Sampath G

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Beware of those who speak of ‘national interest’

In Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell warns us against words and phrases drained of all meaning, words that can mean whatever the powerful want it to mean. One such term gaining in currency is ‘national interest’.

Government spin doctors (and their stenographers in the media) routinely conflate national interest with people’s interest. But ‘national interest’ is very different from the people’s interest.

‘National interest’ concerns a nation-state’s ability to wage war. Whatever enhances this ability is considered to be in the national interest; whatever threatens it is against the national interest. The most transparent expression of this principle is seen in the ruling classes’ obsession with ‘national security’.

The people’s interest, on the other hand, is always issue-specific. It is rooted in local geography, history, and community, while ‘national interest’ is tied to abstractions such as ‘development’ or ‘reform’ or ‘security’. The people’s interest might find a voice in democratic platforms, such as a movement or a party, while national interest is ‘protected’ through the executive and repressive arms of the state – the PMO, the police, etc. And where the people’s interest comes in conflict with ‘national interest’, the former will be booted out, democracy be damned.

A good example of ‘national interest’ is our mindless obsession with Kashmir, where anyone who speaks of the democratic will of the people of Kashmir is branded as ‘anti-national’. Hello! If India is a ‘democracy’, and democracy means implementing the will of the people, then the will of the people of Kashmir – whatever it is – should be carried out, and for that you don’t need AFSPA or mass graves or the army. A referendum should be good enough. Try telling that to the guardians of India’s ‘national interest’.

The real reason for the Indian elite’s obsession with Kashmir is that ‘losing Kashmir’ (whatever that means) will make the Indian state look ‘weak’. And because perceptions of weakness are as much a no-no as real weakness, it overrides the democratic rights of real human beings living in the Valley (people’s interest).
In fact, the momentum is going the other way: in his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Yo Yo Money Singh declared that economic growth will henceforth be a ‘national security’ issue. Now, that’s a very direct way of letting your people know that when it comes to enriching the already-rich in the name of economic growth, the state from now on has a ‘legitimate’ reason to crush people’s interest (real democracy): national security. Don’t you dare stand in the way – of SEZs, of mining, of forcible land acquisition for industry, etc.

This brings us to another Orwellian word: democracy. Democracy is not an absolute state, like, say, pregnancy. You’re either pregnant or you aren’t. But you can be a democracy and also not be one. How? Because democracy is a description of a process, and a matter of degree. Therefore, to say ‘India is a democracy’ means nothing. Democracy comes into existence only in history, in the processes followed in specific situations involving different interest groups.

In India, save for the urban educated middle class, democracy has served more as a safety valve mechanism for channelling frustration than as an effective tool to bring about lasting change in the lives of the disempowered. Two random examples will suffice to illustrate India’s failed experiment with democracy.

One, the terrible brutality with which the state repressed the villagers protesting the nuclear plant in Kudankulam, an action best described in the protesters’ own words – as “the murder of democracy”. Two, allowing FDI in retail, which will cause the immiseration of the 40 million people employed in India’s informal retail sector. Such a large-scale destruction of livelihoods is the worst kind of anti-people villainy that a state can unleash, and yet that is what India’s “democratically elected” government has done.

In today’s India, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for; when the people’s interest clashes with corporate interest, the moneybags are bound to win, as has happened with FDI in retail and in Kudankulam. In both these cases, the state was aligned with corporate interests and against its own people.

Whenever this happens, the standard ideological manoeuvre of the ruling dispensation is to invoke ‘national interest’ in some form or the other. In Kudankulam, the ‘national interest’ argument was invoked to shove an anti-people project down the throats a community opposed to it. In the case of FDI in retail, ‘national interest’ takes the avatar of ‘economic growth’ (now conveniently a matter of ‘national security’).

Historically, it has suited the national elites that control the state machinery to align themselves with the economic power that corporations wield. So the people will always find themselves acting ‘against the national interest’ whenever they act against the interests of corporate capital. Hence, the need to closely monitor them.

So every democratic nation-state will eventually degenerate into a police state. The process is well underway in India and the US, and it’s no coincidence that the bulk of the Indian security forces currently in active deployment are ranged against their own fellow citizens – from Kashmir to Kudankulam. The Nazis demonstrated long ago that nationalism is incompatible with democracy. Modi will demonstrate this for India in a few years.

The Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, is supposed to have said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun.” Today, whenever a government spokesperson speaks of ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ (or its post-modern avatar, ‘internal security’), it’s a sure sign that the state is preparing to use the gun against its own people. Operation Greenhunt, anyone?
G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He’s reachable at

Why gymmers should swap roles with workers

In Labour Rights, Lifestyle, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm

In his memoir of running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami lists the advantages of running versus other kinds of sport: “First of all, you don’t need anybody else to do it, and no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.”

Evidently, Murakami, who runs a marathon every year, has never tried running in India. If he had, he would have known that there are cities where you do have to go to a special place to run (a park or a ground or a gym) because the roads are too crowded and too polluted.

So going for a run outdoors is not easy if you’re in an Indian city. I can say this with some assurance because I’ve run in most of the Indian metros. I began running on a regular basis as a student in Hyderabad. I lived in a big, green campus where there was no dearth of running tracks. My only problem was getting up early. If I woke up late, it would be too hot to run. In the evenings, it remained too warm to run even till 7 or 8 pm.

During vacation time I’d go home to Chennai, and try to keep up my running schedule. But invariably I would fail, and have to start again with lazy, temperamental muscles when I got back to the university. The problem: Chennai’s street dogs. Running isn’t much fun if you keep getting chased by a bunch of half-starved animals barking their guts out and snapping at your heels.

One of the better cities for running has been Pune. In the late nineties, it was ideal – clean air, not much traffic, lots of greenery. Those were my best running years, in terms of timing, distances, and sustained fitness level. The gentle slopes added variety. But precisely because it was such a great place to run, I pushed myself too hard, and the tarmac almost killed my knees.

I console myself with the thought that in this regard I’m in good company – the great Shoaib Akhtar also ruined his knees running on city streets, and was a goner before he played his first match for Pakistan. That he still managed to make an impact just goes to show what an extraordinary athlete he was.

After Pune ruined my knees, I quit running. It took almost a year of physiotherapy and some very expensive footwear before I could hit the streets again. But I had to mix my road-running with ‘softer’ runs on a treadmill.

But I get quickly bored on a treadmill – it’s the same scene in front of you from the time you get on the machine till you get off. You’re either looking at your own mug in the mirror or at a fogged up window.

Most people try to ward off the boredom with headphones. But whether it’s music you’re plugged into or Emily Dickinson, it cuts you off from your immediate physical environment. Which of course is no big deal considering that a treadmill is itself a form of withdrawal – from the very ground beneath your feet, and you bounce instead on a rolling belt of ground-substitute.

With most public recreational spaces either swallowed up by construction or usurped by private parties, Indian cities are not runner-friendly. So the well-heeled, those for whom running is a part of their daily fitness routine, end up going to a gym. When I see all these grim, sweating faces I can’t help but wonder what a criminal waste it is – all these people huffing and puffing, consuming energy (the treadmills in most high-end gyms run on electricity) in order to expend energy.

What if all those calories being burnt can somehow be captured and channeled to some power station which would then convert it into electricity? Wouldn’t that light up a few thousand villages at least? In fact, Gurgaon, which is facing an acute power crisis and also has several up-market gyms, should seriously explore this.
I’m serious, this isn’t as dumb an idea as it seems. At least no dumber than the way we live. On the one hand you have millions of people who are forced to do hard, manual labour to save themselves from starvation; and on the other, another million or so engage in intense physical exertion that consumes a lot of energy (their own and those produced from power plants) and produces nothing but sweat.

What if everyone who has to work out and is currently paying a gym for this privilege, volunteered to do hard manual labour (for example, by carrying cement at a construction site) for as much time every day as their exercise time, say 30-60 minutes? Or maybe put in some time at a factory in Manesar or Faridabad?
This would be a win-win for everyone concerned. You are happy – you get your workout for free and stay fit. The workers are happy to let someone relieve them for an hour or so. And your gym owner is happy because he can do some cost-cutting by switching the treadmills off and reducing his power bills. To top it all, it would also better acquaint India’s gymming class with the life of the working class. Now that’s a ‘labour reform’ and a healthcare masterstroke rolled into one. Are Santa and Banta listening?
G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi.He’s reachable at

Stop insulting Yo Yo Money Singh

In Celebs, Politics, Popular Culture, Satire, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:50 pm

To call our PM a “tragic figure” is not only insulting but also inaccurate. As it turns out, it wasn’t the Washington Post (WP) as such but historian Ramachandra Guha who called him that. Oh wait, Guha said what he did, not to the WP but to an Indian publication, Caravan. And hey, he said it not now, but in 2011.

But nobody made a fuss in 2011. So why now? (Clue: name of the paper). Right! The Washington Post is a white man’s newspaper, published from the white man’s HQ. And we neo-colonials know instinctively that when the white man talks, the brown man must listen.

It is amazing how short public memory is, but hey, India was a colony till recently – it was still one when our PM was born in 1932. Here’s what that good and intelligent man Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about the political leadership of newly independent former colonies: “The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of Western culture … After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing to say to their brothers; they only echoed.”

Today, it is Sartre’s whitewashed adolescents (Manmohan was thoroughly whitewashed in the “mother country”— in both Cambridge and Oxford) who have hijacked what somebody once non-jokingly referred to as “India’s tryst with destiny”. Discarded now are the ideals of social justice and equity that informed the vision of our freedom fighters.

Reading the papers everyday makes you wonder: Why did our forefathers drive the Brits out? I wasn’t there when it happened, but here’s my guess: because the white man was looting India’s wealth, especially natural resources; they were giving a hard time to most Indians, especially farmers; and while a small class of native businessmen did well for themselves, millions starved, and thousands of political activists went to jail; the colonial police massacred innocent civilians, and forcibly evicted ‘native peasants’ from their lands, pushing them deeper into destitution.

I can’t see that things are any different now, under our own ‘brown rang’-ed PM, Yo Yo Money Singh (no relative of Yo Yo Honey Singh, but related to three mega-scams: CWG, 2G and Coalgate). Having embraced the Western model of capitalism, but without the luxury of colonial plunder on which to build its capitalist infrastructure, India is at a crossroads where it faces the prospect of cannibalising itself, eating parts of its own body politic — such as adivasis (or religious minorities). Talk to the average CEO, and his attitude to India’s tribals would echo that of the white coloniser’s toward the ‘natives.’

The reasons for terming our PM a “tragic figure” are predictable: one, corruption has proliferated under Singh, and guess who’s to blame – the degenerate natives; and two, the PM has slowed down on economic reforms, meaning that he’s not taking proper care of the white man’s money, which should be freely allowed to come into this former colony and profit from its resources.

One of the worthies quoted at length by the WP article is Tushar Poddar, a Mumbai-based managing director of Goldman Sachs, that illustrious standard-bearer of destructive capital which had a starring role in the 2008 financial crisis. WP quotes Poddar as saying “[The 2009 election] was a victory for him, but he did not step up to claim it — [Manmohan’s] lack of leadership, that lack of boldness, lack of will — that really shocked us. That really shocked foreign investors.”

That’s what it’s all about: foreign investors. FDI in retail, anyone? Yo Yo Money Singh is a “dithering”, “ineffectual” and ultimately “tragic” figure because, in recent times, he’s been a disappointment in his assigned role. And pray what was his assigned role?

In The Wretched of the Earth, the great post-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon showed how the national middle class’s “historic mission” is that of the intermediary. “Seen through its eyes,” he wrote, “its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism.”

Singh’s designated role, as the chosen (but never elected) representative of the national middle class, was to function as an intermediary between the nation and foreign capital, in Fanon’s words, to be “Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Seen from this perspective, it’s obvious that Singh has done a terrific job, but the greedy white man and his native brown counterpart want more, and they want it now! Though Singh has done a lot, he cannot do everything because, well, India is a democracy, you know? It’s not his fault, really.

So let’s not insult the PM any more – he’s just a child of history. He’s served his masters well. Now he has to move on – hence the timely nudges from the CAG, Team Anna, and of course, the white man’s press (Washington Post, Time, The Independent et al).

He has to make way now for another man, someone less likely to be hindered by democratic forces, someone who will not display the “lack of boldness” or “lack of will” that so “shocked foreign investors”; someone who’ll show “leadership” given the tougher tasks ahead – such as crushing revolting natives with an iron fist, showing no weakness; see issues only from the investors’ point of view; and show the working classes and minorities who’s boss. Something tells me this man is already here. Clue: he has a beard too.


G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He’s reachable at

Ek Tha Tiger: The other side of the coal scam

In Business, Environment, Politics, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm

I’ve spent the past few days reading a couple of page-turners that I recommend strongly to every Indian who cares about her country: the CAG’s audit report on coal block allocations, and a new report released by Greenpeace, titled ‘How Coal-Mining is Trashing Tigerland’. Both are freely available online, at the CAG and the Greenpeace websites respectively.

Till now, the media has focused primarily on the CAG report. But you have to read both together to get the full picture about the implications of coalgate.

The CAG’s audit report makes three things amply clear: one, in the last seven years, the government of India has given a major push to coal-based power; two, a lot of private players have made a lot of money out of coal, and more through speculation than by actually producing coal; three, the office of our beloved incorruptible prime minister was right in the thick of coalgate, having chosen to avoid a transparent process of competitive bidding — opting instead to award coal blocks through a ‘screening committee’ — despite being advised by its own legal experts that a competitive bidding process would not contravene the existing mining laws.

Yes, the corruption in the coal block allocation is mind-boggling. I mean, can someone even explain what Rs1,800,000,000,000 means – on a human, as opposed to a cosmic, scale?

But corruption is only half the coalgate story – the half that’s easier to tell, because it doesn’t challenge any of our assumptions.

Coal mining is the biggest threat to the tiger

The more significant story, in my opinion, is the one which will affect every one of us far more directly than the notional loss of Rs1.8 lakh crore ($33 billion). It’s the story of what’s in store for you (I’m referring here specifically to those Indians who are not NRIs, don’t have a second home or loving relatives abroad where they can run away to, don’t have a Swiss account nobody knows about, and are not planning to emigrate to New Zealand or Canada in the foreseeable future) when all the 150-odd coal blocks allotted by the Union coal ministry between 2004 and 2009 are mined.

The basis of the Greenpeace study is something you can try yourself: Take an India map. Referring to the CAG report, plot the locations of all the coal reserves and allocated coal blocks on this map. Then take another India map and plot on it the locations of all the tiger habitats and reserve forests in central India. Then superimpose one map on top of the other. You will discover a) that the bulk of India’s coal reserves fall in central India – covering the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Odisha and eastern Maharashtra; and b) that the coal fields in central India are contiguous with dense forests and intrude into the territory of India’s national animal, besides several other endangered species.

What will ensue if we allow coal mining in these forests is the worst kind of environmental and human disaster we’ll ever know (short of a nuclear calamity; but Manmohan Singh, the architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal, has that covered, too, viz Jaitapur, Kudankulam et al). To summarise in brief, developing our coal reserves in central India will involve the following: extinction of the Royal Bengal Tiger from this region; the decimation of at least a million hectares of native forests in central India (the biodiversity and forest ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve, we will gobble up, termite-like, in 40 years flat, turning lush forests into gaping, polluted, barren wasteland); destruction of the livelihood source of half of India’s Scheduled Tribe population; destruction of watersheds of major rivers, including the Mahanadi, Narmada, Tapti, Godavari, Indravati, and Damodar; incalculable loss of India’s bio-diversity and natural beauty that is a part of our national heritage (something which no agent of private capital masquerading as a public servant, least of all a Manmohan or a Montek, can understand the value of); and the shame and blow to national pride that the next generation of Indians will have to live with when they wake up to the monumental idiocy of their fathers in destroying so much for the greed of so few in so short a time, and that too for a dirty, climate-hostile, limited, non-renewable fuel that anyway cannot solve India’s energy problems.

What if we tried to attach an economic value to a loss on a scale like this? The Dutch research institute CE Delft did exactly such a study of the externalised global costs of the impact on human/ environmental health and climate change caused by coal-mining and combustion, and arrived at a figure of $452 billion for 2007 alone. That’s more than a dozen times the magnitude of the estimated loss due to coalgate ($33 billion). And the figure is especially scary when you consider that India is not only the world’s third largest coal-producing nation, but also the fourth largest importer of coal.

Why India can and should wean itself off coal

What’s really alarming is that, despite coal being in the news, nobody seems to be debating a simple question (where are you Arnab Goswami? The nation needs an answer to this one): Can’t India grow without increasing its reliance (pun unintended, believe me) on the dirtiest fossil fuel around?

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Today, more than 50% of India’s energy needs are met by coal. But it has been established that coal is one of the worst contributors to climate change – it contributes not only through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also through destruction of the forests when it is mined. [Forests trap atmospheric carbon in their biomass and are major carbon sinks. This is the basis of the UN’s REDD+ (Reduced Emissions of Deforestation and Degradation) programme which offers incentives to developing countries to preserve their forests – an incentive India is well-placed to tap, IF we keep away from coal and leave the forests alone.]

Of course, the reality is that many of our policy wonks are climate sceptics who believe it’s OK to use up all our coal reserves before we look at alternatives to coal. As writer Peter Dolack asks in his blog, Systemic Disorder, “There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?” Well, if you too are a climate change sceptic, here are some hard facts:

The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987
9 of the 10 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 2001
June 2012 marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average
For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low
There is complete consensus among climatologists that anthropogenic climate change (global warming caused by human activity) is REAL. The debate is only about how much time we have before the rising temperatures go into a destructive feedback loop. The seeds of doubt are being peddled only by a bunch of think tanks funded by the oil and natural gas industry. Exxon Mobil reportedly spent $16 million just between 1998 and 2005 funding denier groups, according to a Monthly Review article in May 2012. And in India, we have our own bunch of industry-sponsored ‘experts’ who want to limit the debate on India’s energy future to two equally moronic, dangerous and completely irrational choices: nuclear energy (dirty but clean) and coal (dirty but cheap).

The alternative to coal is renewable and doable

Renewable forms of energy accounted for half of all new electric capacity added globally in 2010, and delivered 20% of global power supply. They are cleaner, their costs of production are rapidly coming down, and India, specifically, is superbly placed to tap all three major renewables – solar, wind and biomass.

Yet it is only rarely that we hear of the most rational option around which to secure our future energy needs: a diversified basket of renewable energy produced in a decentralised manner. Why? Because decentralised renewable energy (DRE) models based on solar, wind and bio-mass don’t give a tiny elite with a monopoly over power and money, an opportunity to make “windfall profits” (that’s the CAG’s term, by the way) in as short a time with as much ease and secrecy and as little transparency as centralised mega-power projects such as nuclear power (sorry, national security, so we won’t tell you anything) or coal (just get a ‘recommendation’ from the state government and you get a coal block absolutely FREE! What a scheme! If I were a businessman with political connections, I’d love it too!).

Renewables, on the other hand, are decentralised by design. They can be community-owned and controlled instead of being state or corporate owned. They could be home solar panels, biogas plants fed from farmyard manure, or wind turbines in farmers’ fields. Damian Carrington has written in the Guardian about a small German hamlet called Feldheim whose inhabitants produce all the power they need locally, from some 43 turbines scattered across their fields – they don’t need the major utilities anymore (read: they are fine without coal or nuclear power).

Incidentally, another rigorously researched Greenpeace report asserts that India can have 92% of its energy needs met from renewable sources by 2050. Germany increased the share of its electricity produced from renewable sources to 25% in 2012 from 6.3% in 2000, and has already made investments to make this 35% by 2020. We have far more MW (megawatt) of renewables at our disposal than Germany. So why can’t we? Who stands to benefit if India doesn’t pursue this option and goes for expensive nuclear energy and dirty coal power instead?

he shenanigans of the coal lobby

But the frightening reality is that we are going all out for coal, even when it’s clear that it’s a fuel we neither need nor want but are merely addicted to for the present. And this addiction is partly by design. Why were so many coal blocks given away for free to private players, many of whom had no background in power generation or even manufacturing? Why were more coal blocks allotted than were needed to meet our production targets as per the 11th Plan? Why were private players allowed to set up so many coal-powered thermal power plants (71 in water-scarce Vidarbha alone, but that’s another story for another day) without any prior infrastructure or arrangement for coal supply?

One answer: it’s an old ploy employed by India Inc. Once you’ve already set up a hundred coal-powered power plants, then you can always talk about ‘demand’ and ‘shortfall’ and pressure the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) into clearing more coal blocks. This was how the No Go zones – areas of dense forest cover, tiger corridors and bio-diversity hotspots – which the MoEF and the coal ministry had provisionally agreed on in 2010, were scuttled by the latter under pressure from the industry lobby.

The establishment of No Go zones was a brilliant idea. In one stroke, it would have resolved the uncertainty over environmental clearance for every individual mining project, while at the same time securing India’s basic environmental objectives such as keeping tiger territories inviolate and protecting reserve forests.

Does anyone remember the hue and cry that was raised when it was reported in 2005 that tigers had been wiped out of the Sariska reserve? Everybody, including, presumably, the tiger-loving, patriotic managements of corporate groups like the Adanis, the Tatas, Jindals, Bhushan, Reliance, Hindalco, Vedanta, and Arcelor Mittal must surely have been saddened by the dwindling numbers of India’s national animal. There are barely 1,700 of them left according to a 2010 estimate from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Yet these corporates are at the forefront of coal mining projects that spell doom for not one, not two, but at least ten tiger reserves in central India. All the coal fields in this region are in close proximity to the tiger reserves. Not just the mining activity, but also the infrastructure that goes with mining – a road and rail network, at the minimum – will destroy tiger corridors (between two reserves) and fragment their forest habitat in such a way that the reserves will no longer be able to sustain a tiger population.

But those who spend all their time thinking about how to make money tend to have a narrow kind of personality that simply has no mind-space for realities that cannot be processed through profit-loss filters. Some of these businessmen even cynically used the long blackouts on July 30-31 caused by multiple grid failure (which had nothing to do with a shortfall in coal supply) to lobby for environmental clearances for more coal blocks and coal mining projects. But the fact remains that the MoEF has given enough clearances to exceed our coal production targets right up to 2017.

In any case, our coal reserves (the ones that are economically viable for mining) will run out in 40 years. As of today, India has already lost 70% of its forest cover. If we went ahead and extracted all the coal we can mine, we would have finished off much of the remaining forest cover too [please note: in carbon terms, there is no comparison between afforestation initiatives (‘forests’ planted by man) and the native forests with their richness in carbon-trapping bio-mass. Afforestation can never match the carbon density and biodiversity of a destroyed native forest].

De-allocate the ‘coalgate’ mining blocks

There are three solid reasons for de-allocating the 150-odd coal blocks sanctioned under coalgate and putting a permanent moratorium on any fresh allocations.

First, the private players have already made their money. In fact, the CAG reports says that only one of the 57 blocks allotted to the private sector has been developed, which means that most of them have not spent money on developing the mines allotted to them, as they should have, as per Plan projections. In an insightful article on First Post titled, ‘Who wins, who loses from Coalgate? The markets know’, Arjun Parthasarathy, the editor of the appropriately named, explains how the beneficiaries of the coal allocations have raked it in – they cashed in on rising market valuations on the back of their acquisition of coal blocks and land. When their stock prices crashed post the CAG report, it was the shareholders who lost the most.

Two, many of these mines are in No Go zones or zones which should be No Go if you consider the environmental implications rationally. If we decide to leave the forest alone, we can look at alternative renewable sources plus encash the forest cover under REDD+.

Three, because the process of allocation was flawed, it’s only fair (to those who didn’t get any) that they are all cancelled. And once you cancel them, it’s a good opportunity to have a national debate on whether we shouldn’t put a lid on coal-mining in forest areas once and for all.

From ownership to trusteeship

There seems to be a belief prevalent among our ruling classes that the state owns all of the country’s forests and natural resources. Hello – it does not. Not only do the forests not ‘belong’ to the state, it does not even ‘belong’ exclusively to all human beings taken together. Other living species, passport-bearing citizens of what a Greenpeace campaign describes as ‘Junglistan’, also have a claim on it. We humans are at best trustees, and as a representative only of humans, the state, too, is a trustee of the forests and rivers that fall within the man-imagined borders of the man-made entity that has no basis in the natural world – the nation state, and the parasite whose host it is, the corporation.

We need to look at our forests and national resources through the prism of trusteeship and not ownership. The problem is: try telling that to the mandarins who run the show in the PMO and the commerce ministry.

The twin ideas of capitalist industrialisation and endless economic growth were born at a time in history when human beings had no conception of ‘limits’ to natural resources. It was assumed that raw materials can be extracted wherever found, ad infinitum.

Now the ability of technology to extract has far outstripped the ability of the planet to supply. And the large-scale destruction of the natural environment and phenomena like global warming are symptoms of this mismatch between the scale of technology and the scale of the planet. One sobering example of this mismatch is that humans have enough nuclear bombs to destroy the planet many times over, but no power to create another planet when this one is gone, eaten out from the inside by a particularly virulent strain of the human species that reports only to Capital and answers only to profit.

The deadly coalition

So, if we look at the big picture, and not just at short-term fixes, the writing is pretty much on the wall: we have to choose between coal and our tigers/forests. If we choose coal, we can enjoy our dirty electricity in the short term but we and our children (and those of you in your twenties now) will most definitely get screwed by environmental disasters in the long-term, and screwed in ways that many of us don’t yet have the imagination to fully comprehend.

So let the CAG and the Greenpeace report be a wake-up call. Read them both if you haven’t already. If there’s one message that leaps out from this exercise, it is this: India needs to decouple economic growth from fossil fuel, and most definitely from coal. And not only is this not difficult, it is also good business, and profitable in the long run. The only thing stopping us from taking this path is the all-powerful coalition of corporate giants and political dwarves. Corruption is just one name for this coalition and what it does. But it does not even begin to encapsulate the scale of damage that this coalition can unleash if left unchecked.


G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at

Finally we know what India’s poor really want

In Politics, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I learnt something new today. Do you know what the poor need the most in their lives? Take a guess.

Did you say three square meals a day? Wrong! C’mon, the poor don’t need to eat so much. If they eat as much as we do, food prices will shoot up and the already inflated inflation will inflate even more.

Shelter? Oh no. We build homes only for two kinds of people these days: the rich, and those who can take a home loan. People below the poverty line (BPL) are obviously neither, so they don’t qualify.

Free healthcare? Don’t be silly. What if they flood our hospitals with their dirty, malnourished bodies? We can’t have that, can we?

Give up? Well, what the poor really want, what they really-really want, are mobile phones. That’s the earth-shattering discovery made by the babus and netas running this country. And they’ve set aside a cool Rs7,000 crore to gift a cell phone to every BPL family in India.

As per media reports, the PM will unveil this ‘welfare scheme’ (we’ll come back in a bit to the question of whose welfare), titled Har Hath Mein Phone, on August 15. So come Independence Day, six million of India’s BPL families will walk out of poverty into a new life — of cell phone-enriched poverty. And that’s not all. Along with a handset, the state will also bestow a bonanza of TWO HUNDRED MINUTES of FREE local talk time!!!

I can already see people jumping up and down in joy at this largesse. Only, somehow, they don’t seem like people below the poverty line. Some of them look like cell phone manufacturers to me. Others look like service providers. And the rest look like politicians. Not your typical BPL lot. How come?

The Rs7,000 crore, or whatever government funds are eventually spent on this scheme — guess whose pockets they’re going to end up in? Not with the BPL families – they only get a cell phone, remember? Plus 200 minutes of FREE talk time. A little bird tells me the bidders who win the right to provide the service are set to rake it in. Our famously incorruptible ministers and bureaucrats will honestly ‘evaluate’ bids from the private sector, and of course, none of the bids will be from companies set up expressly for this scheme by some politician or the other in the name of his brother-in-law or daughter-in-law.

But it’s not about the money alone – please don’t underestimate our political class. Reportedly, the government is excited about this scheme also because it will “provide an opportunity for the ruling dispensation to open a direct line of communication with a sizeable population that plays an active role in elections.”

Assuming “plays an active role in elections” means voting, basically it means the UPA can spam the poorest of the poor with text messages urging them to set aside trivial concerns like where the next meal’s going to come from, and instead go and vote for their candidates. After all, we gave you a cell phone, didn’t we? And 200 minutes of free talk time? Have some gratitude, you poor people!

Apparently, the government wants to pitch the Har Hath Mein Phone scheme as a “major empowerment initiative of the UPA 2” with an eye on the 2014 general elections. Maybe I’m missing something here, but can someone explain how a BPL family, a family that, more often than not, comprises indebted, semi-literate, chronically malnourished persons with almost no prospects other than a lifetime of poorly paid, exploitative casual labour, is supposed to become empowered by the sudden ownership of a cell phone (and 200 minutes of free local talk time)?

How? My neighbour, for instance, tried very hard to empower her maid by giving her a cell phone. But the poor thing (pun intended) apparently didn’t want to be empowered — at least not telephonically. Each time my neighbour gave her a cell phone (I must add it was for her own convenience, so that the girl could inform her if she was going to take leave or be late for work), within a month or two, she would come back and tell her she’d ‘lost’ the phone. This happened three times before my neighbour realised that the girl perceived more empowering properties in hard cash than in a handset (which she’d been selling off).

So what are the chances that the BPL families would sell off the phones after using up the 200 minutes of free talk time? Maybe they’ll sell it even before they use up the talk time. And that’s assuming they get these phones in the first place and some low-level clerk doesn’t divert them to the grey market.

But let’s assume that all the six million targeted BPL families get the phones. And that they don’t sell them. What are they going to do with them? Download free anti-hunger apps? Perhaps there are anti-malarial apps that can be downloaded directly into your bloodstream. Or maybe they’ll look for road-laying work on

You never know. Perhaps the bold visionary genius of the likes of Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia will come up with some new technology-driven solution to poverty and hunger that can be solved simply by giving everybody a UID card and a cell phone.

I have a better idea though. Better than Har Hath Mein Phone. It’s called Har Hath Mein Gun. Give all the BPL households a gun, a free bullet for each family member. Tell them to shoot themselves in the head.

G Sampath is an independent writer based in
Delhi. He’s reachable at