Author: Saadut
•3:52 PM

Not less than 358 infants have died in Kashmir’s only children’s hospital since January this year. In March alone 105 deaths have been reported, while April took 85 lives. The first fortnight of May has already recorded 34 deaths and it took so long for the government to even admit that its health system was in shambles. Ironically J&K Minister for Medical Education after touring the hospital on Wednesday (16th May) is reported to have termed these deaths as ‘normal’. What was he comparing his ‘normal’ figure to? Sub-Saharan Africa could score better than this surely. One could see the blasphemy in this statement, attempting to portray ‘all is well here’. 

For a visitor to the hospital the infrastructure here resembles more to a crammed commuter train and the conditions more akin to a garbage dumping site. A hospital which has dual administrative control seems to be managed by none. The five ventilators in the hospital were providing life support to the whole of Kashmir and most of the times 3 or more babies crammed into one; surely none of the kin of politicians would have ever been treated here.

But the hospital did not come to this decay all of a sudden. There has been a gradual denial of attention towards health care in Kashmir by the government and Children’s hospital been the biggest recipient of this neglect. From want to infrastructure to having been God forsaken between ‘situated in Cantonment area’ and ‘who controls it?’ the children of Kashmir are getting a raw deal.

I have my own nightmarish experience with this hospital. Almost a year back I was running desperate in the hospital, during an emergency. I was at the end of my life’s despair when a doctor I know suggested moving out at a very critical moment ‘this is a butcher place’ he said. I managed to move out just in time from the ‘state neglect clutches’ to redemption; what would a resource less, poor and unconnected common Kashmiri manage?

I see traits of 2010 killings in these 358 deaths also. Then more than 100 kids were killed by the ‘iron fisted’ apathy of the state, now 358 kids have died to the ‘indifference and ineptitude’ of the state. What difference in both cases when there is no intention on part of the state to save lives, no compassion, and no sense of responsibility? At least I see none.

The Kashmir conflict has been used by them as a smokescreen to hide and justify bad governance, while the conflict, the containment of conflict aftereffects and trauma should have been the reason for better governance. You know that the state needs a ventilator as much as these kids need the emergency systems, when the Minister of health terms these infant deaths as ‘normal’.  When the state governance head does not even bother to visit the hospital to check for himself the situation at ground, you know that governance is at its death bed here (if not already dead).

Golf courses worth billions and 5 star events are just the high-end PR of governance, glossy photographs for the news papers. Real governance is different, touches the poor common man and they have utterly failed here. Ironically while the enthusiasm of the Heath minister of India for ‘millions of tulips in Srinagar’ is well known, his concern about the pathetic state of the Srinagar children hospital has not been heard yet.

Clearly the seasonal tulips of Srinagar Tulip garden cultivated with great care and at a huge ‘exchequer expense’ are dearer to India than the flower buds of poor Kashmiri’s. 

17th May, 2012

Author: Saadut
•10:09 PM

Many years ago I was at Hong Kong to attend a professional event. Such events being social interaction gatherings, it was here one evening that I had an encounter with this ‘western educated, affluent appearing’ Pakistani gentleman. From cricket, Chinese economic growth, American (imminent) decline ...the talk soon shifted towards Kashmir. He was keen to know about the ‘war’ there.  We were surviving I told him. “How did you travel out of Kashmir? Must be in bus till Delhi?” “Why bus, Srinagar has an Airport”. “Does it have?” (Surprised he twitched his eye brows).

“Why only Srinagar, Kashmir has 4 airports, one of them International” (I pushed the weight bars on his brain now, imagining Srinagar to be International. Of course later Srinagar did become International albeit momentarily). “Four!” he exclaimed. “Kashmir wants to become a part of Pakistan” he asserted reassuringly “Do they really?” (I quipped).

“What about Srinagar destroyed by Indian war?” I connected his statements to the PTV coverage of Kashmir where in they would run footage of burnt buildings, destroyed settlements and agonized faces in a nonstop ‘Kashmir news’ loop. Surely none of this was untrue about Kashmir, but did he know any more than this. “The aftermath of a bloody conflict” I said, imagining the bullet holed corpse buildings which had become landmarks in Kashmir. After my ‘strong exclamation’ to his ‘become a part of Pakistan’ assertion, not wanting to be drowned in talk of conflict and Kashmir pain, he shifted gears. “Do you have any good hotels there?” “You looking for 5 star or 6 star? Kashmir has both categories” (pushing more pressure valves of his brain now, even though there are no 6 star here and one of the 5 star was a symbol of politically aided corporate occupation, the other leased for peanuts by political jokers to Indian corporate feeders as a part of a monarchic sellout).

I could see him escaping from ‘Kashmir conflict’ to ‘Kashmir the backward’. He seemed lost and gulped a deep drink, as I ran my finger over the edge of my coffee cup enjoying his confusion. “And yes did I tell you Kashmir has Asia’s oldest ski slopes and best Golf courses” He lost his balance here “Golf courses” he gulped. “Yes six of them”. I could see the unease in him now “But Pakistan does send a lot of aid to Kashmir” he proclaimed “Aid? Where? It sends nothing but rhetoric to Kashmir”. I should have told him that Pakistan was one of the stones along with India that had been grinding Kashmir as wheat for six decades, but I could see him lost between the PTV fed images and my drawn images of Kashmir’s golf courses (which ironically are the political escape of this Kashmir conflict, the proxy puppet class hangouts having become super rich selling the misery of Kashmiris). It was these ‘west travelled, home ignorant, affluent’ Pakistanis that would inherit political or bureaucratic mantle sooner or later, whose ignorance and indifference towards the realities of Kashmir had cost us dearly.

But such ignorance was not limited to the other side only. The Indian side had its own ignorance levels, some fed by the government other led by a perpetual disconnect. Many a times I have encountered people from mainland India who perceive Kashmiri’s to be some skull caped, long bearded, gun trotting tribesmen, who are on free run in the valley.

Kashmir for many of them is reflected in the frames of ‘Pak thundering, one man army Sunny Deol movies’, where the ‘bad’ Kashmiri has been brainwashed by Pakistan and the ‘good’ Kashmiri lives content in a forest edge hut by the river bank, at peace with India. Their idea of Kashmir was limited to the Doordarshan fed “Army ‘sadbhavna’ helping Kashmiri’s fight terror” or the ‘bomb blast in every corner of Kashmir’. They imagined ‘intolerant and evil Kashmiri’s having burnt all temples of the minority community in Kashmir’ straight out of some rightist pamphlet distributed by the ‘Panun extreme’ (lately many Panun guys have openly endorsed Zionism). “There are Muslim migrants too who left Kashmir in thousands, while other religious minorities like Sikhs stayed back” I would apprise and I have seen the faces of India’s ‘better’ educated staring disbelievingly. 

I was stunned when some ‘corporate’ed gentlemen from India’ informed me that “Kashmir had been a Hindu majority region till in 90’s Muslims from Pakistan invaded, drove the ethnic locals out and occupied Kashmir”. Conveniently doctored history or an overdose of right winged nationalism? If they failed to see the reasons behind millions of Kashmiri’s protesting and pouring on roads, in spite of the almost seven lac military force India has stationed in Kashmir, they were sure encountering a mental block. Of course the ‘Kashmir survives on Indian aid’ story makes a repetition every now and then, India’s plunder of water, strategic and political rights of Kashmir unrecognized by them. Tell them “Kashmir is a political problem” and they will retort “What political problem? You have had good elections all along; we have seen it on TV!”

Years ago, a summer evening was being spent with friends in the lush lawns of the Nishat garden. As a group of tourists walked close, I heard one of ‘the more learned exhibits’ of them point towards the Zabarwan range “Behind those mountains lies Pakistan, from where ‘aatankvaadis’ infiltrate”. I almost wanted to add "that is the Chinese border on Srinagar, Pakistan is across the Dal lake, just in the center of Srinagar"

And imprudently it’s this India and Pakistan that lay claim on Kashmir! 

16th May 2012

Author: Saadut
•10:53 PM

The Supreme Court recently asked the central government to do away with the government’s policy of giving subsidies to Hajj pilgrims and cease it totally within a period of 10 years. A Division Bench of Supreme Court further ruled “We hold that this policy is best done away with”.

For long the right winged forces in India have been targeting and criticizing the Hajj ‘subsidy’ as ‘Muslim appeasement’ but does the subsidy really exist? As per reports ‘The Centre at present foots an amount of Rs 38,000 per Haji by giving subsidized airfare’ (rediff May 08th 2012), but does the original airfare to the Holy cities even cost 38,000? A Hajj pilgrim pays around 26,000 for the fare while the government ‘claims’ to foot the remaining fare by a ‘subsidy’ amount to Air India. But a cursory look at the return fares from Delhi to Jeddah for Saudi Airlines, with a month or a forty day return gap shows an airfare of just Rs 25,725. If the actual fare is around 26,000 only what is the government paying this ‘subsidy’ over the 26,000 for? The government and the Hajj Committee has all along ensured that the air transportation monopoly for Hajj flights is maintained with Air India, while as private Hajj operators have been successful in managing competitive flight rates from other airlines for the same travel. So in effect this claimed ‘subsidy’ is being injected into Air India by inflating the price of air tickets at the cost of the gullible Hajis.

Had the government allowed a fare based competition for this holy trip, the air travel prices for Hajis would have been market regulated effectively removing the ‘subsidy’ component which in reality is the Air India monopoly cost.

Incidentally money is collected by the government from these pilgrims 5 to 6 months ahead of the travel and retained in the government accounts. With so much time available before departure, had there been open competition for offering flight services to these pilgrims, the fares could have been driven much lower than offered by Air India. Strangely a return ticket sold for 22,000 to 27,000 by other airlines, is charged for about 70,000 by Air India. What logic for the 70,000 fare? Rather than the government ‘subsidizing’ Hajj pilogrimage, it seems the pilgrims are being forced to add to the coffers of the financially weak Air India, pilgrimage becoming a scapegoat.  

Not only are the pilgrims charged tickets at exorbitant rates by the government forced monopoly of Air India, there have been many questions raised about other facilities provided to these pilgrims and the cost charged thereof. Every Hajj pilgrim is charged about Rs 125,000 for the pilgrimage by the government, out of which a foreign currency of 2100 SR (amount equal to about 25,000 Rs) is returned to the pilgrim personal expenses. Deducting an amount of 26,000 which the government claims is only a part of the ‘subsidized’ ticket and the Saudi Riyal currency equivalent to almost 25,000 returned to the Hajji, we still are left with 74,000. Rented accommodation provided by the government to Hajis in Mecca and Medina costs another almost 54,000 (3500 SR in Mecca for almost a month stay and 1000 SR in Medina for a 10 day stay. Arafat and Muzdalifa are included in the Mecca stay). Pertinently there have been often complaints by Hajis that the stay in Mecca arranged by the government of India is too far from the holy sites and in no way having a prevalent market worth of 3500 SR for a shared accommodation of almost 6 pilgrims in one room. The preparation for booking accommodation at the two holy cities for Hajis starts months before the pilgrimage and the government has ample time to get good accommodation at reasonable prices, but more often than not each year Haji’s have been complaining about the condition and distances of these accommodations from the holy mosques. Such accusations apart even after paying the rentals of 54,000 per Haji (450 SR, 1 SR assumed = 12 INR), there should be a surplus pilgrim money of about 20,000 Rupees with the government. The government does not have to incur any via costs as the Saudi government does not charge anything for these visas. Since there are no other facilities of board & lodge provided by the government to pilgrims (all food has to be managed by pilgrims on their own), what does the government do with this money? Is this money (2000 x 11000 Hajjis = 220 million) ever accounted for in the din of ‘subsidized hajj’? 

Every year the state governments nominate ‘Khadims’ (one who helps) to accompany Hajis, reportedly for serving the ‘Hajis’ and being their local reference point. Ironically most of these ‘nominated Khadims’ whose Hajj travel and stay is free of cost are political nominees or bureaucratic favorites and hardly available for helping the Haji’s during the pilgrimage. Even nominations for ‘doctors’ send on Hajj duty along with the pilgrims is mired in controversy, many a times the same ‘well connected’ person being nominated repeatedly. Clearly politics prevails even in this pilgrimage management. 

The government of India also sends a huge ‘good will delegation’ during the Hajj, compromising of political nominees. This free trip obviously must be coming at the expense of the common Haji’s who sees no good will in such politicking. Incidentally the Supreme Court bench has also directed the government to reduce the number of representatives in the PM’s ‘good will’ delegation to two from the existing thirty.

While the government claimed ‘subsidized Hajj’ costs almost 125,000 for each pilgrim, there have been private operators who have been charging almost the same amount for the holy journey  with better accommodation facilities and in many cases food included. While offering better facilities and with no ‘subsidized’ support, the private operators are still making money, thereby exposing the government in its ‘subsidized’ political appeasement drama. Clearly the government could learn how to manage ‘Hajj’ without its political baggage from these private players. But these private players are not without their risks, often because of lack of regulatory control and legal cover to the Hajj aspirants. One private operator, Hajeej India Pvt Ltd, some time back used this non regulated control to dupe hundreds of aspiring Haji’s from Kashmir by enrolling them for Hajj and the defrauding them of corores of rupees. Reportedly the management of ‘Hajeej India’ had been close to powerful offices in Kashmir having earlier managed to take senior state officials and politicians for the ‘Hajj pilgrimage’. The duped Haji’s had been saving all their life for the ‘journey of a lifetime’ but were left robbed of not only their savings but also their spiritual hope. 

For long this ‘hajj subsidy’ has been used as a political tool, by the right winged parties as a weapon against Muslim minorities and by the centrist parties for Muslim vote appeasement, while as factually the Hajji (pilgrim) seems to be paying more than is due.
The government would do itself good by ensuring transparency in the Hajj process and its finances, without its political baggage and by shedding the ‘free flying government nominees’ nepotism. It could also ensure regulatory control of the private players involved in the Hajj pilgrimage, thereby freeing itself from the ‘political economics’ of Hajj.

15th May 2012