Friday, October 29, 2010



Allow me to put things in perspective right away. Most of you are painfully aware of the following facts: about 1.5 million Indians die of malaria every year; more than 1.5 million Indians succumb to TB every year and more than 2 million young children are killed every year by diarrhoea and related stomach disorders. I have absolutely no doubt that all right-thinking Indians often feel ashamed by these appalling numbers and the heartbreaking human misery that is hidden behind the statistics. And yet, India is awash with activists and NGOs who keep trumpeting from every available rooftop that AIDS is a kind of Biblical scourge that is devouring India. So persistent, so loud and so powerful are the voices of these activists and NGOs that many Indians think AIDS is one of the biggest killer diseases to stalk India. But how many unfortunate Indians are actually killed by AIDS? Not even one for every Indian that dies of malaria, TB or diarrhoea. Common sense demands: then why ignore TB and malaria and create such a hoopla about AIDS?

You guessed it. It just so happens that a certain corporate baron and philanthropist called Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates have been donating hundreds of millions of dollars for tackling AIDS in Third World countries. Yes, they do donate equally well to address some other health issues too, but the very word of AIDS conjures up magic that opens doors to vast donations, funds and incredible opportunities to travel around the world and schmooze with assorted do-gooders. So it is AIDS that everyone talks about – including page 3 people. Try talking and arguing with these activists about why we should be paying more attention to malaria and TB. The best response you will get is a derisive snort while the more ideologically evolved activists will accuse you of being a reactionary, a Neanderthal, a feudal and worse. Forget the jargon, AIDS is sexy. Who cares about TB and malaria?

Don’t you think that just about sums up the state of activism in India?

Let me make a few points here. First: no one with common sense will deny that AIDS is a serious problem. Second, the unfortunate fact is that TB and malaria are bigger problems. Third, anyone who denies this has a serious problem of misplaced priorities. If you are a CEO running a company or even senior manager running a division, you will know that priorities are critical. That’s what students of basic economics are taught: priorities determine the balance between unlimited needs and limited resources. Th at is what a good politician learns very quickly: how to prioritise the numerous – and often conflicting – demands. Th at is how societies, nation states and civilisations have evolved: by learning to prioritise and then trying to balance the conflicting priorities.

There will always be a conflict between security and human rights. Both are very important for a young democracy like India. There will always be a conflict between industrialisation and environment. Both are very important for sustainable growth of the Indian economy. There will always be a conflict between infrastructure projects and the people whose lives the projects will disrupt. Both matter. There will always be a conflict between new technologies like GM in agriculture and the preservation of existing pool of seeds and know-how. Both matter. There will always be a conflict between globalisation and the threat it poses to local communities and livelihoods. The real challenge is to nurture both.

Nobody (no one at least in his/her right senses) has ever said that balancing these conflicting priorities is simple. It has always been an incredibly tough, complex and demanding challenge, and will always remain so. Well governed societies with dollops of common sense seek a balance between these conflicting priorities. A democracy with the rights to free speech and protest offers the best method of resolving these conflicts. As philosophers have always known: democracy is a terrible way of governing and managing societies, but humanity is yet to find a better way. Indeed, the world is full of ‘isms’ and no sensible person will claim that the ‘ism’ they profess to believe in is the only solution.

The problem with contemporary India is that activists not just blindly believe that their ‘ism’ is the best; they also want to ram it down the throat of all Indians. God knows what ‘ism’ the Goddess of Small Things Arundhati Roy believes in. The fact is: Indian democracy has given her the freedom to rave, rant, protest, write, excoriate, condemn and demonise anything that tickles her fancy in a manner that no other Third World country would allow (I wonder what would be her fate if Arundhati Roy spouted venom of the kind she spouts here in Saudi Arabia or China or any of the hitherto Marxist paradises that existed before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991). I personally think she has every right to speak the way she speaks because we are indeed a democracy. In any case, she had publicly seceded from India back in 1998 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government went ahead with nuclear tests. The problem is not that. The problem is the utter contempt she has for the other point of view; the complete unwillingness to even consider that India confronts twin problems of internal security threats and human rights abuses. No wonder she was wallowing in ideological pleasure when she described the murderous Maoists as Gandhians with Guns even as they were planning to ambush and kill more than 75 CRPF personnel – most of them poor Indians whose cause she claims to espouse. So she travels from seminar to seminar, rally to rally, protest meet to protest meet condemning the Indian State and the security forces.

In her lexicon and world view: the only internal security threat that India faces is the Indian State. Now, what would happen if policy makers actually implemented her vision and embraced terrorists from Pakistan and her Gandhians with Guns as the real patriots of India? I suspect, she couldn’t care less. As the Activist Number One of India, her job is to denounce and condemn. And Roy – and hundreds of thousands of activists like her in India – have learnt the art of propaganda very well. I feel proud of India as a democracy when people like her rave, rant and shout. But I really start worrying about the future of India when persistent propaganda leads the government to start thinking of doing what she wants. Taken to the logical conclusion, the Roy solution is to dismantle the entire Indian armed forces, the paramilitary forces and the police.

The manner in which the ilk of Roy are chipping away at the foundations of the Indian State and society is so insidious that many people like you and me do not seem to recognise the terrifying consequences of the sustained hate propaganda they have launched. But I have little doubt that India will soon pay a price.

The more immediate impact of activists is on industrial projects. Week aft er week, we get to hear that pressure from activists has prompted the government to abandon an industrial or infrastructure project. The most immediate ones are the Vedanta and POSCO projects in Orissa. Let me not get into the details of the projects. Let me also clarify here that this magazine – and its sister publication The Sunday Indian – has often attracted the ire of corporate India in the form of legal notices and cases when we have highlighted their misdeeds – particularly when it comes to cheating poor citizens of their livelihoods while going for ambitious industrial projects. And yet, I do think that policy making in India is reaching a stage where we are happy to throw the baby away with the bath water. Th is is what the former collector of Kalahandi Pradeep Jena has to say about the now doomed Vedanta project: “When I was a district collector of Kalahandi, I have seen how people were happy and cheerful when it was declared that Vedanta Alumina Refinery Project proposal will be finalised at Lanjigarh. There was a welcoming atmosphere everywhere in the district since Kalahandi had not a single industry at that time. Public notion was that, overall development of the area and people can be achieved through industrialisation. But thereaft er, social activism gradually started against the project. Then gradually public opinion changed. I found it strange when I saw those, who once were welcoming the project, turning hostile towards industrialisation overnight. I don’t know why some people strategically want to keep away those primitive tribes from modern society and lifestyle?”

I mean, there is no doubt that Vedanta – and the off icials who allowed it to – violate rules and norms must be punished. But must the poor of Kalahandi be perpetually denied the benefi ts of industrial growth just because activists are convinced that they are better off in pristine poverty with a life expectancy of less than 45 years and infant mortality of more than 300 per thousand? I have been following the Posco controversy too where a committee appointed by Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh has declared that the Posco project violates tribal rights. Now, I have done my schooling in Orissa and fi nd it preposterous when the esteemed committee members say that tribals are being forcibly displaced by the Posco project. There never were tribals living traditionally in that area; the closest they lived was hundreds of kilometres away. Ask anyone in Orissa and she will tell you this is a fact. And yet, we – even in the media – have collectively swallowed this nonsense that the land needed for the Posco project is a traditional habitat of tribals!

That brings us to the darker side of activism which all of us know but feel too polite to publicly shout about. Says Rajesh Sharma, News Editor, Sandesh Daily, Ahmedabad, “The role of all these so called ‘activists’ is very clear. Most of them have a clear agenda to blackmail the industrialists. They raise the issue, protest heavily, hold rallies and dharnas and when the situation worsens as per their planning, they simply signal the other party for compromise. Not surprisingly, they ‘charge’ a heft y amount for setback. Th is kind of pre-planned and well intentional drive of protesting industrial projects is uprising. The time has come for authorities to take charge of the situation and give them a lesson.”

It is the proliferation of ideologically fanatical, India-hating and downright greedy activists that is giving a bad name to what was once considered a noble cause. I mean, look at someone like Aruna Roy. The lady gave up her job as an IAS officer and has been working with villagers in Rajasthan as an activist for close to four decades. Most people like you and me cannot even comprehend the dedication and commitment that Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy has displayed. But how many times have you heard her going out of her way seeking publicity and spouting venom against India?

The fact is: activism is now a sunrise sector where the opportunity to make tons of money and seek your 15 minutes of fame exists alongside the simple desire to help. No wonder the number of NGOs has grown from a little more than 1 lakh in the 1970s to more than 1.1 million currently. No wonder that foreign donations according to government have gone up during the same time from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than 4 billion dollars every year. No wonder that aid agencies like Oxfam lament that less than 500 NGOs in India actually follow ‘honest and transparent’ accounting practices.

I will provide one more example to conclude my argument. Everyone knows that Indian agriculture faces a crisis of stagnation and productivity, that the Indian farmer is in desperate need of help. But the largest number of NGOs and activists working in this sector are those who relentlessly oppose GM crops. They were so successful in city aft er city in portraying GM crops as an evil force during public hearings and debates that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh refused to allow them in India. Suffice to say that activists and vested interests in Europe spend millions of dollars opposing GM crops because it is primarily an American technological success. I am not saying GM crops off er a solution to India. But can we at least talk and debate about it please?

And what can India do about these India hating, development hating and ideologically fanatical activists and NGOs? If we remain a democracy, they have a right to be destructive. I am personally convinced a majority of Indians will sooner or later see through these gimmicks for what they are.


Friday, October 15, 2010


Water was shimmering almost all the way to the horizon. Th e gates of the Hirakud dam, more than 50 years aft er it was built, stood as sentinels guarding the Nehruvian legacy that dreamt of the ‘modern temples of India.' I am on a trip to Orissa to work on a story for the year end issue of our sister publication Th e Sunday Indian. I recall how we used to feel proud as children when the Hirakud dam was touted as the longest dam in the world; and along with Bhakra Nangal Dam, the Nehruvian thrust that would propel India towards becoming an industrialised and prosperous nation.

But, like so many other Nehruvian dreams and legacies, the Hirakud dam too is now becoming a mute testimony to the cruel joke that ‘development’ is playing on the common citizens of India. For decades, the irrigated fields near Hirakud dam produced record harvests and made the farmers of this area genuinely prosperous. Many of these farmers are migrants from Andhra Pradesh who have toiled hard for generations to leverage irrigation and water to build economic security – and even prosperity. Now, many of these farmers are committing suicide.

The reason is simple: this part of Orissa is witnessing rapid industrialisation and steel plants plus other industrial projects are mushrooming with amazing speed. They are all hungry for water, and lots of it. What better source than the Hirakud dam. Local farmers are already realising with dismay that ‘industry’ almost always gets preference over ‘agriculture’ when the state machinery is concerned. So these huge steel plants and other projects have started taking away water that for generations irrigated the fields of the farmers and generated golden harvests. Of course, they are protesting; but then the state is making its priorities very clear. It wants industry. One of the most ironical and cruel aspects of this is that the original ‘oustees’ of the Hirakud dam now face ‘displacement’ yet again because the state now wants the land they were forced to resettle in for ‘industry’.

This is not very different from the manner in which land has been snatched away from common citizens in the name of development. Virtually, all over India, places like Nandigram and Singur have become symbols of the tyrannical manner in which the State compels local people to hand over land for industrial projects and so-called SEZs without paying adequate compensation. Something similar is happening with water. Local farmers have depended on the water discharged by Hirakud dam for decades to irrigate their fields. Now that the same water will be diverted for industrial projects, who will compensate them for the loss of livelihood? Mark my words, this issue of the State forcibly diverting water for ‘industry’ is going to trigger violent protests.

In any case, the manner in which we manage water reflects how feudal and predatory our State still is. Bureaucrats and those with money have virtually unlimited access to water in their houses and use it extravagantly. People living in slums actually buy water everyday – oft en paying as much as Rs.20 per bucket. In Mumbai, officers of the Indian Navy get water supply for barely half an hour everyday. Th e powers that be have no such problem. So much for the egalitarian society Nehru dream about.


Friday, October 1, 2010


Rising powers have a habit of flexing muscles. They are also genetically programmed to keep pushing the envelope; to keep cajoling, threatening, posturing and browbeating neighbours and other global powers. Germany did that in the beginning of the late 19th century. Japan did that in the first half of the 20th century. Russia did that even before the end of the Second World War. The result was two World Wars and a Cold War. Now, it is the turn of China to enter the equation.

Will the rise of China eventually lead to conflict, violence, bloodshed, hatred, triumphal emotions and even a war? If you go by history, violence, bloodshed and war are very much on the cards. Notice how China behaved almost immediately after it surpassed Japan as the second largest economy of the world. It has ploughed into a war of words with Japan. Ostensibly, the dispute is related to conflicting sovereign rights of the two nations over East Asian waters. In reality, it is China flexing its now hefty muscles and generally telling the world that it is really a Big Boy now; not to be trifled with. It doesn’t help that Japan had once militarily occupied China; Chinese rulers don’t seem to mind stoking jingoistic fires, as the average Chinese citizen is reminded again and again of Japan’s role as a former Imperial power.

China is treating India even more disdainfully. It refuses to allow a serving army general to visit China only because he is posted in Jammu and Kashmir which, China now seems to think, is a disputed territory. It is refusing to give visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh, since it claims the state actually belongs to China. It deliberately provokes and humiliates India by stapling visas to the passports of visiting Kashmiris instead of stamping them. It tried every trick in the book to sabotage India’s entry into the formal club of nuclear powers. Having failed, it is publicly and loudly doing everything it can to help Pakistan with nuclear technology and reactors; in a deal that mirrors India’s nuclear deal with the United States.

This China has to be stopped before it goes too far; so far down the road that conflict and war become inevitable in Asia. And India is in a unique position to play the kind of balancing role that will prevent that kind of catastrophe. As of now, Japan and India are the only powers in Asia who can say no to China. Others like South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Australia too would love to do that; but they simply don’t have the heft to do so.

As the visit of US President Barack Obama draws near, India strategists must ponder over this new role India must play in Asia. The idea is not to oppose everything that China does. But it is to send an unmistakable message to the rulers in Beijing that that there is a limit to which they can proceed and not beyond that. How about persuading America, Japan and ASEAN nations to announce that Tibet is disputed territory? How about providing special incentives to investors from Taiwan?

The sooner China realizes that there will always be limits to its power, the more its rulers will think before crossing the line while playing Big Boy. Frankly, that would be good even for China.