Friday, 28 February 2014

Reunion revisited - in pictures

Here are some pictures of my recent travel to Bilaspur to see my old school. I joined a reunion party organised by the Class of 1977 - they left the school 9 years after I did, but amazing and talented bunch that they are, have managed to keep up contact with each other across the globe and kindly let me join them for their third reunion in the last few years.

The School from what used to be the main entrance. Now it is in fact the back, the official entrance being on the other side where the extension has been built

This used to be the main entrance into the school courtyard

The library used to be in the main building. Its now part of the extension. No idea how well stocked it is.

The staircase has not changed at all. I was surprised how narrow it is. My memory of it is rather different.

 With the present care taker, Mr Santosh Prasad

One of many finger print scanners. This was the machine that, like a child speaking the truth, told me I did not belong.

Inside a classroom, with the white screen pulled down. To the right of the blackboard is the computer point

The overhead projector, all connected up to receive input from a laptop plugged into the network.

A busy day of lessons spread across 2 shifts

In conversation with a very youthful HeadMaster (to my right)

The road from the school towards the Railway colony

Bharat Mata School is actually a Church run school with a pretty good reputation, hardly a kilomteer away from the Railway School

The Bungalow once occupied by the Jammi family. Looks rather grander now. Back then it had a small plate on the gate that said J Ranga Rao, Divl Personnel Officer.

I was wowed by the gardens and the landscaping.

I don't rememebr that the house had this plaque giving it a name- Amar Bilas, and a vintage, 1911. Unless my memory totally fails me.

The badminton court in the officers club

Obvious! - the tennis court, only now it has a professional looking surface.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Reunion Revisted

They decided to name it the Swami Vivekananda Airport in Raipur. I’m not sure that great man of peace and spiritual enlightenment  would have felt honoured, but at least the airport is a peaceful, quiet, sleepy  place, even if the only reason for that is the relative lack of economic development and the consequent lack of demand for services to and from it. But Raipur’s new airport was my first glimpse of Chattisgarh since I left Bilaspur in 1968.  Then it was an ill-served region of the state, ruled from Bhopal, now it is a full fledged state with Raipur for its capital.

The road from Raipur to Bilaspur is a single lane black top for most of the 110 kilometers. I don’t believe I ever travelled this road when I was at school in the 1960s. But take out the traffic and it must have looked little different then as now, except for the sections at either end that had recently been converted to a two lane road.

Bilaspur is now a busy thriving city. It has all the look and feel of a city on the move, impatient for anything new and glitzy – bill boards selling the latest in cell phones, motor bikes, cars, skin whitening products and fashion. There’s even an Apollo Hospital, someone said proudly. All the old cinema halls have gone I was told – I wouldn’t have known, I never went to one when I was in school. The road that I cycled down every Sunday from the Railway colony to the Girls Degree College to visit my sister is unrecognisable. It used to be a tree lined route with fields on either side beyond the trees. It is now a busy thoroughfare with houses,  shops and apartment blocks on either side, but, curiously there are still two rows of  trees almost in the middle of the road.  Could it be that they kept the trees that used to be there and simply widened the road on either side?

Driving along in an auto-rickshaw the transition from the city to the railway colony is abrupt and palpably obvious. The houses are neater, more regularly spaced out and the narrow tarmac roads with relatively sparse traffic cannot have changed much over the last  50 years.

There is a 5 foot wall now all along the playing ground and as the auto drove alongside I had no inkling where we were, and so I came upon my old school rather suddenly; inexplicably, it was an emotional moment. The same red brick building still stands, the heavy gate padlocked; a large sign proclaiming 'South East Central Railway Mixed Higher Secondary (English Medium) School' looked like it could do with a fresh coat of paint. A smaller sign warned of  CCTV surveillance – the first indication that some things had changed. An event to mark the departure of the graduating class of 2014 was in progress, allowing us to wander round the school building  and grounds, thanks to the caretaker, Mr Santosh Prasad.

The School has been extended considerably; it  now runs two shifts a day to cope with rising demand,  and the average class size has grown to 40. But there’s still a backlog of 200 kids of railway staff who cannot be accommodated.

The look and feel of the building and class rooms does not prepare me for what came next: this school now has modern IT knitted into its DNA. No more daily attendance sheets and roll calls. Staff and pupils alike sign in using finger print scanners. Minutes after the start time the head master has his day’s attendance figures. An SMS message goes out to the parents of any absent child. CCTV cameras are in every classroom and corridor. I put my right thumb into the scanner just to see what happens; the machine beeped and flashed a message rejecting my input. I may well entertain a misplaced notion of it being 'my old school', but the machine was clear: I did not belong. I thought I had moved on and the school was the same. But the school had moved on too; recognisable, yes; but not recognising its own past. 

No more chalk and blackboard – though they are still there. Every class room has a roll-down white screen and a projector suspended from the ceiling. The teacher plugs his or her laptop  into the school network to access all the teaching material she needs. 

Head Master Mr KK Mishra is very obviously proud of his school. He reels off statistics of his school kids’ achievements, including one girl who represented India at an international sports event. No, the school did not focus solely on cramming, as so many Indian schools do; yes, the emphasis was on all round development; and yes there were  adequate  toilet facilities, separate for boys and girls, and they were subject to a regular cleaning and inspection regime; and of course clean filtered drinking was available from numerous  water points dotted round the school. Amartya Sen and Jen Dreze would be proud. If half of all schools had these facilities then India would be sure to collect the promised demographic dividend.

I walked from the School through the Railway colony. The roads looked and felt the same but I couldn’t be sure of the way. Unexpectedly and rather abruptly I came upon the old bungalow. It’s now the official home of the Divisional Railway Manager, that probably explained the presence of a Railway Protection Force guard at the gates. Structurally its the same, somewhat spruced up and refurbished with air conditioning units slung from the bedroom windows. But the big surprise was the grounds: immaculately maintained lawns with luxuriantly stocked flower beds,  a small central pond,  a swing, scores of flower pots lining the drive way and a floral archway. What an amazing change! Who keeps it all going? I asked. No less than 10 full time staff, they said, some contract workers and some railway staff.

I walked out of the front gate and across the road into the Officers  Club. The badminton court has been extended, the tennis court now has  flood lights and  a new high quality playing surface.  There was a flight of steps that I have no memory of, that took you up on to the flat roof of the club house.  The club house itself was closed and so I shall never know whether the old gramophone player still exists (probably not) but, peering through the glass window I could see something I would never have predicted in 1968 – a row of exercise machines.  

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


It is a good dictum, probably borne out by experience, that says: ‘Never return to a place in your personal history that you have fond memories of.’ 

Human memory is selective. We remember the good bits that happened to us. We filter out the not-so-good or the downright bad parts. That’s probably the explanation for the oft repeated view most people have of the songs and movies ‘in our days’; they are always ‘the best’. Never mind that on any objective and unbiased view there were many things that made us unhappy or left us dissatisfied.

But returning to a place many years later carries the risk of disenchantment. Our memory of it is static, frozen at a time of our selective choosing, while in reality the place we romanticize about has moved on, changed as much as we have, kept up with the times, probably better than we have. The asymmetry between what we expect to see and what we find can be baffling, unsettling, even disillusioning.

So should I return to my old school later this week when I plan to travel to Bilaspur,  the second city of the state of Chattisgarh? For better or worse I am committed and so I thought it would be as well to capture my memories in words before reality hits.

Railway ‘colonies’ in small towns in India were and still are set apart from the rest of the country. Indian Railways is a remarkable organisation; a state run monolith, it not only knits the country together physically and geographically, but also brings together people from all backgrounds, languages, and cultures into a workforce ’family’. And like a family it provides for its own:  doctors and nurses to work in its hospitals, teachers to run the schools it maintains for the children of railway workers, and cultural clubs and institutes for staff and their families. 

In most railway towns you could set off on foot from from the railway station, pass the railway school, drop in at the railway hospital, have a cup of tea in the official canteen in the railway management offices, play a game of badminton or tennis in the railway officer’s club, take in a film at the railway institute. Without breaking sweat. All the while you would walk on narrow single lane black top roads, pass neat rows of terraced houses with curtained windows, and large officers’ bungalows with neat lawns set in expansive grounds.

If you’ve read John Masters’ Bhowani Junction or seen the 1956 film of the same name you would know what a railway township looked like.

Bilaspur was  such a town when I was in school in the 1950s and 60s in what was then the South Eastern Railway – one of 9 zonal Railways. It was a small school and it grew along with me. It was only a middle school at one time but when I was in the senior most year the authorities decided to expand it into a high school by adding on a further year. So for the next 3 years, I remained in the senior year. 

In the graduating class there were only 11 of us.  We effectively worked alongside the teachers; I remember in the final year we spent the first few weeks practically setting up the chemistry and physics labs: We prepared bottles of 0.1 normal solutions hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, unpacked Bunsen burners, variable rheostats, and vernier calipers,  set up  weighing balances. It was fun, more a sense of adventure and involvement and enterprise than of dull and uninteresting lessons.  

And  after school we’d play volleyball with the teachers since neither they nor we had the numbers to make 2 teams. My memory of the library is that it was small but totally accessible and unstaffed. There were no rules; it ran on of trust.  I remember reading both the volumes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories and books. 

Sport was not my thing. Did I make a contribution to the school? Not much, I think but I did at least set up a nascent debating society and recall organising at least one debate. I don’t remember that it was a success.

Evenings were spent in the Railway Officers Club, playing endless table tennis and badminton. I also read every week, cover to cover, Time, and Life magazines; the regular newspapers were from Calcutta (now Kolkata - where South-Eastern Railway had its head quarters); The Statesman, and Ananda Bazar Patrika. It was the mid-sixties and even in small town Bilaspur our sheltered life in school and club was not immune from the major news events of the times: Nehru dying in 1964; the brief war with Pakistan in 1965, and the sudden, unexpected  death of the diminutive Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent in 1966, and the killing of  Martin Luther King in 1968.  But if there was one story that dominated the international news at the time it was Vietnam. I am ashamed to admit that at the time, no doubt owing to what I read, I was suckered into believing that the American GIs were the heroes saving the world from the communist inspired Vietcong.  Not even the now iconic picture of the little naked girl running towards the camera, her back burned with napalm, terror twisting her face into a contortion of pain, awoke me to the real horror and tragedy and injustice of a war unleashed on a small poor country by the richest, most powerful military-industrial nation; such is the power of slanted news coverage, such is the gullibility of a young reader with the more immediate preoccupations of life in a small railway township. Somethings at least don't change: half a century on and America is still at war, the terror and the tragedy and the injustice is, if anything, greater.

I remember too being fascinated by the record player they had in the club; it had an automatic mechanical record changer, so you could place a stack of vinyl records and each would slide into place in turn. Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera, and Connie Francis’  Never on a Sunday were two songs  that played almost continuously. Maybe they were popular at the time, maybe they were the only two records they had; more likely the selective filter of my memory has blotted out all the other songs we heard on that record player.

It is with this mental imagery that, in a couple of days, I shall venture forth into the past; not under any illusions about expecting to see what I remember, but it would be nice at least to find, however improbably, the library where I last left it, or the record player still standing. But then perhaps I should have asked someone at the time to explain to me what Doris Day meant when she sang Que sera sera. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Protests, progress and polemic

Protest is the means by which we progress. No liberty has been gained, no right secured, nor freedom won, without protest of some sort. All protest starts with an awakening, a sense of injustice, grows into a demand that is more often than not denied because those in power would much rather conserve and consolidate their own position. All protest therefore sooner or later grows into a struggle that seeks to calibrate the degree of vigour in the protest movement with the resistance put up by the status quo. Some protests fizzle out, some succeed. If we enjoy any freedoms and rights at all it is because of past protests that have won through. 

The sight of an elected leader of Delhi demostrating on the streets of his own city against a police force run and controlled by the federal government in the Centre must indeed seem odd. The protestors, usually,  are the dispossessed; their target, usually, is the established state or institutional power. 

So by sitting down on the street and holding a cabinet meeting in his car was Arvind Kejriwal behaving like an elected Chief Minister of Delhi or, as the press and many commentators called him, like an anarchist?

Is it anarchy for an elected leader to take to the streets? 

That depends on who you are and how much power and privilege and comfort you derive from the status quo ante.
Chetan Bhagat (an author with some mediocre literary talent, but enough to gain him a right to pop up on television with his views) decries the tactics of street protest used by the Aam Aadmi Party. But that is because he and the people who move in his circles would rather the prevailing situation continued. They would, wouldn't they?

But if you're a slum dweller in the city or a street worker at the mercy of the police, you would see this as a legitimate aandolan for your rights. What we are witnessing in India is the result of years of lopsided economic and social development in which the majority has been left behind, carried along only by false promises made every 5 years by a conniving kleptocratic class of politician; denied their due, instead offered tidbits: a quota here and a handout there.

These politicians have built and run a system of civil administration that functions only to keep the masses in their place. As a result, education, public health, infrastructure for transport, travel, electricity, water and sanitation serve, to the extent they function at all, only the minority; police and and the criminal justice system work only in the service of their political masters. 

Suddenly this arrangement - cosy for the elite, burdensome for many, and desperate for the mass at the bottom of the heap - is coming under challenge. For those on the lower rungs this is not anarchy. It is a revolt against the oppressive regime that prevailed. It is an on-going protest. It may yet fizzle out but that would be the bigger tragedy.  

Friday, 17 January 2014

Suchitra Sen

Suchitra Sen, 82, died 17 Jan 2013. 

Remember Aandhi? The 1975 Gulzar movie? 

I had just finished my internship, perhaps a house job or two. I remember the film made an impression on me. It was not the usual boy-meets-girl run-around. It had a grown up theme, love unsanctioned by social mores; separation under societal pressure; a strong woman determined to make her way in a man's dirty world of ruthless politics; no room for personal life, much less for the consummation of love and romance. I thought Sen was a complete and mature actor. Sanjeev Kumar was good but without question she was the star; she stormed Aandhi.

Now, when reading about her illness, her stay in a Kolkata hospital's intensive care unit, with the news reporting each development - 'stable but critical' what the hell does that phrase mean? - and amplifying the false hope of a new team of medical experts, I think not like a movie-goer but like a health policy commentator. Was it all necessary? 

For ultimately she endured the futility of the sort of critical intensive care that old and infirm people with fatal illnesses are subjected to in India especially if they are well off and get into the clutches of private hospitals; doctors scurrying round pretending she would recover and go home; experts called in to advise even more invasive interventions than those that failed. 

In Aandhi the film, Aarti, once she had become a successful politician could not embrace the man she had separated from - the man who was the father of her daughter - for fear of public and electoral rejection. In life, Sen could not reject a medical care system that took away her dignity. In death, we can all embrace her memory. 


Friday, 27 December 2013

Aam Aadmi Arvind Kejriwal

In a decade or two from now, if he does not make a serious mistake, and given a fair wind of good luck, Arvind Kejriwal may well come to be seen as the man who put India on the path to greatness.

A year after formally launching his Aam Aadmi Party he has won an unprecedented victory in the Delhi State Elections. With 28 out of 70 seats he may not have a majority but the upset caused to India’s usual vote-bank based electoral calculations is justification enough to kindle genuine expectations ( rather than mere hope) of sustainable change in the decrepit state of governance in India’s body politic.

Is it a flash in the pan? Is it just a protest vote? Time will tell but for now a lot will depend on delivery of electoral promises. No doubt the mainstream parties will do their best and their worst to discredit an AAP led Government in Delhi.If hope is not to be snuffed out even before it has begun then AAP will have to learn a few simple lessons in the art of survival while delivering policies based on the simple but intractable idea of good clean honest and open governance.

1. Running a government is very different from mounting a campaign. In a campaign you speak to people who want you to win and as long as you can attract supporters your job is done. In government you have to deliver, and if that involves changing the existing system then you’be better take heed of what Machiaveli said:

there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.

Delivering policy objectives when in power means making choices, and there will always be someone who feels hard done by. Doing the right thing and then explaining to the disgruntled why they can’t see the benefits is the best you can do.

2.  It is better to under-promise and over deliver. Two or 3  years from now it may well  be the case that you’ve delivered 7 out of 10 campaign promises. But if your detractors can argue that the 3 you’ve failed to deliver are the ones that matter most, then your term in office can come to be seen as a failure. In the new system of transparency of information that AAP is promoting there will be no hiding place. So its as well to manage expectations, even as you prepare to deliver promises.

3.There is nothing Aam or common about being in power. It’s a privilege and the office is both high and important.  So I don’t understand Arvind’s Kejriwal’s apparent refusal of an official residence, car and security. Think ahead, what will happen when the Mayor of Shanghai, say, comes calling on an official visit. Besides, an emphasis on being a humble commoner can come to be seen as mere posturing. The office is more than the individual occupying it and so long as you can keep the two separate its not only okay but even essential that the symbols of power are wielded to good effect. 

4.  Use the power of the market to deliver your policy promises.  This is always better than trying to employ and directly control the staff you need to deliver services. And spend the time to develop intelligent solutions that achieve more than one policy objective. A case in point is electricity tariffs. AAP’s promise to cut the electricity tariff by 50% is flawed because it tries to do what markets do best. It would have been much better to have promised a policy goal of ‘affordability’ by the bottom 25% of the population. To achieve this AAP would not have needed to either blame the distribution companies or do an expensive audit of their accounts. Simply  make it a condition that the first few  essential units of power must be charged at a price that the bottom 5 or 10% can afford. After that let the market decide the price. By having a graded tariff that allows companies to charge more from more prolific consumers, AAP could have at once placated the environment lobby, met its real objective of making power affordable, and achieved the progressive goal of the rich subsidising the poor.

5. Resist the superficial attractions of political vendetta. It may be appropriate to try and right past wrongs by the erstwhile regime, but investigating leaders of the last regime sets the wrong precedent.  Commissions of enquiries and probes by judges or the CBI have never delivered  justice. If anything they lead to litigation, acrimony and counter accusation and counter probes. The previous regime has been judged by the electorate and kicked out. That is verdict enough.

Start as you mean to go on and make a clean break with the past and announce a set of measures to ensure all future spending decisions are free of the taint of corruption. Publish details of expenditures incurred and of contracts awarded. Better still insist on all cabinet members and senior officials declaring their assets to an independent body in advance of the new government taking charge. It is better to prepare for the next election battle than to refight the last one.

6. Finally, coalition is not a dirty word. Politics is the art of the possible, and sometimes nothing is possible without allies. The key is openness and transparency even when deals are struck that you would rather have done without. It is important for Arvind Kejriwal to keep in mind that the real change he has wrought thus far lies in the hope he has kindled that a better cleaner, more responsive form of politics is possible. To set that hope firmly on the path to realisation he doesn't have to do everything at once. How he governs and the value systems he embeds is every bit as important as the results he achieves on the ground.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The criminalisation of homosexuality

The decision by the Indian Supreme Court on 11 Dec 2013 to uphold the constitutional validity of Sec 377 of the Indian Penal Code – and thus once again criminalise consensual homosexual acts -  has reopened the debate in India and elsewhere.

The judgement overturned a 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court that Sec. 377 of the Indian Penal Code was discriminatory against the gay community. It was for Parliament to decide, the country's highest court said, not for judges to make the law. Surprisingly for a Court that has taken an activist position on many other issues, on this question it decided to go conservative. 

Sec 377 of the IPC violates an important liberal principle of law making and for that reason alone it needs urgently to be repealed.

Law making
We need laws in order to regulate society and the economy. These laws are broadly of two sorts, they are either restrictive in some way, i.e they proscribe certain acts and activities that we might want to do; or they place a duty on us to act in a certain way under a given set of circumstances. All restrictive laws – don’t drink and drive, don’t assault someone and so on – inherently interfere with our personal liberties - our freedom to go about our lives as we see fit. Two essential criteria for a restrictive law therefore are: 1) We must be satisfied that any personal liberty that it constrains is justified by the protection it affords to someone else’s rights. As a corollary, no individual liberty should be infringed by a law unless the exercise of that liberty hurts or harms someone else or infringes another's legitimate right.  2) that by making the law and by the process of implementing it there is not likely to be more harm than good. Personal prejudice has no place in deciding which laws to enact.  

Does Sec 377 measure up?
Sec 377 fails on both counts. It infringes the rights of homosexuals in a dramatic manner by  making  it a criminal act to have consensual sex. But does it meet the first criterion? Does it protect someone else’s rights? Clearly so long as same sex relationships are both consensual and confined to the privacy of the bedroom, it is hard to see how anyone’s rights are infringed. Right wing religious groups that appealed to the Supreme Court would argue that they are offended by what they regard as unnatural sex.

This is a fundamentally flawed argument: there is no such thing as the right not to be offended.  So long as the act that offends takes place in the privacy of someone’s bedroom then any offence taken is entirely in the mind of those outside it. There is good reason why it would be dangerous to accept a right not to be offended by someone else’s private behaviour as a basis of state enforced legislative or executive action. Each of us has his or her own set of prejudices and while we are free to hold those views we have no right to impose them on others.  If this principle was held firmly then we wouldn’t have to give in to illiberal demands to ban books or films just because some group or other decided to take offence when they had both the choice and the right to ignore whatever it was that so offended them.

The second criterion is more nuanced. If there were public benefit or some societal good to emerge from a law that restricts individual rights and freedoms then there is an argument to be made for such a law. Legislation aimed at curbing smoking for example, or a tax that discourages alcohol or fatty food consumption fall into this category.

But in the case of Sec 377, the overwhelming evidence is that a law that criminalises consensual homosexual acts actually causes a great deal of harm to society as a whole. Across India some 50 million people will be denied the opportunity to live their lives as they wish. Their sexual lives will be driven underground. They will have to pretend to be something they are not, subject to arbitrary persecution and exploitation by the police, marry against their will an innocent person of the opposite gender simply to keep up the pretense, and lead a life a fear, denial and despair. 

And there is a further twist that is peculiar to the Indian context. The fact that our police and criminal justice system are both inept and corrupt, the law is often used to threaten, harass, persecute and exploit the people. Such malafide action is helped by the fact that an allegation of engaging in 'unnatural sexual acts'  is difficult to disprove.    

Simply put Sec. 377 infringes personal liberties and causes harm to wider society. The activity that Sec 377 proscribes - consensual homosexual acts in no way harms or hurts any third party, not does it impinge upon any right of any other person. Any offense taken by unconnected people is based on a personal prejudice that they should deal with without recourse to the law.  Denying freedom to some people because of a baseless prejudice held by a vocal segment of society is a step nearer to the state pandering to bigotry.

India’s Parliament should act to free its people from a law that has been overturned in the country that introduced it 152 years ago when it ruled India as its colony.