By Liaquath Mirza
Come October the ‘cleanliness fever’ grips our polity. Mahathma’s birthday is now swatchtha abhiyan day. Mahatma is now the mascot for swatch Baharat initiative. His spectacles now adorn municipal bins and government hoardings of clean and pure drive. Government mandated cleanliness drive takes on fevered and frenzied pitch on 2nd October. Circulars will be sent out to all central, state and PSU offices to compulsorily attend the clean initiative in their respective offices.
Reluctant babus of officialdom looking forward to a cosy family day are dragged out of their homes and made to pick up brooms and buckets. The charade of selfies with brooms unfolds, recorded to posterity and such snaps mandated to be shared with higher offices.
Politicians of all hues from panchayats to parliament come out of the woodwork in colour coordinated clothes and their party flag themed bandanas posing for the press and Tv while enacting the roadside skit of swatch Baharat at important junctions and chowrahas.
Who is who of the film and sporting world, major and minor celebrities descend at fashionable and upscale spots of all metros complete with their pristine pure white clothes, swatch Baharat mission logo tee shirts. Brooms in hand and SBM caps on head, expensive goggles on eyes and then proceed with diligent cleaning while posing for photos simultaneously. All in all taking the menial activity and elevating it into a pretty cosy picture of one giant happy smiling occasion. Depending upon the event managers’ enthusiasm levels there may even be assorted activities of full marathons, half marathons,swatchta walks and such other cultural events. With this done the stars ascend back to their heavenly abodes in their luxurious limos cockles of their hearts warmed with satisfaction of doing their two bit community service.
And yet…. nothing much changes on the ground. Take a ride or drive around the city / town the next day and you will realise that city has been reset to its usual filthy self.
The very scarce litter bins that one may find miles apart would still be overflowing. Empty plots and open lots in residential localities,in up and coming colonies would still bear mounds of littered waste. If one starts early one will also notice the less fortunate amongst us hurrying with mineral water bottles filled with tap water making a dash for the shrubberies or railway tracks for attending nature’s call.
And yet…. open the newspapers you will find Government sponsored centre spreads advertising success stories of swatch Baharat mission. Switch on the TV and you will find the ageing super star of Hindi cinema engaged in a light hearted banter with a cute kid exhorting the villagers to build their own toilets with the help of swatch Baharat mission. His deep timbre voice resonates with the virtues of carrying out morning ablutions behind closed doors. Plus you will find many more such happy faces declaring many a ‘shauchalay’ success stories. The masses are asked to reflect upon ‘izzat’ and ‘maryada of bahu betis.
One nationalistic star even went ahead and produced block buster movie, a love story revolving around the theme of toilet and laughed all the way to bank.
The happy stories, the success statistics somehow did not seem to have added up and translated into reality on the ground. Remove the rose tinted glasses and you will find that cities big and small, villages across the length and breadth continue to grapple with open defecation, unmanageable pile up of mountains of waste and rubble.
One walk around the bus stations, train stations and densely populated roads going past the shanties and slums you will realise that the more the noise of swatchtha mission the less has changed on the street.
Yes, degrees of cleanliness may vary but filth is a constant. Those elite roads and more important posh venues do get cleaned up daily but for the rest, people and waste simply have to learn to co-exist.
Our streets do get an occasional clean up when the locality attracts some VIP movement for some ‘udghatan ceremony’ or some such political event. Then the roads gets spruced, swept and pot holes filled up overnight and if we are lucky we would even get a brand new black topped road. Road borders are drawn and demarcated with white sanitizing powder all along till the venue of udghatan.
But of course the down side to this tamasha would be having to deal with traffic jams for hours and negotiating road obstructing banners and welcome arches narrowing the already narrow roads further down.
Overflowing litter bins with packs of stray dogs and herds of pigs populate the surroundings living off the discarded waste is a common sight. A tour of the neighbourhood vegetable mandis will give you a glimpse of emaciated cows and buffalos let loose feeding not just on the vegetable waste but also discarded plastic wrappers and pouches. Drinking in all these unsightly sights one wonders what ever happened to SBM and its earlier avatar Nirmal Baharat. Are they just illusory optics?
The way I see the problem is that we Indians are habitual litter bugs. Our cleanliness is restricted to the confines of our homes. Majority of us have poor civic sense despite the celebrity appeals and exhortations.
A person driving a top end car would not think twice on opening the door at traffic signals and spewing a river of red paan on to the road. Our public buildings’ stairs and corners would be painted red with paan chewing enthusiasts. The helpless managers of such buildings often invoke all the gods of all religions by getting multi coloured tiles of Ishwar, Allah and Jesus and getting them fixed at ‘strategic’ danger points of corners and stairs.
When invited to weddings and sundry functions we swarm around the food stalls with paper, plastic and Styrofoam plates and cups, eat with gusto and just throw away the plates and glasses where ever it pleases us except of course in the plastic drums meant for collecting them.
To add this madness of free for all littering I have discovered that the superstitious amongst us surreptitiously leave vermilion dabbed lemons, rice and such other assorted items filled in disposable paper plates in the middle of the non-busy roads in colonies. This I was told is to ward off evil and misfortunes that have fallen on them and by leaving the spell cast food stuff they hope to pass them on to unknown unsuspecting strangers who may chance upon crossing them while walking or driving. Much like a baton in the relay race of misfortunes. While nothing will come off it what is condemnable is the evil intentions of such ignoramuses.
While littering is just one angle to the revelries they also hold contests as to who breaks the most beer bottles. And the affluent wastrels among them come with their big SUVs stuffed with coolers inside and loud cacophonous music outside.
The scene resembles a battle front the next day with dead and broken bottles and poor unsuspecting stray dogs getting hurt while running across the splinters. Somewhat saner drunks among them leave the bottles intact for the urchin rag pickers to pick them and make some money at the raddi walas.
Now we look at the spiritual,deeply religious ones who when they update their pooja rooms with brand new photo frames of their favourite Gods don’t know what to do with the old photo frames. They respectfully pack such photo frames and leave them when nobody is watching at the bottom of big trees. Wonder why temple board personnel have not thought of opening a counter at temples to accept such photo frames and deal with them appropriately. This way the devotees need not have to feel pangs of guilt of abandoning the old photos for swanky new ones.
Coming to the responsibilities of Governments and municipalities’ one finds that there is this all important angle of poor infrastructure. Finding a litter bin would be a intensive search endeavour. Municipalities are poorly equipped to deal with the day to day waste leave alone adopt such quaint concepts as waste segregation. Even if concerned citizen’sseparate waste and hand over, the handler would dump it in the same auto or rickshaw and takes it away to the dumping yard. They are poorly staffed and also poorly paid most probably. And my guess is that they are poorly funded also.
And then there is this caste angle to this problem that is unique to Indian subcontinent. Our ancestors in all their primitive wisdom and glory had decided to neatly label outcastes among us as chamars, bhangis, and bestow them with such other demeaning names and reduced them to clearing dead carcasses and cleaning human wastes.
According to a book written by our PM when in scholarly mood in a literary avatar, these untouchables find divinity even in this demeaning job and that’s why they keep doing it despite the stigma, as a God ordained duty. In what wisdom the learned one saw salvation in this inhuman practice only he should know.
We need these untouchables to touch our filth and clean up our mess and yet even touching their shadows is considered polluting. Nothing worse than this kind of segregation. While some of us assign this inhuman task as God ordained duty couched in philosophical jibber jabber, most of don’t even have the consciousness to even acknowledge their existence. If one takes a look at the demographic of class D employees of municipalities, the safai karmacharis tasked with the job of clearing waste, almost all of them would be from these untouchable castes.
Reservations here are in full operation,in fact far in excess, no grumblings from the upper castes here. And yet paradoxically when the same jobs get mechanised and modern equipment is procured and a fancy name is given to it by calling it ‘facilities management’ there is a clamour for cleaning and maintaining such hi-tech office buildings, airports and hotels.
Upper caste business people smell a business opportunity and moneyed contractors vie for a pie in burgeoning service industry. And poor from all castes compete to get such a job which offers them some monetary security.
Despite all the hoo haa about mission swatch Baharat and fund raising by way of swatch Baharat cess riding on service tax payments, no qualitative change appears to have taken place in the lives of people who still have to unclog the city’s drains manually. And still have to keep on losing their lives to the noxious drain fumes. (Wonder why the enterprise of Gujarati chai wallas of making tea from the drain gas fuel has not caught on nationally)
We keep seeing news of people still dying while carrying out manual scavenging work. It’s like their lives are of no consequence to all of us collectively. Their deaths don’t prick our conscience one bit. I wonder what happened to all those crores collected from us as swatch Baharatcess. Why were those funds not utilized to equip all municipalities all across with modern equipment so that not one life is lost to manual scavenging again? I am given to understand that we have enacted laws that have abolished manual scavenging long back and yet here we are witnessing the inhuman crime against a dispossessed community.
When lakhs and crores of rupees can be allocated for corporate waivers and bad loans what stops the Governments from investing a few thousand crores in mechanised equipment and modern waste management technologies?
In conclusion the dream of a swatch Baharat will remain just that… a dream unless there is a large scale change of attitude in us, the citizens and a dedicated approach from the Governments to this monumental problem.
Being fair and transparent
By Navin B. Chawla
Two phases of the 2019 general election have been completed. Polling has finished in 186 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies. Polling in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, has been cancelled for corrupt practices. Five phases still remain till counting is comprehensively undertaken for all the seven phases of the election, on May 23. The reason to complete all the phases is that the result of any one phase should not influence the choices that electors may make.
Having served the Election Commission of India (EC) for five-and-a-half years during which I conducted the 2009 general election, I have an insider’s view, but of course am not privy to the inputs that the EC has and on which its decisions are made.
As I have argued in my recent book, Every Vote Counts, several negative features of our electoral scene have worsened. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, in just the first two phases this time, money power has so reared its ugly head that seizures made of unaccounted cash, liquor, bullion and drugs amounting to ₹2,600 crore have already surpassed the entire seizures made in the nine phases of the general election in 2014. Most depressingly, this includes huge hauls of drugs, the vast majority smuggled into Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is awash with liquor. Tamil Nadu has seen the largest seizures of illicit cash —over ₹514 crore.
These vast sums intended to bribe or influence voters prove several things. The first is that these sums almost certainly represent only a fraction of current illegal spending, a tip of the iceberg as it were. They have been detected by the EC’s machinery acting on the basis of tip-offs, or else by the vigilance of electoral officials in the States. Unfortunately, the bulk of illegal tranches of money, liquor or freebies would have reached their destination. Second, political players have refined their methods in being many steps ahead of the EC’s observers and their vigilance teams by moving their funds to their destinations even before the elections are announced.
Does this not make a mockery of the statutory limit of ₹70 lakh that each Lok Sabha candidate has as his poll expenditure limit?
As a country we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. When every rule in the book is being broken, when there is no transparency on how political parties collect or spend their funds, when limits of candidate spending are exceeded in every single case, then the time has come to debate whether we need to re-examine our rule book. In order to supervise the matches in play, the EC has had to deploy over 2,000 Central observers for the entire duration, drawing them out from their ministries and departments at the cost of their normal work at the Centre and in the States. Thousands of vigilance squads are set up and must act on the information they receive, which is why the current level of seizures have already made this India’s most expensive general election yet. An intelligent guess may lead us to a final tally of spending in excess of ₹50,000 crore, the bulk of which is made up of illicit funding and spending.
It is by now clear as daylight that electoral bonds, far from enabling a legitimate and transparent means of political funding, have proved to be the reverse. The EC, in its own affidavit before the Supreme Court, has admitted as much. The Supreme Court’s order has made sure that full disclosure, albeit to the EC, has already effectively killed further funding along this route. Nothing is a better disinfectant for camouflaged funding than sunlight itself.
With my experience this compels me to say that any serious reform with regard to funding must come from the EC itself, for it is very unlikely that any government will take an initiative in this direction. The EC must take stock after this election is over. It should convene a conference of all stakeholders, including of course all recognised political parties, both Central and State. But this should not be exclusively confined to them, for they will tend to support the status quo or they will be unable to reach consensus. The list of stakeholders must also include the best constitutional and legal minds in our country.
In my book I have also raised the twin problem of candidates fielded with criminal antecedents. The 16th Lok Sabha that has now passed into history, saw almost 30% of its members declaring, in their compulsory self-sworn affidavits, the list of criminal cases registered against them. They are also legally obliged to declare their wealth and their educational qualifications. This is the result of two vital orders passed by the Supreme Court in 2002-2003, the result of a battle that the Association for Democratic Reforms fought tenaciously. Unfortunately, in the first phase of this election, 12% of the candidates perforce declared that they had heinous cases pending, while in the second phase the figure was 11%. It may be noted that these cases include murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, kidnapping and rape. Have we forgotten Nirbhaya and 2012 already?
The matter of the Model Code of Conduct and its administration by the EC has been the most frequently reported single issue in this election. For those of a certain generation, the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), T.N. Seshan — he once famously declared that “he ate politicians for breakfast” — was the man who made the country sit up and take note when he decided to level the playing field as never before. There is little doubt that he reminded the EC that it had powers inherently enshrined in Article 324 of the Constitution — powers so great that there is arguably no other electoral management body with similar powers.
I learned this during my years as Election Commissioner, and these are the powers I exercised during the course of the 15th general election in 2009; I was successfully able to confront three Congress-ruled State governments and one Congress ally too. One of them even convened a special press conference to declare that his government would move the Supreme Court against the EC’s “arbitrariness”, but I personally had no doubt about its outcome. As it happened, he chose not to in the end.
The point I seek to make, by virtue of my own experience, is that the powers of the EC are so enormous and so all-encompassing that they exceed the powers of the executive in all election-related issues during the course of the election period. Of course, these must be exercised judiciously, fairly and equitably, not least because every decision is analysed in every “adda”, every home, every street corner and every “dhaba” across the country, where the EC’s decisions must be seen to be fair and transparent. During the years precedent to becoming CEC, I was fortunate that Mr. Seshan advised me whenever I called on him. As a result I never felt any need to make reference to government or court, once the process was under way.
If there is anything for me to applaud thus far in this election, it is the decision made by two political parties which have selected over 33% women candidates — Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (41% for 42 Lok Sabha seats) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (33% for 21 Lok Sabha seats). After years of patriarchy or at best lip service, these parties have taken a vital step towards empowering women politically.
Why Imran bats for Modi
By Ayesha Siddiqa |
It seems that people from very odd quarters — such as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan — want Narendra Modi to win the upcoming elections. Khan’s recent comments, in which he desired victory for his counterpart as good for the future of a peace initiative, may be driven by pragmatic reasons, but it indicates the separation that exists between the two countries. Following comments by the Opposition and in segments of the social media, the federal information minister intervened and pretended that Khan, who can often open his mouth before engaging his brain, was misunderstood.
Intriguingly, despite India being the most significant country in the neighbourhood, its election outcomes have marginal impact on the region. Khan’s statement, in fact, indicates that disconnectedness in which the head of the government of a neighbouring state refused to measure the implications beyond tactical effect. It seems a right-wing government in India does not matter to Pakistan. Or, perhaps, a Modi-led right-wing government is a wish come true for the ideological right-wing in Pakistan. For the first time since 1947, people do not have to convince each other of how right Muhammad Ali Jinnah was in creating Pakistan: Not that Pakistan was ever designed for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, but it now sees its formula for ideological nationalism justified in the face of rising religious-ideological nationalism next door in India. I have lived through the times when Pakistan’s intelligentsia was confused in the face of Indian secularism and democracy. Despite having their own country, there would be an internal conversation about the Indian experiment being better. The last four to five years has brought about a change in that thinking.
The BJP leadership of the last five years cannot be held entirely responsible for all the political and sociological change. If anything, the last four years have helped expose the true colours of the rising Indian middle-class that does not necessarily think very differently from the Hindutva supporter on certain issues. There is no sign that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi would have the gumption to change the course of society. Hearing the young Congress leader speak at a university in London, he did not seem to possess the temerity to deviate markedly from the ideological path that the BJP has chosen for India. However, there is an opinion in Pakistan that a Congress-led government, or any dispensation other than the present formulation, may be more cautious in how it approaches issues in the region.
Meanwhile, the general sense is that with Modi at the helm of affairs, war and conflict will mark the tone of relations between the two countries. However, this would be beneficial for Pakistan’s nationalist project that gets strengthened with every news of mob lynching of Muslims and other minorities, from India. This is not to argue that the state of minorities in Pakistan is any better: But New Delhi no longer represents a secular ideal. For Islamabad, a non-secular India is easier to contest.
The only limitation that Pakistan faces in fighting a BJP-led India is its own internal problems, like the dearth of financial resources, and not the intent. This also means that conflict cannot remain the only shrill refrain: A resolution would have to be negotiated for which the establishment in Rawalpindi prefers a BJP-governed India. Khan’s statement basically means that he, and others who share his thinking, believe that a strong right-wing government is the only credible element with which Pakistan could settle its matters. The question then is, what happened after the Lahore declaration? Wasn’t it a BJP-government that was willing to talk peace? Or, what happened to the peace initiative between the A B Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf governments?
Seen purely from the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, Kargil happened because the military wanted an equaliser at a time when the political government had not taken it into confidence. As far as the breakdown of talks at Agra are concerned, the right-wing in India was divided at the time and the segment represented by L K Advani did not want peace. For Rawalpindi, Modi represents a neat synthesis of India’s right-wing. Hence, the negotiations would be more comprehensive than ever before. The only problem, however, remains that how does one predict Pakistan’s deep state — whose contours, today, are even more difficult to define.
This understanding goes hand in hand with the thinking that the pragmatism of the Hindu right-wing would not stop Delhi from talking to Pakistan despite the latter’s habitual U-turn from peace initiatives. While the emphasis following most track-II dialogues, particularly after a bilateral crisis, is on the Indian members of the group to apprise their counterparts of the anger in India, the Pakistani side has always maintained that it is possible to pick up the conversation thread from where it was dropped. A decade into this behaviour, there is barely anyone on Pakistan’s side with the capacity to remind their own the highly problematic nature of this approach.
Not unlike today’s India, the cost of dissent in Pakistan is very high. There is little traction in the corridors of power towards an alternative approach to resolving the conflict. The deep state in Pakistan — which is not necessarily the entire military, but is symbolised by it — has gained excessive control of all discussions and dialogue. There is also the confidence that international and regional geopolitics allows Rawalpindi the opportunity to continue with its old approach. Money matters are critical, but it will not force a course correction unless Pakistan reaches a breaking point.
The Violent Misuse of a Sacred Symbol
By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
A friend had pointed it out to me, in an Arya Samaj Mandir. It was more than a decade ago, when a roommate in JNU, who hailed from Haryana, was entering into an inter-caste marriage with his long-time, Bengali girlfriend. The wedding was taking place against the wishes of their respective parents. There were only friends from the university, who were present to take part in the couple’s happiness. Such is the price of love, in a society where the celebration of “family values” and “religious values” have for generations, meant the celebration of patriarchy, caste interest, and economic interests. It inevitably meant the refusal to accept, the free laws of love. We were in the middle of the short ceremony when my friend drew my attention to a poetic line written on the wall: “Om means a thousand things. One of them is, welcome to the abode of the gods.”
Growing up in a Hindu household, I was of course aware of the symbol. It used to be drawn in red, on small urns made of copper, and placed before a deity. On the urn, Dūrvā (or Darbha, or Kusha) grass would be dipped in water. The Dūrvā grass comprises of three blades, which symbolises the sacred trinity for Hindus. Om, I slowly learnt, was considered the primordial sound, the sacred syllable, that would precede all chanting. The word has been associated with cosmic significance in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda, as something that connects the liberated human spirit with the universe, as “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”.
It shook me from inside, to see the photograph of the Om symbol, being violently engraved on the back of a man I learnt is Nabbir, an undertrial Muslim prisoner in Tihar jail. Nabbir was forcibly marked and denied food for two days on April 12, allegedly by the jail superintendent. This is not just a terrible incident, but marks of a sickness that can quickly, if unchecked and not punished by law, spread into a fascist method of torture and humiliation. This is a bizarre act of classifying a non-Hindu victim.
It is necessary to pay attention to what is taking place in this incident. A language of horror is being established through this act of power. By engraving the symbol, the Muslim prisoner’s body was robbed of its sovereignty. Sovereignty here is political in the religious sense. The invisible presence of the sacred exists in the prisoner’s body. The marking of the Hindu symbol on his back, is a violation of the prisoner’s sacred world, where the meaning of sacred becomes territorial. The body is no longer the body of a man who can exist within his ‘human rights’, despite his lack of political rights as a prisoner.
What is ‘human’ within the man’s belief system is intrinsically his ability to exist as a man who belongs to a god. It is a spiritual relationship that belongs to the realm of another law, where governmental power is marked off, and ideally has no control over. What has occurred in this case is precisely this ‘human’ breach between governmental power and sacred power. The superintendent did not limit himself to the task of holding juridical authority over his prisoner. That limit was overcome by a violent superimposition of another authority (or power) that the superintendent had no right to use over the prisoner.
The act of marking a Muslim prisoner’s back with a Hindu symbol is not a sacred but a territorial act, where the mis/use of power involves marking someone with sacred symbols as proof of dominance. The act of marking the prisoner’s shoulder with the sacred symbol that does not belong to the world he inhabits within, is to humiliate his inner sense of sacredness by deliberating implanting an alien symbol on his body. That symbol is also torn from its own sacred universe, and made to symbolise something territorial.
In the Tihar jail incident, everything is reduced to the trembling of a body, where the sacred is turned into a mark of horror. It is a space where everything corresponds to nothing, where symbols are reduced to bones, where the holy is reduced to what in the Book of Revelation (13: 16-17) is called “the mark… of the beast”. The “essence of breath, life and everything that exists”, what is symbolic of Om, is violently taken away from the prisoner. He is left to breathe, and live, only his humiliation.
Whether you believe or not in the human soul, we can name the soul as an invisible entity that remains in correspondence with something unnamable. It is this soul that all forms of barbaric power want to control and humiliate, in order to reduce the human to a nonhuman status. Even in the Germany of 1938, Jewish prisoners were marked by a yellow star, which was a perverted form of the Jewish Star of David. When history repeats itself, it is not just as tragic or farce, but sometimes pure horror.
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