Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bhopal Notes - 23 :: "Smart City" Bhopal


Link Road No.1, Bhopal
The other day, while moving towards the Tin Shed area I happened to notice a dense green cover adjoining the property being developed by Gammon India Ltd. This area has a pretty large number of government houses built soon after Bhopal was made the capital of the new state of Madhya Pradesh. As happens in our villages, the farming communities plant trees – mostly big and shady ones – next to their homestead to get some shade to block the scorching sun. Likewise as Bhopal is known for its strong sun in summer as also during the second summer around the month of October, every household, apparently, had/has planted such trees. In the surrounding bright, hot and blinding sun it appeared an oasis of coolth. Whatever trees that were there before the colony came up must have been axed to build the low-rise sprawling complex of government quarters. The spread of green too, therefore, is extensive. Most of the trees that have a large canopy should be around half a century old. And take it from me, all this greenery was not because of the initiatives of the government; it was largely a private and individual effort which made the colony green. Every succeeding generation of occupants enjoyed the fruits of what their predecessors had planted and added to the greenery if the need for that was felt.

Passing by I recalled that a similar green oasis used to be where the Gammons are building the Central Business District. That area too had a sprawling low-rise colony that was known as South TT Nagar. It also had massive trees which also should have been of the same age as the ones I saw the other day. The colony was wiped out and the trees were not only cut down, they were also killed by being administered some kind of chemicals. Some of us from the Bhopal Citizens Forum along with others who were equally concerned had even protested at the trees being mercilessly felled. But the stakes for the politicians were reportedly very high and none paid any attention to what the affected people had to say. Their protests were too weak. Gammon India had assured that it would plant as many trees as it had felled. Not one seems to have been planted so far. Curiously, none is keen to pull up the private corporate house for its failure. It seems to be above the law. The entire area of the Apex Bank Square looks stark and devoid of any greenery. No wonder, the temperature measuring digital contraption located close to Apex Bank Square registers the ambient temperature always ai least 10 Celsius higher than what one finds elsewhere on the Link Rood No 1.

A similar fate is going to overwhelm one of the greenest areas of the city when Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar are converted into a “Smart City”. The government servants who are located there have already been told to vacate their respective houses to enable their demolition.  People are restive and are anxious as uprooting themselves from their hearths and homes where they have spent decades is always heart-wrenching. Besides suitable houses on rent are not only scarce, they are also expensive with rents touching the skies. The government has held out promises that they would be provided government houses or would be located in rented accommodation with rents being paid by the newly created “Smart City” executive body. But there is always a huge gap between what government promises and what it does. The situation seems to be still in doldrums and is slowly evolving. The government seems to be retreating from the deadline of 30th June for vacation of houses. But the affected people continue to suffer from the pangs of uncertainties.

But that is not what I wanted to put across really. What I wanted to emphasise was the loss of greenery in that greenest of green areas of Bhopal. Although the authorities have been claiming that they will undertake minimal tree-felling, but I for one cannot take them on their word. The governmental or public agencies are merciless in tree-felling and very, very tardy in tree-planting. There is no one in the current administration who could emulate Late Mr. SN Mehta Chairman of MP electricity Board in the 1960s who built a township in Korba felling minimum number of trees keeping the majestic teak trees standing even the compounds of bungalows.


We are in the midst of one of the worst droughts ever in which, according to the latest reports, as many as 50% of the country’s people are seriously affected. Marathwada is, of course, in the vortex of it all. When climate change is giving unmistakable signals and droughts are staring us in our face it would be highly insensitive of the government to destroy the greenery of Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar. The need of the hour would seem to be to take care not to fell even one tree but to plant more and more trees wherever possible and try and calm the runaway climate that seems to have broken all bounds. Smart cities can happen elsewhere where no sacrifice would need to be made in the shape of greenery. The city already has witnessed sacrifice of large number of trees for the Narmada Water and BRTS projects without any perceptible benefits to the people. Bhopal Citizens’ Forum has suggested the Ban Ganga area where hardly any tree would need to be felled and a smart city erected there would also help in rehabilitation of jhuggi dwellers. If the value lying locked up in government quarters need to be unlocked, Ban Ganga area would eminently fit the bill as a huge area is also being unproductively used

The government should not stand on prestige and stand firm by their decision howsoever flawed and manipulated it might be. It must think of the people and the impact of their actions on them. The proposed smart city is nothing but an invitation to drought and consequential depletion of the city’s underground water reserves. One expects the government to take steps to meet the serious threat posed by climate change. It is not an imagined threat any longer; it is for real. Today it has severely hit Marathwada tomorrow it could hit us in the heart of India. Instead of destroying the greenery and creating a heat-radiating glass and concrete jungle the government needs to think of facing the calamity looming in front. If not for the sake of the Planet Earth, at least for the sake of people of Bhopal the government needs to reconsider their decision to bring up a smart city in the way it has decided to do.

*Photo from internet

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Temple entry" of women -- and "dalits"

Trupti Desai of Bhumata Brigade was beaten up the other day simply for entering the sanctum of Mahalaxmi Temple at Kolhapur in Maharashtra in a dress that is generally used by women in Punjab. Once used only by the Punjabis, the dress is now common all over India, including remote places of the North-East and South India, presumably because it offers ease in carrying out regular activities and daily chores inside the house or outside. The sari seems to hamper women in that and is also, apparently, cumbersome. The Punjabi outfit is no less Indian than sari and yet she was assaulted in a display of the extreme orthodoxy of the locals. But, that does not seem to be the actual reason for her being roughed up. The staunch Hindus of Maharashtra have been against entry of women in the sanctums of their highly venerated places of worship. Ms. Desai has been spearheading the women’s movement against this discrimination. On the basis of a judgment of Mumbai High Court, where a case had been filed in this regard, she led women into the temple of Shani Shingnapur in Ahmednagar district after the Court delivered a verdict in favour of the women. The faithful, true and steadfast Hindus did not like it one bit and had developed acute antipathy for her.

Orthodoxy has never had any rationale and even if it had any it wouldn’t adapt to the changing environment. The kind of rigidity displayed by the devout Hindus in Maharashtra was utterly reprehensible, particularly, at Kolhapur where they indulged in violence and that too against a woman. The court had already ordered that the discrimination was not legally sustainable. The Shingnapur Shani temple authorities fended off the attempts by the Bhumata Brigade for a couple of days after the court ordered in favour of the petitioners but later women entered and worshipped the deity in the sanctum only under police protection. Those were a few days of tension which may continue for some time as the staunch Hindus are not likely to give in so easily. One expects civil disturbances to occur whenever women attempt to enter the sanctums.

One might mention that another instance of this kind of discrimination is being fought out in the Supreme Court of India. A case is being heard of entry in temples of women down in the South. The famous Ayappa temple of Sabarimala in Kerala has prohibited entry of women of the ages between 10 and 55. Hundreds of millions of people visit the temple trudging for miles through difficult terrain of hills, rivers and valleys of dense forests but menstruating women cannot join the pilgrimage. The reason handed out is that Lord Ayappa is a celibate (Brahmachari) and hence women are barred – an absurd argument if ever there was one. The Apex Court has decided to give the matter extensive and detailed hearing and has asked uncomfortable questions embarrassing the lawyers defending the indefensible practice. The matter, however, is yet to reach finality at the Court. What is, perhaps, ironical is that these very men wouldn’t flinch from worshipping a goddess. For them, perhaps, goddesses do not menstruate.

In the meantime, the Hindu religious head of a monastery (math), Swami Swaropanand Swaraswati of Sharda Peeth, Dwarka in Gujarat, waded into the controversy. He gave an avoidable statement and said that women should not worship Shani (Saturn) as it is a cruel planet and that women will be raped in increasing numbers if they did so. A greater nonsense perhaps was never uttered by a Hindu high priest whose position as Shankaracharya is traceable back to Adi Sankara of 9th Century AD, the great reformer of Hinduism. Of late he seems to have appropriated the exclusive right to articulate views that at best are idiotic. He gave another statement in which he viewed the drought in Marathwada region of Maharashtra in another context. He said that Marathwada was undergoing an acute spell of water scarcity because people there have been worshipping Sai Baba of Shirdi – a deemed god who, according to him, is unworthy of being worshipped. He has thus made himself a subject of ridicule for millions of Hindus who have unshakeable faith in Sai Baba.

Speaking of women’s movement of “temple entry” one is reminded of another such movement more than a hundred years ago. This movement was one for “temple entry” for Dalits, the erstwhile untouchables. India has had the scourge of untouchability since times immemorial and as a consequence the Dalits, the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, were never considered equal to higher castes. They were not only suppressed, shunned and humiliated, they were also prevented from making use of various common facilities, for instance, the roads leading to temples or the very essential facility of a common well. These practices still continue in several parts of the country in the north and south even sixty years after independence and promulgation of the Constitution that guarantees absolute equality to each and every citizen regardless of caste and creed.

If the Dalits were prevented from making use of facilities that were vital for sustaining their lives, the question of their being allowed into the Hindu temples would naturally not arise. A simmering discontent was, therefore, pervasive all over, particularly in the southern parts of the country where orthodoxy was and still is at its worst. There it is a litany of agitations, riots and largely unsuccessful litigations in the courts since the 19th Century. However, the “temple entry” movement gathered strength in the early years of the 20th Century. Even Mahatma Gandhi lent his moral influence to the movement which, though, had little effect on a bull-headed Hindu orthodoxy.

 Eventually, the erstwhile state of Travancore (Thiruvanantpuram, earlier Trivandrum of Kerala) became the epicenter of the movement, though before that the movement was active elsewhere in the region. Despite the uninterrupted agitation for almost a decade it was only in 1936 that the Maharaja of Travancore signed the historic Proclamation of Temple Entry for Dalits, thus in one fell swoop doing away with the age old injustice meted out to them. This happened more than 80 years ago but even now one hears of the discriminations against Dalits in the South where they not only are harassed in their day-to-day lives, their women are raped with impunity and they are hacked to death if they ever displayed  the audacity to marry a member of the upper caste.

Divisions are inherent in the Hindu social and religious fabric. It has been like this for ages and the abominations in the system have developed deep roots. It will take years, decades, even centuries to get a level playing field for everyone in this society. Women who have won the right to worship in the inner sanctum of temples have to face up to the Hindu extreme Righ – a fringe that is a tough nut to crack. It might take some more years before they are able to visit temples without any fear or apprehensions. Shaking off their complacency, they have to be prepared for a few more fights that seem to be in offing for them.

*photo from internet

Monday, April 11, 2016

Destinations :: Nice & Cannes (1987)

A street in Nice

From Rome we had to get back to Geneva. The train was to take us through what is popularly known as the Riviera. In Europe coastlines are all called Riviera of which three are very famous – the Spanish, Italian and the French, the last, in fact, is the most famous. The overnight train took us past some exotic places of which we had heard so much. Genoa was one where my late brother had docked in 1952 on his way to the University in Frankfurt am Main, then in American Zone of a divided post-War Germany. Another was Portofino a well known scenic get-away and a well-known fishing village and has figured in many English love lyrics. We were woken up close to San Remo for customs check. Till then Schengen visa
Wife Bandana on the Promende des Anglais, Nice
system had not arrived. The European Union had only five countries each having its visa control system and currency. The Euro was still far away.

 Nice has been the playground of the rich and famous for more than a hundred and fifty years. Ever since the Riviera was connected by railways the European monarchs used to descend down there with their huge entourage for the summers. The English were more fond of the Riviera because of the 300 days’ sunshine on the Mediterranean Coast. They would escape from their dark,
Vacationers on the beach at Nice
brooding, murky weather to take in the bright and sunny weather. From the British Royalty to the English poets like Shelly and Byron, all used to haunt the sunny French coast. Later, after the World War II American millionaires, Hollywood actors and actresses would hang around the Riviera, especially in the tiny principality of Monaco to lead that high life where casinos were integral to the evening’s schedule. Monaco’s then reigning monarch, Prince Rainier, even married the popular and famous Hollywood actress Grace Kelly.

Of course, we were not going to be in the Riviera for all that. It happened to be on our way and we had to change trains at Nice for Geneva. That’s how we took half a day at Nice and kept another half
Seaside at Nice
for Cannes before leaving for up north. Certainly not doing justice to it as Nice is supposed to be the fifth largest city of France and second largest on the Mediterranean coast after Marseilles where tourism booms. Located on what is known as Cote d’ Azur on the South-East coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea, it has a harbor too where fishing was the main activity besides providing a linkage to the island of Corsica. When we went there was no TGV (Trans Grand Vitesse), the superfast train connecting it with Paris. The TGV has since spread out to most of the European towns.

The beach at Cannes
The Mediterranean climate is the strongest point of Nice which attracted Europeans from the north, mostly English who came in hordes to take in the sun and the mild weather. The influence of the English was so much that the sea-side promenade is known as La Promenade des Anglais. After getting off the train we walked down to the Promenade. Nice has expanded laterally to accommodate its population of a million. From the railway station which is on higher ground the distance to the seaside wouldn’t be more than a kilometer. Having heard and read so much I was quite disappointed by the beach. It was not sandy as you find beaches elsewhere; here it was generally small pebbles which made the coast and men and women were relaxing in the sun on what must have been uncomfortable to sit or to lie on.

A couple of hours was what we had to trudge back to the railway station to reach which we had to negotiate a gentle climb. For want of time we gave a miss to the statue of Apollo and headed for the station. Only half an hour away we reached Cannes in good time. Cannes, pronounced Kaan, though kind of a sister city to Nice, it is more famous for two reasons. One is the annual film festivals that are redolent of glamour and fashion; the other is its association with the stinking rich and high-flying playboys. The city’s riches are
On a Cannes street ne4ar Palais des Festivals
exhibited by its marina-full of high-end yachts, Jaguars and Porches on its roads, luxury hotels and haute couture, i.e. high fashion. For us, however, it was more a walk down the city’s promenade. We walked up to the end of it to come up agains Palace of Festivals that was shut. Later, we walked around on a street with a difficult-to-pronounce French name which has the hand imprints of 40-odd celebrities on the pavement – including that of our own Shaibana Azmi. I don’t remember why I didn’t take a shot of the imprints. Perhaps I had run out of the raw film.

It was afternoon and the sun was heading down towards the horizon bringing out the best in the Mediterranean. It was bluest of blues, truly azure. Taking in the beautiful Blue Mediterranean we goaded our tired legs towards the railway station. We had to get back to Nice to catch the train for Geneva.       


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Ishrat Jehan - a terrorist or a college girl?

David Coleman Hedley, an American of Pakistani origin undergoing a prison sentence of 35 years in America has again fouled up the political atmosphere in India by his depositions via video-conferencing in the 26/11 case in which he has become approver. He was the person who recceed and set up the 26/11 attack in Mumbai on behalf of the terrorist outfit Lashkar e Taiyyeba (LeT) In his latest and last deposition before Judge GA Sanap on 26th March 2016 he again confirmed what he had said in his earlier testimonies that Ishrat Jehan was a LeT operative and that she was involved in a failed terrorist operation. His earlier testimony in this respect made before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 2010 was apparently glossed over and was not paid much attention to. But this time, in his earlier depositions in February 2016 the prosecutor had made him commit that Ishrat was a LeT operative.

Hitherto, Ishrat Jehan was considered an innocent college-going girl who was gunned down by Gujarat Police for no rhyme or reason. Her companions may have been of disrepute but she was white as a lily. What if two among the four killed were Pakistani LeT operatives who were on a mission to assassinate Gujarat chief minister. And what if, though unmarried, she passed herself off as married to Javed Sheikh, one of the companions, during her travels in the Indian up-country. But there is a question that begs the answer what was Ishrat, a teenaged college girl, doing with two Pakistani terrorists and an Indian, converted to Islam, of dubious reputation? Reports have come up that numerous vital links to the two Pakistanis were never questioned by the CBI. On a cue, possibly from the government of the day they confined themselves to the allegations of illegal killing of the four to get at the then Gujarat Chief minister who was none other than Narendra Modi. Purportedly, supporting the CBI even the then Home Minister P Chidambaram had said “no one suggested on intelligence inputs you should kill someone”. Plying the secularist angle, the hint was that the villain was Narendra Modi who got four more Muslims killed on mere Intelligence Bureau (IB) inputs.

Politics is a strange game. The adversaries in it hate each other so intensely that a protagonist would not bat an eyelid to grievously injure the enemy come hell or high water. Something of this kind happened between the Indian National Congress, earlier running the Central Government and Narendra Modi, the then chief minister in Gujarat. To say that the Congress hates Modi from its inner most cores would be making an understatement. Its pathological dislike for him increased manifold since he routed it in the 2014 General Elections to come to power on his own steam after having been declared his party’s prime ministerial candidate – a significant step yet unusual in a parliamentary democracy. Then, of course, there was that bit of Modi getting rousing receptions in world capitals whether in Europe, America, Australia or Asia. Congress’s hatred for Modi and his saffron outfit has since known no bound.

That is the background for this story that broke out recently to the embarrassment and acute discomfiture of the Congress. Though dead, it is Ishrat Jehan who is responsible for it. Ishrat, apparently a pert young girl, was a resident of Mumbra, a middle class suburb of Mumbai. She used to be a college girl, all of 19 years when she was gunned down in Gujarat in 2004 with three other male companions. The official version was that they were all terrorists (presumably, including suicide bombers) and on the basis of inputs of the IB they were eliminated in an encounter. They were on a mission to kill Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat and the IB was tracking them all along. Much later, in June 2013, the Intelligence Chief told the offices of Prime Minister and Home Minister of India in the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that the IB had sufficient evidence to prove that Ishrat was part of a LeT module that planned to assassinate Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the former Dy. Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani.

The case became complicated because of the intervention of Ishrat’s family, human rights groups and the ‘secularists’. Though a charge sheet was filed against the police officials and officials of IB nothing tangible happened for nine whole years. The outcomes of all the investigations including those of the Special Investigation Team created by the High Court were that the encounter in which Ishrat and others were killed was fake and staged. They had lined up a set of supposedly credible witnesses and evidence to prove their contention.

The appointment of the SIT chief is by itself a long story. Several police officers were selected but they refused the offers. Informal investigations have been documented in an unofficial video where all selectees were asked to go and trap Narendra Modi. This came from as big a source as Ajit Dowal, current National Security Adviser. No wonder, those selectees did not want to play political games.

Nonetheless, a police complaint was filed against the accused policemen under Indian Penal Code section 302 for murder and they were all arrested by the CBI. The CBI was keen on the arrests of a few IB officials as they were alleged to have arranged the killings together with Gujarat Police. Two investigative agencies of national importance and repute were thus ranged against each other – all because of the games of a political outfit that was out to fix the controversial chief minister of Gujarat.

The continued push and pull between the two sides continued delayed resolution of the case. Then the media reports came into play. In June 2013 reports of Hedley’s deposition before the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigating the 2008 26/11 attack in Mumbai that Ishrat was part of a LeT module were published This was repeated in other periodicals. The NIA, too, reported to Home Ministry in October 2010 that Hedley had told them that Ishrat was a part of the “botched” operation of the terrorist group. Despite this background the CBI filed a charge sheet in July 2013 in an Ahmedabad court alleging that the killings were in a staged encounter by the accused policemen and IB officials.

With the former Home Secretary GK Pillai and his Under Secretary Mani wading into the case with their versions of the centre’s affidavits, one contradicting the other, filed in the court in 2009 the atmosphere got murkier. GK Pillai said that the second affidavit was filed bypassing him and Mani said he was tortured by the SIT chief in an effort to implicate the IB officials who, he said, were infallible and highly dependable. Then in comes Hedley confirming on 26th March his deposition before NIT nailing Ishrat.

The upshot is that the criminal case against the policemen has registered no movement. None knows for sure whether Ishrat was really a female fidayeen or a lily-white college girl though mouthpieces of terrorist outfits in Pakistan described her as a martyr. Whatever might be the truth, the whole case was made a plaything of politicians putting on ice its most vital aspect – national security.

*Photo from internet

Sunday, April 3, 2016

BHOPAL NOTES – 22 :: Patients die for want of lift

Two people have reportedly died in an effort to get to the cardiology OPD on the second floor of the local Hamidia Hospital. The OPD is located on the second floor. The only available lift has been non-functional for the last year and a half. It is reported to be three decades old and none came for entering into a service contract as the parts of the lift are now not available. Non-availability of the lift has been reported off and on in the newspapers. The situation was, however, not remedied either by the hospital administration or by the government. Even the staff unions have protested about it.

Under the current rules and regulations the Hospital is apparently unable to replace the lift with a new one as the head of the administration does not have adequate financial powers. The matter was, therefore, referred to the Health Department of the state government which referred the matter to the Public Works Department (PWD). The PWD, after taking its own time, made a requisition of Rs. 1 crore for replacement of the lift. Naturally, it was considered excessive and was referred back for a reasonable estimate. Now, it seems, it has asked for Rs. 65 Lakhs which too is very excessive unless the estimate is for provision of around half a dozen lifts.

On Googling the matter I found websites offering a stretcher lift in Rs. 8.5 lakhs. Everyone knows that officers of PWD are corrupt but this is like daylight robbery. In this game being played between the PWD and Health Department the patients are being made to suffer – indeed, in some cases they have even died. This is about as callous as it can get. The Health Department should have reported for the irresponsible action to the higher authorities of the official who forwarded the estimate of Rs. 1 crore and thus delaying the entire process of procurement.

Powers of procurement are not decentralized generally for fear, inter alia, of corruption. But that has not helped matters as the venue of corruption has only shifted elsewhere, i.e. at the higher level, besides enhancing the bureaucratic processes. At the higher level the cut of various officials not only raises the price of the stuff to be procured, it also causes delay in procurement. The Superintendent of the Hospital is a senior enough official trained in this kind of work. Devolution of such powers to him for such petty purposes will help in proper functioning of the hospital and the patients, too, will be better off.

 Perhaps, the government could think of a fresh bit of devolution of financial powers. With inflation procurement of material or equipment costing in six digits is no longer a big deal and the Hospital Superintendent should be empowered to procure the same with the regular applicable safeguards. This will be in the interest of patients for whom, after all, the hospital is being run.

*Photo of public space in front of registration counter is from internet 

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