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Do we love our ruins ?

Sunday, September 20th, 2003
Here ruins are so common that people no longer see them. They are also legally enforced. Attention gets drawn only when bulldozers and police line up to demolish new construction merely modifying an older one. Then the East India Company rule book comes out (also called Cantonment Act of 1932.. 1932 ? - isn't that pre independence and we are a free country?- this sacred document routinely quotes non existent authorities like CGO XXX - Council General ? Order ) . Is  Demolition an exercise in enhancing self importance?No demolition is recorded during the British occupation of this area. 150 meters north of the Cantonment Board is the ruinous building which housed the St. Mary's Academy until 1961 or so. This building has been crumbling ever since. Of course people live there, this is India remember. Reconstruction is not permitted ( How come so many permissions are required in an "Independent" country ?) , not even for economically stimulating activity.

The owner of a crumbling area right next to the gates of St. Mary's Academy quite naturally decided to "upgrade" the place. After more than two decades of good work the Karate Academy was doing well. Lots of young people came here morning and evening. The "Authorities" would have none of it and today the road was almost blocked with 2 buldozers scores of police personnel. Here is food for thought ... should legitimate progress be restricted to satisfy the long dead, long buried, long forgotten East India Company denzins. 'Mera Bharat mahan' ... sure it can't even shed dead skin gracefully!

In more progressive countries. Such rebuilding would merit an award. It would be equated to Phoenix rising from the ashes... And why does 'illegal construction' take place ? No guesses. Find out for yourself. Try to get permission for some minor modification! And not just in the Cantonment . Surprise! Surprise! People have been known to pay for permission. That only works until the benficiary is not transferred. Three cheers for rules engraved in granite, after all they were made by the Gods.

Who owns what in the Cantonment has been a vexing problem right from the time the initial occupation (1803-6) took place. As early as 1826 an investigation was launched by a section of the British administration who were desirous to show that no impropriety had taken place. Even then it was difficult to assign what was owned by the army . What was clear was that all land had been taken on rent and nothing was purchased. These rents were still being paid until the 1980s, and perhaps the 1990s. This investigation activity was called "The Record of Rights". It exists in many Cantonments. No one disputes that Cantonments contain military personnel. Somehow ever since Independence that has also been construed to mean that the military also owns the entire Cantonment, which is a very different matter. The economic stagnation that has resulted from such confusion is clearly visible and has now gone on for many decades - another half-century is well within sight. There are close to a hundred Cantonments nurtured in the very same locations where the East India Company left them. I feel it is quite in order to lift the evil veil from them now close to 60 years after Independence. By the way the Military always had a presence in all district headquarters to provide a sense of security to the British Administration. Their number were also considerably enhanced after the 1857 mutiny. Now that duty has lost its relevance. The same considerations that went into closing down Barackpore Cantonment (West Bengal) should perhaps be applied to a lot of other places.

Yesterday 8th October there was an echo of this kind of thing from Ranikhet - on Sahara Samay. They are classifying dilapidated building as 'heritage' there. The immensely quotable and relevant William Dalrymple has noted this peculiar behaviour in his book "The City of Djinns" ( about Delhi). He says in the Redfort beautiful construction is allowed to go to seed and the trashy British army barracks are well maintained. Why is the army there ? That is another embarrassing story. ( The answer - to show their Imperialistic power over the vanquished, the British Army destroyed the palaces and replaced them with Barracks ). This heritage disease is what is responsible for giving Kolkutta a decrepit look too. Some of the most important areas of the city are marked out as heritage. Whose heritage ?

Just after the Ranikhet news item, something about Lutyens Delhi came up. It waxed eloquent about how it should be preserved. So we want to harness our raging future by an extremely embarassing past. I feel most of Lutyens Delhi should be levelled and recreated by Indian architects, its form dictated by the visions of a much brighter future. In these programs they should clearly identify which section of society would like to retain Lutyen's(!) Delhi in its pristine 'glory' . The elíte perhaps. In that case they should define what elíte means. Does it by any chance mean those nostalgic about the Raj ?.

It is indisputable that the Parliament complex is grand and dignified as required by colonial dictates. However functionally it is far too small for the magnitude of the task which now looms on the horizon. India is getting out of its International pariah skin. Which increasingly means function not form should take precedence. Further a building of that importance should not be duplicated anywhere in the world. An exact duplicate set exists in South Africa - Durban I think.

90 crore aircrafts for our senior ministers

26 ? of them

Which account do these funds come from ? Whether it is overdue salaries or sports awards there is only one answer - "no funds". Finance for just about any legitmate need of citizens (taxpayers) is an impossible task. Even garbage bins are not visible in fair size towns ( except of course near Govt. employees residences ). Maybe the Government should make a clear announcement . That tax is meant only for the pampering of egos of Government employees. The rest can go to hell. 90 crores would put Garbage bins within 100 meters of each other in every town above a population of 500,000.

When it comes to perks India should be no less than USA , JAPAN, and EUROPE . However when it comes to performance it is naive to compare ourselves with the more advanced nations. Is that the basic assumption? Maybe they should make their priorities and rule books more public.

If they think that, on their foreign jaunts this is going to fool people into believing that India is a rich and prosperous nation then they really must try again. One can accept the Prime minister or President having a personal jet, but others? As it is National Airlines arrange special flights for Govt. Duty.

There is something that would impress the nations of the world , and that is if India built its own Passenger Aircraft. That is a very very tall order. Not even Japan does it. If we achieved that many Indians will walk tall.

In the meantime it is nice to see that the good old colonial formula is still alive . What formula ? Government first, people second.

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