Sunday 3 November 2013

Minister needs an urgent reality check (Sunday Guardian)


A view of the Kedarnath temple where prayers resumed following devastating floods and land slides. PTI
3 November 2013. Words but never deeds. The few who visited Kedarnath during this pilgrim season speak of the horrible conditions they had to face on their trek. The road from Gaurikund to Kedarnath remains in a state of disrepair, almost impassable by any other than winged creatures. The debris of the natural disaster that hit the area last year remains uncollected, including the metal skeletons of vehicles and the remains of the thousands of buildings felled by the forces of nature. All that the administration has pressed into service to clear the debris away is a collection of ill-fed individuals armed with iron rods, poking and pulling uselessly at the immense destruction around them. It would not have been impossible to get a few heavy lift helicopters of the Indian Air Force to move earthmoving equipment up to the affected sites, but that would have required commitment and imagination, both clearly in short supply in official Uttarakhand. In days the temple will close because of the oncoming winter, thereby leaving the dirt and muck in place, awaiting the attentions of the stick-wielding crew come six months. If this be the response to what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed with some understatement as a "national disaster", what pathetic Band-Aids are being applied to other injuries in the fabric of the nation can be imagined.

Words but never deeds. The geographic location of India has given it a salience that is unmatched. In this era of the Indo-Pacific, Japan and India have become close partners because of the coming to office in Tokyo of a known Indophile, Shinzo Abe. This country in the Indian Ocean and Japan in the Pacific Ocean can be the duo which links together these great sea lanes into a single, seamless entity. The only way the Indo-Pacific can make the transition from textbooks and scholarly journals into ground (or sea) reality is for Japan and India to work out a common strategy for the two oceans. Add to such a mix the possibility of a triangular relationship between the west coast of India, the east coast of Africa and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and a new arc can emerge in the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR). This far, the GCC states have been kept out of any discussions about the IOR. This must change. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait are in a position to play a key role in lifting the region into prosperity. Western India can provide the techniques, Eastern Africa the natural resources and the GCC the capital needed to actualise potential for growth. A comprehensive plan combining the potential of both the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific needs to be worked out between the littoral states of the IOR and with Japan. Subsequently, other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines could be brought in, so as to create a vibrant Indo-Pacific community with Tokyo, Nairobi, Abu Dhabi and Delhi at the core.

But for that to happen, the mindset which sets to work undernourished manual labour armed only with steel rods in a disaster scene of the magnitude of Kedarnath needs to change. Has Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on his brief visits to India, ever enquired as to what is going on—or not going on— in what is among the most important of India's cultural treasures? Has he been briefed on the chaos and confusion that still prevail in that shattered region, even while techniques for amelioration abound but are not used? The Prime Minister has revealed himself to be proud to belong to a lengthy line of leaders who have been responsible for this country's affairs since 1947. Perhaps he has yet to be told that 400 million of his voters are still desperately poor, or that more than 200 million of them cannot read or write a few lines in any language. He has yet to be informed that standards of nutrition, health, education and housing are often worse than that found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Were he to know such facts, his speeches may perhaps be a tad less triumphal.

The truth is that those responsible for the prosperity of the country have kept it in poverty, and the immense geopolitical advantage of location and a vibrant people have been allowed to go waste, even as speech after soporific speech gets made. Time to get real, Mr PM.

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