DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thoughts on Kala Ghoda Festival 20016

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Kala Ghoda Festival horse
The other day I happened to come across a write-up on the Kala Ghoda Art Festival in Mumbai. During my four years in Mumbai from 1984 to 1988 I had several occasions to pass by Kala Ghoda but do not remember to have come across any art festival in the area. Kala Ghoda is located in South Mumbai and it is in South Mumbai that I had my office in a heritage building, the massive General Post Office, virtually next door to the Victoria Terminus, now renamed as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.

Unable to recall any festival ever organized in the Kala Ghoda area I got curious and read through the piece. It seems, the festival has become a “red letter” event in Mumbai’s calendar and is celebrated with tremendous exuberance and gaiety. It is a nine-day long festival that commences on first Saturday of February and concludes on second Sunday of the month. Commencing in 1998 with the modest objective of preserving the heritage and art district of South Mumbai the Festival is now seemingly bursting at its seams.

Kala Ghoda literally means a black horse. Probably the place took the name from a statue of King Edward the VII which once used to dominate it but, having been removed, is now languishing in Byculla zoo. The statue had a horse that was black on which the
The original Kala Ghoda
figure of King Edward was mounted. Though there is no kala ghoda in the area, the name has stuck to the area due to usage over several pre-independence decades. The area has numerous art institutions, museums and educational institutions. Famous art galleries like Jehangir Art Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art, Prince of Wales Museum etc. are all located in this area. Close to Regal Cinema in the south, the dock area in the east, the Flora Fountain in the north and the Oval in the west the area is feast for heritage lovers. The historic Army & Navy building, the Watson Hotel and many such historic buildings can be found in Kala Ghoda.

No longer able to accommodate itself within the confines of the Kala Ghoda, the Festival has spread itself far and wide including, inter alia, auditorium of the National Gallery of Modern Art, lawns and auditorium of what was earlier known as the Prince of Wales

A portion of Horniman Circle
Museum and now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrhalaya, garden of David Sassoon Library, The Museum, Mumbai, the garden of the Horniman Circle, a picturesque circle earlier known as the Elphinston Circle bounded by grand and beautiful 19th Century buildings. It is not Mumbai alone that sends participants to the Festival, they come from all over the country, entry to the Festival being free and restricted only by the size of the venues. Sustained by corporate contributions, it is a cultural festival that encompasses virtually every kind of visual and performing arts - from dance, music, theatre, cinema as also literature, urban design, architecture, the works. The Festival has a heavy slant on environmental conservation. Side by side, various matters of children’s interests are also lavishly served. It has fostered other cultural festivals in different areas of Mumbai more or less during the same period of the year.

Sitting almost a thousand miles away ruminating over all that I am missing I kept wondering how all the good things happen when we, my wife and I, are removed from the scene. When we were there in Mumbai we used to move around quite a bit in our newly acquired Maruti 800, then a curiosity even in Mumbai. But Kala Ghoda was not there and nor was there any festival at Bandra or any street art there. Even the Bandra-Kurla Complex and the new development in Lower Parel with their modern sky-scraping architecture were yet to come up. Everything seems to have blossomed soon after we left.

This is not the only time it has happened. I spent virtually two years at Nagpur in early 1960s when the town was sarcastically called the biggest village in Asia. There was nothing in it to attract people. It was a sleepy town except when the winter session of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly would be held there. The place would liven up a bit infused with a little political life and cause the resultant political heat. Otherwise it was quiet, unassuming town of mostly lower middle class Maharashtrians in the backwaters of the country. Even the good old CP Club was quiet and demure like clubs in the district towns of central India.

 About forty years later when I went there again it had sprung up as a lively town with roads spruced up having a number of flyovers and business and industry flourishing. A number of starred hotels have come up and that ubiquitous phenomenon of modern life – the
The now-uncluttered Nagpur Railway Station
mall – is busy promoting consumerism. The quiet middle class area where we used to reside is now a bustling business centre and the arterial road cleaving the old and the newer developments in the town has a few kilometers long flyover that takes one without any hindrance to the airport from the heart of the town. The place is now considered among the more livable cities of the country.

Among such instances, another place that vastly improved after we moved out is Shillong. I did a regulation two-year term from 1988 to 1990 with headquarters located there looking after the postal operations in the entire North-East (minus Assam) comprising the well-known “Seven Sisters” – Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram. I had heard so much about Shillong and its club-life from my seniors but in the late 1980s the naturally well-endowed town appeared to be well past its prime. Purno Sangma was the chief minister and he not only was re-building the decrepit roads but was also trying to infuse some excitement and life into the town by organizing football tournaments. Khasis are generally good at football. Nonetheless, it remained quiet and pretty run-down. Like Nagpur, despite having been a capital of a much larger political entity at one time, it seemed to have collapsed into a stupor.

Ward's Lake, Shillong
But the reports that I get now of Shillong are those of a vibrant town. Trade and business are flourishing, always known for quality education, its colleges and schools are attracting more and more pupils, a large number of eateries have come up where young people provide live music and above all the Shillong Chamber Choir, a fantastic multi-genre choir, came together at the turn of the new Millennium and has since swept away a large number awards, also winning accolades in several countries. The place, however, still does not have any night life, mostly because of safety issues of both, tribal and non-tribal people. Nonetheless, it has become a great place for tourism with scenic beauty, salubrious climate and a lot of modernity imbibed by it over the last few years. All this happened after we had moved out.

Another instance is of Kolkata. When I happened to have a good look at it in mid 1990s during my posting as the head of the postal circle that included West Bengal, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, it was not much different from what it was a couple of decades earlier, only it had become more congested with more people and more dirty – one might even be tempted to call it filthy. Vehicles would generally move at snails place unless held up by slogan-shouting demonstrators. Even otherwise, the roads had been narrowed down by encroachers and the traffic would more often go haywire. It was torturous to travel even a couple of kilometers in that hot and humid weather cooped up in a vehicle. While street food stalls were galore there was hardly any decent eatery offering Bengal’s own delectable cuisine. Only one had just opened around 1993 named “Aaheli” at the Peerless Inn on Esplanade. But Nandan, the government sponsored film and cultural centre, was going strong as it is till this day.

A recent visit in December 2015 was an eye-opener. The city has a number of flyovers crisscrossing it. The flyover from the airport lands one up in the town in a jiffy. The one over the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass is profusely lit in multicoloured lights. A new secretariat building has come up across the Hoogly and the second (Hoogly) bridge that was earlier languishing in disuse is now
The second Hoogly Bridge
throbbing with life. Howrah itself has improved tremendously and negotiating its narrow roads is not much of a problem. The Howrah Railway Station presents a curiously uncluttered appearance - cleared of all messy encroachments. While numerous malls have come up, the great Bengali fare is on offer in various outlets from Ballygunge to Salt Lake. The New Town is yet to be completely occupied but it has given a new direction to the city for development. Its cleanliness has rubbed off on Kolkata (or is it the other way round?)  and even the lanes and by lanes are spotlessly clean. Nevertheless, what a change!

 So, that’s it. From all evidences our generation was born a little too early and so led what can be called a ‘deprived’ life. Urbanism today is much different from what we were witness to a few decades ago. Things are happening now in the lifescape at a rather fast clip – much beyond our imagination. Life is much richer and more exciting. Even Bhopal, earlier a quiet official town where we have withdrawn to for the home stretch, is now a happening place with some festival or the other every week, more so during springs and winters. And yet, unfortunately, due to age and its accompanying problems we have to keep away from most of them. The upshot seems to be that we were never destined enjoy the modern urban life. Nonetheless, it is a big consolation to see youngsters enjoying what we all missed in our prime time.

*Photos from internet

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mayor to build temple even as colony roads remain decrepit

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Alok Sharma
Shri Alok Sharma, Mayor of Bhopal, announced the other day that he would build a 20-crore temple of Dharti Mata (Mother Earth) on top of the Manuabhan hill. How suddenly the need for a temple of Dharti Mata arose is not quite clear. That there is already a temple on top of the hill is, of course, not quite a matter for consideration for him.

What one would like to point out to the Mayor is that worshipping the Mother Earth is not what she surely wants. What she wants is a little sensitive care for her. Mother Earth holds within her lap Nature which, in its narrow sense, is our physical world with all its essential elements that we use and have mostly fouled up by our profligate, uncaring use of them. She needs no worshipping accompanied by the whole ritualistic rigmarole of burning oil lamps with incense and loud recitation of mantras and tolling of bells but a little sympathetic nurturing. It  has within its all-embracing confines the air that we breathe, water that is elixir for our life,  the “good” earth” that provides habitat for not only humans but also for myriad other organisms. All those we have degraded; water and air have been polluted and the land – the very land on which we live and thrive – has been ravaged and largely despoiled. Now, therefore, worship is not what is required; what “dharti mata” needs is consideration for Her wellbeing and, strangely but truly, through only Her well being will we find our own wellbeing.

That, however, is another matter. Now that the Mayor has decided to please “Ddharti Mata” and has assured her of a temple dedicated to Her it seems to be right time for him to be reminded of the assurances that he had held out more than a year back for mere mortals like us. I remember in February 2015 he had visited our Ridge Road on the Idgah Hills and having seen its miserable condition he had promised to provide a shiny new surface, clean enough to be used like a brass or steel platter for dining. Similar promises he had doubtlessly made elsewhere too. A whole year has gone by but there is no sign of any move to build the roads. The year that has gone by has witnessed further deterioration of the Ridge Road and passing over its potholes and ditches even sitting in a car have become painful. The same would be true of numerous other residential areas in the town.

The Mayor has spent quite a bit of energy towards building a Smart City in Bhopal including “pan-city” (smart) upgrade. He seems to forget that while smart solutions for solving problems of citizens with the help of Information and Communication Technology is feasible but there are no smart solutions for problems of commuting for commuters other than building a nice, decent and even surfaced road. For numerous localities in Bhopal, including Ridge Road, roads in real sense are virtually non-existent. What they have are broken down, badly maintained roads more like the ones of pre-Industrial Revolution vintage.

Instead of honouring the assurance given to “Dharti Mata” the Mayor will do well to honour the assurances given to the people of the town. That will be more in fulfillment of the mandate that he has been given on his victory at the mayoral elections last year



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

DESTINATIONS :: PENCH TIGER RESERVE (2015)

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Mural depicting Mowgli at the entrance of Kipling's Court
On way to Kolkata from Nagpur we took in the Pench Tiger Reserve in December last. Made famous by Rudyard Kipling who used the jungles of Pench plumb in the heart of India and now in the two states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as the locale for his widely read “The Jungle Book”, the Pench Reserve draws nature lovers like a magnet. Though I was once posted at Nagpur in the late 1970s and did a two year tenure there it never occurred to us to visit these jungles only a hundred-odd kilometres away. Perhaps, eco-tourism was yet to take a firmer root forty years ago. Besides, there
The road we took for the forest
was hardly any disposable income available with us then for such luxuries. Salaries were very low and pleasure jaunts were mostly out of our reckoning.

There are, in fact, two tiger reserves by the same name - one that we were booked into and the other of Maharshtra. The same jungles have been (politically) divided into two separate entities for reasons that are certainly not conservational. This division is seldom observed by the wildlife of the divided forests. They go back and forth feely whenever they feel like or whenever man or nature forces them to do so.

Forests of Pench
A visit to a tiger reserve is of no consequence unless one undertakes a jeep or elephant-ride in the forests - a ride that goes by the name of "safari". I came across this word way back in the 1950s when the Nobel Prize-winning author Earnest Hemingway went to Africa on a hunt of animal heads as trophies and also produced books on the then not-so-well-known continent of Africa. I recall two books of his, viz. "The Green Hills of Africa" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" - the latter became immensely popular and was also made into an entertaining movie featuring iconic actors of the golden era of Hollywood – Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Susan
The owl we came across
Hayward. Though the "safari" word seems to have been derived from theUrdu/Hindi word "safar" meaning travel I came across several cautionary signs "Safiri Salama" (meaning, I presume, safe journey) on the road to Mombasa from Nairobi. Obviously, “safari” or “safari” is now well-entrenched in Swahili and English lexicon.

Safari for vast numbers of new-rich has only one objective - that of sighting tigers, more the better. If the
A waterhole
tiger proved to be elusive, as it was in our case, the whole trip would be considered a waste of time and money. For them tiger should be visible on demand. The forests, the majestic tall broad-leaved trees of teak, the beauty wrought by Nature by its exceptionally gifted hands do not seem to hold any meaning. They have heard only of tigers and they want it to present itself before them the moment they step into the midst of a clump of trees. They are not concerned about its role in our larger ecosystem or that of saving our pristine forests that are great carbon sinks
The busy spotted deer
helping in mitigation of warming of our planet.

So a large number of tourists who were roaming around the wilds of Pench that cold morning were disappointed as the tigers effected a “no-show”. I cannot hazard a guess how many jeeps had entered the core area of the forest after paying a hefty sum and braving that biting cold but I suppose there must have been at least two or three dozens. Out of all those dozens only one proved to be "lucky" as it came across the majestic beast who, it seems, was padding away on the jeep-track with utter disdain of those who followed him in their vehicle. We were the "unlucky" ones who could sight
A solitary sambhar
only a few spotted deer, large number of  rhesus monkeys, a few contemplating langoors, a barking deer, a brooding sambhar and an owl quietly  resting after its nightly exploits.

 Maybe we were unlucky, but I found the teak forests glorious, more so in the morning sun the slanting rays of which made them a trifle more resplendent. Then, of course, was the fantastic landscaping designed by none other than Nature herself, the play of sunshine on which made the scene so breathtaking yet somehow defied capture by our unsophisticated cameras.

I never knew that Suzuki made jeeps but the MP Tourism Corporation had just them for safaris. We were on a four-seater that was comfortable to sit but was
The curious one
necessarily open to the elements and the cold. Three hours in the cold in such an open Suzuki jeep on a roller-coaster ride over hills, dales and deep gullies made our aged lumbars painful and also made us ravenously hungry. We also felt a bit tired as we had to keep our eyes peeled to sight the slightest movement in the moving jungle panorama. There were only few quiet halts of expectations of the presence nearby of the king of the jungle that, unfortunately, proved to be in vain. There indeed were unusual movements on occasions - of monkeys sprinting and climbing the trees in a jiffy or spotted deer suddenly scrambling and making a dash away from something they appeared to fear - but we never knew what induced the movements. Could be a predator or its co-predator was on the prowl. Whatever the reason, these by themselves were genuine jungle activities we rarely come across in our urban surroundings and were immensely
Tiger footprints and stripes on Kipling Court's towel
enjoyable. 

Reports have since appeared of poaching of tigers in Pench. The Tiger Reserve has lost as many as four tigers in the last three months. Only one of them died a natural death, the rest of them were plain killings by humans. Perhaps, that is why tigers have become somewhat rare in MP’s part of Pench. Maybe, that is why they did not show up for us that day.


Tearing ourselves away from the beautiful jungles prompted by that feeling of hunger we trooped into Kipling's Court, the lodge we were booked into, where waiters were waiting for us with the most appetising fare of hot "poories" and "aloo ki sabzi", with omlettes as side dishes and “jalebies” for sweets. After a hearty breakfast
The Kipling Court cottages facing the jungle
egged on by a staff ever willing to feed the guests we retired to our very well-appointed rooms. That is what one must say about Kipling's Court. Its rooms are very comfortable - four each in double-storied cottages - situated in natural surroundings and its staff are outstanding and highly hospitable considering that they are serving in a public sector hostelry. The Madhya Pradesh Tourism ought to be proud of them. The motif of tiger is omnipresent in the rooms – wall-mountings, bed covers,
Products of the village put out to dry
towels and what have you.


The visit to Pench was rounded off with a visit to a village in the buffer zone known for its artifacts of clay made in the traditional way with a wheel powered by sheer muscles. Though located in a remote area the products churned out by its artisans find a ready market in Nagpur. Obviously, it is a well-off village as in front of virtually every house one found a motorbike parked. Clearly, the village has been lifted out of poverty.

*Photos are either by my wife, Bandana, or me

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bhopal Notes - 21 :: Unsmart moves for smart city

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Artist's impression of smart Bhubaneshwar
Bhopal figured last in the list of 20 cities picked up by the Central Government for upgrade as a smart city. The MP government had recommended the areas of Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar of Bhopal for building a smart city.  A very dependable newspaper reported that availability of land tipped the scale in its favour or otherwise it might not have figured in the list. Apparently, what was conveyed to the Centre was that these two localities have about 500 acres of land as required under the scheme for building the local smart city – a fact that has not been borne out by later developments.

The residents of these two areas protested soon after the decision of the Central Government was announced. It seems, the state government, on the recommendation of the Municipal Corporation, had conveyed to the Centre thinking that the low rise houses would be demolished and the vacated land would be made use of for building the smart city. It, unfortunately, saw only the land and not the houses in which people have been living for more than thirty years. Surprisingly, it never occurred to them that those who were already resident in their houses would need to be moved from their hearths and homes and provided alternative comparable  land/accommodation before the smart city could come up.

The protests are, naturally, gathering strength and some organizations have added their voices. The municipality’s counter is that largest number of people voted for Shivaji and Tulsi Nagar areas and hence that is what was recommended. No communication, apparently, was received by it against the proposal and now, since, the project has been approved it would be difficult to revise the proposal. If the municipality and the government take such a stiff stand it would be a human tragedy of pretty large scale. People of the areas may have voted in large numbers imagining benefits that would accrue to them from the smart city but they probably never imagined that it is they who would actually be pushed out of their houses to make way for it. They might have been asked to vote but were they ever told that in the event of selection of their localities they would have to vacate their houses and lands? Probably not. Had they been aware of this eventuality surely they would not have voted like they did.

Shattering their dreams, a population of a few thousand families – reported to be thirty-odd thousand – will have to be moved – but where? Nobody knows. So far nothing has been reported in the news papers about their rehabilitation and no piece of land seems to have been identified. Can a government send such a half-baked proposal to the Centre? I doubt it, but one can never tell. The proposal of building smart cities was rushed through because of the given deadline and numerous vital matters may not have been considered. The municipal corporation was most keen to get Bhopal selected by the Centre forgetting that its performance over the years has left an enormous lot to be desired and it just did not have the capability to run a smart city.

One can see a turmoil approaching as the resentment is building up. Both sides are keeping quiet but I am sure below the surface things surely are moving. There is, however, another very vital aspect which also could derail the project and that is regarding the city’s greenery. Reports have appeared of an estimated 30000 trees will have to be felled in the two localities to accommodate the smart city. These areas are perhaps one of the greenest ones in Bhopal and present a beautiful and soothing ambiance. To root out this greenery and uproot the residents of the area for what seems to be a mirage will be a double whammy for the people and their city.

Bhopal has always got the wrong end of the stick in so far protection of its tree cover is concerned. The Gammon’ CBD Project required felling more than a thousand trees. The undertaking given by Gammon India of planting as many trees in place of those which were eliminated from the site has not been honoured. Neither the municipality nor the government seems to have insisted on Gammon India to do the compensatory planting as promised.

Likewise, for the BRTS project again some 3000 to 5000 trees were felled. Some of them were massive, very old trees that provided roadside greenery and shady patches to all those who would walk on these roads as also rookeries for birds and other arboreal creatures. Now if one looks at the route one finds only harsh and stark metal of the road with nothing green in sight. No wonder the mercury around the New Market registers a temperature that is a degree or two more than in the rest of the city or even higher. Once the Gammon India project gets up-and-running as a full-fledged business district things are likely to become much worse.

Felling of 30,000 or more trees for the “smart city’ project will be a massive blow to the city’s equable micro-climate – or whatever is left of it. And this will be done, curiously, in these days of escalating global warming, the resultant climate change because of which is already upon us. But nothing better could be expected from the unconcerned officialdom of this state which neither is bothered about the environment nor about the people living in the city. If many large complexes are under construction on the out skirts of the town why the smart city couldn’t be accommodated likewise as a greenfield project? That would have caused minimum of adverse effect on the people of the city or its environment.

In fact, this is the basic mistake that the government and the municipality have made that of proposing what is essentially a “greenfield” project for location in an area which is already in use. They planned for conversion of Shivajinagar and Tulsinagar into a proverbial shiny new smart city with its modern infrastructure extensively using IT evacuating those who have developed deep roots in the area. They forgot that all this could be achieved where there are no constrains on availability of land or like the ones that have cropped up now.

A day or two earlier a report appeared about the planning that is being undertaken for smartening up the entire city. One does not know whether it was a deliberate leak to work as a sop for those who feel deprived. Actually speaking, it is exactly what is necessary. Instead of creating a new concrete jungle the smartening of the entire city should be attempted by retrofitting. The condition of the city is such that it needs to be lifted up from its boot straps. Without being divisive, this would prevent structural division of the city in two hierarchies - “Smart” and “Un-smart”, “modern” and “primitive” – and would satisfy the entire population of the city. What seems to be necessary is to go the way of Amsterdam where the city is being smartened up with a bottom-up approach. As many as 30-odd projects have commenced to ensure the city’s smart functioning. These include a “climate street” which aims to reduce the energy use of an entire shopping street with a new superfast fibreoptic network , installing smart metres to the electricity grid so that ships do not have to burn diesel in generators when berthed in the city’s port and suchlike.


Such innovative projects could be planned to make the entire city smart by retrofitting with use of special purpose vehicles. All areas of civic functions could be covered with the necessary inputs from experts for execution through special purpose vehicles for each project. Issues like introducing the concepts of energy efficiency, greening of public buildings, equitable water-supply to all, disposal of solid wastes and their conversion into energy and recycling of waste water, etc all could be handled and executed by special purpose vehicles. With judicious deadlines given to SPVs the city could get really smart in not too distant future.

*Photo from internet