DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A President's priority






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


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


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


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


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

All photos form the Internet

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Traffic police to get masks; what about aam aadmi?



As the pollution levels rise in Bhopal, particularly in its congested parts, the
Pollution in Delhi
local Traffic Police have taken a decision to supply masks to the traffic cops. An admirable step as it indicates that the department cares for its employees. The department has, however, not thought of the general public. They too are exposed to the automobile fumes.

The Traffic department’s measure treats only the symptom, not its cause. One would have liked the department to force the wing concerned of the government to enforce rigorous checks on emission levels of vehicles plying on the city roads. The Bhopal Citizen Forum has taken up the matter with the government many a time but to no effect. Perhaps, it would have been responsive to a plea coming from one of its vital departments.


Perhaps, the government is waiting for the city to catch up with Delhi before it cranks up its rusty machinery into action. As has since been reported, Delhi has beaten Beijing in so far as atmospheric pollution is concerned and has replaced the latter as the most polluted city in the world.


Delhi seems to have lost the battle against air pollution that it had almost won a decade back on introduction of CNG in buses and autos. Since then the car population exploded, almost 40% of which are now diesel driven - a fuel that is far more polluting. No wonder, lakhs of people including children in Delhi suffer from bronchial problems, very well exemplified by Arvind Kejriwal who, during his sit in, coughed all the way to a hospital. But, Delhi alone is not the only polluted city in the country that should cause alarm bells to ring. Yale University's Environmental Performance Index for 2014 ranked India as one of the most polluted countries.


Hopefully, the MP government will not allow the quality of air in its urban centres to deteriorate to such an extent, particularly since two of its cities, Indore and Gwalior, are working their way up to match Delhi. Hence providing masks to traffic cops is not quite enough. What are needed are rigorous emission checks on vehicles and elimination of those which do not come up to the required standards.

Photo of pollution in Delhi is from the Internet




Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Look what they are doing to Indira Gandhi!

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Regardless of her numerous faults she does not deserve what they are doing to her at Bhopal. Soon after her death a statue of her was installed at GAD Square, a square that used to be prominent at one time, being located on the highway that used to connect Bhopal to the outside world. To make the statue visible to everyone who entered the town they planted it plumb in the middle of the square.

The lady even now dominates the square facing west but what she is confronted with these days is not the oncoming traffic carrying strangers to the town but a jungle of iron scaffoldings to support a flyover that is being constructed for unhindered passage of BRTS buses. Another such jungle is coming up behind her on which the flyover will continue and then descend down to the level of the road.

 She is progressively getting sandwiched between the two sets of scaffoldings. It does not make a pretty picture and certainly does not do her the honours she deserves. Seems like, her sycophants have forgotten all about her and left her to suffer the ignominy of going under a flyover on which BRTS buses will go thundering down right over her head in not too distant future.

Perhaps, she deserves greater consideration. She could be moved to a more suitable place – say, one of the corners on the square which could be beautified to make it look little honourable. 


Photos: Bandana Bagchi

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Media finally reports on dying Bhopal lake


It is seldom that the local papers are critical of the way the government and its agencies deal with the precious natural asset of Bhoj Wetland and its two lakes. Mostly, all critical reports would either be kept under wraps or, at best, be tempered down. As a departure from normal, however, the vernacular and the English language print media came out rather strongly against the government’s handling of issues relating conservation of the Wetland before, during and after the recent International Conference on Wetlands and Lakes.


The most scathing report was the one that appeared in a premier English language newspaper regarding the contents of the research paper that was read on the last day of the Conference by Prof. Ashwani Wanganeo, Head of the Department of Environmental Sciences & Limnology in the Barkatullah University. The presence of Dr. Wanganeo at the Conference took me by surprise as hitherto he had scrupulously been kept by the government at more than an arm’s length. While we in the Citizens’ Forum would go over to him for consultations and advice the government would always give him a wide berth. He has been in demand internationally but the state government never sought his expertise. The government, probably, never found him amenable enough and was, presumably, not quite happy with his forthrightness. 

Exposing the lies of the government and its agencies, he stated in his paper that “100% of human wastes” from several wards of the city continue to be dumped into the Lake as do lakhs of litres of urine. Besides, religious festivals “see materials like clay, clothes, paper, wood and insoluble paints containing harmful substances playing havoc with the health of the Upper Lake.” Drains and nullahs continue to flow into the Lake and emphasis on tourism has fostered growth of “infrastructure not in harmony with the environment, causing huge negative impact”.

It is the same old story. Year after year concerned citizens and their representatives have been bringing all these issues to the fore without any concrete remedial action by the government. That at the end of the festival season the Lake gets overloaded with heavy metals, as reported year after year by the local Pollution Control Board, has had no impact on its babus. So far it has not been able bar PoP images from being immersed in these waters.

Besides, the government recklessly promoted “tourism” and created all kinds of “unwise” infrastructure like Sair Sapata, attracting thousands of visitors to the Lake side generating huge amounts of waste that eventually go down and pollute the waters. The government, despite a ban, has also allowed plying of motorised boats against all environmental norms for a drinking water source. 

It is strange that the wise men of the government do not realise that by hiding the “Jheel Mahotsav” behind a fig leaf of its stated purpose of “creation of awareness among the people for conservation of the Lake” was an exercise to mislead the people or, maybe, even an exercise in self-deception. And, organising international conferences out of the blue for no apparent reasons at enormous costs to the exchequer cannot conserve the all-important water body. They do not seem to realise that what is needed are concrete measures which the experts within and outside the government have delineated on several occasions earlier. Or, probably, the men in the government just don’t care.

Reports indicate that multiple departments handling the issues relating to the Lake forked out Rs. 5 crore for the Conference and Jheel Mahotsav whereas the government couldn’t spare just a crore for buying a dredger, a proposal for which is pending for long. The government’s apathy is evident from the fact that more than a crore of interest earned in 2009-10 on the unspent amount of the Bhoj Wetland Project mostly remained unused as only Rs. 6 lakh could be used for conservation of the Lake. 

No effective institutional structure has been created for planned conservation of the Lake even after a decade of unsuccessful completion of the Bhoj Wetland Project. Even the Master Plan prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment was blocked for political and other shady interests. Grossly inadequately equipped organisation has been left to its own devices.

International conferences or any number of “jheel mahotsavs” or a Hollywood-style signage and attempts to window-dress the Lake are not efforts at conservation. These are only attempts to screen the truth from the people. The government, since it came to power in 2004, has scrupulously avoided taking effective measures towards its conservation and has brought it down to the level of a septic tank. Unashamedly, it is forcing half the population of the city to drink its highly polluted water.

That the Lake is “dying a slow, painful death” is what describes its condition accurately. In fact, it is at the terminal stage. Only an unlikely miracle can turn it around.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

DESTINATIONS: CHINA (1982): BEIJING (II)

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Having taken the responsibility to host us the Chinese did an 
excellent job of it. We never had to ask for anything. From food to sight-seeing and shopping, they had taken great care in planning 
and organising our visit. Though there were no malls, they took us to shops that looked ordinary but had some fantastic ceramic and porcelain-ware as also beautiful woollen garments. As for sight-seeing, they took us to all the major sights. China, after all, has a long history and historical sites are littered all over.


The first on the list had to be the Great Wall - an hour or so away. Not much need be said about it except that it now transpires the Wall was built by several dynasties and not only by those of Ming and Qing and is much older and longer than what was earlier reckoned. As we reached we found it crawling with tourists – mostly whites. It was like an Indian mela and people were milling around – in shops, in restaurants or out in the open. A large number, generally advanced in age, were already going up the Wall. It was strenuous, the last bit being very steep and tough and one could see people bending forward to go up holding the metal railings. The Chinese say that one wouldn’t
Self at the Wall
be enough of a man if he didn’t go right up to the Observation Post. I did huff and puff up to the Post. From there one gets a stunning sight of the Wall continuing onwards and the surrounding country-side. As we came down more and more tourist batches had arrived and were going up in a crowd.

 To say that the Wall was impressive would be an understatement. The widest wall I had seen till then was that of Bhuj in Kutch in 1963 which was, if my memory serves me right, was about 10 to 12 ft wide. This is about 30 ft wide and can very well accommodate a truck leaving enough space on both sides. No wonder, people had come in thousands travelling over long distances to see it and tuck away in their consciousness the sheer feel of this Great Wonder, a World Heritage Site to boot.
One of the gates of the Forbidden City

Like the Great Wall we had heard since childhood of the Forbidden City in the Chinese capital where commoners were not allowed to enter. Located in the centre of the city, the Forbidden City is also known as the Imperial Palace which hosted a couple of dozen emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties for almost 500 years until 1912. Exemplifying the Chinese palatial architecture, its influence can be seen elsewhere in East Asia. It is a mammoth place and cannot be covered in half a day. Built over a period of 14 years in early 15th Century it is spread over an area of more than 700,000 square feet accommodating about a thousand monuments. Well fortified by about 25 feet high wall that is as wide as 15 feet at its base and a wide, pretty deep moat, it served as not only as residences but also as political and cultural centre of th
Display of artifacts in the Imperial Museum
e Empire. A profusion of walls, gates and pavilions dominate the landscape. I found very little greenery in such a big complex which was mostly paved. The beautifully laid out Imperial Garden in the surrounding grounds compensated for the lack of greenery in the Palace. A museum was established in the complex in 1925 after the last of the emperors, hanging on in a corner of the Palace, was ousted from it and the whole complex is now known as Palace Museum, another World Heritage Site, displaying some exquisite pieces of Chinese art and craft.   

I do not remember much about the Ming Tombs where we went one noon for a brief visit. About 50 kilometres away the tombs of thirteen emperors of 14th to 17th Centuries of the Ming Dynasty are situated over an area of around 120 square kilometres in a
Monument to People's Heroes
scenic area at the foot of a mountain range. It is difficult to cover all those tombs unless one is a fanatic and tombs buff. In any case only one or two tombs were open to public. Nothing spectacular about the place except that it is scenic, but there must be more to it than what we saw as it is another World Heritage Site. I, however, remember the lunch that was hosted – about the finest lunch that I had during my brief sojourn in China. Looking at the facilities at the Great Wall and the Ming tombs and later even at other places one must appreciate the Chinese efforts and that nothing of this kind is available in our country even now at the tourist places. Neither there are decent eating places, nor are there shops selling curios or memorabilia for tourists.  
  
We have all heard about the Tiananmen Square. It was made more popular outside China by a revolutionary rush for democracy spearheaded by students in 1989. The Square, however, has generally been famous for demonstrations and marches. The Chinese official parades and military displays are also held here. Constructed in the 15th
Outside Mao's tomb
Century by the Ming Dynasty adjoining the Forbidden City, it is the largest square in the world covering around 450,000 square metres. Chairman Mao’s mausoleum is located here as also the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Apart from the Gates it is flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China.  The place is spectacular and one cannot but get amazed by its sheer scale.

We also had a taste of Chinese performing arts. One evening we were taken to a piano recital – by the musician who, we were told, had stood second in the world piano playing championships. The recital started on a slow note but towards the end it became slightly athletic, ending in a crescendo of sorts. On another evening we were at a circus. Chinese are known for their acrobatic acumen. What interested me most was the sight of a panda – white, furry and roly-poly with two black blobs for eyes. We also were lucky to visit the famous Peking Opera. Conceptualised in 18th Century, it became
Mao's tomb
popular in the Qing Dynasty, incorporating as it did music, mime, dance, acrobatics and, of course, vocal music. Silk Route was being played out with lavish sets. As the travellers passed through the Indian portion of the Route the dancers broke into a semblance of Bharat Natyam and our interpreter, Liu, sitting next to me gave me a nudge asking me to take photographs. I did her bidding and the results are in the album – not satisfactory because of the surrounding darkness and distance.  

The Beijing stay was rounded off with a banquet hosted by the Vice Minister of Communications. We sat at a huge round table with the typical Chinese rotating centre. The food was excellent and every dish was beautifully presented. The Chinese are very good at food presentation. The food in China changes from region to region and we went through several types of cuisine during our travels. In Beijing I did not find much
Peking Opera
to choose but as we progressed to Shanghai we came across more familiar tastes and flavours. In any case, I was mostly on continental food, tucking away steaks and things.

 It was at this banquet that I first came across that tough, stinging and fiery Chinese spirit Maotai. The hosts insisted on finishing it in one gulp from the little wine glass. It assaulted you in the throat and burned the insides as it went down. Maotai was, kind of, de re-gueur at the end of formal dinners everywhere we went. 

All the photos taken by self except one

Friday, February 14, 2014

BHOPAL LAKE: MEDIA ULTIMATELY BELLS THE CAT



That the Madhya Pradesh government has been speaking about conservation of the Bhoj Wetland and the two lakes that constitute it with a forked tongue has been known to the media for a long, long time. If I as a layman, like many others, could decipher its machinations, surely the people in the media, with their available massive resources, also would have done so. The difference was that while I had been screaming about it in my blogs and facebook notings after the doors of the English language newspapers were shut on the casual reporters, the media kept its counsel. It is only this morning that Dainik Bhaskar, the most widely read Hindi daily, brought out a feature about the doublespeak of the government, an act that is akin to belling the cat.

It said that an international conference for conservation of the lakes is being held in the city under the auspices of “Jheel Mahatsav” (Festival of lakes), Upper Lake shore is being beautified with coloured lights and the waste water of the Shamla filtration plant is being converted into a spring to descend in a cascade close to the Boat Club only to attract more visitors, there is no talk of conservation of the Lake – as is well known, a vital water body for the town. The government has blocked the report prepared by the Centre for Environmental Planning, Ahmedabad, (CEPT) an organisation that was hired as consultants by the government, for preparing a master plan suggesting conservational measures for the water body. It also said the sources of water for the Lake have been blocked by encroachments and construction and the fluid that it gets is nothing but sewer water – water that the people of part of the town are made to drink. It is a scathing commentary on the government’s conservation efforts.

The news report also said that the government is itself killing the Lake. While it allowed, inter alia, the Sports Authority of India to come up in the catchments of the Lake, it also built up a massive place for amusement, the Sair Sapata complex with toy train and what not, close to the Lake affecting the quality of its waters and impacting on its bird life. I have been raising these issues in my writings as also in the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum of which I am a founder-member. These have been taken up but have fallen on deaf ears.

Experts from 15 countries are attending the Conference on Lakes and Wetlands and field visits are slated for them. They will see what all is happening, as they did earlier on several occasions when such jamborees were held by the erstwhile Lakes Conservation Authority. They must have shared their feelings with official representatives but none in the government, especially the political bosses, listen to them. Officials seem to be in a state of paralysis. Under the circumstances, the foreign experts are likely to keep their counsel. If we cannot take care of our assets how can foreigners help? And, why should they?

I entirely agree with the newspaper that it is in fact the government which is killing the Lake. From all appearances it may cease to remain useful to us, as the CEPT had said in its interim report, in another 50 or 60 years. Three researchers had also opined that if the things continue in the same lackadaisical manner, the Lake would cease to exist in the next 70 to 80 years.


Many like us will not be around but the loss will be of the succeeding generations. They might as well SIT UP AND ACT.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

DESTINATIONS: CHINA (1982)


BEIJING

In the summer of 1982 I was put on a professional course conducted by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in Delhi, China/Philippines, Japan and Thailand. I had fellow
An old photo of Beijing Hotel
participants from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. The course ran for eight weeks in Delhi after which our group was to spend four weeks in Peoples’ Republic of China (PRoC), two weeks in Japan and another couple of weeks in Thailand.

In August 1982 we were all set to leave for Beijing. A little delay in ticketing prevented us to fly via Hong Kong as the flights were heavily booked. China was just opening up and there was a rush of westerners to see the land that was considered mysterious, veiled off, as it were, by a bamboo curtain. There was no direct flight from India to China. The closest was a linkage from Karachi which was on the route of China Airline’s flight from Tirana in Albania to Beijing via Addis Ababa. The Airline used to fly to only friendly countries. While Pakistan was a friendly country Albania and Ethiopia, like China, were communist “revisionists” at that point of time.

Thirty years ago China, unlike today, was not flush with US dollars. It used to be short of the stuff – in fact, very short. It had, therefore, sealed a deal with the UPU that it would take care of us all and the allowances that were due to us would be paid to it in dollars. The Chinese Administration would advance to us a small amount of 15 yuans per day in the local currency (especially printed for foreigners) for out-of-pocket expenses. In the event, I was not advanced any hard currency before departure. What was advanced to me by the Delhi UNDP was a travellers’ cheque of measly $40.

One August morning we flew to Karachi but I had no visa for Pakistan. In fact, I couldn’t have had one as my official passport was not even endorsed for Pakistan (as also for South Africa and Israel). At the Karachi immigration my passport and that of the Bangladeshi were promptly put in a locked box to be collected before departure. The result was that both of us could not go into the arrival area. We had to loiter around in the veranda without even drinking-water, leave alone snacks or cold drinks. There was no vendor around anyway.

Thankfully, the China Airline flight arrived on time and the cabin crew served dinner soon after take-off. That put to rest my hunger. It was rather late when we finished the dinner but Chinese passengers were chattering away. They seemed like a talkative lot. The Australian consultant, Pat Kearney, told me there were no seats available even on this flight too and the Chinese Administration had off-loaded seven Chinese at Karachi to accommodate us. Rather unusual, but the Chinese Administration could take such extraordinary measures without anybody protesting. The flight was over the Himalayas and after nine hours or so in the air we touched down at Beijing around six in the morning.

The Airport was nothing much, though, it was certainly better than what we had then in Bombay and Delhi – but not like the new massive one they have got now. It was here that I came across for the first time the automated walkway which saves the passengers the effort at least for some distances of walking and lugging the baggage. These have since become common in Indian bigger airports. They now even have a name –“travellator” (to rhyme with escalator?) The formalities were completed in a jiffy because of the rep of the Chinese Administration and soon we were on a rather narrow road to Beijing in an air-conditioned Toyota minibus.

We were put up at the Beijing Hotel – a fairly old hotel, a contemporary of Taj Mahal Palace of Bombay. Like the one in Bombay, it had an old block and modern-looking newer block. Its construction had commenced in 1900 and was completed in 1915. It had hosted many distinguished people from Sun Yat Sen, Ho Chi Minh, to Nikita
A recent photo of the same hotel
Khrushchev and Richard Nixon.  I was allotted a room in the older block with that typical old-world charm. The Chinese aesthetics made it more welcoming and hospitable. Located close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square we were all very comfortably placed.

Only, we could not have walked on to these well-known places on our own any time of our choosing. Foreigners, as we were told, needed to be escorted. Only certain areas of the country were at that time open to foreigners. For instance, in our four weeks in the country we were to visit Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Soochow, Hangchow and Shanghai – a tourist circuit that was initially opened for foreigners in late 1970s and early '80s. We were to do the same circuit and escorted right through to several tourist sites in the six cities.
A little before eight on the second morning an interpreter arrived to pick us up and take to the headquarters. Roads were largely empty with no motor vehicles but there were lots of bicycles and electric trolley buses. Signs of China opening up could be discerned from billboards of famous Japanese firms like Hitachi, National, Citizen Watches and so on.

The Chinese working hours are long – from 8.00 AM to 12 noon and from 2 PM to 6.00 PM with a lunch break of two hours for all the six days of the week. The first day in office was as usual – speeches of welcome and the response by the consultant. The top bosses of Chinese Postal Administration seemed to have made it a point to be present. But they all were an informal lot. All wearing light grey bush shirts, they were somewhat surprised to see us all in suits and ties. As soon as the formalities were over they gestured to us to pull out the ties and things. It was indeed uncomfortable wearing a tie in that humid heat. Beijing in August can be uncomfortably warm. A bit of refreshments followed and then the Course commenced with visits to field units in Beijing.

Photos of Beijing Hotel are from the Internet
(To be continued)
****

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bastar in black and white (1979)



The photographs below taken by me in Bastar in 1979. The district had remained a place of curiosity for long because of its tribes' observance of their peculiar lifestyle. Unexposed to the outer world they remained confined to their domain once ruled by a maharaja observing their native mores. The late antrhopologist, Verrier Elvin, spent some time there and later the former chief scretary of Madhya Pradesh did a lot to bring the people of the district into the mainstream. While working as collector of the district in the late '50s and early '60s by travelling right through the district including its unexplored and, I dare say, the feared parts.

In 1979 the district was still taking baby-steps towards modernisation. Unlike in the past, women had started draping themselves in saris and men , of course, remained their tough, muscular ans sinewy self. The photographs are in black & white as I had only such a roll.

Chitrakoot falls