Every Breath You Take

It was too good to be true.

I stepped out onto my balcony and opened my lungs. I could finally breathe.

The air quality had improved.

Future generations, coming after we have fully developed our society, may find it hard to believe. But it was true for us. The air quality improved and finally became very poor. From unfit for human consumption just a day earlier.

It came like a breath of fresh air. Or at least like a breath of very poor quality fresh air.

I breathed deeply. I was afraid it may not last and wanted to drink enough to last me till the next opportunity. Who knows how many of us would live to see the next occurrence.

And, like all good things, or at least very poor quality good things, it vanished almost as soon as it had come.

The Indian Meteorological Department has blamed the once-again unfit for human consumption air to the stagnant air that was a result of a depression in the Bay of Bengal that normally results in gale-force winds. The stagnant air apparently led to the particulate matter hanging in the air above us not being blown away to hang in the air above people in other locations, and be replaced by other particulate matter hanging in the air above people in other locations blown in to hang in the air above us.

As episodes of the depression in the Bay of Bengal and stagnant air happen several times every year, we did not expect it to happen and enervate the atmospheric conditions in Gurgaon. We would not have known in the monsoon season that preceded winter, that winter conditions will set-in in October and create challenges of atmospheric pollution because they have been happening every year and getting worse year after year. And if we did not know in monsoon that winter conditions will set-in in October and create challenges of atmospheric pollution, how could we have known it in the summer months which come even before the monsoon months. Every year. And we know that one can only try to manage something that one knows, or at least knows of.

Senior leaders have expressed surprise at the presence of the Bay of Bengal in the Bay of Bengal and believe it is a conspiracy hatched by the previous government. Despite them ruling the country for a good part of the post-independence period, the Bay of Bengal is still in the Bay of Bengal, they indignantly say. Expect a global tender to be floated to move the Bay of Bengal from its current position in the east of the South Indian peninsula, they have announced, in an oblique reference to the soon-to-be-granted mining and exploration rights that are highly regarded for their unique ability to convert any environment to an utter wasteland.

But tackling pollution is not something that can be left to the central government alone. Stepping up to the plate, despite being constrained by not knowing that winter will set-in in winter and bring with it challenges of atmospheric pollution, the municipal authorities in Gurgaon have announced a slew of measures, mainly the building of several under and over passes under and over existing roads to make sure more vehicles can ply on the same ground surface area. In fact, the good work begun by them several years back, like that of cutting down hundreds of mature trees on the road leading from HUDA City Centre Metro Station to Signature Towers, on which our housing society lies, to make it possible for an underpass to be built so that more vehicles can travel on the road, is beginning to bear fruit. The spanking new underpass is now operational, blowing clean dust and clean exhaust fumes from fast moving vehicles, and not stale dust and stale exhaust fumes from idling vehicles before the underpass opened, directly onto our building in greater quantities than ever before, helping me realise my closely guarded Hollywood fantasies. I sometimes picture myself as Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” hanging outside Burj Khalifa in Dubai like Spiderman, right in the path of an approaching, freshly-brewed sandstorm.

Giant air purifiers that were installed with great fanfare at busy intersections during last year’s handling of the annual crisis, and were the greatest invention since sliced bread, were such a resounding success that nothing has been heard about them ever since. Or perhaps the new under and over passes to accommodate more concurrent vehicles ate up their space as well. Does it matter? After all, only taxpayer money was spent. To become Revenue on someone’s Income statement.

The forested Aravalli hills that abut Gurgaon are being proactively prepared to tackle the pollution menace by being urbanised for their own good. Once they are gone they will not be affected by increasing levels of pollution, is the sound logic heard in offices that matter.

Plans have been finalised to place restrictions on using motorised vehicles on roads which will enable the government to encourage people to buy more cars and keep them parked on public property. Even a motorcycle rally to raise awareness about the pollution menace has been announced, demonstrating once again that there is no problem big enough that cannot be addressed by making bold announcements.

But we cannot sit on our laurels just as yet.

A few days back Chennai topped the worst air quality charts in the country. Despite having the disadvantage of being on the coast and day after day, year after year, seeing atmospheric pollution, created with the hard work and contribution of so many people over years, being blown away by the sea breeze every morning and evening. And it has repeatedly done so. Topped the charts that is.

There is work to be done. And miles to go. Preferably participating in a rally to save the environment while driving a fuel-guzzling motorcycle on an underpass, for making space for which mature trees were cut down, to an office complex built on space earlier occupied by the forested Aravalli Hills.

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If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

“How many dead?”

“None.”

“Burned beyond recognition? At least seriously injured or maimed?”

“Hmmm…I don’t think any.”

“Any coverage in the media?”

“To the best of my knowledge, nil.”

Answering the Minister’s questions was a bright graduate of the elite Administrative Services College of the country, whose smile had been growing wider and wider as he responded to each question thinking about how effectively he had been managing his area of responsibility, and now went from one ear to the other.

“Is this an issue which the western world has expressed concerns about and which might lead to cancellation of overseas jaunts of senior ministers?”

“Not at all. We keep giving them other issues to express concerns about.”

The bright graduate was positively beaming, imagining his future prospects.

The Minister, so far looking down at a piece of paper on his desk, with a pen in his hand as if poised to sign, looked up. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his kurta sleeve, and put them down next to the offending piece of paper, which seemed to be triggering his questions.

The bright graduate quailed. The muffled sound of the glasses being placed on the desk sounded like a thunderclap.

Looking him squarely in the eye, the Minister asked, “Did you hear about the Elphinstone Road foot over-bridge stampede?”

Of course he did. It was the latest man-made disaster in a distinguished series of man-made disasters over many years and through tenures of multiple governments. On the 29th of September, till the time of writing of this article, twenty three people had died in a stampede on a foot over-bridge at the Elphinstone Road station of the inhumanly crowded Mumbai suburban rail network.

“Yes…yessir,” he stammered.

“Since when has the suburban rail network of Mumbai been inhumanly overcrowded?”, the Minister continued, even before his stammered phrase could be completed.

“I don’t know sir. I have known it to be overcrowded ever since I gained consciousness.” He was a Mumbai lad and was well versed with the history of his city.

The Minister was on a roll. He was not asking those questions to get answers. He was driving home some messages. He was fed-up of bright graduates coming out of elite colleges spouting theory at him and asking for approval for frivolous proposals. It was time they learnt some practical lessons. “How many times have safety concerns been expressed arising out of overcrowding of platforms, overcrowding of bridges, overcrowding of coaches?”, he shot back.

“Many times sir.” He was a bright student and was warming up to the format. He had excelled in quizzes in school and college and followed news and current events closely.

The Minister leaned back in his chair. A smile was playing at the corner of his lips.

“Now tell me, did you read about the forty people who did not die because the Corporation fixed the platform tiles so that people did not accidentally slip and fall in the path of an oncoming train?”

The graduate was flummoxed. He had not come across such a news item. His face expressed his lack of awareness.

“Or the seventy who did not get electrocuted when the Corporation fixed the live wires that had come loose and were hanging dangerously close to passers by?” the Minister continued without pausing.

“When did that happen sir?” he could not help asking, and displaying his ignorance.

The minister looked at him squarely in the eyes once again. He shifted uncomfortably. The Minister asked, “Tell me, what is the primary duty of a democratically elected government?”

“Why, to look after the people of course”, he brightened up, on getting a question he knew the answer to.

“Exactly. And such incidents, where nobody dies, and which nobody ever hears about, who would they give any comfort to? Would these incidents give a feeling to the common man that the government has his back?”

“Obviously no-one sir.” He was getting the drift he thought. He loosened up a little.

“What is a responsible government to do? With great power comes great responsibility. Spending the tax collections is an exercise of great responsibility and a hard-earned one. Why will a government, not just ours, any government, waste it on measures that do not give comfort to the common man?”

He was flummoxed again. ‘Twas the day for him to be flummoxed. “Then what does the government do, sir?” He could see the issue, but did not have the mental capacity to imagine the solution.

“The government does the only thing that a responsible government can do; wait for an accident to happen, as we did in the case of the Elphinstone Road foot overbridge stampede that killed several people. And now that it has happened, once again, like any responsible government, we have cancelled the leave of all officials and flown them in from various parts of the country for urgent consultations. After all, the taxpayer money has to be spent productively, isn’t it?”

“These officials, as we know, are from an elite corps, and have already hit the ground running. After analysing the situation they will reach a conclusion that everyone has known for many years. But these officials will reach the conclusion while lodged in expensive hotels and eating expensive food, hence their conclusion can be considered to be the final word on the event. Moreover, they will even absolve everyone concerned of any responsibility and attribute the accident to a freak confluence of events that everyone could have predicted.”

“But there will always be Doubting Thomases questioning the intent and effort of the government. Therefore, further analysis will be done by the high-powered group who will decide to spend more money on a review of all random things that can be thought of in such a high-pressure situation, like testing the strength of airport runways in the country, checking the depth of water in lakes and canals and installing traffic lights where not required. For the safety and security of the common man of course.”

He was beginning to see the real picture. He may have received his college degree many years back, but he was getting educated today. He could picture himself sitting in the minister’s chair in the not too distant future, serving the nation and the common man. Dreamily he asked, “Then what sir?”

“Then what? Then we will wait for the next stampede at an overcrowded Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Or the next unplanned town to be washed away in a cloubburst in Uttarakhand. Or the next 8-year old to be murdered in a school in Gurgaon. Or the next unsafe building to catch fire in Delhi with tenders unable to access the site. And roll out the time-tested plan for ensuring the safety and security of the common man.”

“Tell me. Have you not heard of Nirbhaya?”

The bright graduate suddenly came to. After all, who had not heard of the gruesome rape in Delhi several years back that led to a slew of initiatives to prevent rapes, from pink coloured taxis to women-only banks.

“And have rapes stopped? Or slowed down?”

His eyes lit up. It was all clear to him now. With a touch of reverence in his voice, he asked, “But how do you handle all this, sir? After all, manmade disasters are such an innate part of the fabric of our great society.”

The Minister took a deep breath, and slowly released it as if trying to release the burden of his great responsibility to the common man. “It is a tightrope walk. Between running advertisements announcing great achievements of the government, security detail for ministers and self-appointed godmen (and women), money paid to consultants for coining new and imaginative names for government schemes, and providing safety and security to the common man. But, like I said earlier, with great power comes great responsibility. We have to take judicious decisions keeping all interests in mind.”

The Minister was floating on a cloud of his great responsibility towards the common man and did not notice the bright graduate quietly picking up the printed proposal he had taken to the Minister for his approval for the Corporation to fix platform tiles so that people did not accidentally slip and fall in the path of an oncoming train, the piece of paper that had started the interrogation, and walk out of the  office while crumpling the proposal into a ball and expertly tossing it into a basket placed strategically near the exit.

 

Thank You For The Music

Dear Mr. Khattar,

(For the uninitiated, Mr. Manohar Lal Khattar is the Chief Minister of Haryana, the state where Gurgaon, where I live, lies)

Thank you for the music on the night of Friday, 18th August, extending into the wee hours of Saturday, 19th August. Yes last night.

Music that I neither asked for nor wanted.

Music that I understand is supposed to stop at 10 PM.

I realise the pains you have to go through to provide these little pleasures to your residents. Pleasures that residents of few leading cities in the world get to savour. Of free, unasked for music at unearthly hours. Not for nothing is Gurgaon known as the millennium city. After the destruction of overground vegetation and underground water reservoirs, this is perhaps a logical way forward for a modern, progressive city.

My last faint memory of the night is of purple lights blinking inside my head to the thumping of loud, remixed music. This must have been around 12.50 PM at night. But I could be mistaken. The only certain marker of time I have from last night is of the last call I received from the Sector 29 Police Station informing me that they will arrange for a Police Control Room (PCR) van to go to the establishment spreading the joy and ask them to switch off the music. That was around 12.40 AM.

My wife had initially called to complain (silly woman – complaining about a civic nuisance!) at about 11.25 PM. She had called the Sector 40 Police Station under whose jurisdiction our housing society falls.

Of course, till 12.30 AM nothing had been done. In fact, the music had grown louder and was belting out some foot-tapping scores.

Reluctantly I called the same Police Station again. After failing to connect with the PCR on “100”. The person answering the call expressed surprise that the music had not stopped despite him having done nothing about it. I offered that the music might be coming from across the road, from the eatery attached to the shiny new liquor vend that has come up near our building.

Though he might have expected the music to have stopped on its own, on hearing this he immediately said that that area is under the jurisdiction of the Sector 29 Police Station. The Doklam standoff between China and India may have nothing on this border dispute between the Police Stations of Sector 29 and Sector 40.

Notwithstanding the border dispute, he was kind enough to give me another number for reaching the PCR which, unfortunately, connected. The PCR might have conveyed the message to the Sector 29 Police Station which is perhaps why they called me.

I must stop here and apologise for my rudeness to the person who called. I asked him if they at the Police Station could not hear the music and why did they have to wait for a complaint. I also had the temerity to ask him about the punitive action that would be taken against the establishment. What was I thinking? If he gave a response I did not hear it. If you get a chance, please convey my sincere apologies to the person for asking inappropriate questions.

I am also extremely sorry I was not able to participate in the festivities longer than 12.50 AM. I have made a mental note to sleep through the day tomorrow so that I can enjoy the late night festivities you and your administration have arranged for unsuspecting and ungrateful residents like me.

I will also try to communicate the same to children who need to get up early for school and seniors living in our building to ensure that they also sleep through the day so that we can all enjoy this unexpected treat from the authorities together. It will hopefully bring us all together cutting across lines of age, gender, religion, occupation, etc. We cannot thank you enough.

Of course I understand. If we cannot stop rapes, molestations and murders in the city, what right do we have to expect such trifles to be prevented? How can the police be expected to know that an establishment in their vicinity is playing loud music beyond permitted hours and censure them? They can only know if a resident complains. Isn’t it?

On another note, I also thank you for the early practice, as the silly season begins in October when the weather turns for the better and outdoor merriment starts. It is good to get one’s ear accustomed to unauthorised late night music as HUDA Gymkhana Club and Kingdom of Dreams, both within a stone’s throw of our building, who have been the bellwethers of unauthorised late night music in our neck of the woods till last year, begin their respective acts.

Equally, it is wonderful to see that the administration, as behoves an administration in a market economy, is leaving no stone unturned to introduce greater competition in this area as well. After all, why should HUDA Gymkhana Club and Kingdom of Dreams have a free run on late night unauthorised music?

Would it be possible to publish a playlist for the night’s unauthorised music playing so that residents can be better prepared with the right accompaniments for the music being dished out? If not, can we introduce a system through which “requests” can be sent to the erring establishment so that the unauthorised music could be to the liking of the forced audience?

Even if the above requests cannot be entertained, please don’t fret. You are keeping us entertained, albeit against our wishes. Your good deeds will stand you well. Remind me again when the next elections are due.

If I sound distracted in writing this thank you note, I apologise. I am writing this at 2.30 AM, after waking from a fitful sleep with those purple lights still flashing inside my head. It seems the music has restarted. Thanks again. Apologies if my complaint caused the music to be shut down for a few minutes, or was it seconds. I realise that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth. Who knows, we may be condemned to live in a city with rule of law.

Sincerely,

An ungrateful resident.

Defanged

Eventually, the beauty of the solution lay in its simplicity and elegance.

But that is what leaders are for. To see what the common man cannot see. To do what the common man cannot do. To hear what the common man does not say. To take decisions where the common man needs none. And to dither and vacillate where the common man needs one to be taken.

Billions of rupees have gone down the drain in the search for solutions and cures. Numerous lives sacrificed. Decades lost.

Yet, year after year the scourge has kept coming back. Like the proverbial bad penny. Developing, evolving newer and hardier strains, mocking the advances made by society. Come monsoon, typically between June and September in most parts of the country, it bares its fangs once again and readies to strike.

Even a plethora of meticulously unresearched advice, blindly forwarded on WhatsApp groups, has had no impact. Like the one I received yesterday informing me that the mosquito responsible for dengue cannot fly above knee height, hence all that people need to do is take care to cover the body below the knees, and all will be well. In my 11th floor apartment, with the dreaded buzzing sound audible as soon as I step out onto the terrace, this message was like manna from heaven. It seems the little tyke can fly upto the 11th floor of a building, significantly higher than knee high to a person at ground level, but once it reaches that height, it loses the will to fly above knee height. I took my phone and read the message aloud to the creators of the buzzing sound on the terrace to tell them how they needed to behave. A follow-up session is scheduled today evening.

By now you might have guessed that I am talking about mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, which have traditionally held sway during these months. If malaria was more lethal in one year, it would be dengue in the next. Last year, chikungunya, an unknown new mosquito-borne disease, became the flavour of the season, eclipsing malaria and dengue. Like an unheralded Boris Becker, all of seventeen years of age, coming into Wimbledon in 1985 and laying established stars low. Who knows which disease will rule the roost this year. Online bookies are doing roaring business.

Cities and governments around the country have been trying to solve the problem through planned, scientific means, with dismal results. Just when it seemed all was lost and that we were consigned to being forever held to ransom by mosquito-borne diseases every monsoon, came an inspired, swift, unilateral decision by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which has put the spring back in the steps of the common man. What is even more inspiring is that it appears that the decision is based neither on logic nor any substance.

Not for nothing has Mumbai been the commercial capital of the nation.

Public Health Department (PHD) officials of the BMC have come to the rescue of the common man from the annual mosquito menace and slapped a notice on a popular Radio Jockey (RJ) in the city whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube, for breeding mosquitoes in a clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the front door of her apartment.

Now who would have thought that mosquitoes would be bred by a popular RJ whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube. That too in a clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the front door of her apartment.

PHD officials can clearly make out that a clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the front door of the popular RJ’s apartment, the RJ whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube, is being used for breeding mosquitoes, but clay bowls kept under plant pots kept in front of the front doors of other apartments in her building, whose occupants have not put out a satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC that has garnered over a million views on YouTube, are not being used for breeding mosquitoes.

The world has changed. Clearly you can’t pull wool over the eyes of officials of the PHD of the BMC any more. They know.

“When the city has several agencies controlling roads, how can BMC be blamed for potholes, even though it is our responsibility?” the BMC has shot back at the RJ. “Problems with the railways and airlines are not because of us,” the BMC has added, bolstering their argument by citing examples of services they have nothing to do with. Even the RJ whose satirical song on potholes in Mumbai’s roads and mocking the BMC has garnered over a million views on YouTube, will not be able to argue with that.

As the BMC is ruled by a political party whose founder built a reputation with scathing political cartoons before turning to politics, it is only logical that scathing humour at their expense is not to be tolerated. The party has identified that since they so enjoyed and identified with it, the video was an insult to every Mumbaikar (resident of Mumbai). It was apparently a unanimous decision taken by the leader of the party alone.

In order not to get left behind, Delhi has proactively decided to retrospectively issue mosquito breeding notices to organisers of the protest march “Not In My Name” last month, despite the monsoon becoming active over Delhi only in July, as a preventive measure.

To eradicate the menace of mosquitoes from the country, it has been decided to ban all forms of creative dissent.

A simple and elegant solution, wouldn’t you agree?

Responsibility

I used to worry about the ability of the younger generation to take responsibility. Even chiding my children occasionally, to the utter lack of amusement on my wife’s part, leading to more nights on the living-room couch.

But recent events have proved me wrong. Once again.

It seems that while I was busy worrying and chiding my children, and sleeping on the living-room couch, organisations that stand up and take responsibility have been growing and prospering, as I discovered from a friend’s recent post.

They even have a name.

They are called political parties. And governments. And they mostly do it (take responsibility) on other people’s money. And one of the key responsibilities of governments, as I have learned, is to take responsibility for what they have either done or not done, or what others have done or not done.

Were it not for the full page adverts in major national dailies, purchased with my money of course, I would not have known how responsible this government is.

For instance, I would not have known that the present government, that came to power three years back, is responsible for the unprecedented success of the space programme that has delivered unprecedented successes many times since its inception over sixty years back. Foolishly, I had assumed that it was the vision of the founding fathers that had created the space programme.

I would not have known that the present government is responsible for the surgical strikes that not only served as a strong warning to terrorists and resulted in spectacular lack of success on the Kashmir issue, but also introduced a new term to the vocabulary of most Indians. How many previous governments can rightfully claim to have expanded the common man’s vocabulary?

I would not have known that the present government is responsible for providing universal access to banking services. Not drinking water, not grid-supplied power, but banking services.

Even state governments have come to the party.

Kerala has claimed full responsibility for introducing the Fat Tax. Just imagine!

Chhattisgarh has claimed full responsibility for electrification of 98% villages. Without any responsibility for supplying power.

Bengal has claimed full responsibility for marching forward in its endeavour to make the vision of a golden Bengal come true. Not green. Not white. Not silver. Golden.

Each claiming its share of responsibility with its own paid advert in national dailies.

Even though we found out why Kattappa killed Bahubali, before the government could claim any responsibility for it, could it be possible that we have found an answer to some of the most enduring mysteries of the world?

In the seventies, a number of ships and planes are said to have vanished in the Bermuda Triangle. Could this government be responsible?

Would my childhood friend, who was disconsolate after losing his pet pooch when we were both children, get closure after all these years? Can we safely conclude that this government was responsible?

Quite a handful already, isn’t it?

But, as usual, the common man is never satisfied. He wants more. He has started expecting the government to take responsibility for even real day-to-day problems.

He now expects the government to take responsibility for the poor state of roads in Gurgaon.

He expects the government to take responsibility for the precipitous drop in water levels in rivers, ponds and lakes across the country?

He expects the government to take responsibility for the security of women.

Is that fair? After all, how much can a government do? Ourtax money can only buy so much advertising space.

But the government is game. To take on more responsibility.

Even though it expresses inability to take responsibility for real day-to-day issues, it has offered to take responsibility for having brought down the Ganga and other perennial rivers from their glacial abode in the Himalayans.

It has offered to take responsibility for designing and commissioning the annual system of monsoon rains.

It has offered to take responsibility for inventing the game of cricket and Bollywood.

It has even offered to take responsibility for the first man to be sent into space sent by Russia and for Chelsea Football Club winning the latest edition of the English Premier League football.

Can you ask for more?

With the government poised to take on so much more responsibility, the responsible common man can continue to provide proof of his nationalism on WhatsApp?

Book Review: Twenty-four Days

Another thriller from my long-time blogging friend Jacqui Murray hits the stands.

With Twenty-four days, Jacqui builds on and enhances the genre of “technical thriller” that she introduced in “To Hunt A Sub”.

With a daughter in the Navy and son in the Army, Jacqui is already uniquely qualified to deliver the military thriller. Add to that her work of writing tech-in-ed columns and a personal interest in thrillers, and the combination becomes even more potent. Now top it off with the detailed research that has perhaps gone into the book which allows the reader to sail through the book without questioning the events and technology and science in it.

The tale leaves the reader panting as it sweeps across the world from America through Europe and Mid-East to the Far-East and back. And as it switches between human and artificial intelligence. And ideologies and faiths.

Jacqui’s is a fresh voice in the world of thrillers that needs to be heard by everyone who has interest in the genre.

 Available at: Kindle USKindle UKKindle Canada, Structured Learning.