In democratic India, Govt.,
military in ridge scam
"We have to be near the airport to fly immediately to ward off attack by the enemy."
This is what a military officer in uniform said at a public hearing held by a high-powered committee which the Supreme Court had appointed.
The hearing was on the illegal and blatant construction at the Aravalli ridge at Vasant Kunj in New Delhi. The ridge is older than the Himalayas and its violation is not only sacrilegious but also a fatal blow to the flora and fauna in the area.
I was reminded of military officers in Pakistan where they occupied at whim the land to which they took fancy. It is understandable in that country because the military has all in all been the ruler.
|The writer (fourth from left) joining a demonstration to conserve the ridge
But India is not a cantonment democracy. I have great respect for our armed forces, committed to the supremacy of the constitution as they are. Yet their scant respect for environment worries me.
While private builders are raising plazas and the malls at the ridge which Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has sold illegally, the Defence Ministry is putting up tenements without any permission and despite the protests human rights activists have made.
Such is the spell of the word, 'defence' that generally no questions are asked. Even the Supreme Court did not say anything on the ridge construction when it was pointed out that every norm or rule had been violated. So ridiculous was the argument of the military's representative on being near the airport that it did not deserve to be repeated.
I drew the attention of General JJ Singh, chief of army staff, to the illegal construction. When I did not get even an acknowledgement from him, I wrote to Defence Minister A.K. Anthony. His prompt reply said he would come back to me after making necessary inquiries. That was more than two months ago.
Meanwhile, the military has cut more trees, built a solid wall at the ridge and usurped more land.We have about 7 sq. km of quartzite land in Aravalli ridge which recharges as much as 85 per cent of the rainwater. Delhi's average annual rainfall is 60 cms.
If we consider 50-cm recharge in this area, we find that the 7 sq. km will recharge 3 billion litres in a year. This is unpolluted and high quality drinking water. If we were to sell it as bottled water at the prevailing rate of Rs 10 per litre, we would earn Rs 3,000 crore a year.
Human rights activists have written against the devastation to many. But none in the government has paid any heed. Letters to the Prime Minister, Delhi Chief Minister and Lt Governor remain unacknowledged.
There seems to be a conspiracy of silence. On the top of it has come the new master plan for Delhi. Even a cursory look indicates it will be one of the greatest disasters of the 21st century. The money which the builders will make is mind-boggling.
The area that DDA has sold at the ridge is 640 hectares -- 6.40 lakh square metres. The commercial value of the land is $100 to $150 billion, one fifth of our GDP. How can the government be a party to such a scam? Some bureaucrats and petty politicians must be getting a share of the booty.
The Ministry of Environment has only fined the builders of plazas and malls for not seeking prior permission for construction and that too after the Supreme Court proposed the imposition of fine. The court did not suggest razing of illegal construction to the ground.
The plea was that too much had been built to invite destruction. Incidentally, the Supreme Court was approached for a stay order before the first brick was laid. Then it refused to do so and, subsequently, argued that it could not order destruction since much had been built.
This facile argument has not deterred the different movements from raising their voice. They are agitated against the government's flagrant policies against the people. Throughout March there was the Sangarsh Action at the Jantar Mantar to articulate popular demands.
Medha Patkar, the leading most activist, was sent to jail to muzzle the popular protest. Still the Sangarsh has not relented. It has passed a resolution: All natural resources including land, water, air, minerals, aquatic wealth and forest belong to the farmers, tillers, landless peasants, agricultural workers, dalits, tribals, fishermen and the like. This comes at a time of a report on malnutrition that indicates India continues to have "around 46 per cent children under the age of three underweight; 38.4 per cent are stunted and 19.1 per cent wasted."
Over the last 10 years, malnutrition rates in India have declined at the very modest pace of a mere 2 per cent a year, lower than many countries with a comparable socio-economic background. Bangladesh, for instance, has brought down its malnutrition rates by about 6 per cent a year. Do you remember JP's political secretary Sachchidanand? His wife, Hemlata Devi, has not died of malnutrition but of starvation. She had given up taking food because she was extremely frustrated and dejected to the Bihar government's "apathetic attitude" towards her family's sufferings.
Her last letter to me says: "My family's sufferings today under the regime of JP's disciple - chief minister Nitish Kumar -- are far worse than what we had during the emergency. Can there be a bigger irony? My entire family took part in the '74 movement. I was first to go to jail (among women) though being a heart patient. 'If you don't go (to jail) how can I ask others (other women),' my husband told me. He himself played the most important role in the movement. Had he not stood quite firmly and with all dedication behind JP, the movement would have failed or gone the wrong way. Efforts were being made to misguide JP and defeat the movement. Had it failed, most of today's leaders would have still been on road and the rest like Vajpayee, Advani and George still in the opposition as they had been for 30 years. Yet none of them came forward to help my family."
The letter does not surprise me although I was pained to read it. Values have changed. Even Gandhiji has been pushed to the background. JP was only his disciple. How JP's disciple or his family's plight could make any difference?
(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and former Rajya Sabha member. He writes this column exclusive to The Sunday Times International)