Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Agni in India's belly, nation feels secure

(First published in The Pioneer dated April 24, 2012)

Call it what you like: The Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile or the Long Range Ballistic Missile. The naming exercise will neither reduce the massive strike range of Agni V nor will it dilute the missile’s deterrence capability. Technical minds can deliberate over the nomenclature and argue that Agni V, with a range of 5,000 kilometres, is not really an ICBM because ICBMs are supposed to have a range of 5,500 kilometres and more. That may well be so, but who has said that Agni V cannot breach the additional 500-kilometre mark, if it comes to that?
At least the Chinese are certain that Agni V can go much farther. Their experts are not willing to buy what they see. A researcher with China’s People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences believes that the Indian missile has the potential to reach targets 8,000 kilometres away. The researcher has charged the Indian Government of “deliberately downplaying” the missile’s capability in order to avoid “causing concern to other countries”. Another expert with the PLA National Defence University told an influential daily that the reach of Agni V “could be further enhanced to become an ICBM”. China’s official news agency is quoted as saying that Agni V can reach targets in parts of Europe and Africa.
Both these near-concurring opinions are part of a confused state of mind that China finds itself in with Agni V blasting off perfectly. Of course, there is no reason why India should seek to correct the impression that China has about the actual capability or reach of Agni V. If the Chinese wish to believe that the missile can travel 8,000 kilometres and is even more potent than is being touted by Indian officials, that belief does not in any way harm India’s interest. But then, this is not what the Chinese had said on April 19, soon after the successful launch. Beijing had officially played down the event and muttered something about the two countries being competitors and not rivals, and said that it did not see Agni V as a threat. Informally and through the media controlled by it, the Chinese authorities let it be known that India was “overestimating” its strength and that Beijing already had the real ICBM. In other words, the attempt on April 19 was to ridicule the success of Agni V.
But, if that success was of little consequence to the Chinese because they found it to be relatively insignificant, what made them change their position a day later to find even more meaning in the missile’s success than what has been officially stated? On the one hand, China has been cautioning India against ‘overestimating’ the latter’s strength and, on the other, it is itself adding fresh and glowing literature to Agni V. But, such befuddled thinking is understandable for a country that is suddenly faced with the reality of its Asian monopoly in advanced missile technology being shattered.
Militarily speaking, there is no reason for China to be so worked up. It far outstrips India’s capability. Although its defence arsenal is a closely guarded secret, enough is known to establish that China has one of the world’s most comprehensive military abilities. Experts know, for instance, that China has an ICBM with a reach of 13,000 kilometres and can carry nuclear warheads of up to one and three million tonnes. It reportedly has a missile stationed in the Tibet Autonomous Region, just across the border with India. It also reportedly has a submarine-launched missile that is capable of striking at a range of 8,000 kilometres. If Beijing has gone on an overdrive despite its fancy arsenal, the over-reaction has perhaps got something to do with a sense of insecurity that comes to nations (like China) which do not have open societies and forms of governance. These countries are forever looking over their shoulders and imagining conspiracies that are non-existent. For all their military might, they are largely insecure.
As for “causing concern” to other countries, there is nothing on record to suggest that Agni V has done anything of the sort to anybody, barring of course China and Pakistan. Reactions from Pakistan have been not as trenchant, perhaps because Pakistan had long before come under the Indian missile range, and has learnt to live with it. US may not have lauded Agni V in so many words, but it was quick to pay glowing tribute to India’s record of nuclear non-proliferation. Put in the context of the missile launch, it can only mean that America is not going to lose sleep over Agni V, and does not share Islamabad’s concern over an arms race breaking out in the sub-continent. In any case, India and Pakistan have been for a long time now engaged in the pursuit of more and more advanced military equipment, and the success of Agni will only amplify that quest.
Yet, Agni V is a game-changer. It will change the way the world looks at India from now on, and more especially since scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation have claimed that they have the ability to put together a missile that can reach (or strike at) a distance of 10,000 kilometres.
It’s easy to go over the top in the euphoria that has engulfed the country and the scientific establishment. Our scientists may surely be having the capability to breach the 10,000 kilometre mark some day, but do we have to? Any sort of military deterrence must have a purpose, a potential target. Since we do not have such potential targets that far away, it makes no sense to put in thousands of crores of rupees on the project. Remember, Agni V has cost us an estimated Rs25 billion, though every rupee has been well spent here. We have made our point on the issue of missile capability, and emphatically enough.
Seeing Agni V zoom away and perform perfectly in all its parameters, DRDO officials must have heaved a sigh of relief. The success could not have come at a more opportune time for the organisation, which has of late been under attack for underperformance in meeting the country’s critical defence needs. According to the recent issue of a national magazine, the DRDO has either failed to deliver or delayed in delivering indigenous equipment, ranging from the much-talked of Light Combat Aircraft to the Airborne Early Warning and Control System. Commissioned in 2001, the LCA project is running four years behind schedule and is now expected to be completed by this year end. The AWACS project has already seen a cost overrun of close to Rs2,000 crore and will be completed only by mid-2014. Even the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India had hauled up the DRDO, saying, “The organisation, which has a history of its projects suffering endemic time and cost overruns, needs to sanction projects and decide on a probable date of completion on the basis of a conservative assessment of technology available”.
The success of Agni V should now propel the DRDO into the next orbit. It must address its shortcomings and deliver on the critical requirements of our Armed Forces. If it fails to do so, as it largely has so far, that would spell trouble for our defence capability and for the organisation as well. Don’t forget that Agni V’s glow will not last forever.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saudagar without a happy ending

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated April 10, 2012)


He trusted the Maharashtra Government. He had faith in the then Chief Minister of the State. He believed in the legal authenticity of the documents that he signed along with the Government officials. He had the confidence that, after all this, his dream project in collaboration with the State would have a smooth sailing. In the end, though, he has been left cheated, even duped, since he has invested tens of crores of rupees in a venture that the Government had told him was above board. That deal has failed the legal test in two of the country’s highest courts, and stands scrapped. Ab kya hoga?

For mega filmmaker Subhash Ghai, this can form the bare skeleton of a riveting script. He does not have to go far in search of characters. He is himself the protagonist here — a saudagar who has been taken for a ride by a political system that he does not understand, and a legal system of which he has become the victim. His ambitious project, by all accounts a world-class film and television learning institute in Maharashtra, is in ruins after the Supreme Court upheld an earlier Bombay High Court verdict cancelling the allotment of land by the State Government to Mr Ghai for his school, Whistling Woods International.

While dismissing Mr Ghai’s petition challenging the High Court order, the Supreme Court wondered, “You are a great filmmaker no doubt, but there are greater filmmakers also. Why have you been chosen?” It would have been futile for the showman to blow his trumpet before the learned judges, but the query had an obvious answer: Because those ‘greater filmmakers’ have not taken the initiative to give back to the industry even a fraction of what they have gained from it. Mr Ghai tried to do that in his own way and has been penalised for that ‘folly’. Nobody is saying that he was into charity with Whistling Woods; it was a commercial venture designed to make profits. But the school would have helped the film industry gain access to quality manpower, both creative and technical. This is something that the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India has done well in the past, but is now struggling to achieve.

There are those who believe that then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh broke and bend rules to favour Mr Ghai so that the filmmaker would promote the Chief Minister’s actor-son Ritesh Deshmukh through his Mukta Arts banner. But in making such insinuation, they insult Mr Ghai’s business acumen and creativity. Even those who cursorily follow the Hindi film industry know that Bollywood does not believe in personal relations when it comes to success and failure. An actor may get a break as a result of his or her ‘connection’, but that’s about it. Few filmmakers are going to go out of the way to shore up sagging careers of others. Mr Ghai is not a fool to commit himself to promoting Mr Ritesh Deshmukh’s career merely because the actor’s father has cleared his project.

The film industry has several instances of star-sons and daughters falling by the wayside despite their pedigree, with no one coming to their rescue. The legendary Dev Anand’s son, Suneil Anand, faded away after his first film, Anand aur Anand, crashed at the box office. Actor Rajendra Kumar, whose ability to give back-to-back mega-hits earned him the title, ‘Jubilee Kumar’, could not rub that magic on his son Kumar Gaurav. Nor could the sons of actors Feroz Khan and Raj Kumar, as also the daughter of Mala Sinha, make it big in Bollywood, despite the huge amount of goodwill their parents enjoyed in the film industry. Sunny Deol, Abhishek Bachchan and Tusshar Kapoor are nowhere nearthe dizzying heights that their star-fathers achieved.

This does not mean that, given the politician that he is, Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh must not have tried. But we do not know for sure. What can be said with certainty is that Mr Ghai would never accept such a ridiculous rider, because he values the success of Mukta Arts more than the career profile of a Ritesh Deshmukh. What is also now certain, in the light of the Bombay High Court verdict and the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold it, is that the Vilasrao Deshmukh Government did resort to legally untenable short-cuts to seal the agreement with Mr Ghai. The irony is that, despite being severely mauled by the two courts, Mr Deshmukh continues to flourish — he is a Union Minister — whereas the victim of the virtual fraud, Mr Ghai, is left to fend for himself. He has to pay the market price of the land he was given by the Government from the period the deal was inked. Moreover, he has to by 2014 surrender the entire plot in which Whistling Woods is located and wind up his business, after having invested some Rs 50 crore. The Supreme Court observed that “one cannot be treated as a blue-eyed boy for whom a Chief Minister can bend or bypass rules”. If this is how blue-eyed boys are treated by the Government, it’s best not to be one.

How can Mr Ghai be faulted? In fact, neither the Supreme Court nor the Bombay High Court has adversely commented on his intent. But the apex court upheld every bit of the damning observations made against the then Chief Minister. Is it the filmmaker’s fault that the Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation, with which he entered the agreement into, did not get the deal endorsed in the corporation’s board meeting? Or that the agreement was not approved by the State Cabinet? Or that he was given the land at rates far below the market price? These are matters that the Government should have taken care of. The High Court had observed, “Neither the Government nor the corporation had ever taken a decision either to allot the land in question to the joint venture company or to permit the utilisation of the said land by the joint venture company.” Yet, the Government enticed Mr Ghai into sinking crores of rupees into the joint venture project.

The “arbitrary, unreasonable and illegal” decision of the allotment of land by the Government, and that too at a hugely undervalued price, has ended up eroding the credibility of Whistling Woods International as well, as far as public perceptions go.

What are the options before Mr Ghai? Once bitten twice shy, he may scrap his dream project for good. Or he can revive it by participating in a bidding process for all of the 20 acres of land that he has to surrender by mid-2014. We don’t know if he has the stomach for exercising the last option. There is another way out: Explore another State which can help him realise his dream quickly but without indulging in illegalities.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Declare Ram Setu national monument

(First published in The Pioneer dated April 3, 2012)


The UPA Government’s sustained prevarication on the contentious Sethusamudram project appears to have run out of steam, with the Supreme Court seeking a straight response from the Government on whether ‘Ram Setu’ should be declared a national monument. “Take a decision whether or not to”, the court tersely told the Congress-led regime on March 29. Faced with this ultimatum, the Government has to now make its position clear, which will in turn decide whether the held-up controversial Sethusamudram project to open a new shipping route will be finally scrapped or realigned.

The court’s directive came in response to a petition filed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy who has sought ‘national monument’ status for the stone bridge said to have been built to enable Ram to enter Lanka to rescue Sita and slay Ravan.

The Supreme Court had halted work at Ram Setu in August 2007 on an application filed by Mr Swamy who argued that the project was rooted in “illegalities.” He had then told the court that the Government had neither considered other options nor done proper studies before clearing the project.

Ram Setu (or Adam’s Bridge) is a chain of limestone shoals that links Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu to Mannar in Sri Lanka. Various estimates place the length between 30 km and 48 km and up to three kilometres wide. It was discovered by NASA space missions including the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in February 2000. The mission beamed photographs that clearly showed a bridge-like link in the region.

Pressured by the DMK which has backed the project as it believes that will shore up Tamil Nadu’s port economy (as also the party’s coffers) — the regional party had even taunted Hindus by wondering whether Ram had been a civil engineer to construct the bridge — the UPA regime has been dragging its feet on a possible realignment of the Sethusamudram route that would save the Ram Setu. For long, experts have demanding that the ship channel project itself be scrapped as it has become a white elephant. Meanwhile, the initial project cost spiralled from Rs 2400 crore in May 2005 to more than Rs 4500 crore when it was last estimated some two years ago. And it does not promise to stop at that, if a quick decision is not taken either way.

All this while, despite stiff opposition from various quarters to the project, the UPA clung on to its pet scheme and even sought sanction from the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure and the Public Investments Board for the revised estimate. It had also hoped for a green signal from the Supreme Court and also from the Expert Committee it had set up to study a possible realignment of the sea canal route.

But, regardless of the mythological angle to the issue, several people have repeatedly questioned the financial viability of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project. They have pointed out that only nominal time and money would be saved — and that too by some vessels on certain routes — in taking the proposed route that the project would create to connect Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar between Sri Lanka and India. They say these minor savings would not be an incentive for ships to take the Sethusamudram lane, adding that the conclusions on the scheme’s feasibility in the Draft Project Report prepared by L & T-Ramboll Consulting Engineers was not based on ground realities.

Mr Swamy has throughout maintained that the project should be terminated. “It is completely flawed and a financial deadweight. It must be done away with. It is not just a question of realignment, the Sethusamudram project itself makes no business sense”, he stated. Mr Swamy said ports such as Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu could be developed into a container hub to enhance maritime business in the State. “The proposed canal can handle vessels with a maximum 30,000 dead weight tonnage. Most ships are above that and would not be able to use the route”, he had remarked.

According to a report by infrastructure economist Jacob John and published some time ago in a leading magazine, while ships coming from Europe and Africa are expected to comprise 70 per cent of the projected users of the proposed Sethusamudram route, their savings would be very low when compared to “coastal” vessels whose origin and destination are both Indian ports. Yet, the “non-coastal” ships with minimal savings will need to pay the same tariff as those whose savings are considerably larger. This would deter the non coastal vessels from taking the proposed canal route. Since the canal tariff is likely to comprise as much as 60 per cent of the project’s earnings, failure of non coastal ships to take the canal route would be disastrous for the corporation.

Mr John also pointed out that the time-saving projected by taking the canal route was not very significant for the non coastal ships. In his report, Mr John commented, “The repeated claims of the project that it will save up to 30 hours of shipping time, sounds suspiciously like a shoe sale that offers a discount of up to 50 per cent. Like the discount sale, where the offer is probably for a few items in the store, the savings of up to 30 hours are valid for just a single journey: Between Tuticorin and Chennai.”

Moreover, while the total distance that a vessel has to travel may get cut down by the proposed channel, the ship’s speed slackens on the route since the waters are shallower. For instance, Mr John calculated that, while a trip from a port in Africa to Kolkata through the existing route would be reduced to 3112 nautical miles by the proposed route as against the existing 3217 nautical miles now, it would actually take 3.5 hours more for a vessel by the new and shorter route.

Like Mr Swamy, who had then suggested developing Tuticorin port as a major container hub to boost marine trade in Tamil Nadu, Mr John too offered an alternative. He proposed that the Government simply offer “subsidies to all ships that reach the Indian east coast after going around Sri Lanka.” The subsidies, he added, could be funded from earnings that the Government may receive by placing the total project cost amount in a fixed deposit or investing it in some other financially sound project.

Another report titled, ‘Socio-economic Impact of Sethusamudram Project’, by Kannan Srinivasan of The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala, too concluded that the project’s economic gains were hard to identify. “It is difficult to see any economic benefit from the project immediately. Based on the data available, the economic feasibility is not established by the reports”, it stated.

Forced by the hue and cry over the manner in which it was handling the project, the UPA had in June 2008 appointed a panel headed by noted environmentalist R K Pachauri to study a realignment that would skip the Ram Setu, or Adam’s Bridge, region. But then nothing happened thereafter, prompting the apex court back in end-2009 to question the delay.

The options before the UPA Government are now two: Either it scraps the project or realigns the route. Since the project is all but dead, it might as well opt for the former, in the process saving itself from further fruitless expenditure and at the same time leaving believers of Ram Setu happy.