Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let the Sleeping Watchdogs Lie

The One Man Army has finally been shown the door. After years of flaunting his power in the erstwhile halo corridors of the Indian cricket establishment, the Big Boys decided that it is time to stop the circus and let the Wise Old Men step in. So, outgoes showman Lalit Modi and incomes Amin, backed by a coterie of unsuspecting BCCI honchos, who slept when Indian cricket burnt. Nothing has changed; the main conman has been shown the door while the architects of the circus, watch amusedly at how they have effectively brought in IPL under their control.

Lalit Modi had made enough foes in the last few years as he strode over the map of IPL, brandishing his powers as a third world dictator, forgetting that what goes round comes around. Three years ago Jagmohan Dalmiya was hounded out from the BCCI over charges of corruption and embezzlement. Among his detractors, Modi was the shrillest, announcing on one occasion that Dalmiya would be sent to jail. Modi has now been dumped even more unceremoniously, and the charges against him are far more severe. Among other things he has been accused of fixing the auctions; of creating slush funds; manipulating broadcast deals and many more things.

The media is gleeful and there are obituaries about the man who sometime back was a knight in the shining armour – a man who changed the face of Indian cricket and hailed as a champion of the big brand called IPL. The moment Modi is axed, the Government says that there is nothing to probe against Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel and the focus would primarily be on Modi only – everyone wants a Fall Guy, and we have one, actually two – an ex-Foreign Minister, who was driven out.

BCCI honcho Shashikant Manohar says:

Now most of the contracts have been entered into without the consent of the governing council and they’ve been brought to the governing council after the contract was signed.

Ok, Picture this now - One man sits in the IPL office, conducts auctions, draws contracts, awards it to his people and makes money. After all the hard work of corruption is done, the papers are brought to the IPL Governing Council (Governing what????) and the Wise Men sign over the dotted lines of the contract, without batting an eye lid. Smart guys, they now that Collective Responsibility is not applicable in BCCI Constitution and in case anything goes wrong, all they have to do is point fingers.

You have 3 cricketers in the council, who are rubber stamps and have absolutely no idea what is happening – maybe they are simply na├»ve; after all you can’t call Gavaskar, Shastri and Pataudi corrupt or incompetent? The very idea of bringing them into such a Council would be to bring about a greater legitimacy to the its workings and provide a certain amount of checks and balances to such a system. But if it did not even read the contract or debate it, what the heck did this glorified council do - Make money by doling out contracts to Modi's kith and kin???

But then we must not forget that it is a nice little cosy club out there. BCCI Secretary N Srinivasan owns Chennai Super Kings, Gavaskar and Shastri have commentary contracts with BCCI and the IPL, the chairman of the national selection committee Srikanth is a brand ambassador for CSK. And this is what is publicly known. Practically, everyone has a close political association – If Congress has Rajiv Shukla, BJP has Arun Jaitley and you have the invisible hands of Sharad Pawar controlling many more stakes. Last week, Times Now has reported that in the previous season, BCCI awarded 5 million to the semi-finalists. Cool, right!!! Srinivasan transfers money from BCCI’s coffers to his and we call it ‘conflict of interest’ – whose interest??

Now, BCCI is a chameleon which keeps switching between being a public body and a private body as and when it wants. When a demand is put forth to bring in more accountability and bring BCCI under the ambit of Tight to Information, it suddenly becomes a private body, which cannot be questioned but when the same body asks for tax waiver or the right to control cricket in India, it becomes a public body working in the interests of Indian fans!!! In reality, BCCI is a registered society under an obscure law in Tamil Nadu and has de-facto control over cricket in India, without any legislation or form of accountability. It receives enormous benefits and concessions from Governments, buys land at throw away prices and gets tax exemptions for selling national interest. 

You must commend the role of media in this IPL Show. They praise Lalit Modi, go overboard in selling the IPL Brand, sitting mum over the so-called “conflicts of interest” and instances of corruption for so many years and suddenly, there is that smug WE TOLD YOU grin. There are stories of how Modi literally controlled Rajasthan, fixed deals and created a crony capitalistic regime in IPL – but why was the media silent all this while? Many of these facts exist in public domain but not a single query was raised so far on all this. The media was seduced by the big money, parties and prime time entertainment and the watchdog just slept through this spectacle till the tweet war between Tharoor and Modi shook things up.

Watch how Arnab Goswami (my pick of the worst of the English journalist showmen) grimaces and questions the legitimacy of all the deals done in IPL, casually dropping in a match fixing query and being so indignantly self-righteous. It is ridiculous that after shamelessly, blindly and unquestionably backing Modi and the IPL, media men start the demonizing act so fast without a qualm for journalistic impropriety (something only reserved for Shashi Tharoor, it would seem).

The Times of India, which is the first to cover every event on the planet, reports today that the BCCI claims that there is no conflict of interest in N Srinivasan’s ownership of CSK because he had informed the then BCCI president, Sharad Pawar about it. How convenient!!! Don’t you even to ask them how silly and ridiculous such a claim is!!! Our press friends paint the town red accusing Modi of running a parallel administration in Rajasthan, with the help of Vasundhararaje, but when the same man is at the helm of IPL, they do not see the same avarice, the same conceit and the same schmuck around him.

When franchisees were putting in an absurd amount of money without any clear indicators of great returns in the future, why was the media silent? If the IPL contract says that franchisee holdings must not be disclosed, isn’t there a reason to suspect that something is amiss here? Bangalore is suffering from massive power cuts but as the city reels under the shocking power situation, the Chinnaswamy stadium is flood-lit so that IPL matches can be held using subsidized power. The Government gets a pittance to provide security to the players and even has the gall to waive off the entertainment tax (though in the same breath, it argues that farmers cannot be waived loans entirely). So, there are two sets of rules for two different sets of people and the watchdogs do not give a damn!!!

Suddenly, no one wants to talk about Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar – a couple of convenient news items who have been dropped now, since there are no more leaks available about them. In Shashi Tharoor’s case, there was a potential case of misappropriate behaviour and maybe even corruption, but most of it remained accusations which were never substantiated. The mere fact that there is a woman does not automatically translate into sleaze, sex and drugs – a story so fondly carried home by the media. Since his resignation, there is practically no news about the two and after Amin took over, the channels have also gone silent – they have a new story now about Madhuri Gupta spying scandal and the old story is no longer appealing.

So, Congress has the moral high ground by choosing to throw out a minister on the basis of suspicion while Raja, the charge sheeted (not tweet accused, mind you) minister, stays on because he has enough backing. BJP hollers on Tharoor but remains mum when greater evidence is brought to the fore against NCP ministers and their people. When the political establishment has its hand in practically every pie of the sports administration, is it inevitable that the sport starts stinking? Stories of match fixing may not be true but they gain credence primarily because people lose faith in the way the game is run – so every match is fixed and every cricketer is a two-timer.

Personally, I give two hoots for IPL and do not care what happens to it but the future of cricket in India is now sub-twined with it. If the administration were to cut down on the frills and the mindless vaudeville and concentrate on the game, it has a future - forget the national level cricketers, atleast the others get a chance to play and make a future for themselves. But the brand needs credibility and the need is to have a professionally managed body for cricket, which is transparent and run with a high degree of accountability. When the match fixing scandal broke out, it gave the BCCI an opportunity to clean its stables but after a few peripheral changes, nothing ever changed.

Modi has been cut to size by the Grand Old Men of the Game and how does it help the sport? All that has happened is that one layer has been peeled off and another layer has been carefully pasted across, without altering anything at all. There will be a small talk of transparency and public interests but after some time, it will disguise itself in a new avatar and be served to us again in all its nauseating glory– after all, the show must go on!!!

P.S. Incidentally, N Srinivasan also heads AICF - All India Chess Federation - and since his takeover, the federation has practically been inactive. The Anand-Topalov World Championship Match is currently being held in Bulgaria (even though the Bulgaria bid is only 13 crore) because the AICF could not get any sponsor. Vishy wanted the match to be held in India but with practically no interest shown by India, the bid was won by Bulgaria. Clearly, the Chess World Championship is not worth the money for the CSK boss. 

Image Courtesy -

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sustaining Agriculture in the Long Run

Whenever I talk to my folks back home in Palakkad about plans to probably go back to our village one day and try my hand in agriculture,  I am greeted with well-grounded scepticism. The apprehensions are pretty clear – high labour costs, poor water management, low sales price and lack of support by the Government and industry to sustain careers in agriculture.

Despite being the top-ranked state in the suicide industry, Kerala does not lie within the suicide belt of the country, when it comes to farmer deaths. The state has vast tracts of land and is well-endowed in terms of natural resources and so would ideally qualify to be a good player in the agriculture sector. But there is still a mood of despondency I notice whenever I visit the place.

However watching Green Kerala Express raises my hope and gives a slightly different perspective. In its mission to zero on the best panchayat in the state, it chances upon several villages, where people and the administration have come together to give agriculture another chance and prove that despite being a poorer cousin, farming can be a livelihood tool with a much larger impact than the others.

For an average Malayalee, Kudappanakunnu in Trivandrum is known primarily for being the base station of Malayalam Doordarshan Kendra but a wonderful facet of the village was brought to the fore in one of GEKs episodes earlier this week. Employment opportunities were once few and far between in this village and agricultural land was practically zero, primarily due to its proximity with the main town.

Then three years ago the panchayat in collaboration with the local Krishi Bhavan implemented the Karshika Karmasena project – a project to harness the youth of the village to revive agriculture in the area. The Karshika Karma Sena launched by the panchayat has 25 agricultural technicians (a euphemism for workers) who are trained in using modern agricultural devices such as the power tiller, brush cutter, soil digger and sprayer.

The karma sena was started as a means to combat the intense labour shortage in the region,” said C.L. Mini, Agricultural Officer, Kudappanakkunnu panchayat. “The cost of cultivation can be brought down significantly by using agricultural technicians,” she added. The technicians assist interested clients right from selecting a plot for farming to marketing the produce.

Today, these workers earn close to Rs 7500 per month working in fields where they help to cultivate a variety of mostly-organic fruits and vegetables that are later marketed and sold through the Karshika Vipani Kendras. The wages are paid as monthly salaries through an SBI Account opened nearby for the employees and they are also entitled to EPF.

This is a sustained ecological and agricultural movement where the entire community had come in to help, resulting in making Kudappanakunnu a Green Panchayat. The technicians are educated persons and work on lands taken on lease by the Panchayat at low rates. Mind you, these are not workers and they are given proper training by the Krishi Office; additionally, machines are used for most tasks (including tree-climbing and tilling), making it a highly productive enterprise. In addition to the use of machinery, subsidies in the form of seedlings and low cost organic fertilizers were distributed to the technicians, abhorring the use of expensive pesticides.

Kudappanakunnu presents a case where the community and the administration came together to implement an innovative solution to tackle the issues of wastelands and employment. When more than 70% of the country depends on agriculture for its livelihood, it is important that rather than doing away with it in the name of development, the idea should be to enhance the scope of agriculture and utilize it better.

Moving from Trivandrum to Kannur, we now come across the village of Chembilodu, which is unique that every house in this village has a kitchen garden. As part of the Panchayat’s initiative to ensure that no land in the village is wasted and to promote food security, a directive was given to the people that they need to maintain a kitchen garden and grow vegetables themselves.

As a result, close to 4000 houses have vegetable gardens where ladies finger, cucumber, spinach and pumpkin are grown, which is used for local consumption. Anything extra is then sold outside to the markets by the villagers; this has dramatically reduced the food prices in the region and added an extra means of livelihood for the people. Additionally, the villagers use organic fertilizers from their household waste and have abandoned the use of chemicals totally, leading to a healthier vegetation.

It is important to realize that such a movement would not have happened without the active role of the villagers as well as the Panchayat in changing the face of the village. It is laudable that the administration took the initiative to not only revive the agricultural produce but also revive barren lands in the place, leading to more than 40 hectares of waste land becoming productive again.

Most people would say that agriculture is no longer relevant to our growth and that the government should look at promoting industry at the expense of farming – this explains the almost non-questioning of creation of SEZs haphazardly to businessmen. When an Infosys asks for large tracts of land at rock bottom rates, it is a legitimate business demand but when the farmer wants protection from dumping and other duties, we view it as protectionism and dub any support to the farmer as socialist interference.

Subsidies is a bad word in the economy now – as we move towards embracing greater role for private companies, we demand that no one should get a freebie and everyone should earn them. But let us understand that, this is not a perfect economic world and that the State has a greater role in bringing up the poor than increasing the wealth in the country (the trickledown theory is a classic case where the trickling down never really happened). Writing off bad debts by farmers is foolishness but then tax holidays and waivers for corporate is smart capitalism (This year alone, the budget gifts over Rs. 500,000 crore in write-offs, direct and indirect, to the Corporate Sector)!!!

Quoting Sainath on this:

In India, people have the perception of "subsidies" being given to farmers, and this is one of the reasons why the urban folks think that farmers need to improve their act. But the vast majority of this subsidy is given not to the farmers themselves but to fertilizer producers. The "farmers" who get this subsidy are called Birla, Tata and Ambani! Also, this is given in such a way that the more you produce the lower the rate of subsidy, and the smaller amounts you produce, the more higher the rate of subsidy. In theory, this should support the "small farmers", but in fact the large producers overproduce and understate their output, just so they can avail of the higher rate of subsidy.

But blind subsidy is equally silly, more so in our case where implementation is abysmal (Remember Rajiv Gandhi’s famous comment-Out of every rupee of subsidy only 15 paise reach the targeted populace). Most successful villages, as seen in GEK, have worked on a strategy of providing subsidies to take care of the infrastructure, followed by regular support to ensure that the subsidies do not go waste. A more directed approach towards subsidies (which UID is aiming to do) will possibly make the entire exercise more useful.

Traditionally, Indian farmers have flooded their fields with water using canal irrigation. Canal irrigation advocated through large dams (a by-product of Nehru's fascination with Russian style of mega structures) have never been popular with farms - massive land loss to construct costly dams are one issue while farmers are plagued with the problems of depending on agencies to release water as and when they want and  wastage of water through evaporation. But the Government has never sort to promote the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation, which is far a cheaper and more economic option - something that Israel has excelled in.

The Government further focuses on market needs and so expensive cash crops are encouraged, at the expense of poor food crops. This has not only forced farmers to abandon traditional farm crops but grow these crops on a large scale, creating a massive monoculture, which erodes soil value slowly. When the Agricultural Minister is more pre-occupied with starting sugar factories and advocating wine cultivation in dry lands in Maharashtra, is it any wonder that the State looks away when farmers look to it for guidance?

Pawar pushes for greater cuts in import duties on a large variety of crops, as the Indian farmer struggles to sell his produce. Even while being in WTO, India can charge duties (even upto 150% as in cotton) but for mysterious reasons, we have decided to be pro-West in our approach. So, while European and American Governments dole out large amounts of cash subsidies to their farmers, we force our farmers to sell their produce at absurd prices and expect them to sustain their livelihood without any complaint. What explains the Government importing food at high prices when many of the crops rot here in godowns, lying unutilized?

Agriculture contributes close to 17% if India’s GDP but it is largely a poor man’s story in India today. Policy issues in the mainstream media tend to be about the economy but the ones pertaining to agriculture do not merit sufficient space – lack of glamour as well as interest contributes to this. The key word is outsourcing and so prominent bloggers, who are self-appointed economists also, bemoan the fact that after so many years, India remains largely a rural populace.

An agricultural policy that moves out of the ghosts of the Green Revolution is important, as we struggle to maintain the relevance of agri-business in the country. Successful villages have shown a way out to keep agriculture in the forefront with greater focus on watershed management, organic farming and greater administration support. As we hurtle towards globalisation at a rapid pace, will the Indian farmer increasingly become a mere suicide statistic or a critical driver of our GDP? It is a choice that we have to make and make it pretty soon.