Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Sree Sree No Go Free Free

Sri Sri No Go Free Free

Earlier this year, close to sixty hectares of the Yamuna floodplains were cleared of a flourishing ecosystem in favour of the World Culture Festival. The event is not only a thumping success, but also gets an endorsement from none other than our honorable Prime Minister. At a time when putting an axe to a tree on your own property could land you in jail for no less than 3 months and cost you up to Rs. 10,000 in fines, a certain Mr Ravi Shankar proceeds to have thousands of them felled (read migratory birds rendered homeless or dead) for his three-day extravaganza. This Mr. Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living, the giggling godman we’re discussing here, just coughed up – very reluctantly – a Rs. 40 million fine for breaking the law after flat-out refusing any ownership until now.

How did we get here? Is there more than meets the eye? How do you get to uproot the environment on such a colossal scale in a country where an inconspicuous felling of a tree next to your house doesn’t go unnoticed? Let’s try to deconstruct this mess.

How Did He Even Get the Clearance?

At the heart of the story is the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the governing body that green-lit the entire shindig. In Ravi Shankar’s defense, the event itself wasn’t illegal since a legitimate approval was already sought and secured beforehand. That means the buck stops at DDA, right? Well, if only. Some environmentalist was obviously not happy about the whole thing and decided to run it past the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the supreme governing body on all environment-related issues in the country – the green knights, if you will. Right off the bat, the NGT had the same question you and I have right now: How did DDA approve this event?

So they decided to have a little chat with folks from DDA and learned that the approval was granted because the event wouldn’t break any laws whatsoever. How come? Because the entire set was meant to be a 1. temporary structure, something existing laws don’t forbid. Besides, the permission was granted on a 2. twenty-odd hectare parcel which wouldn’t be a big enough impact on the overall ecological balance of the floodplains. And (last but not the least) 3. projected footfall. You see, people are bad for the environment. They mess with it, they destroy it, which is why the fewer, the better. That makes it imperative that an approving body entrusted with the environment take into account the number of people being expected to stampede the place in question. While seeking DDA’s nod, Mr. Ravi Shankar’s representative had assured a footfall of between three to four hundred thousand a day.

Fair enough, these look like reasonable parameters right? WRONG! When NGT had a team recon the venue, the site seemed a tad bigger than what it should be. Almost three times bigger! Now that’s not right, is it? Another anomaly NGT discovered was in the projected footfall. The submitted number seems a bit odd given all AoL advertisements have consistently boasted expecting at least ten times that in attendance. Now, I understand you cannot be too precise with data like that, especially when projecting, but a ten-fold difference between what you’re expecting and what you’re telling the authorities does sound a wee bit shady to us.

Another issue was around the verady to usy “temporary” nature of the event basis which the approval was secured from the DDA. The planned stage, touted to be the biggest of its kind in the world, would stand no less than a hundred feet high! NGT observed it would be impossible to erect a contraption of that size and scale without digging significantly deep and affecting the ground integrity of the area. So even if the structures would be “temporary” their impact on their surroundings wouldn’t.

The NGT had sufficient ground to move against Mr. Ravi Shankar’s little ‘soirĂ©e by the sacred stream’

Fait Accompli

Given the little game of Chinese whispers we just saw played between DDA and Ravi Shankar, it’s easy to see how the plot was missed. Again, as NGT discovered, that doesn’t sound like much of an excuse given DDA did once cancel the NOC they had issued to AoL. Why? Because they learned about the discrepancy on the footfall numbers well in time. That should sound like a good move finally. But alas, for no reason we can make any sense of, the NOC was granted again by the same DDA soon after. And if you’re wondering why, you’re not alone. NGT was too which is why they posed the question to DDA.

While the blame game played out between DDA, NGT, and AoL, something was already going down on the banks of the Yamuna and nobody noticed. The stage was being cleared for AoL’s anniversary bash (which is exactly what this event was all about) – down came the trees and up went the scaffoldings. Birds? Sorry folks, you may just do us all a favor and die. Thank you very much. Are you wondering why NGT didn’t step in to stop this destructive joyride of Ravi Shankar? The answer, in their own words, is fait accompli.

Fait accompli is a French expression that literally translates to ‘something that has already been done and cannot be reversed.’ Quite a handy little phrase, isn’t it? NGT observed that the preparations were already at too advanced a stage for any pause to have a positive impact on the environment. The damage had already been done. Irreversible damage. The best one could do now was clean up their act after the event and try, as far as possible, to restore the place to its previous state. That’s exactly what, in its infinite wisdom and prudence, NGT ordered Ravi Shankar to do. “Clean up after yourselves, do not make more of a mess, and leave the place as unharmed as possible. Oh, and also, pay a fine once you’re done. You didn’t think you were going to get off the hook with a mere reprimand, did you?” The fine amount was pegged at Rs. 50 million which was to be adjusted after a post-event final assessment of the actual damages to the region.

So the spectacle of Ravi Shankar’s vanity was back on track for everyone to bask in. And boy, was it a spectacle! Not sure if the sub-continent has ever seen a cultural gathering of that size ever before. People flocked from every corner of the world. In came the celebrities and the spotlights. From Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal, the event saw political creatures of all shapes and sizes. Around 1,700 guys were enlisted for traffic management alone. That should give you an idea of the scale of this event. This was serious stuff.

At this point, given the fact that AoL did succeed in securing an NOC from DDA, it would be quite unfair if the latter were spared any consequences for their oversight. The NGT felt the same way which is why a fine of Rs. 500,000 was also imposed on DDA for not carrying out its statutory functions, i.e. carrying out pre or post approval site-inspections. How’s that for justice? Another Rs. 100,000 was also slapped on the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) for not having held the event organizers accountable for the proper management of solid and liquid waste before granting their nod.

The Ministries of Water Resources and of Environment and Forests were also pulled up at the court but let off with a slap on the wrist. The High Court agreed with NGT in that the event, despite being temporary in principle, would have a permanently damaging effect on the floodplains given its sheer scale and must have been treated as such. The court labeled Ravi Shankar’s theatrics an “ecological disaster.”

I’d Rather Go to Jail Than Pay the Fine

This is what Ravi Shankar had to say when the time for reckoning finally dawned upon him. The event took place as planned only because it was too late to reverse the damage now. But while greenlighting the whole thing, the NGT had imposed a fine on the organizers as punishment. This fine was initially pegged at an interim amount of Rs. 50 million. Later, however, it was corrected to a little over Rs. 40 million after post-event assessments were carried out.

This is the point where Ravi Shankar decides to turn the revolutionary and flat-out refuse to pay up. In his opinion, if anything, the event had left the Yamuna floodplains better off than before ecologically, experts on the subject be damned. Here’s a list of arguments his laughing lackeys have presented in his defense over time. This is where logic and integrity are sacrificed on the alter of maniacal fanaticism.

Argument #1: “The NGT should not have gotten involved since this was a temporary event and the Art of Living had secured all required permissions before moving ahead with the plans.”

That’s akin to saying your dad shouldn’t have punished you something for since your mum already gave you a free pass. And besides, as already stated above, the NGT already clarified to the court why this event could not be considered temporary de facto. How does being temporary matter if the rammifications of your actions are irreversibly permanent? As for the permissions having been secured beforehand, those permissions should stand null and void the moment it was proven that they had misrepresented their footfall numbers in the application process. Furthermore, the permissions were granted for only 20-odd hectares, not three times that area that you decided to encroach as if it always belonged to you.

Argument #2: “The NGT never imposed a fine; the 50 million being talked about is the amount that Ravi Shankar offered to pay the government as compensation to develop the neglected and polluted wasteland.”

Fines imposed by a court can hardly have any semantic ambiguity, definitely not on this scale. When a court imposes a fine on you, it’s a fine. Not charity, not a donation. It’s a straight-up penalty. And so far as “developing the wasteland” goes, a thriving ecosystem hardly counts as a wasteland, and uprooting it is not development. Even if it were (WHICH IT ISN’T), were you asked to? And besides, since your structure was temporary, wouldn’t said development also be temporary? As in, will be reversed when your little rave is over?

Argument #3: “The Yamuna floodplain has not been damaged as per experts, and awaiting elaborate testing, it actually seems to be in a much better condition than before The Art of Living took it upon itself to clean the area.”

What experts? The ones you hired to parrot out your rhetoric in your defense? Or the ones that were enlisted by the NGT under court supervision to do what they are supposed to do? You only cleaned up after yourselves because you were “asked to.” That was no charity. And speaking of cleaning up, not everything can be reversed – not the trees that were uprooted and the birds that were killed or rendered homeless. You can’t pollute a river and then “clean it up.” These damages are lasting. They are permanent.

Argument #4: “Many permanent structures have been allowed to be built on the Yamuna floodplain over the years, and neither activists nor NGT has protested or halted these constructions, making it all the more obvious that this whole issue was an attempt by certain groups to defame The Art of Living.”

This is a classic case of shifting the goalpost. How does someone else committing a crime legitimize yours? And besides, who cares about Art of Living enough to defame them? These guys, up till now (to those who vaguely knew of them) were a bunch of harmless eccentrics laughing their way through life. Most of the world lived (and continues to do so) in happy ignorance of their existence. To claim that there are motives to derail the laughter is ridiculous on so many levels.

Argument #5: “The fact that media even resorted to used cropped or outdated images in their reporting to intentionally paint a distorted picture of the event and The Art of Living also leaves one to wonder about the intentions and forces behind this style of reporting.”

Cropped or outdated images? Why is it that an image showing your destruction can be called doctored and ones showing a “clean” Yamuna can’t?

Moral of the Story

Finally reason prevailed and on June 6 this year, the godman succumbed to our country’s legal system, paying up the Rs. 47.5 million fine. Although his followers continue to trash the judgment, that hardly matters now. At the end of the day, justice prevailed and that’s a victory for not only us citizens but also for mother nature. Nobody, no matter how influential, should ever get to escape the consequences of their actions. Especially not when it comes to playing with a fragile biodiversity.

The moral of the story here is that while Ravi Shankar was mandated to clean up the festival site, the government has a much more crucial cleaning up of its own to do. This fiasco has brought to light a gaping hole in our system. The breakdown in communication between different governing bodies and public authorities is unacceptable. It is dangerous. The laxity with which approvals are granted without any thorough assessment or review is unacceptable. If we are to fight crime better, we have to be far more prudent than this. Had the DDA and DPCC been wise enough, this entire mess would have been avoided and Yamuna would have thanked us for having saved it from an irresponsible and reckless show of power.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

BharaTRASHtra – An Introduction

The Ugly Face of Communal Politics

“Ek bhay hoga unke andar. Hamara terror hoga unke upar, unke gundon par"
“Ek bhay hoga unke andar. Hamara terror hoga unke upar, unke gundon par"
In yet another shocking instance, a member of the Bharatiya Janta Party, has made a public statement, which not only explicitly targets an entire community, but is also violent in its nature. There can be no misunderstanding his words. We would like to take a minute to discuss the implications of this brazen act by Rampal Singh Pundhir who, as reports suggest, seems to have his eye on an assembly seat from Deoband.

To begin with, the Indian Penal Code is very clear on the issue of provocation of violence or communal disharmony by spoken or written word or other means. It is unacceptable that a member of the ruling party make public statements that flagrantly disregard the written law of the land, more so, since he is apparently contesting upcoming elections for public office. There should be ramifications. According to the law, this individual can be imprisoned or fined for this hate speech. But also, if the ‪BJP‬ wants to begin to regain its credibility as a national party that is not communal, they must, distance themselves from sinister elements like Pundhir and dismiss him from the party.

Secondly, the question begs to be asked, where is the public conscience? Are Indians communal by nature? The answer is no. India has always embraced diversity. Indians know how to live in harmony with each other. So, why are we allowing fringe elements like Pundhir to hijack our national debate. Indians must not sit in silence. We must collectively speak up. With all due respect to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we must point out that his silence can be construed as acquiescence. It was not too long ago that India collectively said "No" to the congress party and a good leader like Dr. Man Mohan Singh because of his silence on wrong doing within the Congress Party.

What is absolutely deplorable is the fact that Rampal Singh Pundhir, is trying to incite violence and disharmony in a place like Deoband. Deoband has reputation for peace. Which is noteworthy given its proximity to Muzaffarnagar. Why then, is Mr Pundhir trying to stir up trouble in a peaceful area? His aim is not to quell violence but to spark it. This cannot and must not be ignored. He is an enemy to Indian values, the Constitution and the very idea of India itself.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Do Degrees Matter?

No. They don't. They have simply become the accepted currency of formal education. They tell us where an individual went to school, what he studied, and for how long. It's shorthand for ascertaining what the individual (supposedly) knows and his calibre.

You go to school, then you go to university, it is convention. But does it define education? No, it does not. While conventional education certainly has its place, it is not the only means through which one can become learned or experienced.

So why do we care if Prime Minister Modi is a conventionally educated man or not?

The short version is we should not, we should judge the individual based on his track record, his capabilities and his output. Not only that, but he is not legally required to be a graduate to hold office so it's moot anyway.

However this is just one side of this conversation. The real issue here is not whether his educational background qualifies him or not. The real issue is whether the Prime Minister of India has lied under oath. He has stated on a sworn affidavit that he holds. Master of Arts.

Let us put our loyalties aside for a minute and understand the gravity of the situation. When you declare something on an affidavit, you are pledging under oath to the courts of this country that the facts you declare are true to the best of your knowledge. It is sacred. It must be respected and the sanctity of oath must be upheld.

If it is a question of lying under oath then we must understand that this Prime Minister has made a mockery of our legal system. He must be held accountable. He absolutely must. For this system to work, even the greatest among us must bow to the law. We must hold every citizen to the same standard and we MUST put an end to giving people a free pass, no matter how small the transgression. The degree or lack thereof is trivial, what is grave and unforgivable is if our Prime Minister knowingly swore to a falsehood and thereafter has committed acts of forgery in an attempt to cover the falsehood.

The trouble this writer is having is in placing any trust in the degrees that have been produced now and let me make my case. I would like nothing more than for my faith to be restored in the Indian politician. I would truly like to believe that we as a country are still capable of producing great leaders, leaders with integrity and an unwavering moral compass, capable of steering this nation in the right direction. However, with every passing day my hopes are diminishing when I review the facts before me.

To begin with, Mr Modi has repeatedly changed his own story when interviewed at different times in his career. At times he was a simple high school pass, at times he holds an MA. If you ever ask me my educational background, my story would not change, it would be consistent. As I am sure would be the case for you. An absolute truth does not change, not ever. The sun rises in the east, the earth is a sphere (well almost), I was born in 1985, my dining table is wood. These are absolute truths of varying degrees of import, my story with regards to them cannot change. It is only when you begin to tell shades of truth or lies that the version is subject to change depending on convenience. Mr. Modi has not been consistent with his story, not with his education and not with his marital status, and that, my dear reader, should give us pause.

Now let us come to the documents that have been provided. Each document itself is rife with discrepancies. From not being available to suddenly being available, to having a questionable roll number and listing subjects that did not exist in that faculty.

These are questions I would like answered. Because if Prime Minister Modi could unequivocally dispel the fog surrounding his newly furnished degrees it would serve to ease our minds at least that he has not perjured himself or committed forgery.

At this juncture we must forsake political loyalties and instead be loyal to India. This means that we hold our elected leaders to the highest standards of integrity. I ask my readers to introspect. Are we really doing that right now?

Police Brutality in India

A guy accused of eve-teasing – "accused" being the keyword here – is beaten with horrifying brutality by none other than those who are charged with maintaining law and order in our society. A poor rickshaw driver is repeatedly slapped by a constable while he pleads to deaf ears for no apparent reason. And these not two isolated cases being hyped out of proportion. Police brutality is as routine in India as communal politics. Goes without saying, this stone-age practice is not something we can be particularly proud of.

Let's for the sake of the argument grant that the guy did engage in eve-teasing as accused. We then may justify the cops' action as a necessary evil. It instills fear and deters other eve-teasers, one might argue. Well, why not just shoot him then? Won't that serve as a far more effective deterrent? Why not just do away with the courts and make justice swifter and more effective right there in the street? Sounds like certain regressive countries that still behead people for apostasy, doesn't it?

Who gives them the authority to play the judge, jury, and executioner, again? because our Constitution certainly doesn't. A civilized society is distinguished by its stand against vigilante justice. We wouldn't accept a band of street urchins doling out their own brand of "justice" without any consequences whatsoever, would we? Why should, then, things be any different if we put those hooligans in a certain uniform? Is the uniform the only difference between a rioting mob and an established police force? They are here to "uphold" the law, not make a mockery of it. No matter how serious the crime, a cop's job is to apprehend and handcuff the person without inflicting so much as a scratch on him. Whether he deserves to be punished and how bad if so is for the courts to figure out. How hard could this possibly be to comprehend?

Can we do something about it? Luckily, we are still a democracy. Luckily, we still have a voice no matter how hard forces are at work against it. Use that voice. Let's say enough of this hooliganism and take our first step toward being a civilized nation. Remember, being a civilized nation is the first step toward being a developed one. Know your rights. Exercise your rights. Question their excesses.

Credits: Times of India

My Vision for India

The India I was born in was not the India I live in right now. And The India I will die in will most certainly not be the India I live in right now. Change is inevitable and while I try my best not to be pessimistic, we haven't seen the best of change in our country so far. Our founding fathers gave us the country on a silver platter. They had the Herculean task of nation-building and they did it without a frown. Hindus and Muslims, Brahmins and Dalits, rich and poor – they all came together to lay the foundation a country as diverse as ours deserved.

And yet here we are, 66 years down the line, and our country is already falling apart. Issues like communalism and corruption that sound hilariously dated have only grown stronger. If our founding fathers gave us India on a silver platter, their successors today are sending it to hell in a hand-basket. And if anyone is to blame, it's us.

I am ashamed that the country that had the cojones and maturity to elect an openly atheist man as its leader purely on the basis of merits in 1948 has entered the 21st century with communalism and religious terrorism as its biggest plagues. The world whizzed past us in slow-motion and nobody even noticed. You know why? Because we were too busy bloating in our jingoistic superiority complex. Religions were meant to lend us morality and solidarity. Not to justify a dishonest group of criminals from asserting unquestioned authority over the masses at the cost of ethics and lives.

Don't know about you but this is certainly not the kind of India I was looking forward to be living in as we entered the century meant to blur the lines between science-fiction and reality. I was not looking forward to a democracy that still picked its leaders on the basis of religion rather than merit.

Our founding fathers gave us pillars of civilization such as the IITs, IIMs, ISRO, Bhakhra Nangal dam, etc. And what did we give ourselves? A string of scams from fodder scam to Lalit Modi, and a string of riots from Godhra to Malegaon. As a democracy, we all have some basic expectation from our government. When did those expectations change from development and advancement to Ram Mandir and food censorship?

So, here's my vision for India. I do not care how we stack up against the rest of the world. I do not care if Pakistan does better than us. I do not care if we were the richest country in the past. Because I am a grown-up and grown-ups don't believe in pissing contests. The India I want my kids to inherit is the one where our leaders are honest in their attempts to make this a better country to live in. I want an India where the government doesn't behave like characters in a soap opera. They were elected to govern, not plot. I want an India where the government prioritizes fixing potholes over renaming roads. I want an India where educational institutions do education and not politics. I want an India where textbooks are vehicles of knowledge and not of propaganda. I want an India where hospitals and schools take precedence over temples and mosques. I want an India where my tax rupees are not spent on subsidizing personal political rhetoric. I want an India where governance means uncompromising integrity. I want an India where criminals are barred from politics regardless of their party loyalties. I want an India where no color is deemed superior to another. I want an India where the Constitution is held above scriptures.

I want an India I can feel proud of without being forced to.

I want an India where patriotism is innate and not manufactured.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Taking Out the Trash – Together

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that we introduce to you, BharaTRASHtra.

Who are we? That was the first question in our brief to ourselves for our introductory piece. It is a good question, however, after mulling over what to say for a while; I think I will start with the “Why” rather than the “Who”.

Bear with me, I speak from my heart.

India a relatively new nation, and like every nation conceived in the throes of struggle, she was birthed from lofty ideals. And I do mean lofty. Ideals that quicken your pulse and make you proud to be a citizen, the kind that give you goose bumps when you read the stories. The tenets of Justice, Equality, Liberty and Fraternity were etched in stone. Integrity, progress, and patriotism on the lips of bright eyed and hopeful new citizens. Behold! The Independent, Democratic, Socialist Republic of India. What a marvelous thing! That was in the year 1947.

This is the year 2016, and we are now hard pressed to find a trace of these ideals when we review the illustrious line up of our leadership. Somehow, we have descended in to an abyss. The kings of this abyss are the worst that humanity has to offer. There is really no other way to say it. Our government, has for some years now, been a veritable cesspool. Whichever side of the aisle you sit on, or whether you are squatting right in the aisle, I think we can all agree, that those leading us, are far from the best we have to offer. Leaders accused of rape, murder, corruption, communal violence...the list is endless. Those whose hands are spotless are too few and very far between, and are beleaguered by abject stupidity, or inefficacy.

It is often said, and I paraphrase, that a democratically elected government is a reflection of its people. I find that hard to digest. I do not see my reflection anywhere. The people I know are good people; I do not see their reflections anywhere.

So how did we get here?

The answer is simple. The average voter is a lethal combination of misinformed and uninformed. Thomas Jefferson said "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree." – Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:207

And that, my friends, is where we come in. It is our mission to clean out the Augean stable. We seek to sift through all the propaganda, all the misinformation, the blatant lies, the loud headlines and the meaningless sound bites to get to the bottom of the issues, past and present. We will tell the truth and tell it loudly. We seek to encourage everyone, ourselves included, to shed the shackles of apathy and demand better, for every Indian. We have no loyalties but to Integrity, Justice, Secularism, Equality and Harmony. We seek to start a conversation with you, that together we may grow to be an informed citizenry.

Yours truly,

Athos, Porthos, Aramis