Saturday, 21 October 2017


    I have never been of a mathematical bent of mind, in fact I failed in Maths in my Senior Cambridge exams, thus validating the prediction made by my Maths teacher when I told him that sound travels faster than light. I based my view on the fact that, whenever we surreptitiously played cards in the dorm at night we could hear the Warden coming long before we saw him ( and thus could get rid of the evidence- consisting of cards with photos of girls in bikinis- the Jokers didn't even have that- and cigarette sticks as the money). I have since been consistent in my ignorance of maths, and even today can't figure out why my pension is one hundred times the salary when I joined service- I am positive the gnomes in the Finance Deptt. have made a mistake. However, I may be mathematically challenged but I'm not stupid, so I'm not about to complain.
    Now, Economics has a large dose of maths built into it and so I've never understood Economics either, especially as present day economic theory- the neo-classical model promoted by earlier Nobel prize winners such as Oliver Hart and Alvin Roth- is almost wholly based on mathematical modelling. The only bit of economics I knew was something imparted to me by a batch mate in the Academy, an economics whizz kid, who told me: " Remember, you can pull on a string but you can't push on it!" This discovery didn't get him the Nobel prize but I guess he must have done some strenuous pulling on that string because he got reemployed as a Regulator after retirement. And since I kept pushing on that bloody string instead of pulling on it I retired to my village, unsung and unemployed. So the theory works.
    The universe of Economics, however, has been turned on its head now after Mr. Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel prize for Economics earlier this month . Thaler eschews the mathematical models and bases his models  instead on behavioural traits. He believes that people behave irrationally, but are consistent in their irrational behaviour, which can then be predicted while framing economic policies. Now this is something which I can grasp as an average irrational Indian and therefore I am now beginning to understand economics. This in turn helps me to understand what is happening in India today, something I'm willing to share with the reader.
    The most famous economic principle espoused by Thaler is the NUDGE theory. What it says is that, instead of forcing a citizen to do something ( which he will resist) govt. should gently "nudge" him into doing it, making him believe he has the freedom of choice. Take for example a compulsory savings plan like the PF ( Provident Fund). Thaler says don't force an employee into it- give him a number of choices but make PF the default option. Most employees are too lazy to exercise any choice and so the default option will kick in for most of them. The govt. would have got what it wanted but the employee will feel HE has made the choice, not the govt. I think its brilliant, this NUDGE principle.
    Mr. Modi, who is as subtle as a kick in the backside, doesn't think so- he has his own economic model- the SHOVE principle. This postulates that people are fools who don't know what is good for them, they have to be herded like cattle, they are all crooks and cannot be trusted, they should be given no choices, Big Brother knows best. In pursuance of this breakthrough revelation which had eluded the likes of even Adam Smith, Keynes, Bentham, Pareto and Schumpter, he has unleashed a barrage of economic reforms: demonetisation, GST, Aadhar linking, minimum balances, digitisation, cashless economy, etc. He is convinced that this muscular model of economics will win him both the Nobel prize and the 2019 elections. The former is unlikely, the latter possible. But in that case Mr. Thaler should be asked to return HIS Nobel- the Shove would have won over the Nudge.
    The Shove model, however, cannot work on its own, it has to go in tandem with another economic theory, best exemplified in the FUDGE principle. The globally acknowledged maestro of this model is Mr. Arun Jaitley. In this model the actual macro figures are fudged to make Shove appear to be working, at least till the next elections. And so we are told that demo has worked, even though all the black money has come into the banks and become white; that hoards of unaccounted funds have been unearthed, though only Rs. 4500 crore has been seized so far; that millions of bogus beneficiaries of govt. subsidy schemes have been identified, though most of these are those unfortunates who were unable to link their Aadhars with their ration cards, bank accounts, mid-day meal scheme or gas connections; that GST is a resounding success because Rs. 92000 crores has been realised in the first month, whereas Rs. 64000 crore of this has to be refunded to the assessees; that 20 crore new jobs have been created, whereas Labour Bureau and CMIE figures indicate that millions of existing jobs have been lost; that India will continue to grow at 7.3% whereas we are actually growing at less than 5%. And so on. Mr. Thaler's Nudge has some serious competition from the new Shove and Fudge models. I sometimes wonder: is global economic theory being re-written in 7, Race Course Road ?
    And what about me ? Just when I had convinced myself that I was finally beginning to get a handle on Economics, with behaviour replacing mathematics as its driving force, all this nudging, fudging and shoving has left me confused again. So I've evolved my own model to cope with this confusion. Its called the HUH? principle: its driving force is a state of total incomprehension, and it exhibits itself via a glassy look in the eyes and a gaping mouth. It has not yet made it to the syllabus of the Delhi School of Economics but may do so in the ballot papers of the 2019 elections. Till then I think I'll stick to English Literature 

Sunday, 15 October 2017


{This article was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 14.10.2017 }

     The NITI Ayog has recommended to the Prime Minister that “ lateral entry” from the private sector should be introduced in the civil services at all levels, from Secretary to Deputy Secretary. The PMO is reportedly considering the matter seriously. A bunch of reemployed bureaucrats are seeking to undermine the vision of someone like Sardar Patel who had cautioned the Constituent Assembly that India would disintegrate if it did not have a strong and independent civil service.
    To be candid the IAS has not lived up to the Sardar’s expectations. It has, to an alarming degree, become politicised, slothful, complacent, venal and self serving. But it has also delivered significant results in terms of quality of life indicators, human welfare index, the economy, preserving federalism. Its officers are still chosen by the most rigorous, objective and fair selection process in the country. If it has faltered this is primarily due to the deteriorating quality of the political executive, particularly after Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency and its credo of a “ committed bureaucracy.” It has not been allowed the independence and the freedom to “ speak out its advice” which Sardar Patel had stipulated as an essential condition for its effectiveness. Political governments have used the tools of postings, transfers, reemployment, charge-sheets, and of late tickets to elections to subvert, entice, and intimidate the members of the service to conform. That it still functions most of the time is a tribute to its relevance.
    But instead of attending to the problems mentioned above ( which have been flagged time and again by various Administrative Reforms Commissions and Expert Committees) the government is , as usual, opting for a quick-fix which will further erode the efficiency of the IAS and destroy for ever its special character. The ostensible reason being trotted out is that the IAS lacks domain knowledge in a fast evolving, technology driven world, and hence “ domain experts” from the private sector need to be inducted laterally to make it a modern institution. This is specious and mischievous too, as I will explain in a moment.
    The word “ domain” here is synonymous with “ technical”, meaning that the  IAS needs technically qualified people from the outside. Not true. It already has enough. In the 2017 batch itself out of 264 selected, 118 ( 44.69%) are from an engineering background: if one adds on the Doctors , IT graduates etc. the percentage comes closer to 50. Among the 20 toppers in this batch, 19 are engineers and one is a doctor! There is enough technical expertise in the IAS and this is no reason to get more from the private sector.
   Secondly, the “domain” argument is misleading sophistry and betrays a complete lack of understanding of what the role of a permanent civil service in a democracy should be. The civil servant is not required to be a technical expert. He stands at the point where technology intersects with the development needs of the common man, which can vary from village to village. There can be no one size fits all solutions, no matter how good the technology, as both demonetisation and GST have recently demonstrated. The civil servant’s role is that of the synthesiser- to assimilate a technology or idea, adapt it to the local context, and then extend it to the hundreds of millions, making mid course corrections wherever required. The limited, one dimensional vision that technocrats have would make them unsuitable for this role.
    To fulfil this role an officer needs to have deep grass roots experience, and an IAS officer is uniquely qualified for this. On an average he spends the first ten years of his career in “the field”, getting to know the dynamics of the actual workings of government at the village, panchayat, tehsil and district level. This is an invaluable input for him when he moves on to the Secretariat or Delhi to a policy making level, and one that any lateral entry recruit would completely lack.
    In government nothing is purely technical. Take, for instance, the construction of a dam, which the proponents of lateral entry would regard as a job for a domain ( engineering) expert. It is much, much more for it involves areas an engineer would have no clue about: acquisition of land, resettlement and rehabilitation of oustees, diversion of forest areas, preparation of Environmental Impact  and Social Impact Assessments, formulation and implementation of Environmental Management Plans, financial closure for the project, negotiating PPPs with the buyers, etc. Building the dam is only a small part of the project. It is here that the IAS officer’s role as a coordinator becomes indispensable: he has typically worked in a dozen different departments, his knowledge of administration is both deep and eclectic, he does not exist in a silo like all domain experts do. He is supremely qualified to coordinate the functioning of a government that works through a hundred Ministries at the Centre and in the states.
     An IAS officer IS a domain expert, in the most difficult and complex of all domains- Public Administration, which is a witch’s brew of policies, demographics, politics, social imperatives, religion, law and order. He is an expert at balancing all these, sometimes contradictory elements, and still moving the nation forward. A private sector whizz kid, whose only focus has been on maximising of profit, can never understand the dynamics involved or get the balance right.
    Lateral entry will be a regressive move towards the spoils system, which is perhaps why the government is keen on it. It will give it the freedom to appoint loyalists, fellow travellers, favourites and ideological compatibles. But these birds of passage will have no stakes in the service. In one generation there shall be no permanent civil service left. The PPP model may work for commercial projects, but a permanent civil service cannot function on this model. Government should instead address urgently the issues highlighted above. By all means throw out the bath-water, maybe even a baby or two, but for God’s sake don’t discard the bath-tub itself!

Saturday, 14 October 2017


    So the cat's out of the bag. The marquee appearance of UP Chief Minister Swami Adityanath in the Jan Suraksha Yatra Kerala last week, his strident call to deport the Rohingyas notwithstanding the Supreme Court's observations, and the announcement that he will also campaign for the HP and Gujarat elections is a clear indication of the BJP's election narrative. Hindutva will be the clarion call, not development, for hoovering up the votes. There can be no other explanation. Adityanath's only visible appeal, in his saffron attire and tilak on a shaven visage, is as the flag bearer of a new and aggressive brand of Hindutva. Being the head of the Gorakhpur math adds to these credentials, and he has just reaffirmed this by spending a week during Dussehra at the math instead of the CM's office. He has nothing else to speak for him: his six month reign has been a disaster, what with the anti-Romeo squads, targetting of madrassas, rising crime graph, near destruction of the beef, cattle and leather industry, the infant deaths at Gorakhpur, the violence against girl students at BHU. His only achievement has been that he has more or less dismantled the Yadav mafia of the previous regime, but only to replace it with his own Thakur-Brahmin- gaurakshak version. And yes, he has stated that the Taj Mahal does not represent Indian culture and therefore has been omitted from his Tourism department's brochure! His next big achievement will be the construction of a hundred meter high statue of Ram in Ayodhya: funds for the hospital in Gorakhpur where more than 1500 children die every year will have to wait till his religious fervour is doused by a couple of electoral losses, I guess.
    Unlike the Congress, the BJP does its homework thoroughly. It has realised that its development plank of 2014 will not work because it has collapsed under the weight of too many hasty "reforms", a Prime Minister who loves to police rather than govern with empathy, and a Finance Minister who refuses to get out of the barrister mode of scoring debating points rather than keeping an open mind. And so it is now evident that Hindu nationalism and minority bashing will be the primary agenda for the coming state elections- the opiate of the masses is still a potent force. More poison will be injected into the already ailing body fabric of a tired and confused nation. And herein lies the real danger. Regardless of who wins these elections, the poison will be here to stay. In the three and a half years it has been in power the BJP has altered our cultural fabric of inclusiveness for ever: the mutual suspicion, distrust and animosity between communities and religions it has engendered will persist for a long time, if not for ever. In a way, it has already won the cultural battle- it remains to be seen if it wins the political one too.
*                              *                            *                              *                                 *                        *

    Are you still wondering how tens of millions remain unemployed and undernourished, and thousands commit suicide out of economic distress, even as our economy continues to be the fastest growing in the world? Well, wonder no more. Its because all the gains are being cornered by that 1% of Indians who own 55% of its wealth, or the 10% who have collared 74% of it ( Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report)- the rich are getting richer while the poor are rotting where they were. I refer you to the latest Forbes  Annual India Rich List 2017, which contains some revealing figures. The combined wealth of the 100 richest Indians increased by a whopping 26% to US$ 479 billion. or Rs. 31 lakh crore. To put this in perspective, their wealth is more than the country's forex reserves, it is almost three times the total NPAs of our banks, it is about 20% of our GDP, it is equivalent to the annual incomes of 310 million Indians ! Heading the list, of course, is Mr. Mukesh Ambani whose wealth went up by 67% to US$ 38 billion or Rs.2.5 lakh crore.
    Now, one does not grudge these financial wizards their wealth, but one is certainly entitled to question the economic model which permits this scandalous inequity in a country where 40% of people go to bed hungry. It shows us that a high GDP cannot be the end all of economic planning, because its gains are siphoned off by a privileged few who possess the wherewithal to exploit the policies and systems which in any case are tailor-made for them. The distributive aspects of growth are even more important than its absolute numbers. A 5% GDP growth, whose gains go down to the lowest levels, is much more preferable than a 7% growth which is cornered by the few. Our economists have not yet realised this , but the politicians are beginning to if the results of elections in the UK, USA and now even Germany are anything to go by: the mantra of globalisation and growth for growth's sake is getting increasingly discredited ( I have no doubt that Mr. Modi too, notwithstanding his PT Barnum type of soap-box skills, will also discover this in the coming polls). He is enamoured of the western, neo-classical model which is driven by unrestrained consumerism, a dog-eats-dog market place where the richest are lauded and the devil takes the hindmost. It will not work. Perhaps the time has come to go back to that old man whose spectacles are used only for promoting govt. programmes . Maybe we should also look through them once in a while and try to understand his vision of a country where the  "daridranarayan"- the poorest of the poor- would be at the centre of all policy making, and not just the Ambanis and the Azim Premjis. Do you detect a delicious but tragic irony in this- that our rulers take the votes from the poor but deliver the wealth to the rich ? Isn't that vote laundering ?

*                                         *                                    *                                      *                                 *

    My earnest advice to Mr. Chetan Bhagat is that he should stick to what he is good at: churning out assembly line pulp fiction and bilge. He should not don the universal expert's hat, and in particular should desist from projecting himself as the champion of Indian "traditions", which appears to be his new avatar while lashing out at the Supreme Court judgement banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi NCR till Nov.11 this year. This order has not come a day too soon. Only a nitwit or a bhakt would fail to admit that Delhi becomes an Auschwitz during and long after Diwalis and the hospitals are packed with respiratory cases for weeks afterwards. Last year the quality of air index reached 999 and then packed up because the scale stopped at a reading of 1000!  (the WHO norm is 60) . And this happens at the precise time when the city is already engulfed in the acrid pollution caused by burning of 35 million tonnes of stubble in neighbouring states. Nobody- not Chetan Bhagat, not Shekhar Gupta, not Sehwag, not the RSS- has the right to inflict this on hapless citizens in the name of tradition, livelihoods or religious freedom. or whatever. The Supreme Court had given us enough time to stop the practice voluntarily, but as usual the average Delhi-ite doesn't give a shit. Mr. Bhagat can lock himself in his air conditioned house, switch on his air purifier and write his best selling rubbish, but the ordinary citizen does not have the luxury of this protection. Every right thinking resident of the NCR should welcome and support the decision of the Supreme Court. As for Mr. Bhagat, since he is so fond of a numeral in the title of his books, may I suggest a title for his next one- THE HALF- WIT. ? It could be an autobiography.


Saturday, 7 October 2017


    Notwithstanding the hundreds of babies who die every year in hospitals of the Gorakhpur and Farrukhabad variety, rates of both infant and maternal mortality have been consistently declining. One of the main reasons for this happy development is the govt's push for Institutional Deliveries as against the age-old practice of home deliveries, presided over by midwives. The former, by ensuring better hygiene and medical care, has led to improved survival rates for both, mother and child. Strangely, however, the opposite appears to be happening for older people! More people are nowadays dying in hospitals than at home, at least in urban areas. " Institutional deaths" anecdotally outnumber "home deaths". ( Try to recollect how many people you know who have died at home in the last few years- I can't think of even one). There are many reasons for this but we will not go into them as that is not the subject of this piece. But what it has done is left me with a insurmountable problem!
    At a sprightly 66 I am uncomfortably conscious of the fact that I am now just two years short of the average life expectancy in India and may not live to see either Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal become Prime Minister of India. As things stand today that may require the said average to go up to about 90 or perhaps require even a second rebirth. But you can't fight with averages, and since I am  about as average a Joe as any you'll come across in a week of Sundays, its time for me to start thinking about the grand exit and the family pension for the long suffering wife. And that's where the problem arises.
    You see, I don't want to be told Bon Voyage or Happy Landing (or whatever they say in Sanskrit these days) in a hospital, attached to more pipes and tubes than a vat in a distillery, with a ventilator pumping air into me as if I was an old, retreaded tyre with a dozen punctures. It is my fervent wish to board Yamdoot's busy shuttle service ( the last mile connectivity) from my home, surrounded by the few family and friends whom I have not yet managed to annoy, gazing wistfully at the " Aam Aadmi" cap I had promised to wear when Mr. Kejriwal became Prime Minister. Since that doesn't appear likely anytime soon, I may as well not hold my breath, if you see what I mean. I have written all this in my will for my sons to read and carry out. However, since they are products of Bishop Cotton School Shimla, I can't depend on their ability to decipher words with more than two syllables, hence this public statement.
    But I digress, as usual, from the main point, which is this: Who will issue my Death Certificate if I cop it at home? I am told that only a govt. Doctor or Hospital can issue a DC. Now, I can hardly hope that a sarkari doctor will deign to come to my house in Puranikoti village, considering that they rarely go to even their places of posting! Please press the Save button on this problem, dear reader, while I move on to the next one.
    The second, even bigger problem for me is this: I am a non-practicing Hindu ( i.e. not a gau rakshak) but do not wish to be cremated at Benaras or Haridwar, for the simple reason that I do not want half of my torso floating around in  polka dot Jockeys till I land up at the Ganga barrage in Kanpur- though, I must confess, since I belong to Kanpur this will be my final "ghar wapasi" of sorts.
    There are other reasons too for avoiding the barbeque. I don't wish to be converted to CO2 or methane or whatever gas ex-bureaucrats are composed of and burn another hole in the ozone layer. I'd much rather become top soil and end up as a begonia or a daisy and, if my luck holds out, perhaps be plucked by a pretty young girl some day ! My desire, therefore, is to be buried- and that too on my own land in Puranikoti village, and not in a cemetery which is probably an encroachment on forest land. ( Having served for almost four years in the Forest department, I certainly cannot become a party to this, you will agree). It took me two years of bending and genuflecting to obtain permission from the govt. to buy this land, and another three years of scraping and begging to build the house on it, so I don't intend giving it up so easily. I fully intend to hang around there- as a daisy, if you will but more likely as a cactus shrub- to further ensure that the DC Shimla does not resume the land on the grounds that , since I don't have an Aadhar number, I never existed officially. But the problem of that damn Death Certificate remains, now worse confounded. You see, one also needs a certificate from a crematorium or burial ground authority that the body has been properly disposed off ! Without this the police are likely to dig me out again, register an FIR against me and then I'll become case property. And we all know what happens to case property in police stations- it gets buggered-sorry, burgled!
    Maybe I should just convert to Jainism, climb into that hole in the ground, and take "samadhi". That will solve all these problems. Or maybe I should just listen to the Beatles and Let It Be. But there's reason to worry here too: what if my sons decide to be like the chap who, having just lost his wife and being asked whether they should bury, cremate or embalm her, shouted: " Don't take any chances- do all three!" That would be too much of a good thing.

Saturday, 30 September 2017


     In our days there was never any doubt when a woman said " No." In fact she rarely had to articulate these dreaded words: the rejection was usually conveyed by a very visible rubbing of Amrutanjan on her forehead to indicate she had a headache, or by a burnt chapati flung on to the dinner plate from five feet away. It didn't need a learned High Court judge to interpret it. But times have changed and things appear to have become much more difficult for women today. According to last week's order of the Delhi High Court in the Farooqui rape case, saying "No" is no longer enough- it has to be uttered through a public address system, loud and clear: a "feeble" No amounts to consent. Even worse, this bizarre judgement even contrives a strange alibi for any future rapist when it states that "...and if it was without her consent, whether the appellant could discern/understand the same." Not only should the beast have HEARD the "No" clearly, he should also have UNDERSTOOD it.  This raises some important questions.
    What if the hapless lady is by nature a soft spoken person, not given to raising her voice? What if she has laryngitis? What if the rapist is deaf and can't hear her? What if a a potential rapist, well versed in the laws of the land, covers her mouth and thus preempts her from saying anything at all? What if the guy has an IQ in the lower double digits, or is sozzled upto his eyebrows, and cannot understand a "No" ?  To extend the strange logic of the court, which appears to be based more on the principles of acoustics rather than that of jurisprudence, what if the assaulter speaks a different language from that of the assaultee ? The former can then claim that he never understood her " No" and mistook it for a " Yes"- for example the Russian " Nyet" ( No) can sound very much like an English " Not yet" to a guy from Liverpool or Rohtak. This would no doubt entitle our courts to rule that what the lady was suggesting was a deferment and not a rejection: he could then be charged with premature ejaculation rather than rape, I suspect, a much lesser offence. And instead of going to jail he'll be packed off to Baba Ramdev's ashram for a four week course of pranayam: I'm told "kapal bharati" can do wonders for this ailment- it doesn't do much for the urge, but controls the surge.
    Why do our judges have to complicate simple things just in order to show off their erudition? Why does a woman have to say anything all, other than " F*** OFF." ? Simple logic dictates that, for a lady faced with this terrible situation, the assumed default option should be a "No". The legal principle for this is the same one that stipulates that a person is presumed to be innocent unless proved guilty. Similarly, in a rape case it should be presumed that the victim said "No" unless the accused can prove that she gave her specific consent to the act. And naturally, the consent has to be conveyed through a loud " Yes." For a feeble YES will amount to a NO, right ? Wrap your head around this one, my lord.
    The sooner this judgement is consigned to the shredder by the Supreme Court, the better for our women.

*                                      *                                      *                                   *                                   *

    Ever since we crawled out of the primeval sludge philosophers, religious leaders and Hugh Heffner have been trying to find the secret of happiness ( Heffner came closest to it), without any success. The search is now over. Our very own Mr. Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, has found the path to this holy grail- establish a Department of Happiness! Known as Rajya Anand Sansthan, it was set up in 2016 and has 33000 volunteers statewide. They are  designated as Anand Sahyogis and Anandaks; their job is to spread joy by hugging people, giving up a seat on a bus for someone else, surrender one's parking space, cook for the neighbours, talk to strangers, take the sick to hospitals, etc. Naturally, therefore, the volunteers are a miserable lot, especially as they haven't been paid anything, and find it easier to spread butter on their toasts than happiness across the state.
    Mr. Chavan suffers from the same ailment as his big boss- QFD: Quick Fix Disorder. If happiness could be spread by state dictat then North Korea and Uganda would be the happiest places on earth. The Chief Minister should consider how bad things are in his fiefdom before he begins to wonder why his new department is stillborn: 23 million people in MP are still below the poverty line and don't get even two meals in a day; it has the highest IFR ( Infant Mortality Rate) in the country at 52 per 1000 live births; 42% of children under the age of five are stunted and 42.8% children are underweight; the state records 14 rapes everyday; 21000 farmers have committed suicide since 2001 and continue to die at the rate of 3 per day. And we are not even speaking of Vyapam, gau rakshaks and Mandsaur.
   Mr. Chief Minister, the quickest route to a peoples' happiness is good governance and personal integrity in leaders. As Bhutan has shown, take care of your people, set a personal example, protect the natural environment, respect the law, be tolerant towards all- and happiness will take care of itself. If things are right it will come uninvited, but it cannot be ordered to appear in a command performance.

*                                  *                                         *                                        *                                 *

    Why can't Mr. Modi's govt. leave well alone ? Why does it have to tinker with the economy every other day and make things more difficult for people who are trying to earn an honest day's wages? I allude, of course, to the govt's latest order that all cigarette shops have to register with the local authority and that they can sell nothing else- no cold drinks, chips, biscuits, toffees. The hare brained idea behind this is to ensure that youngsters do not go to these shops: they might be tempted to buy a cigarette or two along with the candy, you see. Only a certified lunatic could have come up with this idea, and I'll tell you why.
    I buy my cigarettes wholesale from a distributor in Bengali Market ( Delhi), from where the retailers also buy them. The retail price for a pack is Rs. 36.00 ( okay, okay, so I'm a cheapskate!) and I get it for Rs. 34.50. So the cigarette wallah on the corner gets Rs. 1.50 margin on a pack; that is a profit of 3% only. No business can survive on such a low margin, and so the poor guy also sells those other things govt. has now banned- he makes his paltry income from these items, not the cigarettes. So now he'll be forced to close shop, or increase the bribe he already has to pay up to the local police and Corporation inspectors. Does this make any sense ? The present govt. has already severely damaged the unorganised and small trader sector with demonetisation, it has dealt a crippling blow to SMEs and exporters with GST, it has almost wiped out the Rs. 25000 crore "beef" industry with its Cattle Rules and gaurakshaks, it has raised unemployment figures to historical levels. Why, for God's sake, does it now want to render millions more unemployed? If a kid wants to buy a cigarette he can do it just as easily as when he buys a condom, whether or not it is placed next to a strategically located and unhappily named packet of " Lays" chips!
   There is far too much intrusion by this govt. into the daily lives of citizens. In his effort to appear dynamic, innovative and reformist Mr. Modi is trying too hard and making us miserable. Maybe he should take a break. Learn something from his buddy Arvind Kejriwal and go for a Vipassana course. And oh yes! Please take Mr. Jaitley with you, sir. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017


    Taking a break from the bedlam and super heated sauna that is Delhi these days, I have just returned from ten tranquil days spent in my cottage in a little village four kms. from Mashobra, beyond Shimla. It was a heart rending sight to have observed the massacre of thousands of trees and the dismembering of the hills on the Kalka- Solan stretch, where the on-going four laning work marks another victory of the internal combustion engine over plain common sense. And there's worse to come- by this time next year the NHA would have started its assault on the Solan- Shimla stretch ! But thankfully the forests that lovingly enclose my village have not yet fallen prey to the various Mafias and demented ideas that have taken over Himachal these days.
   Nature still rules here, and we co-exist comfortably, notwithstanding the "developers" and "builders" of Delhi who have started making inroads even here. Sometime back a hot shot lawyer from Punjab ( who occupies a high office in that govt.) did try to install an illegal borewell in his new house which looks like the USS Enterprise of Star Trek fame. This would have tapped into the only water source that is the life line of seven villages, and depleted it. The villagers naturally protested, and the govt. predictably sent a police force from Mashobra thana to help the lawyer ! But the simple folks of Moolkoti did not give up: they blocked the drill machine and even threatened to burn it. The lawyer finally went back with his machine, his brief between his legs. Moolkoti has just learned an important lesson in real- politic: don't depend on the govt. to protect the public interest- this has to be a DIY job.
    Puranikoti-my village- gets no newspapers, and I did not activate my Tata Sky connection. I do not have a smart phone so social media has passed me by a long time ago. I rarely go into town because I can never find space to park my car, and in any case most of my contemporaries are at various stages of Alzheimers and do not recognize me ( nor I them, and for the same reason). My erstwhile juniors do not visit me because I don't write their ACRs anymore. So-as planned- I was all by my lonesome self. I could have been in the depths of the Amazon forests, as cut off from the outside world as Mr. Jaitley is from reality. It was sheer bliss! It was epiphanic. The reason ? I got no news of the outside world for ten full days !
   The daily news- and not just Arnab Goswami- is the biggest tyrant of the modern world, and its foot soldiers are the newspapers, television, social media, e-mails, forwards and the two million apps in the Google play store. "News" today has to be, by definition, something which is bad: destruction, corruption, violence, disease, sexual perversion, political venality, famine, war. Do you ever see anything else on TV or read about in the tabloids ? Journalism has become a scavenging beast which can survive only on carrion- give it something which is healthy and wholesome and it will starve to death. It promotes only a venomous mix of distrust, hatred, anger, discontent and adversarial emotions.
    And so we are bombarded from morning till night, from womb to grave, by the worst aspects of human   exertions and thought- godmen who rape, politicians who plunder, dictators who massacre, trains that derail, man-hole covers that disappear, builders who decamp with buyers' hard earned moneys- I could go on and on with this Swindlers' list, but I'll only end up in tears of rage and frustration, and perhaps put you too, dear reader, in a similar frame of mind. Our daily fix of toxic "news" will never tell us about the farmer in Kerala who, fed up of waiting for the govt. to do something, finally dug a two acre pond with his own hands; or about the amazing experiment in the USA with parabiosis that has succeeded in slowing aging and mitigating Alzheimers; or about how the introduction of a pack of wolves into a national park in the USA has rejuvenated the ecology and geography of the whole landscape. News channels have given us all the gory details in the Ram Rahim saga, but did they spend even 60 seconds on the two brave women who struggled for 15 years to bring him to justice, or on the intrepid CBI officer who doggedly pursued his investigation inspite of being told to go slow ? But the purveyors of dismal news are not to be blamed alone, for we too have developed a taste for carrion, and find anything else stale and bland.
   This was my epiphany. The bliss came from the fact that, deprived of this toxic diet for ten whole days, the world again became a beautiful place, sans distrust, anger and abuse. The mornings were bright and fresh since I had no means of knowing their SPM or C02 content. The labourer in the fields did not strike me as a potential rapist or bag snatcher. The shop keeper in Mashobra bazaar did not look like a GST evader. The queue outside the only ATM in Mashobra failed to evoke unpleasant memories of demonetisation. The cow next door did not remind me of gau rakshaks. Even Mr. Modi's poster did not stir dreadful apprehensions of his next surgical strike!
   The absence of "news" had, in a way, restored the balance of life: there will always be some rain along with the sunshine, but that is not reason to despair, to post an outraged tweet, to rush to a shrink or doctor or lawyer. Life is beautiful here in the tiny village of Puranikoti, playing out to the unhurried rhythms of hundreds of years past. It remains untouched by the venom of news anchors, the untramelled ambitions of Presidents and Prime Ministers. the materialism of a digitised world. It will survive this Plastocene Age too, if left alone. It will always be a refuge from the madding crowd. Hence the bliss.
   I'm concluding this piece as my Shatabdi is pulling into New Delhi station( forty five minutes late, as usual). My next seat neighbour, who has spent the last four hours buried in his smart phone, informs me that Mr. Jaitley has just imposed a penalty on all bank accounts with a balance less than two thousand rupees. I am back in the world of the " Breaking News!" 

Thursday, 21 September 2017


 [ This piece was published, with a few minor changes, in the New Indian Express on 20.09.2017 ]

Frankly, I’ve been surprised no end by the ruthless ferocity with which the Indian state has been carpet bombing the centres of the Dera Saccha Sauda in the aftermath of its leader’s conviction and its followers’ violence. Surprised, because this is the same state apparatus that took fifteen years to investigate the rape charges against him, that lined up outside the Dera gates for a holy “darshan”, that begged him for its votes, that squandered public resources to pamper him. Surely there must be a deeper explanation for this epiphanic volte face ?
There is, and we need look no further than Oscar Wilde to identify it. Wilde was a pitiless observer and trenchant critic of societal hypocrisy and one of his aphorisms supplies the answer: We dislike people for having faults we do not have, but we hate them for having the same faults which we have. Never was a truer word said.
We do not like to see a reflection of our own vices and weaknesses, and the Dera Saccha Sauda has done precisely that: held up a mirror to our rotten society and polity, exposed to full public glare the superstition, cronyism, exploitation and crass mendacity which define our social and political structures. And of course this makes us very angry, as Wilde had said it would.
Consider this : there is little difference between the empires of our God-men and of our politicians. Both aspire to just one objective- naked power. Both exploit the latent insecurities of people. Both use caste and religion to cement their support base and divide those of their rivals. Both lack any pretensions to democracy and are run by individual dynasts, family or coterie. Both acquire humongous quantities of money from sources that are opaque, dubious and undisclosed. Both are exempted from paying taxes. Both have cadres which have full licence to indulge in violence and hooliganism when the occasion or supreme leader so demands. Both are patriarchal and misogynist. Both are above the law.
God-men and politicians are like peas in a pod, conjoined twins in a parabiotic relationship, traditionally living off each other and prospering together. This is true of not just the BJP only: ALL political parties have, deplorably, been bed partners of various Babas at ALL times. The Congress had its Chandraswamy, the Samajwadi party had the infamous Ramvriksha Yadav who in June 2016 created mayhem in Jawahar Park in Mathura, resulting in the death of 29 people, including two  policemen. This misplaced reverence is a societal aberration; it is fashionable to think that these Babas are revered only by the less privileged classes, but this is not true. The upper crust have their own designer Babas who too can get away with anything- witness how the Art Of Living and its poster Baba Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was allowed to rampage through the Yamuna flood plains last year: the only time when Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal have ever agreed on anything ! Baba Ram Rahim himself has been paid obeisance by just about every politician in Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana. The BJP is only the latest suitor. That is why neither Mr. Khattar nor Mr. Rajnath Singh did anything substantive to prevent the ugly situation developing in Panchkula, till the shit hit the fan there-literally, if we are to believe the residents of this quiet suburbia. So what went wrong ?
The failure of Baba Ram Rahim to follow the prescribed code of conduct. In secretive and closed organisations ( like Deras and political parties) contentious and problematic issues are resolved in-house and not exposed to public gaze. There is a well established protocol for handling awkward, and perhaps illegal, predicaments. Cases are not registered, investigations are prolonged, loyal officers are deployed in critical posts, witnesses are won over or intimidated, court orders are challenged ad-infinitum, judges are recused, judgements are reserved, enquiry reports are buried deeper than the Mariana Trench. If all else fails and conviction becomes inevitable then there is the parole ( a-la Sanjay Dutt and Mr. Chautala) or the VIP ward in jail( a-la Sasikala and Sahara Shri), and the show goes on notwithstanding the occasional hiccup.
The mistake that Saccha Sauda made was in not observing this SOP and thereby endangering the entire carefully contrived web of deceit and its many powerful denizens. By taking to the streets the Baba broke the holy code of Omerta. He would have done better by following the Asa Ram model- although in jail now for four years he is yet to be convicted, he appears to be having a fine time behind bars, the case against him has got nowhere, witnesses are vanishing into the ether with great regularity, and there is a more than even chance that by the time he comes up for trial there will be little worthwhile evidence left against him. Most important, however, is the fact that his empire remains intact and his co-parceners do not feel threatened.
Baba Ram Rahim departed from this time-tested script and is now paying the price. The sheer ferocity of the state’s vengeance- raids, arrests, seizures, lock-downs, confiscations- is in direct proportion to its collusion with the Dera earlier. The effort now is to obliterate from public memory all reminders of their earlier partnership- Mr. Modi’s deep obeisance to the “mitti” or soil of the Dera before the last elections in Haryana, Mr. Khattar’s smirking photo with the now arch-villain, the long queues of politicians and Babus waiting for darshan and favours, the tax exemptions for his glitzy silver screen monstrosities, the Z category security at state expense, the 50 lakh rupees cheques by Ministers paid as premium for electoral insurance. These reminders of a now embarrassing past must be made to disappear, along with the Baba himself. There is a diabolical genius at work here: earlier the ruling party got votes by supporting the Dera; now it hopes to get votes by dismantelling it and burying Ram Rahim along with all evidence of their parabiotic partnership. Shakespeare was wrong, after all- it is not just the good that is often interred with a man’s bones, the bad is too.

But Oscar Wilde was right.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


    Rest Houses can occasionally offer bizarre experiences, often educative but always interesting. Sometime in 1996-97 I was consigned to the dog house for some misdemeanour and, quite appropriately, posted to the Animal Husbandry Department. I decided to visit the department's institutions in Dodra-Kwar, an area dependent on subsistence agriculture and sheep rearing. Dodra-Kwar is a remote tehsil, tucked away in the north-east corner of Shimla district, bordering Uttarakhand. History records that it was given to the Rampur Bushair state as dowry by a principality in present day Uttarakhand. Ever since then, the joke goes, Himachal has been trying to return it but Uttarakhand is having none of it ! It too, like Bara Bhangal, was landlocked till very recently, but  is now connected- a road was constructed in 2009  over the 12000 feet high Chanshil Pass to connect it to Chirgaon/Larot. In 1997, however, I along with a Veterinary Doctor and a couple of pharmacists, trekked from Larot, over the Pass( probably the most beautiful one in the state), through the dense forest on the other side known as Kala Van, and by evening arrived at the first village, Kwar.
    Dodra-Kwar lies in the valley of the Rupen river ( a tributary of the Yamuna) and is so named after its two villages, Dodra and Kwar ( there is also a third village further up towards the Rupen Pass named Jakha, taken over by the Radha Soamis ! ) Kwar lies in the shadow of Chanshil and appears to have acquired the grim ambience of the bordering Kala Van: it has none of the cheerfulness and geniality of the typical mountain settlement, and is a forbidding place. The FRH is some distance from the village and was quite decrepit at the time. Lacking any choice, however, we settled in for the night, beginning with the customary drink on its lawns while the chowkidar ( a local) cooked dinner inside.
    After some time I noticed that the two pharmacists had also planted themselves in the kitchen and were watching every movement of the cook like a hawk! I suggested to the doctor that maybe he could ask them to come and join us for a drink too. He made no effort to call them, so after sometime I repeated my suggestion. The doctor flatly refused and, on my looking offended, finally explained to me the reason for his reluctance- and what an extraordinary explanation! According to him there existed a legend that the natives of the valley had historically distrusted outsiders and considered them fair game for plunder, sometimes even murder. Their SOP had been to administer a poison with the food at night and dispose of the body in the Kala Van. The pharmacists were in the kitchen to ensure that did not happen to us!
    I  certainly cannot vouch for the authenticity of this fable: all the local people I asked denied it vehemently, while the outsiders( mostly govt. employees) maintained a discreet silence. But it persists, and all I can speculate is that it may perhaps have been true in the distant past ( most remote areas have these sinister myths) but improving connectivity and expanded intercourse have immutably changed such attitudes and practices, if they ever existed. I certainly found the residents of the other village, Dodra, very welcoming and hospitable- they even invited us to take part in a local chess tournament! I was eliminated in the first round, but my friend Sashi from Bilaspur won it!
    Never underestimate the chowkidar of a rest house ! Having served hundreds of guests, and being privy to their conversations and worse, he is a deep repository of institutional knowledge and instinctive wisdom, as I found out in an amusing way. In June of 1980 I was hustled off as DC Bilaspur: soon it was the start of the annual planting season and in August I was invited by the Conservator of Forests to preside over the Van Mahatsov function at Ghumarwin. I left for Ghumarwin the night before and landed up at the PWD rest house there. It was ( and is) located adjacent to what was then a huge barren field, above a khad. ( Nowadays, of course, the field is covered with buildings and staff quarters of varied descriptions). I was received by the Tehsildar who soon left after ensuring that the dinner arrangements were in order. After a solitary dinner, enjoying my nightly cancer stick on the lawns, I asked the chowkidar where the Van Mahatsov planting  was to be held the next day. He looked a bit puzzled, and then pointed to the empty barren field next door:  "Here, sir. This is where the planting has been done every year for the last ten years!"
  The patch was as bald as Anupam Kher's polished nationalistic pate.
   And there you have in a nut shell the answer to the question: why is Himachal's genuine green cover declining inspite of  Van Mahotsavs, Compensatory Afforestation , CAT Plans and what not ? Nineteen years later the wheel came full circle: I was posted to the Forest Deptt., and every time the PCCF trotted out the impressive figures of survival of plants, I harked back in time to that humble chowkidar and tried hard to suppress a smile. For a bureaucrat the real learning process begins when he shuts his files, opens his eyes and steps out into the wide world- preferably into a Rest House !
   If tomorrow Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim Jong Un were to stop exchanging words and graduate instead to exchanging nuclear missiles, and I was given the choice of just one place where I could live out the rest of my life in a devastated world, I know the place I would choose- Dhela Thatch ( pictured below):


                          [ The Forest Hut in Dhela Thatch in the Great Himalayan National Park ]

    Dhela is a gently sloping meadow perched just below the ridge line that divides the Sainj and Tirthan valleys in the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu. Surrounded by thick stands of oak and deodar, with dense thickets of dwarf rhododendron and hill bamboo on one side, it is an ideal camping site: there is even a little brook which provides water. The Forest department has built a stout log hut at its upper edge for use in the winters ( at 12000 feet Dhela can get a lot of snow)- for the rest of the year one can happily pitch tents anywhere on the dale. The height, mix of vegetation and undergrowth and the open spaces make it an ideal habitat for the highly endangered Western Tragopan ( Jujju Rana) and sightings are quite common. The crags below it are home to the " ghoral" ( mountain goat) which can be easily spotted sunning themselves in the morning sun. The view of the GHNP landscape from here is stupendous, framed by the majestic 16000 high Khandedhar range to the north, the even higher Pin Parbat massif to the north-west, the Tirthan ridge to the south-east, and beyond that the bleak ranges on which is located the holy peak of Srikhand Mahadev. There is a small 'jogni" or religious cairn at the top, bedecked with colourful prayer flags which is ideal for meditation. This is Omar Khayyam territory for me:
" Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
  A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse- and Thou
  Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
  And Wilderness is paradise enow!"
 I have been here four times and have kept my rucksack packed, waiting for the ICBMs to start flying in the Pacific.
    Which brings me to my final point. Is the Forest Deptt. aware of the priceless wealth of history. tradition, anecdotes, individual accounts, legends that reside in its rest houses ? It should be, and therefore it should immediately begin archiving them, before they are lost for ever with the passage of time. The Deptt. should commission an exhaustive documentation of each of the heritage rest houses and bring out a coffee table kind of book that will preserve their memories long after the physical structures themselves are long gone. The project can be funded from the budget of the Eco- Tourism Society. I had initiated the process in 2009-10 but could not see it through owing to my superannuation. A number of readers have written to me suggesting this and a friend informs me that the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand has already brought out such a compendium. We should not lose any more time in emulating them.

Thursday, 14 September 2017


            [ This article was published in the New Indian Express on 5.9.2017 under the title: BUILDING APARTMENTS IN THE AIR ]

     The declaration of JayPee Infratech as insolvent under the new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act 2016 is just the tip of a massive real estate ice berg which has the potential to sink hundreds of thousands of families. Other developers will follow the same exit route soon, not only in Delhi NCR but all over the country, given the impunity with which they have been siphoning off the money of home buyers. The Unitech Directors are already in jail and a bankruptcy petition has also been filed against Amrapali by two banks.
     Matters have been allowed to reach this low point by successive venal governments in UP and Haryana which have been happily approving projects without any oversight or questions. The scale of the emerging problem can be gauged from the fact that in Greater Noida alone there are 203 projects, of which 82 are “critical”, i.e have taken money from buyers but are in no position to deliver the flats. Jaypee has swallowed up Rs.17000 crores from 30000 applicants, Amrapali from about another 10000 victims. Builders in Noida also owe thousands of crores to banks and Rs. 7200 crores to the Noida authority as land dues! Gurgaon is another bubble waiting to burst, and other metros will soon follow suit.
     All these developers, like Jaypee, will in all likelihood be declared insolvent/bankrupt by the NCLT( National Company Law Tribunal) under the new Bankruptcy Code. The Act, however, is so framed that the home buyers are not likely to get any relief or recover any substantial part of their moneys. Firstly, the builders have had enough time to transfer their funds elsewhere and will leave behind empty shells from which little can be recovered by way of auction. Secondly, they have built fire-walls around their other assets which in all probability cannot be touched. Thirdly, the home buyers are not even mentioned in the list of seven entities entitled for payment of dues following liquidation of a company under the Act! They are neither investors, nor financial creditors, nor operational creditors, nor workmen! The simple truth is that this Act is intended to primarily help the Banks, and is therefore hopelessly inadequate  in resolving the peculiar problems of consumers or casualties of the real estate sector- the home buyers.
     The time has therefore come for the government to seriously consider the following issues/questions:
[1]  Home buyers have been given a raw deal under the Code. They are the last category when it comes to a refund whereas they are the biggest investors in the company declared bankrupt. IDBI Bank ( which will get the first priority) has to recover only Rs. 526 crore from Jaypee whereas the buyers have put in 17000 crores. And yet they are not considered as secured investors!
[2]  A bank ( or any other creditor) can approach the NCLT if its dues are not paid and trigger the Insolvency process, but a home-buyer cannot even if s/he has not been provided the home for which s/he has paid. This is patently unfair and must change.
[3] A home buyer cannot be a part of the Creditors’ Committee which will finalise the plan for redistribution of the realised assets of the insolvent company, since s/he is neither a financial nor an operational creditor. This is illogical and unjust considering that s/he has the maximum stakes in the company and has the most to lose.
[4] The built-up assets of the bankrupt company ( at whatever stage of completion) belong to the applicants who have paid for them. How then could they have been mortgaged by the said company to the Banks as security for loans ? This is  a fraud on the home buyers: no second ( or “pari passu”)charge can be created on an asset without the written concurrence of the party to whom it is already pledged- in this case the home buyer. The builder company has the right to create the charge only if it constructs the flats with its own funds first, and then subsequently sells them. But that is not the business model followed by either Jaypee , Unitech , Amrapali or any other builder. They follow the “ pay as you build” model and take advance payments in instalments at every stage of the construction; the flats therefore belong to the applicant-buyer and cannot be mortgaged without his consent. The primary  lawful lien on these assets, therefore, is that of the home buyer and not of the Banks. The Code should recognise this.
[ 5] Another injustice heaped on the home buyers is that once the NCLT starts the bankruptcy process the former cannot approach any other court or Consumer Forum  for redressal of their grievances. This is not equitable since the builder company can drag the matter through our notoriously sluggish legal system for years together, while the individual home buyer, usually subsisting on a salary or a pension, can only wait, watch and pray.
[6]  Another interesting question that arises is: how can the banks give two loans against the same flat/property- one to the buyer, and one to the builder? Is this prudent banking practice ? By doing so the banks are over exposing themselves, for if the builder fails to deliver then both loans go bad ! The only one who makes a killing is the builder, which is what appears to be happening in the instant cases- the promoters of both, Jaypee and Amrapali, will happily exit after limiting their losses, and the banks and buyers will be left holding the proverbial can.
[7]  The Bankruptcy Code contains no specific provision for either a forensic audit or initiation of criminal action against the promoters of the company by the RP ( Resolution Professional) if he finds that funds have been siphoned off or fraud committed. This provides them an undesirable immunity.
     The Code as it stands today is apparently intended to help the Banks recover their NPAs. It does not recognize the different character of the real estate sector and its notorious track record. It needs to be amended suitably to instil faith in the public. The Union Finance Minister has given some tepid assurances that the interest of the JayPee home buyers will be protected. It means little in the absence of specific enabling provisions in the Code. He needs to convert the standard rhetoric into appropriate legislation in Parliament.


Saturday, 2 September 2017


    Like all buildings that have  hoary pasts , Rest Houses too have all kinds of stories attached to them and this gives them a mystique and distinct identity, perhaps a tourism value too if properly marketed. Take for instance the FRH at Purthi in remote Pangi district. It was constructed in pre-Independence days by a British Range Officer called Todd. Situated above the Chandrabhaga river in a thick wooded grove, it is part of the Range office complex. Made completely of wood, which was the only material available in those days( and in abundance), it is a pleasant sight, with flat, green lawns laid out all around it, interspersed with pathways. The Forest Department has renovated and furnished it on the inside in a glitzy, Baba Ram Rahim kind of fashion but fortunately the exterior has not been altered. It used to be the RO's residence and is therefore known as Todd's Bungalow. Later, it was converted into an FRH.
   Todd appears to have been quite a beaver at building things, because he also built the Forest complex at Killar ( the district headquarters). To relax from his strenuous activities he was fond of taking walks with his dog on a narrow trail above the river. On one such amble the dog ( who was on a leash) was apparently startled by something in the undergrowth and darted back, wrapping the leash around his owner's legs and unbalancing him. Both Todd and the dog fell into the Chandrabhaga and drowned. But Todd Sahib never left his beloved bungalow, it appears. People who have spent nights in the FRH swear that he visits his house at night- he is reported to come down the chimney and fireplace of one of the bedrooms. There have been too many reports of such "sightings" to dismiss them out of hand. The whole apparition is rarely seen; what people usually sight are two sturdy legs in the fireplace, which is enough to give them such a fright that they don't hang around to see the rest of the torso. The spectre has never harmed anyone, or created any ruckus, or thrown things around like a poltergeist: apparently it is content to walk around the building that was once its own.
    Todd continues to live on through his bungalow, and adds another legend to the rich folk-lore of these mountains. I've spent a couple of hours in the rest house but could never spend a night there, regrettably, because of tight schedules. But I can appreciate why Todd keeps such a tight vigil on his beloved bungalow, given that the original wooden flooring has already been replaced by mustard coloured vinyl, and at any moment the govt. might decide to replace the quaint, old fireplaces with four rod heaters !
                              [  FRH PURTHI or TODD'S BUNGALOW- Photo courtesy Vinay Tandon ] 

                            [  THE FIREPLACE IN TODD'S BUNGALOW- Photo courtesy Vinod Tewari]

    Forest Rest Houses are a god send for the committed forest officer, most of whose work lies in isolated and inaccessible areas, far from any habitation. After a day spent  tramping up and down valleys and mountains, marking trees and counting stumps, it is a relief to be able to betake oneself of an evening to a place that has a roof, beds, bathrooms and a kitchen, no matter how elementary- even a 7-Star hotel cannot provide a fraction of the bliss that an FRH can at the end of a grueling day, as I've discovered for myself many a time ! A typical example is the FRH at Bara Bhangal.
    Bara Bhangal is the only remaining land-locked valley in the state ( though a mule road is now coming in from the Chamba side). To access it from Billing ( the present road head and world famous para-gliding site) one has to undertake an arduous, sometimes dangerous , four day trek over the 17500 feet Thamsar pass and its permanent ice fields. If ever a village needed an FRH it was Bara Bhangal, but it didn't get one till the early years of the first decade of this century. The delay is easily explained- no officer above a Deputy Ranger ( or equivalent rank in other departments) ever goes there!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Actually, the govt. has a monumental dilemma here, caught between a rock and a hard place, or ( to be more accurate) between a mountain and a river. In an area of 1200 sq. kms there are only a dozen or so govt. employees! No one ever goes to check whether they are working, or are even present. The employees are quite fearless, confident in the  (correct) belief that they are already stuck in the most difficult posting in the state and hence have nothing to fear: the govt. can do nothing worse to them ! The village has a primary and a middle school with five teachers. As expected, they usually come to take their salaries and then disappear ! I made a surprise visit there, my second,  in 2005 or thereabouts and found that all seven had decamped to Baijnath! They were all suspended, of course, and even their subsistence allowance was made conditional on their collecting it in Bara Bhangal. However, coming back to rest houses: Sometime around 2002-2003 the local Forest Guard, displaying the initiative of a Head of Department, decided to take matters in his own hand, secured some funds and approvals with great difficulty, and built the FRH himself !



                                         [ THE FRH AT BARA BHANGAL--photo by the author ]

As you can see for yourself its a very basic structure, but its better than the Hyatt for someone who has been walking and climbing for 70 kilometers, spending four nights in the open with some smelly sheep to keep him warm ( if he's lucky!), fallen into innumerable ditches and crannies, frozen his posterior every time nature issued a summons, and living off dal-roti and siddu. Its actually quite large from the inside- two rooms, a dining area, an out house for ablutions ( with running water from a nearby stream conveyed by open PVC pipes!) and a kitchen. There was no electricity then ( there is now, from a small micro-hydel project in a nearby nullah) and the villagers burnt the roots of pine trees called "jagni" for lighting. The hut is situated bang in the middle of the thickest stand of deodar you'll see anywhere, on a protruding plateau above the Ravi river. And just remember- the whole thing was conceived, designed and constructed by a Forest Guard, with no help from anyone! Generations of trekkers will forever be indebted to this enterprising and far-sighted official, God bless him !
    My group spent an enchanting two days in this FRH, recouping our energy and washing off the accumulated dirt, before moving on to the even more dangerous trek to Nayagram in Chamba. My greatest satisfaction ?- that we were the FIRST visitors to this FRH: our names are there on the very first page of the rest house register, the Abu Ben Adams of Bara Bhangal! Go check it out !

                                                         [ TO BE CONTINUED ]

Saturday, 26 August 2017


    As far as I know Himachal has one of the finest network of government rest-houses in the country: the Forest Deptt. has about 350 and the PWD and Irrigation and Public Health Deptt. probably the same number. The former are mostly functional and located so as to enable touring by foresters in remote or forested areas, away from towns. The rest-houses of the latter two departments, on the other hand, are meant to provide temporary accommodation to officials not yet allotted govt. quarters, serve as camp offices for Ministers and MLA's at govt. expense, proclaim the status of a Minister, and at times even function as a convenient "nid d' amour" ( or love-nest for those who studied English in St. Stephen's College) ! Earlier they were also used as venues for parties, but this function is now declining with the mushrooming of hotels all over the place with their package offers for kitty parties and what not. It is well known that the most luxurious rest houses belong to the State Electricity Board, some of them more than a match for 5 and even 7 Star hotels- just check out the ones in Dalhousie and Sangla valley. When a hydel project is sanctioned for the Board it may or may not come up, but a grand rest house most certainly will!
    But let us not dwell on the reasons. The more relevant point is that the network exists and offers fascinating experiences for the officer who visits its constituent units. Regrettably, most officers nowadays ( including foresters) prefer "road-head" touring and return to their homes by evening, to the familiar routine of prime time discussions on TV. I never missed an opportunity for a night out, primarily to escape from Neerja's cooking which, to be fair to her, has taken tremendous strides during our marriage of 40 years: it has progressed from boiled eggs to fried eggs but since that milestone was achieved some years back it has plateaued out like the Doklam Plateau., and a similar stalemate now prevails. I have personally always preferred the Forest RHs because of their remote, off-road locations and the fact that the politicians generally avoid them. An additional attraction is the fact that most of them are from British times and the British certainly knew where to place a building so as to get the maximum benefit of the view and landscape. Just go to the FRH at Chask Bhaturi in Pangi, situated at the head of a magical valley, the river below and the massive Zanskar range behind, and you will not want to come back to civilisation ! Of course, its a hard two day trek to reach it. If you don't want to toil then visit the FRH at Jalori Pass ( not the new one but the original, which a capricious Chief Minister transferred to the PWD some years back), or the 1936 vintage FRH in Sangla, or even the one in Manali, cocooned in its thick deodar grove from the traffic flowing all around it.
    My own experiences with rest houses began in 1976 when I, along with four colleagues from the HAS( all probationers) was dispatched to Jwalamukhi for a six week revenue field training. We arrived by bus at the PWD RH there ( a much smaller version of the present one) but the Executive Engineer refused to give us any rooms, probably because he was unable to clear the General Knowledge paper for the IAS or HAS exams and bore a perpetual grudge. On the intervention of the Tehsildar ( one Mr. Kainthla, who resembled a power station chimney operating at 98% PLF because he was always smoking) he grudgingly allowed all five of us to stay in the drivers' room which had bunk beds and no fans. On the third day, while we were in a village absorbing the mysteries of a "zareb" under the guidance of a Patwari, the XEN had our luggage thrown out! Mr. Kainthla blew some more smoke in his face and the XEN allowed us in again. But when this vaudeville act was repeated again a couple of days later, Mr. Kainthla ( having run out of cigarettes and the resultant smoke) had us all shifted to the RH at Ranital, about ten kms. away. It was beautifully perched on the top of a thickly forested knoll, above a small picturesque village. The only problem was that it was in the process of being demolished !- only one room and a verandah remained, which was to be our demesene  for the next four weeks.
    Unencumbered with futile notions of status and self importance at that nascent stage of our careers, we managed to enjoy our stay there. Those were pre-Arnab Goswami days so the evenings were spent in thrashing out our new found knowledge of laws and policies- within two weeks we had resolved just about every issue facing the country, to our complete satisfaction! There were no bathrooms, of course, so every morning the rising sun saw five potential saviours of the country squatting behind strategically located bushes. Mr. Modi may not approve of this now, but at that time it afforded me an opportunity to interact with passing monitor lizards, squirrels and snakes and engendered in me an abiding love of nature which has endured even though my squatting days are now behind me, if you'll excuse the pun.
   There was also - you guessed it!-no  running water, so we used to go down to a little "baodi" or natural water tank in the village to have our bath. We soon discovered that the pretty village belles also visited the baodi at about five every evening to fill their pitchers; therefore we  decided ( with a unanimity that the Rajya Sabha would do well to emulate) that we all needed a second bath in the evening also. The local damsels did not mind in the least, took an unusually long time to fill their pitchers, and would no doubt have taken a few selfies with us if the damn smart phones had not taken so long to be invented.
   Life proceeded swimmingly, till one evening when a delegation of village elders came calling on us. They apologised profusely for their girls interrupting us at the baodi and suggested that maybe we could change our bathing time to the mornings only. The message was as clear as a Donald Trump tweet or a "Man ki Baat" invocation ( though equally unwelcome) and, therefore, not wanting to blight our promising careers, we regretfully complied. But the habit ingrained in the rest house at Ranital has stayed- I can only bathe in the mornings now!


   One of my favourite rest houses is the one at Barot( pictured above). Its a genuine log hut comprising two bed rooms and a sitting room, sitting next to the pretty Uhl river and just above a trout farm. Admiral Gandhi, a former Himachal Governor was very fond of this place and used to camp here often, angling for trout in the river. Barot itself is a picturesque little hamlet dominated by the Shanan Hydel Project and its huge balancing reservoir. Behind the log-hut are beautiful walks along the tree shaded banks of the Uhl river. However, trust the philistines in the PWD to ruin everything: the Deptt. has now built a monstrous, super ugly, cement and concrete two storey additional hulk right next to the hut! ( to its right as you look at the image above. I took this photo long before the new construction). It has irretrievably damaged the splendid profile and the lawns of the place. There was absolutely no need for it, but these are the ways, brick by brick, bribe by bribe, apathy by apathy in which Himachal is being destroyed- by those who should be taking care of it. Its nothing short of custodial rape.

                                                 [ To be continued next week

Thursday, 24 August 2017


      [ This piece was published in The New Indian Express on 21.8.2017 under the title A WARNING THAT WENT UNHEEDED. ]

The 2nd of August has gone unnoticed: a pity, because it has brought the planet eleven days closer to Armageddon. This day was World Overshoot Day or Ecological Debt Day. It marks that day in the calendar year when we have used up all the natural resources generated by the planet for that year: from now till 31st December 2017 we shall be on an ecological overdraft, eating into our capital. The alarming fact is that this day is coming earlier each year: 1969 was the last good year when we did not overshoot; since then we have, every year, been consuming more than what the earth can produce, on an accelerating scale. In 1993 WOD was on Oct 21, in 2003 it came on Sept.22, and in 2015 it arrived on August 13. We are running out of time, fast.
    There is another way to compute our environmental profligacy- ecological footprint: the productive natural area required to fuel our consumption and absorb our wastes. The global average footprint in 2012 was 2.84 ha. per person ( cumulative global total 20.1 billion ha.). The available total biocapacity was only 12.2 billion ha. or a per capita of only 1.73 ha. Per person deficit was 1.1 ha. and the global deficit was 7.8 billion ha. This has only increased in the last five years with population increase and another 50 million ha. of forests disappearing. We are also running out of land, fast.
    No one should be surprised. The suicidal obsession with GDP and rampant materialism is driving a consumer frenzy that has assumed a carcinogenic shape and feeds upon itself. Just ponder over some figures before you order the next Mac Meal form MacDonalds. We EAT 100 million animals every year, not including 120 million tonnes of fish. There are 1 billion cars today, there will be 2 billion by 2050 and fuel consumption will triple to about 250 million barrels per day. The USA wastes 40% of its food, enough to feed the entire sub-Saharan Africa. We generate 60 million tonnes of packaging waste every year, and the world’s oceans already contain 86 million tonnes of plastic, destroying marine life, corals and reefs. There are 102,470 flights every day to 49871 destinations( 2014 figures, incidentally). Just remember, each minute of these cumulative flights means a consumption of 5 billion litres of fuel and emission of one billion kgs of C02 every year.
    This reckless consumerism is taking a heavy toll on the planet’s resources. According to IUCN 21000 of the world’s 70000 species of plants and animals face extinction. 75% of the fishing grounds are exhausted. 34% of the world’s conifers face extinction; 13 million ha. of  forests disappear each year: 30% of the Amazon rain forests are gone. One out of ten major rivers no longer flows into the sea for most of the year, most of the rest are polluted beyond measure. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 315 ppm in 1958, increasing at a modest 0.7 ppm each year. In 2013 it was 400, and going up at 2.1 ppm per year. The tipping point is 450- at this level the damage is irreversible. Global temperatures have gone up by 0.85 degree Celsius since 1880 and the rate of warming is accelerating.  The Arctic will lose its summer ice-cap completely by 2040; if Greenland follows, as it must, sea levels will rise by 7 meters, effecting 70% of the world’s population and 11 of its largest 15 cities: whole nations will go under to join Atlantis.
   It is not the life style of the average global citizen which is causing this depredation: 80% of the world’s natural resources are consumed by only 20% of the population, an imbalance which COP21 in Paris failed to address. Its almost exclusive focus on CO2 emissions was also misplaced- even if we restrict global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius by 2100 and CO2 concentrations to below 450 ppm, but destroy the planet’s forests, rivers, oceans and its plants and animals, the planet will become unliveable. The process has already started: according to the Journal Of Science  most of South Asia will become unliveable by 2100 because of soaring temperatures, shrinking forests, lack of water, devastated agriculture, commodity prices and civil unrest. A preview of the emerging catastrophe is available in India in the escalating number of farmer suicides, the US$ 10 billion loss to agriculture by Extreme Weather Events ( Govt’s Economic Survey 2017), the 650,000 deaths annually by outdoor pollution, recurring floods, the increasing social turmoil.
    Governments and economists have to step back and take a hard look at their policies.  “Ease of doing business “ has to give way to “ Easing of Consumption” ( as tiny Bhutan has shown). We need to adopt simpler life styles, consume for livelihoods not for self indulgence. Concern for the natural environment has to be embedded at the heart of every development and economic policy, and not be seen as an impediment to progress. There has to be more equity in the consumption of natural resources: the rich cannot be allowed to corner them exclusively just because they can afford it. We have to change our life-styles and consumption patterns, consume less of everything: water, fuel, food, energy, meat, travel, paper, clothes, cosmetics, wood, everything. Only then can we give a fair opportunity to the planet to renew itself. We still have a chance- barely- to make the right choices; by 2100 we will have run out of time. Not all of us can escape to Mars.

   Keep track of World Overshoot Day next year. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017


    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.