Monday, 19 February 2018

THE "CHAR DHAM" OF THE GREAT HIMALAYAN NATIONAL PARK [1]

        ( This piece was published in the TRIBUNE[ Himachal ] Supplement on 17.02.2018 )

The great Himalayan National Park in Kullu, spread over 750 sq.kms. and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a superlative repository of Himalayan flora and fauna. It is drained by four magical streams, all originating from glaciers or glacial lakes-starting from the east, the Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwanal and Parbati. Trekking to the mystical sources of these rivers is a once in a life time experience, and for the true nature-lover akin to a spiritual experience, the “char dham” of a naturalistic religion, as it were! I have been fortunate to have completed this circuit.
                                          [  1-  THE  TIRTHAN ]
The Tirthan is a typical mountain stream and one of the very few left in the state where the trout still run, thanks to the fact that most of its upper stretch is protected as it runs through the Park, and an earlier govt. decision that banned the construction of hydel projects on its mid and lower stretches. It originates from the Tirath snowfields at 4500 meters on the eastern fringes of the Park, and after flowing through pristine forests for about 100 kms joins the Beas just below Aut on the NH 21 ( Mandi-Kullu highway). It requires four days of strenuous trekking and climbing to reach the source. The nearest road-head is Gushaini in the Banjar valley on the left bank. One enters the Park boundary at Ropa( 8kms) but the first day’s camp site is at Rolla, another 4 kms away. It has huts, toilets and running water but from hereon one has to carry one’s own tents, sleeping bags and provisions for cooking. The original track to the Tirath glacier was all along the river but a flood in 2005 washed away large tracts of the route, and now one has to climb high above the river immediately after Rolla, with night halts at Nada thatch ( 3300 meters) and Majhauni thatch ( 3600 meters).
A thatch is a clearing or glade surrounded by forests where shepherds camp: originally covered with a prolific growth of the rare high altitude medicinal plants and herbs, they are nowadays grazed over by sheep whose droppings further ensure that nothing grows there except weeds and coarse grasses. This used to be the case with Nada and Majhauni also, but ever since the govt. banned the entry of sheep in the Park, these thatches have now made a remarkable come-back: when I camped there in 2010 they were completely carpeted with a rich profusion of patish, salam panja and ratanjot , the rarest of alpine herbs. Nada thatch is a particularly mesmerising place, completely surrounded by a thick growth of cedar, spruce, kharsu oak, maple and dwarf rhododendron, with an abundance of bird life- in the early dawn we were privileged to be favoured with a veritable avian orchestra by the tragopans, monals, warblers, nut crackers and minivets !
The third day’s trek- from Nada to Majhauni- takes one down to the river and then up again into the forests. Along the way we noticed plenty of leopard scat, signs of bear and a troop of langurs in a grove of taxus baccatta trees. But the climactic moment came when, just below a watercourse, we suddenly came upon a Himalayan black bear! She was sunning herself on a rock and, perhaps because of the sound of the water, did not hear our approach. We had all of three or four minutes to enjoy this amazing moment before she became aware of our presence: in an instant, she sprang up, bounded across the stream, scaled a ten meter wall of rock effortlessly and vanished into the thick forest. She appeared to be pregnant and we wished her and her cub all the best- may they rule this part of paradise for ever!
Majhauni thatch is on the right bank of the Tirthan, just above the river and very windy and cold- the Tirath glaciers are barely 8 kms. from here and the valley funnels the chilling winds straight down into the camp site. Fortunately there are three huge caves in which one can take shelter. We were now at 3600 meters, and parts of the river were covered with a thick deposit of ice- “ice bridges”, sturdy enough to walk on, but carefully, because the swift and freezing waters still flowed below them. They are useful while they last, because they provide the wild life an easy means of crossing the river.In the early morning a “kakkar”- musk deer- crossed the river on an ice bridge from the other bank, strolled through our camp site and disappeared into the undergrowth!
It’s a four hour trek to the Tirath glacier, sometimes on the ice bridges and sometimes high on the right bank of the river. After six kms or so the valley broadens out into a verdant pasture 500 meters wide, completely carpeted with alpine flowers of the most amazing hues. Straight ahead, to the south and south-east are towering, snow covered peaks and ranges, behind which lie the massive Srikhand massif and Sarahan ranges. The flanks are covered with huge glaciers: their melt- off runs down in slender black ribbons of water, converging into two primary streams which join each other on the valley floor to form the infant Tirthan. To its right, however, is a circular pool about 20 feet across, bubbling with some gas or air coming from its depths. The locals believe that this is the real source of the Tirthan and it is customary to do a “pooja” here and take a dip in the stream, notwithstanding the freezing temperatures! Our real reward, however, came a little later when the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the white mountain slopes. Lo and behold! Straight ahead we could now see two huge herds of “”bharal” or blue sheep, about 60 in all, slowly going up the flanks! It was an unforgettable sight: the blue sheep are rarely sighted, such is their mountain habitat and reclusive nature. This was a double “darshan” for us- the source of the river as well as its prime custodians. We could not have asked for more, and as we wended our long way back to Majhauni we were content in the knowledge that the wildlife of GHNP was doing quite well, thank you!





Saturday, 17 February 2018

THE PAKODA AND STREET ( FOOD) POLITICS.

    The ruling party at the Centre has some distinguished professionals: historians who rewrite history without any evidence, anthropologists who repudiate established scientific theories such as Darwinism because there were no eye witnesses to the event, economists who equate unemployment with self-employment, medical experts who ascribe diseases to one's karma and past sins. It should, therefore, surprise no one that the BJP's grise eminence - Mr. Amit Shah, no less- has now propounded a new theory, viz. that the humble pakoda on your street corner will propel the country on a growth path that will overtake China in a few years. Street food has now entered  the hallowed realms of street politics. But the trend is not new.
   The potential of street food in garnering votes was first discovered by Mr. Bal Thackre in the 80's. At the time Bombay was over-run by Udippi eateries serving typical, cheap south Indian fare. The Shiv Sena decided that this was depriving the Marathi manoos of employment opportunities and, in addition to beating up the Udippi types, launched their own flagship street food- the Vada Pav. It was an instant success and only Mr. Vir Sanghvi can tell us how many variations of the ubiquitous pav now exist. Combining religion with cuisine the Shiv Sena launched a new version of the humble pav in 2008- the Shiv Vada Pav- so that we can now indulge in worship and gluttony at the same time.
   The idea then lay dormant for some time, till Mr. Modi himself resurrected it in 2014, with able assistance from Mr. Manishankar Aiyar who manages to drop pearls even when both his feet are firmly planted in his mouth. This time it was the even more humble " chai", a beverage whose capacity for getting the bowels to move in the mornings has now been dwarfed by its potential to get votes. The chai is the staple of every Indian; by identifying himself with it Mr. Modi identified himself with every Indian ( except those who drink gimlets or vodka at the Gymkhana club, but they're usually too drunk to find their voting booth in any case) and swept the election. He has made the chai his own and therefore the opposition has now stopped looking at the tea leaves to find out what the future holds for them.
   When the chai started to cool off it was the turn of beef and kebabs, both of which were seized in huge quantities and sent off for "forensic" examination. The samples are still lying with various veterinarians who can't figure whether they are buffalo, oxe, cow or nilgai- in the end it will all turn out to be a lot of bull. But it enabled Mr. Yogi Adityanath, riding on the back of the cow, to win handsomely in UP. Then someone in Nagpur must have read one of our Census reports and discovered that 70% of Indians are non-vegetarians, and that a party with a 31% vote share couldn't subsist indefinitely on milk, ghee and cow urine, notwithstanding Baba Ramdev's exhortations. So the kebabs are making a come-back and the aroma of tunda kebabs once again greets you as you drive into Lucknow. Till the next elections in UP.
   By this time the Opposition had had enough of the BJP hogging the national menu and decided to introduce some street food into their politics too. Suddenly the headlines were full of the " Taiwanese mushroom" costing Rs. 80000 per kg. The Congress alleged that Mr. Modi preferred it to the " Fair and Lovely" face cream, consumed vast quantities of it, and  as a result his complexion had become lighter. To me he appears the same shade of saffron but he does occasionally do the chameleon act, especially when he is abroad.
   Enter the omni-present  "paneer" in the form of the now on-now off Chief Minister ( now Dy. Chief Minister) of Tamil Nadu, Mr. O Paneer Selvam. Now the paneer is a neutral product which can assume the flavour of any accompanying ingredient, and this is what OPS has been trying to do, cosying up with anyone who will keep him in the gravy. However, he now has two more flavours to contend with- Rajnikanth and Kamal Hasan- and it remains to be seen which seasoning will prevail. He is playing his cards close to his chest and not saying much, or is seen mumbling all the time, which perhaps is why he is known as Mutter Paneer.
   Next was the turn of Bengal and Odisha, their bone of contention being the magnificent  "rossogolla", that delicious, sinful, sugary sphere that can take you straight to the "houris" without having to don a suicide vest. Both states claimed ownership of the legacy of the rossogolla and sought its IPR ( Intellectual Property Right) under the GI ( Geographical Indicator) section. It was a close call amid all the demonstrations, protests and marches by the bhadrolok of both states but  Bengal has finally won- what Mamta wants Mamta gets. However, at times I do wonder what Bengal and Odisha are fighting over, considering that the market for rossogollas belongs to neither of them- it has been captured by Haldiram and Bikanerwala.
    Mr. Amit Shah's "pakoda", therefore, is only the latest entrant into the sphere of street food politics. We may dispute its accuracy as a metaphor for robust employment, and we may wonder  why it has been chosen above the samosa or papri-chhat, but we should now be prepared for more such metaphors. I wonder what's coming next ? The humble " khichdi" would be an accurate metaphor for our chaotic Opposition, since it's impossible to figure out its various constituents. Scrambled eggs would do nicely for Delhi, what with its incomprehensible jumble of authorities, policies and power centres. That rich, sinful, laxative imbued sweet- the " rabri"- would be the perfect metaphor for Ease of Doing Business - " All Clearances At One Sitting." And how about the " Jalebi" with its swirls, twirls and twists as the metaphor for Mr. Jaitley's convoluted taxation policies ? We may well be at the cusp of an idiomatic revolution in Indian politics. The possibilities are limitless. As Vijay Mallya said to his bank manager just before his airline ( and the bank) crashed to the ground: The sky is the limit, bhai !

Saturday, 10 February 2018

REVISITING THE DAVOS DOUBLE-SPEAK



                       There is a statue in the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad which is a faithful mirror image of our Prime Minister’s rhetoric in Davos recently. It is the amazing two-faced statue which has the cruel looking Mephistopheles on one side and the beautiful visage of Margaretta on the other. The latter was on display in Davos, the former is the one most Indians are familiar with back home.
Mr. Modi touched all the right buttons in his speeches to the uber wealthy and powerful in this alpine Gymkhana club: the imperative of globalisation, concerted action on climate change, cross border trade, India’s position as the fastest growing economy in the world, the solicitation for FDI, the political stability that India offers to global investors, the bold tax reforms. Following after President Xi’s act last year at Davos, it would have been impressive but for the fact that certain other developments at the same time made his words ring a bit hollow and less than credible. At the very least they gave the definite impression that the Prime Minister was being selective in his presentations, that he was perhaps masking a darker underside to his narrative.
      The balloon was punctured by two reports released the same week- first by the WEF ( World Economic Forum)’s own Inclusive Development Index exposing India as one of the world’s most unequal countries- it placed India at 62 out of 77 countries, below our “poor” neighbours Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.  This shocking revelation was further confirmed by another international agency- Oxfam reported that 73% of the wealth generated in India last year was cornered by just 1% of its population! This same 1% has appropriated all the additional income generated by economic growth between 1980 and 2014. This is the real and ugly underside of a ruthless pursuit of a  pure capitalist driven GDP growth strategy and economic reforms that ignore the ground realities. Policies that cater only to the Sensex, billionaires and big industry but leave in their wake millions unemployed, SMEs ruined and farmers devastated cannot be sustainable even in the mid term. GDP in itself is being globally discredited as the sole indicator of economic progress, and the “trickle down” theory does not work autonomously. If there is no simultaneous investment in social welfare schemes( which has been declining since this govt. came to power) GDP gains cannot be inclusive: the Index of Inequality is as important as the Sensex.
A second area where Mr. Modi’s claims appeared less than convincing was the Environment. The global EPI ( Environmental Performance Index) released by the World Economic Forum on the 23rd January revealed that India was the fourth worst country in terms of environmental performance, ranked at 177 among 180 countries; even worse, we had slipped 36 places in the last one year alone. This is not at all surprising given the govt’s track record over the last three years: all environmental regulations have been systematically demolished and the Ministry of Environment and Forests has become the Ministry of “ Ease of Doing Business”, projects are being sanctioned on a large scale in highly eco-sensitive zones such as national parks and Tiger Reserves, highways such as the Char Dham one in Uttarakhand being rammed through tens of thousands of trees, rivers are being linked without any EIA studies ( 1.80 million trees will be felled for the Ken-Betwa linking project alone), a huge chunk of the Western Ghats has been excluded from the ESZ category to accommodate the building and mining lobby. The govt. suffers from the twin illusions that (a) the climate change problem is limited only to replacing fossil fuels with renewables, and (b) that technology alone can provide all the solutions. It is wrong on both counts. As Mr. Al Gore pointed out on a subsequent panel discussion at Davos, the fuel issue is only part of the problem: the larger one is protecting our natural spaces and assets- rivers, mountains, forests, deserts and  the millions who depend on them for livelihoods- from degradation, encroachment and ruthless exploitation. And this requires political will, not technology. Mr. Modi’s govt. has to realise this and reverse the dangerous course it has adopted in the interest of GDP growth, as usual!
The third question which the delegates at Davos might have pondered over, even while our Prime Minister was holding forth, was whether India was a country governed by the rule of law or the rule of the mobs? The question was inevitable, given the violence unleashed by the Rajput Karni Sena and associated hooligans over the Padmavat screenings. It took the punch out of the Prime Minister’s speech. The world would have particularly noticed that governments belonging to Mr. Modi’s own ruling party in at least four states defied the Supreme Court in going ahead with the ban in some form or the other, sided with the Sena hoodlums, took no preventive steps to pre-empt violence and were in fact complicit in their illegal and unconstitutional actions. India certainly did not look like a very safe place in which to invest, the ability of both central and state governments to enforce compliance with the law of the land appeared questionable, even the Supreme Court’s effectiveness and legitimacy came under a cloud. All reason enough for even a tourist to think twice before coming to India, let alone someone with a few billion dollars to invest. These developments would not have gone unnoticed at Davos.
Mr. Jaitley’s subsequent budget has raised more questions than provided answers: the promised MSP increase for the Rabi crop is nowhere in place and the new National Health Protection Scheme is only a rehashed version of the 2016 Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana which has been a non-starter: participation in it is less than 30% with as many as seven states opting out of it. The budget for the promised 1.50 lakh “ wellness centres” is nowhere in sight. The NHPS will certainly be a bonanza for the Insurance companies ( as the crop insurance scheme has been) but the 500 million “beneficiaries” may not benefit all that much.

Rhetoric, mega ideas and grandstanding alone cannot make India an attractive country for investment or a world leader for, as Shakespeare said: one can smile and smile and still be a villain. If the face of Mephistopheles has to be removed from that statue the government will have to do a radical rethinking of the values and principles behind its policies and stop thinking of merely the next election. A " pakoda" cannot be a symbol of genuine progress.

Friday, 9 February 2018

WHY DO WE KILL OUR DAUGHTERS ?

[ This article was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 8.02.2018 ]


     As we progressively regress from civilized status notwithstanding ( or because of) our single minded pursuit of the GDP and Nationalism gods, it is becoming clear that it will take us a long time to become a developed nation. And one of the main reasons for our indefinitely postponed tryst with destiny just has to be the way we treat our girls. I am not talking here about sexual molestation, stalking or gender discrimination in the office: though important ( and fashionable enough to monopolise the attention of the page three types) these pale into insignificance beside the real. visceral, seminal issue- our attitude to, and treatment of, the girl child.
    To put it bluntly, we as a society kill little girls, usually before they are born and sometimes after. At the risk of making you throw up your breakfast, let me share a few figures with you ( all GOI census data) regarding India's sex ratio for the 0-6 years age group. In 1961 the figure was 976 i.e 976 little girls for every 1000 little boys. Since then these girls have been disappearing at a consistent rate- there were 945 of them in 1991, 927 in 2001 and 919 in 2011. Demographers and statisticians call them India's "Missing girl children"- it is estimated that in the last decade alone 8 million girls have been lost. Actually, they have been murdered- by their own parents- but "missing" is the more politically correct word. And guess which are the states where most of this slaughter has taken place?- the very same ones where so much violence was unleashed recently about "upholding the honour" of a Rajput queen: Haryana ( sex ratio 834), Rajasthan (888), Gujarat (890)- all well below even the dismal national average of 919. It appears that even dead women have their uses. Furthermore, as we all know, the cause of women is very dear to the hearts of our Hindutva brigade- the reason why all the BJP governments in the above states as well at the centre explicitly or implicitly supported the Karni Sena. Really? The census figures tell a different tale: the sex ratio is the most abysmal for the Hindus- it is 910, as compared to 940 for Muslims and 955 for Christians. So guess which community looks after its girls better ?
    Here is another interesting statistic, from this year's Economic Survey of the govt.: 65% of the "last child" are males, whereas only 45% of the " non last child" are males. What this tells us is that if the last child of an Indian couple is male then 65% of them will not have any more children, whereas if it is a girl then that figure drops to 45%, or by a staggering one third. In other words, it is mission accomplished if one has a son, whereas if its a girl then the quest for a son continues :  the name of the game is to have a male child, and daughters are not welcome: the same report states that there are 29 million " unwanted" girl children. Reason enough, don't you think, for the majoritarians in our society to move away from the manufactured outrage over Triple Talaq and fulminate on the mass female foeticide that is taking place under our noses?
    As a father, I am just unable to understand why we kill our daughters. Oh, I'm aware of the three main reasons given by the demographers: that it is sons who carry forward the family/ dynasty; that the sons will look after the parents in their old age, that a son is needed to perform the last rites. But I simply can't wrap my head around these alibis in this day and age. A daughter will have as much of my DNA as a son will; as for dynasty, as the stand-up comic Kunal Grover said, I'm no Chandragupta Maurya that I need to found a dynasty, for that matter I'm no Mukesh Ambami or Mulayam Yadav either. And why can't my lineage run through my daughter, as it does through my son ? Performance of last rites is a joke- the panda and pundits do everything, the son just has to pay them ( if he has any money left after paying the hospital). Nowadays even pandas are not really needed at the electric crematorium: all you have to do is to show them the Aadhar card, and a daughter can do that as well as a son.
    As for the " looking after the parents" bit, my own personal ( in the wider family) and anecdotal experience is that daughters do a much better job of it than sons. Sons tend to get involved with their own families, careers and related problems. Daughters, I have noticed, with the famous multi-tasking skills of women, find the time for their parents too, even when they have careers and families of their own. They are more compassionate, provide genuine companionship ( particularly to their mothers) and are more understanding and tolerant of their parents' complaints, grumblings and ailments. They provide the compassion and patience which the sons are short on.
   Which brings me back to my original question: why do we kill our daughters in such large numbers?

Saturday, 3 February 2018

A DISTRICT MAGISTRATE SPEAKS UP.


     [ This piece was published on HILLPOST on 5.2.2018 ]                      

    It is unusual in these troubled times for a serving government officer to publicly comment on events happening around him, even more so if they have a political colour. Yet that is exactly what Raghvendra Vikram Singh, District magistrate of Rae Bareilly in the Hindutva heartland of Uttar Pradesh did on his Facebook post earlier last week. He was reacting to the deliberately provoked communal clashes in Kasganj in western UP on Republic Day. Singh questioned the new trend of holding “ tiranga yatras” in Muslim dominated areas; these are his exact words:
“ These days a strange trend of visiting Muslim dominated localities and shouting anti-Pakistani slogans has started. Are they Pakistanis? The same thing happened in Bareilly. Why don’t we raise anti-China slogans when the fact is that China is a bigger enemy than Pakistan ?”
   Perhaps it was Singh’s army background and training that made him be so forthright , for the IAS is not known to err on the side of bravery and it would much rather cower in the shade of its political masters. Or maybe it was the conscience of a decent man and the personal belief of an able administrator who had had enough of this rabid madness. Singh had personally dealt with this malevolent coercion last year when the Kanwariyas- the so called Shiv bhakts- had marched through his district, and his sole concern was to highlight the law and order consequences of such dangerous conduct. As a District Magistrate he had every right to voice his concern and sound a note of caution. For in the final analysis the DM is the final authority in his district on such matters, the senior most police officer under the CRPC. No one- not even the Chief Minister- can order him to do something which he doesn’t want to do in a law and order situation: he can be transferred, certainly, but not bullied and suborned by any politician. Unfortunately, this basic tenet of law has long been forgotten, and I’m sure it’s no longer even taught in the Academy. But Singh’s forthright conduct, in the best traditions of the civil service, brought to my mind something I had read a long time ago.
    It was an autobiography by Mr. R.P. Noronha, ICS, who was the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh between 1963 and 1968. Titled “ A tale told by an Idiot”, it recounts a very interesting incident. As DM of a district Mr. Noronha once had to confront an ugly communal situation in which the two communities were ranged against each other, fully armed, across a road. Much violence had already occurred, and only a thin line of police separated the two hostile groups. Precisely at this point in time, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister decided to visit the town and negotiate a peace between the warring factions. He was brought to the town,  and Noronha offered to bring representatives of the two communities to meet him in the Circuit House. Nehru, however, insisted on personally going to the spot, which was becoming more volatile by the minute. No amount of reasoning, of security concerns, could convince him to give up this insane idea. Finally, Noronha, taking courage in both hands, warned the Prime Minister that as the District Magistrate he was the final authority, and that if Nehru took one step towards the mob he would be arrested immediately. Nehru backed off, the meeting took place in the Circuit House, and peace was restored to the town.
    Can we even consider such a scenario today ? Civil servants like Noronha and politicians like Nehru are a faded memory. What we have instead is the Adityanath govt. stating that it will take disciplinary action against Raghvendra Singh. This instant response by a thoroughly compromised govt. is interesting and a dead give away. Firstly, there are no legal grounds for any action against the DM: he has not violated any conduct rules- he has criticised the mobs and Muslim baiters, not the govt. Secondly, by taking objection to Singh’s post, the govt. of the state has explicitly allied itself with these same violent groups and given the game away: the fringe and the government are one and the same and will protect each other. Thirdly, as long as a govt. servant does not publicly criticise any govt. policy he has full freedom of speech and the right to express his opinions. It is certainly not the policy of the UP govt. to take out tiranga yatras in Muslim areas, and that too without the permission of the district administration. Fourthly, the ruling party in UP should come out of its gaushalas and acknowledge that in the age of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram it is futile to try and censor public discourse- truth will out.

    It is heartening to see some serving and retired officers come out in support of Mr. Singh, but I do wish the UP IAS Association would also take a position on this. There’s a lesson in all this for my erstwhile colleagues in the civil services also: evil triumphs when good men refuse to speak up. A civil servant does not jettison his conscience and sense of right and wrong when he joins up; he pledges to uphold the constitution and rule of law, and if the actions of any individual, group or political party violate these he is not obliged to remain a mute spectator. Mr. Raghvendra Singh has just set the bar a bit higher and given us enough reason to introspect.    

Saturday, 27 January 2018

HOLY COWS AND LOOSE CANNONS


    As befits a country with 33 crore Gods, India has a corresponding pantheon of Holy Cows- both hallowed concepts and hoary individuals- of the religious and secular varieties. Let us talk of the latter since the former is a minefield you enter at your own peril. The sacredness of these ideas and the contributions of these icons  could not be questioned, traduced or criticised in any manner for a very long time. Among them we have had Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, secularism, Mother Teresa, reservation, the President, the Election Commission and so on. Inevitably, however,as we progressed from one millenium to the other, from potato chips to computer chips, from Ganga Din to Acche Din, history has taken a heavy toll on these Holy Cows. Nehru is now the alleged source of all our Kashmir and China problems, Mahatma Gandhi has been branded an agent of western powers, Ambedkar and secularism are being discredited with Ministerial threats to delete the idea of secularism from the Constitution, Mother Teresa is condemned as one who used the facade of charity to trade for souls, reservation has become a subject which attracts loyalty and vitriol in equal measure, the President has been a cropper since the time of Giani Zail Singh, and the Election Commission has been buried six feet under by my batch-mate Mr. Achal Jyoti. These Holy Cows have now all been consigned to gaushalas. Till a fortnight ago only one Holy Cow remained- the Supreme Court- and it retained this elevated status by a judicious mix of visionary judgments, opacity, the code of Omerta and the threat of the Contempt of Court Act. No more.
    The press conference by the four judges of the Court on the 12th of January has removed all four crutches and exposed the institution as just another masticating mastodon, not yet extinct to be sure, but highly endangered. The signs of its humble mortality had been evident for some time- the nepotism tainted colour of appointments, refusal to allow the executive any say in judicial appointments, confused and contradictory judgments, reluctance to take any action against their own, brushing charges of lack of integrity under the carpet. But it continued with its Holy Cow status because no one was prepared to bell the cat, if you'll permit me to mix up two quadruped species. And then suddenly the Court was affected by the Mad Cow disease and in a suicidal pact belled itself via the four esteemed judges. It has now lost its sacred status, the holy cow has become a Jallikattu bull and anyone can now poke a stick at it. Supreme Court bashing is now our latest gladiator sport and any lawyer with a dubious degree can take a swipe at it. It has lost for ever its mystique, credibility and inviolable aura. In the days to come its orders will be questioned more and more on the streets rather than in the courts- the defiance of, and the furore over, its Padmavat judgement ( even by state governments) is just a trailer. We have just lost our last Holy Cow, and I don't know whether to be happy or sad. True, a Holy Cow in an age of science and reason is an anachronism. But equally, in a  country with rusting anchors and no moral leadership, where, as the poet said:
( We) kill without creating,
Hate without embracing,
Doubt without believing-
a Holy Cow is sometimes necessary. Legal fictions are essential for a stable and orderly social fabric, even if they are based on pure belief and not fact. As the philosopher ( I think it was Nietzsche ) said: If God did not exist we would have had to create one. Man can live only by believing, not by doubting. Sadly, we no longer have any Holy Cows left, only Holy Shit-  lots of it.

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    I thought that I had become immune to stupefying and jaw-dropping statements from our BJP leaders after Mr. Modi's assertion that Lord Ganesha is the finest example of organ transplant from Vedic times, Mr. Piush Goel's claim at Davos last year that unemployment in India is a positive development because it indicates that entrepreneurship is picking up, the Rajasthan Education Minister's revelation that the Mughals were actually defeated at Haldighati, Yogi Adithyanath's declaration that the Taj Mahal does not reflect the culture of India, the discovery by an RSS seer that cowdung slapped on a smartphone stops radiation, Mr. Modi's claim that malnutrition in Gujarat was the result of girls dieting in order to get good figures, Mr. Sangeet Som's re-writing of history by revealing that Shah Jahan had built the Taj Mahal to imprison his father in it, Sakshi Maharaj's advice that the only way to protect Hinduism was by ensuring that every Hindu woman had at least four children. Maybe one day all these pearls would be compiled in a textbook for the benefit of all the piglets in the gradually emerging animal farm that was once a proud country. But wait- this stream of drivel has not yet dried up, as Mr. Satyapal Singh has just established.
   Mr. Singh is a junior Minister in the Human Resources Ministry and is an ex-IPS officer ( I specifically mention this latter bit because it gives a clue as to how the telomeres in his brain function). Last week he went on record to state that Darwin's theory of evolution was zilch because none of his (the Minister's) ancestors ever saw an ape turning into a man, and all text books should be corrected to delete any mention of this theory. Mr. Singh is a fascinating study of the Indian, particularly the BJP, politician: the moment they get elected they become instant experts on all subjects. Normally, their deep knowledge of things they have no clue about would provide us much needed amusement as we stand in various queues, but matters become a bit worrying when a Minister of Education seeks to fashion text books in his own ignorant image.
   Mr. Singh, sir, the ape did not turn into man in the manner of Clarke Kent turning into Superman in thirty seconds. Actually, it took millions of years- about six million years, to be precise- and progressed through various sub-species of hominids, including the Florensiensis and the Neanderthalensis, before arriving at your respected ancestors, Homosapiens ( incidentally, sir, before you take off on another ill-informed tirade, the Homo in Homosapiens has got nothing to do with homosexuality.) And no one in your family witnessed the "event" because they were all probably too busy leaping from branch to branch in search of breakfast since there were no subsidised Parliament canteens back then. And, presumably, Mr. Singh also believes that the dinosaurs never existed because his ancestors did not see them too. Actually, to be fair to the honourable Minister, his breath-taking view of palaeontology can be traced to his training as a police officer. For our men in khaki ( the RSS no longer wears khaki) seeing is believing and they must have an eye witness for everything- that is why most of their time is spent in " locating" eye witnesses rather than solving the crime. Hence Mr. Singh's insistence that if no one saw an ape turn into a man then Darwinism has to be trashed, especially as it would be difficult- even for our Indian police-  to find a witness to an event that occurred millions of years ago. But the Minister has a good opportunity to validate his theory in reverse- whether man can turn into an ape- since it appears to be happening all around us these days with great evolutionary vigour. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

HIMACHAL'S TOURISM DILEMMA



     [  This piece was published in THE TRIBUNE on 21. 01. 2018 under the title MASSIVE PROBLEMS WITH MASS TOURISM. ]

The world is gradually discovering that tourism can be a double-edged sword, in that though it brings in revenues and employment it has grave social, cultural and environmental impacts. This is becoming more and more evident in Himachal. 17.50 million tourists visited the state in 2015( 2.50 times its population!) and the number is growing at 7.50% per annum, thanks partly to the unsettled conditions in Kashmir. It generates Rs. 1200 crores, about 10% of the state’s GDP. It also creates 400,000 jobs.
But the downside can no longer be ignored. Tourism in Himachal is primarily mass tourism, not the quality variety. This is evident from a McKinsey report of 2015 which found that the average per tourist spend was only Rs.600.00, and that 96% of the tourists were in the income bracket of Rs.1 to Rs. 5 lakhs per annum. Secondly, almost 50% of the visitors were concentrated in just three destinations: Kullu ( 33.15 lakhs), Shimla(32.65) and Kangra(24). The combined effect of these numbers is devastating the natural environment and leading to massive, unplanned urbanisation which has turned all the state’s towns into virtual slums. The mushrooming of sub-standard hotels, resorts,dhabas is like a cancerous scab on the beautiful mountain landscape which has now spread even to the rural areas. Rivers are being choked by garbage and plastics, trees being felled in their thousands, roads are crowded with vehicles headed nowhere, water shortages are common in a state which has a thousand streams. The infrastructure of the state is collapsing under the sheer weight of numbers. Any honest and multi-sectoral cost benefit analysis would reveal that tourism in Himachal is a losing proposition and needs a rethink at the policy level.
The state govt. has to become proactive in shaping the type of tourism and nudging it towards greater quality, rather than being satisfied with the rising numbers every year which actually portend disaster. Equally important, it has to aggressively protect and preserve its natural features, for without them there would be no tourism at all. It should consider the following initiatives:
·        Stop registration of new hotels or other hospitality units in the towns which have already exceeded their carrying capacity long ago, such as Shimla( including Mashobra), Manali, Kullu, Dharamshala, Solan, Palampur, Dalhousie. This will not only discourage the insane construction activities in these degraded urban areas but will also help to disperse the crowds to other under-fed areas of the state.
·        Connectivity has to be improved:high-end tourists will not spend five hours travelling from Chandigarh to Shimla, and the flights to Dharamsala, Manali and Shimla are irregular and exorbitantly priced. The state should invest in helicopter services, with Shimla as the hub. A proposal was floated in 2008 but has got nowhere, primarily because Shimla lacks a civilian heli-pad. Efforts by the govt. to persuade Rashtrapati Bhavan to allow the use of the Kalyani heli-pad near Charabra were rebuffed by the President’s office on “ security” grounds, even though it is not used 364 days in a year! I believe another site has been identified near Dhalli, but the proposal continues to languish in some file.
·        Revive the ambitious Ski Village proposal- a 1200 crore FDI project which would have firmly brought Himachal onto the international map- which was shot down by the Dhumal govt under the vested pressure of hoteliers in the Manali area.
·        Promote, and concentrate on, nature and adventure tourism rather than simply the “chhola bhatura” kind of commerce that passes for tourism today. With 32 Wild Life Sanctuaries, 4 unique National Parks, more than 400 Forest Rest Houses the state has unmatched potential for trekking, rafting, bird watching, mountaineering and allied sports which unfortunately is not being exploited. A reluctant Forest Department has been gradually nudged into sharing these assets by the formation of an Eco-Tourism Society some years ago, but it has to do much more. It is imperative, however, to fix the carrying capacity of each unit and strictly regulate numbers. Eco-tourism and Home stays are the way forward.
·        The govt. should stop destroying the natural environment by building more and more roads into pristine areas just so that ever increasing numbers of cars filled with people who have no concept or genuine love of nature can despoil these areas and leave their fast food garbage behind. It should not make it easier for such elements to access our natural treasures. If required, install ropeways only. It is disheartening to note that even though the three ropeways to Rohtang, Bijli Mahadev and Triund were approved almost ten years back they are nowhere near completion. Think of more ropeways, like one from Dhalli to Kufri, or Dalhousie to Khajiar, both destinations swamped by vehicles in the season; the former is additionally buried under mule dung!
Himachal needs a total paradigm shift in the way it thinks tourism and it must learn from international experiences. Tourism has become one of the biggest threats to nature and local cultures world wide. On any given day there are 3 million tourists tramping all over the world and the figure will go up to 6 million by 2025; that is 1.8 billion tourists on the loose! If not regulated or channelized properly and in time, they will be like a swarm of locusts, destroying everything worth conserving. Local populations have started reacting with hostility to tourists- in Venice, Barcelona, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan. I am positive the permanent residents of Shimla feel the same way. They need to speak up while there is still some standing room on the Shimla Ridge.