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With Malice Towards One And All...

(By Khushwant Singh)

Myth of self-sufficiency

For many years when asked what are India’s achievements since it gained independence, without hesitation I replied “becoming self-sufficient in food production.”

I said so because statistics published by the government said so. Although there were reports of people dying of hunger in some parts of India,(mainly Orissa), I explained away these mini-famines as due to a faulty distribution system or incapacity of the poorest to buy essentials to keep them alive. Slowly it dawned on me that government statistics were not reliable and our being able to produce enough to feed ourselves was a myth. Despite spectacular advances made in modernising agricultural production by farmers in certain parts of the country, the overall picture was not as bright as painted and likely to get grim. The final disenchantment with official statistics came a few months ago when prices of onions, potatoes, tomatoes and even rice and wheat went beyond the pockets of the middle classes. Not since independence have we had to face shortages of essential items of food as we do today. Excuses put forward by the government sound familiar—but hollow. They are ascribed to either too little rain or too much rain. In short, we still remain at the mercy of the monsoon. Even when our farmers produce bumper crops, there are not enough silos for storing wheat or paddy. Large stocks lie open in the fields or in mandis to rot in the rain.

We have also to come to terms with the fact that our best yielding lands have reached a plateau stage of production and cannot yield more no matter how much our agricultural scientists evolve new varieties of seeds or how much fertiliser or pesticides are used without causing irreversible damage to the soil. Meanwhile, our population goes on increasing by Mandelian leaps and bounds. With every new generation land holdings get divided and become smaller — unable to sustain large families. Younger siblings have to find employment in industry. Or they take to crime. You can see their process of social deterioration vividly in Punjab. All it needs is another rabble-rousing Bhindranwale and we will see another eruption of State-wide violence.

Where have all the tourists gone?

They have gone to other countries leaving India out of their itinerary. This tourist season will record an all-time low in the number of foreign visitors to India. This is very surprising since foreign currencies like US dollar, pounds deutschmark and yen fetch more rupees than ever before; holidaying in India has become cheaper than holidaying in America, Europe, Japan or Australia. And India has a lot more to offer in the way of ancient historical monuments, exotic festivals, beautiful scenery and a colourful, outgoing, hospitable people than any other country. Our five-star hotels can match the best in Europe or America and yet well-to-do foreigners give India a wide berth. If on an oriental voyage, they prefer to visit Singapore, Bangkok or Hongkong. All we get are hippy types in shorts and leather jackets with haversacks on their backs who can only afford to stay in youth hostels or sleazy joints in areas like Paharganj.

We seemed to be missing out on a major source of foreign exchange. There are many reasons for our failure on this front. I had the privilege of knowing Som Nath Chib, our first and the best Director of Tourism we ever had. He made our top class hotels come up to the standards of the best anywhere else. He could not provide for other services tourists need: easy rail and air connections, reliable telephone lines, clean environment and violence-free atmosphere. Our successive governments have failed to provide any of them.

I have acquired a new friend in the hotel industry and old acquaintance of Som Nath Chib. He is Kishan Lal, Proprietor of the Rajdoot Hotel. Our friendship began with our common passion for Urdu poetry. He has a phenomenal memory and knows by rote Mir, Ghalib, Zauq, Zafar (his favourite), Iqbal, Faiz, Josh and other poets. He has also considerable experience of catering and hoteleering, having run coffee houses, small cafes and the Rajdoot Hotel since 1965. He is of the opinion (which I share) that it is the kind of experience that foreign visitors have at our international airports of our cab drivers and touts that sours them against India for ever. At airports, the immigration and customs officials’ attitudes are far from cordial. There are travel agency touts who take them for a ride charging them four to five times more than the meter fare to their hotels. Touts and cab drivers have their own bandobast to rook the foreigners. Kishan Lal told me of a true incident of a Sudanese couple staying in his hotel. They wanted to visit Agra. He offered them the hotel car at Rs 2000 for the round trip with the driver’s services as a guide to the Sikandra, Taj and the Red Fort. A tout sneaked in and offered them the same for Rs 500 less. They went along with the tout. In Agra, the fellow took them to a marble shop where they bought a miniature Taj Mahal. The dealer asked for Rs 1200. The tout made the couple pay 1200 in US dollars—almost fifty times the price asked. They had no money left to pay their hotel bill.

Kishan Lal suggests that all our international airports should have a Travel Counter managed by the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India where incoming visitors are given information of different priced hotels, provided with taxis to be paid for by the hotel and make arrangements for inland travel. It seems a very sensible solution to overcome cheating by touts and taxi drivers.

How safe is Salman Rushdie?

Not at all. The recent announcement from Tehran that the fatwa against Rushdie had been withdrawn was an eye-wash in order to re-establish diplomatic relations with the European countries which had made it an issue. Following the so-called withdrawal of the fatwa were announcements by several Iranian notables raising the price on Rushdie’s head. What faith should anyone repose in the pronouncements of the Iranian government can be judged by what it says for world consumption and what it does to its largest religious minority, the Bahais.

Right from its inception in 1844 to this day, the Bahais have been subjected to inhuman discrimination. Thousands have been executed, the house of the founder which had become a shrine was destroyed when Ayatollah Khomeini took over the reigns of office. While other minorities like Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were granted protection, the Bahais are declared “unprotected infidels” and deprived of all civil rights. Periodically respected figures of the community, both men and women, are picked up, tried summarily by Islamic courts and executed. In most cases they were (and are) charged with spying for foreign powers, mainly Israel, simply because some of them dare to visit the mausoleum of the founder in Haifa built long before Israel’s birth.

Despite world-wide protests, persecution of Bahais continues. As recently as two months ago, 36 members of the Bahai Institute for High Studies were arrested and hundreds of Bahai homes looted and destroyed by frenzied mobs. Our government found no reason to lodge a protest against Iran’s infringement of basic human rights; it did not even abstain from voting in favour of Iran in its disputes with western powers.

Marriage licence

Naresh: Why are you going to the marriage bureau? You are already married.

Ramesh: I want to check up when my marriage licence expires.

Happy matrimony: Mohan: Do you ever wish you were a bachelor again?

Sohan: Yes, especially when I see a particular girl.

Mohan: Which girl?

Sohan: My wife.

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi)

©Copyright 1998, The Hindustan Times
Original Story

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