Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bangus - a paradise awaiting demise?

"Fragile Paradise -Tourism plans threaten livelihoods and ecosystem in the Bangus plains."

When I read this headline caption in an article on the Frontline magazine, a strange emotion came over me. I happen to carry some beautiful memories of the time I spent in these serene "mountain plains", with a small and closely knit team of twenty energetic men.
I felt as if the gate to paradise, access to which until now had been restricted to a select few has been thrown open to all and sundry. Though I must confess to feeling oddly possessive, the main reason for my discomfort was knowledge of of the fact that the idyllic splendour of Bangus would soon give way to a tourist infested hot-spot.

Lokut Bangus ... as I saw it in October 2001.(This photograph was shot with a kodak point and shoot film camera).

It is near imossible to comprehend the Elysian uniqueness of this haven without having experienced it in person. I will however make an attempt to give a brief account of our stay there and the affect it had on us.

Our team was camping in a place called dudhi .... almost equidistant from the towns of Tangdhar, Kupwara and Handwara .. at an altitude of around 3200 metres. The only symbols of habitation there were a few "bahaks"or huts constructed with fallen deodhar logs, one of which served as our dwelling. Once... as we were sitting on a grassy spur casually studying the area from a map, we spotted a couple of elongated patches devoid of any contours. The fact that these plains were in high altitude, ignited my curiosity and we set out early morning the next day.

The first sight of bangus from an adjoining crest was breathtaking ..... the fatigue caused by three hours of climbing vanished in a moment.In front of us was a seemingly endless lush green valley ( a golfer's delight) ..... the gradient climbing gradually onto the neighbouring mountains. It seemed as if we were standing on the edge of a huge bowl ....the rim of which was marked by snow capped peaks and sides decorated with tall deodhar and pine trees.The gap between the tree line and snow was barren , giving the bowls a layered and organised look. The two major bowls in the area were called the Bod (big) Bangus and Lokud (small) Bangus. There was something in the air here, which made you forget your worries and captivate your consciosness. One has no option left, but to be in the present.

A few bahaks were lying dispersed .... one of which we saw was occupied. A teenaged sheperd was singing away in Kashmiri even while supervising the grazing cattle. During summers and the harvest seasons people from the neighbouring villages send their cattle to the mountains to graze, duly entrusted to a sheperd. Some families even moved lock-stock-barrel to their earmarked bahaks and went back to their village houses only in winters. It was amazing to see their self-sufficient livelihood and that their requirements were minimal even while residing so close to modern civilisation.

The fragility of both the ecology and economy in the area was obvious. Nature had ensured restricted entry, a few mountain passes being the only routes in . The government now plans to develop the area as a tourist destination. A road is being cut through the Neel Dori pass, the shortest route to handwara and a few hotel projects are in the pipeline. They are obviously blind to the fact that the beauty of the region lies in it's isolation. It is the solitude that one relishes here. I am not saying that tourists be kept away from the place ..... but only that let only those willing to lug their back-packs and trek a few miles be allowed in. An ideal solution.. don't you think? I hope Mr Azad is listening.

(There is another reason why I hold Bangus dear to my heart. It is in the adjoining forests that we lost one of our dear colleagues. Sandeep was merely twenty years old and full of zeal. I dedicate this post to his memory).

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The National "Shashti Poorthi"

15th August 2007.We are celebrating the National "Shashti Purthi" today. Sixty years after India woke up as an Independent Nation, it is time to pause briefly and carry out a retrospective analysis, a mid-course correction before commencing the onward journey. Do we have enough reason to celebrate? Have we done enough to justify the idealistic dreams of our founding fathers? Some quick (not hasty) contemplation brought me the answers .... a modest "yes" and a resounding "NO".

Let us begin on a positive note. We have been able to sustain ourselves as a relatively stable democracy after having to dribble across potentially volatile situations on a regular basis. This is nothing short of a miraculous achievement. Secondly, our National economy has huffed and puffed its way towards respectability. These accomplishments seem substantial when surveyed from a distance. However, if functional governance and Gross National Happiness (GNH) are taken as indices, the picture might not turn out to be so rosy.

We are a nation of "high-potential individuals" suffering from an array of malignancies induced by "self-esteem deficiency" and an addiction to "self enforced mediocrity". Let us accept this fact with (more than) a pinch of salt, as acceptance is a pre-requisite to corrective action.

Where did we falter and what are the probable remedies? Is a quick clinical surgery the solution or should we go in for a prolonged treatment akin to the "full body cleansing" carried out in Ayurveda? I suggest the latter.

(I) We have almost criminally erred in the spheres of education, health-care and governance. Govenment funded schools and hospitals are grossly inadequate in terms of staff, funds and amenities. The state of our highways, power & water supply and civic services is just short of pathetic. Here are some suggested remedies:-

1. Eventhough there is no single solution for all these ailments, freedom from governmental control is a necessary medication. Where completely privatising basic services is not practicable, a balanced public-private partnership may be the answer.

2. Accountability of government servants has to be ensured. Certain strict parameters have to be set in each field and individuals/agencies made answerable for not meeting laid down standards.

3. Corruption has to be dealt with strictly and the offenders punished in public view. Corruption at the functional level does tremendous harm to the psyche of the common man as compared to institutionalised corruption at higher levels.

4. Government agencies/departments should have powers to summarily punish non-performers and give incentives to the worthy.

5. Officers need to be paid better..... atleast close to their counterparts in the private sector.There is no other way to maintain standars of calibre.

6. All departments must be provided good quality equipment as required by them to perform their tasks safely , efficiently and with dignity. (for eg. - all muncipal cleaners/ sweepers should have overalls, gum-boots and related kit; all schools should have requisite furniture, teaching aids, labs, hygienic toilets and most importantly qualified teachers).

(II) I am convinced that success in two essential areas can radically transform the energy levels in our country.Firstly, inculcating a strong value system in children through schools and social institutions. Secondly, inducing a positive work culture in our society. These are by no means simple tasks, but even if partially accomplished will serve as apt investment for the future of our country.We need to overcome our "chalta hai" attitude and learn to respect excellence. Every individual should take pride in his own work and try to be perfect in his domain.

(III) Obsession with "cost-cutting" (you may call it the "lowest-bidder syndrome") is a major cause of poor standards of equipment and services.

Imagine well turned out policemen efficiently managing traffic on a puddle-less eight-lane highway in your town .....imagine getting your passport within a week of filing the application, without having to "warm his pockets" .......imagine .. imagine .. imagine ....all of it is possible. Let us all stop cribbing till 15 August 2008 and do all that is supposed to be done by a good citizen... and not take our freedom for granted ..... next time an officer asks you for a bribe , don't crib your way back home with an empty wallet ... have the spunks to waste your time and take him to court.

There is definite reason for hope.....there is no dearth of patriotism in our countrymen and it is not that people don't feel mortified when climbing up a pothole on a National Highway or when confronted with a corrupt official while trying to acquire a driving license. It is only that we are often unable to wriggle out of our private realms.

Being an eternal optimist I have an intuitive feeling that the tipping-point is in the vicinity ..... the only factor lacking is leadership.We need a dynamic leader who can affect the conscience of the masses in a Gandhisque fashion .... and ignite a national revolution for change ... who merely has to stand up at the Red Fort and give out "do's and don'ts" for the Nation to follow blindly. Let us all pray hard to the Almighty to despatch HIM/HER forthwith... and even while waiting for him/her to descend, do all our duties as citizens of this great Country.....JAI HIND...

Listen to our Father of the Nation