Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Road Much Travelled

When I first travelled on the Bombay-Pune highway sometime in 1985, I had no idea that it was to be the ‘road most travelled’ in my life. That road has given me many lovely memories - from very romantic rides to a life-changing journey when we took Jaya home ( read Kats, Rains and The Woods by clicking here). Of course, it was then the old highway - winding steeply across the Lonavala ghats (traversing some 2000 feet in just about 7 kms). There was that mandatory stop at Ramakant in Khopoli for Vada-Pavs and occasionally a beer or 2, when one was not travelling on work.

In the monsoons driving through the ghats was a near surrealistic experience. At one level it was the sheer beauty of torrid rain tearing the veil of low-hanging clouds – like the gushing waterfall guarding the entrance to Phantom’s cave. And, there was that edge-of-the-seat tension – as the rickety old Fiats and rattling Ambassadors struggled to negotiate the bends and curves, their frail wipers flapping feebly - wilting under the force of the downpour and the driver leaning forward with his nose almost touching the windscreen in the mistaken belief that, by doing so he could see the road ahead better.

Aati kya Khandala

By the time we left Pune in 1996 – construction of the new “Expressway” had just begun. Only the small link stretch from Pashan to Dehu Road had been completed – which was generally unused except by lovers for a long drive on a moonlit night. Not for once did I think then - that I would have to keep going back on that route in the years to come.

But exactly 10 years later, the road beckoned me again. On a wintry Feb morning in 2006, I drove up the new Expressway for the first time to check out – what would be Jaya’s new school, nestled in the Sahyadri Hills on the way to Bhimashankar, off the Pune-Nashik highway (Read Back to School by clicking here). Since then, I have been travelling on it – practically once every month, sometimes even twice, more than I do (or have ever done) on any other highway.

Of course – what now appears like a ribbon-like path has been forsaken for the 6 lane racing tracks. The old Ramakant has been replaced by giant Food Malls. (There’s only one outlet that sells decent Vada-pavs – Shree Datta – on the down lane just before the Khalapur Toll-naka). Romance has given way to the thrill of speed.

Earlier it used to be said that, the time taken and cost of travel were roughly the same – no matter which mode of transport you chose – Road, Rail or Air. I remember the fare on the Avro Shuttle flights was then Rs 145 and a first-class ticket on the Deccan Queen Rs 105. The shared taxi was Rs 90 – I think. The travel time on the DQ was three and a half-hour and by road it was a little over 4 hours. Though the flying time was only 20 minutes – taking into account the time spent in traveling to / from and waiting at the airport – it still added to around 3½ to 4 hours.

While the cost equation has gone terribly awry (air tickets now cost nearly Rs 3k and the AC Char Car fare on the humble DQ is Rs 250) – surprisingly, there hasn’t been much improvement on the time factor. Point to point, from one end of the Expressway to the other, one can comfortably reach in an hour and a half (between the 2 toll-nakas of Khalapur/Khopoli and Talegaon - a distance of about 70 kms – I clock an average of 45 minutes). But the entry and exit at both Pune and Mumbai have become a veritable nightmare – of course, Mumbai more so. Getting to Panvel from anywhere in Mumbai can take up to 90 minutes even on a good day. The return traffic can be far worse - Sundays and weekends are no exception. So, all told, unless you are travelling early in the morning or returning very late at night – it still takes nearly 4 hours either way.

Sadly, something else hasn’t changed too. Overturned trucks and tankers were always a common sight on the ghats. Inexperienced drivers of over-loaded vehicles often lost balance on the sharp turns. Frequently one also saw crumpled evidence of some major collisions from the night before. These would generally be found on the Lonavala-Pune stretch where the road was broader and the traffic thin – tempting drivers to step on the gas.

Cousins of Shumacher

Actually, in my opinion, it is the close proximity of Mumbai and Pune – which is the main cause of accidents. Because of the relatively short distance between the 2 cities, many motorists – who would have otherwise not ventured on a highway are lured by the road. This culture of highway adventurism has further increased with the new Expressway. Most people think it is the Indian equivalent of German Autobahns where there are no limits on speed. Probably, at a subliminal level they fancy themselves as distant cousins of Michael Shumacher – and have this irresistible urge to hit the road and burn rubber for vicariously experiencing the joys and highs of Formula One racing .

The official ‘speed limit’ is 80 kmph for the greater part – but most people never drive at less than a 100, often going beyond to 120 or more. Even on the ghat-sections – where the recommended limit is 30kmph – very few drop the speedometer below 80 or a 60 at best. With no idea of the rules of highway driving, let alone etiquette, lane cutting and overtaking is rampant. Staying on your own lane is no guarantee – as vehicles that come hurtling at monstrous speeds would either chase you off the track or overtake dangerously from the left with every chance of your losing control in a momentary lapse of concentration or reflex.

While the long-distance buses and over-loaded Sumos ferrying passengers are a menace, the real high-risk category are the small cars – the Altos, Swifts, Santros and their clones. Apart from overturning easily, these lightweight cars are prone to tyre-bursts at high-speed, which is almost always fatal on an Expressway. Therefore, it is easy to come-by the crushed remains of a car that was flung across the divider and hit a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.

I can understand that, it may not be possible to control lane cutting without highway patrols with their own fast cars as they have in the West. But, why can’t we impose speed control with the help of cameras that are now easily available and eminently affordable. If we wish to catch up with the developed world by building such arterial freeway , we should also adopt some of their good practices too. Basic safety should be a matter of right for the users of a toll-road. The toll operators should be made to compulsorily install speed-control equipments – such as radars and cameras - as a pre-condition of their license. Equally, the state authorities are duty bound to enforce regulations that they themselves have set. But then, human lives always come cheap in our country – be it in terrorist attacks or road accidents.

Vada-pavs on the bend

Without such safeguards, every trip is a test of nerves for which I routinely tank myself with caffeine – at the first gas-station immediately upon entering the Expressway. On occasions when I feel energetic enough to drive right through – usually on the return leg of the journey - I definitely stop for a break before the exit toll-naka – either for a coffee at the new well appointed CCD or tea and Vada-Pav at Shree Datta. But then, I was not cut out for living life on the fast-lane anyway.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Collateral Benefits

The term “collateral damage” has become popular after 26/11 – but there have been also some ‘collateral benefits’ too, if I may call them so.

One among them, is the introspection it has set in motion within the media (we saw a bit of that earlier after the Arushi Talwar case) about their role in covering the event; For the first time perhaps there has been such a public outcry over the TV Channels making a spectacle (some called it a “light and sound show”) out of a national tragedy. The security agencies and the government too have come down with a heavy hand (ham-handedly some might say) to chastise the channels for what they thought was rather “irresponsible” coverage often at the risk of compromising the operations. Advisories are being issued by the I & B Ministry. And there is serious talk about a Code of Conduct being prescribed (one hears - a PiL signed by 19,000 people has been filed to that effect) and mumblings about “self-regulation”. This has put the leading channels - and their star editors – for once on the back-foot, if not veritably on the mat.

So we have NDTV running a scroll challenging ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ and threatening action. Barkha wrote a lengthy defence on the NDTV website (read by clicking here) and Rajdeep valiantly argued his case (and that of his fellow-broadcasters’) on CNN-IBN’s sister channel CNBC-TV18 (in a special edition of “Storyboard” - brilliantly moderated by Anuradha Sengupta).

If there was one up-‘anchor-ship’ among the channels there was also up-commando-ship among the security agencies – each more keen to speak to the camera about the success of their operations only to be proved wrong a few minutes later. Therefore, Rajdeep made a valid point when he said that our establishment must also learn how to manage a 1000-pound Gorilla that 24/7 Television News can be. Our authorities – be it the police, security forces or politicians – need to be put through some basic media training. As the Reuters South Asia correspondent Phil Smith pointed out – you can’t blame the ‘twenty something’ reporters who saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime to shoot into fame a la Christiane Amanpour in Kuwait and Iraq or even our very own Ms Dutt of Kargil fame.

I found Meenakshi Madhvani had an interesting take on all this. She thought what would finally buck the trend is advertisers turning away from channels which sensationalise news – realising that editorial environment is as important than as TRP ratings.

However much we flay the electronic media for sensationalism and over exposure – the nearly 60 hours of non-stop TV coverage that gripped the world across geo-political fault-lines has undeniably played a massive role in rallying the entire nation in our own ‘desi’ version of war against terror.

In all this chatter, here’s one earthy first-hand account of that fateful night (Click here to read the article)

Light and Sound Show on TV

For me personally, 26/11 was in some ways a replay of the Kandahar Hijack of the Indian Airlines plane IC 814 and the Royal Family Killings that followed. I was based in Kathmandu then - so I happened to see them from very close quarters. Though both those incidents were of a very different order of magnitude, there were similarities in the manner of their unfolding. Particularly after the Palace Massacre, I remember the kind of public outrage there was in Nepal about the ‘insensitive’ coverage of the Indian electronic media, who had landed up within hours of the incident (some of them were accused of “stage-managing” public protests against King Gyanendra). One very respected Nepali voice pleaded while being interviewed on a channel – “why don’t you realize, for us it’s a national tragedy – please let us mourn in peace.” (Read “A Kingdom Mourns”)

This time round – I just happened to be in front of the television when the story broke. But, thereafter, by a certain quirk of circumstances (a visiting overseas colleague was holed up in The Trident), I was glued to the flat screen for nearly 36 hours without a break. So, I saw the coverage ‘grenade by grenade’ and one gun-shot at a time, as it were, right from the start.

It began with TIMES NOW carrying a footer of the PTI Flash about firing inside a Colaba restaurant (CafĂ© Leopold), followed in quick succession by another ticker on the shoot out at the VT Station. The first was billed as a fight between Nigerian students and latter as possibly a ‘gang-war’. In a few minutes, CNN-IBN had picked up the news. Their reporters were screaming about firings at “The Taj-Oberoi” – without making a distinction between the two hotels. Soon they had Suhel Seth on the phone from Bombay. He had come to attend a wedding and was staying at The Taj. The hotel had pro-actively called guests who were out - asking them not to come back immediately. Suhel was venting his spleen at the nincompoop politicians who can’t offer basic security to the citizens. Like many of us, I don’t think he had realized till then the seriousness of the situation. There was another young lady, a fashion journalist, who was partying at the Indigo, calling in to say – they were stuck inside the restaurant, which had pulled down its shutters and turned-off the lights – because of firing going on in the vicinity. In a little while, Vikram Singh Mehta (Chairman of Shell India – who, when in Mumbai, stays at the NCPA Towers right behind the Oberoi) was on the line giving an eyewitness account of fire belching out from The Oberoi lobby, which he could see from his apartment.

During this time – NDTV, or at least those watching the channel, were blissfully unaware of what was happening in Mumbai and they continued with their show “Cricketing Matters” where Sonali Chander was listlessly chatting away with Ajay Jadeja about the amiable nature of Sachin Tendulkar on and off the pitch. At 11 – they brought on the eyelash fluttering Sunetra Chaudhury “breaking news”.

By then, TIMES NOW was already airing live footages of the encounter at VT Station borrowed from the STAR NEWS OB Vans. At CNN-IBN Anubha Bhonsle held post till Bhupendra Chaubey came on air and their cameras reached the scene of action at The Taj. But when Srinivasan Jain took charge of the NDTV telecast, between him at the studio and the Shivnath Thukral-Shaili Chopra duo on the front-line at the Gateway of India - they were easily ahead of the rest (that I am partial towards Chopra women – in this case not Priyanka but Shaili – is well known!!).

However, things changed once Ms Dutt parachuted into Nariman Point the next morning. Around the same time Rajdeep appeared in front of The Taj. Much before that, since the night infact, Arnab was firmly ensconced at the TIMES NOW desk. But, from then on it became a battle for the “eye-balls”.

TIMES NOW – stuck to a no frills coverage for practically 72 hours non-stop. One must hand it out to not only their tenacious Editor-Anchor but also their team of feisty young reporters.

Once their ‘star’ arrived on the scene, NDTV all but pulled out their previous night’s team of Vasu-Shivnath-Shaily. After trying her signature high-pitched ‘ball-by-ball’ commentary for a while – she quickly shifted gear, taking a ‘softer’ line - talking to family members of hostages waiting anxiously outside the hotel. Soon she was interviewing Shobhaa De. By the evening she was hosting a chat show with the so-called Mumbai “intellectuals” (if the city had any in the first place) in a program emotively titled “Enough is Enough”.

CNN-IBN struck a middle ground between the fact-based, non-hysterical reporting of TIMES NOW and the high emotion-packed coverage on NDTV. Overall they were much more balanced (barring some shrill anchoring by the lady who shares her last name with me - spelt exactly the same way with an ‘e’ at the end). Well, I suppose, you do need product differentiation even in TV News coverage.

In my view, TIMES NOW carried the day with Arnab playing a marathon Test Match style innings (much like the double century of - Rajdeep’s Dad, the redoubtable Dilip Sardesai, at Kingston in ‘71 – the same series in which Gavaskar had scored his first double ton in Port of Spain). He never left the studio and was, therefore, able to control what was being aired - unlike, I suspect, some of the other channels whose editors were busy on the field.

Of course, I didn’t watch the Hindi Channels – which I am told were dramatised to the point of being pure paranoia arousing “news-o-tainment”.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

India's Apocalypse

Everything about the Bombay apocalypse has been shown incessantly, spoken untiringly and written endlessly. So there is precious little I can add – even as an ordinary citizen or resident of this fantastic city. In any case, the experience was too gruesome for words.

Faulty DNA

As a nation, we are far too stoical – coming to think of it, even a tragedy of such enormity failed to rattle us completely. It already seems like business as usual (not just in Mumbai – which has this ‘indomitable and indefatigable’ tag of its own making attached; but, also in rest of the country). Perhaps, repeated tragedies over the ages - both man-made and natural - have engineered our DNAs to make us immune to collective pain.

Sure, we don’t have to rush to hospitals for panic attacks, run to shrinks, reach out for Prozac and Anxiolactics as the Americans did after 9/11. Neither did one expect to see a dignified display of national solidarity by wearing the tri-colour as they did in the US (where – Jay Leno joked - 300 million pin-up lapel badges of the US Flag had to be flown in from Taiwan).

Made-up faces and endless chatter

It’s also not surprising, that a series of chain SMSs failed to make people wear black (or white, as the case may be if you were in the South) or bring out people for candle light vigils or silent marches in the large numbers, as New York was in September 2001. But one didn’t evidence any shock and horror on the face of the common man on the street or the well-powdered visages of the usual suspects on TV panel discussions – Alyque Padamsee, Anil Dharkar, Shobhaa De, Simi Garewal and now also Rahul Bose.

We are also very talkative as would be evident from the endless chatter on all 24 hours news channels. We don’t mourn and grieve in silence – nor do we allow others to. We have a compulsive need for verbal regurgitation on every issue with little action to match.

So do I believe anything will change? Cynical as I may sound, I don’t think so. How many times before have we heard the term “intelligence failure”? Or the assertion that Intelligence Agencies had warned about the possibility of the attacks much in advance - but the police or state authorities did not act upon it. It was said after the Bombay train blasts of July 05, the Kabul Embassy bombing (which was true by the way – apart from RAW, the Afghan and American Military Intelligence had passed on information about an impending attack with almost precise details – including the make of the car etc), the recent Delhi blasts and practically every other terror attack in the past.

Wake-up call for the Decendants of Kumbhakarna

Is there any reason to believe that now things will change for good - the nation and political parties will stand together as one – leaving aside considerations of their vote banks – to pledge that we won’t let this happen again? I think it’s utter bull-shit that, last week's national ordeal would prove to be a ‘wake-up call’ (if we didn’t wake up even after the repeated terror incidents of all these years - then, as a race we must be descendants of Kumbhakarna). The theory that, this time terror has struck the under-belly of the ‘rich and powerful’ who will make the establishment act – is based on an erroneous premise.

The rot has set in far too deep. The sacking of a Shivaraj Patil (who had no business to be the Home Minister in the first place – I wouldn’t therefore blame his incompetence rather that of those who gave him that all important portfolio to begin with – as a tool for their own self-preservation – by providing them with political intelligence and leaving the real job of managing internal security to the PMO and the NSA) or sacrificing a Vilas Rao Deshmukh and R R Patil at the alter of electoral expediency wouldn’t make any real difference either.

Nor will the creation of a Central Agency for National Security a la the US Department of Homeland Security or introduction of more draconian laws to curb terror – serve any purpose unless it is backed by political will and bi-partisan and unanimous support across the political spectrum.

What is required is an over-haul of the entire system – which is beyond the capacity or comprehension of our present day leaders who are too busy with their internecine fights to bother about fundamental structural reforms. A discerning friend questioned rather incisively - in an age of specialization in every field how can we have service aspirant from every academic discipline appear for the entrance exam not knowing whether he / she would be joining the IAS, IFS, IRS, IPS, Railways or Indian Posts? At another basic level – another friend in the intelligence establishment admitted that, age old tried and tested systems like the ‘beat constable’ as the primary source of gathering ground-level intelligence has been systematically dismantled and the humungous investments in hard-wares such as metal detectors, CCTVs, Radio interceptors gather dust. Even today – I was allowed to walk into the airport without having to pass through the metal detector.

We will continue to hear only pious platitudes (such as “the guilty will be punished” and “such attacks will unite us rather than divide us”) or indictments from the opposition trying to make cheap political capital out of a national tragedy - until the next one hits us, perhaps with even greater ferocity.

The Last Men Standing

The armed forces remain the last surviving institution in this country. God forbid if even they are politicized, it would mean the end of India as we knew it. That would be even more dangerous than the much-prophesied disintegration of Pakistan into a rogue-state, which probably it already is. A dismembered and beheaded behemoth like India can be many times worse than a hydra-headed monster.

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