Yesterday was a good day for democracy in Pondicherry. The people took to the streets to protest a government which, time-and-again, deftly protects the private interests of its corrupt officials, disregards the public good, and holds itself to be above the law.
The issue concerns the ongoing battle over the illegal concession given to a private developer by former Chief Secretary Khairwal and Minister Valsaraj to build a huge port complex in the heart of this tiny heritage town, and the vast environmental, economic, and social devastation this development will cause.
Rather than summarize the specific grievances which led to the protest, let me reprint the text of the letter I drafted on behalf of the Pondicherry People’s Protection Committee to the Chief Minister and Lieutenant Governor:
28 September 2008
To the Honourable Chief Minister, Thiru. V. Vaithilingam
and His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, Govind Singh Gurjar:
Re: Action by the Government of Pondicherry Against C. Balamohan
On behalf of the citizens of Pondicherry, the Pondicherry People’s Protection Committee condemns the recent actions taken by the Government of Puducherry against C. Balamohan.
In August, Mr. Balamohan was formally served with a charge sheet, accusing him of unlawfully opposing government policy by filing public interest litigation opposing the proposed deep water port project. The Government of Puducherry contends that, as a government employee, Mr. Balamohan is prohibited from standing as a plaintiff in litigation against the government. This proposition has been soundly rejected by the Supreme Court of India. Moreover, High Court in Chennai has already overruled this specious argument in this very case, when it overruled the government’s challenge to Mr. Balamohan’s standing to file suit.
By reprising this false charge against Mr. Balamohan, one month before his scheduled retirement for government service, the Government of Puducherry continues its campaign of intimidation, designed to pressure him into forfeiting the litigation. Given the clarity of the law on this point, the action by the Government of Pondicherry can only be interpreted as an act of bad faith.
The formal charges against Mr. Balamohan are more than simply an illegal, reprehensible, and desperate act of government officials whose carelessness, manipulations, and malfeasance have been legitimately challenged in the public interest litigation. It is an unconstitutional action which undermines the very foundations of democracy. It is an abuse of power by representatives of the government to subvert the cleansing power of judicial inquiry. It is a shameful exercise of governmental procedures to protect the interests of corrupt or negligent officials at the expense of the public interest.
The merits of the public interest litigation are beyond reasonable dispute. Official documents of the Port Department conclusively prove:
• The contract of developing a port in Pondicherry was awarded to the private developer through illegal means. The normal contract tender procedure was not followed. No Expression of Interest was issued for development of the port. The private developer was awarded the contract after a private meeting in the chamber of the Port Minister.
• The private developer was actually deemed “unqualified” by the Pondicherry Port Department, having absolutely no port development experience, and had been banned from selling public shares by the Securities and Exchange Board of India for illegal trading.
• Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats misused their office and plotted with the private developer to grab valuable land in the name of developing a port.
• Contrary to requirements of the Ministry of Shipping and Surface Transport of the Government of India, no feasibility study was undertaken for the port project. The government commenced this development project without ever studying the disastrous environmental, economic, and social impacts of building such a large port in the middle of a small town like Pondicherry.
As you well-know, the litigation filed by Mr. Balamohan on behalf of the people of Pondicherry is not only appropriate to ensure that this enormous development project be conducted transparently and following all necessary statutory procedures, but is also of crucial importance. Pondicherry is already suffering the devastating effects of coastal erosion caused by the development of the Ariyankuppam fishing harbour in the late 1980s. The proposed deep water port threatens to wipe-out our few remaining beaches, thoroughly salinate our vital fresh-water aquifers, ruin the livelihoods of fishermen and others who work the sea, and turn our precious coastline into an expensive, never-ending, futile battle of ignorantly-conceived rock walls against the ocean. Look no further than the obvious subsidence of Beach Road to see that the sea walls serve as only psychological protection against the erosive force of the sea in the absence of the natural protection afforded by a sand beach. The ocean will always win – and the people of Pondicherry continue to lose.
As the heads of government in Puducherry, we call on you to immediately rescind the charges against Mr. Balamohan. If you display the courage to stand against unconstitutional abuse of governmental power, the democratic institutions which you proudly lead may yet prove their integrity.
Very Truly Yours,
for Pondicherry People’s Protection Committee
To meet Balamohan is to realize the extraordinary power of moral courage. It is all-the-more impressive in his case, because it resides in a humble, mild-mannered person whose only motivation is to do what is right for his community. He is not a firebrand or rabble-rouser. He is a soft-spoken, simple man who could not stand by and watch the town he loves fall into the sea as a consequence of the greed and power of venal officials and insatiable developers. If he is an unlikely hero, he is also an inspiration to all of us. If a man as modest and unprepossessing as Balamohan can act on his convictions and speak truth to power, why not us also?
Approximately 600 of those inspired souls participated in yesterday’s march through the city. The date was selected because it was both Balamohan’s 60th birthday and the day of his retirement from public service as an administrator at the Department of Education. Unlike most civil protests here, there was no disorderly conduct, no stone throwing. It was loud, passionate, and boisterous; but there was no need whatsoever for the hundred-or-so police officers to disrupt the two-hour procession through the heart of town. At the end of the parade route, the protesters filed neatly into waiting police busses to effectuate their arrest, as had been prearranged with the officers in charge. The protesters had advised the government that they would remain in jail until such time as the Charge Sheet against Balamohan had been withdrawn and his retirement benefits were guaranteed.
It turned out to be a rather brief party at the Pondicherry jail – or rather, at the Police Community Hall, which was the only facility large enough to accommodate all 600 arrestees. At approximately 5:00 pm, roughly four hours after the arrests were made, the government announced that, while the “investigation” would be ongoing (a face-saving measure), it would guaranty that Balamohan would receive his full retirement benefits no matter the outcome. Those of us who did not offer ourselves for arrest went to the Police Community Hall, which had transformed from a place of captivity into a party venue. The celebration lasted well into the evening.
People often look at India as one of the world’s great democracies, in which hundreds of millions of people regularly cast ballots to elect their representatives at the local, state, and national level. Certainly the principle of universal enfranchisement is a necessary aspect of a functioning democracy; but the right to vote is not, by itself, sufficient to ensure a just and democratic government. The spectacular dysfunction of Indian democracy comes as a result of the failure of the judicial and administrative institutions to establish a government that is responsive to the public will and acts in the public interest. The fact that one is empowered to vote-in the corrupt politicians who will line their own pockets while disregarding the needs and aspirations of the community is not democracy; it is a bizarre complicity which serves to maintain a pernicious system for the benefit of the powerful. It is ironic and perverse.
Yesterday, Pondicherry took a major step forward in making its government officials accountable to the rule of law.