“Not all who wander are lost”, so it is said. But as one sits down to put pen to paper in order to recount all that one has seen over two months, one feels distinctly at a loss. Not for want of words to describe the unparalleled experience, but to undertake the herculean task of squeezing in the two months into a thousand words. What lies below is a microcosm of the phenomenal experience we had during the perceptibly best part of our training- the Winter Study Tour.
Being born to parents living a constantly peripatetic existence, one has looked upon travel as an indispensable part of life.
Having lived in London for almost four years before I decided to return to Indian shores and write the UPSC exam, I had been planning to undertake a tour across the country to familiarize and reconnect with the land and its people. Much akin to Mahatma Gandhi, who upon his return to India in 1915, was advised by his political guru Gokhale, to travel across India to know the great country, its people, its past and its practices, to appreciate its present. Shakespeare, in Hamlet echoes this sentiment: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
While travelling, one often questioned the very raison d’être of the Winter Study Tour (WST), colloquially called Bharat Darshan. The WST manual graciously reads that, “the Course Team believes that you will find the WST to be an enriching experience”. Travelling, unpacking and then re-packing every alternate day does not give the idea of an ‘enriching experience’, however, it is only when one reflects upon the amazing journey in hindsight, that one is compelled to agree with the Course Team.
Major Akash Tapadiya: Ordinary men, extraordinary deeds
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Bharat Darshan was the inspirational array of people we met, from all walks of life. One such was Major Akash Tapadiya, of the Chinar Corps of the Indian Army, posted in Tangdhar- India’s westernmost post in LoC, which juts inside Pakistan! A month before we landed in Tangdhar he had been involved in a counter-infiltration operation, where he and his men lay a fourteen-hour ambush to apprehend terrorists crossing the border. Caught in the crossfire, he lost two men, got shot at, yet with tenacity managed to capture three terrorists, and also walked 10 kms in snow all the way back to base-camp with a wounded leg! For his act of bravery and sheer grit he was awarded the Sena Medal this Republic Day, which he dedicated to the Nation and his Regiment.
Valiant soldiers are not the only ones in service of the nation. We met a group of doctors from AIIMS in Delhi, who had given up their successful and lucrative professions to relocate to a remote district in Chhattisgarh, to serve the local tribal population and run a not-for-profit health centre called the Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS). Health indicators of this tribal area were abysmal: high infant and maternal mortality rates, extreme prevalence of fatality due to preventable diseases and absolutely minimal access to healthcare. JSS had brought low-cost world-class healthcare to the most backward region of the country. The doctors were selflessly devoting their lives for the most neglected section of the society and were espousing a truly replicable model of low-cost, accessible healthcare.
Going the extra mile at Mandla district
A collector and CEO-ZP duo of Mandla district showed us how just going that extra mile can bring transformation in the lives of many. They had been instrumental in envisioning and running a unique model of schools called the Excellence Schools that focused on technological interventions in teaching.
They ran an award-winning ‘100 Kalam’ project that provided special training to tribal children of Mandla for competitive exams, with some of them even cracking exams like IIT!
If common traits were to be picked, these inspiring men and women showed absolute devotion to their job, selfless service to their fellowmen, and a sense of commitment to their vision. As Eleanor Roosevelt aptly articulated, ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’.
The dazzling diversity of our Indian subcontinent
Starting our journey from the summit of Jammu and Kashmir, we meandered through the length of India to end our magnificent excursion down south in Lakshadweep. We passed such diversity of landscapes that it looked like a kaleidoscope of colours.
While on one hand we trudged the snow-peaked ridges of Greater Himalayas, on the other we were speechless onlookers to the vibrancy of colours of corals and fishes in the shallow waters of Arabian Sea. From the lapping waters of Vizag beaches to the reclusive tigers of Kanha forest, from monumental temples of South to arched shrines of North, we traversed the extent of the country, witnessing a smorgasbord of variety, not just in language, culture, creeds, customs and colours, but truly in spirit. It is this diversity that quintessentially unites us.
The plethora of gourmet delights we experienced left our palettes rekindled. From Malabar fish curry to Jigar-thanda (a sweet from Madurai), from Kashmiri wazwan to kebabs of Bhopal, from pedhas of Agra to fondues of Kerala, the senses were truly revived!
There was no paucity of adventurism in the group and each of us wanted to experience it all. From trekking in Kashmir Himalayas to snorkeling and scuba diving in Lakshadweep, from laying night ambush with the jawans in the Army to tracking the tiger-trail in Kanha, we all seemed to have a common agenda- to make the most of this lifetime experience.
From the cities to the margins: The challenges of governing India
As diverse the spread of this country, as variegated are the challenges to governance. One of the major objectives of Bharat Darshan is to acquaint the new officers with the difficulties of delivery of public service.
We saw similar impediments to governance across the country. In rural areas, the same problems afflicted the governments of the day- implementation of govt. schemes, provision of basic services- education and health care, income support to the poor and underprivileged, provision of productive assets to the impoverished and securing the future of teeming millions of the population dependent on land.
Even our cities face analogous challenges- an acute lack of basic services like sanitation, housing, water supply; abysmal state of urban infrastructure; loss of community life and urban culture and unsustainable urban sprawl. While our urban centres face extreme depredation from rising populations and unplanned growth, we have made our cities unlivable even though they account for almost two-thirds of our GDP.
As much in physical infrastructure, more so in human facilities that administration’s real challenge lies. A visit to one of India’s oldest private sector enterprises demonstrated that governments had failed to develop private productive capacity, infuse competition and encourage entrepreneurship. Mere lip service to ideals, with elusive goals of becoming a manufacturing giant, would not make programs like ‘Make in India’ successful.
Our battle is not with resource constraint anymore, but with resource allocation. Be it land, finance or skilled labour, resource re-distribution and transfer of ownership of productive capital, have affected whole gamut of industries- from coal-mining which we saw at Southern Coalfields to heavy metals evidenced in poor performance of BHEL.
A plethora of formidable challenges face present-day administrators. Preservation of our resources- ecology, traditional customs and practices or art and culture, is a pressing one. Many artifacts of national heritage lie uncared for, like the 200-year old “Company-style paintings” we found abandoned in a forgotten corner of Bangalore’s library; or the defacing palace of the Raja of Madurai. There is also an urgent need to invest in scientific and technological advancements and move people away from superstitious beliefs. We evidenced a tribal community in Chhattisgarh refusing healthcare interventions and preferring occult practices, even such as beating neonates and keeping lactating mothers hungry for days. These diabolical practices fly in the face of reason. We must instill scientific temper and a spirit of enquiry in the people of this nation, so that we may embrace scientific developments and not be suspicious of technological interventions that can bridge the last mile.
The magnitude of our challenges has not yet been met with the measure of our actions. Administrators face a tall order, and almost consistently across the country confront similar challenges.
Method to the madness – Learning from best practices
One of the key objectives of the Bharat Darshan is to provide Officer Trainees with nuggets of insights that would hold us in good stead, once we assume our roles in the field. An abundance of best practices were observed on our travels that one would want to replicate in one’s own career. Be they in urban development like the city administration model of Greater Vizag Municipal Corporation with planned progress towards making Vizag a “smart and resilient city”; or in slum redevelopment by the Bangalore Slum Development Board and the innovative “sheer wall” house design they had devised; or in the implementation of Govt. schemes like the well-acknowledged Lado Abhiyan of M.P Govt, there were lesson galore!
One hopes to inculcate many practices observed during the WST that would not only help us in becoming more efficient public servants but also make us more effective in our professional and personal lives. We learnt from observing scientists at ISRO’s Sriharikota Space Centre that excellence can be imbibed as a way of life. From the city planners of Vizag we learnt that participative approach to development can be instilled in every facet of governance. From self-help groups of women in Andhra Pradesh, we learnt that for the marginalized, strength lies in numbers. From the selfless service of doctors of JSS in Chhattisgarh we observed that we must endeavour towards higher and nobler ideals in all that we do.
We covered a great length in a short time, and were still left wanting for more. What we take back is not merely a collage of memories, but a glimpse into the life-force which is the essence of this country. We carry with us images of this land and its people, and insights into administration and what that entails for a nation like India. As one reflects over the two months of travel, one cannot but feel that the Winter Study Tour has truly been an “enriching experience”, as predicted by the Course Team. This Bharat Darshan would carry lessons for us well into our future and most gratifyingly if we can imbibe some of the learnings in our professional lives as public servants. As eloquently expressed by T.S. Eliot, on the rewards of travelling:
“We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring,
Would be to arrive where we started,
And know the place for the first time”