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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Arvind Kejriwal is clueless about reducing Delhi's pollution

Arvind Kejriwal is an inexplicable outcome of the rough-and-tumble of Delhi politics. Thrown up by popular disillusionment with the Indian National Congress and the BJP, Kejriwal and his ragtag band were once portrayed as the new vibe in politics.

Alas, that hope disappeared a few days into his first tilt at governance.

We are all familiar with his sanctimonious drama at the time and have now gotten used to his second-inning hypocrisy in which he has repudiated almost everything he claimed to stand for, including brothers-in-arms like Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. Not that Yadav and Bhushan are any less sanctimonious.

The depressing thing about Kejriwal is not his dubious health but the seeming lack of intellectual rigour or administrative skills. Worse is his lack of gravitas. He inspires no confidence.

It is clear from his amateurish handling of the pollution issue that he consults just the deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and, perhaps, a couple of others. The result: ad hoc responses that won't likely have any impact or will confound the situation.

Pollution is a major public health hazard and needs to be tackled in an organised, far-thinking manner. A joint response by central and state governments is the first step. Also, some amount of citizen involvement is critical - maybe only to smooth vehicular traffic and to curb the use of celebratory fireworks throughout the year; both are preventable sources of pollution.

Instead, Kejriwal is locked in mortal combat with the Modi government and its various agencies, especially the Delhi police and the Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. His pronouncement restricting the use of cars was followed by introducing exemptions for women, government and emergency vehicles and also on the enforcement of the restrictions.

In the end, it got so muddled that no one really knows what's going on, especially the shrill television media, whose role in manufacturing a ratings-points crisis out of a serious public health issue, needs to be examined in depth.

Not just television news but print media too created all manner of confusion that left people stumped.

Worldwide, governments have successfully tackled pollution by first creating a legal framework for action. In the US, successive laws were introduced beginning the 1960s with amendments continuing well into the 1990s.

The Clean Air Act and its various iterations facilitated funding of research and enforcement mechanisms to deal with various components of pollution. Three decades in the making, anti-pollution laws were a systematic effort that included identification and categorisation of pollutants, setting up an independent monitoring and enforcement agency and then further refining and redefining measures to control pollution.

On each step of the way, federal, state and local governments and agencies worked in tandem, keeping citizens informed through a strong media outreach program combining education and advocacy.

As such, the US environmental protection and pollution control program has been a huge success.

More than any European country, the US experience is more relevant to India because of its federal structure, huge economy, large population, big cities and massive demand for energy and transportation.

(An edited version of this post will appear in DailyO.in, December 2015.)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Everything Modi sarkar is doing wrong by attacking dissent

The indefatigable campaigner came steadily unglued in Bihar, reverting to a nakedly bigoted message

Since he was named the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate in September 2013, Narendra Modi ran a loud and aggressive campaign on two fronts: one, to run down the Indian National Congress as a corrupt force responsible for the lack of development; two, to sell a "happy days are here" story packaged with slogans and sound bites.

As such, he blanked out the Congress' impressive record of 10 years of eight per cent growth, painted a grim picture of the nation's economy and projected himself as the knight in shining armour, come to pull India out of the morass he conjured up in his invective-filled speeches. Using dog whistle communal messaging for his following of bigots while holding out the promise of strong leadership for others, he spoke persuasively of "achche din."

The strategy worked brilliantly. A year later, the BJP won a clear majority in the Lok Sabha and Modi was named prime minister.

Now, Modi finds that his majority in the lower house does not amount to much when faced with a determined and united opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The first-past-the-post system that gave his party a clear majority with just 31 per cent of the vote is not enough to sustain his fantasy of global power status he sold to credulous voters, leave alone a "Hindu rashtra" he has promised sotto voce to the bigots.

On the contrary, Modi's carefully-crafted image of forceful governance is taking a beating from the 69 per cent who gave him thumbs down in the 2014 election. Like bushfires, dissent is springing from every nook and cranny. These spontaneous protests have discombobulated him. The indefatigable campaigner came steadily unglued in Bihar, reverting to a nakedly bigoted message.

Asked to run interference, his spokespersons, in government and others like the puerile Chetan Bhagat, have raised a whataboutery defence, seeking to discredit the artists, scholars and scientists who have spoken out against the increasingly-evident Hindutva agenda: they are "Congress supporters who didn't protest in 1984" and theirs is "manufactured dissent."

When that didn't wash, they cursed the protest, calling it a campaign of calumny against the BJP by leftists and pseudo-intellectuals. Perhaps their most disingenuous defence is that the hate incidents happened in states that are not ruled by the BJP, ignoring the fact that the perpetrators were self-proclaimed supporters of the saffron calling, including union ministers, Members of Parliament and sundry state-level leaders.

About the only truth to emanate from the saffron defenders is this: the protestors cannot accept the BJP as ruling party and Modi as prime minister. This is largely because of their not-so-hidden Hindutva agenda. It is apparent that the narrow, divisive worldview does not resonate beyond fringe groups and that Modi and his supporters are mistaken in their loudly stated belief they represent the vast majority. Hobbled at first by a small but determined opposition in Parliament, now they face an existential challenge from the liberal legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.

There promises to be no rest for the ruling dispensation until 2019; the fires of dissent will only continue to spread.

(An edited version of this post will appear in DailyO.in, November 2015.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Grim harvest of failed education system

Digital India, Make in India, Clean India, Smart Cities... these are slogans supporters of embattled prime minister Narendra Modi chorus to emphasise the primacy of his “development and growth” agenda. On the other hand, ghar wapsi, love jihad, Hindu rashtra, bans on beef, books and broadcasts… these are slogans supporters of empowered prime minister Narendra Modi raise to assert the primacy of hindutva.

Numerous commentators have remarked on the lack of progress of the modernist charter while lamenting the spread of the primordial agenda. Supporters say the prime minister’s development plans are being held hostage by “fringe elements”. Opponents challenge this, saying the hindutva project is Mr. Modi’s main plank.

And thus the political debate goes on, nightly on television and in the newspapers every morning. What’s indisputable is that India is caught in a bind, with the whole world watching. There are two reasons why the world is watching: one, the prime minister is an avid traveller who basks in the company of the world’s who’s who. He is adept at showcasing his forays in the Indian media and before large and adulatory NRI audiences.

The other reason why all eyes are on India is because of reports that primordial formations are threatening to derail India’s democracy. While Modi’s global tours go unreported in the mainstream world media, the killings, bans, and bigotry are prominently displayed in pixels and print the world over.

Given such alarming reports in global media, who will take the prime minister’s invitation to build modern India seriously? Even as Mr. Modi tries to assure the world of his commitment to diversity and democracy, his partners in the saffron brotherhood blacken faces of dissenters, commit hate crimes against minorities, and talk menacingly about regulating the media.

In Mumbai, the brazen threats of the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP led by Mr. Modi, forced the cricket authorities to withdraw all Pakistani umpires and commentators from the remainder of the India-South Africa series. It’s the same with utterances and speeches of senior saffron sages about the need to regulate the media.

How this stand-off between economic modernisation and the authoritarian and revivalist agenda will be resolved is difficult to say. In a nation with a burgeoning middle class, the tendency would be to favour the former. This assumes that the middle class is the repository of enlightened liberal values and as such a bulwark against what the Indian press used to call “fissiparous tendencies”. I don’t think the assumption can stand scrutiny. Here’s why.

Historically, Indian policymakers have ignored elementary education and vocational training in favour of higher education and professional development. The result is an educated elite listing in the storm-tossed sea of a poorly educated majority. Even within the elite class, the emphasis is on engineering and medicine, management and accountancy. Middle class children, especially male, are encouraged, forced and nudged into the study of these streams to land steady jobs. Liberal arts disciplines such as literature, history, language and philosophy are dismissed as unworthy, okay for girls.

Despite heavily subsidised bias in its favour, the higher education system has failed miserably. It produces a vast pool of middle class graduates, ill-equipped to meet the demands of a modernising economy. Unable to find jobs, they are recruited by political parties to fight nefarious numbers wars that determine political outcomes. Easily manipulated, these youth become the foot soldiers of atavistic campaigns against change. As such, they form the bulk of illiberal forces threatening to take India back to the Stone Age.

On the other hand, the higher education system also produces some world-class scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors, managers and technocrats. But decades of command-and-control industry policies have impaired the ability of the economy to provide jobs and business opportunities. Caught in the socialist quagmire, shiploads of the best graduates have migrated westward, contributing to India’s ‘brain drain’. True, the best middle-class graduates did well in the US and elsewhere but the disruption took its toll and they became implacably opposed to licence-permit raj and its purveyors.

Therefore, like those they left behind, they too became supporters of illiberal forces. These are the groups that turn out in huge numbers to hear Mr. Modi rant and rave against the previous regime in New York, California, Australia and elsewhere. Thus the top layer of the education system and its vast middling layer have fused into an aggrieved segment, embracing religious and cultural revivalism and chauvinist causes, harbouring vague hopes of seeing India emerge as a “global power”.

This is the whirlwind the country reaped in the 2014 election. With just 31 percent of the national vote in their favour, majoritarian political forces are poised to hack away at the carefully-nurtured edifice of constitutionalism. In the final analysis the education system bears a major share of responsibility for the growing atavism and intolerance spreading across the country.

(An edited version of this post appeared in Education World, November 2015)