“I Have A Sense Of Responsibility And Duty Towards Bengaluru”
From ‘ What is it that is ailing the city of Bengaluru?’ to ‘Why should Pakistan be declared a terror state and what has he done about it?’ – All these, and many more questions answered by Member of Parliament, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, in this conversation with Swarajya.
Surabhi Hodigere: Elected representatives who raise their voices for citizen concerns are not unheard of, but they definitely are a rare breed. Today I have the opportunity of conversing with one such politician, one such elected representative Mr Rajeev Chandrasekhar. My name is Surabhi Hodigere. I am a political entrepreneur, and on behalf of Swarajya, I would be talking to Mr Rajeev Chandrasekhar on various issues that he has been working on in the last decade. You have called yourself 'a Bengaluru Activist – a very interesting name – but from what I've seen, in the last couple of years, you're trying to make an activist out of every citizen in Bangalore.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: Correct.
Surabhi Hodigere: So, where does that passion for citizen involvement in governance come from? And how has your experience been in these past few years?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: Firstly, I feel deeply about my city Bengaluru, and so when I got into politics it was clearly on my radar screen. Among the things that I wanted to do, was to change the narrative and change the way our city was developing. So, that was very clear in my head in 2006, when I entered politics and joined the Parliament. I have a sense of responsibility and duty to my city.
The second thing that I have learned, over the last decade or so in politics is that, be it you or me, as an individual we could have the greatest thoughts and feelings towards a cause – the cause here being Bengaluru – unless you have a large number of people sharing that vision, that belief, that passion, it just becomes very difficult to make an impact and to really create change.
So, very soon, it became my endeavour, not just to espouse what I believe needs to be done in Bengaluru or talk about what I'd like to see in Bengaluru, but to get more and more people to believe what I believe. I want more and more people to see the problems of Bengaluru, the way I see it and more and more people to come out and say we want to protect Bengaluru just as you and I want to protect it. So, for several years, I was disappointed that people in Bengaluru would complain and say that this is bad, that is bad, then they'd go back into the shell and have another day. But over the last few years in Bengaluru, one of the proudest things that I have seen about the city is that more and more people are coming out of their comfort zone, more and more people have stopped their whining and now want to stick their neck out and do the right thing for the city.
So if you see the 'steel flyover beda' movement or the 'United Bengaluru Lakes' movement, or the recent hosa-zoning-beda movement you can see people say this is our city; we are the true owners and stakeholders of the city and no government, no MP, no MLA, no corporator has the right to exploit, destroy hundreds of years of heritage of the city. So people are now becoming activists. People are not becoming activists for the sake of becoming activists. They are becoming active and saying we want to reclaim our city and we want to protect our city.
Surabhi Hodigere: That's a great way to put it. Why is that -- why has that happened in the last few years as per your observation?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: No. I think if you see the history, in the last 10 years of this country, whether it is the Lokpal movement or any other movement including, in my opinion, the clear and decisive mandate in 2014, there is an underlying message and that message, of course, is now well understood in Delhi. I think it is taking a little bit longer to percolate down to state capitals like Bengaluru. The message is that for the last 70 years, the political class has treated the citizens as a group of people whom they had to meet only once in five years and that it was enough to give them some shops before the elections, once in five years and the citizens who were like a herd of cattle, follow the political rhetoric and sloganeering blindly.
Over the last several years that has changed. The dynamics of the politician being here and the citizen being this mute, powerless person in our democracy has changed significantly and more and more citizens are asserting themselves and saying we are the vital cog in our democracy. In our scheme of things, the politician is supposed to serve the people and not the other way around where people go after politicians. That dynamic is being slowly but surely changed, but it is difficult for some politicians to comprehend it.
It's clearly very difficult for many politicians to adjust to it. It is even more difficult, in my opinion, for some citizens to comprehend the power that they have. But they are slowly getting comfortable with the concept that the politicians should be accountable to the people and not the other way round, where we go and wait outside the corridors of power or sit outside the doors of a minister, MP or MLA saying, 'please do this for us'. So the 'please relationship', or as I call it, the 'begging relationship' is now being inverted and the centre of gravity of our democracy is truly slowly, but surely shifting. And it's only happening because people are saying 'no no no we want to redo this. We want to redefine this'.
Surabhi Hodigere: I completely agree with you. I think it is a colonial relic, maybe, that we think that we have to be subservient to our leaders. But how do you think processes, institutions are changing in order to adapt to this? And I'd like to talk specifically, about Bengaluru. Having lived in different cities, Mumbai, for example, has a profitable Municipal Corporation, whereas in Bengaluru we see that it's always loss-making although Bangalore contributes almost 30 per cent of the state's revenue. What is it that we're doing wrong, in terms of institutions?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: We are doing many things wrong. So let's say – let me start by with the urban local body. I don't necessarily agree with your characterization of Mumbai's urban local bodies. Whether they're in Bengaluru or Mumbai or Delhi or wherever, they are amongst the most corrupt government institutions anywhere in this country. I never hesitate nor tire of saying this.
In our democracy of three tiers, we have a central government and a Parliament. Then you have the state legislature and the state government, and then you have the urban local body or the panchayat; the worst kind of corruption and ironically the least oversight is in the urban local body.
Let me tell you something. I mean, it's a fact. The urban local body affects your life and mine more than a parliamentarian does because it looks after your road, your electricity, the water, the garbage, the sanitation, the law and order. But the electoral turnout in an urban local body election will be half of a parliament election.
So now, if you have 35 - 40 per cent turnout in an urban local body elections versus 60 per cent in a parliament election, and you are now increasingly, let us say, electing better and better parliamentarians to the Parliament but very poor, very terrible quality of corporators, which is also shutting the door on people who desire to join public life at the local body level, you are shutting out all those engineers, students, teachers, professors or whoever wants to join. You're shutting them out because 70 per cent of the people who would otherwise be voting or wanting people like that don't show up to vote. So we have this significant conundrum. It is one of those exotic situations in our country, where the most important elements of elected representatives are the people that you do not go to vote for but you still do complain. You complain that a though the woman is the corporator in a ward reserved for women it is the husband who really runs the show. But, that is because you didnt show up and vote for the other candidate.
So it is a real problem for the institution of the urban local body itself the 74th amendment that was passed by the Constitution ironically because of a case here in Bengaluru that went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Constitution amendment got done because of a VDA problem is incomplete and requires review. It talks about the principle of citizen involvement but there is no institution in Bengaluru today you look at BDA's public consultation, BBMP public consultation; their entire instinct is to keep the people's view out rather than mandatorily bring in public opinion and public consultation.
If you see the steel flyover beda issue in Bengaluru – here is the government which wants to spend 1,400 crore of public money to build a flyover, but they will do so without any public opinion and public consultation. They will not ask the citizen whose money it is. They will not ask the citizen whose need they are supposedly addressing with the steel flyover and despite the Supreme Court in 2016 laying down what the rules of the public consultation should be. So to answer your question in a nutshell every institution today in the urban local body, in an urban environment, is politically corroded, politically compromised and I never hesitate in calling the urban local body a builder contractor sarkara because that is exactly what it is.
It is not rhetoric. It is truly a situation where vested interests captured almost completely the functioning of institutions that affect the common lives – the lives of common man. So yes, I mean this may sound very horrific but it's a fact.
Surabhi Hodigere: I think something that we all know that happens but don't speak out too often speaking about the builder-government nexus you have been a strong supporter of the real estate regulatory authority bill and later active around the select committee. It has come to Karnataka after a two-month delay and there have been accusations of some delusion and you've strongly spoken against the way that the government of Karnataka has approached this. In its current form, what do you feel about the way that the rules have been followed?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: No, if you see what is the rationale and logic for the Parliament of India to pass RERA. The rationale was that builders in this country have exploited consumers. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. Consumers have had no right viz a viz the builders and conversely builders have had no obligations vis a vis the consumers.
RERA seeks to correct that. RERA basically says if you are a builder you have a set of obligations to the small consumer and if you are a consumer you have a series of rights vis a via the builder. That is in a nutshell what the principle was. The act then gave the state governments the right to publish rules. Of course builders don't like it. I was on the select committee I can tell you that we were under so much pressure from the big builders of all around the country oh we will die, oh no this, oh no that, all that drama happened but we stayed the course and did that.
The delay here I expected, I almost foretold it and I said that some – a government that has such a significant influence of builders will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming to do the rules and that's precisely what happened. They've delayed it, they deferred it. People went out and protested. And media did a fabulous job of reporting it and they got to a point where it became impossible for them to delete any law. So then what you do next? They try to tinker the rules. I did send them a letter to the Chief Minister pointing out there is an order of the Supreme Court that says you cannot use rules to dilute an act of Parliament because that is also illegal.
So he realised. He backed off otherwise they were trying to dilute the rules considerably. So now they have effectively diluted the rules with a clever series of wordage that creates some ambiguity about what constitutes a completed project and not completed project because the biggest issue or biggest impact of RERA is that all ongoing projects that are not completed and handed over also come under RERA and so they have tried to duck that and they have tried to navigate that in a clever way but I don't think it's possible. People will test it legally and there will be a lot of embarrassed faces in the government when the court rules on it.
Surabhi Hodigere: Another issue that you've been very passionate about urban Bengaluru eccentric has been lakes. What I found interesting was that you spoke not just about protecting or desalting etc, etc, but also reclaiming our lakes. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: I think people tend to make this lake issue an environment issue. I am not a green activist and I can assure you that of the thousands of people who have come out to protect the lakes and agitate maybe 10 per cent to 20 per cent are environmentalist. About 70 per cent to 80 per cent are just normal citizens who are concerned that public lands, public water bodies that serve for multiple purposes; what does the lake function in a city?
We are a plateau. We don't have groundwater. We don't have a sea, river flowing next to us. These lakes are catchment areas of water. Historically, they essentially maintain the groundwater table. They maintain the environmental fauna and the entire ecosystem of Bengaluru and they also provide for drinking water and for rainfall, you know, drain off, runoff.
When you start encroaching and you start killing lakes two things happen; a) you are pushing the city into a water deprived, water crisis almost irreversibly pushing it in a direction, where you are constantly going to have to depend on …water piped in and you know as water shortages increase there will be disputes between the farmers who want the water for irrigation other stage, riparian states upper riparian and lower riparian states that want to contest they want the water and then you have a city that needs drinking water needs. So you we are almost wittingly being pushed into a place where we will have to fight for water and fight for water with our own brothers somewhere else in the state. That is not required.
So that is one. The second is as you deplete in poison these lakes you are also poisoning the ground and so therefore you have a consequent effect on the environment and the fauna and all of the stuff that makes Bengaluru what it is. If you remember recently there was a flood in Chennai. Every two years, and every inquiry report talked about the reckless construction on the banks of the rivers, on the banks of all those water bodies that cause water to back up. So therefore you are also putting Bengaluru into a situation where if there is God forbid, some extraordinary weather emergency heavy rain or whatever you are setting up the city for a crisis.
So the movement to reclaim and protect the lake is a movement to say we want to reclaim and protect the city as it is. We don't want a few builders who want to encroach the lake, irresponsible set of pollution control people who want to kill off the lake because that is the easiest way to dump pollution to irreversibly alter the city. I consider myself and almost all of these citizens who are involved they bring their children because their narrative if they tell themselves, they tell me that that this city is such a beautiful proud city with such a long heritage it can't be that this generation is presiding over the destruction on the city just because a few builders who want to make that extra buck and that is why this battle will be about citizens who believe that they are custodians of the city for a future generation versus those people who say no let's make a quick buck, kill the city, make money and go and settle somewhere else.
So this is not a trivial issue this is an existential battle. I am using metaphors like that this is an existential conflict between those who want to preserve the city for multiple generations and those who just want to exploit it and move on. So this is the battle that needs to be fought and this is a battle that needs to be won.
Surabhi Hodigere: You have seemed to always be on the side of those who are fighting against a larger establishment or larger you know a system as an upcoming or an aspiring politician to somebody who's already established. How do you – where do you get that sort of energy that believe that the system can be changed?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: No look, my entire life I have not got anything on a platter. I mean I have had to work very hard for everything. I'm a son of an air force officer so I quite understand and it is built into me the concept of public service. Service is in my DNA. I mean I know I have seen my father get up and go in a uniform to fly and fight and so that is not alien to me.
So I considered when I, in 2006, I became an MP, I didn't become an MP to put a red light on my car. I didn't become an MP to become a minister. I didn't become an MP to become another fat-cat politician. I had made my money in entrepreneurship. It is similar my entrepreneurship career also was exactly the same. I got into a space of telecom despite the big boys of Indian industry wanting to muscle me out. So I have learned this one truism word India is that if you are determined and dogged the forces of right will prevail but you have to be determined and dogged it is not a question of saying I believe I am right and therefore right shall happen.
So I have an inexhaustible appetite for fighting. It won't go as long as I'm fighting on the right for the right cause and the cause in itself is for me a motivator. So, for example, I don't consider what I am doing for Bengaluru anything extraordinary. I believe this is what every citizen wants to do and it's necessary. I am privileged that people can't take up panga (pick up a fight with me) with me that easily. Now a lot of people say you have the benefit of knowing people and no one will try and intimidate you that easily. A lot of people for example, when we went for a lake visit, came to me and said after their protest one year ago, some gundas came to their house and threatened them, told them to shut up so. I told them not to worry and told them to call me if next time anybody threatened them.
So for a normal citizen this kind of a fight is not easy. That is precisely why I provide, I assured them that I will provide the air cover required. As far as I'm concerned one of the problems with business entrepreneurs entering politics is they usually have something to be worried about in terms of business interest. In 2006, when I entered politics I made a promise to myself that whatever I do to earn a living in terms of investments, entrepreneurship, it will all be out there for the public to know. Number one that even if my worst enemy wants to scrutinise me, you know, trouble me, harass me that I will be able to tolerate that kind of scrutiny.
So knowing that I have nothing to worry about and in my opinion, this passion to protect what I believe in gives me the appetite for a fight and that's what gives me the appetite for a fight, it's not that – and I think my team knows - I have been accused, I have been abused I have been threatened by political leaders from all shapes and sizes and I am still standing and they are not.
Surabhi Hodigere: It is a long journey ahead.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: Thank you.
Surabhi Hodigere: One last thing that I would like to talk to you about is the bill that you introduced and was to be discussed in Parliament but could not be taken up, which is to declare Pakistan as a terrorist state.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: Correct.
Surabhi Hodigere: Please tell us more about that. Does that eliminate the most favoured state clause that we have with them?
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: No. So, look, I did this after the Uri attack last year in 2016. I do a lot of work for veterans and veterans' families, and so when I met a lot of the families post the Uri attack, I swore and I took an oath that I will do my best as a parliamentarian to put the spotlight on Pakistan and I said that I would bring a private member's bill. So I brought a private member's bill. It was introduced in the Parliament in early 2017, and it was debated for over two weeks. The government then responded, through its Home Minister and in Parliament on record, saying that there was no need for a new law. We have the powers that we need to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. So I withdrew the bill.
So yesterday, on the 28th of July, I introduced a resolution. The resolution was that the Parliament would resolve to ask the government to use its executive powers and declare Pakistan a terrorist state and it is very important at many levels. One is, of course, everybody must declare Pakistan a terrorist state. There is nobody in the world who does not want to do that, but it is very important for another reason. Since 1994, the Parliament has never said anything about Pakistan.
Surabhi Hodigere: Wow!
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: The last time the Parliament passed a resolution over Pakistan was in 1994. Also, one of the things that I learned after I went public about Pakistan being a terror state, I have been swarmed by messages from people around the country. So, it is clear that every Indian citizen, man, woman or child, anywhere in the country, whether he is in Uttar Pradesh or Kanyakumari or Orissa, everybody believes that Pakistan is the sole cause of the suffering for so many people. Every Indian wants Pakistan to be declared a terror state. However, the Parliament, which represents the people of India, has never done so.
That was the reason, I wanted this resolution to be passed in the Parliament yesterday. But you know, as I have learned over the last 11 years in parliament, between good intention and the Parliament, there is always a political disruption, and an entity called the opposition. So, unfortunately, it could not be taken up. I am hopeful that it will be taken up in a couple of weeks.
Surabhi Hodigere: Sure. But a little bit more about the implication of such business --
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: My entire logic is that declaring Pakistan a terror state will mean that the government of India will have options to deal with Pakistan that are not necessarily military. Today, when we talk about Pakistan, and there is a terror attack and some innocents die, our entire narrative is about let's go shoot something, let's send soldiers – that is not always the wisest move. In my opinion, violence and military action is always a part of a toolkit, but one that should be exercised at the right time – as a last resort. Exactly.
So I have outlined in the resolution, and in the private member's bill, the series of things that the Indian government and the Indian people can do to isolate Pakistan; economically squeezing Pakistan from the point of view of financial transactions. So I will give you an example – there is no need for the most favoured nation status between India and Pakistan –we should abolish it. We should review the Indus Water Treaty. We should prohibit Pakistani aeroplanes from flying over India because for them to fly to Southeast Asia, they have to fly over India. So if we say 'no', they cannot fly over India they will have to go take a circuit as a route. We should prohibit all Pakistani shipping vessels from entering Indian territorial waters.
We should prohibit Indian businesses from dealing with any Pakistani individual or Pakistani businesses even if the Pakistani businesses domicile outside Pakistan. We should prohibit, for example, any financial transactions or money transfer between an Indian national and a Pakistani national or a Pakistani linked entity.
So, there are a series of things we can do. Between the diplomatic and the military, we create options which are economic, trade related and financial and if you want to toss in cricket and culture you can do that too.
The people of India are very clearly not happy with the status quo relationship that India and Pakistan have. The people of India, I have absolutely no doubt, I am not some national leader that I will talk about people of India, but I have a good sense on this issue that the people want us to do more than sabre-rattling and military action and diplomatic niceties. We have to explore this middle ground of other options if not today, tomorrow; if not complete, partial. So that when there is a terror attack, there will be no need for unnecessary debates about taking Pakistani actors out of Indian movies and the like. It should come naturally saying that the Indian economy cannot fund the Pakistani economy to perpetrate crimes in India because terrorism costs us by way of economy, not just lives.
So, this is the logic. Moreover, most people who have gone through it understand the logic that our relationship with Pakistan need not be to the prism military alone, it could also be a $3 trillion economy like India flexing its economic muscle.
Surabhi Hodigere: And the sort of support that you've gotten from –
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: I mean this – when it was a private member's bill, it was debated for two days in the Parliament, except for the real hard core, let us say, secularists, which unfortunately in Parliament we still have a few, everybody –
Surabhi Hodigere: Rajya Sabha.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: Yeah, exactly and that seems to be the meeting ground for them. Everybody else was completely agreeable. I mean, of course, there will be people who say "no, no...I do not think we should review this... but you can have this... 80 per cent was right, 70 per cent was right...", all that will be there. However, on the fundamental issue that the Parliament must speak after 1994, that we must explore options other than military and diplomatic, I don't think there is a man, woman or child in this country who will disagree with that.
Surabhi Hodigere: Hope to have more conversations in the future. Thank you so much.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar: Thank you.
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