India 2021: Hazarding Guesses, Guessing Hazards

Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi Talk delivered at VIF Vimarsha on 7 November, 2011

Ajit Doval and I are from the same batch of recruits to the All India Services, 1968. Pharmaceutics also come in batches of manufacture. In that sense he has been a strong antibiotic, and I a lozenge. Years later, in the High Commission of India in London, he and I worked as Ministers, he handling important bilateral matters of state, and I, Culture. That means he worked and I talked. The arrangement continues to this date.

Ajit has exacting standards. He expects others to have the same. That means he does not suffer fools and he suffers those who think they are intelligent, even less. I shudder at the prospect of disappointing him. All I can say to protect myself is ‘Ajit, why wait till 2021, let me say I myself am a 2011 hazard, a talking hazard, to my listeners and to myself, and be done with it’.

When I sat myself down to organize a set of cogent thoughts on India 2021 – Guessing Hazards and Hazarding Guesses, I came face to face with the first reality of that year which is , in that blessed year, that is, ten years from now, the poor wretch addressing you will be 76 years old. I had never pictured myself at that age. And as I did so, at that moment of reckoning , I remembered the song : Larakpan khel mein khoyaa, javaani niind bhar soyaa, burhaapaa dekh kar royaa… Sajan re jhuuth mat bolo, khuda ke paas jaanaa hai…

The human mind is kind. If it shocks, it also helps with shock-absorbers. And so came the countervailing realization that in 2021, when I am 76 I will also be seeing examples of the most distinguished kind of seniority like – in order of appearance – Shri L.K. Advani at 94, getting into and out of dusty chariots without human assistance , our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, active and alert at 89, an internationally acclaimed elder statesman, Shri Pranab Mukherji, a sprightly 86, in lively possession of his faculties of total recall and skillful cross-referencing. And, Anna Hazare, a sparkling 84.

At that point of my cogitations the imp in my brain asked me if I was not being ‘over-optimistic’. Certainly not, I countered. After all, in 1977, when Shri Morarji Desai became Prime Minister was he not 81 and thought of as rather old? He of course was burdened by no such thoughts. If you see pictures of Morarjibhai signing the papers of office assumption, you would imagine he assumed he had an eternity ahead of him in political power. Had that good man completed a full term of office in 1982, he would have been 86 and, what is more, raring for a second term. In any case, office or no, Morarjibhai lived to a full and purposeful 100. This makes me hope and pray that Morarjibhai’s External Affairs Minister and later our Prime Minister, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, who will be three years short of a hundred in 2021, goes on to celebrate his centenary in good health. So it is not only right that we be optimistic about our leadership being willing and able to lead us; it is also logical that we so be.

But the India of 2021, even if guided and led by wise elders, will in itself be a stunningly young country. The overwhelming majority of its population will be young, the majority of that overwhelming majority, very very young. And the whole of that young population will be very impatient, much more so than today and very very angry, far angrier than today, for whatever be our rate of growth in 2021, perhaps still hovering around eight percent, certain laws of physics will have remorselessly come into menacing play – the job-market will be that much tighter, housing that much scarcer, food – with fuel-prices having found their market levels – far dearer than it is today, and water in the most precarious supply. The upwardly mobile part of India having become even wealthier – if that is possible – will be consuming more and caring even less in 2021 about the social and ecological implications of its heightened consumption than it is today, as it overflies denser slums in their BMWs and SUVs, not to mention by aircraft carriers grid-locked in a competition for passenger and freight traffic, though not perhaps in professional and operational performance.

Will that generation of the deprived young and the enriched young want to, expect to, and demand a leadership more representative of its own age and status? Yes, of course. MPs and MLAs now in their 30s and 40s will still be in their early 40s and 50s in 2021 and therefore, at the peak of their vigour and outreach. But I anticipate, in the elections of 2014 and 2019, and in any mid-termers before that, many youths, now in their late teens, we do not know the names or next thing of, posing huge challenges to the present pattern of crorepati MPs and MLAs. Younger, angrier men and women will pit restlessness against restlessness, rage against rage, reform against reform, with money winning here, muscle there, but moral force also fluking in. We could hear in a decade from now, the multiple drumbeats of dichotomies so deep and so divisive, as to make today’s contestations look like a picnic. Some relatively young non-political figures in the limelight today, will be in their 50s in 2021, and presumably, very active still, but they will have to contend with the large and lung-full chorus of a generation that is a clear decade younger and, right of recall or no right of recall, asking those in legislatures and in high office to prove themselves.

The shape of time, and therefore of aspirations, by 2021 will be tight as tight can be, fast-tracking the lead-time for meeting those aspirations. “Give us time”, those in office will say. “We have waited long enough”, will be the chorus’ reply. “We are human”, those in power will plead. “Okay, we will find someone else”, the chorus will declare, only to repeat the cycle.

Which of the two broad groups hearken credibly to the impatience and the anger of the young? The political group or the non-political one? Will there be some cross-movement between them or will the non-political turn out to be political in spirit, abjuring the letter, and the political one seek to speak the language and adopt the agitational styles of NGOs, while remaining formally in politics?

Either way, it is today’s young who, in 2021, will still be relatively young, who will be in contestation for India’s endorsements. And the Vivekananda Foundation , with a very young-in-spirit Ajit Doval as Chief Guest, will do a seminar to see if the hazards guessed at today, and other crises not guessed at, are being well handled or ill.

Far more important and interesting it will be to see who the people are, who do not figure in today’s list of the mighty and the tall, and who have during the coming 10 years have surged further into the nation’s consciousness, by acts of courage, conviction or daring, have captured its imagination, and begun to provide alchemic leadership. C K Janu, the tribal leader from Kerala, will doubtless be amongst the most prominent among them. All this sounds like a bunch of astrological predictions. I submit they are meant to be logical guesses.

My guess is that some of these pivots of change could also come from the ranks of simple citizens, like someone who has, for example, used the RTI Act to differential effect, someone who has found and exposed a major scam saving the State crores of rupees, say, in the imports of food, stood four square and tall against the land mafia, the coal mafia, the despoilers of our forests, the extinguishers of tribal rights, the contractor-developer lobby, the plastic lobby, the cement behemoths of India, stood strong against the vile people engaged in the manufacture and sale of spurious drugs. My guess is that these catalysts of change could also come from the ranks of honest officials who break their fear-instilled silences about large scale frauds or miscarriages of justice, from simple whistle-blowers who refuse to yield to the pressures or blandishments of high-placed corruption, from plain honest citizens who place their lives against terrorists or anti-socials and live to tell the tale.

My guess is that they could come, most convincingly and effectively, from the ranks of renunciates, not religious ascetics, not sadhu-sannyasis, but real-life renunciates like people who give up the assured gradient of power who says “I can win an election if I want to, I think, but I will not contest for that is not the best way of repaying my debts to my motherland”.

Guesses apart, my hope is that such men and women who are the very personifications of selflessness will arise from within us, un-propelled by preferment, un-hoisted by the power-machine, un-supported by violent outfits, like a modern-day Jayaprakash Narayan. Men and women who will not offer themselves as alternatives, but offer alternatives in policy-design, development-design, the design for a nation that is at peace with itself, in order to be able to encourage peace in the region and beyond.

Far more vital than drawing lists of who will count and make a difference in 2021, is the fehrist, as it is called in Farsi, or a sequence, of the likely issues, challenges and hazards that will face these or other leaders, political and non-political, challenge them, engulf them, make successes or failures of them, make tragic or heroic figures of them.

Mindful of the time-limits for this evening’s programme, let me just touch upon those hazards. Fear not, I will not detain you too long.

The hazards that India is likely to face over the next ten years may be divided very broadly into hazards posed by forces beyond our control, for they have a will of their own, and those posed by situations caused by human action, human decisions, public policy.

Natural Hazards

To take the first kind of hazard, let me begin by asking a question: Do you not share my impression, somewhat un-scientific but nonetheless undeniable, that seismic and atmospheric disturbances are increasing in frequency? I certainly think they are and it will need about one day of intensive Googling for me to come up with detailed statistics. Suffice it to say the Himalaya from Kashmir to Assam have been jolted over the last decade repeatedly. The brutal one that shook Kashmir on 8 October 2005 – only six years ago – left 79,000 officially dead in PoK and 1500 in Jammu & Kashmir. On 18 September this year, there occurred a most curious earthquake. Many of you here felt it that evening, around twilight-time. Epicentred in the Kanchenjungha region of Sikkim, it shook the whole of the Indo-Gangetic plain, with tremors felt in Delhi going right through to Assam. This earthquake has already earned the name of the ‘2011 Himalayan Earthquake’.

September this year was an earthquake month. There were a total of 15 earthquakes of significance in India and its neighbourhood, as well as all over the world. The September earthquakes could well have been stronger, lasted longer, caused great tormenting miseries. For seismicity is awake in the region and ‘the mother of all earthquakes’ is gestating an offspring for which we are unprepared. To alarm and to get alarmed is wrong. And it does not help. To alert and to be alert can never be. And it always pays.

Earthquakes do not come on ceremonial State Visits. They come, kill and leave without trace. There, they are rather like terrorists. But, in reality, it is not the earthquakes that kill; it is buildings collapsing because of the earthquake that kill. Which is why, today, earthquakes are more hazardous than they were some hundred years ago when buildings were made of less heavy materials and fewer people lived in and around them. Just visualise Darya Ganj, Old Delhi, or South Extension, New Delhi, hit by Richter 7 or Moment Magnitude 8. A direct bomb hit from the sky will not be worse.

You can imagine the tangle of crumbled cement, twisted metal, shattered glass, crushed vehicles and human corpses that will be left for a crazed administration to cope with, perhaps in the pitch of the night, or the chill of winter, and with water supplies, fire services and electricity systems totally paralysed. Why has it not occurred to us, situated in Seismic Zone 4 as we are, to visualise this? Through sustained awareness programmes that use shocking but essential simulations, planned replacements of precarious buildings, and the unveiling of seismic retro-architecture, that scenario can be modified.

You have all heard of Pascal’s Wager. Its basic postulate is simple: Even if you think a vengeful God does not exist, it would be prudent and rational to think and behave as if He did exist. For if He does not, your prudence would have done no harm. And if He does, your prudence would have served you well. I must say we are not quite following Pascal’s Wager. Rather, we are banking on a benign seismology, imagining it will not go beyond 3 or 4 on the Richter, that if and when it comes to India, the temblor will give us no more than a friendly knock on the front door and leave. Hard decisions are called for, for earthquakes hit hard.

Safety in Nuclear Reactors against Nature

There are great and persuasive reasons for a coal-deficient country going in for the nuclear energy option. Everyone can see the arguments in its favour. But only scientists, technologists of who we are so justly proud, and the officials reflecting our policy in the matter, seem to be hundred percent sure about the ‘hundred percent safety’ of our reactors against Nature. They have tried assiduously to convince the country that post-Fukushima, steps have been taken , steps that any agency in the world can vouch for, to render coast-based nuclear reactors safe against tsunamis. I want reactors to be able to hold out that reassurance, to hold up confidence, not just on account of trust in our competence plus good luck, but on objectively demonstrable facts. India needs to be awake to the prevailing seismicity of our geological bequest. Equally, of what we in our state of seismic and geological indifference have done to ourselves.

What is the nature and level of the indifference? First, there is indifference in society, in us. This probably has something to do with our lacking what Jawaharlal Nehru called ‘the scientific temper’. It also has something to do with our obsessiveness about the present moment. The irony is that seismicity is about the present moment, except that unlike the ticking hour-hand and minute-hand on the clock, it moves unseeing and unseen. Few know how many of our nuclear reactors are located or will come up in Zones 5 and 4, that our national capital territory Delhi and its neighbourhood and the entire Indo-Gangetic basin, Jammu and Bihar fall in Zone 4 that Narora falls within Zone 4. Not many would even otherwise have heard of Narora, but for the fact that it houses a nuclear reactor. But it needs to be known and understood that Narora’s twin reactors (2X220 MW) are an Indianised version of the Canadian CANDU-Type reactors, which operate on natural uranium as fuel which would be procured from U.S.A. under the ‘123 Nuclear Agreement’. And that this major installation stands on Zone 4.

Second, there is a lack of urgency in seismic preparedness, in earthquake-tsunami policy. If the aam aadmi’s indifference can be assigned to habits of mind, should those concerned with augmenting our seismic preparedness not address that indifference? Should we not be told in clear terms that non-scientists can understand that are not self-justifying or self-exculpating but frank and consultative, as to how and why we need not worry about our reactors being located where earthquakes and tsunami are expected to occur? There is, after all, such a thing as error. And that can include errors of judgment in the calculation of the risk-factor. Should we not be told how and why we need not be anxious about the safety of our reactors? And, if there is cause for anxiety, if not alarm, should the nation not be taken into confidence about those areas of anxiety?

We may turn again to Pascal and his wager. Japan was frank. It said it miscalculated. India is bold. It says it has done its calculations. Japan spoke of the past. Japan’s is the voice of experience. India’s is the voice of faith. Ultimately, a machine is as safe as the maximum challenge that it can take to its structural and functional integrity.

Nature is not an enemy of nuclear safety. It is impervious to it. And it is not keeping a log of how many metres high the reactor’s walls are, or at what point its cooling systems will give up. Nature follows its own tensions of relief, its own reflexes of energy release. What we have to realise is that we humans and our artifacts have thresholds. Nature does not have any threshold. Nature, when at peace with itself, has balance; indeed it has a beautiful proportion to it. But it is not always at peace with itself. If it can preserve, it can also annihilate. And so, the hypothesis of the safety of a particular nuclear reactor against an act of nature can neither be proved nor rebutted until life proves or rebuts it. In other words, if no earthquake unsettles Narora or no tsunami reaches the core at Kudankulam, the hypothesis of their safety will remain unchallenged. If, on the other hand, they do, the hypothesis may have to eat its word. Can we risk that?

Erratic Winds

The erratic is becoming regular, the cyclical is becoming erratic. Some years ago, the names Nargis and Katrina and Aila would have invoked only feminine proper nouns. Not so today. Whether on account of climate change or other causes, cyclones, tornados and typhoons have become frequent visitors. I have seen the devastation wrought by Aila in the same day in the Sunderban, on West Bengal’s deep south and in Darjeeling in its far north. Malthus would exclaim “I told you so!”

In the coming decade, global warming will elevate mean sea level to dangerous levels and when a swollen sea, lifted by regular tides is hoisted even higher by another furious Aila, the Sunderban will be at huge risk notwithstanding the life-saving mangroves there. I may remind this gathering that the Sunderban was among the crazy casualties of the Radcliffe Award. We know that Sir Cyril Radcliffe used as a rule of thumb the majority-minority criterion in deciding which districts should go to East Pakistan and which should remain in India as West Bengal. Now, in the dense forests of the Sunderban, I do not know how the religious apportionment was determined, but the fact is that roughly two-thirds of the Sunderban were awarded to East Pakistan and one-third left over for West Bengal, with freedom to move without visas from one to the other territory left to the genetically secular Royal Bengal Tiger. And, not to forget, the smiling Gangetic Gharial.

Nothing can be done in this space of time, to check mean sea level rise, nor to stop cyclone furies in their tracks. So, come another Aila, say, two, five or ten times stronger than the previous one, the human populations of both the Indian and the Bangladeshi Sunderban could well gravitate towards the relatively higher Kolkata, as our century’s most desperate climate refugees. And that cyclone could do well to bear the name of the Radcliffe Award, and be called Cyclone Cyril. I can imagine a prize-winning photograph appearing in Time magazine or our own India Today or Outlook of humans jammed into boats, with some cattle, some gharial snouts popping up, and a solitary dazed tiger, all swimming in the same direction as the boat, towards the Hooghly. But I do not want to imagine what that huge population influx would entail in a Mahanagar already past its endurance levels in terms of population-infrastructure balance.

I do not need to touch upon the other balance that will then get strained, namely, the balance of human relations. Friends, this is not a surreal imagining any more than mean sea level rise is. The Maldives are thought of as a small country. They are thinking big about submersion. We are a big country. Are we thinking ‘medium’ or even ‘small’ or, thinking at all, about it?

Another area in West Bengal, adjoining the Sunderban almost, which is barely 30 metres above mean sea level, and gets regularly flooded over during the monsoons, is Purba Medinipur. This audience does not need to be reminded where Haripur, the site of the proposed nuclear reactor for West Bengal is located. It is in Medinipur. Those interested may try to find out the elevations of the reactor basements in Fukushima and those proposed for Haripur. It was said that we need not fear a Fukushima style tragedy in our reactors, because what occurred in the northern coastal prefecture of Japan was “a rare combination of factors”. I would like to ask is there an MoU between us and Nature that only non-rare or common combinations of factors will visit us? We are aware of the logic of situating reactors by the coast. But the coasts of Homi Bhabha’s times and the coasts of today are not the same thing. With Permafrost melting, Antarctica breaking up, Greenland seeing huge chunks of ice breaking off, and mean sea levels rising along all coasts, we have to re-think the scene.

The Prime Minister’s announcement that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is to be a more autonomous and independent body to boost accountability and transparency in the functioning of the country's nuclear power plants is timely and is to be welcomed. It reflects a wholesome interiorising of Japan’s experience. But this step needs to be accompanied by certain other steps like an independent, transparent safety audit of our nuclear facilities (as suggested by Professor Romila Thapar and others). And these steps should be part of a major re-assessment of engineering and architectural styles, and a re-fashioning of construction regulations in seismic zones with a view to long-time learning from Fukushima.

And let us face this fact as well: Safety is about technology plus the human factor. Is it the safety-guarantors’ case that our nuclear reactors are hundred percent safe, irrespective of any human component in the maintenance of that safety? If so, the case rests. If not, then we have to know more about the human factor. Have the proudest airlines flying the finest flying machines not been humbled by pilot error? And in so far as nuclear waste disposal is the responsibility of human ingenuity, there again, we have to trust the human factor. The creating of nuclear waste is an entirely technological process; the disposing of nuclear waste not entirely so. Many issues are involved. The late Kamaraj, as Chief Minister, trusted his experts to do what was their expertise and he checked with them on the laws, rules and regulations, procedures and processes. But he made it clear to them that when it comes to knowledge of the life and land in Tamil Nadu and of the mind of the Tamil people, he was the expert and they would have to check with him. Is trusting the human factor in contexts such as this an exercise in our technological self-pride, in a nationalism of Indian science? A step in pure faith? I submit, in a matter where the health of millions is involved, only the most rigorously objective and transparent norms that satisfy mandated representatives of the people can suffice.


Then there is the other factor on which experts are present here. A nuclear plant may be made as safe as technological ingenuity and human intentions can make them. But we are living in the extraordinary times of post 9/11. Which plant can be safe against that kind of attack by terrorist groups or even by an individual? Destiny has favoured India with two kinds of onlookers – those who admire it, and those who resent it. And resentment, today, is not a sullen entity curled up in some gloomy corner. It is the Devil’s very own workshop and working 24x7. For totally misplaced reasons, and proceeding from misreadings and misinterpretations, these entities see in us the USA’s, the West’s and even NATO’s close cousin. The distinguished astro-physicist and a philosopher no less, Lord Martin Rees, writes in his seminal work, Our Final Centur of “…the possibility, now nightmarishly familiar, that kamikaze-style terrorists could aim for just such a target, using a large fully fuelled jet, or a smaller plane loaded with explosives”. (Quote ends).

Risks of nuclear error and terror are conspicuous. But, let us not be unaware of the risks of bio-terror and nano-terror as well. I am sure some of you remember the use of the nerve gas sarin in a Tokyo subway in the 1990s and of the anthrax letters in 2001, just ten years ago. The horrors of chemical or germ-warfare unleashed by non-state players from laboratories held hostage by them is not a science fiction scenario. It is for real. If nature does not have a threshold, then terror, especially when twinned to death-inventing creativeness, is also beyond thresholds. Driven by bigoted mis-passion, it has a cold, cynical laboratory doggedness to it. And I cannot believe that politico-technological systems that can purloin nuclear secrets are not incapable of stealing the far easier-to-transfer technical know-how about biological warfare. Rahi baat testing kii. Nuclear weapons capability has to undergo trial-testing on the ground, or under it. In either case, not an easy proposition, one that can be hidden from the world. Biochemical devices can be tested clandestinely. We should be wary of this hazard no less than the RDX, IED and AK 47 types.

Robert Frost has the great poem:
Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice.
From what I know of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it were to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say ice is also great
And would suffice.


Blame it on the birds, on pigs or other creatures as we may, the fact remains that zootomic diseases, that is, infective diseases carried into humans, sometimes through vectors, from animals, can be used by infernal minds to carry them into selected human hosts. You may be surprised to learn – I was – that in an early instance of biological warfare armies of the 14th century were recorded catapulting plague-diseased corpses over the walls of enemy towns in order to spread the pestilence. Nearer modern times, plague was used during the Second Sino-Japanese War by the Imperial Japanese Army and, in 1940, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service bombed Ningbo with plague-carrying fleas. During the War Crime Trials, Major General Kiyashi Kawashima, testified that,, in 1941, air-dropped plague-contaminated fleas had been air-dropped on Changde, causing epidemic plague outbreaks. With international conventions now in place, we can expect that scenario to belong to the past, but what of non-state players? They belong to no past, but to the present and the foreseeable future.

But terror apart, even otherwise, we are becoming vulnerable to zootomic pandemics as never before. If some ‘common’ modern diseases, including epidemic diseases, started out as zootomic diseases and the bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, influenza, HIV, and diphtheria came to us this way, the common cold, and tuberculosis, it is said, may also have started out in other species. In recent times, SARS, avian flu and swine flu certainly have. It is the relentless congestion of human populations with life-styles, food-styles and therefore animal food breeding styles that are leading to this new health vulnerability. We have been tackling these actively but episodically. The bubonic plague is believed to have been the cause of the Black Death that decimated 30 to 60 percent of 14th century Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cities like London, Vienna and Marseilles have been ravaged by it. In the mid-19th century, the disease killed millions in China and India and then spread worldwide. Plague remained with us; continued into the early 20th century. And as recently as 1994 several parts of India, including the city of Surat, were hit by plague.

Until recently only the world of medicine knew of leptospirosis. Now, with rain-waters flooding our congested cities, people wading through the water-logged gullies of Mumbai and Chennai know it too well. The infection is transmitted to humans by water that has been contaminated by animal urine to come in contact with unhealed breaks in the skin, the eyes, or with the mucous membranes. So there we go again.

I am afraid we have learnt little, forgotten much. With habits of mind and life that we are slave to, we do not always need sinister enemies. The filth that is growing in our cities by the hour, by the minute, in terms of un-segregated, un-collected or slowly-collected garbage is making conditions ripe for a Mahamari of Mahamaris through the plague. And I see no signs of a socially-understood and interiorised epidemiology. I hate to, but cannot help, guessing several devastating outbreaks of zootomic diseases, the plague in particular, for which we as a cynical use and throw society will be responsible, not just the civic or conservancy agencies for we are the authors of filth, they its editors. The royalties will accrue to us in forms I need not describe further for you are already sick of my morbid forebodings and, if this was a music concert, you would be wanting your money back. Kahaan Malkauns sun-ne aaye they, aur kahaan yah marsiyaa…But I will say this in self-defence, the caption of my talk did not promise an IIC-style fig and honey ice-cream or a Bengali Market kulfi. I am being as true to the given caption as the karela is to its bitter taste.

The Nightmares of Urbania

Our villages are becoming towns, our towns are becoming cities, our cities are becoming metropolises, our metropolises are trying to be second grade Kuala Lumpurs if not third grade Singapores without the requisite funds or the requisite vision. I say this knowing fully well the Herculean efforts put in by the JN Urban Renewal Mission led by the indefatigueable Ramesh Ramanathan. The JNURM has to run a marathon to stand in the same place, so remorseless is the algebraically rising rate of usage, and therefore of wear and tear. There are those who regard the urbanisation of India as inevitable, those who regard it as a good thing and those who are simply horrified at the prospect. Now I would not have been horrified if the metamorphosis was not accompanied by the horrors we know, in terms of the mismatch of what is needed, what is provided, what is used-up as by some support systems. Our water supply pants behind demand, our bijli supply staggers, our roads if they were our arteries, would have seen us laid down in ICUs for arteriosclerosis a long time ago.

Barring oases of opulence and campuses or gated residential colonies, our cities are a mix of pot-holed or dug up roads, semi-finished or unfinished constructions going as fly-overs, obsolescent buildings, and informal settlements otherwise called slums inhabited by the resident homeless and transiting migrants. Faiz Ahmed Faiz has written ‘Ghilazat mein ghar, naaliyon mein basere’. And moving in between all these is a heterogeneous mass called motorised traffic, arrogant when four-wheeled, audacious when three-wheeled, and aggressive when two-wheeled, shunting bi-ped humans off the kerb if there is one. This traffic style must rank among the wonders of the world for transporting millions of people and for not polluting, not insulting, not maiming, not killing, more people than it does.

Charlie Beldon, an atmospheric physicist and environmental analyst with Maplecroft was reported on the 26th of last month in The Telegraph of Kolkata as saying:. “We analysed three key elements in ranking the cities – the threats of natural hazards, sensitivity of their populations and the capacity of local governments to respond.” The analysis suggested that the high rates of population growth along with extreme vulnerability to climate change were recipes for disaster . “Urbanisation is an enhancer of risk,” Beldon told The Telegraph. India has been classified by this analysis as a nation at “extreme risk” with a risk score of 28, while the other leading emerging economies have higher scores in the medium risk range – South Africa (48), China (98) and Brazil (116). The lower the score, the higher the risk. If by 2021 we are not an urban nightmare, it will be because the word ‘nightmare’ has been amended to mean something else.


Another oil shock or no, we may, with the rest of the world, expect a water shock. Of all scarcities that can be expected to hit us, the one to hit us the hardest will be that of water. Sources of water supply are inelastic. How much deeper can we dig? How many more aquifers do we open? If the monsoons fail us two years in a row, as they are known to do, in cycles of ten years or so, we will be in deep trouble. If the third year also tends to be dry, we will be in crisis. It is not as if we have not had such sequential parchings in the past; we have. But we are now that many more, not just in terms of that many more thirsty mouths but that many more industries, heavy-duty consumers of water, that use it with a profligacy that is shameful. Water use efficiencies in agriculture are spoken of as a solution and of course they would be essential. But is anyone preparing the nation, the farming nation, to start readying for that major shift, especially in paddy cultivation? No, on the contrary, we are going in for increased acreages high water-demanding commercial crops replacing traditional food crops.

The report of the Farmers Commission headed by Professor M.S. Swaminathan, a pioneering document, a brave one as well, and a forward-looking one, which made major recommendations in the matter has remained frozen. P. Sainath’s grim prognoses about the immiseration of our farmers, leading to their abandoning farms and moving from agriculture to the insecurity of migrant work in cities, and in so many cases, as many as one every hour or less, to the extremity of suicide, is based on hard facts.

The Maoist Phenomenon

We need not doubt that Maoist operatives are going to take their attention further from their rural and wooded strongholds (which they will not abandon) to suburban and urban centres, especially to our metropolitan show-pieces. The one inner restraint that might work with them is the ideological dilemma of inflicting large scale suffering on civilians. It requires no expertise to imagine they will seek to overcome this quandary by focussing on the headquarters and encampments including arrangements for manpower transfers, of uniformed personnel. Their aim of keeping collateral hurt to by-standards within what they might regard as ‘minimal’ will not work wholly, but then the ‘target’ will be clearly non-civilian. Government offices as well as the premises of our legislatures need to be extremely vigilant. Individual officials and politicians may expect to continue to face threats of violence and abduction against ransom claims. And one may expect them to leave their mark on centres of upper class consumerist overdrive.

Jihadi Groups

So as not to sound, with each succeeding sentence, like an out-of-custom astrologer, let me bring in a hard report on what is the most nagging and most persistent human hazard to our communal amity, our national integrity, and to our progress in peace, namely, that posed by Jihadi groups from the soil of Pakistan. One might imagine there is a lull in their activities, though this could change at this very minute as we meet. Let no one be beguiled. One dispatch sent by Anita Joshua of The Hindu dated 28 October 2011 described the reaction of some of these groups to Pakistan’s giving an MFN status to India. The story has not received the high billing in our media that one as important and revealing as this one should have. At a meeting held near the vicinity of the ISI in Islamabad to decry the MFN proposal, LeT said the lull in its activities should not be interpreted as a victory for the Government of India. The LeT representative said besides Kashmir, LeT was determined to avenge the annexations to India of Hyderabad and Junagadh, and seek retribution for the 2002 “Gujarat carnage” and the Samjhauta Express blasts. Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Badr Mujahideen spoke similarly. So we can and should see how far back and deep under the skin the hatred of India runs in those groups.

While we are convulsed with Telengana and the issue of where Hyderabad will fall in a future reorganisation of Andhra Pradesh, Islamabad’s population is being served poison about the Nizam’s accession. And while we are worried over the revelations of a police officer in Gujarat, and the SIT’s findings about the Gujarat outrages of 2002, Jihadi groups are talking about Junagadh and about the outrages of 2002 in the same breath. The story of India’s division is History in India; it is breaking news in Pakistan. Hopefully, the intelligent and well-informed people of that country will not be swayed by this propaganda. But the Jihadi groups are not dependent on popular support. They get their sustenance, their motivation, their manpower, and their weapons from other sources. It is too early to draw long-term inferences from the statements recently made by the gentleman-politician Imran Khan who addressed a mass rally in Lahore last week, but the denunciation of outside interference – a principle none can quarrel with – can be taken to mean ‘We should do what we want’, another unexceptionable doctrine provided violent forces within Pakistan let the people of Pakistan free to do what they wanted to do.

Around the same time as Anita Joshua’s report came news, again featured small in the media, of a Taliban attack on a US-run base in Kandahar. It was the familiar story of explosives in parked motor-cycles and a mini-van. But the point to note is the site, a US-run base. And not soon thereafter, the report of President Karzai’s statement that Afghanistan will stand by Pakistan if and when that country is facing a confrontation. What does one make of this? Just this, that peace efforts are vital, composite dialogue with Pakistan essential, people-to-people contacts, the very life-blood of an abiding solution, but vigilance irreplaceable. India is a piece of camphor by the side of a fire that is being blown towards it, 24x7. And this realisation also makes me fear that the efforts of some amazingly brave people to foster human links, healing links, between India and Pakistan, between fellow-citizens in Jammu and Kashmir, and between communities in India will suffer. That will be both a tragedy and a hazard in itself, for nothing can be worse for a society and for a people than for iron to enter its soul.

Looking Inwards

Collective choice confers political power. Coursing with votes cast, it concretizes into democratic mandates. Collective evaluation stirs opinion. Going along the grain of popular sentiment, it condenses into moral admonitions.

Naitik muulyaankan ginaa nahiin jaataa hai,vah tolaa jaataa hai. Aaj gintiyon aur tol mein dvandva aa gayaa hai. Rajniti ganit par tikii hai; dharma-niti taraazuu par. Ek kahtaa hai aankre merey paas hein; duusraa kahtaa hai vazan mere saath hein. Ek kahtaa hai dangal mein utaro, mat-daataa nirnay bol rahaa hai. Duusraa kahtaa hai,maidaan mein aao, janata kaa taraazuu dol rahaa hai.

The two can be dichotomous. Mandates have tenures. Admonitions have impact. Elected governments have legitimacy. Popular opinions have weight. If political choice is seen as an arc, moral evaluation can be visualised as a beam. And the two can be imaged crisscrossing each other. The point of intersection between them can be seen to spark, turn electric. We are witnessing this.

Legitimacy has taken up position against credibility, authority against authenticity. The voice of authority in a democracy like ours is no ordinary voice. It has the stamp of popular endorsement obtained in free and fair elections. But the claim of authenticity in a society like ours is no ordinary claim either, for it has the stature of ghee against hydrogenated oil, of gur against processed sugar. Governments work through arteries. Movements work through nerves. Neither is meant to diminish or dispute the other.

Anna Hazare’s movement has touched very real and a very raw nerve in our society. A nerve that says, “Some parties have governed us well, some not so well; some have given us great leaders, some not so. But all have let corruption spread, take root, smother us. Now, for goodness’ sake, please, do something about this. We have suffered enough.” Touching the nerve, however, is one thing. Jangling them is another. Badlaav is one thing, badlaa is another. Javaab do, hisaab do, varnaa istifaa do…are one thing; gherao karo, qaid karo, phaansii charhaao, quite another. In letting the dichotomy between the legitimate and the credible grow, lies hazard. Authority must prize authenticity and authenticity must respect authority. On contact, status and stature must fuse, not spark.

And this too we must concede that in the spread of corrupt practices in India we, the people of India, have ourselves played a role, one of passive inertness at the best and of complicity at the worst. We too are accountable. If calls for behavioural change among those in power are accompanied by calls for behavioural reform within society, we will avert what I would call the hazard of politico-moral disequillibrium. In a democracy political choice brings about changes of regime, and moral evaluations bring about regimes of change. We need both processes to function in accordance with codes of civility.

We must also take note of another grave social hazard which is corroding us. I refer to the evaporation of what used to be called pride-of-work. Except in flash-point moments of crisis as during a terror attack when simple citizens rise heroically to the occasion and provide first aid by instinct, we have, as a rule, become a hands-off people. Some amazing individuals, NGOs and social groups apart, we tend leave everything to an already stretched State, which means letting things slide, letting things be, letting things to sort themselves out. Why is this a hazard? It is a hazard because freedom without responsibility is not tenable. A society whose limbs atrophy is no better than a living creature in a similar situation.

This is where we may look forward to the wisdom of age being supported by the energy of youth to give to not just the state apparatus but to the body social the stamina it needs to face the hazards that face us. I said at the start that it is right and logical for us to be optimistic about finding the right leadership to take on the hazards being outlined, especially that of an impatient and angry population of very young people. I would re-iterate that, not just because we are a democracy which keeps throwing up – and throwing out – our representatives, but because we are also a nation of mature people who may lose their cool, from time to time, but who as a rule, also know how to recover it from the debris of their rages. And, more, we are a people who have both skills – how to count and how to weigh.


I have spoken long and guessed at the hazards, not the solutions. This is not because I am completely bereft of suggestions of the kind any one of us can make, but because I did not want to sound like I know all the answers; for I do not. Sajan re jhoot mat bolo… Besides, the title of my talk was frank.

Bhuuton kii kahaaniyaan kahne kaa vaaedaa kiyaa thaa, aur vahi karne kii koshish kari hai, vaise jin bhuuton kii baatein kahiin kein, vein khwaabii bhuut nahiin hai.

In 2021 we will be three or four years away from our planned human landing on the moon. I will not be surprised if this happens even earlier than that. And a great moment it will be for us, not because we would have been the first in the world to have done so, but because we would have proved something to ourselves. I sincerely hope an Indian woman is among the two or three to reach that surface. And that team will be iconic as no icons in modern times. Like Rakesh Sharma was asked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that team will be doubtless asked, while in orbit, “Aapko vahaan se Hindustan kaisaa dikhtaa hai?” And where is the doubt that the answer will be, as Rakesh Sharma’s spontaneous answer was “Saare Jahaaan Se Achchha”.

For despite all these hazards that I have enumerated, all the turmoil that I have anticipated, the country that has conducted election after smooth election when nations around us have burned, that has fed a growing population now at 1.5 billion, almost, that has defended itself against external aggression and internal insurrections, that has faced natural calamities, and has made communal riots, despite grave provocations, thoroughly discredited and in fact, despised, that has checked HIV-AIDS in its tracks, that has held its own in the face of at least three major post World War II global meltdowns, that has stunned the world by its intuitive mastery over the marvels of IT, but even above all these, has remained committed to a civilised human order, one that debates corruption among the high and the mighty on the squares and in the streets and then sends reverberations of that straight into the halls of Parliament for enacting legislation when elsewhere condign and instant punishments have been inflicted, the country that debates capital punishment, even in the case of mass-murdering terrorists and the assassins of our beloved leaders, that country cannot but go confidently beyond not just 2021, but many 2021s with dignity, poise and grace. That country will find its leaders, young as well as the once-young, in and outside politics, will find its wisdoms, agonising as the process might be. Why? Because reason is not the only active faculty of the human being. There is such a thing as inner belief, ladies and gentlemen, the one that made Iqbal write:

Kuchh baat hai…
Kuchh baat hai ki hasti mit-tii nahiin hamaarii

That ‘kuchh baat’, indefinable and yet palpable, will carry us through not just to a survival that does not smudge, but a success that does not satiate.

Contact Us