There are five major social institutions in our society. The common aspect of them is that they have been the frequent subjects of debate. Interestingly, most of the time these debates turn into classic examples of hypocrisy. Sometimes they remain alive for a while and disappear like fairy tales. At times they are long-lasting but detrimental. Sometimes they take an ugly turn or even become preposterous. It is only in a few cases that they turn into successful and productive discourse. Clearly, public debates merit a higher level of discourse than the one that often closes them. One such event has unnecessarily created an embarrassing controversy on the campus of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) regarding the appointment of a visiting professor. Though the controversy seemed to have died down with the interventions of the authorities, the damage had already been done. It has incontestably reflected poorly on the governance of the university. Furthermore, it has pointlessly discredited the reputation of a person who has been indefatigably espousing the cause of sustainable development in the country.
Visiting professor is often regarded as a person of eminence in a particular domain of experience. Universities have a long-established tradition of inviting visiting professors for a limited period which at times may be extended as per mutual convenience. In most cases, it is not a salaried position. Visiting professors can be people from all walks of life. The idea of having visiting professors in the university system is to bring eminent people on a common platform for the advancement of knowledge. They are expected to participate in a variety of activities, depending upon their expertise, which may include giving guest lectures, formal lectures, seminars, discussions on contemporary issues with students, training in sports, arts, dance, dramas, skilling, collaborative research, etc. Such professors are not required to participate in any administrative responsibility in the university.
The position of the visiting professor can also be given to a person who is not holding proper academic degrees typically necessary for becoming a professor. There are umpteen instances in the academic world where universities offer the position of visiting professors to notable philanthropists, civil servants, artists, athletes, social workers, etc. In fact, the basic purpose of inviting a visiting professor is manifold. While some such professors can help raise the standards of teaching and research, there are others who can help university in a number of different ways from national and international projection to mobilisation of additional resources through research grants, endowments and donations. In either case, the visiting professor is an asset and not a drain on a university’s resources.
The news about the appointment of an accomplished classical Bharatanatyam danseuse and a corporate philanthropist as a visiting professor at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) aroused much controversy amongst the students. It is understood that the Centre for Women’s Studies & Development (CWSD) of the BHU seemed to have sent an invite to Nita Ambani to join as a visiting professor on 12 March this year. The Centre had perhaps realised that her association would help it push forward its programmes on women’s empowerment, quickly and forcibly. As soon as the news of the offer of her appointment broke out on the campus, the students imprudently sat on a dharna outside the residence of the Vice-Chancellor and demanded an immediate withdrawal of the offer. It is understood that the protest continued for a while until students received some kind of an assurance from the Vice-Chancellor to resolve the issue.
It is believed that the decision of sending the invite was the handiwork of an individual member of the faculty. The person might have acted in good faith but committed procedural mistakes, causing unnecessary embarrassment to both the university and the person. It looked as if it was done without the approval of the statutory bodies of the university. Consequently, the Public Relation Officer of the university had to issue a press release on 17 March due to an inevitable backlash. It clarified that the university administration had neither taken any such decision, nor issued any offer of appointment. It further clarified that such appointments are made with the explicit concurrence of the Academic Council (AC) of the university and that no such proposal has ever been brought before the Council. The other side also had to issue a clarification that no such proposal or invitation from the university had been received.
It looked like a pointless mess caused due to an overenthusiasm on the part of the faculty on the one hand and procedural carelessness on the other. Either way, the damage has been pretty profound, far more to university than to person. It has reflected how narrow our level of public discourse has become on the campuses of our premier universities. It also shows how the good ideas can be dismissed out of hands even in an enlightened society.
Universities need to explore ideas that are creative and unusual and are not controlled by rigid rules and regulations. They have to learn the art of thinking outside the box. We need to recognise the potential of a large talent pool that is available outside the university system and which can be roped in at a zero-cost. It could be eminent people from all walks of life. They may be philanthropists, civil servants, justices, advocates, public representatives, athletes, sportsperson, social activists, etc. All of them may not be able to do justice with the transaction of structured curriculum, but they can surely help university in a variety of ways. They can help mobilise resources through donations and endowments, forge linkages with industry, provide academic inputs based on their experiences for curricular reforms, give guest lectures in specialised areas, contribute to occasional seminars, participate in expert workshops, hold group discussions with students, provide training to students in fine arts, music, dance, etc. It becomes all the more necessary for the universities to tap this talent pool at a time when our university system is suffering from an acute shortage of both talent and resources. Such practices are quite common all over the world.
The most premier institutions of the world have a common practice of bringing philanthropists, policymakers, practitioners and activists together on the same platform for the advancement of knowledge. The number of visiting professors may vary from university to university at any given time. It is evident from the fact that celebrities like Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, former British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Jane Connors of Amnesty International, Geneva, and Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, all were appointed as visiting professors by the London School of Economics at its Centre for Women, Peace and Security at one point in time. There are numerous universities across the world which have strong traditions of inviting accomplished professionals as visiting professors. Such eminent professionals are free to involve themselves in multifarious activities of the university and help the host institutions develop strategies to achieve excellence in respective domains of their specialisation.
Indian universities should make concerted efforts to identify eminent professionals from all walks of life and make the most out of that resource to optimise their academic performance. It is, therefore, imperative that universities should bring in veteran policymakers, industry leaders, philanthropists, practitioners, civil servants, social activists, etc, on a common platform not only to reduce the existing gaps between what they offer and what the modern society needs but also to provide futuristic orientation to their programmes. Their life-long experience would surely prove to be a meaningful input for the universities to forge strong linkages with significant sectors of economy that are terribly missing. Besides, they should create proper awareness amongst their constituents about the significance of such initiatives and evolve appropriate strategies for their operationalisation to avoid slip ups which at times may cost the university dearly.
Thus universities should ensure that reforms such as these do not hit the wall mid-way due to ignorance of some inexperienced members, as it has happened at BHU. Had the benefits of the proposal been properly explained to the students, the embarrassing controversy would not have arisen. In fact, these are process-oriented reforms which can be initiated with proper in-house preparations regardless of the scale of support and encouragement from outside agencies as they offer big-time benefits at zero-cost. However, their execution should be carried out in conformity with the provisions of the statutes and ordinances since it involves as much the prestige of the university as the dignity of the person. One mishap about the appointment of a visiting professor on the campus of a premier university is bad enough. But when we make a mistake, we better learn from it and not repeat it.
The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.
Universities need to explore ideas that are creative and unusual and are not controlled by rigid rules and regulations. They have to learn the art of thinking outside the box. We need to recognise the potential of a large talent pool that is available outside the university system and which can be roped in at a zero-cost. It could be eminent people from all walks of life.
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BANGLADESH ACTS TOUGH AGAINST ISLAMIST ELEMENTS
The government has started action against Islamist organisation Hefazat-e-Islam. Hundreds of field workers, including eight top Hefazat leaders, have been arrested already. The police said that the action against Hefazat would continue.
Hefazat, which had publicly declared itself as a non-political organisation, first laid siege to Dhaka on 5 May 2013, with demands to declare Bangladesh an Islamic state, and carried out extensive vandalism and arson. BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia supported them and called on BNP workers to join the Hefazat movement. Sheikh Hasina’s government at that time suppressed the Islamist protest severely. After a long period of silence, on 26-27 March, the outfit resorted to violence again when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh.
On 17 April, the government arrested Hefazat’s Joint Secretary General Mamunul Haque. Earlier, seven other top leaders of Hefazat were detained. Hundreds of their leaders and activists have also been arrested. Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader has said that all these religious businessmen will not be given exemption. Dhaka Metropolitan Detective Police have arrested Mohammad Junaid Al Habib, Central Joint-Secretary General of Hefazat-e-Islam and President of Dhaka Metropolitan. Earlier, detectives arrested Maulana Jalal Uddin Ahmed, Assistant Secretary General of the Central Committee of Hefazat. Azizul Haque Islamabadi, the Central Organising Secretary, was arrested earlier, and four other leaders are in police custody.
Vice-President of Hefazat›s Dhaka unit Maulana Jubair Ahmed was also arrested by police from Lalbagh on Friday, 16 April, and sent for five days in custody for questioning. He was remanded in an old case of violence in Motijheel eight years ago. On Saturday, Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Mohammad Jasim’s court granted a ten-day remand, but the judge granted him a five-day remand.
Mahbub Alam, Joint Commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and chief of the detective police, said Junaid al-Habib was arrested from Jamia Madania Madrasa in Baridhara. In addition to the responsibilities of the Central Committee, he is also the President of Dhaka Metropolitan Hefazat-e-Islam. The intelligence officer said that his involvement was found in the case filed in the Shapla Chattar area in the case of sabotage of Hefazat.
Earlier on Saturday afternoon, Dhaka Metropolitan Detective Police arrested Maulana Jalaluddin Ahmad, Assistant Secretary General of Hefazat-e-Islam and Joint-Secretary General of Bangladesh Khilafah Majlis. He was arrested from his home in Mohammadpur at noon. Additional Commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Hafiz Akhter said that Ahmad has been arrested in a case filed on 26 March in connection with the sabotage at Baitul Mukarram and Shapla Chattar in 2013. He was taken into the custody of the Detective Branch (DB) on Saturday. He will be produced in court and remand will be sought.
A total of eight central leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam have been arrested in the last few days. More leaders and activists have been arrested in different districts. The biggest catch has been Hefazat›s Joint Secretary General Mamunul Haque.
Hefazat leaders Shakhawat Hossain Razi, Fakhrul Islam and Manjurul Islam, who were earlier arrested along with Azizul Haque Islamabadi, the central organising secretary of Hefazat, are currently in police remand. A source in the police said that they were being questioned in connection with the sabotage in 2013.
TIBET’S SO-CALLED PEACEFUL LIBERATION
As China plans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the 17-Point Agreement, it is important to remember that the violence and subjugation Tibet has witnessed since 1950 cannot be termed as a ‘peaceful liberation’ of the region.
The history of Mao’s China is a tale of well-planned and well-executed moves. All the events from 1949 onwards have unfolded in a perfectly calculated sequence. First came the invasion of Tibet in 1950. Then, after a vague protest by the Indian government and the adjournment of the Tibetan Appeal to the UN (at New Delhi’s instance), in 1951, the 17-Point ‘Agreement’ was signed. Then, in 1954, the ‘Panchsheel’ accord (which neutralised India under the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ bluff) was inked, and soon after, the first incursions started on Indian soil. It was followed by the crushing of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, and finally in October 1962, the ‘teaching of a lesson’ to India for daring to give asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers in March 1959.
This should not be forgotten at a time China plans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the “Agreement between the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”, also known as the 17-Point Agreement. The paramount question remains: has Tibet really been liberated?
Here too, Mao executed a meticulously planned two-pronged operation. The first part culminated in the Battle of Chamdo, which saw the Tibetan forces being decimated. The Great Helmsman’s second step was ‘diplomatic’, the weak Tibetan State was forced to put its thumbprint on an agreement allowing Communist China to take over the Land of Snows.
In May 1951, the Tibetan delegates had no alternative but to accept that the “the Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland of the People’s Republic of China” and “drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet”. (Article I)
Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the former governor of Kham province, at that time a prisoner of war, was nominated by the Communists as ‘head of the Tibetan delegation’. With his colleagues, Ngabo had to agree that “the local government of Tibet shall actively assist the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet and consolidate the national defenses.” (Article II)
One can ask: Against whom was this ‘defence consolidation’?
Very few realised then that it could only be against India; though the Indian officials posted on the Roof of the World would soon discover the true objectives of the Communists, nobody was ready to listen in Delhi.
This period coincided with the beginning of ‘Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai’, the honeymoon between Delhi and Beijing.
Several years ago, the Central Tibetan Administration claimed that the number of Tibetans who died of starvation, violence, or other indirect causes due to the invasion was approximately 1.2 million. Though this figure could not be confirmed, the Chinese occupation was far from ‘peaceful’.
Over the years, the age-old Indo-Tibetan relations were gradually replaced by a cruder relation with the new occupiers of Tibet. The Indian kinship with Tibet progressively disappeared with the presence of the ‘Liberation Army’ (PLA) on the plateau. This was witnessed with dismay by the Indian diplomats and officials posted in the Land of Snows till the 1962 war.
At the beginning, very few Tibetans had the courage to fight the ineluctable. Most, whether from the aristocracy or the clergy, first collaborated with the occupying forces, but these years also witnessed the birth of a national conscience and a ‘people’s movement’, which unfortunately never got Delhi’s support.
Soon after the signing of the 17-Point Agreement, the arrival of the Chinese troops in Lhasa brought a famine in Lhasa. Delhi came to the rescue and fed rice to the PLA for a couple of years via Sikkim.
The first and foremost consequence of the signature of the 17-Point Agreement was that the Land of Snows lost its sovereignty; Tibet had become a part of the ‘Great Motherland’. It was the first time in its 2,000-year-old history that Tibet consented to be a province ‘within the boundaries’ of China in an official document.
The Tibetans were put in front of a fait accompli, and the Government of India did react to the ‘Agreement’, even though some clauses were in clear contradiction with several articles of the 1914 Simla Convention, binding India and Tibet.
Three weeks after the Agreement was inked, during a press conference, Nehru pretended that he was unaware: “I do not know much more about it than you probably know. The story about an agreement being reached between the People’s Government in China and the Tibetan authorities has reached us too. That is all; no further development has taken place to our knowledge. It is not proper for me to react to something which is not complete, which is not fully known.”
Washing his hands of the tragedy, the Prime Minister remained extremely vague when asked about the status of Tibet: “Throughout this period some kind of Chinese suzerainty has been recognised in the past as well as Tibetan autonomy. We have certain interests there which are not political but which are cultural, etc., which we should like to preserve. These are our approaches and we should like to preserve our cultural and trade interests in a friendly way with the people concerned.”
The Chinese propaganda said that the Dalai Lama welcomed the Agreement and he would send a telegram to Mao: “The local government of Tibet as well as the Tibetan monks and laymen unanimously support this agreement, and will actively assist the PLA in Tibet to consolidate national defences, drive imperialist forces out of Tibet and safeguard the unification of the territory and the sovereignty of the motherland.” The 16-year-old probably never did.
About 15 years ago, in an interview, the Tibetan leader told us, “When the Tibetan delegation was negotiated in Beijing, they were reluctant to sign, but the Chinese told them clearly: ‘If you do not sign, it is very easy for us, we just have to give a signal to the army and the army will march into Tibet.’” The Tibetan leader concluded, “It is clear, there were only two choices: either to accept the agreement or to go through what they called a military ‘liberation’. For some years, we derived some benefit, but later, it became plain military occupation.”
Today, China has started the most widespread campaign since the Cultural Revolution to teach the glorious history of the Communist Party to the Chinese people. The propaganda says that “hostile forces at home and abroad make use of the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of the new China, doing their utmost to attack, vilify and smear them, with the fundamental aim of inciting the overthrow of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and our socialist system”.
But history can’t be changed. The Tibetans were not ‘peacefully liberated’ in 1951.
The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.
Several years ago, the Central Tibetan Administration claimed that the number of Tibetans who died of starvation, violence, or other indirect causes due to the invasion was approximately 1.2 million. Though this figure could not be confirmed, the Chinese occupation was far from ‘peaceful’.
PM IS RIGHT, LOCKDOWN IS NOT THE ANSWER TO CORONA CRISIS
Amid the current surge in Covid infections, there should be consensus on one issue—a lockdown is not the solution to the crisis. Instead, states need to follow the micro-containment strategy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear in his speech on Tuesday evening. The human cost of a lockdown is too huge for this country to bear, as it became painfully obvious last year. Some have justified the lockdown last year as necessary, for it delayed the first wave and gave time to an unprepared health infrastructure to ready itself. However, the current move to impose lockdowns is not going to help because the second, more infectious, wave is already here. There is no scientific evidence to prove that a lockdown can prevent a surge in infections. Instead, a lockdown imposes a huge human and economic cost on a country.
Last year, the massive movement of migrants out of the “industrialised” states to the poorer states took catastrophic proportions, leading to untold misery among the underprivileged. The economy took such a hard knock that it required stimulus after stimulus and a “forward looking” budget by the Central government to give it a push towards a semblance of recovery. The economy is still nowhere near normal, especially sectors such as hospitality. With the economy being made to shut down once again, the lockdown is hitting hard different sectors, with the hospitality industry in particular crippled. According to the “Indian Hospitality: The Stats and Pulse Report” by Hotelivate, the hospitality sector may take four more years, until 2025, to go back to pre-Covid levels. Restaurant and movie hall owners say that even a six-day lockdown, as it has been announced in Delhi, is bad for their health, just when things were looking up; and any further extension will sound their death knell. From the sudden outflow of migrants taking place from Delhi and Maharashtra it is apparent that neither of the two governments has been able to instil confidence in them that the shutdowns will be short term. And now, chances are that these migrants are already carrying the virus from the hotspots to their respective states. The migrants are the hardest hit during such calamities and a safety net is sorely needed for them, including provisions for interim payments in case of contingencies. Also, as the Prime Minister said, a drive should be launched to vaccinate them. Supply chains too have started getting affected because of the current lockdown, with the National Capital Region in particular facing a shortage of essential goods because of their dependence on Delhi. And these are just a few examples.
Hence the Prime Minister is right when he speaks about the need for micro-containment zones instead of lockdowns. Even Delhi does not have an even spread of the virus, while in Maharashtra, which is a much bigger state, it’s primarily in the congested urban areas that the virus is spreading like wildfire. A huge caseload does not justify blanket restrictions. In fact, it is surprising that amid all the horror stories about the second wave, not much attention is being given to the fact that 85%-90% of the cases are very mild and do not require any hospitalisation, but just home quarantine and medication. It is doctors who are saying this, but this fact is not being highlighted enough. While following strict Covid appropriate behaviour is necessary, efforts should also be made to allay people’s fears. The need of the hour is increased testing, contact tracing and treatment, with focus being on the micro-containment zones. The hospital infrastructure needs a tremendous boost for the 10%-15% cases who may require hospitalisation. But this is a long-term process. In this context, it is hoped that the 137% increase in the Budgetary allocation this year for health—from Rs 94,452 crore to Rs 223,846 crore—will go a long way in creating an infrastructure that not only delivers healthcare to the poorest, but also insulates the system from any corona-like outbreaks.
In the meanwhile, the need is for responsible, Covid-appropriate behaviour. Also, will it be too much to ask our politicians to stop politicking over a matter of life and death and instead concentrate on alleviating this crisis? For this the states need to work in tandem with the Centre. Blame game is not helping anyone. Moreover, spreading misinformation and even disinformation about vaccines must stop. There are enough reports that vaccination is drastically reducing the risk of hospitalisation even if one contracts Covid, post taking the vaccine. Now that the vaccination process has been opened for those above the age of 18 years, governments need to ensure maximum coverage in as short a span of time as possible.
Forest fires: Not a priority for government
In 2019-20 alone, India lost nearly 38,500 hectares or 14% of its tropical forests. With about one-fifth of it going up in flames each year, Indian forests are no more carbon sinks but carbon emission areas. Why then is the Ministry of Environment turning a blind eye to the issue?
Since March, there have been more than a 1,000 major forest fires across the country. Last month, when the Jodibill Reserve Forest near the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Odisha was ablaze, many other pristine forests and wildlife reserves in many other states in the country were also burning. Fire alerts have been continuously coming from Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, many Northeastern states and Uttarakhand. The peak forest fire season in the country began as usual in March with 3,308 incidents this year, as compared to 1,004 in the corresponding month in 2019. Two major causes which emerge are the failure of forest governance and of disaster governance. After every forest fire, debates are diverted towards assessment of the government’s capacity to douse forest fires but a demand for accountability from those who failed on preparedness gets muted. Only a few question the government’s intention as a causal factor for forest fires.
While I was writing this piece, I received a petition for support from the communities of the Sattal lakes and the forests in Kumaon. Despite the massive devastation that Uttaranchal has been facing due to vanishing forests and ongoing forest fires, it is bent upon invading the pristine biodiversity area and wreaking havoc through the construction of children’s parks, hotels, shops and parking spaces. Uttarakhand’s uncontrollable fire has already scarred more than 700 hectares and remains unstoppable. The government has admitted that in the current month alone a monetary loss of Rs 14,18,909 is estimated, but if the value of ecosystem services obtained from a rich forest biodiversity is also added to it, this loss may multiply manifold. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State for Environment revealed that in 2019 the area affected by forest fires was a massive 93,273 hectares, suggesting an equally baffling figure for damage and losses.
Interestingly, forest fires are not even recognized as a natural disaster in the framework of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Initially, in the 2009 National Policy on Disaster Management, only earthquakes, floods, wind, cyclones and landslides were recognised as disasters. Later, glacial lake outbursts and heatwaves have been added to the list. But the much needed recognition of forest fires as a disaster is shockingly still missing.
The Forest Protection Division of the Ministry had formulated a National Action Plan on Forest Fires in April 2018 and a report ‘Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India’ was also published. The Ministry also launched a faster and more robust version of Fire Alert System in January 2019 through the Forest Survey of India (FSI) Dehradun. In the meantime, the National Green Tribunal, unsuccessfully, directed the Ministry to constitute a National Monitoring Committee to monitor the National Action Plan on Forest Fires. NDMA’s failure to recognise forest fires as a natural disaster has prevented a synchronized preparedness exercise in accordance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. A previously constituted Standing Fire Advisory Committee of the NDMA had a highly deficient record of equipment, rescue vehicles and trained manpower which prevented any monitoring of funds allocated for fire prevention to state governments.
Forest fires have been the main reason for the loss of forest cover, and with no immediate afforestation, this land is occupied by encroachers making the rest of it still more vulnerable to fires. The Forest Survey of India in 2019 found more than 36% of forest cover in the country as severely vulnerable to fire.
Who could be behind forest fires? There is enough evidence in the history of forest fires about an unholy nexus of miners, the timber mafia, poachers and their representatives in the government who surreptitiously get forest land released for non-forest purposes. The arrest of two men behind the recent Jodibill incident confirms the presence of criminals behind forest fires. A 2002 Down to Earth report had said that the Terai region’s timber smuggling is linked to the poaching of tigers, panthers, elephants, Himalayan black bear and musk deer to such an extent that more than 20-30 trucks get past through most check posts illegally. The forest departments can do nothing before these well armed and well connected mafia agents. Many forest guards are killed every year trying to save animals or timber from criminals. Only last month while a forest guard was shot dead by mafia goons in Dewas, three other forest guards suffered critical injuries in Panna Forest Reserve of Madhya Pradesh after being attacked with axes, choppers and spades. A forest guard is a Group C, non-gazetted, non-ministerial post with a starting salary of Rs 5,200 and is given neither weapons nor life-saving boots, appropriate uniform and protective headgear. They are always overpowered and outnumbered once caught patrolling inside the criminal-occupied forest areas.
Fires push endemic species to extinction as they have location-based lives. While the administration gets busy dousing the fire, traffickers drive off with their wanted reptiles and exotic mammals. Tigers and elephants are dedicated sentinels who guard these forests against illegal human trespassing and lose their lives like the forest guards. Many species of wild cats such as panthers, leopards, tigers and cheetahs have already become extinct due to fires and the subsequent loss of habitat. Many historians and conservationists such as Mahesh Rangarajan have recorded how thousands of tigers had been shot down in the years prior to Independence to vacate forest land for saleable property by the royals. Documentaries on elephants by filmmakers like Mike Pandey and Sangita Iyer highlight cruelties perpetrated by human beings and the diminishing impact of the law on protecting forests. A recently published report by the Global Forest Watch (GFW) has brought out shocking facts about India’s forests. In just one year of 2019-20, India has lost nearly 38.5 thousand hectares or 14% of tropical forest. GFW is an initiative of the World Resources Institute with an open source web application to monitor global forests. It recorded the deadliest forest loss in Mizoram (47.2% loss) followed by Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland, which when put together lost more than 52% of all tree cover in India in 2019-20. Our ‘Look East Policy’ is becoming a ‘Fire East Policy’.
Diversion of forest lands for non-forest use was made difficult by the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA 1980). Subsequently, the rate of diversion of forest land within a decade came down from 1.43 lakh ha to around 15,000 ha per annum. Many subsequent amendments to this restraining Act and, in supersession of the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 1981, many changes were brought in between 2014 and 2017. Most of these changes were not even displayed on the MOEFCC website which is considered quite mandatory for modern governance. The Web Measurement Index (WMI) reflecting upon the government’s intention of what it wants to hide or wishes to display reveals how interested the government is in protecting forests.
The changes to the Act further diluted Environment Impact Assessment procedures and eliminated any scope for assessing wildlife before granting clearances to projects on forest lands. Many forest animals who guarded their sacrosanct forest entry points, like the nilgais and monkeys were declared vermin in 2014-15 by short-sighted policies of the MOEFCC and instead of giving them a green cover they were eliminated within weeks in a brutal bloodshed unleashed upon them and abetted by the Ministry. There is also suspected data fuzzing on forest diversions. The Union Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar in his 20 March 2020 statement in the Parliament divulges a figure of 3,616 projects involving 69,414.32 ha of diversion of forest land since 2014. But the MoEFCC’s e-Green website mentions a much higher diversion, a total of 72,685 ha of forest land. This e-Green website is a product of a Supreme Court directive to the Ministry for effective monitoring of the compensatory afforestation in the country through an authority named “Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA)”. So if two figures with an error of almost 3000 ha are available simultaneously on two government websites, is there yet another figure to which citizens have limited or no access?
Huge forest lands which have sketchy forest cover and immense vulnerability to fire await afforestation through CAMPA. This Division within the MoEFCC was constituted in 2009 by the Supreme Court order after a writ petition involving TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 further provided for the establishment of funds under the public accounts of India and of each state to credit the monies received from the user agencies towards compensatory afforestation recovered under the FCA1980. It’s laughable to accept that compensatory afforestation is actually possible despite the Court orders. Where is the land for it? If land was available then there wouldn’t have been any need for encroaching into forest land. Consequently, CAMPA became a dragging and rejected division as the minutes of its seven crucial meetings reveal. In fact the first four meetings between 2009 and 2012 were so casual that the minutes neither had the Chairman’s signature (who is the Union Minister for MoEF) nor his name. Later meetings had both but no decisions were ever taken on direct forest management. A simple demand of the DG of FSI for much needed High Resolution Satellite Imagery like the Cartosat-1 and Ikonos for multisectoral and panchromatic imagery which could have increased fire detection capacity of forest personnel was dragged from the 5th to the 7th CAMPA Advisory Gp. meetings of 2015, after which no record of these meetings are displayed on its website which was last updated in November 2019.
Another scuttling of fire prevention efforts occurred when the government rejected every move to consolidate community network, awareness and fire fighting training proposals such as that from the Barefoot College which were brought to its meetings for approval. India’s forest story is saddening with only 3.02% of real dense forest in a forest cover of merely 21.67%. Sustainable and healthy human life needs at least 30% of forest cover but most of the forests we are left with are moderately covered or open forests. Appallingly, it appears that the MoEFCC engages more in the diversion of forest land than in forest fire prevention.
Is there a possibility that we can still blame climate change for forest fires in the first place? India’s forests are no more carbon sinks but carbon emission areas as one fifth of the 70.82 mha of forest land goes up in flames every year. The carbon emission to the atmosphere from these fires would be much higher than the Californian fire estimation of 91 metric ton released from a forest fire area of only 1.4 mha. In this background, the tall claim of the Environment Minister made in 2017 that India’s 1.56 metric tonnes of emissions in 2010 could be attributed to a nature-friendly Indian lifestyle needs revision and introspection unless we wish to maintain a fake global image of a benign Indian.
The writer is former Professor of Law & Governance, JNU, and president of Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group (NDRG). The views expressed are personal.
RAM RAJYA: A MORAL SOVEREIGNTY
Both Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard.
“Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation”, wrote eminent scholar-politician-statesman Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his seminal work The Hindu View of Life. He went on to say, “Precious as are the echoes of God’s voice in the souls of men of long ago, our regard for them must be tempered by the recognition of the truth that God has never finished the revelation of His wisdom and love. Besides, our interpretation of religious experience must be in conformity with the findings of science. As knowledge grows, our theology develops. Only those parts of the tradition which are logically coherent are to be accepted as superior to the evidence of the senses and not the whole tradition.”
Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a religion of ‘believers’. “Unless you believe, you will not understand”, St Augustin of Hippo had exhorted early Christians of the Roman empire. But Hinduism allowed inquiry and wanted men to be seekers, rather than mere believers. Ram and the Ramayana are divine for many. Gandhi called Ram his personal deity. But Ambedkar did not agree much with Ram. He even challenged the Ramayana, going to the original by Valmiki, in his Riddles in Hinduism. However, there is a common aspect in Gandhi and Ambedkar’s stances: both argued from a logical perspective, not from blind faith or blind hatred.
Whether Ram was a historical person or not did not bother Gandhi much. What mattered to him was the concept of ‘Ram Rajya’. In his view, Ram Rajya essentially meant equal rights to “prince and pauper”. Even during his two visits to Ayodhya, the abode of his deity Ram, in 1921 and 1929, Gandhi’s rhetoric was about standing up for the weak and the meek. Addressing the saints of Ayodhya on the banks of the river Saryu during his visit in February 1921, he resorted to his favourite subject of Ram Rajya. He chose cow protection as the point of reference to tell saints, “Praying to God for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak…We need to learn to love the way Ram loved Sita”. There is no way to achieve Ram Rajya or swaraj without observing this svadharma, he told them.
Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s criticism of the Ramayana was based on his perception of certain events. He believed, not necessarily correctly, that Ram upheld the Varnashrama system and had killed a Dalit saint called Shambuka. “Some people seem to blame Ram because he…without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Ram for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was…based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Ram was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin. This is the reason why Rama killed Shambuka”, Ambedkar writes. Many scholars insist that the story of Shambuka’s killing was an interpolation. Ambedkar was also critical, probably on more valid grounds, of Ram’s treatment of Sita. He saw Ram Rajya as unjust and patriarchal and commented on Ram’s dismissal of Sita to forests the second time as “there are not wanting Hindus who use this as grounds to prove that Ram was a democratic king when others could equally well say that he was a weak and cowardly monarch.”
Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard. The search for such a just and equitable system where there is harmony between the ruler and the ruled has been carried on by political pundits for millennia. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was asked to consume poison by the democratic assembly of 21,000 citizens of Athens. His sin was that he supported the oligarchy of the 30 ruling tyrants of Sparta, a neighbouring city state. Socrates believed that the rule by a select class of wise men, like the oligarchy in Sparta, is better than a democracy based on mass hysteria as that in Athens. Tyrants in ancient Greek regime were those who usurped the role of the monarch; not necessarily the way we understand its meaning today. Plato and Aristotle detested both systems—the cruel authoritarianism of Sparta and the mobocracy of Athens.
Plato’s panacea was ‘philosopher kings’. As Bhishma tells Yudhisthira in the Shanti Parv of the Mahabharat, which was repeated by Chanakya in Arth Shastra:
प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥
This means, ‘The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.’
In the Yudh Kand of the Ramayana, sage Valmiki narrates certain characteristics of Ram Rajya or Ram’s kingdom:
-While Rama was ruling the kingdom, there were no widows to lament, nor was there any danger from wild animals, nor any fear born of diseases. Every creature felt pleased.
-Everyone was intent on virtue. Turning their eyes towards Ram alone, creatures did not kill one another.
-While Ram was ruling the kingdom, people survived for thousands of years, with thousands of their progeny, all free from illness and grief.
-Trees there bore flowers and fruits regularly, without any injury by pests and insects. Clouds were raining on time and the wind was delightful to the touch.
-All the people were endowed with excellent characteristics. All were engaged in virtue.
Ram Rajya is envisioned as that state of governance where the ruler is wise enough to place the good of the people above the interest of his own. But then, who will determine what is good and bad? Nietzsche, the German philosopher, had interpreted ‘good’ as “whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man,” inadvertently becoming the darling of Hitler and the Nazis. Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ also became authoritarians when the Romans invested divinity in them and philosophers like Nietzsche gave weird interpretations of power. Julius Caesar commissioned dozens of sculptors to make different sculptures of him, while Hitler revelled in his wisdom of a ‘superior race’. Such smugness and self-righteousness have produced cruel authoritarians throughout history.
Ram presented a different ideal. Valmiki used two phrases with profound meaning to describe Ram, whom he called ‘विग्रहवान धर्मः’ or the epitome of morality. Those phrases are: आराधनाय लोकस्य and राज्यम उपासित्वा. Ram ‘worshipped people’ and ‘worshipped the kingdom’. He did not believe in his infallibility nor was he overpowered by any superiority complex. When his mother, Kausalya, asked him after his return to Ayodhya whether he had killed Raavan, Ram’s reply was: “Mahagyani, Mahapratapi , Mahabalshali, Akhand Pandit, Mahan Shivbhakt, author of Shiv Tandav Stotra, the mighty Lankesh was killed by his own ego”.
That is why Gandhi summed up Ram Rajya as “the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority”.
The writer is member, National Executive, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, and member, Board of Governors, India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.
THE POLITICS OF COVID-19
Finally, the Kumbh Mela has been called off and the politicians too (most of them) have decided to address virtual rallies instead of crowded ones, but the damage has been done. Were these measures too late? Both on the ground in terms of the spreading Covid surge, and I don’t believe the excuse that the rallies are in West Bengal, while the Kumbh Mela was in UP, so how will they impact Maharashtra and Delhi? We are living in a borderless world and even if Maharashtra and Punjab have been affected by visitors from the UK and the US, it is not to say that the rallies and the Kumbh Mela won’t take their toll on an already burdened healthcare system. The numbers will come in later, especially once the devotees and political leaders go back to wherever they came from. And we will once again see another spike before this one has been flattened out.
The politicians make these decisions, and it is the ordinary citizens that suffer. We are told that the lockdown could not have been avoided. But from all our actions, we have been heading straight into lockdown 2.0. This includes our rather nationalistic vaccination strategy that totally failed to ensure that there was enough to go around. Again, a decision has been made to rectify this situation. And again I ask, why couldn›t this decision have been taken earlier?
In the end, we are once again seeing hordes of migrants heading to the bus stations and railway stations; while most middle class families are once again staring at their bank statements. The economic fall is a crisis waiting to happen. The government was able to inject some liquidity in the market in the last few months, but at some point it will have to tighten the interest rates due to inflationary pressure. What happens then? Again, it is clear that the states are broke and the only one with the money is the Centre. Where will the Centre raise the money from—by taxing the already overburdened salaried class?
And what about our healthcare system? Was there any learning from last year? Our budget barely made provisions to handle an ongoing pandemic. Perhaps our policy makers were lulled into thinking that with the vaccination, the worst was over. But with the vaccinations barely able to handle the changing mutations, clearly this is not the case. Our doctors are nearing a breakdown point. They are doing tele-consultations, hospital visits and countering WhatsApp forwards.
We have all been so shaken by this second surge that is also affecting our kids, that we need a doctor›s okay for even the most basic medicines. And they just don›t have the time or the energy anymore. Over stressed laboratories now cannot even handle routine blood tests. Once again, as what happened last year, routine and in some cases life threatening ailments are being ignored to handle the Covid onslaught. Most laboratories have drive-in centres for Covid testing to take the pressure of house calls, but while the timing of these are from 10 am onwards, the slots are all filled up by 10.02 am. I have had Dr Harsh Mahajan, founder, Mahajan Imaging, on Roundtable (NewsX) making a plea to state governments to stop routine tests for those crossing state borders as it adds to the already burdened system and those who really need the test done in a hurry have to wait. He has a point. These are desperate times.
Apart from the healthcare system, shouldn’t our budget have looked at the economic drivers such as the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors? It had barely begun to limp back when the second lockdown had thrown it back into a tailspin. Restaurants are once again reduced to take away counters and that is not where their revenue comes in. Malls are once again locked down as are gym and spas. Commercial real estate is at an all-time low, though residential real estate has taken off in these Covid times where work from home means you don›t have to live in an expensive apartment near your work place, but can actually invest in your own home in the suburbs.
These are not easy times. These are also times that need to see a strong leadership—by strong I don›t just mean a strong personality that can lead, but also one that takes the right policy decisions. During the last month, our Prime Minister has been too busy being a star campaigner. It is only in the last few days that we have seen him revert back to being PM. Hope he stays the course.
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