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Tree cutting at KBR Park: Root for Roots

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Protests are brewing over the proposal to cut down trees in KBR national park in Hyderabad, located amidst upscale residential areas of Jubilee Hills. In the last 30 years, for the first time I have seen some protest shaping on protection of natural resources from this section of citizens. It is probably because of younger generation who are little more aware, or it could be the consciousness they would lose the lung space available for them to meet, interact, discuss and relax. It is always good to see citizen action from wherever, in whatever form to protect their interests, especially when they are intertwined with protection of ecology and environment.

Strategic Road Development Project (SRDP) appears to be the brainchild of a thinking that believes that wide roads, flyovers, swank cars and concrete structures continue to be the symbols of development, prosperity and show pieces. The tingle in the eyes of many, wows in their mouths, when they see such development as indicators of modernity and a matter of pride. Juxtapose this image, this dream, with the other picture, in the same area – no water, tankers plying in and out of swank apartments, no sewerage system, floods on the roads after the slightest drizzle and automobile pollution. In this summer, with temperature touching 44 degrees centigrade in April, people with airconditioners at homes and in cars still feel the hear, even while they pay their way to comforts. Even they would need open space to come out of their claustrophobic big homes. With climate change increasing the heat, drought leading to water shortages, people are becoming aware that environment and ecology needs to be protected.

But would saving 3,100 trees from being cut in KBR park is enough to protect ecology and environment in Hyderabad? No. SRDP is a project of mammoth proportions, involving investment of some Rs.20 to 25,000 crores, construction of multiple flyovers, widening roads, building transport corridors. Earlier the same Lee Associates has done Comprehensive Transport Study on Hyderabad, with an ask list totalling Rs.1,75,000 crores to improve only transport infrastructure. It means mostly roads, flyovers and related constructions. SRDP is supposedly an offshoot of these recommendations. Ofcourse, citizens of Hyderabad were not given much time to comment on the study. Now, neither this study nor SRDP has been discussed or tabled for discussed in either Telangana State Assembly or Council of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. SRDP is a mere media information. There is no document either for people to access and comment. Government has not developed any alternative options, and asked citizens to choose between them. SRDP, in a democratic setup, is being given as a fait accompli. Citizens are being fed with the news that there is no choice. Is it so?

There are 12 Universities and many scientific institutions in Hyderabad. There is a large scientific and academic pool of resources. Yet, so far, none of the scientists have warned publicly about the perils of destroying KBR Park. KBR Park is destined for destruction. It is no longer a question of number of trees. KBR Park is located on a ridge, and has been functioning as carbon and water sink. Rainwater from this park flows into two basins of major water reservoirs including Hussainsagar. Destruction of KBR Park will have a cascading effect on Hyderabad in general, and Jubilee Hills in particular. As it is air pollution, in the form of sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides and particulate matter, is on par with any congesting areas such as Charminar or Dilsukhnagar, despite a KBR Park. With obliteration of KBR Park, it will be impossible for super sensitive people in costly homes in the vicinity to stay here. If and when the SRDP is completed, and during construction of flyovers, dust levels and particulate matter in the air is likely to multiply, with increase in automobile traffic.

Be that as it may, who will bear the cost of SRDP, whole of Rs.25,000 crores, as per initial estimates? Will it be the road users, tax payers of Hyderabad, or Telangana population? And, who will benefit? With environmental, ecological and economical costs being distributed on the hapless people, who may not see these roads and junctions (like ORR these roads will be reserved for high-end automobiles), one would wonder in whose interest the SRDP is being implemented.

Protesters of KBR Park to get wider support have to widen their objective. Their agitation should go beyond protection of some trees in the buffer zone of KBR Park. It should encompass:

  • saving KBR Park as a unit, and not just a few trees.
  • protesting against commercial constructions and public infrastructure development together, in KBR Park
  • question SRDP as a project and fait accompli, and ask for alternative options
  • ask for open space policy in Hyderabad city and
  • build advocacy campaign for decentralised, regional development.

Citizens should argue against Hyderabad-centric public investments. With a larger agenda, protesters against tree cutting in KBR Park would have larger support from citizens across Hyderabad and a long term action that ensures justice, fairness, equity and sustainability in relation to usage and protection of natural resources in and around Hyderabad.

 

Hyderabad Metro Rail wants liberal concession on electricity rates

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Again concession agreement, between Hyderabad Metro Rail and government comes into discussion. HMR says it was promised at cost electricity. “L&T-HMRL representatives who filed a petition before Telangana State Electricity Regulatory Commission (TSERC) urging it to direct the Discom to honour the Concession Agreement provisions said the calculation of cost of power supply to metro rail actually works out to Rs 5.38 to Rs 5.42 per unit.”
DISCOMs proposed a separate category for HMR at Rs.7.08. For railway traction, which includes Indian Railways, tariff in latest ARR proposals is Rs.7.48 per unit. HMR got a concession at Rs.7.08. HMR much lesser price. However, TSERC is yet to take a decision. It has to take a decision on creating a separate category, and also per unit price. It remains who will pick up the balance bill, State government, or cross-subsidies.
However, a question which was raised by me before TSERC, and which is not likely to come up with any answer, why there is differential pricing between HMR and Indian Railways? Indian Railways does much more public service than HMR. Even before starting its service, HMR is looking for concession. It says electricity cost would be 35 percent of its expenditure. It is against their word, as there is no independent information available on this. HMR is already getting lot of concessions. It is time this CONCESSION AGREEMENT is put out in the public domain. Government should come out with a comprehensive document detailing all the concessions given to it, in the past, present and in future. Ticket price fixation has to be done by a independent committee, that should have access to all expenditure records and claims. Ticket price fixation has to be transparent. Indian Railways should be treated on par with HMR, especially MMTS services in Hyderabad, should get same priority and concessions.
“ Minister for municipal administration and urban development, K.T. Rama Rao, … said the fares had been initially fixed in the price band of Rs 8 to Rs 19 in April 2011, these would now go up to Rs 13 to Rs 25 as per present costs.” CAG audit has to be done before these prices are agreed. Price increase announcement, without any explanation, can be seen as legitimisation of the project delays, and attempt to condone lack of accountability.
MMTS has always been a cheaper option for Hyderabad. Past and current government decisions are building a loadstone around the neck of Hyderabad finances, making the city ugly and allowing money-making at the cost of public resources. All this without any change, difference or solution to traffic woes of ordinary citizens of Hyderabad.

Nestle’s Syndrome: Who owns water?

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Water supply to companies - Jan-Mar16
With water shortages becoming severe, not so surprisingly, authorities in Hyderabad continue to believe that there is no such situation. You ask them a question what emergency measures they are initiating, pat comes back the question, is there a shortage? It is not just a opinion, it is their belief. Otherwise, what else can explain the increasing supply of this precious resource to water-guzzling, profit making companies, in Hyderabad, and probably elsewhere. While taxpayers continue to pay loans and interests on water supply projects in Hyderabad, poor people continue to pay with their lives and others continue to ‘buy’ water, these companies are laughing their way to the bank.
 
With younger generation continuing to generate demand for their products, these companies can easily supply you an argument that they are ‘essential services’. A cash-strapped government would easily believe that revenue generation from liquor and soft drink sales is far more important, than providing water to all, and prevent ‘medical’ disasters. Liquor is value addition and GDP contributing commodity.
 
Elsewhere, in Maharashtra, people are agitating about water usage in IPL matches, and going to courts to stop such commercial extravaganza, where their concern is a mere 50 lakh litres probably, or less. In Hyderabad, just 7 companies get multiples of that each month. With summer, and possible spike in sales, their water requirement is also increasing, as per data collected by Mr. Manthrala Srinivas. There are individuals who would believe that these companies are not consuming for themselves, but for the people. Is this not the economy? Ofcourse, there is also the other economy. People without water, or with low water, or contaminated water, or ‘priced’ water, also contribute to the health care sector, corruption, black market, GSDP and what not. If they have the might, they can as well consume this ‘value-added’ water and contribute to the economic growth. Like birds, and numerous non-human life, these ‘fortunate’ people may leave this abode, permanently. the more number of people, leaving primary sector, wherever, it is always augurs well for the modern economy. If water, or lack of it, is a cause, so be it.
 
Authorities would not see this as a either or situation, either. With both Singur, Himayathsagar, Osmansagar, Nagarjunasagar drying up, ground water levels receding to newer and unreachable depths, cost on people, their lives and living, is still not issue or concern. There are no emergency measures, because they are yet to admit that there is an emergency. Numerous media stories can be brushed away, good samaritans anyway cannot do more than placarding or petitioning, opposition parties are busy finding ‘strategic loopholes’ which does not boomerang on them, and many others are waiting to be ‘recognised’ officially. In this context, water woes of ordinary women, old, children and disempowered cannot go beyond a print page or a news channel special. Cocooned in air-conditioned rooms, with water bottles on hand, one should be realist to realise the problems of not-so-fortunate.
Meanwhile, water mafia, comprising of politicians, officials and companies would grab lands, which has water, and water resources, through cash, technology and public resources, to make money. This is where commodification of natural resource and elixir of life began, and continues. “According to the former CEO and Chairman of Nestle, the largest food product manufacturer in the world, corporations should own every drop of water on the planet — and you’re not getting any unless you pay up.” Bureaucrats and politicians are actually practising this.
India has a National Water Policy, which says drinking water should get priority above anything else. But it is only on paper. It is not binding on Hyderabad Metro Water Board which deploys 200 out of 900 tankers to one particular area, where the rich and powerful, live. This is only one of the three other sources – 24 hours supply by pipelines and private tankers. Most images circulating on digital media shows that car washing, or flushing roads, with running water, continues. The word ‘recycling’ is still miles away – no one heard about it.
Private tankers usurp water from borewells dug in lands abutting or downstream of lakes and tanks in the suburb villages. Villagers do not get water because of this is no one’s concern, or money talks. Of the 340 million gallons per day, supposedly supplied by the public agency, there is no absolute figure on who gets how much. Hundreds of tankers, women and children with empty plastic containers and harsh sun shows that the supply is less and highly discriminating, than what is admitted. Water distribution in this hi-tech city, with huge GDP, is defined by might, and not right. It is not even comparable to a situation in a jungle.
On the other hand, government is worried that about lack of ‘hands’. For the past few years, Hyderabad Metro Water Board is headed by a IAS officer, who is already saddled with other important jobs. With the Chairman being the Chief Minister, top hierarchy is busy, on other aspects. Thirsty throats do not matter, even if they are few or more, like in the case of farmers suicides. If it is less, stock answer would be it is below their ‘radar’ and if it is more another stock answer can be population is the issue. Inheritance is another way out argument – ‘we inherited this, and we are not responsible’. This type of answer indicates that the current situation is borne out of a neglect in the past, and continuation of such chronic problems. There is no chance for another question, what about your emergency response?
Emergency response also does not end with supply of 182 MGD from Godavari, 200 kms north of Hyderabad. Emergency measures should be more, and continuous, until every parched throat is responded to. They should continue until rains come. They should include preparation for the worst (delay in monsoon rains), and for the best (capturing rainwater whenever it comes). But who is bothered. Hyderabad, like elsewhere in India, has water distribution agencies, and not water-generating institutions. It also does not have a manual on water emergencies. It does not have procedure for distributing less water equitably. Hyderabad lacks imagination and empathy. And, this is not a isolated case.

Bt cotton seed prices: Decisive Action

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Indian government has announced new Bt cotton prices, through a gazette order, dated 8th March, 2016. As per this order, BG-I would be Rs.635, with zero trait fees, and Rs.800 for BG-II, including Rs.49 for trait fees.
 
This would apply for the first time for entire India. Also, this is the first time, in the last 15 years, government had stepped in bt cotton seed price regulation. Eventhough this is what we have been asking for, it comes a little late and does not include other concurrent steps.
 
Indian seed regulation system needs to be beefed by a Indian Seed Act, which has the objective of protecting farmers, farming and ecology. After several texts, and modifications, government draft seed bill falls far short of such expectations, and is essentially linked to promotion of private ownership of public and natural resources. We and many others have provided and developed a text of the seed bill, that encompasses a system that responds to the needs of the small and marginal farmers.
 
I reiterate my question, with failure of both BG-I and BG-II, how does this help cotton farmers? A decrease of Rs.130 for Telangana, and probably for farmers from other States may be of some solace, but does not assure farmers who have lost substantially in the last five years. the menace of pink bollworm and anticipate expenditure on pesticides to kill ‘adapted and virulent’ pests, still looms large. Unfortunately, Indian agricultural research establishment and agricultural scientists have so far neither spoke, nor are offering any solutions. When they do not respond in need, can we consider them in policy parleys in future to save Indian agriculture and farmers? Definitely not.
 
No visible, transparent, consultative and expansive rescue programme is being planned by central and State Governments for the next kharif. Even our efforts to kick-start a process in this direction has not yielded any response, indicating a thick-skin and an obsession with corporates-centric seed policy measures.
Next kharif is likely to be tougher for discerning cotton farmers, whose experience with numerous Bt cotton hybrids, based on BG-II, has been disastrous, in terms of yield and pest incidence. Bt cotton technology was ushered in, with continuous support from bureaucrats, agricultural scientists and politicians, with these very objectives. Failure of BG-II was admitted by the Union government in its affidavit before the Supreme Court. National Seed Association of India also allured to this in its letter to Monsanto-Mahyco, asking it to take responsibility.
With farmers experience, and endorsement from the regulatory system and seed companies, what is stopping government from announcing the withdrawal of Bt cotton seeds (both BG-I and BG-II) and initiating efforts to bring in straight, non-bt cotton seed varieties? Failure of technology, of injecting Bt genes into hybrid cotton seeds, is obvious. Continuation of such technology would only mean, even if it is to bring BG-III, would mean another experiment on Indian farmers.

Government’s malignant view on agriculture

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Economic Survey 2016, Union Budget 2016-17 and very recent speeches of Prime Minister of Narendra Modi at Gangtok, Bargarh and Barielli should clarify that agriculture is on top priority, and is under the lens of policy makers. No one can claim that they do not know, or agriculture is their least priority.

However, therein lies the problem. The question is why a government which is focussed on liberalisation, fiscal consolidation and economic reforms is showing so much interest in agriculture. Does it mean government has become conscious of large number of farmer suicides, or oncoming global economic slowdown has forced it to look at the fundamentals of Indian economy? It is increasingly apparent, not before this week, that this concern is probably a realisation that reforms cannot happen without a fundamental transformation in Indian economy, turning it upside down. One cannot confuse this revolution and the epistemology behind the word revolution. It is not about overthrowing the super structure, but it is probably to cut the roots.

Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramaniam, in his Economic Survey 2016-17 declares this approach boldly and in many places in the document. I quote one, “It is equally true that economic dynamism and long-run growth requires small firms becoming big and efficient (page 46, Vol I)”. There are many such aphorisms that give us an insight into the direction of policy makers thinking. The document goes on to say, boldy, “India’s WTO obligations could predominantly be based on this domestic shift away from border protection to domestic support.” Would this mean, India would see a lowering of import duties? Revenue to the government from import duties is increasing despite a drop in oil prices, indicating more and more dependence on imports.

Finance Minister also tried to convey forcefully convey a message of transformation and the commitment of government to change the economy. In the budget, allocations show a shift from the previous budgets. Interest subsidy for short term loans to farmers was not in Ministry of Agriculture budget before. This year it has been included. Out of a total budget of Rs.35,983 crores, interest subsidy has Rs.15,000 crores, crop insurance Rs.5,500 crores, Rastriya Krishi Vikas Yojana Rs.5,400 crores and Krishi Unnati Yojana Rs.6,949 crores. These four scheme total Rs.32,850 crores. Thus, the number of schemes have been reduced. As Economic Survey says in agriculture the priority of the government seems to bring out ‘more results from less allocations’.

Prime Minister has also been talking of decentralisation and has been exhorting States to take more role in agriculture. This is not to be confused with devolution of powers. It is probably a move to shift the burden of agriculture. Even while GST is being rolled, which reduces elbow room for States, this kind of burden shift would only mean ‘kicking’ focus lights away.

There is a method and strategy behind the recent focus on agriculture is apparent. Other steps such as increasing attention of the government towards genetically-modified crops with a fallacious argument that it will increase productivity, establishment of Unified National Agricultural Market and banking reforms do give a strong indication of a strategy, which would like to cut Indian agriculture at its roots. In his budget speech, Arun Jaitley says, “To increase the incomes of farmers, it is imperative that we create a National agricultural market, which will have the incidental benefit of moderating price rises.” This statement clarifies that the focus of the government is more on ‘moderating price rises’, than enabling ‘remunerative prices’ through NAM. Per drop more crop, investments in rural infrastructure, more yields from less land and other such schemes are essentially geared to bring about structural changes. It could mean change in ownership, operations and scale.

All the three principal policymakers, with the recent addition of NITI Ayog, have brought ‘solutions’ to imaginary problems and do not address core reasons behind agricultural crisis. Corruption, governance failure, inadequate knowledge in the extension system, non-regulation of agricultural input suppliers, water scarcity, multiple impacts of natural phenomenons and a myriad other problems have not been referred and addressed by Economic Survey 2016, Union Budget 2016-17 and Prime Minister’s speeches.

With a higher than expected contribution to GDP by the agriculture sector, government allocations did not rise more than 2 percent of total government expenditure. The inability of the government to spend these miserly allocations has been slammed time and again by the Parliamentary Standing Committee. The ball of blame is kicked among different agencies, with no agency being made accountable.

This government has not responded to drought, drought related impacts on rural populace, farmers suicides, malnutrition, climate change, repetitive natural calamities, declining rural and farm incomes and serious migration from homes, livelihoods and regions. This budget is being dubbed by a few business media as pro-farmer, pro-poor and pro-rural, probably taking cue from Prime Minister. However, a comprehensive view and a defragmented budget allocations do not give scope for such a conclusion. Proponents of such labelling need to develop arguments. It may not be like searching a needle in the haystack, but it would be more passing of a rose garland as that of jasmine.

 

Hyderabad elections

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On 5th February, 2016, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections results were declared. Telangana Rastra Samithi, ruling party of State of Telangana, has won 99 out of 150 seats and has emerged as the biggest group. Obviously, the Mayor would be from that party. A dream of TRS, in the final phase of agitations for Telangana State, has been to hold the reins of Hyderabad, even as critics pointed out lack of its representation in the city. Ofcourse, critics equated TRS winnability with presence of sentiment of Telangana. Anti-Telangana arguments often included this as a necessary point to be highlighted, concluding that Hyderabadi’s are not asking for a separate Telangana.

In my writings, then, I countered this argument. Support for separate Telangana agitation was visible in various ways, including support for bandh. Calls for bandh by TRS without any cadre was responded well, even in old city. Shutting down this city entirely was never easy. Such virulent criticism has probably made Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao to take a vow; to disprove. And, he did it, with strategy, meticulous planning and execution.

These elections had all the elements of previous elections, good, bad and the ugly. But, there are some distinct features. GHMC elections 2016 became a huge recipient of time, money and resources of political parties, media and the political community. State Presidents of all political parties were directly involved, reducing their city Presidents to non-entities. Selection of candidates by the parties was also done at the highest level, most secretively, and announced only in the nick of the time. Every party was clueless about who can be their representative, until the final day, indicating a serious compromise of party procedures, democracy and involvement of ‘invisible’ criteria of selection.

As is usual, investments made were heavy, with TRS party leading and all the opposition parties lagging behind. Government did reserve 50 percent of seats for women, that is 75. In 2009, it was 49. Otherwise, all other caste-reservations remained more or less the same. Does more women in GHMC lead to any power shift and more gender-sensitive decisions? Maybe, not. Because most of the contestants include wives, daughters or relatives of previous corporators, MLAs, Ministers and other leaders. The shadow, even if the lady is allowed to work independently, cannot be ruled out.

Independence of corporators, women or men, is still a big question, given the party hierarchy and methods of working among all the political parties. This is because GHMC as a constitutionally-valid body is not independent. It is not as autonomous as it appears to be. Election- eve promises by political parties did not include any slogan for power devolution. In fact, TRS and BJP harped on their being in power, at the State and central levels respectively as the pivot for their appeal. The message was clear to voters – if you want results (and funds) vote for the ‘party in power’.

With Election Commission suggesting preparation of manifesto’s, major political parties quickly put out documents, with almost similar promises. A run-through these manifestoes shows that all political parties lacked knowledgeable human resources to prepare them. None of the parties could develop a integrated vision for the development of Hyderabad. A ‘Green Manifesto’ effort by us did not impact their thinking.

Overall, only two parties, TRS and MIM, with 99 and 43 corporators, would be the players, with Congress, BJP and TDP reduced to single-digit strength. Both parties are headed by individuals, who have their own views on how Hyderabad can be developed. These views have their assumptions and roots in conventional urban thinking. It might mean the continuation of this city’s journey on a path that has serious consequences on equity, justice and democracy. State of Telangana is likely to bear the brunt of this linear development of Hyderabad, as natural resources are continuously aligned for consumption of Hyderabad. Distribution of basic needs of water, food and shelter would be defined by wealth. Unaccountable and opaque systems of distribution and ownership is likely to perpetuate wealth accumulation with fewer persons, while the drudgery of larger majority would continue.

Unless, of course, GHMC is allowed to take a more autonomous, consultative and participatory path of planning and implementation of activities that respond to basic needs of the last person and that of the multitude.

 

Creating competition – incorrect objectives and wrong methods

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Recent “Assessment of State Implementation of Business Reforms, September, 2015” report has some disturbing elements. The important one being that this is not the last, or the only one, but it is a beginning. We are going to see this report, probably every year, or as frequently as possible, This report, which assessed a 98-point action plan prepared by a workshop in December, 2014, would be followed with more reforms. While the trend seems to be patting ‘good’ reforms, highlighting lack of action and pushing the States to compete with each other. Thus, the World Bank seems to have created a reform mechanism, that propels itself, while its Country Representative, Onno Ruhl, assures that they would do the nudging, at both State and Central levels.

Methodology of this assessment itself seems to be rudimentary and unscientific, as the study team tried to benchmark and discipline States to follow the path laid down in the “Make in India” workshop. One would wonder how the study team quantified the progress on 98-point action plan, which is essentially is populated by qualitative parameters. Interestingly, and erroneously, the assessment quantifies 8 parameters based on existing applications. Though the first parameter is ‘setting up business’, the last parameter is ‘enforcing contracts’. It means a State, between March and June, 2015, the period of assessment, does not show the change or progress, but the current situation. Gujarat, a State with developed infrastructure, definitely scores high. The report says in Telangana 80 percent of district judge appointments have been done, indicating progress on ‘enforcing contracts’. A poorer State which has not done such appointments, without such need, based on its size or need, does not score high on ‘enforcing contracts’. One cannot forget that judicial appointments are not done primarily to enforce business contracts, but based on law and order, financial status and many other factors.

Overall, the methodology is distortionary, and has a sinister objective of creating political competition. Simplistically, it means reforms at any cost, and through comparison and competition. However, the disturbing aspects are in the foreword and the executive summary of the report.

In this foreword, World Bank Representative is happy to note that ‘India has embarked on ambitious reforms focused on improving India’s performance in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings’. This foreword is full of loaded words such as political commitment, agreed set for reforms, competitive federalism, renewed and vigorous efforts, etc.. He indicates that liberalisation agenda of the World Bank continues even after the change in the government. The Executive summary says, “States have wholeheartedly embraced the challenge placed upon them to focus on further streamlining the regulatory burden on business in India.” Ultimately, World Bank seems to have passed on its reform mandate successfully onto the central and State governments and they feel happy about it. Entire effort, and he is happy about the result, seems to be to create a mechanism that works outside the Parliament, and the system of Indian planning process.

Clearly, this assessment reports on the regulatory reforms undertaken by the States and Central governments to enable the growth of business and corporates. These reforms are wholly part of a liberalisation agenda, which has been rejected by Indian people many times across the States and at the national level, through elections and other means. However, World Bank seems to be coming up with new avenues of pushing for the reform agenda. Basically, this reform agenda is pushing for less or zero regulation, self-certification and no inspection. A investor-centric development model is a hazardous venture, that subsumes natural resources, poor people and regulatory systems, creating inequity, injustice and environmental chaos.

On the contrary, people would have been happy if the assessment was done on parameters such as levels of people participation in decision-making, promotion of livelihoods, efficiency of democratic institutions and official rules and procedures that enable transparency and consultations. Creating competition on such parameters would lead to positive change in the economy, employment and environment.