Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rumblings after Ashok-Parva

By Jaideep Hardikar

The ‘Ashok Parva’ is over. Its aftershocks aren’t.

Here’s another trouble brewing up for the axed chief minister Ashok Chavan, and this one might actually be worse than the Adarsh society scam that saw him lose his throne.

While the Prithviraj Chavan cabinet is likely to take oath, the former CM would on Friday be defending his 2009 election to the legislative assembly when the Election Commission of India (EC) holds the next and what is likely to be the final hearing of a petition that seeks his disqualification for allegedly fudging his poll expenses, including the unaccounted spending on what has come to be known as paid news.

The Ex-CM is defending a notice served on him earlier this year by the EC to explain why he should not be disqualified under the relevant sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, this – after his rival Madhav Kinhalar petitioned the EC following a series of reports that embroiled Chavhan in the paid news controversy. More than a dozen newspapers, some of them leading ones in the state, had in the run up to the polls published several pages in Chavan’s praise. The petitioner’s argument has been that one, the published content (dozens of pages virtually praising Chavhan) qualifies as “paid news” and, if accounted for, they would have cost crores of rupees breaching the Rs 10 lakh poll expenditure limit. In his official submission to the retuning officer of his Bhokar constituency, Nanded, Chavhan showed his expenditure to be Rs 7 lakh on his entire campaign, and a mere Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements.

That included of Rs 4400 he spent on the rally where Bollywood star Salman Khan was an attraction. And a meager Rs 200 on the pandal, Rs 1000 on setting up of the stage, Rs 40 for the cloth to cover it, and Rs 200 on the sofa-rentals. The rent of the meeting venue, added to the expenditure sheet later: Rs 500.

Kinhalkar holds that the very fact that EC sent notices to Chavan means that it is convinced that there’s prima facie a case against him and that there’s some violation. In his submissions before the EC, Chavan has denied any wrongdoing. Senior Congress leader, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, is said to be his counsel.

The BJP’s Kirit Somaiyya, who is intervener/petitioner on the issue, would also get an hour to plead his point of view before the EC, through his counsel and Rajya Sabha member, Ram Jethmalani.

The voluminous material evidence and other advertisements that were not accounted for in Chavhan’s election expenditure statement now form part of the EC hearings on the complaint.

The complaint against Chavhan and successive hearings over it hold significance, given that the EC, keen to clean up the malaise of paid news, has now set up a special cell, just before the Bihar assembly polls, to generally keep tab on paid news that favour some candidates and black out others in elections. The EC, sources in the know said, has this year issued circulars describing what according to it would qualify as paid news – content that is paid for but published under the garb of news.

In the previous hearing on November 12, the petitioner completed his arguments. The EC set November 19 as the date for next hearing, when Chavhan would get to explain his side of the story.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dancing to the Official Tune

Pendhri, Gadchiroli:

The shadow of gun was inescapable, the contrast sharp.

As a motley group of adivasis danced to the enigmatic rhythm of the traditional ‘Rela’ drum-beat in the heat and dust, Pendhri village felt the tension and unease.

Tens of eyes stared at each other, as the armed troops in the olive green fatigues manned every nook and corner of this small village on Thursday, 75 km from the district headquarters of Gadchiroli in the thickly forested tribal hinterland, about 250 km away from the bustling urban trappings of Nagpur.

But when the police are holding a Jan-Jagaran Melawa, or the public awareness rally, in the strong Maoist-reigned area, the contrast is only natural if somewhat ironic.

This rally, the police said, was held against the backdrop of a strong Maoist threat. Only days ahead of the event, the armed rebels had threatened to foil it, warning the tribal villagers to desist from going to the venue. But as the crowds poured in, either under the police duress or on their own volition, officials smiled with a sense of relief. Holding it looked like a statement. What did it achieve, hardly mattered.

Originally designed to be the police propaganda and later converted into all-department information fair for the villagers, the ‘Jan-Jagaran Mewalas’ in naxal-prone Gadchiroli are resuming after a long lull.

The previous one was held in the month of March in hinterland of Laheri, where Maoists had killed 19 policemen in October, last. But the police said that one was a much-subdued event.

“Idea is to reach out to the people,” district superintendent of police S Veeresh Prabhu said. “It’s like breaking the ice with the people, and saying we are here for you.”

Several stalls put up by the various government departments meant that the district administration got a chance to meet the tribal people they are supposed to serve.

The stalls displayed information in Marathi, the volunteers explained the government schemes to the visitors, but the belying message was: shun supporting the Maoists if you want progress in your area. The stall that drew most attention was once where the police had on display the names and pictures of the top Maoist leaders and the list of violent incidents in the district over the past decade.

It’s an area where people hardly ever speak for fear of retribution, said an intelligence officer. “There is obviously some pressure from the police to attend the rally,” he said. “But it is for their good.”

Maoists don’t believe it. They describe the Jan-Jagran rallies as a “propaganda” ploy against them.

The state government though has persisted with the rallies as a means to hold dialogue with the people, in the absence of any political process. “We know it won’t yield immediate results,” said an officer, “but it is important that we engage with the people and reach the benefits of the government programmes.”

Gadchiroli Zilla Parishad CEO Amit Saini told the gathering: “Unless you participate in the Gram Sabha, how will you know where and how the government funds are being spent by your representatives.” He asked the villagers to ask their panchayat representatives how they were spending the village funds.

The rally also provides a rare opportunity to the villagers to get their work done on the spot: whether it is related to the revenue or agriculture or tribal welfare department.

An aging Chamaru Bai Atla came from an interior village to apply for the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana, seeking the old age pension at Pendhri rally. Many others quietly glanced through the schemes offered by the agriculture, animal husbandry, tribal welfare or health departments.

Holding a Jan-Jagaran Melawa in the Maoist territory isn’t easy though.

“We postponed the event twice last month due to the Maoist threat,” the SP said. “It took us some time to re-plan it.” For a month, he said, his men undertook the area domination exercises to keep the rebels at bay and convince the villagers to attend the rally. On Thursday, tens of armed commandoes and CRPF jawans guarded the road that led to Pendhri through the thickly forested belt of Chatgaon.

Yet, the outcome may not always be as desired.

“It’s hard not only to convince people to come to the fair since they fear retribution from the Maoists,” said a police officer on the condition of anonymity, “but also the administration and other offices.”

Among the most backward districts in the country, Gadchiroli is also among the lowest in the human development index, with high infant mortality and hunger. It’s also a district where both the police and the government officials refuse to serve. Many a post lie vacant in the police and other departments.

The district police say they look to hold such rallies regularly now – at least once every two months. “This will allow the district administration to have a dialogue with the people living cut off from the world in the interior,” Prabhu said.

Pendhri was closed for all other activities though. The weekly market was shut for the afternoon, shops closed, and the armed troops kept an eye on incomers. As the poor adivasis poured in at the venue, been forced, prodded, or coerced by the police, the day long rally served one purpose: That a strong Maoist threat did not deter them to hold the event, seen as an important government initiative.

Despite a stern warning from the Maoists, the turnout was good, given that the fair coincided with the weekly market where villagers from the neigbouring 40-odd hamlets come to buy their groceries. It provides them with a reason to come to the rally; otherwise they face the wrath of the naxalites, one officer said.

Cultural dances, a discourse by Nilkanth Maharaj on the government schemes and the development issues, and a group skit on the Maoist-problem, marked the event.

What do the tribals gain out of such an exercise? As a tribal youth, Anil Usendi, of the neighbouring village put it diplomatically: “Those who can make a sense of it will know. It really depends on the individual.”

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Farm widows protest Obama's visit

On the eve of US President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated three-day visit to India, in a non-descript village of Vidarbha’s cotton bowl, farm widows on Friday staged a quiet candle light protest, saying that the American agriculture policies and huge subsidies were among the main reasons for their grave conditions.
Coinciding with the occasion of Laxmi Puja during the festivities of Diwali, the symbolic protest of the widows held under the aegis of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti at village Hiwra Barsa in south Yavatmal, sought to draw Obama’s attention to the plight of farmers, who, they said, bore the brunt of huge US farm subsidies.
“We do not want to spoil Obama’s visit or hurt the government’s feelings,” the VJAS convenor Kishor Tiwari said in a statement. “But when our government talks agriculture with Obama, the farmers and their families who face the outcome of their policies should not be lost sight of.” The US subsidies, he said, are killing the farmers in India.
Reports are that high on Obama’s agenda is the demand for India to open up the FDI in retail and food processing, push for the GM seeds’ adoption, reinvigorate the Indo-US knowledge initiative started in 2006 during the former president George Bush’ visit, open the market access further to the US agribusiness corporations through further cuts in the import tariffs on commodities, and push for settlement of WTO talks by the next year.
A farm widow from the village, Babytai Bais, lit a candle and led a collective prayer that was attended by the widows of the farmers who took their own lives in the region. India has seen more than 200,000 farmers’ suicides between 1997 and 2008. Maharashtra saw over 40,000 farmers’ suicides during that period, with Vidarbha being the worst hit.
In roughly the same period between 1995 and 2009, the US government paid a quarter of a trillion dollars or a staggering Rs1250000 crore in farm subsidies to its farmers.
According to the report on US federal subsidy published earlier this year by the Washington-based research organization, the Environment Working Group (EWG), the American tax payers shelled out $245.2 billion in farm subsidies during 1995-2009, which works out to an average of $15 billion or Rs75000 crore per year.