Saturday, 17 March 2018


   We all know that the good Lord, when in a sanguine mood, could turn water into wine. But the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Mr. Jai Ram Thakur, has now gone one step further: he proposes to turn wine into milk! In the budget for the new year, presented by him last week, he has imposed a cess of two rupees on every bottle of booze sold in the state. He expects to garner Rs. 16 crore by this epiphanic measure, of which Rs. 8 crore will be spent on improving the ambulance service ( which primarily caters to drunkards, driving and driven, in any case) and- note the brilliance of the fiscal strategem- Rs. 8 crores on setting up gosadans and goshalas. These poor stray animals, now rehabilitated, will naturally produce an abundance of milk, thanks to the 800,00,000 bottles of hippocrene that the 60,00,000 happy Himachalis will now imbibe with even greater gusto than heretofore, since its all being done in the cause of the gau mata. How can one say no to that fifth peg, knowing fully well that a refusal will deprive  some toddler in Dodra Kwar of a cup of milk? One for the road has now become one for the brat!
   Mr. Thakur's cross-subsidy idea is a master stroke: the more one drinks, the more one contributes to (a) the nutrition of children( don't forget, almost 38% of India's under-fives are malnourished), and (b) the welfare of an animal on the back of which the BJP is riding to victory, as surely as Porus did on the back of his elephants. Both Mr. Nadda and Mrs. Maneka Gandhi would be overjoyed. On the other hand, if the additional cess dissuades people from drinking, then again the Chief Minister can claim credit for the arrival of the age of abstinence. As you can see, dear reader and dear tippler, it's a win-win for him. There is much that the ham handed Chief Minister of Bihar, Mr. Nitish Kumar, can learn from our CM. The former's policy of forced prohibition has benefited neither his voters nor his exchequer nor his cows. The policemen and rats- yes, rats- we are told, are the only happy lot. It has been reported that last year about 8000 bottles of seized liquor mysteriously disappeared from a police station in Bihar. The official explanation proffered was that rats had drunk all the liquor in the malkhana! And so the Pied Piper of Champaran is happily leading his flock to the elections in 2019- who knows, its difficult to predict anything in Bihar- by then these rats will probably have Aadhar cards and Voter IDs. Mr. Nuttish Kumar may, or may not, win that particular election, but Mr. Jai Ram Thakur can now tell him, with a not so straight face:

    Sharab itni bhi nahi hai tumhare maikhane mein
    Jo hum chhor dete thhe paimane mein !

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   Tourism has become the most insidious and pervasive of all human activities: more than 3 billion tourists tramp all over the globe every year, and no place is safe from their damaging footprints- from the Negev deserts to the Amazon rain forests, from the frozen wastes of the Antartica ( yearly visitors-30000) to the crawling slums of Manila. from the junk-strewn heights of Everest to the stygian depths of the Mariana trench. This hydra-headed monster has sprouted many tentacles- food tourism, temple tourism, casino tourism, graveyard tourism, sex tourism, war tourism, adventure tourism, wild-life tourism- no aspect of human or animal life is safe from a tourism tag. But even by these fecund standards the latest form of tourism being offered by the Delhi govt. is innovative and ingenious  and could have been dreamt up only by a bureaucracy with far too much time on its hands.
   The authorities of Delhi's Tihar Jail ( the largest jail in Asia) have just launched what they call " Jail tourism". For a charge of Rs. 500 per day tourists can spend upto one week incarcerated in Tihar, living the life of a convict: staying in the rat infested cells, eating the maggot infested food, following the typical prison regime. I find this inventiveness both pathologically fascinating and puzzling, for a number of reasons.
   Firstly, what kind of masochistic streak would drive a person to volunteer to enter Dante's world, especially when there are no guarantees that he would ever get out? It is common in Indian jails for detainees to be forgotten, all paperwork lost, no record of their arrival. It is more than likely, therefore, that such a sucker tourist would then have to resort to another potential brand of tourism- Habeas Corpus tourism- before he can be released!
   Secondly, which idiot will spend money to get inside a jail when he can do it for free? All he has to do is draw a cartoon about the Prime Minister, or yell " Bomb" in an airport, or carry a seekh kabab in his car, or comment about the RSS's shorts, or forget to stand up for the national anthem, or stroll down Hazratganj with a girl- and he'll be in Tihar before he can say Jai Hind. This is the most obvious flaw in this business model, in my view.
   It strikes me that this idea would be more useful as a training module for our rulers rather than as a tourism template. The Department of Personnel may like to consider the following. There should be a training-cum-exposure  course for all our decision makers- Ministers, bureaucrats, bankers, industry honchos- in Tihar: a one week capsule of total incarceration. This should replace the present modules: stints in foreign universities where we come back with a Smriti Irani kind of "degree" and lots of purchases from Macy's, Walmart and Oxford Sreet; "mid-career" courses in Mussoorie where we catch up with batch-mates, drink chhang in Happy valley and try to resuscitate old liaisons with lady officers who did not marry us because we had the wrong cadre. Of late the govt. has started another kind of training- despatching officers to various ashrams and godmen to imbibe transcendental values. This too should be discontinued because all the chaps learn there is to breathe in deeply -the "Kapal bharti"- before rejecting a file, or to say OM! loudly while accepting the gold biscuit disguised as a "kaju ki barfi" at Divali. No sir, abolish all these in favour of the Tihar capsule.
   I can almost guarantee a sea change in those who attend this course, which will essentially be a preview of what they will be in for- for a much longer time, of course- if they continue with their shady ways- the LOUs and LOCs, the tinkering with the tender, the hidden NPAs, the suspicious selections and appointments, the surreptitious issue of approvals, the police " encounter" at midnight and other routine moments of life in govt. I learn on good authority that Dante had a visual premonition of Tihar when he penned his Inferno. Life in this purgatory can be pretty difficult- even after you get used to the "food", the beatings, the extortions, the mosquitos, rats and cockroaches, you still have to go through the trial by fire- having a bath in one of the loos. If you drop the soap in the bath you never- NEVER- bend to pick it up. Get it? I'm sure those of the readers who have been to boarding schools like BCS will understand!
   The point I'm making is simply this- if our policy makers are exposed to a week in Tihar as  state guests it will do more to improve the government's functioning and probity, and dissuade any malfeasance, than a lifetime of  Colombo Plan training courses. Lets give it a try- at worst, we'll never hear of some officers and Ministers again: that's a price the nation can live with!    

Saturday, 10 March 2018


    Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, he of the Yamuna flood plain fame, is once again creating waves these days, or more accurately, doing the Moses act by parting the raging waters of Ayodhya to find a path to glory for himself. In the process he has forgotten that the age of miracles is long gone and that this is the era of the rule of law. A self appointed god-man to millions, he should now at least renounce any claim to being a votary of a universal religion, since he has now made clear which God he represents. But I have no beef with his religion, it's his politics I find troubling.
    Having muddied the Ram temple waters for some time now, he has now decided to plunge into the deep end: his statements this past week have been quite appalling. He has announced that any Supreme Court judgement on the matter will be unimplementable, it will lead to bloodshed, India will become another Syria. According to his religious majesty the only solution to this 500 year old vexed dispute is the voluntary handing over of the Babri masjid site to the Hindus; the Muslims can be given land for a masjid OUTSIDE Ayodhya. Thus spake Jeremiah and Solomon combined. Or is it Nostradamus?
   Many questions will arise in the minds of all right thinking ( not "right" as in politics, but "right" as in morals and ethics) citizens. Who  appointed this prophet of doom to interlocute on this matter? All groups- Hindu and Muslim, even Mr. Subramaniam Swamy who is an autarchic creed all by himself- have distanced themselves from him publicly. Even more important, at a time when the matter is being heard in the Supreme Court, Sri Sri has committed many offences under the law: he is in contempt for saying that the final order of the Court cannot be implemented. he is trying to interfere in, and influence, the course of justice by openly stating that only a particular type of order will be acceptable; he is intimidating the petitioners and inciting violence by threatening that there will be bloodshed if the order goes against the Hindus. What is it with Indian god-men's attraction for politics, one leg in Valhalla and the other firmly planted on the sub-continent? One eye set on the after-life and the other on the low-life here and now? He will, of course, never be charged for his provocative and contemptuous utterances, but it is high time that the Supreme Court at least imposed a gag order on him.
   The equally interesting and arcane question, however, is this: who has put up this godly gentleman to aggressively push for an " out of court" settlement, which is the current legal term for brow-beating a minority community into submission? He may, of course, be looking to repair the damage to his image after the Yamuna flood-plain fiasco and has therefore launched this individual PR initiative. It may even be an attempt at the Nobel Peace Prize- after all, if Barack Obama could get it for accepting that he had created a mess in Iraq and Syria, our own godship has a much stronger claim: the mess he proposes to create would be on a sub-continental scale, pitting 1.2 billion people against each other. But I have a sneaking feeling that Sri Sri's is a command performance, and the baton is being wielded by the BJP from a safe distance. His formulation is a trial balloon to test the waters ( excuse the mixed metaphors) and the direction in which the wind is blowing. If it serves to intimidate the Supreme Court or the Muslims, so much the better. But I think the BJP is indulging in overkill- it's in a win-win position here. If the SC judgement goes in  favour of the temple it can claim all credit for it and wrap up the 2019 election right now. It can then also set the agenda for the 2024 election: the  "liberation" of the temples at Mathura and Kashi Vishwanath. If, on the other hand the judgement goes against it, then it can whip up passions, play the victim card and hoover up all the votes. But there is a slight uncertainty, an imponderable and unpredictable risk in the second scenario which the BJP's software is perhaps not comfortable with. Enter the godman with his trial balloon ( or is it kite ?) The whole issue is moving to its final denouement with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: Sri Sri Ravishankar is therefore that staple of all Greek plays- the Deus ex Machina- where the Gods  lend a helping hand in the affairs of Man. Except that, in a delicious ironic twist that would have caught even Euripides by surprise, in the Ayodhya case the Gods themselves are the main protagonists ! The reason why we should not expect any miracles here.


[  This article was published in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS ON 7.3.2018 under the title " The Real Challenge is Inequality." ]


   There are signs that the economy is picking up again, but the ugly underbelly of this growth is not being addressed or even acknowledged, going by the Government’s insistence that selling “pakodas” amounts to gainful self-employment. I refer to the monstrous inequality that is making a mockery of our so-called growth story. The paradoxes in the Indian economy are getting more pronounced every day. The economy has been growing at about 7% for the last decade but unemployment continues to rise- according to one estimate the country has been losing 550 jobs every day for the last four years whereas 35000 join the labour force daily; 10% of youths between 18 and 25 years, numbering 51 million, are unemployed. India has the third highest number of billionaires but 80% of the population earn less than US$ 10 per day ( 200 million subsist on US$2 per day); agriculture provides only 17.5 % of GDP but “employs” 50% of the labour force.
   Development has become skewed in favour of the rich and super-rich resulting in vast inequity, which is reflected in the social indicators. WEF’s Inclusive Development Index ranks India at 62 of 77 countries, below even Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This has a spin-off effect on our Human Development record, according to which index we are ranked 130 out of 188 countries. This, in turn, is a reflection of our pathetic performance in areas such as child mortality , child-sex ratio, maternal mortality, mean years of schooling, life expectancy, to mention just a few. Any improvement in “ Ease of Doing Business” certainly cannot compensate for this, though it may add another billionaire every two months to the existing list of 101.
    The rich are getting richer. 1% of Indians own 58% of its wealth: they have appropriated one third of the total revenue gains of the country since the 1980’s and 73% of the wealth generated in 2016. Apart from 101 dollar billionaires India also has 200,000 millionaires and 137,100 UHNIs i.e those with a net worth of more than Rs. 25 crores, growing at 30% p.a. The poor, on the other hand, remain where they are, and the vaunted middle class is slowly disappearing: HSBC may rave about the business potential of a middle class it estimates at about 300 million, but according to the noted economist Thomas Picketty and the Paris School of Economics who analysed data generated by our own National Council of Applied Economic Research, the actual number is closer to just 78 million !
   The country appears to have entered into a vicious cycle of inequity post 1991.  As the rich aggregate more and more of the country’s wealth the poor and lower middle classes ( 80% of the population) become increasingly marginalised. This is extremely unsettling and even dangerous for a democracy: as the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Angus Deaton, ominously observes: “ …the rich capture more than their  share of political power, so that the state stops serving the majority of the people.” We can see evidence of this every day in the manner in which governments are more concerned about the Sensex than rural distress, the doling out of tens of thousands of crores for Smart cities but nothing for the 600,000 villages, the manipulation- if not loot- of the banking system by big capital resulting in NPAs of more than ten trillion rupees. This is the same money- the tax payers’ money- which, if distributed more equitably, could have uplifted the lives of tens of millions of families. Instead, most of it now seems to be headed for greener pastures abroad, legitimately or otherwise.
   The sorry state of affairs today is the accumulated result of years of misdirected emphasis on financial capital, instead of human and natural capital, and neglect of the core  social sectors- health, education, and agriculture. The health and education spend as a percentage of GDP have been stagnating below 3% and 2%, respectively, for decades: the consequent mal-nourished, stunted children with no skills or real education can only provide an unproductive work force which is good for nothing except selling Mr. Shah’s infamous pakodas. Under-employment, which the govt. will not admit to, is a bigger problem than unemployment. Agriculture, which was doing quite well till a few years ago, has been crushed with faulty MSP and export/import policies and tens of millions of farmers have been rendered destitute. The existing problem has now been exacerbated by the present govt’s regulatory over-drive. A social and economic structure as complex and diverse as India’s cannot be reformed overnight or in one term of a government: a modern super structure cannot be placed on a creaking, dated infrastructure without first preparing the latter for the change. Instead of the delicate fine-tuning required, the BJP’s muscular shove has further excluded tens of millions more from the benefits of economic growth. Both demonetisation and GST have made a bad situation even worse. Aadhar has multiplied the woes. In just one state- Uttarakhand- according to a December 2017 report,  about 10% of beneficiaries of old age, disabled and widow pensions have now been deprived of this dole because of Aadhar related issues. Irrefutable evidence is now available that millions have been dropped from MNREGA and the PDS system, and even school children from the Mid-Day Meal scheme for the same reason. By insisting on portraying these “missing” beneficiaries as ghost units the govt. is only reaffirming its callous and insensitive nature.
   Recent policies are only increasing the rich-poor divide in the country and accentuating the inequality. Policing and regulation have to be replaced by compassion and empathy. The govt.of the day has to support the farmer, unorganised retail, MSMEs which contribute to 90% of livelihoods, instead of regarding them as tax evaders and “entitlement” seekers; only then will GDP growth have any meaning for the overwhelming majority of the country. Democracy has to be both economic as well as political for it to be sustained.

Saturday, 3 March 2018


    The stand-off in Delhi between the AAP govt. and the IAS Association ( now broadened to a Joint Forum to include Dhanics and Delhi state officers also) continues. I cannot recall a similar confrontation between the bureaucracy and an elected political executive in the last three decades. And herein lies a story. It is not in the nature of the IAS, which is usually a willing or coerced bed-fellow of the politicians, to react so strongly. It has been able to dig in its heels in Delhi only because it has the tacit support of the BJP govt. at the centre and of the Lieutenant Governor who are their controlling authorities. And the BJP's position is inspired by its long standing and vitriolic hatred of the AAP: this confrontation is the perfect opportunity to embarass the AAP and expose its anarchic core. The BJP is no white knight in shining armour here- in the past it has also done its best to intimidate and brow beat this same service into toeing its anti-Kejriwal line by raids on senior officers, filing of FIRs, transfers and postings and implied threats ( though admittedly it has not yet beaten up any of them).
   Interestingly, the central govt's new-found love of the IAS and of its independence and apolitical status is being tested in UP even as the Delhi drama proceeds to its denouement. Readers will recollect the furore created in BJP circles sometime back by Raghvendra Vikram Singh, the District Magistrate of Rae Bareilly, when he berated on Facebook " the trend to enter a Muslim-dominated area and raise anti-Pakistan slogans." This was in the days following the Kasganj rioting where precisely this had happened. ( I had written about this in an earlier post- A DISTRICT MAGISTRATE SPEAKS UP). As I had explained at some length Mr. Singh had not violated any conduct rules of the service. But now the UP govt. has issued a charge-sheet to him, and to the Sub-divisional Magistrate of Amethi, for these writings- obviously with the blessings of the same Union Home Ministry which is shedding tears over the manner in which the IAS is being treated in Delhi! Another outstanding and upright officer is being similarly hounded in Kashmir: Basant Kumar Rath, IPS, Inspector General of Traffic. His sin is that he has written a few articles on subjects such as the nexus between politicians and the mining mafias, the Hashimpura police killings, the condition of Indian jails and criminality of certain elements within the police forces- all areas of grave concern for all administrators. Once again, he is not in violation of the AIS Conduct or Disciplinary Rules which permit a member of the service to write on subjects of official concern provided the writings are not critical of any govt. policy. Rath has nowhere criticised any govt., state or central, but has simply highlighted the rot in the system and stressed on the need to take corrective action. The BJP govt. at the centre is insisting the state govt. take action against Rath. But there has been not a whimper of protest from any IAS or IPS Association over these two instances- they know which side their bread is buttered and they don't want to burn the toast! But it does put the BJP's support for the Delhi officers in proper perspective.
   I don't see the Delhi imbroglio ending anytime soon because it is not in the interest of the BJP to end this foreplay before the climactic by-polls to the 21 seats. It is also not in the nature of Kejriwal to set aside his ego and apologise. Delhi's bureaucrats would be well advised, however, not to depend too much on BJP's support which does not stem from any love of ethical values or principles of administration but from rank political opportunism.. They should beware of Greeks carrying gifts, as the Trojans learnt to their cost !

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   I had thought that our electronic media could stoop no further. But last week they plunged to new depths in their handling of the Sridevi story, displaying an insensitivity bordering on necrophelia. Without any regard for the truth or the feelings of the family or any respect for the poor dead woman these despicable anchors spun off all kinds of sordid theories of their own: that Sridevi's marriage had been on the rocks, that her husband was in dire financial straits, that he was using her as a milch cow, that she was on drugs, alcohol and anti-depressants. Some channels even recreated the scene of her death graphically, bath tub and all! A couple of channels left no one in doubt that they considered her death to be a murder, with her husband as prime suspect. One politician even opined that it was a "hit job" by a hired professional. And all this when there was not a shred of evidence to support such bizarre conclusions. Even the autopsy report of " death by drowning" was dismissed haughtily, primarily because the word "drowning" was mis-spelt!
   With this episode our TV channels have crossed the line between journalism and voyeurism, between reporting and scandal mongering. They have justifiably attracted the condemnation of international mainstream media such as the BBC, Washington Post, Khaleej Times, to name a few. The problem is that some anchors have bigger than life egos and sense of their own self importance. They no longer preside over " News" channels but over " Views" channels. And the views are neither objective, rational nor factual; they are coloured with the prejudice of either the anchor himself or of the corporates who own them. And they are projected with an astonishing degree of arrogance and insolence:  news and discussions are presented in a biased manner, no one is allowed to contradict their views, those who still do so are shouted down, their mikes switched off or the speaker thrown out of the studio. I would go so far as to say that the conduct of these channels goes way beyond even scurrilous pseudo- journalism: they are actually spreading hatred and venom, pitting communities against each other, one region of the country against another. They have converted freedom of speech into licence to demean, distort and deprave.Yes, it is their job to ask questions-the right ones, which they never do- but it is not their job to supply the answers. It is also not their job to broadcast their political biases under the garb of journalism
   Unfortunately, these dishonest and thoroughly compromised channels will continue to thrive because ours is an inert society when it comes to protecting values. There is no push back from either the public or from the corporates whose advertisements sustains these channels. We need to learn a lot from those countries which value journalistic ethics and whose public consistently boycotts news organisations ( and products) which offend societal sensitivities. Just recently H+M, the Swedish retailing giant, had to withdraw an entire ad campaign showing a young African boy in a hooded jacket with the tag line " The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle!" because it was seen as being racist. And last week UNILEVER, the largest FMCG company in the world, has served notice on Facebook and Google that it will blacklist them if they do not devise a policy to filter out violent, misogynist or hate content from their platforms. And the two internet giants are listening!
   It will not happen here for many more years, if ever. Because our unrepentant news channels offer the justification that they must be doing something right since they top the TRP ratings. I guess that's true. But they would do well to remember that in a sewer line its always the scum that floats on the top.   

Friday, 23 February 2018


[ This piece was published on the HILLPOST on 24.2.2018]

   For the last three years I have been a resolute supporter of Kejriwal and AAP, reposing faith in the change he had promised ( and delivered, to a substantial extent, in spite of the obstacles put in his path by a vindictive central government). He has made many mistakes along the way, but these I put down to inexperience and the residual effects of his turbulent start in politics. My rationalising was that, so long as he did not compromise on his core values- integrity, simple life style, transparency in decision making, upholding secular ideals and keeping the people's welfare at the centre of his politics- any administrative or political error or miscalculation would be par for the course. Of late, however, Kejriwal has made it very difficult for me to retain any faith or trust in him, and has compelled me to question his capacity to deliver any real "change".
   The first stirring of doubts began with the nominations of two businessmen, with no record of any public service or connection with the IAC ( India against Corruption), as the AAP candidates for the Rajya Sabha. The choice was as inexplicable as it was shocking. Couldn't AAP find even two persons within its own fold or from among the other 1.2 billion who better reflected its ethos and values? The only assets which these two worthies brought to the table was money, and no eyebrows would have been raised if any other party had chosen them. But AAP ? I waited for Kejriwal to come out with a simple explanation that could allay the misgivings but till today he has not uttered a word. I was left to draw my own conclusions, dear reader, and no doubt they match with your own.
   But the faith still lingered, for when you want to believe in something desperately uprooting the gods you have worshipped can be a bloody exercise, as Charles Lamb noted many decades ago. However, what Kejriwal and his MLAs did last Tuesday to the Chief Secretary of Delhi was the final act of repudiation of any ethical standard of behaviour or responsible conduct. To misbehave, manhandle and assault a senior officer just because he disagrees with you is not only outrageous and distressing, it is also moronic . At one stroke, it has negated everything that AAP claimed it stood for and exposed it as just another malignant entity in the garbage heap of Indian politics. The mirror now reflects the true face of Dorian Grey. The official investigation will doubtless drag on, some people arrested; the BJP and Congress will gleefully organise protest dharnas, secure in the belief that their MLAs have not beaten up a Chief Secretary, at least; AAP will allege vindictive politics ( it has already alleged that the central govt. is anti Muslim and anti-Dalit since the two arrested MLAs belong to these denominations). But the deeper fall- out of the incident will be disastrous for Kejriwal and his party.
   It is not for nothing that the permanent bureaucracy is known as the steel frame: it is what holds the edifice of government together. Any political executive has to work through this frame, and any Chief Minister worth his salt knows that if you continue battering it it will cease to function. A wise man does not quarrel with his tools. The prudent CMs therefore tinker with the schema, not demolish it; they remove a few rusted parts, implant a few of their choosing but retain the structure as a whole. The bureaucracy has accepted these minor OPD procedures as a political privilege. But Kejriwal decided that he did not need this structure and sought to replace it with his own MLAs and volunteers, disrupting the very Operating System of government. He has suspended more than 200 officials, charge- sheeted and filed FIRs against countless more, publicly humiliated and castigated senior officials including three past Chief Secretaries, labelled them collectively as agents of the BJP and the Lieutenant Governor.
   He certainly had reason to feel frustrated and angry as he was unable to implement many of his programmes because of the perceived " non cooperation" by this bureaucracy. But he should have realised that the filibustering was not the fault of his officers but was a consequence of the peculiar power sharing structure of Delhi where all the powers vested in the central government and the LG. He should have appreciated that the Delhi bureaucracy is perhaps the most miserable and unhappy in the country, caught in the cross-fire between three constitutional authorities. A wiser man, less tangled in his own ego, would have sympathised with these officers, understood their constraints and sought their help and cooperation in finding a way through the mine field of the battle zone which Delhi has now become. And his bureaucrats would have found a way, for no one can quote scripture better than the devil. But by declaring war on them, and now by beating up the Chief Secretary, he has created a permanent enmity with them. The anger against him and his party runs deeper in the government structure than we had thought, as the protests and heckling in the secretariat the next day indicated.
   Kejriwal has walked into the trap set for him by the BJP and the central govt. The remaining two years of his term were crucial for him to fulfill his promises to the citizens of Delhi, but his intemperance and violent behaviour has now ensured that he will get no cooperation or assistance from his employees and officers. The public at large is revolted by his reprehensible behaviour: they had brought him in to see change, not anarchy. Kejriwal had one small window to defuse the situation, but by refusing to utter a word of regret, by not taking any action against the two MLAs responsible for the assault, and by rushing off to Chennai to play second fiddle to Kamal Haasan instead, he has sounded his own death knell. He is now a lame duck, a king without a kingdom, another failed chapter in India's saga of desired change. The Americans have a better term for such a condemned figure: Dead Man Walking. 

Monday, 19 February 2018


        ( 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 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 !