Wednesday, February 28

Making Sense of Punjab Results

"The script must have been familiar to the Congress. On Tuesday, it lost the state to lack of governance and corruption — the two things it had accused the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party to win the elections in 2002.
In addition to these, former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s famous inaccessibility, which many of his Cabinet members emulated, alienated many sections. Rising prices and unemployment completed the list.
But for the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, which issued an edict to its followers to vote for the Congress, the party could have suffered a rout. The dera votes seemed to have saved at least 16 seats in the five districts around Bathinda....."
"THE results of the Punjab Assembly election clearly show the wisdom of the voters. They simply punished the Congress government for its sheer indifference to their woes and insensitivity to the concept of accountability to the people. They voted for the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine so that it is able to form a stable government. While being decisive they were also careful in ensuring that there is a strong Opposition in the House, which can keep the government under check. Not only that, even within the ruling alliance, neither the SAD nor the BJP can lord it over the other, critically dependent as they are on each other to run the government. The voters also refrained themselves from experimenting with many of the smaller parties that were in the fray......."
"Amarinder Singh paid a price for alienating his own party colleagues and for his allegedly high-handed ways. His push for SEZs also did not endear him to land owners and farmers. In addition, the rise in prices was also beginning to hurt the citizen. Similarly, voters in other states had their own set of local grievances......"
"When governance is poor, people ascribe any progress to their own cleverness and hard work, but all their difficulties to the government. Even in the best-governed democracies, voters like a change and often oust incumbents. In India, 80% of incumbents lose. No surprise, then, that the incumbent Congress party lost in Punjab....."

Saturday, February 17

Punjab has lowest forest cover

The forest cover in Punjab is now the lowest in the country, write Dr.G.S. BHALLA and HEMA KHANNA, from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, in Punjab Newsline
The forest cover in Punjab is less than the desert state of Rajasthan that has 4.62 per cent of its total area under forests. In Punjab it is 3.14 per cent of the total area.
As per the latest report of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), the dense forest cover in Punjab has decreased by whopping 80,600 hectares. The vested interests cleverly concealed the figures that reveal the real picture of the state of the forests in Punjab.
The worst affected districts in terms of forest cover depletion are: Ferozpur that has witnessed 111 per cent depletion, Amritsar 106 per cent, Hoshiarpur 84 per cent, Bathinda 76 per cent, Gurdaspur 21 per cent and Ludhiana 55 per cent during the period extending from 2001 to 2003. Hoshiarpur district comprised of 22 per cent of the total state forest cover as per the 2001 forest survey report. However, in just two years the percentage of forest in the district has gone down to 18 percent. The dense forest areas in Hoshiarpur have gone down by 51 sq km. INTERESTINGLY, on the World Environment Day, 2005,the Department of Forests, publicized in leading newspapers, claiming that the forest cover in the state increased from 1,387 sq km in 1997 to 1,580 sq km in 2003.
However, the department deliberately concealed the figures as regards the forest cover in 2001. As per the Forest Survey of India report, the forest cover in the state in 2001 was 2,432 sq km. It included 1,549 sq km dense forest cover and 883 sq km open forest cover.
Another interesting fact available from the data is that the entire forest that has vanished formed the dense forest cover. The dense forest cover in the state reduced from 1,549 sq km in 2001 to just 743 sq km in 2003. The open forest cover remained almost the same at 837 km. The forest cover loss in the state was also the highest in the country. It was even more than Madhya Pradesh, the biggest state of the country in terms of geographical area. ( The figures have been quoted from the latest Forest Survey of India report published in 2005).
The dense forest cover has depleted despite the fact that the state had raised a loan a Japan bank for plantation. More than Rs 600 crore has been spent under a Japan aided scheme for afforestation in Punjab in the past one decade. The department had claimed that 20,000 sq hectares area had been brought under plantation under a Japanese project. A large percentage of the said amount has been mostly spent by the state on plantation in kandi forest ranging from Ropar to Gurdaspur. However, if such a large area was brought under plantation, how the dense forest cover in the state went down by more than 55 per cent.
In view of it environmentalists demanded that instead of claiming false accolades, the department should order an inquiry into such large-scale depletion of the dense forest cover in the state. Further, in a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in Punjab and Haryana high court, certain persons from the forest department had demanded a high level probe into the large-scale depletion of forest cover in the state.
Unconfirmed sources reveal that the sum of rupees 600 crores taken as loan from a bank in Japan had gone down the drain. This is said to have been usurped by the officials responsible for plantations with these funds borrowed from a foreign land. When the departmental enquiry was ordered, it is believed that the forest officials and the powers that be maneuvered to shield the scam and the enquiry officers and the concerned were made to believe that no misutilization of funds had taken place. However, they failed to escape the vigilant photographers who showed that only few unplanted tree saplings were lying abandoned at the place where the funds would have created a dense forest cover. It's a matter of shame.
We understand and feel worried about the low rate of economic growth, fiscal deficit, huge foreign and national debts, but what about the mounting ecological deficit that the country accumulates year after year.
The protective life line is turning fragile. The world is looking ahead in this twenty first century towards growth and development. Indeed, the development is possible, but only when the earth's natural environment and resources are well protected, conserved and thoroughly managed. Ironically, this has not been the case so far, for most of the natural environment has witnessed a heavy toll on account of excessive development activities, that have not only degraded our natural resources drastically even, the major renewable resources- forests, groundwater, agricultural soils and marine fisheries among others- have been polluted to the extent which poison the living beings. Unique and irreplaceable species are becoming extinct at rates estimated at up to 30,000 a year- the fastest destruction to have occurred in the last 65 million years. The agricultural soil of every continent is being destroyed more quickly than nature can restore them. The basic resources are under intense pressure from increased displacement of soil particles from land surfaces, has also become a serious problem.
Now the excessive human dwelling, growing industrialization and neglect of forestry is driving animal and bird population off. In fact, this is causing not only death of many species, but resulting into draughts, floods and global warming as well. The decaying twigs and tress are making soil porous and ultimately barren. Forests are also the home and heaven for wild life. Their constant degradation is causing misery to the wild life and our ecosystem. India's woods, once dark and deep, now are a living example to man's savage destruction. The saying that man finds forests but leaves deserts, could not be more true to India. Trees known as mother of rivers act as depositories for water resources, are unable to sustain their own existence. In such a pitiable situation, how can they be expected to sustain others?
Under the prevailing conditions, it would be in the fitness of things to give exemplary punishment to those who are digging the graves of the civilization by indulging in scams to the detriment of our ecology in which hangs the future of the world and for the cause for which people laid down their lives.

Thursday, February 15

Fading spectres in sadda Punjab

An overview of the recent elections in Punjab by HARISH K. PURI, former professor of political science, Guru Nanak Dev University, in The Indian Express

Har ek baat pey kehtey ho tum ke tu kya hai
Tumhi kaho ke yeh andaaz-e-guftgu kya hai
— Mirza Ghalib
Whichever side wins the assembly election in Punjab, the state’s voters, particularly in the urban areas, will have expressed their revulsion against the banality of political discourse and poverty of ideas. The crude tu-tu-main-main, plain mud-slinging and name-calling which was conducted by the two ‘stalwarts’ during the campaign — Captain Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal — grew progressively more abusive and vulgar daily. The live presentation of debates between the candidates on different TV channels exposed to the viewers not only their emptiness but also a behaviour that was often far from civilised.
We in Punjab have also been witness to the institutionalised system of large-scale and free supply of liquor, poppy husk and other intoxicants and the intimidating spectacle of gangs of musclemen turning out at the local gatherings addressed by candidates of both the major political parties. The spectacular display of unaccounted-for money that went into electioneering rendered the high-voltage accusations of corruption flung at each other by political rivals patently hypocritical.
During the 2002 assembly election campaign, Captain Amarinder Singh had seemed to enjoy a relative advantage against Badal, in whose regime corruption was widely believed to have touched new heights. This time things were different. After five years, the Captain and his government suffered a credibility deficit on that count. ‘Luterey’, or plunderers, was the most commonly heard term used for the leaders of the two major political parties. The proportion of people who routinely made such a remark in disgust or in fun was amazingly high. No one defended Badal but it also seemed that the Captain had more to worry about.
Far less appreciated, however, is the progressive waning of the communal and sectarian divides in the rhetoric of election campaigns since the end of Khalistani terrorism in Punjab. During the last five years, the Congress CM Captain Amarinder Singh virtually stole and appropriated much of the traditional political symbolism and panthic agenda propagated by Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal. Whether it was the celebration of Sikh religious ceremonies by the state government, its efforts to ensure easy access of Sikhs to Nankana Sahib, its hard line on the question of sharing Punjab river waters with Haryana or the competitive populism of free electricity and water for agriculture — in each, the Congress tended to outdo the Akalis. With a Sikh as prime minister, a Sikh chief of army, a Muslim as president, the spectre of Hindu majoritarian threat to minorities does not carry conviction any more in Punjab. The Akalis could not capitalise on the traditional sectarian rhetoric of Sikhan naal vitkara, Punjab naal dhakka or the idiomatic portrayals of the Centre and Congress as enemy of the panth.
In spite of the political assertion among lower caste communities, caste exclusiveness was less marked than earlier. Instead, a “possessive individualism”, the single-minded objective of making private profit from public office and a managerial approach to electoral competition blurred the sharp lines that used to differentiate the two major parties. All major parties focused on issues relating to development — jobs, electricity, roads, education etc. The cheap populism of atta at Rs 4 and dal at Rs 20 per kg had become the subject of jokes.
“They lie”, “they lie” — this matter-of-fact reaction by ordinary people to the tall promises made by the leading contenders was a reminder that the voter is nobody’s fool. The electorate seemed to intuitively understand what a seasoned political scientist has surmised — that in the age of capitalist liberalisation the people sometimes choose a government that they liked for its promises, but it was far less possible for any government to fulfill those promises. There is a disconnect between the ruling view of ‘development’ and the human needs and capabilities of the vast majority. In the rhetoric of the two parties, ‘development’ had come to mean mainly skyways, SEZs, malls, IT parks and investment. Ideology as the basis of choice or priority was passé.
Let us not be so cynical, however, as to ignore the thrill of this election as a festival of democracy. Like in other celebrations, Punjabis brought their own charm to it. There was noise and colour, animated crowds on the move, the spectacle of slipping masks, abuses and brawls and perhaps also a whiff of hope.
Democracy, however, is much more than elections. It is not substantive without a sustained and active participation at all levels. For that to happen, it is necessary that political parties put a premium on democracy in their own decision-making. The authoritarian tendency in the working of all political parties may be the reason why no party in Punjab spoke about the implementation of police reforms or promoting the exercise of the right to information in its campaign for the state.