Friday, May 22, 2015

Palmyra under threat

The photographs alongside and below are of Palmyra, an ancient Semitic city of Syria with some fantastic remains of its Greco-Roman period. An oasis that once used to be on a trade route was made into an amazingly beautiful city with it Hellenistic and Roman architecture. For its universal value to humanity it was declared by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

And that Heritage Site is under serious threat from the ISIS who are
reported to have overrun the city. Iconoclasts as they are, it is feared that they are likely to destroy the colonnaded streets, magnificent temples and the superb more than 2000-year old funerary art. Reports of pillage despoilment have already been under circulation. The invaluable collection at the local museum having some irreplaceable 2000 years old arrtifacts are under
serious threat  I find myself somewhat concerned as, though I never had the occasion to visit it, I was exposed to Palmyra a few years ago through the book of Sir Julian Huxley “From an Antique Land”. It is almost like the cradle of civilization and that has fallen to men who are unthinking and insensitive to everything other than their faithThe photographs below are of Palmyra, an
ancient Semitic city of Syria with some fantastic remains of its Greco-Roman period. An oasis that once used to be on a trade route was made into an amazingly beautiful city with it Hellenistic and Roman architecture. For its universal value to humanity it was declared by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

And that Heritage Site is under serious threat from the ISIS who are reported to have overrun the city. Iconoclasts as they are, it is feared that they are likely to destroy the colonnaded streets, magnificent temples and the superb more than 2000-year old funerary art. Reports of pillage despoilment have already been under circulation. The invaluable collection at the local museum having some irreplaceable 2000 years old arrtifacts are under serious threat  I find myself somewhat concerned as, though I never had the occasion to visit it, I was exposed to Palmyra a few years ago through the book of Sir Julian Huxley “From an Antique Land”. It is almost like the cradle of civilization and that has fallen to men who are unthinking and insensitive to everything other than their faith.

Phtos: from the Internet

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Defaced city walls

Defacement of city walls has been a common feature in our cities. I recall when I went to Calcutta for the first time in 1984 I was amazed to see all the walls – public or private –plastered over with slogans, ads or campaigns of the local government. Not an inch of the whites of the walls would be visible. West Bengal had a Communist Party of India (Marxist) government then. Likewise, during my posting in the North-East I visited Agartala somewhere around 1989, the capital of Tripura in the far eastern corner of the country on the other side of Bangladesh. There, too, all walls, public or private, were written over in blue or black or communist red. Tripura was also being ruled by CPI (M), as it is till today, being the only communist ruled state in the country. It appeared, defacing the walls was the hall mark of communist regimes. I was told it was the “red” cadres in every locality who used to deface the walls, of course, on orders from their senior comrades. While Calcutta – now Kolkata – has got over the propensity to deface the city walls I do not know whether Tripura too has shed this tendency.

Surprisingly, situated far away from Kolkata or Agartala, Bhopal seems to have somehow caught the infection that makes private or public agencies to deface walls. All of us have to pass through the Civil Lines or Link Road No.1 and are presented with the spectacle walls written over with government campaigns. One stretch of wall of Hamidia College and the Circuit House was given away during the mayoralty of Sunil Sood to the students to try their hand in painting it with whatever caught their fancy. In fact at that time there was a campaign in the newspapers about defacement of public walls and Sunil Sood had taken a decision to ban defacement of walls. However, quite curiously, the government agencies themselves are now writing slogans on the city walls.

 In the Civil Lines area the wall of State Archives and Polytechnic as also elsewhere the slogans of Swachchata Mission are written all over for considerable stretches. It did not seem to have occurred to the authorities concerned that mere writing of slogans in myriad well-contrived language would not ensure cleanliness. What is needed is concrete action by government’s own agencies or the civic body to rid the city of muck and dirt. All along the Link Road, too, the slogans relating to government’s social campaigns can be seen, though some of them are now, mercifully, obstructed from view by the growing shrubbery.

 Thus the state government is breaching the Municipal Corporation’s ban orders with great facility. It has done so on numerous other occasions like running the cruise and motor boats on the Upper Lake despite a ban imposed by the municipality as far back as 2005. But, the Corporation is unable to gather enough gumption to take action against the former. The government, obviously, thinks nothing of the Corporation as it is, after all, its creature, running as it does on the grants doled out by the former.  The menace, however, seems to have assumed serious proportions as advertisers are now defacing, apart from public walls, even private walls which so far seem to have been spared the obnoxious paint and brush. Besides, they are pasting posters on electricity poles. Not only does it give the whole city a shabby appearance, it also indicates the lack of aesthetics on the part of all those who indulge in this reprehensible activity as also those who manage the city. That it also reflects the Municipal Corporation’s lack of will and teeth to keep the city presentable in every way is, of course, another matter.

In this connection, one must commend the remarkable work done by the I-Clean Team of Bhopal which has gone from place to place cleaning up the walls and bringing order to places where everything they found to be in disarray. Unfortunately, the effort of this self-less team of ever-increasing voluntary workers somehow did not rub off on any of the officials of the local civic body or of the Department of Urban Administration & Development. One expected that looking at the voluntary workers’ enthusiasm to get rid of the repulsive state of the many areas thay happened to visit and looking at their deep commitment to the city, officials concerned and elected representatives too would chip in to supplement their effort by men and material if not lead the entire campaign to better effect. Alas, that did not happen. It is not that they do not know about it; they are all aware of it as the local newspapers have repeatedly carried the news of the efforts of the I-Clean Team. What appears to me from this indifference of authorities is that they, besides being unashamed of their neglect and apathy towards the city, are utterly uncommitted to the city although working for betterment of the city is what precisely their job is. All their talks over the years of making the city look as good as Singapore or Paris were never well-meaning, in fact, that was all gas to hoodwink the people.

Only recently it was reported that the Chief Minister had claimed that our state is more beautiful than Singapore, comparing two incomparables in numerous ways. Nonetheless, in Singapore the government does not deface the city walls like his government does in Bhopal. Let the CM first have the city walls cleaned up, remembering that comparisons, apart from being odious, do not take one anywhere; it is only concrete action that does it. One would have appreciated if the government instead had fostered street art

Friday, May 15, 2015


A family dinner out on the lawn on arrival
My eldest brother worked through the late 1970s to late 1990s for GATT (General Agreement for Trade & Tariff and now World Trade Organisation), an UN agency, as consultant to its Director General. He used to live in Versoix (pronounced Versoa) and go to work in Geneva. In 1987 he suggested to us to take a trip to Switzerland. Although those days were not so expensive as they are now – the
Versoix against noise pollution
two way air fare was around Rs. 7000/-, the Swiss Franc was worth Rs 8/- (currently Rs. 68/-) and a Dollar was worth little less than  Rs. 14/- (now 64/-) – yet a trip to Switzerland was not quite affordable for us as the salaries were low. However, as my sister too was coming over from the US, she insisted we make the
Swiss National Day Parade in Versoix
trip. We mustered most of our savings and my brother and sister too chipped in with the air fares and we headed for Switzerland – on a ‘shoe string’ that was rather small. On one late June evening we took off on a Lufthansa flight for Geneva via Frankfurt. At Frankfurt we had to change over to another Lufthansa flight.

My brother had built a spacious house in Versoix, a place that was described to us as a village. It was, as we later found, pretty far
A float in the parade
from all that we associate with our villages. It was a full-fledged modern town, though small with a population of around 10000, with all the urban amenities. Perhaps, former President APJ Abdul Kamal had such Western villages in mind when he spoke of provision of urban amenities in rural areas (PURA). Versoix was a well developed township with great shopping, restaurants and, at least one manufacturing unit which we used to see every time we
Horse-driven carriages in the parade
went to the station to catch a train and that was a chocolate factory. Switzerland, after all, is known for its chocolates.   

Versoix, named after the eponymous river, is about 10 kilometres from Geneva and falls in the canton of the same name. The Versoix River originates in the neighbouring Jura Mountains and meandering through a few cantons it passes by Versoix to fall into Lake Leman, also known as Lake Geneva. Located by the side of
A participant playing on his brass
this Lake, Versoix has excellent connectivity with Geneva by railroads and a highway that my brother used to take every time he went to Geneva. I should think it was more like a satellite town of Geneva with, apparently. a disproportionately high percentage of expatriates working in various international organizations that were located in the latter. Likewise, some expatriates, we were told, also used to live in a border town in France and commute everyday to Geneva. People used to go for shopping across in a border town the name of which eludes me now, though we too had gone there once.

From behind my brother’s garden a small stream with heavy vegetation on its two sides used to run for some miles with a
A float passing by
walking track along it. It was a kind of a nature trail that we could use for long walks. It would eventually open up at a place that was beautiful and was used as a picnic spot. Such a trail in the midst of nature I haven’t seen anywhere else except years later in Mombasa in Kenya

Corn fields near Versoix
The Swiss National Day was celebrated during our stay in Versoix. We saw the parade and the festivities in Versoix. There were colourful floats, marches and bands by the local fire fighting staff and others. Champagne was being carried in trucks and distributed free in plastic champagne-glasses to all and sundry. Each one of us had a couple of glasses. There was a magnificent fireworks display by the side of the Lake in Geneva after dark, a display like of which I had not
The family ready to take off on an outing
seen before. A large number of yachts had assembled on the Lake to watch the event and their lights twinkled like stars in the darkened Lake.

While my brother showed us round a few places in the country, I did some others on my own. Making Versoix as the base we took a 14 day rail trip in Europe covering Munich, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Rome, Cannes, Nice and Paris. We had bought Eurail passes in India for these travels which allowed us passage in I Class.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Happiness" is not for Indians yet

In the World Happiness Report of 2015 of the United Nations on 158 countries India has slipped from 111th place in 2013 to 117th. This, obviously, means that people in India have become unhappier during the last two years. The report covers the period from 2012 to 2014 and takes into account not just individual satisfaction and wealth but also broad contentment that includes social support, high healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, perceptions of corruption, pro-sociality – the kind of conduct that may include honesty, benevolence, cooperation and trustworthiness. With Switzerland expectedly topping the list, Nordic countries make up the top five. South Asia generally is in the bottom half and what is perhaps a reason for concern is that India has been ranked below Pakistan and Bangladesh – two countries that of late have been facing Islamic terror and yet their happiness quotient has come out to be higher. Bhutan, which practices the concept of Gross National Happiness and inspired the study through the UN General Assembly, has been ranked 79th – higher than India, yet a not-too-high a rank, given the head start it had in reckoning “happiness” (as against “product”) as a metric for growth and development.

According to the Summary of the 2015 report, the world has come a long way since the first report was launched in 2012. It asserts, “Increasingly happiness is considered a proper measure of social progress and goal of public policy. A rapidly increasing number of national and local governments are using happiness data and research in their search for policies that could enable people to live better lives”. We in India, however, are not aware of any move to collect “Happiness” data at city, state or country levels to enable the administration to frame policies to mitigate the general feelings of unhappiness and misery. If at all this has been done, apparently, the official organisations responsible for collection of such data have been doing so in a surreptitious manner. Not a word seemed to have been breathed to the media.

 That, of course, is another story and not material to this piece. What, however, needs to be pointed out is that over the last three or four years the method of measurement of “Happiness” has been refined. The 2012 report was based basically on the assessment of “Happiness”, whereas the succeeding reports have, in addition, assessed the feelings of “Wellbeing” among those who were surveyed. “Wellbeing” is being measured in the United Kingdom and OECD countries and perhaps measurement of “wellbeing”, especially “subjective wellbeing”, will be true reflection of people’s quality of life – as against the “gross domestic product”. We know how during the years of high growth rates in the country’s GDP quality of life of vast numbers of people did not improve in any way. Poverty, mal and under-nourishment, high infant and maternal mortality rates have continued to haunt the nation.

The report has been produced on the basis of some data that are already available with a few international organisations and others were made available by Gallop World Poll (GWP) against eight constructs, viz. (1) “GDP per capita” in terms of Purchasing Power Parity taken from World Development Indicators released by World Bank in 2014, (2) “Social Support“ available for individuals is the national average of binary responses (of either 0 or 1) to GWP question, (3) data on “Healthy life expectancy” has again been borrowed from World Health Organisation and World Development Indicators (4) “Freedom to make life choices” is again a national average of binary responses to the GWP question “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life”, (5) “Generosity” is the national average of the responses to the GWP question “whether you donated money in the past month”, (6) “Perceptions of corruption” are again national average of binary responses to GWP poll to the question “whether corruption was widespread in the government and also within business” (7) “Positive affect” is defined as previous day’s affect measures of happiness, laughter and enjoyment” and (8) “Negative affect” is defined as the average of previous-day affect measures for worry, sadness and anger.

As of the eight above, GDP per capita in terms of Purchasing Power Parity and figures on “Healthy Life Expectancy” have been taken from relevant international organisations there is some kind of finality about them since these are based on national data fed to them. Predictably, per capita GDP and healthy life expectancy are depressed and have apparently pulled the country down a few notches. The life expectancy was stated in January 2014 to have risen in cases of both the genders. But “Healthy life expectancy” is quite another matter – given the state of environment, sanitation and healthcare in the country. A google search failed to reveal India’s “Healthy Life Expectancy”.

Brief comments on each of the six constructs are as follows: Prevalence of “social support” is generally insignificant. It is the lucky few who are able to network and can expect support in times of physical or emotional distress. But indifference of general public to distressed fellow humans is graphically exemplified by accident victims or molested females in public spaces in the country who are left to deal with their misfortunes themselves. Any kind of “Social Support” cannot be taken as a given in India like in more developed countries. Similarly, the freedom to make “Life Choices” of a largely poor, illiterate/semi-literate and unskilled population residing in a country bereft of job opportunities has got to be restricted. And, if one does not have enough to live a dignified life how can he be expected to show “Generosity” by making donations? “Public and Business Corruption” cases have, of late, caught the attention of everyone. Almost every day new cases of fraud of mindboggling amounts are revealed. When huge amounts of public money find their way into private pockets the probability of “Happiness” of vast numbers of people would necessarily recede. Besides, in rural or urban life “Negative Affects” top the “Positives”. Barring a few financially well off, the masses, by and large, get back home harried and distressed after their daily struggle.

Though inspired by Bhutan which is trying to shun consumerism, the report is basically meant for economically advanced countries which, after becoming prosperous, are now trying to take the lives of their citizens to a higher level of contentment and emotional wellbeing. Several countries reportedly are increasingly making use of the World Happiness Reports to fill the gaps in their respective systems to better the quality of life of their peoples. Economic wellbeing enables them to study the problems, if any, and change gears, if needed, to provide for a more fulfilling life of their citizens. Admittedly, material prosperity alone can neither be the sole objective of socio-economic development nor can it give people a sense of “Happiness” and “Wellbeing”.

However, in a highly populous country like India with illiterate/semiliterate or unskilled population that is generally engrossed in somehow making a living, such reports have, at best, only academic value. For such countries, measuring “Happiness” of the people is, therefore, a peripheral issue that can be put off for some other time, overwhelmed as the Indian and state governments are currently with the job of taking succor to the country’s hungry and undernourished millions. Hence, nothing would, surely, be done on the basis of this report in India just as no action was, apparently, taken on the 2012 and 2013 reports. Placement of the country at 117th position, therefore, seems very charitable. “Happiness” and “Wellbeing” of Indian masses do not yet figure in the lexicon of Indian administration.

Photo: from the Internet

Friday, April 24, 2015

Kejriwal turns dictatorial


The trio
There is something unstable in Kejriwal’s persona that makes him behave in the way he mostly does. He has that penchant for ‘self-destruct’ and, in the process, he betrays the faith reposed in him by hundreds and thousands of common, educated and well-meaning people as also civil society organizations. One wonders whether he has that inscrutable split personality like that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as it seems there has been a sea change in his personality and conduct since the days of the movement appropriately known as India Against Corruption (IAC).

A man who joined the modern-day Gandhian Anna Hazare in 2011 to campaign for enactment of an anti-corruption law instituting an office of Lokpal (ombudsman) has moved on incredibly fast, so much that he has now taken recourse to political sleight of hand, sought help from goons or more precisely “bouncers” and tried to garner support from corrupt politicians just to gain power – all examples of political corruption. This was not what he created his Aam Admi Party (AAP) for. In 2011 means ostensibly were important to him to get to the end that was combating corruption but in 2014 & 2015 they ceased to be so. A man who campaigned for days in not too distant past against corrupt in the government has himself become as corrupt with the sole aim of grabbing power. His is a personality that effectively masked the sinister and the devious that lurked within him that even Anna could not detect, much less his supporters.

If one harks back to Anna’s movement in 2011 and recalls the massive civil society support that it elicited one would be frustrated by its eventual denouement. The IAC campaigns of April and August 2011 had a singular aim, that of eradication of corruption in the government through the instrumentality of a law for creation of an independent and powerful Lokpal. In the backdrop of massive corruption in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and allotment of 2G spectrum, it caught the imagination of the people, especially of the youth and the rising numbers of middle classes. As the movement gathered strength in August 2011 the media, too, got into the act and gave extensive round-the-clock coverage. And, the tech-savvy members of the IAC made deft use of the social media making the movement somewhat akin to the then ongoing campaigns in North Africa and West Asia for regime-change, eventually coming to be known collectively as “Arab Spring”.

The government at the Centre got flustered and indulged in nervous acts. Having been outmanoeuvred, parliamentarians quickly rustled up a “sense of the house” resolution unanimously passed by its both houses agreeing to action on all sticking points to pacify Anna. Acquiring a larger than life image, Anna broke his 11-day fast. Standing as a colossus, he and the IAC activists mobilised public opinion charging up the whole nation against political and bureaucratic corruption.  A patently middle class movement, IAC’s offshoots cropped up virtually in every nook and corner of the country. Young and old joined it putting the government on the back foot. A bill for creation of Lokpal (ombudsman) that was said to be in cold storage for forty years amply displaying aversion of politicians to curb corruption in public life was expected to see the light of the day.

But that was not to be. Even in 2015 the bill continues to be in the cold storage, for soon after came Kejriwal’s first betrayal of Anna’s movement that brought the government to its knees. Reasons were many including Anna’s failing health and an unwise and ineffective sit-in in Mumbai later that year that was largely ignored by people. What sounded the death knell of IAC was Kejriwal’s uncalled for untimely 9-day fast in July 2012 that gained nothing except ill-health for him and a decision to move away from the politically unaligned agitational approach of Anna. That is when he decided to give up the movement and politicise it by creating AAP (Common Man’s Party), disappointing thousands of the IAC supporters, workers and volunteers who had made enormous sacrifices for the success of the movement. All of them felt terribly let down and betrayed as it proved to be curtains for an unprecedented civil society upheaval like of which was never seen in the country before. It was Anna’s persona and his perceived uncompromisingly honest attitude and those of his close supporters that brought people in droves to join the movement. Splitting the IAC was Kejriwal’s first insidious act.

The political outfit that he created met with unexpected success in the Delhi state Assembly elections of 2013. In the 70-member assembly AAP got as many as 28 seats with the Hindu right Bharatiya Janata Party getting 31. The Indian National Congress that had an unbroken rule of 15 years was reduced to 8 seats. Nonetheless, it was a hung assembly – where the party with largest number of seats refused to form the government, leaving the field open for AAP to run it with outside unsolicited support offered by Congress. Ironically, AAP accepted support of the same party against which it had campaigned for corruption. Fully aware that he had no majority in the house, Kejriwal wanted to introduce an anti-corruption law which expectedly the Opposition did not allow. Kejriwal promptly resigned after ruling for only 49 days fetching the sobriquet “bhagora” (quitter). In view of his earlier threats of resignation, perhaps, this was only a ploy to get out of a hung situation or, maybe, he was aiming to become prime minister as the Parliamentary elections were in the offing, the response of voters having buoyed his hopes.

What has happened in his second avatar is, of course, far more serious and reprehensible. Having been decimated in the parliamentary polls Kejriwal was reported to be frustrated and felt that his Party faced an existential crisis. Unless it did well in the then oncoming Delhi elections, he thought, AAP would have no future. That is when he gave up all his put-on idealism or pretences thereof, bringing to fore his undemocratic, ambitious and authoritarian traits, Late last year many well-known stalwarts including Sahzia Ilmi, one-time face of AAP, left the party feeling suffocated.

 Later his unethical ways were made public when an audio clip of a sting operation on him was released indicating that he was prepared to accept support of proven corrupt Congressmen. Then, after an extraordinary electoral win with not-so-clean means, his feud with the ideologues – legal activist Prashant Bhushan and intellectual-cum-psephologist Yogendra Yadav, both straight players, - made headlines. The stunning electoral win seemingly had got to his head. Not only they were abused in the sting, they were undemocratically expelled from the Party’s Executive Council and have now also been unceremoniously expelled from the party in a high-handed manner. Anybody opposed to his inner party moves is considered undesirable and is promptly axed. Obviously, his true self has taken over and he is now strutting around AAP as a “Hitler” with lies, subterfuge and the like for props. “Clean” and “new” politics has been given a summary burial.

A setback to his ambitions at the parliamentary polls brought the true Kejriwal to the fore revealing a political fiend – self-serving and aggrandizing.

Photo: from the Internet

Monday, April 13, 2015

A kiosk that is called "gumti"

We, in India, somehow have developed what is known as a “gumti” culture. “Gumti” is nothing but a kiosk selling odds and ends or occasionally some specified items like paan and cigarettes or rendering some services like plugging punctures in tyre tubes or even repairing tyres.. They are ubiquitous in every Indian town and, I dare say, one occasionally finds them in metros too, especially close to “jhuggies and jhonpries” (shanty towns) which come in handy for the residents of the shacks. These are so common all over the country that there is a saying that if ever the moon were to be colonised the first “gumti set up there in its icy environs would be by an Indian.

I remember to have seen them for the first time in Gwalior in Central India where I was growing up. Soon after independence and the accompanying partition of the country in 1947 an unforeseen two-way mass scale migration of people had taken place between India and Pakistan, accompanied by beastly violence on both sides. Those who survived the violence came rolling in and settled down in various parts of the country. We in Gwalior had our own share of refugees from Pakistan. They were a mix of Punjabis and Sindhis – largely the latter. Sindhis are mostly a trading community and within no time the town square, with its beautiful late 19th and early 20th Century public buildings dominated by the statue of the Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia plumb in the middle surrounded by broad beautiful roads were occupied by the Sindhis and their “gumties” in multiple rows. Not only the beauty of the town-square was demolished within months, the Sindhis, having started trading from “gumties”, soon replaced the local Baniyas (a trading community) from their well-established trade in grain markets and eventually captured from the same community the cotton textile trade. One cannot, therefore, underestimate the power of a “gumti” if properly used by a resourceful man.

It does not take much to erect a “gumti”. One needs only a few discarded tin sheets to provide a covered working space of 30-odd square feet. Any public space is good enough for installing one. Generally these are erected on government or public lands with or without permission. Those who have no permission and yet carry out retailing from their “gumties” end up running the risk of being hustled out of the place. In the alternative, in order to ensure some sort of trouble-free permanence (if one might call it) in their venture they have to shell out money to the officials of the municipal corporations and “haftas” (weekly payments) to the police beat constables. Of late there are reports of municipal councillors or even members of state legislative assemblies muscling in for their share. So, one tends to wonder how does a “gumti-walla” make do with whatever is left of his income after the payoffs. The fact, nonetheless, is that just a single “gumti” provides wherewithal for survival to quite a few. There are certainly a few thousand “gumties” in Bhopal, a town of around 18 lakh and so many “gumties”, obviously, generate a substantial amount of black money, besides providing livelihood to their owners. No wonder most of the councillors and members of legislative assemblies look so prosperous.

 All this is a part of the informal economy. Participants in the informal sector are those who “do not have employment security, work security or social security”. The works they do are of diverse nature. These can range from self-employment involving working out of homes to vending on the streets and may also include shoe shiners, junk collectors and even welders. In India the range is vastly extended. One can find typists with obsolete typewriters to type out documents or public notaries who can sign away declarations made without any collateral evidence, making a living all the same out of a “gumti”. A “gumti” could also accommodate a kewab joint or even a shoe-mender or soft-drinks dispenser. Most of the operators are self-employed and, generally, falling outside the labour or tax laws and are outside the calculations for the country’s GDP. The estimated numbers of people engaged in the informal sector are not quite reliable but it is reckoned to be near about 20% of the population – quite a hefty portion that could raise the GDP up by a few notches.

And yet “gumties “are generally frowned upon. They not only are marked by filth and squalor, they are also spoilers of a city’s urban-scape – run as they are generally by the rural migrants or deprived sections or under-privileged of the city with little sense of cleanliness or aesthetics. The planners of older cities never planned for them and hence they become eyesores for visitors and the city administrators – who find themselves unable to banish them having been emasculated by the political establishment. Those who run the “gumties”, generally, have substantial political backing as they constitute a formidable vote bank – votes driving, as they do, every activity of public import in the developing world, perhaps more so in India.

“Gumties” are therefore here to stay and cannot be wished away in the foreseeable future. We all will have to live with them and sometimes even make use of the services they render. Likewise, howsoever the municipal administrations might try they cannot get rid of them. The only thing they could, perhaps, do is to upgrade them, giving them a better appearance with proper fixtures and arranging them more methodically in cleaner surroundings. Those that come in the way of movement of pedestrians or cyclists and obstructing smooth flow of wheeled traffic should be ruthlessly removed, providing to the owner, conditions permitting, suitable alternative locations for plying their trade. It has to be accepted that an Indian street can, perhaps, never look like the “gumti-less” streets in towns of advanced industrialised countries unless the country attains the levels of their development after banishing poverty.

Photo: from the internet 

This was earlier published in Record, a blogging site of Record newspaper published from Williamsborough, NC

Thursday, April 9, 2015


The Administrative Block of SAT Narain in the Academy
After I did my post graduation my father told me to prepare for the Civil Services Examinations. In those days there was no other alternative except taking a shot at these exams if one wanted to do well in life. This was more so for those who had opted for humanities, as apart from getting into a college to teach the only other option was to try and become a lowly clerk in a government office. Many of my classmates had to take this option as decent jobs were just not available, unless of course one knew somebody weighty enough to lean on an appointing authority. Thankfully, two of my older brothers had cleared the exams and were well placed by dint of their own merit.

I, therefore, took the 1960 examination held that year for the first time in Bhopal with the Polytechnic as the centre.  My sister had a house in Professors’ Colony and I would just walk across to the centre. One of my brothers had told me to take only the Central Services exams and forget about the two higher papers which one had to clear for IAS and Indian Foreign Service. Lazy that I was, I promptly dropped the two papers for which I had been preparing till then. I qualified for the interview which was held at Dholpur House, New Delhi on 30th January 1961.

 The results came out in April and soon enough a letter arrived asking me to report to the National Academy of Administration in Mussourie, a hill station of repute in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand). I was asked to report by 1st June for a 5-month Foundational Course which members of all the services had to undergo. My family and friends were naturally happy.  A Class I job in the Civil Services in those days was a big deal and coveted by many. Things are, of course, far different now after more than 50 years. Many bright people wouldn’t look at these services for a career. There are far better opportunities now – even in the field of humanities, leave alone the scientific disciplines.

So after a twenty-hour journey through a sizzling night and day
Reconstructed Charleville  after a fire accident
of May I arrived at the Dehra Dun Railway station to a refreshingly cool breeze. I was accosted on the platform by a taxi driver, who somewhat like a clairvoyant, knew I wanted to go to Mussoorie. He offered to take me there for a mere Rs. 20/- along with three others whom he had already collared. When I told him that I had to go to Charleville, he said “Oh, Charlie-billie!” He assured me he knew the place. He had a 1947 Oldsmobile and, with three other boys trifle younger than me, I travelled in style to Mussoorie in a big American car through Dehra Doon and up the winding hill-side roads of Shivaliks. The three boys got off at a tri-junction that, I later learnt, led to Kulrie. We headed for “Charlie-billie”. When stopped on the way, vehicles being prohibited on the Mall, the taxi-driver would brush aside the cops by saying that he was bound for the Academy. The man knew his way around. He stopped inside the Academy just below what was then the Administrative Block, a double-storied structure, and asked me to go up the wooden stairs.

Happy Valley
It was already dusky as it was well past six in the evening. There sitting at his desk was a frail elderly man, SAT Narayanan, the Administrative Officer, working away on his files by a lamplight. A man of few words, he shoved in-front of me some papers to sign. As I signed them I hadn’t quite appreciated that with those signatures I launched myself on a 35-year long official career in the Indian Government. After receiving the signed papers Narayanan hollered for one Gainda Lal who made his appearance soon enough and was asked to take me to Room No. 85 in the Happy Valley block. Narayanan bid me good bye after telling me that he had given me a good room. I later saw, true to his words, he had indeed given me a good room. It had an extra window that not only overlooked the Happy Valley but also let in some very welcome sun.

Retrieving my baggage from the taxi, Gainda Lal hauled the pieces down a few flights of stairs to room No. 85 located at the end of a long veranda. Since that evening this humble young man from the hills became my part-time butler serving as he did eight probationers in four rooms. He would fetch me my bed-tea, shine my shoes, make my bed, provide hot water for the bath, geysers then being non-existent in the bathrooms, have my cottons washed and woollens ironed and run other sundry errands whenever the occasion demanded. Mercifully, he was around with me for only five months of the Course as in that short period he almost spoilt me, as, I imagine, he would have others.

 Even in the gathering darkness one could feel the leafy, spread-out and quiet ambience of Charleville. After all, it was a resort hotel till 1959 when the Government of India bought it for the Academy. The batch of 1959 was the first one of the officers of combined All India Services and Central Services to be trained in here. Earlier the IAS and the Indian Foreign Service probationers used to be trained at Metcalfe House, Delhi – the latter for around 5 months – and officers of several Central Services in their respective training institutions scattered around in the country. As the accommodation available in Charleville fell short, some buildings like Chappleton and Stapleton outside the complex were also hired. After all, we were, all taken together, around 280. Now, having built up a new complex, one supposes, the Academy is self-sufficient in so far as accommodation is concerned.
Next morning, after breakfast, I happened to come across Narayanan and asked him if I could call on the Director. “Not necessary”, he said and added that the Director was out there “under the greenwood tree” and pointed towards the front lawn telling me to walk across. Sure enough a clutch of young men were gathered under a big tree around a tall, hefty,
Reconstructed campusof the Academy
impressive looking man in a light-coloured suit pulling at his pipe. That was Dr. AN Jha of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the director of the Academy. As I walked over to the group Dr. Jha noticed me and asked me my name. As I told him my surname he rattled off my full name “Proloy Kumar Bagchi”. He seemed to have scanned the entire list of trainees – almost 280 of them – and remembered my full name, an amazing feat of memory. He shook my hands and asked whether I was from Agra. Agra had sent two Bagchis into the ICS, and, hence, perhaps the question. I answered in the negative and told him I was from Gwalior. That was my first and last meeting with the director.

 It was only 14 years since independence and the legacies of the “British Raj” were yet to be shed. Efforts were still continuing to produce bureaucrats who were earlier disparagingly called “Brown Sahibs”. We were advised to go around always with a tie on with a suit or a combination or a blazer that we all had to get stitched. An alternative was to go around in a buttoned-up suit or combination buttoned-up jacket. We also had to have black buttoned-up coat with a black or white trouser for
With friends from Kerala - all in Academy ties
banquet nights which were not quite frequent. It was expected that one would wear a black pair of shoes with laces to the banquets and in no case a brown one; moccasins were not in fashion then, anyway. For banquets the table was carefully laid with several knives and forks on two sides of the plate in their proper order and the soup and dessert spoons above the plate. A circular in the form of a poem was issued indicating the way to use all the cutlery. I remember last two lines and these were “When in doubt, Look about”. Something still was in use then which one doesn’t see these days. The knife and fork specifically meant for use for fish dishes are now no longer seen. These seem to have become extinct. Most interesting part of the Dining Room was its veranda the faced North. One could see from it white ranges of the Himalayas – a fascinating sight. Located as it was on a hill feature with deep valleys on two sides, one could get an unhindered view for miles.

During the first week all trainees were asked to take lessons in musketry. We had to leg it down the kuchcha pathways past the
At the end of a banquet
newly established camp for the Tibetan refugees. I wasn’t an adventurous type and was somewhat diffident about handling a gun. In any case, I thought it wouldn’t be useful in any manner in the central services. Even then for the duration of the training I got up in the morning and trekked down to the make-shift firing range. But, when the man before me screamed with pain and sat up holding his shoulder that got a severe hit from the recoil of the .303 rifle, I decided guns were not for me. I walked off the range telling the instructor I was not for it. That ended my brush with fire arms

The Academy was, kind of, a fantastic melting pot where boys and girls came from virtually all regions of the country. To start with, the heterogeneity of the group was very evident. One would find people from the same state flocking together and then there were even subgroups of colleges, like boys of Madras Christian College and Loyola College of Madras or, for that matter, those of Presidency College, Calcutta. Even the St. Stephen’s products would initially stick together. Since I was from Madhya Pradesh I was, kind of, at a loose end. Even the Bengalis who would generally hang around together wouldn’t own me up. Slowly but surely, the barriers came down and the process of homogenisation commenced. Within a month or so the Academy appeared to look like a slice of India – diverse and yet friendly. We all mixed around very well with those from Kerala or Tamil Nadu, West Bengal or the boys from the up-country or the Khasis and Mizos from the North-East.

The Mall
The training was, as usual, a bore. There were lectures and lectures. Among the faculty none was interesting. The lectures delivered by the Director were very interesting.  He had a way with words and he could make any subject interesting. Besides, his good humour held the attention of his audience. The other person whose talks carry an impression with me till today are the ones delivered by Swami Ranganathanada of the Rama Krishna Mission. He delivered a series of, if I recall, four lectures and all were very elevating. His fluency was remarkable, content captivating and English impeccable.

I cannot somehow forget Prof. Ramaswami who used to take the Economics classes. For those of us who were stranger to the subject what all he said in his deep bass voice  flew over our heads. What I remember, is his lengthy discourses over numerous sessions on the economic developmental model propounded by an American economist Walt Rostow which made no sense to us at all having hardly any knowledge of economic modelling for growth. He dilated at length on Rostovian concept of the “take off” stage of an economy, on which he had written a book written that had just been published. The Indian economy was nowhere near the “take off” stage 54 years ago, limping along as it was then at the “Hindu Rate of Growth”, that was perhaps more than neutralised by the predilection of our people to produce more children than goods and services.

The Foundation Course in the Academy commenced at the peak of the tourist season. The Mall in Mussoorie was therefore crowded. People were dressed in their best and would be gallivanting up and down the Mall, the main thoroughfare of the town. That one couldn’t really object to; what was objectionable was most of the young people would have transistor radio slung from their shoulders and play it at the highest of pitch. The miniaturised radio sets were the new toys that had just come out for those with disposable incomes and a these made a mess of the pleasure of being at the hill station.

Kulri Bazaar
Although riding classes were compulsory for the IAS probationers those of the Central Services could also join them. It was quite an opportunity but I let it go, but friend of mine from the Central Services, always keen to try new things, grasped it with both hands. One late afternoon I was hanging around with a few friends in front of the Club House in the Happy Valley. At the far end of the ground the riding instructor was busy giving lessons. All of a sudden, one of the horses just took off with the rider on its mount. Soon it started galloping and turning 1800 it headed towards us.  We scampered away as it neared the Club House. Close to the Club suddenly it froze in its tracks. Seconds later whatever happened was spectacular but could have been really tragic. As the horse ‘braked’ and came to a dead-stop, this time it was the rider who, in his khaki breeches and sola topee took off from the horseback and sailed over the horse’s head and taking a somersault in the air landing on his back, mercifully, only inches away from a huge boulder. Seeing him promptly assume the vertical position we were relieved that he was unhurt. Not quite broken, some newer horses in the Academy in 1961, reportedly, still had a bit of their wild streak.

In July the monsoon broke over Mussoorie with a ferocity I had never seen. The crowds that used to flock on the Mall vanished into thin air. On clear evenings we would take short walking trips to the Mall and find the place deserted. On such an evening  a friend from the Police Service wanted me to go with him to Kulrie – a good six kilometres away – to see a movie. Not quite agreeable I was pressed into submission. While he was fortified with a raincoat and an umbrella I was only in my woollen suit. After the movie we went to the nearby Kwality restaurant for dinner. While we were still on dessert it started raining. We waited for the expected let up. But, no luck! At the hour of midnight the manager told the two of us, the only customers, he couldn’t keep the place open any longer. There wasn’t a soul on the road and on the Mall facing Dehra Dun the rain just lashed against us rendering the umbrella and the raincoat useless. We walked through the six kilometres wet and cold reaching our respective rooms around 2.00 AM

The instructional tour took us to the then very impressive Bhakra and Nangal dams which Nehru had described as temples of modern India. We also visited Chandigarh and familiarised ourselves with the concept of a planned city designed by the French architect, designer and urbanist Le Corbusier. We travelled in an all I Class train which, on reaching Delhi, was parked on VIP platform for all three days. Our stay in Delhi coincided with the Independence Day wwhich is why, perhaps, we were asked Khad white buttoned-up suits stitched. We attended the ceremony at Red Fort, participated at the reception at the President’s House given by the officiating President Radhakrishnan. It was enriching to see all the powerful and influential people in person, including, inter alia, Nehru, Shastri, Krishna Menon and the tall John Kenneth Galbraith, the then American Ambassador, who sitting on a low sofa, seemingly, didn’t know what to do with his extraordinarily long legs. The tea and snacks were just lousy. Food-wise I was happily placed as one of my brothers was staying in Ceylonese Buddhist Pilgrims Association right across the VIP platform. There, with him, I used to have the spicy and hot Ceylonese fare.

Most interesting for me, however, was the visit to Nehru’s house where we had been taken to be addressed by the Prime Minister himself. At the Teen Murti we were herded into a massive hall that was upstairs and was decorated with the gifts given to the PM by the visiting foreign personages. A heavily-cushioned chair was kept near a window with a mike in front. Obviously all of us were supposed to sit on the carpeted floor around the sofa. I positioned myself alongside a wall next to a closed shiny wooden door and stood there all the while. I think it was around 4.00 PM that I heard a click of a bolt and, lo and behold, through the door emerged the Prime Minister himself. He was in his churidar and kurta; without his Jawahar jacket, or his trademark Gandhi cap. He had, presumably, had a snooze and was looking fresh and glowing as also perky. Standing at the door he sized up the gathering and muttered to himself in Hindi “arey, yahan to bara majma ikattha hua hai!”

Another view of Mall
Those five months of the Foundation Course did change me a lot. I may not have paid much attention to the lectures or may not have learnt the ropes that would be useful to me in my later career but I certainly changed. I tend to accept now what Dr. RK Trivedi, Sr. Dy. Director had once told us. He had said that he had seen college boys coming through the portals of the Academy and go out as officers. True to the hilt! There was a change in my deportment as indeed it would have been in others. Coming out of a small town, for the first time away from the protected environs of home, the change in environment made a huge difference and so did the exposure to an elevated intellectual ambiance as also to colleagues from all corners of the country. A colleague had said at the end of the Course that it was a “long paid holiday”. May be true, but during those five months whatever was directed at us had somehow seeped in and kept working imperceptibly inside us through our long official careers.
Photos: coloured ones are from the internet. The black & white ones are of 1961 vintage