Sunday, December 28, 2008

The constable’s lament

I saw Pandu Hawaldar reading a newspaper of all things. “Why are you reading a newspaper?” I asked.
“I’m looking for a new job,” he said.
“But why? You were so happy to get this job, you distributed sweets and all, just two months ago,” I said.
“That’s because I took a loan to pay the donation to get a job as a constable and I was assured I would be able to pay back the loan inside six months,” he said.
“You call it donation, not bribe,” I said, “What do you think the police force is? A private school? Anyway you have four whole months left.”
“It’s no good, when we ask for donation the public say they will complain to the IGP,” he said.
“People will continue offering bribes to avoid paying a larger fine,” I said.
“First we used to just catch people and find something wrong with what they were doing, and they would just put notes in our hands and go off. Now that does not work. They argue,” he said bitterly.
“But people still break all sorts of rules on the road,” I said.
“Yes, but we have to be there when they break them, no? On my beat everyone becomes an upright citizen” he said mournfully.
“Don’t worry,” I said bracingly, “your ship will come in.”
His eyes opened wide in horror. “Please don’t say the word ‘ship’,” he begged.
“Why, what’s wrong with the word ‘ship’,” I said.
“We have a curly coastline and terrorists think it’s fashionable to come in by ship,” he said.
“You don’t have to worry, our fishing trawlers are manning the coastline,” I said.
“Trawlers,” he said scornfully, “What can trawlers do? All they are interested in is what’s in their nets, not what’s on the water.”
“Well anyway, let’s suppose terrorists do come in by sea, we have sand bunkers on the beaches,” I said.
“Yes, and I’ll be in one of those bunkers and anyway, can you tell me what we hawaldars are supposed to do in them?” he asked.
“You have to scan the coastline and maybe radio for help, maybe shoot them with your .303 rifles,” I said.
“And what happens if then come in from the back end of the bunker and throw a grenade in?” he asked.
“You will have to act like lightning and fling the grenade back at them before it explodes, like fielding in cricket,” I said.
“When I applied for this job, I was not told I would have to act like lightning and catch and bowl grenades that are thrown at me,” he said.
“Don’t worry, you will be issued protective gear,” I said.
“What protective gear,” he said, “the bulletproof jackets are not bulletproof. Don’t you read the papers?”
“Maybe the donation paid to the bureaucrats who passed them was a very large one,” I said.
“That is not a donation. That is a bribe. Use the correct terminology,” he said.
“But it’s a win-win situation,” I said. “If terrorists kill you, you will get a gallantry award, an Ashok Chakra even.”
“You shut up with your gallantry awards. You go get yourself killed by the terrorists and take your awards up to heaven with you,” he said.
“I’m not a policeman; they won’t give me any award – only Rs 2 lakh to my next of kin,” I said.
“Anyway, I am not brave and have no wish to get Ashok Chakras,” he said. “I see no reason to help terrorists out when they want target practice. Now please go away while I look for a job I can do which does not involve getting shot.”
“You’ll have to leave out hotel jobs, shipping jobs, hospital jobs, or for that matter any job that involves you traveling in public transport, or walking on a road,” I said.
“The only people who seem to have no tension are terrorists,” he said.
“You cannot qualify,” I said. “They look forward to getting killed.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

RTI – a first step towards accountability

You realize just how powerful a tool the Right to Information Act (RTI) is, when you hear of the number of people who have been killed because they applied for information about public projects that had been undertaken. Documentaries are regularly made about these crimes perpetrated against a voiceless people but rarely see the light of day in commercial media. There was this short documentary Right to Information made by Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan about a village in Rajasthan which has grinding poverty but immense dignity and an ability to smile in the face of grave injustice.

The film opens with the interviewer asking the villagers about a canal that has been dug in their village. The documentation of the project is impressive. The register shows how almost every villager has worked on the canal under the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The names of the villagers have been written down carefully with their angootha chaap or thumb print next to their name and the amount paid to them. The specifications of the canal and details of phase-by-phase building of the canal are diligently marked out. The camera travels the entire village but cannot find any canal. The villagers say they did not get any work, and there is no canal in their village. But their names are listed as those who worked and took their wages, they are told. One dusty man doggedly claims that he can sign his name and there is no need for his angootha chaap. He studies the fingerprint next to his name and says that first, it was not his thumbprint and second, anyone can see it was a fingerprint and not a thumbprint at all.

The documentary also unearths a housing scam where the materials used are of an unbelievably bad quality, a gentle scratch of a fingernail and an entire section of plaster falls away. The sarpanch of the village though, has a wonderful strongly built spacious mansion with a large courtyard, well designed exterior and houses the village community hall too. The villagers used RTI and exposed the corrupt. They have also made sure penalties were imposed on the defrauders and the poor given cash compensation.

The Act is staggering in its immense reach. NGOs come under its scanner. Landmark judgements have been made based on evidence got though RTI. University students can now check their answer sheets by paying just Rs 10 on an RTI application. The immense power given to the common citizen through this Act gives one hope that finally we have a tool that will force transparency and fix accountability. You get the information and go to court with it. Provided that is, the seeker of information does not get killed off or beaten to a pulp. With this in mind Magasaysay Awardee Aruna Roy with the silver hair and 100-watt smile who spearheaded the Right to Information Act, wants to build a national network of support cells that will give the applicants physical protection with the strength of numbers.

One needs patience and determination to make use of the Act since the waiting period is 30 days, but the result is worth the wait and Public Information Officers or PIOs are learning that there is nowhere they can hide. If information is asked for they are duty bound to give it. If they don’t one can appeal to the State Information Commission and the PIO can be fined up to Rs 25,000.

Jammu and Kashmir which has high levels of corruption has a watered down Act unlike the one that is applicable to the rest of India. They call it a “gun without a bullet” but even with a weak RTI, they have managed to expose several scams involving public money. Punjab’s Information Commission just like Andhra Pradesh’s is going great guns, while the government of Jharkhand has ignored the Act completely, NGOs also come under the purview of the Right to Information Act.

Activists are hugely excited over this Act. In Goa however the Act seems to work well only when politicians and social campaigners use it to check if their opponents have correctly declared their assets or academic qualifications. The common man is still made to run from pillar to post by the Public Information Officers of the departments he approaches. But as Aruna Roy says, if three thousand people get after the government at the same time, accountability will happen and not just the government but private individuals too will be careful about making merry with money that belongs to the public.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Goa’s unique democratic exercise

I was talking to a villager about how I was so impressed with the ParticipatoryProcess of the Regional Plan 2021 (RP2021). “If it works as it is supposed to, and if the original sections 16 and 16A of the Goa Town and Country Planning Act, 1974 are restored, then we have to thank the Goa Bachao Abhiyan for waking the ordinary Goan and giving him a voice,” I said.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said the villager. “The Regional Plan draft is ready and the gram sabhas cannot understand anything about it. The maps have colours everywhere and when we asked for explanation one official told us the ink must have spilled. The Town and Country Planning people have to come to our village and explain it to us.”
“What’s to explain,” I said. “You just have to check the maps and see if the different zones marked there are correct.”
“There’s too many different colours; it looks like my nephew’s colouring when he’s in a bad mood,” he said.
“What is most exciting is the questionnaire,” I said. “It gives everyone in the state a chance to decide what he or she wants for their village and its surroundings. That’s the high road to comprehensive democracy.”
“You mean the form. We can’t understand it,” he said.
“So the Taluka Level Technical Team (TLTT) will be on hand to explain things to you,” I said.
“We have problems just getting to meet the BDO, you think we’ll get to talk to the TLTT? How will they be able to visit and spend time with each problem in each village of the taluka in 45 days? We need six months,” he said.
“They are very simple questions like what is your village is famous for, are you happy with the zoning, infrastructure details. They even ask you to tell them if the map is wrong,” I said.
“And then what happens? They file it all and forget about it,” he said,
“All the answers are sorted out and the answers are tallied on every point,” I said. “Then a village committee which has been elected from the gram sabha will check all the answers of all the residents and if the larger number has voted for a change or against it, the committee will write it in their final form.”
“We are still putting our committee together and we are all fighting,” he said. “The Pilerne gram sabha was not allowed to select even one person. The sarpanch just made a list of his friends, read out the names and went off.”
“So they have to lodge a complaint with the BDO or the TLTT,” I said.
“Why go through all that headache? Who got da time?” he said.
“Make the time, this is a great and unique thing,” I said.
“You say unique,” he said. “I say it’s just goofing off. Anyway with Christmas and New Year coming up, who’s got the time to waste on filling questionnaires? They have to give us more time.”
“They said they would, the village committee just had to apply for more time,” I said.
“And how would we select a village committee?” he asked. “It’s so difficult to get anyone to do anything in the village. All are saying they’re busy. Only the drunkards volunteer for everything.”
“You will have to select professionals from the village who will be able to study the Plan; then the committee will have to go from door to door to make sure everyone fills the questionnaire,” I said.
“It just seems like too much trouble,” he said, “it is much simpler to just go on protest marches and gherao people. At least we get TV coverage.”
“This is collective responsibility,” I said. “It is genuine democracy allowing each individual to place his wishes on record. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, saying it is too much trouble.”
“Okay, so if we fill the questionnaire, then will our wishes for our village be accepted?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, “Provided the government does not evoke Sections 16 and 16 A of the Goa Town and Country Planning Act. Under these sections the government can set aside the Regional Plan for any project they feel like undertaking, even in areas like fields, khazan lands, heritage and CRZ areas.”
“So what’s the use?” he asked.
“You get a chance to continue going on protest marches and gheraoing officials,” I said.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Intelligence Failures after 26/11

Intelligence lapses of the investigative kind may have allowed ten or more young men with murder in their hearts. But what followed was total and complete intelligence failure on everyone’s part – the media, the police, the politicians and the public.

There is this inexplicable desire in us to measure ourselves against the West, so even the “War on Mumbai” of 26 November turns into India’s 9/11. The closest equivalent to Mumbai’s 26/11 was the Parliament attack on Dec 13 2001, where the terrorists rushed in with AK-47s blazing using explosives and grenades. The only difference was that this time it was a protracted battle with terrorists taking hostages and the army, navy and police all involved in removing them. The President who is the leader of the armed forces was conspicuous by her absence. Probably the Chiefs of Staff figured all that heat would have ruined the ‘rubber stamp’. The Prez cut short her tour only after everything was over.

The national media were fairly salivating over the incident, with the rich and famous trapped inside some for a few hours other for two days. No one even bothered to follow up on the poor who were shot to pieces at CST station. Every move, every hiccup was faithfully recorded, packages put together and regurgitated in fits and starts for our consumption. Finally one hears the NSG told the media to lay off showing live footage since the terrorists who were constantly on satellite phone to their bosses would be warned about what to expect. The terrorists wanted publicity and the media both local and international gave it to them generously. No wonder then the terrorists who were so free with flinging grenades all over the place did not lob a single grenade at the media. They wanted their 60-hours of fame recorded for posterity. Even after the last terrorist was killed and the last grenade exploded, one English channel reporter tried getting into the Taj hotel to give us an “exclusive” story but got turfed out and instead walked around the building describing in earnest throbbing tones, the shattered glass on the pavement.

One learned later that intelligence failure affected the three top cops too – ATS Chief Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar and Ashok Kamte. They heard their colleague was injured at Cama Hospital after battling terrorists there. Three top cops should not have been traveling together in one vehicle, but they did. Instead of proceeding with caution, they drove openly to the hospital and the terrorists merely stepped out from behind some trees and killed them in the jeep itself. The terrorists then threw out the bodies of the three top cops on to the road, and adding insult to injury seized that very police jeep and drove off in it shooting into the crowd. There were three dead constables in the jeep and one injured one. The injured one lived to tell the tale.

Politicos had their well documented intelligence lapses with Dy CM RR Patil describing it as a small incident. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh became a terror tour guide. The Kerala Chief Minister got all insulted when the father of the slain Major Unnikrishnan, refused to let his sniffer dogs or the Kerala CM enter his house. He made some comments which could have been misinterpreted and then turned into the typical row this 26/11 incident revels in.

Finally, candle-holding women with or without lipstick that so troubled the BJP politician Naqvi, launched into an anti-politician rally which found echoes all some of the large cities of India. That is an intelligence lapse too, because the urban vote is not important to the political class. Remember both the CM and Dy CM of Maharastra are from Latur and Tasgaon districts, both very rural. The criticism will not make an iota of difference to most politicians because the simple reason is the urban people are a small minority that does not constitute their vote bank. All that passion, those insults, those wild suggestions will amount to nothing. These clowns will be voted back the next time round. Witness Pale here in Goa. Why? Because we are like that only.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gross National Happiness

Everyone is entitled to two minor vices. My second is attending seminars to listen and learn. A seminar is the end product of a group of people who have a subject and a series of ideas around that subject. They pay out serious money to invite specialists in the field who know what they are talking about. The speakers are flown in settled in five-star comfort for three nights and four days wined and dined in return for three working days of sharing knowledge with their peers and people such as I.

The trouble with seminars in Goa is that the invitees generally come here on a junket. The seminar is held over the weekend, wound up early on the last day and everyone is very happy. The boarding and lodging is five-star and free. You can tell within the first five minutes of their presentation who is here on a picnic and who has come with the sole purpose of putting forward their point of view.

The South-Asia Media Summit 2008 at the Hermitage Aguada had representation from Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India. It dealt with globalization and commercialization of the media in South Asia and about how it was time for a reality check.

The stripping down of the role of the media today was brutal. They condemned the sensationalism of news that was unimportant for the greater good of the greater number. They spoke of TV channels that gave more importance to the state of Amitabh Bachchan’s intestinal problems than to the sewerage problems of the cities of Delhi and Mumbai. There was one TV channel that spent the better part of the day featuring hundreds of people queueing up to see a housewife’s purchase of a tomato that looked like a deity. A man announced that he was going to die at 3 pm and a battery of TV cameras was trained on him and left when he was hale and hearty at 3.05 pm.

Others spoke of how issues of national, regional and local importance were being treated differently according to the allegiance of the owners of the newspapers and channels. How news had to be “sexed-up” or “dumbed-down” because of TRP (Television Rating Points) and because that is what the readers, viewers and listeners wanted. Vinod Dua of NDTV India tut-tutted the suggestion that news was dumbed down because the staff of the media house were ill-informed and occasionally took the wrong call about a lead story. It’s what the viewers want was the general thread of his remarks. I found that was a convenient excuse for mediocrity and said so. Not only are we disrespecting ourselves, we are disrespecting the readers, viewers and listeners too, I said and what do you know, they all applauded.

The foreign delegates were more particular about their priorities. Bhutan for instance is going through the same opening up process that Goa finds itself in. An agrarian and highly cultured people feeling the full might of globalization as it joins the democratic process for the first time in its existence. What was interesting was the Bhutanese index of life which they call their Gross National Happiness index. Everything they do is geared towards raising their GNH. Their King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined this index in 1972 in the firm belief that people’s contentment comes first based on Bhutan’s unique culture of Buddhist morals and values. All else follows and the index of Gross National Happiness is built on four pillars of promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

As if to prove King Wangchuck knew what he was talking about, the following day two media persons a Kashmiri Muslim man and a Kashmiri Pandit woman, joined me at lunch. They got acquainted, spoke in Kashmiri apologized to me for doing so and when I asked them what was the ground reality in Kashmir they both explained that the ordinary Kashmiri just wanted to get on with his life and that a large number of Kashmiri Muslims were wrung with guilt over the ethnic cleansing resulting in Pandits being forced out of their homes and into camps in New Delhi. The Kashmiri Muslim began weeping bitterly when he spoke of his visit to the camps and the Kashmiri Pandit wept too while trying to comfort him. It should have been the other way around. But to me that was hope – two supposed enemies weeping together before a very surprised Goan. In tears they told me that before militancy in Kashmir, everyone was a Kashmiri; not a Muslim, not a Pandit. Much like Goa before the rest of the world poured in – where we were all Goans, not Goan Hindus or Goan Christians, or bhailo.