governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

harish-rawat 2

Photo credit: NDTV.com: Harish Rawat – the unfortunate Congress Chief Minister, sacked by the President of India for failing to fulfill his constitutional mandate to get the budget approved

Nothing illustrates the cost of wantonly discarding democracy and handing over the government to unelected officials (Governor) than the case of Uttarakhand. To recap the turn of events , the President of India (read the BJP Union government) was pleased to take control of Uttarakhand on March 27, 2016, by invoking constitutionally vested emergency powers available to it if an elected state government fails to discharge its constitutional mandate.

The occasion for doing so was an allegation, by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s members of the Legislative Assembly, who are in a minority, that the Budget for 2016-17 was not approved by a majority vote in March, as required, to keep public finances running in the new year — April onwards. The ousted Congess government strongly refuted the allegation and approached the Uttarakhand high court, in appeal against the Presidents order. On March 28, a single judge of the Uttrakhand rubbished the President’s order. The Union government filed for revision of this order. A division bench however confirmed on April 21 that Presidents rule was unwarranted. The matter is now in the Supreme Court on appeal against the high court order. A ruling is expected this week but early indications are that the Court leans towards asking the ousted government to prove its majority on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, as is the norm and which aligns with what the Uttarakhand Governor had directed in the first place, once the dispute arose.

The absence of political leadership shows

But forget the legalese. The fact is that Uttarakhand has been without an elected government to take charge and be accountable for over a month now. It is fashionable for citizens to blame politicians for all the ills in the country. Unfortunately, the official machinery has failed miserably to showcase its strengths by managing the ongoing forest fire disaster. This illustrates that the “iron frame” of the bureaucracy is now so rusted that it fails to be proactive even when there are no visible political constraints on them.

Jhoom an age old practice

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The people of Uttarakhand are no strangers to forest fires. Indeed, this writer has had out of control fires in previous years licking the boundary of his home and it has happened again this year. Just like in California, where habitations co-exist with forests, lighting fires can be property and life threatening. In India, the foresters and villagers resort to it as a low-cost, low-labour intensive practice to clear the fallen pine needles and accumulated undergrowth so that fresh grass sprouts from underneath for cattle to graze on. Till not so very long ago jhoom (slash and burn) cultivation — regularly setting fire to land and leaving it fallow to regenerate — was common practice. It is still followed in the Northeast.

The problem arises when local fires are poorly managed and they grow out of control and ravage vulnerable people (the old, the differently abled and the very young), homes, cattle, wildlife and indeed trees, none of whom can get away quickly.

Lack of advance red alerts 

Unfortunately, this year was different in a manner which people never recognised. The lack of rain created tinder box conditions. A more proactive bureaucracy would have sounded the red alert early, launched a communications campaign to sensitise the public against the danger, set up a war room fed by daily updates via sms and Facebook and designated local champions to lead the effort and build public opinion against jhoom.

chandi pd bhatt

Photo credit: indiatogether.org: C.P.Bhatt- Uttarakhand’s pragmatic Ecologist and community leader

Remember how Chandi Prasad Bhatt- alarmed at deforestation on an epic scale in the 1970s- a major cause for the Alakananda floods at that time – galvanised the women of Garhwal to launch the “Chipko Movement” (literally hugging trees) to guard against the rampant logging? He showed it is possible to build strong public opinion if people’s self-interest is shown to be aligned with a public cause. Managing perule better is a similar public interest issue.

Short sighted programme implementation

A previous government programme, which could have tackled the root of the problem, aimed at buying perule (fallen pine leaves) to incentivise villagers to collect them, rather than setting them on fire. Unfortunately it has long fallen into diuse. Villagers say it died because the amounts offered by the government were unattractive. Foresters say the villagers are too lazy to work and look for easy earnings and viable options for recycling perule were never developed. Also viable methods for recycling perule by compacting it into and selling, or the villagers themselves using it, as fire wood were never commercialised. Lack of sustained interest and lack of public finance effectively buried the programme even though it could have diluted the extent of the current ecological disaster by reducing the vulnerability of forests to catch fire.

Preventing disasters is nobodys business

But the real problem is that governments routinely under-spend on preventing disasters in comparison to the potential loss. Also, the tendency is to buy new equipment to manage disasters once they happen, rather than evolve low-cost, local options to prevent them. Had Uttarakhand done so, it would not be facing the terrible social and environmental costs of doing nothing.

A more technically savvy bureaucracy could have redesigned the old perule (pine needles) purchase programme to make it more attractive. But none of this happened. Minus a chief minister, the bureaucracy was a leaderless army. Local administrations headed by the district magistrate became a dead letter box into which the secretariat heavies dutifully dumped warnings and advice, sans funds, for guarding against fires.

This is not to say that the Uttarakhand bureaucracy was as callous as the Supreme Court described Union government bureaucrats to be. Whilst rapping them for not bringing forward evidenced solutions to reduce air pollution levels in Delhi, the court said: “Why can’t they come up with some research and solutions? You people are just sipping coffee and doing nothing”.

tea 2

photo credit: pinintrest.com: Delicately sipping tea – the bureaucrats relaxant.

What is true for Delhi is not necessarily true of state-level bureaucracies, which have responded magnificently, in the recent past, to disasters in Gujarat, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. But they all had a chief minister directing the coordinated effort that relief requires.

The key assurance an official seeks in an emergency is that his/her actions, taken in public interest, will be assessed not on the basis of how closely the regulations were followed, but on the context in which decisions were taken, and their effectiveness, in solving the problems disasters throw up.

This type of reassurance can only be credibly given by a duly elected chief minister. In today’s context, it takes a politician even to make the trains run on time! The colonial model, where the officials led and politicians merely presided, is past and buried.

Local political leadership is key 

Sans a chief minister in Dehradun, it is Delhi which is sending money, choppers and the Army to deal with the disaster. But only elected governments at the state and the local level can engage continuously to prevent disasters and effectively manage those that occur.

But the last thing to be wished for, in a disaster area, is a government led by officials with no effective political oversight. Even a bad chief minister is better than no chief minister at all. One hopes the Supreme Court will take note and end Uttarakhand’s misery.

 

CJI Thakur

Photo credit: Zeenews.comChief Justice of India, T.S. Thakar breaks down whilst sharing the misery of a judge’s life with Prime Minister Modi- the government promised to do better at staffing and funding the justice system. 

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age on May 3, 2015; http://www.asianage.com/columnists/fuelling-fire-979

 

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