Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two extracts from two pieces worth reading:

"A plan to stop the destruction of the world’s oceans was blocked by the US, Canada and Russia. The final text simply says that countries should do more to prevent over-fishing and ocean acidification, without specifying what. A call to end subsidies for fossil fuels was removed from the final text, as was language emphasizing the reproductive rights of women. And of course there were no new commitments on fighting climate change.
The 49-page final declaration of Rio+20 contained the verb “reaffirm” 59 times. In effect, some 50,000 people from 192 countries traveled to Rio de Janeiro to “reaffirm” what was agreed there twenty years ago. The fact that the document was not even less ambitious than the 1992 final text was trumpeted as a success.
Rarely has such a large elephant labored so long to give birth to such a small mouse." Article here
"Till date, the Army, based on an internal artificial interpretation by the Military Secretary's Branch, is promoting Short Service Officers commissioned prior to 2006 as Captains in nine years of service while those commissioned after 2006 are being promoted to the same rank in two years. The impediment was not created by with the Ministry of Defence, but by the Army. When the Military's medical establishment was directed by Courts to grant medical facilities to its elderly retired Emergency Commissioned Officers based on an already existing Government Order, the Army itself was quick to challenge it before the Supreme Court. Imagine, the Army approaching the Supreme Court with a prayer that the same Army may be directed to withdraw medical facilities from its own officers, some of them in their 80s." Article here

Monday, June 25, 2012

Presidents 101

I thought it worthwhile to reiterate this — the President does represent us. As ‘First Citizen’, he (or she) signs off on our future. He often serves as the voice of our conscience and sometimes, as the face of the nation.
At the very least, he has power to overturn the death penalty. As head of the executive, he signs bills passed by Parliament. However, if he does not agree with the decision, he can send a bill back once. He can’t overturn decisions, but he can force MPs to think about whether their decisions are in the national interest. At the very least, his act of returning a bill unsigned alerts the rest of us to the fact that a law is problematic.A President is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He appoints state Governors, the Chief Justice and other judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, the Attorney General, the Comptroller and Auditor General, all the Election Commissioners, and the Ambassadors to other nations. Even if he doesn’t do the actual hiring himself, there must be a lot of paperwork. And if he is conscientious about the right people being hired for very important jobs, he should check the backgrounds of those he appoints.
His role is critical in times of crisis, such as an Emergency, which India has experienced already. It is the President who declares an Emergency in times of war, or internal rebellion. Besides, when states face a constitutional crisis, ‘President’s rule’ is imposed. The Governor can dissolve an elected Assembly in the name of the President. This too has happened in Jammu and Kashmir, and more recently, Jharkhand. Clearly, the President wasn’t vacationing while these crises were playing themselves out. Tough decisions had to be made, against great political pressure, and with huge ramifications for Indian democracy.
It’s true that the President acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the cabinet. Even so, he must decide whether or not he should take that advice. Legally, his decision cannot be challenged on the grounds that it is not in accordance with the PM’s advice. Nor is he easy to get rid of, unless it is proved that he violated the Constitution. Even so, the government can’t impeach him without the support of two-thirds of both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. That is another reason why it’s important to build consensus on the candidate. MPs are not bound to follow party orders when voting for a new President, since they vote by secret ballot.
I do hope the next President follows in KR Narayanan’s footsteps and sends out communiqués to explain his decisions. It would have helped if Pratibha Patil had done the same. For instance, her decision to tackle 30 mercy petitions, and saving lives, including those convicted for killing children (one was a jailer’s daughter, gang-raped and killed inside jail premises). But Patil did not come to a decision on mercy petitions from men accused of political (separatist) murders. It would help if she explained why, because I just don’t understand.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Recently, watching the documentary Supermen of Malegaon — which is the funniest, most empathetic film I’ve seen this year — I began to think about ‘small’ projects. The documentary tracks the making of a fiction film, Superman of Malegaon, an extremely low budget handycam-shot parody of Hollywood’s Superman. It was made by the same filmmaker who made Malegaon ki Sholay, putting in his own money. The actors are often workers from local textile mills.
It was clearly a difficult project. But the making of one film encouraged others in Malegaon to try their hand at filmmaking.
It was clearly a difficult project. But the making of one film encouraged others in Malegaon to try their hand at filmmaking. Films are mostly circulated on CDs, but whatever emerges is a thing of pride and hope, and also personal responsibility. And I kept wishing there was at least one theatre dedicated to screening indigenous films. Not just in Malegaon. Why should every small town not have its own film industry, its own talent, and its own system of theatrical distribution?
Of course, there is the question of demand and supply, and the question of superior/inferior quality of the work produced. I do believe that people should be free to watch whatever they want to watch, whether it is a Korean action film dubbed into Tamil, or a Bhojpuri family drama jiggling with innuendo, or expensive Hindi films made in Mumbai. But if there is no way to show their work, especially to local audiences, why will local writers and filmmakers be driven to tell local stories?
And if we do not take responsibility for local needs and problems, how are we ever going to be a fair society? So many thousands of problems arise from centralisation. There is too great a physical distance between administrators and the local population, between farmer and policy-maker and beneficiaries of the public distribution system, between people who live near rivers and people who benefit from the electricity produced by damming those rivers.
For instance, the so-called small or ‘mini’ hydel projects on rivers are supposed to be greener, in the sense that they do not fully stop the flow of the river water. But they do destroy the local ecology. Forests are depleted. People’s access to the water, and the fish, changes. For instance, villages impacted by the 200-MW Gundia Hydroelectric Power Project (GHEP), proposed in the Gundia River basin, have been protesting. Meanwhile, the Karnataka High Court has reportedly issued a stay order on 72 mini hydel projects in the Western Ghats.
Some sources suggest that the government has cleared as many as 261 small hydel projects across several Indian states, not including the north-east. Around 132 hydro projects have been planned in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Some north-eastern tribes have already suffered displacement, thanks to dams, which led to conflicts between the refugees and other communities.There have been dam-induced floods.
It is also not enough to turn to renewable energy from wind and sun. Wind farms in Andhra Pradesh have demolished forests that local communities had painstakingly grown on ‘barren’ land. Grasslands were destroyed, which in turn led to a collapse of cattle farming.
This is not to say that electricity shouldn’t be generated at all. But we do need to snap out of our national habit of looking for energy solutions too far from home. We have to find a way of generating it locally, so that if sacrifices must be made, the impact is also felt by those who benefit most.
If Mumbai and Delhi and Chandigarh want lots of electricity, local governments must find a way of getting residents to generate some. It isn’t impossible. But it does require a certain amount of will. And a certain sense of justice.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rulers, purposes

Infrastructure and colonialism make me think of Lord Dalhousie. I read recently that he built the Grand Hindustan Tibet road in 1850. According to the Himachal state tourism website, amongst other reasons for building the road, one was that the former Governor General of India was upset to see the system of ‘begaari’ – bonded labour, effectively. “Unpaid labourers were pressed into service — including for the transport of timber and files to Shimla,” the website says, adding that Lord Dalhousie wanted to improve the road upon which these men trudged.

Getting around in the hills meant riding mules or horses, and the journey was fraught with danger. Of course, Lord Dalhousie himself needed travel in the Himalayas. He also wanted to create trade ties with Tibet and the road was important. So, as the website puts it, “the immense machinery at the disposal of the East India Company was pressed into service”; but it doesn’t say whether or not the labourers were paid. That’s the question I’m interested in. Did the labourers who created colonial infrastructure get paid?

If they were paid, I must acknowledge a tiny bit of grudging respect to Dalhousie. To my mind, a good administrator is one who intervenes in a bad situation. A good ruler sees people suffering and does something about it.

One of my favourite stories about rulers relates to former nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-daula, who moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. Certain chroniclers have described him thus: “He used to laugh unseasonably, fling derisive abuse at others and desire derisive abuse in return. He delighted in meaningless amusements...”

He was known to have been indifferent to governance, but I can forgive all his “meaningless amusements” if only one story about him proves true — the story of the Bada Imambara being a charity project. In 1784, famine hit Awadh. Lucknow was suffering. Asaf-ud-daula, it is believed, hired over 20,000 people to build a complex that houses a palace, a mosque, a maze and a step-well. However, this wasn’t an ordinary food-for-work program. What was built during the day was demolished at night. Rumour has it that even ‘noblemen’ worked at night, so they wouldn’t be jeered at for being reduced to starvation.

As long as the famine lasted, the project went on. Some called Asaf-ud-daula mad. The treasury was being emptied with nothing to show for it. But I think he had something more precious than sanity. He had priorities.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Short, and bittersweet.

So I made this short film.

'Engine' was entered into a contest organised by humaramovie, where the main draw was a brief mentoring session with either Anurag Kashyap or Imtiaz Ali. The film did not win the prize, but it did get a special mention (as a worthy rival to the winner). All teams worked to a common theme: the girl and the auto-rickshaw. I re-edited the film slightly after the contest was over. Feedback, as always, is welcome.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Last week, in Rohtak, a young man who sold boiled eggs for a living was reportedly beaten up as he tried to stop other young men from snatching some eggs. People rushed to his rescue and broke up the fight. But after he wound up work, his assailants cornered him. The victim identifies as Balmiki. His assailants are upper caste. Reports say, they beat him, urinated on his face, stole Rs2,500 from his cart, then broke the cart.
Over a hundred years ago, in Hoshiarpur, there was a boy called Mangoo Ram. He was the only “Untouchable” in his school and had to sit outside the classroom. His father packed him off to the USA to work on farms, and when he returned in the 1920s, he was nearly forty. Perhaps it was the shock of being re-introduced to caste, but Mangoo Ram went on to become an organiser of people we now prefer to call Dalit, and a proponent of Ad Dharm, a casteless religion that claimed to be pre-Hindu.
When the Ad Dharm movement was in its nascent stages, a former Arya Samaj member Swami Shudranand was addressing a series of meetings around Jalandhar. One of these meetings went on for four days and had to be broken up when the upper castes attacked the participants for using the village pond.
I’ve been reading about the social and political forces that shaped a religion, in a book called Religious Rebels In The Punjab: The Ad Dharm Challenge To Caste, by Mark Juergensmeyer. I’m also reading news reports about Dalits camped outside the Hisar district administration’s offices, alleging discrimination in their village to the extent of being denied trade at provision stores – a socio-economic boycott described in north India as ‘hukka-paani band’. And I’m wondering at what the last hundred years have meant for Dalits.
Juergensmeyer writes, “Upper castes identified casteism and social discrimination as the cause of the Untouchables’ plight (but) Untouchables felt themselves, instead, to be victims of poverty and economic discrimination.”
This is, of course, a critical difference of perspective. Upper caste people, however empathetic, see only the obvious — discrimination and/or violence. What the discrimination accomplishes is that it pushes poor people further into poverty, or keeps them there. The young man in Rohtak, for instance, lost money, suffered losses on eggs he couldn’t sell, and must repair his cart or find money for a new one. He might not have money for legal battles. And if the guilty are not convicted, his losses will never be recovered.
Far too often, conversations around caste veer away from the economics that lie at the core of casteism. Resources — especially land and water — are not unlimited. Jobs — especially the ones that do not involve backbreaking, soul-numbing labour — are hard to get. Those who have the better bargain are in no hurry to change the status quo. Throw power into the equation and people will see bloodshed before they surrender their benefits.
Nepal faces a fresh crisis because its leaders could not agree on a constitution and writer Manjushree Thapa believes that caste had a big part to play. “Brahmins and Kshatriyas — called Bahuns and Chhetris in Nepal — occupy almost all national space,” she writes. She accuses the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, particularly of trying to preserve a high-caste monopoly, and opposing the rights of women, dalits and other ethnic groups.
But those who have a monopoly on power are not going to give up without a fight, are they? To mix metaphors, more eggs are likely to get smashed before the apple cart is upset.

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