DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Modi, Obama and Aiyer

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Watching the rare warmth and friendliness between Obama and Modi I was reminded of the abrasive remark made by Mani Shankar Aiyer, a member of the Congress Party, a former diplomat and a Cambridge alumnus to boot, in the august assembly of All India Congress Committee in March 2014. He had said that Modi would never become the prime minister of the country – at least not in this century – and went on to add that, instead, the Congress could make arrangements for him to serve tea to Congressmen whenever the occasion demanded. The snide remark was made as Modi used to sell tea in his childhood in his native town of Vad from the tea stall run by his father at the local railway station. Such undiplomatic conceit and pomposity from a former diplomat who happened to have served from a diplomatically sensitive position in Pakistan was not only unexpected, it also displayed acute lack of culture.

Be that as it may, Modi won the elections two months later from two constituencies and his Party won an overwhelming majority. Aiyer, however, suffered his second successive defeat from the same constituency from where he contested as many as six times since 1991. As far as Modi is concerned, Aiyer’s “chaiwala” remark made no mean contribution in his electoral victory – with his “chai par charcha” becoming a resounding success and took his campaign via the electronic media to the farthest nook and cranny of his party’s constituencies. On the other hand, Aiyer’s Congress lost so heavily that it plummeted to the third position in the Parliament with numbers that didn’t permit his party’s chief, Sonia Gandhi, to even become leader of the Opposition. What is more, since that victory in May 2014 Modi has routed the Congress in most of the states elections.

 All that apart, the same “chaiwala” has struck a fantastic rapport
with the US President who made a mention of their “chai par charcha” during his press briefing on 25th last. Modi’s bonhomie with Obama and other leaders such as Abe of Japan and Abbott of Australia has raised the image of the country internationally. Aiyer may try his best to run down the Obama visit by erroneously describing him as a “lame duck” President who, on the contrary, sealed the Nuclear Deal with Modi making it ready to be operationalised 6 years after it was signed – a decision a “lame duck” president could not have taken.

 Any person other than Aiyer would have felt ashamed after his various faux pas and kept quiet, but not Aiyer. He is made of sterner stuff !
  

Friday, January 23, 2015

Gas lamps of London

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The feature on lamplighters of London in the Times of India of last Sunday literally dug out from the deep recesses of my mind the memories of gas lamps and their lighters in my birthplace Gwalior in Central India. More than 60 years ago in the early 1940s Gwalior was a small town of about 80000 or so but it used to be the capital of the princely state carrying the same name. Its maharaja was the third richest of all the Indian maharajas after the Nizam of Hyderabad, and Maharaja of Mysore. Being the capital, it had
stately buildings, a beautiful palace that was built in the 19th Century on the pattern of the palace at Versailles and broad roads. While most of the roads were illuminated at night by electric incandescent bulbs many lanes, including ours, had gas lights to light them up.

Our house was on the junction of four rather broad lanes. The lane right in front was the main one which took off from the main road and led on to the junction and beyond to the innards with narrower lanes, alleys and pathways. Plumb next to a wall separating a huge unused property in front of our house there used to be a lamp which
would be manually lit in the evenings and put out in the morning.  It was a gas lamp and a man would trudge slowly down the lane in the gathering dusk carrying on his shoulder a short ladder that was just long or tall enough for him to be able to reach up to the lamp to light it. There were, if I remember, four such lamps down the length of the lane and he would go to them one by one to spark them. He would observe the same routine in the mornings but only to extinguish the flames by merely capping them for a few moments.

 This must have been very early in my life, maybe in the late 1930s or even in the early 1940s. Some evenings the man wouldn’t appear
at all and the lane would remain dark and forbidding. What I have come to appreciate now is that a small town in a principality in an obscure part of India had gas lamps even in lanes in some areas, if not all, of its capital and for which the administration had taken trouble to lay pipes below the ground to take gas to them. That the feudal administration of Gwalior had thought of providing such an amenity for the common people in those early years of 20th Century takes it a few notches higher in my estimation. Eventually, however, the gas lamps were replaced by electric lights but that was much later – around mid-1940s or, maybe, even later. I wonder whether other such princely states had gas lamps like we had. I know for sure, however, that Calcutta, the capital of British India for a long time, must have had gas-lit streets before they were replaced by electric lamps. The Strand Road along the River Hoogly in Calcutta, for one, continued to light up the boulevard for quite some time with gas lamps even after independence.

The feature on London spoke of how the city had been a pioneer in street lighting. The first ever public lighting with gas was installed in Pall Mall in 1807. To celebrate the birthday of King George III, Frederick Winsor, an engineer, lit the most spectacular of candles. To gasping crowds, he instantly illuminated a line of gas lamps, each one was fed with gas pipes made from the barrels of old musket guns and all Winsor had to do was apply a single spark to light up the whole street. The Mall was reported to be almost impassable with spectators until after midnight. The lighting of the Westminster Bridge followed in 1813. The first electric light made its appearance in 1878 on the Thames Embankment.
 
But the feature was not about electric street lights which today make London streets bright and glowing at night. It was about the gas lamps, about 1500 of which still light up London, including the sophisticated long avenue of Kensington Palace Gardens. These are among the last of the early 19th Century gas lamps that are lovingly taken care of and lit by five remaining lamplighters who, in fact, are engineers of British Gas. It is a labour of love for them. Iain Bell, a lamplighter, so dearly loves them that he runs his hands over the lampposts so tenderly as if he was examining an antiquated sculpture. His objects of ardour are, indeed, beautifully shaped posts with stylised glass lanterns that decorate the streets as very beautiful components of street furniture. Bell jokes that at the time of the Olympics the lamps in this part of town were the cleanest in London; the lighters kept finding excuses to clean the lamps on Horse Guards Parade, the venue for the (bikini-clad) beach volleyball matches. 'The lamps,' Bell says, 'were so clean you could eat your dinner off them.'

The surroundings of Buckingham Palace are lit up by gas lamps.
These were reinstalled on special lamps that have a crown on top and are listed. Maintained by a team of six lamplighters round the clock, the lamps are kept in a condition to light up by themselves at dusk. In daylight, each lamp burns with a tiny pilot light. At dusk, a timer fitted to each lamp moves a lever to release a stronger stream of gas which gives enough power to light up the mantles to give off that softer light as against the harsh light of the electric lamps

Having survived the electric lamplights and the Great War II, they are well into the 21st Century mostly because of the dedicated love and care of the lamplighters. Whereas the gas lamps of Gwalior have disappeared without a trace and the current generation may not even be aware that they once existed, the British sense of history will surely take London gas lamps down to the succeeding generations throwing their soft and subdued light on their evolution and history.

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Photos: From the Internet



Monday, January 19, 2015

WRECKING BHOPAL BRTS

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WRECKING BHOPAL BRTS

Bhopal BRTS corridor
The state government is reported to be considering a proposal of the Regional Transport Officer to allow school buses into the BRTS corridor on the plea that it is these buses which cause traffic jams – a feature in the city which has become virtually a regular affair.

Earlier, the BRTS in Indore was virtually reduced to a mixed traffic corridor as private cars were allowed into it. The matter had gone up to the local bench of the High Court which, too, gave its clearance. The inevitable result was reducing to nought of a well-conceived government plan to not only reduce the number of cars on the roads and thus make available to other commuters space for cycling or walking but also to reduce vehicular emissions. Two other advantages foreseen were, one, of providing the common man a faster and cheaper mode of motorised transport and, two, reduce consumption of polluting fuel oils bringing down their imports and helping in reducing the almost perpetual current account deficit.

By introducing four-wheelers into the corridor the local authorities at Indore killed the very concept which had been adopted the world over for promoting public transport. It was implemented with great success in Ahmedabad where the BRTS reportedly “wowed the world”. Not only the Asian countries contemplating introduction of the system made it to Ahmedabad to study its successful version, it also won the World Sustainable Transport Award in 2009 awarded by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policies, the organisation that spawned BRTS. New York was given the same award a year earlier and last year it was Buenos Aires, putting Ahmedabad in an illustrious league of cities.

If one looks at the whole question legally, there is indeed no bar on allowing vehicles other than BRTS buses into the earmarked corridor. Even the write-up of Devendra Tiwari, Additional CEO of Bhopal City Link that runs the BRTS admits that other buses could also be let into the corridor thus integrating the entire public transport system of the city. But the question is whether the objectives of the BRTS would be fulfilled if that were to be done. Wouldn’t the corridor be choked with buses, whether those of the city services or of schools, holding up the BRTS coaches thus defeating its very objective?, Besides idling of bus engines would increase the emissions. Perhaps it is too early to cry foul and tinker with the corridor. True, even after two years there are not enough buses in the system and hence the corridor does look empty. Perhaps, the company that runs the services is, ill-advisedly, extending the bus routes. One thought, saturating the corridor with adequate number of buses would not have provoked the kind of proposals that are under consideration. While the buses are being spread out thinly all over this expanding city, the corridor itself does give the impression of being empty and that the frequency of buses is not quite adequate making the system somewhat unpopular.

In many ways the corridor was not properly planned. It has taken almost five years in building and yet it is not ready till today. One wonders whether the detailed project report was adhered to and works on it started in good time. The route through the older part of the city is still not ready as its widening and removal of encroachments from it are still to be carried out. Besides, a vital flyover and an important railway over-bridge are yet to be completed. Then the feeder services with parking lots at important junctions are nowhere in sight. One doubts whether feeder services were really thought of at the initial stage and were ever integrated with the plan of running buses in the corridor.

Then, most importantly, proper traffic management was never enforced. It was a given that on creation of the corridor the mixed traffic lanes would have thinner slices of roads and the burgeoning vehicle population of two and four wheelers would choke up the passages unless properly managed. The planners knew that the local motorised commuters are an undisciplined and impatient lot, each trying to get ahead of the vehicle in front breaking all traffic rules. Management of traffic and disciplining the traffic is something which has not been paid attention to till today. Only the
A Bhopal traffic jam
other day there was a report that BRTS corridor was swamped by vehicles of politicians and their supporters who had gone to the collectorate to file nominations for the municipal elections. Politicians too are an undisciplined lot; they far too often have their SUVs parked in the corridor and the traffic police have no guts to haul them up. If they were to do so, probably, the Inspector General himself would be hauled up by the politicians in power. That is why the traffic police are very alert in so far as VIP movements are concerned but they are indifferent to management of critical areas that are prone to regular jams.

Hence, it would not be quite right to blame the BRT System. It was conceived for popularising public transport so that, inter alia, the pressure of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is eased up a bit in a bid to temper down warming of the earth’s atmosphere that is poised at a critical level threatening the very future of the planet. Precisely for that reason the advanced countries with better management of traffic, more disciplined commuters and more aware people have also opted for it. A report "Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America's Biggest Cities," said in 2013 that a study found reduced driving miles and rates of car commuting in America's most populous urbanized areas. The study also finds a greater use of public transit and biking in most cities. One of the most vital findings was that the proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle—either alone or in a carpool—declined in 99 out of 100 of America's most populous urbanized areas between 2000 and the 2007-2011 period averaged in U.S. Census data.
 If the Bhopal and Delhi BRTS have failed it is because both were not planned properly, both were not implemented properly and politicians did not have the will to intervene and set right matters as and when required. Particularly in Bhopal, the politicians are more prone to breach the discipline with its catastrophic cascading effects down to the common people. Besides, at the outset they had left it to an incompetent Municipal Corporation to build it that did not have adequate human resources either in numbers or in quality. It never occurred to the local government to take a leaf out of the book of Ahmedabad BRTS. Perhaps they just do not care.

If school or other city buses are allowed the use of the corridor, it would be the government and the municipal corporation that will have to be held responsible for wrecking the System after having spent enormous amounts of tax-payers’ money and causing inconvenience to the entire population of the city for the last 5 years.

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photos from the Internet


   

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Hindu hotheads threaten Modi's development agenda

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RSS-sponsored conversion in progress
­­­­­­­­­­­­­The hold of religion on people seems to be strengthening every passing day. The newspapers run regular features relating to religious activities that, one can sometimes foretell, might cause trouble and conflicts. Some narratives are about the conflict situations that have already occurred and some are those that could well end up in tragedy.

With the installation of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government at the Centre the Hindu Right Wing organisations seem to have developed a lot of muscle – or that is what they appear to think. Their recent activities and utterances of some of their hotheads inject some amount of foreboding into the environment creating a lot of unease among the minority communities as also among such of the Hindus who are not of fundamentalist orientation. While the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right wing Hindu nationalist non-governmental organisation with the aim of consolidating the Hindu society, has started opening and flapping its wings, there are other numerous fringe organisations that take inspiration from the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu cultural organisation, are more fundamentalist in nature and have also started flexing their muscles. The latter seek to protect the traditional Hindu mores and, in the process, indulge in moral policing – sometimes becoming violent in doing so.

These fundamentalists are not much different from those of other religions, particularly of Islamic faith. Of late, they have been running campaigns of re-conversion of Hindus and even Sikhs who happened to have been converted earlier and taken into the Christian and/or Islamic folds. Branding the campaign as “ghar wapasi” or home-coming, i.e. return to the Hindu fold the various regional units fanned out in the country looking for prospective candidates for reconversion. They claim to have converted thousands of Christians and Muslims in various parts of the country. The conversions and “ghar wapasi” became hot news and provoked disorder in the Indian Parliament rendering the last few sessions in the Upper House infructuous.

 Worse, the Hindu fringe elements have been travelling to places that are communally sensitive where communities are already polarised and the chances of conflicts were bright with the persisting tensions. Some converts who were formerly dalits (untouchables) were assembled and were claimed to have been “reconverted” as Hindus at some places. There have been charges flying around that they were conned into the claimed conversions and were offered illegal inducements.  Many Hindu religious organisations disowned such conversions as the obligatory procedures were not observed. Besides, the question of putting them in a caste slot was also not possible as Hinduism has castes as an essential feature of its social set up. Besides, an institutional weakness, or strength whatever one may call it, is that none can really be converted as a Hindu. He or she has to be a born Hindu. The Supreme Court of India has pronounced a judgement to this effect way back in 1977. The ritualised (re)conversions would, therefore, seem to be of hardly any consequence.

All this apart, fishing for trouble the fringe elements of Hindu organisations pick on issues that could cause communal discordance. One such was about a recent Bollywood film “PK” which, according to them, had insulted Hindus and their gods and god men who in India have somehow come to abound. Their shenanigans have been exposed by some of their one-time gullible faithful. If not more, at least two of the very popular god men are now in jail for conning their followers and for rape of their female followers besides being charged for other criminal offences. It is the poorer and less aware sections of the population that fall prey to the machinations of the so-called god men who are nothing but confidence tricksters. After having viewed the film, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous province of India, exempted it of all taxes in order to enable more people to watch it and presumably get educated. The central government has also declared that, unlike previous occasions, the film would not be subjected to a review by India’s films Censor Board. Even the chairperson of the Censor Board, Leela Samson, emphatically asserted that “PK”’s certification would not be reviewed. And, now a high court has pronounced that there is nothing in the film warranting its review or re-consideration. Nonetheless, the unHindu-like demonstrations by Hindu groups, sometimes violent, had already done damage to various cinema halls as they went rampaging through them breaking furniture, kicking and spitting on the film’s posters with photographs of its hero, Amir Khan, a highly respected film artist of the country.

The governments earlier yielded to such unreasonable demands and the agitating fundamentalists got away with whatever they wanted. Salman Rushdie, An Indian Muslim litterateur settled in England,  was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012 as the Islamic fundamentalist groups asked for banning his entry into the country because of his book The Satanic Verses published years ago which they thought insulted their Prophet. Likewise, Tasleema Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author of repute, was chased out of her own country for her book “Lajja” (shame) written on the anti-Hindu riots soon after demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in India in 1992 and settled down in Kolkata only to be blatantly chastised and threatened and was chased out of the city again by Islamic fundamentalists for her mere plain and forthright utterances. Both the state and the central governments proved to be so weak that they succumbed to the unreasonable demands of the Indian Islamic fundamentalists and refused sanctioning extension of visa to her. Likewise, MF Hussain, an eminent Indian artist, spent last years of his life abroad as Hindu fundamentalists were up in arms against him for depicting Hindu goddesses in the nude - a way of depiction they did not like. There have been umpteen instances where Hindu and Muslim right wingers have forced the government to take steps to prohibit art and literature on frivolous grounds.

The recent activities of the Hindu hotheads were exploited by the Opposition in the Upper House of the Parliament where the current government lacks majority. The last few days of the winter session were disrupted because of the disorder created by the fragmented Opposition which managed to unite against the government. No work could be performed and many of the bills that were slated for introduction and discussion could not be dealt with. The BJP government had come to power with a mandate of development and had shelved its controversial issues that it had been pushing for long years. Those mandate-based plans of the six-month old Modi government were seen to be fizzling out. As was generally expected Prime Minister Modi expressed his displeasure at ‘re-conversions’ and rabid Hindu utterances and activities of members of his own Party and of several Hindu organisations. Eventually, the RSS let it be known that needless and avoidable controversial speeches or actions should be avoided by the right wing organisations. Even the “ghar wapasi” had to be put on hold by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Looking at all these confrontations over religious affiliations of people one wonders as to why has the world been reduced to a battleground over them. Religion, faith or belief is a very personal matter that evolves in an individual over a period of time according to his/her upbringing, education and exposure to the world around him. Each has a right to have his own faith and belief and practice in any which way he/she likes. Each, likewise, has a right to associate with any faith or religious group and interference in this matter by others ought to be unwarranted, even unwelcome. In today’s fractious world where there are numerous issues that could light the fuse what seems to be necessary is to cultivate humanistic traits among people and not religious bigotry. Religious leaders would do the world a great service if they converted people in their fold as genuine ‘humans’ – with all the positive human attributes.

Photo: from the Internet