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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Travelling down the Kaladan highway

A blogpost which accompanied my story on the Kaladan highway.

A new gateway to the North East runs into – and jumps over – a corruption roadblock

Can one road change the fortunes of a state? Mizoram is hoping so. Once ready, National Highway 502A, the road it is banking on, will connect the state to a port in Myanmar from where ships will ply to Kolkata and beyond. Not only will this create an alternative to the narrow Siliguri Corridor which connects India’s mainland to the seven north-eastern states, it will also slash the 1,500 kilometre distance between Kolkata and Mizoram by half.

Announced in 2009 under the United Progressive Alliance government’s Look East policy, land acquisition for the highway began in 2011. By the end of October that year, about 227 landowners affected by the project had been identified and compensation had been awarded. However, in the following months, another 800 people turned up, claiming they too were affected, said an official of the state Public Works Department.

They furnished land titles as proof, which had been issued by the Lai Autonomous District Council. The highway lies entirely in the area managed by the council which was formed in 1972 to address the development needs of the minority tribal Lai community.

Puzzlingly, several of the land titles overlapped. Hmunhre Chinzah, the vice chairman of the Planning Board in the Lai Autonomous District Council, agreed that something had gone wrong. In the run-up to the previous council elections, he told Scroll, “Eight senior officials in the council were found making fake land settlement certificates.”

An inquiry was ordered to identify the genuine landowners. In the meantime, land acquisition could not proceed. However, work on the road has continued. The state department official said, “Once the investigation is completed, we will proceed with land acquisition for the payment of compensation.”

It’s an extraordinary admission: the highway is being built without formal land acquisition.

Reporting for this story was done a long time ago — while travelling in Saiha, Lawngtlai and Chwangte for the stories on the autonomous district councils. It finally fell into place much later — after travelling to Champhai district to see how Indo-Myanmar trade was shaping up. In other news, the stay in the north is drawing to an end. We have filed 11 stories so far and a bunch of blogposts. It has certainly been a very educative experience.

On why the 14th Finance Commission is bad news for Mizoram

In early April, PC Zosangzuala lost his job. About three years ago, the 28-year-old had been hired by an Indian government programme which supports India’s middle schools – Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. The job contract signed by “Peecee”, as his friends call him, suggested the programme would run till 2017. However, on April 4 or April 5 – he doesn’t remember the exact day – he got a letter from the department saying the part of the programme that employed him had been closed.

Peecee, with an earnest mien which makes him look much younger than 28, was not the only one axed. In all, 366 staffers, mostly lab technicians and clerks, lost their jobs. The job cuts have followed a budgetary squeeze in New Delhi….

…Faced with less funds, the central government officials overseeing the programme retained teachers but axed clerks, lab technicians and counsellors…. Since jobs are hard to find in Mizoram, the sacked employees – mostly between 25 and 35 years old – panicked. Some of them had married recently. Others had become parents. Some others had taken bank loans they were still repaying. Peecee had taken a loan to pay for the treatment of his grandmother who died of cancer. 

In late April, 70-80 of them went on a hunger strike. They went without food for 12 days, calling the fast off only after the state education minister assured them that whenever the state finds funds, they will be the first to be hired.

In the weeks and months ahead, Mizoram is likely to see many more such protests. Mainly due to the 14th Finance Commission. This story explains why.

Seoul-stirring soaps in Aizawl: How South Korea’s soft power is changing Mizoram

Stay for a while in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl and you start catching glimpses of South Korea. Travel around the state and the images emerge repeatedly  in the clothes, the hair styles, even the furniture.

In Champhai, the district that conducts most of the trade between Mizoram and Myanmar, business in fairness creams and hair colour is roaring. At her cosmetics shop which stocks both Indian and imported cosmetics, J Lalremruati says most customers favour foreign products. People here think they are not fair enough, she explains. “If the idea is to be more like the Koreans, then why would they buy Indian creams?”

While teenagers in Delhi and Mumbai mimic Jennifer Aniston’s hairdo in Friends, Mizoram’s young people are looking east. “A girl in one of a Korean serial wore her hair as a bun to one side of her head,” said Marina, who works at an Aizawl restaurant. “My friends and I copied her for some time.” Periodically, she and her friends look for clothes like those worn by the actors in the serials.

Even the furniture in people’s homes is changing, says Lalnghinglova Hmar, joint editor of the largest-selling Mizo daily Vanglaini. People are buying furniture that resembles the sets they see in the Korean soaps. The state even has a store called Gangnam Style.

The immediate trigger for these changes is well known. In the last eight years or so, Mizoram, like the rest of the North East, has seen a large South Korean wave. Korean movies and television serials, dubbed in Mizo and broadcast every day by around 10 local TV channels, are the most watched programmes in the state these days.

What is less clear, however, is how this interest in Korean culture started.

In Mizoram, Facebook groups take readers where newspapers fail to tread

“Have you seen the papers here?” asks PC Zosangzuala.

The 28-year-old and I are sitting in a tiny tea shop off Aizawl’s old Zodin theatre. It is Saturday evening. The city is slowly shutting down for Sabbath. And I have just asked him how he accesses news.

He doesn’t answer immediately. Instead, Peecee, as his friends call him, asks the young girl behind the counter if she has a copy of the day’s paper. She doesn’t. No matter. He leans forward on the table, blinks earnestly, and says, “Have you seen the papers here? The first page has local and state news. The second page is national news. The third is notifications. The fourth has articles by Mizo writers. The fifth is ads. And then the last three pages are sports. Why should I read a paper like that when I can get much more news on the internet?”

Out today, my story on the facebook discussion groups in Mizoram!

Will India’s recent coal block auctions actually burden banks and skew the fuel market?

The first part of Scroll’s analysis of the coal block auctions took a close look at the auctions for the steel, cement and aluminium sectors. It found an extremely wide divergence in the winning bids. Some blocks went for twice the notified price of coal, or the price at which the bulk of India’s coal is sold, while others fetched a quarter of it. A similar divergence is also visible in the auctions of coal blocks for the power sector. Here, the concern is over the viability of the some of the bids. In a report published on March 16, which analysed the second round of auctions for the power sector, stock brokerage firm HDFC Securities said, “We believe there is a high probability of end use plants becoming unviable, even after factoring in merchant sales.”

the second part of our two-part story on the ongoing coalblock auctions. See previous post.

Are the coal block auctions as successful as the Modi government claims?

At a gathering in Paris last month, drawing attention to the coal block auctions that have taken place under his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted, “Twenty coal blocks out of 204 have been auctioned so far and we got more than Rs. 2 lakh crore from them.” The factual error in the statement – 31 blocks, not 20, have been auctioned in two rounds – might be the least of the problems with the government’s triumphal sentiment.

To start with, as a report in Business Standard explains, the Rs 200,000 crore is not a one-time payment flowing into government coffers, but revenues that are likely to accrue over the lifetime of the mines. These revenues include royalties that states would have earned regardless of whether the mines had been allotted or auctioned.

While auctions are an improvement over the discretionary allotments of the past, and the government has shown swiftness in moving ahead with them, what isn’t well understood is that the design of the auctions has a significant impact on their transparency and outcomes. Competitive auctions are meant to provide a market-based mechanism to discover the value of a resource. But poor design could impede price discovery.

As the government prepares for a third round of auctions, Scroll in a two-part series, takes a closer look at the first two rounds. Our analysis raises worrying questions about both the design of the auctions and their outcomes.