TUESDAY, 24 MAY 2011
I think that I shall never see/A tree as peculiar as one named for a VVIP–With apologies to Joyce Kilmer
India's rich and powerful are known to hanker for multiple symbols of power, be it flashing red lights on cars, armed bodyguards, officially allotted big bungalows in the prime New Delhi area or exclusion from airport security frisking. The list goes on.
So many important people living or dead and their families have insisted on so many roads being named after them that the government has run out of venues. The number of new and unnamed roads, streets, paths, highways, avenues and lanes isn't growing fast enough to keep up with the demand. Inundated by requests and unable to handle the volume, the government now has decided that henceforth trees will be tagged after those who "deserve" the honor.
Of course India is hardly the only country to suffer from the syndrome. Many a motorist passing through Sacramento, California, for instance, can be forgiven by wondering what Carleton E. Forbes did to get an expressway named for him. But given Delhi's rich history, the important roads are taken by kings of the past such as Lodhi, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Prithvi Raj and Aurganzeb. The British Raj and others connected to the country's colonial past still have their names on many of them.
Contemporary and big-shot leaders have a monopoly on the even bigger structures -- the father-daughter prime minister combination have a monopoly on the Indira Gandhi International Airport and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. New Delhi's main market and business area has been re-named after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru's grandson, who was assassinated in 1991.
Lanes and by-lanes are named for lesser leaders such as Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot and more. The adjoining state of Haryana has several parks named after Devi Lal, a former Deputy Prime Minister who hailed from the state.
It goes to the credit of the Delhi government that it has managed to deal with a situation that was turning into a major concern and an irritant. The tree solution also helps given that important roads in the city are lined with trees on both sides as the original planners had envisaged.
The British architect Edwin Lutyens, who laid out the imperial capital in 1911 and designed the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the President's house, as well as Parliament House, went to great pains to ensure that all of the main avenues in New Delhi were lined with trees, giving the government a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Laburnams, Neems, Peepals, Audumbers and Banyans, with broad canopies that date back generations. It will surely take a while for a tree list of important people to be exhausted unless rapacious felling for development leads to more and more barren land, as has happened in many areas.
Still, one problem solved doesn't mean that there aren't others. Indeed, there are many more. There are pressures to turn prime and big bungalows where a leader or minister might have stayed during his or her tenure in office into museums where the rest of the family can also conveniently continue to stay at the taxpayer's expense.
Given the real estate crunch and high rents, sometimes former members of parliament, ministers, retired officials and various other minor satraps have to be physically evicted along with their belongings from their comfortable living quarters. Bureaucrats of every state are in a constant wrangle for dual postings to retain almost-free official apartments in the national capital.
Although quite a bit of the Indian population is unaccounted for due to the absence of adequate data, there exists a detailed official list of perks that an ex-incumbent is eligible to – these include former prime ministers, senior police officials, ministers etc.
The eligibilities keep rising even as current office holders make sure that they retain as much of the perquisites as possible after they exit from government. These can range from personal staff to free airline or rail tickets or telephone connections.
Another hot tag is threat perception, especially from known terror groups such as al-Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Toiba, actual or imagined. The highest Z-plus category accompanies the star label Very Very Important Person (VVIP), which translates into free government cars, armed and trained commandoes as bodyguards and possibly a free house in New Delhi.
Actually, the commandos mostly function as bouncers to fend off private citizens while the escort vehicles, fitted with flashing red lights and sirens, specialize in jumping traffic lights and shooing away nearby vehicles. Anybody driving in Delhi can vouch for this nuisance done in the name of "security."
There are other seemingly minor perks that the privileged also seek. Even though foreign security procedures are more difficult to tamper with, the list of those eligible to forego domestic airport checks has been drastically the amended to suit individual interests in the game of political patronage, where outward show of power matters a bit.
In the 1980s, only five individual classes were exempted from search: the president, vice president, prime minister, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, and state governors. Today the list has been expanded to include cabinet ministers, ministers of state, bureaucrats and sundry others with access to the powers-that-be. Ordinary passengers, forced to stand in line for 90 minutes to go through security procedures, can only clench their teeth in anger as legions of VVIPs saunter up to the desk with only minutes to go before flight time.
Incumbents in power like to use their influence to create as many symbols of might and muscle around them as possible. Those without the wherewithal hanker for them and seek to muscle their way into privilege irrespective.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org