Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XIV (Reminiscing the people-II)

Among my colleagues there were a large number of people both on the Central and the State Government side. We lived together like a family in Gulmarg for all those years. The speciality of Gulmarg due to being a small resort was that every one knew what is happening every where. Any new arrival would be immediately known all over the resort.
In fact, Gulmarg was a totally different world! There was a barrier at Tangmarg set up by the Army as a check point. One of my friends, a journalist from Europe after coming up from Srinagar, remarked that there is a new world beyond the barrier. She had stayed in Srinagar for a few days before coming up. According to her Srinagar was cold and bleak. Those days Srinagar used to be continuously under a thick layer of smog or haze. Compared to that, Gulmarg was sunny, warm, and full of life both in the day and during the night. For foreign visitors it was a big change! The first person who probably had the longest stay in Gulmarg initially as the Tourist Officer and subsequently as the Deputy Director is Abdul Ahad popularly known as Ahad Sahab. He is an ace Golfer and was known throughout the Golfing circuit of the country. He looked after the summer activities in Gulmarg especially various Golf tournaments which were held there. Once we started skiing, he continued to stay for the winter in Gulmarg and was a great patron of winter sports. The other officer who had kick started the winter sports in sixties is A.Rauf. He too had stayed in Gulmarg for over five years or so. However, during our stay Ahad Sahab held the fort.
Among the state ski instructors Abdul Rashid Bakshi known as Rashid Sahab was the senior most. Even though he was the eldest among the instructors, he never seemed to age. He was very quiet but often very jolly. He would attend to his duties meticulously. However, he was not the best skier but a very good teacher. In fact, he retired as the Director Tourism, Kashmir. He had earlier been a Captain in NCC and was also called Captain Rashid. He seemed to have special attraction for women and quite a few fell in love with him! Gulmarg had some special romantic feel. There were many love affairs which bloomed here and ultimately resulted in marriages. I have already related the marriage of the British couple from Hong Kong. The others include Aziz and Roma; Nazir Bhat and Anjum; Bajwa and Sherry, and so on. Most of these couples lived a happy married life.
There were also some romantic couples who had come to Gulmarg and lived there temporarily because of their profession. These included Raman and Kavita from Simla who managed Nedous Hotel for sometime and went back after few years. Widur and Bubbles who owned Woodlands Hotel and Freddie and Lorita. The last two couples ultimately broke up. Probably because they did not fall in love in Gulmarg itself. Among the state instructors, the best one was Farid from Kishtwar. He too was a very quiet and unassuming type. He was a very good teacher. Farid picked up slalom technique from the French professors and was probably the best one in this technique among all the instructors. Anoop Kannaw was the only Kashmiri Pandit instructor from the state side. He used to be healthy, well built, and tall. Always in a good mood and very friendly. He too was devoted to his work. Surjit Singh Bhalla was the only sardar ji in the whole lot. Tall and lean but strong. He was supposed to be the best rock climber among the entire lot. He too was very jolly and would make friends with everyone. He was a very good skier and would make many adventurous moves. He was a good ski jumper and one of the jumps cost him his skiing career. He hurt his neck in one of the jumps and had to be posted to Delhi tourist office for treatment. Aslam Laigroo was probably the youngest ski instructor from the state side. All the state instructors after spending few years in Gulmarg got absorbed in administrative jobs and forgot skiing. Only Farid stayed in touch for quite sometime. Ultimately, most of the ski instructors retired as major heads of administrative organisations. Quite a contrast to the jobs for which they had initially been selected. K K Sharma was the only ski instructor from the state side who stayed longest in the ski business! He was working with the Youth Services Department and was running training courses for the state boys and girls.
Most of the Central ski instructors came from different parts of India including hot Rajasthan! Among them Bhuvaishi Raj Sharma from Himachal was a good skier. There were also some Kashmiris like Ashraf Zargar, Khurshid Mir, Vijay Kaul, and Virendar Kaul among them. While Virendar was most of the time involved with the ski equipment hire shop, Vijay was an excellent skier. Very tough and strong and had excellent techniques. He and Ashraf Zargar were ski jumpers too. Vijay is the son of famous Biscoe School teacher Master Chandra Pandit. The other instructors were BS Bajwa (a great singer); LS Mehta from Garhwal; SD Singh Krishnawat from Rajasthan; Satish Ahuja; and Vinay Chandra from Naini Tal. There were also two senior instructors from Army, Shekhar Singh Negi, and Ramnath Sharma. It was really a motley crowd but all got along well. The instructor who was most sociable and had numerous contacts was Vinay Chandra. He lived behind Hotel Highland Park in a Tourism Hut which he had nicely decorated. Every VIP in Gulmarg was invariably invited to Vinay’s Hut for dinner. We had many social gatherings there. He used to dress immaculately and had impressive personality. Unfortunately, Vinay passed away some years back. It was a tragic loss! It is almost 24 years since I left that close family in Gulmarg but the memories seem so fresh and I recall these often nostalgically. I will close the Gulmarg Nostalgia series in the next episode after describing some more personalities.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XIII (Reminiscing the people-I)

On all counts Gulmarg is a wonderful resort. It has its own history right from the earliest times. During my ten winters there I had some wonderful moments. Apart from adventure of skiing and living in a dream world of snow, I had the opportunity of meeting different people. The resort worked so well because of the dedication of these people. Let me begin with the “Snow beaters”. These were about 20 locals engaged by us for preparing the ski slopes in absence of a slope beating machine. These days there are different types of slope grooming machines and Gulmarg too has two to three of these machines. Army School has also a very powerful slope grooming machine.
The manual snow beaters were first given equipment and taught basics of skiing. Most of these were very enthusiastic young men. They picked up skiing very fast. Some of these even became expert skiers. All of these came from the villages in the vicinity of Gulmarg. They would come walking from their homes every morning and after day’s hard labour would return to their villages in the evening. It meant walking every day on an average about 10 to 15 kilometres. In good weather it was not a problem as they were quite strong and tough. However, in bad weather especially during heavy snowfall it was an ordeal to walk up to Gulmarg. We did equip them with waterproof snow jackets, gloves, goggles, and snow boots. Still they had tough duties. They had to trudge up and down on various ski slopes from morning till evening packing snow for skiing. It is quite a tough job to walk up and down on a ski slope with couple of feet of soft snow. It is awfully tiring job. I wondered about the stamina and hardy nature of these Gulmarg area villagers! There were also some people from among the boys we had trained earlier. A few of these were selected for ski patrolling by the Cable Car Corporation. Among the tough snow beaters I remember Hassan Lone, Mohiuddin War, and Nab Lone as they were always punctual and very hard working. Sometimes we would also use the local care taker staff (Chowkidars) of the Gulmarg Tourist Office. They too had a tough life. They would chop wood for fire stoves and deliver it in each hut occupied by us. They would also remove snow from the roof tops and make tracks to the huts. After some years, most of these snow beaters who were working as daily wagers got permanent jobs in the Gulmarg Tourist Office and continue to serve Gulmarg in various capacities.
Gulmarg Tourist Office itself had some very interesting characters. One of these was old Radha Krishen. He was a clerk who had been working in the office since the time of the British. He knew every bit of Gulmarg and was virtually a Major Domo in the office. All the records, equipment, and other stores were under his charge. He was a very hard working person and would keep track of everything in the office. After his retirement, Abdullah Malik took charge of these chores. He was popularly called Obla Malik. He would move round with a couple of bunches of keys and knew exactly where everything was stacked. He was a real expert storekeeper. Both these people have retired now. Their sons were also working in the Tourist Office at Gulmarg. However, the sons of Radha Krishen migrated to Jammu during the upheaval of 1990 but they continue to work in Jammu Tourism Department. Obla Malik’s son and other relatives are still with Gulmarg Office. Two other persons who were very hard working and dedicated persons are Abdul Khaliq known as Khala, and Abdul Qayoom. They were initially working on casual basis with the Power Department and were in charge of the standby diesel generator. This generator had been set up just above Golf Club and near Nedou’s Hotel to supply power to ski lifts and other establishments during break downs. It was a very shabby and noisy structure in the middle of Gulmarg. It would make a lot of noise and would also give out thick smoke during operation. These two electricians would live inside the generator shed during winter. They had really tough life. Keeping the generator running in blizzard conditions with temperatures going 20 to 25 degrees below zero was a commendable job. After we set up three French ski lifts, we took them on Tourism Establishment as Ski Lift Operators. They operated these lifts in an excellent fashion without any breakdown. The lifts set up in 1979 are still working thanks to these operators. Subsequently we got the ugly generator shed removed and installed the generators in a decent way near the forest behind Hotel Highland Park. Qayoom has since retired and Khala is still working. The success of these operators was due to their immediate boss Ghulam Raza who used to be foreman and ultimately retired as the Executive Engineer (Electric) from the Tourism Department. He had full faith in his men and gave them complete freedom to work on any assignment as they felt appropriate.
He completed every assignment flawlessly and on time. Another character whom I remember vividly was the plumber Ghulam Rasool. He belonged to Nishat area in Srinagar but was posted in Gulmarg. Usually he would move out to Srinagar in winter but once we came up and put all our staff on skis, he volunteered to stay entire winter in Gulmarg. He learnt skiing very fast and we issued him a complete set of equipment. He would be skiing all round Gulmarg undertaking plumbing jobs. In winter due to freezing temperatures, the pipes would often burst and the bathrooms would freeze. It was a tough job to keep our bathrooms running with hot and cold water. He did an excellent job in spite of tough working conditions. He also enjoyed his skiing as I would often see him on the ski slopes taking beautiful turns. There were two other characters who were non-skiers. One was Hassan Khar (Hassan Blacksmith) and the other was Chowkidar Amm Butt. Hassan Khar was a professional blacksmith but had joined Tourism Department as a daily wager for snow beating operations. We took from him more work of a black-smith than a snow beater. He would repair our fire-wood stoves; get us pipes and so on. He was a very comic character and would be always smiling. He continues to work with the Gulmarg Tourist Office. Another interesting character was Amm Butt. He was chowkidar of a hut, six footer and very sturdy and strong. He could lift a person into air catching him by his shirt or jacket collar. For all heavy duty jobs we would take his help. Thus I had the opportunity of working with a variety of people during my stay. In the next episode I will describe some of the colleagues from the Central and State ski establishments.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XII (First National Winter Games-II)

Once the ski equipment was in Gulmarg, the next task was to fit the skis with bindings. We chose hut 182 as our ski shop and job was given to Asaf and Farid. Asaf apart from being a technical genius had all the requisite equipments. We had also included some fitting tools and equipments in the import. These could be handled by Asaf only.
Going full steam ahead, they had over 100 skis fitted in just couple of weeks. Now we had to take care of the logistics. General Prem Hoon, ordered the Srinagar corps to help. The Chief of Staff held a meeting in High Altitude Warfare School where all requirements like preparation of slopes, rescue measures including a helicopter were finalised. General Hoon had ordered temporary transfer of two snow machines from Siachin to Gulmarg for the Games. These were given to Brigadier Pant, the Commandant of HAWS to prepare route to Khilanmarg and beyond. In the meantime, the advance course of the School was given the task of preparing the racing slopes. The representative of the French equipment supplier was scheduled to come few days before the games to assist in setting up and operation of electronic start and finish gates. These were being used in Gulmarg for the first time. So far we had been using manually operated stop watches which involved human errors. The new system was fool-proof. It was decided to hold four events. Downhill, Giant Slalom, Slalom, and Cross Country Race. Committees were set up to lay the courses. Invitations had already been sent by the Winter Games Federation and almost 200 competitors were expected.
Two days before the competition, General Hoon flew in a helicopter to Gulmarg. He went straight to Hotel Highland Park where a meeting was held to review the arrangements. The meeting looked like an Army Operations Conference. There were over 30 officers present and from the civilian side there were hardly 4 to 5 persons including me. The first question General asked was about the route to Khilanmarg. Brigadier Pant said that their troops had made a very good track to Khilanmarg and beyond. The slopes had been continuously beaten and prepared. All rescue arrangements like the helipad etc were completed. The only problem was that the snow machines had not been able to go up the nose dive obstacle near Khilanmarg and they were trying to go ahead. General Hoon ordered immediate transfer of the two machines to Colonel Bhattacharya of the Mountain Division and told him that he would be going to Khilanmarg next morning at 0600 hours accompanied by me. General was really a go getter. Next morning at exact 0600 hours the machines came to Hotel to pick up General and me and in just half an hour we were in Khilanmarg.
On the day of the competition, we had brilliant sunshine. It was very warm and one could just go in a sweat shirt only. The races started on time. The Frenchman Perino was operating the electronic gate at the finish. We were getting times up to hundredth of a second. Competitors were taken to the start gate in snow machines. These were also on stand by for any rescue. Races carried on smoothly. There were many surprises. Local boys from Gulmarg did very well. Ghulam Mohammad Hajam, a local boy from Gulmarg area won the race with flying colours. During the course of these races which continued for three days, the Winter Games Federation was also selecting probable competitors for participation in the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo, Japan. For this trials were held for two days. There was only one accident during the races and it resulted in a dramatic rescue. One local girl from Srinagar while participating in Slalom Race hit a gate pole and fell. She had fractured her leg. As soon as the girl fell and did not get up, the doctor in a snow machine reached the spot in less than a minute. He radioed that the girl has a fracture and needs evacuation. The helicopter started its engines and the girl was carried in the snow machine to the helipad. We saw the helicopter taking off within just 10 minutes of the accident. She was taken straight to Srinagar hospital were she received immediate treatment. The whole process seemed like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Perino, the French expert told me that they did not have such quick rescues in their country!
At the end of the event medals were conferred on the winners and a dinner was hosted by the Tourism Department. The team for Sapporo ultimately had almost all the players from J & K. Among the men, Hajam and Shabir were selected. In the women category Lorita, wife of Freddie the son of Highland Park Hotel owner Colonel Benjie Nedou and Hafiza from the Youth Services Department were selected. In the cross country section, two army players from the High Altitude School were selected. K K Sharma of the Youth Services was detailed as the official coach. I was selected to be the Manager of the team and General Hoon as the Chef de Mission. The final departure of the team had an interesting sidelight. The Sports Ministry refused to allow two people to accompany the team as officials. We were told that the Manager can also act as Chef de Mission. I offered to stay back as I had to leave for an official eight week tour to French Alps arranged by the French Government. There was a Bengali deputy secretary, Bhattacharya, who told me not to drop out as they wanted to eliminate the General. They were not very fond of Army Officers! However, I conceded my place to General Hoon and he led the team. It did very well there. Among men Hajam secured sixth position and among women, Lorita got the fifth position. They were both awarded diplomas for being among the first six winners of the races. It was really commendable to have secured such positions in the very first attempt of participation in an international event. Subsequently, one of the skiers from Gulmarg, Gul Mustafa Dev participated in Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada. These National Games and subsequent events showed that Gulmarg had the potential to produce international level skiers. Only requirement was encouragement and patronage which has been mostly missing. G M Hajam who had secured a position in the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo has not till date been given encouragement or an award by the State Government. One would have expected Omar Abdullah who has himself been skiing at Gulmarg from early childhood to be too keen to encourage the local people! Somehow, due to his over busy schedule such things seem to slip from his mind. Let us hope he remembers these people in Gulmarg who can be the real backbone of the future development of the resort! I nostalgically remember these people and would describe some of these in more detail in next few episodes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Adventure in Kashmir

Generally Kashmir is taken as an enchanting and captivating luxury tourist destination where one can enjoy a leisurely holiday in the most wonderful climate surrounded by some of the world’s best scenery. Not many know that Kashmir is also probably the world’s most challenging destination for what is known as the “Adventure Tourism”. One can safely say that Kashmir is the “Ultimate Adventure”! For quite some time there has been an appreciable change in the pattern and type of holidays which people generally take and in particular the younger generation. It is the “Active or Adventure Tourism” which involves holidays with physical exercise. Some of the activities which are quite popular are mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, hill walking, mountain biking, white water rafting and kayaking, Para-sailing, and hang gliding, hot air ballooning, and a number of other sports. In winter apart from the normal on prepared piste skiing, people in large numbers go for cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering, tobogganing, and winter climbing. Our state has some of the most challenging locations for undertaking all these activities. In fact, for a number of these adventure sports it can be the last frontier or the ultimate challenge. Even though due to the turmoil of last two decades, the valley had virtually been closed down for Adventure Tourism by the security establishment, yet Ladakh continued to have large groups of adventurers both in summer and winter. One of the most frequented areas prior to the outbreak of militancy had been the Kishtwar mountain areas which continue to be still off the limits for foreigners. In spite of numerous difficulties, some adventure activities continued in the valley also. Thanks to some courageous house boat owners, they continued to take trekkers to Gangabal via Sonamarg and Naranag. Similarly, the Swiss born French skier Sylvain Saudan carried on heli-skiing in the toughest conditions. However, in the overall context, the adventure tourism not only got stalled but all new areas remained unexploited. During last few years, the State Tourism Department has initiated a number of steps to revive the adventure activities for tourists. White water rafting on Sindh and Lidder Rivers was introduced on commercial scale. Some white water rafting championships have also been held. Car Rallies were conducted on Leh-Srinagar sector as part of the Raid de Himalaya. A rally was conducted on the Mughal Road. There were other adventure activities. However, the full potential is yet to be tapped.
The declaration of the year 2011 as the Adventure Tourism Year is a very welcome and timely declaration by the Department. One advantage with the adventure tourists is that they are very well versed with the geography of the different tourist areas and are not easily put off by wide media coverage of any incidents of violence or otherwise. In contrast, the normal tourists get easily scared and cancel their holidays. The State Tourism Department needs to highlight the potential by inviting some top adventure sports persons like world famous mountaineers, skiers, para-sailors, hang gliding experts, white water rafters, and canoeists to personally see and publicise the potential we have for these activities. In the past a number of international level events have been held in this field. The best publicity for exposing this potential is to hold some events with participation of well known persons in the field. In fact, Kashmir has the capacity to absorb thousands of adventure tourists in different spots dispersed all over state. Another advantage with adventure tourism is that this activity does not require setting up of any elaborate infrastructure. Most of the participants bring their own equipment and only requirement is a dependable rescue service to take care of any eventualities. Most of the Adventure Tourism activities are part of Eco-Tourism in the larger context but one has to regulate these very strictly to avoid damage to fragile mountain environment. This is especially so in our case where the environment has already been vandalised by greedy people. One has to aim for sustainable tourism. We must determine the carrying capacity of our areas for these activities and then ensure that we do not exceed the optimum level as is being done in a number of countries. A typical example is Bhutan. The ideal way is to enforce a strict regulatory control over the entry of various expeditions and groups. These can be charged some environment levy to pay for keeping the mountains clean. Such a levy is already being charged by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) from foreign mountaineering expeditions, which gives a share of all these royalties to Himalayan states for undertaking cleaning expeditions. However, trekking groups and some other adventure activity participants are not obliged to go through IMF. These have to be controlled by the local authorities. All these regulatory activities concerning environment and management of different areas can generate appreciable employment. In addition one would need guides, high altitude porters, and trained instructors. These can be recruited from among the local youth in these remote mountain areas and trained in some of the mountaineering institutes already existing in the state such as the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Pahalgam. Developing Adventure Tourism on a larger scale can also give boost to import and sale of some of the specialised equipments required for these activities. In view of these possibilities it is very commendable for the State Tourism Authorities to make Adventure Tourism as an important thrust area for future development of tourism in the State. Kashmir, hopefully, would one day become the “Ultimate Destination” for all adventure lovers of the world!
We may have very high hopes for boosting tourism especially the adventure one but there are some people who have been habitually throwing spanners in the works! There is a dichotomy in promoting tourism to Kashmir. While on one hand everyone from President downwards claims Kashmir to be normal and the State Government is going all out with its publicity campaigns throughout the world as part of “Incredible India” slogan, on the other hand the foreign agencies of the Government of India are discouraging tourists from visiting Kashmir. The State Tourism Department has engaged a world class publicity firm to promote tourism. Their entire effort becomes zero when the Prime Minister of the country says that he is keeping his fingers crossed about the situation in Kashmir next summer! It has also been reported that some groups of Iranian Tourists wanted to visit Kashmir but they were refused visas by the Indian embassy there. Similarly, it has been reported that there are standing instructions with the field officers of the Research and Analysis Wing posted in various embassies in the Middle East to discourage Arabs from visiting Kashmir. In fact, the Srinagar-Dubai direct flight is also alleged to have been taken off permanently for this reason. Most of the Indian Tourist Offices abroad are advising potential tourists to visit Himachal Pradesh instead of Kashmir because of the disturbed situation!
One wishes the State Tourism Department well in their efforts to promote tourism to Kashmir but they need to first convince Government of India that promotion of tourism abroad especially the adventure one is in the “National Interest” so that appropriate instructions are issued to the concerned to facilitate foreign tourists to Kashmir and not to discourage them. In the present circumstances, the first adventure is in getting to Kashmir itself in spite of various security related hassles!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XI (First National Winter Games-I)

The Winter Games Federation of India was constituted in 1984 under the aegis of the Indian Olympic Association, to promote Winter Games, enhance India’s standing by encouraging competitiveness and imparting opportunity for excellence to the promising skiers. With this view in mind, the 1st National Skiing Championship was held at Gulmarg in the year 1986.
The 1st National Championship in 1986 was instrumental in India’s participation in the 1st Winter Asian Games held at Sapporo in Japan. These games were organised by the Winter Games Federation under the presidentship of Admiral Jain. We had been aiming for these games in 1984 itself immediately after the setting up of WGFI but there were some handicaps. First was the right kind of ski equipment and a lift to the starting point of the racing slopes. Most of our international standard racing slopes were above Khilanmarg. So the conducting of these games involved two aspects. One was the equipping of Gulmarg with requisite implements to hold the games and second was the logistics during the conduct of these games such as preparation of slopes and rescue arrangements. I convinced General Prem Hoon who was the Army commander and Admiral Jain that we will arrange equipment from abroad. General agreed to provide the logistic support. On this the Winter Games Federation of India decided to hold the First Winter Games in Gulmarg in March, 1986.
Immediately after the declaration of hosting of winter Games in Gulmarg, we started plans for importing the equipment. The import of equipment in itself was an interesting exercise. In order to speed up the process, we consulted our French friends regarding the type of equipment needed as well as its quantity. We would need at lest 200 sets of ski equipment, electronic timer gates, and rescue equipment like ski-sledges etc. After some deliberations, it was decided that the quickest mode to import equipment would be through the State Trading Corporation of India. They had telex connections with most of the trading capitals in Europe and could invite offers on telex. After finalising the list of equipment with requisite specifications we forwarded it to the STC. They immediately invited global tenders and consulted us after preparing a detailed comparative statement. Following selection of the most suitable and high quality equipment, we asked them to place the orders. However, they asked us to place the entire amount at their disposal before they could place the orders. The cost of the equipment including its freight by air to Delhi was estimated at rupees one and a half crores. It was not an easy job to get an advance sanction for placing such a huge amount at the disposal of STC. However, we got the needful done in a week’s time. G M Shah was the Chief Minister and he was very keen for holding these games. After this we had to get the necessary foreign exchange released from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Those days Surjit Singh Bhalla, who had been a ski instructor was posted in the J & K Tourist Office at New Delhi. Due to some neck injury while skiing at Gulmarg, the government had posted him in Delhi as the in charge of the Tourist Office to enable his medical treatment. He informed me that Mr. Madhav Lal, a J & K cadre IAS officer (present Chief Secretary, J & K) was Director in the Ministry of Economic Affairs in charge for releasing foreign exchange. We needed a recommendation from the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, before the release could be effected.
The Union Secretary Tourism those days was Dr. Nitish Sen Gupta, a fine gentleman and a positive officer. I called on him and explained our project for importing ski equipment for Gulmarg to enable holding of National winter Games. He asked me how he could help. I told him that we needed a letter of recommendation from him to Economic Affairs Ministry. He offered me a cup of coffee and called his stenographer to dictate the letter. By the time I finished my coffee, the letter was handed over to me. I went straight to Ministry of Economic Affairs to call on Mr. Madhav Lal. He too offered me a cup of coffee and asked for the letter which I handed over to him. He marked the letter to one of his sub-ordinate officers. I asked him how many days it would take to get the sanction for the release of the foreign exchange? He asked me to relax and enjoy the coffee. After only half an hour his man came with the release order. I was utterly surprised and asked him how it was possible? He smiled and told me that in the Central Government every officer has his defined delegation. The amount required by us was within his delegation. During my various visits to Delhi I found the J & K Cadre Officers posted in Central Ministries very helpful. One had only to approach them and they would try their best to solve any problem faced by us.
Next hurdle was the custom duty. We would be attracting a duty of almost two crores at the rate of 140% of the value. We had engaged Balmer & Laurie, the Government clearing agency for arranging the clearance and despatch of the equipment through customs. Mr.Dharam Vir senior executive (now head of the company) asked me to get a letter from the State Chief Minister to Union Finance Minister for granting exemption from custom duty as similar exemption had been given to Himachal Pradesh. We arranged this immediately and Bhalla followed it up in the Finance Ministry. However, after a couple of weeks we got a letter from the Finance Ministry stating that it was not possible to grant the exemption. As usual, the double standards. But there were other people with good will for Kashmir. Dharam Vir informed me that there was a Finance Ministry notification that all sports goods meant for National Games were totally exempt from custom duty. We needed a certificate to the effect that the ski equipment being imported by J & K was meant for National Games. Bhalla got the requisite certificate from the Winter Games Federation of India attested by the Sports Authority of India. Armed with these certificates we approached the Controller Imports who luckily happened to be a Kashmiri, Mr.M K Zutshi, a smart, honest and a dynamic officer! He entertained us with tea and coffee and was thrilled to know that we had arranged import of the most modern ski equipment. He had been sledging in Gulmarg on wooden planks! He ordered clearance of entire equipment without payment of any custom duty immediately on arrival at Delhi airport. Thus we had saved Kashmir Government over rupees two crores and had got the latest equipment. Once we had the equipment in Gulmarg, we began preparations for the Games which I will describe in the next episode.

Friday, March 4, 2011

“Gentleman” with crossed fingers!

(There cannot be worst manifestation of helplessness than sitting with crossed fingers especially for the Chief Executive of a powerful country!)

The ultimate helplessness of the Prime Minister has been exposed by his recent remarks in the Parliament. While threatening the secessionists on one hand, he stated that he is keeping his finger crossed for the situation next summer in Kashmir. How can the Prime Minister of the largest democracy having one of the largest armies and security establishments keep his fingers crossed? Doesn’t he have the control over the massive set up he is presiding over? Or is it simply an escape from facing the reality and standing up to the truth? As the Prime Minister he is supposed to know the ground situation through the umpteen intelligence agencies operating in Kashmir. Apart from this he must be getting in puts from all over the world through diplomatic and other channels. At no other time in its entire history has the situation regarding violation of human rights in Kashmir been covered as extensively globally as has been done during last year or so! Even as an economist he must be knowing that FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is shying away from India due to the security situation primarily emanating from the vexed problem of Kashmir. He has suggested an economic solution to Kashmir problem also. Just engage a hundred thousand people on a monthly dole and people will keep quiet! Why not to engage a million Kashmiris on the same lines? The cost will still be less than what India spends on security and defence related expenditures in the state. No able bodied young person will be left idle. However, all the “trouble makers” last summer were not without jobs! There were plenty of students in their early teens. The persons killed in cold blood by bullets against stones were mostly teenagers. It has been established by one and all that the unrest in Kashmir is not for economic reasons. The basic problem is political. Prime Minister’s journey from the “Zero Tolerance” to “Crossed Fingers” is a pathetic story.

He started his Kashmir discourse by declaring “Zero Tolerance” for human rights violations right in Srinagar itself. Ironically, the declaration was made when the entire valley had been put under siege ostensibly to ensure his safety during the short visit! The expectations of common people had been raised by this bold declaration. Unfortunately, it proved to be damp squib and became rather a joke! The security forces indulged in brazen human rights violations with a vengeance after declaration of “Zero Tolerance”! But the Prime Minster instead of taking strong action to ensure implementation of his directive to stop these violations ate a humble pie. He did not even mention the words “Zero Tolerance” in his subsequent discourses. Maximum numbers of cases of these violations have occurred after the widely publicised declaration. One would have expected him to give a healing touch to the suffering people of Kashmir but he rather preferred to be a silent observer, only expressing distress off and on. It reflected total helplessness on his part. During last summer’s upheaval he did not act as the Prime Minister but as a mute spectator. Was it because he did not want to take cudgels with the strong Hindutva lobby within and outside the government? This could be true especially he himself comes from a minority community. Probably, his taking strong measures would have given more ammunition to the fanatic Hindutva brigade for whom anything pro-Kashmiri is against the “National Interest”? Or is it because he did not want to annoy Rahul Baba whose friend had been facing a tough time in the state? Or is it because he did not want to displease Sonia Ji, the mentor who had placed him in his present position? Apart from the last summer’s gruesome events in Kashmir, the Prime Minister did not bother to follow fate of the working groups constituted by him on various aspects of Kashmir. Most of these working groups had submitted their recommendations for alleviating the sufferings of the common people of Kashmir, addressing at least their immediate grievances to some extent. These related to revocation of AFSPA, de-militarization of civilian areas and release of political prisoners. However, all these reports containing these recommendations are gathering dust in the state and central government offices.

What makes the whole episode tragic and ironical is Dr. Manmohan Singh’s background. He has the reputation of being an honest and upright “Gentleman”. In spite of umpteen numbers of scams being unearthed every other day, his person continues to be treated above board. The Prime Minister apart from being a man of integrity has had a brilliant career throughout. Being an economist by profession he has been the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. He has also served in UNCTAD. He carried out revolutionary economic reforms during his tenure as the Finance Minister in the Congress Government headed by P. V. Narasimha Rao, from 1991 to 1996. These reforms resulted in the end of the Licence Raj system, helping to open the Indian economy to greater international trade and investment. He is in fact the author of globalisation of the Indian economy and he achieved this objective in the shortest possible time. He became Prime Minister of India by a strange turn of events. Sonia Gandhi as the leader of Congress hesitated to take on the premiership due to her foreign origin and the mantle fell on Dr.Manmohan Singh not only as a capable and honest person but also being a loyalist of the Gandhi family which quality he has demonstrated without any blemish. With unconditional support from Sonia Gandhi, he was able to conclude the Indo-US nuclear deal in spite of massive opposition. During this episode he demonstrated that in spite of being soft spoken and unassuming, he is capable of standing up to all opposition to implement what he believes to be in the overall interests of the country. However, in the case of a number of scams especially the one relating to 2-G he appears to be on a weaker wicket because of his inexplicable silence. Silence in case of a scam also raises questions about one’s integrity. One may overlook all the problems of governance and umpteen scams as part of the Indian political scene. However, the attitude of the Prime Minister in addressing the basic problem in Kashmir is inexplicable in view of his background and personal qualities. It does not reflect either a politician or a statesman but a simple and a true bureaucrat! It raises questions even on being an honest and upright “Gentleman”!


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