the kar seva in July, a group of sants and mahants were performing puja which was presided over by Jagadguru Shankaracharya Swami Basudevacharya Saraswati of Jyotishmath. Also on the platform were Mahant Paramhans, president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, Mahant Avaidyanath and Ashok Singhal., the VHP leaders. To the far left, under tents, kar sevaks were lined up state-wise. They were supposed to march in that order to the kar seva site, carrying fistfuls of Saryu mud, according to the programmed decided upon. Rehearsals for this orderly programme had taken place on Saturday.
At one end of the disputed site, near the Sakshi Gopal Mandir, kar sevaks who were not included in this programme began straining at thei iron barricades and pushing thir way to the site. The PAC constables on duty and sadhus kept pushing them back. One tall, bearded, strapping sadhu, Abhiram Pehalwan, stood out among them, running after the unruly kar sevaks, slapping them, hitting them with a lathi, catching them by the scruff of their collars and literally dragging them out of the area.
The barricade finally gave way and the kar sevaks danced their way in amidst cheers and whistles. Chanting Jai Shree Ram and shouting slogans of "mandir vahin banayenge", they danced, some doing the Amitabh Bachchan jig for the benefit of the photographers. The sadhus tried to get them to sit down but in cain. Finally they appealed to the photographers to leave in order to help them maintain discipline. RSS workers in their khakhi half-pants were then brought in to make the kar sevaks leave but even they had to give up. They began repairing the iron barricades instead. Peace seemed to have been restored.
11.30 am. RSS volunteers, wearing bright yellow headbands, rushed in and cleared the place of kar sevaks in seconds. But at the barricades, there were heated arguments between the two groups. The mood had turned ugly and tense.
Just then, a group of swamis entered the area. The unruly kar sevaks rushed back along with them. This time, some were carrying bricks and iron rods. They had scuffles with
RSS workers who warned photographers not to click. Utter chaos prevailed. Some sadhus, Abhiram Pehelwan again the most prominent, began hitting out at the mob, snatching lathis from PAC constables and using them. But it was clear that the situation had gone beyond control. The PAC deployed there stood watching impassively as did the CRPF jawans in the security corridor leading to the Babri Masjid.
11.50 am. Debabrata Thakur of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika, a Swiss journalist (Bernard Imhalsy, as I was to learn later) and me were watching all this from a mound next to the security corridor, which was barricaded by steel rods. Suddenly we heard a clattering sound. "They're stoning the masjid," said Debu and we rushed there slipping through the barricades and past bemused CRPF jawans. As were reached the masjid wall, we saw the first of the kar sevaks clambering on to the building.
12 noon. 15 minutes before the scheduled kar seva was to begin. Many more were climbing the hillock on which the masjid was situated from the sides and the back. When we reached the exit arch in the outer wall, the kar sevaks had already gained entry. CRPF and PAC jawans tried to hit them with lathis but it proved ineffective. The force was hopelessly outnumbered.
A trembling senior superintendent of police, D. B. Rai, panic writ large on his face, was saying to no one in particular, "fire tear gas, fire tear gas". As we went in through the gate, the kar sevaks had climbed on to the dome to the sounds of much cheering. The women CRPF constables rushed out first, all of them looking scared. As I went in to get photographs of kar sevaks on the dome, all Debu could say was, "Seetha, take off your shoes."
Within minutes, the CRPF gave up the fight. The video camera kept there was overturned and smashed. The constables came out with their cane shields and ran down the stairs. A CRPF jawan's shoe came hurting past my ear. Debu got hit on his hand by a brick. We took cover behind the CRPF shields and rushed down. All of us were quickly taken into the adjoining Sita ki Rasoi complex where the police control room was stationed.
We went up to the terrace and watched the street separating the building from the masjid complex. The street and the open ground in front of the masjid were teeming with kar sevaks. All one could hear were whistles and Jai Shree Rams, as saffron flags were put up on the central dome. Kar sevaks jumped and danced around.
Operation Demolition now got under way. Pick-axes and stone breakers (iron rods) with which the kar sevaks had come prepared were used to attack the structure. Some kar sevaks started tearing down the steel rods and barbed wire fencing at the bottom of the hillock and the uprooted poles, bricks etc were also being used as crude implements. CRPF posts were tossed down like toys. Ropes were tied to the by-now heavily damaged outer wall and sections of it were pulled down by those below the hillock. Every time a portion came down, there was wild rejoicing.
Anybody and everybody pitched in - the young and the middle-aged, jean-clad youth and half-clad sadhus. But they all had the same frenzied look on their faces as they destroyed or merely cheered the destroyers on.
Ayodhya residents, the less active kar sevaks and the inactive police watched the proceedings from the open ground behind Sitaji ki Rasoi and from their rooftops. Many of them and journalists were on the terrace of this complex. When I was talking to BJP MP, Brigadier Khanduri (who later became the chief minister of Uttarkhand), a woman kar sevak saw me taking notes and threatened me with a brick, asking me to leave. After this, all the journalists present had to put their notebooks away and pretend to be kar sevaks, wherever possible. Cameras had already been put away.
S. C. Dixit, BJP MP from Varanasi who has now been entrusted with the task of enquiring into the violence, was there. The parents of the Kothari brothers from Calcutta, who had hoisted the saffron flag on the masjid in 1990, were also present.
So were tense police and administration officials who went into a huddle. "Tear gas karen ya firing," one asked. "Firing nahin," said another before he noticed nosey reporters surrounding them and shamelessly eavesdropping. They moved away.
More journalists had come in for shelter, most of them photographers and film crew who had been attacked. Everyone sat around glumly, making plans about getting out and reaching Faizabad.
2.45 pm. There was a rumbling sound, followed by wild cheering. The first dome had fallen. The wanton destruction went on. One could just about make out individual sounds - metal striking stone, stone striking stone, metal striking metal, whistles, changes, bhajans, speeches on the microphone. The combined din was unbearable. An hour later the second dome fell. The cheering grew louder. Injured car sevaks were being taken out.
Meanwhile, Advani and Vijayaraje Scindia, who were watching the events from the terrace of the Ram Katha Kunj building which overlooks the open ground, appealed to the kar sevaks over the microphone, asking them to leave the complex. No one paid any heed. However, between their speeches, Sadhvi Rithambara read out an incendiary poem from the same platform asking the kar sevaks to raise clenched fists and repeat the chorus after her. She got a vociferous response. An hour earlier, another woman on the mike, presumably Uma Bharti, had exhorted kar sevaks to squat on the roads leading to Faizabad so that Central forces would not be able to reach Ayodhya. There did not appear to be any attempt to restrain them.
The journalists were hungry. One woman reporter went out with a policemen and got some fruits. Others wrapped saffron scarves and went to the nearby Manas Bhavan,where a langar was on, to get puris and alu. There the kar sevaks and those doling out the food were asking one another: "how much has fallen?' it was like following a cricket match.
A kar sevak from Madras brought a message that three foreign journalists had taken shelter with them in a nearby dharamshala. A police escort was sent ot bring them back.
4.45 pm. The central dome fell. There was unlimited uninhibited jubilation. People danced around in joyous abandon. There was a look of ecstasy on all faces. Two kar sevaks hugged each other and cried. Their friend had died during the 1990 kar seva. "Jis kaam ke liye aaye the voh ho gayee," people said. "Mubarak ho," they greeted one another. It was all over.
An hour later, the journalists holed up in Sitaji ki Rasoi were escorted out to CRPF trucks and taken back to Faizabad.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

A Cancer Without Cure

I am a member of Delhi Traffic Police's Facebook page, along with 17000 others. In the initial month or so, whenever someone used to sneer about traffic policemen taking bribes, I used to admonish them - no one can force you to give a bribe; follow traffic rules and then you won't have to deal with bribes; when you are stopped and challaned, just pay the fine, don't plead to be let off as that opens the doors for bribes.

I have always had this holier-than-thou attitude towards bribes and `baksheesh'. When the postman who brought my passport asked for `chai-paani' I told him to take the passport back. I was convinced I could use RTI to get my passport. And I have once used RTI to get the DDA to redress a problem caused by bribe-giving neighbours.

But that attitude has taken a serious blow.

If one is stopped for a traffic violation, there are two alternatives. One can either pay the fine on the spot and get a receipt. If one doesn't have the money or wants to challenge the challan, one has to surrender the driving licence/registration certificate and go to court.

Simple and straightforward isn't it?

But no.

Several people have written in on the DTP page complaining about arbitrariness by traffic policemen. Violators are stopped and either higher penalties than what the offence warranted are slapped on them or they are told to pay the fine in court even if they are prepared to pay right then.

The purpose behind this? Psyche violators into pleading to be let off and succumbing to bribe demands. In some cases, they didn’t even wait for the offender to plead. The choice was given right away – pay us a bribe or pay the challan in court. Some succumbed, others didn't and had to do the rounds of courts or had more charges slapped against them.

Some incidents made my blood run cold.

One young man was stopped on the grounds of having jumped a red light. He pointed out that the traffic signal wasn't working properly. When another motorist stopped and supported him, the policemen tried to note his number so that they could slap a few challans on him!!

Another person was stopped and told to pay Rs 1000 fine for jumping the red light (though the fine is only Rs 100) or pay a bribe of Rs 200. When he protested, the lone constable added false charges of drunken driving and lack of documents. When the young man refused to sign the challan with these false charges, another offence of misbehaviour with a public servant was added. His driving licence was impounded and he had to make two trips to the court to get it back.

I had said on the page once that this is nothing but extortion and thuggery by the traffic policemen.

What is even more worrying is that I had raised a few broad questions for senior traffic police officials to answer – is there a policy to slap a Rs 1000 penalty for jumping the red light; if a person is willing to pay the challan on the spot can the policeman insist that it be paid in court; if one challenges a challan, what are the procedures? There has been total silence on this, though I have repeated these questions (though the special commissioner (traffic) has intervened in a couple of instances). Clearly the traffic police brass are either unwilling or unable to check their men on the street.

The only uplifting aspect of all this is a few people refusing to pay bribes and even those who have are coming out into the open and explaining the circumstances in which they paid the bribe and identifying the policemen. In each case, it shows up police bullying at its worst. It’s easy to say stand up to bullying but it’s far more difficult to practice.

The young man in the first incident decided to pay in court rather than pay a bribe. But one of the other page members said that in court, these cases are treated summarily, so the judge has no time to listen to one’s explanations. And as the second incident shows, the ordeal isn’t over in one day.

Paying the fine on a wrong charge and then contesting it also doesn’t help. The special commissioner traffic, intervening in one complaint of a wrong challan, told the complainant he could go meet a particular officer but there is no provision to refund a challan. The police holds all the aces; the people hold all the duds.

In 2004, I was part of a team that brought out a Liberal Budget. One criticism made was that there was nothing in the document to reduce or eliminate corruption. I had responded that we believe scope for corruption would fall dramatically if the state gets out of micro-managing the economy and red tape reduced. Indeed, examples are often cited of how there is no need for bribes to get a telephone connection merely because supply has increased.

But all this logic falls flat when one comes across the kind of extortion that Delhi’s traffic police are indulging in.

But why only the police?

Take income tax. A very well-respected economist, who had been with the Planning Commission long back, had some income coming in as consultant. Being honest to the core, he didn’t show false expenditures and his accounts were all in order. Nothing hanky panky at all But the assessing officer asked his chartered accountant for a bribe – he gave a list of things worth Rs 10,000. The accountant said he could not ask his client. He told the officer who the gentleman was, only to be told that the officer was sitting on a senior cabinet minister’s file! He told the accountant that if he could not ask his client, he should pay the bribe out of his own fees.

Jurist Leila Seth, in her memoirs, talks about how an inspector refused to give the completion certificate for her house, because she refused to bribe. After much pressure he came and said some essential construction was 4 inches less than the required measurement. Leila Seth spent double the amount he was asking as bribe to break down that particular element and reconstruct it. And the guy still took a year to give the certificate. When told who she was, he said I have made ministers and cabinet secretaries succumb.

My friend Sunil Varma’s angst-ridden Facebook status message -- "I'm convinced, we Indians are the most corrupt people in the world! p.s. - Any argument with me on this assertion is quite pointless..." – set off this post.

Sunil gives the example of his friend’s husband who tried to get a power connection for his factory through legitimate means. Apparently the electricity would be cut off every day on grounds of load shedding. The poor man finally had to succumb.

Increasing supply of goods and service providers could eliminate corruption in some areas. This gentleman may not have had to succumb to bribe demands if power distribution was not a monopoly. Technology can also help – it has reduced the role of touts in regional transport offices.

But what is the solution to the kind of extortion that we are seeing on Delhi's roads and in income tax offices? You can't have competition in law and order enforcement or in tax assessment and collection (though many of my libertarian friends may say yes, you can).

I just want to repeat something I said on Sunil's page - corruption is no longer something about which to feel sad about. It's bloody scary.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Killing the nation’s honour

The Supreme Court has issued notices to eight states and the Central government on the issue of honour killings. It has asked them what steps they have taken/will take to protect young couples from the wrath of their families. This is in response to a public interest litigation filed by an NGO, Shakti Vahini.

And as I write, the National Commission of Women chief Girija Vyas is talking on television about the need for tougher laws to deal with honour killings.

There's no disputing the fact that honour killings are a blot on society. And khap panchayats have no role in a civilized society and democratic polity. Also, young people have a right to marry whom they want to. Parents too have a right to oppose and point out problems of inter-caste/inter-religion/same gotra marriages. But they don't have the right to force their children to obey their will. Or kill them if they don't listen.

But can the issue be dealt with through judicial intervention? Or through tougher laws?

I have my doubts.

This is a mindset issue, which goes beyond kangaroo courts in rural hinterlands. It exists in urban areas, among so-called highly educated, sophisticated families. Remember the Rizwanur Rehman case in Calcutta? Or the Nirupama Pathak case in Jharkhand? Indeed, the marrying-beneath-one's-status issue is a universal one, going beyond religion or caste or gotra.

The NGO and the Supreme Court are probably going to focus on how runaway couples are tracked down and murdered and are not helped by the police. In fact the police often takes the side of the families. Think again of Rizwanur. Or of Rajnish Sharma of Jammu who was found hanging in a Srinagar police station. He had married a Muslim girl who alleged that her family and the police had colluded to murder him. Or of the trumped up rape charges that are always slapped against the boy. In fact, the Supreme Court came down strongly on the police on this count.

But let's go back to another Supreme Court order in December 2009. Two of its judges reduced the death sentence pronounced on a brother who killed his sister's husband, who belonged to a lower caste, and his father and brothers in 2004 in Bombay. The sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Just read what the two judges - V S Sirpurkar and Deepak Verma - observed while reducing the sentence:

...Caste is a concept which grips a person before his birth and does not leave him even after his death. The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality. The psyche of the offender in the background of a social issue like an inter-caste-community marriage, though wholly unjustified, would have to be considered on the peculiar circumstances.

These are learned judges making statements like this. How do you expect a relatively less educated policeman from a conservative, rustic background to react when a girl's family comes to him talking about ghar ki izzat and all that?

Look at the complexity we are dealing with. In the Bombay case, the brother - Dilip Tiwari, a brahmin - was assisted in the murder by two people from a lower caste - Manoj Paswan and Sunil Yadav. Obviously they found nothing ironic in the idea that they were helping a high caste man murder someone from a lower caste. After all, ghar ki izzat ka sawaal hai. If a girl from their families were to marry someone from an even lower caste, clearly, they would mete the same treatment to her.

Am I saying that the problem of honour killings should not be addressed at all? Not at all.

But I wonder what a court can do in the matter. Maybe ask states where this is more rampant to ensure that the police help harassed couples. That's easily said, but how will it be ensured?

Should we have a separate law on honour killings? What will it say? Murder is illegal, whether for honour or not. So what are we talking about here?

The only way this problem can be addressed is through a mindset change. Someone should have challenged the order of the two Supreme Court judges who reduced Dilip Tiwari's sentence and the death penalty should have been restored.

Politicians have to come out unequivocally against khap panchayats and not entertain them at all. Naveen Jindal should have lost his Congress membership the day he asked a Times of India journalist who went to interview him on his support of khap panchayats whether her parents would allow her to marry someone from the same gotra.

Mindset changes don't come overnight. They take time. But laws and judicial activism also will not solve the problem overnight. It all needs to go hand in hand.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Republic and Us

Standing on my balcony, musing over the farce of the Padma awards -- people like NRI businessman Sant Singh Chatwal, who has faced charges of defrauding Indian banks, are on the list, as if awarding Saif Ali Khan, Barkha Dutt (in an earlier year) weren't bad enough -- I saw something that left me even more depressed. The residents' welfare association (RWA) of my block was hosting Republic Day celebrations in the park that my house overlooks. The little park appeared full of people. Almost 70 per cent of the residents were gathered there, socialising and gorging on free snacks. The heavy mist that blanketed Delhi till well past 11 am was no dampener.

Why is that depressing? Because whenever there is a general body meeting (GBM) of the RWA, attendance drops to just about 30 per cent, give or take 0.5 per cent of 1 per cent. GBMs are called to discuss affairs relating to the block and to review the functioning of the office-bearers of the RWA. But barring the 30-odd regulars nobody bothers to attend them.

To me the RWAs and GBMs represent democracy at a microcosmic level and the way people behave here only gets projected at the state or national level in the state assembly and Parliament. The GBM is like a full session of Parliament and the executive committee of the RWA is like the executive arm of the state – the government, which is charged with implementing policies and programmes sanctioned by Parliament (or GBM).

The RWA charges a certain amount every month from the residents. Most pay up and there are a few defaulters. This corresponds to paying taxes and that should prompt a demand for some accountability. It’s not easy to demand and ensure that accountability at the state or national level, but surely it should be easier at the level of the locality you are living in?

And yet what do I find?

That people believe they should get their money’s worth in terms of services, but apart from ranting against the RWA or fighting with its office-bearers if they suffer some personal inconvenience – no water, theft, service lanes not clean – they are not willing to take the next step forward to be more involved.

One potent way they can get more involved is in attending the GBMs. That is like a Parliament session where the executive is grilled on its performance, larger issues are debated and decided on. Once a GBM has decided on something, it is applicable to all members of the RWA.

But people find all kinds of excuses for not attending the GBM. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, errands to run, relatives dropping in. None of these excuses are trotted out when there’s free food available. Even thick fog won’t keep them away. Ask them why they don’t attend GBMs and the pat answer is – kuch hota to nahin hai. So why don’t you come, make yourself heard and ensure kuch hota hai? Kya fayda, what’s the point?

If a GBM does decide on a particular course of action and it inconveniences someone that person just decided to ignore it. When it is pointed out that the GBM has decided this, the immediate reply is – what GBM, how many people attend the GBM, I wasn’t there, so how was it decided? So why don’t you attend? Kya fayda? There seems to be no winning this argument.

What happens as a result? The office-bearers behave pretty much like our politicians do once they are elected. There are rules about the number of GBMs to be called in a year (much like laws about Parliament sitting) but the required number of GBMs is never convened. No one questions them about it.

RWAs are run pretty much like fiefdoms – contracts being awarded for a cut or for personal favours, guards running personal errands for office-bearers, the houses near those of the office-bearers benefiting more than others. And people will just grumble but never demand accountability.

The annual election of the executive committee is also an interesting replica of state or national elections. Two groups gang up and decide to contest elections. Each go around with a kind of manifesto promising the moon. The challengers accuse the incumbents of corruption and ineffectiveness.

Most committee members have their own agendas and the temptation to use the one year in office to make money is strong and often not resisted.

Which brings one to the question that dogs national politics – why don’t good, honest, effective people become office-bearers? The answers, unfortunately, are the same. The honest people are often mild-mannered and don’t have the kind of aggression that is required to deal with rogue elements – and there are many. The honest, effective people are the ones who hold regular jobs and are not able to devote the kind of time that an RWA needs. Above all, RWA politics can be as dirty as state and national politics and these people just don’t have the stomach for that kind of politicking and worse.

Is it any wonder then that our state legislatures and Parliament are in the state they are? If we cannot ensure democracy and responsibility at our individual levels, can we do so at larger levels?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The NRI Vote

This post is likely to cost me a few NRI friends. It could have been relatives too but you can't lose relatives; you can only lose contact with them.

I am pretty worked up about the move on voting rights for NRIs. A Bill to amend the Representation of People Act to allow this was moved in 2006 and the standing committee of Parliament made certain observations. The Bill has remained stuck because of that.

I have had an e-exchange with my friend Krishna Srinivasan, who works for the IMF, on the subject. "If we are still citizens, why should we not be allowed to vote?" asks Krishna. He went on to say, "voting is a fundamental right for every citizen. No reason why they should be prevented from voting just because they relocate overseas for a few years. As long as a NRI remains an Indian citizen, she/he should be allowed to vote."

Krishna certainly has a point. I was worried that the Bill would allow even NRIs who had taken citizenship of other countries to vote. Fortunately, it does not - the right to vote is not being conferred on even those with Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card.

My issue is not about people who have relocated for a few years but those people who have gone abroad with the intention of settling down there and the only reason they are still Indian citizens is that they cannot get citizenship of the other country before a stipulated time period. Technically, yes, they are Indian citizens but are they Indians at heart? Speaking Indian languages, being part of the Indian community in the other country, sticking to Indian rituals, food and dress, visiting India every year, investing in Indian businesses etc doesn't count. Are they involved with the country in the way that all of us who choose to live here and put up with the trials and tribulations of living in India are? Should people who chose not to endure this country with all its hardships be allowed to determine who rules all those who chose to do so? That is my fundamental question.

My fear is that the amendment Bill seeks to allow such people to vote. The amendment Bill proposes that "a person absenting himself from his place of ordinary residence owing to his employment, education, or otherwise, outside India, whether temporarily or not, shall not, by reason thereof, cease to be ordinarily resident in India." Note the words, "temporarily or not". That means even those who have gone permanently will be allowed to vote because they have still retained their Indian citizenship.

I think that is unfair. NRIs don't pay taxes in India (some probably do) so why should they be allowed to determine the government? No taxation without representation should surely also mean no representation without taxation.

There are a whole lot of practical problems with the proposal, many of which have been highlighted in the standing committee report on the Bill. Apparently, conferring voting right on someone also confers on that person the right to stand for election. Now that is worrying.

The biggest problem, according to me, is - how are NRIs going to judge which party/candidate is best for the job? Can they make an informed choice the way a voter living here can? (Sure, even people here don't make informed choices, but that is another issue). The move will also skew the playing field against the smaller parties and independents who may not have the resources to reach out to NRI voters, thus giving the big parties with a higher profile an unfair advantage. I am worried about how some parties are going about studiously wooing the NRIs. I cannot believe it has to do with wanting to keep them engaged with India and its development. It’s about engaging with their particular brand of politics. It will be easier to fool NRIs, in spite of the information and technology revolution.

There was something else in my exchange with Krishna that disturbed me. He said allowing NRIs to vote "will, hopefully, contribute towards improving governance". Later he elaborated (in response to a riposte from me) that "I would like to believe that many/most NRIs would not be swayed by the populist measures used by politicians to get votes. This would, hopefully, help elect the right candidate and not the one with most money/influence, which in turn would help improve governance."

My riposte had been that the white man's burden is now morphing into the NRI burden: these desis back home don't know how to vote the right people, so we NRIs need to step in and help them improve governance etc. But Krishna's counter is similar to that smug middle class attitude all of us have - the poor vote depending on how much they are paid; it is us educated people who vote responsibly. But as I have pointed out in an earlier post, this is a myth. The middle class voters are as prone to being bribed as the poor. Not in terms of cash or liquor or whatever, but in terms of benefits - protection for encroachments, continuation of undeserved subsidies etc. What is the guarantee that NRIs won't have their own narrow agendas?

Not giving NRIs voting rights will certainly affect all those who have gone abroad purely temporarily - people on foreign assignments or jobs with international organisations or multinational corporations, students who may later choose to come back, people who have only gone to earn money for their families back home (like the poor people working in the Gulf who repatriate all their earnings), people like my friend Krishna. If some way can be found to define `temporarily' in the amendment and allow these genuine people to vote, sure go ahead. But if that cannot be done, I am afraid these people will just have to wait till they return in order to vote. We cannot allow people who have no stake in the country and don't understand or want to endure its problems to determine our governments.
P.S. I am giving a link to a summary of the Bill and the standing committee recommendations.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Justice has to be just

Now there is a Facebook group called Justice for Ruchika. I got invites but am not planning to join. It’s not that I am not angered by the piffling conviction that S P S Rathore got. No woman who has traveled in a Delhi bus will feel differently.

But I am not joining the group for two reasons. One, I feel such groups are no different from meaningless candlelight vigils about which I have written earlier.
More importantly, I am just not comfortable with all that is happening now.

Slapping new charges, filing fresh FIRs (which eminent legal experts like Ram Jethmalani and K T S Tulsi have criticized) is perhaps not the best way of going about getting justice for Ruchika.

The right way to go about it would have been to pressure the CBI to appeal the verdict in a higher court and press for a longer sentence there, which is what happened in the Jessica Lal case, and making sure that the arguments are watertight.

Take the new charges of abetment to suicide. That seems to be on very weak ground. Apparently this had been dismissed by the high court and Supreme Court earlier. The CBI officer who had headed the probe has clearly said that the charge was weak even then because Ruchika had committed suicide three years after the molestation incident and left no suicide note. So on what basis are charges of abetment to suicide be framed and made to stick? Am not sure if abetment to suicide charges can be levied only by relatives saying so or whether it requires a suicide note. I would like to be educated about this.

The immediate rejoinder to that will be that the CBI official was protecting Rathore. Maybe. But that charge can stick only if the officer deliberately overlooked or destroyed strong evidence of abetment to suicide. There is nothing right now to suggest that.

There is unhappiness over the fact that Rathore has got interim anticipatory bail and I heard Anand Parkash saying on television that this shows the system is still trying to shield Rathore. Now this is clearly unfair. Giving bail to someone on a bailable offence is hardly an attempt to shield that person.

The initial outrage over the laughable six months that Rathore got has now snowballed into something uncontrollable and often ridiculous. The Indian Express had an editorial, Call off the mob, which highlights the danger of letting public outrage dictate justice. The points it makes are very valid. The topic of NDTV’s Big Fight programme is going to be “Is media trial the only way to get justice”. This is, quite simply, appalling. There can be no justification for the media arrogating to itself the role of judges.

Like I wrote in the end of my post on the media behaviour in this case on my other blog, the travesty of justice which happened should not become an excuse for vigilante justice.