Thursday, 28 October 2010

Killer Buses or Killer Drivers?

So the Delhi government is going to phase out the notorious Blueline buses from 14 December. It is, we are told, a step towards improving the safety of Delhi-ites.
Delhi's transport minister Arvinder Singh Lovely was quoted in the Hindustan Times as saying "I cannot leave the residents of Delhi at the mercy of the Blueline bus drivers." In The Times of India he pointed out that the Blueline buses had been off the roads in most of Delhi during the Commonwealth Games but within days of their resuming service, one person had been killed by a Blueline.
I contest this belief that removing Blueline buses from Delhi's roads will reduce fatal road accidents by bus drivers.  In fact, I find this line of reasoning quite, quite ridiculous.
Are these buses on autopilot which malfunction and leads to them running amok on Delhi roads and killing people? Obviously not. The buses are driven rashly by drivers. Take Bluelines off the roads and these drivers, who will be jobless, will get employment driving some other kind of bus or alternative to the Blueline or some commercial vehicle. What is the guarantee that they will not drive rashly then? (I blame my profession, the media, for some of this facile conclusions. In their search for catchy titles, they end up making non-issues the central issue. Killer Bluelines. Killer BMWs. But never killer bus drivers, killer rich brats). Wouldn't Delhi roads be safer by not allowing such killers to drive, rather than removing buses (which can't move on their own) from the roads? Or suspending the permits of the owners of these buses? But these are politically difficult steps, since the bus owners have enormous clout - political and monetary - and can bail themselves and their drivers out of any problem. So do the easiest - and most foolish thing - take buses off.
We've already had experience of the futility of these kind of bans. First there were Redline buses introduced in 1992 when DTC drivers went on strike and the government decided to bring in private operators. These buses were also death on wheels - they notched up a huge number of accidents. According to Hindustan Times, in one year alone they killed 300 persons. The next year, the Redlines were taken off the roads. Then Blueline buses were introduced. And the killer story was being repeated.
So clearly taking one set off buses off the roads did not help. And it will not help even now.
Unless you change the people driving these buses. The same drivers were driving these buses. And under the same system of operation. The Blueline buses are not under the DTC but get permits from the Transport Department to ply on certain designated routes. I am not clear what the business model is, but the owners want to do the maximum number of trips and so drivers are under pressure because of which they drive rashly (I am not justifying or rationalising their behaviour, merely identifying the root cause).
Has thought been given to this when working out an alternative to Bluelines? I suspect not.
There are alternative that people talk about - a corporatised private bus fleet, a revival of the km scheme (the DTC used to have a scheme long before Redlines were first introduced under which privately-owned buses were driven by an employee of the bus owner but had DTC conductors who gave out DTC tickets. The bus owners were paid on the basis of km and the age of the bus. But this too had its share of problems.)
If the alternative arrangements are going to be just another variation of the current system, then we will have killer drivers - I will not use the term killer buses - back on Delhi's roads.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Selective about Scams

Much is being made of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi snubbing the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee honcho Suresh Kalmadi, under fire for mismanagement and corruption).
This is the first sign of the government’s resolve that it will not let the guilty in all the Games-related scams go unpunished. The country was assured that action would be taken immediately after the Games and that seems to have started (the logic behind not axing Kalmadi and other scam-tainted people earlier was that it was too close to the Games and that the event would suffer).
So why am I not too impressed by the cold-shouldering of Kalmadi.
For one, because it has come too late. That things were wrong with the way the Games were being organized were evident one year earlier when the government brought in several IAS officers into the Organising Committee to get things going after Michael Fennel, head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, publicly criticised delay in October 2009 (see this story: Whispers about scams were doing the rounds long before the media got evidence of it and splashed it. So why wasn’t action taken then instead of waiting for media exposes and then expressing helplessness two months before the Games? 
And the real test will be - not the social boycott of Kalmadi - but actually bringing all the guilty to book and not making scapegoats of some, while others get away.
There is, however, a larger second point I want to make.
Why haven’t the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi snubbed other politicos at the centre of corruption charges?
The most glaring example, of course, is telecom minister A Raja, whose name crops up in the context of the 2G spectrum allocation scam, which is expected to cost the exchequer Rs 60,000 crore. Forget socially boycotting him, the Prime Minister takes Raja into the UPA-2 cabinet in the same ministry as he held in the UPA-1 cabinet, which is when the scam occurred. Giving a scam-tainted minister another ministry is hardly an attack on corruption, but it would have given this government some semblance of respectability. But no, even that was denied to this country.
If that weren’t bad enough, look at what happened on the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner. The CVC is to be appointed by a panel that includes the Leader of the Opposition. This is to bring in a measure of impartiality into the appointment prevent charges of the CVC – who heads an office which has a crucial in checking corruption – being the stooge of the government of the day. But the following story will illustrate how even this important requirement is being treated in a cavalier fashion by none other than Manmohan Singh.
Sushma Swaraj – the Leader of the Oppostion – was called on Friday to a meeting with the Prime Minister and home minister (the panel to select the CVC) and presented with three names for the CVC’s post. She said she had no objection to two of the names but pointed out problems with the name of P J Thomas. She gave her reasons – not only did Thomas’ name figure in a scam in Kerala (he belongs to the Kerala cadre of the IAS) but more importantly, he was telecom secretary under Raja and, as CVC, would have to probe the 2G scandal. The Prime Minister and the home minister said they wanted Thomas. She said they could choose any of the other two. They didn’t agree. She then suggested that the panel of names be widened so that they had more choice. But they said there was no time to do that, since the new CVC was to be sworn in on Tuesday. She pointed out that there was time till Monday. But they didn’t agree and wanted to finalise Thomas’ name that day itself. At which point, she remarked that they didn’t just want his name finalized that day, but that very moment. Prithviraj Chavan, the minister of state in charge of personnel, public grievances and pension, and asked him to prepare a letter appointing Thomas as CVC. Swaraj then insisted on recording her dissent. Swaraj has gone public with this sequence of events and the government hasn’t really contradicted it.
Maybe the BJP’s fears that Thomas may scuttle the probe will prove unfounded; maybe Thomas may prove to be impartial. But the manner in which Thomas was appointed does make one uncomfortable.
If the government did not want the other two retired bureaucrats to be CVC why did it include their names in the panel? Clearly the government had made up its mind to appoint Thomas and expected the Opposition to go along with it silently. Unfortunately, because the main opposition party is the BJP, others are not raising enough of a stink.
What is this if not a sham and a mockery of the principle behind making it necessary to get the approval of the Leader of the Opposition? Is the Leader of the Opposition meant to rubber stamp the government’s choices on crucial appointments?
So far from boycotting Raja, the government appears to be going out on a limb to protect him.
In the light of this, the snub to Kalmadi is laughable. And the flurry of action against the Games-related scams evokes only a cynical sneer.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no sympathies for Kalmadi; I think he represents all that is wrong with Indian politics and sports (I am giving a link to a story we did in The Telegraph on the way Kalmadi has risen to dominate Indian sports
But this crusade against corruption in the Games will ring true only if it extends to ALL scams. We cannot afford to be selective about scams. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Demolition and The Verdict

After seeing my earlier post, a friend asked how I felt as a person when all that was happening.

This was something an RSS functionary had asked me some time after that tumultuous day in 1992. And I am giving the same reply I gave him - I first reacted as a journalist and I was excited - after all there was action; history was being made and I was there to report it; and above all, my story was right.

Let me elaborate.

I was working for a weekly newspaper, Sunday Mail, back then. The paper went to press on Friday evening and my story for Sunday was to be filed by Friday afternoon. On the basis of whatever I had got from November 30 (when I had reached Faizabad/Ayodhya) and December 4, my story (which was the lead) had said `Kar seva will mean construction' and detailed how the sadhus and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders had upped the ante.

But on Saturday afternoon, at a press conference, almost the very same people had assured that the kar seva would be symbolic and peaceful. I was worried - after all my story was going to be wrong!! All the other dailies had that as the headline. Mine was going to be the only one that said trouble was afoot.

So I was a bit low on December 5 evening and December 6 morning. Journalists had been given I-cards to go to the top of Manas Bhavan, which overlooked the kar seva site. But with nothing happening, many of us wandered down and positioned ourselves around the kar seva site.

So when the first stones stared being thrown at the Babri Masjid and it became obvious that there was going to be trouble, I was relieved (that my story wasn't entirely wrong) and excited. My first thought, I must admit, was `thank God my story is vindicated.' Vicarious, but true.

As I rushed around with other journalists trying to take in as much of what was happening as I could, I was only a journalist gathering information on a live event. I couldn't even react to the momentousness of the situation.

But later, after we were all holed up in Sitaji ki Rasoi, not being able to move around or even take notes (as the earlier post describes) the import of what was happening struck me.

This was the first time I was seeing mobs up close. I had seen mobs during the 1984 riots but from a distance, so never got the frenzy on their faces like I did in Ayodhya. I shivered and the cold of December had nothing to do with it. As I heard the first dome fall, I felt strange. There was a numbness within me.

That was the first time I was reacting as a person. And like I told the RSS functionary, I felt very sad. I just knew what was happening was wrong.

I felt even more sad when we were being taken back to Faizabad (where we were all staying) and saw diyas lit in practically every house, and the next day when a few of us managed to return to Ayodhya (from Faizabad where we were all staying) and saw that the looming black structure was no longer there. A few days before, I had been inside Babri Masjid; now there was only a skyline where it stood.

The sadness intensified as I moved around Ayodhya, probably on Tuesday, and found the house of Mohammed Hashim Ansari, one of the litigants in the case that was decided by the Allahabad High Court on Thursday, burnt, as were shops of Muslim artisans who made padukas. Mosques had also been damaged.

This was not the way the problem should have been resolved. I didn't have an answer then and don't have an answer now to the question - how should it have been resolved.

And there was anger - with politicians and community leaders on both sides, as well as the intellectuals who have stoked the fires in their own way.

They are still doing it. The two main parties have responded to the judgement with maturity. There's nothing to be said about Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, who are talking about Muslims feeling betrayed. They are irresponsible politicians who will never turn responsible.

But look at the statements from are the so-called intellectuals, who are talking in the same vein, some going so far as to say they feel like second-class citizens in India. These are provocative statements, guaranteed to stoke trouble. The average Muslims don't care about the masjid (just as the average Hindu doesn't really care about the mandir). They have other problems to deal with. Why are these people fomenting trouble where none exists?

The Sunni Wakf Board has decided to contest the judgement in the Supreme Court. It would have been best for these people to leave it at that. The appeal process and the final judgement may take years. Statements like these only serve to create wounds and lacerate them constantly.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Memories of 6 December 1992

I finally found clippings of the stories I had done from Ayodhya in December 1992. Scanning them and putting them up will take time so I keyed in the blow by blow account of the demolition that I had written for Sunday Mail, for which I was then working.
The only changes I have made relate to punctuation. Some interpolations (to explain things for readers now) are in brackets and italicised.
Here goes:

Blow by blow account of operation demolition
Sunday Mail December 13-19, 1992

6 am. December 6. I woke up to the faint sounds of Jai Shree Ram and bhajans in Faizabad. Groups of kar sevaks with saffron head-bands and scarves were trekking their way to Ayodhya, seven km away. Faizabad residents were out on their balconies to encourage them and give them refreshments. There was a look of eager anticipation on all faces as they walked down the roads greeting each other.
In Ayodhya, the atmosphere was festive. I could hear the town before I reached it. Bhajans and Jai Shree Rams resounded through the town. On the streets, all I could see were saffron-splashed kar sevaks with large tilaks on their foreheads, some of them dancing on the roads. It was like Holi day when people go around in groups chanting Holi hai. One saffron-coloured mini bus with kar sevaks wound its way through the town with its loudspeaker playing the bhajan, "sri ram jai ram jai jai ram" followed by a jeepful of policemen, some of them clapping their hands in time to the music. Ayodhya children, sitting on the verandas of their houses were also singing the bhajan.
But amidst all this apparent goodwill, there was a discordant note. Some kar sevaks were shouting provocative slogans: "hamari ladayi kisse hai, Babar ke santhanon se" and "teen nahin ab teez hazaar, nahin rahegi koi mazaar".
10 am. BJP leaders L. K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi arrived in a cavalcade. As they get out of their cars, they were mobbed but managed to get to Ram Katha Kunj, from where they were to make their speeches.
Seen from atop Manas Bhavan (where the journalists were to watch the kar seva from) which adjoins the disputed atmosphere, there was a carnival-like atmosphere at the entire complex. As if to match the sunny weather, the sadhus and sants were dressed in robes the colours of which ranged from canary yellow to deep saffron. On the platform (chabootra) built during the kar seva in July, a group of sants and mahants were performing puja which was presided over by Jagadguru Shankaracharya Swami Basudevacharya Saraswati of Jyotishmath. Also on the platform were Mahant Paramhans, president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, Mahant Avaidyanath and Ashok Singhal., the VHP leaders. To the far left, under tents, kar sevaks were lined up state-wise. They were supposed to march in that order to the kar seva site, carrying fistfuls of Saryu mud, according to the programmed decided upon. Rehearsals for this orderly programme had taken place on Saturday.
At one end of the disputed site, near the Sakshi Gopal Mandir, kar sevaks who were not included in this programme began straining at thei iron barricades and pushing thir way to the site. The PAC constables on duty and sadhus kept pushing them back. One tall, bearded, strapping sadhu, Abhiram Pehalwan, stood out among them, running after the unruly kar sevaks, slapping them, hitting them with a lathi, catching them by the scruff of their collars and literally dragging them out of the area.
The barricade finally gave way and the kar sevaks danced their way in amidst cheers and whistles. Chanting Jai Shree Ram and shouting slogans of "mandir vahin banayenge", they danced, some doing the Amitabh Bachchan jig for the benefit of the photographers. The sadhus tried to get them to sit down but in cain. Finally they appealed to the photographers to leave in order to help them maintain discipline. RSS workers in their khakhi half-pants were then brought in to make the kar sevaks leave but even they had to give up. They began repairing the iron barricades instead. Peace seemed to have been restored.
11.30 am. RSS volunteers, wearing bright yellow headbands, rushed in and cleared the place of kar sevaks in seconds. But at the barricades, there were heated arguments between the two groups. The mood had turned ugly and tense.
Just then, a group of swamis entered the area. The unruly kar sevaks rushed back along with them. This time, some were carrying bricks and iron rods. They had scuffles with
RSS workers who warned photographers not to click. Utter chaos prevailed. Some sadhus, Abhiram Pehelwan again the most prominent, began hitting out at the mob, snatching lathis from PAC constables and using them. But it was clear that the situation had gone beyond control. The PAC deployed there stood watching impassively as did the CRPF jawans in the security corridor leading to the Babri Masjid.
11.50 am. Debabrata Thakur of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika, a Swiss journalist (Bernard Imhalsy, as I was to learn later) and me were watching all this from a mound next to the security corridor, which was barricaded by steel rods. Suddenly we heard a clattering sound. "They're stoning the masjid," said Debu and we rushed there slipping through the barricades and past bemused CRPF jawans. As were reached the masjid wall, we saw the first of the kar sevaks clambering on to the building.
12 noon. 15 minutes before the scheduled kar seva was to begin. Many more were climbing the hillock on which the masjid was situated from the sides and the back. When we reached the exit arch in the outer wall, the kar sevaks had already gained entry. CRPF and PAC jawans tried to hit them with lathis but it proved ineffective. The force was hopelessly outnumbered.
A trembling senior superintendent of police, D. B. Rai, panic writ large on his face, was saying to no one in particular, "fire tear gas, fire tear gas". As we went in through the gate, the kar sevaks had climbed on to the dome to the sounds of much cheering. The women CRPF constables rushed out first, all of them looking scared. As I went in to get photographs of kar sevaks on the dome, all Debu could say was, "Seetha, take off your shoes."
Within minutes, the CRPF gave up the fight. The video camera kept there was overturned and smashed. The constables came out with their cane shields and ran down the stairs. A CRPF jawan's shoe came hurting past my ear. Debu got hit on his hand by a brick. We took cover behind the CRPF shields and rushed down. All of us were quickly taken into the adjoining Sita ki Rasoi complex where the police control room was stationed.
We went up to the terrace and watched the street separating the building from the masjid complex. The street and the open ground in front of the masjid were teeming with kar sevaks. All one could hear were whistles and Jai Shree Rams, as saffron flags were put up on the central dome. Kar sevaks jumped and danced around.
Operation Demolition now got under way. Pick-axes and stone breakers (iron rods) with which the kar sevaks had come prepared were used to attack the structure. Some kar sevaks started tearing down the steel rods and barbed wire fencing at the bottom of the hillock and the uprooted poles, bricks etc were also being used as crude implements. CRPF posts were tossed down like toys. Ropes were tied to the by-now heavily damaged outer wall and sections of it were pulled down by those below the hillock. Every time a portion came down, there was wild rejoicing.
Anybody and everybody pitched in - the young and the middle-aged, jean-clad youth and half-clad sadhus. But they all had the same frenzied look on their faces as they destroyed or merely cheered the destroyers on.
Ayodhya residents, the less active kar sevaks and the inactive police watched the proceedings from the open ground behind Sitaji ki Rasoi and from their rooftops. Many of them and journalists were on the terrace of this complex. When I was talking to BJP MP, Brigadier Khanduri (who later became the chief minister of Uttarkhand), a woman kar sevak saw me taking notes and threatened me with a brick, asking me to leave. After this, all the journalists present had to put their notebooks away and pretend to be kar sevaks, wherever possible. Cameras had already been put away.
S. C. Dixit, BJP MP from Varanasi who has now been entrusted with the task of enquiring into the violence, was there. The parents of the Kothari brothers from Calcutta, who had hoisted the saffron flag on the masjid in 1990, were also present.
So were tense police and administration officials who went into a huddle. "Tear gas karen ya firing," one asked. "Firing nahin," said another before he noticed nosey reporters surrounding them and shamelessly eavesdropping. They moved away.
More journalists had come in for shelter, most of them photographers and film crew who had been attacked. Everyone sat around glumly, making plans about getting out and reaching Faizabad.
2.45 pm. There was a rumbling sound, followed by wild cheering. The first dome had fallen. The wanton destruction went on. One could just about make out individual sounds - metal striking stone, stone striking stone, metal striking metal, whistles, changes, bhajans, speeches on the microphone. The combined din was unbearable. An hour later the second dome fell. The cheering grew louder. Injured car sevaks were being taken out.
Meanwhile, Advani and Vijayaraje Scindia, who were watching the events from the terrace of the Ram Katha Kunj building which overlooks the open ground, appealed to the kar sevaks over the microphone, asking them to leave the complex. No one paid any heed. However, between their speeches, Sadhvi Rithambara read out an incendiary poem from the same platform asking the kar sevaks to raise clenched fists and repeat the chorus after her. She got a vociferous response. An hour earlier, another woman on the mike, presumably Uma Bharti, had exhorted kar sevaks to squat on the roads leading to Faizabad so that Central forces would not be able to reach Ayodhya. There did not appear to be any attempt to restrain them.
The journalists were hungry. One woman reporter went out with a policemen and got some fruits. Others wrapped saffron scarves and went to the nearby Manas Bhavan,where a langar was on, to get puris and alu. There the kar sevaks and those doling out the food were asking one another: "how much has fallen?' it was like following a cricket match.
A kar sevak from Madras brought a message that three foreign journalists had taken shelter with them in a nearby dharamshala. A police escort was sent ot bring them back.
4.45 pm. The central dome fell. There was unlimited uninhibited jubilation. People danced around in joyous abandon. There was a look of ecstasy on all faces. Two kar sevaks hugged each other and cried. Their friend had died during the 1990 kar seva. "Jis kaam ke liye aaye the voh ho gayee," people said. "Mubarak ho," they greeted one another. It was all over.
An hour later, the journalists holed up in Sitaji ki Rasoi were escorted out to CRPF trucks and taken back to Faizabad.