Saturday, 19 August 2017

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


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

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

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

Saturday, 12 August 2017

POINT COWNTERPOINT-- THE COW AS PROXY.


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

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






Tuesday, 8 August 2017

TANKS BELONG AT DOKLAM, NOT JNU.


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

                                 

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


Saturday, 5 August 2017

AADHAR UNDER MY KURTA.


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

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