Going Overboard


By B.G. Verghese

The new Delhi Government has spent a tumultuous fortnight in office leaving the aamadmi both agog with excitement and bewildered.Frivolous issues like the size of ministerial houses and whether “posh” official cars should be used by ministers are minor teething troubles. But PrashantBhushan certainly spoke out of turn in a random discussion to say that popular consultation might extend to asking the people of J&K whether they wished the Army to be used for internal security purposes under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

The limits of direct democracyin determining policy matters end where the imperatives of governance, constitutional responsibility and national security begin. False precedents can also muddy administrative processes and responsibility. However, Bhushan retracted, stating he did not mean what he said, after being disowned by Kejriwal. Nonetheless, he was lambasted by other partiesglad to have a stick with which to beat the new boy on the block with right-wing Hindutva goons vandalising a central AAP office in Delhi.

But what can one say about the Law Minster, SomnathBharti wanting to summon district judges, who constitute an independent limb of governance under the High Courts, to confer with him. This was firmly scotched by the Law Secretary. Thereafter there commenced an on-going monitoring scheme to inspect basic standards in schools, hospitals and other public service facilities by citizen volunteers. This is welcome initiative and could tone up standards. But asking the CAG to audit private telecom and power distribution firms may not be such a good idea, despite the blessings of the Delhi High Court in the former case. Undue expansion of CAG audit coverage across the private sector might affect its focus and dilute the quality of its work.   

More problematic is Kejriwal’s invitation to all aamadmiin general to become snoopers and expose bribery and corruption by mounting sting operations against suspects through cell-phones after due official tutoring.  Helplineshave been set up and police officials deputed to respond to callers and lay traps.  Given the anger and disgust over widespread corruption, this sounds good.  But there are inherent dangers in any inspector raj through harassment and blackmail of innocent victims. No one defends corruption, but Citizen Don Quixote could soon be tilting at windmills.

There are better ways of tackling corruption – by simplifying laws and procedures, reducing discretionary powers, using and empowering existing machinery swiftly to award condign punishment to guilty persons and by facilitating growth and employment ensuring increasing plenty for all. The steps taken by VeerappaMoily, Minister MoEF, to break the huge, deleterious logjam of environment and forest clearances that have held up numerous projects entailing critical investments of many tens of thousands of crores for years, is a far better anti-corruption measure than Kejriwal’s brave, symbolic efforts.

The go-ahead for POSCO after eight years of a yes-no, yes-no tango is a case in point. Its clearance commits the company to spend five per cent of its total investment or Rs 3600 crores on social development within in its impact area. What a boon this will be! Vedanta’s bauxite mine has been blocked on the basis of a pallisabha “referendum” from which questionable conclusions have been drawn; but the 800 MW Tawang-II hydro project and a 2800 MW nuclear power plant in Haryana are among others that have been shown the green light. However, the 3000 MW Dibang project, whose foundation stone was laid by the PM several years ago, is still held up.

If 10 m new jobs are not created each year to keep pace with the growth in the labour force, that will hurt the environment, trigger massive social unrest and fuel both corruption and crime.Yet, while preaching virtue, ruling parties are vacillating. The Maharashtra government is handling the Adarsh scam through political blinkers.Muzaffarpur still smouldering with communal resentment and riot-refugees. YetMulayam Singh just staged a costly extravaganza in his constituency, Safai, while the law and order situation is deteriorating.AkhileshYadav has sent a team of Uttar Pradesh MLAs on a study tour of Europe just as a similar study tour of Australia and Latin America by Karnataka legislators has concluded under Congress sponsorship. These holiday jaunts are a disgrace at the expense of state exchequers.

Meanwhile, inter-tribal rivalries on identity and turf control have caused mayhem in a series of clashes between Karbis and RengmaNagas in Assam’sKarbiAnglong autonomous district, along the Nagaland border. Faction fights between militant KarbiPeople’s Liberation Front (KLPT) cadres and armed Dimasa elements of the DimaHalamDaoga seeking separate homelands within Assam over many years, have now led to rival killings.Karbishave targeted Kukis, Dimasas and Biharis who, like other non-Karbis, are being asked to pay a recently-enhanced 60 per cent “tax” on income. Underlying these clashes is the struggle for supremacy between the KLPT and the NSCN (IM). The Naga ho-ho and church leaders have called for peace. Beyond this, the Assam Government and Centre need to take more decisive steps to curb extortion rackets and militancy in violation of extant peace agreements.

In the midst of this upheaval, the Assam Government has done well to advance the clock by an hour as a daylight saving measure. This will relieve the demand for energy by administratively harnessing the sun, which first rises in the east. This simple measure, long resisted without reason, should be extended throughout the Northeast. Few remember that pre-1950 Assam was on “garden time” and Calcutta on “Railway time”, 60 and 24 minutes ahead of IST respectively, while Karachi was in a yet another time zone. Adjusting the clock should cause no confusion and will constitute a major energy reform.   

If Assam has done well to switch time, it has, like WestBengal, been foolish in opposing ratification by Parliament of the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh.  This is in India’s best interest. Any fear in these States of an additional influx of population accompanied by some territorial loss would be mistaken. The Centre should on no account dither on this issue both as a matter of principle and of diplomatic prudence. Bangladesh has just been through an election that was won by the Awami League but boycotted by the BNP-Jamaat opposition, resultingin a constitutionally valid but politically untenable verdict that can best be corrected by a fresh general election in the near future. International observation can reasonably ensure that the polls are not rigged merely because there is no caretaker government, an archaic and costly concept based on suspicion, wisely abandoned.

The war crimes trial and constitutional amendments adopted to restore the secular character of the state constitute no more than fulfilment of the spromise of the 1971 liberation struggle. India cannot but extend its full moral support to this lofty goasl with no political discrimination involved.



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