Striking down NJAC – A historic judgment

The Hon’ble Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the controversial National Judicial Appointments Commision (NJAC) has come as a jolt to the government. The much hyped NJAC, was a bill conceived by the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Although the UPA at the time was apparently toying with the idea of holding wider consultation with the legal fraternity as well in order to bring the judiciary on-board, the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dispensation after coming to power immediately pushed the bills for replacing the collegium system in an unusually hasty manner. The general argument against the collegium system, where judges of the Supreme Court (SC) and respective High Court’s (HC) appoint judges, was the lack of transparency and opacity of the process. While this criticism is not misplaced or incorrect, the system being brought in to replace the existing collegium system was nothing less than an indirect assault on the independence of  higher judiciary. If the government and political class were truly committed to judicial reforms and transparency, they could have sought a reform of the existing collegium system, which even eminent jurists like Mr Fali S Nariman had sought. In fact Mr Nariman, had been openly critical of the collegium system’s lack of  transparency and is known to have called out for reforming the system.

However, the blatant ramming through of an ill-conceived bill such as NJAC, which sought to water down the primacy of the judiciary in judicial appointments by having the Law Minister and two other “eminent persons” hold a virtual veto power, made Mr Fariman come out strongly in support of the collegium system vis-a-vis the NJAC. On the other hand, the Attorney General (AG), Mr Mukul Rohatgi, arguing in favour of NJAC on behalf of the government, continued to highlight the unanimity of parliament in passing the two bills seeking to call it the “will of the parliament”, and “will of the people.” While the unanimity in Parliament truly reflects the “will of the parliament”, drawing further conclusions from it to attribute the decisions of elected MPs and MLAs as “will of the people” is an insult of electoral democracy. If this logic were to hold true, it implies that people of India have also been in favour of the government and political class’ unanimous decisions to pass bills which raise the salaries and perks of elected representatives. Indeed, Justice J S Khehar, who headed the constitutional bench hearing the pleas against NJAC, had noted during the course of the arguments made by the AG, that the only other time such unanimity was observed in parliament was when MPs had passed bills to raise their salaries and perks.

Another argument made by the government and political parties against the existing collegium system is that India is the only country in the world where judges appoint judges. This is a flawed argument. One only needs to go back the previous year when the collegium headed by then Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice R M Lodha had recommended four names for elevation as Supreme Court judges. One of the nominees recommended was Mr Gopal Subramaniam, a former Solicitor General and an eminent lawyer himself. The Modi government had then blocked Mr Subramanian’s nomination on certain grounds while accepting the other 3 recommendations. In fact the collegium system works in a manner that it nominates/recommends certain names after holding wider consultations within, and then forwards them to the government for approval. The government then seeks Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports on the nominated candidates and then sends its recommendations to the President for approval. In case of any negative intelligence reports over any candidates, the government sends its remarks back to the collegium to re-consider the recommendation, which the collegium may choose to disregard and re-send back to the government. Mr Gopal Subramaniam’s elevation as a judge was blocked by the Modi led dispensation despite the absence of any negative intelligence reports. The controversy finally ended when Mr Subramaniam himself withdrew his candidature in order to ensure that the other three recommended names did not get blocked owing to a constitutional crisis.  The entire episode only reflects the different stages and filtration criteria a candidate has to go through to be appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court. A similar process is followed by the collegiums of respective High Courts who send their recommendations to the SC collegium which then passes on the recommendations to the government after due consideration. While there has been valid criticism over the lack of transparency and opacity with which certain names are recommended or rejected, the process has at least ensured insulation from political interference. There certainly is scope for improving the existing process, which the SC also noted in its judgment striking down the NJAC, when it called for further hearings on November 3 to improve the working of the collegium system. It is important to note the government’s unequivocal opposition to the collegium system in the SC while arguing in favor of the NJAC, irrespective of the final decision of the SC on the NJAC petitions. The AG continuously and firmly argued that the “collegium system was dead and buried and could not be revived” even if the SC struck down the NJAC. [1] The government’s stand that the system of “judges appointing judges” is not followed in any country across the world including US or any other western countries, very conveniently highlights selective facts to suit its stated position. While the collegium system may not exist anywhere else across the world, the western countries have many other systems and incentives in place to ensure a fair, transparent and independent judiciary. India today ranks amongst the lowest countries in the world on the basis of a judges to people ratio. The salaries provided to judges of the High Court and Supreme Court are measly and do not match up to the standards followed in the western countries. In fact, the very low salaries fixed by the government since decades has stopped many capable and competent legal luminaries from taking up judicial positions. Government’s budgetary allocations to judiciary since years has hovered around 0.5% of total budget. The lack of sufficient recruitments is a fallout of this extremely low expenditure on judiciary. The high pendency and unending dragging of cases is also a result of these sub-standard budgetary allocations, vis-a-vis the judiciary in western countries.

If the government was truly committed to ushering reforms and transparency in the judiciary, it could have demonstrated it beginning to provide higher financial allocations. The government could have further sought improvements in the existing system, something which even judiciary has not been averse to. If the NDA government had done either of this, it could have truly demonstrated its genuine commitment to judicial independence and respect for judiciary. Instead it only chose to follow in the erstwhile regime’s footsteps by ramming through the NJAC legislation without holding wider consultations with the judiciary. This decision demonstrated how a change of regime in an electoral democracy does not necessarily reflect a change of existing systems and processes. The Modi led government instead showed how it was no different from the erstwhile regimes. The NJAC compromised the judiciary’s primacy in judicial appointments by having 3 non-judicial members (the Law Minister, and two “eminent persons” elected by a separate committee comprising the Chief Justice of India, Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition/Leader of largest opposition party). The only brief for appointing the two “eminent persons” was that they need not be from legal profession or for that matter have any law qualifications at all. In addition, one of the two nominated “eminent persons” had to be from the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Minorities or Women. The act further stated that any person being considered for appointment as Chief Justice and Judge of High Courts, cannot be appointed, “if any two members of the NJAC do not agree to the proposal”. This effectively provided a veto power to the non-judicial members of the Commission, thereby striking at the heart of judicial independence.

Critics of the collegium system may rightly argue that ascribing a negative bias or for that matter an ulterior motive in appointing “committed judges” to non-judicial members of the commission is incorrect and unjust. One however only needs to look at all the other institutions of our country which are either led by government/political appointees or by the government itself. The CBI has been a caged parrot since ages. The near toothless police forces across states face relentless political interference by way of appointments as well as the uncertainty of  regular transfer to no-go zones in cases where upright officers dare to follow the rule book at the risk of upsetting the ministers. The word bureaucracy unfortunately has attained a certain negative connotation since ages. Seldom have the civil services officers been able to stand up to the ruling dispensation and ensure the right decisions have been taken. Appointments made to the CVC, CIC, IB as well as other cultural and scientific institutions are equally at the mercy of the government of the day. A majority of our country’s sports associations are run by politicians belonging either to the ruling party of the opposition party. The mess the BCCI today finds itself in is no less due to the involvement of political persons from across the political spectrum. An institution of repute such as the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) too hasn’t been spared of political interference. The ugly confrontation between FTII students and government over appointment of a relatively unknown Gajendra Chauhan (whose claim to fame has been a prominent role in tele-serial Mahabharata and his association with the Modi led ruling BJP) continues till date. If the AG’s argument of “will of the people” were to be applied to the decision of appointing Mr Chauhan as FTII Chairman, it falls flat on its face as the primary stakeholders of the institute, the students themselves, have continued to oppose his appointment since it was announced in June. The incident clearly reflects that decisions made by the executive, do not necessarily reflect the “will of the people.” In fact if one were to extend this very argument further, the Modi government’s decision to promulgate the ordinance on Land Acquisition Bill recently, very much went against both the “will of the Parliament” and consequently “will of the people”. Conveniently changing sides and arguments to suit its own objectives has been a hallmark of the political class in India and the current NDA government by all standards excels in this.

Congress and BJP led regimes or for that matter other state government’s as well have time and again clashed with the judiciary whenever it has stepped into executive’s domain. Judicial overreach too has at times been unnecessary and needless. Parliament and Judiciary are pillars of democracy which need to co-exist and assist each other. While Parliament derives its legitimacy through elected representatives, this legitimacy does not give it a right to step into judicial domain. Elections alone do not determine “legitimacy” in an electoral democracy. The concept of “judges appointing judges” is not “anti-democratic” just because judges do not face elections. The judges themselves have been a part of the social and legal system and have in come up through the ranks after years of practice. It is true that there have been instances of corruption and transgressions in the judiciary. These need to be stopped and halted by creating appropriate systems of checks and balances. It however does not provide an excuse for executive’s interference in judicial appointments. The 2G scam, coal-gate, Adarsh scam, CWG scam, mining scams of Goa and Karnataka, hundreds of fake encounter cases, Vyapam scam, Saradha scam, and numerous other scams have demonstrated the degrading standards of our political parties. If elected representatives collectively represent the “will of people”, does it mean that these scams were an outcome of “will of the people”? How can these very tainted, yet elected representatives be trusted if they were to decide who could or could not become a judge? The collegium system, despite all its flaws, has ensured an insulation from direct interference by the executive. The SC has rightly accepted the shortcomings of the collegium system and has invited recommendations to further improve its functioning.

If our political parties and government truly respect judicial independence and integrity, they will do well to provide useful suggestions for further improvements to bring in transparency. Unfortunately, the current dispensation has instead expressed its anguish at the SC’s appropriate decision to strike down the draconian NJAC. The current judgment rightfully restores the primacy of judiciary in judicial appointments and has ensured its insulation from external interference. This judgment adds another feather in the SC’s cap in safeguarding the interests of the common man.

[1] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/collegium-dead-buried-cant-return-government-to-supreme-court/

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Kheerganga Trek – A journey through the heartland of Himachal Pradesh

This article was also published in the New Indian Express, Bangalore edition and can be accessed here – http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/528583/The-New-Indian-Express-Bangalore/25-JUNE-2015#page/21/1

 

The village of Tosh, located in the far end of Parvati valley near Kasol, Himachal Pradesh, is an idyllic hamlet with few thousand inhabitants. The village is no different from hundreds of others scattered through the great Himalayan belt which passes through a major part of North and North-East India. One of the many obscure villages that exist in Himachal Pradesh, Tosh, however is different as it attracts a large number of foreign tourists. A majority of these foreigners are Israelis. The village is also becoming a favoured destination for backpackers and hippies. The reason for this is quite simple. Tosh offers tourists a beautiful view of the surrounding hills, an experience of living in a rustic hamlet without fancy hotels, cheap food, nominally prices rooms for night stay, easy access to hash (which is a primary reason for attracting hippies as well as Israeli tourists) and a passage to Kheerganga – located around 12 kms above Tosh. Kheerganga is of particular significance for worshippers of the Hindu God – Shiva. According to mythological stories, Shiva’s elder son, Karthikeyan, is believed to have meditated here for many years. Kheerganga is also home to a natural hot water spring.  The hot water spring is a another attraction for tourists. Many trekkers even choose to trek up to Kheerganga just for the pleasure of travelling through the great mountains and enjoy the diverse scenic beauty the journey offers. The trek offers a view of snow capped peaks, waterfall, tall great trees, rocks, sunlight shining through tree cover, cold breeze brushing past as the sun begins to fade away and a never ending journey ( trekking a distance of 12 – 13 kms through the mountains is a challenging task for most of us city dwellers). Technically, the Kheerganga trek is a distance of 15 kms if one begins to walk from Tosh village. Some people prefer to cut down the distance to 12 kms by choosing to ride down till Bharsheni, the last point where vehicles can go. From that point onwards it is a long walk through the hills. What is unique about the Kheerganga trek is that it is not just a tough, steep and upward climb throughout. Parts of the trek are through large meadow like plains, parts of it are a not so steep climb through walkable terrain while some parts of it are reasonably steep and at times slippery. One misstep in some places and a person could go in a freefall through sharp bushes and steep slopes. The good news is that with a bit of extra care in the tricky places, a novice too can negotiate the “risky spots” without much difficulty. There are around 3 major resting points in the trek where tourists can take a break and get something to drink and eat. It goes without saying that travelers should carry a bottle of water and some eatables during the trek. Some brave folks even choose to carry their own bags instead of availing the services of a porter. A majority of the foreigners as well as enthusiastic backpackers and regular trekkers choose to not opt for porter services. For those who are unsure and not too regular at long treks, it is advisable to take a porter along to carry the luggage. An extra pair of clothes, some warm-wear and a bottle of liqour (for those who love drinking in the midst of mountains after a rough day of physical exertion) and a torch (extremely important) should suffice.

A bridge at the beginning of the trek near Barsheni

A bridge at the beginning of the trek near Barsheni

The trek can take anywhere between 3.5 – 6 hours and beyond to complete the uphill climb. The return journey can be shorter by around 30% of the uphill time. Some people even plan to undertake the return journey on the same day. It however is advisable to stay back for the night at Kheerganga and begin start return journey the next day. This will not only avoid over-exertion, but also give adequate time to stay back at the top and enjoy the lovely view the place offers. The hot water spring too functions only till 8 pm in the evening. Those who miss out on having a bath on the first day, can do so on the next day before beginning the descent. A unique feature of Kheerganga is the near absence of lights and electricity. The entire place gets engulfed in darkness after sunset. The cafes provide food till around 10-10:30 pm at night. Tents are put up for visitors to sleep at night. There also are few wooden shacks and dormitories to stay. These shacks and common rooms are completely different from a regular stay at any hotel and offer a unique experience. Needless to say, it gets quite cold at night even in summer.

A view from the top

A view from the top

A view of surrounding mountain tops

A view of surrounding mountain tops

Break of dawn offers a completely different view of the surroundings. Lush green hills, snow-capped peaks and clouds kissing the mountain tops are a common sight. The beauty of the place lies in its quietness, stillness and remoteness. One feels as if time has come to a standstill. The weather in Kheerganga changes quite drastically during the monsoon season. One moment it might be bright and shining. In a few minutes however, it might start raining and temperatures can drop significantly in such cases. Extra warm clothes however, are usually required only after evening. Food is available in the cafes at reasonable rates. The locals who run the cafes are friendly and amiable. It is advisable to carry your own booze and cigarettes. Those who wish to stay away from their mobile phones, day to day routine and normal city life for a few days with a bit of physical activity may find Kheerganga an ideal destination. The overall trek is of moderate difficulty and doable even for first time trekkers with reasonably decent physical condition and health. This trek can be a good stepping stone for undertaking other more difficult treks through the great Himalayan ranges.

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Change in guard at 350.org as Bill Mckibben takes a step back

American environmentalist, journalist, author and co-founder of the climate movement organization 350.org, recently announced his decision to step down from his role of chairman at the organization. Mckibben has played a leading role in the climate change debate over the last two decades, initially through his first book – “The End of Nature”, published in 1988, and later through his frequent contributions to publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Harper’s and National Geographic.  A watershed moment in his campaign for climate justice came with the founding of the organization, 350.org, in March 2008. The organization drew its name from climate scientist James Hansen‘s contention that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) above 350 parts per million was unsafe. While the call to limit carbon dioxide concentrations below an acceptable threshold has not been implemented seriously till date (considering the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 already stands at around 398 ppm growing at a rate of 2 ppm per year)[1], 350.org’s call for a global climate justice movement did find support across a wide section of the population, especially amongst the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) as well as university campuses across North America and now even Europe and Australia. The support from students across university campuses came in response to 350.org’s campaign, calling upon universities to divest their endowment fund holdings from fossil fuel industry. In no time, the movement gathered momentum with strong support from student community across universities in the US. Today, some of the biggest universities in North America, Europe and Australia, including Harvard and Stanford, face pressure from students and faculty alike, to divest their investments in fossil fuel industry.

While the divestment movement could at best be called a minor victory, its symbolic importance is not lost out on anyone, least of all the big oil companies. This movement has helped galvanise public opinion in favour of a shift to renewable and alternate forms of energy. More importantly, it has also galvanised opinion against the big oil companies, which continue to rake in huge profits from government subsidies as well as by avoiding the cost of cleaning up the negative externalities of the continued pumping of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, the absence of enforcement of the polluter pays principle, has allowed the fossil fuel industry to rake in huge profits at the expense of public welfare.  It is in this regard, that Bill Mckibben and 350.org have played a stellar role. Over the years they have also highlighted the involvement of big oil companies in funding the climate denial movement. Besides highlighting role of fossil fuel industry in blocking attempts at regulating fossil fuel production and consumption, Mckibben also laid out an insightful picture of the business plan of fossil fuel industry in an article titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, published in Rolling Stone in July 2012[2]. In his analysis based on data provided by Carbon Tracker, Mckibben lays out a clear picture of the amount of carbon dioxide the top 200 fossil fuel companies plan to pump into the atmosphere based on their current proven reserves of oil and gas. This number adds up to an astounding 5 times (2795 Gigatons) the amount of carbon dioxide scientists estimate humans can pour into the atmosphere by 2050 (565 Gigatons) and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees warming. If this business plan is allowed to succeed, it will spell disaster for future generations and a near annihilation of life and civilization on the planet.  To quote former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, it will be “Game Over for the Climate.”[3]

It is in this fight against incessant consumption and burning of fossil fuels, 350.org has won support from environmental organizations, activists and policy makers across the world. The success of the highly publicized People’s Climate March, organized at the time of the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September 2014, can largely be attributed to efforts of 350.org. Despite its visible successes, 350.org has not gained wide support from other environmental organizations, both in developed as well as developing countries. Many in the environmental movement, especially from the developing countries, disagree with the feasibility of 350 ppm as an acceptable limit, since it spells a death knell for the global economy. For the developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, it would be suicidal to abide by such a stringent number, as it effectively closes the door on the limited carbon budget available to them for alleviating poverty and uplifting large swathes of their population which continue to live in sub-human conditions. These differences aside, Bill Mckibben and 350.org, have played an important role in rallying together activists, environmentalists, policy makers, students, trade union leaders as well as political leaders in the battle to limit global warming below the agreed threshold of 2 degrees, which parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed as the target to limit global warming by the end of the century. Based on current emission trends and potential (emission) reduction targets put forward by governments at the UN Climate negotiations, the chances of keeping global average temperature rise below 2 degree appear to be as good as spotting a dinosaur running through the Amazon forest.

Mckibben’s legacy and contribution to the climate debate should be evaluated in this context. Bringing together disparate environmental groups to take on the might of entrenched political lobbies, power structures and economic interests is no mean feat. It is also in this regard, that the divestment movement launched university campuses gains importance beyond mere symbolism. It has the potential to shift the momentum away from polluting fossil fuels in favour of clean and alternate forms of energy by galvanising public opinion not only in favour of renewable energy but also against fossil fuels. The investor community has already begun to take note of the scientific assessments, changing regulatory landscape and public mood. Financial institutions, asset managers, universities, philanthropic trusts and religious institutions have begun to analyze their holdings in the fossil fuel industry. So far, more than 800 global investors including foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers, religious groups, healthcare organisations, cities and universities have pledged to withdraw a total of $50bn from fossil fuel investments over the next five years.[4] These announcements have provided a significant boost to the fledgling divestment movement.

As Mckibben steps down from his role as chairman and takes on the role of senior advisor at the organization, one hopes he continues to play an active role in engaging with universities, governments, environmental organizations, policy makers and the UNFCCC. After all, the divestment campaign has only just begun and has a long way to go if the target of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degree by the end of the century has to succeed.  Moreover, success will come not just by ensuring that carbon assets remain stranded by keeping the fossil fuels buried underground. The recently concluded Lima COP, held under the aegis of the UNFCCC, has sent out some positive signals of the possibility of a new climate deal emerging at the Paris COP to be held in December 2015. Some of the ambitious targets mooted at the Lima COP were a de-carbonized world by 2015. If governments are actually serious about achieving this target, the divestment movement launched by 350.org will indeed get a huge boost. The movement will achieve wider support from the investor community as well if the potential losses from stranded carbon assets are offset by positive returns from investment in alternate and renewable energy. Ensuring this will be key to success of the divestment movement launched by Mckibben and 350.org.

[1] Figures as per data obtained from Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii and NASA

[2] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

[3] Hansen had mentioned this in the context of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to carry oil from the Alberta tar-sands in Canada to the southern part of US.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/22/rockefeller-heirs-divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change

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Phil Hughes: A life taken away too soon

The unfortunate death of Phillip Hughes, who was hit by a bouncer while playing a domestic match, has understandably brought an outpouring of emotion and grief. Players across the world, cricket administrators, media, fans and the sporting fraternity have condoled the sad demise of the young player. He was in all likelihood, poised to replace Michael Clarke in next week’s test match against India, if the captain were to be ruled out over fitness concerns. The heartfelt condolences, prayers and messages are only a small indication of the grave loss Phil’s family, friends and teammates feel today due to his absence. The beautiful game too is left with a void due to his tragic demise.

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Hughes, acknowledges the crowd after his century in his second test match. Picture: Hamish Blair/Getty Images

 

 

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Hughes with his treasured baggy green. Picture:Phil Hillyard/Newspix/REX

 

Such incidents unfortunately leave an unwanted image of this otherwise beautiful game. Cricket after all is a game that resembles real life to a large extent. Cricket teaches people the importance of hard work and more importantly, team work and perseverance. It brings to the fore leadership qualities of individuals. This game is a great leveller. It also is in many ways an unbiased sport which provides equal opportunities to both the sides as well as all the players involved. A game of cricket is no different from a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other. It is the players who deserve credit for ensuring that the “spirit of the game” is kept alive. Players like Hughes are testimony to the beauty of the game. The lad was in and out of the Australian team since making his debut in 2009. These repeated breaks didn’t deter him from continuing to push for a place in the team, and he had almost made it. Phil kept training hard, persevered and never stopped believing in himself. Hard work and perseverance are the two greatest lessons life can offer any individual. That is precisely what any sportsman does. A cricketer does not only that, but also contributes to a larger cause – the team’s cause. After all he is not only representing himself, but also his team and country. That is precisely what Phil had been doing since he took the cricket bat in his hands. He was already knocking on the doors of the Australian test team. Unfortunately, fate had other plans in store.

One can’t help but commend the manner in which the Australian captain Michael Clarke as well as Cricket Australia have reacted, to the developments in the aftermath of this incident. The outpouring of support for the bowler, Sean Abbott, who was involved in this freak accident, is heart-warming. The young player has a long career ahead of him and it will be unfortunate if he withers away due to the emotional trauma resulting from this incident. He deserves all possible support in this difficult phase. Phillip Hughes too would have openly wrapped his arm around him and lent him full support, if he were around at this time. A sportsman after all, would best understand the trauma, pain, frustration and helplessness of another of his ilk.

Questions are being raised over the possibility of the first test of the Gavaskar-Border series, beginning as per schedule. It sure will be difficult for the Australian team to be mentally prepared to take the field after the last few harrowing days. Hughes’ fellow teammates – Warner, Watson and Haddin, who were there on the field at the time this incident took place, would be completely distraught. One can perfectly understand if they choose to excuse themselves from playing the match in such a situation. In such extraordinary circumstances it sure becomes tough to prioritize and take a call on what is more important – the game or the unfortunate loss of a life? Perhaps, this is not the right question to ask. The right thing to ask is what was the most important thing for the young bloke who is sadly is no more amongst us? If we were to put our hand on our hearts, we would certainly get the answer. Cancelling the next few scheduled matches in the domestic league was the right thing to do. The Pakistan – New Zealand test match too was rightly called off for a day. Hughes left this world while doing what he loved doing most – playing cricket. It was the most important thing to him besides his family and friends. Former Australian skipper, Ian Chappell, has very bravely said “Phillip Hughes would want the game to go on”. Phil desperately wanted to play the next test match. The greatest tribute to him would be to play the test as per schedule with the flags flying at half mast. Cricket, just like life, has to go on. RIP Phil Hughes. The game and fans will miss you terribly.

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Himalayan Adventures – Gliding through the skies in Bir-Billing

This article was also published in the Indian Express, Bangalore edition and can be accessed on the link here – http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/388411/The-New-Indian-Express-Bangalore/04-December-2014#page/21/2

 

Bir-Billing, located in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, is an adventure destination for paragliding. Bir-Billing is roughly a 2-3 hours drive from Mcleodganj – another tourist destination also famous for housing the monastery where His Holiness, The Dalai Lama resides. Bir-Billing is a well known destination among paragliders the world over and it also hosts annual pre-World Cup paragliding events with support from the Himachal Tourism Development Corporation, Government of Himachal Pradesh.

The nearest station to Bir-Billing is Patahankot, a drive of around 4-4.5 hours. In case of a bus journey, the Volvo bus from Delhi to Baijnath is the most convenient. Baijnath is a 10 km drive from Bir which is the landing point for paragliding. Billing, located a further 13 kms above Bir is the take-off point for the same. Either ways, Bir-Billing is an overnight journey from Delhi and takes roughly 12 hours to reach.

On the way to from Baijnath by road, one would be greeted by the sight of many paragliders flying in the clear skies as you come close to Bir. It is a rare sight in India. In fact it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it is a lot easier to spot para-gliders floating through the skies in Bir-Billing than spotting birds.

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Upon reaching Bir, the sight of lush green tea estates on either side of the road will greet you. In the months of April – May, the weather is quite sunny and hot during daytime. The temperatures however go down after 4 in the evening and by night it becomes considerably cool and pleasant. It is better to spend the night in Billing than in Bir as Billing is at a height of 2400 metres above the sea level and enjoys a much cooler climate. Moreover, the aerial view that Billing offers of the entire landscape down below is a sight to behold. To watch the early morning sunrise in Billing is nothing short of a magical experience. Billing not only offers beautiful sights of lush green landscape, but also boasts of a splendid aerial view and is a beginning point into the forest which leads to Barabhangal village after a 5 days trek. There is no other approach road to this village, located in a remote region in Himachal Pradesh, except through the mountains.

There are two options of going to Billing from Bir – either by trekking through the hills/walking up the road or by car through the motorable road made for vehicles. Those who are keen on burning some calories can opt for either the trek through the hills (a steeper but shorter route) or use the motorable road for walking up (longer but less stressful and tiring). If you wish to enjoy the lovely sights on the way to Billing, it is advisable to opt for the trek/walk instead of the easier option of car.

Our joy knew no bounds when we saw the campsite which was our place to shack up for the night. A line of five colourful tents greeted us as soon as we reached our destination. The tents were pitched right under the clear skies and on the steep slopes which looked down upon the lush green mountains. Each tent can comfortably occupy two persons with their bags. If you wish to take a dump or pee, there is another tent created especially for that a few yards below the slope.

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If you are lucky, it might even rain and make the weather quite chilly. We did get lucky. We had come with our stock of booze for the night that actually helped keep us warm for the night. The same place which was hot in the afternoon had suddenly become very chilly at night due to the rainfall. It however was a night to remember for many reasons. It was after all a night out at a campsite in the Himalayas, lovely weather, and booze to keep us warm along with food cooked in a shack by the camp manager’s team. Most importantly it was a night spent under the open skies with thousands of stars shining brightly. It seemed like every star was trying to outshine the other stars. Thankfully, we were one of the few people present there in Billing that night to admire that beautiful sight where heavens seemed to be shining upon us. It seemed like the heavens had suddenly spread out its long black blanket with hundreds and thousands of stars stuck on it. Never before had I ever seen so many stars shine so brightly all at once in the skies. Thankfully, we had our share of booze to admire the lovely night. Thankfully, we were present on top of those hills to admire that beautiful sight.

The next day was the day of reckoning for us. As we got up in the morning, we were greeted by the sight of horses grazing around the hills. There is something really special about waking up in the middle of the mountains in the Himalayan range. The sight of this gigantic range which spans thousands of kilometres across multiple countries can make one feel insignificant and small. One look at these beautiful hills and snow covered mountains makes us realise that “our world” is just so small and there is so much more to explore.

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The weather on that morning was just perfect and we got ready for the ride with assistance from the organizers and our fellow pilots. Our introduction to the activity was quite simple. We walked up to the take-off point in Billing which was just 5 minutes from our campsite. The kits were already there and we were told that the instructions were very simple. The organisers told us, “You have to run as fast as you can and jump off the cliff. The faster your speed while running, the better your take off will be.” Very simple instructions indeed! Run down the cliff, jump off without a parachute and then hope that the glider opens up in time! That is certainly a perfect start to the day. But thankfully our fears were unfounded. Thankfully, gravity always does its bit and thanks to Newton’s laws of motion, the take-off was scary but safe. The entire thrill ride lasts for around 20-25 minutes with the pilot, who thankfully sits right behind you, controlling everything including the manoeuvring, speed and height. Our job is to sit there, scream and feel like a bird. At certain points we were flying high above the mountains from where I was gazing down on the planes below a few minutes back. The first 10minutes of the ride were quite scary as it took a while for the whole experience to sink in. The first 10 minutes of the ride were spent worrying about the consequences of an accident if anything went wrong. There was after all no chance of survival as we were flying way up in the sky without the comfort of a parachute. Thankfully, these fears were unfounded as the kits used for paragliding are tested and approved by competent authorities. The pilots too are skilled and well trained pilots who are equally concerned and cautious about safety.

The next 15 minutes were spent admiring the beauty of the landscape from a bird’s eye view. The whole experiences was simply mind numbing as we flew high over the mountain tops and tried spotting some of the prominent landmarks below. The goosebumps gave way to renewed excitement as we quikcly flew over the forests covering the mountains and the open plains right below these mountains. The landing spot for the activity too is a well maintained site. The landing can be a bit tricky if not done as per the instructions of the pilot. However if you pay heed to his advice a comfortable and smooth landing is easy to achieve. Our joy knew no bounds as we landed one at a time within a span of 10 minutes. We were literally jumping like mad-hatters and pounced on each other in a super-hyper and excited phase as we completed our rides. The entire experience was truly memorable and the flight towards the skies was surreal.

The Himalayas have always had a magical pull on me and this time it was no different. It was a new destination, a new adventure and a different experience altogether. Highly recommended for those who yearn for a high-flying experience.

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Weekend destination – Rishikesh

The temple city of Rishikesh is around 250 kms away from Delhi. It is a famous weekend destination spot for the city folk from the National Capital Region (NCR). Rishikesh is a melting pot of spirituality, adventure and home to numerous well known temples. It is also a favourite tourist destination for foreigners who visit it for few months for a spiritual and religious experience and live in the city’s many famous ashrams. Rishikesh has many well known Yoga centres which are frequented by travellers from across the world.

Situated on the foothills of the might Himalayas, Rishikesh is a gateway to the many picturesque hill stations in Uttarakhand. The majestic Ganga flows through Rishikesh on its way to the holy pilgrimage city of Haridwar. While the Ganga today is a highly polluted water body, the water in Rishikesh is relatively unaffected by the pollution as the major polluting points are down the course of the river in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. The flowing river water with its strong currents at certain points and a shade of green colour due to the natural vegetation underneath is a visual treat. The water in summers is in fact quite cold as the melting ice from the mountain tops mixes with the river.

Site of Camp Gold Coast in Rishikesh

Site of Camp Gold Coast in Rishikesh

View of Camp Gold Coast on the trek downhill

View of Camp Gold Coast on the trek downhill

Over the last decade Rishikesh has also become a favoured destination for adventure enthusiasts. Rafting, rappling, bungee jumping, rock climbing and camping on the banks of the Ganga are some of the adventure experiences that Rishikesh now offers tourists. The place is full of tourists on every weekend almost throughout the year. Rafting is one of the most popular adventure sports that attracts tourists to Rishikesh. Many tourists now keep a stopover for a day in Rishikesh as part of their tour itinerary for Uttarakhand just to experience the thrill of rafting. A night stay at the many camps which dot the course of the Ganga river as it flows down the hills through Rishikesh is an enthralling experience. A stay at these camp sites is very different (and arguably better) from a stay at a nearby hotel in the same place. The experience of staying without electricity, by the riverside with a cool breeze gushing across at night and enjoying a good drink under the open skies is truly unbeatable. A stay at the camps is certainly recommended for those who are willing to move out of the comfort zone on a holiday.

Rafts bobbing down the river

Rafts bobbing down the river

All die-hard adventure enthusiasts who wish to experience the ultimate adventure thrill – bungee jumping, should make advance bookings with Jumping Heights – the operators who conduct bungee jumping in Rishikesh.

Like all tourist places, Rishikesh too has its fair share of eating places and is full of restaurants and cafes alongside the riverfront. The cafes around Laxman Jhula are frequented by foreigners and Indians alike. The Buddha Cafe and Freedom Cafe are two of the well known eateries close to Laxman Jhula. A walk down the Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula over the river is a must for every traveler to Rishikesh. A word of caution for the die-hard non vegetarians –  restaurants and cafes are prohibited from serving non-vegetarian food within the local municipal area in Rishikesh due to its religious importance. There however are many restaurants serving non-veg food around the bus stand and near Shivalik.

A visit to one of the cafes in the evening is highly recommended just to experience the solace, peace and calmness around the river and enjoy some good food. The view from the top of these cafes is truly a moment worth capturing in a photograph.

The summer season from April – June is the best time to visit. Rishikesh is certainly a must see place for adventure enthusiasts as well as the spiritual and religious.

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Charting a new discourse for the Aam Aadmi

The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on the political landscape has opened up a new space for political activism in India. While the Delhi assembly election results may not be a reflection of the mood across India, they certainly make a deep symbolic impact across urban India. Besides the 28 seats that it captured in the Delhi assembly elections, the AAP has also succeeded in engaging an otherwise largely “apolitical” urban, middle and lower middle class India. It has managed to attract support from diverse sections of society across cities and towns in India. Its supporters include the white collared professionals, small businessmen, auto-rickshaw drivers as well as slum dwellers. This has been the AAP’s biggest success so far and its political opponents such as the Congress, BJP and other regional parties have recognized it. Political parties have realized that the AAP has successfully tapped into the Aam Aadmi’s anger and revulsion at the deteriorating state of affairs and corruption. While the AAP’s success in Delhi does not pose any immediate threat to either the Congress, BJP or other regional parties across India, the support it is getting across India does warrant serious contemplation from them.

Whether AAP manages to deliver on its promises (some of which are very populist and impractical) or goes down the same road of corruption that it accuses other political parties remains to be seen. The AAP after all is not a movement based party unlike the Congress (which led India’s freedom struggle against the British and was the single largest political movement of the pre-indepence era in India) or the Communist Parties (which derive their strength from labour and agrarian movements as well as the fight against colonial rule in pre-independence era). The BJP too derives its core Hindutva ideology and strength from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP has generally occupied the centre-right end of the political spectrum as opposed to the Congress’ traditional centre-left stance (its change in direction in the 90s notwithstanding) or the Communist parties such as the CPI and CPM which have occupied the left-end of the spectrum. Most of the regional parties in India derive their core-strength from either caste-based movements or linguistic/regional agitations (BSP, SP, TDP, Akali Dal, DMK, AIADMK, Shiv Sena, BJD, RJD etc). The AAP on the other hand has attracted support on the basis of a single issue – corruption. Undoubtedly, corruption is a major issue in India today and affects every section of society except the elite and privileged who can manage to get things done due to their connection and collusion with the state machinery. Corruption has a strong link to the political and economic system of the country. It is directly related to the manner in which political parties raise funds to fight elections and the economic policies followed by governments. In India, there also is a third angle to corruption – bureaucracy. India’s bureaucracy has for far too long been subjected to political intervention and political pressure. The collusion of bureaucracy and political class since the 70s has led to massive leakages and an unholy nexus of sorts. The 70s and 80s were marked by siphoning off of welfare scheme funds by politicians, babus and sarkari officials. This nexus deepened over the years as political parties and governments have chosen to take undue advantage from it for their own personal gains and benefits. The liberalization of economy in 90s has added a new animal to this nexus – crony capitalism. The absence of appropriate regulatory mechanisms coupled with the absence of an appropriate means to check funding sources of political parties has allowed political parties and governments to take arbitrary decisions for the benefit of few multinationals and big corporations. The AAP is therefore not just up against political parties in its declared fight against corruption. It is also up against the unholy nexus between bureaucracy, political parties and big-business. The absence of an appropriate strategy, program or policy as of today to fight this systemic corruption would be AAP’s biggest challenge.

Only time will tell whether AAP will emerge as a truly credible secular political alternative or if it ends up as a part of the systemic rot which has set in. The AAP however needs to be credited for successfully bringing the discourse on corruption at the centre of the political debate. It also needs to be congratulated for proving that there is an alternate way of doing politics and fighting elections. It deserves kudos for walking the talk when it came to fund raising, candidate selection or empowering the Aam Aadmi (all the 28 MLAs of the AAP are the Aam Aadmi after all with no prior political experience of external backing). It has engaged the youth in a manner that none of the mainstream or regional political parties have been able to since the days of the Mandal agitation.

It now has to prove that it can also govern and deliver and not just agitate and mobilize support for protests. It also needs to come up with a strategy to ensure that it attracts like-minded people and cadre to its fold who will stay true to the party’s agenda of fighting corruption and empowering people. Developing an appropriate policy agenda, attracting experienced and like minded individuals, choosing good, clean candidates in the upcoming general elections and expectation setting/management will be some of the major challenges AAP will face in the coming months. Given the challenges it faces one may argue that forming a minority government in Delhi should have been avoided at this point of time. But then AAP’s nascent history suggests that it has been capable of springing a surprise or two. May 2014 could perhaps add another feather in its cap in case it manages to win few seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections as well.

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