Monday, December 19, 2016

Taj Mahal: Scaffolding Update (and also tickets by credit card now)

As of Dec 15, the old currency notes are no longer accepted as tickets at the Taj Mahal. They've started accepting payments by credit card now, so you can swipe a card at the counter. Huzzah. No more cash woes.

You can also buy tickets online at the ASI website: 

Here's what the Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal looks like now:

This photo is clicked in the afternoon around 1:30 p.m. yesterday. Morning temperatures are at 8 C (47F), rising to 22 C (72F) in the afternoon. Nights are cool again.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Portraits of labourers in Delhi (2)

Photo: Marcel Fens, on his guided tour of Khari Baoli
What words would you use to describe the people in this photo? Relaxed? Happy? Yes. They're having a nice break, waiting for work.

But there are two more words that come to my mind, and those are not-so-nice: Uneducated and Unskilled.

The informal sector in India is characterized by uneducated and unskilled labour.

Education levels are abysmal. One-fourth (23%) of informal labour is illiterate; having never gone to school. About 10% have studied upto primary school. So that's one-third of the labour force, which doesn't really know how to read or write much. They are vulnerable to exploitation, not just by employers and middlemen, but also by moneylenders. Roughly 48% of workers in the informal sector have studied until Grade 10.

In addition to the poor literacy levels, informal labourers do not have specific vocational training or skills that will bring them better paid jobs. Thus they bring literally nothing to the bargaining table, and must make-do with whatever current rates are offered to them. More than half of the informal labour force is self-employed. This makes it even more difficult to negotiate for improvements.

At the end of the day, it's about education. Until we improve vocational skills and ensure basic literacy, we're going to keep seeing low-paid, poor and unhealthy workforce.

Data source:
Confederation of Indian Industries
An Analysis of the Informal Labour Market in India
A. Srija & Shrinivas V. Shirke

Friday, September 2, 2016

Portraits of labourers in Delhi (1)

Photo credit: Marcel Fens, who travelled through Delhi and Rajasthan with us
The vast majority of workers in India are in informal jobs. The ILO estimates that the overall proportion of informal workers in total employment is 92%. Pretty staggering, huh? This includes not only those in unorganised sector, but also contract and informal workers in the organised sector.

These men in the photo are hired to transfer goods from shops in the wholesale markets, to waiting trucks. The gamcha, a checked towel, is a multi-purpose textile that all of them have. Almost a class trademark.

The government has mandated minimum daily wages for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labour, but that applies only to those who you hire for the full day. The men in this photo are probably being paid by piece / sack loaded or unloaded. 

ILO Country Office for India | July 2016

Monday, August 15, 2016

Linkages between Sikhism and Sufism

A couple of months ago, at Siri Fort, there was a performance by the amazing Wadali Brothers of Punjab. Like many singers, the Wadali Brothers take their name from their village; Wadali, which is the birthplace of the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobindji.

The Wadali Brothers sing in the Gurbani, Kafi, Ghazal and Bhajan genres of music. They believe in the Sufi tradition deeply and are liberalists at heart, believing in freedom of religious practice as homage to the divine one. Their performances - part dialogue - part music - are deeply stirring. If you want to listen to it, here's the website:

Many people think 'Sufi music' (by which they mean quwwali) is a purely Muslim tradition. In the Punjab, though, there has long been a tradition of 'Sikh Sufi music'. 

Sufism became popular in the Punjab through the mystic Baba Farid (Hazrat Khwaja Farīduddīn Mas'ūd Ganjshakar), who belonged to the Chishtiya sect.

But in the 14th century, Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh religion, distilled the Sufi, Nath and Bhakti traditions - three religious genres that influenced Punjab's spiritual tradition - in his divine verses.

Nanak even laid down the 'raag' (melody) in which each of these verses were to be sung. The concepts of love, secularism, universality, music, freedom of spirit and one god shine through in Nanak's verses; deeply influenced by these three traditions. The ballads of Islamic-Punjabi became popular among both Sufi story-tellers and the Gurbani musicians.

Thus, Sikhism and Sufism have many linkages, and they are not just at a philosophical level. Did you know that the foundation of the Golden Temple at Amritsar was laid in 1588 by a Sufi mystic, Hazrat Mian Mir? Guru Arjan Dev sent a palanquin to fetch Mian Mir to Amritsar from Lahore!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gramin Seva - a good idea that needs stricter monitoring

If you live in a slum or village on the outskirts of Delhi, you will probably find yourself using one of these decrepit Gramin Seva vehicles for transport. 

The Gramin Seva (Village Service) vans were introduced in 2010. Licenses were granted to 6000 vehicles, mostly 3-wheelers, to ferry people from the villages and slums in the peripheral areas of Delhi. It was a great idea, to meet the needs of an expanding city. The vans offered poor people cheap connectivity to the major city junctions, from where they could further connect via metro, bus and train.

Ticket prices for Gramin Seva have always been low; they range from 5 to 10 rupees in most cases, and for longer distances it is 15 rupees. However, passengers routinely have to deal with overloading of vehicles beyond the permitted capacity of 6 adults. Owners of the vehicles say they cannot run a sustainable service, if they only take 6 people. Sometimes the vans are crammed with double the allowed capacity! The van owners do not invest in vehicle repair, and although there are norms for the quality of the vehicles, most of them are now old and falling apart.

In addition, some vehicles do not ply on their designated rural/outer routes. Instead, they choose more commercially viable routes where they are not authorised to ply (by law, they can ply only up to the Inner Ring Road; and they cannot cross the Inner Ring Road into the city). Several errant vehicles have been issued challans (traffic violation notices) by the Delhi traffic police. 
But if you live in a slum or farflung peripheral village, Gramin Seva is still one of the cheapest options, given the shortage of Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses in such areas. The big DTC buses cannot ply these unviable far-flung routes. In many areas, private enterprise has also stepped in to fill the gap. Many private vehicles operate as vans. In some places, there are even private bus services. 

Recently the AAP government has checked and renewed licenses for 4200 of the original 6000 Gramin Seva vehicles. Hopefully some of the really decrepit ones have been thrown out. They have made it mandatory for the vehicles to be fitted with a working GPS, so that it is easy to track whether a vehicle goes out of its assigned route. Will things improve? We can only hope!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Evening gup-shup at Hauz Khas

The ruins at Hauz Khas are a happy place to spend the evening catching up with friends. Amidst the medieval architecture of an old university complex, you can find a quiet spot to relax.
After the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, Delhi became the most important place in the world for Islamic education. Many leading philosophers and teachers migrated to Delhi. The university at Hauz Khas was established in 1352, and became one of the largest and best equipped Islamic seminaries in the world.
They university came up around a beautiful Royal Tank (Hauz Khas). The tank was originally dug by the Khiljis in the 1200's, but it was deepened and improved by Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309 - 1338). Can you imagine how beautiful this university must have been? It is a green oasis even now. Firoz Shah Tughlaq's tomb is also there, in the building on the left.
On weekends, Hauz Khas is very popular. Here's a group that was playing the guitar when I went:
Another bunch of people were practising parkour:
There are usually lots of people around, but you can still find quiet places to sit and chat. Or have a romantic moment. See these photos below, for glimpses of a Sunday evening at Hauz Khas.

So many people, each lost in their own world :) Perhaps just a handful of them knew the history of Hauz Khas; or that algebra was once taught here, and astronomy, and poetry, and calligraphy and geography.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

“Nobody now listens to what I say.” - Mahatma Gandhi

On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. 

A couple of months before that, he said in Delhi: "Nobody now listens to what I say". 

He was referring, of course, to the momentous and bloody events following the Partition of India on religious lines. He had been talking to the leaders of Muslim and Hindu communities, trying to make them see sense. In Delhi, he had been visiting camps of wounded and displaced persons, and trying to bring and end to the violence.  

Eventually on Jan 12, he undertook a fast for 'an indefinite period' to bring about cessation of violence. After 6 days of fasting, when his condition deteriorated significantly, he received assurances from leaders of both communities that the violence would end. He finally broke his fast on Jan 18.

On Jan 20, a bomb exploded at the prayer meeting that he was conducting. In spite of threats to his life, he continued the prayer meetings.  Ten days later, he was assasinated by Nathuram Godse, a member and supporter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu organisation.

I went to Gandhi Smriti recently. That is the house where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life, and the spot where he was assassinated.
Walkway to his death
Diorama showing the laying down of arms after Partition
Painting by Upendra Maharathi: The Fate of Three Great Men (Gandhi, Buddha, Christ)
After my visit to Gandhi Smriti, I understood more clearly the sacrifices that our freedom fighters made in order to get independence for India. It was not a happy visit for me. I stood near Gandhi's spartan room, where he had his last meeting before he walked to his death. I wept. I couldn't stop the tears. To think that we are now building temples to his assassin! It was unbearable.

But the visit taught me something. It taught me that if I am to honor this man, then I need to relook at his message. He lives on through his thoughts and ideas. It is those things which I must read again, and evaluate and implement.

Gandhi was not perfect. He had his own idiosyncracies and theories. I am sure many things that he said are not relevant perhaps, for the India of today. But there's a lot which still resonates clearly with me. It's those bits that I need to work for.
Gandhi on "India of my dreams"
Gandhi's view on India of his dreams:
"I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class people, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony"

Gandhi is not a man, Gandhi is an idea. He is only dead if we let the idea die.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal

Just a quick post to show what the current scaffolding at the Taj looks like:
It is on two of the minarets, one at the front and one at the back. Photo clicked 6-Jan 2016. The scaffolding is temporary and meant for cleaning and restoration of the marble. I don't know when it will come off. I will post an update when it does.