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Saturday, 27 April 2019

THE SC MOLESTATION CASE: CHANGING THE NARRATIVE ?


   Most of my friends ( a list getting shorter every year by natural attrition, Alzheimers and my insistence that Sunny Leone and not Narender Modi is God's gift to India) frequently assure me that I am not as stupid as I look. Notwithstanding the back handed compliment, however, I am unable to make any sense of the goings on in the sexual molestation charge against the CJI, Mr. Ranjan Gogoi. There are well established laws( mandated by the Supreme Court itself) and precedents to take care of such cases. Why then is the whole narrative being changed  to treat it as a conspiracy against the judiciary and the CJI  rather than what it is: an apparently well documented and easily verifiable complaint of sexual impropriety?
   There is a tendency in India for all powerful public figures to allege a "conspiracy" whenever they are charged with any wrong doing. The Chidambarams do so when they are enquired into in the Aircel-Maxis case, the PM when he is accused of irregularities in the Rafael deal, MJ Akbar when he is called out for giving interviews in his underwear, Kamal Nath when his aides are caught with crores of unaccounted lucre. The CJI has just added himself to the list. Apart from anything else this betrays a hubris of monumental proportions- why should he equate himself with the honoured institution of the Supreme Court? Like all other judges he is a bird of passage: the Court was there before him and will be there long after he has hung up his wig and gown. The junior assistant was not complaining about the Court but about him. He is not the court, the institution is much bigger than him.
   The conspiracy dimension was raised by the CJI himself when he stated that the accusations were meant to "deactivate" his position. And from hereon the entire focus is being sought to be shifted from the sexual imputation to the " undermining the judiciary" narrative. It has found support from a lot of strange characters who have nothing to do with the case and have clearly jumped the gun: the Registrar General, the Attorney General, Solicitor General, the indefatigable Mr. Jaitley, the President of the Bar Council of India, and a hitherto unknown lawyer who has emerged from the woodwork at just the opportune moment to allege that he was offered a huge bribe to implicate Mr. Gogoi in a sexual molestation case.
   I am no legal eagle and can't tell a habeas from a corpus but even my sub par IQ tells me that this case has too many coincidences and unanswered questions for it to be glibly dismissed as a plot against the CJI. As a concerned layman here are the ones that bother me:
* Whatever prompted Mr. Gogoi to throw caution and the law to the winds and hold that unusual hearing on the 20th ? By doing so he converted what should have been handled administratively under the Vishakha and the court's own internal guidelines into a judicial hearing.
* Even this hearing was conducted in an irregular manner on various counts, as many legal luminaries have pointed out: no notice was issued to the complainant, it was held ex-parte; Mr. Gogoi made every effort to vilify the complainant and criminalise her character even though she was not present to defend herself; he flouted the very essence of justice and fair play by repudiating the basic principle " nemo judex in causa sua" ( nobody should be a judge in his own cause); he presided over the bench but his signature does not appear on the proceedings.
* The three judge committee nominated by Justice Bobde to inquire into the lady's complaint violated the Vishakha guidelines of the court itself: the guidelines state that the majority of members should be women, but initially only one was nominated against two gentlemen. Thankfully, this has now been rectified when the complainant objected.
* This committee is even otherwise flawed: it is a basic principle of administrative enquiries that those doing the inquiry should not be junior to the person being enquired into- in this case they are all junior to the CJI and very much under his administrative influence. Would it not have been better, and more credible, to have set up a committee of distinguished retired judges/ jurists as some elements of civil society had demanded? 
*  This committee's rules of process do not ensure a level playing field for the complainant. She has been prohibited from taking the assistance of a lawyer during the hearings. Even though her adversary is a sitting Chief Justice with 40 years of legal experience and acumen! Nothing could be more unequal or more prejudicial to her rights. She has to be allowed a legal counsel at all times.
* And here are some of the amazing coincidences in this case:
         - The complainant had a consistently good record of service but suddenly after the alleged incident ( October 2018) she was found to be so incompetent as to merit dismissal from service.
         -  In my 35 years in govt. service I have never come across a case where an employee was summarily dismissed for availing a day's casual leave without authorisation! In fact, the reverse is the norm: people usually first avail unsanctioned leave and then get it regularised! Why this overkill? How fair were the disciplinary proceedings against her, and what were the reasons for imposing such an excessive punishment on her?
         -  It is intriguing that the complainant's travails all started AFTER the alleged incident, and that her family was suddenly found to be a criminal one: not only was she dismissed but so also were her husband, her handicapped brother and brother-in-law in quick succession. An old case of dispute between neighbours( which was compromised amicably in writing) was dug up years later and the whole family arrested. A criminal case of accepting a bribe was registered against her in January 2019 and she was again sent to jail. She is out on bail currently, but - surprise! surprise!- the police are now asking for her bail to be cancelled.
         - Why and how did a lowly SHO have the temerity and gall to take her to the CJI's house to make her apologise to Mrs. Gogoi ? [ This is one of the allegations made by the complainant but it can be easily verified from the movement register in the Tilak Nagar police station/ visitor's register in the CJI's residence. The lady claims she also has a taped video of the relevant conversation with the SHO.]
         - How does one explain the extraordinary claim that the complainant ( a lowly junior Assistant) and her husband were issued a special pass for the CJI's swearing in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, or that her physically challenged brother was appointed in the Court from the CJI's discretionary quota? 
   These questions and coincidences cry out for answers and explanations. For, at first reading, this chain of actions does lend credence to the assumption that the complainant and her family were singled out for special attention. The lady's allegations are far more detailed than what is usual in sexual molestation cases, and each one is easily verifiable. The circumstantial evidence about her "victimisation" could also be a matter of record with the SC Registry and the Delhi police. That is why it would be wrong and dangerous to treat the matter primarily as a conspiracy against the CJI. It is eminently possible that Mr. Gogoi is completely innocent, but this cannot be certified by he himself: only an independent, unbiased, time bound inquiry based on fair legal principles and not on emotions or jingoism, can determine the actual facts in the case. 
   Unfortunately, as I've said earlier, the narrative is subtly being sought to be changed, with greater emphasis being placed on the perceived threat to the judiciary by "fixers", rather than on the woman employee's complaint. The lawyer from the woodwork, Mr. Utsav Bains, has categorically stated in his affidavit that this molestation charge against the CJI is part of the conspiracy to demean him and to get him to resign. In other words, he has alleged a nexus between the two cases. Therefore, the logical thing to do was to order an enquiry into the woman's charges, wait for its finding and only then decide the course of action on Mr. Bain's accusations. For, if the woman's charges are proved to be true and Mr. Gogoi is held liable for inappropriate behaviour, then Mr. Bain's case collapses on its own. If, on the other hand, the employee's complaint is determined to be false and mischievous then the whole weight of the law should be brought to bear upon unravelling the conspiracy. Right now the second inquiry is premature, hasty and will serve no purpose other than misdirecting the focus away from the molestation aspect and branding the poor woman as a conspiracy suspect.
   There are far too many permutations and combinations in this case. Both the charges- the lady's and Mr. Bains'- could be false or both could be true, or one could be false and one true. If it is the first then severe and exemplary action should be taken against both. If it is the second then the Court is in serious trouble, but merely because a conspiracy against the Court is established is no reason to assume that the employee's charges are mischievous and untrue: that has to be established on its own merits, as hopefully Justice Bobde's panel will do. The danger lies in playing one accusation off against the other-each should be examined independent of the other. Both are equally portentous for the future of the judiciary.  
    Finally, the Hon' Justices of the Court should be wary of the unsolicited and over hasty support of the government  and its law officers, even before the facts have been adjudicated on.  Mr. Jaitley's role here is that of the wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood fable. This govt. does not serve free lunches and an invite to its table could be an even bigger threat to the independence of the judiciary than the complaint of a junior employee.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

A SKEWED PLAYING FIELD, A MODEL CODE IN TATTERS.


[ This piece was published in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS and THE MORNING STANDARD on the 18th April 2019, with minor editing, under the title: WATCHDOG SHOULD BITE MORE OFTEN.]



            
   The odds are stacked against the non-NDA opposition in the current elections to Parliament. I am not speaking about the preferences of the voter but about the electoral processes, which have been customised to suit the ruling party.
   Consider first the fact that the actual polling has been stretched out over an interminable seven phases lasting 40 days as if there is a total collapse of law and order in the country. The argument that this ensures a “ free and fair” polling is specious because in fact it does just the opposite. Such an extended campaigning period stretches the resources- men, material and money- of political parties but eminently suits the BJP and the government. The latter is flush with funds- it received Rs.1200 crores in donations last year as against Rs. 200 crores for the Congress, and 95% of all electoral bonds- and can therefore sustain a long campaign much better than the others.
   It is also interesting to note that the four states where the BJP’s stakes are the highest, both in terms of retaining seats and gaining new ones, are the ones where the maximum number of phases have been notified- UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.  UP, Bihar and West Bengal have been salami-sliced into 7 phases each and Odisha into 4. Now, if indeed security was such a concern, surely it made more sense to  saturate them with security personnel at one go and have the polling over with in just one or two phases? That would give less time to the mischief makers to organise themselves and cause any disruption; in fact, doing so would have stretched THEIR resources. Instead now they can move sequentially from constituency to constituency, state to state, leisurely over a six week period. The only party which gains with this absurd scheduling is the BJP because it will now allow their main- perhaps only- vote catcher, Mr. Modi, to travel to and campaign in each clutch of constituencies and states one after the other, which would not have been possible in a single or two phase polling. It is hard not to surmise that the scheduling has been crafted by the Election Commission in order to enable Mr. Modi to cover as much of the country as possible.
   Secondly, the whole electoral process has been vitiated, and the playing field distorted, by the Electoral Bonds,  introduced  in 2017. This has ensured the financial superiority and resource advantage of the BJP over the others. Earlier, Big Business spread its donations over a number of political parties in order to hedge their bets because the contributions were public knowledge. The opacity built into the Electoral Bonds now ensures that only the government knows( through the banks). And this is a govt. with a track record of using enforcement agencies for political objectives. It would be a stupid industrialist who would now have the temerity to contribute to any party but the ruling party.
   To encourage even greater magnanimity from them Mr. Jaitley then removed the 7.5% cap on political donations by companies and even permitted foreign companies to contribute. Is it therefore any surprise that of the Rs. 215 crore worth of Electoral Bonds purchased in 2017-18, as much as 210 crores went to the BJP?
   Electoral Bonds have been the most damaging perversion of India’s democratic process for they have put an unhealthy premium on money as the arbiter of elections. Bonds worth Rs.1716 crore have been purchased in just the last 3 months! The ECI has to share a large part of the blame for allowing this, for in 2016-17 it did nothing substantial to stop their introduction, apart from mumbling its reservations about it to the govt. The ECI is not subservient to the govt.- it is a constitutional body tasked with protecting the country’s electoral landscape. It was its duty to have immediately challenged the matter in the Supreme Court and obtained a stay. It lacked the courage to do so; it was left to a voluntary election watchdog and an RTI activist to do so. The SC has now asked all parties to submit the list of donors( unfortunately again in a sealed cover) to the ECI and shall finally  decide on the matter soon, but the damage has been done and the playing field for the 2019 elections has been badly tilted in favour of the BJP by these Bonds.
   Unfortunately, it’s the same with the Model Code of Conduct( MCC), which is no longer worth the paper it is written on. Minor infractions are noted and invite the usual notices, but no worthwhile action is ever taken on the more major violations, usually committed by the ruling party or its supporters within the govt. The public speech of Kalyan Singh, the Rajasthan Governor, seeking votes for the BJP was ignored by the ECI till a complaint was lodged. The ECI should have asked the President to sack the Governor, or at least to  censure him and send him on leave for the duration of the polling period. Instead, it  “forwarded” a report to the President who has also “forwarded” it to the govt. Rest assured nothing more will happen. The Vice Chairman of NITI Ayog, a govt. employee, openly criticised Rahul Gandhi’s promise of a minimum income guarantee scheme; he should have been immediately removed from his post but the ECI was content to simply administer a tender rap on the knuckles, sending a signal to all govt. servants that as long as one is on the right side of the govt. the MCC can be safely ignored.
  There have been other instances where an impartial ECI would have taken exemplary action: the announcement of the ASAT launch on 27th March, its telecast on Doordarshan and the Prime Minister using the occasion to buttress his nationalistic credentials; Yogi Adithyanath invoking the Army as “ Modi’s Army. The PM has been absolved of any wrong doing in the first case while the Yogi has been belatedly barred from campaigning for 72 hours, as have Mayawati and Azam Khan, but only after a public outcry and a stern notice by the SC. The ECI has redeemed itself somewhat by banning the release of the PM’s biopic, and asking Namo TV to precertify its programmes. But questions of its registration, funding and ownership still remain and the govt. is in no hurry to investigate them.  And all this while Chief Secretaries and DGPs of opposition ruled states are being shifted without assigning any cogent reasons. There has been no word from the ECI yet about the Code violations by the Prime Minister himself: the continued appeals to (first time) voters to vote for Pulwama, Balakot and their martyrs, the ASAT announcement and the broadcasting of his Chowkidar sammelan on official channels. Will similar rules and standards be applied to him?
   One wishes the ECI would stop just barking and bite more often. Its reluctance to take stern action does not live up to the Commission’s glorious past when it had ensured the resignation of a Himachal Governor for campaigning for his son and had debarred Bal Thackerey from contesting elections because he had indulged in hate speech. Of what use is a watchdog if it has no fight in it?



DON'T MIX UP THE MODEL CODE WITH A MORAL CODE.


   What can be more ironical and hypocritical in these farcical times than the fact that a lady candidate's allegedly khaki underwear has become the symbol of the ECI's Model Code of Conduct? All channels and print media have gone apoplectic with their coverage of Mr. Azam Khan's statement and denounced him for it. And condemned he should be, not only for the sewage tank between his ears, but also for the vulgarity of his tongue. But in our obsession with his crudity are we not losing the plot? Are we not replacing a Model code of Conduct with a moral one and thereby allowing the violators of the first to get away by concentrating too much on the second?
  The Election Commission's Model Code is meant to ensure that the elections are fought fairly, that campaigning does not appeal to religion or incite hatred or violence, that no illegal or impermissible gratification is held out to the voter, and most important, that the govt. of the day does not use its vast powers or discretion to seduce, threaten or intimidate the voter or other political parties. The colour of one's underwear or a vivid description of one's lineage certainly does not do any of these things.  (In fact, I read somewhere that one lady candidate from the south has been allotted a pair of panties as her election symbol , though its colour I believe has not been specified !)
  I therefore submit that what Mr. Azam Khan said, reprehensible as it is, does not amount to a violation of the Model Code. It is only a continuation of the sexist mentality and gutter language employed by our political leaders and Parliamentarians towards women all along. And it is not the purpose of the Model Code to improve the character of our politicians, which in most cases is beyond redemption. Given the complete breakdown of of political discourse it is par for the course to call somebody a "chor" or to call somebody a " mother****" ( as a leading politician in HP referred to Rahul Gandhi recently) or threaten a community to vote for a particular candidate or else. In fact, I personally find nothing wrong in Mayawati asking Muslims to vote for her alliance or, at the other end of the spectrum, Maneka Gandhi warning the same community to vote for her or else their work would not be done post elections. Taking umbrage at these comments is pure hypocrisy and two-faced sanctimoniousness.
  Targeting castes, communities, religions and assorted vote blocks is the very essence of Indian elections. It is what "alliances" are all about, it is the criteria which determines in large measure the selection of candidates, it is the guiding spirit of manifestos and promises. There is, of course, a very thin veneer of talk of "development" to disguise this opportunistic nucleus of communalism and casteism, but it fools nobody: the entire thrust of all campaigning is the wooing of these disparate constituencies. So what is wrong with Mayawati telling Muslims to consolidate their votes against the BJP? Or with Maneka Gandhi issuing a word of caution to her Muslim voters? After all, all electioneering is transactional- you vote for me and I will get your work done- whether it is deporting Muslim" infiltrators", or stopping sealing in Delhi, or giving a farm loan waiver, or reducing GST or waiving off corporate loans, or promising to build a Ram mandir. All Maneka Gandhi did was to cast off this patina of self serving hypocrisy and call a spade a shovel, as she is wont to do. 
  My sincere advice to the ECI, which has plumbed the depths of sycophancy by suspending an IAS officer in Odisha for having the rare courage( these days) to do his duty, is to delink the moral from the model in its election Code, to ignore the first and focus on the second which is where the substantive violations take place. Let those who feel "abused" and "insulted" in these dystopic times sue their calumners in a civil court, file criminal cases or change the colour of their underwear, as the case may be. The Commission should stop running around like a headless chicken after red herrings and concentrate on the REAL violations- the misuse of the Income Tax and Enforcement Deptt. in organising raids on only opposition politicians, the continued appeals of the Prime Minister for votes in the name of our soldiers, the persistent malfunctioning of EVMs, the extremely shady goings on in NAMO TV, the rising crescendo of missing voters from  voting lists, the discovery of hundreds of voter ID cards from a drain in Delhi, the mystery of the black box in the PM's chopper, the spiralling polling violence in West Bengal, the serial offences of Yogi Adithyanath ( the day after his 72 hour ban ended he was at it again by calling a Muslim candidate " Babur ki aulad." It has been found terribly wanting in this sphere of responsibility. It should not expend its energy and resources on chasing what are ethical violations and have little effect on how a citizen votes. Concentrate on the real issues, gentlemen, and do not give the appearance of being busy with frivolities while the whole election is being hijacked from under your re-employed noses. Your job is to conduct a fair election and not to protect reputations or reform degenerate characters. Let the voter be the judge of that.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

A POX ON ALL THEIR HOUSES !


   If Messers Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav, Prakash Karat and MS Mayawati and Mamta Banerji all find themselves in jail by this time next year( perhaps sooner) if the BJP wins these elections they will have only themselves to blame. The writing has been on the wall for at least three years: the only way to defeat the ruling party was to combine forces, sink their differences, and present a united front ( by whatever name called, Sashi Tharoor could have been consulted on the matter). Political parties today in any case are devoid of any genuine ideologies. The BJP's single point ideology is to cling on to power and pelf, even if it means supping with beef eaters in the north-east, tying up with a "soft separatist" outfit like the PDP in Kashmir, supporting the rights of women on the issue of Triple Talaq but sabotaging them in Sabarimala, beating up Dalits in Gujarat but washing their feet in Allahabad. The BJP, credit be given to it, is the cat which has jumped off many hot tin roofs but has always landed on its feet.
  Our above mentioned stalwarts, on the other hand, have perfected the art of landing on their faces. Their single point ideology should have been just as specific and relentless: remove the BJP from power. This was in their own interest as well as that of the country; as the party's manifesto confirms, if it comes back it will continue to render the country apart with the Citizenship Bill, Articles 370 and 35A in Kashmir, criminalisation of triple talaq, extension of the NRC to the whole country, and the Ram Mandir ( other mandirs will inevitably follow, rest assured). There is a very real possibility of its amending the Constitution ( it will acquire a majority in the Rajya Sabha by 2022 ) to remove its secular underpinning and convert the nation to a Hindu rashtra, ensuring decades of conflict and a rampaging communalism. At a personal level the opposition leadership will be decimated by the ruthless and selective use of investigative agencies. The thousand year Reich will have begun. Are these people so blind that they cannot see it?
   Every opinion poll so far, as well as common sense, indicates that the NDA will decline by about 40-45 seats to about 275 but will still have enough in the bag to ensure that Mr. Modi ascends his Hindu samrat throne again. It would have been different if these selfish, small minded opposition leaders had pulled together in just five states: UP, West Bengal, Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This could have given them an additional 40-50 seats, further reducing the NDA/BJP's tally by a similar number, denying them that crucial first invitation from the President to form a government.
   The Congress is the biggest culprit: by refusing the 7 seats it was offered in UP and the 2 in Delhi and contesting separately, it has bailed out the NDA: with the AAP it could have swept all 7 Delhi seats with a margin of at least 10% of the vote share, and in UP the Mahagathbandan could have reduced the NDA to 20-25 seats, a loss of almost 50 seats that it could not possibly recoup elsewhere. Kejriwal too is to blame by imposing conditions for a Delhi alliance( such as seats for the AAP in Haryana and a commitment to statehood for Delhi).  In Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the delusional Prime Ministerial ambitions of two ladies will take them straight to Tihar in due course but, more importantly for the country, it has deprived the opposition of at least another 20-25 seats. Even that eternal fence sitter and opportunist Mr. Navin Patnaik of Odisha, and that other PM -in- waiting, KCR of Telengana, would have had to think twice before lending support to an NDA well short of a majority. Now its a no-brainer.
   Pride goes before a fall. Each and every one of the worthies singled out by me for honourable mention has kept his personal interest and ambition before that of the country. They are all wanna-be Prime Ministers and hence want their own parties to maximise their own seats, at the cost of their "allies". This is not the time to maximise their individual seats but one to minimise the BJP's. Some of them want to position themselves for 2024. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said: Nothing in all this world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance or conscientious stupidity. Both have been displayed in abundance: the ignorance of not knowing that, if they lose now, there WILL be no 2024 for most of them, and the stupidity of succumbing to their inflated egos in the false belief that they have got Mr. Modi on the run.
   A predator is most dangerous when it is cornered and on the run. This has been amply demonstrated by the manner in which various BJP leaders have cocked a snook at the Election Commission and its anaemic Model Code: train and air boarding passes have Mr. Modi's photo on them, cops in Noida distribute food with NAMO written on the packets, tea is served on some trains with- you guessed it- the Prime Minister's unctuous face printed on the cups, NAMO TV continues to publicize his achievements shamelessly in spite of an ECI ban, the armed forces are still being used to appeal for votes noywithstanding a specific prohibition by the ECI, Doordarshan and Tata Sky too give two hoots for the Model Code. Even govt. departments and agencies now have the temerity to show the finger to the ECI. Which is not at all surprising since this once proud body has now covered itself with ordure, the latest piece of excrement being the U turn it has made on the Electoral bonds- it now says it is no longer opposed to them! Its resistance to any increase in the number of VVPAT- EVM matching is an indication of not just pusillanimity but perhaps of complicity. It took the Supreme Court to restore some sanity in the matter.
  And if any further proof was needed to convince our MahaMoorkhBandhan leaders of the extent to which a ruthless Mr. Modi would go to ensure a win, it has been there for all to see over the last five weeks- selective and relentless raids by IT and ED on opposition leaders in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa. 11 leaders targeted, 83 places raided, "hundreds of crores" allegedly seized. Not a single BJP or allied party leader has been raided. Given the track record of these agencies over the last five years, any convictions are highly doubtful. But then conviction was never the aim- the objective was to provide the BJP with more campaigning material, and the party now has more ammunition than does the Indian army.
 Can these pampered, egotistical, ill advised chieftains not see that there will only be more of the same if Mr. Modi returns to power? Do they need any more evidence?- then how about this from across the western border: even Imran Khan now believes the chowkidar from Gujarat will win and is looking forward to working with him!
   In 2014 the BJP won with just 32% of the national vote. It will not improve on this in 2019. Which means that if a party rejected by almost 70% of the electorate comes back to power it will be due to these opposition politicians; they would have betrayed the country- that they too shall pay for their blunder will be no consolation for the rest of us. There is perhaps still time for a course correction, for last minute, seat-by-seat understandings. If not, then a pox on all their houses !( which in any case would be attached by the ED in double quick time). The opposition has done its best to ensure the BJP's return to power. It is now up to Johnny Voter.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

PURANI KOTI DIARY- THE CHANGING RHYTHMS OF EDEN.


   Come March every year and I cannot wait to get back to my tiny village in the mountains after a seven month , soul destroying hiatus in the wasteland that is Delhi. Purani Koti is 4 kms on a side road from Mashobra, 16 kms from the concretised and car swamped purgatory of Shimla. I have built a cottage there and have tried to atone for my large bureaucratic footprint of 35 years by planting, over the years, about 100 trees on my land of which 60 or so have survived, a much better rate than that of the forest department! They include oak, deodar, chinar and horse chestnut; the most prolific, however, are the weeping willows which belie their name by looking luxuriantly happy for most of the year.


 [ Top- willows in author's house. Above- a flowering wild rhododendron]

   I like to be there in March and personally experience how man, animal and nature all welcome the arrival of spring. During the four months of winter when we can receive as much as two feet of snow PK goes into hibernation. Most outside activities cease, construction of Sec. 118 houses and hotels are thankfully suspended, all bird life except the tiny tits disappears. All "outsiders" including "domiciled" ones like me head back to the metros, leaving to Geetika the onus of keeping our flag flying in these freezing times! Geetika has so fallen in love with this place that she braves it out through much of the winter with her two labradors and Man Friday. She runs a charming homestay in her cottage but I have a sneaking feeling that that is just an excuse for her to stay away from Gurgaon! How can one blame her?
   The willows and the wild rhododendrons are the first to start leafing and flowering, followed in quick succession by the rock begonias, hydrangias, geraniums and nasturtiums: my garden explodes with a new colour every day. The roses, as befits their exalted status, make me wait another month before flashing their blood red visiting cards. Among the fruit trees the apricot( khumani)'s blossoms stain the landscape a soft pink by the end of March; a few weeks later the apple and  "nashpati" flowers too will add their lilac and white hues to nature's palette. I never tire of watching the colours appear one by one, in a choreographed pattern devised by nature, unchanged for tens of thousands of years, since even before we crawled out of the primeval sludge.
   On cue, the butterflies, bees and bumblebees miraculously reappear though sadly not in the numbers of fifteen years ago when I first arrived here. They flit frantically from flower to flower as if renewing friendships of the previous year. There used to be dragonflies earlier but they have now gone-I hope they will come back someday.
   The gaily coloured and tiny songbirds, barbets and Himalayan magpies with their extravagant tails will be here soon, followed by the incredibly green parrots whose non-stop chattering is the avian equivalent of our social media. The elusive jungle fowl and khaleej pheasant can be spotted again at dawn and dusk in our dense forests of deodar, blue pine and oak, furiously rummaging around in the leaf litter as if looking for something left behind the previous summer.


    [Top- sunrise in Purani Koti.  Above- a sermon in stone: rock begonias.]

   After seven months of living in a neon reflecting grey shroud I can see the sun and the stars again, greeting the morning orb with a prayer on my lips and wonder in my heart: is this the same sun that one dreads in Delhi? The night sky is like a star sequinned bosom pressing down on my upturned face- silent, comforting and all embracing. The only occasional sound is that of a jackal complaining plaintively of his lot in life or the learned hoot of a barn owl. Its Eden without the serpent.
   The whole village comes to life again: children in smart new uniforms excitedly hop their way to school, labourers from Nepal and Bihar return to their old jobs in construction and orchards, even the PWD workers survey the pot holes while smoking beedis wondering whether its worth the effort of filling them up. ( It's not!). The farmers are back in their now sun drenched fields, sowing the potatoes, peas and cauliflowers that will see them through the year; the orchardists complete the last of many sprays on their apple trees, praying to Shali mata, the local deity, to spare them the hailstorms that can wipe out a whole year's earnings in a matter of minutes.

          [ View of Shali Mata peak/ temple from author's terrace.]   

   But the rhythms of Eden are slowly changing. Winds of change- sharp, short gusts as yet but becoming stronger each year- have started blowing through Purani Koti. Spring arrives a few days earlier every year, confusing the plants, birds and insects which have to scramble to keep apace. Villagers are shifting from vegetables to stone fruits and spur variety of apples: these involve less labour, recurring costs and risks; the returns per acre are also much higher. There is less water for irrigation each year: vegetables require regular watering, fruit trees do not. The whole economy of the village is changing, which by itself is not a bad thing for everything must adapt to survive.
   There is, however, one major discordant note in these changing rhythms: the ubiquitous and unwelcome conversion of rich, productive agriculture lands into plots for building of ugly "villas", hotels. guest houses and holiday homes for well heeled outsiders looking for second and third homes. They contribute little to the rural economy in terms of jobs or purchases, they rarely spend more than a couple of weeks a year in them. But they despoil the green environment, strain the limited infrastructure of power, water, roads; dump their garbage and plastics in the forests and foul the little streams. Dozens of fruit trees are felled and whole orchards razed to make way for these pestilential structures. Once open grazing fields have been built over, to the point where villagers have stopped rearing cattle because there is no grazing available. So now milk, butter, ghee and even manure-once available in abundance locally- is brought in from outside in plastic bags: one virtuous circle of consumption has been broken. 

  [ A typical hideous real estate development in an erstwhile orchard in PK.]

   The state's policy makers have already devastated the towns in their quest for quick bucks from a tourism model that is clearly unsustainable; they should not repeat this mistake in the rural areas like Purani Koti. The govt. should not be recklessly approving hotels, apartment blocks, guest houses and holiday homes in the villages but should promote only homestays and B+Bs: these do not involve diversion of precious agricultural land or orchards, do not strain local infrastructure yet provide profitable livelihood options for the villagers. This will also go a long way in stemming the tide of rural migration.
   This is, of course, all wishful thinking on my part; it will not happen in my lifetime. I don't think my little Eden will retain its natural splendour much longer. I only hope that I've shuffled off this mortal coil when the serpents take over.
[ All images by the author. He may be excused since he is still coming to grips with his first smart phone!]