Monday, April 14, 2014


We were at Xian airport waiting for the flight to Nanking. After
Linggu Pagoda
about a couple of hours we were told to get on to a flight that had arrived a few minutes earlier. All seven of us were bundled into it in a jiffy. While we were settling down Pat Kearney, our consultant, told me that the flight we were on was in fact the one that flew between Xian and Shanghai. As a day’s delay would have upset our schedule the Chinese authorities decided to put us on this flight which was made to make an unscheduled halt at Nanking. This was another instance of Chinese state power and it also showed the keenness Chinese to make a success of the month-long visit of the UPU delegation. They didn’t obviously want any flap. After all, their international reputation, especially with the UN agencies, was at stake. Whether in the process some passengers were offloaded at Xian is not known to me. An hour and a few minutes later we were at Nanking.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen
Located in the South-East of Xian, Nanking has been prominent in Chinese history, having been its capital on several occasions. It was capital during the reign of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century. Later rulers of the same dynasty relocated the capital to Beijing in the 15th Century. In the 17th Century the Ming Dynasty brought the capital back again to Nanking. In the 19th Century it became the capital of the Taiping Kingdom and was known as Tianjing. The city saw on several occasions the capital being moved out and moved in. The establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912 under the Presidency of Dr. Sun Yat Sen (a name we were familiar with in India), after what is known as the Xinhai Revolution, saw Nanking becoming the capital yet again. Later Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang (KMT) made Nanking his capital in 1927. A decade later, sometimes called the Nanking Decade, Nanking was invaded by Japanese troops commencing the Second Sino Japanese War that had seeds in it of World War II. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China of Mao Tse-tung overran Nanking and drove out Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT forces ending its role as the capital of the country. Quite a chequered history for the city!

 Nanking had seen tumultuous times in the 19th Century when the Taiping Rebellion raged in and around it for several years. The rebellion was against the Qing Dynasty that was ruling China at the time. The conflict saw avoidable loss of large number of innocent lives. There was a repeat of the same kind of bloodshed in 1937 when the Japanese invaded the country and were reported to have put hundreds of thousand of innocent Chinese to death. Visuals of are available of Japanese soldiers describing the way they were ordered to kill innocent Chinese.

Nanking hosts one of the most beautiful monuments dedicated to
Sun Yat-sen Memorial
one of its great leaders, Dr Sun Yat-sen. A medical doctor who later became a revolutionary fighting against the Imperial Qing Dynasty, Dr. Sun was instrumental in ending the monarchy after the revolution of 1911. He was made the Provisional President of the new republic with the capital at Nanking. Reckoned as the “Father of the Nation” and one of the greatest leaders of modern China, Dr. Sun, however, had a life of constant struggle and frequent exiles – a life that is the fate of all revolutionaries. No wonder a remarkably massive memorial has been built in one of the most beautiful sites in China on the slopes of a hill. The mausoleum blends the traditional architecture with the modern. One has to go up around 400 steps to get to the vault. The steps are dozens of metres wide on both sides of which are pine and cypress trees. It is a beautiful sight and the parks and gardens are very well maintained.  The Memorial itself is an edifying sight, easily one of the finest tourist sites I ever happened to visit. It was crowded with visitors, mostly local and the ubiquitous People’s Liberation Army soldiers with cameras in hand.

Among other ancient monuments Nanking has is the tomb of founder of the Ming Dynasty. Situated a little away from the town it is known as Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum. Approximately six
Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum
centuries old, ravages of time are quite apparent. In any case, I found the monument somewhat undistinguished. What was more impressive was the Linggu Pagoda which, having been destroyed quite a few times, was rebuilt again and again and the last reconstruction undertaken was in 1929. It was first built in the sixth century AD and was destroyed in warfare after about a millennium. It had again an Indian connection as here, apart from Buddhas and Bodhistvas,  Xuangsang (whom we know as Huen-tsang) and his relic were worshipped. The Pagoda is reputed for the beamless hall built centuries ago that was meant for worship of Buddha. Much later, in 1928 it was converted as a memorial for the 30000 soldiers who lost their lives in the war of 1926-27. Speeches of Dr. Sun Yat-sen are inscribed on the Pagoda.

A modern monument that was shown to us was the Yangtze River Bridge at Nanking. Opened to traffic in 1968 it was first ever massive double-decker bridge that was designed and built entirely
The Yangtze Bridge
by Chinese expertise. It is a rail-cum-road bridge, the upper deck is continuation of a highway and the lower deck is for railways. The bridge facilitated and speeded up rail traffic between Shanghai and Beijing. The superfast Chinese trains now thunder down to Beijing via Nanking through this bridge. It is a massive bridge, more than a kilometre and half long. The Chinese officials were justifiably proud of it. It was, perhaps, one of the biggest projects undertaken by them until 1982. The Three Gorges Dam on Yangtze and some more bridges on it were still in the future.

Nanking, in 1982, was seemingly a quiet, small town. Roads were devoid of motorised traffic as in two other cities we had visited so far. We were put up in a rather small hotel yet it had all the comforts and beautiful grounds all around. The city, I understand,
Beautiful roads but no vehicular traffic
has markedly changed after China’s “Great Leap Forward” into an economy that is more capitalistic than socialistic. It is now a thriving town with industries (which were not there earlier), educational institutions and massive urban expansion. There are high-rises galore and, as happens in a booming economy, a large number of hotels have come up, with some close to the Yangtze Bridge. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Indian Elections: Modi gains from Ayer's faux pas

By being undiplomatic in his language in a talk he delivered at a recent All India Congress Committee session Mani Shankar Ayer, a Cambridge graduate, a former career diplomat and a Tamil Brahmin to boot brought chai (tea) back into politics. Ayer promised to the gathering that the BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi would never become prime minister of the country in the 21st Century. And, he went on to add, “But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him."

The reference was to Modi’s background. A family of modest means belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBC), his father used to run an ordinary tea stall and Modi in his childhood used to carry tea in a kettle to the Vadnagar Railway Station in Gujarat to serve it to passengers as the trains steamed in. This was mocking the socio-
Chai pe charcha
economic background of an opposition candidate at its worst. Ours is a civilised country and none ordinarily would mock the lowly origin of a candidate. But Mani Shankar Ayer is different. Born with a silver spoon, having had the best of education in India and abroad and having worked as a diplomat even in most dangerous of places like Pakistan he had no qualms about making such an undiplomatic, insensitive, arrogant,  scornful and contemptuous statement. No wonder, he was roundly criticised by all right-thinking people and even the Congress Party distanced itself from the statement. The Congress Vice President, the Gandhi scion, even expressed unhappiness about it at a public meeting.

Ayer’s stupid jibe at Modi boomeranged with an uncanny force and the Congress was put on the back foot. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to make use of the deprecatory comment and capitalise on it and derived miles of advantage from it. Hundreds of Modi or “NaMo” (short for Narendra Modi) Tea Stalls came up in the country with photographs of Modi on their signboards. People
flocked to these tea stalls as much for showing support for him as for fun. In the rural towns and settlements these became centres of attraction and people would visit them for taking a hot cup of sugary overly boiled tea and indulge in some spicy political gossip. Not only indicative of the extent of support for the Party and for Modi, these stalls became an embarrassment for the ruling Party and its aspirants who were in the electoral fray.

This was not all. BJP organised what came to be known as “chai pe charcha” (discussions over tea) at many tea stalls and ordinary, no-frills restaurants. The idea rapidly caught on and “chai pe charcha” spread virtually all over the country. Even Modi participated in these discussions. One such “charcha” was held in Rajasthan that had 67 locations in the state connected with video links for question-and-answer session - a kind of teleconferencing. It became a perfect vehicle for public-connect for the BJP, striking the right chord with the people. Modi appeared on giant screens fitted in
several tea stalls and was connected live with the people and entered into public discourses with them expanding his views on several vital issues, such as empowerment of women. In an event organised in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, relayed live at around 1000 tea stalls Modi appeared on huge screens with a cup of tea in hand answering questions and expatiating on accountability in governance. These events got favourable responses from the press in the country as well as abroad. The Washington Post and the New York Times covered them and the French press made an unkind cut on Ayer by saying that in today’s world arrogance born out of lineage is a distinct disadvantage. Not to be left behind, the media houses too sent their news anchors to restaurants to discuss and ascertain the views of young voters on the main contenders.

While Ayer, with his expression of disdain for Modi, handed on a platter to the latter a vehicle for electoral propaganda, he, perhaps, unwittingly brought “tea” back into reckoning in politics. Tea has for long been associated with politics and to trace that one has to
Artists impression of tea caes being dumped into the sea
travel more than a couple of centuries back in time. Resistance against Britain’s power to tax colonies in America as evidenced by the Tea Act of 1773 gave birth to the Boston Tea Party, inducing a
wave of resistance throughout the colonies against tax imposed on tea by the British Parliament. The Act also had its origin in Parliament’s effort to rescue the financially weakened East India Company, a victim of smuggling into America of cheaper Dutch tea, so as to continue benefiting from the company’s valuable position in India.

The hard-line taken by the British Government against the protesters known as Colonists, also called Whigs and sometimes Sons of Liberty, to emphasise the authority of the Mother Government to impose taxes on people in the colonies despite being unrepresented in the British Parliament gave rise to the movement for rejecting the tea that used to be imported from England. In May 1773 the Colonists, disguised as American Mohawk Indians, entered the ship berthed at Boston ferrying tea from India via
Add caption
Britain and dumped the entire consignment into the sea. It signified culmination of resistance against the Tea Act in the entire British America. The stiff resistance against Britain’s rigid and uncompromising attitude bore the seeds of the American Revolution and eventually became the precursor of the American War of Independence.

Much later, in our own times, as late as 2009, once again we heard of The Tea Party protests. The iconic events of 1773 have been used on several occasions to describe anti-tax movements as “Tea Party” movements. But the Tea Party protests of the last decade were ones that were mostly of fiscally conservative and socio-political nature that engulfed the United States. The protests were against several federal laws that were perceived to have sought to enlarge the sphere of influence of the Federal Government. These were coordinated throughout the nation with a libertarian philosophy against what the members of the Tea Party believed to be attempts of President Obama to create a “Big Government” that they thought would tread on people’s liberty. Some of them even later went so far as to call him a “Lefty”. The Tea Party came to wield such power that it had an official nominee of the Republican Party defeated in the 2010 Congressional elections for he was not enough of a libertarian.

There has also been unlikely fallout of Ayer’s off-hand and arrogant dig at Modi. Looking at the reaction and the support Modi received other candidates from the same caste-group or deprived sections shed their diffidence and broadcast their humble origins. Thus “Paanwalas” and “Chawlwallas” came out in the open seeking voters’ support, a phenomenon (though not quite a schism yet) that was unfortunately born out of Ayer’s derisive remark.

Photos: From the Internet

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rich become richer in India's sinking economy

The Union Minister Kapil Sibbal told a TV news channel the other day that the GDP growth witnessed during the 10 years of UPA rule was never seen before. No wonder the government has unleashed a
Mumbai high-rises
barrage of adverts showing the UPA version of “India Shining”. Many will take the statement of Sibbal with fistfuls of salt. At the same time, looked at from another angle it would seem largely true. If one cannot quite lump it one might just read on and look at the kind of growth the country has had.

Arguably, Mumbai is the richest city in India. It has been so for most of the post-independence years. But, the kind of riches its citizens flaunt today was unheard of earlier. Take for instance a recent screaming headline in a national daily. Mumbai, literally, is going to have “castles in the air”. Ten such “castles” of 18000 square feet each are coming up in an ultra high-end apartment complex costing a cool hundred crore, i.e. a hundred million rupees (around 60 million dollars). The complexes come with dog parks, crèche, an elevated jogging track and other thoughtful amenities.

The “uber-luxury” apartments have their own restricted clientele who never seem to have heard the term “slow-down”. Duplex apartments in such complexes come with private pools, sundecks, multi-level automated parking and five-star clubs  and can cost as much as Rs. 1 lakh (a hundred thousand rupees) a square feet (about 100 crores for 10,000 square feet). Sold only by invitation, five Signet residences on the 40th floor of Lodha’s World Tower received overwhelming response and were lapped up for Rs. 75,000 per square feet. Located in Worli it is touted as the world’s tallest residential tower at 442 metres. It boasts of interiors by Armani and a club and a spa by Six Senses among other high-end labels.

Readers will recall a recent controversy over the plan to build super luxury apartments within peeping distance of the President’s House. The project proponent seems to be so powerful as to have had the objections of the security agencies brushed aside. The proposal continues to be alive and it would be interesting to see what eventually transpires.

Residences costing scores of crores are no big deal in Mumbai. Antilia, the house of tycoon Mukesh Ambani, cost him $2 billion, I suppose, more than 10000 crores in Indian money, making it the costliest house in the world. Not to be terribly outdone, his younger brother Anil built a slightly less costly one in Rs. 4000 crores. There
Ambani's $20 billion house
are smaller fries like Amitabh Bachchan, senior thespian of Bollywood, who bought a new bungalow for Rs 50 crores (5 billion rupees) despite having four of them already and Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary cricketer, is going to move into his new Rs. 80 crore (8 billion rupees) house. Paying 10 or 20 crores for a 3 or 4 bedroom houses seems like spending loose change. Bangalore too boasts of such properties that cost multi-crore and claim a pool or a garden in front of every bedroom. Even 3 and 4 tier towns have high-end properties that are worth several crores. People like us, the retired civil servants, cannot conceive of the way such properties are sold and bought.

The country has emerged as the biggest market for business jets in Asia-Pacific region. It has surpassed far richer China as a number of business houses and high net-worth individuals (HNIs) have started acquiring aircraft. According to Beechcraft, a leading manufacturer of business aircraft, India has a fleet of 254 business aircraft against 213 in China, 192 in Japan, 150 in Hong Kong, 66 in Malaysia and only 53 in Thailand – all supposedly richer than it.  A report says that even during the slow-down years of 2008-12 Indians purchased 38% more aircraft than in the preceding five years. Experts in the field of business aircraft are bullish about India. They expect a steep rise in the number of HNIs as surveys have indicated that the Indian economy is going to grow “significantly” in the next five years. Beechcraft, therefore, considers India as a very “exciting market” for business aviation and has committed significant investments for registering its presence in the country.

Another recent complementary report said that the number of indigenous billionaires (in dollar terms) is set to double during the next ten years. With 60 billionaires already in the country it ranks sixth among top ten countries. By 2023 the number is expected to rise to 119 according to the Wealth Report of Knight Frank who runs a global consultancy firm. With the global rise in the numbers of ultra-wealthy in 2023 only three countries, USA, Russia and China will have more billionaires than India. That’s saying quite a lot for the country’s business acumen.

Earlier during the pre-independence years we knew of maharajas maintaining huge garages for stabling their car collections. Maharaja of Gwalior (the grand-father of the Central minister Jyotiraditya Scindia) was called the Prince of Mercedes owning as many as 75 of them apart from assorted Rolls Royces, Bentleys,
A Rolls Royece car
Cadillacs, Packards and sundry high-end European cars like Alfa Romeos and Hispano Suizas. Today, leave alone the business/industry tycoons, even film stars maintain a handsome stable of cars. Amitabh Bachchan has many among which is a multi-crore Rolls Royce and he gifts his son a 2-crore Bentley without batting an eye-lid. An up-and-coming actress acquired a bespoke Rolls Royce. The legendary cricketers like Tendulkar and MS Dhoni, likewise, own fleets of luxury cars, Dhoni even having a battery of high-end exotic motorbikes. 

With money flowing in with Sibbal’s growth, the rich are now graduating to luxury yachts. The earliest owners were Vijay Mallya, Gautam Singhania and Anil Ambani. They are now not the only ones; every fat cat wants one and now the country has around150 of them crowding the sea off the Gateway of India. The itch is fast progressing southwards to Goa and Kerala.

All this does not take into account the cash illegally stashed away abroad. Estimates vary about the amount but the Central Bureau of investigations once submitted before the Supreme Court that Indian are estimated to have about $500 billion in banks abroad. That was in 2011. It may well be well above that figure now with all those enterprising people having made far more money in the interregnum. The government has put the lid on the cashe of information so firmly that none has been able to pry it open. After all, its own big guns and other politicians are all reported to be guilty of sneaking away money to foreign lands. One can, however, gauge the ill-gotten riches of Indians by the inestimable wealth of the Hindu temples. An erstwhile mining magnate of Karnataka had made an offering of gold and diamond coronet to his deity in a Southern temple costing around 2.5 billion rupees.

Down below, the middle classes are also doing not too badly. There is a housing boom with luxury apartments in gated complexes coming up all over the country. A hundred thousand today is meaningless money. You have to have in several multiples of it to be able to get going in kind of a middling life. Mercedes, Audis and Range Rovers are in profusion and so are Hondas that clog the lanes and by-lanes with houses unable to accommodate multiple sedans. Tata’s compact car Nanos are a no-no and Maruti Suzuki 800 has become extinct.

Sibbal is, therefore, right! There has been unprecedented growth during these ten years not in the economy but for the tycoons and, of course, politicians many of whom have become crorepaties (billionaires). That the economic growth has dived into the pits, foreign investment is conspicuous by its absence – even the Indian investors have migrated abroad, manufacturing is scraping the bottom with job creation virtually zero and the persistent high retail inflation – all that and many more, taken together is another story. For Sibbal growth has taken place in right quarters. As for the poor, they can wait; years and years of democratic India is ahead of them to play the catch-up game. Where is the hurry?

All photos are from the Internet

Friday, March 21, 2014

Destination China (1982): Xi'an

The "terracotta warriors"
About a couple hours away by a jet Xian is in the North West of Beijing. The airport was non-descript but, I understand, it has now been converted into a swanky international airport.

One of the four great ancient capitals of China Xian is now the capital of Shanxi province. With more than 3100 years of history it is from where the fabled Silk Route took off. It had, therefore, direct linkage with India. It too was a walled city. The wall is still there but unfortunately we were not taken to see it. Xian, in its long history, saw not only a great many dynasties and emperors, it also was named and renamed repeatedly. The current name was given in 1369 during the Ming Dynasty. From then on its name was change twice more. In 1930 it was renamed Xijing meaning the Western Capital, which, one supposes, it has always been. In 1943 it reverted back to its Ming era name of Xi’an. The city is now one of the 13 emerging megalopolises of China.

After the city was devastated in 904 CE not much was left and yet there are numerous temples and pagodas
Cyclists in Xian
and other remnants of the past. Dominating the town, however, is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. There used to be a Little Wild Goose Pagoda as well but it was damaged in the earthquake that shook Western China in the later part of the first millennium.

 The Great Wild Goose Pagoda was built in 692 CE during the Tang dynasty. Weak construction led to its collapse and it had to be rebuilt in 704. Another massive earthquake in the 16th Century reduced its height by three stories and brought it down to its current 7 stories touching 64 metres. From the top one gets a stunning view of the town. I did go up three or four stories and then gave up finding it hard work climbing all those steps. For us in India it is of interest as it was built by the emperor at the request of a Buddhist monk Xuangsang, whom we know as Huentsang, to store Buddhist sutras (religious texts), Buddha’s figurines, etc that were brought by him from India. His statue stands right in front of the Temple of Maternal Grace close to the Pagoda.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
We had read about him in our school history books. Another ancient Chinese traveller whom we knew as Fahiyan is now called Faxian. The latter, too, had set off from Xi’an, then known as Chang’an, at the age of 60 years and trekked over treacherous Taklamakan desert down to India, wandered all over the country visiting Buddhist sites and then proceeded on to Sri Lanka. After 17 years of travels in the sub-continent he got back to China by the sea route. One cannot but wonder how these itinerants travelled all the way over tall mountains, deep valleys, crossed broad rivers facing numerous adversities and persisted through Indian jungles infested by wild predatory animals and yet survived to tell the tale. They all went through the travails as India was the country of origin of their faith. Their travelogues have largely been the basis for recording our ancient history.

The post office for 'small town' Xian as it was then
Another site not quite developed then but appeared extraordinary was that of the “Terracotta warriors” who were uncovered in 1974 to the east of the town. They were discovered accidentally by a few farmers who were out to tap sub-soil water. What their find led to was one of the remarkable discoveries. Thousands of terracotta warriors in their battle dresses complete with arms and other finery standing in battle formation were buried underground. When we saw it was like an on-the-spot museum exactly where the figures were unearthed. We could only see about half a dozen or so warriors and a couple of horses in their terracotta finery. Later when the Chinese archaeologists concentrated on the site they uncovered thousands of figures of warriors, hundreds of horses and scores of chariots.

It is a form of funerary art that was buried with Emperor of China Quin Shi Huang in 209-210 BC for his protection and wellbeing after his death. Researchers suggest that the figures were assembled in sort of an assembly line, only the facial features, tunics and other details were added later to give them a semblance of uniqueness. About 700000 workers are estimated to have been engaged in the work. Only a section of the site is open and photography is prohibited.

Later archaeologists seem to have discovered that there are four main pits and the army is placed in a manner so as to be able to protect the tomb of the emperor. Pit one has 6000 figures; pit 2 has cavalry and infantry units and chariots; pit 3 was apparently a command post with high ranking officers and a war chariot; pit 4
Postal workers of Xian. Note their tunic
was empty, probably left unfinished. Reports also say that swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows and arrowheads were also found and some of the swords had great sharpness at the time of discovery. It must have been a mindboggling effort for the Emperor to fix it all in his lifetime.

Xi’an today is a thriving metropolis and not a provincial town. It has become a hub of education with numerous universities and institutes of scientific importance. It is now a modern city with well laid-out roads, metro and is well-connected by rail, road and air.  

Photograph of “Terracotta warriors” is from the Internet

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sakon Nakhom (Thailand): Installation of a Buddha statue

The monks at the installation ceremony
The recently concluded 2nd Dharma and Dhamma Conference organised jointly in Bhopal by the Centre for Study of Religions and Society and Sanchi University of Buddhist and Indic Studies prompted me to mount these photographs of installation of a statue of Buddha near Sakon Nakhom in North-east Thailand close to the Thai border with Laos. During our visit to Thailand in 2012 a friend of 30 years, Akkhardej Chaiyabutr, popularly known as Deji, who now addresses me as uncle, was to install a bronze statue of Buddha donated by him to his village off the Great Asian Highway that passes through Sakon Nakhom. While Deji carried the statue in his Toyota Corolla in an overnight drive, his wife and we, that is my wife and I, took a flight from the Bangkok’s old Don Muang Airport next afternoon. Deji was there to receive us at the natty little Sakon Nakhom airport well decorated with beautiful Thai artefacts.   

Next morning we all travelled about 20 kilometres off the Great Asian Highway to Deji’s impressive village for the Installation. Extensively ritualised, it is virtually like installation of an image of Hindu gods and goddesses. Instead of pundits it was monks who invested the statue with holiness and sanctified it to convert it into a living deity. Naturally very important in conducting the rituals, there was a battery of them who were honoured and feted and showered with gifts. They too reciprocated and with Deji and others my wife and I were also recipients of their gifts of cushions symbolic of those used by the Buddha at the time of his Mahaparinirvana. Food being somewhat central to Thai life, enormous platters containing a variety of delectable dishes beautifully arranged were served to the monks

The photos of the event are in the album. All were taken by Bandana Bagchi except the one in which she figures

The statue
Details of the statueAdd caption
The assemblage
Another detail
Seats arranged for monks
Food for monks
Making offerings to monks

Self and Bandana with Deji and his wife

Indian government's baby-steps towards sustainable transport

Articlated bus used in Bogota
Almost every city in India is being choked today with traffic. There has been an automobile revolution since the economy was opened up and infestation of automobiles in Indian roads has progressively increased to an alarming extent. While before 1991 only a few thousand vehicles used to be manufactured, that number went up to 3.9 million in 2011. Almost all major producers have descended on the country to establish manufacturing facilities. Despite a claimed slow-down in off-take in the succeeding years a few more lakh vehicles must have been added in 2012 and 2013.

People had to take recourse to personal vehicles for want of adequate, decent and dependable public transport. With generous help from banks the numbers of four and two wheelers saw an exponential growth swamping all urban centres with motor vehicles. Traffic jams have become commonplace in bigger towns and have also been occurring in even smaller towns.

Always tardy in developing infrastructure, the country was utterly unprepared to deal with this surge in number vehicles. It has been the same all over, whether in a metro or II or III tier cities or for that matter, even in a mofussil town. The existing roads were unable to cope with the burgeoning traffic. Apart from want of
Bike path in Utrecht
infrastructure or, in some cases, even lack of it the cultural factors have also affected smooth movement of traffic. Governance being weak in almost every sphere, it has impacted traffic management as well. Added to perfunctory traffic management is the lack of discipline and self-restraint of commuters – whether driving or driven in plush Jaguar or riding on a lowly Vespa scooter. Everyone wants to go ahead leaving every other person behind. The frenzied traffic ends up in numerous accidents, often fatal. About 140,000 died in India in road accidents

A most undesirable fall out of this excessive growth in the number of vehicles and the resultant chaos on the streets is deprivation of cyclists of their rights to use even a narrow slice of the road that they used to hitherto feel comfortable in. There is always a dread of somebody hitting one from behind – as happened not too long ago to the well-known environmentalist Sunita Narain. Likewise, pedestrians have seemingly been banished from the roads as coming out for even their constitutional is virtually suicidal. Either the sidewalks are just not there or have been appropriated by shopkeepers and casual purveyors of sundry goods forcing walkers on to the roads that are fraught.

 In many metros and other cities informal organisations have cropped up to once again popularise bicycles. The Delhi Metro has come up with a “rent-a-bike” system and it is proving popular. Such an initiative was taken in Paris too by its Mayor where a more sophisticated “public-bike initiative” has come up that allows sharing of bikes provided by the government or its agencies. The system, after a faltering start, caught on with the people and bicycles have become a popular mode of transport. The initiative has now spread to numerous other cities in Europe and America.

India, perhaps, is not yet fully ready for such an initiative. The government, however, seems to realise the seriousness of the problem and, hence, Doordarshan, the government telecasting agency, has taken the initiative to encourage people to walk, cycle or use public transport. Door Darshan (DD), with the support of Ministry of Urban Development, has launched this February a TV series on “Sustainable Transport” anchored by the film actor and social activist Rahul Bose. This is part of the Ministry’s campaign “Traffic? Ab bus karo” (Traffic? Stop it now) that has been initiated with the objective of promoting sustainable transport in India. The name has a pun – suggesting to commuters to use buses.

Vienna pdestrianised road
The TV series telecast on DD (News) is in four episodes – the first builds up the case for sustainable transport, the second is on cycling, the third on walking and the fourth is centred on the use of public transport. Eminent environmentalist Sunita Narain is also among the panellists. Through videos, the TV campaign shows the example of Delhi where pedestrians and cyclists have to risk their lives while crossing roads and Kolkata where cycling has been banned from 174 major roads as they allegedly caused traffic jams.
As a result of the ban poorer people in Kolkata were the worst hit. Stressing that the need of the hour is to promote cycles and eco-friendly modes of transport, one of the videos says that Kolkata seems to be moving in the opposite direction by promoting polluting vehicles.

Nanded Township in Maharashtra has come in for some appreciation. Here the authorities took inspiration from Netherlands where cycling became a national passion as a result of a social movement against numerous child-deaths in road accidents in 1970s. The change in Nanded occurred in 2005 when the roads were redesigned to provide separate lanes for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists – a measure that has, perhaps, not been adopted anywhere else in the country.

But, it seems the left hand of the government does not know what the right hand is up to. The efforts of Door Darshan and the Ministry of Urban Development may get undone by the last budget proposals of the Minister of Finance. His budget has effected a hefty cut on the excise duties on cars in an effort to fuel demand as lately the sales had slackened and the companies piled up inventories. True, in early 1990s largely riding on the growth of the automobile industry the Indian economy picked up which eventually made the country sixth largest producer of automobiles. The automobile penetration in the population has since increased appreciably (about 15 per thousand), though it is nowhere near several industrialized countries. One, however, shudders to imagine the conditions in the country if, given the state of our infrastructure, it reached the level of US or Italy where the figures are more than 400 per thousand. It is indeed an inopportune moment to encourage more people to buy vehicles.

 Cheaper cars would mean more cars on the roads, more congestion, longer jams, higher oil import bills and more carbon in the atmosphere (with 40% of vehicles being diesel-driven). Any amount of widening of roads or creation of parking facilities is not going to improve matters. World over this has been the experience since these are basically short term measures. The newly-created spaces are soon filled up and the roads start choking again. The Finance Ministry, therefore, seems to have caused a huge setback to a sensible campaign of its sister ministry of Urban Development.

Hopefully, the well-conceived campaign will not suffer and will soldier on against this and other odds. Currently the campaign is supposed to run for a month but, one imagines, the episodes would be frequently repeated to bring home to the viewers the virtues of using public transport, cycling and using one’s own legs.  

___All photos are from the Internet

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A President's priority

An abandoned ship near the Lake
Saving a dying lake was the first cabinet decision of the newly-elected Iranian president, Hussain Rouhani. Every other matter of vital importance to the country, including the issues surrounding its nuclear programme, was kept aside and action to prevent the nation's largest lake from disappearing assumed greater importance.

Lake Oroumieh is one of the biggest salt water lakes in the world. Over the years it has shrunk more than 80% to about 1000 square kilometres. The main causes put out by the experts are climate change, expanding irrigation and damming of rivers that feed the lake. Lakes in other parts of Iran are also facing similar crisis

The Iranian president's action indicates the importance he attaches to environment in general and water bodies in particular. Quite obviously he believes that water is life-sustaining and nothing could be of greater importance than securing it for his people That he
A view of the drying Lake
gave overriding priority to saving the Lake over myriad other problems the country is facing internally as well as externally says much about his vision and commitment to the cause of country's environment.

In India the head of the government, totally committed to GDP growth, has been mostly unconcerned about damage to environment so much so that he removed two ministers who happened to be heading the ministry of environment. Both were trying to protect the country's forests from the rapacious industry.

Another view of the Lake
Closer home the state chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, too, is unconcerned about environment. While his government has been merrily feeding the real estate lobby with prime forest and farm lands, he has allowed the thousand year old lake, unlike Lake Oroumieh a drinking water source, to slowly die. For the Iranian president saving the Lake Oroumieh was a national priority, saving the Bhopal lake does not figure anywhere in the chief minister's priorities.

All photos form the Internet