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Divided we fall: on the 15th Finance Commission

Prime Minister Narendra Modi thinks vested interests are behind the “baseless” allegation that the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission are biased against certain States or a region. He did not name the region, but he was clearly responding to growing clamour from the southern States for a rethink on the parameters for the Commission to determine revenue-sharing between the Centre and the States. The southern States are concerned that the Commission is switching from the 1971 Census to the 2011 Census. This means States that have done relatively better to control population growth could see their allocations, as a fraction of the total resources, reduced. However, speaking in Chennai Mr. Modi said a State like Tamil Nadu would actually benefit from the Commission’s mandate as the Centre has mooted incentives for those who have done well on population control. That the Prime Minister has had to wade in to try and manage a controversy, days after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had termed it as ‘needless’, signals the Centre’s concerns about the narrative turning against the BJP ahead of the Karnataka election

Stress test: the need for water management reforms

 On the cusp of the southwest monsoon, several arid States are hoping to revive their rivers and reservoirs with bountiful rain. One of them is Gujarat, which is roiled by the long-tail effect of a deficit monsoon between August and November last year. The State government has embarked on a labour-intensive programme to desilt rivers and waterbodies ahead of the rains. Its predicament reflects the larger reality of drought in India, aggravated by heat waves and significant rain deficits in different regions. This year’s fall in reservoir storage levels to below-average levels has affected farmers who depend on the Sardar Sarovar dam, and 27 other reservoirs including those in Madhya Pradesh. A reinvigorated Congress in the opposition has turned the heat on the BJP government in Gujarat, which is hard put to defend itself against the charge that dam waters were depleted merely to fill the Sabarmati river for a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December, when he undertook a seaplane journey on the river. Its response has been to roll out a campaign to deepen waterbodies on the one hand, and arrange religious events to propitiate the gods on the other. But it has had to prioritise drinking water needs over farming, and suspend irrigation supply from the dam on March 15. This year, Delhi has been at loggerheads with Haryana over reduction of water released in the Yamuna, highlighting growing stresses over a vital resource. Urgent water management reforms must be undertaken to help citizens and avoid losses to the economy.

In a normal year, the pre-monsoon phase from March 1 brings some respite and India gets about 130 mm of precipitation before the rainy season begins. This year began with a sharp 50% deficit, but touched near-normal levels, though not in the northwestern region. The monsoon itself is highly variable. This underscores the need for comprehensive reforms at the level of States, with the Centre helping to conserve hydrological resources. If Gujarat improves rural water storage structures and creates many small wetlands beyond the compulsions of politics, it can ensure long-term prosperity for thousands of villages in Saurashtra, Kutch and the northern region where pumps run dry with unfailing regularity. Farmers will get relief from the monsoon vagaries that affect the Narmada, whose waters are apportioned among four States. There is also the challenge of reducing demand for farming, given that the Mihir Shah Committee estimated public irrigation efficiency to be a low 35%. Farmers need to be helped with the latest technologies to cut water use. The State government is thinking of going in for desalination. Decentralised water storage too will help cities like Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Surat and Vadodara when water supply from large dams and other sources dwindles. If climate change is going to influence monsoon vigour and availability in coming years, the time to take action is now.

Berth pangs: on the Karnataka coalition impasse

 Quick and bold decisions are more often made during moments of crises than during periods of relative calm and quiet. After sealing a deal on a post-poll coalition in Karnataka even before the counting of votes drew to a close, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) are unable to reach an understanding on Cabinet berths and portfolios almost a week after the coalition proved its majority on the floor of the Assembly. Other than on having H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) as the Chief Minister and G. Parameshwara of the Congress as the Deputy Chief Minister, the two parties have been unable to agree on the contours of the coalition government. The Congress, which was hurried into conceding considerable ground to the JD(S) by a fast-moving opponent in the Bharatiya Janata Party, is now driving a hard bargain on the strength of its own numbers. The reasoning is that the party, with twice as many members as the JD(S) in the Assembly, should have its choice of ministries such as finance, home, public works and energy as the bigger partner that had stepped back from the race for the chief ministership. Otherwise, this would leave the JD(S) as the recognisable face of the government, leaving little for the Congress. The JD(S) appears willing to concede more berths to the Congress, but would like to have some of the key portfolios, especially finance, for itself.

We cannot ignore the pollution crisis in India

 Officials in New Delhi are busy preparing to welcome representatives of the United Nations these days. People from various parts of the world will converge here on June 5 for the World Environment Day. This year’s theme is Beat Plastic Pollution. As the host, it is India’s responsibility to take a meaningful initiative on this issue. Though, plastic, in India, is only a part of the massive problem of pollution.

To begin with, some bad news. The stream of water in the Yamuna has become so feeble in Haryana and areas adjoining Uttar Pradesh that people are unable to even immerse the remains of their loved ones. As a result, instead of cremating them, nearby villagers have begin burying the remains of their loved ones. They are now waiting for the rains. After it rains, the Yamuna’s stream will once again get stronger and the souls of their ancestors can rest in peace.

This isn’t happening for the first time. The trend has only strengthened over the past three decades. The conditions have worsened so much that the devout who gather for the Ganga Dussehra in the border areas of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana don’t have enough water to carry out the aachman (a customary sip of holy water before the religious prayers). Some enterprising people have begun to deploy diesel pump sets on the banks of the Yamuna to provide them with water. One wishes they understood that this isn’t a problem that can be solved in one day.

After getting this news when we begin to investigate, the correspondents from Hindustan found that the Ganga is also drifting into a similar situation. In Varanasi, right in between the main flow of the river some islands of sand have emerged. These are so big and solid that some daredevil youth have been carrying out stunts on their bikes on these. As we already know, the Cauvery and the Krishna dry up for more than 100 days of the year, before they can complete their course. As they originated from the Himalayas, the Ganga and the Yamuna used to be exceptions to this. The Himalayan glaciers sent them to the plains and a number of small rivers also contribute. That these two rivers will reach such a scenario was something that was unimaginable till a few years ago.

To be an environmental world power

 cological ruin is on a gallop across South Asia, with life and livelihood of nearly a quarter of the world’s population affected. Yet, our polities are able to neither fathom nor address the degradation. The distress is paramount in the northern half of the subcontinent, roping in the swathe from the Brahmaputra basin to the Indus-Ganga plain.

Within each country, with politics dancing to the tune of populist consumerism, nature is without a guardian. The erosion of civility in geopolitics keeps South Asian societies apart when people should be joining hands across borders to save our common ground.

Because wildlife, disease vectors, aerosols and river flows do not respect national boundaries, the environmental trends must perforce be discussed at the regional inter-country level. As the largest nation-state of our region, and the biggest polluter whose population is the most vulnerable, India needs to be alert to the dangerous drift.

China has been resolutely tackling air pollution and promoting clean energy. But while Beijing’s centralised governance mandates environmentalism-by-decree, the subcontinental realities demand civic participation for sustainability to work. Unfortunately, despite being a vast democracy where people power should be in the driving seat, the Indian state not only neglects its own realm, it does not take the lead on cross-border environmentalism.

Thus, Bihar is helping destroy the Chure/Siwalik range of Nepal to feed the construction industry’s demand for boulders and conglomerate, even though this hurts Bihar itself through greater floods, desertification and aquifer depletion. Air pollution is strangling the denizens of Lahore, New Delhi,Kathmandu and Dhaka alike, but there is no collaboration. Wildlife corridors across States, provinces and countries are becoming constricted by the day, but we look the other way.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has chosen India to be the ‘host country’ to mark World Environment Day today. But when will New Delhi rise to connect the dots between representative democracy and ecological sanity?

Violence in the hills: on Shillong unrest

 he spark for the week-long incidents of violence in downtown Shillong was a lie spread through WhatsApp, the ubiquitous messaging platform that has increasingly become an unfiltered medium for hate and rumour-mongering. A scuffle between members of the Mazhabi Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and a Khasi youth and his associates over a local matter was amicably settled between representatives of the communities. But a fabricated story that the youth had succumbed to injuries sustained in the scuffle led to large numbers of Khasi protesters laying siege to Punjabi Lane, demanding that the Sikh residents move from the area. That the “settlers” have been in Shillong for more than a century and a half, having been originally brought there by the British colonials to work as manual scavengers, and have since integrated themselves within Shillong, has not insulated them from being described as outsiders. The administration did well to protect the dwellers of Punjabi Lane from physical harm, but mob violence persisted until curfew was imposed and the Army put on stand-by. Spokespersons of the Khasi Students’ Union, whose members were part of the agitation, continue to insist that the Punjabi Lane residents be moved from Shillong’s commercial heart to its outskirts. Picturesque Shillong is no longer just an idyllic hill station; it is a bustling city that has grown in an unplanned manner and requires reforms such as zoning regulation. But the agitators’ demand to shift the Sikh residents is unreasonable and must be resisted. In fact, the Meghalaya High Court had stayed an order by the District Commissioner to evict the residents from Punjabi Lane (also known as Sweepers’ Colony) in 1986.

Tribal angst over economic issues leading to the scapegoating of non-tribal long-time residents reflects the continued failure to forge a more inclusive politics in Meghalaya. Today, there are enough provisions of affirmative action for the tribal people — 80% reservation for the Khasi, Jaintia, Garo and other tribes in jobs and professional studies. Yet, discontent persists over the lack of adequate jobs in the State, especially in urban areas. A Labour Bureau report on employment in 2015-16 found Meghalaya to have among the highest urban unemployment rates (13.4%). Discontent over lack of opportunities in the past had led to incidents such as the violent targeting of the Bengali community in 1979 and Nepalis in 1987, many of whom then fled the State. To prevent a repeat of those incidents, the government must stand by and protect the Sikh residents, and not give in to the nativist arguments of the protestors. And as calm is restored, Meghalaya’s politicians and civil society leaders must forge a more inclusive vision of the State’s demographics.

The last to know: on ICICI imbroglio

 The board of ICICI Bank has finally acted on the allegations of misconduct against its CEO and managing director, Chanda Kochhar. It had earlier maintained that she was on annual personal leave; now, she will stay away from the office till the completion of an inquiry into the charges levelled against her by a whistle-blower. Rather than allow the controversy to fester, the board of ICICI Bank, an institution that often sought to hold a mirror up to the inefficiencies of public sector banks, should have acted earlier. Till the inquiry is complete the bank will be steered by a new chief operating officer, Sandeep Bakhshi. The official version is that he will report to Ms. Kochhar, who herself took the decision to go on leave till the end of the inquiry — but this is at best a face-saving cover for a board that was reluctant to act since the controversy broke. Meanwhile, the tenure of M.K. Sharma, the chairman of the bank’s board, is set to end this month and there is still no clarity on his successor. This extended uncertainty in a crisis situation is unwarranted. ICICI Bank’s troubles are rooted in a 2016 complaint by an investor alleging a quid pro quo deal between Ms. Kochhar’s immediate family members and the Videocon group, which got a ₹3,250-crore loan from it. When this ‘conflict of interest’ complaint resurfaced in the public domain this year, Mr. Sharma said he had personally inquired into it two years earlier and found nothing amiss.

With the Central Bureau of Investigation and later the stock market regulator SEBI swooping in, the issue of whether the bank had failed to make adequate disclosures about its dealings with the borrower (who is now a defaulter) and a firm related to Ms. Kochhar’s husband was spotlighted. The bank is yet to respond to SEBI, but changed tack after the latter decided to launch a probe into allegations of a quid pro quo and alleged misconduct by Ms. Kochhar. Three weeks on, the names of the members of and terms of reference for the probe panel to be led by retired Supreme Court judge B.N. Srikrishna are still awaited. It is debatable whether such a high-profile panel is required to ascertain if Ms. Kochhar, whose term ends next March, had made adequate disclosures while deciding on the loans. The board itself could have dealt with this through an internal investigation rather than giving the impression that it wanted to paper over the issue, sending a poor signal to all stakeholders. No doubt Ms. Kochhar, a star on the corporate firmament, enjoys a formidable reputation as a banker. While one should not prejudge the inquiry findings, there is no doubt that the strength of corporate governance practices in the bank has come under question because of the way the issue has played out.

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