Archive for March, 2008

The Long Road Back to North America

We are back in Oakland, California after a multi-leg trip which started on 23 March from our moisture-soaked room on the roof in Pondicherry.

23 March 2008

Maya brought sweets and curd to our quick lunch with Puru and Ajit at the original Surguru to send us off with a bit of tradition.  One last round of onion rava dosas followed by the rasgullas made with palm jaggery, then off to Chennai with Bappu and Puru.

We reached Chennai around 4:30pm and found Sujatha’s place with no difficulties despite the “old number 10, new number 2” address in Saidapet.  Bappu and Puru came up for a cup of coffee and ended up with masala dosas as well.  Sujatha looked absolutely radiant – which means that she is having lots of fun torturing her new husband, Balaji (who is a great guy and extremely tolerant).  We stayed up way too late talking and were kept up most of the night by Chennai mosquitoes that are able to bite through bedcovers and negotiate the currents created by an overhead fan.

24 March 2008

A short taxi ride to the airport and a 7:15am flight from Chennai to Mumbai, where Sachmo meets us at the new domestic terminal (a great improvement and very efficiently run, at least by Jet Airways).  We drop our luggage off at the new Mam office and get to catch up with Madhu, Akash, and Vishal.  Pani puri at Monsoon in Lokhandwala market, then off to visit with Smita and Ashok Shah, where we are the beneficiaries of left-over aamras made from the first of this season’s Alfonso mangoes.  Tea with Suchi and Shreedhar at the Tea Center near Churchgate, then back to Bandra for dinner with the Mam group, including Kumar and Brijesh.  A shower at Akash’s bachelor pad and off to the airport, courtesy of Madhu.

25 March 2008

A 4:35am Korean Airways flight to Seoul during which we awoke only for the bibim bap.  An hour and a half layover at Incheon International Airport, just long enough for a stop at Welly& Food Court to share a kim bap and then our final leg on Korean Airways to SFO, where we are picked up by Betsy and Zing.

26 March 2008

Two mosquitoes escaped from our bags when we unpacked our sodden clothes.

Bahour Lake, Pondicherry

 Bahour Lake
Bahour Lake 

Bahour Lake is a seasonal (it is generally dry for 5-6 months) freshwater wetland located about 20 miles south of Pondicherry town, near the village of Bahour.  It is the second largest lake in Pondicherry, with a storage capacity of 6.3 million cubic meters.

Toddy pots
Toddy pots

Bahour is one of two Important Bird Areas of India in Pondicherry for the number of birds sighted (over 25,000 waterfowl counted in 1995 and 1998) and for having more than 1% of the biogeographic population of several species of waterfowl including Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope and Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis.

Planting Paddy
Planting paddy 

Farming is still the primary activity in Bahour commune.  Water intensive paddy and sugarcane are the major crops, with some coconut plantations and toddy palms.

Harvesting sugarcane
Harvesting sugarcane

Loading sugarcane
Loading sugarcane for transport

Local transport of sugarcane
Local transport of sugarcane

All the irrigation for the crops grown around Bahour is done using groundwater.  According to a farmer we met on the road, the government does not allow the farmers to use the water from the lake.  As in Ousteri, the government lets out fishing contracts, draining the lake 5 months after fingerlings have been introduced into Bahour to make the catch easier.

Local farmer
Local farmer 

And here too, as in Ousteri, the government has plans to build a boat house and initiate tourism with motor boat rides on the lake.

Now, how is this going to work, you ask, since the lake is dry for much of the year?  Why spend all this money for a three-year project to build the infrastructure to allow boating?  According to a local Councilor and her son, the plan is to sink a borewell in the middle of the lake to pump groundwater to fill the lake when it is dry.  !?! This way, you get to catch your fish and have boating too.

Either way, the local farmers lose.  They have no access to surface water for irrigation, they are prohibited from fishing the lake, and their groundwater has turned saline.  The departments of Agriculture and Ground Water have had to install new wells up to 225 meters deep in Bahour since salt water has intruded into the second aquifer in the region.  An incredible mismanagement of ground water recharge mechanisms.  Hello people – you have a large lake right here!

“What will you do when your ground water turns saline? ” we ask the Councilor, who is a sugarcane farmer.  “We’ll sell the land for plots.”

Advertisement for residential plots in Bahour commune
Advertisement for residential plots in Bahour commune

Indeed, the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Bahour, who is also the Social Welfare Minister for the Union Territory of Pondicherry, is putting pressure on the farmers to sell their land.  Real estate speculators are preying on farmers who are in debt to acquire their land for Rs. 30 lakhs (close to US$ 77,000) an acre. They then divide the acre into 20’X60′ plots, which they sell for Rs. 3 lakhs each, for a total of Rs. 108 lakhs, turning a tidy profit of Rs. 78 lakhs.

Pondicherry Ministerial Staff Arrested; Lt. Governor Resigns

12 March 2008

A friend of ours, who shall remain nameless, was arrested yesterday, along with up to 150 of his co-workers, for demonstrating without prior permission in front of the Department of Accounts and Treasuries. This friend, who is a clerk in the Chief Secretary’s office, is a member of the “Pondicherry State Unified Ministerial Staff Action Committee.” This group has been on strike since last Thursday – for what I don’t yet know. I hope to be able to communicate with him soon.

While the ministerial staff members were being arrested, opposition party leaders called for the Lt. Governor to intervene in calling the Legislative Assembly into a budget session. The internecine conflicts between the Chief Minister (CM) and the Council of Ministers has led to a power play, with the 5 Ministers refusing to agree to a date set by the CM for the budget session before being apprised of the details of the new budget allocations by department and a report of projects and proposals discussed at the last Cabinet meeting. The appropriations bill passed during the last budget session will expire on 31 March 2008.

Today, the Lt. Governor of Pondicherry, Mukut Mithi, resigned after less than two years in office. (He was sworn in on 19 July 2006.)

Pondicherry – A Pie Too Small

Government administration in Pondicherry is at a standstill. Teachers and Government contractors for essential services (such as municipal waste collection) have not been paid for six months; large numbers of positions (including secretaries for several departments and superintendents in almost all departments) haven’t been filled; and power struggles from the lowest levels (Councilors) to the highest (Ministers) have ground the cumbersome bureaucracy to a halt. The files are piling up, and if paper is not pushed through up to 21 departments and public bodies (municipalities and commune panchayats – local urban and peri-urban governing bodies), nothing gets done.

The Union Territory (UT) of Pondicherry covers 480 square kilometers comprised of four regions – Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam – in three different States – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The population (according to the 2001 census) of the UT is around 974,000, with about 735,000 (75%) in the Pondicherry region. The region of Pondicherry is composed of non-contiguous, swiss-cheese-like pockets interspersed with areas in Tamil Nadu. Pondicherry region is divided into 2 municipalities and 5 commune panchayats. The municipalities are further divided into wards.

Because Pondicherry is relatively small, there is not enough graft to go around to keep all the elected officials happy. In fact, the lowest (and newest – the first elections took place in 2006) level of elected officials – the Councilors – may not make enough to recover the loans they took out to pay for the votes in their wards before the next elections.

The Chief Minister, N. Rangasamy (who is the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Thattanchavady in Pondicherry), has consolidated most of the important portfolios under his charge. He is responsible for something called “Confidential and Cabinet”, General Administration, Home, Revenue and Excise, Public Works, Planning and Finance, Co-operation, Town and Country Planning (including the Planning Authorities), Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment, and “all other subjects not allocated to any other Ministers.” Note the oversight for Public Works Department (PWD), which accounts for over 50% of the Rs. 1,445 crore (over US$ 370 million) Planning Commission budget allocated to Pondicherry in 2007-08 from the Central Government. More on that later.

There are only 5 other Ministers in Pondicherry.

The Health Minister, E. Valsaraj (who is the MLA for Mahe), is also in charge of Labour and Employment, Law, the Port, and Housing. Six graft cases have been registered against E. Valsaraj by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau for financial irregularities in a land deal in Mahe.

The Education Minister, MOHF Shajahan (who is the MLA for Lawspet in Pondicherry), is also in charge of Art and Culture, Transport, Information Technology, and Fisheries.

The Tourism Minister, Malladi Krishna Rao (who is the MLA for Yamam), is also in charge of Civil Aviation, the Local Administration Department (LAD – which includes the municipalities and commune and village panchayats), Community Development, and District Rural Development Agency.

The Welfare Minister, M. Kandasamy (who is the MLA for Bahour in Pondicherry), is also in charge of Adi-Dravidar (Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Caste) Welfare, Women and Child Welfare, Urban Basic Services, and Fire Services.

The Industries and Power Minister, V. Vaithilingam (who is the MLA for Nettapakkam in Pondicherry), is also in charge of Agriculture, Forest, Animal Husbandry, and Economics and Statistics.

The 5 Ministers have failed to oust the Chief Minister (apparently, he sends too much money back up to the Center), but are now demanding that the Public Works portfolio be withdrawn from his purview. The Chief Engineer of PWD, C. Anandane, has been charged with several counts of corruption by the Anti Corruption Division of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). He was removed from office the morning of 29 February after calls for his dismissal from several of the minor opposition parties, who are capitalizing on the infighting and corruption cases against key members of the Government. (The Chief Minister and Lieutenant Governor not only delayed proceedings against Anandane by the CBI but refrained from dismissing him from office.)

Opposition party leaders in Pondicherry also claim that many of the schemes announced for the 2007-08 budget have not been implemented, and that with less than a month to go, only 60% of the budget has been spent. (I wonder why pre-primary school teachers, who make Rs. 2,500 a month – about US$ 64 – have not been paid since October…) The Planning Commission has approved an increased budget of Rs. 1,750 crore for the next fiscal year – 2008-09. There are three Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers that are awaiting department allocation.


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