Category Archives: The Pioneer
Ask policy planners in Uttarakhand the need for so many dams to be constructed in the State, and they will tell you the structures are necessary for power generation and prosperity. But the policy has backfired terribly
This March, I had the occasion to visit Srinagar, Garhwal. There I witnessed some of the immediate consequences of building cascades of dams for the pecuniary benefits of the State (read, local officials). When I argued, “Why were there so many dams? I was told that, if the Union Government does not go for dams and generate power, it would have to annually release Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 15,000 crore as Central assistance. The Union Government wants power and the State, hard cash; dams bring a win-win situation. But what about the rivers which, at some places, have started disappearing?
Projects currently underway were supposed to increase the hydro-power capacity of the State to 12,235MW. A total of 95 hydro-power projects were being built or planned on different rivers converging in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin of Uttarakhand. Nobody really cared if environmentalists like former IIT professor GD Agrawal or before him Sunderlal Bahuguna were opposing the wild contagion of concrete infrastructures. They were labeled ‘anti-development’; ‘development’ being the new god of the Himalayas.
It is not that the officials were unaware that since 2005, when Tehri dam’s reservoir filled up, the flow of the Bhagirathi had reduced drastically. I then wrote a note: “When there will no more rivers to worship, no more jobs for the local population, people will have to migrate to the cities.” My friend Michel Danino’s book, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, is a mind-opener on the fate of the mythic Saraswati river. Taking into account the latest research in fields as different as satellite imagery, archeology, linguistics, paleontology or mythology, Danino has explained: “The Indian subcontinent was the scene of dramatic upheavals a few thousand years ago. The Northwest region entered an arid phase, and erosion coupled with tectonic events played havoc with river course. One of them (the Sarasvati) disappeared.” Now, humanity has progressed; it can build its own tectonic events!
After the June 16 torrential rains, we have not lost rivers (though the course of some have changed), but in several cases the wild construction of dams has triggered much more destruction, increasing the misery of the locals. A few days after the downpour, The Hindu reported: “The national highway between Dehradun and Srinagar [Garhwal] is currently broken at Byasi and Devprayag, with silt measuring upto 10 ft covering an enormous area, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district. According to the residents of Shakti Vihar, an area in Srinagar, this disaster occurred on June 17 at around 3am when the Srinagar dam authorities lifted the dam gates.” A resident told the newspaper: “The rainfall on June 16 was so much that the water reached up to our knees, and to add to it, the dam authorities released water without a prior warning.” Did they panic? Enquiries, if any, will tell us. The water from upstream swept the debris lying around the dam construction site and deposited a huge amount of silt tens of kilometers downstream. The water level was three to four metres higher than any previous floods.
The question asked by each commentator was: Was it predictable? In 2009, after studying the hydro-electric projects in Uttarakhand, a State Audit of the Comptroller and Auditor-General explained: “With the creation of Uttarakhand in November 2000, its hydro-power potential was recognised as key to the development of the State. The Government chalked out an ambitious plan to harness its hydro-power potential through the concerted efforts of both the State and the private sector.” A State policy was formulated in October 2002; with the dams, the needs of the State but also those of the ‘starved northern grid’ could be taken care of. According to the CAG report, most of the projects faced problems associated with land acquisition, forest clearances and enhancement in project capacities. But did anybody read the report? Certainly not the planners and their contractors — they were too busy making money. Indeed, ‘dam is money’, whether in Uttarakhand, in Sikkim or in Arunachal Pradesh.
The CAG had warned: “The State’s policy on hydro-power projects was silent on the vital issue of maintaining downstream flow in the diversion reach, …physical verification of four out of five operational projects, showed that river-beds downstream had almost completely dried up.” A new Saraswati in the making! The Auditors also remarked: “Negligence of environmental concerns was obvious as the muck generated from excavation and construction activities, was being openly dumped into the rivers contributing to increase in the turbidity of water.” It has now happened on a large scale after the June 16 and 17 torrential rains.
ForThe Hindu article, a resident told the reporter: “Though residents were saved, cattle were killed under the silt. Quintals of fish that the river brought along are also rotting under the debris.” It appears that every person passing by the site could smell the rotten flesh. The CAG had concluded: “The individual and cumulative impact on the downstream river flow should be seriously considered to ensure that the projects do not result in disastrous impact on the environment.” Now, it is too late. Yet, it was supposed to be a win-win situation!
As information triggers through about the Himalayan devastation, news of the Vishnuprayag Hydro-electric Project was posted on the blog of two well-known environmentalists, Vimalbhai and Briharshraj Tadiyal. Remember, Vishnuprayag is one of the Panch Prayags (five confluences) of the Alaknanda river, and lies at the confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga between Joshimath and Badrinath. It is located in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. According to legend, Rishi Narada had a vision of Vishnu while meditating there. Of course, all this is not real, it is only mythology. Concrete alone is real nowadays. The environmentalists wrote: “When the waters rose, dam authorities failed to open all the gates of the dam. Due to this, a two km long reservoir was formed upstream of the dam. Pressure from the water broke the dam and went on to wipe out the Lambagad village market.” In 2012 already, some shops in Lambagad had been washed away when water was released inadvertently by the dam authorities. This time, the deluge from the upper reaches of Alaknanda buried the 400 MW Vishnupyrag HEP. Will the Government of Uttarakhand continue with its dam policy? Will politicians and ‘developers’ resist getting rich quickly?
Tragically, the same situation is bound to happen, probably on a larger scale, in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. And what about the string of dams being built by the Chinese on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Siang/Brahmaputra) in Tibet? And if China constructs its purported mega-dam, where will the debris go? Will the situation be different on the Roof of the World than in Uttarakhand? It is probably worse due to the higher seismicity.
Has Mr Shivshankar Menon, the National Security Adviser, discussed the issue with his Chinese counterpart during their recent meeting in Beijing?”
Pioneer, 25 September 2012
India’s freshly-minted millionaire club lost a whopping 18% of its membership as the economic slowdown coincided with the exposure of multiple scams that tripped the gravy train of our crony capitalists. Most citizens would be shocked to learn that despite the global financial crisis ruining millions worldwide, the number of high net-worth individuals in India rose from 84,000 in 2008-09 to 126,700 by 2010 in the halcyon UPA years.
India’s top 100 richest are collectively worth $276 billion, whereas China’s total just $170 billion; also, India’s richest three surpass China’s top 24 billionaires. Amidst a manufacturing slump, economic slowdown and rising unemployment, one wonders how such staggering wealth accumulated in the hands of a chosen few.
As the Supreme Court noted while dealing with Coal-gate, the well-connected in the UPA regime have benefitted unduly from privatisation of public assets. Should the Hon’ble Court take a broader view, it may discern a link between the earlier privatisation of electricity distribution in several cities, which enabled private firms to make massive profits at public expense while taking over public assets for free, and the subsequent allotment of captive coal mines to the same and similar crony firms for sale of power at commercial rates!
The cussed refusal of some firms to redress customer grievances is now upsetting the Delhi chief minister, who thrust electricity privatisation on the capital and championed steeper tariffs without public audit or justification, because state elections are due. It is pertinent that when the British Raj delegated power to Indians, it first gave them charge of municipal services. Surely we must ask if regimes that cannot handle schools, sanitation, water and electric supply are at all legitimate.
Coalmine squatting by private capitalists stunted the growth of the power sector and the economy and denied mines to Coal India Ltd., forcing it to lay off over four lakh skilled workers, ruining their families. CIL is now likely to supervise extraction at the cancelled coal blocks. Government must expedite clearances needed by CIL for its own mines, and scuttle the mischief of subsidizing imported coal for private players.
Last week, the UPA imposed FDI in multi-brand retail, causing Trinamool Congress to quit the Government, and serenading the unpredictable UP stalwarts Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati for survival. Perhaps the Rs. 60 cr spent by Wal-Mart on lobbying in India, as per its disclosure to the US Senate, impacted the decision.
Yet the centre cannot claim that state governments can decide whether or not to allow FDI in their respective states. As several opposition members have argued, under the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPAs) that India has signed, it will have to offer national treatment to investors. This means states will have to permit big retail, or face court cases.
News reports suggest Wal-Mart may come to India within 12 to 18 months. It is notable that its chief Michael Duke may soon be charged under America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for hundreds of illegal bribes paid by its Mexico division from September 2005 to May 2006, and the subsequent cover-up by successive executives. ANew York Times report says Wal-Mart captured nearly 50 per cent of Mexico’s retail market in 10 years in this manner.
Currently, India’s retail market is estimated at around $400 billion, with over 12 million retailers employing 40 million people. Wal-Mart has a matching turnover of approx. $420 billion, but employs just 2.1 million people. This means 38 million people (families) plus related ancillary traders face disaster.
Executives at Amul, India’s largest dairy cooperative, say FDI will hurt both farmers and retailers. Citing the International Farm Comparison Network, Managing Director R.S. Sodhi says milk producers in America received only 38 per cent share of the consumer’s dollar spent on milk; UK milk producers got 36 per cent. But Indian milk producers get over 70 per cent of the consumer’s rupee; those linked to cooperatives get over 80 per cent.
Worldwide, foreign retail hurts local shopkeepers, farmers and consumers. Farm incomes decline because big retail creates a formidable chain of middlemen – quality controller, certification agency, packaging consultant, who cut into the profits. Consumers are wooed with cheaper rates, but prices rise once the local competition is driven out.
FDI in multi-brand retail does not create backend infrastructure like cold storages to save food grains from rotting. FDI is already allowed in storage, but no investment has been made, even by Indian brands. The Planning Commission has noted that lack of capital forces farmers to ignore cold storage facilities even where they are available, mainly because of high rentals.
The transport of goods from farm to mandi and local markets or processing centres is critical to retail trade. The road transport sector handles nearly 73 per cent of the goods traded and contributes nearly 5 per cent of the GDP. It is an unorganized sector managed with small capital; roughly 18 crore population directly or indirectly depends on it. Big retail always monopolizes transportation of goods and could crush this entire sector.
Then, over 70% of the revenue of big retail stores derives from non-food items; the nature of sourcing and pricing of these items deserves wider study. Also, the UPA has totally ignored the fact that in recent years small retailers have vastly improved their shops and customer services.
In food processing, big retail forces farmers to alter crop selection. Thus, to service potato chip companies, farmers may skip the Dal season, which indirectly affects the prices of Dal, cereals and vegetables. Big buyers often force farmers to reduce prices, face contract cancellation on grounds of ‘quality’, face last minute changes in contracts, and so on. Then, over 90% of India’s farmers have less than 2 hectares of land; 79% are landless or own less than 1 hectare. Large corporates do not like doing business with small producers; they focus on few large farmers and compel the others to submit to a larger contractor or sell the land and quit.
With FDI in retail notified, fresh dangers loom in the form of increased foreign ownership of Indian public sector banks (currently capped at 20 percent); FDI in pensions, insurance, and so on. The very aspects of the Indian economy that gave confidence to the middle class and the poor are set to be undermined.
The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com
Crisis of leadership
August 23, 2011 12:15:59 AM
It is obvious to all that there is great ferment among the masses which is manifested in the large turnout of people, especially young men and women in their twenties, in support of Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption. Anger over the rampant loot of public funds as witnessed during the run-up to the Commonwealth Games and the outrageous emptying of the till by Ministers, like A Raja did while ‘auctioning’ 2G Spectrum, among other sins of omission and commission committed by the Congress-led UPA regime, as well as the Government’s crude attempts to white-wash these criminal misdeeds, is visible on the faces of the protesters. There is also a sense of mounting frustration — over the system failing in so abysmal a manner and popular sentiments being treated with callous contempt by those in power, at the sight of politicians cocking a snook at both law-enforcers and the people, at not being able to play an interventionist role in preventing further robbery by those who are supposed to guard the public exchequer, and, at being forced to grease the palms of public servants for the smallest of services to which citizens are entitled. The blowback was waiting to happen, and now that it is happening, it is threatening to sweep away logic and reason from public discourse. As Descartes famously said of the angry person: “I’m angry, therefore I can’t think.” At such moments, what is needed the most is leadership, or the assertion of leadership, by the Prime Minister. Tragically, what we have seen till now is prevarication and obfuscation by a clueless, rudderless Government on the verge of foundering on the rock of its cumulative follies. The Prime Minister, as always, is missing at this moment of crisis; his feeble voice has been rendered even more irrelevant than ever before.
True, it would be unfair to expect Mr Manmohan Singh to break free of his image, get rid of the accumulated public perception of his being in office but not in power, and assert his leadership to restore reason, smoothen ruffled feathers and steer the nation to calm waters. Ever since he became Prime Minister in the summer of 2004, Mr Singh has chosen silence over speaking to the people, inaction over acting decisively, indecisiveness over purposeful assertion of authority. His cultivated humility has proved to be no more than a cloak to hide his inability to rise to the occasion, to confront challenges and turn them into opportunities, to demonstrate that he will countenance nothing but absolute integrity and unimpeachable probity among his colleagues. As a result, he has silently presided over unrestrained loot by corrupt Ministers, meekly promoted tainted babus and slyly tried to blame others for his many failures that have contributed to the governance deficit which in turn has led to the outpouring of anger that we are witnessing. Had he truly been honest, he would have acknowledged the fact that he has no clout in the Congress and admitted that his writ does not run in the Government he nominally heads. And had he been a man of integrity, he would have stepped down from office long ago, rather than enjoy the perquisites and benefits that come along with the Prime Minister’s job. The nation deserves better. India deserves a leader, not a caricature of a Prime Minister.