Monday, 27 May 2013

Gurgaon-The Changing Skyline

The Gurgaon Skyline
The Skyline of Gurgaon has undergone a transformation at an unprecedented scale
Today when I climb on to the fourteenth floor of a pent-house in an area that used to be nothing but scrubland or even farmland that could be accessed only on foot or the tractor, I can’t help but muse about how this once sleepy town has undergone a rapid transformation! And if I said all that in one breath, then it is as an expression of wonder and amazement for this town said to have been once upon a time the home of Guru Dronacharya!
Doe looking back
These Nilgais were seen in the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Unfortunately their habitat is threatened by the development taking place in Gurgaon!
Gurgaon is about 22 kilometres from Dhaula Kuan in Delhi. It is forty-two kilometres from the North Campus of the Delhi University, and about 26 kilometres from the New Delhi railway Station. Gurgaon is placed strategically on the way to Jaipur. Jaipur incidentally is about 200 kilometres from Jaipur and another 200 kilometres from Agra, the town that has the famous Taj Mahal. Gurgaon is also home to the famous Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Another place 22 kilometres from Gurgaon worth visiting is the Damdama Lake. 
Gurgaon Skyline
Today, Gurgaon continues to be the most sought after destination for those who want to invest in real estate, whether it is plots, bungalows, villas, flats and penthouses. A decent three bedroom flat that would have cost Rs 20/-. Lakhs in the 1990s. today costs a good Rs. 1 crore! Similarly a basement with a gym, a swimming pool, a home movie theatre and a ground floor with three bedrooms would cost Rs.3 to 4 crores in the newly built form in some of the posh localities. An entire bungalow including the basement, ground floor, first floor, and second floor would cost you a good Rs. 13/- Crores. Thrown into the bargain is the home theatre seating eight, the swimming pool, terrace gardens, burglar alarms with sensors attached to the plate glass windows, a dedicated server room which operates the the Diesel Generator Set the C.C.T.V cameras, cooling and the main gate which is electronically, and remotely operated. All this in a plot measuring 360 square yards. A six bedroom flat  with large bedrooms and equally large bathrooms an Jacuzzis would cost you an upward of Rs.12 Crores!
Gurgaon Skyline
Looking at the price of some of the residential properties in Gurgaon, it seems as if recession has beaten a hasty retreat from Gurgaon. Apparently, some of the reasons why Gurgaon continues to be an important real estate investment destination is its proximity to the Airport in Delhi, its good connectivity in terms of roads, railways, and of course the metro. With the coming of the Rapid Metro, the proposed Pod-Taxi service, and the Dwarka Express way, property prices are bound to leap sky-wards! Gurgaon fairs better than the other satellite cities in the National Capital Region because of its better infrastructure, better security, and yes the crowd is better too! A large number of Multinational Companies have shifted base to Gurgaon, and it is also fast becoming an IT hub in the region.Gurgaon is today home to a large number of Malls including one which has one which has more than one kilometre of shopping space on each of many floors!
In many cases, the boom in the construction industry has given employment to a large number of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled work force. The need for construction materials like cement, torsion bars,tiles, bathroom fittings, kitchen fitments for modular kitchens, security systems, diesel generators…etc has lead to a correspondingly favourable market for raw materials. However, this boom in the Real Estate sector has also lead to a few problems like vanishing forests and green areas, drying up of water body systems, increasing pressure on infrastructure, pressure on natural resources, and an increasing migratory or in-transit population. While the building societies on the outskirts of  Gurgaon get what is seemingly preferential treatment, old Gurgaon however languishes! Congested roads, power-cuts, and sewage getting mixed in the water supplied by the Municipality are just a few of the woes faced by the residents of old Gurgaon. The victims of this rapid phase of the urbanisation of Gurgaon have been the good old Sparrows, Vultures, Eagles and Turtle Doves. Guess the birds shown below are on their way out, looking for greener pastures!
Sights of this kind will soon be forgotten, camels have been replaced by Jaguars!
This little bird is one of the victims of development in Gurgaon. Photographed in Jajhar a few kilometres away, one wonders whether it might not have been driven away from Gurgaon!
It seems surprising how fast the sleepy town of Gurgaon has transformed itself into one of the modern towns of India. labelled as the Millennium city of Haryana, and therefore India, it commands more importance than Sonipat, Kundli,  Faridabad and other towns of Haryana. One can only wait and see how the Government is able to maintain a proper balance  between development and the need to conserve nature. It is important today to see that Nature is not harmed by the development taking place in this city! It is important to ensure that greed doesn’t surpass our responsibility of preserving the sanctity of the ecosystem of the region. Skylines may change, but then we need developers who care for the Environment of the City and take pro-active steps to protect the flora and fauna of the region!
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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Connecting with my Grandfather, Revd. Moti Lal and Rt.Revd.Bishop Frederick Willis over the years

When my Uncle, Mr. Eric Lal handed me a rather old Souvenir the other day, I was curious about its contents. A cursory glance of the cover established that it was a Souvenir of the Lodhi Colony Church of Christ The King, New Delhi announces a, “Grand Fete on the fifth of December 1959 at the YWCA Grounds. The Fete timing was given as 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and it was to be Inaugurated by Shri A.M. Thomas ( The then Union Deputy Minister for Food).
Turning to the inner pages of the souvenir, I came across a message by the then Bishop Rt. Revd. Frederick Willis, a person about whom I have heard praises from my father and uncles. I have been told that he was a most selfless and dedicated evangelist that the Church of North India Diocese of Delhi has ever known! The Bishop’s Message reads, “ I sincerely hope that the Grand Fete on December 5 in aid of the Building Fund of the Church of Christ the King, Lodhi Colony will be a great success. It is nearly two years since the foundation stone was laid, February 2nd. 1958, a day which I shall not easily forget, nor all those responsible for the arrangements. The accident on the railway line on Friday, January 31; the unexpected delay of the train on which I was travelling back from Rewari with the Revd. K.G. Sharp to Delhi Cantt. on Sunday afternoon, February 2; and the loss of the ignition key of my car at Delhi Cantt., all seemed to point to this-The Bishop was fated not to lay that foundation stone. The fact, however, was that he did lay it.
It is nearly a year since the work of the building of the Church of Christ the King was begun; but alas! the site was then found to be altogether unsuitable, and had to be abandoned. this was a very great disappointment, especially to all who had been working so hard and for so long to have a church in Lodhi Colony. some might be tempted to say that it seems we are fated not to have a church in that area; but difficulties arise to be overcome. We have had to abandon one site; but we have now secured another. Again the delay will mean inevitably that our building will cost more; but this means that we must put forth greater efforts and raise more money. This is just what is being attempted through this Grand Fete….
27th. November, 1959                                                                   Frederick, Delhi

It seemed as if the words had leapt across all those years and I could feel as if I was in the presence of Bishop Willis! Next I came across a message from my Grandfather, Revd. Moti Lal, someone I never met, but  have known through the descriptions of my father, uncles and other acquaintances to have been a Presbyter with exceptional qualities found in few today. Incidentally I came to know that my Grandfather, Revd. Moti Lal had been one of the  important founders of the Church in Lodhi Colony. A write up in the same Souvenir titled: Lodhi Colony Church of Christ The King-A Short History reads: “In the year 1943, when Lodhi colony was being laid out and buildings thereon were being constructed, a few Christians had already moved into the nearby Aliganj quarters and for the sake of those Christians, services were started by Rev.Moti Lal, the then Parish Priest of St. Michael’s Church, Jangpura, New Delhi at the residence of Mr. John Prem Dass. Sunday Services were started as early as in 1942 and two or three families present at those early services still continue to be active members of the church. With the construction and allotment of quarters to Govt. servants in Lodhi Colony, Sewa Nagar, I.N.A. colony, Prem Nagar and the nearby Vinay Nagar, the small congregation which met in 1942 has increased in numbers abundantly and we have nearly 200 worshipers now.
At one time when there were too many South Indians in the Colony who could not follow Hindustani, Services were held in English as well. Later Rev. Moti Lal was transferred to St.Stephens’s Church, Fatehpuri, Delhi during which the Rev. Jiwan Singh looked after the congregation very ably. After some years, Rev. Moti Lal was re-posted to Jangpura and thus the Lodhi Colony Church continues to have him as its Vicar once again.
One can go on reading the history of the church and the descriptions of a wonderful person who was my Grandfather  for such were the people who served others as my grandfather Revd. Moti Lal and the Rt. Revd. Bishop Frederick Willis.May we see some more people of their calibre working in the churches today! What marked my grandfather apart from others today was that although he had written a number of articles in the souvenir, including a history of the church in Lodhi Colony was that he didn't mention his name at the bottom of the articles. This was an indication of his selflessness and the fact that he didn't run after self-glorification. As a mark of his greatness  I would like to quote a few words written by him in one of the articles in the souvenir,"May God Bless you all, and bring you all to the life eternal!"
(Please also check out my article on Evangelism in North India on the link:

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Great Dictators of Africa

The one time I saw Mengistu face to face was when he visited the Arbaminch Comprehensive High School when I was a student of class eight. The whole school was full of troops brandishing guns. There was an air of excitement in the whole school, and students were eager to meet the “Chairman-Mengistu”,  one of the architects of the People’s revolution of the  Republic of Ethiopia! Then came the big moment, and I could see the, “Chairman” approach from afar! I was short compared to others, so I had to literally peep through the gaps between the students standing within the cordon, which was surrounded by troops. At that time I  found it so funny looking at the troops lying on their stomachs with guns mounted on tripods aimed everywhere. Now I realise that there was a great threat to the life of the Chairman, so the troops were taking no chances-Overkill or not! Then Mengistu reached our position and I could see that he had put on his military uniform, the uniform of a soldier, dark green in colour, and he had put on his green cap with the characteristic red stars fixed to it. He was all smiles, appeared relaxed and shook hands with some of the students in front of me-and then he was gone! Next few days Mengistu was the talk of the town, the talk of the school, and my Ethiopian friends and I talked about no one else but Mengistu Haile Mariam. We talked about how vibrant he appeared, so well groomed, confident, and young. This was the year 1978, a couple of years after the Imperialist Government of Ethiopia was toppled over by a military coup led by a group of people like Teferi Benti, Mengistu and few others like Andom Mikael. It is difficult to believe that this smiling person could have snatched a machine gun from a car waiting outside in a shoot out in 1977 to spray the corridors of the Conference Hall with bullets. Later in a public telecast it was claimed that Tefari Benti was working against the Socialist Government and that there was written proof to this effect. By the end of the day, Mengistu had managed to supersede all of his henchmen to emerge as the “true leader” or the Chairman of the country.
Just a few days back, I was watching the movie titled, “The rise and fall of Idi Amin” and somehow it brought back memories of life in Ethiopia after the revolution. The portrayal of a  Suave, smiling and apparently carefree personality in the film hid the true personality of a psychopath and a madman who had no scruples in getting his opponents shot in cold blood. I couldn’t help marvel about the similarities between the story of Idi Amin and Mengistu. Perhaps we didn’t hear much about Mengistu at that time and never for once considered him to be a psychopath, because he was at least more tactful than Idi Amin. Perhaps that was one reason why Mengistu lasted longer than Idi Amin! But then Africa has been home to many types of Dictators. General Bokassa of the Central African Republic  was known for his prowess in using a single plane to throw bombs at his enemies, and then there was General Ujuku. Idi Amin however beats all of them anytime whether it is with reference to his temperament, pride, swagger, or boastfulness! If he called himself the Last King of Scotland, then, wasn't it part of his charisma that he could force a vision of himself on to others, impose his world of make-belief on to others? Well this is one of the elements of great dictators, they can show you visions of wealth and good life even bombs are falling in your backyard, such were Hitler’s skills at oration!
Perhaps the licence and impunity with which so called dictators acted in the society might be glanced in the life of one of Saddam’s sons, Uday, who would pick up any woman he fancied and he was the in charge of the Iraqi National Football team, and woe betide anyone who dared defy his dictates! A colleague, Mrs. Gupta who had once been in Uganda at the time of Idi Amin told me about how the Indian community had been given a few hours to pack up and leave the country. Her husband had been a Medical Doctor in one of the Hospitals there. Incidentally, Amin’s eccentricities lost him allies. He became alienated from Britain, America, and  his friends from the Soviet Union decided to leave him but then he was able to request them to stay back going to the extent of playing an accordion and singing a song to appease them.
Life in a country lead by a dictator is certainly precarious and uncertain as I came to experience by the time I reached grades eleven and twelve in Ethiopia. You didn’t speak loudly against Government policies never mind how bad they were. You spoke loudly and favourably of the “Chairman” and the Peoples Socialist Party. You denounced the Imperialists for every ill in the country. The drought in the country was blamed on the machinations of the Imperialists. Shortage of goods was blamed on the imperialistic policies of countries that opposed the socialist ideology. All of the shortcomings of the Government   were blamed on America, all this even though food aid titled “Gift from the People of America” could be seen in market in the form of butter-oil and other goods. We knew that America and many other western countries were pouring aid in the form of money into the country in aid of people dying from hunger and thirst, but then whether all this aid was reaching the drought affected people was highly suspect!  Every so often we heard of people missing from homes. They had been taken away by the police late at night, some of them never to be seen again. There were stories about people being taken away in truck loads into the forests where they were supposedly shot dead. These were unconfirmed reports that did the rounds and we were scared of them, so were our Ethiopian friends. Most of my friends and classmates studying in class twelve became despondent towards the end of the session because they had to serve as recruits to fight in the North against advancing rebels of the Tigray Liberation Front, and the Eritrean Liberation front rebels. Many of the most promising students never came back from the battlefront.
Ultimately Dictators of all kinds turn out to be the most cowardly and human of all human beings, because at some time or the other their Charisma fades away. Mengistu had an inkling that his time was drawing close to an end so he acquired a ranch in Zimbabwe and his wife and he started shifting base gradually but steadily. One of the stories that did the rounds in those days when there was frequent travelling of the Chairman’s family to Zimbabwe was that his wife had carried with her Emperor Haile Selassie’s Gold plaited chair! A few months before the rebels entered Addis Abeba, Mengistu did a deal with the Israelis for the evacuation of Ethinic Ethiopian Jew, called as the Falashas to Israel. The motive behind this action was surmised to be to garner funds. The ultimate end of the lives of dictators is as dramatic as their coming to power. Mengistu fled from the country leaving it  to mercy of the Yehadigs or the Northern rebels, while Idi Amin also fled his beloved country to settle in an Arabian Country. I am sure many of the Dictators might have fled to the safety of harbouring countries, but then I am sure that the ghosts of the people they have killed and the crimes committed by them against humanity will continue to haunt them all their lives! It is said that Mengistu  lives on one of Ian Smith’s ranches in Zimbabwe that he had bought earlier.

Monday, 20 May 2013

To Test or not to Test, that is the greatest Test!

When the authorities in India  passed the rule that no one would be detained from class nursery to class eight, it was welcomed by parents with praises and the choicest bouquets of appreciation. The idea behind this rather noble rule was that it would help reduce the incidence of drop out of learners due to poor performance in exams. A few other noble minded humanitarians decided to play god and wanted to trash that harsh law of, “Survival of the fittest!”. It seems as if Darwin and his findings at the Galapagos islands were after all null and void, that is, at least with reference to human beings! These noble minded souls decided that the stress of having to prepare for tests and exams was not worth the effort, and that children should not be subjected to the stress of testing. Today many parents believe that there should be a system of testing to decide whether or not a student is promoted to the next class. In a country which is witness to the great gap in the educational standard that exists between students that go to public schools and those that go to Government schools especially in rural areas, we need to do a serious re-think about our policies of testing our students and promoting them. Students going to public schools in India have better English Language skills than their counterparts who go to Government schools. Another challenge before educationists in India is that a large number of students who go to Government Schools and even Government Aided schools are first Generation learners. The result is that that students who study in Public Schools might go to the next class with some numerical and language skills, while their counterparts in Government schools are promoted even if they don’t have the required numerical or language skills for that class or grade! The challenge before the authorities at the time when the no fail policy was introduced was that the drop out rate in most Government and Government aided schools was so great. This was aggravated by the system of detaining students who couldn’t pass the paper and pen tests. Today, this policy has resulted in deteriorating academic standards in students today. Recent surveys conducted by Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations have shown a disturbing trend, worse than before that a very small percentage of students  who go to the next class have the required numerical and language skills expected in students of that class or grade!
The result of the policy of promoting all students till class eight is that according to numerous surveys, a miniscule percentage of students till class eight have average numerical skills, and fewer still have the ability to write a sentence in English without grammatical errors. Now educationists have started talking about building, “exam skills” in students from class eight onwards! Apparently, the question whether to test or not to test is the greatest debate in numerous educational discussions world wide. While some debate that formal paper and pen tests are the best indicators of how much the students have learned, while others claim that there are other better methods of assessing learning outcomes in students. When asked what they might be, they start of with a list which include observations by teachers (which are bound to be subjective), check lists, class activities, role playing,group activities which include organising fairs, events…etc. The list of assessments is exhaustive and of course it appears as if the students are constantly under observation, poor kids, and in place of periodic  paper and pen tests, each day is for observation observation and observation: enter the Formative assessments, and the system of  Continuous Comprehensive Assessment which would include Scholastic and Co-Scholastic evaluation. The Jargon introduced by the powers that be is interesting enough! If the teacher is confused, then imagine how much more confused the student is with the endless number of tools that he or she has to keep track of for each subject. This has certainly added stress not only for students, but in fact it has added to the stress of the parents. It is clear, moreover that the system of Comprehensive Assessment has attempted to asses all kinds of skills in students, except for their examination skills! The result? Well, an aversion for reading passages longer than three to four hundred words, and the inability to write long answers. Students today are more pleased with multiple choice  questions which require tick marks,  or shading of choices. Whither to then, examination skills?
By the time students reach class twelve, they are a confused lot because all of a sudden they are required to writes long answers for the English subject which exceed the hundred words limit. The answer to the two question on the novels recently introduced would be 130 words for character based questions and 150 word answers for questions based on the plot! All of a sudden, the student is expected to write letters, reports, articles, notices, invitations, and so on! Class eleventh, unfortunately is too short of a transition period for students to realign themselves to the objectives of the paper and pen tests. The confusion in most students of class eleventh is evident in their blank expressions when you ask them to write a longer letter, or to draw a character sketch of an important character in proper paragraphs and not just bullet points or value points!
A strong distinction however needs to be made between testing for earning a certificate of having passed grade twelve and testing for merit in entrance exams. While testing for awarding a certificate for grade twelve should be based on in depth knowledge, testing for entrance to professional coursed should be based on extensive knowledge. So then, to understand the whole question of testing, it is important to understand what it is that we are testing. The word, “Comprehensive” definitive enough and when used in association with evaluation till grade ten, then it suggests evaluating nearly all aspects of the syllabus or curriculum. Extensive evaluation however would increase the area of knowledge to be assessed, not just limiting it to what is contained in the text book and syllabus, but rather going beyond it; it is all about testing beyond the textbook, testing the candidates extensive reading skills and knowledge beyond the four walls of the class room.
It is clear, therefore that testing in some form or the other is here to stay. You don’t get selected for a particular graduate or professional course without going through the rigours of written entrance tests. Tests in some form or the others are served to students and professionals at all levels. Test scores are often an important form of feedback which tell the candidate where he or she stands, how much more effort he or she needs to put in. Testing in some form or the other has always been an important part of human life. In ancient times, epic heroes had to undergo a series of tests and trials. The odyssey was an epic journey traditionally describing the eventful epic journey of Odysseus. No doubt, not everyone can have the tremendous skills of an Odysseus, nor his resourcefulness,  but then if we go by what we have learned since ancient times, then life is one long journey, an journey of tests, and trails and to succeed in life then we need to pass these trials.
Today when we go to a Doctor because of some ailment, then we go with the faith that he is a professional who can be trusted because of the rigorous tests that he has passed and of course the tests would have included the entrance test that he or she would have passed and the tests that he or she would have passed at the end of each semester. No one would go to a Doctor who has not passed any tests, such a person could give us the wrong medication. Similarly, no body would like to  board a plane that has been designed by a designer who has never passed his tests, who knows there might be a serious flaw in the design that might cause the plane to crash! Thus we have serious entrance tests like JEE, PMT, CAT,MAT,AIEEE…etc. So then if we believe in such extensive exams after grade twelve, then it is either because we don’t trust all students who graduate from school to be fit for direct admission to the Engineering Course or perhaps even Medicine! If this then is the case, then this article is a plea that students studying in schools should be subjected to a battery of tests and their exam skills should be polished. Similarly, the “No Fail Policy” needs a serious rethink by the policy makers lest our standards drop further, no wonder, our B Schools and Institutes of Technology don’t figure in the list of the top two hundred institutes worldwide. We did have an edge in numerical skills throughout the world, but then the no fail policy till class eight is bound to have had its impact on our future professionals who have been recipients of the no fail policy!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

By the Banks of the Alaknanda-A Poem

Sitting by the banks of the Alaknanda,
I hear the murmur of the river which greets me in the morn.
The white tips of the waters froth when they meet an obstacle.
White sand lies strewn on the banks across,
White boulders big and small greet the eye,
A cricket sounds nearby, while a sparrow sings its song.
The mountains silent, watch from both sides as the day grows.

As waves continue to chase each other,
The voice of the river tells me of the great deeds of the gods
And great men long past, whose souls now flow in the waters
Of the Alaknanda, straight from the glaciers from high in the
Mountains. A mass of water moving with a single purpose to meet
A common goal. As the morning sun breaks out, the magic begins to
Change to the mundane but the voices continue to sing.

The river murmurs, the sound of a thousand voices.
Old men and young men tell of wise sayings of life long past-
Of the lives of ascetics and the lives of kings. A singular voice to
Remind the listener of the one who freed the villages of the Marauding
Snatcher of men, the man-eater of Rudra Prayag, his message of
Conserving and respecting Nature. I drink in a divine cocktail of
The spiritual and the real, a drink that runs frothing down the slope.
A great river flowing with a single purpose-to  of  a life long past!

The murmur of the river greets me as it cuts through the Boulders
And rocks, grinding the proud and the strong into small small pebbles,
With a deceptively gentle touch. For what gentleness does, can harshness
Match? So has the Alaknanda cut into to the most stubborn and proud
Of mountains, cutting a path so deep as she rushes to meet her sister,
Bhagirathi. While Bhagirathi is younger and more wild, the Alaknanda
Is more sedate and mature! And so she flows, the great Alaknanda-daughter
Of the ancient  glaciers, home of the mighty deities.

Away in the distance lying on the dry white sand see I forlorn remains
Of once mighty trees that stood so strong, proud and great as they challenged
Sky and Earth, now reduced to massive logs broken into bits by the mighty
Alaknanda. Their pride long lost, but massive still in girth- testimony of what
Happens to those with a bloated pride. The ground round rocks-poor comfort
Give, as they  weep of what they were and what they are!
All as the mighty Alaknanda rivers murmurs past  as I sit on a rock.

Celebration of Mother’s Day at The Church of The Epiphany-Gurgaon, Civil Lines-May the Twelfth, 2013


Mother’s Day was celebrated in a special way in the first service at the Church of The Epiphany today. Everything was different today from the decoration of the altar to the members of the entourage proceeding towards the altar. The Leader for this special service was Mrs. Mekhla Sinha.

The Old Testament reading was done by Mrs. Seema Mitra, Responsive Reading by Mrs.Jeyaashri, Epistle Reading by Mrs. Sharmila Nambiar. Pakriti and Ira Nambiar sang an emotional song dedicated to mothers. Mrs. Rita Luther delivered a wonderful message on the occasion. The intercessory prayer was read by Mrs. Ritu Kaushik. Music was provided by Mrs. Vanaja Gabriel and Mr. Ronojay Sircar.



The Choir sang a few hymns on the occasion


Incidentally, “The observance of Mother’s Day in the United States began with two women’s efforts for peace and reconciliation during this time of anguish (the death of more than half a million soldiers in 1865 by the end of the US Civil war). In 1870, Julia Ward Howe called for an International Mother’s Day on which women would unite in opposing war in all its forms. A few years later, Anna Reeves Jarvis began her annual Mother’s Friendship Day in an effort to reunite families and neighbours alienated by the war.” – Our Daily Bread, 2013 edition


Mrs. Mekhla Sinha, the Leader of the service reading an emotional piece




Mrs Rita Luther delivered the message on the occasion of Mother’s Day


Some of the Mothers felicitated on the occasion

The Benediction at the end of the service

The observation of Mother’s Day has great significance especially today when there is greater need to respect women, especially women as prospective mothers. It is important according to Mrs. Rita Luther to learn to understand what motherhood means. In the age of commodification, where almost every occasion is sold in some form or the other day, Mother’s Day however still retains its importance even today not for its commoditised aspect, but because we all honour the mother who gave birth to us and stood for us without any presuppositions.


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Saturday, 11 May 2013

Himalayan Adventure at Jayalgarh-Uttarakhand

The first rapid starting down-stream from the High Five Camp
On the fifth of May-2013,we started from Gurgaon, a group of three teachers and forty-three students of class twelve for the New Delhi Railway station for the adventure camp at Jayalgarh, Uttarakhand. At the New Delhi Railway station we were joined by Tara, Vinod, Mamta and Tariq, escorts from Youreka.We caught the Dehradun express till Haridwar, a four hour journey. From Haridwar we boarded some jeeps all the way to the High Five Adventure camp at Jayalgarh. On the way we passed through Rishikesh and Devprayag, the confluence of the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi.

Diving into the water from the rock
On reaching the camp we were allotted tents, given a briefing about the camp rules and then after a sumptuous breakfast were taken out to the banks of the river Alaknanda for the body-surfing/floating and diving activities. After this we had lunch and then boarded a bus and drove to Srikote, a spot seventeen kilometres up-stream for the white-water rafting activity. Another round of instructions on white-water rafting and then we set of downstream to the point where our camp was located. On the way we passed through some really scary rapids, eddies, and whirlpools. The exciting part was when our instructor told us to jump overboard  into the water! This was a frightening moment for us as we could feel the currents tugging at us, and at times when the river bottom fell away, our imaginations ran riot! It was difficult to board the raft without the help of the instructor, and he told us about techniques of boarding the raft. All the time we were in the water, we clung to the lifeline attached to the raft. We finally reached base camp after having floated downriver for seventeen kilometres. In the process, we were able to defeat some the other rafts through some strenuous paddling and the expert guidance of the instructor.

Trained rescuers
Somehow it was a welcome break for all of us in the group to visit an adventure camp in the mountains, especially as it provided for out bound learning for all of us. This results when students are taken out of their comfort zones and exposed to the elements. In this trip I was able to see the typical class room bullies go soft when faced with the prospect of rafting down a river full of rapids and whirlpools! Adventure Spots activities  ultimately teach us to respect the untamed power of Nature, and the need to preserve it. Such activities also help build Team-Spirit amongst students and teachers. I have seen difficult the resolve of difficult students, crumble into dust at the prospect of rafting down river or even Slithering down a rope tied to a bridge on the the boiling waters of a mountain river. Many of the so called brave members of the group came up with excuses of migraines or even asthma attacks in order to avoid having to participate in the adventure activity! Moreover, I could see how even the most unassuming students had the ability to show immense reserves of grit, guts, patience and staying power, and even leadership qualities during the adventure activities. As far as the class room bully, well, it brought out his vulnerability when faced by a daunting task.

Sunset from the High Five Camp-Jayalgarh
Sitting on the banks of the Alaknanda, I couldn’t help but think that much real learning  takes place outside the class room.The drive through the the mountain roads, taught us about how difficult it is to maintain roads on the mountain roads. every where we could see gangs of workers clearing the roads of debris resulting from landslides. It was there to see how humans have affected the environment so adversely by cutting down trees and denuding mountains of valuable green cover. The cutting down of trees has lead to an increase in the number of incidents of landslides. In many places a major portion of the mountain had slid on to the road all but blocking it. There seemed to be an unending battle between man and nature with visible instances of entire mountains seemed to be held back by tenuous measures of piled rocks bound together with a cage of wires. The few trees that were hanging for dear life seemed to be fighting a loosing battle with roots sticking out of the exposed mountain side.  Funnily enough, placards warning about potential landslide areas had been put up where it seemed there was least danger, while visible landslides had no placards, guess they had been swept away.

Vinod and Tara tell us to leave no trace!
One of the important instructions given to the group at the camp was about the tenets of Eco-Tourism, the concept of LNT or Leave No Trace. The idea behind this concept is that we should not in any way damage the local ecology by leaving behind garbage, or try to alter the same. A hand-book offered to all of us advised us not to pick up collectibles such as drift wood, or rocks as souvenirs so that others coming after us could appreciate them after we left.

Is this bird rare?
On the second day we went trekking on the mountain after breakfast. To say that it was a tough and difficult trek would however be an understatement. A number of minor falls, especially on the backside, scrapes, bruises were some of the trophies of the war. If this was difficult, then imagine how much more daunting the next activity would be of “Slithering down a Rope” from a bridge on to the waters of the Alaknanda! The catch? Well, the rope ended a metre above the water, so the participants had to take the plunge-not for the green hearted!

The Trek down hill
Vinod demonstrates the art of extracting drinking water
On the third of our our adventure tour, we went white water rafting downstream from Jayalgarh to Devprayag, the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda. The distance we covered was twenty-three kilometres.If the rafting we did on the first day was terrific, then what we did on the third day was explosive! The speed of the river was greater still and there were more rapids, more whirlpools. A number of times it appeared as if our raft would capsize and of course we were frequently deluged with water endlessly.We had to paddle really hard at times in order to guide the raft through the rapids. The water was rough and choppy and we were awed by the power of the flow. In one place we got stuck in a whirlpool and went round and round in circles on one side of the river. We had to paddle very hard to get out of it.Our guide was a very experienced person who knew every nook and cranny like the back of his hands and so we trusted him. Wherever the water was calm enough for a stretch, some of us went overboard to float in the water. By the time we reached the pick up point, off Devprayag, we were all quite exhausted. In this activity we came across some plus three class rapids.

Trekking towards the river crossing point
The fourth day at Jayalgarh included two activities: crossing the river with the help of a rope strung across the river and a stream walk. The first activity was terrific! Looking at the task from far it looked relatively easy, but then when I did get into the water and started the crossing, it became clear that it would take all my strength to hang on to the rope. By the time I reached mid-point, I realised how strong the current was. By now my hands were burning with the strain of holding against the current. The whole rope was humming with vibration, and my face was just a few inches above the fast moving water, my body, submerged in the water seemed to be in the grip of the river currents. By the time three-fourth of the distance had been covered, it was pure agony! It was only after reaching the other end that I was able to breath a sigh of relief. Incidentally, a few others were swept away by the stream as they could not hang on for long. Most of us who crossed the river with the help of the rope however didn’t have the energy to return the same way, so we asked one of the instructors to ferry us back on a raft.
Ancient temple dedicated to Lord Shiva (centre)
On the way to the river-crossing site, we came across some really old shrines, one of which was dedicated to Lord Shiva. The one of the locals told me how tradition has it that in the past, three hundred and sixty five temples had been been in one night! I guess there is a reason why this portion of  Uttarakhand is called Dev-Bhoomi, translated, “Land of the gods”. One of the temples that we came across seemed to be really old.
A brief respite after the stream walking activity
After lunch we set out for the second activity of the day, which was termed as stream walking. For this activity we were instructed to wear shoes to protect us from the stones that lay on the bed of the stream. The stream walk was an arduous exercise especially since the rocks were slippery. Many of us had embarrassing falls mostly because we fell on our backsides and were greeted with a, “happy birthday” chorus by others.
That is me waiting for the train to Delhi from Haridwar
The fifth day marked the day of our return to Gurgaon. The trip to the railway station at Haridwar was undertaken in jeeps. At the Haridwar Railway station we boarded the Shatabdi train back to Delhi. On the Shatabdi we were pampered by the attendants who kept feeding us something or the other. The relaxed and comfortable atmosphere on board the train was a welcome break from the four days of adventure. We reached Gurgaon at about twelve-thirty in the morning, handed over the students to their parents, and were back in our beds for a restful sleep!
Looking at the visitors from Gurgaon

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Citizen Journalism

Access to technology and the internet has made it possible for ordinary citizens to report or post eye-witness accounts of important events as they unfold. At the time when agitations against Hosni Mubarak were taking place in Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Government had imposed a blanket ban on the Media reporting of events, it was ordinary citizens who filmed the protests on their mobile phones and then somehow smuggled these across the border! According to Jay Rosen, “A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism”-21 May, 2012, Citizen Journalism takes place, “when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” In most cases, a mobile phone with a sensible camera, internet connection, and a YOUTUBE account will suffice as a “press" tool. The advantage of a citizen reporting an event lies in the possibility of its being fresh, original and piping hot! When a citizen goes beyond taking photographs on his cell phone and writes on a blog, it becomes even more participatory in nature. He or she is on the spot and is part of the event, unlike a professional reporter!
Citizen Journalism is, however, distinct from professional journalism, it is more avant-garde, sensational, unregulated, uncensored, and more likely to touch a raw nerve in the target audience. The existence of a multitude of social networking sites on the internet has also given a boost to this “art-brute” form of reporting by the 'man on the street'. Citizen journalism has a powerful ability to appeal to mass sentiment and its popularity has meant that today blogging and citizen journalism are presenting an ever growing challenge to formal and institutionalized journalism. However, the lack of regulation and censorship could mean that what is posted by ordinary citizens might violate the ethics of reporting, instigate communal tensions in a country like India, or inflame public opinion against the Government as is the case in a country like Syria.
Institutionalized journalism, however, continues to have its weaknesses. It is a known fact that a good dinner with gifts thrown in might attract a favorable report, while a cold shoulder might result in an unfavorable report. In many cases, the notes taken by an accredited journalist would be developed overnight into a report which would then be taken to the Editor for further editing and changes in order to favor or disfavor a person or a group of people being covered in the report. In many cases, such reports lack the zest or the bite of fresh news items posted by ordinary citizens in the form of tweets or writeups and comments on a social networking site like Facebook. Technology has surely empowered the common man to such an extent that he or she is able to develop an interesting report on an event accompanied with photographs on a blog or social networking site.
Citizen Journalism might however not always be about political issues. It could be a write-up on environmental issues such as the poor state of National Parks poor up-keep of animal and bird sanctuaries including in some cases the poor state of rivers in the country like the Yamuna River. In many cases, such reports by alert citizens have prompted pro-active action by Governments and Non-Governmental Organisations. Photographs taken of dried river beds, effluent choked rivers, polluting smoke-stacks of industries, blatant violations of traffic rules, and jumping of red lights have made a difference.
Citizen Journalism has had a long history, especially in the West. In America after journalists themselves began to question their own predictability of their coverage of the U.S. Presidential elections in 1988. At that time, the advent of the Citizen Journalist movement was a countermeasure to an eroding trust in institutionalized media and a general sense of disillusionment with the polity. In the recent past, the Jasmine Revolution which forced the President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of his seat and the Arab-Spring revolution all saw the rise of active Citizen Journalism that exposed corrupt Governments and gave voice to the common man’s disenchantment with a dictatorial system of governance. It is not surprising to see a proliferation of views from diverse people, starting from the grass-root levels and going on to bureaucrats in the world where technology has empowered the common man. If Mubarak was ousted from his seat, it was partly because of the perception of the common man and what he posted on social networking sites. Bloggers and those who tweeted endlessly from their phones about the situation on ground zero made a great contribution to the turn of events in Egypt. In Libya too, the overturning of the dynasty of the “Desert Fox”, Gaddafi, was because of the angst of the common man, the public discontent finding expression in the form of blogs, tweets, and updates on social networking sites. In India, the big brother revolution and agitation for the Lokpal bill, spearheaded by Anna Hazare was covered by Citizen Journalists, people who had hopes for better and cleaner governance. The numerous demonstrations, most of them peaceful, were lead by Anna Hazare. These demonstrations were mention in blogs and tweets. In any case, most accomplished journalists are also accomplished bloggers and tweeters. There is, therefore, a gray area which is shared by accredited journalists and those who have had no training in Journalism. Growing public discontent and an increasing demand for change in the social fabric have ensured that the voice of the citizen journalist is heard loud and clear. Citizen journalism is here to stay and will continue to be heard for a long time to come unless governments evolve a system to “gag the voice of the common man”!

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