Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Geo-politics of Look-East Policy

The North Eastern States of India, comprising Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and more recently Sikkim, is a region in contradiction, when viewed from its geographical location. It is a land locked region, mountainous, with perhaps the Brahmaputra the only water way, that too within the State of Assam only and to the minds of many who matter in Delhi, it is a region, which is as remote as one can consciously think of and why not ? While the geographical divide between this region and mainland India runs deep, what is a matter of greater significance is the deeper and more ‘visible’ psychological divide between the people of this region and the rest of the country. The “chicken neck” syndrome is still alive and kicking and it refers not only to the 24 kms wide passage through Assam/Bengal that connects the region with the rest of the country, but also to the growing emotional disconnect between the region and the rest of the country with Delhi unfailingly adopting the mindset of the British, which is to look and view the North East region as a buffer zone, a frontier against unfriendly Nations. While it is just a 24 kms wide passage that connects the North East region with the rest of the country, the North East, by virtue of its geographical locations, share international boundaries running into thou- sands of kilometres with numerous countries. One just have to take a look at the map of India to get a grasp of the strategic position that this region occupies. The North East region shares boundaries with China, Burma or Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and not all of them come under the category of friendly Nations, and this fact has had a multiplying effect on the importance of this region. This fact or ground reality did not dawn on New Delhi for the greater period of time after 15th August, 1947, as Nehru and his men were more concerned with playing up to the Soviets and concentrating all their attention on the West, beyond which lies Pakistan. The resultant effect follows the logical path, which is in reality absolutely illogical, that the North East region has lagged behind the rest of the country, due to its geographical location with some even going to the extent of dubbing it as a remote corner of India. Remote it may be, but this cannot be measured by kilometres or miles but by other factors such as the consciousness of this region in the mindset of Delhiwallahs and others. This mindset is archaic and should have no place in an age, “when the world has become a global village.” Much as the world has changed, especially with the coming of age of Information Technology and the internet, India's outlook or approach towards the North East remained caught in a time warp, stubbornly resisting the wind of change sweeping through the globalised village. This is one reason why the region remains merely dotted with verbal assurances of rail connectivity by political netas when they undertake their rare sojourn to this region. Verbally they have virtually criss crossed the entire region with rail heads and rail line and it has remained just that, though Manipur is now in line to join the privileged category of “rail connected States.”
Just as there are no permanent foes or friends in politics, there are also no permanent policies and outlook of any administration and it is along this line that we can understand the hitherto geographical disadvantage of the North East region, suddenly becoming so important to Delhi over night. The Look East Policy, which has become one of the grander visions of Delhi, has nothing to do with the North East except that it serves as the perfect gateway to the burgeoning market in South East Asian countries as well as the growing need to check the sweeping influence of China over this region. It is also another step taken up towards joining the Association of South East Asian Nations. Economy is the primary factor here and it is perfectly in sync with the demands of the time, especially in the face of the fact that China has replaced Japan as the second most economically powerful Nation in the world, just after the USA and what is more it is outpacing the targets set by itself. The Trans-Asian Highway that is planned to pass through Manipur can mean many things to many people. For one, Moreh will see rapid developments and it wouldn't take time for the land sharks and property dealers homing in on this border town to make a killing. To the petty traders, it could mean their gradual margina-lisation, which can then pave the way for the emergence of another menace in the form of highwaymen. To the staunch Meiteis of Manipur, who swear by the Puya it would mean the coming to light of the prediction, “Nongpokthong Hangba” which literally means opening the eastern gate or passage, while to the common people, it could mean anything, either flow with the tide and be able to keep up with the new challenges or simply disappear into oblivion. To Delhi, they may preen under the impression that they have managed to hit two targets with one stone, that is neutralise the growing sentiment of alienation of the North East people through the Trans-Asian Highway and the other is get a toe hold on the thriving economy of South East Asia. However, Delhi must realise that in as much as the world has changed, so have the people of this region and that is they can no longer be taken for granted, that they can no longer be viewed as the people with slant eyes, snub nose inhabiting some jungles. The LEP is no doubt a grand vision, and it will take more than the best of human efforts to make it a success. It also needs sincerity of purpose in an equal dose. The present visit of delegates from ASEAN countries to Manipur and their visit to Moreh by road, is significant. In a way it is also a sign of Delhi coming round to the idea of the existence of a region, which can no longer be treated only as some sort of a buffer zone, to keep unfriendly Nations at bay.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

AFSPA : Time to ink its epitaph

Ideally this question should not have come up in the first place, especially in the land of the Buddha and Gandhi and which has the distinction of being the largest democracy in the world. Not only this, India is also one of the few countries of the erstwhile British Empire, where democracy has succeeded, with no tin pot dictators dictating terms, a la Pakistan. Given such a background and the present political climate, why should there be a heated debate over the imposition or revocation/repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act ? Why should a democracy like India feel the need to adopt an Act framed by her former ruler (the slight modifications here and there should not fool us), which was a manifestation of the divide between a colonial power and a colonised people ? The answer is both simple and at the same time extremely difficult and dicey. It is only expected that Delhi should keep National integrity as its first priority but simultaneously democracy should also have no room for any provisions that give unbridled powers to the military to deal with internal issues. Okay there are some who belong to the school of thought that the armed movement in the North East should not be viewed as an internal matter, but an issue between two distinct entities, with Delhi taking on the role of the coloniser, after the British left. We will deal with this issue when the time comes, but for the moment, let's concentrate on the imposition of the remnants of an Act which was primarily formed to keep the colonised people collared and tethered. At the moment the focus is on Kashmir, following the civil unrest for over two months which has claimed the lives of more than 60 people, mostly teenagers. Normalcy is far from over and it is against this backdrop that AFSPA has once again come to the forefront triggering off a debate. Kashmir is the centre of attention and according to what we have been hearing and reading as well as listening, the debate seems to be tilting towards some adhoc measures, such as repealing it from some parts of Kashmir, like it was done in the seven Assembly segments lying within the Imphal Municipal Council. We do not know how the Kashmiris will respond to this, but we are firm in our belief that such piecemeal approach cannot bring any solution. By this we are not saying that Kashmir should burn and the kids should go out on the streets again to engage the security personnel with catapults and other ingenious ‘weapons’, but voicing our stand that a thorough discussion and debate, without any strings attached and with no political vote banks in mind, is urgently needed. The only point is, is Delhi or India ready for this ? Also let's not forget that in the enthusiasm to defuse the crisis in Kashmir, the same Act has been enforced in the North East region since the armed insurrection was launched by the Naga National Council way back in the 50s.
The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, which was instituted to look into the provisions of the Act and see what can be done to make it more humane, is understood to have put in certain suggestions and points. This is one part of the story and the other part of the story is that the Government of India has been sitting on it all these years. The Commission was instituted following the prolonged agitation after the arrest, ‘rape’ and brutal murder of Th Manorama, way back in 2005. That the Manorama case is back in the public domain, thanks to the ruling of the Principal seat of the Gauhati High Court on August 31, at this juncture may be dismissed as a co-incidence, but no one can write off the significance of not only the ruling of the High Court but also the time and situation under which it was pronounced. As we had said, it is now left to the State Government to go through the report submitted by the C Upendra Commission and accordingly take appropriate action. This is not an attempt to link the present Nation wide debate over AFSPA following the civil unrest in Kashmir, with the case of Th Manorama, but there is no denying the fact that the common thread that runs through these two cases is the said Army Act. The question, which everybody should be asking and which should be the focus of everyone is whether AFSPA is indispensable for the integrity of the country or not. Is it really important to give the license to shoot and even kill a suspect by an official of the rank of a Non-Commissioned Officer, in areas that come under the protective umbrella of the said Act ? From Delhi's viewpoint, these provisions are necessary and hence its enforcement in States or areas, which come under the Disturbed Area Act. That the provisions of AFSPA are there primarily to enable the soldiers to carry out their duties, cannot jell with the civilised world today, is a given. It would have been more appropriate if the said Act had been associated with radical groups like the Taliban. Mass massacre, women raped and killed, forcing expecting mothers to give birth in the open fields, custodial killings, disappearing after being picked up by security personnel under the immunity granted to them under AFSPA. These are facts, which the people of the North East and Kashmir have been forced to face in their daily lives for decades. The question is, are all the examples, which we have just quoted, really connected to the security and integrity of the country ? By itself, AFSPA, if used judiciously may be turned into a trump card for the security personnel, but history and the present tell us that far from being the trump card, it has become a source of embarassment to the military establishment. In short, the time is ripe to write the epitaph of AFSPA or else the epitaph may be written for the Indian Union, if not in the sense of its real disintegration but at least at the mental level, where the disconnect between peoples and regions will be loudly pronounced.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Save Loktak : It also needs passion

It may not exactly be a case of throwing the baby out along with the wash tub but it comes somewhere near to it. How else can one explain the efforts taken up to save Loktak lake by removing the Phumdis (Floating bio-mass) and in the process intrude into Keibul Lamjao National Park, thereby endangering the lives of the Sangai (brow antlered deer or dancing deer), the only one of its kind found in the world ? It is not merely a case of the script “Save Loktak,” going horribly wrong but also exposes the lack of sensitivity or ignorance of those in positions of authority to the fragile eco-system of the biggest fresh water lake in eastern India. The objective of trying to save the Loktak lake from further degradation is laudable and a task which ideally should have been taken up a long time back. However, this should be no reason for giving up Loktak lake as a lost case and the Save Loktak lake, though late in the day, is welcome. Loktak not only occupies an important place in the history of Manipur, but is also a major player in the eco-system, not to speak of being the source of livelihood of thousands of family in the State. Fables, and there are many, woven around the lake by itself is a standing testimony of how Loktak lake has neatly fitted into the history and social system of the land, according to its time and period. The folk lore Khamba and Thoibi cannot be seen divested from Loktak in any way. As a fresh water lake, the role it plays in the eco-system of its immediate surroundings as well as on the entire State is immense, for Loktak is not only the source of numerous rivers and rivulets but is also the basin where the rivers empty their contents (read pollutants). This is one reason for the gradual degradation of the Lake. Given the importance attached to this lake, we are more than certain that no efforts would have been spared to ensure that the process of removing the phumdis by letting it get carried away by the current of the water of many rivers, does not in any way compromise on the eco-system or the living organisms which survive and thrive in the lake and its periphery. M/S K Pro Infra Private Works along with the experts from the Loktak Development Authority must have surely conducted a thorough and scientific survey of the lake, its surroundings, the rivers along which the phumdis will be directed to be carried away across the Ithai Barrage and as well as the safety of the Sangai (brow antlered deer or dancing deer), the only one of its kind in the world and Keibul Lamjao, again the only natural floating National Park in the world and which is the natural habitat of the Sangai, must have been taken into consideration. However as we have noted, in any project or endeavour taken up by the State Government, a high risk of coming close to cases like throwing the child out along with the bath tub or water is a constant factor, and the Save Loktak campaign is not an exception. The campaign to save the lake from further degradation, requires not only a scientific approach coupled with a high professional skill, but a natural love for nature and the instinct to save the environment from further degradation. In short, saving Loktak lake will not be possible by applying only scientific knowledge but also needs an equal dose of passion.
We really do not know what the long term plan is, but as per information from the Government, as a short term plan, phumdis are being cleared manually and with the help of machineries after which they are pushed down the river by opening the Ithai Barrage. So far so good, nothing to worry about or nothing to complain about. However in a development, which has been dubbed as being ignoring protocol as well as failure to recognise the fragile eco-system of Keibul Lamjao National Park, the Loktak Development Authority, after due advice from the Chief Minister has taken up necessary measures to push the uprooted or removed phumdis on three water ways, which run right through the heart of the natural habitat of the Sangai, Keibul Lamjao. The three water ways, as we have been informed are Khordak river and Babukhong and Khuningthek channels. The other alternative route to the three water ways is Imphal river, which entails dredging the Komlakhong channel for about 300/400 metres. Initially, the process strictly stuck to the official channels, with the Chief Wild Life Warden giving the go ahead signal for opting for the three water ways through Keibul Lamjao under certain conditions, but as in so many other cases, it came to light that no formal consent was sought from either the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment or the Supreme Court of India. What is more is the allegation raised by certain disgruntled LDA employees that K Pro Infra Private Works has cleared stationary phumdis (There is a difference between the floating phumdis which are artificially created ones by fisher folks while the stationary phumdis refer to the body of bio-mass, which have been formed naturally down the decades), covering an area of about 20 square feet, which has presented the perfect site for illegal fishing and poaching. A report in this regard has been reportedly submitted to the Chief Wild Life Warden by the Deputy Conservator of Park and Sanctuary. It is obvious that scientific knowledge learnt in the class rooms and labs through experimentations are not enough when it comes to dealing with nature, which is as fragile as it could be, thanks to the large scale pollution of the water ways. What is needed is the passion. So far, we have neither seen this passion, nor has the scientific knowledge made any significant progress to save the lake. What the Government must realise is the plain fact that in trying to save Loktak lake, the fate of Keibul Lamjao and thereby Sangai is not put to test, for Loktak will not be complete without these two distinct entities nor will the Sangai and Keibul Lamjao be complete without Loktak. Nature has deemed it that they should co-exist and our ignorance or insensitivity should not disturb what nature has pre-ordained.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

AFSPA : Prescribing Colas for cold

It cannot get clearer than this. The Principal Seat of the Gauhati High Court with Justice Amitabh Roy and Justice BS Agarwal on the bench, in their August 31, 2010, ruling has clearly stated that the State Government can go ahead and peruse the report submitted by the C Upendra Commission and accordingly take action in the case pertaining to the arrest, ‘rape’ and custodial killing of Th Manorama way back in the month of July in 2004. Though the details and the legal terminologies which encase the Armed Forces Special Powers Act may be Greek to the common people, not lettered with the proceedings of the Court or the language used in legal proceedings, the implication of AFSPA is more than clear to the 25 odd lakh population of the State. This specifically means that the Gauhati High Court has refused to buy the argument of the Assam Rifles that since their men acted under the legal immunity granted by the said Act, the State Government is not authorised to institute the Judicial Inquiry, much less act on it, and hence the Commission's report should not be entertained at all. The argument of the Assam Rifles rests on two premises, one on the legal and the other on the successful indoctrination of the idea that human casualties or to put it in a more sophisticated term, made popular by the Indian Army, collateral damages which are inevitable during any CI Ops. The long years of such indoctrination obviously gave the security personnel a sense of immunity from the laws of the land and the inevitability of the collateral damages came to be understood as the license to shoot indiscriminately and kill indiscriminately, pick up suspected targets and act as the police, judge and executioner, all rolled into one. The timing of the Court's ruling has also come at the opportune moment, if we take a look at what is happening in the other trouble spot of India, Kashmir. Ever since the civil unrest started in Kashmir more than two months back, it has snuffed out the lives of a number of youngsters, who are at the most in their late teens. Boys as young as 13 or 14 coming out to the street to engage the security personnel who are armed not only with their guns, but also AFSPA, says something very significant and it is but natural that a debate should start on whether AFSPA is the wrong prescription for the situation in the North East and Kashmir. The ruling of the Gauhati High Court on August 31 is sure to set a precedent and give a dose of booster shot in the arms of all those who feel they have been wronged by the wrong side of the law under AFSPA. As we have said, the ruling of the Gauhati High Court is clear and we can also predict clearly that the military establishment, maybe backed by the Union Home Ministry, will move the Supreme Court for a hearing of the said case and we can be rest assured that it would consume so much time that the relevance of the issue may lose their sting. Kashmir is hot right now, Sharmila is still on her fast unto death agitation demanding revocation or repeal of the Act and is set to complete ten years of her fast in November this year and of course seminars and discourses, such as the one which is lined up on September 8 at New Delhi where Parliamentarians, scholars, members of the armed forces and representatives from Indian civil societies will meet to discuss the said Act under the topic, “We need to need to break the deadlock in the debate on AFSPA.”
All the points we have mentioned are clear, this much is certain. What is uncertain is, of course, how the Supreme Court will view the judgement passed by the Gauhati High Court. Despite the din and ruckus created over AFSPA and the propaganda that runs along the line that it is not only discriminatory but is a perfect tool to keep the people of the North East under subjugation, through the barrel of the guns, we do understand the spirit of AFSPA. That National integrity is paramount to Delhi is under- standable and we leave it to the contending parties to come to a negotiated settlement on the question of whether a group of people or territory should remain within the Indian Union or not. However while the spirit of AFSPA is understandable, what is unacceptable and will not pass the test of a free and democratic country is the abuse of the said Act. The clear lack of any guilt or remorse on the part of the military officers, who, besides getting trained in warfare, have been taught to be gentlemen and officers, only add to the rabid stand against this Act. The clauses contained in AFSPA harks back to the days of the British Raj, meaning it was intended to keep under control a colonised people and region, and adding to the satanic side of the Act is the very conduct of some security personnel, including officers, who are supposed to lead by example. Why, even the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court more than three decades back are not adhered to at all. If the directives of the Supreme Court had been taken as the soul or the conscience keeper of the Act, then such a hue and cry against the said Act may not have arisen. We may not have witnessed an Oinam, a Manora-ma, a Ngaprum Rose, Malom, Heirangoithong, RIMS, Tonsen Lamkhai etc. These instances are but just a fraction of all the cases of excesses committed by the men in uniform that come to mind and Nagaland, too will have many similar tales to tell. In Manorama's death, the State Government has at last been given the opportunity to prove its mettle and demonstrate how it can stand up to the mighty Indian military establishment. This is one extremely uneasy and uncertain point in the whole story that is unfolding before our eyes. That a definite date for the Cabinet to meet and discuss the reports of the C Upendra Commission has not yet been set, rings out an uncomfortable thought and we hope it is not a precursor of the things to come.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Avoiding the Zero stamp

The much maligned Organising Committee of the upcoming Commonwealth Games, to be held in Delhi this year, has come in for some scathing criticisms besides becoming the butt of several jokes and we only hope that the highly publicised Zero Garbage Campaign for Imphal City, does not end up along the line of the preparation for the Commonwealth Games, which has been aptly named by some as Common Wealth, where the wealth is there to be pocketed by crooks of all hues and colours, and end up close to a Zero Campaign. Zero Tolerance Against Crime is a term which entered the vocabulary of the cops of some cities in the United States, during the days of the Mafia, and the first lesson that has to be imbibed is for the citizens of the land to develop Zero Tolerance towards dirt and filth as well as develop a mindset, which says that the streets and roads are not dumping grounds, where the deceptively looking gentleman or the comely lady next door, take only a few glances up and down the road to make sure there are no eye witnesses, to dump their waste, which may include, among others even human excreta. Forget about Zero Garbage, to make Imphal at least presentable, we first need to clear the cob webs that inhabit the mentality of the people here and this is what is going to be the toughest part of the whole exercise. On the other hand the Government also needs to thoroughly uphaul its style of functioning, which can be seen on the streets as slush and muddy pools during the rainy season and dust and grime during the dry season. A cleanliness drive in the city will have no meaning, if one department digs up a portion of the road, which has just been black topped after a long time, to lay a water pipe or underground cables. In other words, there is an urgent need for a more a cohesive approach and better co-ordination amongst the different arms of the Government. Punishment deters, is also a fact that should not be lost on anyone. To start with, we would be really glad to see the Government levying fines or even levelling serious charges, that could land a person in prison, for, say, spitting on the road or dumping the family's waste and garbage on the road. The fines should be hefty and it should be publicised, not only to deter others, but also to teach a lesson to all the scumbags, who are under the impression that they can get away with dumping their waste plumb in the middle of the road. Along with this mechanism, the Government will also need to work out a system to ensure that imposing fines on the offenders does not mean lining the pockets of the law enforcers or those put on duty to check violators. The first step has to come from the Government, no doubt about that, and just launching a campaign to make Imphal spic and span will not do. What is needed is political will, perseverance and tough policies to rein in all those who have literally turned Imphal into a dumping zone or a public toilet, where anyone can relieve themselves any time, as long as it doesn't cross the line of modesty or decency ! To correct this mindset, as we have said before, will undoubtedly prove to be the biggest challenge one will encounter on one's journey to a clean and hygienic Imphal.
There are many reasons why Imphal has turned into something of a slum and it may even put Dharavi to shame ! The rising human population, migration from the rural areas to the capital, absence of any comprehensible town planning, the indiscriminate use of plastic carry bags, lack of infrastructure to provide proper sheds to all the women vendors selling their goods, wherever they can find space, lack of proper drainage system, the fast disappearing natural drainage system that we had, the Khongbans, the lack of dumping grounds, the failure of the Government to come up with any worthy solid waste management policies etc. The culprits are many for turning the capital of Manipur into such a filthy place. As we have said, it is the mindset of the public which should be thoroughly cleansed and sterilised with all the available anti-septic or anti-bacteria solutions, before Imphal can dream of doing away with all its garbages and seen within this prism, one of the chief culprits are those living in high rise buildings in the commercial areas, such as Paona bazar, Thangal bazar, MG Avenue etc. People living on the second, third or even first floor, find it very convenient to collect their waste in the ever reliable plastic bag and bingo, it will disappear through the windows to land plum in the middle of the road. This is usually a nocturnal activity but the damage is the same. The other is the utter failure of the Government to check the indiscriminate use of plastic bags, which have clogged our rivers, streams and nullahs, leading to water stagnation, which in turn become the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, which in turn provides the perfect ambience for the spread Malaria or Dengue or any other infectious diseases. The presence of a Municipal Council, with its elected members, have turned out to be a dud, unable to earn its own resources and in the process failing to pay its employees for months on end, forget about buying fuel for the vehicles to tow away the garbages piling up by the minute on the streets of Imphal. We have detailed some of the factors for the present state of Imphal and addressed the basic questions that need to be addressed, for it is imperative that before a surgery, a diagnosis is indispensable. Launching the Zero Garbage Campaign for Imphal, will surely be reduced to a Zero Campaign, minus the garbage, if the factors we have mentioned are not taken into consideration, though it is by no means an exhaustive list with many other factors which can be added. In other words, study the factors behind the filth and garbage first and then go ahead with the campaign.