Monday, March 16, 2015

Reclaiming India's position in Indian Ocean

By all accounts Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean sojourn--which took him to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka last week—has served to reclaim some of New Delhi’s lost footing in the area.

In the first two legs of his three-nation tour Modi secured agreements to develop islands in Mauritius and Seychelles. India and Mauritius signed an agreement to upgrade sea and air links on the remote Agalega islands, providing India a foothold in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The two sides have been discussing development of North and South Agalega islands for years but there were last-minute hiccups and reservations about actually clinching an agreement. Under the act, India will assist in improving infrastructure for air and sea connectivity to the two remote islands. And for once the Ministry of External Affairs statement wasn’t pulling any punches. It said the new facilities would also "enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests,” hinting at a military benefit at a later stage. 

In Seychelles Prime Minister Modi announced an agreement to develop infrastructure on Assumption island. Of late, India has indirectly helped Seychelles with hydrography, map its exclusive economic zone, provided a Dornier aircraft for surveillance but this is the first time New Delhi is helping in building infrastructure. India’s proactive push is no doubt prompted by China’s aggressive foray in the Indian Ocean and especially its wish to use Seychelles as a resupply port for its ships taking part in anti-piracy operations.
India has long been a preeminent maritime power in the Indian Ocean but for the past decade, its primacy has been increasingly challenged by China. Apart from the strategic requirement of maintaining its supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region, there are commercial reasons that dictate New Delhi’s recalibration of Indian Ocean policy. As Modi said 90 percent of India's trade and oil imports moves by sea and as its economy becomes more globally integrated it would become more dependent on the ocean. "So, the Indian ocean region is at the top of our policy priorities," he said during his tour.

While Seychelles and Mauritius are important in New Delhi’s Indian Ocean diplomacy, Sri lanka remains the pivot around which India’s IOR policy revolves. And Since January, when Sri Lanka witnessed an unexpected change in government, India has made special efforts to re-engage with Colombo. The new regime in Sri Lanka, still somewhat on a shaky ground, has also seized the opportunity afforded by India’s active outreach. Modi received a red carpet welcome as the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka on a bilateral visit in 28 years. 
While he made the right noises about India-Sri Lanka partnership in Colombo, the highlight of Modi’s two-day was his historic visit to the Northern Province, a region once ravaged by strife. In Jaffna, the heart of Tamil-dominated Province, Modi called for an equitable development and respect for all citizens, in what is seen as a subtle signal to the government in Sri Lanka to reduce if not eliminate discrimination against minority Tamils. During his visit to Jaffna, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, Modi handed over 27,000 new homes to Tamils who became homeless during the civil war that ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The houses were built with Indian assistance as part of India's efforts to help in the reconciliation process. 

In Colombo on Friday, Modi had reiterated India’s long-standing position that early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the country’s constitution done in 1987 relating to devolution of powers to Tamils must be done and if needed and to go beyond its provisions in finding a political solution. In re-emphasised the point in Jaffna while laying the foundation today for a Cultural Centre being built by India.

"Sri Lanka should also progress. Unity, peace and amity are essential ingredients for equitable development where there is respect for all citizens,” PM Modi said.
Modi flagged off a train service in the north-western town of Talaimannar, the closest point to India restored after decades of civil war, completing the reconstruction of the entire Northern Province Railway Line. Another small but significant breakthrough came in the form of the announcement that India will be developing the Oil tank Farm near Trincomalee in Eastern Sri Lanka.  The China Bay Tank farm is the largest one located between West Asia and Singapore and serves as a major fuel supply hub for ships traversing the busiest sea route between the Gulf and East Asia. For years, India wanted to run the facility jointly with Sri Lanka and retain a foothold in this crucial strategic facility but in 2013, Colombo had hardened its stance and refused to sign an agreement to lease the Trincomalee strategic oil storage to a unit of Indian Oil Corp (IOC) and had blocked the Indian firm's plans to set up a bitumen plant in the country. 

But now the two governments have decided to move forward. Prime Minister Modi announced: "We are also focusing on new opportunities. Today Lanka IOC and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation have agreed to joint development of the upper tank farm of the China Bay installation in the Trincomalee on mutually agreed terms." Talking to the media after meeting President Maithripala Sirisena, Mr Modi said: "A joint task force will be constituted soon to work out the modalities. India stands ready to help Trincomalee become a regional petroleum hub."

Currently Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, operates 15 storage tanks out of 99 in Trincomalee. The Sri Lankan government had been considering developing the rest to increase its fuel storage capacity. Each of the storage tanks has a capacity of around 12,000 tonnes. Other steps like increasing people-to-people contacts, giving visa-on-arrival to Sri Lankans and starting more direct flights will further boost to the new-found New Delhi-Colombo bonhomie.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Vinod Mehta: Reporters' Editor, RIP

My last meeting with him was at friend Ajith Pillai's book launch. 

Ajith, perhaps Vinod Mehta's longest serving journalistic companion (they worked together at Sunday Observer, Pioneer and Outlook across a quarter century), had got Vinod to write the introduction for his book Off the Record and true to form Vinod, his usual now-grumpy-now-cheerful self was the star attraction at the book launch. 

In the two or three minutes that we sat next to each other before the programme began, he asked: "So how's TV doing? A lot of churning, uh?" and proceeded to reveal juicy gossip about a prominent TV journalist. Before I could recover, he had moved on to the stage. That was typical Vinod! He was always curious, always inquisitive and above all, he loved to exchange gossip in and about people in public glare. He was mischievous but never malicious.

A bold and an unconventional editor who went hell for leather if he found a story interesting, Vinod didn't bother too much about the consequences, at least in the initial years of Outlook. I should know. 

In August 1998, a couple of years after joining Outlook, I got a tip off about Operation Leech conducted by the Indian military against Burmese rebels in the Andaman Seas and subsequent decision under then defence minister George Fernandes to stop it . Sitting in Guwahati, I proposed a story, which Vinod dismissed outright. 'Who's bothered about the north-east connection and some bloody operation in Andamans," he quipped. Dejected, I had no option but to move on.

My first big story in Outlook
Then in December that year, Vinod called out of the blue and in his usual brusque drawl said: "You had mentioned something about George and some military operation? "Get me that story." I started to protest: "But that was in August! I don't know if I can do anything now and certainly not from here." "Then fly down there (to Port Blair) or first come here to Delhi. I want that story, no matter what you have to do." Apparently, someone in Delhi's corridors of power had whispered into Vinod's ears the goings on in Andamans and George Fernandes' role in it. So he wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

So just like that I flew to Delhi on a cold January morning in 1999. A week of leg work, some cross checking by Ajith and other colleagues and we had a cracker of a story (see cover). George Fernandes was not amused but to be fair, we waited till 11 pm on magazine closing day for the defence minister's response. It never came. The story was published under my by-line-- 'By Nitin A. Gokhale'--in Guwahati.

I went back to Guwahati. Feranandes, livid with the story, raved and ranted and even enquired from Prafulla Kumar Mahanta the Chief Minister if indeed there was a reporter named Nitin Gokhale based in Guwahati or it was one of Vinod's ways of protecting his source in Delhi! That was Vinod. He didn't bother about reputation. If there was a story to be pursued, he lent full support to the reporter. That he was the ultimate 'Reporter's Editor,' was known but for me the confirmation came in June 1999.

The Kargil skirmish had begun. Ajith (Pillai) was the first one to go the scene of battle but more hands were needed. Going there was far from my mind although I had suggested a story about travelling with troops on a special moving from the north-east to Kashmir as reinforcement. Then suddenly Ajith called and said "take the first flight to Delhi. You are going to Kargil." Dazed, I landed in Delhi at 12 hours notice. There I learnt how Vinod instantly agreed to Ajith's suggestion that I be sent to Kargil since both felt I would be able to deliver. He dismissed grumbling among some of my Delhi colleagues who were eager to report what was our generation's first 'war.'And just like that, I went on to spend 45 days in Kargil, Drass and Batalik and report the skirmish. 

What happened during and after Kargil, is well documented. I had certain inputs about what went wrong in Kargil but Vinod true to his style, said, we will do those stories after the crisis is over. And we did, much to the chagrin of the Vajpayee-led NDA government. Through the crisis, Vinod stood behind me and Ajith like a rock although many friends and well-wishers advised him against annoying the government. "I trust my reporters. If they have a story, and I am convinced about it, I will go with it, no matter what the consequences are," he would say.  Outlook weathered this mini-storm and many bigger ones later, thanks to Vinod's courage of conviction.

Vinod of course was a man of strong likes and dislikes. That he avoided  the capital's elite cocktail circuit is well known. He had his idiosyncrasies too. Often, he would forget faces and names. many a times, in the small Outlook office, he would walk past people like me without acknowledging out presence. Then, suddenly, he would turn back. The conversation would go some thing like this:
"Yes sir!!" 
"What are you doing here."
"You called me to follow that story..." I would say defensively.
"Oh yes. So what's the news?"
"Still trying to get details..."
"Get them fast. Otherwise some one else would do it," he would say gently and move on.

The border killing
Throughout my stint with Outlook, I was based in Guwahati but would often travel outside the region. Apart from Kargil, Vinod's unusual editorial leadership allowed me to cover the Orissa super-cyclone, the Kargil Review Committee's proceedings and stories from Bengal. Initially, like other editors he would not be interested in anything but stories of violence and natural disasters from the north-east. But as I pushed harder, Vinod started giving much more space to non-traditional stories from the region. So we did stories about drought in the region and of a ritual where frogs are 'married off' to propitiate the rain gods, about 'roving' theatre groups in Assam, profiled achievers from the north-east and many more to try and give an all-round coverage of the region. Not many editors would have put this gory picture on the cover of a national magazine when 18 BSF personnel were killed on the Bangladesh border (see cover). But Vinod did.

At Outlook's 5th anniversary party
His eye for detail and insistence on writing simple English rubbed on to many of us who had the privilege to work with him (never 'under' him!). He also insited on good pictures to accompany stories so the photographers were also an essential part of the team and not adjunct to the reporter. In fact, I learnt to visualise a print story much better under Vinod's tutelage. Never a great paymaster, Vinod however spared no expenses in news gathering. When I moved on to TV, he asked me in passing how it felt to work for a medium that wants instant judgement. I told him it is tough and not as fulfilling as print. He smiled and said, "it makes you famous and recognisable. So enjoy it till it lasts." Which is exactly what I did for nine years but have now returned to a saner and less hectic world of writing. Was hoping to catch up with Vinod during the launch of his Editor Unplugged but that was not to be! 

They don't make Vinod Mehtas anymore.