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Archive for December 2016

Sonia Sarkar travels into the depths of Abujmarh, Chattisgarh’s inaccessible and guerilla-run forestland, to find flourishing shoots of commerce and change.

A collage of colours – bright blue, yellow and black – welcomes you to Orchha, a small town in the Maoist stronghold of Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh. Coloured tarpaulin sheets drape tables laden with goods set up along the undulating lane that cuts through the dusty town.

Ramesh Usendi holds his chequered blue-grey lungi, fluttering in the wind, with one hand, and with the other fiddles with an MP3 player. He has bought this digital player of Chinese make for Rs 150.

“The shopkeeper downloaded some Gondi songs for me,” says the 25-year-old from Jatlur, 30 kilometres from Orchha in Narayanpur district. Gondi is the predominant tribal language spoken in Abujmarh.

In this back-of-beyond pocket – a land caught in a time warp – excitement arrives every Wednesday morning. For this is when the haat comes up, week after week and through the year. People walk from their villages in the hills and forests, often trekking all day and more to travel 45 kilometres or so, to buy – or perhaps just look at – the goods on sale.

There are torches on the tables, LED bulbs, emergency lamps and even selfie sticks. From synthetic clothes and plastic slippers to fashion jewellery and from pencil cells to mobile phones, the market tempts villagers with a variety of goods. Most have a Made in China emboss; the prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 1,400.

  • WORLD WINDOW: The Orchha bazaar is a social hub where tribals from far-flung hamlets congregate once a week. Pictures by the author

Dressed in a fitted red blouse with a green gamchha and a strip of printed cloth wrapped around her thin waist, Santi Gota of Handawada has walked with her two little children through broken roads and crossed two streams to reach what the locals call their bazaar.

She has bought clothes for her two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and is now looking at artificial silver earrings for herself, a local interpreter explains. “We wear only traditional brass jewellery. But these artificial ones look different,” she says.

The market, a running affair for more than three decades, is the lifeline of people living in the 237 villages of Abujmarh, a terrain that spans across 4,975 square kilometres. The locals also sell their own produce – brooms, tamarind, Indian gooseberries ( amla), etc. – in the market; this is how most earn a little cash and ease living.

But the market has changed character. There was a time it sold only essentials such as rice, sugar, salt, pulses, spices and utensils. For the past five years or so, it has been flooded with cheap Chinese goods.

The shopkeepers are petty merchants from Narayanpur town, who collect Chinese goods from markets in Jagdalpur and Raipur, and sell them in Orchha, 65 kilometres away. Most of the goods enter Chhattisgarh through Hyderabad, administration sources say. According to some estimates, Chinese goods worth about Rs 300 crore are sold in the state every year.

Attempts have been made to put a curb on them. Chief minister Raman Singh had said recently that the government would ban the sale of Chinese goods. There was an outcry against such goods in October, when Chinese-made halogen lamps apparently burst at a cultural programme in Rajnandgaon district and caused eye injuries to many present.

But Abujmarh is not troubled by such threats. The sellers say that halogen lamps and torches are in big demand because electricity is rare; it embraces but a few rural outposts like Orchha, Godadi and Mandali. “Villagers often buy halogen lamps and torches in bulk for the entire village,” says Sunil Singh, who sells the torches for Rs 150 and the lamps for Rs 300 a piece.

The other popular product is the mobile phone. There is no cellular network in the villages, but people like to carry cell phones. “They listen to songs on their phones,” says Suresh Soni, another shopkeeper. “Portable radios are in demand. They want to hear the news,” he adds.

Some shopkeepers believe villagers often buy radios and phones for Maoists living deep in the jungles of Abujmarh. Over 175 villages of Abujmarh fall under the so-called liberated zone ruled by the Jantana Sarkar, or people’s government.

Little is known about this region; it lies cut off from the rest of Chhattisgarh and the country, courtesy an inaccessible geography and the violent politics of Maoist cadres. “The name Abujmarh means nobody knows about anything. It means the area which is unknown, deserted and blank,” says a paper called “Orchha, the market within blank space of Abujmarh” by N.L. Dongre.

The forests are thick with mango, tamarind, mahua and peepal trees. The Indravati river cuts off Abujmarh from Bastar, making it even more isolated. Populated by people belonging to the Gond, Muria, Maria and Halba tribes, most Abujmarh villages can be accessed only by foot.

That is why development is not a word that the villagers know of. Government officials have not stepped into the interiors of Abujmarh. Orchha, its headquarters, is one of the few places that can boast of a healthcare centre. Abujmarh has not been surveyed by the government, and there has been no official mapping yet.

One of the vehicular roads to Orchha leads off from Dhaudai in Narayanpur. I travelled about 30 kilometres down this track to reach the market. The curved and pebbled road passes through dense forests of sal, teak and bamboo thickets. By night, this stretch is inky black. The occasional and passing blur of lights are CRPF camps set up along the route.

After an hour of travelling in the dark, a huge pillar with faded murals of a tribal man and woman welcomes you to Orchha.

Orchha, not to be confused with the more famous tourist destination in Madhya Pradesh, springs to life on Wednesdays – occasionally even Tuesday nights – when the stalls are set up. Sometimes, the police stop vendors from setting up shop at night. When that happens, the market opens the next morning.

On an average, some 400 villagers gather in Orchha for the bazaar. They buy essentials such as vegetables and cereals, and Chinese goods that interest them. The place is also a social hub; this is where tribals from far-flung hamlets convene. “For six days a week, they live in isolation. People wait for this one day,” says Narayanpur district collector Taman Singh Sonwani.

The stalls also tell the villagers about new technology, or of changing trends. For instance, people for generations in these regions have cooked food in utensils made of clay or bottle gourd skin. Now they buy aluminium pots. If they ate mostly boiled kodo kutki (millets) and pikhur (a tuber), they are now buying vegetables, oil and turmeric. Stalls selling samosas and jalebis do brisk business.

Though many tribal people still wear traditional clothes, an increasing number of men sport shirts or T-shirts and cargo shorts, which they pick up from the market. Once they walked barefoot; now they move around in plastic slippers. Women, who earlier wore just a piece of cloth or a lungi wrapped around their waists, are often seen in saris and blouses.

“We have taught them how to wear clothes,” says samosa-seller Nibha Banerjee, who has been setting up a shop in the market for 30 years. Someone called Banerjee? Here? But of course; after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, a lot many refugees were re-settled in these parts and have since made it their home.

This is also where the tribal people – who usually speak Gondi, Maria and Halba – pick up a smattering of Hindi and English. Some of their children study in schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission or the government. Last year, for the first time, three boys from a village in Abujmarh joined Delhi University.

Muru Ram, a 19-year-old boy who has come to Orchha to buy a chain saw for his father, has studied in a Mission school, and now wants to go to Jagdalpur for further studies. The chain saw is not available, and he is asked to come back after a few weeks.

There are rumours that local Maoists have asked hawkers not to sell Chinese goods. The news is unconfirmed and unexplained, but the shopkeepers are worried. “We will clear the stock and not pick up fresh ones. But we will run into losses if we don’t sell Chinese goods,” Soni says.

Ironically, the sale of Chinese goods is the only issue on which the Maoists and the Centre are on the same page.

For the villagers of Abujmarh, China perhaps is no longer a symbol of guerilla warfare with the promise of revolution. It now stands for lights, phones, batteries and music, for profitable commerce and ease of life, no more.

ABUJMARH: LOST IN TRANSITION

• Area: 4,975 square kilometres, mostly unmapped and inaccessible.
• Stretch of metal road: 54 kilometres
• Population: 34,950
• Maoists (rough estimate): 500
• Security forces: 800 across six camps (Orchha, Dhanora, Basingbahar, Kurusnar, Akabeda and Kukdajhor)
• Security personnel killed between 2012 and 2016: 11
• Maoists killed: 36
• Government schools: 135 across only 30 villages
• Schools destroyed in 10 years: 50*
• Healthcare centres: 6 across 5 villages; 42 had been sanctioned
• Healthcare centres destroyed in  10 years: 12*

*No damage to schools and healthcare centres in the last 5 years
Source: Government and police in Narayanpur and Orchha.

 

Published in The Telegraph, December 26, 2016.

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/1161225/jsp/7days/story_126631.jsp)

Sonia Sarkar finds JDU’s Sharad Yadav at his quintessential best – angry, easily affronted, defiant, combative, dismissive

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Kashmir’s summer of discontent is writ large on Sharad Yadav’s face. His brows are furrowed and he looks disconcertingly grim. But then the man, who has just returned to Delhi after a futile search for peace in the Valley, has been widely – and perhaps unfairly – pilloried for making an effort to meet separatist leaders.

Some have accused him – and a clutch of other members of Parliament – of overstepping bounds. For Yadav, along with a group of Opposition leaders, had tried to reach out to Kashmiri secessionist leaders. Yadav glowers when I bring this up.

“Kashmir is a 70-year-old issue. How do we solve it in two days,” the 69-year-old leader of the Janata Dal (United) fumes.

Yadav and the 27 other politicians in an all-party delegation of parliamentarians led by home minister Rajnath Singh hadn’t really gone to Kashmir last week to settle the Kashmir conflict. Their attempt was to seek ways to resolve the two-month-long crisis that has brought the Valley to a standstill ever since security forces gunned down the 24-year-old commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, on July 8. In an unending cycle of violence, 76 people have been killed by the forces so far. Many hundreds lie injured, some have lost their eyesight.

The JDU leader, along with, among others, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja, broke away from the group and knocked at the door of the chairman of the All India Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani didn’t let them in, and the media was full of images of the stumped parliamentarians standing outside his closed door. Some even labelled him anti-national for breaking ranks with the parliamentary delegation.

“I don’t care who calls me anti-national. Even if Geelani slammed his door on us, we will go again,” Yadav asserts.

Four other separatist leaders – Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shabir Shah and Abdul Gani Bhat – did meet Yadav and his group, but declined to have a dialogue with them on the current crisis. “Their bone of contention was that the central government hadn’t invited them to the talks,” Yadav says. “They promised to meet us in Delhi.”

Yadav holds the state government – an alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – responsible for the ongoing crisis.

“When they formed the government in the state, the BJP-PDP alliance declared that they would talk to all stakeholders, including the Hurriyat. Before our visit, too, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had asked separatists to join the talks. Do you really think she invited them without even consulting the Centre? But the home minister said that it (the Centre) had neither said yes, nor said no to it [the MPs’ initiative].”

The confusion, he holds, demonstrates that the BJP is in a bind. “They want to solve the crisis without involving the Hurriyat but the PDP is keen on their participation. There is no co-ordination between the two,” he grumbles.

Yadav blames the Kashmiri youth for the impasse. “The biggest problem in Kashmir is its leaderless youth,” he asserts.

The former minister has just spoken for a few minutes when he waves his hand to indicate that he has had enough of the interview. ” Bas, ho gaya, chalo, chalo (Enough, I am done, you may go now),” he says.

I quickly change the topic, moving to Bihar, thinking that on this issue he may be more forthcoming. This is the state where his party is in power and has introduced Prohibition, which has been roundly opposed by sections of the people. But, no, Yadav is not going to discuss his colleague, JDU president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. “I will not talk about Bihar,” he maintains.

Not even on the alliance in the state between the Congress and the JDU, once known for its anti-Congress stance? ” Main kah raha hoon ki Bihar ke baare mein baat nahin karna chahta (I have told you I don’t want to talk about Bihar),” he replies sternly.

There is speculation in political circles that all is not well between the Bihar CM and Yadav. Nitish Kumar has been calling the shots in the JDU, which was once Yadav’s domain. As the former convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), he had a cordial relationship with senior BJP leaders such as L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj. But he had no say when Nitish Kumar severed ties with the BJP and pulled the JDU out of the NDA in 2013, rejecting Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.

Does Sharad Yadav have no role to play in the JDU anymore? “It’s up to you to analyse,” he says, scratching his grey stubble.

In 2013, the party constitution was amended to enable Yadav to hold a third term as the chief of the party. But earlier this year, Kumar was installed as the JDU president, replacing Yadav. Many thought it was to underline Nitish’s popularity with the electorate – which would help the party in the 2019 general elections.

“It’s natural for people to associate the JDU with Nitish Kumar because he is the chief minister,” Yadav says.

There was a time, though, when the Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar was one of the prominent faces of the Janata Dal and its many avatars. He has had a long political innings, too. Active in student politics, Yadav, who topped his batch in the Jabalpur Engineering College in Madhya Pradesh, was the college students’ union president in 1971.

When he was 27, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan asked him to fight a Lok Sabha bypoll from Jabalpur. He won the seat by over one lakh votes. From 1971 to 1974, Yadav, a strong opponent of the ruling Congress, was in and out of jail under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa).

He has been a familiar political face since then – recognisable in his trademark white dhoti and kurta. He is in his usual attire when we meet in his office at his residence in central Delhi. On the walls are photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan.

As a diehard socialist and a follower of Narayan, Yadav surprised many when he joined hands with the BJP as the NDA formed its first coalition government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Yadav was known to have enjoyed friendly relations with Vajpayee. How does he get along with Narendra Modi? “I connected with all the prime ministers in the past but never got a chance to have a one-to-one (relationship) with Modi,” Yadav replies. ” Inse koi samvad nahi ban paya abhi tak.”

How would current developments – Dalit men being flogged by self-styled cow protectors in Gujarat, the Patel agitation seeking reservations in jobs and education in Gujarat, a Muslim man being lynched for storing beef in Dadri – affect the 2019 general elections?

“Their (the BJP’s) pre-poll promises included giving jobs to two crore unemployed people, getting black money back, cleaning the Ganges. They have done nothing of this. They are only talking of gau rakshaks (cow protectors), beef ban, ghar wapsi (re-conversion to Hinduism),” he says. “They have to pay a price for that.”

He waves his hand again – indicating that my time is up. But I can’t leave without a question on his position on women. Recently, he came under fire when he said in Parliament that south Indian women were beautiful, as were their bodies – while his hands moved in a circular motion to explain what he wanted to say. ” Woh nritya jaanti hai (They know dance),” he’d said.

“I was not wrong when I said that women from the South have nice figures because they dance regularly,” he now explains.

On another occasion several years ago, while opposing in Parliament a bill that sought to reserve seats for women in elected bodies, he had referred to urban women dismissively as ” par-kati mahilayein“.

“I admit that I shouldn’t have used the word ‘ par-kati‘,” he states.

By now Yadav has had enough of this particular par-kati mahila. He accuses me of raking up an old issue. “Aapka sanskar kharab hai. Itne din baad aap yeh baat pooch rahin hain. Is baat ka koi waasta nahin hai. (Your values are all wrong. You are bringing this up after all these years when it has no connection to the present),” he says.

Now he is not waving his hand anymore – he is on his feet. The interview has to end, he tells me, for he is waiting for a newspaper editor. ” Ab jaaiye (you may go now),” he says.

I now know how the parliamentarians felt when Geelani showed them the door.


tetevitae

1969-71: Gets involved in student politics while studying engineering at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh
1974: Spotted by Jayaprakash Narayan as a youngster with promise; contests the Lok Sabha by-election from Jabalpur, wins as an Independent candidate
1977: Enters Parliament as a Janata Party member
Re-elected to Lok Sabha many more times — 1989, 1991, 1996, 1999 and 2009; wins Rajya Sabha terms in 1986, 2004 and 2016
1987: Involved in the founding of the Janata Dal (JD) under V.P. Singh’s leadership; wins from Badaun, UP, joins Cabinet
Becomes JD president replacing Lalu Prasad in 1997. Joins the Vajpayee-led NDA coalition, becomes a Cabinet minister
2003: Merges with the Lokshakti Party and the Samata Party to form Janata Dal (United) or JDU, becomes party president
2013: JDU ends alliance with BJP after Modi is named face of the campaign; is defeated in the LS polls in 2014 by Pappu Yadav
2016: Cedes presidentship of the JDU to Nitish; remains head of the JDU parliamentary party.

This was first published in The Telegraph:

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1160911/jsp/7days/story_107475.jsp


Should Urjit Patel earn a rap for not raising the flag on demonetisation and its painful playout? Or is he being made the fall guy for a bungled decision? Sonia Sarkar finds out

Talk about keeping secrets. When Urjit Ravinder Patel travels to Delhi on work, his assistants at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) headquarters in Mumbai keep three sets of tickets ready for him. This enables him to travel quietly, without anyone getting to know about his plans, an RBI insider says.

If that’s a waste of energy and money, it’s nothing compared to the mayhem that is being played out across the country. And the secrecy about his travel plans is but a tiny dot compared to the blanket of silence that surrounds the government today.

Almost a month after the Narendra Modi government banned 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee notes, people are still waiting for Patel, 53, to reassure them that all would be well. Last week, in his first public remarks after the demonetisation, he said: “The RBI is taking all necessary actions to ease the genuine pain of citizens who are honest and have been hurt.”

On November 8, Patel – in a black suit and a purple tie – told the media that the RBI would be ready with enough new notes to meet the crisis of a nationwide currency crunch caused by the move.

But clearly it isn’t. And fingers are being pointed at the inscrutable man from Kenya who replaced the gregarious Raghuram Rajan this September. Questions are being raised on how involved the RBI had been in the move.

“If the governor had been consulted on demonetisation, then it is unclear why he did not explain to the Prime Minister the enormous disruption withdrawing 86.4 per cent of the currency in circulation would cause to the economy,” says Meera Sanyal, former banker and AAP national executive member.

Patel, indeed, has some explaining to do. As RBI governor, he would have known how many notes the presses could print, and how much time it would take to replace the old notes, Sanyal says. “He would certainly have been aware of problems that would be caused to households, farmers, traders, businesses, schools, hospitals and banks across the country as cash ran out and had to rationed,” she adds.

Speculation is rife. Former RBI deputy governor K.C. Chakrabarty has been quoted as saying that the last government – led by Manmohan Singh – had also discussed demonetisation, but had been advised against the move because the costs were high, the benefits low.

Was the Modi government similarly apprised? “Patel should have told the government that demonetisation was not necessary,” a former RBI governor states. “It was his job to make the government understand that the purpose of nabbing black money hoarders won’t be served by killing notes.”

The number of killed notes is humungous. Over 16.5 billion 500-rupee notes and 6.7 billion 1,000-rupee notes in circulation – amounting to Rs 14 lakh crore – were believed to have been sucked out. So far, reports show that Rs 11 lakh crore have come back to banks, and more may come in. So the government’s belief that Rs 3-4 lakh crore of black money would not be returned to the banks, and thus would the RBI’s gain, may not be accurate.

Yet, how much of all this is Patel’s fault? The jury is out on that, too, though the All India Bank Officers Confederation has asked for his resignation. “The show is entirely managed by the finance ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. The RBI is only doing a post office’s job,” Chakrabarty says.

Patel may have unwittingly presaged his present predilection. In a 2007 column, he wrote: “Economists feel smug about their insight regarding the merits of an independent (and narrow) central bank. Actually it is politicians who are smart; it helps to have a central bank (designated as independent) that can be blamed for taking away the punch bowl just when the party is getting started, but it can also overrule the central bank and be seen on the side of depositors, who also happen to be voters.”

It’s not easy for a government employee to stand up to the government. But many have done so. The government wanted interest rates to go down but Raghuram Rajan preferred to keep inflation under control instead. Former governor D. Subbarao also didn’t give in to the demand for interest rate cuts during the UPA years. In 1957, a similar issue had forced the then RBI governor, Benegal Rama Rau, to resign after a difference of opinion with finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari.

But Patel, unlike many of his predecessors, has not had much experience in handling political pressures. “Patel could be academically excellent, but he lacks administrative experience in a government office – which is what is needed in a large and complex economy like India’s,” says Chakrabarty.

Indeed, his stints in the government have been short. He was working for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when he was sent to the RBI on deputation for advising it on the development of the debt market and banking sector reforms in 1996-97. In 2001, he was a member of the drafting team for the RBI’s advisory group on securities market regulations. He was a consultant with the finance ministry from 1998 to 2001.

In 2013, he was appointed RBI’s deputy governor. There was a hitch – having grown up in Nairobi and studied in England and the United States, he didn’t have an Indian passport.

At that point, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a recommendation letter to the home ministry. Patel, Singh said, was “very important for the country”. Some believe Patel had impressed Singh with a paper he had co-written called “The Dynamics of Inflation ‘Herding’: Decoding India’s Inflationary Process”. When the UPA returned to power in 2009, Patel was an expert commentator tracking the first 100 days of the government for a Hindi news channel.

A former Oxford University professor is not as impressed with Patel as Manmohan Singh was. Patel, when he was pursuing an MPhil from Oxford (he later completed his PhD from Yale in the US), did not stand out “socially or intellectually” and did not write any “exceptionally brilliant” papers, says the ex-professor.

“It’s a coterie of economists led by former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who has a fascination for people who have worked with the IMF and the World Bank, that made Patel’s entry into the RBI possible. Even Rajan has a similar professional background, but he was clearly a distinguished and decorated economist.”

Rajan, in fact, appointed his deputy as the chairman of the RBI’s monetary policy committee, saying that he was confident he would be able to guide the committee to move forward in achieving India’s inflation objectives.

Patel may not have had much experience in governance, but has worked for the private sector. He was the executive director and member of the management committee in Infrastructure Development Finance Company Limited (IDFC) from 1997 to 2006. Reports suggest that it was then that he met Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat. Modi offered him the post of independent director and chair of the audit committee on the board of the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) in 2005-06. (The GSPC borrowed more than Rs 19,000 crore from banks.) In 2008, he joined Reliance Industries as president (business development).

Unlike his predecessor, whose flamboyant manner was regularly remarked upon by the media, not much is known about Patel, the person. Some describe him as “abrupt”. His collection of ties – purple, blue and orange – has often been a topic for conversation. Rajan went for jogs, but Patel is not known as a fitness freak. At the fifth BRICS Deputies’ meet in Durban in 2013, however, he was spotted on a treadmill every morning.

Patel lives with his mother, Manjula, in Mumbai and, if he can, dines with her every evening. The family is originally from Mahudha village in Gujarat’s Khera district, a traditional Patidar belt. His father, Ravinder, moved to Nairobi where he set up a chemical factory. Young Urjit studied at the Oshwal Academy Nairobi Primary and then at the Jamhuri High School.

“Urjit was calm, polite and always smiling,” recalls Umakant Patel, head of the Premiere Club of Nairobi. “He often came to the club for walks with his father.”

He was married in the mid-90s to Vibha Joshi, and the couple divorced in 2003. Joshi was the sister of Arvind Joshi, an IAS officer who was suspended in February 2010 after IT raids. Arvind and his wife, Tinoo, are in jail.

His personal history has little to do with the present, which is, clearly, tense. “He is on test now in what has been his most high profile and important job so far,” says Shumita Deveshwar, director, India Research at Trusted Sources, an independent investment research firm that focuses on emerging markets.

What he needs to do, an economist stresses, is communicate with the people. “He doesn’t talk much, and that’s his real problem,” says the economist who worked with him on a Planning Commission Plan. “Unless he communicates with the media, one won’t understand his stand as the RBI governor.”

Meanwhile, the Twitter world can’t have enough of Patel’s silence.

Missing Notice, says a post.

Name: Urjit Patel; Last seen: Altamount Road; If found inform RBI, Mint Road, Mumbai Distinguishing feature: Says yes to everything.

Another post asks: “Have you seen Urjit? Urjit Patel, 53, last seen at RBI Building. Please come home. All is forgiven. Situation serious.”

And serious it is.


‘To say that my attack on Urjit is personal is utter rubbish’

Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh has demanded the resignation of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor. “Urjit Patel is either guilty of misleading the nation about the RBI’s preparedness on demonetisation or has sacrificed the autonomy of the RBI. Either way he should resign,” he wrote in a recent article. He tells us in an email interview that those responsible for the “chaos, despair and panic among citizens” should be held accountable. Extracts:

Q. RBI governor Urjit Patel says the RBI is taking “all necessary actions” to ease the “genuine pain of citizens”. Your reaction?

A. The RBI governor’s response has only bolstered my argument that either the RBI misled the nation about its preparedness or got forced into this decision. The governor has not explained in unambiguous terms the cause for this chaos or concrete timelines to end this suffering of citizens.

Q. Finance minister Arun Jaitley called your column “an unfair attack”. Many in the BJP say it was a personal attack on Patel.

A. It is utter rubbish that this is a personal attack. It is now the unanimous opinion of all – bhakts and non-bhakts – that there is chaos, despair and panic among citizens over access to currency notes. So who is responsible for this? There has to be an accountability somewhere. We have a culture in this country where ministers resign over accidents or even natural disasters. This is a disaster of monumental proportion inflicted entirely by poor planning and execution. So is it not right to question the concerned person and authority?

Q. Do you think Patel is handicapped by his old connection with the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC)? [He was an independent director and chair of the audit committee of GSPC and is said to have approved GSPC’s excessive borrowings from banks.]

A. GSPC is certainly the elephant on the 18th floor office of the RBI headquarters! The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has indicted GSPC over its huge borrowings and squandering them away. The Indian Expresshas exposed a related party conflict between [ex-Gujarat energy minister] Saurabh Patel and GSPC. Urjit Patel was the chairman of the audit committee and independent director during this entire time. People in public life should be held to high standards of probity, shouldn’t they?

Q. Will Patel be able to deal with inflation, banking sector reforms and so on?

A. I do not for a moment doubt Urjit Patel’s academic credentials as an economist. The issue here is who is responsible for unleashing this unprecedented misery on the people of India and why should they not be held accountable.

Published in The Telegraph. December 4, 2016.

(http://www.telegraphindia.com/1161204/jsp/7days/story_122825.jsp)

Sonia Sarkar reports from Kashmir on efforts by Valley folk to prevent the violent turmoil from derailing children’s education

  • LESSONS FOR LIFE: A community school in Budgam

Winter is closing in on Kashmir. The skies have turned grey, the air ridden with fog, the tall chinars have shed their leaves and stand shivered, the government has moved to Jammu. Winter is a quiet season in these parts. But this year, an unusual hubbub has come to populate the Valley’s indoors. Shut out of schools since summer, children are keeping up with the help of community volunteers — a unique effort to insulate education from disruption.

Hena Bashir is not worried about the ongoing board examinations. “At least I know I won’t fail,” says the 17-year-old Class XII student of a government school in Kashmir.

Bashir was given special lessons in Shopian in a makeshift arrangement locally referred to as a curfew school.

Classes are held in wedding halls, mosques and homes. The tutors are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and fresh graduates. Among the students are children who sometimes travel eight kilometres to take classes.

Regular schools in Kashmir broke for the summer on July 1. They were to have reopened after 15 days, but never did. On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, leading to widespread protests. Curfew was in force for 79 days. Among the worst hit were schools.

  • Security forces guard a school in Padgampora

Schools have become a bone of contention in Kashmir. “The separatists are not letting schools open to register their protest. The government is conducting examinations to show normalcy,” says a government education officer. “It is education versus azadi.”

But Kashmiris, who saw thousands of youngsters dropping out of school and college when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, don’t want another generation to suffer. It is for this that curfew schools have come up.

The first such school was set up in Bandipora in north Kashmir this August. When the unrest showed no signs of abating, more informal schools — they charge no fees — came up.

“We had to support the resistance movement but we also wanted to help our students. The entire community pitched in. Even a former militant opened his house for a curfew school for more than 300 kids,” says Arafat Basheer, a civil engineer from Tral, the south Kashmir home to Burhanuddin Wani and militancy hotbed, who taught in one such school.

  • A game of cricket at the Idgah in Tral
    Photographs by Sonia Sarkar

To begin with, not many parents were enthusiastic about these classes. But with private tuition centres shut, they realised this was the only way out. “Parents took the risk of sending their children to our school because they wanted them to study,” stresses Idrees Fazili, a computer science expert who taught in a school in Budgam, south of Srinagar.

Classes were, on an average, held for four hours every day. Some of the schools opened at 6am to ensure that there was no police interference. Still, it was not easy.

“I was stopped by the police once. They were not convinced that I was going to a school to teach. They let me go only after one of my students, who was passing by, told the police I taught them,” says Engineer Arshad, a civil engineer who taught mathematics in a curfew school in Shopian, also in south Kashmir.

Kashmir’s education minister Naeem Akhtar, however, believes that these schools cannot be a substitute for formal education. “This is only a stop-gap arrangement,” he says. “People must understand that discipline comes only through formal schooling. One cannot miss it for long.”

The curfew schools are shut for now, but are likely to start again. Right now, there is a lull, for the government has announced that all government students from Classes I to IX and XI will be automatically promoted. Most private schools have followed suit.

Board examinations for Class X and XII have also begun. The syllabi have been relaxed to help students clear the exams, a move some youngsters describe as a “super sale”.

  • ANOTHER TEST: File photo of students heading for an exam centre

But the people of Kashmir stress that the classes were not just about helping children cope with studies. Often, the teachers discussed issues that went beyond school syllabi.

“When we were teaching a chapter on Gandhi, some students wanted to know why they were being taught India’s history, why not Kashmir’s history,” says Mohammad Saquib, a curfew school teacher in Anantnag.

The journalism graduate adds that intense political discussions often took place. “Articles on Burhan Wani and a copy of the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir were distributed among the students. We also showed them documentaries on identity and colonialism,” Saquib says.

For many of the students, education is important — as is the cause of independence. So, while the informal classes carried on, so did the protests. Some of the curfew school students admit that as soon as the classes got over, they were out on the streets, chucking stones at security forces.

“I used to cover my face with a handkerchief and wear a pair of sunglasses to join the protests,” says a 16-year-old Shopian student.

But some children are also missing regular school. Thirteen-year-old Ikra Jaan, playing cricket at the Tral Idgah with her best friend, Qurat ul Ain, is among them. Jaan has a message for separatists: “Humare liye jaldi se school khol do. Hamara future kharab ho raha hai — please get our schools to open; our future is in danger,” she says.

Some elderly Kashmiris, who have entered the grounds, shut her up. “What would they achieve even after they study? They won’t get a job even if they become toppers. As Kashmiris, their life won’t change, will it?” asks Zafar Mushtaq, 60. As if on cue, a group of small children — all in the 6-8 age group — begin an “Azadi! Azadi!!” chant.

The closure of schools underlines the divide in Kashmir over how long the protests should continue. Burhan Wani’s father, Muzaffar Wani, principal of a government school in Tral, stresses the need for qurbani (sacrifice). “Some children have lost their eyesight after being shot with pellet guns. Some have lost their legs. So some students might lose a year. Qurbani toh deni padhegi Kashmir ke cause ke liye,” he says.

The curfew schools also point to a development that has had the people worried — the burning down of school buildings. In these five months, at least 31 schools in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian have been burnt down. Security forces blame supporters of separatists for the arson, holding that they want to ensure the protests carry on. But people in the Valley believe security forces burned the buildings to malign separatists.

More than 25 people have been arrested in this connection. Control rooms have been set up by the government to prevent more cases. Teachers have been assigned to guard schools.

In parts of Kashmir, some people are questioning the impasse between the government and the protestors. “Since the government is not responding to the bloodshed, it’s time separatists revised their strategy. Let’s de-link education from protests and allow students to attend school,” says Hameedah Nayeem, a professor and chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-freedom parties, doesn’t agree. “It’s the people’s decision to continue with the strike,” he says. “How else do you register protest? It’s not that we are not worried about the future of our children, but the strike will continue.”

For Kashmir’s students, crisis has always been a way of life. Bashir has faced academic hurdles almost every year. When she was in the sixth standard in 2008, schools closed for months because of an agitation surrounding the Amarnath land row. In 2009, there was an uprising when two women from her district were allegedly raped and killed by security forces. In 2010, more than 110 protesting children were killed by security forces. Two years ago, schools were shut because of floods.

This time, though, a curfew school came to her rescue. Just for the present, Bashir has no worries. And this quiet winter, there’ll be enough time to sit close to hearth fires and burrow into books.

Published in The Telegraph. November 27, 2016.

(http://www.telegraphindia.com/1161127/jsp/7days/story_121498.jsp)