My life, your life

12.04.2020

I presume the lock down in Mumbai/India is because we as a people care for life and would not like to see people dying or incapacitated. Logically speaking, shouldn’t that concern extend to many other areas of the city’s day to day functioning where thousands of lives are lost annually? But is that so?

The lock down perplexes me as someone who has spent a lifetime being involved with numerous environmental, civic and governance issues. At the heart of those efforts have been arguments, which invite concern and need for urgent action towards the life and well being of the citizens of Mumbai. Resolving any of those issues would not require anything as severe as the lock down and many more lives would be saved on an ongoing basis.

What explains this imbalance in approach? I will take one such issue to elaborate on. There could easily be a dozen such case studies, from housing conditions, to quality of air, safety in transport, flooding, tuberculosis and more.

In any given year in the past three decades a minimum of 2000 people have died every year in what is called as the lifeline of Mumbai – the Mumbai Suburban Railway System (MSRS) – that is 2000 people dead every year for 30 years. The total comes to 60,000 people dead. A jaw dropping number by any scale of comparison – a genocide as some would describe. Then there are those who have been grievously injured but not died, and from that subset there must be people who would be better off dead than living.

A significant number die because they just happen to fall off from trains which are packed beyond imagination during peak hour. One moment they are holding on to the grab pole or any other part of the train which they can lay their hand on, next moment they have fallen off from a speeding train resulting in immediate death or grievous injury. In some cases, someone’s head has smashed against the signal poles because they are part of the dangerous bulge out. Others died because in the Mumbai that has grown post-independence the Indian administrators for long did not bother to provide adequate infrastructure for the crossing of railway tracks.

I took up an investigation into those deaths in a detailed manner exactly a decade back as Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. That concluded in co-authoring the report Killer Tracks with Dhaval Desai and Deepa Dinesh.

The lock down happened in a matter of a week or ten days of calculation and the concern arising during that duration. And it is seen as the absolutely right thing to do if we are to avoid thousands of deaths. We have done what has never ever happened before in the history of the city, not during World War II, not during the Spanish flu and not even post the Babri Masjid riots though we are close. We have locked down the city for 21 days and may extend it for a few more weeks, all in the interest of saving lives. A city which is the hub of economic activity, the business hub of the country, overnight seeing its functioning being pulverised.

The Prime Minister and many Chief Ministers and bureaucrats are being lauded as guardians of the health and life of citizens. What explains the differences in concern shown by these guardians? Why such a swift response in case of one danger to life and why no resolution even 30 years into the ‘genocide’ on the railway system and many other such issues of concern?

The same offices of Prime Minister and Chief Ministers and bureaucrats and institutions oversee both the issues and have so for decades. In many cases it is the same individuals who have also held influence and only grown in power – the current Maharashtra Chief Minister being only one such example.

I believe it is the democratic nature of the virus – that the virus goes after the most entitled and the most marginalised equally – which has got India worried and locked up and not a value system which has concern for life at its foundation. The ruling elite in India rarely face the consequences that India suffers as a result of their villainy, ineptitude and selfishness. Invocations and stories about karma and justice populate Indian daily discourse and imagination but none of which sees proof in real life just like the case with most Indian laws.

In a rare occasion the ruling elite are faced with no small threat and have acted swiftly. And again, to their considerable advantage while transferring the disadvantage and hardship to the marginalised or those who may be elite but not ruling. Without the lock down the virus could well be taking a toll of the ruling elite. That elite does not face threat by falling off trains or dying in the corridors of public hospitals for want of ICU beds or from tuberculosis as a result of living in inhuman dwellings or as pedestrians crossing roads or railway tracks. Now they have built a new moat for themselves.

Had the virus been something which would have spared them and left only the vulnerable sections affected and dealing with the overwhelmed public health system chances are we would not have been locked down. There would have been hue and cry and a lot of posturing and politics but no lock down. Life would have continued in the corridors of power and elsewhere while televisions showed heart rendering footage and the usual howling and shouting. It is because we the people can suddenly become transmitters of this virus, which can then hurt them that Covid 19 has become a problem worth attending to.

In case of the MSRS deaths there has been 30 years to plan the cities land use and transportation systems in a way that the train system does not see such dangerous crowding levels; people may be inconvenienced and face crowds but will not die while undertaking a daily commute critical to earn their livelihood. All of the knowledge is available and ready for use. That same elite has given grandiose illusions of making the city into a Singapore first and then a Shanghai.

30 years is a long period of time. It is also a period of time from teenage onwards when I have had my deep engagement with numerous civic and environmental issues of the city of Mumbai, which has been the only city I have stayed in, all my adult life. I have seen the evolution of new institutions and policy instruments, partnerships and budgets and five Chief Ministers of Maharashtra pass by during the duration. I have through various permutations and combinations, been part of numerous advocacy efforts to save those lives.

To be correct the system has seen an order of magnitude of improvements during this decade. It is almost unrecognizable from what it was in the last century. And yet the deaths continue. I will not even touch upon the stress levels and the usual user experience benchmarks.

Rapid economic growth through the 90s and 00s and consequent dynamic and rapid changes in housing along a number of new and existing nodes has meant that as capacity increases it has mostly helped ease legacy pressure but has then faced additional pressure from new commuters being added. The same government framework, which has successfully locked down the city is also the one, which decides on this dynamic nature of the city; where additional housing should develop, how it can be affordable, where offices should develop, transport policy, how much people should commute and whether to show concern and compassion for life in taking these decisions or not.

The ruling elite have in this case chosen to enrich themselves in the past three decades at the cost of the welfare of the citizens whose votes and taxes provide them with the power and heft. Instead of judiciously using the land stock in the city the same has become a playground for the most brazen of desperadoes who have carved out and leveraged that land for unimaginable bounties. The 10th century attacks on Indian temples from Central Asian horse mounted raiders has a very evocative touch and feel relatability to any Indian and I can invoke that as an example. This same political and business class has behaved in no less brutal and violent a manner in looting the citizens of Mumbai from what was rightfully theirs and left death, bloodshed, misery in trail with an added insult of intimidation for any protest or efforts to counter their butchery.

And this is the same ruling elite, which over the same past three decades has supported and liberally funded the Ram Mandir campaign. A ruling elite, which cannot provide the right kind of governance will plunder one city and go build a temple in another city, which is nowhere even close on the aspiration list of the same elite for their leisure and business and partying trips and translocation if need be.

This framework – the ruling elite – has in its power to shape the public health system (in Mumbai or elsewhere) which currently is a metaphor for the word third class. It is the lack of such a public health system, which has been a big deciding factor in the lock down checklist. The ruling elite does not have to suffer the consequences of this broken-down public health system.

Now for the irony. Those killed in the Mumbai Suburban Railway System are all in the prime of their age, the demographic dividend of which we (again “we”? Or is it the Indian elite propaganda machinery?) are proud as a brahmastra in the race for global dominion and economic opportunities. They are earning members of their families, are consumers, paying EMIs or repatriating funds to dependents in their villages. In comparison those most vulnerable to the COVID 2019 virus are the elderly and those with weak immune systems or severe comorbidity – existing patients suffering from diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Not exactly the most productive elements of the society. And while we should show compassion for the elderly and the ailing but then why is our balance of favour so skewed?

I could speak at length about many other issues which I have been involved with where sanctity of life is central to the arguments and where we have only been losing to this kleptocracy and brutal ruling elite. I could flag two issues – the brutal relocation of the poor and marginalized through government rehabilitation schemes in Mankhurd and Mahul. Living hells which have introduced the residents to life threatening exposure to tuberculosis and chemical pollution.

In Mumbai, at the least the lock down should help save the number of lives that are lost to the MSRS annually, at best it would be equal to the decadal number of 20,000. 20,000 lives saved after pulverising other aspects of life. People will argue that if there was no lock down then the casualty would be too large to explain for. Maybe one lakh people dead, maybe two lakhs. We do not have that many hospital beds or ventilators to handle the backlash. I would say please wake up. Please direct that energy towards making your MPs and institutions accountable.

[Co-author of the report Killer Tracks by ORF Mumbai 2015, Member of Committee formed the same year by then Minister of Railways Mr. Suresh Prabhu.
Long association with transport and governance improvements in Mumbai as an activist and campaigner.
Founder and Director of Mumbai Sustainability Center]

India 2019-47

All Indians but especially Hindus have shown themselves incredibly incompetent of governing themselves in the pre and post independence years. And governing would cover a much broader arena than just elections, politics and forming of governments. Democracy would be another discussion all together.

Till 2047 India will be occupied in an action reaction seesaw. The Gandhi-Nehru fragment from 1947 to 1992 till the Babri Masjid demolition and post that from 1992 – 2047 (more like 2012-47) the Hindutva forces, which would use the action (good excuses) of the Gandhi-Nehru fragment to justify their reaction.

It was full Hindu control in the first phase (its Hindus who made vote banks of Muslims and massacred Sikhs in 1984) and it will be full Hindu (Brahmin-Bania) control in the second phase.

And so we can give Modi a third term and potentially one more post 2030. That alone can make Hindus fully appreciate how bad their report card will show up then (post 2030).

By 2047 the demographic dividend would have begun to end and the demographic load will start to show. Most of those who are 20 in 2020 would be in middle age by then and have lived a life with sub-standard opportunities and a sub-standard quality of life. Environmentally the landscape will be a wasteland and ruins.

Grin(or be dead pan) and bear would still be the national motto. The middle and upward classes would be invested and insured in the West (non-Hindu governed), while still glorifying the motherland and carrying out their petty and egoistic experiments.

Those who had to play their games would have done so and gone or be going, having lived very satisfied lives playing their petty games and making themselves sufficiently or enormously rich in the process. In keeping with tradition their sanskars and family values will not be up for discussion.

India – A dying civilisation

Everything that is born must die, that is a fundamental law of life and nature. Lifespans will vary, humans may live for a century, some whales live 200 years, likewise for tortoises. Some trees live hundreds and thousands of years. But there is an end to every lifespan. During their childhood and youth no body thinks too much about death. It is something far away, towards middle age and old age the realisation is ever present.

If civilisations are to be considered living entities, it is logical that they must have taken birth at some time, have a youth then old age and following the rules will die at some time. Civilisations, considering the nature of the entity would have a lifespan spanning entire generations of human beings. Some people might live during the childhood of a civilisation, others during the youth, yet others during the old age and then some in the final moments before death. The spans may spread over centuries.

Taking this point forward the Indian civilisation or the Gangetic Valley civilisation is a dying civilisation or I believe an already dead civilisation. It has been around for more than 5000 years(more). Another old civilisation is the Mesopotamian Civilisation, which is also facing death, they are dying a violent death, annihilating themselves in Syria and Baghdad. My reading is that this is the last century of the Indian civilisation.

What can be the signs of old age and close to death? A certain nostalgia for the years of the youth. A lack of agility, disinterest in new ideas and projects knowing well that there is not much time left around anyways, growth of harmful cells and anti-bodies, reduced immunity, muscle loss, reduced functionality of kidney, liver, lungs and other essential organs.  An enhanced and stubborn sense of self.

India’s complete disinterest or inability in responding to any matter concerning threat to life is a pointer in the direction. Whether roads are dangerous and kill people or the air is polluted and kills people or labour standards are poor or tuberculosis we keep going from year to year without showing any distinct steps undertaken to improve the situation. The Ganga or many other rivers on which the civilisation grew (and which it worships) are all now dead. The people show no resolve or capability to save them. They are dead people who have lost their way into the “dreary desert of dead habit”. They can only support with zeal the demand for a Ram Mandir. They show zero interest in supporting people who will change the situation.

There are nations, which within a decade are able to show definite improvements in a number of issues but here it all remains the same. The people who wish to do something are all frustrated and its only highly corrupt and perverse coalitions of politicians, IAS and business interests who are rapaciously in control of the situation and worst of all a public which seems to not share the same sense of urgency or purpose.

In the natural world scavengers immediately attack a dead body and for a good reason. A dead rat on the road is ripped apart by crows. If it was not the rat would putrefy and become a health hazard. Similarly hyena’s and vultures will get to work in the jungle on a dead animal. Scavengers may look ugly and repulsive but are a very important part of the ecosystem.

In the Indian society context, these scavengers are the very class we have come to despise – the politicians, IAS, goons, contractors, fixers and business. They have taken it upon them to scavenge upon the dead mass of Indian people, which gets moved with no public issue, which can take any amount of bad air quality, deaths on road accidents and bad governance. Keeping this analogy they are doing a good job. Why waste tax money on doing any good for a dead public?

Those who migrate to the US? That is akin to organ harvesting. it makes sense to pluck out the eyes, kidneys and other harvestable organisations and use them for younger civilisations like the US.

The Hindu right and radical organisations are the pall bearers of this dead civilisation – the procession which carries the dead body for cremation, shouting Ram Naam Satya He. I will cremate the dead body.

Spectacular disinterest on Climate Change in Mumbai

Even as New York City – and many more cities globally – saw one of the largest public congregations demanding action on climate change, the silence in Mumbai was nothing short of spectacular. I was informed of only one very small and local march in Dadar (West) but there was nothing like the big euphoria and prior planning and social media drum up before the event. There has been absolutely no coverage of even the global events in any of the English dailies and clearly the editors know their audience very well.

I had thoughts about organising something but I am now nowhere as active as I was in the last decade.

Towards the mid of last decade Mumbai too came to be swayed by the great outreach carried out by Al Gore and team in taking Inconvenient Truth to the world. To me it was annoying to see every tom dick and harry to be organizing screenings of the movie. I never saw any interest in the same people and organisations – the Rotary’s and business chambers of the world – towards any of the here and now issues.

I was involved in so many of those here and now environmental issues in the front line and trenches and could have done with some show of mass enthusiasm and support on them. Saving the mangroves, cleaning the Mithi, improved public transport to avoid emissions and congestion, energy efficient buildings, solid waste management and the usual jazz. Support for Al Gore was easy but not for one of them within the city. And then India wants to become a super power when it doesn’t have the faintest of clue or interest in what soft power is – of course I should not forget Bollywood and the influence of Amitabh Bachchan. In 2007 even the US government was recognizing some of my leadership by inviting for the IVLP program but there was no interest in any government authority here.

That was also the time when I was more motivated and enthused with the co-benefits of tackling climate change. The here and now benefits compared with what will happen a bit down the century. How better public transport is as much about climate change but has an immediate relevance in better quality of air and quality of life, how saving mangroves prevents floods now as much as provide resilience to climate change decades down the line. I had my doubts whether all those so enthusiastically screening the movie and the droves attending it had any serious interest in doing something about the issue. And it seems vindicated with the response in the past month to the People Climate March.

To me the craze with screening Inconvenient Truth and Al Gore was symptomatic of the the craze to be associated with all things white and American which this country suffers from. There were so many of these wealthy middle class teenagers and those in their early 20s organising all kind of arbitrary events on climate change – distributing solar lamps, organising talks by teen counterparts in America, equivalent stuff in the adults. There was the Indian Youth Climate Network formed.

So now when there is such a poor response in Mumbai to one of the most significant events globally, I am left wondering what happened to all those enthusiastic – though I found them very shallow- kids who were doing all the jumping around on climate change in the last decade? A lot of last decades events were given a push up by supporting US organisations and I guess that is what was missing this time around. Left on their own the folks here are incapable.

Even then it was becoming clear to me that in the youth most of the enthusiasm revolved around showing extra-curricular activity on their resumes when they make applications to the Universities in America and Europe. Very little of their enthusiasm and motivation was about any serious interest in developing India’s response to climate change. It is easier to mouth generalities working in the UN and WB than handle their city governments within. It is quite apparent that at least in Mumbai there is no significant new strong young leadership coming up to champion for environmental issues in general or climate change.

Nothing more to say except mark a milestone in my recording of India’s response to climate change  – which is quite pathetic – on which I was posting mostly in the last decade. More in the link below. I think I am quite vindicated about the poor opinion I had about all those who were so enthusiastically organizing and watching the Inconvenient Truth screenings.

https://rishiaggarwaal.wordpress.com/category/climate-change/

Bullshit at St. Martins Road

St. Martins lane in Bandra (W) is providing a clear insight into what is currently wrong with Mumbai’s planning:

1) Arrogance of the municipal corporation and other authorities, which are supposedly meant to serve the large public interest but are more conducive to serve narrow vested interests.

2) Planning and decision making being taken over by a few officials, elected officials and business interests who have little or no concern for the larger consequences of the decisions they take.

2) No voice for the average citizen on how he or she would like their city and neighbourhood to be developed

(There is a picture album below the text portion which gives you an idea of the lane)

Some newspaper articles below to give an overview of the issue

Road widening irks Bandra residents – Times of India, 8th December 2013

Tree Cut, Heritage structure to be demolished to widen Bandra Road – Hindustan Times, 8th December, 2013

BMC bows to residents’ protests, may not widen St Martin’s Road in Bandra – DNA, 11th December 2013

BMC will forcibly demolish walls to widen Bandra road – 27th December, 2013

Here is the location for the road

Some salient points to the matter

  1. St. Martins Road is a shady beautiful and quiet small road in Bandra (W) which has a few beautiful bungalows from an age before. It’s quaint peaceful nature is a rarity now and needs to be preserved and enhanced, not destroyed.
  2. These are the kind of streets and lanes, through which we love walking in Europe and America. Are we in India incapable of having any aesthetic sense? Is the municipal corporation blind to how they will destroy the beauty of the street by carrying out the road widening?
  3. The lane does not have the kind of traffic flow that is being made out. BMC is sharing no data to validate its claims. Just issuing threatening notices. Licensed goondas.
  4. Parking cannot be allowed on both sides in any condition. BMC needs to regulate that first to improve traffic flow.
  5. The ambiance and the aesthetics of the streets also matter.
  6. The manner in which the exercise is being carried out is uncivil and undemocratic and unbecoming of the municipal corporation of a city like Mumbai. There are clear indications that the intention of the exercise is not to improve traffic flow (of which there is little in the first place) and more to use the new width for angular parking of vehicles. Restaurants nearby have valet parking and a wider road will provide more capacity for angular parking. Should the beauty of the lane, its livability, its heritage look all be destroyed for the sake of parking for a few vehicles?
  7. Buildings where the walls have already been pushed behind by a meter or so, cars instead of being parked parallel are now parked angular, thus in effect allowing exactly the same amount of road as before available for traffic flow.

Religion

Today at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai where I am a Research Fellow, I found myself engaged in a discussion on inter-faith dialogue and religion. Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni is actively involved with and supporting the visit of Islamic scholar Mr. Tahir ul Quadri in January 2014 and some of my colleagues at ORF will be actively involved in the preparations.

I found myself sharing the following views on religion:

  1. I am increasingly switched off from religion, find it boring and adding little or no value to my life. I find it suffocating and the harbouring ground for all kind of atrocities on individual liberty and large organised human rights violations by a few on the many.
  2. Mainstream religion will see rapid decline in the coming few years.
  3. Multiple belief systems will emerge in the coming years, which will be a rich mix of principles, values and ideas from  different religions and also borrow heavily from philosophy, spirituality and material sciences.
  4. The hegemony of the 4-5 organised mainstream religions will diminish and should necessarily go in the larger interest of humanity. In a sense these are like the government monopolies we suffered in the pre-liberalization era. There was no choice and you were forced to live with the bad service of the entrenched monopolies.
  5. As somebody who takes such keen interest – and has devoted life to being in action on the same – in environmental issues and sustainability and its direct linkages with human well being I keep getting absolutely shocked and surprised about the difficulty of creating any large scale interest of people in the same. Why should people not be taking interest in issues pertaining to water, air, waste, housing, sanitation, ecological systems – issues which affect them daily – and be putting so much time in rituals and readings, which are not yielding anything much?
  6. If ability to tide over and manage insecurity, lack of confidence, inability to manage anger, fear and hatred is what you are looking for then clearly you need not depend on mainstream religions  for solutions. The other belief systems I do not think have a counter -solution for the ability of the Tirupati Balaji’s and the Vaishneodevi’s of the world being able to grant obscene amounts of wealth or a Greencard etc.

So much for now.

 

The crowd funding of Karan Johar and Amitabh Bachchan

This is not a new retort of mine except that after having said it the nth time around I thought this should be recorded.

I was at an evening event at the US Consulate where over the course of discussions I met this lady who wanted to know what I did and on learning of my involvement with environmental activism was very appreciative and grateful that somebody in the city does this. It was maybe a first instance for her that at a networking event she had met somebody with such a vocation. She was a businesswoman running two successful businesses.

The conversation proceed further which is when the discussion came to where it usually does in such conversations. She wanted to know how such activities sustain themselves.

I told her how doing activism is a difficult path. About how I had over the past few years significantly reduced my participation for want of resources and was focusing more on my personal needs and profession.

About how one hopes and relies that the citizens at large all of whom benefit from activism – whether saving the mangrove forests or improving the walking infrastructure of the city – would at sometime respond with volunteering their time or giving small donations to sustain expenses. And then I added about how the public are so singularly disappointing in extending any support.

And bang as could be predicted came the standard grouse that one never knows how the money will be used and it is difficult to trust NGOs.

I gave her the analogy of Bollywood and how the same people never demand their money back if a movie from the Bollywood stable turns out to be an utter waste of their time and money. That their money value has been completely destroyed (and time value) is not as much a matter of concern to people as giving money to an NGO. I gave the example of Walking Project where the most nominal amount of Rs. 365 is an annual individual membership. It translates to Rupees one a day, something the poorest can also subscribe to.

But in one year to the Project we are still not able to get memberships in this bracket. Whereas people spend any multiple of that amount on multiplex, on movie tickets and all other associated expenditures. Yes, I understand that people want to be happy and entertained and our willing to be pay for it but does not something like a Walking Project not bring any value to their life and should they not have any interest in making even a small contribution?

Is there no happiness in enjoying a great walking environment in your city? And will you not do even a little bit to support a group of people who get on with it? Much as you would support Karan and Amitabh to entertain you (which can be of quite dubious quality a number of times)

Millions of people are more than willing to make their contributions from Rs. 50 to 500 towards supporting Karan Johar and Amitabh Bachchan, which is what sustains their ventures. These gentlemen do not put money from their pockets, which can end up being the case a lot of times in NGO work.

It is this large hearted public support which enables Mr. Johar and Mr. Bachchan to add to their stables of bungalows and cars, while Walking Project or mangroves with which I have been associated for more than a decade cannot even afford a full time project manager and a peon.

I think the example struck a very strong chord and the lady immediately realised what she had been doing with her money all along and Walking Project got a small donation.

She did not know me from before the evening and so was justified in her skepticism but this entry is not about her, it is about the abject lack of community service and philanthropy in the Indian middle class. It is about how they can and do crowd fund Bollywood and hundreds of similar activities but will not support community activities.

There must be 10,000 people who know me personally or my work in the past decade and no one (very few exceptions) has every bothered to engage in a kind gesture. Lokhandwala Complex where I have been housed for the past two decades presents a desolate dreary desert for any such goodwill. It is a complex  of the wealthy and few of them who commit actually make a donation, not to speak about those who skillfully evade any such discussion.

The 300 acres of mangroves here (which were completely responsible for saving the complex from the flood of 2005) of which a 100 acres I was clearly able to save in the first half of the last decade , the saving of the Lokhandwala Lake in 1999 by and me and numerous other activities are clearly not as valuable as what Mr. Johar and Bachchan have to offer and need to be continuously justified.

Thoughts on the Uttarakhand floods

The Uttarakhand floods have not seen me in remorse or much concern over the fate of the pilgrims and locals stuck in the disaster and I thought of capturing some of my thoughts and utterances.

I have not been very religious all my life choosing to slip away into atheism most of the times but ever since childhood Shiva was my favourite God with the characteristics and stories associated with him. His simplicity, love of mountains and the cool and straightforwardness were clear attractions for me. Also was the fiery side of him. Shiva is the destroyer of the ego and ultimately the universe and the slayer of demons.

Today those demons are the Hindus themselves, stubborn, unrelenting, unprincipled and with bloated egos like no body else. What the Lord did at Kedarnath was to turn these demons around and give them a hard kick on their backsides telling them to fuck off from his valley. The resilient pests that humans are and the determined Hindus will return back I am sure and in another two years everything will be back in the same form.

Today it seems Shiva is playing the dance of death but that compares no where to the dance of death being played by humans themselves. 7 billion of them have been reducing many other species to remain just in their thousands and many of those are also on the way to annihilation.

Hinduism as a religion owes everything to nature. It observed nature, learned everything it knows from it and in turn paid obeisance to it in the form of various rituals. One would expect that the followers of such a religion would have a better understanding and respect for nature. Remove love and respect for nature from Hinduism and it turns into a bundle of useless two paisa worth rituals and mantras, which is the state today.

Since childhood it has been my observation – the more mainstream Hindu you are the more selfish, unprincipled and a scumbag you will be. The pilgrimages themselves have become an industrial assembly line operation. There was a time when those who made it for the pilgrimage were revered back home and people touched their feet, because of the enormous difficulty associated with making one. Now all you need to do is call your local tour operator.

Pilgrimages then were a walking project, which naturally kept a control on how many people could enter this fragile ecosystem. At most mules were used. This helped by not creating a buildup of GHGs locally. Now jeeps and buses and trucks liberally add GHGs locally. More people means more heating and cooking requirements, which means more fossil fuels and more gases. For all the love of their religion ask people to do the pilgrimages like the Sadhus do or how even how ordinary people did it once and it will not be taken well.

A hundred years ago India’s population was about 250 million (for a unified India) and only a marginal percentage of that population made it for a Char Dham Yatra. Today the population is a 1000 million plus and a phenomenally larger percentage of the population makes it for the Yatra. Does it make any sense? Clearly there is a need for strict annual entry quotas. A percentage should be auctioned to raise funds for investing in local ecology.

Most Hindus of the type attending these pilgrimages will not understand what words like fragile ecosystem and carrying capacity will mean. Worse still they will not be interested in learning or doing something about it. They have got a laundry list of demands to be made from the Gods – Do Not Disturb. Marriages have to be made, children to be born, their American education to be prayed for, the current stock of gold in the family should double by next year, careers, businesses, the lists goes on. There is no time for some thought for the environment and policy.

The whole of the mountainous Uttarakhand region was celebrated as Dev Bhoomi due to the unparalleled richness of biodiversity and life that was found here – floral and faunal. It was always a fragile ecosystem which was never meant to be trampled in herds. The lack of roads meant that there was a natural check on how many people could enter the courts of the Gods. Today those rich forests which sustained the rivers we revered are being hacked away. The rivers themselves have all been dam(n)ed and channeled and re-channeled. I dont even think there is anything left to worship and celebrate over there. The Dhams should actually be shut down.

People are generally bad at participating in or influencing public policy. In the absence of the public playing any role it is the vested interests with short term interests who take over. The tour operator and the priest now shape public policy. The Brahmins are supposed to uphold Dharma but that is in the texts.

For all the 90’s and 00’s when environmentalists were shedding tears at the mindless destruction being wrought on the mountains, no where were these pilgrimaging (pillaging) Hindus to be seen. Not without reason do some people like me find themselves happy at the turn of events. Nature is hostile to life, ruthless and cruel but the celebration of life there can never be rivaled by anything that the human machinery creates – much of which is pretentious anyways.

For those who would like to make this into the usual retort that environmentalists care more about the birds and the bees and less about humans I think the time for that retort is interestingly and finally coming to an end. We are entering a phase where all those who celebrated themselves as some great lovers of humanity forever moved by the conditions of humanity will be eating their words. If anything it is abundantly clear that environmentalists are far more compassionate and have a long term sustainable well being of human – and more importantly other species as well – in mind.

Set up a Rape Research Cell – make rape offenders available for research

I think it is extremely important to carry out a very thorough analysis of all the rape instances which take place in the country. From a prevention point of view it is very important to be very acutely aware of the following:

1. The circumstances in which the rape took place

2. The victim characteristics

3. Very importantly the complete physiological and psychological profile of the offender

 

Some points that come to my mind for which a trend analysis needs to be done are:

1. The socio-economic bracket

2. Family history from childhood till current phase. Whether there was any childhood trauma, whether unhappy parents marriage, any exposure to domestic violence

3. All parameters on early health, any nutritional defects, any developmental disorders.

4. Peer exposure and behaviour among peers.

5. Any dominant and strong ideological beliefs on various issues including sexuality and gender relations.

6. Vocational parameters, areas of work, work conditions, exposure to any occupational health hazard from pollution or in other ways.

7. Religion, region, caste and other parameter.

 

Such analysis could be made possible by setting aside  a budget from public funds to develop a full time Rape Research Cell, which is staffed with the best of medical practioners, social scientists and advocacy groups active on this subject. This cell would maintain a very detailed database of all rapes which take place in the country and be given priority access to offenders to be able to gather information on the above mentioned parameters. It would be incumbent on the Cell to produce annual reports, research papers and provide insights into steps which can be taken by way of awareness, offender profiles, how such behaviours develop, causative factors and any preventive measures.

I think it is important that considering the high recurrence of this crime, especially in particular cities like Delhi, the Parliament or the relevant Ministry set up such a cell and take a long term, systematic effort to preventing the occurrence of rapes in the first place. Such crimes have far reaching social and economic damage, which is far more than any amount that will be invested in prevention.

Notes from the East

I went on my first visit to Singapore, Hong Kong and a bit of China as a trip from work to study their rail based transport systems. While the trip was on transport and technical in nature it was not very difficult for me to make numerous small and big observations about how those societies conduct themselves, which in turn has a bearing on everything they manage from their transport to their sewage and their children and elderly and infirm. The views contained here are strictly in personal capacity. I will mostly comment on Singapore and Hong Kong.

One of the conclusions which I shared with my close friend and transport aficionado, Abhijit in the first two days at Singapore was that Mumbai or most Indian cities will never ever come anywhere close to being able to have such an excellent integrated transport policy in the next two decades. These next two decades are the ones about, in which India is supposed to have become fifty percent urbanised.

Abhijit and me have a long standing argument, where I have a deep dislike of fundamental Indian ways of being and culture and social values and hold it primarily responsible for the mess in governance that we constantly find ourselves. Abhijit on the other hand chides me and reminds me that people are the same all over the world and it is not that Londoners or NY-ers or Singaporeans are any different. I could see the same argument brew up within me in the two cities.

Another strong remark I found myself making was that we are a nation of obedient sons and daughters and 33 crore gods – all of them basically incapable of showing the spine and principles and values necessary to participate in causing any change.

I couldn’t help drawing parallels between Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Bal Thackeray in Mumbai. In both cases there was a great case made for ascending to power to make the condition of a particular community or geography better and in both cases the  strong individual or a group of individuals did come to power to make a difference to the cause they espoused. Bal Thackeray and what he achieved in Mumbai or Maharashtra is a story seen in almost every direction of India, from a Chennai to a Kolkata to Bangalore and Gurgaon. There maybe a lot of parochial jingoism but when it comes to bullshit the so called country of India is clearly very united.

In 1995 Bal Thackeray came to power on the great cause of making a difference to the Marathi manoos and delivering Mumbai and Maharashtra from the corrupt Congress. Shiv Sena came in power in the State and the city. By 2000, when the first term of Shiv Sena came to an end for the first time in its history the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai went into the red up to Rs. 300 crores. There was a scam after scam after scam, not the least infamous of which was the slum housing scam which created a carte blanche for developers close to the Thackeray family to go on a loot of Mumbai’s land resources in the name of doing good for the poor.

Most developers were not even Marathi manoos, ironically being from the Gujarati community against which traditionally a lot of hate has been generated. The Marathi manoos found itself being given some lousy zhunka bhakar stalls and soon enough a change in the clause of one of the development control regulations which threw out and continues to throw out Marathi manoos from the mill land belt.

The first term of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai was also a reign of the kind of terror and hatred that the multi-cultural and plural city had never ever seen in its history till then. The legendary boys of Shiv Sena controlled every street and corner, almost creating an autocratic state which had its men ready at every stage to pounce on anyone who went against their thinking or objectives. Had the objectives been good it would have still been justified. Most of these boys were available for as less as a crate of beer to cause trouble for whoever the sponsor chose to trouble.

The bosses of the boys of course got their hands into every conceivable trade mostly through force and extortion. The city then took a cultural blow it still has clearly not recovered from and the first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of dozen new urban centres, which effectively means that fate of Mumbai in many ways may already have been sealed from that regression into backwardness.

It was to counter the threat of Muslim radicalism (the legacy of Indian National Congress to ‘independent’ India) in the early nineties that the Shiv Sena and L K Advani and Vishwa Hindu Parishad rose to power. One would have thought that the Hindus would have been beneficiaries and especially so the lower socio-economic brackets of the Maharashtrian community. None of this happened. Bal Thackeray likes to be addressed as Hindu hriday samrat or the most beloved for the Hindus. Ask the number of Hindus he and his boys have terrorised. With half a dozen gods devoted to bravery and courage and especially for the Marathi community which is particularly well seeped in Hindu rituals and ceremonies, neither Marathi’s or any other Hindu could rise to counter the loot and pillage of Bal Thackeray. And to ask any of the frontline or backline 33 crore gods to intervene would be to ask too much of them. They are used to sitting back and being anointed.

Mumbai during that reign saw a devastating new encouragement to slums coming up, it saw a perverse housing policy which further strangulated the supply of affordable housing and the rise of venal developers, it saw corruption and mal governance in every arena of urban management during that era. Subsequently with the State government going out of their hands the reign of terror got subsided a bit but clearly the city had entered a new paradigm of being mis governed.

When I spent my first two days in Singapore I could but not enjoy the pleasures of today without wanting to read more and more about the people who make it happen today and the people who first set the base for all this to happen. My good friend Sudipt Sen has been a very long standing admirer of Lee Kuan Yew and has at many occasions over the past decade asked me to visit Singapore or read further about it.

On acquiring power Yew spent huge amount of effort in uplifting the education and social upliftment of the people. Large amount of affordable housing stock was created and people living in slums moved into good apartments with toilets and good sanitation. The transport infrastructure was improved by an order of magnitude and an incredible atmosphere was provided for business to flourish creating much needed jobs and income for the people and revenue for the government.

Two days spent in Singapore sent me into a depression about the state of Mumbai and from what I hear from Sudipt and other friends likewise has been the case with them in their first visit. Sudipt first visited Singapore in 1998 and then itself the city was world class, which means that starting from independence in 1965, within a decade Lee Kuan Yew was able to set Singapore into the right orbit for it to be world class in less than 3 decades.

Where Singapore prides itself at being multi-cultural, Thackeray’s boys were attacking people who did not display Marathi signage on their shops, or anybody who did the mistake of addressing the city as Bombay or even so much as hinted displeasure with the Thackeray clan. All significant infrastructure was named after Shivaji or some Thackeray clan member. Business started relocating from the city and people felt they could lead better lives in the other emerging cities.

Yes, there are allegations and maybe material evidence of excesses by Lee Kuan Yew and his family members or a close coterie. Maybe they own important businesses and infrastructure utilities. But even a blind person could just by smelling the air make out a difference between the service delivery.  Similar was the advantage and scope available to the Thackeray clan and they clearly have amassed very large amounts of wealth from establishing their fiefdom over Mumbai. But what has their contribution been to the community or the city? Go look at the state of education in the municipal schooling system.

I find myself questioning and faulting the core principles and values of Hindus and Hinduism (or the notions we have of the same) and find them responsible for the state of affairs we see in India. The complete axis between Singapore and Tokyo finds itself in the heavy influence of Buddhist and Confucian values and maybe some where those values have something more superior to offer to their people in how to conduct than those provided in Hinduism.

Look at the level of detail and commitment in concern for human life and comfort that you find in Singapore and in Hong Kong. Look a the incredible commitment to natural resources. Singapore is incredible in its commitment to conserving water, from the taps and WC in the hotel where I was staying to public toilets and other places, conserving water in every use, being reminded of its preciousness and being made a partner in its conservation were an integral part. A culture where people offer water to the sun in the mornings and to the shivling a million times and do kumbh melas and sprinkle ganga jal at every ritual, one would have thought Hindus would be the best people for water conservation? Clearly there is a difference in how some of us look at values and how these very devout Kedarnath and Tirupati thronging Hindus see them as.

Look at the quality of water in their seas and rivers. Look at Hong Kong, which has preserved two thirds of its natural resources for recreation.  Look at the difficult terrain and limited land mass in which they are built. One would think that people who invented the zero and because of whom NASA missions don’t land up in the oceans could do a better job of their cities?

In Mumbai, the deluge of 2005, instead of becoming an inflection point in the life of Mithi River become just another means for a contractor driven lobby of politicians and bureaucrats to make the most of the situation. The river till today runs its polluted course. Where is the Ganga worship and the values?

Look at the sincerity and integrity that is visible in day to day dealings in these cities, at the way the government and agencies understand their relationship to their constituents – the citizens. Service level benchmarks are set for each constituent of urban existence and there is an attempt to improve them continuously. Thus a resident of those cities and cultures see multiple improvements to their lifestyles in a lifetime, whereas in India a person feels good if he sees just one good change in his entire life time.

And these are beef and pork eaters. How could they possibly be humble and quiet and disciplined and have so much empathy?  Holy Hindus and other constituents from this landmass who don’t even kill bacteria coming out from their breath can at most times be vicious and a rage. Violence to the mind and soul are a norm. While the beef and pork eaters ensure that even if casualties take place on their mass transit systems they are always in single digits, the vegetarians see the slaughter of almost 4000 commuters every year in Mumbai on the suburban railways system and are unperturbed.

Double standards and hypocrisy are institutionalised in the land of Hindus and Hinduism. The family is the only good institution which exists in India and that too is a vehicle only for producing obedient sons and daughters who will study as per family diktat, pick up careers as per family diktat, as far as possible migrate to a land mass governed by white man and certainly not get married outside the family choice and so on and so forth. This clearly has meant that we have citizens who have lost all interest or initiative in having an independent voice or action in matters of common good. Let the family or the patriarch decide what should be done – why bother. The same mindset at the family level is visible at the governance level. Any average patriarch in India (including my deceased father) and Bal Thackeray or any other leaders around the country would show strikingly similar behaviour and expectations.

And this is why I was the earliest and one of the strongest critics of the form and shape of the anti-corruption movement carried out in India last year. Corruption was made as the biggest hurdle to India’s growth. No corruption is not the biggest issue for India. It is the most visible malaise, the cause is far different and no body wants to address the root cause. This is a land where even the gods are seeing a decline in values and are prone to corruption.

All through my trip I couldn’t help think that Gautam Buddha almost 2500 years back had got fed up of Hinduism and the people who were running it and so many years down the line the situation seems almost same.

What really is wrong with Hindus? Where really are the principles and values and the Vedas and Upanishads and Geeta? And how are they able to get away with so many bogus claims they make to themselves and to the world about themselves? And then to mask it all with Incredible India campaigns does make me feel very very sick.