Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Incredible India

Photo: Frédéric Soltan

India is an incredible country. Nobody can deny this.
Take terrorism. Despite the fact that Americans have put in place measures bordering on paranoia for their security, terrorists still managed to go through their tight net to carry explosives inside planes. In India, though nobody bothers much, no terrorist attack has occurred during the last 13 months; life continues.
Of course there are minor blips like these three ISI-trained Pakistani guys involved in blasts near the Red Fort who gave the police a slip. The entire episode is incredible in itself; the trio go for a medical check-up, they stop for lunch with their lone escort in a dhaba near the Jama Masjid; then pretending to go for their natural needs, they disappear in the wilderness. It is just unfortunate that the SI who accompanied them took 36 hours to report the matter to his superiors. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and the Delhi Police now seem worried about the loss of ‘crucial hours’ for the enquiry. Anyway during the festive season, life goes on. Why bother too much like the Americans?
Of course, the Indian State has sometimes to show its credibility. When it discovered that a presumed perpetrator of the 26/11 terrorist had entered India several times and this, for many years, without being detected by the security agencies (though before turning coat, he was working for the CIA), the Government decided to get tough.
Who will pay for Headley’s crimes?
It will be the poor tourists visiting ‘Incredible India’!
The Ministry of Home Affairs notified new guidelines specifying that foreigners in India on a tourist visa, who have stayed in the country for over 90 days, will need to take a two-month ‘break’(prosaically called ‘time out’) before returning to their favorite destination.
This decision has consequences not only for the tourism industry but also for many other activities. As one Indian newspaper pointed out: “The tightening of visa rules may impact India’s fledgling medical tourism industry.” Applicants for an exemption have now started queuing at different FRROs. All this thanks to an American black sheep.
But there is more incredible stuff. A Nepalese studying at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune was swiftly deported. Neetu Singh, a fourth year undergoing editing course student at FTII was put in a plane to Kathmandu after Pune DCP declared that she was involved in 'anti-national activities’. This well-known catchword cannot be challenged by any court, as it is (rightly) the prerogative of the State to issue visas or residential permits to foreigners visiting, studying or working in the country and ‘anti-India activities’ are certainly untolerable. But what does ‘anti-India activities’ mean? This most serious offense often remains rather vague. Are politicians lining their pockets by selling mining licenses doing ‘anti-national activities’ or is it ‘national’ only?
The Pune police knew the trick. Probably pressurized by Nitu Singh’s influential husband, a Nepali politician nominated to the Parliament who had mediated between the Nepali Congress government and the Maoists, they acted fast, very fast.
Unfortunately for them (and the husband), they had forgotten to get their case counter-checked by other security agencies which soon denied being part of the scheme. The Union Home Ministry has now asked for an enquiry into the incident. Is it not incredible that a foreign politician can be powerful enough to influence Indian local police authorities and convince them to deport a perhaps innocent individual?
Kiran Moghe of the All India Democratic Women's Association rightly pointed out: "If [Neetu] has indulged in anti-national activities here, police should have filed a case and tried her in India instead of sending her back to Nepal."
But in the Land of the Rathores, nothing is impossible for the mighty, Indian or Nepali. In the meantime, the Pune police have lost some credibility.
Another incredible news flashed when the Prime Minister pleaded with the scientists gathered for the 97th Indian Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram to free Indian science of ‘bureaucratism’. It was as if the scientists had created the bureaucrats and the government was the helpless bystanders.
The usually credible Prime Minister declared: ‘‘It is unfortunately true that red tape, political interference and lack of proper recognition of good work have all contributed to a regression in Indian science in some sectors from the days of Dr CV Raman, Meghnad Saha, JC Bose, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and other great pioneers of Indian science.’’
But what can the poor scientists do if different bureaucratic lobbies interfere in each and every issue connected with science, higher education or research. Ask any scientist returning from the West why they do not want to stay in India. The Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan frankly spoke of the need for greater ‘‘autonomy from red tape and local politics’’. But he meant autonomy from the government. Is it not the job of the Prime Minister to “liberate Indian science from the shackles of deadweight of bureaucratism"?
The government has definitively “to introspect and propose mechanisms for greater autonomy, including autonomy from the government, which could help to improve standards for research and development’’. The scientists are just at the wrong end of bureaucratism.
The most incredible news of 2009 however came from the United States. It appears that some Hindu group approached the Indian embassy in Washington DC asking the Ambassador to complain to the United States government and seek an apology from Fox News regarding its comments about river Ganges.
Talking about India on his opinion show The One Thing aired in December on Fox News channel, Glenn Beck joked: "One big river they have there, that sounds like a disease."
The Hindu group says that the river is considered holy by one billion Hindus, including nearly 2.3 million in the United States, and such remarks were very painful to the devotees. Well, nobody can pretend that the Ganga is in a pristine healthy state, not even Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who announced the next day that the river can still be saved. He said that by 2020 the polluted River Ganga would be clean.
It is certainly good to be hopeful at the beginning of the year.
Ramesh declared: "The Union government is confident of getting the holy Ganga river cleaned by 2020. Rs 15,000 crore will be spent for this purpose under the river development fund". Delhi plans to save the river by making it nirmal (clean) and aviral (free flowing): "We will not only ensure aviral dhara (continuous flow of the river stream), as being demanded by several NGOs, but also ensure nirmal dhara (clean and pollution free flow). Obviously, we have here the admission of a ‘disease’, though due to past experiences, this sounds hardly credible, but let us keep our fingers crossed and hope that the NRIs will participate in a big  way to heal the sacred river.
Last good news: India is planning to have its first bullet train that would run at a speed of 350 km per hour. It was announced that the proposal was being explored by Indian Railways. The French multinational Alstom is part of the first feasibility study, being conducted on 533-km long Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad section. In a month, the fiery Mamata Banerjee’s ministry will decide whether or not to go ahead with the proposal: "After examining the report, we will decide on the next course of action." I felt proud that France was involved in such great project. Unfortunately, two days later another incredible news arrived. The Times of India titled: “5 trains, 3 collisions... all blamed on fog”.
The dense fog in Uttar Pradesh resulted in an almost zero visibility causing three collisions involving five trains and a tractor-trolley; ten people were killed and 49 others are critically injured. As usual, the Indian Railways quickly announced ex-gratia payment and declared that the matter will be enquired into. Thank god it was not a bullet train.
While all this was happening, millions of Indian and foreign tourists discovered the charms of Lovely India during the New Year season. I personally witnessed in Puducherry, waves after waves of lovers of the sweetness and tolerance of this diverse and fascinating country.
But frankly, lakhs of visitors in such a small town makes it very tight to circulate.
I still love this country.

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