Thursday, 28 May 2015

Is caste merely a rural phenomenon ?

A good many people live under the illusion that urban, metropolitan life somehow attenuates the influence of caste in India. 'We' are - somehow - more enlightened. It allows the so-called educated classes of this country - from conservatives to liberals to radicals - to persist in their support for policies under the exploitative framework of globalised 'development', imagining to themselves that they are somehow promoting social justice in the process - as if the big bad West is in fact a standard for fairness and justice! Villages are backward, cities are 'modern', thus free of the debilitating social baggage of caste. People have gone so far as to suggest that to Dalits "land acquisition by the state may not seem unreasonable. The NDA's new economism and hyper-industrialisation may well generate a new wave of liberal values that positively unsettle our village economy and culture"! This is the opinion of an Associate Professor at TISS, Mumbai:

Even as sharp an observer as Dr. Ambedkar held on to the hope lifelong that Dalits could escape the trap of caste if they could abandon oppressive villages for cities, whose industrial dynamism and anonymity would somehow liberate them from customary subordination as they magically grew into citizens of a benign liberal state. People have even harboured the illusion that just the coming of the railways weakened the influence of caste and untouchability! (Only Gandhi was astute enough to see that railways did more harm than good - but then 'the father of the nation' has long been seen as a crank.)

What few have been willing to face is the creative subtlety with which caste operates in the Indian social landscape. It is far subtler, and better masked, for instance, than the pervasive operation of race in a culture like America's. But thoughtless votaries of rapid urbanisation, modernisation and development (and among them we may count a large number of people well within one's moral realm) easily overlook the opaque dimensions of caste in Indian metropolitan life, perhaps because (ironically) we are inadvertent beneficiaries of caste injustices. 

Here is an article which actually reminds readers of the fact that caste cannot be eliminated by mere urbanisation. It has to be faced existentially in whichever context it is encountered, rural or urban:

Further, few have bothered to understand why caste has persisted in India, despite so many initiatives from the state to dismantle it over the past seven decades or more. Could it be because of the way the spoils system was introduced into the country after the British took full control post-1857? While caste identities are obviously much older, they were institutionalised and written into the warp and weft of the system, not just via things like census enumerations, but also, based on such suitably divisive classifications, in the way jobs were allocated, giving rise later to the 'modern' phenomenon of reservations? Isn't the most lasting legacy of Empire in India  babugiri and the sarkari naukri the sinecure that confers the privilege? It wasn't always like this, was it? I wonder whether some historians and sociologists have looked at things from this angle. I have seen the work of Susan Bayly and Nicholas Dirks, and what they say about caste dynamism is certainly consistent with what one suspects.  

The question also has to be raised as to why the British made such a song and a dance about caste in the 19th century. Did the injustices that stemmed from the deep hierarchies of the caste system upset them? Not really. There were injustices enough in the British class system which, in the Victorian era, had no compunctions about sending children and women to work 12 or 14 hours a day looking for coal under the earth in Yorkshire. So what bothered the British about caste in India? Could it have something to do with the fact that jaati (poorly translated into the word 'caste', whose Portugese origins few are aware of) and biradiri have traditionally been strong loci of social identity in India, constituting in most cases the very basis of communities, more or less cohesive when you contrast them with the atomised condition of consumer modernity?  

The point worth considering is whether or not cohesive communities would have stood in the way of the expansion of the power of two great forces of imperial modernity: the market and the state. To consider the possible merit in this line of thinking, pause to reflect for a minute on the counterfactual of cohesive, casteless communities with a large measure of social justice. We are thinking here of face-to-face, largely self-governing (on this, see the book by John Mathai, Village Government in India, Unwin, London, 1915) communities which are meeting a very large part of their material and social needs without significant recourse to markets that connect them to the outside world. Even today, one can find some instances of places in the vast Sub-Continent where this is true, in howsoever diminished a form (some places in the inner Himalayas I have just visited - and which would exemplify James Scott's thesis about the absence of the modern state from so many peasant societies - would qualify). (Readers of the American farmer-writer Wendell Berry would recognise the content of the counterfactual I am proposing for the sake of argument.)   

Now, wouldn't such a state of affairs stand in the way of the expansion of market and state power, as per the requirements of imperial modernity? And if so, wouldn't a well-oiled imperial imagination work by dividing-and-ruling when possible, and work to weaken the communities by repeatedly pointing out caste divisions and injustices that they embody? 

Isn't it possible, even likely perhaps, that this is how things might have stood and appeared to imperial administrators 100-150 years ago? A hypothesis worth engaging with (for few elements of imperial rhetoric about India have been more persistent and pervasive during the last two centuries than the question of caste). This has enormous implications not merely for our understanding of caste, but as much for the way the imperial mind still continues to work, only with renewed vigour (something about which Indians are, as a rule, naive - notice for instance the complete absence of even a single good book written by an Indian scholar or historian about the Americans as a people, and contrast the fact with the ceaseless flow of books they keep writing about us!) They keep pointing to our defects in order to rule our minds better - while keeping attention suitably deflected from the great shortcomings of their own societies.

None of this is to deny the gross injustices of caste which still survive and which must be fought in every creative way imaginable. It is only to make a very reluctant Indian educated elite realise the importance of not throwing out the baby (the community) with the bathwater (of caste).

Looking at things ecologically, as one must at this late hour, one should be doubly concerned about the confidence with which the global developmental policies at work are destroying what is left of communities (and with them, agriculture and every traditional livelihood) in the Sub-Continent, one of the few parts of the world where communities, howsoever unjust, still survive. There is simply no way to protect the natural world unless communities can be made cohesive again and made in charge of resources by which they have traditionally lived (this is what I argued in my Phd thesis on Kumaon 20 years ago). The other two modes of protecting the environment - a remote bureaucracy led by a state, howsoever strong, and the corporate-run global market, howsoever 'enlightened' - are doomed to fail for reasons that would fill up at least a page in a newspaper.

Communities also need to be protected because they are the chief crucible for the practice of crafts and skills which alone - suitably upgraded and supported - can generate the enormous number of livelihoods needed in the country.

It is time to draw the rights lessons from the past. Else there is no future, except accelerated destruction...

Friday, 15 May 2015

Kumaon Katha

I have a long and close association with Kumaon. I first visited this part of the Himalayas when I was a schoolboy at St.Michael’s, Patna. We came to Corbett National Park on a scout camp in 1975. The romance of Jim Corbett’s life was fresh in my mind, having just read The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. This was boyhood, and life before the wild-life laws came into effect was uncomplicated. So I would often accompany my Uncle on his shikaar trips to the jungles of Rohtas on the Western edge of the Chhotanagpur plateau in Bihar, occasionally toying around with his rifles or pistols to shoot down a quail or a partridge (one reason these birds have virtually vanished from that part of India). I can still recall the occasions when one would hear the roar of the tiger from the machaan in the dead of night, waiting expectantly for him/her to approach the kill. 

Standing out in the memory of that 1975 trip to Corbett are the swim in the choppy Ramganga (there were crocodiles we were told!) and the time we found the tiger’s pug-marks very close to our tents. I visited Corbett again with my parents and my brother in 1979. On that occasion we were chased by a herd of elephants (could they run!) who did not much like the sound of the jeeps so close to some of the younger members of the herd. I also remember that trip for the occasions when we went rowing in the lake in Nainital and the magnificent view of the snows of Trishul, Nandaghunti (and was it Neelkanth?) from Ranikhet.

Later in 1979 I took a challenging hike with some classmates from school up to Rupkund Lake at 15,000 feet, right below the Nandaghunti-Trishul peaks. I repeated the trek with other friends a few years later, when I was in college, and almost lost my life when I was thrown off a windy ridge on the last leg of the climb, amidst a blinding blizzard. I was bringing up the rear, and lost control in the gust at some point, very close to dusk. I must have fallen at least a few hundred feet, the rucksack still miraculously hitched to me. It was the soft, fresh snow that saved my life. I was so grateful to Providence when I realised that I survived with all my bones intact. It took me two hours to make my way up the slope again. It had become pitch dark by then. I made contact with my friends after a while, and there was much relief. That was 1981.

In 1994-95, I spent many months in Kumaon, researching the forests of the region for my doctoral thesis. I studied the institutional changes in forest management since 1815, when the British seized control of the region, bringing the story right up to contemporary times. There was much to learn, not merely from the archives in London, Delhi, Lucknow, Dehra Dun and Nainital, but also from conversations with conservation stalwarts like Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Ramesh Pahadi, Ravi Chopra and Shekhar Pathak.

It was in February 2007 that I finally had a chance to visit my friends Theo and Malika, who have made Munsiyari their home since 1992. I loved the place. Its beauty and simplicity was most appealing. So, when I got an opportunity to come here again this year, I seized it with both hands.

Munsiyari ki Maati 

I am far from Delhi, in the village of Sarmoli near Munsiyari, not more than 10 miles as the crow flies from the awe-inspiring high snows of the Panch-Chuli range in the Kumaon Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Neither Tibet, nor earthquake-ravaged Nepal are too far from here. 

I write before the grandeur of the five Panch-Chuli peaks (some almost 7000 metres in height), arrayed high against the bright blue sky. The Gori Ganga flows east towards the plains in the valley thousands of feet below. The town of Munsiyari is on the north-facing slope of the range which adjoins the one on which Malika and Theo have their home. I have been staying with them for a week. Here is a stunning image of the Panch-Chuli range at sunset (taken by Ram, who lives and works with Malika and cheap photoshopping here!):

My co-author Ashish Kothari and I came here for the bird festival, Kalasutra, which just got over. Ashish has left, I have stayed on a few more days so as to meet Theo, who returned from a trek to Garhwal last evening, and to attend the big Mela that is scheduled for the 17th, all this a tribute to the organisational energy of Malika ('General Saab' as I like to call her, as opposed to Theo, who is just 'Saab') and her team of extraordinary workers at Himal Prakriti ( and Maati ( They have been doing some outstanding work involving conservation, watershed restoration, livelihood generation (often through tourism), craft-revival and community-building over two decades. Malika was also elected as Sarpanch of the Van Panchayat of Sarmoli in 2003, though she has not held the post in the last few years. 

The women of Maati have also been running a wonderfully popular homestay arrangement for many years. You can find details here: 

There are many other friends visiting here from various parts of the country, from as far away as Bengal, Bangalore and Kerala. Each is here to learn from and contribute to the creative community experiment that Sarmoli is becoming. 

At the heart of the action is little Sarayu, 4 years old, daughter of Sandy and Shruti, who are visiting from The Centre of Learning in Bangalore. She speaks with the authority of a grandmother, careful to lean on each syllable as she goes about constructing complicated sentences, ever keen to try the varieties of local food - from Sampa Sattu to Ragi bread to Kadhi-Tehri - that one or another person keeps churning out of the busy kitchen here. We take turns to cook, though Malika, Ram (Malika's right-hand man for the past two decades) and Shruti end up doing the bulk of the work. Sandy is helping local workers build the stone-embankment next to the homestead. The elderly Nainda (from a village nearby called Jainti) sits on the terrace doing a form of basket-weaving unique to this area, another craft which few young people are keen to learn in these parts. The Maati women are also here to do their weaving and embroidery work. 

Theo and Malika’s son, Zanskar lives here too. He is a skilled outdoor guide, after spending two years getting trained in New Zealand. Zanskar is a science fiction aficionado and may well turn out a novel sooner than later! The two dogs, Laddoo and Apalam - both beautiful, tough Tibetan Mastiffs, and the cat, the pregnant Tokey, complete the cast, not to forget the four cows, lots of hen and two geese as well.

Kala Sutra

Over the past week we have done several hours of bird-watching every day, the veteran bird-watchers Ashish and Ram taking us and many young people through the ropes of the subtle art. They are so much more swift than us that it takes great silence and patience to observe birds. Treading lightly, keeping all five senses fully alert, is the key. After the dawn chorus, for which I have been awake every morning, there is a brief lull before the day's activities commence. We are taught to listen so carefully to each bird-call that they all get etched in the ear's audio library. There are insistent cries, like that of the Nightjar, or of the Tits and the Sunbirds. There are plaintive calls, like that of some of the Cuckoos. There are melodious calls, like those of the Robins and the Sibias. The Rufous Sibia's is virtually the signature tune of the Munsiyari range. They are everywhere and they sound even more melodious than this:

This is an image of the Greentailed Sunbird, one of hundreds of marvellous pictures that Ashish took over the last several days:

There is such a vast variety of colourful birds that it staggers the visual imagination. There are Babblers, Warblers, Fly-catchers, Thrushes, Woodpeckers, Hoopoes, Orioles (including a magnificent maroon one), Jays, Finches, Magpies (the Yellow-Billed Blue Magpie particularly spectacular with its long, forked tail), Partridges, Pheasants, Drongos, Swallows, Swifts, and quite a range of Raptors - the Himalayan Griffon Vulture and the Serpent and Black-Forest Eagle being most imposing in flight. Here is a flying image of the Besra, a predatory sparrow hawk recently observed in the area:

Till this visit, I did not know that small birds can often attack bigger ones, especially if their nests or young ones are troubled by the predators. The Drongo is particularly aggressive when it comes to such things. Here is an image of the Eurasian Jay attacking a raptor no less than the Crested Serpent Eagle:

India has among the largest number of bird species in the world, up to 1300 according to surveys in recent years, at least 300 more than the United States (numbers change according to season, year and duration of surveys). Thanks to its enormous ecological diversity, India has easily the widest variety of birds in the world too. There are desert-birds, Himalayan birds, birds that breed in wetlands, birds that thrive in rainforests, on grasslands, cultivated fields, and human settlements. However, what is striking is that a quarter of all birds found in India live in a mere 0.7% of its geographical area, making such regions as the Himalayas especially critical from the perspective of conservation. Of the 1300 bird species to be found in India, some 690 are to be found in the state of Uttarakhand alone (some of these are also found elsewhere). Of these, as many as 326 are found in Munsiyari! 

So Munsiyari is an area of intense interest for anyone interested in birds and their enormous significance for the health of ecosystems. A researcher from Princeton was here recently, exploring the possibility that the changing nesting habitats of birds (moving to higher altitudes, for instance) may be prompted by climate change. It may be relevant to remember here that one important reason many jungle cats may have turned into Jim Corbett's famous "man-eaters of Kumaon" a hundred years ago has to do with the fact that they moved up mountain slopes in search of food (after game had begun to vanish in the terai areas, following intense deforestation for commercial purposes) and found mostly humans for food at higher altitudes!

During the bird-festival, scores of school-children were here and they were taken around by local guides, trained by Ram and Theo, on bird-walks. In addition, there were many other events and games organised for them, Zanskar handling the obstacle games and a variety of jungle rope-tricks.

Here is a report in Hindustan Times on the bird festival:

Nadi Sutra

In 1997, Malika did a remarkable 210-day Himalayan traverse, walking with a team of nine women led by Bachendri Pal from Bomdila in Arunchal Pradesh to the Karakoram Pass in Kashmir.

Almost two decades later, Malika’s husband and son took up the challenge of rowing down the Northern flank of the Ganga watershed as it emerges from the Himalayas in Eastern Uttarakhand. Theo and Zanskar rowed almost 2000 kilometres, for 75 days, from November 2014 to February 2015, along the Mahakali-Karnali-Ghaghra-Sarju-Ganga continuum, terminating their exploratory expedition in the delta of the Ganga in the Sundarbans. Malika joined them in the last leg of their voyage.

Do have a look at some images from their blog:





Much sanctimonious lip-service is paid by Indian governments, especially the one in office right now, to the rapidly deteriorating condition of the Ganga. Theo and Zanskar’s blog of their voyage is worth reading for anyone genuinely concerned about the state of not only the Ganga under the assault of so-called ‘development’, but indeed any major river, whose waters are being targeted for re-engineering into a destructively ambitious, man-made system of nationally interlinked waterways. It is time for metropolitan India to wake up to the enormous perils that lie in wait if ecological rashness continues to prevail among its policy elites:

Mesar Kautik (Mela)

Two beautiful village girls once went bathing in a mountain lake hidden by forests. One of them fell in love with a man who she met there and who took her up the mountain. The pandit at the temple spilled the beans to the villagers, who came up the slope looking for the missing girl. When they confronted the man who had taken the girl, wanting her back, the man told them that they could have her body back, though her spirit would remain with him. The villagers consented and had to face the dead body of the girl, who had been killed by the man. He appeared to them in the form of a wrathful god who cursed the village community that no more than one child would be born to each family. From that day onwards the villagers began offering a sacrificial goat at the mountain lake in order to appease the god. They began to commemorate the occasion    with a mela.

The lake is Mesar Kund, a few kilometres up the slope from where Malika, Theo, Zanskar and Ram live. They have helped the village community in restoring it. The village is Sarmoli and the community call themselves the Barpatiya. The mela to mark the occasion is called Mesar Kautik.

It happens tomorrow.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Remembering Eqbal Chacha

It is exactly 16 years today (May 11, 2015) since we lost Eqbal Ahmad, described by the great critic Edward Said as "the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world". Noam Chomsky described him as "a treasured friend, trusted comrade, counsellor and teacher", a "secular Sufi" whose life was "rich with learning, understanding, and from dogmatism."

Eqbal Ahmad knew closely many of the world leaders of his time - from Fidel Castro to Yasser Arafat. Indian Prime Ministers, from Indira Gandhi and V.P. Singh, and especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were personal friends. Such people very often sought his counsel on matters of international import.

It has been a true privilege for me to know Eqbal personally. I knew him  during the last decade of his life, mostly in Amherst in the US, where I was then a student. For me he was an eternally reliable touchstone of truth, unerring in his instinct for it. In my whole life I do not think I have met a better listener, who was, at once, a stirring orator.  On this day, May 11, exactly 17 years after India tested its nuclear weapon, I recall Eqbal's memorable expression for the twin states of India and Pakistan, more true today than ever. He thought of these violent twins as "pathologies of power", steeped in antagonistic, self-destructive mediocrity. To me, what was most remarkable about Eqbal was not just his accurate and fearless critique of Western imperialism and the unjust, often barbaric, regimes it supports. Much more significant was the simple, accessible humanity with which he approached any other person, be he the Prime Minister of a country, or a worker at a construction site.

Always fresh in my memory would be the hundred stories I heard from his own mouth, including the chilling ones about the Partition of the Sub-Continent which he experienced with the sensitive senses of a teenager. No less alive are the kalaams of Faiz and Ghalib which would emerge after a few glasses of wine late in the evening. He was a man of love and courage to be found rarely in any age of history, but even less so in this barren time of ours. 

Eqbal will always be relevant to human society and is eternally alive in my heart, engaging me in challenging conversation. I paste below what I spoke at a memorial held for Eqbal at Hampshire College, Amherst in October 1999. (You will have to enlarge to be able to read it, since it is a jpeg file from 1999!)

Here is one of Eqbal's last lectures on terrorism, prescient as always. He had predicted an event like 9/11 long before it happened:

Eqbal did not write a single book when he was alive. However, these books, collections of his articles and interviews, have so far been published posthumously:

And here are two good archives on the net where you can find a fine repository of Eqbal's letters, articles, essays and reviews over almost five decades. His articles on India, Pakistan and Kashmir are especially insightful:

Very recently, a biography of Eqbal has emerged, published by Columbia University Press as well as by Oxford. I have not read it yet, so cannot vouch for it in the way that I can for Eqbal's own writings. All that's obvious from the cover is that he was a handsome youth!:

The Ministry for Hounding Activists

A timely, courageous piece by my co-author, Ashish Kothari, on a topic of enormous contemporary concern...

"Can the BJP (or any other party for that matter) show all its accounts to the public, and assure us that there has not been a single such lapse on its part? Why has the Ministry of Home Affairs not moved against political parties (both the BJP and Congress) that have taken funds from foreign organisations (specifically from the notorious Vedanta through its Indian subsidiaries), an allegation that was accepted as valid by the Delhi High Court in 2014?

"On 28 March 2014, the court asked the Government of India to take action against both parties within six months. No action has been taken, of course. A BJP spokesperson’s subsequent response in a television programme was that the party has returned the money to the contributor, as if that exempts it from being prosecuted for violation!

"Recently EAS Sarma, former Secretary to the Government of India and a petitioner in the above case, wrote to the Cabinet Secretary with these telling words: “I find that the MHA has shown unusual speed and alacrity in proceeding against NGOs under the FCRA but it has not apparently displayed the same enthusiasm and passion in proceeding against the political parties that have accepted illegal donations from foreign companies, violating the same FCRA.”

Further, this government has been claiming that it is land acquisition problems which is holding back the economy. The ironical truth is that it is the economy itself that is holding back the economy, as the RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak has discovered:

"A big question that is begging a credible answer today is- why is the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government hell bent on road rolling amendments on to the land acquisition law without even implementing it despite vociferous opposition from several quarters.

"Several spokespersons for the government and the political parties which support it have repeatedly said that the amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR Act) enacted by Parliament in 2013, first promulgated as an Ordinance and then repromulgated because they could not get the approval of Parliament last month, are necessary to arrest the slowing down of the economy and breathing life into the stalled development projects. The mainstay of this argument has been that the process of acquiring privately owned land for developmental projects laid down in the LARR Act is too cumbersome and requires simplification. 

"The state of the economy reported in Parliament by the Government in the form of the Economic Survey 2014-15 (ES14-15), a day before tabling the budget in February 2015 pointed out that the stalling of a large number of projects in the public and the private sector was the primary reason for the slowdown that the Indian economy was experiencing. However detailed data on such projects was not annexed to that report. Official spokespersons repeatedly argued that the amendments to the land acquisition law were necessary to pull up the economy out of the nadir it had reached. After reading ES 14-15, I sought granular data from the Ministry of Finance (Fin Min) under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) out of sheer curiosity. Fin Min, moved with exceptional speed and provided a list of projects within less than a month of receiving the RI application and surprisingly without demanding any additional fee (the RTI application and reply are in the 1st attachment).

"Major findings from an analysis of the data about stalled projects obtained through RTI
1) The list supplied by Fin Min contains a total of 804 projects that have stalled as of February 2015 for a variety of reasons across 24 States and two Union Territories. Maharashtra with 125 stalled projects topped the list followed by Gujarat (63 projects), West Bengal (55 projects), Karnataka (52 projects) and Telangana (52) making the rest of the top 5.

2) The private sector projects (78%) outnumber the public sector projects planned by the Central or State Governments, or public sector enterprises or local municipal boards and autonomous authorities (22%). 

3) Only 8% (66 nos.) of the 804 projects are said to have stalled due to land acquisition problems. If the data provided under the RTI Act is an accurate reflection of the state of affairs, the argument that the slowdown in the economy is due to land acquisition projects becomes a busted myth- not on the basis if any biased analysis- but s simple count of the reasons provided in the last column of the attached list.

4) Of the 66 projects stalled due to land acquisition issues, only 11 (1.36% of 804 projects) directly relate to the well being of the disadvantaged or less affluent segments of society such as slum rehabilitation projects or construction of budget housing projects or a bus stand (which few affluent people use). So the proposal to amend the LARR Act to waive the requirement for taking consent of the village assembly in the areas where land is to be acquired for providing affordable housing for the poor will affect a miniscule number of projects. Therefore the justification tomtomed for the amendment becomes untenable.

5) Ironically on the other hand, at least 145 of the stalled projects (18%) are for the affluent and the rich as they are projects involving the construction of shopping malls or elite hotels and resorts (4 and 5 star), multiplexes, elite residences and villas, golf courses and a racing track. Another 25 stalled projects are about setting up townships- nothing in the list provided by Fin Min indicates which segment of society they are intended to benefit. 10 of the 66 projects stalled due to land acquisition problems are in this elite category. However, it must also be said that the list of 804 projects also includes power generation, airport construction or expansion, road and railway expansion, pharmaceutical, textile, software and SEZ projects amongst others. Mining projects for coal and uranium amongst other metals are also part of the stalled projects list.

6) Of the total of 804 projects the list mentions "Others" as the reason for the stalling of 19% of the projects (153 nos.) Reasons for stalling are simply not available for 15% of the projects (121 nos.) Taken together the projects for which reasons for stalling are either unspecified or simply not available amount to more than a third of the total number of projects (34%).

7) The largest proportion of projects that have stalled (38.8%) are due to unfavourable market conditions or lack of funds or promoter interest or raw material or fuel supply problems. Several of these projects are owned or promoted by some of the biggest industrial houses in India and a handful of foreign ownership. If readers are interested they may compare this list of Indian business houses with the list of corporates that made large sized donations to the leading national and State level political parties on the Political Party Watch segment of the website of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR):

8) Lack of environmental clearances account for a mere 4.2% of the stalled projects whereas lack of clearance from the State Governments amount to 11.8% of the total. It looks like the regulatory regimes have contributed to only 16% of the staled projects. So the -license-inspector raj also does not appear to be a major contributor to the stalling of the 804 projects, if the dataset is accurate.

"So it is neither land nor the regulatory regime that appears to have contributed to the stalling of the developmental projects. One is reminded of the slogan that characterised the Presidential campaign of Mr. Bill Clinton in the USA during the 1990s- "Its the economy, stupid".

"Some hard questions to which the RTI document does not provide answers
1) For how long have these 804 projects remained in stalled condition? The RTI reply does not throw any light on this issue. Perhaps RTI users in the States might like to seek this information by demanding this information from the State and Central Governments through RTI applications.

2) Are there only 804 projects across the country that have stalled and none other or is this only a sample of a larger universe of stalled projects?

3) Of the 804 stalled projects the total monetary value of just 300 projects (37%) is said to be Rs. 18.13 lakh crores (USD 287.42 billion where 1USD=INR 63.07) when they were reviewed yesterday at a meeting held by the Finance Ministry (See: What is the total value of all 804 projects? The RTI data does not mention monetary value against all projects.

4) The data that the Finance Ministry provided under the RTI Act does not appear to be data that it has generated itself. The ES 14-15 clearly states that the figures are based on inputs provided by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Ltd. (CMIE). CMIE is a private sector business information company. What measures were taken to cross-check the veracity of the database that they provided the Ministry before it was inserted in the Economic Survey? Or is the database itself created on the basis of information gleaned from government records? Most importantly, if more than a third of the projects have stalled for reasons unspecified or unknown how can such incomplete data be used for reporting on the state of the economy to Parliament without making the effort to verify the claims contained in the database?

"Ideally, the Government should have volunteered this information under Section 4 of the RTI Act in order to inform the citizens of India about the nature and magnitude of the problem. Fin Min earmarked the RTI reply - "for RTI purpose" while sending it to me. I am circulating this data and analysis so that readers may form their own conclusions by analysing the data and influence their elected representatives to debate the need for the amendments to LARR Act, in an informed manner. 

"Readers might also like to read a well researched article on this issue at:"

Thursday, 7 May 2015

'Butterflies on the Roof of the World': Remembering Rabindranath on his birth anniversary in the Himalayas

"That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life", Rabindranath writes in "Stray Birds", his lovely little square pocket-book of aphorisms that reveal the genius of his heart. Had Gurudev gone on living, he would have turned 154 today!

As it turns out, I am in Bhimtal, in Kumaon, not far from Ramgarh, where Rabindranath spent many creative weeks of his life, and where I will be staying for a few weeks with my parents later this month. 

I met a man today who  has one of the largest collections of butterflies in the country. His name is Peter Smetacek. His father Fredy Smetacek Sr., a Central European migrant from Silesia, was the original collector, Peter having followed in his father's footsteps. He gave me a breathtaking tour of the butterfly museum adjoining his hillside home (

Peter has taken the frontiers of knowledge of butterflies in this country to new horizons. He has recorded his family memories as well as his observations of butterflies in his recent book which I borrowed from my host family (Peter's neighbour and sister-in-law, Padmini Smetacek's family) bookshelf and saw today, Butterflies on the Roof of the World (Aleph, New Delhi, 2012). 

The book has a wealth of insight not only into the world of butterflies but also what the disappearance of certain insects and moths means for the ecologies of which they are an ineluctable part. In his book, as well as in this TEDx talk (, Peter has some very important insights into the surprising connections between the health of butterflies, the condition and kind of forests, the grazing pressure on the forests, the condition of streams, aquifers and other water systems. The presence or absence of butterflies is also seen by him as a "bio-indicator" of climate change.

I am still to acquire a copy of the book and read the whole of it, something I am very much looking forward to.

Sitting in Padmini's verandah, I did read the last few pages of the book this morning, where Peter makes a persuasive case for what ails the ecologies of the Sub-Continent and endangers water security for its multiple populations: an excess of cattle-grazing, related to other ecological imbalances stemming from growth. 

Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), my eyes fell too on the last line of the book, where Peter ends with an optimistic scenario of how water security will be ensured in the future: "Into this entirely feasible vision, Oh Lord, let my country awake."

Readers of Rabindranath will recognise the trace of his heart in these words. A happening appropriate for May 7!