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Sunday, June 11, 2017

My People - My Concern : One

This news appeared on Friday, 9 June in Kolkata edition of Business Standard. I have waited till today to see if any of the 16 Guwahati-based newspapers that I have access to on a regular basis picks up the news. They did not.

The Context:
Any news on Hydroelectricity is of concern to me as I have been reading for last 20 years that Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and other northeastern states together has potential for production of more than 60,000 MW of electricity through hydel projects - either run of the river or on dams. Realisation of this potential can make India power surplus nation, experts kept on telling.

The irony of it lies in the fact that, almost none of 133 projects in Arunachal Pradesh, out of which 125 were allotted to private companies during the UPA rule, have so far been commissioned because of various issues. The annual report for 2011-12 of the Ministry of Power had proposed that 57,672 MW of power be generated in the Northeast, of which 46,977 MW are to be generated in Arunachal Pradesh alone. It is also very interesting to note that whoever gets political power, becomes aware of the benefit of hydroelectric power. The big thrust to hydroelectric projects was given by Congress during 2000-2010. BJP had then consistently opposed it. When BJP came to power in centre in 2014 they started to realise importance of hydel projects.

Similarly in Assam, a major project - the 2000 MW lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project at Gerukamukh - being executed by NHPC is stalled since December 2011 because of protest by various political parties and groups. The project has been a staple for media and political parties for almost six years now. In October 2013, Congress Chief Minister in the State Tarun Gogoi appealed to protesters to stop stalling the work of the project.

During the 2014 Parliamentary election, BJP and AGP (Asom Gana Parisad) along with All Assam Students Union and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) had opposed the construction of the dam for the project. However, when these two parties came to power in the State, their opposition has weaned and the Union Power Minister Shri Piyush Goel has recently (April 2017) thanked Assam Chief Minister for lending support for the project. ASSU has become silent on the issue and KMSS has become weak with its leader Akhil Gogoi being arrested and put in jail for close to six months soon after BJP came to power in Assam in May 2016.

The lone resistance to the project now remains in the form of a case in NGT. Abhijit Sharma of Assam Public Works petitioned the National Green Tribunal against the dam and the hearing on the case ended on 27 May 2017. Initial project cost was Rs. 6285 crore, but an estimate in August 2016 by NHPC CMD K.M. Singh pegged the cost estimate at Rs. 17,000 crore. The project was to start generating from 2014.

The News in Business Standard:
A large number of hydro-power plants are stranded in the country. The total power that can be generated by the hydro-power plants that are being constructed in the country is 11,639 MW. The projects that are stalled has a capacity to produce 6,429 MW. Out of this, 1411 MW is in private sector, 2171 MW in Central sector and 2847 MW is in state sector.
Stalling of the projects results in cost overrun and increase in price of per unit power when the projects become operational. The current tariff of hydropower is about Rs. 3 - 3.15 per unit. The rate for stalled projects would be Rs. 6 - 7 per unit.
The installed capacity of hydropower projects in India is about 40,000 MW at present and the sector has recorded 28% growth in last 10 years. Whereas, renewable energy sector (Wind & Solar) has recorded a growth of 89% in the same period, 20% of the growth coming in last 3 years. 

So, the Ministry of Power has proposed "Revival of Hydro Sector" with a central fund of Rs. 16,000 crore called the Hydro power Development Fund. Under the proposal, a 4% interest subvention for 10 years (7 years during construction, 3 year after commissioning) would be provided to all projects above 25 MW capacity including private ones.  Currently, a hydro project with installed capacity of less than 25 MW is considered under renewable energy and falls under administrative purview of Ministry of New & Renewable Energy. Projects with more than 25 MW installed capacity fall under Ministry of Power and the largest hydro-power company NHPC. 

The proposal also entails declaring all hydro projects as renewable energy. And as is applicable for all renewable energy, the states will have to mandatorily purchase hydel power under "Hydropower Purchase Obligation" (HPO).

The fund for this bail out will come from either Coal Cess, or from the National Clean Energy Fund or the non-lapsable pool for the Development of North Eastern Region (DONER). Both private and state projects would receive funds.

Between the lines and the concern:
(1) The government has committed in Paris Climate Change Summit-2016 to build 40% of its total energy generation from renewable sources. Reclassifying all hydropower projects as renewable energy and kickstarting the stalled projects, the government wants to meet its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). That's also why we have suddenly woke up to solar energy even if the companies supplying solar panels are Chinese.

(2) The interest subvention is proposed for not only the ongoing and stalled projects. The proposal says it will be applicable to any project that would be commissioned within five years from the date of notification of the policy. That means, any new project which is completed within five years will get the benefit for the period of construction and three years after commissioning. This is intended at benefitting private players at the expense of government money.

(3) Why the Rs. 16,000 crore from non-lapsable fund of DONER? After all one of the major projects (Lower Subansiri) has been opposed because of concern related to possible disaster from the dam, adverse effect to ecology and doubt over the benefit of the project. Now, you are trying to compensate the project with our money?

(4) Why this arm-twisting of the states with HPO? The states will have to buy power at higher rates from these projects even if cheaper power is available. When UPA Power Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia had proposed HPO, the BJP-ruled states made a huge noise.  

(5) If the government is planning to fund the bail out with taxpayers' money, aren't they also stakeholder in the proposal. Why is not made public yet?

(6) Why media in Assam is quite? Is it ignorance? Or is it something more sinister than that? After all the media in Assam have so far been the greatest supporter of Akhil Gogoi when he came to prominence with his opposition against big dam. The Congress has always supported big dam, but BJP opposed it before election. Now they have become even bigger supporter of big dams. So, the Parivartan was actually acceleration of the Congress policy.

You can read a nice piece on Dams by Ramchandra Guha here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

"You cannot buy peace" ....... but they can buy you.

The next piece (2nd lead in editorial page) just below Arup Dutta's writing in Assam Tribune (on meter gauge heritage railway line in Assam and what authorities need to do to preserve it, you can follow the link to read it) is by M Venkaiah Naidu, titled "Let us not politicise farmers' issues". Mr Naidu is currently the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting. The same article was published as lead article in editorial page of Times of India across all editions.

Now read what Arun Shourie has to say about Mr. Naidu. While referring how newspapers and media people want to buy peace by providing politicians space. Shourie said, "Never delude yourself into believing that a little concession will buy you peace". He was speaking in front of an array of veteran journalists at the Press Club of India in New Delhi. The event was to protest the CBI raid on the founders of NDTV, Pranoy Roy and Radhika Roy. Mr Shourie added, "Many of you think that if you give prominence to some of the articles of these ministers or if you give them air-time, they will help you in a crisis."
"Give Venkaiah Naidu that small third-standard notebook, and ask him to fill one page coherently on any random topic. But you keep printing his articles, when you know very well that he cannot write. Because you think that by giving him that space, that much airtime to these fellows, you are buying peace. No, in fact, when the assault comes to you none of them will help." [The Telegraph, Page 1, Saturday, 10 June, Guwahati edition]

Asomiya Pratidin
P.S.  The meet at Press Club of India on Friday, June 9 to protested CBI raid in NDTV offices on trivial ground and the veteran journalists felt it was an attack on freedom of press. Here is how newspapers in Assam, which otherwise are very sensitive about freedom of press, treated the news -

(1) The Telegraph - page 1
(2) Assam Tribune - not covered
(3) Times of India, Guwahati - not covered.
(4) Asomiya Pratidin - Page 9 with smallest headline in the page.
(5) Dainik Agradoot - Not covered
(6) Asomiya Khabor - not covered
(7) Dainik Janambhumi, Guwahati edition - not covered
(8) Dainik Asom - Page -10
Dainik Janasadharan
(9) Janasadharan - page -1 (2nd lead)The newspaper is owned by Congress
politician Rakibul Hussain.
(10) Dainandin Varta - not covered
(11) Amar Asom - not covered.(They carried it in front page on Sunday, 11 June)
(12) Dainik Gana Adhikar - not covered.
(13) Ami Asomor Janagan - not covered.

Now let us have a look at the display advertisement received from government by these newspapers on Saturday, June 10. Classified like tenders etc. is not counted.

(1) The Telegraph - Nil, except a Railway function advt released by Eastern & South Eastern Railway for Kolkata edition, which is carried by default in Guwahati edition.
(2) Assam Tribune - two half page advt from Social Welfare Department, one half page from Assam Minorities Development Board, 1/4 th page from National health Mission, Assam
(3) Times of India, Guwahati - Same railway advt released to Telegraph, again to Kolkata edition but printed in Guwahati by default.
(4) Asomiya Pratidin - one half page from Assam Minorities Development Board, 3/4 page from National Commission on Women & Social Welfare Deptt,
(5) Dainik Agradoot - one half page from Social Welfare Department, one half page from Assam Minorities Development Board.
(6) Asomiya Khabor - one half page from Social Welfare Department, one half page from Assam Minorities Development Board, one half page from Central Board of Direct Taxes, 1/4 page from Central Excise Board, one half page from National Commission for Women.
(7) Dainik Janambhumi - two half page, one from Social Welfare Deptt. the other from Assam Minorities Development Board, 1/4 th page from National health Mission, Assam, another half page from National Commission on Women.
(8) Dainik Asom - None
(9) Janasadharan -None
(10) Dainandin Varta - one half page from Social Welfare Department, one half page from Central Board of Direct Taxes, one half page from National Commission on Women.
(11) Amar Asom -  two half page, one from Social Welfare Deptt. the other from Assam Minorities Development Board, another half page from National Commission on Women.
(12) Dainik Gana Adhikar - two half page, one from Social Welfare Deptt. the other from Assam Minorities Development Board.
(13) Ami Asomor Janagan - two half page, one from Social Welfare Deptt. the other from Assam Minorities Development Board, another half page from National Commission on Women.

I am not asking you to draw any correlation from above, and I will come back at a later date to record the revenue collected by these newspapers for these advertisements.
(Reports on 11 June 2017, in the newspapers which received the Assam Minorities Welfare Board's half-page advertisement on Chief Minister attending Iftar, said the government spent close to Rs. 24 lakh on this advt) 

Sunday, June 04, 2017

The Shadow of the Glory

Scandals involving betting and fixing in the game of cricket are international phenomenon. So far at least five cricket betting scandals have been reported. With the arrest of Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan in mid-2013, the spot-fixing scandal in cricket hit India. Judicial intervention in the form of an inquiry under Justice (retired) Mukul Mudgal started in October 2013. Later, Supreme Court set up a committee of three retired Supreme Court Judge headed by former Chief Justice R. M. Lodha. The committee submitted a report - now popularly known as the Lodha Committee Report - advising radical changes in the governance of BCCI - a club synonymous with cricket in India.
The Supreme Court instructed BCCI to implement Lodha Committee report by end-October 2016, but BCCI kept on delaying it on the pretext of one or other. When the BCCI failed to meet the deadline, the SC fired BCCI president Anurag Thakur - a rich politician with hardly any cricket in him - and secretary Ajay Shirke. Exasperated, the SC on 30th January 2017 appointed a Committee of Administrators (CoA) to oversee implementation of Lodha Committee recommendations in BCCI. The members of the CoA were former CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) Vinod Rai, Vikram Limaye - the CEO and managing director of IDFC Ltd (holding company of IDFC Bank), Diana Edulji - former captain of Indian Women Cricket team and Ramchandra Guha - a sports historian.
Four months into working - Ramchandra Guha resigned from CoA on 28th May. In a letter to the chairman of CoA Vinod Rai Mr. Guha cited several 'conflict of interest' in BCCI which CoA ignored.
On June 3, Shekhar Gupta wrote for Weekend Business Standard pointing out 'conflict of interest' of CoA chairman himself. Gupta wrote, "Mr. Rai, who heads the central government's all-powerful Banks Board Bureau (BBB),reforming and restructuring public sector banks, is also the chairman of IDFC which promotes IDFC Bank, a private competitor of government banks. Then he chooses his own CEO Mr Limaye as a member of the CoA to assist him". Mr Gupta also writes about possible conflict of interest for Mr Limaye flagged by SEBI - the financial market regulator who refused to clear appointment of Mr Limaye as CEO of National Stock Exchange (NSE) unless he relinquishes the membership of CoA. As it happens, many IPL franchise has either been listed or are in the process of being listed for trading. So, can Limaye be both in BCCI and NSE?
At least two years before all these broke out, I had written how we swarm left-right-front and behind glorious people just to busk in reflected glory and why I do not like BCCI. As I am writing this piece, Pakistan dropped Virat Kohli in ICC World Cup match between India - Pakistan at the fag-end of indian batting. Kohli was short of his fifty and It was an easy catch. Soon he completed his fifty and was seen in an explosive display of sixes and fours. Immediately it came to my mind - was it fixed. With many details of BCCI affairs coming out in last few years - it has becomes difficult to enjoy the game unbiased. A lingering doubt remains after each game - was it staged like any other show? It seems we are now living in the shadow of glory.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Public Relations in Governance

Governance and Government:
According to UNESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), Governance is "the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented or not implemented". Simply put, governance is what the government does. On the other hand, Good Governance means the processes implemented by organization or institution to produce favorable results to meet the needs of its stakeholders, while making the best use of resources – human, technological, financial, natural and environmental – at its disposal.
The basic purpose of governance are – maintaining order in the society, ensuring prosperity for the people, avoiding conflicts among or with the people and managing crisis or disaster. While accountability is key tenet of Good Governance; the major elements of good governance are transparency, consensus, people’s participation and responsiveness. Consensus is also important for avoiding conflicts and waste of resources.
Thus, two preconditions for Good Governance are that people must participate in government’s activities and accept its decisions. However, people’s opinions often and generally remain divided on any major government decisions without the much-needed consensus. Therefore, favorable opinion formation plays crucial role in governance. Romans even said that the voice of people is the voice of God (vox populi, vox dei). In our modern participatory democracy too, people or citizens, in fact, play the central role. 
Public Relations for public:
The later part of Industrial Revolution in the West had seen increasing need for market exploitation. Mobilization of people’s opinion for political or religious causes, influencing people’s minds for selling product and such other needs saw growth of a creed called the Publicists.
There had been innumerous attempts to define Public Relations since Ivy Ledbetter Lee, an American publicity expert, first coined the term in 1897. Lee, who started his career as a Publicity Manager in 1903, later worked for the Rockefeller family and the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1905, he established a public relations firm – Parker & Lee - mainly catering to publicity needs. The public relations that Lee practiced was honest communication based on the Publicity Model. Lee believed - good public relations was not possible without good performance. For him, Public Relations is a communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationship between organization and their publics (the target audience).
According to Lee, a PR practitioner essentially was a liaison man between the organization and its publics. While the PR man will try to build goodwill for the organization, the organization in turn would continuously reinvent itself and adopt better ethical and humane practices. The theoretical essence of all government PR even today is the same – that the government will act for the benefit of the citizen and the PR man will ensure generation of enough goodwill so that the citizen would support the government. 
Public Relations for propaganda:
However, Edward Luis James Barneys added a new twist to the concept of PR in the 1920s when he said that PR is the attempt by information, persuasion and adjustment to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement or institution. Ethics and honesty in communication took a backseat for Barneys, who was an Austrian – American and is widely regarded as “the father of Public Relations”. The definition of Public Relations given by Barney in his book “Crystallizing Public Opinion” was published in 1923.
Unlike Lee, Barneys was a crafty propagandist well versed in media handling who believed that people’s opinion can and need be influenced for generating goodwill. Legends goes that Barneys convinced Thomas Masaryk, the founder of modern Czechoslovakia, to delay announcement of the country’s independence by a day for better press coverage. He would go to any length to influence people’s opinion favorably for the organization. When the American Tobacco Company asked him to promote smoking among women to increase sale of its Lucky Strike brand, he readily agreed and staged a series of events to make American women believe that smoking in public was symbolic to freedom for women. In one such event called “Light Up, America”, he arranged for many famous women to publicly light up a Lucky Strike all across America at the same time. In another event, he made some women light up cigarettes in New York’s Easter Sunday parade making the cigarettes their “Torches of Freedom”.
We find parallels of Barneys PR in modern day governments and politics, when events are staged to catch public attention. Easy-to-remember slogans like “Parivartan” (Change), “Make America Great Again” etc. are coined to create stereotype and thus crystalize public opinion.      
Why do government need Public Relations?
We can find many examples of Governments communicating with people throughout the history of mankind.  The people holding power by virtue of being in the government needs people’s participation and support for continuation in power. Even governments enjoying absolute majority last for only five years in our country and would need people’s goodwill to return to power. On the other hand, the importance of people’s participation was aptly exemplified by the less than partial success of the First Five-year plan when the large number of government schemes for boosting agricultural production found no takers. The polio-eradication plan of the government would have been a failure without people’s participation.
Government also needs to build up consensus on vexed issues for smooth implementation of necessary but unpopular decisions. The introduction of Goods and Service Tax (GST) in place of a plethora of State and Central Taxes would not have been possible without a consensus. Government also needs to avoid conflicts. Doing away with government subsidy for domestic LPG or recent de-monetization would not have been possible without communication efforts for avoiding conflicts. Building Big Dams for hydroelectricity is currently testing government’s communication efforts in avoiding conflicts. The communication skills of PR professional can immensely help government to achieve these objectives.   
How Public Relations is practiced in government?
Starting with Lee and Barneys, PR practices had remained more or less same through the two World Wars till 1990s.  Since then, however, PR has developed immensely to become a major profession and academic discipline.  The government has limited need for specialized communication skills, as the purpose of PR in government is limited to getting publicity, running propaganda and occasional consensus building. Politicians who head governments are already adept in such communications inherent in political campaigns. These politicians, when they head governments, become the government spokespersons and set the basic goal for government public relations to keep the public sphere favourable. The government PR thus, serves the need of the political masters.
To achieve this most PR people in government do publicity – both earned and paid for (i.e. advertising). The mainstay of earned publicity campaign for government still is the press releases and press conferences. Occasionally, media professional are coerced or motivated to carry government publicity materials. Events, exhibition, rally etc. serve the purpose of government propaganda. The tools employed by government for consensus building are workshops, conferences, round-table discussions, negotiations etc.
While using these tools of public relations in government, tradition plays the most important role. Majority of government PR people who head the public relations department are on the job learners. For them public relations is what they practice. Precedents and common sense are two most prevalent guides for these PR practitioners. Media personnel are heavily dependent on government PR people for information. A fact amplified by relative lack of news on Saturdays and Sundays when government departments remain close. These media people provide the much-needed earned publicity and hence are great friends of government PR professionals. Moreover, government is the single big revenue provider for the media industry in our country.

Thus, it is smooth sailing for government PR so far. While public relations as a profession and as an academic discipline is developing tremendously throughout the world, government PR in India is still confined to the above mentioned few functions. However, given the potential of PR, it could play a very significant role in good governance, which unfortunately is being denied to it.