Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bhopal notes 19: Of repair of buses and related matters

I feel jealous of the towns where I find the BRTS buses running without any problems. In recent months I have been to Jaipur and Kolkata. Both the places have implemented the Centre’s proposal for introducing the system and in both the places there didn’t seem to be any corridor and the buses were plying through the crowded streets. In Kolkata I happened to notice that the JNNURM was writ large on the buses that were bought off the funds provided under the Mission.

It is only in Bhopal that the BRTS has faced all kinds of problems. These have been dealt with from time to time in these notes. It is now reported that more than 50% of the fleet of low-floor buses are off roads on account of their utterly bad condition. The Municipal Corporation has prepared a proposal for repair of these buses at a cost of Rs 5 crore which seem to have been transferred by the Centre but not released by the state government to the Corporation for want of a proper proposal.

The condition of buses has degraded within a short period of time. Obviously there has been improper maintenance. No wonder the buses have been taken off the road at great inconvenience to the rising number of commuters. Unfortunately, the Municipal Corporation has never been able to carry out any of its functions properly for the benefit of the people. In almost every sphere of activity it has failed and yet one wonders how the state government thought it fit to entrust to it the work of building the BRTS corridor and running a fleet of costly buses. Special purpose vehicles for each of these items of work should have been created for greater efficiency in both. If the State government had to wind up MP Road Transport Corporation basically because of corruption at all levels how the Municipal Corporation could remain untouched by the same culture. In fact, its employees are more corrupt and half the inefficiency of the outfit is because of its corrupt ways.

The report in the newspaper, in fact, has touched on this aspect. The employees, it seems, create situations in which money has to be spent so that they could put a large portion of it in their pockets. The proposal for repair of the buses by a contractor is also reported to be for the very same purpose. Whether it is the elected representative or permanent officials, all are alike; all look for their respective share in transactions that are carried out at the behest of its officials. The public are being ceaselessly short-changed and, surprisingly, none in the government seems to notice it. Even if they happen to notice it, probably, they gloss over it. There appears to be a complete breakdown of civic services and none seem to be bothered.

If the Corporation cannot render its services properly how can it be expected to run a so called smart city? All its staff, from the mayor downwards, are chasing the mirage of converting the town into a smart city –most of them being unaware what makes a city smart. The main reason for chasing this dream seems to be the grant of hundreds of crores that will come from the Centre and a good deal of it will be disposed of in the way the staff of the Corporation have developed expertise. Benefits for citizens is not on their minds; it is only the filthy lucre that attracts them.

Photo of Kolkata JNNURM bus is from the net

Monday, December 28, 2015

India's new highways

Betul-Nagpur highway
We were to travel by train to Nagpur to take the Indigo flight from there for Kolkata. But the train got cancelled because of the unprecedented rains and floods in Tamil Nadu, especially Chennai where all the rakes were held up. With no other available alternative we had to hire a taxi to travel by road.

Half the journey was pretty miserable, travelling as we were on an apology of a highway. In two decades, one each of Digvijay Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, this trunk route between South and the North could not be made travel-worthy and respectable enough for living up to its venerable title of National Highway 69. It was one of the wretchedest roads that I ever happened to travel on. It seemed to be competing with the so-called highways of Assam, Manipur and Mizoram that I travelled on more than two decades ago. Of course the one that took me into the town of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, walked away with the cake. While travelling on the Mongoldoi and Goalpara stretches one wondered how the Army managed to mobilize its heavy equipment in the 1962 war through these roads which must have been worse at that time.

 But then, this was in the North-East which was remote and almost inaccessible fifty years ago. This one in central India had no reason to be so neglected connecting as it did the North of the country with the South. Metalled only in name, the patchwork repairs apparently carried out from time to time made it worse. Bouncy and hitting the spine where it hurt, a distance of 200 kms or so up to Betul, a district town, took as many as 4 tiring and painful hours.

With such rotten roads the state could never have progressed and, no wonder, it has remained backward, though the current chief minister takes pains to project it as a progressive state. If I recall, it was Mao tse Tung who had said that if one wanted prosperity, one had to build roads.  The US, too, set upon building roads and highways during the Great Depression of the 1930s to enhance the shrinking investments even if it was on behalf of the public. The network of national and state highways built during those few years took the economy on a flight. The country’s prosperity was largely contributed by the investments that were made on infrastructure during the Depression.

But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. Mercifully, our travail ended a little before Betul situated on the Satpura Ranges as a new spanking highway took off before the road entered the town. The new highway not only bypassed Betul, it avoided all small towns and villages on the way which slow down the traffic due to people using the road as an outer courtyard of their house. The four lanes of smooth level concrete with a pretty wide central verge with saplings in the process of growing up ran unhindered very much unlike an Indian highway with all its unevenness, pothole, ditches and the clutter. It ran right up to Nagpur, barring a few exceptions where, perhaps, the right alignment could not be found or, maybe, for some legal issues. The best part was up to Katol with excellent signage and directions for the commuters. For buses serving the towns and villages on the way there were “bus bays” with diminutive bus stops in each with seats and shelter for the passengers.

Many others may have used the completed national highways or travelled over the Yamuna Expressway but this was my first exposure to our new-age national highways which are and, hopefully likely to be like any highway abroad in industrialized and advanced countries. What were missing were the restrooms and arrangements for rest and recreation. Perhaps, these too will come by and by.

 Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant experience to drive through those one hundred odd miles. Later while travelling to Pench Tiger Reserve of Madhya Pradesh we drove over another lovely highway with teak forests on both sides but it is yet to be brought to the level of the Betul-Nagpur highway.

As far as Nitin Gadkari's part of the work is concerned on the
A heavy vehicle seems to be stationary on the highway
Betul-Nagpur highway, it is excellent. Some concerns about management of traffic, however, still remain. While an occasional bullock cart is still seen on the highway, cattle also stray into it obstructing the fast and even flow of traffic. Then there is the habit of our two-wheeler riders to take the wrong carriageways enhancing the hazards for the driving public. The foremost problem, however, is the proclivity of drivers, especially of trucks and buses, to take to the fast lane and stick to it for all they are worth. No amount of honking ever makes them yield the fast lane to faster vehicles. Sometimes, therefore, one wonders whether it is now time to switch to the American way of driving, reversing the current traffic rules which are not observed anyway.
One supposes that till the time the system of "highway patrol" is established travellers on our highways may have to put up with this nuisance. Our truck and bus drivers are all probably licensed and yet they generally believe that the lanes on the extreme right are meant for heavy, beefed-up vehicles, that is, for the vehicles they drive. Over the last sixty years or so that I have had the good fortune to travel off and on on highways no government transport authority or traffic police seem to have been able to disabuse their minds of their utterly wrong belief that could and, perhaps, should bring them to grief.

*Photos of Betul- Nagpur highway are from the internet.  

Friday, December 4, 2015

Steaming World : Time up for blame games

Chennai airport under water
That climate change is now a reality has now been brought home to the common people. A warm November with hardly any need for woolens, particularly in the central parts of the country, making the people realize how true the predictions were that were being made for some time.
A region where the cold weather would herald its onset from the last week of October with cool nights requiring covers and light woolens remained unusually warm this year. It couldn’t really attribute it to below-average rainfall. The fact is the winter this year has failed to set in so far and hence one tends to wait for December with trepidation not knowing what it has in store for us. Already, 2015 has been declared the hottest year so far with temperatures worldwide hovering above normal.

Surprisingly, however, northern parts of the country did have their usual quota of cold, sleet and snowfall since late October which worsened in November. Rain and snow hit Jammu & Kashmir as well as Himachal Pradesh with ferocity disrupting road communications bringing traffic to a halt for a few days. But in deep South, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, on the other hand, got a raw deal. It was at the receiving end of extreme and violent weather with heavy rains and floods. Both were man-made -- the first one because of global warming and the flood havoc was because of constructions on drains and wetlands as a consequence of  thoughtless urbanization that choked the points of egress of flood-waters.

While the South is sogging wet, the country a few latitudes above it has been bone dry giving rise to misery for farmers in northern Andhra Pradesh and the new State of Telangana. Rainfall deficit has been up to 70% and the crops have withered and hundreds of farmers have committed suicide. Large scale switch to cotton in regions where rainfall is scanty put the famers in difficulties.

The trends of rainfall deficit and crop failures have been witnessed for some years now. The governments should have been able to devise by now strategies to combat the changed weather pattern. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have happened anywhere in the country and lives of farmers are being lost.

In the east the Sunderbans in West Bengal has been bearing stoically the impacts of global warming. Every year the inhabitants brace themselves for the monsoon which unleashes severe cyclonic storms with rising seas accompanied by coastal flooding and erosion. The Sunderbans is now a constantly shrinking landmass with rising seas that swallow islands, gobbling up more and more land every year progressively reducing its  ‘carrying capacity’ of humans. It is here that global warming has given rise to “environmental refugees” for the first time in India. Many have left their sinking islands to fight their way into the Sagar Island, a large island which is likely to suffer the same fate in course of time. The refugees will then join their folks in Kolkata.

The demographic push will not only be felt in West Bengal, even Bangladesh is likely to witness “environmental refugees” pressing on to the mainland from its larger portion of the Sunderbans and, quite likely, eventually pressure will build up on the Indian borders too. A human problem of immense proportions is likely to unfold in not too distant future action to combat which the governments are yet to decide on.

A recent report says that the phenomenon of global warming will progress faster than what was estimated earlier as the rising temperatures encourage greater natural emission of methane, a greenhouse gas that already is in excess among other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The window of opportunity is, therefore, getting smaller and smaller.

No wonder the United Nations organizes every year Climate Conferences to plan to find ways and means to control not only the emission of greenhouse gases as also, as a corollary, to contain the rise in global temperature to 20 Centigrade above what prevailed during pre-industrial times. This year’s conference in Paris will be the 21st Conference of Parties after the first one held in 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated and legitimised.

1992 reminds one of George Bush who made the stunning statement that the American (opulent and wasteful) way of life was not negotiable. Two decades have elapsed since but an agreement has eluded the world community so far for achieving the objectives of limiting the rise in global temperature to 20 C above the pre-industrial level during this century.

Differences in approaches have prevented an agreement – the world having been divided between developed and developing countries. The former have been held responsible for pumping most of the greenhouse gases and, according to the developing world, should not only cut down on their emissions but also finance poorer countries to adopt technologies to promote for them a cleaner growth.

Hitherto restricting the global temperature increase to 2°C over the pre-industrial average has generally been reckoned as an adequate means of avoiding dangerous climate change. However, according to climate scientist Kevin Anderson “recent science has shown that environmental and social impacts of 2°C rise are much greater than (what) the earlier science indicated, and that impacts for a 1°C rise are now expected to be as great as those previously assumed for a 2°C rise.”

Climate scientists have explained that for this reason “avoiding dangerous climate in the conventional sense is no longer possible, because the temperature rise is already close to 1°C with effects formerly assumed for 2°C.” Anderson’s researches have shown that a rise of 40 Centigrade by 2060 is very much on the cards given the record of inaction till date on climate change by governments.

Researchers have also indicated that there is a linkage of global warming with the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Currently, this concentration is close to 400 ppm and it has been reckoned that the global rise in temperature can be restricted to 20 Centigrade if the greenhouse gases are not allowed to exceed 550 ppm. It has also been felt that stabilisation of greenhouse gases below 400 ppm would provide a higher degree of certainty of temperature not exceeding the 20 C mark. That, however, seems to be impossible now as the concentration of green house gases in the atmosphere is likely to overshoot 400 ppm anytime now.

Naturally therefore, so much of importance is being attached to the Paris Summit. The world would be seen to be standing at the edge of a cliff; a false step and it will be a disaster. It is a matter of ‘do or die’. There is no time to play the blame game now. We are already late. Our thoughtless actions have brought us to the brink of disaster.

Now is the time to retrace our steps back and get back to sustainable living that does no further damage to our planet. Rich or poor, all have to come together as it is a matter of survival of humanity in this wonderful “commons” that our planet is. The Summit, therefore, places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of world leaders. Hopefully, they will not disappoint and arrive at an agreement that had eluded them so far to rescue Humanity before it is too late. 

Foto: from the net

* Published as blog courtesy INFA

Friday, November 27, 2015

Hindu fringe is Modi's enemy


Prime Minister Modi is reported to have said the other day while addressing G20 leaders at Antalya (Turkey), “We need to involve religious leaders, thinkers and opinion makers for a social movement against extremism, particularly addressed to the youth” This was needed the most in countries where extremism was most prevalent, he said, and highlighted the urgency for promoting broader peace and stability in West Asia and Africa. He also said, “We don’t have a comprehensive global strategy to combat terrorism. And we tend to be selective in using the instruments that we have.”

Platitudinous and preachy, his words would not wash with most of his audience, given the recent adverse reportage in international media from back home. He seems to have overlooked the apparent radicalization of the Hindu fringe that has raised its ugly head in recent times True, most of the reportage was contrived by the so-called liberals and secular elements who do not let go of a single opportunity to go after Modi but the fact is that the Hindu extremists, of late, have become more active, intimidating and violent and Modi seems to have forgotten about them.

Besides, Modi’s words sound somewhat hypocritical as he did not use the means that he possessed to deal with the terrorism that recently emanated from the Hindu Right. He cannot wash his hands of saying that the incidents happened in states ruled by non-BJP parties. The instance of lynching at Dadri and the later statements by his Minister of Culture did not quite tally up what he said at Antalya. While initially the minister, Mahesh Sharma, glossed over it by saying it was “an accident” and, later, a case of “misunderstanding”, there was no perceptible move from the BJP to admonish him or the hoodlums who went in strength and lynched an elderly helpless person killing him on the spot on mere suspicion of having consumed beef. If this is not terrorism what is? True the state government ruled by a non-BJP party has treated the incident as a matter relating law and order but what of the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party)? It seemed to provide a protective umbrella to those under the leadership of whom the highly condemnable act was perpetrated. Wasn’t it a case of selective non-use of the instruments the Party possessed to discipline its foot soldiers?

 As no serious note was taken of the “unfortunate incident” (this is how PM Modi described the Dadri incident) another incident soon followed at Delhi. Kerala House in Delhi had to be raided by the Police on a complaint of keeping beef on offer in the menu of its canteen. The Police found the complaint untrue and yet no action was taken against the Hindu activists by the BJP or its sister Hindu radical organizations for trying to arouse communal passions. In any case, consuming beef is no crime unless it is banned by an order of the state which, if imposed, would not be quite secular. A cow may be holy for Hindus, that does not mean people of other communities should treat it likewise. India is a country of multiple religions, multiple sects, multiple tribes and multiple communities of different castes and creeds. If Hindus do not eat beef, others would perfectly be within their rights to consume it unless it is banned by the state. The policing by the Hindu fringe elements in this matter, therefore, is reprehensible as they thus encroach on the freedom of others. For this kind of intimidatory behavior they should be hauled up under the country’s criminal laws.

This was not the end of it all. An unabashed threat was issued to the well-known play-write and theatre-person Girish Karnad reportedly for supporting the celebration of the birth anniversary by the Karnataka government of Tipu Sultan, the 18th Century feudal ruler of Mysore. Hue and cry was raised against the government’s decision by the Hindu fringe and for supporting the celebration it gave Karnad a death-threat. They said he would meet the same fate as one Kalburgy, a Hindu rationalist, who was gunned down, as is now evident, by the Hindu extremists.

Ever since BJP came to power the Hindu Right became more aggressive and its representatives in the BJP also started talking in a manner that was out-and-out communal. The utterance of a few members of Parliament from BJP caused deep embarrassment to it. This had been happening during all the past eighteen months but what happened in recent months was more aggressive and violent. No wonder, the so-called liberals made a song and dance about it. Writers and authors, scientists, artists, film-makers, et al launched a campaign of “award-wapsi” (return of state awards) as a measure of protest to the government. International media was flooded with features by the country’s liberal (sometimes biased) journalists communicating to the wide world that India had become a highly intolerant society under Modi, stifling freedom of thought , speech and action and that the country’s age old pluralistic tradition had been ruptured. One recalls a highly motivated talk by an award-returnee, Ashok Vajpayi in Canada in which he talked of the growing intolerance in India and ran down the Hindu Religion.

The sentiments of disaffection and alienation seemed to have risen in a crescendo all of a sudden because of several unseemly incidents. While elimination of free-thinkers was something certainly unheard of, religious violence was nothing new to the country. And, then consumption of beef became an issue and a debate raged about it. The print and electronic media also fanned the flames. It appeared that the country was in turmoil and had become unsafe for minorities and those who did not subscribe to Hindutva. The apologists for the government claimed the Opposition in the Parliament and its sympathizers had planned and fabricated the issues to embarrass the BJP and its Government at the Centre. That may have been true but only partially, as their own Hindu loudmouthed hotheads played no mean role in provoking the people to mount concerted protests.

Those of us who were apolitical and had nothing to do with any of the political parties watched in dismay their dreams of a developed and rising India crumbling. Manmohan Singh’s was a decade lost to corruption and paralysis. They had voted for Modi as they felt that neither Manmohan Singh nor Sonia or Rahul Gandhi could ever take the country forward. It was only Modi, they felt, who could tear away the political or bureaucratic cobwebs to march ahead. He had no axes to grind; not only he was incorruptible, he also had a vision for the country. His decisive manner of functioning held out promises of development and progress.

  Thankfully for them, the “award-wapsis” and the debates on “religious intolerance” ceased suddenly soon after the Bihar polls where BJP got a sound thrashing. Seems like the liberals and the lefties were aiming at keeping BJP out of Bihar. And, numerous election rallies of Modi could not pull it out of the morass that the Hindu roughnecks had pushed it into.

 Modi had asked people for two terms in office for achieving his vision for the country. For that to happen he will have to live up to his words uttered in Antalya and be more proactive and deal with the Hindu hotheads with an iron hand. Or else, he will be done in by them again in 2019

*Photo:from the net.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bhopal Notes - 17 :: Relocation of Kerwa tigers


Looks like, the forest department is getting frustrated. It has been trying to cage the local tiger that has repeatedly been sighted close to outskirts of the town so that it could be tanslocated to a tiger reserve, but the tiger has proved to be elusive. Even some trained elephants have been commandeered from a neighbouring reserve but those have been of no avail. According to the latest report, they tried a bait to capture it but it was devoured by another tiger.

Obviously, if the department wants to make Bhopal jungles free of tigers it would now have to cage not one but two tigers. The question is whether the department has considered all aspects of the matter. One wonders whether it has looked into the reasons for the tigers to wander out of the Ratapani Sanctuary, i.e. whether the Sanctuary has more tigers than what it can host or whether the prey-base has shrunk forcing the tigers to look for greener pastures. I do not remember to have seen any report to this effect. However, in either case, translocation would not be a solution as after removal of these tigers a fresh crop from crowded Ratapani may come looking to mark their own territory in these jungles.

Because of the seriousness of the effort, though so far failed, of the forest department one wonders whether the intention of the government is to confine the straying tigers in Ratapani and colonise the forests near Kerwa and Kaliasot dams. Already, thanks to the mindless magnanimity of the government, some houses and educational institutions have come up on these forested lands. Apparently, it never thought of the larger issue of impact on the environment of sacrificing forests for progressive urbanization. For years there has been talk of saving forests to absorb the excessive amount of greenhouse gases pumped by us into the atmosphere. In fact, saving the tiger as a species is intimately linked to the efforts of saving forests. Its presence in the forests not only saves them, it also provides a kind of an umbrella for myriad other species to survive and enrich not only the immediate eco-system but the entire planet. In the days of a warming planet sacrificing forests for concrete jungles would seem to be a crime against humanity.

A well-known retired forester has come out in the defense of the Kerwa tigers. He has asserted sighting tigers near Bhopal is nothing unusual. They have been around and have been seen off and on. Sometimes because of excessive poaching in the jungles their numbers might have reached such a precarious low that they were perhaps not to be seen in nearby jungles. If they are being sighted and even reportedly multiplying it only is reflective of the good health of the forests. In any case, the other big cat, the leopard has always the present and had even beeen seen in the Museum of Man and in the Indian Institute of Forest Management complexes. That Bhopal had a lot of game in the area which is now New Bhopal was confirmed by an elderly Pathan timber merchant who once recounted to me how it used to teem with game. No wonder, the local aristocracy used to roam around the town in their customized jeeps with sacks of net hanging from the rear of the vehicles to carry their trophies.

The National Green Tribunal has already taken notice of the presence of the predators close to Bhopal and a case has since been filed in the MP High Court against the supposedly unauthorised efforts to cage the animals with a view to translocating them elsewhere. A very large number of local people seem to feel that the tigers should not be disturbed and that Ratapani sanctuary should be declared a tiger reserve, the government of India having already approved the proposal in principle. It seems, rehabilitation of tribals residing inside the Sanctuary is holding up the matter. It is, however, not understood if the tribals can live and thrive in the Sanctuary with tigers all around why they should not be allowed to continue to live there after conversion of the Sanctuary into a tiger reserve. After all despite their presence the tigers in the Sanctuary, from all accounts, have shown a healthy growth in their numbers.

Perhaps, the proper course of action would be to let the tigers be. Suitable action needs to be taken to ensure that they do not advance further and stray out into inhabited areas threatening human life. This seems to be the most practical and easy solution. Whatever is being attempted is, in Shakespearian language “Much ado about nothing.” 

*Photo from the internet

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Venice from Grand Canal

Not quite satiated by our brief visit to Vienna my wife and I were wondering whether there would be a repeat visit sometime in the future. That, however, seemed to be highly improbable. Living and working in India it was very difficult to manage a trip abroad, that too, to a European country. We left Vienna a little disgruntled and looked forward to the visit to Venice, where too we were to
Another view from Grand Canal
spend only a day for want of time and, of course, adequate funds.

Venice is generally known to be a very romantic city. At the very mention of it the mind conjures up a vision of a couple deeply in love sitting in a gondola immersed in themselves being serenaded by a gondolier in a regulation blue horizontally striped white frilly shirt on a dark pair of trousers topped by a broad-
One of the several bridges of Venice
brimmish white hand-woven sun hat and rowed down the Grand Canal. Gondolas are what probably are inherent to Venice and provide a reason to those in love to be there. On the day we were there they were there by the dozen lending substance to its romantic aura.

Known as Venezia in Italian, it has been given many attributional names. It has variously been described as “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Bridges”, a “Floating City” and so on. One enthusiast went on to describe it as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man”.  Whether it is all that or not, it is certainly different and has that stamp of age and beauty besides possessing that unmistakable architectural beauty and elegant artwork. The entire city, no wonder, has been declared
A church right on the Canal
a World Heritage Site.

Be that as it may, one, nevertheless, finds a lot of water around. Somebody, therefore, went to name it “city of water”. This, however, is explained by the fact that the city is situated on as many as 110-odd islands separated by canals and these have bridges built over them for connectivity. That suggests it is located in an archipelago in a shallow lagoon with islands having small
St. Mark's Basilica
populations, the most of the population, however, being located in the mainland regions known as Terraferma. Using canals as roads people move around on these – having no other means of transportation. Precisely because of that Venice is the largest car-free city in Europe.

Despite its scattered nature, the City State of Venice was once a force to reckon with in trade and commerce as also because of its maritime prowess. Time took its toll on all these and today it is better known as a touristy place with more than 50000 arriving every day.

San Marco or the St. Mark’s Square is the dominating feature of Venetian tourism. So that is where we proceeded as soon as we could. No gondola ride with a serenading gondolier for us; they are far too expensive and are used by the rich and romancing couples. We took a ferry, or more appropriately a water-bus, instead, and it took the same
Procuratie Vecche
route, that is, the Grand Canal (Canal Grande in Italian) which is the major water traffic corridor of the city. One end of the canal is at the St. Mark, the other leads to the St. Lucia Station, or more appropriately, Venezia Santa Lucia, which is where we got on to the water-bus. Santa Lucia station is more than a hundred years old for construction of which the Santa Lucia church was demolished. The station, however, appropriated the
Another view of Campanile
name of the church

The Grand Canal is about 4 Kms. long and 90 metres wide with a depth of about 15 ft. The buildings lining the banks are virtually palaces and date from 13th Century onwards. The residents spent a great deal of money to display their wealth by way of fashioning architectural styles and executing artwork on their walls – that is what after all was exposed to the general public. Some magnificent architecture of several styles – Venetian-Byzantine, Venetian-Gothic, Renaissance, Venetian-Baroque, etc. – can be seen along the Grand Canal.

We hit San Marco in about half an hour’s time. As we climbed out
At San Marco
of the water-bus and went up a few steps, the Piazza San Marco hove into view. It is a massive piazza, also known in English as St. Mark’s Square, and is the principal public square of Venice. There was a crowd of tourists as also of pigeons, but the Square seemed to be big enough to accommodate all.

 The St. Mark’s Square is probably the heart of Venice. It is the principal square of the town where all the social and cultural assemblies take place. Here is where all the action is and all the
A gondola and a water taxi
history written in its architectural riches. What dominates the Square is what is known as Campanile, a 100-odd metres tall tower, which is the bell-tower of St. Mark’s Basilica. Located close to it, the tower stands alone made basically of bricks. It has a loggia surrounding the belfry with five bells. The tower is capped by a pyramidal spire on top of which is a weather vane. Reportedly completed in 1514, the tower had to be rebuilt in the 20th Century as it collapsed in 1902.

Shopping near St. Lucia Station
The Basilica is close by, which is the church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice – the most famous of the churches of the city. The church is dedicated to St. Mark, an evangelist, whose remains were brought from Alexandria in Egypt in the 9th Century. The construction of the basilica commenced in the 11th Century and consecration took place a few years later in early 12th Century. Originally it was the church of the Doge or the city’s magistrate who used to be elected for life by the aristocracy. It has been the city’s cathedral since 1807.

A general view of Venice
It is an opulent church and was built in Italo-Byzantine style and displayed in its early years the wealth and power of the Republic of Venice. The interior is richly decorated in gold mosaic, and the exterior has Romanesque tall semi-circular arches. While the dazzling interior has largely retained its opulence, the exterior has undergone changes over time. Decorative
Another view of Venice
fixtures were attached to the building – the original walls were covered with marble cladding and carvings and statuettes were added. Richly worked in marble the frontage has a jumble of columns and elsewhere decorative foliage with humans. On top of the main portal are four horses with indeterminate classical provenance that are not, in fact, the originals. The originals, the loot the Republic of Venice from the Crusades, were grabbed by Napoleon during his Venetian occupation and taken to Paris but were returned soon after his defeat and are now in the Museum.

 On two sides of the Piazza are what are known as Procurators. The one on the right (as you come on to the Piazza from the Grand Canal) is the one known as Procuratie Vecchie – the old Procuratie which at one time housed offices and lodgings of the officials of St
Murano glass
. Mark, who were also high officials of the Republic of Venice. Built in the 16th Century, the ground floor is an arcade that is lined with shops and eateries with offices above. On the opposite side is the Procuratie Nuovo that was built in more or less the same style to accommodate offices and officials late in the 16th Century as their numbers increased and Procuratie Vecchi became cramped. Between1805 and 1814 Napoleon used to stay here whenever he would visit Venice; he had, after all, declared himself King of Italy.

Another specimen from Murano
Half a day is really not enough for the San Marco complex. Nonetheless, we had to tear ourselves away in the afternoon as we had to catch a train for Florence. We were back at St. Lucia well in time and had time enough to explore the area. There was great shopping at small shops from where my wife went bought two lovely Murano glass curios. Murano, a series of islands linked by bridges about a kilometer away, is known for its glass works as also for their beautiful products.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bhopal Notes - 16 :: Tiger at the town's doorstep

For the last few days the vernacular press was bristling with reports of tiger sightings close to Bhopal. Everyday there would be reports of sightings close to human habitation in Kerwa area or near the Kaliasot River. Despite a veritable prohibition on people visiting these areas, the intrepid, inquisitive and the curious could not be restrained. They would assemble in pretty large numbers and many photographs, though indifferently shot, appeared in the newspapers. The tigers also became a little bolder and they were increasingly found in inhabited areas. An elderly lady, a morning walker, had sort of a close brush with one of the tigers as she found it one recent morning uncomfortably close. Knowledgeable sources say there are at least as many as seven tigers in the Bhopal forests of Kerwa, Samardha, Kathotia and so on. No wonder, it has now been claimed that in the last 3 months there have been more tiger sightings in Bhopal than in the state’s half a dozen Tiger Parks.

Thankfully, one of the tigers was nabbed yesterday in the morning. It seems to have strayed into the complex of the state’s Agricultural Engineering Institute where its weight proved to be too much for asbestos-sheet roofing and it collapsed in a heap in an enclosure. Here it was tranquilised, caged and packed off to the Van Vihar National Park, but not before it had given the fright of their life to a few of the Institute workers. It has since been translocated to the Panna Tiger Reserve. The question that, however, arises is the tiger was nabbed more than 10 kilometres north of Kerwa on Berasia Road, that is at the other end of the town and surprisingly the Forest Department seems to have had no inkling that it had skirted the town and covered such a long distance. In doing so it must have passed through densely inhabited areas. A controversy has been kicked up in this regard by one of the retired foresters.

Before the capture that took place the other day, the National Green Tribunal of Bhopal had issued notices to the government and other connected authorities to indicate the measures take for protection of the tigers that were close to human habitation as also protection of humans from the predator. The mandate for the government is to protect both which appeared a trifle tricky. For the last few years there have been constant reports of tigers’ presence close to the city but nothing much seems to have been done. There are claims and counter claims. Some people say that tiger numbers have gone up in the neighbouring Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary and the fresh arrivals are looking for their own territories.. The other view is that the prey-base in Ratapani has collapsed and hence tigers are wandering out of the sanctuary looking for prey. They seem to have found easy prey in cattle near the Bhopal jungles and, therefore, two tigers are reported to have settled down here. The forest department is yet to clarify which of the two claims are close to the actual position on the ground. Apparently, they are yet to scientifically study the problem.

Experts say the Bhopal jungles are part of the Ratapani wildlife area where humans have mindlessly encroached and degraded the forests. The tigers seem to be in no mood to give up their ancestral territories and hence their permanent encampment in the area. Whatever is the truth, the government needs to ensure that no more human establishments are allowed in the area and let the tigers be – leave them alone.

Meanwhile, around the site of the caging of the tiger they have found pug marks of another tiger. Apparently there are more tigers around than what the forest department seems to be aware of.

Photo: from the internet

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bhopal Notes - 15 :: Smartening up a city

To convert Bhopal into a smart city it is essential to restore, upgrade and maintain its heritage, including its historical structures, the iconic Upper Lake, etc. Apart from these, efforts need to be simultaneously made to increase the revenues of the Municipal Corporation. So said the members of the Indian Administrative Service of the local state administration in a brain-storming session conducted by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation in order to elicit their views on the proposed upgrade of the town into a smart city. The Municipal Corporation is making a serious bid to have the city included in the list of 20 which will be taken up for conversion into smart cities and, hence, is in the process of eliciting opinions in this regard from every section of society. Even the ministers, especially the Home Minister, have expressed similar views. The Home Minister made a special mention of the need of efforts towards beautification and conservation of the Upper Lake

It was quite strange to read these pearls of wisdom put forth by the representatives of the government which consistently has made efforts to degrade and kill the Upper Lake and has not been receptive to the suggestions and recommendations of environmentalists, limnologists and several informal organizations like the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum for adoption of measures for conservation of the Lake. Not only did it largely render the Rs. 267 crore project supported by a Japanese Bank ineffective, it also has neither rejected or approved the draft plan for conservation of the Lake submitted more than a year ago by the Centre of Environment Planning & Technology – a reputed organization of Ahmedabad – which the government had engaged. The report is gathering dust in the Secretariat and the government neither seems to be bothered about the need for urgent steps of conservation of the water body nor about the seeming waste of public money in engaging the reputed organisation. It would be interesting to ascertain the amounts spent on conservation of the Lake without practically achieving any positive result.

Besides, the recent report of allotment of a few hundred acres of land for construction of a cricket stadium of international standards and some colleges and universities in the catchment area of the Lake proves that the government is unmindful of the impact of its actions on the Upper Lake and is prepared to sacrifice it for reasons best known to it. It cannot be anybody’s case that the government is unaware of the implications of its actions. After all, a ‘catchment is the lifeline of a water body’ degrading it would be perilous for the water body. Surely, the bureaucrats in its Department of Environment are aware of the sanctity of the catchments. And yet, constructions in the catchments have been consistently allowed and from Sposts Authority of  India outfits to Jagaran University and a few colleges,e Chirayu Hospital and Medical College in Phanda, all have come up in recent years breaking all the environmental norms.

The government got away with them because the National Green Tribunal was yet to be born. That is why the Lake could be promoted then in a massive way for “rest and recreation” by the State Tourism Development Corporation under the guidance and assistance of the current Home Minister who was then the Minister for Urban Development & Administration. He also espoused the amusement park, Sair Sapata, on the banks of the Lake which not only pollutes the waters of the Lake but also has driven away the vibrant bird life of Van Vihar. Only this morning a report in a national daily quoted a local bird-watcher that whereas earlier around 10000 wading birds used to congregate in the area their numbers now have shrunk to only 1500. It was not for nothing that the place was designated as an Important Bird Area by the Bird Life International and a Ramsar Site under the Convention of Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. The birds now avoid the Lake and overfly it, and justifiably so, given the noise and disturbance caused by human activities and its increasingly polluted waters, threatening the Wetland’s status as a Ramsar Site and an Important Bird Area.

It, therefore, does not seem to lie in the mouth of the various representatives of the government to talk about conservation of the Upper Lake. While the politicians in the government have largely went out only to milk it, the bureaucrats, supposedly more knowledgeable, have only bided their time showing no spine in standing up to their political masters to uphold the environmental norms in regard to cluttering up the Lake’s banks and its catchments.. That they were all there to safeguard the interest of the people has seemingly been lost on them. In the process, a millennium old asset created by a beneficent feudal to serve the people is being destroyed by democratically elected rulers – peoples’ interest being nowhere in their scheme of things.

Now they are talking of conservation of even the heritage structures. The city is littered with them but the government has done precious little to restore or save them. Except of the Gol Ghar where a museum has been established a year or so ago depicting the life and times of the Nawabi era after being restored, nothing has so far been done to preserve, maintain improve the Royal Ensemble in the centre of the city. In fact, Shaukat Mahal in the Ensemble, a magnificent specimen of amalgam of Indo-Islamic and European Post-Renaissance and Gothic styles of architecture was allowed to degrade because of bureaucratic processes. Despite the alarm sounded by the media and some conservationists well in time, an imposing part of its frontage, instead of being repaired and restored, was pulled down in a hurry by the local municipal corporation who apart from being inept are also ignorant and callous about preservation of heritage.

Regardless of what these politicians and bureaucrats say, if, by an odd chance, Bhopal happens to get included in the list of cities to be smartened up, only a little good will come the people’s way. Having so far not displayed any political will to improve the city’s civic services, they are all aiming at the big money that will accompany the inclusion, most of which will either be wasted or find its way into various pockets. This has happened before with the funds received under the Urban Renewal Mission as also those that were received for creation of the BRTS corridor. Massive funding accompanying these missions has left very little to show on the ground. One, therefore, apprehends that in the event of approval for the city’s upgrade, while it might continue to remain un-smart, the movers and shakers in the government and the municipality may become really “smart”, with pocketful of goodies.

Saturday, October 10, 2015



Another overnight journey from Munich and we were in Vienna. Here, too, we had booking in a pension which was somewhat away from the core of the city. But there was good connectivity by public transport. It was a comfortable hostelry run, again, by an elderly lady but much less forbidding than the one in Munich. The room rent again included continental breakfast which was nothing other than a croissant with a blob of butter, a boiled egg and coffee.

 Vienna is capital of the Republic of Austria and, as perhaps is well
Viennese street
known, it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I in 1918. The Empire was ruled by Habsburgs, an old and very influential family which had provided monarchs to various countries of Europe, so much so that when several countries of Europe went to war in 1914 the so called Allies and Central Powers had many distant cousins fighting against each other. The name Habsburg was taken
In fron of the statue of Maria Theresa
from the castle in Switzerland which the family used to own.

Apart from its political importance, the city is known by various names acquired by it because of its distinctive flavours. It is known as “City of Dreams” because it is the birthplace of the first psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud and “City of Music” because of its musical reputation given to it by musical legends Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is also known for its architectural wealth. From a medieval and baroque city, it changed into a city of architecturally rich ensembles in its historic core. The 19th Century Ringstrasse ringed by magnificent structures makes it an architectural paradise. Its Celtic and Roman roots gave it a headstart and has since brought it a long way to make it a city of architectural magnificence where
A beautiful painting in the Museum of Fine Arts
one finds medieval side by side baroque and Greek revivalist along with Secessionist.

We had two days and two nights here. The first thing we did was to hit the Hofburg complex – the palace that was built over centuries. Imposing and architecturally fascinating, numerous
A beautiful piece of scupture
architects added brilliance to the complex over centuries. It is a massive area where are located the various royal residences, the Imperial Chapel (Hofkapelle or Burgkapelle), the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), Museum of Fine Arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Austrian National Library (Hofbibliothek), the Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer), Austrian
In Burggarten
National Theatre (the Burgtheatre), the Spanish Riding School (Hofreitschule), the Imperial Horse Stables (Stallburg and Hofstallungen). Every bit of it is worth pouring over. The awesome collection of jewels and crowns in the Imperial Treasury has a spell-binding effect. It is simply not possible to cover everything during a brief visit, the scale of things being so massive.
We wandered around in the area taking in the
A sculpture from Museum of Fine Arts
splendor of the Habsburgs who added an enormous amount of substance to the Complex.

Eventually, we walked into the Museum of Fine Arts to take in a bit of art. The museum faces another museum that of Natural History with a similar fa├žade across Maria Theresa Platz. Maria Theresa was the only female ruler (1717 to 1780) of Habsburg family who had a long rule but was generally considered a bigoted ruler. That is, however, beside the point.  Both the museums are massive structures and architecturally similar – rectangular in shape topped by octagonal domes. These were opened in 1891 on the Ringstrasse mainly to enable the public to see the formidable collection of Habsburgs. We
Parliament building
saw many paintings of legendary Baroque painters like Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Raphael, Bruegel, Rembrandt, etc. These names we had come across long years ago while reading English fiction but had never had the occasion to see their works.

The Gloriette at Schonbrunn Palace
Coming out of the Museum we wandered around in the Ringstrasse where some magnificent structures had been erected in a planned manner during the late 19th Century. Walking around the Ring, as it is generally called, along Ring-Kai-Ring – a tram service that runs in opposite directions right around the Ring, we reached close to
A Schonbrunn exhibit
the inner city, gazing at the beautiful buildings. These were reportedly damaged during the World War II but have since been impeccably restored. The walk left one craving for more but we tore ourselves away we were running out of time.

The last day we had kept for a visit to Schonbrunn Palace, one of the most important architectural, cultural and historical monuments in the country. About 8 kilometres away, Schonbrunn used to be the Summer residence of the Habsburgs. Named after a spring - the name of the Palace means “beautiful spring”- it used to be the
recreational hunting ground of the royals. The Palace in its present form was built and remodelled by Maria Theresa in 1740s. The longest reigning Austrian emperor Franz Joseph was born here and he died here too, at the age of 86 during World War I. Habsburgs lost their empire, anyway, after the First World War. With the establishment of the Austrian Republic, the Palace has remained as
Schonbrunn Palace
a museum.

While the Palace, with around 1400 rooms is a very impressive sight, the Gloriette is more so. It was the last building that was constructed as a look-out point for the garden in front. It used to have a dining hall where the Habsburgs used to take their breakfast. Now there is a cafe functioning in it. The Palace has been kept in original condition. The baroque structure and gardens are tantalisingly beautiful. A tour through the authentically furnished residential and ceremonial rooms of the Imperial Family and the labyrinths of the
At Schonbrunn
gardens are an experience that hardly ever can be forgotten. The lavish furnishings, the furniture, the gold and silk drapes, the crockery – all were indicative of the extraordinarily opulent life style. The intricately decorated floor-to-ceiling walls are captivating.

As the sun was dipping down after a fairly long and tiring visit to Schonbrunn our time in Vienna was coming to an end. I felt we did not do justice to our visit as the place needed a longer stay to see and imbibe. Nonetheless we had to move on and headed for Sudbanhof, the city’s southern railway station that we had to go to take the train for Venice – another journey through the night.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Satpura Express meets its end

Railway trains have been a fascination for me since my childhood. Ever since we all used to board the narrow gauge train for the famous Gwalior Fair from the tiny little Elgin Club station in front of the College where my father used to teach I was hooked on trains and the rhythmic huffing and puffing of the steam locomotives. When I entered service of the government there used to be travels on train every few days, sometimes short and sometimes long. In course of time I covered virtually the entire country on trains. That is how I know the Satpura Express running between Jabalpur and Balaghat on the narrow gauge line which was discontinued from 1st October 2015. When I travelled on it, it used to run right up to Gondia to connect with the mainline between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata).

The train on narrow gauge of 2’6” was a curiosity for those who would visit Jabalpur. But for me these trains were not so. Having been born and brought up in Gwalior I had on several occasions taken rides in narrow gauge trains of the Gwalior State Railways. Recently it was reported that a heritage train running between Gwalior and Sabalgarh was going to be discontinued. Soon the news of the discontinuance of Jabalpur – Balaghat train also followed. It seems, all relics of the past are gradually being pushed into oblivion. For the Satpura Express, however, the reason of discontinuance due to gauge conversion seems to be sound. The line between Gondia and Balaghat has already been converted to broad gauge under the Railways’ “uni-gauge” scheme. The longer portion of Balaghat to Jabalpur had continued in the narrow gauge, presumably, for reasons of want of the necessary resources.

I had had occasions to travel to Balaghat in this train when I was
I Class cabin
posted at Jabalpur in 1966-67. The postal operations of Balaghat and Mandla districts along with those of Jabalpur used to be in my jurisdiction. Mandla was only 60 miles away and it could be covered in couple of hours or so by bus. In those days we did not have vehicles attached to the posts for moving around in our areas of operation. We had to fall back on public transport even if it was a rickety road transport service. Balaghat, however, was different; it was more distant than Mandla and a bus journey could be very tiring.

 In the I Class of the toy train it was comfortable barring that it would shake and sway from side to side all the time and on occasions even get pretty violent bumps. The tracks were old and were perhaps seldom attended to. I remember that once I almost was thrown on to the floor from the lower berth by the violent jerk that I got one night while asleep. Nonetheless, the train suited me as it would take me to Balaghat 180-odd kilometers away overnight in 10 hours. It was hauled by a steam locomotive which later, I understand, was replaced by a diesel locomotive that, apart from increasing the carrying capacity, shaved at least two hours from the travelling time.

Nainpur on the way, about 100 kilometres away, used to be an important station where the train would halt for a substantial length of time. It was a junction from where a line went to Mandla in the east and another to the west to Chhindwara which, in turn, was connected with Nagpur by another narrow gauge line. It was also connected with Parasia in the north. Nainpur claims to be the biggest narrow gauge junction in Asia. Once a focal point of the railways in the shadows of the Satpura Ranges it also had a divisional office for some time. Nainpur, however, may not lose its important position even after the plan of gauge conversion is implemented because of its strategic location.

The railways in Central India in the Satpura region are more than a hundred years old. Soon after establishment of the Bengal Nagpur Railway Company (BNR) in the late 19th Century surveys were carried out in the region which used to fall in the then Central Provinces. The gauge selected after engineering, traffic and other surveys was the 2’6” narrow gauge. In any case, from the very beginning the idea was to construct a low-cost railway line to serve the area which was home to numerous tribes including Gonds, Bhils and so on.

 The Britishers claimed that the objective behind laying the railway lines in the region was twofold: the first was to serve the needs of the local people and the second was to transport the agricultural and mineral resources out of the region. The first decade of the last century saw about a 1000 kilometres of railway lines laid in the region. My suspicion is that it was not as much for the people (who were tribal and hardly had any connection with the outside world) as for tapping the minerals and the timber of rich teak forests that the Britishers laid the narrow gauge lines. They also laid such a line from Gondia to Tumsar (now in Maharashtra) and Nagpur to Nagbhir and on to Chanda Fort. Chanda teak was famous till a few decades ago. Now, of course, they are scarce. Besides, Chanda town and the district (now Chandrapur) are sitting on higher grade coal.

 It must have been a herculean job to lay the lines not only because of the hilly terrain but also for the thick forests that the region had; part of it was the famed Mowgli Land, after all. I read somewhere that the railways in India while laying the lines for opening up the country had unwittingly fattened the Royal Bengal tigers, as many working on the tracks ended up as victims of stalking tigers. In the early part of 20th Century we had around 40 thousand tigers and the then Central Provinces was where there was a fair concentration of them as they had a huge, largely undisturbed forested territory to
wander around.

So, another chapter in the history of India’s narrow gauge railways has come to a close. Satpura Express had its moments of glory. It was considered the fastest narrow gauge train in Asia doing as much as more than 20 kilometres an hour covering 180-odd kilometres in seven hours. It served well the people for whom it was meant. And, now it has not-so-quietly clanged away from the scene becoming history leaving behind only pleasant memories.

All photos are from internet

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...