Lots in a name

Back to ‘Yes Minister’. Remember this episode?

Yes minister .jpg

Seriously, folks — keep that book by your bedside table. Refer to it every morning and evening. No handier guide to make sense of what governments get up to, how, and why. Apropos:

#1. In July 2015, the National Crime Records Bureau produced some welcome news: In all of 2014, it said, not a single Rajasthan farmer was driven to commit suicide. Which was remarkable given that the state was reporting around 400 suicides, on average, till 2013. Remarkable, since the suicide count continued to mount in neighbouring states, and in other parts of the country. And most remarkable, since Vasundhara Raje had taken over as chief minister of Rajasthan  in December 2013. That, you had to admit, is what good governance looks like — within a fortnight of assuming office, the suicide problem in the state solved.

Or, as it turned out, not.

Before this year, farmer suicides were to be found under the “Self Employed (farming/agriculture)” category in the NCRB’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India data sheet. This year, the NCRB created a separate farmer suicide category, which resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of farmer suicides across the country leading to 12 states and 6 Union Territories reporting zero farmer suicides. This includes large states with huge agricultural economies like Rajasthan, West Bengal and Bihar.

In the latest NCRB data, farmer suicides have been clubbed under Self Employed (Agriculture) category. Under this, Rajasthan has reported 373 farmer suicides, all of whom strangely were ‘agricultural labourers’. If this figure were to be taken as representing farmer suicides — since all other entries pertaining to farmers report zero — then Rajasthan would have seen quite a steep surge of 22 percent in farmer suicides.

“The change in methodology has rendered the data incomparable to previous years,” says senior journalist P Sainath, who was among the first few to bring the phenomenon of farmer suicides to the national mainstream.

How do you ensure that no farmer commits suicide? Stop calling them farmers.

#2. In Goa, a December 2015 decree ruled that the coconut palm was not a “tree”.

That it would no longer be a tree was formalized at a state cabinet meeting chaired by chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar on Friday.

The logic: “The definition of a tree is a plant with main trunk and branches but a coconut palm does not fit into this criteria as it has no branches,” former deputy conservator of forest and then tree officer, Subhas Henriques said.

With its new found status, as per an amendment proposed by the government the state cabinet decided to delete coconut tree from definition of the tree. “This will allow people of the state to cut the coconut tree without permission of the forest department.”

I was born and brought up in a home surrounded by coconut trees. A part f the family income derived from them (sale of coconuts, sale of copra to the oil mills). Coconut trees are regularly culled — lightning strikes destroy them, or their yield dries up at which point they are chopped down for firewood and a fresh palm planted… It is natural, it happens.

The Goa government was trying to solve the problem of doing what is natural without getting the process entangled in red tape. A simple method would have been to write in an amendment exempting the coconut from the blanket ban on felling trees without permission — but simplicity and bureaucracy don’t fit in the same sentence. So — the chief minister chairs a meeting to rewrite the meaning of “tree”.

#3. The governments of Madhya Pradesh and Haryana more recently grappled with a similar problem. This related to the Nilgai, the largest variety of Asian antelope, which was devastating crops and harassing farmers. The problem, both governments decided, was with the “gai” suffix — gai being our putative Rashtra Mata, how to justify culling? So MP decided to call it the rojad and Haryana more recently is thinking of renaming it to roze. Now it’s all kosher to cull — it is not a ”

Now it’s kosher to cull — it is not a “gai” you are killing. (Sort of on the same lines as the problem of left-leaning students in our universities, actually — rename them “anti-national” and you can declare open season on them, no?)

It’s all in the name, really. And none knows this better than Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment and Forests (on whose doings a longer post is due — while the Rajnath Singhs and Smriti Iranis are lightning rods for opposition ire, Javadekar moves in mysterious ways his wholesome destruction to perform.)

Javadekar is a minister in a hurry. Recently, he hit the headlines with an announcement that his ministry had cleared 900 projects since May 2014. He managed this stupendous feat by flouting all norms — clearances were given in some cases without any study; in other cases, he ignored inconvenient studies; in yet other cases, he gave the clearances and then commissioned the “study”, and so on (more on all this anon).

How to avoid getting a bad rap? The Sir Humphrey formula — change nomenclature. Thus, in a month where his ministry cleared 229 projects (think about it — how long would it take you to even read a project file? If you did nothing else for 30 days, how many such files could you read?), he issued a memo to his officials.

Wary of the perception that his ministry is clearing too many projects too fast, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has asked ministry officials to replace the word ‘diversion’ of forest land with ‘reforestation’ in all communications.

An intra-ministry communication issued on July 16 by Javadekar’s private secretary Vinay Srivastava stated: “Hon’ble minister has desired that henceforth in all communication the word ‘Clearance’ should be replaced by ‘Approval with Adequate Environmental Safeguards’ and the word ‘Diversion’ should be replaced by ‘Reforestation’.”

That is to say, don’t say we are cutting down forests. Say, instead, that we are clearing space to plant forests. See? Javadekar explains:

“This is all about thinking positive and using the right expression.”

More on the minister’s doings anon. Slow blog day today — but there is an India-Pak game this evening, so see you on Twitter then.