Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Dark Days Ahead

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) along with the support of many other parties can now muster a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and that is what it has done in amending the Right to Information Act, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Article 370 of the Constitution to the detriment of freedom in this country. In the last case it has also imposed a complete curfew on the Kashmir valley to prevent any protests there against the changes brought about in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, effectively, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the force behind the BJP and provides it with its main leaders, including the Prime Minister and the Party President, is now in control of the Indian state apparatus and also that of 15 states either by itself or in coalition with like minded parties. It would be of interest to analyse how what began as a social movement has now moved very close to achieving its goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra in India while other social and political movements for justice have become marginalised.
As all participants in social movements know the biggest hurdle in getting one going and then sustaining it is that of lack of finances. Social or political movements for justice invariably find it difficult to garner funds from those they fight for since they have little funds anyway. The moneyed class will not contribute funds to social movements which tend to undermine their power. Therefore, it is always a struggle to sustain for these movements. Even if they do manage to attain critical mass in some cases, as the communists and socialists did for quite some time, eventually the exigencies of working within a capitalist framework have meant that they have metamorphosed into parties that work for the capitalists and not for justice for the masses. 
This is where the RSS has scored. Initially its clarion call of establishing a Hindu Rashtra resonated with the obscurantist Sarvarnas who were losing out to the more modern Savarnas who were embracing liberal education and getting the new jobs created by the colonial administration. These obscurantist Savarnas had wealth earned from feudal lands and so they funded the growth of the RSS. It also received support from the Hindu religious congregations for its project to organise the diverse sects into a systematic Hindu religion. Since some of these congregations and their temples are wealthy they too provided funds to the RSS. Thus by the time of independence the RSS had acquired critical mass and it had enough resources to spread far and wide its message of Hindu nationalism. Some of its active members even planned and executed the murder of Gandhi in 1948.
The RSS then launched a political party called Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. Possibly as a consequence of the state backlash from the murder of Gandhi, it astutely decided to pursue the parliamentary path to power instead of one of armed struggle. It diligently worked to build up its cadre through community groups called Shakhas and it is these cadres that also worked for the Jana Sangh and gradually built up the party. Initially its base was in Maharashtra and in the Hindi heartland. It came to power at the centre and in the some states in 1977 as part of the Janata Party in the elections after the revocation of the internal emergency which had been declared in 1975.
After the breakup of the Janata Party in 1980 the RSS formed the BJP and since then, except for a brief hiccup in 1984 when due to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, it ended up with only two seats in the subsequent parliamentary elections, it hasn't looked back. It also learnt from its failed experiment with socialism along with the socialists in the Janata Party and adopted an aggressive Hindu nationalist line that was also pro-business. This was crucial because the Indian economy was opened up from 1986 onwards and the power of global capitalism was unleashed in India. A huge NRI support base of the RSS began to be built up along with supporters from the business world in India. Religion is deeply a part of the psyche of people in India and so overtly religious programmes of action were adopted and the Babri Masjid dispute which had been peripheral earlier was brought to centre stage and the Muslims systematically othered. Nowhere more so than in Kashmir which is now under a lockdown.

Once it gained state power at the Centre in 1998 the RSS gained control over immense state resources and its programmes for reaching out among the masses increased substantially. I can speak from my own experience as an activist at the grassroots. The RSS actively began poaching our own grassroots workers by giving them many sops. It also used these resources to spread into the rest of India apart from its traditional base in the Hindi heartland and Maharashtra. Similarly it was totally pro-business in its governance and consequently it lost power in the elections in 2004 to a Congress led coalition. Unfortunately, the Congress and the various Socialist and Communist Parties pursued corrupt ways over the decade that they were in power after that and so the masses plumped for the BJP once again in 2014.  Such is the negative perception among the masses regarding the bankruptcy of the Congress and the other parties including the Dalit formation Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that the BJP has come back to power again with an even greater majority in 2019 and is now emboldened to aggressively follow its Hindu nationalist agenda. It has now used its financial power to twist the arms of quite a few regional parties and get them on its side also. Despite having now become the masters of the Indian state, the RSS is still working at the grassroots through its cadres who work on the same shoe strings personally as they used to do earlier. 
This astute march to power of the RSS has to be contrasted with the political trajectory of the Socialists, Communists and the new social movements who are now on the margins. Unlike the RSS, their opposition to the capitalist dispensation meant that they were strapped for resources. When they did come to power they soon realised that they would have to toe the capitalist line and so they jettisoned most of their pro people agenda and became corrupt. The BSP is the prime example in this respect. It too grew out of a social movement of the Dalits into a political party but then it could not spread its wings outside Uttar Pradesh and there too it diluted its social justice agenda to follow a capitalist and corrupt path. While the RSS has a clear cut philosophy and agenda, the socialists and communists do not have one anymore as their practice has become capitalist.
The India Against Corruption Movement also metamorphosed into a political party and was sensationally able to capture power in the state of Delhi of all places. However, due to its sticking to its principles of anti-corruption it has come up against the problem of resource mobilisation and it is also continually hamstrung by the BJP government at the centre. Consequently it too has not been able to spread its wings and stands in danger of losing power in the forthcoming state elections as it has lost much of its cadre and mass base in the interim.
The only anti-capitalist political formation that has retained its ideology is the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) in its various factions. While the Maoists who are fighting for a revolutionary overthrow of the Indian state are as a consequence restricted to a few remote forested locations, the parliamentary faction called Liberation faces the problem of lack of resources and so has a small mass base which is shrinking.  
The most pathetic is the situation of the social movements. We are still sticking to our ideology and we also have an alternative to the present development paradigm that has devastated agricutlure, livelihoods and the environment. However, with time our access to resources has dwindled drastically and so we are neither able to maintain our cadre nor expand our mass base. Even winning panchayat elections has become difficult let alone capture power at the state or central level.
The immediate future, therefore, does not seem rosy at all. The RSS with its control of the state institutions and the fourth most powerful military in the world and cavalier disregard for constitutional propriety can easily declare an emergency on the country and clamp down on democratic rights in pursuit of its retrograde aim of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. Especially as it has continually bungled on the economic front and the economy is in serious trouble with agricultural and industrial production in recession and unemployment figures increasing.  Dark days seem to lie ahead.  

Sunday, July 21, 2019


I set out four decades ago to try and improve the situation of Adivasis but unfortunately have mostly met with failure. However, nothing hurts more than the most recent in this series of failures because it is related to Girls' Education.
My wife Subhadra is a Dalit whose family had less than two hectares of unirrigated land from which they could hardly make ends meet. She had to study in a government school and also work at home on meagre food and almost no money. She somehow passed her higher secondary school examinations and then to escape her poverty joined an NGO as an Anganwadi (creche) worker and later by dint of persistence became a land rights and gender activist. Later she decided to pursue higher education and is currently enrolled for a Phd.
This personal experience made her think about the education of girl children from poor families. She felt that if girls from poor families are to study then they must be provided hostel facilities because if they stay at home then their parents tend to make them work and so they are not able to study. Moreover, the government school system in Madhya Pradesh has now become moribund with close to zero teaching and learning. Therefore, without extra tuition it is not possible to educate girls just by sending them to a government school.
However, running hostels and schools for girls is not an easy matter. The Right to Education Act has now made it mandatory for all schools to be registered and a considerable amount of paper work has to be done continuously regardless of the quality of the actual education being imparted. Secondly due to the grievous malpractices by NGOs running girls' hostels there is also a considerable amount of monitoring of such hostels. Moreover, running a full fledged school and hostel requires good quality staff which is almost impossible to get in rural areas these days. Those few from rural areas who have somehow learnt something from the dysfunctional government school system and have attained some quality have invariably migrated to cities for better livelihoods. Therefore, those that remain in rural areas know next to nothing despite having become graduates.

So Subhadra decided two years back to informally run a hostel with about five or six girls of class six at the Pandutalab centre of Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti. The girls would be enrolled in the Government Middle School in the village and would reside at the centre and get coaching from Subhadra and I in addition to whatever they were taught at school. Once the hostel stabilised other people also could come and spend a few days and teach them whatever they were good at. The idea was that the girls would get a holistic education as they would also work on sustainable farming at the centre and understand the forest, soil, water and energy conservation work being done there.
Initially, it was difficult to get these girls as both the girls and their parents were not ready. So in the first year we started a weekend coaching class at the centre for girls of all classes from Pandutalab and a few nearby villages so that they and their parents would get an idea of the huge difference in education quality that we were planning to provide. There were quite a few girls who came to these coaching classes in the beginning where we taught them English and Mathematics the two main bug bears of school children in rural areas. However, after some time the interest of the students flagged despite their learning immensely in the classes. Investigations revealed that the problem was that they were being taught next to nothing in the schools and they were also not being given any time to study at home by their parents. Thus, while they would learn a lot in the coaching class on one weekend, they would forget everything by the next weekend and be back to square one. Also the girls did not see why they should work hard to understand a subject in the coaching class when nothing was being taught in the school.
This reinforced the logic that the girls would have to be kept in the hostel and taught intensively. But that is easier said than done given the fact that girls are made to do a lot of work at home even when they are studying in school and so keeping them in hostels is not generally favoured by parents. Anyway, this year Subhadra began canvassing for girls to join the hostel from the month of April itself when the last year's session came to an end. She went around nearby villages convincing parents and talking to the girls who could be enrolled for the hostel. Once the girls were identified, she went and met the teachers of their schools to facilitate their transfer to the Government Middle School in Pandutalab.
The interaction with the teachers brought to light the sorry state of public primary education in Mahdya Pradesh in tribal areas. The primary schools are mostly single or double teacher schools teaching five grades all seated together. All the children of school going age are enrolled in these schools regardless of whether they are attending regularly or not. This is because there is a strict order from the higher ups that there should not be any child out of school. Since there is a no detention policy so not only are these children marked present they are also declared passed in the examinations. Moreover, since the funds and materials for the midday meal to be given to the children are according to the attendance in the school so also all are marked present regardless of whether they are taking the meals or not. The Unified District Information System for Education, which is the online data base for the primary education system thus paints a very rosy picture of the status of primary education. There is of course an unofficial tally of the actual attendance and the number of dropout children with the teachers but try as she might Subhadra could not get this from them.
After much effort parents of about eight girls agreed to put their girls in the hostel at Pandutalab. They were told to get the transfer certificates from the old school so that they could be admitted to the school in Pandutalab. Two girls were even put in the hostel by their parents pending the formal transfer and we began teaching them. These girls despite being in the sixth class did not know the Hindi alphabet or the numbers let alone write in Hindi and do sums.
When the girls' parents went to try and get the transfer certificates they came up against a barrage of questions from the teachers as to why they wanted to shift their girls to a private hostel and the government school in Pandutalab and that such hostels are wholly unreliable and that they would be jeopardising the future of their girls. One parent did manage to get the transfer certificate but the Head Master of the Pandutalab Middle School refused to admit the girl giving him the same kind of warning that putting the girl in the private hostel would jeopardise her future. Basically no teacher wants to lose a student even if he himself is not teaching anything because it reduces the number of students for the midday meal. Also instead of trying to improve pedagogy and learning achievements in his school he is wary of private schools and hostels which reflect on his incomepetence and the shoddy state of the Government School System.
This then created a difficult situation for us. The only two girls who had come to the hostel began crying given the lack of company. The increased pressure of proper studying also made them feel more home sick. The fact that the girls would not be enrolled in the school in Pandutalab also resulted in a situation wherein Subhadra and I would have to take on the full responsibility of teaching them. Since these girls would in any case remain enrolled in their village schools formally this was not much of a problem in formal terms. As they could go and give the examinations there. There was also the possibility of getting these girls to give the tenth class examinations from the National Institute of Open Schooling a few years down the line as this is the first formal educational certification these days after the RTE Act's no detention provision. However, convincing the parents to follow this kind of informal arrangement became difficult as they felt that their girls might get penalised in future. Also there is a general reluctance to send girls to study away from home because there are now a spate of cases where the girls elope with other boys often of a different sub tribe of the Bhils from the one to which they belong even while studying in school. So there is a malevolent and dysfunctional public education system on the one hand and patriarchy on the other which are seriously putting girls education in jeopardy.
Consequently, we have had to send the two girls who had joined the hostel back and put this project in abeyance for the time being. We will try again next year with greater preparation as we now know what we are up against.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Bell Tolls for Thee

Horrendous Caste Oppression will not end and Dalit Emancipation will not happen only if a few well meaning and diligent Savarna officers do their duty as depicted in the much hyped film "Article 15" but will be possible only if there are militant Dalit Activists in large numbers who can lead their community in a conscious fight against Casteism. Unfortunately there are too few of these and in a great tragedy for the western Madhya Pradesh region and India as a whole, we lost one of the greatest self made Dalit activists prematurely at the age of 47 on 6.7.2019. Kemat Gawle passed away after battling valiantly for almost a month against a series of brain strokes that he suffered since the first one on June 12th 2019, which had paralysed his left side.
Kemat hailed from a marginal farmer family of which he was the eldest of 7 sons though he had elder sisters. Despite his father educating him with great deprivation so that he would eventually get a government job and so relieve their poverty, Kemat decided to join the Narmada Bachao Andolan to fight against the Sardar Sarovar Dam which was to submerge their farm land in Kakrana village on the banks of the Narmada River in Alirajpur district. He later gave up his studies without completing his graduation to become a full time activist of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) which was fighting for the rights of Adivasis and Dalits in Alirajpur district to the great chagrin of his father who threw him out of the house.
Even though his contributions to the struggles against the dam and for the rights of Adivasis and Dalits through community mobilisation, for which he was imprisoned and tortured several times, is of great importance, his seminal contribution is in the field of education. He set up along with other members of the KMCS a residential school in Kakrana village named the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala (RKJS). The major problem in Alirajpur, which according to the Census 2011 is the district with the least amount of literacy in the country of just 37%, is that the people migrate to Gujarat and towns in Madhya Pradesh seasonally to increase their earnings as the income from agriculture on their marginal farms is not enough for them to make ends meet. This results in the children missing out on their education as they have to go with their parents. Moreover, the standard of pedagogy in Government schools is abysmal with high student teacher ratios, multigrade teaching by the same unqualified teacher and poor facilities. Matters are compounded by the fact that the Adiavasis and Dalits in Alirajpur speak the Bhili dialects and so it is even more difficult for first time learners to understand the sanskritised Hindi texts that are prescribed in the syllabus.
So the RKJS developed its own pedagogy in Bhili to initiate children into studies under the leadership of Kemat and provided quality education in a residential milieu to the children of migrating parents. Kemat is shown in the picture below with two students and their father who is a mason who migrates to Gujarat for work with complete satisfaction that his sons are in good hands and all set for a great future. 
To ensure that girls too get a good education, the fees are waived totally for them and so 40% of the students are girls. Even for the boys the education is subsidised and the school runs on a grant of about Rupees 25 lakhs a year which are mobilised by Kemat and his team from various donors. Consequently there are some 220 boarding students from as many as 52 villages of Alirajpur district and every year there is a huge rush among parents to get their children admitted to this school. The motto of the school is "Padhai Ladhai Saath Saath" which means learning and struggle together. The pedagogy is radical in character aimed at producing youth who will challenge the oppressive status quo that stifles the genius of the Adivasis and Dalits in Alirajpur.
One of the great things about the KMCS is the huge number of organic intellectuals and independent minded activists that it has produced among the local people and Kemat was among the best. Even though he gave up formal studies he continued to read radical literature as did Shankar Tadwal the Adivasi grassroots leader who too gave up formal studies to become a full timer of the KMCS. Even though the KMCS was initially led by Savarna activists, Kemat, Shankar and others soon became critical of this and within a decade of its inception by 1996, the local members of the organisation became capable enough to run it by themselves and all the Savarnas left. Kemat was fiercely independent and conscious of his Dalit identity as is Shankar of his Adivasi identity. So even though we Savarna activists have continued to be associated with the KMCS and the RKJS in many ways, Kemat and Shankar have called the shots. I will remember with great fondness the many times that Kemat has given me a dressing down not mincing the fact that we Savarnas are at the root of most of the problems of this country and definitely of Dalits.
Kemat also led reform movements within his community to restrict the amount of the bride price, alcoholism and gender based violence against women. He was in addition a public health activist trying to improve the access to health services and their quality for the poor.
Sadly, we have lost him at the peak of his abilities and at a time when there are very few new activists coming up to fight for justice. His passing away in this way prematurely is also a telling commentary on the abominable status of public health in this country. Kemat suffered from diabetes and hypertension but despite being aware as a health activist that these are silent killers and require constant monitoring, preoccupation with work prevented him from doing so and over the past four months or so he had not been taking medication regularly. This lack of proper management of these diseases led to the sudden brain stroke and paralysis. He had to be brought to Indore which is five hours away from Kakrana as there was no hospital nearer than that where he could be given even preliminary intensive care. Even though he was admitted to one of the best corporate hospitals at great expense and was treated by the best neuro surgeons under good intensive care with proper medication and finally surgery, he could not be saved.
The photo below is that of his last journey to the school he founded where he was kept for some time on the central platform built around a big neem tree before being taken for cremation. There is a skeleton hanging from the branches of the tree which is used to teach the students about the bone structure of humans. Here it eerily conveys the futility of the fight for justice which is continually losing its most militant protagonists. We lost Khemraj Choudhary a month back, Chhotubhai a little earlier, Pushpendra before that and Khemla, another militant Adivasi founder of the KMCS, two years back. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Survival Edge Technology

Decentralised and communitarian work in soil and water conservation, sustainable agriculture, afforestation and renewable energy needs to be done extensively if the human race is to survive the deepening water, food, energy and climate crises. Moreover, since these crises most affect the poor who live on the edge of survival in rural areas, the decentralised communitarian technology required to mitigate these crises can appropriately be called Survival Edge Technology. However, implementing this is easier said than done. Primarily because of the dominant view, that work at the cutting edge of technology requiring highly centralised systems and huge investments will alone be able to address these problems, without much action to ensure community participation in the implementation of time tested and simple decentralised technologies, some of which are as old as human civilisation. The Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (MAJLIS) is working in all these areas and detailed below is the complexity of the problems that are being faced as revealed over the past six months of work at its Climate Change Mitigation Centre in Pandutalav village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh.
The major problem at the centre and also nearby areas is the lack of water. The underlying rock structure is such that the aquifer does not have much water. A bore well sunk to a depth of 130 meters yielded very little water which was just about enough to provide drinking and washing water but not enough for agriculture. Open wells nearby had some more water at lesser depths ranging from 5 to 10 meters and so we decided to dig one. There is a local technology for digging open wells in which a motor run winch draws up the dug up mud from the well bottom as shown below.
After some digging the soil gets hard and so it becomes time consuming to dig it with pick axe and shovel. So dynamite has to be used to blast the hard soil. In this too a local technology is used in which a compressor mounted on a tractor is used to drive an air drill to make the holes in which the dynamite is inserted as shown below.

There was no sign of water though and so the well had to be dug to a depth of 23 meters before some water was struck. At this great depth it became dangerous to dig any further as the sides of the well were collapsing every time blasting was done as shown below. Indeed the diameter of the well had to be reduced from about 19 m depth onwards due to this danger of the sides collapsing. Eventually the digging was stopped at 23 meters depth where hard rock was struck. The important thing to note here is the variability of the water bearing aquifer in the area. Whereas within a radius of about 300 meters there were other wells which had water at about 10 meters, the well at the centre struck water at 23 meters which is a whopping 7 stories deep.

Then the work of building the circular reinforced concrete side wall of the well began. Once again local technology was used. Flexible steel shuttering was used to construct reinforced concrete circular rings in situ and a funnel and pipe assembly was used to pour the concrete into the shuttering as shown below. 

Eventually after a long effort spanning six months and much labour, the well was ready but with only a little water at the bottom. However, it held the promise that there would be more water during the agricultural season.

Given the low availability of water, soil conservation work was also done on the farm. The farm sits astride a drainage line that slopes away from the well. So a earthen bund and tank has been built above the well to harness the water from the water shed above it and recharge it into the ground. A pond has been built below the bund and next to the well to catch the overflow and seepage from the bund. The slope of the farm has been reversed towards the pond and the well by building a gabion retaining wall, involving the tight packing of stones in a wire mesh, at the boundary and filling it up with gravel and topping it with clayey soil from a nearby tank as shown below. In this way water availability of the farm has been increased through soil and water conservation measures.

All this of course has cost a lot of money. And there lies the rub. In dry land and hard rock areas which are naturally water scarce and cover 70 percent of the country, soil and water conservation work requires considerable amount of money which the poor living at the survival edge cannot afford even if they know the technology required for it. Unfortunately, the government is more interested in grandiose plans like linking rivers to harness flows, which are going down by the year due to massive deforestation in their catchments, rather than invest in communitarian soil and water conservation and afforestation measures to increase the recharge of water into the aquifers and increase water availability. The fatal fascination for centralised cutting edge technology rather than for survival edge technology that has been the bane of development the world over has resulted in those living on the survival edge continuing to face the increasing threats of climate change without adequate mitigation and adaptation measures. 
 The farm is also running on solar energy. The technology for this of course is not local and has to be sourced from outside and in this also considerable investment is required which is once again beyond the reach of the average farmer. Yet again the government has not shown much interest in promoting decentralised renewable energy despite the fact that it is running up huge losses in supplying thermal power through centralised grids in rural areas due to high transmission and distribution losses.
Sustainable agriculture with indigenous varieties and organic farming processes is practiced on this farm which relies on mulch from the nearby forests which are being protected through communitarian fencing and regeneration efforts and composted farm residue to round off the climate action programme. An effort is being made to spread this form of farming and once again due to lack of government support which mainly goes to the unsustainable chemical agriculture,  not much headway is being made. Subhadra tried to sell the indigenous seeds conserved on the farm in the weekly markets but with little success.
 The problem of water scarcity has become very acute in urban areas also and so there is a need for decentralised water conservation measures in cities. To this end in the office of MAJLIS at Indore rainwater harvesting, recharge and wastewater treatment and reuse are being done so that the office is self sufficient in water. It also has both active and passive solar energy with net export of surplus renewable energy to the grid. Once again this requires considerable investment and the government is not providing enough support to these decentralised renewable energy efforts to make them more wide spread. The office also has fruit trees and vegetables are grown in the garden. The drumstick tree that dominates the office building is very popular with people living in a radius of 2 kilometers and its leaves, flowers and fruits are consumed with enthusiasm. The office is covered in creepers and has good cross ventilation so that it remains cool in summer and saves on energy required for cooling.

Thus, even though communitarian implementation of decentralised survival edge technology is the need of the hour both in rural and urban areas, there is not much progress in this direction due to governmental apathy and preoccupation with impracticable centralised solutions and it is left to lone and marginal efforts by NGOs to implement it. Anyway, the MAJLIS climate change mitigation centre at Pandutalav village is now a demonstration farm and training centre on how survival edge technology can be implemented.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Monumental Patriarchal Injustice

Sexual harassment of women by men at the work place is rampant in India and it takes place in both the formal and the informal sector. Consequently, that a junior woman worker of the Supreme Court should complain that someone as senior as the Chief Justice of India had sexually harassed her is not surprising. After all, no men and no institutions are above suspicion in this matter given the extent of patriarchy that pervades Indian society. However, there are a few disturbing points in the present case that need to be critically reviewed to understand the depth of this abhorrent phenomenon.
Normally, if a woman spurns the sexual advances of a man at the work place, the matter ends there unless the woman makes a complaint or the man continues to harass her. In this case the latter happened. The man did not make any further sexual advances but took vindictive action against the woman leading to the termination of her service on flimsy grounds. Matters did not end there as the man then pressurised the police to target her husband and brother in law, both junior level policemen and had them suspended. Then the police dug up an old complaint against the woman and her family and had her arrested. The woman was forced to fall at the feet of the man’s wife and rub her nose on the ground saying that she would not commit any transgression again. Even after that the police persecution continued.
The man had first shown undue favour to the woman and then demanded that the woman gratify him sexually. When the woman had the guts to spurn such a powerful man, he became incensed and decided to crush her completely for having dared to spurn him. The woman then showed even greater courage and complained to all the justices of the Supreme Court and went to the press with her complaint.
The Chief Justice of India then first alleged that there was a conspiracy to curb the independence of the judiciary by framing him falsely and then constituted a committee of the judges of the Supreme Court who are all subordinate to him, without any independent member to probe the complaint of the woman against him. This committee did not allow the woman to take the help of her lawyer while deposing before the committee and nor was she told of the procedure to be followed by the committee to decide on the complaint. She was also not given a copy of the record of the proceedings of the committee. During the proceedings the judge heading the committee offered to reinstate her in her job. The woman withdrew from the probe saying that this was a gross violation of justice. Thereafter, the committee decided ex parte that the complaint of the woman had no substance and cleared the Chief Justice of any wrong doing.

The serious problem in this case is that the Chief Justice of India had first used his immense power to harass the woman after she spurned his sexual advances and then bypassed the expected procedure of having an independent probe into the complaint and allowing the complainant all possible legal assistance. Justice in this country has often not been seen to be delivered to poor people and especially Dalits and this has happened again in this case as the complainant is a Dalit woman. Even in the USA there have been two cases in which judges who were appointed to the Supreme Court were accused of sexually harassing women earlier but there too eventually the women did not get justice.
Since the Supreme Court itself has rubbished the woman’s complaints there is very little legal redress left and so this is nothing short of monumental patriarchal injustice. Consequently, street protests have started against this blatant use of patriarchal power to crush a courageous woman who has stood up against it with about 60 lawyers and activists being arrested from in front of the Supreme Court where they had assembled to register a public protest against the Chief Justice of India. It remains to be seen if these incipient protests snowball into a mass protest that can force the Supreme Court to follow proper procedure to probe the complaint of the woman.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Wages of Idiocy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surgical strike on black money took place through demonetisation on November 8th 2016. It was claimed that this would lead to a substantial amount of black money held as cash not being deposited and so the liability of the Reserve Bank in this regard would be cancelled out and this would accrue as a windfall dividend to the Government to pursue greater economic development.  About Rs 15 lakh crores were in circulation as Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes at the time of demonetisation. In the absence of any rigorous measurement a conservative estimate is that the extent of the black economy is 50 percent of the official GDP. Thus, Rs 7.5 lakh crores was estimated to be the black money that would not be deposited resulting in a huge dividend to the government. Unfortunately, disregarding all warnings of dire consequences that would follow if citizens deposited demonetised notes of more than Rs 2.5 lakhs in cumulative value in savings accounts and more than Rs 12.5 lakhs in current accounts, people deposited all their demonetised notes and so eventually 100 percent of the notes were deposited and the Government did not get its expected windfall. On the contrary by having to print notes in replacement in a hurry to replace all the demonetised notes the Government incurred an expenditure of Rs 15,000 crores which reduced the dividend it gets annually from the RBI because of the profits earned by the latter from its money market operations.

The goal posts were then shifted and it was claimed that all those who had deposited money in excess of the prescribed amounts would be identified and prosecuted and in this way eventually the black money that was deposited would be traced. The investment in the information technology enabled wing of the investigation department of the Central Board of Direct Taxes was racheted up considerably to analyse the huge data of deposits that were coming in from the banks. As a result the following data was gleaned –

1.       18 lakh accounts had deposits of demonetised notes greater than the prescribed amounts
2.       11.44 lakh Permanent Account Numbers (PAN) were found to be duplicate and were deactivated.

After this action was taken as follows -

1.       Notices were sent to all those who had deposited more than the prescribed amount asking them to explain this and about 12 lakh people filed responses.
2.       Based on these responses notices were issued to  3,04,910 persons who had deposited more than Rs 10 lakhs in savings bank accounts and had not disclosed this in their income tax returns.
3.       As a result 2,17,557 persons filed income tax returns and paid self assessment tax  of Rs 6,514 crores while 87,353 persons did not file income tax returns at all and proceedings have ensued against them.
Thus, even if all those who haven’t filed returns are pursued and the returns of those who have are scrutinised, the total tax recovery is not likely to be more than the Rs 15,000 crores it cost to reprint the notes that were demonetised.

It was also claimed that the demonetisation exercise and the digital analysis of data has led to a larger tax base and better tax compliance resulting in greater tax revenue. The total tax recovered for the financial year 2016-17 in which demonetisation was carried out has not shown a phenomenal increase. Whereas the growth in the total direct tax collection in the financial year 2015-16 over that in financial year 2016-17 was 14 percent this growth had been achieved earlier also during the UPA regime and had in fact slumped to less than 10 percent in the first two years of NDA rule. The growth in direct tax collection the following year in 2017-18 was 17 percent but this too was achieved earlier in the UPA regime and is not remarkable. Even though there has been a significant increase in the number of tax filers and so the tax base has increased considerably, mostly they either file nil returns or they do so to get back refunds of tax deducted at source and that is why the actual tax collected has not shown a phenomenal increase.
Finally, there is the matter of greater digitisation of the economy and the claim that as a result of demonetisation India would move towards becoming a cashless economy. This has proved to be another red herring as the money supply currently is much more than what it was at the time of demonetisation and cash continues to be king.

The Black economy is thriving because the troika that is in control of the economy – businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians, are hand in glove in evading taxes. A much greater amount of black money is held in the form of fixed assets in India and abroad and in cash abroad than in cash in India. Thus, a surgical strike through demonetisation, even if it were to be successful in terms of the demonetised notes that are unaccounted not being deposited, it would neither yield much nor would it lead to a reduction in the black economy.

The biggest problem with ensuring tax compliance is that there are not enough personnel to check tax evasion. The only way to ensure greater compliance is to conduct scrutiny and search. However, this requires a lot of time and staff and that is why the self assessed returns of less than 1 percent of the total taxpayers are scrutinised and a miniscule few are subjected to searches. Even after this the tax evaders challenge the decisions of the tax department in courts and so a huge amount of tax demand is stuck in litigation. The tax evaders know from experience that the process of scrutiny is a long drawn one and that is why they didn’t heed the dire warnings of the Government regarding legal proceedings to follow and deposited all their unaccounted money after demonetisation.

Apart from the direct costs to the Government in terms of printing of new notes and the technology and human power deployed in the already over burdened tax department to trace the depositors of excess demonetised notes, the economy as a whole suffered. Initially the whole population had to line up in long queues to deposit their demonetised notes in banks and thus lost out on their regular work. The iconic photo of an old man standing crying in front of a long queue underlines this poignantly.

The banks bore tremendous costs as they had to stop all other work and involve themselves in taking in the demonetised notes and finally the Reserve Bank of India spent a huge amount of time counting the demonetised notes to arrive at the conclusion that almost all of them were deposited!!

 Especially adversely affected by demonetisation was the informal economy, where cash is the major medium of exchange and only a miniscule few transactions are done through banks. Many small businesses closed down due to lack of liquidity leading to loss of work for the poor who are mostly employed as casual labourers.  It has been claimed that India has continued to be the fastest growing major economy in the world despite demonetisation and so it is not true that the economy has suffered. But this is yet another red herring. India is the fastest growing economy because of its huge population which even if it does not work at its productive best, nevertheless contributes to the GDP in some way or other. The chai walas and pakoda sellers are all contributing to the economy even if that may not be the ideal kind of work they would like to do. So if demonetisation had not taken place the economy would have grown even faster. 
 All in all, demonetisation was one of the most idiotic exercises to have been carried out in recent times and the costs were borne by the economy and disproportionately by its poorest participants.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Goodbye To You My Trusted Friend

Yet another stalwart of the Bhil Adivasi struggle for rights in western Madhya Pradesh passed away yesterday on the day of Holi after a long illness that had incapacitated him for the past few years. Chhotelal Bamnia or Chhotubhai as he was popularly known was made of the rebellious mettle that has again and again produced great Adivasi fighters in this country. He was part of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan in Khargone district and played an important part in the struggles for rights throughout the 1990s and in the first decade after the turn of the century. He was a glorious example of an organic intellectual who learnt to read and write after he became a member of the organisation and educated himself about mass politics by reading various pamphlets and documents of the struggle. He was unfortunately struck with paralysis after a severe stroke a few years back and though he recovered somewhat, he was mostly confined to his house where he could just about walk around with the help of a stick. Here I will describe in detail two of the many struggles that he participated in during his illustrious career as a grassroots Adivasi activist that will not only showcase his calibre but also highlight the kind of deep injustice that Adivasis in this country have to fight.
There was a problem of the lack of proper hostel facilities for Adivasi girls studying in his home village Katkut. The non-Adivasi headmistress of the government Adivasi girls' hostel in Katkut had been defalcating the funds meant for the running of the hostel for over a decade resulting in poor living conditions for the girl students. This affected their studies and so invariably the results in the board examinations were very poor. Some of the girl's parents were members of the Sangathan and so they had come in touch with the new atmosphere of revolt that was pervading their villages. Naturally they were affected by this and decided to do something to improve matters in the hostel. They prepared a detailed report of the irregularities and sent a complaint to the Joint Director of the Adivasi Department in Khargone in January. An officer deputed by the joint director came to investigate matters and made only a perfunctory enquiry, even going to the extent of warning the complainant students not to make any more complaints in future. The headmistress took this as a cue to start harassing the girls who had complained. Apart from berating them in the worst manner she began to deprive them of food. The girls then complained to their parents. The parents brought up the matter in the meetings of the Sangathan.
Chhotubhai and other leaders of the Sangathan, knowing that the political and administrative powers were against them decided to proceed cautiously. They first asked the girls to give a written complaint to the Sangathan and a copy to the police officer in Katkut. They then passed a formal resolution in a general body meeting of the Katkut Adivasi Gram Sabha or village general body that an enquiry should be conducted into the running of the hostel. A delegation of men then went to the hostel to enquire and investigate. The delegation members had discussions with the girls as well as the headmistress. They submitted a formal report of their findings to the headmistress and also sent a copy to the Joint Director of the Adivasi Department in Khargone recommending that he take steps to improve the sorry state of the hostel.
The girls after this decided to take over the management of the hostel themselves with the help of some of the adivasi teachers. The money for running the hostel was deposited in a bank account, which was jointly operated by two of the senior students. The headmistress used to draw out all the money by forcing the students to sign on the cheque every month. The girls then began withdrawing the money themselves and then managing the hostel activities with this money and keeping records.
All these years the headmistress had been getting away with her corrupt practices by bribing the higher authorities in Khargone and also the local political leaders. She now turned to these local leaders to get back control of the hostel funds. These leaders too saw this as an opportunity to get even with the Sangathan. They advised the headmistress to lodge a complaint with the police and then they got the police, who were only too ready, to register a false case against the people who had gone to investigate the running of the hostel on behalf of the Sangathan. A false case of having abused and threatened to kill the headmistress was framed against five members of the Sangathan. Then the police began arresting them one by one and sending them to jail. In the process they did not fail to rough up the arrested persons severely.
The women of the Sangathan then intervened. When the third person was thus arrested and beaten up, women staged a sit-in before the police outpost and prevented the police from taking the arrested person to court until some responsible officer had explained this lawlessness on the part of the police. Even though the Tehsildar and the Subdivisional Police Officer did come and assure the women that such illegal actions would not take place in the future and that no case would be registered against them for having sat in front of the police station, nevertheless a case was framed against fifteen members of the Sangathan of having threatened to kill policemen. Eventually, all the people implicated in these cases were acquitted but not before a long trial process that went on for thirteen years. The situation in the hostel improved as a result of this intervention but at a great cost.
The other incident is even more disturbing. There are various sections in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), provided to ensure public order and prevent breach of peace by criminal elements. However, these are in fact handy tools with which the administration can easily snuff out any democratic mass protest whatsoever. Theoretically, there is a division between the police who actually arrest people under these sections and the executive magistrates before whom they are produced before being sent to jail. However, in the case of controlling democratic mass protests the magistrates themselves take the decision that the leaders are to be arrested and then the police carry out these orders and bring the arrested persons before the very same magistrates who have ordered their arrest. The person arraigned has to bail himself out and after that regularly attend the court. Finally the arraigned person is made to sign a bond that in future he will keep the peace. Once a person signs this bond he automatically acknowledges that he has broken the peace in the case in question and so admits to his guilt and is considered to have been convicted. Once a person is convicted in this kangaroo court manner a few times she becomes a hardened criminal in the eyes of the administration who can then start a process under another draconian law, once again enacted for the control of criminal activity, for her externment from the district in which she lives and all the adjoining districts. Often people in mass movements have other similar false criminal cases too against them and so it is easy for the administration to pass an order of externment against an activist of the mass movements.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been jailed under such preventive detention sections of CrPC. But I have never ever signed on the dotted line saying that I am going to keep the peace in the future. The first time I was so arrested the people outside filed a Habeas Corpus petition in the High Court. I was released unconditionally after a few days and later the High Court ruled that proper procedure had not been followed during my arrest thus violating the basic principles of natural justice and passed strictures against the police for having written up a false chargesheet and against the executive magistrate for not having applied his mind to the falseness of the chargesheet and discharged us. That was the first time anyone in Alirajpur had moved the High Court against the arbitrary and illegal use of preventive detention by the administration and it created a minor flutter within the administration. On later occasions sometimes I have gone on hunger strike and on some others the administration knowing that I would not sign on any paper has released me on its own. On one occasion the Superintendent of Police of Dewas had me arrested from a bus in which I was travelling just to show me who was boss. He then sent wireless messages all around over the five districts of western Madhya Pradesh to see if there were any arrest warrants pending against me. There were none and so eventually after having kept me in custody for eight hours he ordered his henchmen to prepare a false chargesheet against me under section 151 of CrPC. I had in the meantime been continually pestering these lower level policemen to make out an arrest memorandum stating the reasons for my arrest as per the rulings of the Supreme Court. So when they finally asked me to sign on the arrest memo under section 151 CrPC after eight hours I refused to do so. This created a problem for the police and eventually the SDM before whom I was produced declared that the chargesheet against me was false and so discharged me unconditionally!
The same kind of toughness cannot be expected from Adivasis given there lesser acquaintance with legal nitty gritties. So these people invariably sign a bond stating that they will keep the peace in future and so convict themselves. Chhotubhai had been arrested many times under CrPC sections and also in other false cases under sections of the Indian Penal Code and had later signed bonds to keep the peace to secure his release. The Superintendent of Police of Khargone district put in a proposal to the District Collector listing all the cases pending against him and demanding that Chhotubhai be externed from the district. On receiving the notice the Sangathan engaged a lawyer to fight the case and made a detailed presentation listing the fact that all these cases were of old vintage and ones in which Chhotubhai was falsely implicated along with other members of the Sangathan for taking part in some demonstration or other. He had not been convicted in any of them and so he was not guilty until proved to be so. The District Collector then summoned Chhotubhai and told him in no uncertain terms that he had better give up his association with the Sangathan otherwise she would pass an externment order against him. Chhotelal not to be cowed told her that the Bhil homeland was very large extending over the four states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan in addition to Madhya Pradesh. The District Collector could only extern him from his own district and the adjoining districts not from his homeland. He challenged the District Collector to banish him from his homeland and came away with a flourish.
Just after this he took part in the preparations for the Mayday rally in Barwah and then played a prominent part in it. At the end of the rally the SDM in Barwah sheepishly handed him the order saying that he had been externed. The procedure under the law is that the person so externed has to appeal to the Home Secretary against the order within thirty days. So we prepared an application against the order and then the time came to go to Bhopal to meet the Home Secretary and give it to him. On the appointed day our lawyer suddenly fell ill and so I had to go along with Chhotubhai to Bhopal. I thought that if I were to reveal my identity to the Home Secretary then whatever little chance Chhotubhai had of getting relief would be scotched. So I asked Pushpendra Solanki, the other activist journalist in Bhopal of Alirajpur vintage who has just passed away a few weeks ago, to set up an appointment and I said I would tag along as his assistant. Pushpendra called the Home Secretary for an appointment and explained to him that an adivasi had been needlessly externed by the District Collector. The Secretary asked him to come over at once and he would look into the matter.
The three of us went off to the Secretariat. We were cordially ushered in and asked to sit down. After some preliminary exchange of pleasantries Pushpendra handed the Home Secretary the application on behalf of Chhotebhai. He started perusing it and then suddenly jumped with a start and exclaimed at Pushpendra that he did not know with whom he had got enmeshed. He said that Chhotebahi was a member of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan and this was a dangerous organisation that was out to destabilise the state and if Pushpendra did not watch his step he might get into serious trouble. Then he said that Chhotebhai and other adivasis like him were simple people and the real culprit was Rahul Banerjee who was instigating them from behind the scenes. Then he came into his forte and told Pushpendra that I was a very cunning fellow who was secretly preparing the base for the spread of Naxalism in western Madhya Pradesh and using the simple adivasis as a front. He told Pushpendra that despite the crushing police action taken by the state by killing Adivasis a few months earlier, they had not been able to wipe out the seeds of extremism from the region precisely because of my versatile presence.
The Home Secretary, warming up to his theme asked Pushpendra to do a story on the way in which I was vitiating the atmosphere in the region by using the press and the international human rights agencies to counter the efforts of the state to root out extremism. Pushpendra then asked him for some details about me and my activities for the proposed story. The Secretary immediately sent for a file and when it was brought began reading out from it. Pushpendra told me to take down whatever was being said! I felt flattered while I wrote down all the exaggerated insurgent activity that had been falsely imputed to me. Among other things it was also written that Subhadra and I were not married and that we were only living together. What a sin. Subhadra had not changed her surname after marriage leading to the police making this deduction. Indeed Subhadra's retaining her maiden surname has led to many bizarre encounters with the bureaucracy. On one occasion when I had gone to register our names in the electoral rolls after shifting to Indore the SDM refused to put down Subhadra's surname as Khaperde. When I told him that Subhadra is an independent person and free to use whatever surname she liked he told me that I had got a golden opportunity to put such an uppity wife in her place and should jump at it and put her surname down in the electoral rolls as Banerjee! We had to go to the Collector after that to get Subhadra's surname properly registered in the electoral rolls. Even then the published electoral rolls show only Subhadra's father's first name and not her surname!
After this the Secretary said that he would call up the details of the case from Khargone and gave us a date some fifteen days later for hearing arguments. Chhotubhai then asked him to sign on the copy as proof of receipt of the application. Once again the Secretary flared up saying that he could not imagine a simple adivasi not trusting him and plucking up the courage to ask him, the Home Secretary, for a receipt. All this was my work he fumed. We came out of the office and once safely out of hearing burst out in laughter that rang through the corridors of the Secratariat. Pushpendra finally recovered and clapped me on my back and said "Rahul all your years of struggle have not gone in vain." Needless to say that after dillydallying for about two months on various pretexts, the Home Secretary finally rejected the appeal. We then went in further appeal to the High Court and after another seven months or so we had the order quashed. The High Court held that the order of externment was illegal and had violated the provisions of the externment law and also the basic principles of natural justice. We then sent a demand of justice notice to the Superintendent of Police and District Collector saying that the High Court order clearly stated that they had illegally harassed Chhotubhai and so they should give a written apology and pay compensation. There was obviously no response from the culprits. We subsequently sent applications to various authorities right upto the President of India demanding permission to prosecute the two in the courts as is mandatory under the law. Again we never received any response.
Throughout, the period of externment till the High Court order quashing it, Chhotubhai continued to stay in Katkut and work under ground. Such was the solidarity of the Sangathan that the police, despite knowing his whereabouts were unable to apprehend him. The first decade of this century was the crucial time in which many people friendly laws like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Forest Rights Act and the Right to Information Act were enacted due to the mass movements of people's organisations across the country. It was due to the committed struggles of many local people like Chhotubhai that democracy was both broadened and deepened in India as a consequence.
Naturally, the loss of such a doughty fighter has left all of us in the Sangathan distraught. He was the same age as I am and yet he is no more. That Adivasis in the western Madhya Pradesh region today enjoy greater power as a community is due to the many battles fought by grassroots activists like Chhotubhai. I rushed to Katkut from Indore as soon as I got the news as I couldn't believe that he was no more. Only a few days back I had visited him with another old friend and had a long chat. I somehow got a last glimpse as he was being taken out for the funeral in the huge crowd of people that had gathered.

To paraphrase the opening lines of a famous folk song from my school years - 
Goodbye to you my trusted friend, 
Glorious times did we together spend.  

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Another One Bites the Dust

Fighting for the rights of the oppressed is always a difficult proposition. Especially if they are Adivasis in India. So when we took up cudgels for the Bhil Adivasis of Alirajpur in the early 1980s, we immediately faced repression from the administration and the local non-Adivasi exploiters. Things were even more difficult then because the Adivasis in Alirajpur did not even know that they were citizens of an independent nation in which they had considerable rights and entitlements. So from the beginning we were on the backfoot always facing physical attacks and what was more dangerous, the sinister machinations of the minions of the State. Mostly, we used to stay deep in the jungles and come to the town only for some protest action or for placing some demands. In those days, when there were no mobile phones and internet, it would not have been possible to sustain our mass work without the support of Pushpendra Solanki in Alirajpur.

Pushpendra was a local journalist, a stringer, of a Hindi daily and as such had no income. The income that such stringers earned was from blackmailing corrupt government servants by saying that they would publish their wrong doings. Pushpendra, never did that and instead used to report the wrongdoings. One story he did was about the abhorrent practice of burying alive of leprosy patients in connivance with the police. Naturally, he soon became friends with us and took up the cause of the Adivasi fight for rights. So he became our point person in Alirajpur and provided the communication with the world at large that was so required. On our suggestion, he set up the NGO, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and we got him a legal aid project through which he was able to take up our many cases in the courts by employing lawyers. Throughout the decade of the 1980s up to 1993, whenever the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath faced serious challenges, Pushpendra provided the crucial communication and legal support in Alirajpur that eventually helped the organisation to make a mark and considerably improve the situation of the Adivasis in Alirajpur.
After 1993, the non-Adivasi activists all moved out of Alirajpur as the local Adivasi activists like Khemla, Shankar and Kemat had become capable of running the show on their own. Pushpendra also moved out to Bhopal and became a full time journalist. He then continued to provide support from Bhopal not only to the KMCS but also to other mass organisations in Madhya Pradesh. As an accredited journalist he got a government quarters and his house in Bhopal became the rallying point of activists. He had a great knack of reporting and writing investigative pieces and soon made a name for himself, becoming an editor over time. However, given his unbending attitude towards corruption and his commitment to the cause of socio-economic justice he could not hold on to his editorial jobs and had to later survive on freelance work instead.
I am particularly grateful to him for the support he provided during the huge crackdown on our organisation in Dewas in 2001 when the government killed four of my Adivasi colleagues in police firing and packed me into prison for two and a half months. Subhadra, my wife, escaped by the skin of her teeth with our son Ishaan who was then just seven months old and landed up at Pushpendra's house in Bhopal to lie low. Pushpendra and his wife Renu gave refuge to them and then Pushpendra launched a scathing attack in the news papers against the government.
So, the passing away of Pushpendra last week in his sleep due to a massive heart attack came as a deeply hurting shock from which I have still to recover. The Government quarter he was staying in was due for demolition and was the only one that was still standing in that colony which is to be redeveloped as a swanky mall and up market residential colony. While all others being government servants had vacated their quarters, Pushpendra, had doggedly stuck on saying that he wouldn't move without getting another quarter. Probably all the tensions did him in and he lost the battle for his life leaving all of us shell shocked.
At a time when the fight for rights is on the back foot and we can only look back on those heady days of the 1980s with wonder at what we had achieved, the passing away of a brave comrade in arms from that time has left me shattered. A few years ago another great comrade from that time, Khemla, had passed away and now Pushpendra also has departed. Reminds me of the famous number by the rock band Queen, which is about comrades dying in the face of bullets of the enemy - Another One Bites the Dust. We had set out to fight injustice with great enthusiasm in our youth but have failed to achieve a just society and now one by one our comrades are leaving us. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Nothing is Easy

Why isn't solar energy spreading like wildfire in India? Because it is not easy to maintain the solar systems at peak levels. Whereas, one normally does not have to worry about grid electricity once one has a connection, that is not the case with solar electricity. Even if there is a snag in the grid electricity supply, normally a complaint with the service provider solves the problem.
First of all solar panels need to be cleaned of dust regularly. Optimally once a week in cities where dust levels in the air are very high. If this is not done then the dust that settles on the panels reduced their energy absorption efficiency. Now the solar panels are normally at a height on the roof. So this means that one has to expend considerable energy and be athletic and climb on to the roof to clean the panels. The net result is that instead of once a week we end up cleaning the solar panels that we have installed in our office in Indore only once a month and this means we are losing some of the energy production potential. In big solar parks there are mechanical cleaners but then they also consume some of the energy produced for their operation so that too leads to some loss. In most medium sized installations there are people employed to clean the panels as shown below, which then adds to the cost.
We have a passive solar water heater also installed in our Indore house. This operates by glass pipes absorbing the heat from the sun and passing it on to the water inside them which, once heated, rises up to be stored in a drum at the top. The water in Indore is hard and so when it is heated up the calcium and magnesium salts get deposited in the pipes causing scaling. This reduces the capacity of these pipes to absorb energy. A time comes when the scaling is so much that the water does not heat at all. So the pipes have to be cleaned regularly once a year to free them of the deposits. Once again this is not an easy task as the pipes are made of glass and are tightly fitted with washers. In fact an expert plumber is needed to take the pipes out and free them of the deposits. Even so one pipe at least breaks while being taken out and this raises the cost of maintenance. Moreover, the tank to scales but since this increases the insulation it does not matter that much from the heat point of view. But some of the scales get dislodged and make their way through the supply pipe to the taps and clog them up. This too requires a plumber to come and open the taps and take out the scales from them.
Life of course used to be labour intensive before the industrial revolution and the generation of artificial energy from coal and later from oil. However, a few centuries of automated living has rendered us lazy. Moreover, it is possible to hire labour to do physical work but while this labour is easy to get for conventional appliances, in the case of solar this is not so as there are very few technicians who service the small scale solar market.
Thus, implementing solar energy at the small scale level is not only costly but also complicated because there is a lack of qualified technical personnel for repair work. In the face of Government apathy for developing the small scale solar sector and its concentration only on mega solar power projects there needs to be a huge commitment towards cutting down green house gas emissions by the use of solar energy as it is both costly and full of hassles.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Road to Shangri La

The River Siang descends from the Tibetan Plateau where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo and makes its way through the steep gorges of the lower Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh before hitting the plains at Pasighat, where after it meets with the Lohit, Dibang, Subansiri, Kameng and a host of other rivers that originate in India to become the mighty Brahmaputra.
I recently fulfilled a long standing desire of mine to go up the Siang valley up to the China border to imbibe first hand the legendary beauty of this river about which I had read on the internet. Not only does the river wend its way through spectacularly forested hills but there are many places along it, where it rushes over rapids in a roar of white foam. This is what has made it one of the world's most sought after white water rafting destinations.
The lower Himalayas are not very high and the highest point on our route was the town of Migging at a height of 1000 meters above sea level. Only near this place are there a few snow capped mountains visible. This is a picturesque place with scenically situated villages on hill tops and high valleys in a very sparsely populated landscape that is heavy with vegetation.
The villagers across the river Siang, from the side on which the road is, mostly have to use suspension foot bridges made of steel wires and wooden planks to cross the river and reach the road. Since the span has to be small, the bridges are constructed near the river and so the people have a steep climb to the road above. These bridges sway tantalisingly when one walks on them.
 Initially there was only one suspension bridge across the Siang at a place called Dite Dime about 108 kilometers up the river from Pasighat on which cars and trucks could ply. Then a two lane concrete road bridge was constructed in 2009 at Pasighat. Now, on the day we arrived at Yingkiong, the headquarters of the Upper Siang district, at a distance of 130 kms from Pasighat,  a big two lane suspension bridge was opened at this town named the Byorung bridge. Earlier there was only a suspension footbridge here which can be seen at the side.

The Siang valley is mostly populated by the Adi tribes people who have their own nature worshiping religion known as Donyi Polo which are the Adi names for the sun and the moon. In the upper reaches near the China border there are Pemba tribes who are Buddhists. The people are mostly farmers and hunters. They cultivate rice in terraced fields and live in bamboo and thatch houses on stilts. The thatch is skillfully made of Tok leaves that are weather resistant. These houses stay warm during winter and cool during summer.
They rear pigs in picturesque sties that are also built on stilts and inside their homes there is a hearth that is used for both cooking and warmth. The hearth has two hanging shelves over it on which food and firewood are kept warm. The floors and walls are made of bamboo or wooden planks.
The last administrative town up the Siang valley is Tuting which is 160 kms from Yingkiong. It has an airport for the use of the army which has an extensive setup here. It also has an inspection bungalow where visitors can stay after getting permission from the administrative officer. The town is situated on the banks of the Siang but being hilly it has many levels. The last village on the China border is Gelling which is about 30 Kms from Tuting. On the way there is a fine Buddhist temple in village Bone as these areas are inhabited by the Pemba tribes people who are Buddhists.
Gelling is situated on a hill top high above the Siang and just below the spur of the hill that marks the border between China and India. A few kilometers upstream of Gelling the Siang takes a bend and enters India. Traditionally the houses were built of bamboo and thatch on stilts but like elsewhere in the Siang valley modern construction has made its presence felt in this village also.
The trip up the Siang valley was not just one of enjoying its wild beauty but also about understanding the water flow dynamics of the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra river in recent years has witnessed a peculiar anomaly. While there are huge floods during the monsoons, during the rest of the year the flow becomes limited. I wanted to investigate this. I also wanted to get to the bottom of the claim made by the Indian Government's Water Resource Managers that the damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo by China in Tibet would drastically affect the flows of the Brahmaputra. I had read a research paper once that had on the basis of analysis of satellite imagery concluded that the Yarlung Tsangpo contributed only about 5 per cent of the total annual flow of the Brahmaputra. The trip up the Siang confirmed this. The river is hardly about 150 meters wide and very shallow below Gelling village with a miniscule flow as compared to the flow in the Brahmaputra plains.
Surprisingly, there is no measurement of the flow of the Siang at Gelling where it enters India even though there are flow measurement stations at Tuting, Yingkiang and Pasighat further downstream. Even so the flow measurements from these stations, which are classified data and so are not available to the general public, must clearly be showing that the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo into India is miniscule compared to that of the Siang in India itself and even less if compared to that of the whole Brahmaputra basin.
The most important data from the measurement of the flow of all the rivers that are tributaries of the Brahamputra is that regarding their contribution to the flood flow of the Brahmaputra during the monsoons which has such a devastating effect annually. Given the steep slopes of the lower Himalayas and the huge deforestation that has taken place, heavy rains in the hilly catchments of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra are the main cause of floods. Thus, it is imperative that both natural and artificial recharge is drastically increased in the Arunachal hills for any worthwhile flood control to be possible. The challenge to implementing artificial recharge measures is the steepness of the slopes and the very sparse population in the area. Nevertheless, thought must be applied and solutions found for this problem. The higher costs involved in this will be compensated many times by the prevention of losses due to floods. Moreover, artificial recharge will ensure that there is a better flow during the lean season and so improve the possibilities of navigation and irrigation in the Brahmaputra valley much more than building dams and dredging will ever do.
The other side of the coin is the diminished lean season flow in the rivers. Whereas the Siang has a good lean season flow due to the snow melt in the Tibetan plateau and upper Himalayas, the other rivers have very low flows. Due to the huge monsoon flows these rivers have very wide beds stretching to a few kilometers in width but just after that they dry up substantially. The Lohit River has the longest road bridge across it at Sadiya measuring 9 kilometers in length while the Dibang River has the third longest at 6.2 kilometers. The Bogibeel bridge across the Brahmaputra has the second longest bridge at 6.4 kilometers. However, when we crossed these bridges on our return from the Siang valley we found the river beds to be mostly dry and in some places covered with vegetation with the water flowing in a small stream.
But the Government Water Resource Managers have turned a blind eye to this and are instead bent on building dams on these rivers ostensibly to control floods but actually to make merry from their construction. The pristine beauty of the Siang valley has no value for these and the profit seeking dam building corporations.
Arunachal Pradesh is inhabited by tribes and and strict rules that prevent people from outside the state from settling or doing business there have kept the place comparatively safe from the depredations of greed based modern development and trade. Those going in for work or tourism have to obtain an inner line permit which is given for only a fortnight and has to be renewed after that. Even then dam building has made its mark in the Subansiri river valley and may some day lay the Siang valley to waste due to the local political leadership being inclined towards it. An interesting thing that I noted was that Hindi has become the lingua franca of the state. Everywhere right up to the China border people speak Hindi and some of them speak very chaste Hindi with good diction and pronunciation. The day we reached Yingkiong there was a big public meeting of the Chief Minister and he was speaking in Hindi because his own tribal language would not be comprehended by the Adi tribes people in the audience!!!
Finally a word about the roads. While the road to Yingkiong is fairly good apart from the stretches where construction work is going on, thereafter, up to Tuting the road is atrocious. We could drive at a an average speed of 15 kilometers and hour and it took us 9 hours to cover the distance. This is indeed a pity because this road is strategically very important and there is heavy army traffic on it most of the time and also because a good road combined with good tourism infrastructure can really open up this beautiful valley which is now visited only by river rafting enthusiasts. However, it is necessary to build these roads so as to cling to the contours as much as possible because the steep slopes get destabilised by the road cutting. While going up on the first day our path up the left bank of the river was blocked by a section where a landslide had taken place and taken the road with it. We had to turn back and return to Pasighat to cross the bridge there and go up the right bank instead. On our return journey also we encountered a land slide but that held us up for only an hour or so. The land slides during the monsoons are even more severe and frequent.
Even though the road situation is poor, there is fairly good mobile connectivity in the towns and also along the route. The road condition delayed my schedule and so at Tuting I had to reschedule my return flight from Guwahati by a day. As there was good mobile connectivity in the town, I could call up the airline and reschedule my flight.
All in all the trip up the Siang turned out to be truly one off the beaten track. The author James Hilton in his novel "Lost Horizon" has written about a mystical valley called Shangri-La where people live harmoniously. The Siang valley comes close to that utopian ideal and the trip was for me the experience of a lifetime.