Saturday, 19 August 2017

H.P' S MODEL OF TOURISM IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.


    Mass tourism in Himachal is slowly but surely decimating the natural beauty of the state and turning its once idyllic towns into urban nightmares. It is also imposing an unbearable burden on its infrastructure-roads, water supply, transport, waste disposal systems- thereby degrading the quality of life of its permanent residents. The state govt. so far has been going on an unplanned expansionist mode, happy that the numbers keep going up every year. It has done little to regulate or guide this human tsunami; to the contrary, by misconceived and populist moves such as regularisation of illegal constructions it is only encouraging mindless concretisation of the state. It is time for it to sit back, take a hard look at the damage being caused and take some remedial measures to limit the adverse effects of this model of tourism which may be acceptable in the plains but is totally unsuited for a mountain state like Himachal.
    The numbers tell their own story. The state was visited by 17.53 million tourists in 2015- almost three times its own population!- and the figure is growing by 7.5 % per annum, thanks largely to the unrest in Kashmir. It is an important contributor to the economy of the state, providing 400,000 jobs and generating about Rs. 1200 crore, which is between 8% to 10% of the state's GDP. But there is a hidden story beneath these numbers. First, only some parts of the state benefit, not the entire state. Almost 50% of these tourists visit only three locations: Kullu ( 33.15 lakhs), Shimla ( 32.65 lakhs) and Kangra ( 24 lakhs). The tribal districts of Kinnaur( 1.80 lakhs) and Lahaul Spiti ( 1.76 lakhs) are badly neglected. The implications of these figures is twofold: not only are the monetary benefits of tourism badly skewed, the three favoured towns/districts are unable to bear the burden of these huge numbers and are turning into Dharavi type concrete slums. Their permanent citizens live under a constant siege, their roads, open spaces, markets, parking all taken over by the hordes from the plains, prices of everything hiked, water supply being rationed to cater to the visitors. Their towns are being ruined by ever increasing construction to meet the needs of these millions of visitors- hotels, restaurants, parking structures, roads- most of them in violation of the building bye-laws; the green areas are being systematically depleted: the illegal massacre of 450 deodar trees in Tara Devi last year, right under the nose of the state govt., is an illustration in point. I believe only a patwari was punished!
    Second, the revenue earned by the state- Rs. 1200 crore- is a pittance compared to the huge number of people coming to the state: on a per capita basis it is little more than Rs. 600 per tourist. Any proper cost benefit analysis- factoring in social, economic, environmental, health costs- would reveal that the benefits to the state from this kind of low-cost mass tourism are minimal. And this is happening because the state has been consistently unable to attract the high-end tourist. A study carried out by AC Nielson Org-Marg in 2011-2012 underpins this dismal finding. It gives the percentage of tourists visiting Himachal, income slab wise:

INCOME BETWEEN RS. 100,000 - 200,000-----------------12%.
INCOME BETWEEN RS. 200,000 - 500,000----------------- 84%.
INCOME ABOVE  RS. 500,000--------------------------------- 4%.

This table says it all. The overwhelming percentage of tourists to the state are budget tourists who drain the state's public resources and despoil its natural assets but contribute very little to its economy. And we have got into a vicious cycle: as their numbers keep increasing more and more of this second grade( if not substandard) infrastructure is created for them, more and more of the natural landscape is being destroyed. As a result, the space for higher priced, premium tourism keeps shrinking even more. The govt. has shown no initiative in breaking out of this "chakravyuh"- to the contrary, by its inability to provide helicopter services to major towns or to resolve the imbroglio with the Oberois' Hotel Wild Flower Hall in Kufri, it has ensured that reputed hotel chains have stayed away along with their customary high paying clientle.
    There have been some policy initiatives in the past, to be fair: eco-tourism, home-stays, ropeways; these are too few, however, and too sporadic. What is now required is a paradigm change of the very model of tourism, not just tinkering around. 
    The mass- tourism model is gradually getting discredited throughout the world and citizens/ residents ( if not yet governments) have begun to oppose it precisely because of its adverse cultural, landscape and infrastructural impacts. Large scale protests by local populations have been held in Barcelona, Venice, Thailand, even Nepal and Bhutan( which has imposed a cap on the number of tourists). We need to learn from this and accept that Tourism too is an Industry and, like all industries, has to be regulated. Given the ever increasing numbers, the old laissez faire attitude will no longer do. We do not need any more evidence of the damage being caused by the existing form of tourism in the state: the condition of Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala; the traffic jams on Rohtang; the desecration of Khajjiar and Triund; the mounds of plastic on the railway tracks between Kalka and Solan; the road in Kufri ankle deep in horse dung ; the 67000 "shradhalus" defecating all the way to Manimahesh lake, the regular hours- long traffic jams on all major highways: the govt. has to be blind to need more evidence of a state collapsing under the weight of tourism. Its only answer is to build or widen even more highways ( the Parwanoo- Shimla and Kiratpur-Manali National Highways being prime examples of this myopic vision: all they will do is increase traffic exponentially and destabilise the hills for the next twenty years).
    Urgent and innovative, out- of- the- box ideas are needed to control numbers and shift the trajectory to high-end, quality tourism. These could include: stop registration of new hotels/restaurants/resorts in urban areas already saturated; impose higher taxes/cesses/parking fees in these towns to divert the flow to smaller towns; provide special incentives and concessions ( like those made available for eco-tourism and home-stay units) for tribal areas to encourage visitors to go there; impose a strict cap based on carrying capacity at natural landscape areas such as Triund, Chandrata, Beas Kund, Prashar and Saryolsar lakes, Bhrigu lake, Hatu and Shali peak( this is only an illustrative list); impose heavy fees for visiting these locations to keep the numbers in check and generate resources for their maintenance; STOP BUILDING ROADS to every conceivable place- there is no surer way of destroying the ambience and natural beauty of a place; engage the big hotel chains in a dialogue for coming to Himachal and resolve the dispute with Wildflower Hall to instill confidence in them. Yes, this will make a trip to Himachal more expensive, but that is the nature of the beast. If one wants a premium product-and Himachal is one such- then one must be prepared to pay more for it, just as for any consumer goods or services. Diluting the standard or quality of your product to attract more customers is not a sensible business model. We need not be apologetic about it- come to this state if you can afford it, or else you can go to Murthal, Karnal, Badkal or Garhmukhteshwar.
    This is only a wish-list. Much more needs to be done, and quickly. I give it only ten years before we reach the irreversible tipping point from which there can be no return to the Himachal we have all lived in and loved with a passion which almost hurts. 
   

Saturday, 12 August 2017

POINT COWNTERPOINT-- THE COW AS PROXY.


        There is a supreme irony and incongruity in the fact that the most docile, humble and giving of animals- the cow- has in India become the symbol of hate and intolerance on one side and of fear and intimidation on the other. I do not want to get into politics this week- frankly, I'm sick of it as no doubt you too are, dear reader- but the extreme positions adopted on this meek animal speaks volumes of the crudeness and ignorance that has entered public discourse in these trying times. The Middle Path espoused by Buddha is no longer an option, it appears; instead, the words of a spoofed-up Confucius make more sense: " Man who walk in middle of road get run over !"
        The BJP will have us believe that the cow is a threatened species: nothing can be further from the truth. The last cattle census puts their population at 180 million, and growing at a healthy 6% annually. More cows die of starvation in gaushalas, cattle pounds and on the streets ( mainly by ingesting plastic) than are smuggled abroad- another bug-bear claim by the govt. Most of the big abbatoirs and automated meat packing companies are owned by Hindus. And yet an impression is being sought to be spread that the cow is in danger ( from a certain community, by implication) and all true Hindus must come to its succour. And so comedy becomes farce. The VHP has demanded a Cow Ministry at the center. Madhya Pradesh has introduced an Ambulance service for cows. The Union govt., having biometricised ( not the same as circumcised) every living ( and dead) Indian has launched a pilot project for an Aadhar type ID for cows. This is endemic lunacy on a sub continental scale.
      The other side of the divide is equally bonkers and ridicules each and every dimension of the raging cow debate: opposing gaushalas as a waste of public funds and ridiculing the age-old beliefs in the value of the cow's by-products. On the 10th of August this year hundreds of scientists across the country took out a "March for Science" urging the govt. to stop the propagation of "obscurantist and unscientific" ideas. They were particularly incensed at the govt. providing funds to the CSIR for  "Panchgavya" - research to establish scientifically the beneficial properties of cow products, including its urine and dung. Why this cloistered mind set ? Tradition and ancient literature should not be scoffed at under the guise of science. I have been personally using a number of cow based products of the Patanjali range for some time now: GONYLE ( a phenoil substitute made out of cow urine),  MOSTICK ( a herbal mosquito repellent) and an agarbatti ( dhoop) made out of cow dung. I find them far superior to the standard branded stuff in the market, especially because they are completely free of any harmful chemicals. My maid, in fact, refuses to use any phenoil except Gonyle because, she says, it doesn't irritate the skin on her hands like the chemical based phenoils  do!
     I am convinced that the cow is an economic power-house if only we approached its potential rationally and not for electoral purposes with hare brained schemes, or opposed it simply because the BJP and RSS consider it the best vote grabber after Kashmir. I recollect that in 2008-09 I had, on the instructions of the then Chief Minister, visited a number of gaushalas and " sansthas" in UP to study at first hand the many uses of cow products. I was so impressed with the potential that I had submitted a detailed report to the CM on my return, recommending that we also start pilot projects on similar lines in HP. Establishing "gaushalas" or " gausadans" as economic ( not political) units would serve a double purpose- provide a hospice for ailing and/or abandoned cows and produce Panchgavya products as an alternative to the harmful, chemical based stuff that we are exhorted to consume by TV ads. everyday. Over time these units can become financially self sufficient. Why must we perpetually wait for a Baba Ramdev to come up with new and novel business models ? Unfortunately, I never heard anything about my proposal thereafter, even though the gentleman was a BJP Chief Minister- but I guess cow politics was not in fashion then!
   With a four day weekend coming up, I don't want to end on a dismal note about the long suffering bovine; so, in order to cheer up the reader, I'm sharing below a vision of the future sent to me by an old school pal ( yes, some of them are still alive and kicking!). No, his name is not George Orwell.

Phone rings.
MCD: Haalo?
Ram: Haan hello, there is a dead cow lying outside our house — can you please come and remove it?
MCD: Are you sure it’s a cow?
Ram: What?
MCD: Are you sure it’s a cow – not a horse, or goat?
Ram: Well, looks like a cow, has two horns, an udder…
MCD: Forget all that. Does it have a Cowdhaar bar code on its ear?
Ram: A what?
MCD: A Cowdhaar bar code. Just as your Aadhaar card has biometric information, every registered cow is now required to have a bar code attached to its ear that contains all relevant details.
Ram: ‘Wait, let me check — no I can’t see any bar code.
MCD: An unregistered cow — that’s going to be a problem.
Ram: Is there something I can do — I don’t want it lying outside the house?
MCD: You need to get a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the local Gau Rakshak Dal leader, duly attested by the panchayat head or district magistrate as well as the local police chief.
Ram: Why do I need that?
MCD: You don’t, Sahib, but I do. See, if I take away a cow that does not have a valid Cowdhaar code, then someone later can claim it was taken illegally. And the Gau Rakshaks will not spare me.
Ram: I don’t even know there was a local Gau Rakshak dal — how do I get hold of them?
MCD: Dial 1800 Gau Mata — they will assist you.
Ram: Okay, then you will come to pick up the cow?
MCD: Sure, as long as you have the death certificate.
Ram: For a cow? Who will give me a death certificate from a cow?
MCD: Any licensed Gau-ne-cow-logist, with a Hindu priest as a witness.
Ram: What’s a Gau-ne-cow-logist?
MCD: A doctor who specialises in bovine medicine — it’s the latest field of study in our medical schools. With over 180 million potential patients, whose lives are all very valuable to society, there is a lot of money to be made!
Ram: Ok, so NoC, followed by death certificate — then you pick up the cow?
MCD: We need a release form from the district animal welfare unit — basically that the cow is not someone else’s property and that you have the right to ask me to take it away.
Ram: But it’s dead!!
MCD: And that makes it even more important — if it were a live cow, would you even be calling me?
Ram: No, but this is ridiculous — how long will it take to get the release form?
MCD: It depends, some animal welfare officers require you to place the ad for 14 days, others for an entire month.
Ram: An ad??? What kind of ad?
MCD: Basically like a missing person’s ad — you place it in two local papers, one English and one vernacular — asking if anyone has claim to the cow. Take a picture of the cow and submit it along with any identification marks.
Ram: But in 14 days, the carcass would rot completely — what’s the point of your coming then?
MCD: The point is that we need to follow the rules and regulations so that everyone’s interest is protected — especially that of the cow!
Ram: This is ludicrous. You know what, I’m just going to get a few people and pick it up myself and move it.
MCD: I would strongly advise you against doing that.
Ram: Why — who’s going to stop me?
MCD: Your local Gau Rakshak Dal, for one — all calls to this number are being recorded. So the fact that you have a dead cow at your house is already known to the various authorities, and they will expect you to contact them for the relevant forms. And fees.
Ram: Fees?
MCD: Of course — do you think the NoC, death certificate etc. come for free? It will cost you 5-15,000 rupees by the time you’re done.
Ram: That’s extortion!
MCD: No, just the new e-cow-nomics!






Tuesday, 8 August 2017

TANKS BELONG AT DOKLAM, NOT JNU.


[ This was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 7th august, 2017 ]

                                 

   These last two weeks have  been particularly traumatic for us seditious citizens of this great country, for we have been administered, not one, but two booster doses of nationalism.
    The first was at JNU ( Jawaharlal Nehru University), Delhi, where a day ( Kargil or Vijay Diwas) which should have belonged to our uniformed heroes was hijacked to serve a political ideology. The function, presided over by two union Ministers and a supine Vice Chancellor, which was meant to remember those who sacrificed their lives for the country 18 years ago, was somehow distorted to a clarion call for Nationalism. This was further embodied in the menacing silhouette of a battle tank, which shall now be installed on the campus to inculcate in the students the spirit of “Nationalism.”
   To associate, or equate, a weapon of war with nationalism or patriotism goes far beyond the jingoism which has been the calling card of this particular Vice Chancellor so far. It boggles the mind that any person who has read history or political science can ever think that the true spirit of nationalism is the creation of the Army. Yes, the Army protects nations and makes sacrifices for their survival- but it does not create them ( not democracies, at least). As Rohan D'Souza of Kyoto University explains in a brilliant article in the Hindustan Times of 26th July 2017, nation making and the creation of national identities are the product of  thinkers, lawyers, writers, teachers, poets and, most important, the common man on the street facing bullets and lathis. Nationalism is a concept born out of intellectualism, not militarism; it is spontaneous, not coerced ; it is felt in our hearts, not worn on our sleeves. We have to look no further than the history of our own independence movement to appreciate this truism. To be brutally blunt, the Indian nation was not created by Generals Thimayya or Cariappa- not even by a Subhash Chandra Bose- but by people like Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar, Patel and the unnamed hordes who took part in- and were beaten up in - the many dharnas, satyagrahas, protests and Dandi type marches. We respect our armed forces, but do not assign them a role they were never designed to perform.
    As far as I know there is no other university in the world which has inducted on its campus a tank as an exemplar or symbol of an intellectual idea or value. A battle tank is a symbol of the power of the state, of  destruction and compulsive obedience, whereas a university is the precise antithesis of these concepts. A university is supposed to promote the power of the intellect and of non-violent didactics, to create new ideas and extend the frontiers of knowledge, to nurture freedom- of thought, speech and inquiry- and to question, not comply. Therefore, the JNU tank is nothing but a well crafted strategy to send a not so subtle message to the students and faculty of this institution which has been consistently ranked number one in the country: behave like a Military College, or else. It is no coincidence that JNU was chosen for this latest putsch by the government- this university is the one bug-bear that the government would desperately like to see humbled- all other central universities, including the IIMs and IITs have more or less caved in- so as to complete its emasculation of academia in the country. The government has tried everything so far- sedition cases against students, reducing the PhD seats by almost 800, intimidation of faculty, proscribing of certain events sought to be organised by the student unions, deregistering students who are "trouble-makers", even approaching the courts to prevent demonstrations and protests on the campus- but this pesky university is still holding out ! Hence the tank. One wonders what will come next- send in a battalion or two of the Para-Commandos ? Convert the campus into a military barracks ? Deploy a Sukhoi bomber next to the tank ? And come to think of it, a lot of our other institutions also need a dose of this right wing idea of nationalism and patriotism, so can we expect to see tanks outside Parliament and the Supreme Court too, soon ?- just to inspire more patriotic feelings, of course.
   The second antibiotic dose of nationalism was administered, unfortunately, by the Madras High Court. By now adept at rushing in where angels, and even the founding fathers of our constitution were loath to go, the Court had earlier this year ordered the State government to waive off all farm loans ! Fortunately, the Supreme Court has stayed this order. Undeterred by this slight setback the High Court has now directed that singing Vande Mataram ( the national song) shall be mandatory for all govt. offices, schools and even private institutions, on two days every week. I guess its on stronger ground here for earlier the Supreme Court had mandated the compulsory playing of the National anthem in all movie halls. However, I am absolutely unable to comprehend why our courts, which have 40 million other cases to decide, are so intent on turning us into a nation of balladeers and minstrels. These are empty and meaningless gestures- I daresay the courts would engender much more of the nationalist and patriotic spirit if they decided cases on time, refrained from giving bail to the likes of a Shahbuddin, stopped the central govt. chopping down 1700 trees in the heart of Delhi to build a convention center, or asked the union govt. why it has been sitting on the Panama Papers revelations for the last two years ( when even a much derided Pakistan judiciary has removed a Prime Minister for similar charges). The genuine spirit of nationalism and patriotism is created by good governance, equitable delivery of justice and responsive public institutions. Give the people something to be proud of as a country, don't force feed them on tanks and national songs. Heed the words of wiser people, in this case Winston Churchill : " I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught."


Saturday, 5 August 2017

AADHAR UNDER MY KURTA.


   As the Union government goes about linking the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh I find myself doing a bit- actually, lots- of linking myself. These last few months have been exclusively devoted to linking various facets of my personal life into an ID trail for the benefit of the government's sleuths. It started with linking Aadhar to my gas connection, then to PAN card, Bank accounts. Income Tax returns, Cell phones, Pension account, CGHS card. Today I feel like I have more links than Dawood Ibrahim has to the underworld. And it keeps getting worse.
  The other day I was having a hair-cut ( okay, a trim, since there isn't much hair left) at my barber's in Madhu Vihar and wondering at the injustice of having to pay more for a haircut every year even as the foliage keeps diminishing, when I came across another astounding piece of news. Apparently in Delhi you can no longer cremate a loved one unless you produce an Aadhar card to establish the identity of the deceased ! I guess it had to happen- having run out of living souls to harass, the govt. has now moved on to the dead. This may be the reason why the number of dead bodies being discovered hanging from trees or burnt in forests seem to be increasing- its more convenient ! And here we were blaming the poor innocent gau rakshaks for it! In the coming " acche din" dead bodies shall no longer be encased in burial shrouds but shall be bound in red tape, I fear.                                                                                                                            In any case, I'm taking no chances- when I've finally kicked the bucket decisively ( not just knocked it over, as I do every day to test the waters, as it were) I don't want the inevitable celebrations by my biological descendants marred by a search for my Aadhar card or awkward questions as to why my first name is spelt differently  in Hindi and English by Spellcheck. I've stapled everything to my Will, which now looks like an Arunachal passport with stapled Chinese visas - driving licence, Aadhar, PAN, cell phone bill, Pension Payment order, the Bronze appreciation certificate issued by the IT Department (just before they rejected my refund claim), Voter ID card and a copy of my marriage photo-this last to prove that I've always looked like a thoughtful beagle  and therefore my Aadhar card mug shot should not be doubted just on that score. And now I'm also considering uploading them all onto the Cloud.When I reach the pearly gates I don't want to find that Mr. Jaitley ( may his tribe increase) has preceded me and is insisting on their production before allowing me admission. Not that I realistically expect to make it to the pearly gates after thirty five years in the government- but you never know: maybe my dossier will be missing, just like the CCTV footage of Sunanda Pushkar's hotel floor or the Vyapam computer drives. I can get lucky too, you know! 
   On a more serious note, however, I wonder why the govt. is hellbent on this surveillance overdrive when it should be concentrating on creating jobs, improving investment and stopping the decline of the manufacturing sector, all of which are at historical lows, according to the latest CMIE report. Does it think we are a whole nation of crooks ? Some of us indeed are, and Mr. Jaitley knows who they are: corporate defaulters, Swiss bank account holders, the 440 names in the Panama papers, to mention just a few. Why doesn't he get after them instead of hounding the few who pay their income tax or have a couple of thousand in their Jan Dhan accounts ? Even Pakistan, a country we constantly ( and rightly, most of the time) deride has disqualified a Prime Minister on the basis of the Panama papers whereas we have put them into deep freeze. Mr. Modi has got his priorities completely wrong. Reforms are supposed to make the common man's life easier, but here we are being delivered one sledge-hammer blow after another: demonetisation, GST, Aadhar linking. "Ease of doing business" is alright, sir, but how about  "Ease of Living"? Or dying? 
   One final thought, shared with me by an old friend. At a time when a chap cannot even consummate his marriage without producing his Aadhar card and verifying his biometrics, why is no one talking about linking Aadhar with the EPIC( Voter ID card)? Even the Election Commission acknowledges the huge problem of bogus voters, multiple EPICS for the same voter and impersonation. Won't the Aadhar linking obviate this evil once and for all? Why this conspiracy of silence on this issue by the government and the opposition ? Could it be that the status quo suits them all ? Think about it.

[ Author's note: Since I wrote this piece the Govt. has officially announced on 4th.August that Aadhar would be mandatory for obtaining death certificates. Something to finally die for! ]

Saturday, 29 July 2017

MORTALITY AND MEMORIES- A REQUIEM FOR OLD FRIENDS NOW GONE.


    I am now 66, and as the aging process proceeds inexorably one is coming to accept one of the more poignant downsides of growing old: one is now in the zone where one loses a friend, colleague or close relative each year. In the last year or so I have had to bid farewell to two colleagues, one uncle, two aunts, one sister-in-law and my father. They are fond but painful memories now: it hurts not to be able to speak to them anymore, but the pain, I find, is somewhat tempered if one speaks ABOUT them sometimes, in a way reliving the time spent with them.
   Two friends handed in their premature resignation letters this last year: Sudripta Roy and Jai Prakash Negi, both colleagues who left a lot behind by which to be remembered.
   Sudripta was only 62. Blessed with boyish good looks, he was a quintessential Bengali- charming, intelligent, cosmopolitan, gregarious, social, but what I liked best about him was his outrageous sense of humour and impish nature. A raconteur par excellence, always ready with a joke or a laugh, he was great company of an evening, a competent imbiber and trencherman. But he was also a polished bureaucrat who took his career seriously, and it surprised no one that he became Chief Secretary. He had a well thumbed copy of the IAS Civil list with him in which he had, quite early in his career, worked out when he would become Chief Secretary ! This was arrived at by a process of crossing out the chances of those senior chaps who would not make the grade, for various reasons: too old, too stupid, attachment to Delhi, politically intractable ( he put me in this category, quite rightly as it turned out!), too upright, and so on. He was right in most cases, I believe. Chandana should preserve that copy of the Civil list.
   In the early 80's we were both Deputy Commissioners- I was in Bilaspur and Sudripta was in Hamirpur. In those days DCs had to manage with broken down Ambassador cars which used to catch fire every second week. Sudripta's car was in an exceptionally derelict condition and he had been waging a long but losing battle with the Finance Deptt for a replacement: FD, like a contrary virgin, would just not say "yes." Sudripta decided that conventional warfare would be pointless and some guerrilla  tactics were in order.
   The then Chief Secretary had called a meeting of all DCs in Shimla . Now, no one in Himachal took Mr. Tochhawng ( the CS) lightly, primarily because he was six feet four inches tall, just as wide and a no nonsense man , though with an equally large heart of gold. He once came to my official residence in Una for dinner, noticed that it had no boundary wall ( the obdurate Executive Engineer refused my pleas to build one and I was then too callow to have learnt the magisterial arts of arm twisting other departments). Mr. Tochhwang immediately rang up the Chief Engineer and ordered the wall to be constructed within two weeks. When I thanked him he winked at me and said: " Can't have all those chaps on the road ogling at the DC's pretty wife, Shukla, can we ?" The wall was up in one week.
   Coming back to the DCs' meeting, we were all seated five minutes before the appointed hour. All except Sudripta. Mr. Tochhawng came in, noticed the empty seat and waited. Ten minutes elapsed and we could see the pressure building up inside the CS, as in a volcano. Fifteen minutes and still no Sudripta. Just as we prepared ourselves for a Krakatoa type explosion Sudripta rushed in, but what an apparition he was!- unshaven, bloodshot eyes, clothes dirty and torn, rumpled hair with wisps of straw sticking out, stinking like a gaushala ! In response to the roar from the Chair he explained that he had left Hamirpur the previous night, his car had broken down near Ghumarwin, no one would give him a lift at night ( there were no cell phones then, remember, and no PSOs) so he spent the night in a roadside ditch. In the morning he managed a lift in a truck carrying goats for Shimla, here he was, and would the CS be kind enough to excuse his tardiness. To cut a long story short, Sudripta went back to Hamirpur that evening in a brand new car, to the envy of eleven other DCs who could only admire his ingenuity. In later years we did ask Sudripta whether he had made up that story, but he would only smile: a master craftsman doesn't reveal his secrets, after all !
   Jai Prakash Negi ( universally known as JP) was my batchmate: he passed on last year. He was, in many ways, quite the opposite of Sudripta: if the latter was an open book, JP was a book whose pages had to be prised open one by one. A wonderful, sharing and caring friend he was by nature secretive; a typical bureaucrat, getting any information from JP was like extracting water from a stone. I once spent 15 minutes with him on Platform no.1 of New Delhi station trying to find out what his sons( he had twin boys) were doing: at the end of this period all I learnt was that they were alive and doing well!
   JP was modeled on Mr. Micawber of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers fame; he always used ten words where one would have sufficed. A conversation or meeting with him was a Ring Road experience: going round and round and never coming to the point. I first met JP in the Academy at Mussoorie; on learning that I was posted to Jwalamukhi for my revenue training I sought him out to find out the route to the place ( I had never been north of Murthal in my life). JP was very helpful and after half an hour of detailed directions I thought I had grasped it. Little did I know at the time JP's powers of obfuscation: I followed his instructions to the T- and ended up at Jogindernagar!
   I will always be grateful to JP for having introduced me to that most wonderful of places- Kinnaur. This was his home district, of course. While under training at HIPA in Shimla JP invited me to come with him to his village, Baturi in the Karcham valley. I accepted happily and we set off in an HRTC bus, half of whose seats were occupied by goats returning from their winter pastures in the plains. JP had also forgotten to inform me that Baturi was situated 2500 feet above Karcham and had no road: it was a straight climb ! The afore mentioned goats had no problem negotiating that sun-baked mountainside but my Charminar lungs made heavy weather of it. Baturi was heaven and Eden combined and I witnessed at first hand the amazing hospitality and conviviality for which our tribal areas are justly famous. JP's father ( a Forest Range Officer) was also there to welcome me, and father and son ensured I remained drunk on the local "angoori" or " ghanti" for the entire duration of my visit.
   They are gone now- Sudripta and JP, leaving us with a whole host of memories for which we can only humbly thank them. But they have also left behind a lesson for us, at least for those of us who are approaching the autumn of our lives: there is a price to be paid for getting old, and the gradual loss of friends, and those we love and cherish, is part of this price. Robert Browning in a poem wrote to his beloved wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: " Grow old along with me, the best  is yet to be".  I can wish nothing more for my friends- and for myself.    

Thursday, 27 July 2017

KARNATAKA RAISES THE RED FLAG



[ This piece was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 27.7.17 ]
   

   Karnataka has announced that it will examine the legality of having its own state flag, something it has had unofficially since the 60’s. As expected it has set off a firestorm in TV studios and simulated outrage in political circles. There is probably no legal bar to the idea as the Constitution nowhere prohibits a state from having its own flag or other emblems. Moreover, the Supreme Court, in the Bommai judgement of 1994 specifically ruled that a state can have its own flag, but it would be lower in status to the national flag. ( Incidentally, there is a delicious irony in the fact that at the time Bommai was the Chief Minister of Karnataka! History has its way of coming full circle). Flags are accepted symbols but this Karnataka flag symbolises something which should disturb all right thinking Indians.
  Mr. Siddaramaiah may not know this but he is simply an instrument of history in the matter. What he has done is something which was waiting to happen: it was inevitable, just as when you plant a seed the inevitable outcome is the stalk of grain; we would perhaps understand it better through the adage “ as you sow, so shall you reap.”
 Through the flag Mr. Siddaramaiah is asserting the distinct Kannada identity. But why, we may well ask, isn’t the Indian identity good enough ? It perhaps was- in the 1950’s- but over the last 60 years our politicians have chopped up and divided the country into so many thousands of sub-identities and sub-nationalities that we are no longer one nation but a toxic mix of different castes, classes, languages ,regions, religions. These always existed, of course, but as one organic coalescence and not as a witches’ brew in perpetual conflict with each other. What we have done is to drive a wedge between each of these sub-identities, pit one against the other for government largesse, political power and jobs, subjugate one at the cost of the other, create distrust among them to the point of mindless and unremitting violence: North against the South, Kolis against Jadhavs, Yadavs against non-Yadavs, Hindus against Muslims, Jats against Baniyas, Haryanvis against Punjabis, Kashmiris against Pandits, plainsmen against tribals, Tamil Nadu against Karnataka, and Bengal against everyone else. This didn’t happen organically- it was engineered assiduously in the quest for political power, and today we have reached the point where, in a grotesque twist, the main identity has become subservient to the sub-identity- I am a scheduled cast first, a Hindu second, a UP-ite third, and an Indian last. I must, therefore, continuously and aggressively assert my sub-identities to remain in the race for political dominance. This is what the Karnataka Chief Minister is now doing by implying that the national flag is not good enough for the Kannadas and asking for his own flag. It is but the natural progression of national fragmentation.
  One may well ask, but why now ? After all, no such demand had been raised these last sixty five years. The answer is simple- the central govt. has just upped the ante by once again ham handedly trying to impose Hindi on the southern states. Language is the most vital ingredient of a peoples’ identity : it is not just their medium of communication but  it contains their history, their culture, their ethos, their literature, even their Gods. If you want to eradicate a peoples, kill their language. The decision of the BJP government at Delhi, driven by its ideological hormones, to mandate Metro and National Highway signages in Hindi in all the southern states, was exceedingly ill advised. Furthermore, Mr. Modi’s style of centralisation of powers and unilateralism- Aadhar, GST, Cattle rules, Demonetisation- had already made the states wary and apprehensive of further encroachment of their turf. The latest Hindi salvo, therefore,  further strengthened the fear of domination by the northern Hindi speakers, and played into the already existing passion for assertion of sub-regional identities.

  The Karnataka flag will be seen by purists and political scientists as a struggle for federalism. It is that, but it is also much more. It is the latest manifestation of the splintering of a national identity, the inevitable denouement of the process of dividing communities for political gain, of a reassertion of regional power and relevance. It is a push back for the centre, a gentle reminder that a vote percentage of 31% does not confer a mandate on the BJP to ride roughshod over the sensibilities of the states. It is now inevitable that all other states will demand their own flags: such gestures develop an irresistible momentum of their own, as we have seen with the waiver of bank loans for farmers. When you ride the tiger of populism it is impossible to dismount. There will be other similar gestures of defiance- federalism, to be politically correct- in the days to come. Mr. Siddaranaiah’s flag is not one of surrender, it is a call to troops to let the battle begin.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

ARE TRIUND AND KHAJJIAR GOING THE ROHTANG WAY ?

   I was aghast to see a photograph in the Tribune about two weeks back of a long traffic jam in Khajjiar in Chamba- the line of vehicles in this exquisite dale was at least a kilometer long! The SDM Dalhousie further informed the reporter that during the season about 5000 vehicles go to Khajjiar every day. Two days later it was reported that 1000 tourists go to Triund ( above Mcleodganj) every day. What are we doing to our few remaining natural features ?


                          [ Traffic jam at Khajjiar in June 2017. Courtesy The Tribune ]

   Rohtang pass has become a by-word for pollution and the NGT has not helped its cause by allowing 1400 vehicles there everyday. Now that the state govt. has introduced electric buses for the pass, NO OTHER VEHICLES should be allowed ( except for genuine travellers to Leh, Kaza and other places beyond the pass). The NGT should not succumb to pressures from the unholy nexus of hoteliers and taxi unions- their livelihoods ( based on extortion of tourists, mostly) are not more important than the preservation of our natural heritage for future generations. No new taxi permits should be issued for Manali sub-division- it already has more than the area can support. Nor should permits for new hotels be sanctioned: Manali already has more hotel beds than DelhI !And whatever happened to the rope-way from Palchan to Rohtang- the tenders were first floated way back in 2010 and it should have been up and running in three years. The NGT's local Commissioner in Manali, Mr. RakeshwarLal Sood, should monitor its progress with greater urgency, for ultimately this is what will save the Rohtang from the internal combustion engine and the external combustion lobbies.
   Coming back to Khajjiar, I've been there more times than I can remember and never sighted more than a couple of vehicles there. Even though the lake itself must have disappeared by now( every govt. department has tried to arrest its siltation, and with each such intervention it has become smaller!) the glade or vale or meadow is a thing of beauty, unsurpassed even in this state blessed by nature and cursed with commerce. The very idea of 5000 vehicles and 20000 chhola bhatura type of tourists running amok there is a blasphemy. The question, therefore, is: what is the govt. or the district administration doing about controlling this polluting flood ? Obviously, nothing, or we wouldn't have so many vehicles there in the first place. Why should we always be passive, indifferent and safe,  waiting for the NGT or the High Court to do something to stem the rot rather than take the initiative ourselves ? Why do we get fat 7th Pay Commission salaries ? Why are we always silent in the face of pressures from politicians, taxi drivers, bus operators, hoteliers and tourists who have destroyed their own cities and are now hell bent on ravaging what is rightfully our heritage? Cannot the state Forest department, which has more PCCFs, Addl. PCCFs and CCFs than we have wild life in our forests, be more proactive and visionary in protecting places like Khajjiar and Triund ?
   To my mind, the first thing to be done is to assess the carrying capacity of these places and restrict the number of visitors to that number. Secondly, impose a COMPLETE BAN on private or commercial vehicles going to Khajjiar. Instead acquire a few electric buses for the purpose as is being done for Rohtang. Third, erect barriers and do not allow any form of plastic to be taken to either of these places, not even PET bottles. Four, impose a heavy user fee for the visit ; if these urbanites can pay five hundred rupees at a multiplex to see the curves of Rakhi Sawant they should not mind paying a similar amount to view the undulations of our mountains and valleys- which, incidentally, are completely natural. Such restrictions are even more necessary for Triund which at 9000 feet is close to the snow line and has no water- garbage and human waste are the biggest threats to its pristine grandeur. I've been there at least thrice ( which I remember) and can state with all confidence that it cannot support more than 50 visitors a day. No night stay should be permitted there, in order to avoid generation of more human waste. There were no structures there a few years ago, except a Forest rest house and a much needed tea stall a kilometer below it, but I now read that a number of dhabas etc. have come up there now. This is nothing but sheer laxity, negligence if not collusion of the forest and revenue officials, for all land there is forest land. They should be demolished immediately lest it become another Marhi. There was also a proposal to build a ropeway from Mcleodganj/ Dharamsala to Triund, primarily to kill another daft idea: build a road to Triund! The technical and financial feasibility reports were ready eight years ago, so why this delay?
   Unplanned mass tourism and excessive "development" are ravaging Himachal's natural environment and assets . Mr. Virbhadra Singh's roads and Mr. Dhumal's hydel projects have already devastated most of the natural beauty of the state; let us at least make an honest effort to save the few blessed places that remain. There has to be a vision beyond money, votes and the Apex scale.