Tuesday, July 31, 2018

4 Years Of Modi Sarkar - What Do We Know, What Have We Learnt?

4 years ago, the NDA government stormed to power in India with a massive mandate for development and Achhe Din, with the charismatic leader Narendra Damodar Modi at the helm. Tired of rampant corruption, all pervasive inefficiencies, and divisive communal politics, the nation wanted change, and it chose a newbie on the national scene, the CM of Gujarat, a chaiwallah as he was dismissively referred to by his political opponents, as its messiah.

As we head into the next general elections in 2019, the shrill voices of opposition are screaming with bursting lungs, and narratives like cow lynching rule social media, taking over front pages of national dailies, and dominating debates on prime time TV. This narrative is driven not just by Nigerian bots, but by a lot of folks unnerved by the change, the prospect of "business as usual" getting more and more difficult to execute as in the "good ol' days" when a little exchange under the table guaranteed movement of the files in whichever direction was convenient.

This article isn't an attempt to whitewash ground realities. And even if it were, who cares, right? Neither is it a whitepaper on state of the union. I am not an economist, nor a statistician, nor a CA. I am bad with numbers and statistics. Heck, I can't even file my own IT returns.

All this article aims to do is give you some (ghotalaless) fodder to munch on. Yes, it's meant to dispel some of the negativity about the state of our country being layered on our minds day in and day out. It's meant to question some of the narratives being peddled by disgruntled, and sometimes, well-intentioned but misinformed experts.  But at the end of the day, I guess, it's just an article I wrote for myself, because, well, we are still a wonderful democracy where free speech is valued and respected!

Let's take a look at some of the key initiatives and developments that have happened in the last 4 years. To be fair, some of these seeds were sown much earlier, and we should gratefully acknowledge that. We didn't do so badly as a country in 70 years after all - the liberalization ushered in by Manmohan Singh in the 90s was truly a key turning point. But let's come back to 2014-18.

One of Modi's early flagship initiatives was Swachh Bharat. Has it been successful? Yes, we still have dirty garbage bins, most of our cities and towns have poor segregation at source. Recycling is still in its infancy. By UN estimates, more than 500 million Indians were doing it in the open in mid 2017! The government's sustained efforts have resulted in 260 districts and over 3 lakh villages declared ODF. For all the claims of being open defecation free, a lot of our villagers and townsfolk still line the railway tracks every morning.

That's an easy way to ignore the real deal - the fact that cleanliness is on the agenda like never before. Ordinary citizens join Afroze Shah in Mumbai in droves every weekend to clean up the beaches. Cities like Indore have truly cleaned up their act, with support from the administration and the citizens alike. Public spaces have dustbins, mechanized sweepers are starting to become a not-so-unusual sight any more in some of our bigger cities. Littering in public will earn you an angry stare. The biggest change is in the youngsters. It's not unusual to see small kids reprimanding their grandparents for dropping chocolate wrappers on the roads. If ever there was a slogan to rival Quit India, it could very well be Swachh Bharat. When Bollywood rakes in 300 Crores on a low budget movie titled "Toilet - Ek Prem Katha", you can believe the hype is real.

That brings me to Smart Cities. Having been part of the Smart City competition 3 years back as part of Team Pune, and to some extent, Team Panaji, I had the privilege to be very closely associated with the planning and vision behind this massive initiative. Launched in 2015 with a budget of  98,000 crores, it requires each city to create a special purpose vehicle (SPV) headed by a full time CEO, to implement the Smart City Mission. This urban renewal program is managed by the Ministry of Urban Development, working closely and directly with municipal commissioners. A lot of people thought this was too much money wasted on fancy ideas. But here's the deal. When we talk of municipal and corporation budgets, this isn't too much money at all. Many large cities have annual budgets larger than that. Pune's annual budget for 2018-19 is a massive 5870 Cr, whereas it's Smart City budget for 10 years was a shade under 3500 Cr. So then what is the big deal all about?

In my opinion, the real deal here is the successful partnership of government, administration, industry and citizens in ideation, innovation and evangelizing of smart living and smart infrastructure in cities that hitherto struggled with 3rd world problems. It was in driving home the belief that we could do it too. If 100 cities tried 20 ideas each, even if many of them were similar, we are looking at quite a few proven, success stories, on the ground, that could be replicated easily across the country. And it wasn't about the government pushing in more funds for developing urban areas. The key was to get citizens to think for themselves, and focus on areas that made sense for them. While Pune might have wanted more public spaces and efficient garbage disposal, Panaji might look at public transport and sustainability, while Amritsar might want to focus on reducing pollution!

Has it been successful? Decide for yourself. Pune has started reconfiguring roads in the Aundh Baner Balewadi area (around 22 kms at an estimated budget of around 300 Cr) to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians, a complete U turn from less than a decade ago when footpaths were being trimmed to make bigger roads. Visit Aundh in Pune and see the difference for yourself. With focus on making footpaths community spaces that provide safety, shade and social interactions, Pune's urban street guidelines are revolutionary in approach. Would you have really expected a public cycle sharing scheme to succeed in India? In Pune, in just the first 4 months since launch, over 3.5 lakh trips were logged, even when the roads and spaces are still some way away from being cycle friendly. There is a hunger in people for change, and for the first time, it seems a distinct possibility.

The metro is the fulcrum around which public transit works in most Western cities. As someone who spent 2 years living in Mumbai in the late 90s, the railways were proof that such fancy AC metro coaches with sliding doors would never work in India. With 11 cities running a metro rail system, and at least another 39 planned, we can only hope for much better days to come.

Now take smart streets, public ride sharing bicycles and the metro, and you probably won't need a car for your office commute. The Pune Smart City Development Corporation aims to reduce usage of private 2 wheelers and cars on the roads from 47% to 10%, and increase use of non motorized transport (walking and cycling) to 50% by 2031. Smart city? I think so!

Take something as simple and brilliant as neem coated urea. Not only does the neem allow slow release and hence better yield of the fertilizer, and acts as a bio pesticide, but coating the urea with neem prevents illegal diversion of the heavily subsidized urea for industrial purposes. It is believed that in 2017, over 20 lakh less tonnes of urea were consumed compared to the previous year, in spite of record food production. One doesn't need to think too hard to imagine where the difference must have been used!

Now let's move to a trickier topic, demonetization. Economists and statisticians can masturbate at lengths about the efficacy of this measure, but there is no doubt that tax compliance has increased, and significant black money was unearthed. Anyone expecting flawless execution, with zero hiccups, and 100% effectiveness, is living in an utopian world. But what was the real gain for the country from this? In my opinion, it was again the can do spirit the government demonstrated, and citizens supported, knowing it was for a good cause. Now, let's add linking of Aadhar to everything from our phone numbers and bank accounts, to our life insurance policies. We all agree, it caused tremendous stress and some hardships to a lot of people. But millions of fake beneficiaries have been identified and eliminated to a large extent, and with direct benefit transfer, lakhs of crores of rupees have been delivered to the real beneficiaries instead of corrupt middlemen, officers and politicians. UIDAI claims that over 57,000 Cr have been saved in the last couple of years because of the Aadhar project, and this number can only grow. And don't forget the technological and operational excellence demonstrated by UIDAI. With more than a billion people under its fold, with biometric authentication, and sub-second response times in most cases, the achievement truly boggles the mind.

That brings me to the next big change - GST. This unified tax replaced multiple layers and types of indirect taxes, drastically simplifying the way business is done in the country. For example, inter state travel time for goods trucks has reduced by up to 20% after octroi and inter state taxes were abolished. With an average of 90,000 Cr collected every year, GST is not just a technical and financial master stroke, but it's also a living testament to the ability of this government to bring all states together to debate, discuss and finalize on such a widely impactful legislation in a truly collaborative manner.

With the PM being as technology savvy as he is, it was only natural that his cabinet ministers, and other government departments got into the act. And what a revolution it has been! From reporting traffic violations to appreciating the witty memes, police departments in Pune and Mumbai, and even from the state of UP for example, suddenly appear so much more approachable and citizen friendly. Municipal commissioners and corporations are quite active on social media, and whether you want to get garbage cleared or get potholes filled, a tweet usually works very well! And when I travel abroad, having the foreign minister and the entire force of the Indian government behind your back, at the tip of a tweet, just makes me feel like the Indian passport is a very precious commodity after all!

Now let's talk a little about the negatives. Lynching of "cow smugglers", increased incidences of rape and abuse, violence on campuses. Our TV channels have been ablaze with debates around this, our newspapers frequently report on these "hate crimes". An "international report" put India at the top of the "most dangerous countries for women", even beating Afghanistan, immediately becoming a subject of coffee table conversations in Lutyen's Delhi. And theories on how a Hindu Taliban will take over the country have been marketed quite effectively on social media.

We are a country of 1.3 billion people. A vast majority is poor. And crime happens. Shit happens. While every murder and rape deserves condemnation and strict punishment, one needs to take a data driven, factual view of what's happening. One can criticize the police force for being slow or partial. One can criticize the courts for being over-burdened. But the propensity of our media to color headlines with communal overtones whenever it suits their narrative, is the real danger for the country, and should be countered by asking why was the religion not mentioned in all the 35,000 murders that took place in the country? Why are only certain incidents of rape or arson highlighted, and not others? What is really happening?

Incidents of terror are at an all time low, and barring terror attacks on army camps and in J&K, and Maoist attacks in Naxal-infested areas, the country has seen a period of calm and peace in our main towns and cities. Communal riots are also at an all time low, and we can't even begin to compare with the horrors unleashed in the mid 80s and early 90s. While the world is battling Islamic terror, India's frontiers, barely a few hundred kilometers away from the epicenter, have remained generally safe and protected, and the 2016 surgical strikes went along a long way in reassuring the country, and warning our enemies, that the Indian armed forces weren't a sleeping giant, but a lean, mean fighting machine that you can take potshots at, but better not loiter around when it's irritated.

There are a lot of other good things happening. The Bullet train may still be some way off, the Hyperloop might be a pipe dream at this point, but a 3rd world country that dreams and aspires about these futuristic technical revolutions is no longer thought to be crazy. Massive social security projects, whether is is affordable housing or affordable health care and insurance, are being envisioned and executed as sustainable partnerships between industry, the government and the citizens, and not as schemes that depend on the government doling out subsidies and grants, most of which simply got sucked out of the system through unscrupulous agents and middle men. Acts like RERA are ushering a fundamental change in how digitization can help protect the interest of the aam aadmi.

2019 will be a point of inflexion for the nation. Either the 1.3 billion voters will continue to show faith in Narendra Modi's vision and plan for the country, or we will bring in an era of mahagathbandhans, (un?)holy alliances formed with the sole intention of keeping this man out of Indian politics.

How that will pan out for India, only time will tell.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lost In The Andamans: It’s Just Ross! (Ch 8/8)

Three kms east of Port Blair is Ross Island. First occupied around 1790, the British really took to Ross Island after the 1857 mutiny, when it was converted into a penal colony. However, soon after, the prisoners were shifted to the near Viper Island, and Ross became the Administrative HQ for the British. Merchant stores, a bakery, a water treatment plant, a power house, a printing press, a church and even a swimming pool came up on the island, which also housed barracks for British troops.

However, a major earthquake rocked the island in 1941, causing serious damage and forcing evacuation of most of the inhabitants. The invading Japanese occupied it for three years from 1942 to 1945, when it was recaptured by the allies. After the war though, Ross was forgotten for almost 35 years, until it was handed over to the Indian Navy in 1979, which set up a small post, INS Jarawa, which stands to this day.

The island also faced the brunt of the tsunami in 2004, protecting Port Blair and its inhabitants from the fury of the waves.

Today, Ross provides an eclectic experience to tourists. Peacocks, deer and rabbits roam unhindered among gigantic trees whose massive roots have taken over majestic ruins of buildings that once graced the island.

An electric golf cart took us along the curved pathways, up a small hill, where we played with peacocks and deer. We gawked at the massive trees that have reclaimed the land where the British officers once held opulent parties and ruled the islands with an iron hand.

Massive trees have taken over the ruins of Ross Isla
Soon, it was time for the 3D sound and light show, a must-watch for its technical brilliance and immersive experience that’s truly memorable. The Indian Navy band playing the anthem gave us goosebumps. Even the animals stood still. The show spoke to you. We felt for Ross. And we fell in love with it.

Sunset on Ross Island

Lost In The Andamans: Arre Waah, Jarawa! (Ch 7/8)

On my list of absolute must dos in Andaman, is a drive through the Jarawa reserve forest, and a visit to the Limestone Caves of Baratang.

Bright and early on a misty morning!
 Numbering between three hundred and four hundred as per recent estimates, the Jarawas are one of the oldest native tribes of Andaman, having inhabited the South and Middle Andamans for several thousand years. They stayed relatively isolated, until the 70s, when the Andaman Trunk Road was built, slicing through their territory. With low immunity, many died of diseases upon exposure to “civilization”. Repeated exposure to tourists and voyeurs, who frequently bribed them to dance and perform like circus animals, in return for favors like biscuits, was finally put to a stop by a Supreme Court directive that also heavily restricts use of the Trunk Road. Now, only four convoys of vehicles are allowed through each day from either side, with police escorts. Stopping and overtaking along the fifty km route is banned, speeds have to be maintained at forty kmph, and all interactions with the Jarawas, including photography, is strictly prohibited. 

The 600 am convoy is ready to leave
Traveler Pro Tip: The fifty km ride through the reserve forest takes ninety min, and you cannot stop or halt along the way, so visit the washroom before you set off, and carry whatever refreshments you may need!

At the end of the forest reserve, you reach Baratang, from where a twenty min speedboat ride takes you to an elevated walkway through the mangroves. A couple of hundred meters later, the walkway ends and you continue along a sandy jungle path, which soon opens up into a vast open field, at the far end of which is this most amazingly clean and beautiful village with a clutch of huts. Squeaky clean courtyards host ducks and geese, cattle and goats, a few dogs, and a lone mommy cat with her kittens!

The lovely village at the entrance to the Limestone Caves
Just beyond the village lie the limestone caves, a surreal world of stalagmites and stalactites, formed by centuries of water seeping through the rocks above! Let your imagination run wild, and the caves show off their beautiful sculptures – from crocodiles to lotus flowers, from human noses to Hindu deities.

If the Jarawas haven’t got you already, the caves definitely will!

Traveler Pro Tip: There are only four convoys through the day from either side, spaced by three hours each, the first one at 600 am. You need at least sixty min to reach the reserve gates from Port Blair, so plan to leave by 445 am to make the first convoy. The road isn’t in great shape, so a few extra minutes don’t harm.

Entrance to the limestone caves
We were returning back from the Baratang, when suddenly a truck came hurtling down the slope in front of us, it’s front axle broken, and crashed into the ditch on the side of the road, turning on its side in a huge cloud of dust. Our convoy ground to a halt; we ran to check on the occupants. Suddenly we were joined by a group of Jarawas, making Tarzan like cries -  one with a sickle in his hand, watching intently just a couple of feet from the rest of us "civilized" folks!

The two occupants of the truck were alright. The cops asked us to get back into the vehicles, and we set off on our journey again.

A close shave, indeed!

Lost In The Andamans: It’s a Jolly Buoy Fellow! (Ch 6/8)

On the penultimate day of our trip, an hour’s drive from Port Blair took us to Wandoor, from where boats leave for the secluded and heavily protected Jolly Buoy Island, part of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Natural Park.

The ferry to Jolly Buoy takes you by thick, dense forests on beautiful islands
The forty five min boat ride to Jolly Buoy took us around virgin islands with white sandy beaches and thick, almost Amazonian forests. Here is when you realize how beautiful and serene the Earth is, and how much we have abused and exploited her in the name of development!

Jolly Buoy is perfect for checking out the rich corals and marine life in a glass bottom boat. And if you are lucky, you can even see a rare sea cucumber, which is highly prized by poachers. Back on the island, you can enjoy a swim in the calm and clear waters, and indulge in some snorkeling.

Plastic is prohibited on the island, so leave your polythenes and packaged water bottles behind on the boat. Jolly Buoy has minimal arrangements for refreshments, so best to stock up your body before leaving the mainland.

Crab Island on the way to Jolly Buoy

The tiny island of Jolly Buoy
Traveler Pro Tip: You need forest department permits for the island, which need to be issued from the IP&T office in Port Blair or from local tourist operators. Best to get the permit a day in advance. 

Lost In The Andamans: Sunrises or Sunsets, Neil it Down! (Ch 5/8)

Neil Island, an hour and half by ferry from Havelock, and two and half hours from Port Blair, is a highly under-rated destination in the Andamans. Neil was uninhabited until the arrival of Bangladeshi refugees in the late 60s, and today has a population of barely three thousand.

A lot less crowded than its more famous neighbor to the north, Neil offers excellent sunrise and sunset views at Sitapur and Laxmanpur beaches respectively. While not the best options for swimming owing to a rocky bed, these beaches offer long, romantic walks along the shore. 

Sunset at Laxmanpur
Sitapur provides the perfect vantage point for enjoying the sunrise
Neil Kendra, the main settlement on the island, is a lovely, sleepy village, and you can spend a beautiful day walking through the narrow roads between betel nut groves and banana plantations. If you wake up early enough, pay a visit to the local market, where fresh produce from the island is packed off for shipping.

After watching the sunrise on Sitapur beach at 515 am, we stopped at a small local cafĂ©. It was too early for breakfast, so we enjoyed a cup of tea, with some local sweets. “What language do the locals speak?”, I asked the owner. Pat came the reply, “Sab apna apna bhasha mein Hindi bolta!” Everyone speaks Hindi in their own language. The perfect way to summarize the Andamans – a microcosm of India, a wonderful mix of multiple cultures, languages and rituals, beautifully amalgamated!

The local market on Neil Kendra at 6 am
Bharatpur beach, a stone’s throw away from Neil Jetty, is perfect for swimming, almost a smaller version of Radhanagar. It’s also where you can enjoy a glass bottom boat ride, getting a glimpse of the corals and the vibrant life under the sea.

Traveler Pro Tip: Jolly Buoy Island, which we cover in the next chapter, is the perfect place for enjoying the corals, and unless it’s off your itinerary, you can give the glass bottom boats at Bharatpur a miss. 

Bharatpur is great for swimming
A short drive away from Neil Kendra is a natural bridge formation, also called the Howrah Bridge. A little off the beaten track, we walked a couple of hundred meters over a rocky beach and rounded a corner before we came across this amazing natural wonder carved by years of erosion!

The rocky bed also hosts millions of sea creatures – from tiny multi-colored fishes, to lobsters, crabs and even the rare sea urchin, trapped in the puddles during low tide, and reunited with the sea when high tide comes back in. 

The natural bridge formation is spectacular, but mind the tides!
This location is accessible only during low tide, so do check with locals before setting off. And while it’s easy to get carried away, keep a very watchful eye on the incoming tide  - this is one place you do not want to get stuck in!

Laxmanpur beach settles down for the night

Lost In The Andamans: Havelock, Will (Sea) Walk (Ch 4/8)

Havelock, named after a British General, Sir Henry Havelock, is arguably the most famous of the Andaman islands, and escaped the 2004 earthquake and resulting tsunami. It has a population of around six thousand, mostly Bangladeshi settlers after the 1971 war.

To the north east of Port Blair, the island can be accessed by ferries that take anything between one and half to two hours. The government ferries are cheaper but slower; faster private operators also ply to Havelock.

However, we chose to take the helicopter, which can be quite an experience and is highly recommended for the gorgeous views it offers all through the fifteen min flight.

Gorgeous views of the islands on the heli ride to Havelock
Radhanagar on Havelock is beach paradise, a short drive from Havelock jetty or the heliport, and aptly considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It was named the “Best Beach in Asia” by Time magazine in 2004. White virgin sand, crystal clear waters and a flat seabed offers the best opportunities for taking a dip in the sea.  Walk along the beach a little to the left or the right for all the privacy you need with your lover!

Crystal clear water and ivory sands makes Radhanagar a swimmer's delight
Traveler Pro Tip: Like the signboards at the beaches will tell you, take away only your memories and belongings with you – leave everything else behind! Tourists are prohibited from taking corals and sea shells off the islands. Sagarika, the government emporium in Port Blair, has a good collection of all the mementos and curios you need at reasonable prices.

The fisk tikka at Anju Coco is to die for
Radhanagar beach has a few food and drink stalls, fairly clean toilet facilities and changing rooms, and a restaurant, but for foodies, I heavily recommend the Anju Coco, situated a few mins from the Havelock jetty. Everything is prepared strictly on order, so be patient! It’s well worth the wait!

Lush greenery borders the Radhanagar beach
Elephant beach, a twenty min boat ride from the jetty, offers excellent opportunities for water sports like scuba and sea walk. For starters, I heavily recommend the sea walk for everyone between ten to fifty years, unless you have serious heart or other ailments.

After a thirty kg helmet with an air intake pipe was placed on my shoulders, a diver gently nudged me off the ladder and escorted me to the sea bed – the air in the helmet keeping the water below my chin, even though it was unsealed around my neck! It took a few seconds for my ears to get adjusted to the pressure, but once I had regained my bearings, it was an amazing experience to be among the fishes. And if you are lucky, the diver will even hand you some fish feed to have them literally biting it off the palm of your hand! Ask for the experience to be photographed and videographed, because this is one place your selfie stick becomes pretty much unusable!

Elephant beach on Havelock is perfect for Sea Walking
Finding Nemo on Havelock
Elephant is connected to Radhanagar by a lovely trail through the woods, and if you like the outdoors and are staying on Havelock for a couple of days, you should definitely enjoy the forty five min trek!

Traveler Pro Tip: The ferries between the islands are few and far between, so plan your trip in advance, check the timings and be punctual! You do not want to get stuck on the island without a backup plan. 

Lost In The Andamans: Welcome to Port Blair (Ch 3/8)

The cabin crew of our Indigo flight 6E 188 from Chennai had just closed the food and beverage service, when we caught the first glimpse of the Andaman islands rising from the Bay of Bengal. Pristine, relatively unscathed by the scourge of civilization, almost 90 percent of the 8249 square kilometers of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is covered by dense green forests, lined by beautiful stretches of beaches with ivory white sands and sparkling, emerald green waters. A few minutes later, touch down!

Port Blair, the capital of the Union Territory and the port of entry to the islands, whether by ship or by plane, is a delightful city that reminded us of Panaji, the tiny capital of Goa. With a nice, small town feel to it, Port Blair’s citizens and administration have done a fantastic job keeping the city free from litter and garbage. Traffic is light, and disciplined. The town recently got a second 3 screen multiplex. And the tiny store, Blue Ink, is where you go to for shopping, if you forgot to pack those extra Tshirts!

But what it lacks in the trappings of a large city, Port Blair makes up for with some interesting tourist attractions, steeped in history and natural beauty.  

The Chatham Saw Mill, set up in 1883, is the largest and oldest saw mill in Asia, and is still operational, having survived intense bombing by the Japanese during WWII. A massive bomb pit, and a Japanese bunker greet you on the island. A tiny museum and a walk through the mill allow you a glimpse into how gigantic trees from the islands are sliced and diced by massive blades into the raw material for your ships, homes and furniture! The mill closes by 230 pm, so if you really want to visit it, it’s probably best to squeeze it in before lunch on the day you arrive, and are still getting warmed up!

Massive logs of Padauk wood at the Chatham Saw Mill
Processed wood awaiting shipping

Next up on our list was Cellular Jail (aka Kaala Paani), a nondescript star-shaped building built between 1896 and 1906, that served as the detention center for many of India’s freedom fighters, most notable of whom was Veer Savarkar. A star shaped building with seven radiating arms, three stories tall, and a central tower, each of the cells was designed such that the prisoners had no way of interacting with any other inmate, pushing them into solitary confinement. Only three of the arms remain today, the rest were considered too expensive to restore and were demolished to build a hospital. In 1942, the Japanese invaded the islands and took the British prisoners in the same jail, until the end of WWII in 1945. During this period, Subhash Chandra Bose paid a visit to the Jail.

A visitor’s gallery provides a glimpse into the history of the jail and its role in the Indian freedom struggle. The commentary by the local guide may tickle your spine, and the hangman’s noose may give you the creeps, but there is very little about the jail itself for me to recommend it as a must-visit.

Out of seven such arms of the Cellular Jail, only three remain today
Port Blair also has a few museums that are worth a visit if you have a little time to spare between your jaunts on the beaches! 30 min at the Anthropology Museum satiated our appetite for more information about the life and times of the local tribes, of which the Jarawas (we meet them in a later chapter), the Sentinelese (you better not mess with them!) and the Shompens are the most interesting. 

Staircase at the visitor's gallery in Cellular Jail
It was afternoon by now, and the perfect time to head out to Chidiya Tapu, for the first sunset of our trip. It’s a lovely 45 min drive, but the narrow road full of twists and turns demands your complete attention! We enjoyed the gorgeous sunset over piping hot tea and some kanda bhaji (onion fritters). And if you are lucky, you can watch the fishermen bring in the catch of the day – gigantic Tuna fishes headed straight for the export crates!

The sunset at Chidiya Tapu Beach
Traveler Pro Tip: Situated more than a thousand kms from the East Coast of the Indian peninsula, the islands could very well have been in a different time zone. But it’s not. No wonder, sunrise in the islands in summer is around 500 am, and sunsets could be as early as 515 pm. You might not need to reset your watch, but your body clock and your travel plans definitely need the adjustment!

Chidiya Tapu also offers scuba diving facilities, and may be worth a longer visit!

With a few extra mins to spare before the sunset, we also paid a quick visit to Munda Pahad nearby, a small beach with a beautiful park, where wooden benches carved out of huge tree trunks beckon you to rest a while.

Corbyn’s Cove, a few minutes drive from Port Blair, is another nice beach to hang out and partake in water sports. Well regulated water scooters and motor boats will excite the adults as much as the kids, although the rocky shore makes the beach not the best bet for swimming. The road to Corbyn’s Cove is very well maintained, with a lovely broad footpath, and is ideal for really long jogs along the coast.

Port Blair might just be a stepping stone on your trip to the Andamans, but offers just enough for the traveler – whether you are just getting warmed up, or spending your last night in the islands, winding down an amazing vacation.

Lost In The Andamans: Surviving in the Islands (Ch 2/8)

Before you embark on your Andaman trip, here are a few things you must take care of, to have a hassle free and happy vacation. Life in the islands is, well, a little different!

1.     The islands have very few ATMs, and poor connectivity means credit cards are unusable at most establishments. Cash is still king, and it’s not very cheap, so carry adequate moolah with you.

2.     Most tourist spots lack good, upscale restaurants. Local stalls may provide light refreshments like water, tea, bhajiyas and noodles, but don’t count on it. Carry lots of water, but avoid plastic bottles as much as you can!

3.     Few cellular operators, like BSNL and Vodafone, provide services in the islands, and connectivity is patchy at best. Idea does not work, neither does it roam. Data connections are almost unusable, except for the rare Whatsapp message that might get through. Most hotels do have some Wifi. I suggest you carry a prepaid SIM from BSNL for urgent calls, but try and enjoy the radio silence while you are there.

4.     The weather can be hot and very humid. Sunburn is a serious possibility, especially with the crystal clear air and bright sunshine. Carry lots of full sleeve Tshirts with collars, and be very generous with the sunscreen!

5.     Be on time. Even government ferries are a stickler for timely departures, and missing one can be very painful indeed! Bear in mind, also, that the geographical distance from mainland India means that the islands see sunrise and sunset at least 90 mins before rest of the country – even in summer, sunsets can be as early as 515 pm!

The government ferries provide comfortable AC seating and great views from the deck
6.     Do not litter. The Andamans are squeaky clean, and as responsible tourists, it’s incumbent upon us to keep it that way. Avoid plastics – on some islands like Jolly Buoy, plastics are completely banned anyway.

7.     Do not waste water and electricity. All the electricity on the islands is produced through highly subsidized, expensive diesel generators. 

Traveler Pro Tip
Foreign visitors need a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) to visit the islands. This is easily available from the Immigration Authorities on arriving at Port Blair, subject to having a valid visa. For more, check out http://www.andamans.gov.in/html/entryformality.html

Lost In The Andamans: Emerald Waters and Ivory Sands (Ch 1/8)

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are located at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Almost 1000 kms from the Indian mainland, the islands are much closer to IndonesiaThailand and Myanmar, but retain an unmistakable Indian identity, with English and Hindi being the official languages.

Coming in to land at Port Blair

It comprises two island groups - the Andaman Islands in the North and the Nicobar Islands in the South. The Union Territory's capital is the Andamanese town of Port Blair, and this will usually be your port of entry, whether by ship or by plane.
Out of the 572 islands, only 38 are permanently inhabited. Most of the tourist activity is restricted to a few islands in Andaman, and you need special permits, rarely issued, to visit other areas. Nicobar is usually out of bounds for tourists.
Remote, beautiful islands, dense forests, stunning beaches of ivory sand and emerald waters, and hidden coves offer intimate getaways for love-struck couples. No wonder Andaman is a magnet for honeymooners!

Adventure lovers also have a lot to look forward to. The crystal clear waters in the islands offers excellent opportunities for snorkeling, sea walking and scuba diving, allowing you to gasp at beautiful corals and rich marine life, minus any of the corrupting signs of civilization we are normally used to – plastics and other debris is almost non-existent.

Although a little expensive, tourist hot spots like Havelock and Neil have a number of upscale and midscale resorts. Private as well as government ferries link the bigger islands at a reasonable price, but planning in advance is a must owing to the very low number of trips every day. You miss your boat, and you can stranded on the island overnight! If you are lucky, you can also board a chopper between Port Blair and some of the islands, and it’s really worth the view!

Flying over the islands is such a treat to the eyes
However, to really soak in the Andaman experience, you need to put on your best floaters, slather a generous layer of sunscreen and get out on the beaches, walk in the tiny villages, mingle with the locals and pop into the tiny street-side eateries to taste the local savories with some adrak ki chai!

From walking among the fishes to a drive through Jarawa country, from the ubiquitous coconut water to hot bhajiyas on the beach, from the ruins of Ross Island to the corals of Jolly Buoy, Andaman has so much to offer! Through this 8-post travelogue, I hope to share my experiences with you, and inspire you to travel to and fall in love with these beautiful islands! 

Movie Review: Chi Va Chi Sau Ka (Marathi)

He (Lalit Prabhakar) is an environment freak, collecting left-over water from discarded bottles and wearing his shirts inside out to minimize washing, while running an upstart "solarization" business. She (Mrinmayee Godbole) saves keedas from the roads, compliments horses for their Sadhna cuts, never steps into an auto unless the driver is vegetarian, and works as a vet, spending more than she earns on the animals. 

Both have had no time for "affairs" and reluctantly agree to their families' efforts for match making, with a rider. They want to spend some time living in "unphysically" before they make a commitment. After all, when we are taught to not even talk to strangers, how can one get married to one?

The premise is simple, the end is predictable, but this is one helluva movie where you can take your family and friends along, grab your popcorn, and have a jolly good time, laughing your guts out as the eccentric couple, their just-as-crazy family members and devoted friends duel it out with smashing one-liners and a liberal sprinkling of chaste Marathi swear words (all certified for family viewing!) dished out by a cast that's simply purrfect! 

If you are a film buff, you will also appreciate the attempt at a different treatment - some of the camera angles and the presentation of the "sutradhar", for example, are quite fun!


PS: If you do not understand Marathi, the English subtitles will still work - but don't blame me if you don't really "get" it!

Movie Review: Hindi Medium

Very rarely do you come across a movie with a serious subject at its core, given a lovely, light treatment that entertains, and leaving you inspired! Hindi Medium is one such movie that will make you laugh, make you happy, and yet, leave you with some open questions, tugging at your heart to do something about it.

Mita and Raj Batra, are an affluent self-made couple from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, who own a thriving "original fakes" garments business and drive a swanky BMW. They want the best for their only daughter, but it's not going to be a cake walk. Unable to impress the elite schools with their Hindi, their "consultant" suggest another way - grab a seat through the RTE quota. There is only one problem though - they will need to pass the inspection, and that means, giving up the comforts of their home and living in a slum until the inspector is convinced they are poor enough to merit the RTE seat. 

The film deals with a couple of very relevant topics in today's India - the class divisions around language, and the pressure on parents to get their kids admitted in elite schools, and the underlying "business" of education! Irrfan is dependable as usual, while our Western neighbor, Saba Qamar, quite pulls her own with an impressive debut in Bollywood. Deepak Dobriyal has a small but significant role as their "khandaani gareeb" friend and neighbor, who teaches the Batras the art of living, in more ways than one!

The first half is delightful; the second half gets a little stretched and over-dramatic, although it serves to drive home the point and leave you with something to chew on. If you haven't seen this one yet, not a bad way to spend the rest of your weekend!

Movie Review: Sarkar 3

When you have a cast that includes the Big B, Jackie Shroff and Manoj Bajpai, assisted by the lovely Yami Gautam, it must take some real hard work to make a movie as bad as Sarkar 3. For that RGV gets a perfect 10.

Subhash Nagre (Bachchan) is Sarkar, the God Father, the patriarch of Maharashtra's family no 1 (no guesses there!), fighting a battle to retain his iron grip on local politics (and goondaism) after the death of his sons in the earlier installments. When his estranged grandson Shivaji (Amit Sadh) joins his camp, Sarkar's two trusted henchmen are convinced he is a traitor, but Sarkar is willing to give Shivaji a chance. Add a power hungry politician (Manoj Bajpai), a shady Dubai-based businessman (Jackie) and Shivaji's scheming girl friend (Yami) to the mix, and we have the perfect setting for an edge of the seat thriller. Will Shivaji betray Sarkar? Will Sarkar prevail over the ever increasing tribe of his enemies?

Sadly, pithy dialogues and poor execution make you laugh, robbing the movie of any buildup of intrigue and excitement. Jackie really needs to read the script before he signs on, and probably has the silliest one liners mouthed by a veteran actor in Bollywood history. Big B doesn't have any real moments, although his rendition of the Ganesh aarti in enough to convert many athiests into believers - and a reason why you might still want to endure this one!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Day 7 - Flying Over San Francisco

I had the morning off on my last day in San Francisco, and I took the chance to take a chopper ride over SFO - and as luck may have it, I was asked if I'd like to join the pilot in the cockpit. Boy, what an experience! You know those 7D theatres where you take off and zoom around shooting zombies? Well, it felt the same - expect this was for real, and a few thousand feet up over SFO!

Here are a few pics - how many landmarks can you recognize?

Yeh Hai Amrika

This was my first trip to America after almost 12 years - during which I made multiple wonderful trips to Europe, visiting Spain, France, Portugal, the Nederlands, Italy, Switzerland, and the UK. For the first time in over a dozen earlier visits to America, I did get a chance to really get out into the country, away from the they-all-look-alike downtowns. From the majestic snow-clad Yosemite National Park, to the beautiful Pacific coast, and the vineries of Napa Valley, this trip was really about seeing a much more palatable America.

However, some things haven't changed at all. A profusion of fast food chains have only deepened the obesity crisis, and you have to actually see it to believe it. It's like a different species of humans altogether, and I guess 300 Kgs no longer gets eyeballs in the US. Pull over at highway stops, or walk through downtown looking for some grub, and all you can see are Pizza Huts, Taco Bells, McDonald's, Burger Kings and Starbucks. Yes, there are the odd restaurants, of course, but I'm a foodie, and after 8 days in the US, I have only ONE meal to reminisce about. I miss the street side cafes, the mom and pop ice cream stores, and the wonderful and varied cuisine that's an absolute delight no matter what restaurant you walk into in Europe.

The small talk continues. Whether the receptionist at the hotel, or the lady at the spa, and it's not just the weather that's fair game. Not that I mind it, but when you are on a 350 km drive back after a long day, sometimes you really don't want to listen to incessant, irrelevant chatter between the tour bus driver and everyone else on the bus! Europeans are a lot more reserved (expect the wonderful Spanish!), Indians have no respect for peace and quiet in public spaces, and the Chinese never ever talk to you, but the Americans - well, they are a different breed right? :)

The cops. Where are they, America? I mean, in a whole week in the States, I must have seen like 5 or 6 cop cars on the streets (and 2 of them pulled over where I was having pizza to grab some grub)! In contrast, especially in continental Europe, major cities look like they are at war with heavily armed soldiers and armored vehicles at every nook and corner. Aah, the luxury of being surrounded by oceans, and the freedom to lecture the world without having to face it yourself. Jealous!

Some things have definitely changed. I saw a lot more gloom and negativity all around. Dozens of homeless men in the streets, something I never noticed in the US a decade before (also very rampant in mainland Europe now). And the TV ads. OMG. Even on news channels like CNN, half the ads are from legal services, encouraging you to sue someone or the other, on some pretext or the other! And the other half are equally depressing - mortgages, insurance, old age care - at low cost. No energy, no smiles, nothing about living your life! Compare it to Indian television, and the contrast is so amazing!

The news channels are the same, though. So many petty discussions on Trump, a distinct shift from reporting real news and analysis, and instead, pandering to their biases. CNN, for one, desperately needs a revamp to stay relevant as a news channel - it's starting to feel more like a anti-Trump tabloid! And we are talking about the legally elected President of the world's oldest democracy, not a dictator in a 3rd world country!

A decade back, I used to gawk at the 10 lane highways, the fast cars, the subway systems and the infrastructure in general. But that's another thing that has changed. India has seen a dramatic change in its infrastructure, and roads like the Pune Mumbai expressway (not to mention the Yamuna Eway) can beat many US highways for surface quality. Yes, a lot more needs to be done about road discipline, and pollution and smog is a serious problem (so obvious when you come back to India!) that will take at least a decade to tackle. But we are getting there!

And maybe it's just in my mind, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable when white men asked me where I was from. Maybe it was the Trump effect. But I have never felt as insecure and unsafe as I did this time in the US. Now that's a trend that desperately needs to change.

Day 6 - Monterey, Carmel and the 17 Mile Drive

If you happen to visit San Francisco at any time in your life, taking a day off to drive down US highway 1 to Monterey and Carmel, and the 17 Mile Drive, should be an absolute must do. Spellbinding views of the ocean, majestic Cyprus trees, multi-million dollar homes, rolling greens and golf courses... it just can't get any better! Yes, there is Napa, and there is Yosemite, but trust me on this - nothing beats US Highway 1!

We set off in the early morning - SFO was blanketed in a thick layer of fog that completely blanked out Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge, but the weather changes dramatically as you pull out of SFO. Our first stop was at Montara, the breath taking cliffs looked just so dreamy!

It's been a long wet winter with lots of rain, and even though Spring isn't really here, the greens are absolutely beautiful, and carpeted with beautiful wild flowers.

Our driver was a jolly old brother, and pulled over to give us a peek at one of the weekly farmer's markets, for some gorgeous, fresh, organic, local produce! 

Monterey is a lovely seaside town with a "western" feel to it. I spent a few minutes at the local aquarium, which is worth a visit if you are travelling with kids.

A wonderful triple grill combo at Bubba Gump was food for my soul!

I had a sumptuous lunch, and then headed out to the piers - and was admiring the view when lo and behold, I heard some Konkani. It was the Kudchadkar couple from Panaji, along with Sanjay Bakal, my Prof from Goa Engg College way back in the 90s! Small world after all.

Things got even more exciting after Monterey, Between Monterey and Carmel, is what is known as the 17 Mile Drive - a gorgeous stretch that rolls between majestic forests of Cyprus trees, exclusive golf courses and multi-million dollar homes, all by the gorgeous ocean. Truly, #LifeGoals!

Carmel itself is a quaint little town, with Hansel Gretel homes, exclusive shopping and more of those gorgeous views of the ocean.

Now, besides being so beautiful, Carmel has a few other very quirky stories - none of which are untrue!

First, you need a permit to wear high heels (the permit is for free, but fines, never imposed, are 500 USD). Yes, no kidding! Selling and eating ice cream on the streets was banned (with a 50 USD fine), until Mayor Clint Eastwood (yes, the same one!) repealed it. A tradition that hasn't been repealed yet is one that bans houses from have street addresses. And no, you won't find a Starbucks or a MacDonalds in Carmel-by-the-sea. In fact, the village permits no chains!

For more details, do have a look at http://www.carmelcalifornia.com/fun-facts-about-carmel.htm

After a long and wonderful day out on the coast, it was time to head back to SFO. A day well spent!