Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mother Earth: Invoking Culture of Permanence

This year Delhi experienced the highest minimum temperature in June the last forty years. A consequence of global warming, it’s a grim reminder that our buccaneering attitude towards environment and ecosystem has made climate change the most important issue today. While the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 A.D. is a lot of hot air, that we earthlings have savaged the earth and environment cannot be denied.

At the cusp of the 20th century humanity started life on earth where about 50 per cent of its ancient forests were still intact. Though far from pristine, it was a sublime world of rolling seas, of land masses teeming with varied lives; vast expanses of wildlands sparsely peopled by original aboriginals who knew how to draw sustenance from nature’s bounties. Things are different today – the equilibrium has been cleaved.

A legacy with less than 20 per cent of its original forests intact and most of the readily available freshwater already spoken for and most of the wetlands and reef systems destroyed or degraded wouldn’t make our progenies happy. Plus they shall very likely inherit a stressed atmosphere and an unwanted remnant of toxic waste in soil and water. Missing from their domain will be countless species, much as the troves of aboriginal knowledge would’ve disappeared as tribals lose their lands or abandon their traditional ways.

Sadly, though the problems are real and portentous, the response of the international community has been all smoke and mirrors. The reality is that the loss of species is accelerating and ecosystems are getting fragmented.

One issue surfacing today is “water terrorism”, clearly manifested during Somalia’s civil war and the Bosnian war. The Serbs who besieged Sarajevo quickly discovered a tactic more devastating than direct assault: shut off the electricity and water supply, and the enemy is easy prey. The Bosnian and Somali episodes are just the previews of “water wars” that one day will engulf us in getting access to aqua pura.

Recall June 1969 when the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire. The bizarre picture of a river burning (Time magazine called it the river that “oozes rather than flows” where a person “does not drown but decays”) brought home to the American people that something was seriously wrong.

Population continues to explode. For aeons Malthusians are sounding out a bleak future. The disaster though averted, the apocalypse hasn’t been staved off. This is disturbing since the technology advantage of the past decades is tapering off with the likes of Bt crops nowhere near acceptance.

The urban problems get worse by the day. Several megacities are already past their limits to accommodate the influx of rampaging humanity telling on urban tolerance threshold. Fresh air gets scarce as auto exhaust suffocates, while new cars continue to suffuse roads not meant to hold so many vehicles.

There are telltale signs that the planet’s protective blanket is getting too clogged for comfort; few years ago there was flood in the Rajasthan deserts. One prediction is partial melting of the polar ice-caps and consequential rise in sea-level that could submerge parts of coastal cities around the world.

Forests continue to get depleted what critics of the unrestrained free enterprise call Wild Capitalism in developing countries and formerly Communist nations. And nowhere is the entrepreneurial spirit more savage than in Russia which accounts for 23 per cent of the world’s woodlands. When Moscow and regional satraps desperate for hard currency opened up the forest to foreign exploitation in the 1990s, there was a mad scramble on the invite. The result has been despoliation of forest on a breathtaking scale. Same in the Amazon, west and central Africa, Indonesia, Alaska and western Canada – where logging and deforestation continued as though there were no tomorrow.

Charles Darwin once waxed eloquent about the “primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man”. Today people treat forest in the most cavalier fashion, as a capital to be liquidated, forgetting that they provide the protective umbrella for life. Forests are home to most of the world’s indigenous people; they act as “carbon sinks” and keep global warming at bay. Forest loss contributes roughly 12-15% to annual greenhouse gas emissions – about the same as the entire global transportation sector. Ditto reckless and unbridled mining, which today has given rise to social problems as the Maoist insurgency, apart from savaging the Good Earth.

Today the pulse of environmental awareness has begun to surge around but its progress is halting, its focus ponderous. Environment is fairly new to the pantheon of policy issues; policy makers are unclear how ecology relates to issue of trade and economic development.

The wounds suffered by the planet have already forced various disciplines to rethink basic assumptions. Economists are wrestling with the absurdity of a mechanism of national accounts that views liquidation of forests as a positive contribution to GDP – adding new concepts like New Economic Welfare, Green Savings, Green GDP, Beyond GDP, and Gross State Product to the lexicon.

Given the growth impulse, governments have focused on GDP growth rate obsessing on natural capital to increase their wealth. Now the question is: will value changes in stocks of natural capital and the ecosystem services help advance a science of new metrics capable of inclusive sustainable policy choices? And will they satisfy emerging economies in these times of senseless consumerism to heed the warning and pursue global futuristic altruism?

The vital question stays undimmed: Will the fertile ingenuity of our consumer society revive exhausted Mother Earth? Can the cerebral stimulations of the apologists of Mammon that spurred a culture of materialism as a final piece of alchemy, turn its head and become the evangelist to halt environmental degradation and stop us from looming ecocide?

We need to learn from history. As George Santayana once said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. We know nuclear weapons can snuff out life on earth. Today humanity could accomplish this horrific feat through its mad lust for accelerated economic growth. But as Edward Abbey observed: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Endless, thoughtless material expansion will eat into the earth’s biosphere just as malignancy metastasizes and lays waste to the human body.

Now’s the time we realized to focus on the quality of growth – not the amount of material gain. Wanton material gain has become passé. The new era calls for what environmental writer Alan Durning says “culture of permanence” – meeting the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the prospects of the future ones. Our forebears instinctively saw the dependence on the natural world and the natural order of things; they revered the equation and viewed trees and animals as sacred and treated them with respect. It’s time we returned to that reverence.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jagannath Cult and Rath Yatra: Mystique in Peoples' Collective Unconscious

Few festivals in India are celebrated with such boisterous frenzy as the Car Festival of Puri. The Oriyas call it the Rath Yatra and consider it their most auspicious. This chariot ride of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Lady Subhadra down the main thoroughfare of Puri attracts devotees who throng the Bada Danda with the zeal of one possessed. This fare is not confined to the Hindus; the curious, the heathen, the agnostic, the Buddhist, the Jain, all commingle in bonhomie, bemused at the sway Lord Jagannath holds over people’s collective unconscious.

The history of Jagannath goes back to the hoary past when it was worshipped as a Brahmanical deity. Later it passed to the Savaras, and then to the Bhaumas from Assam, who carved three wooden images and installed them in a temple called Nilachala, after their own Kamaksya.

The present temple of Jagannath was built by Chodagangadeva of the Ganga dynasty in the first half of the 12th century A.D. The holiness of the shrine was enhanced by the Muslim invasion of India, when Orissa remained an independent Hindu kingdom up to 1568 A.D. The devout, harassed in other holy Hindu shrines, worshipped at Puri.

It was around this time that the cult of Jagannath assumed a composite character. The three sects of Hinduism – Saivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism – welded with earlier cults like the tribal and the Buddhist and Jain strains. This syncretism manifested itself in the art, sculpture, literature of the age evident in the worship of Saura shrine at Konark’s Sun Temple, and the Lingaraj – a mix of Vishnu and Shiva – at the temple in Bhubaneswar. It was catalyzed by visits of great saints to Puri: Sankara, Ramanand, Ramanuja, Madhava Tirtha, Narahari Tirtha, Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya – each contributing to Jagannath’s catholicity.

Today Rath Yatra is celebrated on the second day of the bright fortnight of Ashadha. The chariots are like moveable temples where the deities sit and symbolically survey the universe and the people, as devotees pull at the ropes to surge the chariots ahead on its way to Gundicha Ghar, the Garden House. Jagannath’s chariot is called Nandighosh, Balabhadra’s Taladwaja, and Subhadra’s chariot – Devadalan.

Once the deities are offered the bhoga and brought to their respective chariots, it is time for cherapahanra. The Raja of Puri sweeps the platforms of the chariots with a gold-handled broom. Legend has it that King Purusottama was keen to marry the princess of Kanchi. But he was thwarted when the king of Kanchi was aghast to see Purusottama perform the ritual ‘cherapahanra’, refusing to give his daughter in marriage. An irate Purusottama vowed revenge swearing to seize the princess and marry her to a sweeper. But to no avail. Beaten back, he craved for Jagannath’s indulgence. Jagannath and Balabhadra cantered ahead of Purusottama in black and white chargers and beat back the king of Kanchi. Purusottama captured the princess and instructed his minister to find a sweeper as her bridegroom. The minister accompanied by the princess of Kanchi happened upon the king while the latter was performing cherapahanra, and urged the princess to garland the king. Purusottama though perplexed, meekly acquiesced.

Now the moment everyone anxiously waits for, arrives. The ropes are fastened and the rath dahuka (car caller) lets out obscenities to the devotees below to show their strength and tug at the chariots. Balabhadra’s chariot is pulled first followed by Subhadra’s, Jagannath’s coming last. As the chariots hurtle down the Bada Danda, the roar of its creaking wheels merges with the devotees’ loud frenzy. The crash of coconuts, mangoes, bananas flung at the deities and an assortment of money, jewellery, and valuables thrown by devotees bespeaks the blind devotion to the Lord and adds to the overall din.

Jagannath’s chariot, unlike the other two, stops at the mausi ma temple (the temple of mother’s sister) before proceeding to the Gundicha Temple. This temple – dedicated to King Indradyumna’s consort is built on the site where the king performed the ashwamedha sacrifice urging the Lord to reveal himself. The story goes that the log was found, but the king’s expert craftsmen failed to carve out the images – their tools breaking down at the touch of the log. The king despaired.

Ananta Maharana, an old carpenter volunteered on condition that he be holed up with the log for 21 days. But the Queen doubting Ananta’s expertise got the gates of the temple opened before the assigned day. The images lay in varying stages of progress – without hands and legs, and incomplete. The carpenter had vanished, and in this bizarre, half-complete state the triad came to be worshipped. It is believed that the carpenter was the divine craftsman Vishnu.

The mystique of Jagannath and the Rath Yatra seems to have rubbed off on the British as well. Baffled by the cult and the teeming multitude furiously pulling at the ropes to haul their Deity, they wrote of human sacrifice at the giant wheels, and adding the term “juggernaut” to the English lexicon. Later the cobweb of doubts was removed; they realized the devotees crushed under the wheels were the ones who accidentally slipped in the melee and inevitably run over.

Once, every twelve years, the wooden logs of the Deities are changed in an event called Naba Kalebara. A party of 20-odd temple servants sets off to Kakatpur, sixty kilometres away. They offer the ‘mahaprasad’ and worship Goddess Mangala in her temple. One of the brahmins is soon intimated by Mangala in a dream the location of the tree that provides the log for the Deities. Whereupon the party proceeds to trace the tree with distinctive signs of sankha (conch), chakra (disc), gada (mace), and padma (lotus) and located near an anthill/river/pond/cremation-ground and a Shiva temple.

The mystique stays undimmed – in the Lord’s righteousness that doesn’t admit of any social hierarchy and His timelessness where the conceptualization of time remains outside the ken of Hindu worldview.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

On the Passing Away of Retirement!

It is with great remorse (else, what’s a death without it!) one writes this obit (how paradoxical!) on retirement, who gladly (sic) was put to sleep early last evening, albeit with much fanfare, song and dance, hype and hoopla. Strange as it may sound, unlike other demises this was indeed a strange death when the mourners (that’s what they are on such occasions) rejoiced, danced, and turned revelers and regaled other mourners present in the real and in the virtual world.

Unlike other deaths, natural or unnatural, this death was not pronounced (naturally) by any doctor, competent or incompetent, but by the high priest of Indian bureaucracy that answers to the name of Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) and lords over the fate of Indian civil servants. DOPT (poor dear) had been inundated with requests the past few decades to raise the retirement age of its stakeholders, or, failing that to provide post-retirement sinecures to all the retirees, particularly the ones in the higher rarefied echelon, on the ample logic that the power, pelf, and perks granted them while in service must continue seamlessly – at least till their respective corporal deaths in this life and they are granted an appropriate state funeral with varying numbers of gun-salute as per their official pecking order.

To be fair to DOPT, they have, in the past, increased the retirement age from 58 to 60, and have always kept up their unrelenting machinations to further raise the retirement age to whatever comes about through the Central Sixth Pay Commission or through the PMO or the Cabinet Secretariat. Their expectation that the increase could be done inchmeal, almost surreptitiously and unobtrusively, from 60 to 62 to 65 to 67/70 to 75 to 80 to 85 to 90 (for those survivors in the long-distance sojourn), by convincing the political masters particularly the PMO, which itself so gloriously examples ageless service, has been belied. They haven’t met with any degree of success the last 12 years after the first goal scored in 1998, which is such a huge pity.

DOPT’s action has been hailed as ingenious and sui generis prompting some smart-alecs to go bananas over it and claiming that the august department has solved all problems for all times for all civil servants with one fell swoop of an order. Never in the solar plexus has any single body or a group of bodies acting individually, jointly and severally has had acted with such great prescience to alleviate such recurring and nagging problems that have bedevilled humankind since the dawn of civilization when Adam and Eve did the unmentionable and brought curse upon the homo sapiens.

A reading of the operative part of DOPT’s order would make their contention clear. To wit: “After careful examination, and only after taking into consideration the various mutations of representations received from various quarters of government employees and their myriad associations that run into bazillion pages, the Department after due diligence, rumination, mulling and titration (not to confuse with titillation) has decided to abolish retirement for all classes of government employees for all times to come. This is considered very democratic and equitable as it puts the civil servants at par with other public servants, namely politicians for one, who, by dint of the nature of their work and their sense of total commitment and complete involvement to uplift the suffering humanity and the wretched of the earth, have always found it hard to keep off selfless and ageless public service right till their very end.

“A cost-benefit study of this problem was carried out and it was reported by the Committee of Cost-Benefit Analysis – headed by Shri Bharat Singh Ujala, former Secretary, DOPT and 999 other members – appointed to examine the issue that it will be prudent to make service retirement-less, in line, as our venerable constitution enjoins, with a casteless society that Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Great Nation, fought and died for. The Committee appointed six years ago has come to this irrefutable conclusion after visiting 168 countries – big and small, developed and developing, emerging and hidden, racially-profiled black and white, brown and yellow, complexion- and pulchritude-profiled blondes and brunettes and auburns – spread across all the continents (except Antarctica) consuming 786 days of overseas stay and entailing enormous hardship to each one of them.

“This is also deemed to be economical in times of world-wide recession in a globalized economy, and it was felt that as one of the acclaimed leaders of emerging economies, India ought to think out-of-the-box – and this is precisely what is aimed to be achieved. There will be enormous savings in the terminal benefits and pension, not to say that the order is also hugely eco-friendly since no more papers in writing countless representations will be used.

“It has been estimated by the Sub-Committee on Ecological Aspect appointed as a part of the Committee of Cost-Benefit Analysis under the chairmanship of Shri U.C. Mashkaram, retired Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forest (and with a representative sample of 367 members drawn from various walks of public and private service) to Sub-examine and Sub-recommend that 12569741983240007 tons of paper will be saved that translates to saving of (roughly) 23965287394 trees and improving forest cover of our country by 0.2135%. In effect, all employees will continue to be potent workers contributing their mite to the building of a strong India till the time they decide to bid farewell to this world.

“It has further been decided to do one better than the only super-power in the world today – the USA – where judges of their Supreme Court are sadly and disingenuously retired on grounds of dementia, when – and only when – the need to lean on the state is acute and which cannot be overstated, by abolishing this reprehensible and hideous provision in our perennial welfare state. Yes, we can – in our country. And yes, we have!

“As would naturally follow from the foregoing, voluntary retirements (VR) too have been abolished. If for any strange, bizarre, inexplicable, and personal reason, any civil servant wishes to opt for the erstwhile VR, he will henceforth only have to intimate his desire to abstain from work. He will nonetheless continue to draw his full salary and all perks available to him at the time of such casualty (no proposal for refusal or diminution of salary/perks shall be entertained) though he will stand to lose his purchasing wherewithal in the form of power, pelf and clout. That act will solely be of his/her own choice and making and the State cannot, repeat cannot, be held responsible for the hardship that such an act will entail.

“Similar fate will also attend upon those officials compulsorily sent home on grounds of indiscipline as part of provisions of Rule 11 for major penalty enshrined in the CCS (CCA) Rules, 1965. It is again reiterated that given our steadfast and relentless resolve to attain global noble welfare statehood for its civil servants, such officials will not be deemed to have retired from service. To soften the brutality of such acts on their part, it has been decided that they will continue to enjoy all travel perks they were used to all life, e.g. official visits to attend friend’s/relative’s weddings and divorces, births and funerals, mundaans and thread ceremonies etc. Also they will continue to earn annual increments and promotions till such time they reach the pinnacle of the pay granted to the highest paid civil servant. Needless to say they shall continue to enjoy Leave Travel Concessions as before granted while in active service.”

What though was left unsaid (it resonates though) and if carried out could lead to enormous savings was the fact that there would be no need to create countless post-retirement sinecures imaginatively hammered out from time to time to accommodate the strident demand of the ever-growing smart retirees who with progress of medical research in the form of genome mapping, embryonic stem cell, and over-the-counter-available statin and Erecgra-SR are on their rapid march to immortality and threatening to defy death, space and the noble Creator.

Plus, austerity being the battle-cry of DOPT, supernumerary posts created the past few decades in the form of Chairmanship and membership of old and newly-formed commissions (including Commissions of Inquiry and posts of Interlocutors that go on interminably) and sub-commissions, post of advisors to various Ministries/Ministers and advisors to Advisors, Chairman and membership of various extra-terrestrial Municipal, State and Central Bodies, would have to be given a decent and dignified burial simply because there will be no necessity (even takers) after the august personages, now occupying the posts, accidentally decide to kick the bucket.

The order is also said to usher in greater openness in public service when transparency is the buzzword by removing once and for all the oft-repeated complaint of civil servants’ pliability and accusation of nepotism toward select corporate houses during their last few years of service as quid pro quo – entailing huge loss of government dues/receipts for eternity – when they furiously and hungrily, even insanely, looked around for post-retirement employ. It is also rumored that the Ministry of Home Affairs already battle-scarred with terrorist and Maoist problems have informally granted their concurrence for retirement-free public service so that the pressure on them to appoint retired asinine and headless civil servants (with powerful brothers-sisters-fathers-mothers-in-law connect) as Governors is alleviated, and politicians, ailing from terminal illness or pastured after losing in the hustings, could climb onto the gubernatorial gaddis.

DOPT in its sagacity has also empirically established through simulation packages employed by another Sub-Committee consisting of 589 members on Body-Mind Asynchronized Continuum – headed by Shri M.S. Dhanushkodi, former Secretary of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India and members drawn from all conceivable and unconceivable ministries and departments of Government of India and other clever participating State and UT governments – appointed to examine the aspect of savings in the form of better work-life balance that retirement-free service would necessarily entail.

It was thought (and quite rightly) that the retirement of retirement clause would grant sound, even good, sleep, and thereby, sound health to the civil servants since the Damocles sword hanging about them like an albatross in their mind (even body) would be removed, and the same has no scope to revisit the honorable civil servants even in their dreams and/or subconscious, unconscious and/or comatose stages. It indeed would grant good health to all and sundry. And that sure will show up in the reduced medical claims preferred by (the present-day) about-to-retire personnel burdened with the onerous responsibility of running the nation’s administration as well as the retirees. It would also unobtrusively help to right-size or re-size or down-size the moribund Central Government Health Scheme, with its rampant corruption and tendency to supply sub-standard/under-potented drugs to patients, before making a pitch in the not-too-distant future to abolish the same organization summarily.

There is a flip side to this historic order though. With service now made co-terminus with life, given the addictive aroma of selfless public service, there is bound to be much jostling and reluctance to bid adieu to this – the splendid world. Who, in his mind, will like to travel into an unknown, uncharted world where uncertainties bristle and are bound to confront him, and with no guarantee of such continued sinecure as gratuitously granted here in India on Mother Earth?

“The 235-member Sub-Committee on Likely Extended Life-Span (SCLELS), headed by Shri Z.A. Shaman, former Secretary, Ministry of Social Welfare, carried out an in-depth analysis of the problem and went into the issue at great length in their 333 sittings spread across 129 countries. They have come to the unlikely conclusion that given human nature, ennui and boredom is bound to set in, and this coupled with the pugnacious putrescence unleashed by fellow civil servants in their day-to-day discourse will negate the doomsday that neo-Malthusians are apt to stir up. In other words, most of them (if not all) will one day (though light years away) decide to call it a life! Thereby the equilibrium will be made (or at least seen) to be restored on Father India.

“Not to forget that deaths caused by natural calamities (earthquake, volcano, flood, avalanche, sun-stroke et al) and unnatural calamities (air-crashes – particularly of the venerable national carrier; gas leakages – like the Bhopal kind; train accidents; Maoist and terrorist attacks particularly in the 5-Star Hotels) will be the periodic, why almost daily, icing on the cake and, at this point in time, considered safely sufficient to take care of the likely and impending problem of growing unemployment.”

For all the catholicity of this salutary order, to be frank, this doubtless is fraught with certain difficulties, though not (mercifully) insurmountable. Of course pension will be a thing of the past, yet family pension will have to be paid along with leave encashment and death-cum-retirement gratuity to the widow(er) as the case would be. And no civil servant, given his years of selfless public service would be inclined to leave his/her spouse poorer by availing a day’s earned leave to pass away from this sacred world and thereby reducing one day from the total of 5000 days of encashable earned leave. Leave s/he must avail to die in the arms of his/her respective loving spouse (transfer and/or stealing of affection of others’ spouses not encouraged!). In effect, for all deaths either casual leave (CL) or restricted holiday (RH) will be availed. Given their transparent honesty, spotless integrity, and blotless probity, the purpose of leave will clearly state something like this: To die peaceably in home comfort in the arms of my dear spouse without affecting the quantum/amount of leave encashment. That would indeed be very chic and so darlingesque!

As would be apparent by now, there were no pall-bearers or hearse for poor, dear, bereft Retirement – always the abominable outcast in life, and so too in death – as evidenced yesterday. Only the cacophony and joie de vivre was loud and thunderous, the raptures of glee and bonhomie of revelers reverberating across the official corridors and drifting adroitly over time and Indian spaces, celebrating the final, irrevocable transfer of retirement compulsion to the hoary pension establishment – to naught and moss there for perpetuity!