Announcing “Ear To The Ground”

How is India doing?
It’s hard to say. While some of the major changes underway in the country are extremely visible, others, less dramatic or occurring away from the media’s usual hunting grounds, are more difficult to detect. Between them, we have an incomplete understanding of India as it is today.
The fallout is predictable. We live in a balkanised democracy whose people are poorly aware about the lives of their fellow citizens. The country keeps throwing up surprises ‒ the recent lynching in Dimapur, unexpected election outcomes as in Delhi, a strident new religiosity. It’s getting more difficult to comprehend where we are headed…

i am uploading this post late. my first story for scroll’s field reporting series, called “ear to the ground”, appeared on the 19th. that day, i was in central mizoram — in its lunglei district with dim connectivity. the next day, i travelled further south for another 7 hours and ended up in saiha, one of the three autonomous district councils in mizoram. this evening, as i type this post out belatedly, i am in lawngtlai.

these are all parts of the country i have never seen before. and so many of the issues i am encountering are ones i have never written on earlier. like this first story on dampa.

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram’s forest department estimates that, given Dampa’s location, abutting Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.
In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.
Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

ps: have spent close to a month in mizoram. one month more to go. it is a daunting thought. time goes by so quickly. and there is so much yet to understand.

And then, the NDA decided to allot coalblocks to state PSUs for commercial coal mining…

out today, this quick and dirty story about the issues that need to be considered before allotting coal blocks to state companies for commercial mining. the last time this was tried, things were a complete snafu. see these two stories — one, and two.

A new threat for Delhi’s air quality monitoring systems

On Tuesday, the Indian government announced a big change in how the people of Delhi get their air quality data.

So far, the three agencies monitoring air quality in the city – the Central Pollution Control Board, the Indian Meteorological Department and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee – collect and disseminate their numbers separately. The Indian Meteorological Department  has digital displays across the city. The Central Pollution Control Board and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee put their numbers online.

But in the new system, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and the Indian Meteorological Department  will stop making their numbers public. Instead, their data will be sent to the Central Pollution Control Board for analysis. “Authenticated air quality information will be communicated to Delhi Pollution Control Committee on daily basis for further dissemination to the public at large,” the government statement said.

Coming at the end of a year where Delhi came to be known as one of the most polluted cities in the world, the announcement has been greeted with suspicion. 

And with this, drumroll, I open my account at ;-)

Why AIIMS Is In Trouble

This, and an accompanying story published in today’s ET, argue that this response is half-baked. And that, instead of making populist promises, India’s egregious leadership would be well-advised to start by reviving the main AIIMS. The hospital is meeting the same fate as most public sector enterprises — it is being subverted for private gain by a plethora of people.
This, I should also add, is my last story for ET. I left the paper in mid-February with a lot of affection and gratitude towards it, the bosses I worked under, and the colleagues I worked with. ET gave me my first break — to report on rural India and environment. Then, it followed up by giving me extraordinary freedom and support. It was a place where I grew as a reporter. And where I forged a set of friendships that will last a long time. For all that, much gratitude.

the clause that landed emta its coalblocks…

As litigation amps up after the Supreme Court’s cancellation of all captive coal-block allocations, court documents are throwing light on one of the more puzzling aspects of the coal scam — the 74:26 MDO agreements… These JVs had several striking features. The MDOs held 74% in the JVs — which meant they controlled the mining operations. Two, the price charged by the MDOs was not on cost-plus basis — it was pegged to the prevailing Coal India price. This was odd because the public sector miner has underground and opencast mines, the former being more expensive to operate, and its price is an average of its cost of coal extraction from both kinds of mines. In contrast, the MDO blocks were all surface mines.

What is more, several such JVs were signed well before the blocks were even allotted. Take Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd (KPCL). It signed an MDO contract with Kolkata-based Eastern Minerals & Trading Agency (EMTA) on February 19, 2002. However, blocks were allotted to KPCL on November 10, 2003 — over a year and half later. This created a fresh puzzle. Given the competitive frenzy to get coal blocks, why were the state PSUs so sure they would land one that they signed mining contracts even before the blocks were alloted?

Answers to these questions lie in an affidavit KPCL filed in the Supreme Court.

with this story, we finally have answers to some of the most vexing questions re emta, a company we first wrote about in 2012. also, see this story on coal and ppps.

the reconfiguration of the nicobars

revisiting the overloaded archipelago

at the mayabunder jetty. (the photo sums up my life with almost literal exactness. a beautiful planet, anthropogenic activity, dead biodiversity – that is a dead sea krait at the bottom of the photo – and me watching biodiversity haemmorrage away)

for a while now, i have been trying to go on a cycle ride at the end of every year — have succeeded three out of four years. in 2014, biologist vidya athreya and i went to the andamans. and i came back and wrote this story about cycling up the islands.

The friend is a biologist curious to see what the forests in this archipelago are like — the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were connected to what is now Indonesia before rising sea levels cut them off. As such, not only are life forms on the isles closer in origin to Indonesian than Indian ones, their geographic isolation has resulted in the creation of several species unique to them. As for me, I am looking to get into shape. This is also my second trip to the islands — the first was a reporting assignment in 2004 just before the tsunami. The ride is a chance to see how the patterns I spotted then – water shortages, over-population, and decimation of the indigenous people – have unfolded since.

on the whole, not much has changed on how we manage the islands. see this 2004 story. also see this article, by biologist tr shankar raman, about travelling along the ATR.
ps: the link is to a pdf of the page. my colleagues at et — anirban, manoj, kamal, sunil and amrit — have consistently designed stunning pages for my full page stories. this is just the latest in a long chain. if you want the online version of the article, go here.

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