Monday, July 30, 2007

Alandi story...published as it is, yay!!

Indrayani kathi, devachi Alandi...
…and yet, the land of sant Dnyaneshwar has seen little or no progress for the last two decades. A new project to change the face of Alandi is also lying dormant for over two years. Vrushali Lad reports

If Alandi sees 10,000 or more visitors everyday, the 302 existing dharamshalas must adequately accommodate them. If, during festival time, over 1,00,000 people visit the place that Dnyaneshwar took a samadhi in at age 21, there should be enough roads that lead them there. And if Alandi is the place that Maharashtra identifies with for its purity and knowledge, it must be unfettered by corruption and neglect.

If only this were an ideal world.

The last Development Plans for Alandi were drawn up in 1988. The plans are currently being revised for release in 2008. "But the new plans are like the old ones, which accounted for a population of 17,000. We rejected the new plans thrice because even a simple feature like parking was not addressed," says Sanjeev Ovhal, Chief Officer at the Alandi Municipal Council (AMC). "I fail to understand why there is a concerted effort to trap Alandi in a time warp, with no vision for the future," he says.

Alandi now has a 25,000-plus resident population, and large-scale construction is taking place, probably from the simple belief that having a house in a holy land keeps you in god's hands. Yet, the ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims visiting every day, month and year are taxing the already non-existent infrastructure and manpower to the utmost.

Frozen in time
…laagli samadhi, Dynaneshachi…

Speak to the residents here, and they will proudly tell you that Alandi has remained unchanged ever since they can remember. "Other places have become modern – even Shirdi, Ganpatipule, Shegaon are different today than they used to be," says Gauri Holkar (34). "But after all these years, the basic character of Alandi is unchanged."

Probably this attitude stands in the way of any change, even a good one. And Alandi needs a good change, fast. Like other religious places, Alandi is hit hard by the water and air pollution, poor roads and a rising percentage of ecologically harmful substances (such as plastics) in the environment. Says Ovhal, "Sadly, the people here have no desire to improve their living conditions. They are content to live with bad roads, contaminated water, no police security, unplanned growth and no political intervention for the good of the place."

By municipal authorities' own admission, Alandi is plagued the most by law and order problems and the mushrooming of encroachments in the form of shops. Says a senior official from AMC, "Everything from thefts to prostitution takes place here. The temple trusts possess huge tracts of land that can be used for constructing pilgrim shelters, but they won't release them. Due to a lack of dialogue between the authorities and the citizens, key decisions are taken by a handful of powerful people, who make money under the guise of serving God."

At present, accommodating the heavy influx of people, lack of public toilets, no bypass roads, not enough safe drinking water sources, only 30 per cent sewerage collection facility, no regulation over vehicles plying the pilgrim pathways, not enough street lighting and road maintenance, a severely polluted Indrayani waterfront, lack of security guards and presence of midstream structures are big problems ruining Alandi and all that it stands for.

But, believe residents, the gods will take care of Alandi the way they always have.

The Gods will smile…
Dnyaniyancha raja, bhogto raneev,
naachti vaishnav, magey pudhe…

The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) is about to give Alandi's appalling lack of infrastructure the much-required shot in the arm. On January 22, 2004, the MPCB finalised projects to modernise and replan, wherever necessary, the state's holy destinations. In keeping with this aim, the Board zeroed in on Alandi, Shirdi and Shani Shingnapur as the places that they would develop with participation from the relevant local administrative bodies.

Accordingly, the MPCB conducted yearlong pilot studies in Alandi from 2004-2005 and drew up plans to revamp it based on the 'ecocity' concept. The AMC was ecstatic. "The town will get the infrastructure it needs. It is time to plan Alandi as per present-day conditions," says Ovhal.

The MPCB plans are fantastic, calling for a complete overhaul of the town's 76-year-old water supply system, the almost non-existent sewerage network, the insufficient parking facilities and the problem of accommodating a huge floating population during festival time. "The pilot studies showed us that every area requires a revamp in Alandi," says Dr A R Supate, project leader who has been involved with the Alandi plan from the start.

"The top priority is to upgrade the existing sanitary systems. During festival time, the place becomes an open toilet and the release of untreated sewage directly into the river Indrayani poses health hazards," he says.

As per the plans, the work is to take place in two phases up to the year 2031, and both phases are to be financed separately. For both phases, the MPCB will provide 90 per cent of funding while the main beneficiary, the AMC, will pay the balance. For the first phase, a high-priority one which was expected to start in 2005 and finish in 2011, the MPCB is to provide Rs 281.12 lakhs, while the AMC will chip in with Rs 31.23 lakhs.

"We are very concerned with Alandi and will do everything to ensure that it is completed to everybody's satisfaction," says Dr Supate.

He adds that the work will begin soon. "We signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Pune district collector in 2006. It will be a wonderful makeover for a wonderful town," says Dr Supate.

Trapped in official lethargy
Magey pudhe daate, Dnyanacha ujed
Anganat zhaad kaiwalyache…

So if everything's ready, why the two-year delay in starting the work? As is the case with any development ideas associated with Alandi, this one's stuck because the MPCB has not issued the funds yet. "We have not met on the issue for over a year," Dr Supate admits. "Maybe we will set a definite date in the Board meeting in August," he says.

Worryingly, he says 'maybe'. Ovhal is more forthcoming on the subject. "Since 2005, the MPCB has had 18 meetings with Collector Prabhakar Deshmukh which we also attended, but without results. In fact, the AMC has spent lakhs on these meetings by way of thousands of photocopies, publishing and republishing progress reports, even arranging transportation for officials. We have also kept our share of the Phase I contribution ready. Now if only the MPCB issues the funds, we can start work and finish in 2011," he says.

Alandi does not have a police station, just a police outpost with three people in it. "During festival times, there are no traffic constables to coordinate the flow of people and vehicles. The problem becomes acute during VIP visits. We don't have teams to check illegal encroachments by people who set up shops wherever they please. Things are spiralling out of control," Ovhal says.

Additionally, the AMC does not have a designated sanitary inspector, water supply inspector or building engineer. "That is why basic problems such as sanitation and untreated sewage polluting the river are not addressed. Epidemics causing health hazards are rampant. How can we, with a staff of just 33 in the AMC, keep everybody under check? Once the project is complete, at least the existing sanitary and vehicular problems would be dealt with," Ovhal says.

He adds that the AMC got the All India Institute of Local Self Government in Pune to develop a Geographic Information System (GIS) imaging of Alandi done last year at a cost of Rs 10,00,000 last year. "The AMC is the first municipal council in the state to have a GIS study. The maps have helped us identify land use patterns and how we need to utilise land and for which purposes," Ovhal says, drawing out one such map and indicating the areas that need to be addressed first.

He draws a circle outside the six square km municipal limits. "This is where a ring road would connect Pune, Dehu, Markal and Chakan with Alandi and with each other. Additionally, one main bypass road leading from the outer boundary to the Gaothan area is being considered," he explains. He indicates vacant plots of land that could be reserved specifically for parking and a bus depot outside the main town so as not to impede on the functioning inside.

Tell Dr Supate these ideas and he says, "We have already envisaged these proposals. Our plans will take care of all these and more." Ovhal counters, "Then they (MPCB) should stop sitting on the plans and sanction the funds so that we can start the work fast." He adds that everything is in place from the AMC's side, right down to the manpower and day-wise work completion schedule.

Interestingly, the 2006 MoU mentions, "Any grant amount (from the MPCB) unspent as on April 1, 2008 would revert to MPCB."

What's in the pipeline?
…ujedi rahile, ujed houn…

Apart from the MPCB plans, there is not a single treatise or DP that identifies activity patterns and seeks to rectify problems associated with them. Hence it has become doubly important for the MPCB to sanction funds immediately, since their plans take the same into account and will give Alandi the kind of land usage that slots every activity in its proper place'.

After both phases are complete, the second in 2031, "the redevelopment would comfortably accommodate regular pilgrims and bring in those people who have so far stayed away due to lack of amenities," says Ovhal.
The most ambitious proposal in this project is the redevelopment of the Indrayani riverfront. Once complete, slated in the second phase of the project, it would be a modern riverfront with walkways, boating facilities, landscaped grounds and street furniture to give it an international ambience.

Along with this is the plan to draw a religious tourism master plan covering Pune, Satara, Ahmednagar, Aurangabad and Solapur. Most importantly, the plan envisages the division of Alandi into two zones – a pilgrim zone and a resident one – in which both work independently of each other.

"Under this, we are looking at widening the Vadgaon junction, improving parking facilities at Chakan chowk, providing boating facilities at the river, constructing a new step bridge to Alandi weir and walkways. These are required not just for beautification but for generating revenue for maintaining the improvements done and will bring some order to Alandi," says Dr Supate.

Facelift like no other
Probably these improvements would change the character of the now-sleepy and idyllic town forever. "Hence, the Gaothan area which is the actual pilgrim magnet would be given a heritage status and would be unencumbered by traffic and construction," says Dr Supate. "The pradakshina path is around Gaothan with the temple at its apex, and this path will be developed and maintained well with nirmalya kalash placed at intervals, mobile toilets and taps being provided in the festival season," he says.

Says Dr Supate, "Wherever possible, the endeavour is to retain the character of the place but there is a need to bring an order to the scheme of things there. Such an important place in Maharashtra cannot be allowed to go to waste with filth and unplanned growth. When the project is finally complete, Alandi will be an ecologically superior tourist destination."

Phase I funding:
- Rs 179.85 lakhs: constructing sewerage treatment plant, pumping stations and pumping mains

- Rs 50 lakhs: municipal solid waste systems

- Rs 18 lakhs: Constructing diesel crematorium

- Rs 35 lakhs: constructing 8-seat public toilets (5 blocks), providing 5 seat mobile toilets (10 blocks)

- Rs 1.5 lakhs: preparing tourist maps and information brochure

- Rs 27 lakhs: road side plantation

Thursday, July 26, 2007

To Alandi and back

Was a strange and thought-provoking trip. Here's why.

- Spent Rs 1,200 on hiring a vehicle that would take me to Pune. Am unduly optimistic that they will reimburse me. And if they don't, I really don't think I care that much.

- Once we reached Aundh, the driver began to get a bit fidgety and asked me twice, at interval of five minutes between asking, "Madam, station hi jaana hai na?" When he asked me the third time, I snapped and asked him if he was learning my answer off by heart and would he ask another question please because that's not how you play 20 Questions?
To which he said that he had a stomach upset and that he wouldn't last out till Pune station arrived. "Main aapko auto mein bitha deta hoon, paise bhi bhar deta hun, please madam," he whined. Fearing a major stomach explosion, I agreed. Took an auto ride to Budhwar Peth on his money.

- Once there, there was no room booked in my name at the tumbledown structure that masquerades as Basera Lodge at Budhwar Peth. Turns out the office thought I was arriving in the evening, not at the crack of dawn at 9.45 a.m.

- Was told to report to the old Sakal office, where they handed me keys to a new company flat they've purchased just across the street. Good flat and all, liveable but not too cosy.

- Washed my face, changed my shirt, walked 10 minutes to the PMC bus terminal and boarded a bus for Alandi. Took exactly an hour to get there. Spent over three hours there, got my story, spoke to this one and that, then took the one-hour bus back to the flat. All on an empty stomach.

- Got back, had lunch, went back to the flat, slept well till 7.00 p.m. Then the horrible homesickness that grips me every time I'm in Pune gripped me till I went back to zombie auto-standby. Snapped out of it only after I started frantically reading reports and books and whatever I could lay my hands on. Speaking to Sandy only made me lonelier but also a bit better.

- Office the next day. Spent the whole day filing the story, which was not really as complicated as all that but just couldn't get my act together. Then attended a presentation on infographics, got my story approved by the big boss, then took the bus home.

- Felt as pukey as dammit in the bus, on three separate occasions. But have such tremendous control over myself that I quelled the rising bile in my throat every time.

- Got back safe and in time, then took the lonely train back home. Was as tired as anything. Then once I got off at Borivli station, I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to take my nightclothes off the rack on the back of the bathroom door. Which means the cleaning staff at Sakal are going to find a pair of new undies, an old green T-shirt and a pair of skimpy turquoise shorts in the bathroom, if they haven't already.

- Woke up this morning tired but otherwise okay. And now I find that getting out of bed this morning was not the best of ideas. The journey has left me feeling drained, befuddled and drowsy. Also, I am short of one cute pair of shorts.

Will post the story I filed after Sunday, which is when it appears as a full page Sunday Special Report. Yippity yay!!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Indrayani kaathi...

We are going on a special assignment (that we asked to do) to Alandi, land of Dnyaneshwar and Changdeo and all things holy, for two whole days. Expect to work out a good story once we're there. Will be posting the story once we're done.

And this is going to be good, baby, so watch this space.

Friday, July 13, 2007

We have graduated

The last time, in March and April 2007 to be precise, yours truly covered the proceedings in the Legislative Council and watched our learned legislators make total asses of themselves from the press gallery with an indulgent eye.

The Legislative Council, may I add, is the exalted Maharashtra state equivalent of the House of Lords. No swearing happens here, no picking up and hurling of furniture that is not nailed to the ground, and no major decisions are taken here. The most that happens by way of protest here is that legislators in the Opposition stage a walk out over points of mutual disagreement with the ruling combine.

There were only two bright spots in the Budget session as seen from the ringside in the Council. One was Nitin Gadkari make an impassioned and extremely witty (also well-researched) opening speech on the RR Patil - Tasgaon episode. The other was Siddharam Metre saying that the government had no information on whether any such site called Google Earth existed, which elicited some laughter from the press gallery and looks of amazement from the Opposition.

All throughout that one month of sitting there and getting my brains befuddled with things I knew nothing about, then racing to meet ministers to understand certain points in the break, writing at break-neck speed as the action unfolded below, I remember wondering, "What is MB doing in the Assembly?" Both MB and I attended the Session for the first time in our lives, and he was happier than I was at the opportunity. While at UNI, he hadn't ever been given the chance because wherever a political beat reporter exists, the others can hope to get in only via cold-blooded murder or some such subterfuge.

But the whole point of working in a bureau is that there are no beat reporters, so you end up doing all the big stuff and the small stuff and race miles ahead of your contemporaries in terms of knowledge and experience. And another point of working in a bureau (which I have recently unearthed) is that I will not be covering the Council this session.

Yes, me hearties, yours truly will be covering the Assembly this time. Yay to me.

So now its back to researching a lot of stuff in two days' time, learning new stuff about a new House (which has green carpeting while the upper House has red), learning to identify one legislator from the other, and filing stories after getting a daily research time of 10 minutes.
Good fun, if you're in a good mood. Bollocks, if you're not.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Best buds

So Bipasha Basu and Christiano Ronaldo are now 'best buddies'. And just because you were not invited to the Seven Wonders presentation party to show off your fake boobs in a barely-there 'Indian' outfit, and just because you didn't get the chance to 'bump into' Ronaldo at the post-presentation party, doesn't mean you grudge Ms Basu her opportune moment.

So Ms Basu just happened to meet Ronaldo and tell him how big a fan she was of his football skills, ever since boyfriend John Abraham introduced her to football five years ago. No matter that Christianobhai wasn't even playing professional football at the time, but must have been waiting on the sidelines thinking, "Five years hence, I'm going to dance with Bipasha Basu..."

And now the two of them hit it off instantly (don't ask hit off what), so much so that they danced all night and laughed all night and talked all night and struck smooching poses at an opportune moment. But the proudest moment of all for India came when Ronaldo told Bipasha that he was a big fan of Bollywood. By her own admission, she says she told him not to be nice just because she was from Bollywood. To which, he whipped out his cell phone and - this is going to get you good - played 'Tujhse naraz nahin...' from Masoom and told her that he loved the song.

Sigh. I am so teary-eyed knowing how far Hindi film music has gone. I'm sure Beckham is playing 'Apna Sapna Money Money' on his flight to L.A.

And to sign off, Bipasha madam says that she is now such good friends with Ronaldo, even without those opportune moments, that any time she wants to watch a football match live, all she has to do is call Ronaldo for tickets.

Hmm. And since I hit it off instantly when I met Aamir Khan at the premiere of Lagaan, that any time I want to watch a movie, all I have to do is SMS him. He brings the tickets home to me on a velvet cushion and begs to be taken along.