Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Pakistani Connection!

This audio recording, courtesy Al Jazeera, reminds us of Kargil, 26/11 and the perfidy of the Pakistani military-jihadi Establishment.

Recording reveals Afghan attack plot

Intercepted calls show Taliban and Pakistan-based group planning June attack on Kabul hotel.

Afghan security officials have released a recording of intercepted phone calls between a Pakistan-based group and Taliban fighters planning an attack on a Kabul hotel.

Twenty-one people died when eight suicide bombers stormed the hotel in a nighttime raid in late June.

Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith reports from Kabul.

Dealing with corruption

How about a moral society?

My opposition to Anna Hazare's agitation to force his version of the Jan Lokpal Bill on the Government without bothering about Parliament and its law-making process has been misconstrued by many as support for politicians denuded of scruples and ethics. Contesting such bunkum is meaningless as critics more often than not have pre-conceived notions.

Most Anna fans are blind to reason and logic; sadly, they are also ignorant of how Parliament functions; tragically, they are disdainful of the parliamentary system of governance; ironically, they claim to uphold democracy while repudiating the very basis of our democracy: Our electoral system.

I firmly believe that a Lokpal Bill, call it Jan Lokpal if you must, will not cure our Government and society of the debilitating ailment called 'corruption'. Yet another law will at best serve as a palliative -- it will provide us with a sense of relief rather than kill the virus that is eating away at the innards of our nation.

What we need are reforms, radical and sweeping, to remove the reasons and incentives for giving and accepting bribes. We need to move towards minimum government, maximum governance. We need to take away discretionary powers from politicians and babus. We need to make Government transparent to the extent that the RTI becomes redundant.

We must not countenance any suggestion to maintain the status quo, or gloss over what are often described as sins of omission and commission but are in reality the pocketing of commission by those in power and authority.

Yet, we must not lose sight of the fact that our politics and bureaucracy are an accurate reflection of our society; after all, neither politicians nor bureaucrats come from an alien planet, they are elected and selected from amidst us.

Can we then, as a society, look within? And force fundamental changes in our outlook? Can we demand, and mobilise masses in support of that demand, radical reforms without even a day’s delay?

More importantly, can we strive to build a moral society which is strong and can resist the temptation of succumbing to the amorality that we now witness?

These are some of the issues I have raised in Vacuous morality and low cunning. Your views and comments, as always, are welcome.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Palestinian Ambassador to India hails terrorists

Killers praised as 'shahids'!

Palestinian terrorists, armed with rifles and bombs, carried out a series of coordinated attacks last Thursday (August 18) near the southern Israeli city of Eilat, on the country’s border with Egypt, killing six civilians, a soldier and a security officer. More than 30 Israelis were injured in the attacks. [Video] It now transpires that three of the terrorists may have been Egyptians.

The terrorists shot at a bus and two cars, and targetted a military patrol with bombs. A suicide-bomber blew up a bus, killing the driver and himself. Israeli Army personnel took on the terrorists, killing seven of them.

In a swift (and admirable) retaliatory response, the IDF targetted leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees, responsible for the terror attacks. In the targeted airstrikes, five members of this terrorist organisation were killed in Gaza. Among those killed is Ismail Asmar of Rafiah in the Gaza Strip, a 'senior commander' in the Islamic Jihad, who financed and planned the terrorist attacks in Eilat. Unfortunately, collateral damage included a child who died.

The following day, on August 19, the Palestinian National Authority Ambassador to India, Adli Sadeq, wrote an article in Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official daily newspaper of the PNA, praising the terrorists and hailing their attacks on Israeli civilians. The article was published with the headline: “A great operation, regardless of anything”.

In that article, Adli Sadeq writes:

"May Allah have mercy upon the shahids (martyrs) who fell during Ramadan, those of them who went out to confront the occupation forces and did not return, and those of them who were bombed in the home of Khaled Shaath (commander of the Popular Resistance Committees unit manufacturing rockets and bombs) and died a shahid's death... What happened yesterday (August 18) may be considered one of the most successful infiltration operations, for it is clear that the preparation of the routes for the men to reach their target was done some time ago, took much time, and required great effort. What this means is that this was a quality operation that will be difficult to repeat.”

[Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 19, 2011]

There are three issues for consideration.

First, the praise that Adli Sadeq has showered on the Popular Resistance Committees terrorists and the honour he has bestowed upon killers of innocent civilians is remarkably similar to the praise that is showered routinely by Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other similar terrorist organisations on their killers and the honour that they bestow upon their ‘shahids’.

Second, the Ministry of External Affairs, indeed, the Government of India, should not only take serious note of the statement endorsing terrorism by an accredited Ambassador based in New Delhi who enjoys diplomatic privileges and immunity but also summon him for an explanation before declaring him persona non grata. Not to do so would be tantamount to the Government of India shutting its eyes and ears to incitement of terrorism from Indian soil.

Third, as is the wont of our Left-liberal commentariat which dominates media and controls content, it has blithely glossed over Adli Sadeq’s statement. Is this simply because the perpetrators of these terror attacks were Muslims and their victims were Jews? Do our commentariat and the media it dominates find it politically incorrect to call out killers of civilians who happen to be Muslims?

Responses to all three points raised here are welcome.

Do also read Egypt’s Brotherhood Declares War on the Bikini: What the 'Revolution' really means.
"More zealous Muslims demand cover-up of pharaonic monuments, too

Sunbathing in Alexandria may soon be a thing of the past, at least if some Egyptian Islamist politicians have their way.

Egypt's tourism industry has suffered a severe blow since the outburst of anti-regime demonstrations in January. But that did not stop the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, from demanding stricter regulations over what tourists can do and wear while visiting the country. The party is urging officials to ban skimpy swimwear and the consumption of alcohol on Egyptian streets..."

My column Coffee Break on Israel, India and terrorism makes the point What tiny Israel can, giant India can't!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reforms alone can halt corruption

Slogans are no solution

Last Sunday, in my weekly column, Coffee Break, I argued the case for radical reforms over an all-powerful super babu called Jan Lokpal as is being demanded by Anna Hazare and his team of self-appointed representatives of 'civil society', to tackle the menace of corruption. I concluded with this comment:

Strait is the gate and narrow the path to redemption. If legislation and the creation of bureaucratic institutions could alone redeem us as a nation, we wouldn’t find ourselves in such a sorry mess. Populism has brought us to where we are today; populism of the kind being witnessed at Midan-e-Ramlila (and before that at Tihar Square) will only leave us stuck deeper in the mire of hopelessness. Anna Hazare is right up to a point. India does need a second freedom movement, but not to recreate the Inspector Raj of our socialist past. We need a second freedom movement to secure economic freedom and freedom from a system that intrudes into every aspect of our lives. That’s how democracies have dealt with the menace of corruption elsewhere in the world.

I have long held that till the reasons for corruption at various levels of Government are removed, or, to put it another way, the 'incentives' to demand and accept bribes are negated, corruption will continue to exist in one form or the other. A Lokpal (or Jan Lokpal) can act only on the basis of complaints. It is doubtful if most bribe-givers will ever lodge a complaint.

For instance, the Great 2G Spectrum Robbery did not come to light because any of the beneficiaries of A Raja's largesse-for-a-price 'policy' lodged a complaint with the CVC or the CBI. The scam came to light on account of two reasons: Sustained reportage by The Pioneer which persisted with the story, the audit report of the CAG and the interventionist role played by the Supreme Court.

Now look at it this way. If we were to opt for reforms that removed the discretionary power of Ministers and vested independent regulatory bodies with the requisite authority, such abuse of power would not happen. Either at the Centre or in the States.

The idea is to make Government responsible for its primary task: Governance. This would be possible if we were to opt for the principle of Minimum Government, Maximum Governance. As I have argued in my column, we need economic freedom, and freedom from Government's needless controls that serve as incentives for bribe-taking.

I would like to mention one specific reform that can go a long way in fighting corruption: Judicial reforms.

A hobbled judiciary that is short of staff and infrastructure means a ramshackle criminal justice system. This is felt in two ways: Cases pile up, delaying verdicts and appeals; and, some judges are tempted to convert the situation to their advantage and lining their pockets.

Just how ramshackle the justice system is can be gauged from what Justice VV Rao of Andhra Pradesh High Court had to say in March 2010 while delivering the keynote address on e-governance in judiciary:

Indian judiciary would take 320 years to clear the backlog of 31.28 million cases pending in various courts, including High Courts in the country.

"If one considers the total pendency of cases in the Indian judicial system, every judge in the country will have an average load of about 2,147 cases."

India has 14,576 judges as against the sanctioned strength of 17,641, including 630 High Court judges. This works out to a ratio of 10.5 judges per million population.

What we need are more judges with unimpeachable integrity, especially at lower levels of the judiciary -- that is, in the trial courts. We need trained staff and better infrastructure. We need to adopt a system of appointment of judges that ensures tainted persons are not appointed to the higher judiciary. We also need to have in place a mechanism that will ensure the immediate sacking of corrupt judges in the lower judiciary.

Unless we have a judiciary that is free and fair, and is able to deliver justice within a reasonable period of time in all cases, any 'crusade' against corruption will be meaningless.

Will the mere appointment of a Lokpal (or Jan Lokpal) ensure a justice system that works? Or will this merely result in more cases being filed and piling up, adding to the existing backlog?

Do we need a super babu -- or a super cop -- or a system that works?

[You can read my other columns here.]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Look beyond Bellary

When the Supreme Court’s Forest Bench takes up the issue of illegal mining on Friday (August 5, 2011) it should take a wider view and strike at the root cause of this crime.

Chief Justice of India SH Kapadia and his fellow judges Justice Aftab Alam and Justice Swatanter Kumar were understandably enraged upon reading the report of the Central Empowered Committee, comprising environment experts, on illegal mining in iron ore-rich Bellary district of Karnataka. Even without delving into the details of the extent of illegal mining and the resultant environmental degradation, it would have been fair to call for drastic action to put an end to both. After all, Bellary has been in the news for years, and not always for the shenanigans of the ‘Bellary Brothers’ or the alleged yet-to-be-proven indiscretions of the former Chief Minister of Karnataka, Mr BS Yeddyurappa.

That many of the 124 mining lease-holders in this district have been indulging in rampant illegal excavation of iron ore, either by encroaching into land beyond the leased area or by extracting more than the permissible amount, has been common knowledge for a long time. The Central Empowered Committee’s report has served to bring shocking details to the attention of the Supreme Court, for which it deserves to be lauded. Chief Justice Kapadia and his fellow judges on the Forest Bench also deserve applause for acting in a determined manner to halt illegal mining; action that should have been taken by the executive long ago, but wasn’t, has at last been taken by the judiciary. So once again we are witnessing the judiciary stepping into the breach created by the executive’s inaction, or, to be precise, failure to act.

Having said that, it would be in order to suggest that perhaps the Forest Bench acted in pique while imposing a total ban on mining in Bellary district and ordering reparations to be paid by mining lease-holders for the damage caused to the environment last Friday. Instead of allowing exasperation to get the better of reason, the Bench should have taken a wider view of the problem of illegal mining without limiting it to one district in Karnataka. It should have also looked at the real, unstated reason behind illegal mining — apart from the profit motive — without addressing which the crime of looting the wealth of the Earth and destroying its forest cover cannot be halted. While Bellary has no doubt come to symbolise illegal mining, it is not the only place where natural resources are being extracted in violation of rules and laws.

If a total ban needs to be imposed till the problem is solved and controls firmly put in place, then it should apply to all mining activity across the country. The “systemic failure” which the Bench has highlighted while regretting that “mining regulators failed, forest regulators failed...” does not begin and end with Bellary; that failure’s adverse impact is being felt in every State which is endowed (or, as some would say after seeing the unrestricted loot, cursed) with mineral resources. If the situation in Bellary is frightening, it is equally scary in Odisha, Jharkhand and Goa, to name only a few States where illegal mining thrives at the expense of forests and indigenous people, enriching a few while pauperising millions.

The mining regulators have failed in these States, too, as have forest regulators. That failure, it needs to be stressed, is by design and not by default: Regulators are known to hanker for crumbs thrown their way by mine operators. There exist on paper severe restrictions laid down by the Mines Department of each of the States where ore is mined; so are tough rules framed by the Forest Department. Together, these restrictions and rules control the amount of iron ore that can be extracted and transported.

But the very fact that despite there being such restrictions and rules illegal mining flourishes is ample evidence of corruption at the level of officials who are charged with the responsibility of implementing them. A full and impartial inquiry into how firms that have long ceased to exist are allowed to extract ore from mines for which leases have long expired, how mining lease-holders are allowed to plunder ore after destroying forests on land beyond their leased areas, and how illegally mined ore is legally shipped from ports under the watch of Government officials in Odisha would help understand the extent of the menace.

Hence, little or no purpose would be served by limiting judicial intervention to one district of one State or restricting executive action aimed at imposing penalties on a group of mining lease-holders. If the 124 mining lease-holders of Bellary are to be penalised for the destruction they have caused to forest cover, so should the hundreds of others who ‘operate’ mines across the country. Anything less than that would be unfair and fall short of justice. Which is not to suggest that damage to the environment caused by illegal — as well as legal — mining should not be addressed and reparations imposed, but to appeal for a uniform application of penalties as deemed appropriate by the Supreme Court and implemented by the Government.

Which brings us to the root cause of illegal mining. Much, if not all, of the illegal mining of iron ore that happens is on account of escalation of demand in the international market. For instance, China’s insatiable demand for iron ore to fuel its rapidly increasing production of steel has led to a dramatic rise in the price of this natural resource. A quick estimate would show that the price of iron ore has escalated by leaps and bounds in the last seven years, which coincides with the spurt in China’s demand. Mining lease-holders now find it more profitable to export iron ore than to supply it to local producers of steel. And this shift is more than endorsed, in fact it is encouraged, by the Union Government as it adds fat to lean export earnings. It is of no consequence to the Ministry of Commerce, and presumably also the Ministry of Finance, that higher earnings through exports has created, what one steel factory owner describes as, “pressure on iron ore pricing in India”, thus increasingly placing our domestic steel industry at a disadvantage and stunting its growth, whereas it should really have been the other way round.

Available statistics show that of the total production of iron ore, nearly half of it is exported. If this trend were to continue, a time would soon come when domestic steel manufacturers would be hard put to keep their furnaces going. India’s crude iron production in 2010-11 was 70 million tonnes which needed 112 million tonnes of iron ore. Over the next five years steel production in India is likely to reach 120 million tonnes per year which would require 175 to 180 million tonnes of iron ore. A limited or extended ban on mining may meet the demands of activism, but it would cause enormous damage to our steel industry.

The solution to the problem, therefore, does not lie in imposing a ban on mining, but regulating it in a manner that India’s national interest is protected. Countries around the world now think in terms of securing their future by expanding the scope of security strategies to cover natural resources, including water and minerals. Unfortunately, the Government of India thinks in terms of somehow or the other increasing its export earnings to balance the books of a badly managed economy. India’s steel industry has long been demanding that iron ore exports should be either banned or made less lucrative through the imposition of heavy export duties. That would not only make illegal mining an unprofitable venture and protect forests from ruthless buccaneers but also ensure that domestic steel manufacturers are not faced with a situation where their principal strength, abundant availability of indigenous iron ore, will be diminished.

As the Supreme Court takes up the issue of illegal mining today, perhaps the Chief Justice and his fellow judges on the Forest Bench would want to look beyond Bellary. If the judiciary must intervene, let it force the executive to do what should have been done long ago: Either impose a ban on the export of iron ore or introduce an export duty that is so high that China and others will look elsewhere to fuel their steel industry. That way lies the path to solving a problem that has come to haunt all of India, not just Bellary district in Karnataka.

[This appeared as the main Editorial Page article in The Pioneer.]