Thursday, 21 September 2017

OSCAR WILDE AND INDIA'S GODMEN

 [ 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 HOUSE CHRONICLES--III


    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

BANKRUPTCY CODE IS AN IMPEDIMENT FOR HOME BUYERS

            [ 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

REST HOUSE CHRONICLES --II


    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

REST HOUSE CHRONICLES--1



    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

A MILESTONE MISSED, A WARNING IGNORED


      [ 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

HIMACHAL PRADESH'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' David Copperfield 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.