Monday, July 17, 2017

Destinations :: Sikkim (1981)


Kalimpong landscape
On way to Gangtok via Kalimpong from Darjeeling our taxi drove through tea gardens. As we were going through Lopchu garden the driver suddenly applied the brakes and as we looked up at the road in front a leopard crossed the road at near-supersonic speed. Yes, there was wildlife there on those hills around thirty five years ago. After all, the place is a part of Himalayan terai (lowland at the foot of Himalayas) region with lush jungles. At most places in India the terais have been decimated and colonized. But, then some wild animals still
Teesta River from Kalimpong
survive one of which is the never-say-die Indian leopard which has survived even after its habitats were gobbled up to settle humans.

The rest of the journey was uneventful It was only a 50-kilometre drive from Darjeeling to Kalimpong but it took around two hours as the roads
Roadside trees
were hilly and necessarily had several twists and turns. Kalimpong falls in the Darjeeling district and is the gateway to Gangtok. Although there is a sizable military concentration, it has very little in its favour except its salubrious climate, situated as it is at an elevation of more than 3500 ft. There are a few missionary schools and an outfit that produces cheese that is well-known in the region.

Kalimpong has a bit of a history. Though insubstantial as a settlement it
Crockety House of Helena Roerich (from internet)
changed hands between Bhutan and Sikkim and eventually in 1864 after the Anglo-Bhutanese war it came in the possession of the East India Company. In 1947 India inherited it from the British and later merged it in West Bengal. It has that strategic importance being located in what is known as “chicken neck” between the Indian land mass and the District of Darjeeling and the states of North-East. Darjeeling District and Sikkim are both vulnerable to Chinese military advances. Kalimpong shot into
Kanchenjunga from Gangtok
prominence in the 1960s as a den of spies. From the Russians to CIA, the Chinese and our own intelligence outfits would prowl around Kalimpong. Espionage activities had intensified around the time an American, Hope Cook, used to be in Gangtok, married as she was to the late King of Sikkim. What the spies were snooping around for is not quite clear. The town is also associated with the name of Helena Roerich, a Russian writer, philosopher, a mystic and also mother in-law of the First Lady of Indian Screen, late Devika Rani.

Gangtok is around 50 miles away. The road winds its way through
Somewhere near Rangpo
beautiful surroundings with whites of the snow caps and greens of the troughs intermingling. Sikkim, as is well known, was merged into Indian Union after a referendum in 1975. It had been an independent state through the 18th and 19th Centuries ruled by a Buddhist priest-king known as Chogyal. Protected by British India, it later became protectorate of India before being merged into India.

Anoter view of Kanchenjunga range
Of Immense strategic value, Peoples Republic of China with which it shares its borders, is all the time trying to nibble at it, as it does on its borders with Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Even currently a kind of stand-off between India and China persists over Chinese intrusion in Bhutan the defense of which is India’s responsibility. That is the political aspect but Sikkim, as it is, is a beautiful place to visit. We could not visit North Sikkim for want of time but that area is supposed to be idyllic. Even whatever we saw in south
A religious place
Sikkim was remarkably beautiful – one might say, nature at its best. Our trip to Rangpo on West Bengal border stands testimony to that. There is another place supposedly a must-see, viz. the Rumtek monastery. We found it rather far and couldn’t be done in a day trip.

Sikkim is largely untouched by human interference as its population is very low, lowest in India and it is the second smallest state of the country. Being in the shadow of the Eastern Himalayas, it hosts Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world. Almost 35% of the state is covered by Kanchenjunga National Park.

Changu Lake
When we went to Gangtok it was in the process of development. The progress was tardy due to political instability. Things are reported to have changed significantly since then.  Though the state’s GDP is the smallest in the country it is reported to be the fastest growing state. Gangtok is now a thriving capital city – multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, having as many as 11 official languages. The state is, like Darjeeling, a melting pot of various ethnicities, tribes
A fly-over and high rises in Gangtok
and various hill peoples – generally those who migrated from Tibet.

While the economy of Sikkim is based on tourism, it is surprisingly the largest producer of cardamom in the world. We also saw orchids being hawked around. Obviously, they were not quite cultivated type and were probably filched from forests around Gangtok. However, the best gifts of Gangtok are the views that it offers of Kanchenjunga from its outskirts. Kanchenjunga is much closer to Gangtok than Darjeeling hence it kind of dominates the place.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit any of the Buddhist temples and
Somewhere near Rangpo
monasteries of which there are quite a few in and around Gangtok. During my official visit later in 1993 we tried to go up to Nathu La pass but had to turn back due to bad weather. On the way we spent some time near Tsamgo or Changu Lake, a very enchantingly and beautiful sight. We were told it becomes more beautiful during winters when the mountains are covered in white snow. Supposedly around 12000 ft. in elevation it was frightfully cold and we literally had to scram from there.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

From my scrapbook :: 3


Talking trees

That trees help us fight climate change has been known for quite some time. They are seen in the role of being carbon stocks and carbon sinks. A report in the periodical “Down to Earth” indicated that scientists are now studying a more fundamental correlation – the direct effects the trees and forests have on climate through rainfall and cooling. The report continued, trees help retain moisture on the ground and produce cooling moisture which directly affects food security and climate change adaptation.

While further research in this regard is continuing, a book “Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohllenben reveals that trees not only can communicate, they can even think and have memories. The author says that forest is a “superorganism’ where “trees communicate and exchange resources      through roots and fungi networks”. Just like an organism they help each other in times of distress. The tree trunk, for instance, vibrates to alert its neighbours in times of water shortages.
Wohllenben goes on to say that trees can also taste, touch, smell, hear and feel just the way animals do. Water molecules are the media through which the tree trunk is made to vibrate just like animals use water molecules to vibrate their vocal chords. As for hearing ability of trees an experiment is reported to have shown that roots of seedlings moved in the direction of the ultrasonic sound waves coming from crackling of roots of other seedlings in the vicinity

Leaves of spruce, beeches and oaks feel pain when they are chewed on. A similar finding was once reported around half a century ago in Readers’ Digest. A lie detector attached to a potted plant made the machine shake violently when a leaf was torn off it. The plant, it seems, had developed the memory as on subsequent days as the researcher (in fact a policeman interested in plant life) would approach the tree to tear off a leaf its heightened distress would progressively be registered on the machine and on tearing off of the leaf it would be most violent. Apparently, as Wohllenben has observed, trees could “learn” and “remember” as exemplified by the mimosa tree that folds its leaves on touch but does not do so when water droplets fall on them regularly – a typical example of learning and remembering.

Another surprising finding was that trees are “social beings” and they can be “sad” and “happy” on the basis of their neighbourhood. Trees socialize largely because it is of advantage to them. A lonely tree cannot create or maintain a consistent local climate. Together, however, they can create a protected environment that shelters them from wind and weather.

Wohlleben goes on to say that isolated trees are “deaf” and “dumb”, having lost their ability to communicate and have a shorter life-span. He also says that trees in planted forests are like “street kids” because their roots are damaged and are incapable of “networking”. Trees surrounded by their “tree parents” live longer and are “happier”. Parents take care of their young ones and even other trees offer help, “nursing” their injured neighbours with nutrients.

The question, obviously raised would be whether trees are intelligent beings. Wohlleben says trees have brain like structures at the root tips which help them decide what to do when they meet an obstruction or face peril of some kind. While a majority of “plant scientists” are skeptical about these findings the contention of the author would seem to be confirmed by the videos of plants growing in dense rain forests rising from the floor avoiding obstruction and, if it happens to be their wont, latching on to another tree and coiling around its trunk or branches.

One might add, the finding of trees' ability to feel pain is not a new discovery. More than 90 years ago Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, an Indian polymath, developed automatic recorders capable of recording extremely slight movements which produced some striking results such as quivering of injured plants. Bose interpreted them as power of feeling in plants. Bose also wrote a book on “The Nervous Mechanism of Plants”.

Trees, hence, are as animate as us who claim to be the “roof and crown” of Creation. We have to have as much regard for them as we have for other living beings and willful destruction of forests should amount to a crime equivalent to downright mass murder.

Mossy Walls

Hyperallergic, a Brooklyn-based blogazine, has reported that the problem regarding air pollution is assuming alarming proportions every day. Around 4.4 million premature deaths occur in the world due to contaminated air that people breathe. India alone accounts for 1.1 million deaths because of the same reason. Things are likely to become worse because of President Trump’s pull out from the Paris Climate Agreement and his decision to put back the coal mine workers to work the neglected coal mines for reviving the coal-fired thermal power stations. Rising number of automobiles are also fouling up the air. This has given fresh impetus to researchers to look for ways to improve the quality of urban air.

One such recent green initiative is the “City Tree” by the Berlin based Green City Solutions. The proposed solution looks quite like the two walls with flowering plants on them that have come up in Bhopal behind Ravindra Bhawan and can be seen as one goes up towards the New Market from the Polytechnic Square. The City Tree is not a tree but a 13 feet tall wall of moss with the possibility of public seating on either side, with solar panels and rain water collectors. It is claimed to have “the same effect as up to 275 urban trees”. With its specific moss cultures with vascular plants that eat particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and ozone, it can offset 240 tons of CO2 per year.

As many as 20 City Trees have already been installed in Paris, Oslo, Hong Kong, Glasgow and Brussels. The progress in planting them is tardy as they do not come cheap – costing around $25000 each. In that kind of money municipal bodies could plant many more roadside hardy
Moss walls in Dresden
trees. This is claimed to be a drawback but there is something in their favour too. There are many areas, even in European towns, where there is no space to plant conventional trees. In such areas City Trees could be of great help, more so as a city’s old areas are more congested generating more automobile emissions. In concrete jungles that are coming up all over our country with no scope for planting trees these moss walls could be of immense help to mitigate effects of air pollution

One wonders in our harsh hot and dry summers whether such mossy walls are suitable solutions. But, while the City Trees will be a greater strain on the human and financial resources of the local bodies, these would, if carefully nurtured, would certainly bring down air pollution in congested areas of our cities. In order to keep the City Trees effective the moss on them will have to be assiduously and carefully taken care of.

*Photos from internet

Friday, July 7, 2017

Our life, our times :: 9 :: Of Indian cars and their market

http://www.bagchiblog.blogspot .com

An India-made Jaguar
For some time I had been thinking of changing my vehicle which I had had for more than seven years.  It was an Estillo from the Maruti Suzuki stable and had rendered me decent service. We do not dare to travel out of Bhopal on account of the reported road conditions. It, therefore, ran all through within the confines of the city. It was good and economical but was small – only of 3 cylinders and was of under 1000 cc. We wanted a slightly bigger vehicle wherein we could sit with greater comfort on the rear seats, now that both of us seldom drive.

So we got cracking looking for a suitable vehicle that not only met our requirements, but was within our budget. Today India is different in so far as cars are concerned; one is spoilt for choice. Time was when there were only three makes of cars that were available one of which wound down pretty early being unable to feed the market. It was the Standard of Madras (now Chennai) which used to manufacture variations of the vehicles produced by Standard Triumph of United Kingdom. One of these was Standard Herald, Indian version of Triumph Herald, introduced in mid 1960s, but by 1970s it did the disappearing act. 

The Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador had a good run for almost half a century until 2014 but in 2017 it sold the brand and trade mark to the PSA Group of France. Ambassador cars were favourites of ministers who used to ride around on these mostly of white colour. Birlas, the owners of Hindustan Motors, had such a stranglehold on the government that they did not allow any other make to appear in the Indian market. At one time the Ambassador was even used to be called “king of the roads”. After economic reforms of 1991 it became a curiosity as it was made on the platform of half a century old Morris Oxford Series III. Some were even exported to England just for fun.

 The third make was of Fiat which later collaborated with an Indian firm Premier Automobiles. It put its Padmini on the roads in the mid 1970s. Built on the platform of its precursor Fiat 1100 it became quite popular in 1970s and 1980s. But it soon collapsed when the new small and fuel-efficient cars were introduced in mid 1980s. Though the Padmini plant owned by the Walchand Group was shut down somewhere around 1990s a few taxi cabs of that vintage can even now be seen on Mumbai roads.

 These three together would produce 15000 to 20000 cars per annum. No wonder, huge number of people used to be waitlisted. There used to be even quotas for the government and government servants to speed up delivery to them. Here, too, people had to wait at least a couple of years before they got their vehicle. It was that classic “license permit raj”. In the meantime in early 1970s Sanjay Gandhi jumped into the fray hoping to cash in on a market ruled by scarcity. He promised a cheap car named Maruti for just Rs. 6000/-. It never saw the light of day and eventually Suzuki of Japan was persuaded to take over his ramshackle plant and his Maruti brand name. Indians, those who could afford a car, therefore, were denied a decent automobile because of government’s tight control for reasons that could only be called bizarre.

It was former Prime Minister Narsimha Rao who opened the automobile sector and in a matter of few years the economy acquired its tiger-ish traits riding the automobile boom. Almost all manufacturers – from South Korea and Japan to the US and Europe – came and setup automobile plants here. The market was starving for decent and modern economical cars manufactured in modern automatic plants. While the earlier Indian manufacturers left the scene having been vanquished, only two new ones – Daewoo from South Korea and General Motors from the US – have called it quits. Nonetheless, the Indian automobile industry is now one of the largest in the world, annually producing around 24 million vehicles as reported at the end of last fiscal. Of these 3 million were passenger vehicles. One can see them on the Indian roads fighting for space and generally causing jams even at unthinkable tier II and III towns. This is a far cry from what we had experienced in 1960s and 1970s. Even the luxury vehicles like Jaguars, Land Rovers, Mercedes, Audi’s and BMWs which one saw running around only abroad are now being manufactured in the country. The country literally is awash with automobiles.

And yet, we had a futile wait of as many as three months before we got a vehicle of our liking. Since 1984 I have been patronising Maruti Suzuki cars. I had as many as four of them one after the other as I found them good – light on the fuel and least troublesome. They would seldom have a break-down and as its service stations have proliferated one didn’t have much of a problem to have the vehicle attended to.

 These plus points made me book another Maruti Suzuki vehicle – this time the bigger one, a sedan named Swift Dzire. As the firm decided to discontinue use of the “Swift” prefix to call it simply “D’zire” with minor changes in its overall make up my booking was converted for this model. And that made me wait for as many as three months with no guarantee that it would be made available anywhere in the near future. That’s when I said enough was enough and I cancelled the booking. Perhaps change in the model and introduction of GST caused some delay but an indefinite delay cannot be tolerated.

There was another reason for the delay. I had asked for the basic model of D’zire. But, the team leader of the dealer said, these basic models take longer time to be delivered as their demand is low and the manufacturer first feeds the high-end market. He said, customers these days mostly ask for vehicles that are “fully loaded” with additional features. Hence these are given priority. The Indian middle class obviously has changed – and changed for the better (?). They now want more sophisticated high-end cars with various luxury features and fixtures.

 Hence, the leading car maker Maruti Suzuki stopped manufacturing its basic 800 cc model with which it started its operations in India. It used to be the cheapest and a pretty good car but now nobody, it seems, wants it. Because of such negative reasons even Tata’s Nano bombed in the market. He thought of making this cheap small car (initially costing only Rs.1 lakh, 1600-odd dollars) having seen families of four commuting on two-wheelers. He took a lot of trouble in producing it cutting down on many non-essentials, made it very light on fuel and had it designed in Italy. He introduced it in competition with Maruti 800, the market share of which promptly tumbled by 20%. But, curiously Nano was shunned by even those for whom it was actually meant. They, probably, are keeping their eyes peeled for a bigger and more sophisticated car.

 Such is the Indian automobile market. Highly aspirational, wouldn’t you say?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Overthrowing the "Maharaja"


Happy tidings have arrived from Delhi indicating the decision of the Central Cabinet to privatise Air India. A very bold decision for a vital economic reform that, perhaps, only this government could take blocking the drain that it had become on government finances.

Though crowned a “Maharaja”, recent reports indicated as if the national carrier Air India had gone bankrupt. An order of a consumer forum given at the state level and later confirmed by the Central Forum for payment of Rs. 15,000/- as compensation to a petitioner for deficiency in services exposed the Airline’s financial ill-health. A cheque issued by it in compliance of the order bounced for the reason that the account had no balance. Like the feudals of yore the so-called “Maharaja” has been hit by inclemency.

It is indeed in bad shape. A news item recently said that the staff are going to cut down on their allowances and perks in order to improve the Airline’s financial health. One supposes this kind of realization among the staff has come rather late in the day. It was the excesses of the pilots, the cabin crew and other serving or retired employees during its heydays that contributed in no mean manner to usher in the current difficult times of the Airline.

A report in the Telegraph of United Kingdom said that some of the “staggering” losses of Air India were due to exceptionally generous staff benefits. Pilots used to stay in five-star hotels in the US and would commute only in limousines, serving and retired pilot and crew would take business class seats ahead of paying passengers. There was a time when paying business class passengers would be shunted off to rival airlines at Air India’s cost to accommodate the airline’s own staff. Thus the largesse distributed after negotiations with the unions practically did the Airline in. On top of that there were the demands of the politicians, bureaucrats and other VIPs for special considerations regardless of the costs. One cannot also forget Air India’s “free companion service” which the supposed VIPs made generous use of.

There were various views that were being aired regarding the Airline’s future. An overwhelming section wanted its privatization as otherwise its revival, if attempted, would set the government back by as much as Rs. 52000 crores. But the thinking in the government was for reviving it, whatever, it took. The government seemed to have been of the opinion that it should have an airline which could be used in times of emergency. There have been several instances when the planes of Air India were used to rescue Indian citizens from hostile and dangerous situations in foreign lands. If privatized the government would have no hold on the airline resulting in developments that could turn out to be uncomfortable for it. More importantly, politicians perhaps did not wish to let go of a milch cow that remained at their beck and call and offered unabashed preferential treatment to them.

Surviving on the bailout package of Rs. 30000 crore provided by the last UPA government in 2013, its continuance as a public sector airline seems to be uncertain. Niti Ayog has suggested outright divestment and privatization of the airline. Nonetheless, the government is trying to monetize the Airline’s vast assets in India and abroad. Only recently The Pioneer reported the Airline’s assets sale plan had badly floundered. No bidders came forward to participate in the auction of the national carrier’s properties at prime locations in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Thiruvanantapuram. The Airline had planned to raise around 80 crores from its fixed assets monetisation plan but this has, for the time being, failed to materialise – a rude setback to the airline.

The larger question, however, is how a thriving and reputed airline as Air India slid down to such a level that it has had to contemplate hiving off of its solid assets to raise a few crores. Pritish Nandi, a poet, a movie maker, a painter, an admirer of Air India as it used to be and a past MP to boot, has put it succinctly in one of his recent blogs that things started going drastically wrong for the Airline as competition arrived. While, according to general belief, competition improves standards and the existing companies prepare themselves to take on the new arrivals.
Unfortunately, this did not happen with Air India, not because it was incapable of facing competition but because it was “strongarmed” by its political masters to cede ground to its competitors in which they had developed stakes. Nandi, therefore, comes to that unmistakable conclusion that Air India did not “lie down” and allowed itself to die; it was “murdered in broad daylight” so that its rivals could gain. While the air traffic was burgeoning, instead of readying itself to meet the new traffic surge, it allowed the “ministry” to give away the traffic to others. The untenable excuse was “globalization and an open skies policy”.
This contention finds an echo in the Neera Radia tapes which the Income Tax department recorded while snooping on Radia’s Vaishnavi Consultants. The department happened to stumble upon the murky dealings of the Civil Aviation Ministry. Radia had become privy to goings on in the Civil Aviation Ministry when Praful Patel and his cronies were trying to get into Air India Rattan Tata to hold and take the blame for the mess they had made. As Tata used to be Radia’s client she had researched Air India and had come to the conclusions that painted Praful Patel as the villain.

According to Radia, the politicians who were involved in the deals would have sold the airline to its competitors. She points her fingers at Jet Airways and King Fisher airlines. The idea was to “strip” its assets and then hand over the Airline to Naresh Goel and Vijay Mallya. The bilateral agreements on profitable routes had already been handed over to a Middle-Eastern airline for which the protagonists raked in, according to Radia’s estimates (and one has no reason to suspect her judgment), around $ 3 to 4 hundred million.

This is not all. Even when the Airline was performing at a loss it was made to place orders with various manufacturers for as many as 111 planes. Radia asks where would they have flown the planes to, (including Boeing 787 Dreamliners with a capacity to fly more than 300 passengers) when all the profitable routes had been sold off. The talk at that time was how could an airline with turnover of just Rs. 7000 crore go on an aircraft buying spree costing Rs. 70000 crore. Some of these aircraft have later been sold and taken back on lease in order to pay back the loans. That does not help much; while the Airline’s finances (as also its reputation) were ruined those in authority, the villains, walked away with the kickbacks.

The CBI has now commenced Preliminary Enquiries (PE) against unknown people to investigate purchase of 111 aircraft for Air India at a cost of Rs. 70000 crore; leasing large number of aircraft without proper justifications; and handing over of profit-making routes to foreign private airlines.

All these investigations might take a few months or even years. But the most crucial man who has never been investigated is Praful Patel during whose tenure irreparable damage was done to the Airline. All that may eventually take place in God’s own time but in the meantime one must celebrate the government’s decision.

*Photo from internet

Friday, June 30, 2017

Destinations :: Darjeeling (1981)


Kanchenjunga  massif
Darjeeling is back in the news and not for the right reasons. This time it is alleged imposition of Bengali in the primary schools of Darjeeling. After all, being a part of the state of Bengal where the official language is Bengali and English its districts necessarily have to follow suit. But the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha which runs autonomously the district administration has made an issue of it. As a consequence peace has again been disrupted in one of the places of great tourist interest.

 This is the second time violence has been witnessed in Darjeeling.
Batasia Loop (from internet)
TheBatasia Loopfirst time was when Subhash Geishing-led Gorkha National Liberation Front was fighting in 1986-87 for a separate state called Gorkhaland under the Indian Constitution. The city faced terrible times with unchecked violence, rioting, loot and arson.

A trip to Darjeeing reminded me of the beautiful picture post-cards my eldest brother used to have of the Darjeeling Himalayan railways. The

cozying up in the guest house
memories of those postcards are still etched in my mind – of the train with its steam engine emerging out of the surrounding forests, of the steep hills it would strain to climb puffing out huge clouds of black smoke and then taking the spiral climb in its stride which, I later found, was in fact the loop at Ghoom close to 8000 ft above sea level.

Thankfully, we were lucky to have decided to visit the place well before the sad turn of events as narrated above. For us it was a long haul from Delhi, more than 30 hours to the base station of Siliguri and then by road to Darjeeling taking around another four hours. We didn’t take the
A view of houses on the hills
much-acclaimed narrow gauge train as it did not look very attractive suffering as it was from lack of proper maintenance. The train was yet to acquire the World Heritage status. The road was interesting as it wound its way through some vegetation that one could call forests and then out of it only to indulge in some labored rather stiff climb. It takes one all the way up to around 8000 ft. near the railway station of Ghoom from where one can see that famous Batasia Loop, a marvel of 19th Century engineering where the railway line spirals itself over it and into a tunnel.

In the massive Botanical Garden
 Recorded history of Darjeeling commences from around what is now called the First War of Independence fought in the middle of 19th Century. The place was found very suitable for a sanatorium for the British troops who were posted in the sultry and sweaty plains of Bengal. The place is a melting pot of almost all lower Himalayan people. One will find here Nepalis, Bhutias, Lepchas, Gurungs, Tamangs, Sherpas and many others with Gorkhas forming the majority.

There aren’t many sites to see, at least not when we went more than 35
A view of the tea gardens
years ago. Now things of tourist interests have been added for whatever worth. At that time there was only the Kanchenjungha, the third highest mountain in the world which one could gaze at, the Botanical Garden and the tea gardens. If one found oneself at a loose end one could take a walk down the Mall. For those who had never seen a tea garden a visit to one of them could be rewarding. The gardens look beautiful located as they are on slopes and the tea bushes are interspersed with taller trees
A view of the mist and the surrounding forests

Darjeeling tea is a unique product giving enormous tactile pleasure and, I think, prepares one for meeting all the exigencies of life. It is one of those fragrant products of the country which has earned repute at home and abroad. There was a time when the British would swear by it but the tea is now a favoured beverage practically in all corners of the world. I
The Darjeeling Mall (from internet)
recall that on our way to see the house of Anne Frank in Amsterdam I happened to see a signboard over a shop proclaiming “Darjeeling”. Seeing “Darjeeling” writ large on the signboard pepped me up as would a sip of Makaibari or Lopchu tea from there. It used to be coffee that the Europeans preferred leaving tea to be enjoyed by the islanders across the Channel. No, now it seems Darjeeling teas are favourites of the connoisseur Incidentally, Anne Frank became posthumously famous when her diary written about the goings on around her during the last Great War was discovered and published in numerous languages. 
 . She wrote it 
On the verandah
in her tiny hideout in her house before the family was exposed and arrested by Gestapo.

The Mall of Darjeeling is, well, like the malls of other hill stations. They are good walks with incredibly beautiful Himalayan views. A stroll on the Mall in Darjeeling enables you to see the Bengali glitterati in their best. The best exposure to the Mall here was given by Satyajit Ray in his film Kanchenjunga. He filmed the aristocratic looking Chhabi Biswas taking a stroll on the Mall in a three piece suit haranguing a young man whom he wanted to propose to his daughter.

The sight of the first rays of sun touching the mountain peaks can be fascinating. Just to see such a sight there is a place only 11kms. away from Darjeeling called Tiger Hill. On a dark cold morning we mounted a rather biggish jeep and commenced our tough journey towards Tiger Hill, the summit of Ghoom. It was still dark when we reached the place.
Another view of mist in Darjeeling
We waited for about half an hour gazing at the indistinct shapes of the peaks against the indifferently lighted sky. Soon the spectacle commenced; as the first rays of the sun touched the peaks of Kanchenjunga became a little clearer and distinct. And, then the sunrays hit them, gradually turning them from yellow to gold and later fiery red. The most incredible sight was that the sun was still below the horizon as its rays hit the peaks and then, as we looked for it, it rose from a level below us. My camera could not capture the scene as I wanted. Nonetheless, one could see as many as three peaks – Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Everest, with Makalu appearing taller than Everest as it was closer to us by many miles 

Darjeeling is a place to savour its salubrious climate and pleasant weather, more so before the onset of autumn. One has to enjoy it – yes, enjoy it sipping its tea sitting in an expansive verandah watching Kanchenjunga changing its shades. We did just that and enjoyed to our heart’s content the fantastic aromatic teas of the place.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017




I had heard about Euthanasia, the process of physician-assisted death of terminally sick patients or of patients suffering from progressive incurable diseases, more than forty years ago. It was being talked about in the newspapers when cancer was slowly assuming menacing proportions with practically no cure available. In those days it went by the term “mercy killing”.

My late brother who was at one time Special Assistant to Dr. Karan Singh, the then Health Minister, also once happened to tell me that the minister wanted to know more about the process. No progress has, however, been made since then and Euthanasia, as an alternative to acutely suffering patients from several kinds of fatal diseases, continues to remain only in the realms of possibilities with no prospects in the near future of its being introduced.

In the United States euthanasia was introduced in the state of Oregon as far back as in 1997 and since then it was introduced in several other states like Montana, Colorado, Vermont, Washington DC etc. Perhaps, California, known as the trend-setting state, was so far the last to put into effect only in 2016 the law relating to assisted suicide. According to the available data as many as 504 terminally ill patients have requested for life-ending drugs since the law came into force. While the state authorities have not released any figures it is presumed that the overall figure would be much higher. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the law in question is working pretty well. The families of those who have made the choice have indicated that the law has provided comfort and relief to the dying from intolerable suffering. Some see providing the option to the dying as a logical evolution in the current medical care system.

Euthanasia has been in medical discourses for quite some time. I recall having read the depositions of elderly people in the West who did not wish to spend their last days in nursing homes or hospices regardless of the high quality of nursing care in them. The prospects of suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia, insufferable body and joint aches, chronic constipation and all other diseases that are associated with failing vital organs as advancing age chips away at the system is frightening to them, as it is to all of us. Most of them demanded the choice of assisted suicide particularly when there was no hope of recovery and the suffering was likely to pile on by the day. What they wished for was a self-willed dignified death without the hassles associated with interminable deep suffering – both physical and mental.

If one wishes to see the sufferings of the terminally ill patients a visit to any cancer hospital would be fruitful. I have had occasions to see from time to time the agony on the faces of these patients in the local JL Nehru Cancer Hospital. However much the hospital provides palliative treatment to those who are at the terminal stage the effort only marginally lightens the patients’ sufferings. Perhaps, an option for assisted death would be far more welcome than the prolonged pain and agony from which release is unlikely. Forcing a terminally sick patient to live out his life of acute pain and misery in keeping with the prevailing societal mores would not seem to be making any sense. An option for termination of life, if exercised, would release not only a patient from his/her unbearable, insufferable and intolerable pain, agony and misery but also relieve his/her family and well-wishers from prolonged exposure to the sufferings of a loved one that heavily impacts their psyche.

Unfortunately, in this country there is neither enough social cohesion for making a demand for euthanasia nor are the governments so enlightened as to enact such laws on their own. Besides, the leaders of the society are far too busy in garnering votes at future elections. Even the medical fraternity has failed to propose such a measure which apart from providing relief to terminally ill patients would make their own life a little easier. Besides, in the prevailing environment of shortages and inadequacy numerous beds/wards could be released for treatment of those who have better chances of recovery to lead a healthy life.

One tends to feel that the debate on the matter needs to resume. A time seems to have come when a scientific and more modern view of this important matter is taken by people in authority. After all, when medical science, despite its rapid advancement, is not able to provide release from pain and suffering to a patient wouldn’t it make sense that the patient, if he so wished, could ask for a dignified termination of his miserable life?


Somehow or other Colombia has been at the vanguard of urban transport initiatives. The Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS for short, though established first in Curitiba in Brazil, it is Bogota in Colombia that we in India drew inspiration from. The country has a fascinating rapid transit system which we have tried to emulate but have miserably failed in the effort for varied reasons that need not be gone into here.

A fresh initiative has come from Colombia and this time it is not about the polluting diesel buses that are used in the bus rapid transit system. It is about good old bicycle and an attempt to resurrect it after it was virtually pushed into oblivion as a means of personal mobility. The Colombian initiatives have had emphasis on conservation of environment. Just as the BRTS was meant to apply brakes on the rapidly increasing green house gases in the atmosphere the new initiative that goes by the name Ciclovia attempts to popularize  emission-free transport as also to improve the health of people and their general wellbeing.

Ciclovia is not, in fact, a new initiative. It was commenced around 1974 when sections of roads were closed on Sundays for motor vehicles for half a day and only cyclists, walkers and joggers were allowed on them. The Indian Ambassador in Colombia writes that what started as a small exercise now covers more than 121 kms. of Bogota’s roads with the participation of one fourth of the population of the town of eight million on every Sunday and on other holidays that work out to 68 days in a year. He says, from 7.00 AM to 2.00 PM young and old come out in colourful apparels to give themselves an outing in their own city.

Many cities of Colombia and Latin America have adopted Ciclovia. Apparently people like the initiative prompting the administrations to add hundreds of kilometers cycle routes in Bogota and elsewhere. Ciclovia’s popularity is being used by commercial firms to broadcast their messages through various cycling events. Even the Indian Embassy is reported to have celebrated the International Yoga Day in June 2016 using Ciclovia.

We in India were at one time totally dependent on the bicycle. It was the only vehicle for quicker mobility for the blue collared workers as also of a few sections of white collars and students. The middle class and the lower classes back then had no other alternative as four wheeled motorized vehicles were much beyond their reach andpublic transport run by the governments or their agencies was unavailable. I remember during our college days in the mid 1950s many of our professors used to cycle down to the college. They would be immaculately dressed in three-piece suits in winters with matching felt hats. In summers, it would be shirt sleeves and sola hats, bicycles remaining as the means of commuting. Reports used to be received of Pune having the largest number of bicycles. With changing shifts in factories swarms of cyclists would choke the streets. Today, however, things have changed; it is now the motorised two-wheeler or a car; a bicycle is used, if at all, for pleasure rides.

Nonetheless, efforts are being made to popularise the use of bicycles. In Bhopal already around 10 kilometres of cycle tracks have been constructed and bicycles are on offer on rent – somewhat in the pattern of Paris and other European cities after this movement took off more than a decade ago. For us in India the weather is a great hindrance, particularly in summers when due to searing heat of the sun none would like to expose oneself to the unfriendly elements. During the rest of the year, however, cycling could be promoted for hobby as also for commuting.

That is precisely what Ciclovia, with all its multiple environmental and health benefits, would seemingly seek to suggest to us.  

*Photos from internet

Monday, June 12, 2017

From the scrapbook :: 1


Planting spruce for “Future Library”

It was in the news recently that Oslo in Norway is going to grow trees for
A spruce tree
books that might be printed a hundred years from now. One thousand spruce saplings are being planted in a forest outside Oslo. Whenever an author produces a manuscript it would go into a time capsule kept in an Oslo library to be read by none. Only in 2114 “the trees and text will be finally turned into a book”. So, whatever Margaret Atwood, poetess and novelist, produces henceforth will all go into the capsule, only to be published in the next century.

Katie Paterson, a 36 year-old European artist initiated the “Future Library” project for spruce trees to be grown in Norway’s Nordmarka forest for the books to be printed in the next century. It is she who proposed that Margaret Atwood’s book would be the first to be capsuled for the Future Library. Another popular author David Mitchell has also handed over his manuscript to be published a hundred years from now. Mitchell is reported to have said "It's trees, it's books, it's a circle, it's pulp, it's organic matter turning into this stuff [paper] …and then words get printed on them. I love that”

Katie Paterson appears to be a very hopeful person. She seems to believe that a century from now forests will still be there and there will be still people who would like to hold a book printed on paper in their hands despite the upgrades in technology taking place seemingly at supersonic speed. She is also up to creating a press which would print these books and arrangements are being made to ensure that it remains fit enough to roll out the preserved manuscripts on paper. A periodical maintenance job is being arranged. This is nothing but a strong belief in human behavior and a way of life which, she hopes, will persist even a hundred years hence. According to Paterson, Future Library believes “there will be a forest, a book and a reader in 100 years. The choices of this generation will shape the centuries to come, perhaps in an unprecedented way.”

The project has environmental undertones. It seeks to protect at least 1000 spruce trees for a hundred years in an area where the trees may come under the axe sooner than later. Norway is happily placed in respect of forests which cover about 37% of its land area but more than 23% of it harvested for commercial purposes.

Paterson’s is undoubtedly an unique project and one can only hope that her claims that a century away people will be affected by the choices made by the current generation come true.

Penalising for wrong parking

The other day a Hindi daily reported that a fine of Rs. 8000/- was imposed on a car owner for improper parking in London.  It seems a wealthy commuter arrived in his BMW near Mayfair or some such place in the Hyde Park area and did not care to keep his car within the space indicated for parking. His car was outside the line drawn for the purpose by a mere six inches or so but the London Police charged him for violation of the laws and fined him Rs. 8000/-. For us in India it looks an incredibly huge amount for a minor violation but in British currency it must have been around 100 pounds. Though 100 Pounds would be chicken feed for a man running around in a BMW in London – a very expensive place – yet it is, to my mind, a reasonably big amount. One could even call it a heavy penalty.

Because of such stiff penalties for even minor offences one would seldom come across a vehicle parked casually without any regard to the laws as in any city of India. While in the developed countries there is what is called governance, and that too very effective, here we have none of that, mostly because of attitudes of our politicians who nurse their voters any which way, including by interfering with the policing work for all kinds of violations – even relating to violations of traffic rules. A local minister told as much to a representative team of the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum. He brazenly said if any of his constituents sought his help when in trouble with the Police he would certainly intervene regardless of whether the violator was right or wrong.

No wonder the streets of London or, for that matter, any European city one wouldn’t find encroachments on the roads or pavements. If one stood on a pavement in a street corner one would see all around roads and footpaths free of kiosks or push-carts. However, where permitted, pavements are used for outdoor cafetarias/restaurants and not for kiosks or hawkers. In Vienna I remember to have seen kiosks built by the local body well away from the Ringstrasse – a road where there is heavy traffic of locals as well as of tourists. We even had pizzas off these kiosks cooked by an Italian.

We in India are, however, very ‘tolerant’ – yes, very tolerant of all kinds of violations, particularly of civic laws. We have all the paraphernalia for enforcement of these laws but somehow these cannot be enforced largely because of vested interests and use of political influence, sometimes even of the lowest level. Somehow all the powers have gravitated towards the elected political executive and the real enforcers have been left twiddling their thumbs. Recent instances of attempts to remove illegal kiosks from near MP Nagar had to be given up because of pressure of MLAs and municipal councilors.

 Hence one can never find the same civic discipline as one finds in the developed countries of the world. Here what is needed is change of attitudes, especially of the political class. That, however, may take an eternity.

11th June 2017
*Foto of spruce tree from internet