Browsing articles in " Local Issues "

The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen?

Ambika Mahapatra. Photo Courtesy Facebook/HT

A recent arrest of Ambika Mahapatra, a professor of Physical Chemistry in the Jadavpur University of Kolkata left the city agitated with protests from student and teacher communities and civil society organizations. The social media sites like Facebook buzzed with angry to humorous protests by netizens mocking and rediculing the Police and the State Administration for excessive regulation of freedom of expression and political over-lordship. Ms. Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal and her less than one year old administration came under severe criticism as well.

News here. Prof arrested, univ rises in protest against Mamata – Hindustan Times .

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Earth Day 2012 on top of the World

I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests

Pablo Neruda

It was almost 9.30 p.m  as Jan Shatabdi Express from Delhi sluggishly rolled in alongside Dehradun. I left the comfort of the air conditioned chair-car, anticipation eating into me and was breathing the familiar Indian Rail station smell. No, I did not grow up in this town and my poetry is novice. But I am in eternal tug and pull between hill and river; I saw life in great river country of Bengal and fell in love with it. Yet Himalaya with its lofty heights and ancient stories beckoned me all my life. Presently, on this railway platform, I was going to meet a friend whom I have not seen with my eyes. It could not get any more exciting!

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Reassuring Guarantee For The People Of India

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 ( MNREGA 2005) enacted by the Government of India in 34 Indian States and Union Territories aimed at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas by guaranteeing 100 days of wage-employment annually to an adult member of a rural household to do unskilled manual work.

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In The Name Of Governance

Admittedly, the social, environmental and developmental scenario in South Asian region leaves a lot to expect despite plethora of NGOs, International funding agencies and individual governments slogging hard. What emerges as a basic question from this tug-of-war is: who dictates the demands – the beneficiary or the donor? K.N. Vajpai shares his insight on the question.

Based on my understanding of various social and environmental developmental issues and processes in South Asia, I feel that the governance system in this region, in general, is going through a very critical phase. This has led to disrupted ecosystem and various social developmental issues.

Let us take examples of environmental governance system in the region, which are directly linked to social and economic development, therefore, to various ecosystem functions.  With time the basic concept, quality and perceptions of such governance system are gradually changing and weakening. Our water bodies are diminishing and forest laws infringed, the quality of our land gets deteriorated slowly due to poor policies and actions. This has hit hard the overall quality of environment and the life support systems.
In my opinion there are two important and major reasons for this and they are related to clumsy and corrupt bureaucracy and politics. Nonetheless, I also see the role of various international agencies and organizations working in Asia in environment and development sector not above question for this downfall.

Since, mostly we discuss about the role of our bureaucrats and politicos, here I wish to highlight the factors related to the involvement of international actors working in various social and environmental policies and programs in Asia.

I see a huge gap in the plans and actions of our international agencies in defining and implementing the programs in various arrays of environment and social development to influence our bureaucrats and politicians. It starts with the decisions regarding the plans of action, which, in general sense, talk high about the mandate, output and outcomes. These again remain skewed and influenced with the ideas of our donors, but, not exactly  by the demand of the community, so there always remain a missing link of using ‘demand driven approach’ in deciding course of action and benefits going to be gained by the target community or group. This applies to all sectors like water, forest, land, disaster, livelihood, women, climate change, environment, etc. and in framing and scaling up the policies in these sectors.

Another important aspect is about the understanding of the people in the managerial positions in these organizations. Lack of understanding of the way of local life a big question mark, and this leads to ultimate failure of major programs. In my view, a person may be good in mathematics, statistics, technical aspects, accounting and writing good reports in English, but, not always in managing, communicating and implementing a social and environment development project or programme in developing countries effectively. The administrative processes of providing funding and implementing programmes in majority of cases remain influenced by international politics and this leads to failure of most of such programs in Asia.

One can observe unwarranted inbuilt bureaucratic systems in various international organizations working in Asian countries, which directly affect the overall implementation and outcome of any social or environmental program, in the absence of any basic framework of building a ‘better’ governance system. In this way we encourage our partners in showcasing or stage managing their work, which in most of the cases are not the ‘showcases’ or ‘sustaining models’ in real sense.

I am of the opinion that we need to break the repetition of such an approach or system which after huge investment could not yield better results in the ground. In real sense we need to plan our policies and programs through a ‘decentralized’ approach and with the involvement of local players and some technical or managerial support of actors from outside.

Time has come when we need to come out of the dilemma of tweeting to implement and showcase the outputs in proportion of our exhausted resources (finances). We can only think about the existence of good ‘governance’ in Asia or in other parts of world when our technical support, facilitating and funding institutions follow similar spirit of ‘governance’ in their actions. That’s not a big proposition!

Darjeeling – The Fallen Queen

Though some British East India Company officials stayed in the village of Darjeeling in 1828 and considered the place suitable for a sanatorium for British soldiers, the remote hilly village might not have turned into a hill city of international repute had the Sikkim Chogyal not imprisoned the British East India Company Director Arthur Campbell and explorer botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1849. This ensured a rescue operation by the British and a renewed interest for this ‘home-like’ territory and by 1866 it came to exist in its present shape and form as a hill station.

Darjeeling has an interesting history of successive annexation and re-annexation intertwined with Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal documented in the treaties of Sungauli (1816), Titleya (1817) and Sinchula (1864), which finally ceded the passes leading through the hills and Kalimpong to the British, who developed it as an informal summer capital of Bengal Presidency. The Colonial British gave Darjeeling, apart from Darjeeling Himalayan Railway , a UNESCO World Heritage Site – having Ghum as the world’s highest railway station, a lot: British style public schools (renowned as convents that draw students from the country and abroad), Colonial architecture (Governor’s House) and world class eateries (Keventer’s and Glenary’s). With it’s temparate climate, magnificent Nature and happy smiling faces all around, Darjeeling came to be called as ‘Queen of the Himalayas.’

What made me wonder, in a recent trip to Darjeeling, was about what India, as a free nation, gave Darjeeling in 7 decades of its existence. Darjeeling, the town, is located in the Mahabharat Range or Lesser Himalaya at an average elevation of 6,710 ft (2,050 m) but it is not what Darjeeling is all about – it is a vast tract of hills, a district now in the Indian State of West Bengal, 3203 square kilometers in extent of which 1721 is in mountains. Darjeeling district has four sub-divisions namely, Darjeeling Sadar, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Siliguri. Since childhood we, the plains people, have been reading about Darjeeling in school geography books as a tourist destination, a place famous for tea and Mulberry Silk, panoramic Kanchenjungha and snowfall. People of Bengal romanticizes the hills, the cold, the mongoloid beauty of the Nepalese girls as is replete in our music, movies and literature – but have we ever ventured outside of a tourist’s view of Darjeeling? The town, with its neighboring town of Kalimpong , was a center for the demand of the Gorkhaland movement in the 1980s. The present movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland is also centered in Darjeeling town. In recent years, the town’s fragile ecology has been threatened by a rising demand for environmental resources, stemming from growing tourist traffic and poorly planned urbanization. The present political leadership in West Bengal is trying to find out the reasons of discord and attempting to unify the people against any separatist ideology; that in itself is a tacit admission of the neglect that Darjeeling received for decades.

‘Did you see those shoes and jeans?’ my friend Somnath asked me. Yes, I saw. With those 2000 bucks jeans and 1000 bucks shoes on almost every local, it might strike you whether the abject poverty and low living standards of the hill people are myths or a fact. But if you see carefully, that’s a cosmetic consumerist make up of a face devoid of nutrition. ‘There are very few jobs and almost no opportunity for women here. I have a family, my children go to school and I am 40. I do all kinds of odd jobs to run my family’, says Vivek, a land broker in Darjeeling, his creasy smiling face belying the stressful life not noticed by tourists often.

Darjeeling has unique problems. It has unique poverty. Its livelihood challenges are unique. I fear if a beurocratic solution and a development package conceived in the caverns of the State Administration will do any good to it.

The approximate ethnic demography of Darjeeling consists of Nepalese (15 ethnic groups including Sherpas), Lepchas, which is an autochthonous tribe, Bhutanese (including Sikkimese Bhutias), Tibetans (refugees who came after 1961), Bengalis (permanent residents and migrants from Bangladesh) and Indian of other origins. Between 1941 and 1981 Darjeeling saw a population explosion and ethnic homogenization of its culture for which it was hardly ready. The primitive, labor and animal intensive agriculture reeled under pressure from population and change in land-use and finally failed to sustain the local demand. Natural Pankhas that used to be next to village homesteads gave way to houses and hotels and people needed to walk miles to reach cultivable lands. The forests receded adding increased hardship to people for transporting fodder leaves, grasses and firewood. As a consequence the age old livestock practice by the people suffered and the per capita livestock count steadily declined.

The disaster proneness of Darjeeling hills has a connection with anthropogenic activities. Under population pressure there had been large-scale deforestation and terraced fields for cultivation on inappropriate slopes came up. The lack of vegetative cover decreased cohesive properties of the soil and water percolation in terraced crop fields on inappropriate slopes are two principal reasons of local landslides here, which, in fact on a decade to decade basis, are getting more frequent.

Population, chronic neglect and consumerism have changed Darjeeling beyond redemption. It is not simply poor, it suffers from an abysmal gap between a urban-rural disparity (per capita income urban Rs. 46,756 and rural Rs. 16, 156). It is no particular case as every place on earth suffers these maladies, but for Darjeeling no ‘plains formula’ will be applicable because we cannot change its geography and ecologic uniqueness. It pains to see that the pricey public schools of Darjeeling hardly enrolls locals, there is no modern health facility, no post graduate institution but shopping malls are coming up in the name of development.

Mary (name changed) runs a deli at Lovers’ point, a place close to Governor’s House in Darjeeling. She comes from a nearby village to set up her shop here daily by walking couple of kilometers as there is no transport available. Mary’s husband works in Siliguri as a watchman but whatever he sends back home is not enough to run her house. Mary is determined to give her children quality education. ‘I don’t want them to run shops like me’ she says. She has a steady customer base of students from a local school and I watched her selling a red colored potato soup, which looked fiercely hot. ‘It is not hot. Kids love it.’ Mary said.

“Do you grow the potatoes?” I asked her.

“No. They come from Siliguri.” She said.

Reference:

  1. 1. Environment and rural development in Darjeeling Himalaya: Issues and concerns by Dr. Vimal Khawas – Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology. Ahmedabad, India.
  2. 2. Transforming West Bengal – Working paper by Indicus Analytics

Wayside Story

The News

Men have always been the ones who are supposedly genetically and psychologically geared for a no-strings-attached sex life. And there’s a reason why ‘getting lucky’ is usually something a guy boasts about in the locker room. But things are changing and today’s Indian woman is slowly moving away from the ‘touch me not’ syndrome, where even if she did indulge in a physical relationship, she had to assuage the ‘guilt’ by assuring herself that the man in her life was there for keeps. “Now, sex is not taboo anymore. Everyone’s indulging in it. In this scenario, young girls, too, are talking about sex and initiating casual encounters quite unabashedly,” notes Mumbai social psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty.

Twenty-nine-year-old Mumbai-based investment analyst, Girish Bairagi (name changed), although single and happy to mingle with this new breed of bold and beddable women, admits that he is a little bewildered. “I’m not complaining, but yes, it was a little difficult for me to accept at first. There’s just no emotion involved! These 23- and 24-year-olds are very cool about going away with someone for the weekend without any fears. And suppose I tell them I’m busy, they don’t sit at home and feel upset about it. They just go with someone else or wait till I am free. It’s become as casual as having a cup of coffee together!” Delhi psychiatrist Dr Avdesh Sharma explains why this attitude prevails, “There was a time when boys in their 20s witnessed a sexual revolution. Now, it’s the turn of the girls, who are willing to experiment with their sexuality. There’s no emotional bond between partners. In fact, girls don’t want to get emotional about the boys. Here’s a new generation that just wants to satisfy its desires. We’re living in a world where popular culture is dictating our relationships and sex life. Sex is seen as fun without responsibility. There’s a lack of emotions when we have casual sex. Young girls are enjoying this emotionless hook-up.”

According to analysts, this attitudinal shift stems from increasing levels of self-confidence that could be a direct result of financial independence. “BPOs, marketing and PR companies hire young employees and pay them a packet. These youngsters are then tempted to lead a lifestyle that’s far beyond their years. Influenced by books and programmes like Sex & The City and Coupling, they believe that appearing sexy raises their ‘cool quotient’. Actually having sex with a significant other or even experimenting with casual affairs is just a progression from there,” says HR consultant Binaifer Adenvala. While not all casual sex can be attributed to the BPO boom, The Times (London) did report in mid-March that one in four Indian call centre workers regularly had casual affairs.

— Inputs from , Delhi) TIMES NEWS NETWORK

The Story

There were four of them: S, P, T and G. All quite well off, middle aged executives, running from the chores of making money and tending families – the perfect ‘bachelor’ party landing in a hill resort with enough booze, cash and devils in hearts. Life handed them boredom and all they were looking for was fun. They were on a holiday that promised Nature, leisure and some romance that they have lost over time.

There she was, sitting on the bench by the side of a foggy and desolate hill road, all by herself. She was young, with a life as obscure as the misty windblown peaks at distance. At 26, she saw the cruel vagaries of a failed relationship, a child she could not dispose of and a job lost just few months ago. She was on a most imperfect tour; all she was looking for was money that might buy her some precious time before her ship sinks.

All of them met, rather awkwardly, at a point of time and place where stories are born. But unlike stories written, you have no control over this story as this was happening with five human beings with different demands and wishes. S and T were looking for promiscuity – for them it was simple enough to start with. She needed money and they needed sex – that was society’s most primitive exploit. For G it was an unpleasant rift between an adventure and a guilt trip – female company was the last thing on his mind. P was suspended between the right and the wrong. As a writer, he was incapable of judging people. Amidst this chaos of sentiments and misgivings, she agreed to hop in on their car for a journey to a remote hamlet. It looked as though she could sleep with all of them.

But you know, this is hardly a thriller. It’s a pretty uninteresting turn of a story because all four men talked too much to this girl, laughed too much and shared too many frustrations of their individual lives. She told them about her lost job, recently deceased father, a struggling downtown home with a baby she decided to grow old with. They told her about their schools, education, jobs and families and joked like silly goofs. They boozed together and slept together too. There were four beds – the men slept on those. There was a big sofa – the girl slept there. Most uninterestingly, there was no sex.

By the next morning she was preparing tea for them and the men were busy figuring out how they could smuggle this brat of a girl out of the hills and return her to her home, particularly knowing she didn’t have much money and a train ticket. T was a shrewd manipulator so it was not really a surprise that he got her parked in a reserved sleeper coach despite a general ticket – and it was not really a feat that she slept peacefully through the journey, courtesy few hundred bucks suitably changing hands. The men took turn sitting the night out and smoke illegally in the lavatory section of the train.

She was required to get down at her station at 4 in the morning. Cold wind rushed through the door as she stood there waiting for her station to come. It was dark and the clamor of the wheels of the train made conversation difficult – so P kept on standing and watched her back. Just before the train started to decelerate, she looked back. You can never be sure as lights were not good, but it looked as though she was crying.

S carried her bags at the station and said goodbye.

As the train picked up speed again P sent an SMS to her saying, ‘Keep in touch. Best Wishes’. After a while, the reply came. It said, ‘Thank you.’


A Calcutta Theater Group, Nandikar , is presently staging a drama named ‘ Mulya Ferat’ . This is a Bengali adaptation of the original play ‘Refund’ (1938) by Hungarian  author, playwright, poet, journalist, and translator Fritz Karinthy (also known for his Six Degrees of Separation concept). The main protagonist of the play, Janardan in the Bengali play (Wasserkopf in the original play) is a disgruntled middle aged man who realizes that his education has not taught him anything worthwhile to make a living and he comes back to his school to demand refund of his tuition fees. His seemingly absurd yet justified demand comes to the fore as a self searching question about our education systems in a hilarious mix of the trepidations on the part of the teachers and the protagonist’s strife ends with a cunning scheme by a mathematics teacher who shows that the protagonist has after all attained a skill since he correctly calculated his refund.

Nandikar , in Calcutta deserves special thanks for presenting the play, which appears rather timely and appropriate in Indian context. When I left the theater after watching the play, I was wondering if the disturbing question it puts before us will really be appreciated or lost in claps and encores of a volatile middle class audience of India’s once cultural capital.

Does education equip us with skills to make a living in India? Or more broadly, does it succeed towards that anywhere in the world? In retrospect, a far more subtle question cannot be denied too. Is education really meant for making us have skills to earn a living primarily? Or does it have much larger perspective?

Notwithstanding the questions, if sold by fees, it’s an economic activity with promised value addition to life and in case it turns out that it failed to do so – a question of refund is unavoidable. In the 7 th decade as a free nation, India seems to be struggling with the dogma – is education a right to people or a service sold at a fee? With the initial question hanging unanswered, the failure of education as a system to empower people for jobs and livelihood is a fool’s debate.

In 1951, when India conducted its first census after independence, the country had a literacy rate of 16%, that is, a little more than 1 in 7 of India’s 320 million people could even sign their names. India’s first Prime Minister J.L. Nehru decided to put country’s meager resources heavily on attaining an Industrial status globally along with creating centers of excellence for higher education (in the form of Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Medical Science) but skeptical voices were always there questioning the rationale of not allocating equal budgetary funds for elementary education for a country where 84% people were illiterate. India created an elitist education system where a technical or medical degree came to be associated with personal excellence and it is amply reflected in Government jobs, where doctors and engineers make a better living without their skills being really tested against competition. Interestingly, as a nation India lost heavily towards making world class professionals who migrated to advanced countries (brain drain) and it lost heavily again with its under nourished elementary education system since this basic education is more towards empowering poor and marginalized people to fight exploitation and social inequity.

It never had been an easy question for the planners though. We are talking about a country with approximately a third of its population at or below poverty line – people for whom sending the kids to school is of a lower priority. We are also talking about a country where a meal is an enticer for a kid to come to school. But elementary education in India was summarily neglected which is apparent in the fact that there are as many as three government syllabi for school level education, two by the central government and one by the state. Add religious schools like Madrasas (schools run by Islamic principles of teaching) and Missionary schools. You have Government schools (fully financed by public money), Government aided schools (schools partially funded by public money) and Private schools – all too loosely administered by almost unenforceable policies, teacher’s salaries, minimum infrastructure and facilities. It is a wonder India continues to produce finest of scholars through this mess – or maybe it’s a statistical advantage of a huge population denominator.

Perhaps the most critical question is the quality of primary or elementary education in India or the lack of it. There is astounding poverty of ideas and ideals in our elementary education system in knowledge imparting techniques, assessments of developments of students and the relevance of curricula in preparing young minds to current social, ethical and economic realities. I keep on asking the teachers of my school going son about what is their assessment of, not how he will fare in the exams but, what is his natural innate talent. He is 16 and yet it is undiscovered by his teachers.

In the end, we are forced to remain satisfied that somehow our young children at least learn to protect themselves from being hoodwinked in a manner Janardan or Wasserkopf was done by the system.

Feature Image Courtesy:

Womb For Hire

Approximate Surrogacy Cycle Cost at a reputed hospital in India is about US $ 22 to 35k. Add IVF/ICSI cost of about US $ 2 to 3k, you can have a child through a surrogate in under US $ 40k. That’s an attractive package because the same cost in US is 50 to 100k. Commercial Surrogacy is not illegal in India. That and a reasonably efficient medical technology (at least for those who can afford it) at a globally competitive price makes India a popular destination for fertility tourism . For example check Med Tourism Co, LLC, an international medical travel facilitation company registered in the State of Texas from their website here .

Though surrogacy as an assisted procedure to get a human baby is a debated issue worldwide with enough loose moral, ethical, social and geo-political strings, in India surrogacy arrangements continue to be governed by contract amongst parties (legally under Contracts Act) as there is no legislation controlling surrogacy. Wikipedia contains a page that describes the guidelines given by Indian Council for Medical Research (see here ) but do not get confused by the guide line ‘…such an arrangement should not be for commercial purposes’ . It does not stop commercial surrogacy – just implies that a contract between parties for a surrogacy arrangement can not involve someone who declares the surrogacy as a trade. The fees and compensation for the surrogates – and most importantly for the medical agents that handle the arrangement – is very much there. If someone gives you blood and you return the favor by paying him 1000 bucks, that’s no commerce in India (save and except for the fact that he needed those 1000 bucks badly and offer that favor routinely).

Different countries have different laws for surrogacy. Saudi Arabia and Italy do not allow women to surrogate, Hong Kong and Israel impose almost impossible-to-comply conditions, UK allow the surrogate mother to retain the right to determine the child and no contracting or commissioning parents have legal ascendency over her. World is sharply divided on the issue of surrogacy. It looks like humanity has prematurely attained a medical advancement – prematurely, because social and ethical boundaries have not spread enough to handle the relationship, heir-ship or simply human issues that are involved between a human baby growing inside a woman’s body for 9 months  and coming into the world.

Yet in India there is an ever growing pool of young women agreeable to rent their womb for commensurate compensation. Amit Agarwal, a pro-blogger in India with 19,300 followers blogged on the issue as: Surrogate Mother Agencies in India; Outsourcing Pregnancy . It’s an interesting blog but I find the comments to the blog post even more interesting in as much as all the commenters either wanted to be surrogates or were looking for the surrogates. That’s an indirect measure of the demand and Indian supply potential, I guess.

Surrogacy has serious issues. In India a baby born out of surrogacy gets surrogate’s citizenship ( Balaz Vs. Union of India ). It is uncertain if the agreement by a woman to surrogate is altruistic or purely commercial. It is next to impossible, in Indian context, to be fully sure about the genetic history of a surrogate – the commissioning parents have to depend on the medical agents for that virtually blindly. Whether the surrogacy is genetic (the surrogate supplies the ova) or gestational (the surrogate receives a gamete fertilized in vitro) the baby inherits the immunity or the lack of it from the gestational carrier. I am not going into more human issues about whether it will be proper to call the surrogate a mother or a carrier. I do not stand convinced by the medical propaganda that surrogates feel fulfilled morally by the act – like it’s an ultimate gift a woman can give to a couple or a person otherwise incapable of enjoying the bliss of raising a child  in a family.

It is said that surrogates go through special procedures to distance themselves from the babies so they do not feel a loss of a mother to baby relationship. I am not sure. I am not a woman.

I wonder how it might feel for me to part with a living portion of my body, one that I will never witness to grow, talk to me or play with me. I try to imagine how it might feel that one who carries nutrients and cells that I made him/her up with will never know me. I feel that one has to be very altruistic or really poor to taste those feelings.

Feature Image Courtesy:

The Price of Development

Narmada, one of the 7 most sacred rivers of India from ancient Indian texts, originates from the Maikal ranges at Amarkantak, 1057 m above the sea-level, now in Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh State of India. In its 1312 km long journey before joining the Arabian Sea, the Narmada flows through the three states of Madhya Pradesh (MP), Maharashtra and Gujarat. Nearly 90% of the flow is in MP, and most of the remaining is in Gujarat. It flows for a very brief stretch through Maharashtra.

(Map source: Wikimedia Commons )

The valley of the river Narmada (which means one who endows with bliss) has been the seat of an uninterrupted flow of human civilization dating from pre-historic times. Its banks are dotted with temples, myths and folklore, the living symbols of a timeless Indian tradition. The river Narmada has supported a bewildering variety of people and diverse socio-cultural practices ranging from the relatively autonomous adivasi (tribal) settlements in the forests to non-tribal rural population. The vast valley catchment was planned to be brought under an integrated network of dams and canals to augment agriculture, hydroelectric power generation and economic development of central west India since almost independence. The Narmada valley project was mired in controversy and dispute right from its inception. In 1965, the Khosla committee planned a 530 feet high dam in Navagam (the site of the Sardar Sarovar dam today) while allocating 13.9 MAF (million acre feet) of water to MP and 10.6 MAF to Gujarat. This proposal was immediately locked in a dispute between the so-called riparian states i.e. Gujarat, Maharashtra and MP over the sharing of the costs and benefits of the project. The chief minister of MP, Mr. Govind Narayan Singh, objected to the unprecedented submergence as a result of the dam and contested the claims of Gujarat on the Narmada waters. Gujarat on the other hand claimed a higher share of water on the basis of the projected needs of the “drought prone area” in the far-off Kutch region. In this effort, Gujarat also made Rajasthan a party to give itself more bargaining power, although Rajasthan – a non-riparian state – had nothing to do with the project. In 1969, the Government of India under Mrs. Indira Gandhi constituted the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) to resolve this inter-state water dispute.

As per the Tribunal’s decision, 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams, were granted approval for construction including raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which is the largest structure to be built. It has a proposed final height of 136.5 m (448 ft). The project will irrigate more than 18,000 km 2 (6,900 sq mi), most of it in drought prone areas of Kutch and Saurashtra.

Sardar Sarovar Dam is a megadam. It was considered necessary by Indian Government for developement of the Narmada Valley and the beneficiary to project affected people ratio was estimated as 100:1.

Project ‘Affect’ meant inundation of the homestead and agricultural land of marginalised indigenious and poor rural farmers (orginally estimated as 70,000 later realized as 320,000) and complete displacement from their home and property. It was later revealed in from a expert committee report that the post construction impacts of both Sardar Sarovar Dam and Indira Sagar Dam (another megadam in the Narmada Valley Project) were grossly under-estimated. The compensation for some project affected population that figured in the Project Costs were immedidate value of lost crop.

Sardar Sarovar Dam led a popular unrest and movement named Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) meaning Save Narmada Struggle by locally affected population headed by Medha Patkar , who sacrificed her PhD studies and almost her life twice in course of hunger strikes (22 days and 20 days). The World Bank, initial financers of the SSD conducted an unprecedented independent review of the project. The Morse Commission, appointed in June 1991 at the recommendation of The World Bank President Barber Coinable, conducted its first independent review of a World Bank project. This independent review stated that “performance under these projects has fallen short of what is called for under Bank policies and guidelines and the policies of the Government of India.” See excerpts of report here . The World Bank’s participation in these projects was eventually cancelled in 1995.

Following a writ petition by the NBA calling for a comprehensive review of the project to take into consideration all the concerns raised, the Supreme Court of India halted construction of the dam in 1995 at a height of 80.3m. However, in an interim order in February 1999, the Supreme Court gave the go ahead for the dam’s height to be raised to a height of 88m (85m + 3m of “humps”). The resultant increased flooding in the monsoon season of 1999 can potentially drown the homes and lands of as many as 2000 tribal families in about 50 villages. More information here .

  • In October 2000 again, in a 2 to 1 majority judgment in the Supreme Court, the government was allowed to construct the dam up to 90 m (300 ft).
  • In May 2002, the Narmada Control Authority approved increasing the height of the dam to 95 m (312 ft).
  • In March 2004, the Authority allowed a 15 m (49 ft) height increase to 110 m (360 ft).
  • In March 2006, the Narmada Control Authority gave clearance for the height of the dam to increased from 110.64 m (363.0 ft) to 121.92 m (400.0 ft). This came after 2003 when the Supreme Court of India refused to stay the height of the dam again.

NBA’s struggle continues. The fate of SSD is undecided. The Second Interim Report of the Experts’ Committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) of the Government of India to assess the planning and implementation of environmental safeguards with respect to the Sardar Sarovar (SSP) and Indira Sagar projects (ISP) on the Narmada River is a clear finding, by a government committee, of the egregious failure of the government machinery on virtually all the aspects studied. See here .

Narmada controversy remains the example of the deficiencies of the Supply Sided Management of Water Resources, an anti-people and environment un-friendly concrete atrocity that made poor local people suffer huge losses. It brings forth the the question: can state sacrifice its own people in the name of developement?

The human side of the problem was seen by Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize winning author of the book, God of Small Things. In her extended essay The Greater Common Good which was reprinted in her book The Cost of Living Roy says:

Big Dams are to a Nation’s ‘Development’ what Nuclear Bombs are to its Military Arsenal. They’re both weapons of mass destruction. They’re both weapons Governments use to control their own people. Both Twentieth Century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival. They’re both malignant indications of civilisation turning upon itself. They represent the severing of the link, not just the link – the understanding – between human beings and the planet they live on. They scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens, milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air to life and the earth to human existence.

Arundhati was tried in Supreme Court for contempt and was sent to prison for 1 day and fined Rs. 2000.

Here is Arundhati’s account of the situation, a film made by her friend Sanjay Kak.

Feature Image Courtesy: Intercontinental Cry

Calcutta Cacophony

A couple of years ago, my mother, then aged 74, was recuperating from an attack of hyper-tension, which was diagnosed as having some neurotic condition. She was frail, with an ischemic heart and even a loud sound would set her heart pounding. One morning, at about 9.30, a loud and screeching sound started to tear apart the relative tranquil of our neighborhood. The sound was painful to normal ears and for my mother it was harmful to say the least. As I went out to check the source, it revealed that some telephone company was digging a trench for a cable on the sidewalk close to my residence. Up close, the noise was tremendous and I saw the technicians using ear mufflers for protection. When I asked them what they thought the local residents would to get relief from such atrocity, typical indifferent replies followed. Typical because Kolkata is an indifferent city where creating noise is the order of the day.

Section 2 (a) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 includes noise in the definition of ‘air pollutant’. One needs to feel this pollution in Kolkata as it is a place where everyone has gone berserk making noise. If you call your friend in Kolkata who is on the road in a typical workday, I bet you will need to shout to get a hearing. Your friend will also shout reminding you the definition of decibel.

Experts say that any noise above 80 dB is painful to human ear and continuous exposure such noise can induce serious health threats like hypertension, ischemic heart disease, annoyance and sleep disturbance apart from hearing loss. Sen, Bhattacharjee and Banerjee, three Engineer researchers conducted a study on the auto-rickshaw drivers of Kolkata to assess the exposure to sustained high noise (criterion level and threshold level kept in 90dB and 80dB respectively) during successive runs of the vehicles (up to 12 times maximum) to conclude that drivers undertaking four consecutive trips within Kolkata city traffic routes have higher noise exposure than the recommended standard. It was found that working in such places where daily noise dose exceeded 89dBA was more dangerous, even for those suffering from mild noise related hearing loss. It’s no wonder that auto-rickshaws are the most accident prone, presumably such noise affects judgment of the drivers, and risky for both the drivers and pedestrians. Read the paper here .

But auto-rickshaws are only a part of Kolkata’s noise story.  Kolkata is a city of compulsive honkers where people reportedly honk to express frustration, hurry or just to announce a right of way. Stand in a busy cross section of Kolkata Street and you will be amazed by the impunity with which vehicular traffic honk. There is practically no noise shed in Kolkata; the hospitals, schools or the homes for the elders suffer equally. Times of India reported: ‘If India, and to an extent Pakistan, are the honking capitals of the world, Kolkata is the hellhole. Motorists here honk for all reasons and for no reason at all.’ You may find the honking stories reported by media very revealing and here .

“In most countries, a horn is used only in extreme emergency or panic. Hence, the sound is muted. But in India, the device is almost an extension of the driver. It is in his psyche to sound it now and again,”

-Karl Slym president and managing director of General Motors India

Here is a video shoot of a couple of minutes of maddening Kolkata traffic competing with each other with horns.

If horns are the statement of a city bursting at the seams, the City of Joy also finds its unique expression in blaring out music and speeches through loud speakers for every conceivable reason – cultural, religious, social and political. The new Chief Minister of West Bengal whose capital is Kolkata has recently came up with the idea of playing Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore Songs) at traffic intersections. I am baffled by the idea. Music over 80 dB cacophony? I pity for the great man because every day his blissful music is trampled with millions of horns. Every year there is talk of clamping down on loud speaker menace and every passing ear sees failure. Politicians can do least in this matter as much of their election success lie on loud spoken speeches. I offer them a read of Planet Earth Summary .

I remember a popular Indian movie where a sequence showed how a gang of killers gunned down the whole family of a protagonist on a Diwali night. Can you imagine why they selected diwali night for the crime? It’s because gun shots are perfectly unnoticeable in any city in India during diwali night as crackers go on for hours drowning any sound, possibly a cry for help too. Kolkata used to be a heaven for cracker mongers but, in my opinion, this is a silver lining for Kolkatans as compared to year 2003, successive years are registering lesser noise during Kali Puja (Bengali equivalent of Diwali) and consequently lesser number of complaints. A West Bengal Pollution Control Board report shows it like:

Full report is here .

I shall, however, acknowledge that the credit goes not to the Enforcement Departments but to the hike in the prices of crackers.

Feature Image Courtesy : Journey of a repat

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