Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bhopal Notes :: 56 :: The local rent-seekers


The other day a report appeared in the vernacular press that last week a fire broke out in the main plaza of the New Market somewhere near a very popular temple. The Fire Service was summoned which reacted very promptly but could not do anything to extinguish the fire as the approaches were clogged by parked two and four wheelers. Inside the plaza there was utter chaos with hawkers of all kinds occupying every inch of space to display their wares. It was more so because it happened to be a Sunday.

This is not the only place where hawkers create congestion. The Nawabi-era market called the Chowk area also suffers from the same predicament. Numerous efforts have been made to bestow on it an appearance that is in harmony with its heritage status. But no, things were back to where they were soon enough.  The situation in these bazaars is so bad now, leave alone a fire tender, one cannot really negotiate the streets even on foot with ease. The crowds of hawkers with their pushcarts or wares spread on the roadside and the parked two wheelers make shopping a horrendous experience.

Barring a few, roads in Bhopal wear a chaotic look with hawkers running riot. Then there are kiosks (locally called gumties) all over the place by the sides of roads that are nothing but encroachments on public spaces causing hindrance to traffic and people’s mobility. Persistent encroachments have made many roads so narrow that both ways traffic has to move only on half of the total space of what are reasonably wide roads. No city in India, probably, suffers from this kind of acute problem as Bhopal.

Only a few people are responsible for this difficult and deplorable situation. They are the rent seekers – the elected representatives in the municipal corporation and the local legislative assembly. It is virtually a racket where they rent out the public spaces for a monthly payment by the encroacher, strangely making money by renting out government land. This is how kiosks are installed on the roadsides and whenever attempts are made to remove them by the municipal bureaucracy they intervene rather violently. After all, most of them are no better than dregs of society.

Likewise, thousands of hawkers who have never sought a license to ply their trade roam the streets or park their carts where they think they would find more custom without any consideration towards the busy traffic. As they have paid rent to one of the rent-seekers who is their benefactors they are sanguine that it is they (the rent seekers) who would ensure that they are not tormented and removed from wherever they have decided to carry on their business. The municipal corporation has provided hawkers’ corners but many would shun them and choose the easy way out to ply their illegal trade on congested roads making life difficult for the rest of the mobile humanity.

The elected representatives to various representative bodies consider it their right to plant anybody anywhere for a consideration and they are utterly unmindful of the law and their enforcers. A municipal councilor or a member of legislative assembly is a powerful person, a big (and mostly corrupt) man, who can dispatch any person coming in his way to oblivion without any questions being asked. These gentlemen act like mafia. When things hot up against the encroachers it is these rent-seekers who raise the cry of deprivation of livelihood against the law-enforces. Livelihood is a very sensitive matter and a seeming attempt to deprive it is more so.

At the back of all this is rural-urban migration. As aspirations increase or as circumstances in rural areas nose dive people move towards cities in search of means of livelihood. The first foray they make is to push some product on a daily wage or on commission basis standing on the streets or occupying a tract of foot path. Gradually they progress to push carts and then on to a kiosk, if at all. In all this the rent-seekers play an important role. Not only do they extort rent from them for plying a trade, they also fix them up with a shanty on a piece of government land. In course of time, in case a mafia don has found a new-comer submissive and prompt in making payments to him he may even have a title issued for the shanty in the name of the new encroacher.

 It is a big unlawful business being carried on by politicians, petty and big, unhindered for decades. None has enough guts to dismantle the whole illegal structure for, after all, the rent-seekers have the backing of the government; in fact, they are the government. They have made encroaching on government lands a source of illegitimate income, at the same time creating a constituency for themselves making migration into the town very attractive. It was the Late Chief Minister Arjun Singh who took the first step by offering titles to the lands occupied by encroachers behind the Governor’s House. Since then it has been virtually free for all. There is not an area in the city which is devoid of shanties. One was surprised to find that they had even used the huge properties of the local collector’s and commissioner’s offices for settling migrants. None of the supposedly powerful IAS officers could perhaps do anything as it was politically sensitive; any effort to remove them would promptly be countered by the argument of dismantling of poor people’s shelters bringing the officials out in bad light.

Whether it is the streets or the government lands, they are not going to be freed of encroachers any time soon. In today’s India rural-urban migration is a fact of life. It appears to be the aim of the government to balance out the rural and urban population at 50:50. But, generally, there has been no preparation by the local government to receive such heavy numbers of migrants. The provisions made under Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) were far too modest and could not have met the astronomical requirements of housing for poor. Besides, many such houses built under JNNURM and Rajiv Awas Yojna have remained vacant while shanties or jhuggis keep multiplying.

In Bhopal even the City Development Plan has not been published after the one brought out in 1995 that expired in 2005. The local city administration has, therefore, got far more than what it can chew and, naturally, things are going haywire. There is no indication of any step to control the oncoming messy situation. In the midst of all this confusion there is only one section of the population, the rent-seekers, who are making not only merry but also making hay.

 Or, maybe, it is they who are obstructing the very process of city-planning. One couldn’t really tell; in this topsy-turvy world that we live in anything is possible.

*Photo: from internet
17th August 2017

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Destinations :: Orchha (2009)


The palace-fort complex as seem from the main road of Orchha
Only 18 kilometres from Jhansi, a major railway junction of the Central Railways on its trunk route between New Delhi and Mumbai, there is a magical place called Orchha. The place is in the Bundelkhand region of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and confines within its folds some remarkable specimens of medieval central Indian architecture.

It is so close yet It was only recently that we decided to do so. Jhansi is
The cenotaphs as seen from a distance
only around three hours away by the New Delhi-bound Shatabdi Express from Bhopal Another half-hour’s jpurney in a vehicle on a pretty decent road with patches of good dense forests on its sides brings up Orchha. It was around dusk that we hit the place when the cows were literally coming home into the village raising lots of dust. We had bookings at the MP Tourism outfit that is known as Betwa Retreat and were promptly shown into our cottage where we spent four leisurely and enjoyable days and nights. Betwa is the river that flows by to meet Chambal downstream.

Chaturbhuj temple in silhuette
Founded in the 16th Century, Orchha (meaning a “hidden place”) was conceived by Rudra Pratap Singh as his principality’s capital. Choosing a beautiful site along the River Betwa, he commenced construction but could not complete it in his lifetime. His successors carried on and built some marvellous structures that have retained their beauty until today. Among the successors Bir Singh Deo was more prolific who constructed many of Orchha’s beautiful buildings.

As one approaches the place from Jhansi one comes across an old
Chhatries in silhuette
gate, Ganesh Dwaar, (gate of Lord Ganesh) that signals entry into what is now somewhat of an overblown village. It was once the capital of Bundelkhand. As one progresses further up, on the left is the fort-palace complex on what used to be a seasonal island on the bank of River Betwa. The complex has therefore to be approached through the medieval Athpula Bridge. While straight ahead one gets to the photogenic cenotaphs – chhatries – right on the banks of Betwa, with our Betwa Retreat close by. On the right are the legendary Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja temples and about a kilometre
Jehagir Mahal within the palace-fort complex
away, is, what we felt, the most significant structure of Orchha – the Laxminarayan temple.

The first things we happened to see the next morning were a couple of shikhars (kind of spires) of two cenotaphs through the big, wide glazed windows of the restaurant of Betwa Retreat. Looking like temples and frightfully impressive, they promptly drew us towards them. They are all in a cluster by the bank of Betwa, and are, indeed, built like temples with a square garbhagriha (sanctum) and temple-like shikhars. They look even more beautiful from across the waters of Betwa – several shikhars piercing the
Interesting brackets inside Jehangir Mahal
skies. Only the one of Bir Singh Deo is unlike all of them, built more like a palace. Building chhatries, one might add, has been a tradition in central India and Rajasthan. In Gwalior the Scindias have been building their own chhatries even till today.

Inevitably, next on the itinerary was the palace-fort or the heritage complex. So we headed towards that and crossed the Athpula Bridge. After passing through the massive gates we climbed scores of feet through a well-maintained winding road on an escarpment to land up in front of the tourists’ entrance of Jehangir Mahal. Right in front was the Sheesh Mahal and on the left, far into the
Dome of Jehangir Mahal
distance, the shikhar of Laxminarayan temple was pointed out to us.

Jehangir Mahal (Jehangir’s Palace) is the most admired structure in the fort-palace complex. Reputed to have been built for the Mughal Emperor Jehangir who, perhaps, never stayed in the palace, Jehangir Mahal is a construction of pretty massive proportions. Each side measuring around 70 metres, the palace is of three storeys with more than half a dozen beautifully proportioned domes. Our age and inability to negotiate the stairs prevented us from looking up all the three levels and hence we were deprived of not only the delectable view of the surrounding countryside littered with remains of the bygone era but also the original inscriptions on stone slabs on the third floor depicting Bir Singh’s name and dates of the building. The architectural
Laxminarayan temple
highlights of the Palace are the wide eaves, overhanging balconies with beautifully designed and worked-on brackets, numerous windows with kiosks and jaalies (lattice) to let in lots of light and air. From the east-facing massive ceremonial gate, embellished with richly carved elephants on two sides, one can see the stables that used to house elephants and, in the distance, the one-time royal gate.

After some rest we headed for Sheesh Mahal, a palace that was built
Wall painting inside Laxminarayan temple
much later – around early 18th Century. It was built after Orchha had lost its vitality and was used mostly as a country retreat by the local somewhat powerless Raja. Though named Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), it never had any mirrors. It was named as such, it seems, because of the green-blue glazed tiles and the early morning light that used to shimmer in through the jaalies.  It has been stripped of all its valuables – Persian rugs and antique pieces. The MP State Tourism Development Corporation now runs a heritage hotel using the building, the upper floor rooms of which provide some stunning views of the surrounding countryside, particularly
Shikhara of Laxminarayan remple
after the rains.

The two temples, Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja, are located right on the main road. Both are steeped in legends. It appears that the present Ram Raja temple was originally the palace of Rani of Madhukar Shah, one of the successors of Rudra Pratap Singh. It became a temple when the Rani brought an image of Lord Ram from Ayodhya and, finding the neighbouring Chaturbhuj temple dedicated to Ram still incomplete, installed the image in her palace. She, however, forgot the condition that the image, once installed, could not be relocated. Hence, her palace became the temple and the structure meant for it has remained unutilised. Ram Raja temple with light-coloured paint on it looks somewhat out of place and, but for its embellishments and domes, it doesn’t appear to be a medieval
Another wall painting in the temple
structure. It houses a living deity and attracts large number of devotees from the surrounding areas during Ram Navami (Birthday of Lord Rama) celebrations. My wife made her humble offerings to the deity.

Laxminarayan temple had some well-kept wall and roof paintings. Built by Bir Singh Deo, the Laxminarayan temple is unique in many ways. From outside it looks like a triangular structure but inside it has a rectangular plan. Unlike other medieval temples it also has slots for cannons in its upper reaches and windows that have jaali – a phenomenon that is rarely seen in temples. Besides it has some fine
One more wall painting
specimens of Bundeli art on its walls and on the roofs. Themes are as varied as from life and times of Krishna to scenes from Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas. A 19th Century addition also shows Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her forces against the British during the 1857 War of Independence. Colours are bright and styles skilful, blending the Mughal and Rajput styles, producing something uniquely native – of Bundelkhand.

It was incredible to see so many Westerners at Orchha. Obviously, it is a popular tourist destination for foreigners, more so because it falls on the way to Khajuraho. We met two German boys who were seemingly on a flying visit to India of around ten days but stayed on for a couple of days in Orchha. They seemed to be pretty at-home with the food
Betwa Retreat
dished out by the wayside eating joints.

Although it is only slightly better than a village, it has acquired all the accoutrements of modernity. There is a veritable Jan Path, an arcade of sorts, with shops selling ethnic garments and other knickknacks. There is hardly anything of interest to tourists that is not available in these shops.

 With so many foreigners visiting the city right through the year the local Panchayat perhaps could keep the place little cleaner. Cow dung strewn all along the main thoroughfare may not upset us but it does jar a person who is not used to seeing it. We may venerate it but others, used to a cleaner way of life, find it somewhat revolting. We did not notice any civic effort to keep the village clean. It appears to be the fault of our system. Pickings from tourism are never ploughed back into the place for its upkeep. The Tourism Development Corporation should
Mural on Betwa Retreat cottage wall
find ways and means to help keep up the sanitation and hygiene of the place.

A word about the Betwa Retreat, where we spent four wonderful days, is a must. A remarkably well maintained property, it has well-appointed cottages and helpful staff. Its restaurant produced some delectable fare. What is best about the Retreat is its ambience – ethnic and green with remarkable bird life. Sitting inside the restaurant one can watch them flitting undisturbed from one tree to another. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Destinations :: Pachmarhi (1983)


Su setting at Dhoopgarh, highest point of the state
The lilting tunes played by the massed bands on Vijay Chowk at New Delhi every year as part of the Beating the Retreat ceremony during the Republic Day Celebrations have deep and, shall we say, enduring connections with Pachmarhi. All the players are from the military band school of the Army Education Corps (AEC) located at Pachmarhi. Not only does the school effortlessly make vibrant as well as sombre music it also
Lovely setting off a Pachmarhi walk
impeccably trains its pupils for the demands of various formal and non-formal occasions. Its fame has spread far and wide. It has its alumni spread over several countries of South, South-East Asia and some of even Africa. It has also helped the Indian Army get into the Guinness Book of Records by organizing a performance by a massed band of as many as 4459 musicians forming

An old Protestant church
the largest military band ever under one conductor when they played “Amazing Grace” some years ago.

Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh is known for this school but is better known as the only hill station of the Central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and a touristy place. It is situated on the Satpura mountain range at an elevation of around 3000 ft. The mountain range rises somewhere in Gujarat and stretches across Madhya Pradesh only to dissipate into the plateaus of Chhota Nagpur in the East. It runs parallel to Vindhya Ranges creating a basin in which flows the mighty River Narmada which originates from its forests in
A plantation near Dhoopgarh
the east runs west to empty into Gulf of Khambat.

Most of the Satpuras were at one time heavily forested and were very rich in wildlife, more so toward the east around the origin of Narmada. The range, therefore, hosts a number of wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Pachmarhi is perched on and around the highest point of Satpuras supporting a climate that is by and large equable, though with progressive deforestation and general warming of the globe temperatures in summers sometimes manage to compete with those at lower elevations.

Painted glass windows of the Protestant church
Discovered sometime in the mid-nineteenth century by the British, like numerous other hill towns it started off as a place for physical rehabilitation of the East India Company workers/soldiers. As had happened elsewhere, it too started off as a sanatorium town for the army. Despite efflux of time Pachmarhi has a well-maintained cantonment to which was added the Military Band School in 1950 at the instance of the first Field Marshall of India, Gen. KM Cariappa.

Named after “five caves”, i.e. “Paanch marhi”, the place is associated with several legends, including from the Epic Mahabarata. The forests around the place, however, are highly regarded as they have numerous rare
Another beautiful natural setting
species of plants and plenty of wildlife. UNESCO, therefore, declared it as a Biosphere Reserve covering around 5000 square kilometers. The Biosphere Reserve comprises as many as three conservational nature parks, viz. Bori Sanctuary, the oldest wildlife sanctuary of India, Pachmarhi Sanctuary and Satpura National Park.

Lunching out in the open
The town is small and has remained so over the decades. There are some old churches, a few temples in the neighbourhood and several sites like natural water falls, deep valleys thick with vegetation and rugged rocky outcrops. Many of the sites are difficult to take in for people advanced in age but, I should think, it is a trekkers’ paradise. They can trek and explore the Satpuras around the town and visit the places hallowed by legends.

Others can enjoy a retreat in pleasantly hospitable climate in lodges and hotels that are modestly priced catering especially for middle class pockets.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Missing the gold at Lords' and yet ...


Skipper Mithali Raj leads the team back to pavillion
It was just phenomenal. That the Indian women’s cricket team would be playing before a sell-out crowd at Lords’ in England at the Finals of the World Cup 2017, was really nothing short of a phenomenon. Though cruising well on the way to victory, the young team seemed to have come under the grip of nerves only to collapse within sniffing distance of a well-deserved victory. But, for this match winning or losing was not an issue. It was enough for their countrymen to savour and celebrate their entry into the finals after some very good cricket that they played.

There were sterling performances at the match by at least three of its members, Poonum Raut and Harmanpreet Singh with the bat and in the bowling department the old campaigner, Jhoolan Goswami, returned commendable figures accounting for three of the English ladies. The skipper, Mithali Raj, a consistent scorer, was unfortunately run out when only on 17 held back as she was by her spikes that dug into the ground while running a single. Despite a seeming collapse, contest-wise it was a close and thrilling finish.

It was a queer quirk of fate that the team lost to England in the Finals, a team which it had defeated in an earlier face-off. Likewise, it rode into the finals over a convincing win over Australia against which it had lost in a preliminary round. Obviously the team progressively raised the level of its performance during the tournament that took it to the finals for the second time but after a hiatus of more than a decade. A number of centuries were scored at the tournament, including an undefeated swashbuckling one of 171 (not out) off only 115 deliveries by Harmanpreet Singh in the semi-final that received appreciation from the world over and eventually saw her being included in the team of International Cricket Council.

Led by example by a consummate batswoman, Mithali Raj, the team was not expected to do so well in the tournament as it did. But Mithali herself scored 408 runs in this edition of the World Cup, only one run short of the highest scorer from the English side. She, however, went on to top the scoring charts by crossing the 6000 mark in Women’s Cricket, the highest ever by a woman. That was an individual accomplishment as it was indeed of her tall team mate, Jhoolan Goswami, who stood out with the figures of a total of 36 wickets – at the third position among the bowlers. Her 3 in the finals for 23 had almost snatched the match away from England

Goswami stated after the match that none of the cricketers had ever thought that the team would reach the finals. They knew it was underprepared and against seasoned campaigners they would be up against difficult and frustrating contests. But as the tournament progressed things started looking up. Smriti Mandhana who missed a century in the first match scoring 90 helped to win it against England. She showed great poise against a tougher team consistently lofted the ball to fly over close-in power-play fielders, That she did not do as well in subsequent matches was a surprise, Then Poonum Raut was in sublime form scoring a century. As expected Mithali Raj too chipped in with healthy scores including a hundred. It was the scintillating innings of Harmanpreet Singh against the Australians in the semifinals that captivated the supporters back home. The media literally went wild giving extensive coverage with photographs in print media. Harmanpreet’s innings was being likened to those of Sehwag in his hey days. Her 171 n.o with 20 fours and seven sixes was what sent supporters rooting for her. Incidentally, one never imagined that women cricketers could hit sixes. Hermanpreet had hit one at Sydney while playing in a professional league match that made the Australians to check her for any drug and her bat for some mysterious power.

Despite the fact that they lost the trophy, the team’s performance at the run up to the finals made them celebrities. Never before did women’s cricket was followed in the way it was this time and never before did women cricketers become the objects of such adoration. Receptions and celebrations followed on their return and the team members were lionized and feted all the way.  What was more remarkable was Mithali being named the skipper of the International Cricket Council team because of her cricketing qualities. Two more girls, Harmanpreet Singh and Deepti Sharma, were also included in the team. 

This is, perhaps, for the first time that the women’s cricket team has won laurels at an international competition and won so much of respect, love and affection. Even the Board of Control for Cricket in India was gracious in holding a reception for the team and giving a purse of 50 lakhs to each member of the team. As Mithali happened to note that it was a “revolution” that was taking place and only better efforts would justify the great love and affection showered on them by the countrymen.

 The Indian women have had relatively greater successes in Field Hockey and have won gold medals at several international tournaments because of which they came to be known as the “Golden Girls of Hockey”. A film was too made on them by the noted producer/actor Sharukh Khan. On the other hand, the Indian women’s football is in total disarray. It has somehow lost its way after a bright opening. But one presumes, it is politics that did it in. However, with the recent stand out performance of the women’s cricket team and adulation showered on it things are likely to change and efforts seem to be already afoot to improve matters in other games including football and hockey.

For those of us, who have seen the whole concept of women out on the playing fields slowly evolve, cannot help marvelling at the change. When we were in schools and colleges 50 to 60 years ago girls playing field games was unheard of. A stray athletic event would have a few girls competing, but field games were, apparently, a no no. At the most, they would play less strenuous kho kho or Badminton, otherwise they would confine themselves to in indoor games like carrom and occasionally table tennis.

 Slowly, things seemed to have picked up as the middle classes expanded and the conservatism regarding women “indulging” in manly sports was shaken off. The socio-cultural change brought in a fresh approach. Even the thinking in the governments changed and greater opportunities and sporting facilities were progressively made available for girls. This must have commenced about three or four decades ago. But while in other Asian countries, like Korea, China and Japan, women’s sports had a runaway success, we took time over matching their feats.

 Currently, however, we have distinguished female players in Tennis and Badminton and even in boxing who now are among the best in the world. God and governments willing, soon we are likely to have world beaters in other sporting events too.  

29th July 2017
*Photo from internet