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Report of the Committee on Electoral Reforms (Tarkunde Committee). Citizens for Democracy, 1975.

Electoral Reform Problems and Suggested Solution by L.P. Singh. Uppal Publishing House, New Delhi, 1986.

Report of the Committee on Electoral Reforms (Dinesh Goswami Committee). Government of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, Legislative Department, May 1990.

Report of the Committee on State Funding of Elections (Indrajit Gupta Committee). Government of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, Legislative Department, December 1998.

170th report on Reform of the Electoral Laws. Law Commission of India, May 1999.

Elections in India: Major Events and New Initiatives, 1996-2000. Election Commission of India.


ELECTORAL reform has long been a subject of much research and little implementation. Many serious-minded committees have laboured on the issue; a large number of recommendations have been made in order that elections may be held free and fair. A look at the various reform packages that have piled up in the public domain tells us how the gap between proposal and practice has been consistently maintained, if not stretched wider still.

Looking back is a sobering exercise in another, more fundamental, way. It brings home the realization that the contemporary debate on electoral reform, for all its occasional sound and fury, does not begin on a clean slate. The concern for electoral reform is an old one; many others before us have suggested ways and means to make our electoral democracy more functional and representative.

This review article sets itself the limited aim of recapitulating and summarizing the major recommendations and proposals on electoral reform that have been submitted in post-independence India. It also confines itself to electoral reforms, leaving aside the larger issues of political reforms.

It was in 1974 that Jayaprakash Narayan set up the Committee on Electoral Reforms under V.M. Tarkunde. The committee which submitted its recommendations in 1975 is a forerunner not merely due to chronological reasons. Most of the committees that were set up subsequently have taken the comprehensive Tarkunde proposals as their starting point.

The Tarkunde Committee began at the beginning. It addressed the concern that the Election Commission must not only be fair and impartial but must also be seen to be so. It suggested that members of the commission be appointed by the President on the advice of a committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition (or a Member of Parliament selected by the opposition) in the Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India. Regional or state commissioners should be appointed either for each state or for two or more contiguous states. At the time of elections, the state commissioner should have the authority to appoint election officers, returning officers and polling officers for various constituencies. The office of the state commissioner should be of a permanent nature, discharging such duties as the periodic revision of electoral rolls and maintenance of election records.

To prevent the misuse of administrative resources during elections, the committee prescribed that a convention, backed by legal sanction, should be developed to the effect that the government of the day should function as a caretaker government from the time of the announcement of the dissolution of Parliament or legislative assembly, as the case may be, until polling day. During this period, the caretaker government should not (a) initiate and announce new policies, (b) promise or start new projects, (c) grant allowances, loans or salary increases and (d) hold official functions attended by ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

Radio and television should be placed under the control of autonomous statutory corporations. Ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries should not travel except at their own expense. No advertisements of government achievements should be published at government cost. No police officer above the level of head constable and no revenue officer either class I or II should be transferred from his post. To ensure the above, these should be included in the definition of corrupt practices by amending clause 7 of section 123 of the Representation of Peoples’ Act 1951. Section 100 (1) should also be amended to enable the court to declare the elections in a constituency invalid if government machinery was misused to a substantial extent.

To curb money power in elections, the committee recommended that all recognized political parties be required by law to keep full and accurate accounts, including their sources of income and details of expenditure. These accounts should be audited by chartered accountants nominated by the Election Commission and open to public inspection on moderate charges. Keeping of false accounts should make the office bearers of the party punishable of a cognizable offence. In every constituency, money spent for the furtherance, directly or indirectly, of the prospects of a candidate in an election should be disbursed through his election agent. These should include amounts spent by the candidate’s political party or any organization or persons supporting him.

It was the committee’s view that state funding of elections was impracticable under the conditions prevailing in the country. However, it recommended that certain facilities be made available to every constituency at government expense like giving printed cards with the registered number of voters and the polling booths where they may cast their vote, making available school rooms and halls for meetings, sending one communication to each voter free of postage and so on. The present limit of election expenses fixed for parliamentary and assembly elections should be doubled; the ban on corporate donations ought to continue.

The Tarkunde Committee considered alternative systems of representation. It talked about the West German system – one half of the members of the Bundestag elected by single member constituencies on the model prevailing in India and election of the remaining half from lists of candidates submitted in advance of polling by the various recognized parties in such a way that the Bundestag as a whole fairly represents the voting strength of the various parties and groups. The committee also considered another formula where the country would remain divided into single member constituency as at present. Candidates polling more than 50% valid votes would be declared elected from their constituencies. The remaining seats would be filled by the list system. The committee considered the advantages and disadvantages of both the systems. It did not specifically recommend any. The idea was, in view of the importance of the topic, to start a public debate.

Apart from the committees set up at different times to study the issue, several books have contributed valuable proposals for electoral reform. Possibly the most significant of these is L.P. Singh’s Electoral Reforms, first published in 1986. Singh’s proposals are marked by an urgency to shore up the Election Commission’s powers to prevent unfair practices such as booth capturing. They are notable for addressing another crucial, and by now all too familiar, question: the feasibility of disallowing persons with criminal records from contesting election.

The EC, according to Singh, should have the power to ensure that inquiries are made immediately through an agency of its choice, and pending inquiry, to suspend counting and withhold declaration of results. If the allegations are found to be true, the commission may declare the polling in the entire constituency void and order a fresh repoll. Booth capturing may be made a cognizable offence carrying a heavy penalty. However, the disqualification of the candidates for six years, or even for a shorter period, should follow conviction in a court of law, or full inquiry by an independent body constituted under legal authorization. A person convicted by a court for an offence involving moral turpitude should be disqualified from the date of conviction, even if sentenced to imprisonment for less than two years.

Singh suggested that the following be made electoral offences: failure to lodge an account of election expenditure within the prescribed period of time and in a proper manner, intimidation of voters, the behaviour of government servants in canvassing for votes or promoting the election campaign of a candidate, breach of official duty in connection with preparation of electoral rolls, impersonation at an election, illegal hiring or procuring of vehicles, use of vehicles as conveyance for voters at an election, and so on.

Singh’s recommendations to curb the role of money power were that a ceiling of Rs 100,000 be imposed on the contribution of a company to one party, and of Rs 10,000 to an individual. The aggregate of the contribution in a year might be Rs 400,000 or so. The ceiling on individual contributions to a party or a person could be Rs 20,000; the limit for the total party could be Rs 100,000. There should be strict enforcement of the income tax act relating to tax returns of political parties and every party must be legally required to annually publish an audited record of accounts.

He was in favour of some form of state grant to parties for developing and maintaining their organization. On election funding, Singh urged that the ceiling of electoral expenditure should be realistically fixed and periodically revised to take account of rising costs, but any unauthorized expenditure should be made a penal offence. He made a strong case for state funding of the election campaign which, according to him, would go a long way towards providing equality of opportunity to contesting parties. It would reduce dependence on private contributions, thus reducing the influence of those making large contributions.

On alternative systems of election, Singh recommended that all those who secure more than 50% of the vote be elected straight away and the remaining seats be filled according to the list system. Obviously, the ratio between those directly elected and those from the list would vary from one election to other. Here, L.P. Singh inserted a caveat. This subject is too complex for an individual to make a firm recommendation, he cautioned, calling for a public debate on the issue.

A meeting of the representatives of political parties in Parliament was convened on 9 January 1990 under the chairmanship of Prime Minister V.P. Singh. It laid the ground for the setting up of the Dinesh Goswami committee on electoral reform under the chairmanship of the Law Minister. It concluded its work on 4 May 1990.

To secure the independence of the EC, the committee recommended that the protection of salary and allied matters relating to the chief election commissioner and the election commissioners should be provided for in the Constitution, on the analogy of the provisions in respect of the Chief Justice and judges of the Supreme Court; pending such measures being taken, a parliamentary law ought be enacted. At the state level, the chief electoral officers should exclusively be entrusted with election work and not saddled with other responsibility.

The EC should be empowered not only to recommend disciplinary proceedings for breach of official duty but to record adverse entries against officers found guilty of lapses in their duty and forward them to the concerned authorities. Officers connected with the preparation and revision of electoral rolls should also be brought under the control and disciplinary jurisdiction of the Election Commission, as in the case of officers connected with the conduct of poll.

The committee urged that a fresh delimitation be undertaken on the basis of the 1981 census. Political parties, it said, must give larger representation to women through election to Parliament as well as state legislatures.

The committee outlined steps for improving the enrolment of all eligible candidates – post offices to become the focal point for the preparation and maintenance of electoral rolls; the EC to discuss this matter with the Postal Board and the census commissioner. Steps should be taken to implement the scheme of multi-purpose photo identity cards throughout the country.

Among the other recommendations were: a person should not be allowed to contest elections from more than two constituencies of the same class; the security deposit in case of a candidate set up by a recognized national or state party should be Rs 500 for assembly elections and Rs 1000 for Lok Sabha elections with the usual concessions to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates; if an independent candidate or a candidate set up by a registered party fails to secure one-sixth of the valid votes polled as at present, the security deposit should be forfeited.

In view of the reports of technical experts certifying the credibility of electronic voting machines, they may be used in future elections to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and local bodies. Intensive training programmes for polling personnel on the working of the machines should be arranged.

Mobile polling stations fitted in vans may take the place of auxiliary polling stations as at present to enable the weaker sections to exercise their votes freely near their areas of residence. Such mobile polling stations should be stationed for the full polling period and protected with adequate police force.

Section 58A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 should be amended to enable the EC to decide on booth capturing, not only on the report of the returning officer but even otherwise. The EC should be empowered to countermand the election and order a fresh election under the law, as also declare the earlier poll to be void and order a repoll in the constituency depending on the nature and seriousness of each case.

On election expenses, the Dinesh Goswami Committee suggested that there was no need for including ‘any other person’ within the purview of section 77(1) or the use therein of the expression ‘whether before, during or after an election.’

Disqualification provisions should be specifically limited to cases of (a) an elected member voluntarily giving up membership of the political party; and (b) voting or abstention from voting by a member contrary to his party direction or whip only in respect of a motion of vote of confidence or a motion amounting to no-confidence or Money Bill or motion of vote of thanks to the President’s address. The power to decide the legal issue of disqualification should not be left to the Speaker or Chairman of the House but to the President or the Governor, as the case may be, who shall act on the advice of the EC, to whom the question should be referred for determination.

The committee recommended that experts examine the matter relating to a change in the present electoral system. The Law Ministry and EC should examine the matter.

The Indrajit Gupta Committee, set up on 3 June 1998, preoccupied itself with the central issue of election funding. Preceded by an all-India party meet held on 22 May 1998 to consider comprehensive electoral reforms, it finalized its report on 30 December 1998. The committee was unequivocal that state funding of elections was the only way of preventing money power from clouding the people’s mandate.

State funding of elections, according to the committee, was fully justified – constitutionally and legally. It should be confined to the parties recognized as national or state parties by the EC. To begin with, only a part of the financial burden of political parties may be shifted to the state. A greater burden could be progressively shifted to the states so that ultimately all their legitimate expenses become a charge on the state. The committee suggested that state funding be in kind, not cash.

Further, every recognized national party may be allotted rent-free accommodation in the national capital at Delhi, with one rent-free telephone. Similar facilities may be given to each recognized state party in the state in which its headquarters is situated. At the time of general election to the Parliament or to a state legislative assembly, parties may be granted sufficient free air time on state-owned Doordarshan and All India Radio for their election propaganda. Other private channels, including cable operators, may be required to make sufficient free air time available for use by recognized national and state parties during general elections.

Each candidate of a recognized political party may be provided with the following: specified quantity of petrol or diesel for vehicles used for an election campaign, specified quantity of paper for printing election literature and the unofficial identity slips for distribution to voters, postal stamps of a specified amount, five copies of electoral roll of the constituency, a set of loudspeakers (i.e. one microphone and two loudspeakers) for every assembly constituency or for every assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency, subject to a maximum of six such sets for the entire parliamentary constituency, one deposit-free telephone with a specified number of free calls for the main campaign office in every assembly constituency/segment (subject to a maximum of six such telephones for the entire parliamentary constituency), minimum arrangement for his camps outside each polling station on the day of poll, and refreshments and food packets for his counting agents inside the counting hall on the day of counting.

Political parties must submit their annual accounts regularly to the income tax authorities, showing details of receipts and expenditure. No state funding should be provided to any party or its candidates if annual returns for the previous assessment year have not been filed under the Income Tax Act. Political parties should also file a complete account of their election expenditure with the EC. Such account should show the receipts and expenditure, both on general party propaganda and on individual candidates.

As for private donations, the committee recommended that all donations received by political parties above Rs 10,000 should be accepted through cheque/draft and the names of such donors disclosed in their accounts. These accounts must be audited by a chartered accountant. A ban on donations by government companies for political purposes should continue. Donations by other companies and corporate bodies for political purposes may be decided by government and Parliament. Whether election expenses of political parties and other bodies of associations and individuals should be included in the accounts of election expenses of candidates may be decided by the government/Parliament as well.

A separate election fund may be created for meeting the expenses on state funding of elections. To begin with, the central government may contribute Rs 600 crore annually, at the rate of Rs 10 per elector for the total electorate of about 60 crore in the country. The state governments, all taken together, may contribute a matching amount proportionately or Rs 600 crore annually, in accordance with the present financial arrangement between the Centre and the states whereby all capital expenses on election items are shared by them on a 50:50 basis.

The Law Commission of India submitted its 170th report on the reform of electoral laws in May 1999. The point to note is that it was self-appointed and set itself the task of cleaning up the electoral system. The recommendations have a decidedly conservative hue. It states that the problems of the polity lie in instability resulting from fragmentation created by too many parties and candidates. This was to be redressed by banning independents and setting a minimum threshold of votes for parties.

Its final recommendations relate to specific clauses to be included, changed or deleted from the Indian Constitution and the Representation of People’s Act 1951. To ensure internal democracy in the functioning of political parties, to make their working transparent and open and to ensure that political parties become instruments for achieving the goals set out in the Preamble and Part III and IV of the Constitution of India, the commission concluded that it was necessary to regulate their formation and functioning by law. It recommended a new part entitled ‘organization of political parties and matter related thereto’ which would deal with issues of formation, registration, constitution and functioning of political parties.

The commission recommended that independent candidates be debarred from contesting for Lok Sabha and the legislative assembly and only political parties registered with the Election Commission be allowed to put up candidates. It recommended that paragraphs III and IV dealing with the split and merger of parties be entirely deleted from the 10th Schedule.

The Law Commission favoured the list system in India. However, it felt that the seats to be filled on this basis should be 25% of the existing strength. Starting on an experimental basis the proportion could rise up to 50% if successful. The entire country would be treated as a unit for the purpose of the list system. The distribution of seats in the Lok Sabha among the states, set out in the 1st Schedule to the Representation of the People Act 1951, should be frozen for another 25 years.

To control election expenses, the commission proposed that each recognized party maintain accounts of expenditure and submit it to the commission after auditing by an accountant. Accounts would be open for checking by the people’s representatives. Political parties failing to comply would have to pay a penalty of Rs 10,000 per day of non-compliance. Failure for more than 60 days would lead to the party’s derecognition. The party would face punishment if accounts were found incorrect.

The commission was of the opinion that partial state funding could be contemplated as a first step towards total state funding. But it was essential that the other proposals regarding the functioning of the parties and the maintenance of their accounts be implemented as a precondition. The commission recommended that the framing of charges by the court in respect of election offences and certain other serious offences should be made a ground for disqualification.

An echo of the current concern for stability in the times of coalitions can be heard here. For stability’s sake, it recommended that parties that obtain less than 5% of the total votes cast in parliamentary and legislative assembly elections should not be entitled to any seats in the Lok Sabha or legislative assembly even if they win any seats. Such a provision would lead to polarization among the political parties and to the formation of larger political parties by a process of integration or formation of pre election fronts.

Since the 1980s, the EC has suggested various reforms of the electoral system. In its publication, ‘Elections in India – Major Events and New Initiatives 1996-2000’, it has come up with a comprehensive set of proposals. Somewhat expectedly, the emphasis is on the administrative aspects.

The existing system whereby there is flexibility in the quantum of punishment to be meted out to a candidate found guilty of corrupt practice should continue because what is termed as a corrupt practice under the laws relating to elections varies from acts that are extremely objectionable to small technical infringements. What must be ensured is that decision on such questions of disqualification be rendered expeditiously. For this, it suggested that the commission on receipt of the judgment from the High Court or the Supreme Court may tender its opinion to the President instead of the long circuitous route presently provided.

The commission recommended that registered political parties should be required to compulsorily maintain accounts and get them audited by agencies specified by the EC and that contravention by any political party may lead to its de-registration. Companies should be allowed to contribute reasonable amounts for political causes.

The commission suggested that under the existing Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act 1951, another clause may be introduced authorizing the EC to issue necessary orders regulating registration and de-registration of political parties.

In terms of size of constituencies, the commission wants to remove the distortions which, from time to time, affect the basic principle of elections, namely, one man-one vote. It should be specifically empowered under the law to issue instructions to any officer in connection with conduct of elections and to make recommendations for referring any matter of investigation to any agency specified by it or for prosecution of any person who has committed any electoral offence and for trial of any offence under the Act.

The commission suggested that a person accused of any offence punishable with imprisonment for five years or more should be disqualified, even pending trial, provided that a competent court of law has taken cognizance of the offence and framed charges against him.

In retrospect, the Tarkunde Committee and the L.P. Singh book laid out the conceptual framework of electoral reform in India. Their central concern: how to make elections free and fair. The four committees that followed, on the other hand, beginning with the Dinesh Goswami Committee, were all official bodies that addressed themselves to the task of operationalizing reform in practicable ways. This journey from the Tarkunde proposals to the Election Commission recommendations is marked by another significant change – the agenda became notably more conservative. The focus, increasingly, was on the need to make the system more administrable. The (not so) underlying emphasis was on stability.

Sanjay Mishra


LIFE ON THE EDGE: Sustaining Agriculture and Community Resources in Fragile Environments by N.S. Jodha. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001.

IT is only rarely that a collection of papers written over a period spanning nearly two decades adds up into a coherent volume that is more than the sum of its parts. N.S. Jodha’s is such a rare book, with a central theme linking the various papers, each of which explores in a lucid and persuasive manner the challenges of livelihood in fragile ecological zones.

There are three geographical settings from which the insights are drawn and each point to a phase in the author’s intellectual quest. The tone is measured and the weight of evidence solid, coming as it does from a person whose knowledge of the western Rajasthan districts stretches back almost 40 years in time. It was here that Jodha conducted his first studies and surveys with agriculture and scarcity as key themes. The wider world of scholarship has been in his debt since his oft-cited paper published in 1987, in which he extended his gaze over community resources in semi-arid and arid tracts in sites in seven Indian states. The book under review goes further, integrating his work in the Hindukush-Himalaya in a wider framework. The latter shares features of fragility but has facets that make it very distinctive when compared to arid lowland regions.

Drawing on a range of disciplines, from both the humanistic and natural sciences, he forcefully emphasizes the need to see food production in a context wider than that of mere grain or cash crop production. Much of India, over 40 per cent of the land mass is semi-arid or even drier, and fodder, fuel, medicinal plants and even food are often drawn from uncultivated lands. The cardinal transformation across the diverse region he has studied is the decline in the acreage, the yields and regeneration of biomass on such lands.

Such degradation in ecological terms is paralleled and in his opinion largely explained by a breakdown of institutional mechanisms that check decline and enable recovery. Common property resources (CPRs) were not shared equally in the past, and Jodha shows how forced labour was used to desilt tanks, and the bundle of reciprocal obligations often made the poor dependent to a degree on their social superiors. But this should not obscure the fact that such systems did work to a point in arresting decay of key biological assets, and the last few decades have seen their erosion in a manner that has hit the poor the hardest.

It is those without tangible assets in the form of land or credit who rely the most on the common lands. And as these are transformed into open access resources with no one to repair them, or broken up to be privatized, the rural poor are left without viable options. Their lack of purchasing power makes it difficult to follow the route taken by better-endowed villagers who buy fuel or food on the market.

The challenge then is to work out how to recover those community assets so vital both for the poor and for ecological renewal. Many of the prescriptions outlined here may seem commonplace but the voice is that of an early pioneer who charted out a way to study such issues long before they became the focus of media or donor attention. The first section is apt, for it begins by looking at famine and how the strategies followed to minimize distress suffer from a basic unfamiliarity with ground level realities. In a significant observation, Jodha points to the linkage between marginality and fragility. Both work to reduce the options available to those who make a living. But it is the marginal status of such regions or most people who live in them that make their problems so elusive to policy-makers.

The second section, in a sense, constitutes the empirical and philosophical core of this work. Its key attraction is the attempt to give a quantitative and qualitative picture of the ways in which the extent to which CPRs matter has changed over time. It is significant that in recent work, he sees growing demographic pressures as a factor that merits serious attention, though not in isolation from the broader situation.

The last section looks ahead, towards strategies for reviving links with ecological systems. Again, the connecting link between particular instances and a generalized worldview is lucid and clear. There is a very significant insight on the discourse of biodiversity that often ignores the cultivated landscape, even though it harbours considerable assets. The latter in turn ought to be seen in relation to lived experience of those on the ground and not simply in a project mode.

It is singularly unfortunate that so fine a book should suffer from slipshod production. This reviewer’s copy excludes pages 295 to 310. As a result, a fine paper on globalization and ecological security is half read. Equally serious is the omission of a part of the extensive bibliography, including all the works by Jodha himself. Given the centrality of the work in debates across a host of disciplines, one hopes this will be rectified before it is too late.

Life on the Edge is an indispensable work for anyone concerned with ecology, development and scarcities. The papers, drawn from different research journals and specialist publications, retain their relevance to this day. What is inspiring is the attention to detail. A landmark book by any account, and one with standards that will be difficult to emulate.

Mahesh Rangarajan


INDIA’S WILDLIFE HISTORY: An Introduction by Mahesh Rangarajan. Permanent Black and Ranthambhore Foundation, Delhi, 2001.

VISITORS from ‘developed’ countries have always been amazed by the seemingly paradoxical Indian situation where burgeoning townships exist comfortably close to forests inhabited by big game, often dangerous, where village people live with the ravages of the wild boar and the elephant in their fields year after year, and graziers tolerate the presence of cattlelifting carnivores in their vicinity. This unusual juxtaposition is possible in the modern day and age only because of the special rapport between people and wildlife that has always existed in India. Humans have fashioned for themselves an intricate natural tapestry out of which they have derived spiritual and material sustenance for ages, in the process developing an intimate relationship with nature. And yet there have always been conflicts at the seams of human settlement and the wilderness, often a fuzzy dividing line that has been weaving back and forth through time.

For ecologists concerned with the way natural landscapes have been impacted and carved by humans through the ages and environmentalists who want to better understand rapidly escalating human-wildlife conflicts in India, Rangarajan’s latest offering is a fascinating and much-needed chronicle analyzing the fate of Indian wildlife with respect to the changing politico-cultural contexts of conservation.

The importance of this history is that it allows us to take a look at the past in order to better manage the future of India’s declining wildlife. The mosaic of biodiversity in any given area is a result not only of natural processes but equally layers of human activity, each of which leaves its imprint on an ecosystem. Therefore, an understanding of the socio-economic, political and cultural processes that have impacted a natural ecosystem can contribute much to its conservation and management. For example, the successful reintroduction of a locally extinct species would be greatly facilitated by a knowledge of the vegetation, animal life and human interventions in the past. Similarly, if local people are to be involved in wildlife management through development programmes, their cultural legacy and socio-economic linkages with respect to forests and wildlife needs to be understood in depth.

The reader savours every moment as she trips along the crests and troughs of the fortunes of Indian wildlife following the trajectory of the relationship between humans and nature. During primitive times, the wilderness was celebrated as a place of attainment of spiritual harmony and the attitude towards nature seemed one of awe if not submission. The celebratory link with nature is reflected in the literature dating from these ancient times – Tamil poetry which serenades things as small as the bee and the kurinji flower, and the Rig Veda which echoes with the joy of complete oneness with nature and the elements.

During Mughal times, this awe of nature was replaced in large part by a deeply organic relationship based on the strong urge of these travelling warriors to explore and control the wild and make the most of its many bounties. The Mughals revelled in elephant capture, falconry, cheetah hunting and the careful nurturing of menageries in which interesting animals and birds were kept as pets. It was almost as if they were not content to let nature alone but wanted to examine her every nuance at close quarters. Simultaneously, a deep curiosity about their newly conquered territory led to the tradition of careful documentation of the features of plants, birds and mammals.

It was during the time of the British that the relationship of the governing class with wildlife slowly turned adversarial. Since the motive for the annexation was more a need for resources such as timber, the result was a sweeping change in the wilderness map of India. The British brought with them large scale changes in natural habitat, replacing forests with monoculture plantations of teak, coffee and rubber and encouraging human settlement of the jungles. This period also saw the reservation of valuable forest lands for commercial timber extraction and consequently, the growing alienation of local people from the forest. Soon large scale hunting with the gun began to take its toll on Indian wildlife, particularly big game, and the taming of the wilderness truly began. The author manages a broad and comprehensive view of the history of wildlife, with all its context-specific nuances, up to the present day.

After reading this history, one is struck by the importance of the role of individuals in wildlife conservation in India. During pre-independence times, the protection of the Gir lion by the Nawab of Junagarh stands out as an outstanding example of far-sighted conservation by an individual. In an era where carnivores such as the puma and the wolf were being wiped out with a determined hand in North America, India had an avid wildlife lover who quietly made sure that the Asiatic lion saw the light of the modern era. His careful protection of the Asiatic lion, ostensibly for trophy hunting, has ensured its existence to the present day. One wishes that the now extinct Indian cheetah had found a similar protector.

Again, one wonders how much of our natural habitat would still have been with us were it not for Indira Gandhi, who indefatigably defended the cause of wildlife and was responsible for initiating Project Tiger, one of the largest conservation efforts in the world. And in an era where most of the attention was on glamorous large mammals, the naturalists Salim Ali and M. Krishnan helped to divert interest to the lesser-known components of India’s bewildering biodiversity by studying and writing about birds, insects, small mammals and their interactions with the habitat. Ali and Krishnan, through their decades-long devotion to wildlife and wild areas, inspired entire generations of nature lovers, birdwatchers and scientists, who have since held the flag of conservation all over India.

The last few sections of the book that deal with the recent history of wildlife conservation in India are extremely illuminating. One is struck by the modernity of the Indian approach to conservation in the early seventies when it was just a buzzword in the western world. While in the United States, national parks had been set up for purely aesthetic reasons, the establishment of tiger reserves in India was premised on ensuring the representation of various ecosystems in the reserve network. Thus the reserves were located all over India in habitats ranging from mangroves in West Bengal to the deciduous forests of Maharashtra.

This ecosystem oriented approach of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act is in sharp contrast to the single species orientation of Endangered Species Act of the United States, drafted roughly around the same time. This holistic approach is also reflected in the way Project Tiger was conceived. It was reasoned that, being at the top of the food chain, the tiger was likely to be a flagship species whose healthy population in a given area would reflect the integrity of the entire ecosystem. At a time when carnivores such as the wolf and the grizzly bear were still under persecution in Europe and North America, the Indian government extended protection to the much-maligned wild dog and the tiger in recognition of their indispensable role as natural predators. From this account one is convinced that Indians are capable of an instinctively holistic approach to conservation, probably a legacy of their deeply-rooted emotional and cultural linkages with nature.

This book can be counted as an important contribution to the genre of historical treatises on Indian wildlife which unfortunately, can literally be counted on one’s fingers. In recent times, the only other impressive book on ecological history that comes to mind is Divyabhanusinh’s treatise on the Indian cheetah. Rangarajan’s strength lies in the fact that he can communicate with the ecologist and historian alike since he is strongly grounded in both fields. The book is specially recommended for wildlife biologists and ecologists who tend to neglect the socio-economic, cultural and historic aspects of biodiversity, often at the cost of the quality of their research. The book brings India, with its unique conservation ethos, into the big league of global wildlife history.

Ghazala Shahabuddin


MAKING WATER EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS: Practice and Policy of Water Harvesting edited by Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain and Indira Khurana. Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, 2001.

FOR close to two decades now, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi has served as the environmental conscience of the country. Headed by the amazing Anil Agarwal, a crusader that even serious illness that would fell the best of us finds difficult to stop, and his equally indefatigable deputy, Sunita Narain, the CSE with unfailing regularity has flagged major issues of concern. High on their list of priorities is the country’s use and abuse of water, a resource which though available in plenty seems perpetually unavailable to its citizens.

For some years now the CSE team has plugged away at making us appreciate the criticality of water harvesting, starting with the publication Dying Wisdom: Rise, fall and potential of India’s traditional water harvesting systems which proved, to the extent documentation of social practices constitute proof, that in every ecological zone from Ladakh to the Thar, traditional communities had evolved systems of capturing, storing and utilizing water. These systems ensured that, at the least, people rarely suffered a drinking water famine, even if rains failed for a few years.

The tragedy is that as our people modernized and urbanized and started believing that piped water supply was essential for civilized living, the traditional systems suffered a cognitive and real decline and went into disuse. And instead of learning from and building upon our rich traditional resource, our policy and decision-makers continued to blindly expand the modern systems. The result is that we have overused certain water supplies, including groundwater resources through deep-bore tubewells, created water famines, sharply escalated the social costs of excavating and supplying drinking water, and generated new social conflicts.

This message was sought to be reinforced through Water Links, a directory about water harvesters; A Water Harvesting Manual for Urban Areas: case studies from Delhi; Drought? Try capturing the rain as also a bimonthly interactive newsletter Catch Water. In addition, the CSE magazine Down to Earth regularly carries articles and reports on the issue and Anil and Sunita further plug the message through their columns.

The essential story is simple, even though the variations in styles, technologies and strategies is mind-boggling. The first lesson is that most droughts are not natural; they are man-made. True, below normal precipitation does cause problems, but if we had been smart about capturing, storing and using water, a crisis is not inevitable. Instead of focusing on large scale irrigation development for promoting Green Revolution type agriculture and introducing piped drinking water supply programmes to be supplemented by tankers and water trains in times of crisis, what we should be concentrating upon is drought proofing.

The CSE team believes that India is one of the most well-endowed nations in terms of average annual rainfall; there is no reason why it should suffer drought. What is inadequately realized that solutions are aplenty within the country – be it Sukho Majri, Ralegaon, or Bhaonta-Kolyala in Alwar. Making Water documents scores of such stories – rural and urban – from across the country and the globe which demonstrate the truth of this assertion.

The team argues that the strategy for drought proofing involves every village capturing all the run-off resulting from the rain falling over the entire land and the associated government revenue and forest lands, especially during the years that rainfall is normal, storing it in tanks or ponds and using it to recharge groundwater. It further argues the efficacy of smaller catchment structures as compared to mega-dam projects.

So why is this not done? One problem is with our laws which consider water as a national (state) rather than community resource. We currently face a piquant situation wherein the check dams made by the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar, widely lauded for its greening efforts, are threatened with destruction by the state government. The official argument is that water is state property and any community intervention is illegal. As long as our communities – rural or urban – remain disempowered and cannot decide on the most judicious use of the natural resources in their own region, there is no way that water harvesting or drought proofing can succeed.

The other problem is with our mindsets – reflecting not only a technological bias but a basic distrust of the people. All that is traditional is seen as anti-diluvian, ready to be thrown into the dustbin of history. Only the state and experts have the right to decide about public good.

It is not that there is no change. The increasing frequency and intensity of droughts in all regions of the country, as also the consequent social conflicts over water, have made even the most recalcitrant politicians realize the futility of their policies. Digvijay Singh, the current CSE favourite, may be an exception, but to varying degrees all states have started advocating water harvesting. What remains to be seen is whether this intention is durable, will it survive once the crisis period is over and, most important, can the state move from pious pronouncements and resource allocation to actually permitting communities to exercise control.

A fascinating section in this book discusses the policy dimensions, particularly relating to issues of demand management. After all, even if water is plentiful it is not unlimited. We thus need to debate both lifestyle and product mix issues if water is to be conserved. Evidently, promoting water guzzling crops or instituting uneconomical and subsidized pricing for industry or elite urban consumers can only aggravate the problem. We often think that such problems affect only large cities with their gargantuan demands. But converting areas blindly into specializing in sugarcane, rice or groundnuts, as was done in Gujarat, is equally hazardous and difficult to reverse.

Finally, some comments on advocacy. Traditionally, modern democracies find it easier to institute negative rather than positive campaigns. It is easier to block an anti-people Forest Bill, or place restrictions on cutting down trees or building in fragile eco-zones. It is far more difficult to promote good practices. The CSE’s own experience shows that it is simpler – through the media or courts – to shut down polluting industry or phase out technologically inefficient vehicles than campaign for new technologies.

Promoting water harvesting is more than a technical task; in its essence it is political, demanding that elites be willing to relinquish power and control. Politicians with short time horizons are used to deferring difficult decisions. One only hopes that through efforts like this one, wisdom will finally prevail.



OUT OF THE NUCLEAR SHADOW edited by Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian. Lokayan and Rainbow Publishers, Delhi, 2001.

MAY 1998, the month India relinquished its long-standing nuclear ambiguity and forcefully staked its claim to the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states with atomic explosions at Pokharan was for many the final nail in the Mahatma’s coffin. Grievously wounded when the country was partitioned in 1947, felled by an assassin’s bullets in 1948, his memory irreparably defiled when saffron hordes pulled down the Babri Masjid in 1992, he was finally laid to rest when the country for whose freedom he had conducted a massive non-violent movement celebrated Pokharan II. Soon after, its ‘other’, Pakistan retaliated at Chagai and the subcontinent was locked into a path of self-destruction.

Out of the Nuclear Shadow, an impressive compilation of anti-nuclear voices may, to many, appear an example of impotent activist rage and sorrow, a plea from the margins which those in power can and will dismiss as sentimental clap-trap from woolly-headed peaceniks. That indeed would be a tragedy, for the volume contains many contributions focusing not just on the ethical but practical, arguing out the rationale for stepping off the chosen path. It also, at least this reviewer believes, captures the feelings of the silent majority.

Not all were joyous when the subcontinent went nuclear. Even fewer bought the argument that this was a great victory for Indo-Pak science, or that in this one act we had managed to rip apart the hypocrisy of the nuclear club and restored pride to a once colonized peoples. Even as a few were celebrating the achievement by going ballistic and distributing sweets, voices of protest and sanity were warning about the destructive implications. One can recollect many efforts, including by Seminar (August 1998), to take the debate beyond euphoria and smug satisfaction. This collection of essays, poems, cartoons and statements, many penned exclusively for this volume, more than adequately captures the many strains of dissent.

It is evident that the decision to go overtly nuclear was based more on domestic, semiotic considerations that any genuine concern for national security. True, India, the leader in the race had long run a nuclear programme, including indulging in a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ as far back as 1974. Different regimes of varying political persuasions had done little to stop or re-direct the programme away from militaristic objectives. As for the BJP led NDA, it had never made secret its desire to possess the ‘ultimate weapon’.

But in what way does the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal add to national security, reduce the likelihood of conflict or mitigate possible blackmail? India, in 1971, was able to successfully resist US pressure, well before Pokharan I. And soon after Pokharan II and Chagai we were locked into a mini war in Kargil. Even to those who favour the ‘realist’ school of international relations and believe that the possession of nuclear weapons averted the prospects of a Cold war becoming Hot in Europe do admit that subsequent to the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world, including Europe, has seen many bloody conflicts. And if they have remained contained, it is unclear that the credit should go to the fear of mass destruction.

Similarly, the economic arguments against nuclearization are well known, more so for the poor countries of South Asia. Nuclearization only takes away much needed resources from areas of social welfare and development. Worse, nuclear states are more prone to be secretive and undemocratic, end up creating a huge apparatus of security, and elevate the scientific and technological establishment to the status of demi-gods. And all this for weapons that are never supposed to be used.

All this is prior knowledge. And yet, state elites sometimes backed by common people, repeatedly take recourse to the doomsday path. It is no secret that many more countries than the formally declared nuclear weapon states either possess nuclear weapons or are close to getting them. So why has the anti-nuclear movement, nationally and globally, tasted inadequate success?

This to my mind is the greatest lacuna in this otherwise useful collection. For one, it contains few surprises. Most of the contributors are known crusaders for nuclear sanity. From senior dissenters like I.A. Rehman and Rajni Kothari to younger activists – Itty Abraham, M.V. Ramana or the charismatic Arundhati Roy – we have heard them before. Second, and more seriously, why is there no critical engagement with the peace movement?

At the release of this volume in Delhi, activist/commentator Achin Vanaik had presented the bare outlines of his analysis of the peace movement in Europe (Conference on Nuclear Disarmament) which gave us the evocative phase of exterminism and the fledgling attempts at home. He pointed out that unlike its European predecessor which focused exclusively on the nuclear danger, the subcontinental effort is attempting a networking of groups and individuals who link peace, development and democracy issues. This is why he feels that though we may not have seen the stirring mass demonstrations of the kind set into motion by the CND, the local efforts are likely to be more durable.

Without discussing the details of such engagements, it is difficult to refine the strategy for resistance and reversal. Laying down the moral and ethical foundations is a crucial first step, which this volume has taken, but one should not stop at that. Hopefully, the editors, both veteran scholar-activists, will continue their efforts.



BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY: Periphery to Centre by C.P. Bhambhri. Shipra Publications, Delhi, 2001.

EVER since the possibility of BJP’s coming to power became strong, and subsequently after it actually made it to power, the party has come under scholarly scrutiny as never before. The result is a sudden spurt in academic literature. The book under review is probably the latest in a row of about ten. Its author is a well-known name, both as a professor of political science at Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University and a regular commentator on current affairs in print and in electronic media. Naturally, when such a person decides to pen a full-length volume by way of explaining the phenomenon called ‘political Hinduism’, the expectations are high. Unfortunately, this hope is largely belied. By the time one has finished reading the first 20 pages of the book, the curiosity has largely vanished. The reader knows what the author is going to say in the rest of the book.

According to the author’s own confession his analysis is Marxist. There is nothing wrong with this methodology per se, but the way it has been employed in the preface and the introductory chapter to grapple with the theme evokes doubts in the readers’ minds about its validity. This chapter which should have been so critical actually makes pathetic reading. The only thing that one learns after reading it is that the author is on a missionary pursuit to demolish everything that the BJP stands for, and that he prefers to explain every political development in class terms, whether convincing or not. There is no scope, therefore, to view the inner contradictions within the so-called Hindu Parivar (a term used extravagantly without explaining its real connotation).

Take for example the tensions between the Vajpayee government on the one hand and the RSS on the other over the government’s economic policies. Similarly, there is no effort to link the violent activities of ‘political Islam’ globally with the corresponding rise of Hindu militancy in India. Agreed, everything can be explained in Marxist terms through the complex machinations of international capital as it developed after the Industrial Revolution. But the question is, why stop the explanation there and not drag it further back to the first traces of human life on earth or the original sin of Adam.

The question that cries for an answer and which the author has not even tried to address is: Can a party which has come to power, maybe without ever expecting to garner more than 25 per cent of the votes, and with which so many secular parties have, from time, aligned to share power, possibly as political expediency, be just brushed aside as freak? Should it be painted only in black without any shade of grey whatsoever? The problem with this kind of black and white analysis is that it does not recognize the many complex phenomena that the kaleidoscopic and multicolour world of our times throws up.

The book consists of four chapters (besides the Preface and Introduction mentioned above) dealing with the party’s ideology, the history of its rise to power, the record of its rule as the leader of a ruling coalition, and last, its foreign policy. Besides, there are 21 tables and five annexes, which consume more than 100 pages. Barring the chapter on ideology, written specifically for the book, most remaining chapters are mere reproductions of the author’s newspaper articles written during the ’90s. It would have been far more useful for readers had the author taken some trouble to rewrite them in a comprehensive and coherent fashion.

Newspaper articles have their own limitations because of compulsions of topicality and reflective reactions to sudden developments. In hindsight they do not sound either logical or relevant. There are many such anachronisms in the book. Even grammatically (tense wise) there are problems for the same reason. The author, for example, took too seriously the international opposition to India’s nuclear explosions. But subsequent events have proved that the world has largely reconciled itself to India’s nuclear status and is willing to do business on terms that existed prior to the blasts. The ideology chapter is a rehash of well-known facts and perspectives about Hindu nationalism and its genesis.

In short, the book adds little to our knowledge. In that sense, its author, now a Distinguished Professor at JNU, has missed an opportunity of providing us with a worthwhile study of the BJP which he is otherwise so capable of.

Partha S. Ghosh


POLITICS AND THE STATE IN INDIA edited by Zoya Hasan. Sage, Delhi, 2000.

DEMOCRACY IN INDIA edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001.

POLITICAL REFORMS: Asserting Civic Sovereignty edited by V.A. Pai Panandiker and Subhash C. Kashyap. Konark Publishers, Delhi, 2001.

POLITICAL reforms for what? And to what end? Any talk of reforms carries with it an assumption of a dissatisfaction with the existing constitutional arrangement and the prevailing political culture. Of late there has been an articulated dismay over our collective political habits and conventions which are presumed to be hindering the much desired task of ‘economic reforms’; there is an unstated preference for a kind of ‘revolution’ that was brought about by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and by Ronald Reagan in the United States. How to change the existing arrangement for the better without the dislocating costs of a revolution, necessarily to be imposed from above by an enlightened elite, alive to the potential of globalization abroad and to the promise of liberalization at home?

The three books together reveal the story of where and how the Indian state went wrong and how it can possibly – and hopefully – be fixed. Taken together the three books also caution against excessive pessimism, as if the project of Indian democracy has all been a failed experiment. Current travails can be understood only in the context of the past, and solutions, if any, can be found only against the background of knowledge of roads taken, missed and abandoned.

The collection of papers and articles in the Niraja Gopal Jayal and Zoya Hasan books brings under one roof works of some of the finest scholars. The V.A. Pai Panandiker and Subhash C. Kashyap offering brings together some of the leading managers of the Indian state and these practitioners offer ideas on how to fix the broken down machinery of Project India.

Scholars, Indian and outsiders, all dedicated to the cause and advancement of Indian democracy, have detailed the nuances and complexities of shortcomings, failures-in-the-making, failures and more failures. Almost all of these have been published before, and are familiar to most students of Indian democracy. But to have in two volumes the best of Rajni Kothari, Arendt Lijphart, the Rudolphs, Subrata Mitra, Pranab Bardhan and Zoya Hasan is a pleasant reward in itself. Scholarly efforts of high degree and dedication on themes like crisis of governability, overloads of expectations and demands, institutional breakdowns, explosion of social cleavages, unsettled social coalitions, elites’ greed and avarice, the use of violence as idiom of discourse by the dissatisfied and alienated, the demands of the predatory international corporate interests and others have all been brought together in these two collections.

While the current pessimism and political correctness tend to rubbish Indian democracy, these scholars remind us of the historic achievements in terms of liberal democracy, universal adult suffrage, modern citizenship and welfare state in a society that for centuries remained mired in feudal political habits and primitive economic exchanges. The very fact that such a task was sought to be undertaken for the first time on such a grand geographical scale is mind-boggling and speaks volumes for the founding-fathers of the Indian Republic who thought in terms of a ‘tryst with destiny.’

The scholars have identified areas of concerns and weaknesses: severely unequal distribution of benefits of economic development; breakdown of the calculus of legitimacy, both in terms of the respect for the state authority and its efficacy vis-ˆ-vis the defiant, the truant, the criminal and the crook; the weakening of ideological and institutional fundamentals like a secular order, welfare delivery system, developmental commitments; and, the unbridled corruption and patronage, resulting from excessive politicization of civil and police bureaucracies.

If there is a scholarly detachment in these diagnostic essays put together in Zoya Hasan and Niraja Gopal Jayal, there is an all too palpable impatience among the ‘fix-it’ contributors in the Pai Panandiker-Kashyap volume. Perhaps a reviewer can be excused for harbouring a suspicion that the volume is really intended to provide a veneer of justification for the National Democratic Alliance government’s attempt to tinker with the constitutional scheme of things. Even if the Pai Panandiker-Kashyap volume was to be treated as a honest enterprise, most of the contributors who have had some experience of managing some organ of the Indian state are long on telling us what is wrong and less forthcoming on how to fix the broken down Indian state and its institutional arrangements. There is the familiar refrain of ‘too much politics’, a fear of too much disorder and a longing for an ‘order’, any order as long as it produces ‘stability’.

The theme running through the Panandiker-Kashyap volume is that of a ‘civil society’ out to assert itself against the state. This idea of ‘civil society’ and ‘civic sovereignty’ has a wholesome and a fashionable ring to it, but unless there is an assumption of predominant bias in favour of a liberal order, ‘civil society’ becomes a recipe for illliberalism of all varieties. For instance, one of the editors concludes that, ‘High on the agenda for political reform should be to redefine the role of the Indian state and to reduce its intrusive and interventionist activities which are at the heart of the poor governance, poor economic and social development and high level of corruption.’

Fine. But, then, who intervenes – which authority, whose danda, whose wisdom – when a Muzzafarpur, where the caste communities kill two young lovers rather than let them marry across caste lines, takes place? Who should intervene when a group demands that Muslim women would have to necessarily put on burqa, otherwise they run the risk of getting their beautiful faces disfigured? Or, who should intervene when a Bajrang Dal outfit decrees that young couples should not engage in the rituals of St. Valentine celebrations? Or, what happens when the ‘citizens’ of Varanasi do not permit a film maker to make a film on the widows because they are not appreciative of the script. What is the scope for assertion and intervention by civil society when a million disorders break out everyday and the magistracy of the Indian state is sought, invoked, defied and enforced? The requirements of order keep changing but the need for order remains unchanged.

Those who want ‘stability’ are quick to suggest that rulers have be allowed to rule unhindered by cumbersome political realities. Many of the current prescriptions can be traced to the disgust felt by most sensible Indians over the events of April/May 1999 – Jayalalitha’s defection from the Vajpayee column, the defeat of the government by one vote, the inability of the non-BJP parties to form an alternative government, and yet another general election within 13 months. The Venketachalliah Commission reviewing the working of the Constitution derives its raison d’etre from the developments during those unsavoury weeks. As P.P. Rao points out in his contribution to the Panandiker-Kashyap volume, the Law Commission, in its 117th report, had noted that minor changes in the rules of procedures of the Lok Sabha would ensure considerable protection against the unpredictability of the kind that Jayalalitha was able to visit on the Vajpayee regime.

A larger question, however, is whether procedural changes are sufficient to produce the requisite wisdom, courage, class, chutzpah, determination, ruthlessness and conviction among those who come to man the ramparts of the Indian state? The Vajpayee regime’s prolonged non-performance, even after the 1999 mandate, clearly suggests that mere tinkering with a procedure here or there may produce ‘stability’ but would certainly not generate high quality governance. No constitution can be so rewritten as to enjoin a ruler/prime minister to be assertive. If, for example, Sharad Yadav is deemed to be less than a team player in economic reforms, why move him from the civil aviation ministry to the labour ministry and then pretend that he was single-handedly blocking reforms? And, can any constitution be rewritten to prescribe qualities of nobility of purpose, moral equilibrium, spiritual steadfastness, personal self-assurance, intellectual calibre for a ‘stable and secure’ leader, even for a fixed term of five years?

Those who crave for ‘stability’ – like the prime movers before the ‘reforms’ agenda – are unappreciative of the historic churning that is going on in Project Indian Democracy. B.G. Verghese comes close to putting his finger on the problem: ‘"Indians" tend to seek "stability" and would appeal to the law to maintain the established order. The welter of boisterous, impatient, assertive, upwardly mobile "neo-Indians" seek the kind of change that provides them access and participation in a more equitable order. This churning does not admit of a simple, one-time divide along a well-defined line but a series of disparate incursions across the Bharat-India intersection at different points of time, each expressing one of a myriad divergent aspirations that will be played out only when all of Bharat gains admission into India.’ Old theme, a recurring theme, but also an unsorted one. And that should be the last word.

Harish Khare