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India This Week

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Pressure on Ulfa Bears Results; Looking for Friends; Telangana Still Strong; Nuclear Plant Security; and Parliament Accountability

Pressure on Ulfa Bears Results

This 30th year of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) could well be its last. The outfit, raised in 1979, suffered its most debilitating blow this week with Bangladesh formally announcing that Ulfa Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, who was in hiding for nearly a decade, has been taken into custody and will be handed over to India soon. With this, all the top leaders of the outfit are either dead or in custody. Bangladesh recently handed over two other senior Ulfa leaders—‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarkia—to India. Ulfa Vice Chairman Pradip Gogoi is in Guwahati jail, as are its ‘central publicity secretary’ Mithinga Daimary and ‘cultural secretary’ Pranati Deka, while its ‘political advisor’ Bhimkanta Buragohain is in Tezpur jail. Another central committee member Rabin Handique died two years ago. Asanta Bagphukan and Rabin Neog—both central committee members—have been missing since the 2003 operations in Bhutan. Ulfa General Secretary Anup Chetia is in a prison in Bangladesh, having applied for asylum there. Only three of Ulfa’s 15 central committee members—‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua, his deputy Raju Barua and Jibon Maran—are active. The Ulfa is believed to have about 200 armed cadres in Myanmar, where they took refuge after a crackdown in Bangladesh earlier this year. Around 50 militants of the outfit are in Assam. “Rajkhowa’s detention and expected handover will break the backbone of the Ulfa and further demoralise the cadres. We expect a spate of surrenders to follow. We’ll also step up pressure by conducting operations against them,” says a senior police officer in Guwahati. Once in India, Rajkhowa is likely to agree to unconditional talks with the Government to bring an end to the three-decade long insurgency. “Consenting to talks without pre-conditions would be the only way Rajkhowa could avoid being prosecuted for heinous crimes here,” says the police officer. While talks, and a subsequent accord, would change the political, security and economic landscape of Assam, complete peace would elude the state till the remaining Ulfa leaders, who could well recruit more cadres, do not come aboard or are neutralised. Closer and deeper engagement with the Myanmarese army for a crackdown on the Ulfa, and other Northeastern insurgency groups who’ve taken shelter there, is thus on the cards. 


Looking for Friends

Smita Thackeray, the controversial Thackeray bahu, wants to join the Congress. But, ever since her disclosure, neither her father-in-law nor the Congress has responded to this offer/threat. Her journey from Smita Chitre to Smita Thackeray has not been an easy one. As the divorced wife of Bal Thackeray’s elder son, she’s had to contend with malicious talk and character assassination by the man she once loved and married. Though Smita was an important power centre when Shiv Sena-BJP ruled Maharashtra, in the Uddhav-led Shiv Sena, she seems to be friendless. Though no one says it aloud, Uddhav hates Smita for the ‘dishonour’ she has brought to the Thackeray name.


Telangana Still Strong

Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief K Chandrasekhar Rao has again ratcheted up the demand for a Telangana state. After police arrested him for starting a hunger strike-unto-death and caned Osmania University students, it took only a few hours for the entire region to come to a boil. That the issue is still alive was clear from the one-day bandh it observed in the region. This is the first protest after the YSR-era. This was also the first time that the nine-year-long agitation under Rao took a violent turn. An alarmed Rao broke his fast, perhaps haunted by 1969 memories when more than 300 students died after violent protests. Analysts feel the state Congress is bound to feel the heat from this long-neglected issue.


Shed Light on Atomic Power

For the past few years the Indian nuclear power programme has shaped our politics, breaking electoral alliances and redirecting our foreign policy. But in the process too little attention has been paid to what is actually going on within the programme. As is apparent from the incident of radioactive poisoning of nearly 50 employees at the Kaiga Nuclear Plant, there is reason for concern. Heavy water, where deuterium takes the place of hydrogen in the water molecule, serves as a coolant for the Kaiga nuclear reactor. This water gets tritiated after use and its ingestion is a serious health issue with long-term impact. That such a substance was lying around where dozens of employees had access to it is disturbing.  Equally problematic is the fact that this substance was smuggled out through whatever security systems were in place. The ongoing enquiry may serve to pin blame in this one case, but it is time that our atomic energy programme is opened to greater public scrutiny. The programme has been shrouded in secrecy since its inception. In 1948, the Government of India passed the Atomic Energy Act which was replaced by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. Its provisions have served to keep information very tightly guarded, so much so that no clear estimate of the cost per unit of producing nuclear energy is available. The military use of the programme has been regularly used to justify such measures. As a result, even though safety issues have been a major concern, it has been very difficult to get much on public record.  In 1993 a UN report stated that occupational-exposure hazards in Indian nuclear plants, calculated in proportion to the amount of electricity generated, were six to eight times more than the world average. In 2004, a petition, with former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board A Gopalakrishnan as a petitioner, contended that Indian nuclear installations were endangering lives. The petition in particular raised apprehensions about safety standards at Kaiga but the Supreme Court upheld the Government’s right to maintain secrecy.  Since then,with the nuclear deal being inked, the process of separating civilian nuclear institutions from military ones has been agreed to in principle and the very basis for maintaining secrecy has disappeared. It is high time that information related to the safety and performance of our nuclear power plants becomes a matter of public record.


Account for the Accountability Hour

The winter session began with disruptions over the Liberhan Commission Report. In every session of Parliament in recent memory, a few days have been lost to disruptions. But, on lesser issues, the Question Hour (QH) in Parliament remains the first casualty. The last Lok Sabha saw 40 per cent of QHs lost to disruptions. The Opposition, sometimes even ruling allies, create a ruckus on some issue as soon as the day begins. The chair is forced to adjourn the house first for a few minutes and then if the din persists, for the entire duration of the QH. From the press gallery, you can then see parliamentarians from different sides who were shouting themselves hoarse against each other, walk out together casually as if nothing had even happened. As if the chance to keep the Government on its toes and poke it for answers had not just been frittered away. That is what the Question Hour is. It is an accountability hour meant to exercise the right of the people to ask the Government of the day questions through its elected representatives. What’s worse is that the casual attitude of our elected representatives has now given way to callousness, as was evident earlier this week when Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar was forced to adjourn the house because 32 MPs who had questions listed against their names were absent. Sadly, the list also includes first-time MPs. Parties are making half-hearted noises about looking into the matter. A better solution would be to reschedule the QH and instead of making it time-bound, carry on till the time a stipulated number of questions has been answered on every single working day of Parliament.

Jatin Gandhi