Wednesday July 18, 2018
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Uttarakhand flood scam: How govt officials made merry over dead bodies

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By Harshmeet Singh

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned” isn’t a thing of history anymore. Some Government officials in Uttarakhand have actually demonstrated the true meaning of the phrase.

If you thought scams worth crores only take place inside closed doors of corporate offices with high level conspiracy meetings, the last couple of days would have come as a major surprise to you. The RTI query filed by Bhupendra Kumar of National Action Forum for Social Justice brought back the memories of one of the most devastating natural disasters to have hit the state of Uttarakhand. Unfortunately, these memories only serve as a reminder of government officials’ affinity towards scams and public money.

In 2013, the flash floods in Uttarakhand claimed over 5,000 lives. The heart wrenching scenes of boulders and water running towards people at a speed of several miles are still fresh in the minds. Soon after the weather cleared, the government machineries and insurance companies got into the act and sent their officials for relief work. As per the reply received by Bhupendra Kumar, these officials stayed in 5-star hotels which charged tariffs in excess of Rs 7,000 per day. If that wasn’t enough, the bills submitted by the officials show half litre milk being purchased at Rs 194! The other delicacies in the menu for the officials included Mutton, cottage cheese and gulab jamuns! These scrumptious meals were served to the officials at a time when thousands of people were stranded without food and water at many places for multiple days.

The other bills that were shamelessly submitted by the officials included diesel bills for scooter and motorcycles! Severe irregularities were also reported in the relief funds given to the people. A number of affected persons were given the relief amount twice.

State’s Chief Minister, Harish Rawat accepted the scam and told PTI, “I have ordered an inquiry into the allegations under the Chief Secretary. I can assure you that not a single guilty officer will be spared. These are serious allegations and if found true most strict action will be taken against the erring officials by the Government,”

Not impressed with Rawat’s statement, Ajat Bhatt, state’s opposition leader remarked, “If the state government has even an iota of morality left in it, it should recommend a CBI probe into the scam and resign owning moral responsibility for the ugly loot of money meant for people struck by an unprecedented tragedy.”

This has further added to the long list of scams under the Congress rule in the past decade or so. Interestingly, many media houses and the BJP have been continuously indicating that the Uttarakhand relief operations are turning into an ideal breeding ground for financial irregularities, but much like the other scams under its Governments, Congress decided to turn a blind eye towards these allegations.

Not the first time!

This isn’t the first instance of officials making merry over dead bodies. In 2004, Bihar was hit by one of the worst floods in its history, which caused close to 900 deaths. An investigation by a leading newspaper revealed that relief funds worth Rs 17 crore were untraceable with no authority having any answers. Gautam Goswami, Patna’s erstwhile district magistrate was suspected to have played a major role in siphoning off the funds. Embarrassingly enough, he was given the title of ‘Young Asian Hero’ by Time magazine for his outstanding contribution in the relief work in Bihar! Goswami died in 2009 due to pancreatic cancer. Among the other people involved in this scam was Sadhu Yadav, Lalu Prasad’s brother-in-law.

Our past experience with the scam gives enough indications about the future course of action. After years of enquiry and tens of charge sheets, a list of accused would come out. And it won’t be before a couple of decades at least that all judicial processes are over. By then, most probably, the main accused would be dead, thus bringing an end to another scam. While there are hardly any precedents to make us think otherwise, it would indeed be a pleasant surprise if, for once, our expectations are defeated and perpetrators are brought to book swiftly!

 

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Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy

The Emergency happened 43 years ago and both, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress, lost power because of it in 1977

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Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy
Then It Was Emergency Now It Is Democracy. Pixabay

An all-out war of words broke out last week between the BJP and the Congress on the 1975 Emergency. Observing June 26 as a ‘black day’, several BJP leaders targeted the Congress at events held across the country to highlight the Emergency’s excesses. Leading the charge with a sharp attack on the Congress was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Addressing BJP workers in Mumbai last Tuesday, the prime minster said the country still refers to June 26 as a ‘dark period during which every institution was subverted and an atmosphere of fear was created’.

Without naming the Nehru-Gandhi family, Modi said the Constitution was misused at the behest of one family. He further went on to say that the mentality of the family had not changed even now after 43 years of the Emergency. ‘Whenever the family feared loss of power, it keeps shouting that the country is in crisis,’ the prime minister added. Expectedly, the Congress hit back with equally sharp criticism of the Modi government, equating Modi to Aurangzeb. It alleged that the prime minister was even crueller than the Mughal emperor as Modi has “enslaved democracy” in the country for the past 49 months with an “undeclared emergency”.

The 21-month period from 1975 to 1977, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi had declared Emergency, was indeed a dark chapter in India’s democratic history. This was the third national Emergency – the first one was in 1962 when China invaded India and the second was in 1971 during the war with Pakistan – and the only one to be declared citing the “internal disturbances”.  During the 1975 Emergency, opposition leaders were arrested, civil rights curbed, elections postponed, anti-government protests crushed and press censored. It shook India to its core as the freedom to liberty, dissent and express ceased to exist. All this is well-known and in public domain. Therefore, what was so special about the 43rd anniversary of Emergency that the BJP observed as ‘black day’?

Bringing back memories of the Emergency days was clearly aimed at striking at the Congress’s weak spot. It was also meant to neutralise Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s frequent ‘murder of democracy’ gibes directed at the Modi government. This was not entirely unexpected in a pre-election year; neither was the Congress’s equally sharp response by likening Modi to Aurangzeb. As 2019 general elections approach, not only the political exchange between the two parties will gather momentum, but over the next 10 months, election-driven rhetoric, name-calling, inane allegations and historical debates will increase. Reminding Congress of the Emergency is just the beginning.

Congress on Friday promised to create one crore jobs across the southern state
Congress- wikimedia commons

While terming the Emergency as an ‘aberration’, the Congress has never expressed any remorse about the dark chapter in its history or condemned it. Claiming that during Emergency, Mrs Gandhi targeted the rich, black marketers, hoarders and zamindars is no justification for curbing civil liberties and press freedom and neutralising the opposition. The hesitation to admit Emergency as a major mistake has denied the Congress an opportunity to reassert its commitment to democratic values, though it was the primary builder of democracy in India after independence.

The Emergency happened 43 years ago and both, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress, lost power because of it in 1977. Since then, the Congress has ruled at the Centre several times without resorting to emergency measures. On the contrary, it has shown its commitment to democratic order and liberal values far better than the current BJP-led government. The Emergency of 1975 and the violations of civil liberties and press freedom were all real. But its parallels can be drawn with the contemporary situation, which is marked by erosion of institutional independence and integrity, rising intolerance and increasing mob violence which stems from the ideological support of the ruling party.

The right-wing assaults on constitutional institution and individuals’ democratic rights are for real, though there is no Emergency in force in India today. While conventional opposition leaders and parties have the liberty to become more than conventional Opposition and there is also the rising wave of resistance to right-wing assaults on individual rights and institutions, it is also true that there are whiffs of Emergency sentiments in the air and the strains of the Emergency doctrine and pulsations of fear are quite obvious. The Congress is not entirely off the mark when it accuses the Modi government of ‘undeclared emergency’ as the freedom of the media, people’s freedom of expression and their right to live without fear have come under new kinds of threats.

There is no overt press censorship but the government has tried to muzzle and manipulate the media through various means. A section of the media has either caved in to the fear of administrative power or fallen for the lure of money-power. Apart from the media, there have been sustained attempts to weaken and misuse other constitutional and non-constitutional institutions, including the judiciary. Interestingly, all this is happening when the BJP is in power and questioning the Congress’s commitment to the principles and practice of democracy, while the BJP has diluted its own commitment to the philosophy of parliamentary democracy, liberal values and press freedom.

This is quite surprising because while the taint of Emergency continues to haunt the Congress, the BJP, despite its proud status of a party whose leaders were at the forefront of the struggle against the Emergency 43 years ago, is not deterred to misuse the levers of power against its political opponents, ‘difficult’ sections of the media, and independent or ‘inconvenient’ voices that question the government on various issues. With scant regard for critical debate and plurality of views under the current ruling dispensation, what we are seeing now is some kind of a role reversal. Mrs Gandhi subverted institutions to retain power. The BJP is trying to do the same by weakening the same institutions.

Also read: India sends Emergency Fuel Supplies to Sri Lanka

The Emergency should serve as a warning to political parties: threats to democracy and people’s constitutional rights – either directly or indirectly – create resentment and negative public opinion against government. The Emergency created a unity among opposition parties that never existed before and became the cause of Mrs Gandhi’s defeat. It is too early to say whether the Modi government’s attempts to misuse democratic institutions for his party’s narrow interests and the right wing attacks on institutions and rights of citizens will help create similar kind of opposition unity, which will determine the outcome of 2019 elections. (IANS)