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Forget bans, focus on drought

Forget bans, focus on drought

Dear Devendraji,

This letter should normally have been a private mail congratulating you on completing one year in office next month. However, recent events in Maharashtra necessitate introspection rather than any celebration, and a need to initiate a vigorous public debate.

The first time I saw you was in 2010 during a television debate on the Adarsh land scam. I was impressed with your debating skills and tough, uncompromising stand on corruption. Which is why when you became chief minister last year, I saw it as a positive sign. In a state whose political class has become identified with venal and unscrupulous politics, you seemed to hold out hope. A 44-year-old chief minister brimming with ideas and energy, your rise suggested a welcome generational change in state politics. Sadly, a year later, the enthusiasm with which one greeted your arrival is now being matched by growing cynicism.

Just take three recent decisions of your government. First, the ill-advised decision to ban meat in Mumbai for four days. Yes, similar attempts to ban the sale of meat during the Jain Paryushan festival have been made in the past by your predecessors but your government tried to widen its ambit to well beyond the Mumbai suburb of Mira-Bhayandar.

After public pressure, you were forced to reduce the ban to just two days but in the process exposed your government to entirely avoidable criticism.

First, a beef ban, now a ban on meat: Why confuse good governance with food governance? Only a small group of Brahmins in Maharashtra are pure vegetarian. As the backlash from your ally the Shiv Sena and the MNS confirmed, the vast majority of Maharashtrians are non-vegetarian. The decision, thus, was doomed from the start, and will only alienate the growing urban middle class that values individual freedoms.

I know you are a swayamsevak, proud of your roots in Nagpur and your family’s long-standing connection with the RSS. But the people of Maharashtra last year did not vote for the imposition of the cultural agenda of the RSS, including any forcible attempt to dictate what can be cooked in the kitchen in the name of Bharatiya sanskriti.

The second decision that has proved worrisome is the manner in which Mumbai’s police commissioner Rakesh Maria was suddenly transferred out less than a month before he was due a promotion. That the transfer was done while Mr Maria was investigating the high-profile Sheena Bora murder case makes it even more suspicious. We can argue whether the police commissioner should be seen to take such personal interest in a murder mystery, but by removing a highly decorated officer without any proper explanation, the wrong message has been sent down the line to the constabulary.

Worse, after the media raised questions, your government has once again backtracked and said that Mr Maria will continue to investigate the case even in his new post as DG, Home Guards. So, first you kick an officer upstairs, put a successor in place (who is undoubtedly a fine officer), and then create a dual reporting structure. The Mumbai Police’s reputation has taken a battering because of the transfer-posting industry created by the previous Congress-NCP governments; now, you have further demoralised them by sending out mixed signals.

The third perplexing decision taken by your government is its recent circular on guidelines to be followed by the police while making arrests on sedition charges. The circular says “words, signs or representations to be treated as seditious if they are against a person who is shown to be a representative of the government”. Does that mean that if I criticise a government minister I will be liable to be charged with sedition? Are we confusing legitimate anti-government criticism with anti-national activity? The irony is that you were amongst those who was most vociferous in attacking the previous Maharashtra government for its misuse of section 66 A of the IT Act, which had led to arrests for posting “offensive” messages on Facebook.

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These controversies have shadowed what should really be the single-minded focus of your government at the moment: alleviating agrarian distress in large parts of the state. First, it was Vidarbha; now Marathwada is staring at drought-like conditions. More than 600 farmers have committed suicide since January this year after successive failed crops. Drinking water is scarcely available and the tanker mafias are holding sway. Farmers can’t even sell their ageing cattle because of the ill-conceived beef ban.

Last week, on a television programme on the drought, I had asked actor Nana Patekar to express his feelings. Nana has recently handed out cheques to more than a 100 farm widows, and tearfully said that no one could be but moved by the scale of the tragedy. Sadly, the government machinery hasn’t moved as swiftly as it should have. I know you have proposed large-scale well recharge projects across the drought-prone districts but at the moment much more needs to be done.

In the last decade, Maharashtra has allotted more than Rs 70,000 crore for irrigation schemes yet the fact is that scarcely 0.1% has been added in this period to the total irrigated area. The failure of irrigation projects is a scandal and part of your campaign commitment was to punish the guilty. That hasn’t happened yet.

Like our prime minister, you have been peripatetic in the last year: making several trips across the world. May I urge you to spend the next few months singularly focusing on the needs of farmers of Maharashtra. Don’t worry about the food on my plate or what happens in the Sheena case, the agony of the farmer should give you sleepless nights.

Post-script: While questioning your government for misplaced priorities, may I say that a section of the tabloidish media is equally culpable. A sordid murder story becomes staple for prime time news; the death of a farmer doesn’t even register

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