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Archive for July 2018

Lights in each Indian household? Really? Sonia Sarkar finds out why, despite the Narendra Modi government’s loud claims, that remains a far cry

Jul 29, 2018 00:00 IST

Picture Credit: AFP

When Shivankit Mishra, an electrical engineer from Mahagama in Jharkhand’s Godda district, listens to radio jingles praising the Prime Minister’s initiative to electrify all households by 2019, he has mixed feelings. At one level he is happy, his house is already electrified. But if you ask him if it has meant an end to days spent in darkness, he says, “We get electricity for barely four hours a day. During the monsoons, it becomes worse; there are power cuts for weeks and months.”

Thousands of miles away in Gurugram in the National Capital Region, this June, residents of a posh high-rise took angrily to the streets against Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam, the state distribution company or discom. Their complaint – incessant and prolonged power cuts.

This is a question worth asking, especially when amplified claims are being made about every Indian village having been electrified. The Modi government boasts about India being a “power surplus” country and has promised to electrify every household in the country by December 2018. But how many households do get power and for how many hours on average?

Reality check

In 2017, the Centre launched the Saubhagya scheme. Its target was to provide free electricity connections to households in rural areas and also to the urban poor by the end of 2018. It also promised to distribute LED lamps to newly electrified households. And this when people are still having to buy kerosene lamps or diesel generators because there is no regular power supply in their electrified homes. Those who have got solar photovoltaic-based standalone systems under the scheme are better off – there is no need for maintenance of meters, overhead and underground wires, and transformers.

The Saubhagya site has figures to show what percentage of every state has been electrified to date. States such as Gujarat, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh are 100 per cent electrified, it claims. Goa, Puducherry and Andhra are also part of the list.

A recently retired power ministry official, however, laughs at these figures. “Statistics of households covered are routinely juggled by state governments. There is no organised system of collecting data. They don’t reflect the reality,” he says.

The Telegraph attempted a reality check. Villagers from randomly selected states tell us their experience of living in a “power surplus” country. Punjab is 100 per cent electrified but rural areas don’t have a 24×7 power supply. In Jajja village of Hoshiarpur, villagers suffer power cuts two to four hours every day. A technical fault takes at least a day or two to be fixed. In Bengal, a state with 98.61 per cent electrification, parts of tribal villages on the Indo-Bangla border – south Jamalpur, Naogaon, Akhirapara – remain un-electrified. At Binshira village in Hili block of South Dinajpur, the frequency of loadshedding has gone down but whenever there is a power cut, the state electricity board takes days to address the problem. In Godda district of the BJP-ruled Jharkhand, more than 80 per cent villages are electrified but they don’t get more than four hours of power supply daily. In Nawagarh village, 30 kilometres from the industrial town of Dhanbad, power is available for not more than 14 hours a day. Every summer and every monsoon, gusty winds snap wires or topple transformers leading to outages for weeks, sometimes months. In Semari Dumari village in Bettiah district of Bihar, power supply is impeded at the slightest hint of storm or rain. “Plus, the voltage during the evenings is very low. It is very difficult for children to study in such conditions,” says Tanju Devi, a village social worker. At Hatmulla village of Kupwara in Kashmir, residents get electricity for five hours by day and four hours during evening. Things get worse during the harsh winters.

Rural electrification

This has been an ongoing process for many years. It got a boost in 2005, when the Congress-led UPA government launched the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana. But there were inordinate delays, cost overruns, frequent burnouts due to installation of transformers without adequate capacity and lack of effective monitoring at all levels. In 2015, the scheme was subsumed by the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana.

Over 300 grameen vidyut abhiyantas or GVAs, most of them electrical engineers, have been appointed by the Union power ministry in rural districts of various states to assist state distribution utilities in the electrification of villages. The Telegraph called over 37 telephone numbers of GVAs displayed on the Grameen Vidyutikaran website. About 10-11 went unanswered. Of the 25 people who answered the calls, 10 said they were not associated with the project anymore or have been transferred to another state. Some said, yes, every village in their district was getting electrified, and a handful admitted on conditions of anonymity that electrified villages in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh do not have regular power supply.

Discoms

Questions have been raised about the government’s promise to light up every household by December 2018 even if it “electrifies” them on paper. According to the former power secretary, Anil Razdan, it is not realistic a target. “Power has always been a political subject in our country because it is the state government that decides where to supply and how much,” says Rakesh Nath, former chairman of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). The CEA advises the government on policy matters and formulates plans for the development of electricity systems.

Barring cities such as Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Surat and Ahmedabad, where power distribution is privatised, it is the state discoms that buy power through long-term power purchase agreements with central and state-owned generating stations, private generators and the Power Exchange India Limited.

Razdan points out that distribution companies are already grappling with huge aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses – the measure of overall efficiency of the distribution business. It seems large transmission and distribution losses, corruption and subsidies rolled out by state governments to influence the “vote bank” lead to such huge losses in the first place.

For obvious political reasons, state discoms supply electricity at tariffs that are way below the cost of purchase. Plus, losses are incurred due to power theft and defaul- ting consumers.

One of the reasons the rural poor are hesitant to pay is that they often see discrepancies in their bills. “Sometimes, villagers are falsely charged Rs 100 for a month – it is a huge amount for them,” says women’s activist Renuka Ikka. She is referring to residents of Rampur Puthamura village in Nagri block of Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district. Tanju Devi adds, “Our village was electrified in 2016 but people are getting bills for 2014.”

Supplying power to rural households is a loss-making proposition for discoms. Pramod Deo, former chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), says, “The distribution companies buy only as much electricity with which they can meet 80 per cent of the total demand.” The CERC is a key regulator of the power sector.

Solutions

“Discoms should be financially supported to provide supply. This will be needed till there are sufficient paying consumers in rural areas,” says Sreekumar N. of Prayas, a Pune-based non-profit advocacy group which focuses on energy, health and education.

For distributing power to all by 2019, discoms need to bear the expenses for infrastructure – build substations, instal feeders, transformers and meters. But the investment cost has to be recovered through consumer tariffs over the next five years. If a state buys power at Rs 5 per unit, the operation and maintenance of present and additional infrastructure along with repayment of capital expenditure could raise the cost to Rs 9.15 per unit. Keeping the accumulated losses in mind, the cost of supply can go up to Rs 10.65, which is unaffordable for consumers. Besides, it will be politically counterproductive, especially with the elections approaching.

Nath adds, “Discoms prefer to sell the surplus power to the central power exchange instead and that too for at least Rs 6-8 per unit more than the stipulated rate, especially during elections.”

In 2015, the central government launched the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojna (UDAY) scheme to help the loss-making discoms. The losses in some states increased instead as compared to 2016-17. “Things will go worse next year as bijli remains a popular sop of political parties in election year. No one is bothered much about revenue collection,” Deo warns.

According to UDAY, some states have recovered big-time in a span of six months. The AT&C losses in Punjab was 32.63 per cent as on December 2017, but currently, it is at 18.21. Similarly, Jharkhand was at a loss of 39.27 per cent in December 2017, but this has now come down to 31.78 per cent. “As I said, figures are often forged,” reiterates the former power ministry official.

But keeping all the power politics aside, if the government is genuinely keen to light up every household, experts say, it must focus on promoting efficiency, optimum utilisation of generation and transmission capacity, shifting of overhead lines underground – because they are vulnerable to lightning strikes and storms – improvement of storage capacity of substations, laying of new feeders and setting-up of new distribution transformers. It must also monitor the functioning of transformers and generating stations.

“We have been able to meet Delhi’s peak power demand, which touched 6,934 MW on June 8, by taking some of these measures,” says a senior official of BSES, the Reliance-owned discom that supplies power to over 4 million Delhi residents.

Back in Mahagama, Mishra waits for a day when he can actually use the lights and fan at home.

Writer and scholar Purushottam Agrawal talks to Sonia Sarkar about his newest book, Padmavat, and the man behind the original

Some months ago, I was privy to a conversation between an eight-year-old and her mother at a dinner table. They were in awe of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali extravaganza, Padmaavat. What particularly struck me was the little girl’s description of the former ruler of the Delhi Sultanate and the central character of the film, Alauddin Khilji. She said: “Since (Alauddin) Khilji was a Muslim, he was very dirty. He didn’t shower for days.”

I hadn’t seen the film then, but I voiced my objection to this interpretation. I got wondering what horrifying shape such nascent prejudices would assume in the years to come.

Today, sitting across Hindi scholar Purushottam Agrawal at his Delhi home, I repeat this episode. After a patient hearing, the 62-year-old academic and writer says, “Unfortunately, this film contributed to promoting such a feeling.” He is referring to the fetishisation of Islam and the increasing Muslim hatred in a Hindu Right-wing ruled New India.

It is a sultry afternoon. As we discuss politics, history and literature, one of the many kittens gambolling in the room snuggles between my feet. Agrawal and his poet wife, Suman Keshari, are cat lovers. The pets – Badka (he is no more), Brownie, Sotli and Chhutku even find mention in the Author’s Note to Agrawal’s new book, Padmavat: an Epic Love Story.

Once we get past the feline distraction, we are back on topic. Agrawal is telling me about the clichés about Muslims – invaders, devils, power-hungry, treacherous, and as the child said it, unclean – that are propagated in daily life. Knowingly or unknowingly, such clichés were reflected in Bhansali’s commercial flick.

Popular art, these days, Agrawal says, is pandering to existing sentiments. “But art, whether film or poetry or novel, is expected to clear misconceptions or at least problematise the given perceptions.”

That’s exactly what his new book attempts to do. It retells Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem, the same that was composed in 1540. “Jayasi’s Alauddin Khalji [Khilji] is not a monster,” writes Agrawal. “His obsession with Padmavati coupled with his intoxication of power leads him to act in an immoral way in this particular context… he is not only a competent ruler but also a king who gives alms to the needy without bothering about their religious identity… Khalji, like any other character in the epic, is a product of his times. He is destined to play a ‘negative role’ in this particular saga but Jayasi is careful not to allow this negativity to overshadow his overall personality.”

Jayasi’s Padmavat, Agrawal says, is a living part of our cultural legacy. The characters are not conceived based on religious backgrounds or ethnic identities. He says, “This is specifically a post-modern problem, you reduce human beings into a certain identity, good or bad. That’s where this understanding is coming from, that Khilji was cruel or violent because he was a Muslim.”

Agrawal is currently a visiting professor at New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Sciences. His long CV, viewable on his site, establishes his abiding research interests in Bhakti poetry, Kabir, vernacular modernity. His list of publications runs long. His Twitter profile reads – writer, academic and political commentator.

Distorting literary work for political or commercial gains on religious lines is suicidal, the literary critic warns. He continues, “Indian diversity is not just confined to religion; there is diversity in language, eating habits, culture.”

According to Agrawal, Padmavat, composed in the styles of masnawi (Persian tradition), dastan (Persian style of storytelling) and in the metres of doha and choupai – all rhythmic expressions of speech in Indian literature – is considered the peak of vernacular, mostly Awadhi, tradition of prem-aakhayans or love narratives, coming down to Jayasi’s times from the preceding two centuries.

Originally written in Persian script, Jayasi’s Padmavat, a 700-stanza poem, is a love story. Agrawal writes about Jayasi’s work: “Padmavat is a work of creative, imaginative literature woven around an episode in history… Jayasi’s genius has turned the legend of Padmini into real history; in fact, she has become more than real.”

Unfortunately, instead of appreciating the literary genius of the real Padmavat, people paid more attention to Bhansali’s opulent extravaganza either by liking it or opposing it. But the fact is, there is no historical evidence of the existence of Padmini. Before Padmavat, a literary romance called Chhitai Charit had references to Padmini of Chittor. Agrawal says, “Some people believe there was someone called Padmini, some say, no, she was only a poetic creation. We really don’t know. But the point is, one must admire Jayasi’s Padmavat for the beauty of the literary creation and not focus on the violence.

He underlines that when a people try to prove desperately the historicity of a cultural memory, it reflects insecurity. “In your cultural memory, not everything is history,” he stresses. “In this obsession to historicise everything, the sense of history is bound to turn into nonsense of history.”

He talks about what he calls the “pastness of the past”, which, he cautions, one should never forget. The conversation turns to the BJP government’s efforts to erase the Mughals – Babar, Akbar, Aurangzeb, because they were “invaders”. He says, “You cannot go on revenging the excesses of the past. Remember what Gandhi said – ‘an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind’.”

Agrawal’s own book is dedicated to the future – his children, Ritambhara and Ritwik, and their generation. He refers to them as “graduates of the WhatsApp university”. He says, “I wrote this thin book in a conversational style so they can grab a copy and read it.”

Fixing his rectangular glasses firmly on his nose, the clean-shaven writer says, “You know… before the advent of this era of neo-illiteracy, which started 15 years ago with the advent of television channels and social media, people knew about the basics of Padmavat and the greatness of Jayasi.”

But how did Agrawal come to write this book? It happened soon after the controversy over Bhansali’s film – the Karni Sena, a caste group in Rajasthan, ransacked cinema halls for screening the trailer, which they alleged, showed the 13th century Rajput queen, Padmini, in poor light and disrespected Rajput pride. Around this time, his friend and author, Devdutt Patnaik, talked him into writing Padmavat. Patnaik has done the illustrations for the book.

Padmavat has been Agrawal’s favourite text since his postgraduate days at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He writes, “I have been in love with Padmavat, composed by a poetic genius who had no sight in one eye and was hard of hearing in one ear; who was acutely conscious of his ‘ugly appearance’ and… ‘confident of his poetic talent’.”

Agrawal has vividly described Jayasi and his work in his book. He thought it was important to tell the audience about the poet so they had a fair idea of the creative force behind Padmavat. Jayasi’s work was apparently influenced by Ram Katha, Mahabharata, Puranas and also the Nathpanthi tradition and Islamic theology. Nathpanthis are ascetics dedicated to holistic yoga sadhna. Agrawal says, “His hero, Ratnasen, goes to Simhal island in the guise of a Nathpanthi yogi, not as a Sufi fakir. His acquaintance with Hindu traditions and his roots in the everyday life of Awadh determined the choice of his idioms, metaphors and allusions. His knowledge is so deep and rich that it can intimidate many self-appointed guardians of Hinduism.”

The first scholarly edition of Padmavat, he tells us, was by Ramchandra Shukla in 1924, post the Khilafat movement – a campaign led by Indian Muslims against the British to restore the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey and widely supported by Hindus, too.

“To Shukla, Padmavat was a luminous signpost in the shared search for a pathway to God, where Muslims were willing to listen to the story of Ram and Hindus were ready to hear the dastan of Hamza,” he says.

He holds forth on how Jayasi’s imagination has not been understood by the “modern day” audience. Bhansali’s film also misinterpreted it, he rues. For example, the filmmaker glorified jauhar in his movie.

Agrawal says it would have been foolish on Jayasi’s part not to describe a custom – good or bad – at the appropriate moment. “But it is infinitely more stupid on our part to go back to the mindset of Jayasi’s time and glorify jauhar and sati now.”

But regression defines these times. I point out that the BJP leader from Haryana, Suraj Pal Amu, offered a reward of $1.5million for the beheading of Deepika Padukone, who played Padmavati in Bhansali’s film. “This hatred against women is a psychological and sociological problem,” says Agrawal.

He will delve deeper into “misogyny” in his upcoming book. It will have a chapter on Kabir’s misogynistic writings. Says the writer and Kabir scholar, “I do not follow anyone blindly, not even Kabir.”

A clarification: July 8, 2018.

Jayasi’s Padmavat was written in the Persian script, not Persian (as mentioned in an earlier version of this report).

It is supposed to dispense justice to our aggrieved jawans, serving or retried. Now in the ninth year of its operations, the Armed Forces Tribunal has never quite become what it set out to be. Sonia Sarkar reports

Picture Credit:  Suman Chowdhury

Navy officer P.K. Banerjee joined service in 1984. He was in command of the latest ship of the force, INS Tabar – the first Indian Navy ship deployed for counter piracy patrols off Somalia. His seniors, the initiating officer who was also the fleet commander and the rear admiral, gave him a glowing report. Recommended him for a second sea command, something usually reserved for the best commanding officers. And then, the reviewing officer went ahead and inserted adverse remarks about him in the report, alleges Banerjee. This was 2009. The reviewing officer did not back his comments with evidence. He did not inform Banerjee either. Both things were against Navy protocol. The incident came in the way of his promotion to the rank of rear admiral in May 2012.

Two years later, after his complaints were rejected, first by the chief of naval staff and then by the ministry of defence, he approached the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) in Delhi. In 2015, the bench concluded the arguments and reserved the order. Despite the wait, no judgment was delivered as the judicial member of the AFT retired in 2016. The case was referred to two benches but the matter was not concluded. A third bench heard it only once. A fourth bench took it up afresh in March 2017 and the judgment was finally delivered six months later. It was already three years since Banerjee had first appealed.

Promotions in the navy are based on relative merit and are decided by numerical gradings in the annual confidential report. Says Banerjee, “The tribunal expunged those adverse remarks but avoided expunging the corresponding downgrading of numerical gradings done by the reviewing officer, senior reviewing officer and also by the then chief of naval staff.”

Banerjee’s ordeal is not an isolated one. Lawyers of the defence forces, who routinely take up such cases, talk about the AFT’s by now characteristic apathy towards the grievances of the servicemen.

The AFT has been operational since 2009. It was established with the express purpose of delivering speedy and less expensive justice to defence services personnel across the army, navy and air force. Even former servicemen can appeal before it.

“If a civilian loses a case in a tribunal, he or she has the option to file a case in the high court and then appeal in the Supreme Court. When a soldier loses a case at the AFT, he can only appeal in the Supreme Court,” says Ajit Kakkar, a military advocate and retired wing commander. He adds, “Many jawans hail from remote areas. Coming to Delhi and filing a case in the Supreme Court is not even feasible for them because of time and money constraints.”

But even if those – geography and finances – were to be surmounted, our soldiers, going by the narratives gathered by The Telegraph, find it near impossible to pull along the steep and uncertain trek to AFT justice.

The AFT comes under the defence ministry. The ministry controls its funding, infrastructure and appointments. Currently, the AFT has seven operational benches. There are 12 vacant benches. Some are operational with one judicial or administrative member juggling. The number of pending cases as on June 27, 2018, was 11,000. “We are still managing,” says an AFT member on condition of anonymity.

Each bench should have one administrative member and one judicial member. It has been alleged that the defence ministry has not been proactive enough in making these appointments.

“Appointments approved by the selection committee in April 2017 for judicial members were notified by the ministry only in February,” says advocate Rajiv Manglik, who fights cases for defence personnel. The Telegraph tried to get in touch with the ministry of defence to understand the reason for the delay, but all emails went unanswered.

Major General Satbir Singh, the same who led the ex-servicemen’s campaign for one-rank-one-pension, also known as Orop, shares his diagnosis: “Getting justice from a body that runs under the defence ministry looks impossible.” He recommends that for it to function efficiently, the AFT should come under the law ministry. He says, “If it is kept under the defence ministry, no orders will be implemented because the ministry will never bow before servicemen.”

Air Commodore K.K. Budhwar was awarded the Vir Chakra and the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal for distinguished service in the Indo-Pak War of 1971. He was entitled to land or a cash award in lieu of the allotted land.

The decorations might come from the government of India, but the land or cash settlement is the responsibility of the domicile state of the awardee.

The Himachal Pradesh government refused to honour the award terms on the ground that at the time Budhwar was granted it, he was not a bona fide resident of the state. The Delhi government also withheld any award citing the domicile of the petitioner at the time of joining the Indian Air Force.

The 85-year-old Budhwar approached the AFT in 2015. The tribunal issued a notice to the defence secretary to resolve the issue. That same year, the Delhi government was asked to grant the cash award. In October 2017, the AFT directed the respondents (the Delhi government and the ministry of defence) to calculate the interest on the promised sum – Rs 25,000 – at the rate of 9 per cent per annum beginning 1972 to the date of actual payment. The settlement was to be made within three months.

According to Kakkar, who is the military counsel of Budhwar, the money is yet to be paid. He says, “We have filed an execution at the AFT asking why its last order was not executed. He is 85 now, stays at an old-age home. He had fought the war for the nation. Now he has to fight for his rights. If he dies without getting his due, he will not forgive this nation and its leaders.”

What happened with Budhwar is rather common, it seems. The AFT decrees, but the ministry of defence or the headquarters of navy or air force or army hedge.

For example, this January, the AFT asked the ministry of defence to correct anomalies in the retirement age of colonels and bring them on a par with similar ranks in the air force and navy. But the central government rejected it in May.

In 2016, the AFT granted non-functional upgrade (NFU) to all armed forces officers along the lines of the Sixth Pay Commission. NFU had been implemented in 2008. The idea was to ensure IAS officers and other Group A officers were guaranteed the same pay scale as the highest promoted officer of their batch even if they were not promoted. Earlier, the armed forces were not included in it.

But the next year, the Centre moved the Supreme Court saying the armed forces are not categorised as Group A services, to which NFU is applicable.

“When we urged the Supreme Court for an early hearing of the case, the bench observed that we must go to the AFT for the remedy. The AFT, on the other hand, said it cannot do anything because the matter is in the Supreme Court. This clearly shows the apathy of the tribunal towards servicemen,” says advocate Manglik, who is fighting this case, on behalf of Colonel Mukul Dev.

The AFT continues to shrug off its responsibilities saying it doesn’t have the powers to prosecute anyone for criminal contempt. This basically means no action can be taken against the ministry or any of the service headquarters.

In 2012, the Armed Forces Tribunal (Amendment) Bill was introduced to grant the AFT the authority to exercise powers of civil contempt, which basically meant it could now hold the ministry of defence and the armed forces headquarters accountable for not implementing its orders. But that bill was never passed.

In 2010, however, the Kerala High Court observed, “It is the duty of the AFT to execute its orders by initiating coercive proceedings and the petitioner has the freedom to file a contempt application before the AFT.”

The Telegraph repeatedly tried to get in touch with the AFT, sending it a detailed questionnaire basis these allegations. It has been more than 14 weeks since then, we are yet to receive a reply.

The AFT is a toothless tiger,” remarks P.K. Banerjee. “In my case, it played to the requirements of the Naval headquarters; it simply overlooked the gross illegalities,” he alleges in no uncertain terms.

And to think Prime Minister Narendra Modi never tires of invoking the jawan at the drop of a hat. Tired of standing in ATM queues? Think of the jawans who stand vigil at the borders. Kicking up a fuss over students’ rights? Think of the jawans. Diwali celebrations? At the border, with the jawans.

Rajiv Manglik, who has been fighting many cases for defence petitioners at the AFT, says, “Remember, posturing is for the votebank. Even a shopkeeper would keep the best things on display. And defence personnel are treated as display items. In reality, the Centre treats jawans as bonded labourers and there is no tool of strike for these soldiers.”

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/armed-forcestribulations-241397)