Mumbai

A letter to Prime Minister Modi: 21-day lockdown is not enough

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Mr Prime Minister,

The Indian state would be making a fatal mistake if it chooses to sit on its haunches just because a 21-day lockdown is in force from Wednesday.

Your  second address to the nation on Tuesday was an incessant appeal to stay at home. You described this measure as “one flicker of light in this enveloping darkness”. You left no one in doubt that India won’t be able to overcome this deadly killer virus on paramedical staff, ICU (intensive care unit) beds and ventilators alone.

Unofficial figures suggest India has probably 150,000 ICU beds and 75,000 ventilators. Probably a few lakh paramedical staff. It has ramped up random testing since last week. But India needs a proactive strategy to catch the “virus” in hibernation within four walls of homes.

In simpler terms, go for door-to-door testings across India.

You quoted South Korea more than once in your address to emphasis how the Asian nation appears to have come to grips with Corona Virus. You identified “social distancing” as the prime reason for such a spectacular success. But South Korea hasn’t resorted to a lockdown. Of course, such a comparison is unfair given the unequal medical muscle of the two countries.

South Korea has also relied on doing tests on its citizens at every high-spot of people’s presence: medical stores, grocery shops, petrol pumps and of course homes. It so far has conducted over 400,000 tests on its 51-million citizens. United States, in contrast, has done random tests on only 50,000 of its 300-mllion plus citizens.  India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, only has a sample of around 5,000 random tests thus far.

India, before it banned international flights from landing this Sunday, had largely restricted its testing to arriving passengers. It then has lately woken up to random testing. But still random tests are within 1,000 a day. South Korea in contrast is testing close to 15,000 citizens everyday.

Lately, stirrings are being felt across the country. Jaipur is isolating every 3-km radius area where a positive test has emerged. It’s being followed with home-to-home tests. The paramedical staff is being supported by volunteers and nursing students. Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is now conducting door-to-door visits in Mumbai. But these visits primarily are to check with housing societies if there is anyone who suspects himself/herself to be infected with the deadly virus. They are also checking on those with a recent travel history in these societies. Ludhiana is being remarkably alert as health officials are visiting every household in the district to obtain a declaration if anyone in the family has travelled abroad recently or is showing symptoms of virus.

On paper, it shouldn’t be difficult for the Indian state to resort to home-to-home tests. After all, it’s a practice which is followed during vaccination drives, if not entirely during General Elections. India would find volunteers in thousands. All it needs to do is to provide these bravehearts with adequate protective gears, equipments and a few hours of training on how to conduct tests.

One hopes your government isn’t being too wary lest home-to-home tests are construed a “dry run” for National Public Register (NPR) exercise. Rumour-mongers of course are busy overtime. But frankly, the government has no option but to bite the bullet. It must take recourse to judiciary, Constitution and the long arm of law. And to hell with naysers.

Yours’ truly

Ashish Shukla

Hoping for another Kejriwal and AAP model? You must be a fool

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Those looking to have new Arvind Kejriwals and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) replicated all across India are living in a fools’ world.

Delhi is unique in the sense that a ruling party doesn’t have to worry about law and order nor has a jurisdiction over its land as is the case elsewhere.

All it needs to do is look after infrastructure, health, schools, education etc and offer freebies without a thought in the world since its revenue is always in surplus compared to its expenses.

Figures show that Kerjiwal’s government has surplus money of over Rs 5000 crores. It’s education budget is 25 per cent of its revenue. The subsidizing of electricity has gone up by 6 per cent.

This enables Kejriwal to stuff Delhi’s mainstream corrupt media with advertisements worth tens of crores which in turn ensures that not a line in criticism appears in public domain.

Kejriwal also has the unique advantage of practically having an urban political party which can’t be compared with any other local, state or national party in India.

It’s no secret that Urban India gives the nation its growth and economy compared to rural folks but India’s cities don’t control its own revenue. All the money earned through local bodies in urban areas goes to state governments who divert it in the hands of farmers, poor etc in order to secure its vote-bank and remain in power.

Just look at ministerial portfolio distribution in the Shiv Sena-led government in Maharashtra: The urban ministry has been retained by Uddhav Thackeray and it gives him control on most of the revenue earned in Mumbai and elsewhere in the state.

As per data, 32 per cent of India is urban while the rest is rural and hence it makes sense to divert a significant portion of your revenue towards rural areas and reap the benefits in elections.

In contrast, a Delhi government retains control of its landscape and its revenue and doesn’t have to divert its money anywhere.

Sure there are other Union Territories (Delhi is neither UT nor state but has a special status and hence enjoys legislative assembly) but nobody has the scale and depth of Delhi. Just consider: Delhi National Capital region and Mumbai metropolitan region, alone between themselves account for 9% of India’s population.

So for other Kejriwal and AAPs to emerge, a hopeful must have the (a) size of Delhi; (b) No rural vote-bank obligation; (c) no law or land obligation; (d) no subservience to a state party.  No other place than Delhi in India can claim to have this advantage.

On a larger note, it’s also a sign that sooner or later tens of urban political parties would emerge in India’s growing cities who would seek independence from the yoke of state governments.

At the moment, India’s Constitution doesn’t support such a division between power and responsibility between state and local levels but a change can’t be stopped in coming decades.

For one, India is increasingly growing urban. Surveys show that nearly 70 per cent of India would be urban by 2050. Already, from sky above, larger part of India appears to be towns, mini-cities or cities but the “definition” of “Urban” vis a vis “Rural” limits its numbers to 32 per cent only.

The definition of “urban” as per Indian laws is that the area must have its own municipality, cantonment and corporation board and must have a minimum population of 5,000.

Sooner than later, the state governments would have to cede control of their big cities in the hands of “mayors” since a great deal of rural India is moving towards cities in any case. This migration is unstoppable due to the lure and opportunities in big cities.

These mayors would be like Presidents of their cities, looking after its infrastructure, water, electricity, health, education etc and managing its own budget.  Diversion of its funds would not be feasible for state governments as most of their vote-banks would’ve moved to the towns and cities anyway.

Besides, badly managed cities where health, water, electricity, policing is ignored could lead to large-scale riots which would burn up the remote controlling powers in its own flames.

Hence, there is one Arvind Kejriwal, one AAP and one Delhi. Hoping a duplication of this format elsewhere in India is plain day-dreaming.

And hence brace yourself for BJP don’t ceding control of India’s political landscape in 2024 and beyond.

 

 

New India beefs up Mahatma Gandhi in a formidable armour

(This piece is reproduced in NewsBred courtesy rt.com)

India is abuzz with Mahatma Gandhi in the year of his 150th birth anniversary but there is a new version to his message of “ahimsa” (non-violence) which its enemies are finding out at a great personal cost.

Gandhi was the “apostle” of peace and non-violence who offered the other cheek when slapped but India of today would rather leave a black eye on its aggressor as it did on Pakistan with retaliatory heavy shelling in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) on Sunday which left at least 6-10 Pakistani soldiers dead and blew up three terrorist camps into thin air.

It was a grim fresh reminder to Pakistan that India has the doctrine of an eye-for-an-eye in its new rulebook and the “surgical strikes” and “Balakot airstrikes” which followed the terrorist attacks in Uri (2016) and Pulwama (2019) was the new philosophy and not an exception.

India is still an adherent to “non-violence” and has an unbroken history of peaceful coexistence, never eyeing others’ territory but the painful lessons of past demand it puts a premium on the integrity of its Union.

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval often reminds his audience that India was overrun by invaders despite being arguably the most advanced civilization of its times. It never protected its seas even though they straddle three of its four corners. It led to the servitude of almost a thousand years. It faced wars imposed by Pakistan on three of four occasions: 1947-48, 1965 and 1999. It didn’t use 90,000 prisoners-of-war as a bargaining chip nor advanced deep inside Pakistan after winning a conclusive war in 1971 which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

India was seen as an epitome of a “soft” nation as terrorists kept crossing the Line of Control (LoC) through Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir and cost tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers lives since 1990. The horrific attack in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, when terrorists from across the border sprayed machine guns on civilians on streets and five-star hotels, known as 26/11 in nation’s damaged psyche, evoked no retaliatory response from India. Worse, the very next year in 2009, the same United Progressive Alliance (UPA), returned to power without any retribution from its masses.

All this has changed for good. India today is driven in its bid to modernize its army: It has only recently ceded its top spot to Saudi Arabia as the biggest arms importer of the world—the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reckons India accounted for 12% of the total global arms imports for the 2013-2017 period. It has lapped up Russia’s S-400 advanced missile system defying the threat of sanctions from the United States. It has gone ahead with its purchase of France’s Rafale fighter jets even though the move threatened to derail Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a second term on the unfounded charges of corruption this year.

India today is literally taking the fight into enemy camp: It rakes up the issue of Balochistan and its independence from Pakistan; it has vowed to wrest back the control of PoK for a unified Kashmir and its defence minister Rajnath Singh has already debunked the “No-First-Use” nuclear doctrine. India stood up for its ally Bhutan and stared down China in a face-to-face standoff between the two armed forces in Doklam in 2017 which lasted months.

India is not only flexing its armed muscle but is also a crusader against global terrorism on international forums. India has successfully overturned China’s reluctance in having Masood Azhar of Pakistan blacklisted by the United Nations. It dissuaded South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan from joining the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit hosted by Islamabad in November 2016 after the Uri attack. It recently tried it’s very best to have Pakistan blacklisted by the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) and has openly fallen out with Turkey and Malaysia for standing by Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.

India loves and is proud of Mahatma Gandhi and the message of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam (The World Is One Family) which defined the great man’s extraordinary life. But it doesn’t want to ignore the lessons of history. It is prepared to lift arms to protect its people and boundaries which is different from being an aggressor. It’s a nuanced approach to Gandhi’s philosophy and it seems to be paying dividends.

(This is a reprint from Russia Today—rt.com— for whom the author has penned this piece).

You may not love water but you surely do your kids, don’t you?

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Chennai is parched dry but it’s too far. “Mann ki Baat”draws many a listener but you and I aren’t one of them. We even don’t know that President Ram Nath Kovind referred to water crisis in his address to the joint session of Parliament last month. Could you please stop shedding tears on water, please.

Let’s get a little closer to the truth. Say Jaipur. Part of the city ran out of water last year. It was because Bisalpur dam, the supplier of water to Jaipur, almost dried up. Imagine coolers–many times more than A/Cs—without water in the searing heat of the desert. Or supply of water restricted to an hour. A decade ago, five farmers who were protesting the diversion of water to Jaipur, were shot in Bisalpur.

Still far? Closer to any of these cities such as PuneNagpur or Mumbai? Click the links and you would know how close you were to use only toilet papers in the morning. Ever wondered why you see hundreds of water tankers darting to and fro in the Capital in summer? Or why violent clashes for waters among neighbours is so common? Delhi Police counted for three dead and many injured from last year. Cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai already ferry water as far as 200kms from their outskirts.

Still unconvinced? Niti Aayog has warned that India faces the worst long-term water crisis in its history. Millions of lives and livelihoods are at risk. Outbreak of water-borne diseases would swamp our hospitals. Burial grounds would be humming like fairs.

Ever thought that water could be the reason why our farmers commit suicide? Do you know that India uses more groundwater than collectively used by China and the United States? Or how much of our surface/groundwater is used up by multinationals such as Coca-Cola?

Let’s see if these facts make any difference to you: In most Indian cities, the difference in demand-supply is a yawning 70%. Imagine what happens when 500 million more people join our cities by 2025.

Ok, let these facts below sink in:

  • Water tariffs are lowest in India’s urban centres. In cities like Delhi and Mumbai, water is supplied at Rs 0.5 and Rs 1.6 per cubic metre.  However, marginal poor in cities of India—some 170 million—end up paying to water tankers etc through their nose. It’s up to 20 times to what the rich pay and that too from unreliable sources.
  • Almost 80 per cent of the water leaves cities as a waste of which less than 20 per cent is treated. The rest pollutes rivers, lakes and groundwater. Meanwhile, the government subsidy for water keeps accumulating at over a billion dollars a year. That’s a double whammy for poor. One, they don’t get water. Two, what they get is literally the untreated sewage flushed down by the rich.
  • 82 per cent of our villages rely on groundwater for domestic use.  Now, this groundwater is being extracted by water tanker economy which in six big cities itself is worth over Rs 100 crores. Then there are packaged-water companies; the soft drinks multinationals to suck it dry. For instance, there is a long-standing conflict between Coke and the Placimada village panchayat. Groundwater legislation in states such as Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh actually work against villagers’ access to groundwater. Over-extraction has left to “well-fields” around Indian cities.
  • Given the situation, the surface water would have to contribute no less than 65% of our total water requirement in decades ahead. This requirement is just not for residences. Your electricity supply and industries need water too. But where are the ponds and tanks? Marginal rivers have run dry due to encroachments by building mafia and conniving municipal administration. And have I forgotten the polluted major rivers?
  • On paper, mega cities like Delhi and Mumbai receive almost enough water today. But that’s on paper only. No account is made of leakage, faulty engineering and poor maintenance. Mumbai hardly harvests its water. Governments as usual wake up late. For example in Gurgaon, a major water supply network was only built 20 years after all those high-rise buildings had come up.
  • All this will leave a huge burden on our farms to produce enough food to meet demands by 2050. Since our cities take in a lot of cereals, our food output may have to rise 50% over present levels. Farmers are thus encouraged to grow crops that result in improved profits. But to grow rice and wheat, the water supply is grossly insufficient. According to an estimate, a whopping investment of Rs 560,000 crores would be required for irrigation networks in the next three decades.

Just imagine the scenario. Protests, riots, torching and bloodshed in our cities. Wildlife near extinction. So the likely fate of vegetation and rivers itself.

The irony is, India is one of the wettest countries in the world. Between Cherrapunji’s 11,000mm and Jaisalmer’s 200mm, India averages 1170mm of annual precipitation. Just half a century ago, India was acknowledged as a water-rich nation. Now several regions have turned into deserts.

So if you are moved to do your bit on water, read these two pieces. Both stress on water-harvesting. The first one deals with how lack of it has brought Chennai to its knees. The second one is a few noteworthy examples which could show you the light.

Do your bit and we could raise a glass to it! And don’t you tell me you don’t love your kids.

Capital woes of garbage in India

The striking municipal employees of Delhi this week relented after the high court intervention but it appears only a pause before it drops its broom again on rulng Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Typically, AAP sees the role of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its control of Capital’s civic agencies behind this mess at their door.

Mess literally is at every door. In Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Ludhiana, Pune—name any city and any town. Strikes only put the pictures in front of our eyes which we feint, dodge, duck, skirt, nose-block or sprint everyday in front of proverbial dhalaos (proverbial garbage dump in our neighbourhoods). Now that you can’t evade the headlines, pictures, putrid smell or rotting garbage on Capital’s streets, and are pinned to the wall, brace for a knock-out punch.

India generates 62 million tonnes of trash every year by its nearly 400 million people living in urban India, now the world’s third-largest garbage accumulator. The World Bank sees a 240 percent rise in it by 2026. Now hold your breath (pun intended), nearly 45 million tonnes of it is untreated. Put it this way, it amounts to nearly 3 million trucks which, if laid in a row would scale half the distance between the earth and the moon.

So let’s take a closer look at this mounting shit. Delhi and Mumbai  (10,000 tonnes of garbage every day) are obviously top of the heap but lesser towns are no less alarming. Ludhiana has crossed a 1,000 tonnes of waste a day and so has Nagpur or Indore. And all of this doesn’t include the industrial waste. Rapid economic growth, flight to cities, overcrowding, pathetic urban planning, corruption, all have taken a heavy toll.

Last month, Mumbai was wrapped in toxic smog for days. So bad was the air quality that schools were ordered close. It so happened that Deonar, one of Mumbai’s biggest landfills, had suddenly caught fire. It receives 5,000 tonnes of waste every day.

Bad news.

Deonar, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) claims, would be shut down this year. The landfills in Gorai and Chincholi Bunder have already been closed due to over-use. Same is true of Mulund which is facing a closure.

In Delhi, the waste was dumped into four landfill sites. Three of the four landfills stopped working, so overflowing and hazardous, fire or otherwise, it were. These landfills were extended over 164 acres which is four times less than required area of 650 acres according to a 2011 report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). So bad is the situation that even some dhalaos can’t be emptied in the space of a week.

Bangalore onwards. Mandur, at 153 acres, is one of the most controversial landfills of the city. The entrance to the city was blocked by its residents in 2012. They claimed that landfill was poisoning the local water supplies.  Police intervened and dispersed the protestors who then went on a hunger strike. The state government finally intervened and ordered it to be closed.

In August 2012, more than 5,000 people, women, schoolchildren, kids, defied the police in Vilappil, a small village about 15km from Kerala’s captail, Thiruvananthapuram, to protest against a waste treatment plant. Again, the protest was on the contamination of the groundwater. Since then they have moved the Kerala High Court who have referred the matter to National Green Tribunal.

The story of these landfills is horrific in its own account. Not all garbage is collected—only 68 per cent of it by the municipal authorities. Only 28 percent of it is treated. There is no waste segregation system.  It means waste is burnt without separating biodegradable waste from non-biodegradable garbage. A lot of wet waste decomposes. It’s prime habitat for rodents and mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue. We already know of the contaminated water. The stuff that rots catches fire. Rising smoke fill the air—half of which is deadly methane. Drains are blocked which cause floods. Air and water pollution leads to diseases and a great strain on health infrastructure. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), 22 types of diseases can be prevented in India if waste is managed well.

What’s worse, 50 percent of the biodegradable waste could be turned into compost which could support farming. Untapped waste could generate enough power to meet the demands of a small union territory like Pondicherry. Segregation could keep plastics, paper and glass apart. Plastic waste is a crucial fuel for energy plants.

Rules exist but are hardly enforced. For example, a rule states that “landfills should not be near habitations.” What’s near is undefined. So the Deonar site is less than a kilometer away from the nearest residential colony. The rules want scrap-dealers and rag-pickers to be stake-holders in the clean-up operation. But rag-pickers hardly have designated spaces to sort out the rubbish. There is no protective gear against hazardous dumps.

There are some admirable actions on the sidelines though. In Bangalore, there is a non-profit organization called Daily Dump which moves from door-to-door and advocate the waste segregation. They organize a “Trash Trail” which is a nine-hour “expedition” on foot and by van through the city’s waste fields.

Blaming authorities is convenient. The infrastructure has aged. Citizens have their hands soiled with blame too. Most still like to dump their waste away from home, rather than in front of it for easy pick-up.

The Modi government has set its sight on “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). It aims to collect, process, dispose, recycle and generally manage the garbage in over 4000 Indian towns among other things. This ambitious scheme is of around $10 billion.

Just for facts, China and United States create a higher amount of waste than India. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries create half of world’s garbage. An average person creates waste of around three times his own weight each year.