Loud and Clear

You have to hand it to the Gurgaon administration. When it comes to deploying advanced technologies for better management of traffic, they are second to none.

After a careful review of tools that modern technology has placed at our disposal, Gurgaon traffic police has decided to introduce the cutting-edge technology known as “loudspeakers” at prominent intersections in the city, starting with two, one of them, as always, being at the intersection closest to where I stay, the HUDA City Centre. As the name goes, it is the City Centre and perhaps one of the busiest.

On a trial basis. Mind you. They make sure, don’t they? Nothing implemented till fully tested. Without any tracking or monitoring of results. They have our backs, don’t they?

Like in the case of the series of underpasses that punctuate the length of Golf Course road, that still have an “Opened for Trial” board hanging at the entrances even though it is more than two years since most of them have been thrown open, with some having already notched up enviable records of death and destruction.

Trials are trials. And must be done. Especially in cases where the project is a fait accompli. Like the series of underpasses which, I believe, are uni-directional constructions. You cannot unmake an underpass once made, can you? I mean of course you can, if you take it literally. You can get back all the rubble that was excavated to create the underpass, and fill in the big hole, and demolish all the construction that had been done and send back that rubble to the place it had been excavated from. But you know what I mean, don’t you?

But, as usual, I get distracted. Perhaps it is the excitement of being back at the fairgrounds of my youth, with loudspeakers blaring music, announcements and ad jingles and everyone having a great time.

I am fortunate enough to pass through the City Centre intersection almost daily. Today was no exception. I drove out of our building and the next thing I know is that I had stopped at the red light at the City Centre intersection.

As I was jostling for space with other motorists to be the fastest on the draw as soon as the light turned green, I heard a booming sound, “Don’t use your mobile phone while driving. If you do, it could be your last call.”

I froze. I furtively looked on either side, then guiltily at my mobile, lying silent and forlorn on the car dashboard. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Did the government then manage to even switch on the great ancient Indian invention of “Akashvaani” (literally, Celestial Voice), the celestial messaging system perfected by our ancestors and recorded in mythological texts, that sent out personalised messages to humans, in time for the next general elections. I confess that I have questioned senior ministers’ claims of having invented flying and their arguments that apes are not our ancestors since no one saw an ape turn into a human. But a personalised “Akashvaani”? That would have been the tipping point for me.

Alas, it was not to be. At least at that point. I recollected, in time, the Gurgaon traffic police’s plans of installing loudspeakers at that intersection. I looked around at drivers in other cars. Only the ones not talking on their mobiles seem to have heard the announcement. The loudspeaker strategy seemed to have achieved the desired early results.

“Please stop at the red light”, came the Akashvaani again. But this time I was ready. It was a great message, this one. Made a lot of sense to me as I was already stopped at the red light.

“Please wear seat belts while driving and please wear a helmet when on a two-wheeler,”

“Please park only in designated areas,”

“Don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. Doing so could cause grievous harm, even death, to yourself and others,”

…came in quick succession, while I was still waiting for the light to turn green. Such a simple idea. How would people know that they should wear seat belts while driving, or helmets if on a two-wheeler, or park only in designated areas, or not drive on the wrong side of the road, doing which could cause grievous harm, even death, to yourself and others, unless “loudspeakered” to them at busy intersections? After all, they only been issued driving, or riding, licences, after suitable checks.

No apprehending offenders. No traffic violation fines. No cameras. No issuing tickets. No electronic tagging. No satellite tracking. No concern for noise pollution. Just plain announcements. Revolutionary.

It was mesmerising. I was transported to another world. How long before they unleash its full potential by handing over the system to corporates, was the question raging through my mind.

“While you wait for the 2 minute long red light, have a 2-minute noodle snack made by an MNC.”

“Turn your nails from green to red while the light turns from red to green.”

The possibilities boggled my mind.

“Will the black Fabia please move. The light has turned green.“

“Will the black Fabia please move. The light has turned green.”

Was it my imagination or did the loudspeaker just become even louder? There was a tap on the driver side window. I was woken from my reverie. A traffic policeman was standing there and about to tap again. I lowered the window and looked at him with some disgust as he had interrupted my train of thought. I asked him crossly, “what is the matter?”

“Sir, can you please move. The light turned green 30 seconds back and could turn red again any time again. We announced it twice already.”

“Uh, oh,” is all I could mutter while I engaged gears of my black Fabia and testily jerked out of danger of the impending red light.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for great ideas and technological innovations that further the agenda of humanity. But I draw the line at getting personal.

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Game Of The Name

Because it is a myth, silly boy!

The event was a meeting of the town council to select a new name for their town where the “silly boy”, one of the younger prticipants, had been chastised for asking a logical question. At important events logical questions have only one logical response, round chastisement of the “asker”.

A new name for the town had become a necessity after it was realised that there was no earthly reason to change it.

Tempers at the council meeting had been frayed as finding a suitable name had been an uphill task. Council members had read and re-read all known epics, and some unknown ones as well, to locate a suitable name. The elders knew that if the name did not emerge from a myth, there was no way it would be recognised as a historical fact by the central government.

Not finding a name to their liking, the town council had finally decided to invent a name. And not wishing to leave a job only half done, they had also commissioned a set of popular writers to conjure up a new epic, flowing with the valour and wisdom of the ancestors of the current ruling dispensation so that the text could soon be recognised as historical fact.

There was no time to lose. Who was to say that the criteria for granting “Smart” status to a city would not be the number of times the city had changed its name without reason. Or its name being drawn from a popular myth.

It was under these extraordinary circumstances the “silly boy” had displayed the effrontery of asking for the logic behind the selection of the new name, and had been roundly chastised.

The floodgates had opened on 12th April, when the Haryana government took the decision of renaming Gurgaon to Gurugram.

The last couple of decades have sped past as our leaders have methodically gone about the task of uplifting our collective esteem by changing colonial-era names to, well, non-colonial-era names. Time flies when one is having fun.

But, as Bombay made way for Mumbai, Bangalore for Bengaluru, Calcutta for Kolkata and Madras for Chennai, there was an increasing sense of disquiet in the common man.

Would the good times soon come to an end? Are we running out of colonial-era names to change? Would we have to go back to the days when political leaders had to at least try to govern instead of changing names? What would they do once these names had been changed?

But we need not have worried.

In corporate circles they say a capable employee will always deliver value to the organisation.

So it is with able politicians, as has been my learning these past few weeks. Elect a capable leader and leave the worrying to him. He will always deliver value.

As we have perhaps seen in the case of great corporations, each business has evolved from a human need. But once that need has been satisfied, they have kept on creating unneeded needs and the common man has kept responding, by desperately needing those unneeded needs, and buying.

So is the case with the government of Haryana, that has found ways of delivering value, as is expected of able governments working for the welfare of the common man. If changing of colonial-era names is done, what stops us from changing non-colonial-era names to, well, different non-colonial-era names? Which other state government had the foresight to offer this welfare scheme to the common man of their state? Separates the men from the boys, doesn’t it?

And it is no ordinary change. It is a change dripping with historical significance. Because it is based on a mythological fact. In Mahabharat, one of the great Hindu epics, Yudhishtir, the eldest of the Pandav princes, had gifted this site to their teacher, Guru Dronacharya. Hence its original name was Gurugram, which, translated, means Village of the Teacher, to which it has been rightfully restored. We know this since it is a mythological fact. Case closed.

Delving a little deeper into the story, sorry historical fact, Guru Dronacharya was the one who refused martial arts education to Eklavya, a child of low birth. The guru who, a few years later, astounded by the prowess of the child who he had once refused to teach, asks for his thumb as guru-dakshina (offering for the teacher) so that he could never compete with the princes he was instructing. How was the guru to know that democratic and fair winds would be blowing in the 21st century, calling upon all human beings to be treated equal. How could he have envisaged that? Hence it is important that we name it after the guru and not after Eklavya.

The sigh of relief across the nation is palpable. Yes we can. We can change the names of places. Whether colonial or non-colonial.

It follows, therefore, that we will be able to dodge nuclear missiles and hydrogen bombs from hostile states.

Bareilley to Barasat and Mandu to Meerut, each self-respecting village, taluka and town is voraciously reading up historical myths to find a suitable name that will lead them to everlasting happiness. They don’t want to be left behind.

The Haryana government, it appears, even after taking this momentous decision, was humble enough to acknowledge the role the common man has played. “This has been done because of a demand from the people”, they have graciously acknowledged.

Now we know why potholes in roads have not been filled. Why electricity supply is erratic. Why there is no street lighting. Why loudspeakers are allowed to operate beyond 10 PM at night. Simply because there has been no demand from people. What other reason can there be?

But this humble acknowledgment has confused the common man. If it was a demand from the people, how many were killed and how many billions worth of property destroyed, they have demanded to know. After all, the last demand from the people in the state was for reservation by the Jat community a couple of months back in which several were killed and property worth billions destroyed, and rape allegations pertaining to which are still being investigated. When did this, the name-change, demand come from the people?

The government has clarified that for a demand from the people to be accepted by the government, it needs to be made on the night preceding the night of the full moon, at a time that is neither prior to 7 PM nor later than 8 PM, on a day when an earthquake of an intensity of at least 6.5 on the Richter scale has struck with an epicentre that is not more than a thousand miles away, the Chief Minister is wearing a pink kurta and had consumed three idlis for breakfast alongwith cold milk, and within 24 hours of the 75-year old Governor having run 100 metres in under 10 seconds.

If the above conditions are not met, then, to be successful, the demand from the people, whether made or not, will be for an ideology based decision the government has been dying to take.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, argued Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But that was her opinion. We have ours.

Cities of Joy

Even before an official announcement was made, a fight has already erupted between the contenders.

The recent announcement that a hundred “smart” cities will be created across the country has set the dovecotes aflutter. As political announcements without substance usually do.

The project has a high chance of success as nobody seems to have asked for it and nobody knows what it really means. The genius of the scheme can be judged from the mere fact that it did not promise to create seventy three “smart” cities. It also did not promise to create one hundred and sixteen “smart” cities. It has set out to create exactly one hundred “smart” cities. It is a clear sign that it is based neither on need, nor on any research or study.

The Medieval-era mystic, saint and poet Amir Khusro is said to have written about Kashmir, “Agar Firdaus bar rui zamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast” translated to, “If there be a Heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this”. If he were alive today, he may well have waxed forth, “if there be a project destined to succeed on Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this”, in chaste Farsi (Persian) of course, the language he preferred for his verse.

It reinforces the courage of political leaders in taking the difficult decisions they have taken in the past, braving ridicule and protest. Of repeatedly permitting slums and shanties to mushroom in all major cities, right under their collective noses, as they looked the other way. Of permitting millions of people to live without basic amenities like water, electricity and sanitation while charging them taxes. Of regularising these colonies each time an election was around the corner, for the next unauthorised colony to start rising immediately thereafter. Had these difficult decisions not been taken, the dream of creating a hundred “smart” cities would have remained just that, a dream.

It reinforces the vibrancy of our democracy by sending out an unambiguous message to people to exercise their right to vote. If they don’t vote, how will they elect such governments that make such promises?

Political leadership of the country, cutting across party and ideology lines, stands together as one in telling people that they, the political leadership, have no time to waste on creating a fair and transparent environment where people get just reward for efforts; where there is rule of law that facilitates organic growth; and where cities develop in a manner desired and dreamt of by people who live in it. They will continue to bow to the demands placed on them by our democratic traditions, and reward the faithful by bestowing political largesse, drawn from them as taxes, back to them, periodically, in order that they can feel beholden.

As the criteria for selection has not been specified, there is rejoicing across the length and breadth of the country. There is even more rejoicing across the length and breadth of the country because what is meant by a “smart” city has also not been specified.

There is excited “chai pe charcha” (discussion over tea) all around on the subject. Will my “smart” city look like Bangalore? Can we really all but destroy a once pristine environment in one generation? Is it even possible to do it again? Or will my “smart” city be like Gurgaon? Can we really build another modern, planned city right from scratch in twenty years, and still ensure that the water table plunges, electricity is in short supply, parking cannot be found for love or money, and there are bars and restaurants at every nook and corner, as every “smart” city must have.

And there is still more rejoicing across the length and breadth of the country as people will now not have to take responsibility for the development of their cities. Apart from their municipal authorities, they will now also have the central government to blame. What more can citizens of “unsmart” cities ask for?

The deal has been made that much sweeter by the government insisting on replacing the current municipal officialdom with a professional municipal cadre.

Really? Could one ever have guessed that there was a professional municipal cadre, straining at the leash, waiting to be let loose on “smart” cities, to solve all their problems, that has been kept hidden away in the corridors of bureaucracy, while the current officialdom gnaws away at the bulwark of functional cities? A cadre, despite being drawn from the same source, trained in the same manner, and responsible to the same set of self-seeking superiors, that would behave in an entirely different manner. And, of course, this cadre can be let loose only on the “smart” cities.

Since ours is a rich culture which prohibits corrupting foreign influences, especially when it threatens us and our agendas, we have to invite Singapore, Toulouse and Tel Aviv to set-up these “smart” cities for us. In addition, an American organisation which has the word “Philanthropies” in its name has been roped in to identify the cities.

Major builders are salivating at the prospects the “smart” city project presents to their ilk. Efficient public transport, abundant power and water, clean environment, a technology backbone for all services may still be debated as to them being rightful constituents of “smart” cities, but the presence of grotesque looking glass and concrete buildings with inadequate parking and zero accessibility in a “smart” city, alongwith elevated and tunnelled roads to ease the traffic woes created by the lack of planning, no person in his right mind would question.

With this achievement, of the announcement, under their belt, the political leadership is already looking ahead to the next project. A senior leader, in a moment of weakness, revealed that to a close confidante. On seeing the quizzical look in the eyes of the listener, the leader clarified, “You see Delhi. It was expected that pollution levels will come down once metro is introduced. Also, transport woes will ease. But, has there been any change? What does one do now? One cannot rest on one’s laurels. That would be cheating the public who has reposed their trust in us and put us in this position. If we don’t keep showing them a brighter future that will never be attained, how will we ever repay our debt to them?”

“Hence, we are preparing to launch the ‘smarter’ city project soon”, he revealed.

The erstwhile “smart” cities, meanwhile, continue their inexorable march towards becoming “smarting” cities.

The fight between contenders continues to intensify. It is not clear if cities fighting for inclusion are “smarter” or the ones fighting for exclusion are.