Saturday, 8 October 2016

India: Confetti Cleaners & Digital Dreamers


Cleanliness germinates in the mind and spreads to the streets.
Last Sunday marked the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi (Oct.2,1869 ) and one of his most unassuming disciples, former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (Oct 2,1904). It also marked the completion of two years of a national cleanliness crusade.

Ironically what the Mahatma enunciated in five simple sentences, a century ago, is today the subject of a high decibel-multi-million rupee national project called ‘Clean India mission’ or ‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyan’. It was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday two years ago. Coupled with ‘Digital India’ initiative- both have a completion deadline of 2019- the two projects, if successfully completed, possess the capacity to radically change the face of independent India. Almost  as much as Rajiv Gandhi’s telecom revolution and village panchayat empowerment or Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘Golden Quadrilateral’ road’s initiative.

The Swachh Bharat Mission envisages construction of 1.04 crore individual household toilets in all the 4,041 statutory cities and towns besides 5.08 lakh community and public toilets and 100 per cent door- to- door collection and scientific disposal of solid waste at a cost of Rs 62,009 crores. The mission has set itself the target to clean up the country by 2019, the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, who wanted to make sanitation a priority for India over a hundred years ago. Simply put, Digital India seeks to provide broadband access to all with every manner of accompanying services at the citizens doorstep by 2019. Laudable objectives , path breaking initiatives, something to be both happy and be proud!

Two years down the line, to a project which is slated for completion in 2019,lets take a reality check. I have just built a modest dwelling on the outskirts of Gujarat’s biggest city, Ahmedabad. It is merely ten minutes drive to where the judges of the Gujarat High Court reside. It is located 3kms from ‘Sanskar Dham’,an educational initiative very dear to Modi and undertaken at a time when he was not even the chief minister. The BSNL says it cannot provide me a landline for lack of feasibility and my BSNL mobile goes non-functional the moment I reach the place. No signal. So much for implementation of Digital India in the PMs home state, alongside its biggest city and closest to an institution which is a pure labour of love for him personally.

Aware of this state of affairs in a state helmed by Modi for a decade and a quarter, what should one make of the announcement that the Centre has this week completed the rollout of telecom networks in areas worst affected by left-wing extremism across ten states in record time?.

It is not uncommon to check out the surroundings for basic services in a place where one plans to move in. The nearest village is Manipur. It is a mere 500 yards from sanskar-dham. Heaps of garbage litter the road and people heading for the fields, plastic bottle in hand, is a common morning sight here. Ahmedabad itself is a case in point. The city itself generates 1.14 lakh metric tonnes of waste every month and does not possess the capacity to dispose of more than a fraction of it though it is a strong contender for global heritage status.
Change scene to state capital, Gandhinagar where I presently reside. My morning walk takes me past sector eight. This is where the bulk of the state’s ruling elite-IAS,IPS and IFS officers –reside. Every morning I am greeted by a string of men and women-the people who serve and service the elite- similarly heading for the nearest thicket to answer the call of nature. If this is the state of affairs in the area of the elite in the model state of Gujarat what hope for the rest? And imagine Gandhiji, delivering a speech in 1936 on the sanitation standards of the menials matching those that the ministers they would be serving!

This forcefully rubs home the point that while the objectives of both Clean India Mission and Digital India are laudable, they suffer from basic infirmities. Modi has a weakness for the ‘gargantuan’ rather than the achievable and the ‘political’ timeline attached to them, not only puts the implementing ,machinery under intense pressure but also leads to all sorts of unethical practices and unsavoury number fudging that negates the good. The much touted Gujarat model also has a overflowing scrap yard of ambitious discards that were binned after they had served their poll purpose. Fifty lakh houses for the poor and the lower middle class in five years was Modi’s fancy announcement before the 2012 polls complete with colourful brochure and a five star lunch. Gone with the wind. On June 26,2005,the then chief minister Modi announced that state PSU, Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation(GSPC)the discovery of an estimated 20 trillion cubic feet(TCF) in the Kakinada block of the Krishna Godavari basin. At then rates, it was valued at $50 billion(Rs2,20,000 crores).By 2009,GSPC had cut it’s gas reserve estimates by 90 per cent and last heard had borrowed over Rs 19,000 crores without starting commercial production from the block.You will soon see this sick relic of Modi’s Gujarat model being made to ride piggy back on the ovaltine fed ONGC.These are just two of a cupboardful of skeletons.

According to the latest study by the National Sample Survey Organisation(NSSO) 1.09 crore toilets were built across the country in the first 11 months of 2015-16 but a majority of the people in the rural areas-52.1 per cent –do not use them. The data also indicates that despite the mission targeting students by providing toilets in schools,56.6  percent in rural areas  chose open defecation. The survey also revealed a lack of infrastructure for drainage and disposal of waste. Forty four per cent of the villages surveyed did not have any drainage while 63 per cent of wards did not have a liquid waste disposal system. Chronic water shortage to service these toilets made matters worse.

Digital India is increasingly acquiring the hues of a pipedream. In fact, it is not new but is the incorporation of three ongoing programmes-the National Optical Fibre Network(NOFN),the National Knowledge network and the e-governance initiative.

India ranks125th in the world for wired broadband penetration says Rahul Khullar, a former chairman of Trai with 1.2 per 100 having access as against a global average of 9.4.In wireless broadband ,India is 113th with a penetration of 3.2 per hundred. In NOFN less than 3 per cent of the target has been achieved so far. The target of linking gram panchayats ,despite being scaled down, is far behind schedule. No broadband for me on the outskirts of Ahmedabad either.

The fact is that the marketing genius just packed the three oldtime,ongoing initiatives  into a glittering package called Digital India and sold it with a 2019 deadline. Both the ambitious projects will be deemed to be completed in time for the next general elections,2019.Mission accomplished. Chest thumping time!

It  hardly matters  that as of this day 80 per cent of the “Adarsh”(ideal) villages  selected by 702 Members of Parliament   two years ago as part of the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojna(Parliament Ideal Village Scheme), still practice ‘open defecation.’

And this is as per official government statistics! And, last but not the least, if the common man does not stop spitting on the road and littering the lanes there is little hope that any cleanliness crusade will ever work. 
As I said at the outset, cleanliness begins in the mind and spreads to the streets!

Monday, 26 September 2016

Wagtail Words & Sackcloth Sentences


Soar or sink,words always return to haunt.

Narendra Modi’s utterances were honey to hungry indian ears as he tore into the UPA government to secure a resounding mandate to rule the country. Two years at the helm and the very same words are boomeranging with a scarring tenacity. Moreso after the Uri unfrocking.

Words are heady nectar on the way up and poisoned darts hurtling down. The social media, though open to manipulation, remains a fair barometer of the ebb and tide of mass mood.

Masterful with words Modi would mock the reticent Manmohan with sarcastic chivalry after every border incident or terror onslaught during the decade long UPA rule. Singh is silent but the social media has taken on itself the job of showing him the mirror. Whats app and facebook are choc-a-bloc with clips of the present prime minister’s myriad feisty posturing of how to deal with the Pakistan promoted terror machine. A TV interview jibe where he spoke of answering the neighbour in his own language is getting more eyeballs than ever before on the social jungle clicks.”Every time there is a terror incident in India we either write ‘love letters’ or go running to America wailing Obama,Obama!.Get back at Pakistan, don’t go flailing the world over”,said the then Gujarat chief minister who was chasing national dreams. 

Today the same space is replete with jokes and jibes, punctuating the same interview.”What’s the latest on chest chants and bulging biceps ”,goes a particularly pithy one following the TV talk clip with a laconic ”what say you. Why is hefty hercules complaining to China now”, goes another .Even the social media, once a Modi domain is now under the scanner by its own users.’Twitter audit’ disputes his following and a u-tuber unveils the modus operandi of scammer set ups working to drive ‘traffic’ on pre-determined issues and it’s monetary implications. But that is obfuscating the main issue.

National leaders aspiring for power need to abide by norms of public conduct. Extravagance, whether in claims, language or poll promises may help rain the ‘manna’ from heaven but opens you up to ridicule later on. Foul language and wild promises may be the order of the day in other parts of the country but that was not the legacy Modi inherited .Besides the Mahatma, Gujarat has cradled numerous icons from Indulal Yagnik, the man who took on Nehru to the austere but temperamental Morarji Desai and Congress president Jaisukhlal Hathi to the intellectually inclined Madhavsinh Solanki  and the earthy Keshubhai Patel,to name a few .The discourse in public domain was always one of mutual respect.

Initially subtle but later there were  gross changes after Modi took over as the chief minister in 2001. A man of strong likes and dislikes, he introduced an aggression in demeanour which grew noticeable with the passage of time. Usages like ‘cow and calf’ to describe political rivals  alluding to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul  during election campaigning may elicit catcalls but went to lower the level of electoral morality. As did the ill-disguised attacks on the minority community during his controversial  ‘gaurav yatra’that followed the statewide communal riots in 2002 after the Godhra train carnage. ”hum do,hamare do’(us two and ur two children) hum kahete hai, woh kehte hain’ hum panch hamare pachees’ (us five and our twenty five)and references to ‘Miyan Musharraf’ were ill-disguised attacks on the minority community. 

Similarly reference to the then Chief Election Commissioner as James Michael Lyngdoh alluding to his Christian lineage to create the impression that he was favouring  fellow ’christian’ Sonia Gandhi and by implication the Congress were not only in bad taste but contributed majorly to the fall in standards of public morality. Nevertheless, cleaving communities paid rich electoral dividend and Modi swept the polls. The ‘hindu hriday samrat’(Emperor of the hindu heart) had no qualms about playing the messiah of the majority until he developed national aspirations  and held the three day sadbhavana sammelan(communal amity meet) at Ahmedabad in September 2011 to announce it. No wonder the boss is hard put to control verbal absurdities voiced from time to time by elements within his own party!

The future cannot be foreseen delinked from the past and it is in this context that moderation in language truly deserving of a country that claims to lay premium on it’s rich culture is highly advised of it’s leaders. Now in the hot seat, it is squirm time for most of the present ones who, while in the opposition, chose to indulge in high voltage verbal calisthenics .Whither the bronchial bravery of Modi’s retaliation advice ,of another of his ministers mouthing ‘aapki baar,seema paar’ :of  Smriti Irani speaking in Indore during the UPA days offering her bangles to the Centre to try them out. This was in the wake of a terrorist attack on the army. Were there no terrorism incidents in Gujarat during Modi rule? On july 26, 2008 there were 21 bomb blasts in Ahmedabad within two hours leaving 56 dead and 200 injured. Pathankot has followed Uri but there are no bangles on offer from Ms. Irani now. Examples abound but the shoe is on the other foot and the BJP ministers are making sickeningly similar noises that the present opposition did when in power. Times change but responses remain the same irrespective of who is in the top seat.

For those familiar with the response reflexes of the present ruler ,one can anticipate  a heightening of poster patriotism at home and a slew of international diplomatic ‘manoeuvres’ ,   tons of posturing coupled  with stepping up of defence related statements. There will also be a lot of diversionary announcements at the precise moment when attention needs to be deflected from the issue. The intention would be to regulate indigenous responses. Proof of it lies in the fact that soon after news of the Uri attack reached the top, one of the first few meetings at the prime ministerial level was on how to break the news to the media through calibrated, unattributed leaks. Bad luck that minister Venkaiah Naidu goofed up through a tweet and the cat was out of the bag. Already the ‘build up’ has begun in the social media to whip up nationalist sentiments. Disinformation of a cross-border raid by special forces of the army killing ten terrorists was pushed up ,then denied officially but continued to be force-fed. Those monitoring the social media knew the source of the promotion. 

Modi could do well to remember Alan Watts who said; the menu is not the meal!