Stop selling that frivolous argument

When you oppose something, usually it is assumed that your opposition is backed by a reason. And depending on the situation, your reasoning can be based on either your experience or some study or data. But what of you are talking just in the air without any justification whatsoever to back your argument? Who is going to believe you in that case?

Five public five public authorities including the prime minister’o Office (PMO) have said that they have never received any ‘frivolous’ application under the right to application (RTI) act in the last five years- that is, since the time of enactment of the act. The response nails the government’s lie that the act should be amendment to discourage frivolous applications.

Other four public authorities include the supreme court, ministry of external affairs (MEA), department of personal and training (DoPT)- the nodal department for the implementation of the transparency act and the Indian embassy in Washington DC.

The information has been obtained by Noida based RTI activist Commodore (Rtd.) Lokesh K Batra and Los Angeles resident Vishal Kudchadakar over a period of six months.

It makes official, what we always knew- that the government does not have any substantial data or survey of any kind to back its ‘frivolous applications’ argument. It is based on the experiences of public information officers (PIOs) who are of the opinion that people are misusing the act by demanding trivial information, supplying which, is sheer wasted of manpower and resources.

Babus dealing with RTI queries have been found giving this excuse in almost every meeting conducted to discuss amendments in transparency act

Just for the sake of argument, let us assume that frivolous and vexatious applications are increasing the workload of government departments.

In this case, who will decide what is frivolous? Considering that there are thousands of public authorities (departments covered under the RTI act) across the country, will the definitions of vexatious vary from one office to another?

Webster’s dictionary defines ‘frivolous’ as something characterized by lack of seriousness or sense or self-indulgently carefree.

Something which is very serious in nature for me can lack of seriousness for you. How can someone else categorise matters of seriousness on my behalf?

Suppose, I have faired well in an examination but the results does not reflect so. I believe that something is wrong and want to see my answer sheet. This is something extremely important for me, but can be frivolous for the staff of the institution. They might say that allowing one student to scrutinize his answer sheet might set a wrong precedent.

Therefore, it is time the government stopped giving the ‘frivolous argument’ while discussing changes in the RTI act and came up with some logic.

This appeared on on May 16, 2011


Jan Lokpal crusaders you haven’t heard of

Vandana Sahu, a housewife, is on a break. She is living her dream. Her long-cherished desire of serving the society has brought her to a narrow lane in the walled city’s Ballimaran area. This is the first time that the mother of two is in this part of the city- around 35 km from her Rohini residence.

She has a bundle of OMR forms with her and a file containing the list of addresses in this lane. She makes her way amidst traffic, cycle rickshaws and goats. Dangling above her head is a mess of electric wires, of all colours and thickness. Vandana knocks at a wooden door, sky blue in colour the lower half which has been eaten away by termites. After a few knocks, a female voice from the other side enquires who it is.

“I am from Anna Hazare’s team,” answers Vandana.

Volunteers giving forms at a house in Chandni Chowk constituency


A lady in her 50s comes at the door and greets her. Vandana tells her that Team Anna is doing a referendum to know public opinion about the Lokpal bill. “This form has eight questions in it. Please read it carefully before filling. I will come back tomorrow to collect the form,” says Vandana, while handing over a form to the lady, Sayeda Begum, who kept a straight face while listening to Vandana.

Sayeda offers Vandana a glass of water. Vandana does not have time as she has to cover 70 more houses in this lane before she calls it a day.

The 46-year-old always wanted to do her bit for the society. When Team Hazare sent her SMS asking if she could participate in the survey for four days as a volunteer, she could not say no. “School, college, marriage and then kids… you can say that I just did not get the time,” says Vandana upon being asked why she had not followed her dream of  social service earlier.  In three days, she has distributed over 500 forms.

Rajeev Kasewa

This is the first time since her marriage that she has been out of her house for 12 hours a day. It has been such for nearly six days now. “I have the support of my husband who is a civil engineer with a private construction company and children who are studying in classes 10 and 12. In fact, my husband drops me at the metro station in the morning and is there to receive me when I am back at around 9 pm,” she says, adding that she cooks before starting from her home at 9 in the morning so that her children do not have to order food from outside.

As a volunteer, she has received a mixed response from the residents. “The good thing is that we do not have to tell them that who is Anna Hazare. They have read about his movement in newspaper or have watched TV coverage of the same.”

What if the government does not accept the findings of the survey?

“If we start thinking on these lines, then none of the citizens would join this movement,” Sahu says.

It is the faith and conviction of Vandana and 500 volunteers like her which is providing fuel to the referendum on the Lokpal issue, which started in the capital on July 21.

The government and the civil society representatives have differences on contentious issues regarding the functioning and the powers of the proposed anti-graft body. The government has rejected the civil society’s demand of keeping the prime minister and the judiciary within the purview of the Lokpal.

Vandana Sahu

To know the public opinion on these points, Team Hazare launched a referendum on in Chandni Chowk- the constituency of Kapil Sibal, a union minister and government representative on the joint drafting committee for the Lokpal bill.

Ever since, people from varied backgrounds with red forms in their hands are visible in the entire constituency. The fact that they have to go door to door in areas totally unknown to them, is not dithering the efforts of the volunteers who were invited through SMS.

For some, it is fulfilling a long cherished desire, for others it is about meeting new people and getting exposed to varied opinions. And there are those who want to make a point.

Take Kanika Sharma, for example. The post-graduate student in Delhi University’s St Stephen’s college went against the wishes of her parents and elder brother and joined the movement as a volunteer. They told her that just one survey or one institution would not eradicate corruption. She is out to prove them wrong.

“I politely told them that if you don’t want me to go, I will not go, but I will not feel good about it,” says Kanika, who has distributed more than 1,000 forms in five days. “It is strange. Convincing strangers about the entire movement and the body called Lokpal is easier than convincing my family.”

She asked her college mates to join her in this cause, but in vain. “All of them support the cause, but are not willing to be volunteers even for one day.”

Like Vandana Sahu, this is her first tryst with the Chandni Chowk area. Initially, she was a supervisor at one of the monitoring points. Her work involved assigning responsibilities to various field volunteers and coordinating with them. But when she was asked to visit to assist the field volunteers in form distribution, she did not hesitate.

“It was a task to locate addresses in these areas,” says Kanika who discovered that while many people knew about Anna Hazare, they were not aware about the details of the Lokpal bill. “Facts such as the existence of two drafts of the bill, the functioning of Lokpal and how it would reduce corruption, were new to the people here.”

This and other ground realities greeted Team Hazare and the battery of volunteers participating in the referendum.

While majority of people know Hazare as a public figure who is working to tackle corruption, they are not aware of facts such as what effect bringing the prime minister and judiciary under the Lokpal’s purview would on the fight against corruption; what is the importance of not having politicians on the selection committee of Lokpal and how exactly the anti-graft body would work. In such cases, volunteers brief them about the entire anti-corruption drive.

Many volunteers found that people had not filled the forms given to them. Some respondents wanted the volunteers to explain each question to them.

The result is that in six days only 1.5 lakh forms could be distributed as against the target of seven lakh forms in four days.

Rajeev Kasewa, 60, does not think these factors are reasons for concern. The retired chartered accountant is volunteering as a supervisor. He keeps a tab on all the field volunteers. “Show me one independent survey in the country which has covered 1.5 lakh voters. This is no mean achievement,” says he.

Kasewa spent 30 years of his career in Africa and the Middle East before coming back in India to live a retired life. He witnessed nepotism and corruption abroad and always thought that the situation would be better in India. The myth shattered as he encountered the worst here. “For each and everything, you have to pay bribe. It is horrendous,” says he.

The Indian in him felt helpless. When the news of Anna Hazare sitting on fast at Jantar Mantar reached him, he saw in it an opportunity to clean the filth called corruption. Since March, he has been associated with the Lokpal movement as a volunteer. “Nation building is the best cause one can work for,” says Kasewa who lives with his wife and two sons in South Delhi’s Vasant Kunj.

That the people spearheading this movement are educated, decent and with clean image, drove Kasewa to this cause. “There is no personal gain for anyone. They are working to tackle corruption, something which effects all of us collectively and individually,” says he.

This appeared on on July 29, 2011


A letter to Aruna Roy

Dear Arunaji,

Since the day Anna Hazare sat on fast at Jantar Mantar demanding the passage of a strong Lokpal bill, you have emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the anti-graft ombudsman proposed by Team Anna. You have expressed your disagreement through various newspaper articles and TV interviews.

In this scenario, I doubt if many people know that it was you who began the process of drafting of the Lokpal bill, which has now caught the imagination of the nation.

In September last, you chaired a meeting of the national campaign for people’s right to information (NCPRI) meeting where you formed a committee to draft a comprehensive anti-corruption law. You assigned the task to Arvind Kejriwal. He consulted advocate Prashant Bhushan, Karnataka Lokayukta justice Santosh Hegde and was ready with a draft by October end.

This is how, as you would recall, began the process of formulating the Jan Lokpal bill- the people’s version of anti- graft body.

The draft of the bill was discussed in your presence during two NCPRI meetings and a meeting of the national advisory council (NAC) sub-group, all held in the first week of April. NCPRI circulated the minutes of its meetings through a press release dated April 5, 2011.

The press release tell us that barring two points – what kind of public grievances should the Lokpal address and how open should the institution be for public scrutiny, there was an agreement on all other points.

The gathering which included yourself, Nikhil Dey, Shekhar Singh and members of civil society agreed that there was an urgent need for a strong Lokpal bill to fight corruption in the country; such a legislation should be enacted as soon as possible; the purpose of the draft law was to ensure prompt investigation into allegations of corruption against all public servants and time-bound prosecution in fit cases so that the corrupt are held accountable for their actions.

Till that stage you and the NCPRI supported the draft Lokpal bill prepared by Arvind Kejriwal in consultation with Prashant Bhushan and justice Santosh Hegde.

But your opinion and that of NCPRI changed in subsequent discussions on the Lokpal bill.

In the last week of April, a document titled “Towards a basket of anti-corruption and grievance redress measures”, prepared by Shekhar Singh, was circulated among the NCPRI members as its official position on the Lokpal bill.

Surprisingly, in the NAC meeting on April 28 you presented this document and not the draft discussed in April first week (prepared by Arvind Kejriwal).

This was also the time when Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh demanded that NAC members Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander be included in the joint drafting committee.

Since then, you have been promulgating these grievance redress measures as your take on the Lokpal bill. You have conveyed the same through media.

The draft which you have now debunked was formulated after elaborate consultations among the civil society members. But you chose to present before the NAC, the draft prepared by Shekhar Singh on which there were no consultations at all. Why?

You were of the view, as per the press release issued on April 5, that there was an urgent need for a strong Lokpal bill to fight corruption in the country.
Then how come this very Jan Lokpal became a “Frankenstein” and a threat to democracy as referred by you in the articles which appeared in the media?

According to the consultations in April, the anti- graft body would investigate into allegations of corruption against all public servants and would conduct prosecution in a time-bound manner. “The Lok Pal and Lok Ayuktas will directly receive and investigate complaints of corruption and undertake prosecution against public servants in fit cases,” said the release.

Now you, Nikhil Dey and others in the NCPRI say that the Lokpal should deal with corruption of only politicians and not of bureaucrats. Why this change of opinion?

You say that the setting of a timeline by Anna Hazare for the passage of the bill (August 15) is unrealistic and you refer to the Right to Information (RTI) Act was subjected to nine years of consultations.

What happened to your earlier view that “these discussions (on the anti- corruption body) will take place in a serious and urgent matter so that this legislation can be enacted as soon as possible”?

The basket of measures which you support now, says that the judiciary should be kept out of Lokpal and instead we should push for Amendments in the Judicial Accountability and Standards Bill, which is currently before the government.

This is a stand completely different the one you took in the meetings on April 3 and 4.  In fact, in the meeting it was agreed that to initiate prosecution against judges, the Lokpal would follow the same procedure as was followed for public servants. Why are you now for the exclusion of judiciary from the Lokpal?

What we know is your current stand on the Lokpal bill. But kindly make an effort to let us know what made you take such drastic change of views on such a crucial issue.

Thank you.

This appeared on on July 18, 2011


Transparency be default

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of information which a public authority has to provide under the Right to Information (RTI) Act – information sought by the applicant by filing application under the act and information made available suo-moto (without somebody asking for it).

While the situation appears to be somewhat fine with the former category, it is the latter which is still in the nascent stage even after five years of the enactment of the act.

Section 4 ofd the law mentions 17 types of information which the public authorities (bodies covered under the RTI Act) are supposed to display in a manner where the public can access it.

For long, civil society representatives have highlighted that the suo moto disclosure under section 4 was dismal across the country.

The good news is that finally the government has finally acknowledged this reality and has turned to civil society for help in better implementation of suo-moto disclosure.

The department of personnel and training (DoPT), the nodal agency for the implementation of the act, through an office memorandum, dated May 6, constituted a task force for effective implementation of section 4.

The 12-member task force includes representatives of DoPT, ministry of law, three state secretaries involved in enforcing the act and five representatives of civil society.

The task force will finalise its recommendations by the end of this month and submit the same to the DoPT for consideration.

What transpired during the first meeting of the task force held on May 25 provides insights to various aspects related to voluntary disclosure of information by the public authorities.

Here are some of the views which emanated from the meeting which took place at the capital’s North Block:

–    The weak implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act is partly due to the fact that certain provisions of this section have not been fully detailed. In case of some other provisions, there is need for laying down detailed guidelines as to what information needs to be provided and in which form.

–    Public authorities are not averse to suo-moto disclosure. It is a question of what to put and how to put it. There has to be a move from the minimal to the aspirational level in public disclosures.

–    There is a need for developing a culture of information gathering. Collated information should be provided at various levels such as ward level, municipal corporation level and panchayat level.

–    The manner in which information is displayed needs to be changed.  The information should be in such a form and language as to be decipherable by the lowest strata of society.

–    All Plan schemes of the government should make it mandatory to reflect implementation of section 4.

–    There should be a provision of compensation in cases where section 4 is not implemented.

–     The mindset change should be from transparency by design rather than transparency by default. There is a need for open standards in e-governance.

–    There needs to be fixing of responsibility in case of noncompliance of Section 4 by the public authorities.

–    Public accountability mechanisms have to be defined such as uploading information and it’s monitoring in the various MIS which have been developed. These are essential for the systems to work. An ideal example is present in the MIS updates in Andhra Pradesh under the MGNREGA.

–    There is a need to ensure that all new laws had consistency with the RTI Act and there should be guidelines on what should be included.

–    The government has to find more ways of disseminating information like harnessing the strength of mobile, radio, cyber cafes.

–    There should be a centralised monitoring authority in compliance of Section 4 in every ministry/ department. There should be access to information through cyber cafe in district level and where the information is not available one can proceed to file an RTI application.

How many of the above ideas will be accepted by the government is yet to be seen. But the discussions certainly seem to move to an era of where the government offices will no longer be able to hide information on the pretext of it being confidential.

This appeared on on July 25, 2011

Fighting graft with ten commandments

Last year in December, Indira Eisenberg had to renew her passport so that she could visit in her in-laws in Germany. After she submitted all the necessary documents, a police man came to her house in Lukhnow to verify her antecedents. He asked for ‘chai paani’ or bribe. Indira refused saying that it was a crime to pay or accept bribe. The cop enlightened her. “Madam, it is culture, not crime,” Indira recalls. The primary school teacher didn’t budge. In the next one month, she and her husband brought the matter to the notice of senior police officers. They all acknowledged the problem, but never lodged a formal complaint. In two months, Indira got her passport without paying a penny in addition to Rs 1,000 – the fees to get a passport renewed.

Dr Ravi Shankar Shukla, 55, was serving in Gorakhpur district hospital till March. In the hospital, Dr Shukla says, it is regular for doctors to bribe the chief medical officer (CMO) to get excluded from the duty in the post-mortem ward. And those who do not grease the palms of the CMO pay the price. “Two months back, they shifted me to Kaasganj, 700 km from Gorakhpur. I am a level four employee here. This post does not exist in that hospital,” says Dr Shukla, an anesthetist, who has not taken up his new assignment and has been sitting home for the last two months. Like Indira, Dr Shukla, too, didn’t pay bribe.

These are two of 11,000 plus stories posted on — a website launched by Bangalore based NGO Janaagraha on August 15 last.

The website is an open forum where you can report your experience of paying or refusing to pay bribe.

I Paid A Bribe (IPAB) staff classifies the bribe reports into various departments, analyses the problem areas and then approaches concerned department with recommendations on how to wipe out corruption from the system.

In January, IPAB team made a presentation before 60 officials of the Bangalore transport department including the principal secretary, transport and the then transport commissioner Bhaskar Rao.

“We compared the transport department website to other similar websites abroad on lines of visual aspect, interactivity, navigation and content. We have devised ‘Ten Commandments’- a poster highlighting ten rules that citizens can follow to not pay bribe in a government office. That was also discussed at the meeting,” said Raghunandan T, IPAB coordinator and a former joint secretary with the ministry of panchayati raj.

Recommendations given to the transport department included getting the anti-corruption message across, streamlining processes and replacement of manual driving tests with simulator tests.

Officials of the transport department assured Raghunandan and his team that they would display ‘Ten Commandments’ on the walls of the departments.

The department has taken into consideration IPAB’s suggestions on making its website more interactive.

Then transport commissioner Bhaskar Rao asked IPAB team for specific details on bribe reports in his office and on the basis of the reports, he issued show-cause notices to 20 senior officers.

The IPAB team is currently working on a presentation for the Bangalore registration department – the most corrupt department in Bangalore in terms of the amount paid in bribes – Rs 92,59,210.

In terms of number of bribe reports, the police department is the most corrupt with 1,004 reports.

If IPAB data is anything to go by, more than Rs 26 crore has been exchanged as bribe in five states (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad) in the last one year.

There are three categories on the website- I didn’t pay bribe (for those who refused to pay), I paid a bribe (for those who paid) and I didn’t have to pay a bribe (if the officials in the department didn’t ask for bribe).

67 percent reports on the website are from people who had to pay bribe.

To make sure that the person reporting his or her experience does not face trouble, IPAB has put in place some checks and balances. You do not have to give your name or the name of the official who asked for bribe. Plus, there is an inbuilt filter on the website which ensures that no such material which can go against the person is uploaded on the website. “The website is successful because of the anonymity we guarantee. We do not want to get into defamation cases. Our appeal to the citizens is simple. If you report, your data will contribute to systematic change,” says Awanti Bele, product manager, Janaagraha.

Besides bribe reports, hosts ‘Ask Raghu’- a section where you can post your queries regarding bribe. Raghunandan or Raghu has answered more than 800 queries online.  By the time you read this, he might have answered 1,000 given the rate at which teh website receives queries.

Since the beginning of June, he has had enquiries from non government organisations/ institutions spread across five countries viz Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria and China on how to fight corruption.

In June, China National Radio interviewed Awanti. The focus of 30 minute interaction was how to clean up the rot in the system. Awanti says that the day after the interview was aired China had seven website on the lines of

As the next logical step, Awanti says, IPAB team is devising a system where citizens can report bribe experiences through sms. “It is easier said than done. We are working on the modalities of this model. We should be announcing something soon,” says she.’s ten commandments to fight corruption:

Do it yourself – Do not engage commission agents or touts in hopes of minimising time taken for delivery of service.

Seek reasons – If you are asked to wait, or there is a delay or you are told the service is not available, seek reasons.

Do your homework – Come prepared to a government office so that your ignorance of the rules is not exploited.

File RTI – Use the information law.

Be confident.

Get receipts – demand one for all transactions.

Refuse to pay a bribe if one is solicited.

File complaints.

Record evidence.

Try Gandhigiri.

This appeared on on July 25, 2010


Indians without India

In Govindpura, something as simple as crossing a gate can be a matter of life and death.

The tiny hamlet, home to 38 Indian families, has fallen off the map to find itself on the wrong side of the border with Bangladesh. It is in a tiny strip which is very much part of India, but outside the fenced border. Located in a strip along the porous land border, which crisscrosses hills, meadows and barren lands, the village is very much part of India, but on the other side of the border.

People in this village of Karimganj district of Assam recall with a shudder how a woman paid a heavy price for this essentially bureaucratic bungling. The legend has it that when she started having labour pains late one evening, her husband rushed her to gate no. 40, which they had to cross to reach to a primary health centre barely two kilometres away. But the gate – the villagers’ only link with the rest of India – remains open only during the daytime, that too intermittently and the Border Security Force soldiers manning the border were not going to make an exception for her. Soldiers being soldiers, they didn’t budge, asking the harried couple to wait till the next morning. Umpteen knocks on the black iron gate of around six feet high went unanswered.

“The next morning, there was no need to take her anywhere. She was dead,” says Monilal Suklabaidya, who makes his living as a labourer.

The woman’s death, something that happened in the late 1990s and is now more a matter of folklore, is an indication of how an estimated 90,000 people live (or die) – literally outside the purview of the modern state, since numerous ‘border villages’ they live in happen to be part of India and yet remain outside the border.

Residents of a border village look through the fencing

Fencing on this zigzag border, which began in 1986 and is expected to be completed in March 2012, has left a substantial portion of the Indian territory including populated villages to its western side. But for the knee-high pillars marking the actual boundary, this strip is virtually merged with Bangladesh.

For more than two decades now, two rows of eight-foot high barbed wires mounted on a concrete base and layers of concertina wires between them, have been dictating the lives of these Indians.

Disowning Indians
As former BSF director general R S Mooshahary explained in an article he wrote as the Assam chief information commissioner, “By fencing off 150 yards border territory to Bangladesh side, India has practically disowned 149 villages with a population of about 90,000 in a vast tract of land. It amounts to abdication of sovereign responsibility to the people whose land and houses are outside the fence. The people and their property there are clearly at the mercy of another country as the fencing impeded the exercise of sovereign jurisdiction by India. At places, fencing has divided the homesteads, fishponds and the village markets rendering people’s life miserable.”

Thus, the 90,000-odd people are Indian citizens on paper, but for all practical purposes they are as good as outsiders. None of the welfare schemes of the central government is available to them in their villages, as readily acceded by various government departments in reply to right-to-information queries from Anoop Prakash, a Delhi-based lawyer and research fellow with the Centre for Civil Society who has been pursuing this vexed issue.

Worse, there is no compensation or rehabilitation scheme by the state or central government for these people. In fact, the government has looked the other way. The ministry of home affairs has admitted that its border management division does not maintain any data regarding the population residing in the border areas. The only exception is Tripura, where, a special package under the Indira Awas Yojna has been sanctioned for the fencing-affected people in four districts.

How do these people, citizens without state, then lead their lives? To find out the answer, I took a 40-minute drive from Karimganj to Govindpura.

Life in the margins
When a BSF soldier stopped me at the black iron gate through the border fencing, I said I wanted to meet Zakir Hussain, a villager. The soldier looked for the name in his records and asked me how I knew him. After checking my identity proof, he made an entry in a register and sent a local man to fetch Zakir. Only when he came to the gate did the soldier allow me to go through the gate – on the condition that I return in 15 minutes.

The village was some half a kilometre from the gate.

Zakir, 26, works as a security guard in a software firm in Chennai and visits his family during vacations. He and his neighbours soon opened up and presented a whole litany of woes:

Villagers are not allowed to store any more ration than what they get under the public distribution system.

If they need to bring home any construction material such as cement and bricks, they have to take written permission from the BSF and sometimes from the deputy commissioner of the district.

Divided through fencing

Then there is the gate, with its railway timetable-like odd timings (6-7 am, 9-11 am, 2-4 pm and 6-7 pm at this gate). The villagers had opposed the timings when the timetable came up two years ago. “Every time a visitor comes, we have to walk all the way to the gate to fetch them. Have you seen anything like this anywhere else?” Zakir asked. Bipul Namasidra, a carpenter, added: “Every time there is a social function at home, we have to inform the BSF soldiers in advance how many guests would be coming.”

Villagers, who earn their livelihood from marginal farming and livestock, are at the mercy of Bangladeshis from nearby villages. Zakir said that somebody from Bangladesh had stolen two of his bulls worth Rs 35,000 in the previous month. “Today, our cattle are unsafe. Tomorrow, they can take our people away or kill them. Who would want to risk his life?”

Under these circumstances, obviously, nobody would want to marry their daughter to a man from a ‘border village’. “I must buy land on the Indian side of the fence so that I can get married,” said Zakir. People here either find a match within the village or move to the Indian side of the fencing. “In a lot of families, marriages get delayed because of this factor. Everybody cannot afford to buy land on the Indian side and shift there. I can consider it because two of my elder brothers and I work in Chennai,” he explained.

My next stop was Lakhi Bazaar village. The BSF soldiers did not allow me to enter the village. Whoever I want to meet would have to come to the gate, they told me. “Only the village residents can enter the village. No guests.”

When I said I wanted to know more about the lack of facilities for these people, one of them opened up – of course, on condition of anonymity. “I interact with these people round the clock. They are living in misery. Even when the state government launches any scheme, it is only for people living on the Indian side. There is not even any NGO to help them.”

To make their lives a little less difficult, many people move to the ‘Indian side’. Habibur Rehman, a 68-year-old former primary school headmaster, and his family shifted from Niyamura (across the border) to Latu (inside the border) two years ago. He lost out on three acres of land but whenever he remembers the cross-border firings of 1992 and 1996 he thinks the move was worth it. “During such firings, BSF used to shift the civilians to a safe place, outside the line of fire. But once a bullet whizzed past just an inch away from my right ear,” Rehman recalled.

Echoing Zakir’s fears, he said, “We were very scared, especially for our women. They (Bangladeshi) would steal cattle and would even kidnap our people. The police station was across the gate, miles away. The BSF post was close by, but of no use.”

Roots of the problem
It all started on August 15, 1985, with the signing of the Assam accord between India and Bangladesh. The accord, among other things, aimed at sealing the border to prevent infiltration from Bangladesh to India and smuggling in both directions. However, a 1974 accord between the two countries stipulates that there should not be any defence structure within 150 yards or 137 metres of the interline boundary or ‘line zero’. The fenced border, constructed accordingly, was bound to leave the people in the 150- yard strip in a virtual no-man’s-land.

Ironically, more than a quarter century later, the purpose of the accord stands defeated as the illegal immigration of Bangladeshi citizens into India continues unabated. Between 1986 and 2010, more than 1,60,000 Bangladeshis were identified in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram and Bihar. Smuggling too continues unabated.

Yet, the Indian government has failed to ensure the land border is thoroughly sealed.

BSF soldier makes an entry in his register


All this brings us to the pertinent question: Why does not the government shift these Indians to the Indian mainland and end their miseries while also putting curbs on smuggling? Why this 150- yard strip cannot be declared a no-man’s-land? And why cannot these 90,000 people get compensation to buy the land in India?

Anoop Prakash, the indefatigable RTI activist, says: “Under the land acquisition act, compensation is given only when the government acquires land. In this case, the government has strategically acquired a narrow strip of land, almost parallel to the border. But it falls short of calling it acquisition and, hence, the question of compensation does not arise.”

Documents reveal that the Assam government did attempt to address the issue but only once. In November 1989, the state government made a move to rehabilitate the fencing-affected population and asked local officials to submit a scheme detailing a cost estimate for the acquisition of patta lands belonging to these people.

However, the matter ended there and the order was not implemented at all, forcing 49 people to move court. “No action has been initiated since 1989, though the assurance has been given by the respondents for early process,” observed the Guwahati high court in August 1994 while hearing three writ petitions from the affected people.

The court ordered the authorities to identify the Indian citizens who had been affected by the creation of ‘no-man’s-land’. Referring to the 1989 direction, the court ruled, “As it appears five years has already been elapsed, therefore it is necessary to fix time limit to complete the scheme. Accordingly the respondents are directed to provide necessary relief to the petitioners within four months from the date of receipt of this order.”

But there is a catch. The 1989 direction of the Assam government and the subsequent high court order are applicable only if the government declared this strip, inhabited by Indians, as ‘no man’s land’. Till date, it has not done so. “The day they (government) do it, they will be duty bound to shift these Indians to the mainland,” says Anoop.

“The government has denied these citizens the right to life which includes the right to free movement,” he adds. Mobility is the least these villagers demand. In July 2008, Karimganj residents wrote to the district deputy commissioner requesting him for no entry restrictions up to 8 pm. The official wanted the BSF to take the call. As there was no change in the situation, villagers wrote to the president of India, the prime minister, the national human rights commission, the union home minister and the Assam chief minister. Nobody responded. Anoop went to NHRC, alleging human rights violations. The commission, however, said the issue did not come under its purview.

The state government does not wish to admit that these Indians are willing to shift to the Indian side. “On the basis of my interaction with them, I can tell you that they are not willing to leave their villages. Why should they come leaving their paternal property?” says Karimganj district deputy commissioner Jiten Borgiyari, even as the three writ petitions show that they are very much willing to shift to India.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials of BSF, a helpless witness to the crisis, maintain that people in these villages will come to the Indian side only if they are compensated – a condition they do not see getting fulfilled in the near future.

Former BSF director general E N Rammohan is rather blunt in his assessment. He says sections of the ruling class too consider a porous border to their advantage as it allows illegal immigration of Bangladeshi citizens. Within days, they acquire Indian citizenship and become part of the ‘vote bank’, he says, adding that this is the principle for both the ruling Left in West Bengal and the ruling Congress in Assam.

Moreover, there is also a communal question.

Rammohan says, “During the fencing, every single Hindu village on the West Bengal border suo motu shifted to this side because they didn’t want to be exposed to the problems on the Bangladesh side. (But) Muslim villages wanted compensation for this.”

As a solution, he suggests, “Every single village must immediately be resettled behind the fencing. If the government has common sense, they will seal this border.”

Agrees Mooshahary, who has been articulating the issues arising out of this absurd situation. “I have been saying that if this is private land, the government should acquire it and give them compensation so that they can buy land somewhere else,” he says.

But will New Delhi listen?

“Not possible to rehabilitate these residents”

Karimganj MP Lalit Suklabaidya of the Congress has been making efforts to do his bit for the citizens living outside the border. “This is a bizarre situation. It is not the fault of the citizens living there. They are paying for the mistake of the government,” he says.

He raised the matter in the Lok Sabha during zero hour on December 23, 2004. The then home minister, Shivraj Patil, replied in writing on January 27, 2005: “Where villages and houses fall between the fence and the international border, the needs of the local people are being attended to by making gates at suitable intervals in the fencing which would enable people to go across the fencing. These gates are being provided after due consultation with the local people as per their actual requirements. It may, thus, be seen that there is no displacement of people due to fencing and efforts are made to cause minimal disturbance to the local people due to construction of fencing. At the present juncture, it is not possible to rehabilitate these residents.”

Suklabaidya wrote back to Patil on October 23, 2008:

“I have recently visited the area and the condition of about 2,500 families comprising more than 10,000 people living outside the barbed wire fencing is heart rending. Over the years their condition has deteriorated because their land values have come to zero, they are basically farmers and not skilled to work otherwise to feed their families. In view of the fact that they will not be rehabilitated as stated in your above letter, may I humbly request you to kindly consider paying adequate compensation so that these people could resettle themselves and survive.”

The matter rests there.

Meanwhile, fencing has not stopped smuggling
The 90,000-odd villagers have been suffering due to the fencing which was meant to put an end to smuggling across the border. However, the smuggling continues unabated – making a mockery of the people’s miseries. Fencing has only led to a lot of innovation.

Rais was 18 when he returned from Nagaland to his village, Nayamra (meaning ‘point of justice’). He was shocked to discover that the village where he was born and spent his childhood was no more within India.

Jobless and desperate, Rais soon started working as a sailor, smuggling sugar, tendu leaves, rice and Phensedyl (an addictive cough syrup that contains the narcotic codeine) from India to Bangladesh in boat in the dark of night. His agent would pay him Rs 100 after every successful trip – “excluding the commission to BSF troopers,” says Rais.

One night as he waved to his Bangladeshi agent signaling everything was under control, a bullet pierced his lower right arm. “After that night, I gave up that job,” says the 25-year-old, pointing to his arm which was rendered useless.

Rais now works as a labourer with the National Buildings Constructions Corporation. For Rs 120 a day, he helps workers erecting a fence on the bank of the Kushiyara river – close to the spot where he was shot at.

In his heydays, Noorul Islam was a pro at transferring articles across the border. He gleefully described the tricks of his trade: “Put the contraband right at the bottom and make three-four layers of permitted articles on top of that. Place a huge banana leaf on that. So, you will see that a banana leaf is floating in the river. An agent will receive the articles in Bangladesh.”

Smuggling was a child’s play in the old days. “During my childhood, there was no fencing here. It was all jungle. And there were many houses which were divided between the two countries, half on this side, half on that side. Bring the stuff in from the main entrance of the house which was in India and take it to the man waiting at the back door, located in Bangladesh side. Payments could be in cash or in barter goods,” Islam added.
A resident of Lakhi bazaar village, who requested not to be named, said the smugglers cut through thick bamboo sticks, put contraband like wine bottles and sugar in it and tie the sticks with thin ropes. At night, these bamboos are passed off to the other side right through the fencing. “A lot of times, it is done in connivance with the BSF. People are caught when they don’t keep BSF in the loop,” he said.

Dhubri district, 280 km west of Guwahati, has the Brahmaputra and Gadadhar rivers on three sides, making it a haven for cattle smugglers.
BSF seizes around 1,00,000 cattle annually on the West Bengal-Bangladesh border alone. “Roughly, on a seized to smuggled ratio of 1:4, it is about 4,00,000 to 5,00,000 cattle going to Bangladesh on a yearly basis,” notes former BSF director general R S Mooshahary.

Meat, leather industry and ancillary producing units in Dhaka thrive on cattle smuggled from Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

This appeared in May 1- 15 issue of Governance Now

We’ve done a good job of saving the Republic from our leaders

At a recent function in New Delhi, Amartya Sen observed that it wouldn’t be right to say there has been a decline in our democracy because “we have enormously more power to make society better than we are led to believe”.

Sen did not say where this enormous power vests but it is safe to assume he was referring to the inner strength of the nation.

Socialist political thinker Surendra Mohan was more specific. Speaking with Governance Now hours before his passing, Mohan echoed Ratan Tata’s outburst about India becoming a banana republic. On the face of it, Mohan seemed to be in agreement with Tata but he was actually making a starkly different point: “It is Ratan Tata who is turning India into a banana republic (voh bana rahe hain),” he said. Obviously, he was not referring to Ratan Tata the individual, but what he symbolises: big business as the Siamese twin of politics, together contorting public policy and distorting democracy.

Mohan was not as despondent as Tata either. He said it will take a long while before India becomes a banana republic because of its resilience and the strength of the fabric that knits the nation. If this inner strength expresses itself unequivocally and powerfully, he said, India may yet be saved.

In a year that epitomised corruption and moral degradation at the highest levels of the executive, politics, business, police, army, judiciary, media and paralysed every limb of the state, it is difficult not to agree with the theory of this enormous unseen power continuing to bind the nation.

However impossible it is to put your finger on this unseen force, it is easy to see where it is NOT coming from. This is not the power that flows from the top of the pyramid down. It is definitely not the power that flows from the integrity, honesty and morality of our leaders because there is so little of it on display. Every leader and every institution, public or professional, has only belied the trust of the people in recent times.

Yet, we are holding on reasonably well as a nation.

It follows then that this national glue, this binding force, flows from the bottom up and can simply be defined as the unflinching faith and trust, even child-like innocence, of the ordinary citizens in placing the destiny of the nation in the hands of the leaders while they themselves wage a daily struggle for survival, resolutely and uncomplainingly. Just one example underscores this innocence of the trusting and the abuse of it by the trusted: the government gifted Rs 1,76,000 crore (one lakh seventy six thousand crore) worth of spectrum to the rich at throwaway prices but allowed millions of tonnes of surplus foodgrain to rot because it was cheaper to throw away than to give away to the hungry!

It might well be the fate of the base to bear the burden of the top, but it takes special strength, stamina and steel to absorb the kind of blows the corroding top has been striking. There are times when we see this strength as a national weakness, times when we hope this patience, this resilience snaps and we land up with the revolution that we believe is just one nudge away.

Maybe we romanticise the common man, maybe we attach great virtue to the ordinary citizens’ necessity, their helplessness. Maybe they have no option other than to just get on, to just be, to just exist. Maybe this resilience is just resignation, an excuse for collective inaction.

But then, maybe it’s their strength, too, because to resign is to face the reality that there are no options and to have options is to have the chance to escape the reality. That’s perhaps why it’s the elite, who have set up the system, run it and exploited it to the hilt, who will talk about the “banana republic” and warn about migrating to habitable shores. For the ordinary millions that is not even a passing thought.

If it is true, as we all know it is, that any structure is the strongest at its base and weakest and most vulnerable at the highest, then it is also true that it is the ordinary citizen who stands between India and the banana republic, not our leaders.

That is why, for this Republic Day (also Governance Now’s first birthday), in our print edition we celebrate the powerhouse of this inner strength: the ordinary citizen, the faceless Indian, the unseen force. None of the protagonists of the stories we have featured in our print edition would have made the cut on another day. None of them (other than H D Shourie who we feature posthumously as the icon of the common man) impacts society in any way or has a message to give. They have all been chosen for their utter ordinariness. We believe that their ordinariness, their simplicity and honesty, raised to the power of a billion and more, is what we generally refer to as the nation’s inner strength.

And, yes, wish you a Happy Republic Day! Minus the banana, of course!

Reproduction of an article by B V Rao, editor, Governance Now