Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sikkim and me

An earthquake of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale hit Sikkim this month, bringing back memories of my visit to Sikkim in this same season last year. Reports suggest hundreds of people have died, with inaccessibility of the region and difficult terrain hampering rescue operations. In several cases, entire villages have been obliterated, leaving no one around even to count the dead.

“Inaccessible” is a gross understatement. Sikkim has no Airport, though one is currently under construction. The state has no railway, not even of the “toy train” variety that the British built in places like Darjeeling and Simla more than a century ago. There is only one road – the NH 31A – which connects Sikkim to the Indian mainland. This road is a two lane ‘highway’ that winds its way along the Teesta river, giving you breathtaking views of mountains & valleys at the foothills of Himalayas. Even at the best of times, there are frequent landslides that block the road and bring traffic to a halt. People then wait for the Army to arrive and clear the road, so that the traffic can resume. Monsoons are, of course, worse. At times, you may have to spend the whole night in your car till the road clears, but no one complains. People have resigned themselves to their fate.

The epicenter of this quake was said to be near Mangan, a small town north of Gangtok. I passed through Mangan on my way to the magnificent Yumthang Valley, on the Indo – Tibet (now China) border. Yumthang lies at a height of more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The entire region is controlled by the military; you need a permit to enter the district. As you go higher and higher, civilization becomes more and more sparse. At one stage, we were more than 25 km away from the nearest village.

I traveled to Yumthang with 7 other strangers in a hired jeep. The road was dotted with extra-ordinary sights - thick green forest, deep valleys and stunning waterfalls. At several places, the road was ‘broken’ (monsoon hai!) and descended into a kachcha road of mud or stones (see the attached video which I took from my car for the condition of the roads there). At times, we suddenly encountered steep ascents, so steep that the car would not climb. The driver would then ask all passengers to get down and walk up the climb, while he would just about somehow manage to take the car up, sans the weight of its passengers! At several places, we made way THROUGH the flowing waterfalls – water falling down from several meters above us on one side of the vehicle, crossing the road in front of us and the falling down to the other side, hundreds of feet below into the deep valley! It felt as if any moment the car would be thrown away, down the deep valley on the other side. It was a frightening experience, and yet a memorable one! At one place, our car got stuck deep in the mud and all of us had to get down and push it out to get going! All this, in a desolate forest, several miles away from civilization at a height of several thousand feet.

On the day of my return from Gangtok, I almost missed my flight. All exit routes going out of Gangtok were closed as it had rained the previous night and there were landslides everywhere! We spent four hours searching for ‘a way out’ of Gangtok. I started ten hours in advance for a five hour journey, and reached the check in counter five minutes before it closed!

To get a glimpse of the beauty of Sikkim, click here.

Tailpiece: There are no petrol pumps anywhere in North Sikkim. Fuel is sold in grocery and general stores. On enquiring about this strange thing with our driver, I was told that fuel from military vehicles is sold by the personnel to these shopkeepers at a discounted price. The shop owners then add their own margin and sell to others. So much for tax payer’s money!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The two-snake conundrum

Two snakes are locked up in a completely empty room with no escape route. With the passage of time, they become extremely hungry and realize they face death by starvation. The only option for them to survive is for one snake to eat the other – whoever eats the other first, survives. Accordingly, each of the snakes starts to swallow the other. Assuming both the snakes are of the same size, start to swallow the other at the same time and continue at the same speed, and each is determined not to stop till it has finished the other, what will happen next ?? How will this situation resolve itself ??

Saturday, September 3, 2011

15 per cent = Rs. 263 crore

After several reminders, the Union Council of Ministers have today declared their ‘official’ assets. Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath has emerged has the richest Minister with ‘official’ assets of Rs.263 crore. 

In a conversation (click here), from the Niira Radia tapes, Tarun Das, the ex-CII head talks to Niira Radia about Kamal Nath getting the Road Transport & Highways Ministry, where he says Nath can “serve the nation and also make his 15 percent”. Das also says that Kamal Nath uses the Ministry like an “ATM”.

Kamal Nath has several controversies to his credit. He was named in the cash-for-votes scam, which helped “Mr. Clean” buy MPs and survive a confidence vote in the Parliament. The Supreme Court is now forcing the Delhi police to investigate this scam (see the details here)

In one of the Wikileaks expose, a senior congress Minister talks about Kamal Nath to a U.S. Diplomat: “Formerly he could only offer small planes as bribes………now he can pay for votes with jets." (click here)
Kamal Nath has also been held  guilty by the Supreme Court (click here) of causing environmental damage and changing the course of the Beas river by building a Hotel in an ecologically sensitive area. There are also several other controversies surrounding this gentleman, such as the Rice Export Scam  and his involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ay dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan…

A recent survey by The Economist ranks Mumbai among the "world’s worst cities to live"

In a global ranking of 140 cities, Mumbai has finished at 116. The city’s poor ranking has evoked hardly any reaction from its political leadership, or even its people, who seem to have resigned themselves to their poor fate. Are things really this bad, or aren’t they? After twenty years of economic reforms, the financial capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies (all the things the ‘experts’ on CNBC or elsewhere tell us) ranks 116th on “livability”. What is it that the world looks at, that we are missing out on?

The Economist’s survey gauged cities on five categories - political and social stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Here is my take on the topic.

1. Stability: Prevalence of crime, threat of terror / military conflict or civil unrest:

Look at the numbers. More than 5,000 cases of petty crime and violence, such as chain snatching, rape, dacoity, theft etc. were reported in Mumbai in the first four months of 2011 alone. This excludes white collar crime, corruption and the like.

The city has seen 8 terror attacks in the last 10 years, killing nearly 500 people and injuring many more, not to mention the communal riots of 1992-93 or the serial bomb blasts of 1993 that killed more than 250. The world gives no marks for the “spirit of Mumbai” which springs back to its feet the next day after every bomb blast. Against this, I have visited countries where I was told there is no need to lock your home while going out – “nobody will take anything”.

2. Healthcare: Availability of private and public healthcare, drugs and general health indicators:

This is something that India itself scores very poorly on, and Mumbai is no exception. The United Nations’ Human Development Index ranks India at 119 out of 169 countries. The HDI measures life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being.

In Mumbai, public healthcare is the responsibility of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation. But for a city of more than 1 crore people, the BMC provides just 4 ‘teaching’ hospitals, 5 specialized hospitals, 16 peripheral hospitals, 28 municipal maternity homes and 14 maternity wards. Most of the residents (80 % plus) rely on expensive private medical care. The result? 32 per cent of the reported ailments in the city remained untreated. Even today, seven to eight per cent of all deliveries in Mumbai happen at home.

3. Culture and Environment: This covers factors such as climate, culture and environment.

Air pollution levels are five times higher than acceptable levels and a quarter of water the city drinks is actually  unfit for consumption.

Noise pollution is high, rising and during festivals reaches alarming levels.

4. Education: This covers availability and quality of public and private education.

Mumbai has literally thousands of schools, colleges and educational institutions. Clearly, no shortage of quantity here, but when it comes to quality, like the rest of the education system in India, there is still a lot to be desired. The education system is actually an ‘examination system’ and churns out graduates who are skilled at nothing. As per an Assocham study, India was at the last position in terms of quality of secondary education in seven emerging market economies.

Goldman Sachs says the lack of quality education was one of the 10 factors holding India back from rapid economic growth.

5. Infrastructure: Quality of road network, public transport, international links, availability of good quality housing, energy, water etc.

Ah! The less said about this the better! Mumbai’s transport system is one of the most congested in the world. More than 1.5 million vehicles cram the city’s potholed roads with utter disregard to traffic discipline. Even the smallest of rains are enough to clog the streets with water. Trains of 1700 passenger capacity ferry more than 4500 passengers each during peak hours. More than 60 % of the city’s population lives in slums, where even  shanties cost more than a couple of million rupees. 

For water, the city still looks to the Rain Gods every year. According to a World Bank study, of the 27 Asian cities with populations of over 1,000,000, Mumbai is ranked as second worst performer in terms of hours of water availability per day. And despite this, 700 million liters of water, or 20 % of its daily supply, is lost daily due to theft, illegal connections and leakages.

Basically, nobody cares.

Building sky-scrapers and flyovers does not constitute development; there is a lot more to making a place ‘livable’ than the city’s leadership would like to believe. But is anybody listening?