Monday, August 25, 2014

Citizen Journalist - the new kid on the block


While searching for a citizen journalism site I came across the following more than five years blog of mine. I read through it again and found it relevant. Hence, I am taking liberty to re-blog it. Those who happened to have seen it earlier may please excuse me.

I had never imagined that I would ever come anywhere near the field of journalism. Having spent 30-odd years in the government I agreed with the assertions of many of my colleagues that I had, like them, become practically “useless” for all purposes. Destiny, however, seemed to have willed something else for me.

I established base at Bhopal (India) to spend the (post-retirement) home-stretch. With no pre-occupation and a mind still mercifully agile I progressively became conscious of my surroundings. The lack or, in many ways, total absence of civic amenities in this what-could-be-a-beautiful town irked me. With time available in profusion, I resurrected my Silver Reed portable typewriter and hammered away to churn out letters to the editors of local dailies. Some did seem to have impact, a majority did not. From civic issues I slowly graduated to topical, national and environmental issues and dispatched my thoughts to national dailies. That venerable newspaper, The Statesman, highly regarded for its quality of content and language edited by the legendary CR Irani, would publish them, often, lo and behold, the title of my letter figuring as the headline for the “Letters” section. My life seemed to have been made!

Consumed by the obsession to express my views more effectively I took lessons in computing – along with kids old enough to be my grand-children. The computer, with its awesome capabilities, made things far easier. Egged on by my elder brother, I tried my hand at writing articles. Some of them, when finished, appeared good. Soon enough the City Supplement of the local edition of Hindustan Times started carrying my pieces, mostly on civic issues. Even Manuj Features, the erstwhile features agency spawned by the Makhalal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism, accepted my output and disseminated them to its subscribers. I had emerged as a casual columnist.

It was nothing intellectual that I wrote. I only gave expression to my reactions, positive or negative, to issues– local, topical, national or environmental – as an ordinary individual that I thought needed expression, generally, with relevant information culled from various sources. It was neither sycophantic, nor was it in any way “muckraking”. I wrote like a civic-minded non-professional within the given constraints of limited space seeking, as Sarah McClendon (1910-2003), the well-regarded American journalist, once said while claiming to be a citizen journalist, “To give more information to the people …for their own good”. Unknowingly, more than half a dozen years ago I, too, had become, somewhat of a “citizen journalist”, a term which, back then, was still far away from common parlance in this country.

Conceptually speaking, citizen journalism involves, as Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, so-called progenitors of “the golden age of journalism” said, in citizens "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information…The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires". Citizen journalism has, therefore, been variously described as “public” or “participatory” journalism or even “democratic journalism”.

JD Lasica, a leading authority on “social media” and “user created media”, has broadly classified citizen journalism, inter alia, into (1) Audience Participation: with comments, blogs, photos or video footage, (2) Independent news and information websites: such as consumer reports etc., (3) Full-fledged participatory news sites (4) Contributory and collaborative media sites.

Although the idea that the average citizen could engage in journalistic effort has a pretty long history yet the professionals, with their training and corporate resources, seldom yielded any space to amateurs. Avid readers of newspapers would have noticed the progressively shrinking space for even readers’ views. And, of course, a non-professional can hardly ever break through the barrier of professionals who form into a coterie, monopolising news analyses in the corporate media.

However, with the progressive erosion of trust in the mainstream news-media, public journalism gathered strength. Technology gave fillip to it as an ordinary citizen could capture news and news-worthy incidents with photographs or video footage and distribute
them globally. The journalism that was “by the people” began to flourish with the emerging internet and networking technologies. The audience of the conventional media, which so far had been harangued and sometime misled by partisan considerations, took it upon itself to report and project more objective news and views. In South Korea, OhmyNews founded by Oh Yeon-ho in 2000 with the motto "Every Citizen is a Reporter” became popular and even commercially successful. In this context mention must also be made of the Independent Media Centre (a.k.a Indymedia or IMC) that came into existence in 1999 during the anti-WTO protests at Seattle as a participatory network of journalists that reports on socio-political issues. Featuring as a milestone in the history of citizen journalism, Indymedia has pursued open publishing and democratic media process allowing all and sundry to contribute.

Not yet bound by any law, as perhaps professional journalists are in certain countries, the citizen journalists, ideally speaking, have to abide by some basic principles that demand a great degree of rectitude from them. To be purposeful and effective citizen journalism has got to be so. Hence, accuracy of facts, thoroughness, fairness of content and comment, transparency – the principle being “disclose, disclose, disclose” – and independence and non-partisan proclivities are attributes that generally are desirable and mostly insisted upon.

Technology having given a kind of head-start, citizen journalism has come a long way. Growing appreciation of its importance has fostered a mushroom growth of websites world over inviting and hosting content in the shapes of news, comments, blogs, photos or videos from the audience. Even the traditional media organisations – big or small, print or electronic – having gone online, have staff blogs and also invite audience participation in actual journalism. While a new phenomenon of “Mojo” – mobile journos – is on the horizon, using fast and versatile 3G networks, a prospective citizen journo would find umpteen hosts of his choice on a web-search.

Although a recent phenomenon, citizen journalism websites have become popular in India. Here, too, as elsewhere, citizen journalism was the result of “digital era’s democratisation of the media – wide access to powerful, inexpensive tools of media creation and wide access to what people created, via digital networks.” While was launched in 2005, many popular sites like,,, etc. that came up around the same time seem to be flourishing. Their role-model being, they generally report on more serious issues like climate change, health topics, science, politics, environmental or social problems.

Regardless of what the sceptics think citizens’ reportage has gathered nothing but strength. World over – in the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and South Asia – new start-ups are appearing by the day. Yet credibility of the reportage is what the progress of citizen journalism hinges on. At a conference in Seoul in 2007, hosted by OhmyNews, the hugely successful citizen journalism medium, certain preconditions were set forth for user-created content centring on credibility, trustworthiness, influence and sustainability. Like in traditional media run by trained professionals, that, perhaps, cannot always be ensured.

Besides, the question that is raised often is whether an ordinary citizen can be a reporter. Rory O’Connor of Guardian says why not. “After all, I've been a professional journalist for decades - yet I never took a course in it, received a license for it or got anointed on high. So here's my advice - if you don't like the news, report some of your own.”

I have, for the last few months, been doing just that – reporting to OhmyNews, GroundReport, HumanTimes, merinews, Mynews. The response has been encouraging and experience rewarding.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

RSS Chief's thoughtless jibe

Mohan Bhagwat
The recent statement of the chief of much-maligned Right-wing Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat on the massive win of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the last General Elections was true but only partially so. Bhagwat is reported to have said that the victory at the hustings for the BJP was not because of one man, as claimed by many, but because the people wanted a change. He went on to say that an individual alone could not have ensured the Party’s victory unless people were keen on a change. He went on to ask why is it that the Party was not voted to power when the same individuals and the party existed earlier, too? The Party won because the people desperately wanted a change.

This appears to be the perspective of the chief of the supposedly parent organisation of BJP on the majority obtained by the Party under the leadership of Narendra Modi. The credit given to the voters to bring the BJP in power is unexceptionable. After all, in a democracy there is no other power than “people’s power” which can throw away a dispensation and bring in a new one other. It is the people who decide on the basis of their experiences during the preceding tenure of a dispensation to either retain it or to throw it out. At the last elections, people overwhelmingly decided to terminate the 10-year rule of Manmohan Singh government and to bring in the only other available alternative in its place, and they did so rather enthusiastically – so much so that the BJP recorded a historic win and a simple majority in Parliament. This happened for the first time in 30 years, terminating the era of largely ineffective and corrupt coalition governments consequential on fractured mandates.

Nevertheless, one can go with Bhagwat’s statement but only for a little distance as his utterance seems to be loaded. It somewhat bears out the reports of an ‘internal’ feud between RSS and Modi. And, therefore, the RSS chief seemed to have attempted to run Modi down and whittle down the latter’s achievement of winning for the first time for BJP as many as 282 seats in the Lok Sabha – well above the half-way mark of 272. However, notwithstanding his predilections, Bhagwat overlooked the fact that Modi was into his third term as Gujarat chief minister when he campaigned for the Lok Sabha elections having been anointed as the party’s prime ministerial candidate – an unheard of initiative in a parliamentary democracy – and eventually achieving a convincing win. Other parties and other BJP leaders were in Gujarat too but he ensured successive wins for the BJP since 1995, first as an election strategist and then as chief minister since 2002 . The BJP in the State Assembly chose him for the chief minister’s position not once, not twice but thrice. None, not even Bhagwat, can really detract from his achievements as a strategist for winning elections for his party and then working tirelessly to give Gujarat a new paradigm for development taking it to a new level of growth and expansion as its chief minister.

True, the people wanted change. They were sick of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government –its politicking, its corruption and its policy paralysis. It ran from 2004-2009 largely on the strength of the strong economy handed down to it by the former National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Atal Behari Vajpayee. With a chest full of cash, it got into extravagant mode - sinking massive amounts in unproductive sectors that took it inevitably towards the abyss of slackening growth, high fiscal deficit, mounting inflation, absence of investments, both domestic and foreign and rise in unemployment. On top of all that, regular reports surfaced of loot and plunder of astronomical amounts by its ministers. The Prime Minister may have been honest but he was not effective in ensuring honesty among his ministers and bureaucrats. He acted as a mere figurehead, being led by the nose by the dowager of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to whom he seemed to have been inexplicably beholden. With media clamouring for blood of the corrupt and the venal the government lapsed into a “policy paralysis”, even as people were groaning under never-seen-before price rises of all basic essentials. Nothing was attempted or done to alleviate their sufferings.  The people, therefore, were tired, angry and disgusted with the ineffectual government. No wonder, they wanted to see the back of it, and, that too, quickly.

While people were yearning for a break the BJP leadership helped them by ingenious policy changes to cash in on people’s wrath. In Narendra Modi they found an ideal party-man to lead the electoral campaign. Having won several elections in Gujarat, he had the knowledge and the experience to turn people’s ire and their aspirations to the party’s advantage. His background as the creator of a new Gujarat, which the prestigious “The Economist” called “India’s Guangdong” as far back as in July 2011, helped. Another master stroke of the Party was to declare him as the Party’s prime ministerial candidate. Effecting a break from the past, the Party pushed to the sidelines all the senior stalwarts. It did have to face for a while a few long faces born out of frustrations and disappointments but the RSS proved to be an efficient midwife in enabling acceptance of the drastic makeover of the Party’s leadership profile.

Soon, Modi and other leaders plunged into intensive campaigning. Traversing the length and breadth of the country Modi set a blistering pace of travel and public speaking. Discarding the communal card, he took on the opposition on two basic issues of corruption and development, promising a strong government if given adequate numbers. Regardless of distinctions of caste, creed and religion he sought votes on the slogan of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (essentially meaning growth for all regardless of caste creed
Modi's "chai pe charcha"
and religion), a concept that stood Modi in good stead in Gujarat and was described as a “great vision” by US secretary of State John Kerry. Two other things helped. A snide remark by Congress leader Mani Shankar Ayer about Modi’s humble origins as a tea seller prompted a hugely successful campaign in tea shops across the country with facilities of tele-conferencing, extending his reach to millions in towns and villages. Then, induction of his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, an indefatigable worker, helped in breaking the backs of the ruling parties in Maharashtra, UP and Bihar.

Obviously, the RSS chief, thus, erred in crediting only the people for voting in favour of BJP. People have always played a stellar role in elections. But, how their opinions are swung in favour of a political party depends heavily on its leadership. In the same elections the lack lustre and listless leadership of the more-than-a-century old Congress plunged its seats-share in Parliament to an all-time low of 44, depriving it even of the stature of main Opposition. Quality of leadership in electoral politics, therefore, is of the essence.

Photos - from the Internet

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Agra is only about 140 km from Gwalior where I grew up. Although I visited it at least twice later, yet my first visit took place when I was only in my teens and had just about entered college. The college cricket team was visiting Agra in December 1953 for a few matches to be played with the teams of various colleges there. Those days the colleges at Gwalior were affiliated to Agra University. The University had its jurisdiction spread far and wide - from Western UP to Rajasthan, Mahakoshal to the then newly created Madhya Bharat comprising parts of Bundelkhand and Malwa.

I wasn't good at cricket but, probably, for want of a better player I
was made part of the team. That made it necessary for me to have a few white shirts. Normally, we would have shirts stitched by a known tailor. Short of time, my elder brother and I went shopping for shirts. We bought three shirts and would you believe that I got shirts costing Rs. 4 to 5 from the outlet of Samson Dresses - a brand that was commonly found in those parts those days? Incredibly cheap, isn’t it? But then a dollar was equivalent to Re 1/- in 1947. It could not have been more than Rs 2-/- in 1953. It was the external borrowings that brought down the rupee value later. That is, of course, another story.

We travelled by III class (III class coaches were still running overflowing with passengers, probably indicating the prevailing level of poverty) in a slow passenger train that took the whole of the long winter night to cover 140-odd kilometres. It suited us as we slept through the night as best as we could. At Agra we were put up in the union room of the St. John's College. It was vacation time
during Christmas and the whole place was deserted. Three of us - Ramesh Tiwari (currently in Winnipeg enjoying retirement from his academic life in the University of Manitoba), Pratap Desai (retired from the National Health Service of UK and now living close to London) and I (retired and settled down at Bhopal) cornered a table tennis table lying in one corner and spread our bedrolls on it. It indeed was a tight squeeze but with the Agra cold of December we managed to stay on the table all those nights.

Next morning the match agaist St John's College was a wash out for us. Our team was bowled out for a measly 42 runs in the first innings. In the second innings they sent me out to open. St. John's had a stockily built speedster with chubby cheeks by the name Shivaji Sharma. As he ran into bowl I could see his fleshy cheeks
Domes ate the top of the gateway to Taj
bouncing up and down. He was pretty fast and many of his balls whizzed past. I could connect with only a few of them and my bat would get a violent thwack whenever it did so. I didn't survive long, managing an unintended brace before my woodwork got rattled by what seemed like a supersonic delivery. Never used to such speed of that shiny red cherry, I was lucky that my bones were intact. Those days there was hardly any protective gear apart from the gloves, pads for legs and an abdomen guard. The jute matting that used to be laid on the inadequately prepared pitches would add to the pace of the ball.

Walking back I was reminded of the Indian cricket team’s tour of England a year earlier in the summer of 1952 in which Freddie Truman, popularly known as “Fiery Freddy”, was introduced into
the England team. If I recall it was Rex Alston, the BBC commentator who graphically described Pankaj Roy, the Indian opener, retreating towards the square-leg umpire as Truman commenced his run-up. Such was the fury of his bowling. Having gone through somewhat similar circumstances I thought Roy couldn't have done any better. No wonder, later, at Headingley, Leeds, India went four down for no score on the board. I wondered if Shivaji Sharma was so nippy what Freddie Truman was like. Though we fared better in the second innings with some good scores coming off a few bats, yet we lost the match by an innings and a few runs.

Agra is known for its famous monuments yet we didn't visit any of them. Our days would be spent on the cricket grounds and evenings in cinema halls. Our friend Desai was a great movie buff. We saw as many as four, two  of them were fresh releases, Tarana and Sangdil, both starring Madhubala and Dilip Kumar - a great pair,
Madhubala looking unbelievably beautiful making a great impression on our young minds.

From our daily allowance of Rs. 3/- per day we used to spend a rupee and a quarter on movies. The allowance may appear ridiculously meagre today but in those early 1950 days things were cheap - unbelievably cheap. The Late Nawab of Pataudi once happened to mention while commentating in a cricket test match that during his playing days in late 1950s and early 1960s, even test cricketers used to get only Rs. 25 per day – surely, a pittance for a nawab.

Food, for example, was very cheap. Breakfast in a restaurant near
Central column in Fatehpur Sikri
St. John's College would cost us six annas (less than half a rupee) for an omelette of two eggs and two toasted slices with butter on them. Lunch would be around twelve Anna's and for dinner our skipper, Madhu Hukku, discovered a joint, a sort of dhaba near Raja ki Mandi railway station. The man who ran it appeared to be particular about cleanliness as his place was spic and span. He would make us sit on a clean mat in front of his wood-fired choolha and pass on to us freshly baked chapattis costing one anna each. The delectable vegetables, daal and pickles were free. A quarter of a rupee would fetch us a very satisfying vegetarian meal. I always had a liking for UP cuisine having had it with neighbours. This was
as good if not better.

Though I gave a miss to the monuments most of which today are World Heritage Sites I recall, however, having gone to the Agra Cant. It was a big cantonment, seemed to be much bigger than what we had at Gwalior. No wonder, the expansive Agra Cant. Railway Station was and continues to be the main railway station for the city. I remember to have found the Cantonment area very clean – in contrast to the inner city which we used to frequent. One of the markets was well laid out on one side along a broad road with an
extensive open space on the other side. The imprint of the Army was evident with neat road markings in black and white with proper signage all over

If I remember we played three matches, lost two and drew one. We returned from an unsuccessful trip but gained much in experience.  We came back without even having a look at the Taj Mahal – at least I didn’t see it until much later in 1993 with my wife when we saw most of them. I was disappointed t
o see the Cantonment area. It had become much more crowded and gone were the imprints of the Army from various roads. Perhaps our Army also cannot deal with the rampant disorderliness of the exponentially rising civilian population. In any case, Agra like many other UP towns was filthy and, in all probability, continues to be so.

In 1993 I thought I saw far too many skull caps all over – a
veritable sea of white. It certainly wasn’t because of the rise in the city’s population. The cap was perhaps the way the aggrieved community wished to display its identity and exhibit its solidarity after the meaningless demolition of the historical Babri Masjid.  

All the photographs were taken in 1992

Monday, August 18, 2014

Bhopal and its broken-down roads

The plunging civic services of Bhopal touched a new low when the famed decades old All India Obaidullah Gold Cup Hockey Tournament had to be postponed for a reason that was as bizarre as it was unbelievable. The Bhopal Hockey Association had to shelve the Tournament for the time being on account of bad roads around the venue, the Nawabi era Aishbagh Stadium. All the approaches to the Stadium are heavily potholed and muddy though for the past few days there have been no rains. The Association felt that the players from all over the country would take away a negative impression of the city.

At least the Bhopal Hockey Association is sensitive about the city’s image. The three agencies of the city which look after its roads, however, have no such sensitivity. All the three agencies – the Bhopal Municipal Corporation, the PWD and the Capital Project Authority –, have the responsibility to construct and repair roads in various parts of the city. And, curiously all the three agencies have miserably failed to do so. That the civil engineers are mostly corrupt is known to everyone. However, the fact that the entire tribe of these engineers in the three agencies is so highly corrupt is something difficult to stomach. Shamelessly, these engineers and even their minister in-charge, after a survey, found nothing wrong with the roads. They missed all the gaping potholes, trenches and water logging. They were trying to defend the indefensible. Only an independent survey nailed their lies. Obviously, there is no monitoring to ensure compliance with the prescribed procedures. Year after year we face this rather dismal phenomenon. Neither the senior bureaucrats nor the minister in-charge are bothered. It is popularly known that money made by short-changing the government finds its way right up to the top. Hence, no senior public officials are concerned as they too share the loot. And some of these ministers used to pompously claim five or six years ago that they would convert the city into a Singapore. Shameless as they are, they don’t even eat up their words.

The unscrupulous engineers have not even spared the BRTS corridor parts of which are now in shambles even after a deficient monsoon. Reportedly, moneys were allocated by the Centre for roads of high quality and international standards.  Even here there seems to have been swindling. The most incapable organisation, the municipal corporation, was given the responsibility to build the corridor and it made a mess of it. About 5 or 6 years ago the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum had suggested to the then chief secretary to constitute an empowered authority to oversee the construction of BRTS roads mainly to prevent slippage of quality, time and money. Nothing was done and the whole thing continued in the same lackadaisical way so much so that, seven years on after the commencement of the project, it is nowhere near completion causing untold miseries to the commuters.

It is not only the urban roads that are in a mess, even the rural roads and highways are no better. The state may have achieved 11% growth in agriculture but it will never be able to register all round development without proper roads. One recalls what Mao Tse Tung had said: “if you want to prosper, build roads.” That’s precisely what we have not done and, unsurprisingly, we are lagging behind and may well continue to do so for some more years – even regardless of Modi.

Photo: from the Internet

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Of "utsavs" and "mahotsavs"

The Madhya Pradesh government is very fond of organising festivals – “utsavs” and “mahotsavs”. The latest was the “Hariyali Utsav” – a tree-planting festival. The state forest department had planned to plant as many as 7 crore (7 billion} saplings. No one knows how many were actually planted. More importantly, no one knows whether those that were planted during the preceding years at such festivals had in fact survived. Even during the annual “Vanmahotsav” festivals also a lot of hullaballoo is created about tree-planting and sometimes the chief minister himself leads the charge, as it were. But on many occasions, the papers reported, that the planted saplings, for want of care, had eventually been allowed to become feed for stray cattle. Over the years lakhs of trees have been ceremonially planted. Had they all survived, Madhya Pradesh would have been by now lush green and thickly forested. Alas, that is not the case. The latest report released by the Ministry of Environment & Forest indicates that the state has actually lost a few hundred square kilometres of forests. Even our urban areas are consistently losing greenery.

Likewise, a few months back the government was hell-bent on celebrating the “Jheel Mahatsav” – a festival of­ lakes on the banks of the Upper Lake. The reason put out was that the festival would enhance awareness among the aam aadmi about the need for conservation of the water body. The fact that collection of thousands of people during such 4 to 5 day- festivals for an extended period of time every day would damage the Lake and undo all the efforts made to conserve it was apparently not considered by the powers-that-be. The festival was eventually celebrated last February, mercifully, at multiple locations in old and new Bhopal, taking the pressure off the Lake to a certain extent. The Boat Club and the Sair Sapata complex, however, necessarily came for in for special attention.

 All the departments concerned of the government, taken together, blew up Rs 5 crore on the festival without any concrete gain. Not a pie was spent on conservational measures for the Lake. In this kind of money the government would have been able to acquire a dredger for periodically de-silting this and other lakes all of which are heavily silted. One recalls, about five years ago Babulal Gaur, the then Urban Administration Minister declined to sanction Rs. one crore for the purpose when members of the Bhopal Citizens Forum requested him to do so. The request was to spare a crore from the accumulated interest on the unspent amounts of the failed Bhoj Wetland Project that were in deposit. Yet the government had no qualms spending the several times that  sum on a mere festival that in no way served the proclaimed noble intent behind it.

 The government always claims to be highly concerned about conservation of the Upper Lake. But, as is now increasingly becoming evident from the hearings at the local Bench of the National Green Tribunal that it is the government, by its acts of
sheer omissions and commissions, is actually killing the water body. At almost every hearing the Tribunal has expressed its exasperation at the government’s and its agencies’ procrastinations and inertia in carrying out its directions. And yet, there is no positive effort by any of them.

All these “utsavs” and “mahotsavs”, seemingly, are ploys of the political class to fool the people. Nothing ever comes off them. Only huge sums out of public funds are spent without any tangible outcomes. Some of it surely finds its way illegitimately into a few private pockets. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Shape of things to come - in Indian Railways?

Tracks fanning out of Beijing Railway Station
A recent news item indicated that the Chinese are coming to take a look at the Indian Railways and suggest ways and means to improve it in most of its aspects. A week or two earlier a 22-member delegation headed by the Deputy Administrator of the National Railway Administration Zheng Jian held talks with the top brass of the Central Railways at Mumbai

Nose like that of an aircraft
While there are numerous other countries which have developed and modernised their respective railway systems – France and Japan to name only two – perhaps pitching on China would be the right thing to do. Thirty years ago the Chinese Railways system was no better than ours as it is today. I had had occasion to
Sleeperette  seats
see it myself in 1982. But today they have a whole network of swanky bullet trains running at 300 kms per hour. They have gone through the whole gamut of processes for lifting up standards and modernisation of the System and the work is still on. The fast paced development was aided by accumulation of huge amounts of forex reserves and an authoritarian regime. Nonetheless, in our case, too, a beginning has
to be made - sooner the better. Our Railways have been milked by the politicians in our self-destructive, chaotic democracy for so long that it had actually been brought down to the edge of a precipice.

The report hoped that a MoU might be signed in this regard when the Chinese President comes to India on a visit in September next.  The photographs sent to me by a friend are also posted. One wonders whether one would be journeying on such a train in this country any time soon. Not in my lifetime anyway!

Will it be like what we see here?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Angry Himalayas wreak havok in Uttarakhand

The pilgrimage to Badrinath and Kedarnath as also to what is known as “Chaar Dhaam yatra” in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhad has come to a halt on account of heavy incessant rains, both in the Shivaliks and on the Himalayas. Consequently, there have been floods and landslides; the roads are blocked and the pilgrims in thousands are stranded at various places on the way up to the temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath at the elevations of more than 10000 ft. and more than 11500 ft, respectively.

This is the second successive year when bad weather has played havoc with the Badri-Kedar and “Chaar Dham” (Gods’ four abodes) pilgrimages. Despite the massive tragedy that occurred last year the intrepid pilgrims in fairly large numbers ventured out on the difficult and dangerous pilgrimage. Many who were washed away last year in the floods during their journey, from their hotels and guest houses or even the homes that collapsed under the incredible force of waters tumbling down the steep mountainous valleys are still untraceable. The Holy Temples were severely damaged, the river valleys and their banks were ravaged by the gushing waters bringing down debris with the inhabitants of the area losing their houses, sources of livelihood like cultivable lands and cattle and even their bread-winners. The state of Uttarakhand was an absolute wreck, so much so that the devastating floods and attendant havoc were even featured in a documentary in the National Geographic channel.

The major disaster invited the attention of the Supreme Court which suo moto took up the matter and later directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests to appoint an Expert Body to look into the reasons for the deluge that wrecked the state. The Ministry appointed an 11-member committee under Dr. Ravi Chopra, Director of the non-profit People’s Science Institute and Managing Trustee of the Himalayan Foundation. Dr. Chopra’s report was submitted in April last to the Apex Court holding that multiple hydropower projects under construction in the State were largely the cause for the catastrophe. The general consensus among a majority of members of the committee was that there is adequate scientific evidence to prove that multiple hydropower projects in the same river basin aggravated damage to the surroundings. As many as 24 projects were being worked on with dams descending down at various elevations from more than 6000 ft at an interval of a little more than a kilometre.

Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a scientist and a freelance columnist has reported that the real cause of the disaster was use of dynamite to cut and puncture the hills for making roads and tunnels for hydropower projects.  This, coupled with the concomitant deforestation, loosened the topsoil that flowed downward with the heavy downpour instead of allowing the rainwater to seep underground. The sides of the mountains, with trees and shrubs flowed along only to be obstructed by succeeding barrages leading to accumulation of water that formed reservoirs building up pressure to break down obstructions like vital connecting bridges stranding pilgrims. The muck, apparently, a collection of excavated earth for tunnelling and other waste carelessly stacked up on the riversides by companies executing the power projects, was washed away by the gushing waters raising the level of the river beds of Mandakini and Alaknanda causing floods and devastation to the roads and habitations alike on both banks. Dr. Jhunjhunwala also feels that there is overwhelming evidence to show that the disaster was caused by human activities, especially hydropower projects. The Chopra Committee has reportedly recommended axing of 23 out of 24 power projects in the area.

The other human activity that of unregulated tourism, made no mean contribution towards the disaster last year. A report said that, according to the state government records, the numbers of pilgrims have registered a 300% rise during the last decade of 2001 to 2011. From 1.11 crore (1billion) it has risen to 3.11crore (3 billion) and was expected to double by 2017. The infrastructure to cater to the rising numbers has developed but only very tardily, and as is the wont of the governments, in an unregulated manner. Roads were widened cutting the hill-sides to allow for the exponentially risen traffic. Necessarily, large tracts of forests had to be felled with the same eventuality as occurred for building of hydropower projects. According to another news report, “Construction on the pilgrim route grew organically and with successive state governments providing limited public infrastructure, people in the region built up (mostly illegally) the cheapest and quickest motels, restaurants and roadside kiosks to benefit from the growing number of tourists.” Apparently, the government of the state ignored the findings of its own studies and continues to do so, drawing hardly any lessons from the tragedy.

If the floods, landslides and breaches took place because of the hydropower projects the immense loss of life was caused by the unregulated tourism. No wonder, the state government was paralysed and later the chief minister lost his job. But he could have done precious little as it was a man-made calamity of massive proportions for which, despite being in possession of adequate information, his government was caught totally unprepared. It was only other agencies such as the men of the defence forces, NGOs and other social organizations that helped in rescue and recovery of men and material. The local inhabitants displaced from their moorings, in many cases, are yet to be rehabilitated.

 And, yet earlier this year the government was ready with the plans of commencing the “Yatra” (pilgrimage). It could not possibly have waited as religious tourism has remained for many years the mainstay for the wellbeing of the people in the “spiritually rich state”. The economy of the state seemingly was heavily dependent on the influx of pilgrims during the annual pilgrimage. Curbing or restricting the tourist traffic is a political hot potato which no political party is prepared to enforce. After all, politicians’ votes are directly dependent on it. So, the more the number of pilgrims, happier the people of the state would be – regardless of the prospects of deaths and devastation.

Chasing the hydropower potential of 14-odd GW and allowing unrestrained tourism that let in hordes of neo-rich, the Uttarakhand government, treading the dangerous path of self destruction, unwittingly mounted an unsustainable assault on the young mountains. Beckoned by the prospects of prosperity and unending flow of votes, the politicians became oblivious of the power of Nature and that it could strike back, as it did in the summer of 2013.

 Being the “Spiritually Rich State”, its keepers should realise that the Gods are angry for the scarring, denudation and mutilation of their creation, the Himalayas, and that they are fed up with mostly the faux piety of the hordes of neo-rich. The message seems to be clear and needs to be heeded: Gods desire peace and tranquillity to once again rein in their lofty abodes. Restraint should be the watchword for us mortals.

Photo from the Internet