Being an optimist in Mysore…
I have lived all my life with a great deal of optimism and hope. Many a time, close friends have argued that I am only blinded by my belief in the message of positivism, hope and optimism that Swami Vivekananda rendered and was not being a realist. Till recently, I would put up strong objections to this view. But of late, I am rather forced to reconsider the reality that exists today in India generally and in Mysore specifically. The dictionary would define an ‘Optimist’ as a person who never ceases to give up hope in something that they believe. The word is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, ultimately means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Having lived through very difficult and impossible situations for decades, especially with some amazing indigenous tribal communities, I could never imagine that I would now start doubting whether ‘good times will actually come’. I will not be ambitious in talking about the larger national issues and would like to focus on what we as Mysoreans are subject to, on an everyday basis. Just a year ago, the optimist in me was happy that a seasoned administrator from our district became Karnataka’s chief minister. Having known his abilities and no-nonsense attitude, I had hoped that ‘good times’ had surely come to the city of Mysore. With a year having gone by, I have to now re-calibrate how I feel based on the reality that surrounds all of us.
Driving around in the city is an adventure by itself. Potholes would indeed be a misnomer to describe the gaping craters that are now the norm. My faith in god and my views on being lucky has been exponentially enhanced considering that I drive on the ring road each day. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the roads of Mysore as real-time, hands-on training in survival. One has to only travel on the KRS road and the ring road section from the KRS road towards Hunsur road to believe what I write. Despite all the valiant efforts that the police team headed by a sensible Police Commissioner is putting in, nothing much seems to have changed. Let us look at the simple helmet rule. Standing at a signal light, I found 2 young girls on a scooter going to their college waiting for the lights to turn green beside me. I looked at them and politely reminded them that they should consider wearing a helmet as their heads had to be safe too. The pillion rider was quick to snub me and retort that it was her head and not mine. As though this was not enough, I saw three young men whizzing past unmindful of the fact that the light was still red. I approached the police constable standing nearby and asked him why was he standing their doing nothing. His answer was a rude reminder of his helplessness. He bemoaned that people no longer feel it is important to be law-abiding nor fear the consequences of not being so. He asked me if I was unaware of recent incidents where people in a particular part of the city gheraed the police personnel and the police station for doing their job on the streets of Mysore. And then he went on to add that it would take just 15 minutes for him to be called by a local politician or his son, chiding him for minding his business of policing. It is no longer about the police making the citizenry feel safe; it is now about the citizenry making the police feel safe and secure in going about doing what the city desperately needs. As though all this was not enough to teach me the lesson of grinning and bearing it, I had to chide another set of people who had decided that their scooter could not only carry three people and a huge parcel but can zoom down on the wrong side of the road too. Imagine my surprise, when the pillion rider whose son was riding this scooter without a helmet (and possibly without a license too as he seemed younger than 18 years) stare me down and ask me whether I was the newly appointed local policeman. With parents like this who are poor and negative role models for their children, how long can one hope to be an optimist?
As I continued my road adventure feeling impotent, helpless and frustrated, I had to be mindful of not driving over a stinking rivulet of sewage flowing down the ring road. And the irony of the situation was that this overflowing manhole is located exactly opposite the Karnataka Pollution Control Board. I am not sure if the KSPCB is trying to advertise the fact that pollution is a reality that we need to contend with or merely reminding us of what happens when civic administration breaks down. It does’nt seem to matter that the Chief Minister and few other political heavy weights in his cabinet have their residences in this city.
Not being able to absorb the morning’s adventure, I decided that a good refreshing walk would calm me down and re-charge my spirit of optimism. I could not have been more wrong. What greeted me as I entered the local park was parthenium, slush and tobacco smoke from the beedies that a few urchins decide to try out. As I stood desperately looking for the walkway, I realized that all that my walk in this park would do was to further increase my melancholy. So much for the lung spaces of this city. I decided to take my morning walk the next day at the Kukkarahalli lake. While the University of Mysore who owns it, is trying to do a good job of its maintenance, I am sure that they too feel helpless in not being able to prevent the sewage and sullage that is being let into the lake. In a few years from now this lake will only serve as a symbol of the inaction and indifference of not just the civic authorities but also the citizenry who are enjoying the walk around the lake today. One of my friends who was walking along with me was bemoaning the fact that 2 local government officials belonging to one of the regulatory departments was insisting on a bribe from him. He was mentioning how business nowadays could just not be ethical even if one wanted it to be. He was one of those who followed all the rules laid down, but saw no incentive in doing so. He mentioned that it was easier to be part of a corrupt system than try to be an honest rule-abiding business man. How does one convince oneself that we are in for good times, when honesty get dis-incentivized and street smartness is all about beating the system and manipulating it to one’s own personal advantage.
If I were to narrate all my experiences over the last month or so, this column may well become a book. Every one of us would have seen or experienced something similar. It does not take a long time even for a hardcore optimist like me to be worn down by the negativism, apathy and ‘it does not concern me’ kind of an attitude. Civic agencies, government officials, the political and business class and we the people have to all come together to ensure that we all stay optimistic of the city’s future. We need to understand that human progress can be noteworthy only if it is built on the solid foundation of good governance, citizen engagement, democratic principles and value-based leadership. Is anybody listening?