DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Saturday, October 31, 2015

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

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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.

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Photo: from the internet

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bhopal Notes - 15 :: Smartening up a city

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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

DESTINATIONS :: VIENNA (1987)

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Hofburg
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

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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.


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All photos are from internet