Ajay Kaul

Kashmir: a paradise – lost to neglect, corruption and insurgency

In Travel/Leisure on December 21, 2015 at 11:41 PM

When I land in Srinagar, I witness a heavy security set up – not surprising for a city that’s limping its way past a decade of insurgency – a decade which brought life to an abrupt halt in Srinagar and its vicinity. As I drive through the streets to my hotel, a poorly maintained infrastructure stands out and it’s hard to believe that this place was once deemed “paradise on earth.” But as soon as I open my hotel room window, a serene and majestic view of the Dal Lake greets my eyes – my spirits light up; I feel transported to a different world – nature all of a sudden, is in command.

A shikara (Kashmir’s version of the Venetian gondola) ride across the Dal lake is one of the must dos in Srinagar and when you are in the vicinity of the Dal lake, its vast expanse beckons you. The lake is swarming with shikaras rowing tourists across – it’s a pleasant sight. The local economy is booming again – you can see tourist occupied houseboats and shops dotting the lake. Overall the lake looks clean, but there are weed infestation and sanitation issues that need to be addressed. The Clean Dal Lake project has been in the works for a long time, but doesn’t seem to have borne much fruit. Here I get my first awareness of the corruption in the local administration.

The Shankaracharya Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, lies atop the Shankaracharya Hill and dates back to 200 BC. It was visited by Adi Shankarcharya and hence its name. Kashmiri Hindus (a minuscule minority in Srinagar now, after the insurgence) are essentially Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva). The temple is heavily guarded by paramilitary forces and that explains why it has survived the insurgency. Motor vehicles are not allowed up the temple, nor are cameras. I have to walk up about a 1000 feet plus a daunting flight of steps to get to the temple. But once I get there, I experience a unique sense of calm and I am overcome with obeisance.

The Pari Mahal or the fairies abode is a 7-terraced garden located on the Zabarwan mountain range and provides stunning views of the Srinagar valley. It was originally built by Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh in mid 1600s and served as a library and an observatory for astronomy studies. The lush greenery, the terraced structure and great views of Srinagar make it a very romantic spot.


The trio of Mughal Gardens – Cheshmashahi, Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh were built around 1600s during the reign of Shah Jahan. Chesmashahi is the smallest of the three, but the most lush-green. Each of the gardens has a unique layout of the fountains. Nishat is the most opulent, exquisitely designed and well laid out. The design of this garden was conceived by Emperor Jehangir himself. The fountains here are the most grand as well – 7 levels with continuous streams. Shalimar though is most suited for concerts and it is here that the Zubin Mehta concert was held just a few weeks before my visit. These gardens attracted hordes of tourists and Bollywood movie directors through the 1980s – yes Kashmir was once a regular locale in Bollywood song and dance sequences. But all 3 gardens now seem to be in a state of neglect. Not much seems to have changed since I visited aeons ago. The entrance fee is a meager Rs. 10 (approx. 15cents). I expected a much higher fee, at least for the out of state visitors. Also, there is a glaring lack of souvenir shops – that is neglect at its peak. I leave disappointed. It almost looks like time stood still for a decade (the decade of insurgency) in Kashmir.

The Hazratbal shrine has its place in history – it houses the sacred hair of the prophet, but I like the Jama Masjid better for its elegant 14th century architecture.


The much anticipated visit to the Kheer Bhawani Temple proves to be fulfilling. Once again, I have to pass through heavy security and even sign myself in. Once in, the temple is very quiet. The deity is in a column in the middle of a sarovar (small lake). The sarovar changes color according to the mood in the valley. During the Pakistan-Qabali incursion of 1947, it is said to have turned black.


Kheer Bhawani temple

The drive to Sonmarg is very scenic. We stop around 8 Kilometres before Sonmarg to look at the mountains and the streams. My guide points out that this area is also used for military exercises – a barrage of military trucks passing by along with markings on the mountains, validates the information. He later points out that former PM Vajpayee’s initiative on National Highways has helped tourism to a great extent in Kashmir, making several areas accessible via road.


Sonmarg – streams

Sonmarg – the valley of Gold, has been named such because of the golden hue the Sun throws across its mountain, in the morning. I am off to a horseback ride as soon as we land. Some of the mountains are snow-capped and provide a great contrast to the lush green surroundings. Popular Bollywood movies shot in this area include “Satte pe Satta” and “Ram Teri Ganga Maili”. I scale a steep hill to witness a glacier. The view from top is scenic, but the walk downhill is steep and treacherous. Sonamarg is historically significant and was a gateway on ancient Silk Road along with Gilgit, connecting Kashmir with China and other Gulf countries. The Himalayan Birch (the Bhojpatra) tree is native to this region and was used as paper for writing scriptures in ancient times. My guide removes a thin bark from the tree and is able to write very clearly on it with a pen.

The visit to the nearby handloom factory makes me see weavers weaving carpets by hand. The design is captured on paper and it appears like a series of musical notes. The adjoining showroom has a huge collection of intricately designed shawls, carpets and scarves. It’s too tempting to avoid buying a few shawls and scarves.


Srinagar – carpet weaving

I am now off to Pahalgam – the way is dotted with saffron and rice fields on either side. This is also the harvest season for walnuts – so you come across rows and rows of walnuts being dried.

A stop at a roadside dhaba for a fresh cup of Kehwa invigorates my senses. The stop at the Avantipora ruins is a pleasant surprise. Avantipora is named after Avantivarman – one of the ancient kings of Kashmir. The stone carvings are intricate. They reflect the Ganga and Yamuna on opposite sides, the 9 planets and King Avantivarman himself, flanked by his 2 queens. This is one Vishnu temple one comes across in an essentially Shaivite Kashmir. The ruins were excavated during the British era and two gold statues of Vishnu found in the ruins, now adorn one of the museums in London.


Avantipora Ruins

Pahalgam is not just the valley of shepherds – it is a carpeted meadow, buzzing with streams and the starting point of the Amarnath yatra. The yatra gets underway from June to August. All across Pahalgam you see signs wishing the yatris good luck. During summer, the streams are in full flow, attracting a lot of white water rafters.

Betaab Valley is on way to Chandanwari, which leads to the Amarnath Cave. From a distance you can see several mountain tops – Pishoo Top, Mahaganesh top, which give you an idea of the approximate location of the Amarnath Cave.

Betaab Valley gets its name from the movie “Betaab” which was mostly shot here. At the gate, I am approached buy a couple of guys requesting that I hire a local guide since this is the only source of livelihood for the locals. The guide is knowledgeable, but because of a lack of formal education, his knowledge is very limited. The streams here originate from the SheshNag at the Amarnath Cave. The valley is bright green – the rays of the sun adding to the brightness. But it is the story of my guide, Jabbar that has me fascinated. He lives on a surrounding hilltop and virtually goes into hibernation during the winter months when the valley is draped in snow. During the rest of the year, he has to earn enough to survive through winter. His case has me convinced that India needs to formalize the occupation of the guide, along the lines of its Kenyan counterpart. A certified guide could be a great occupation for folks like Jabbar.

The Pandava cave opposite the Betaab Valley is another interesting piece – the Pandavas apparently spent 3 of their years of exile in here.

The Aru Valley is another lush green valley with steams and lots of grazing sheep. A horseback ride takes me through several scenic points across Pahalgam. One of these is called mini-Switzerland and it does look like a mini-Switzerland – once again, greenery abounds and is dotted with shawl and scarf selling hawkers. And then there’s a spot from where the erstwhile Maharaja Hari Singh is supposed to have hunted a Lion and a deer with one shot of the arrow. The horseback ride is exhausting – at times the horse is climbing a gradient of 70° and I have to constantly lean forwards and backwards to control the center of gravity as the horse moves uphill and downhill respectively.

Before we leave Pahalgam, we pay a brief visit to an ancient Shiva Temple which has been mentioned in the classical Rajatrangini and another brief stop at the Chari Mubarak – the starting point of the Amarnath Yatra.

I am now headed about 86 miles west to Gulmarg – we will be crossing Srinagar en-route. Gulmarg (meadow of flowers) nests in the Pir Pinjal range of the Himalayas. So as we get closer, we have a fairly steep uphill drive. We stop at the Valley View Point to look at the picturesque view of the valley below. We drive further up and notice a few vehicles stopped on the side by a posse of cops. Why? The cops are collecting bribes from every passing vehicle! Yes – uniformed employees of the government of Jammu and Kashmir are collecting bribes in broad daylight from passing taxis and tourist buses. I see one of the tourist bus drivers express his helplessness and frustration to the cops – he has paid several cops enroute already and doesn’t have any cash to spare. My guide points out that this blatant corruption often pushes the youth into insurgency. I want to confront the cops, but realize that such blatant corruption has to be institutionalized – the cops have the blessings of the local administration.


Gulmarg – cops collecting bribes

Since it is fall, the meadow of flowers is just a meadow now. I decide to explore Gulmarg on foot. Incidentally, it is just a few miles away from the line of control between India and Pakistan. One of the key tourist attractions is the Gondola ride over the ski area. But while I am here, it is down for maintenance. So I have to stay content with enjoying the meadow landscape and views of the valley down below.


Gulmarg – meadow

A bandh (lockdown of all establishments) has been called in the valley on the day I depart for Srinagar for my flight back home. The roads all look deserted. I have several things on my shopping list, but all that will have to wait another trip. I can only imagine the economic impact of a bandh like this, especially when nature itself will impose as lockdown on the valley soon – when snow will blanket the valley.

I go through three levels of security before I am allowed into the Srinagar airport. Besides an economic impact, the bandh has had a psychological impact as well. I leave Kashmir with a mild sense of satisfaction – satisfaction that the beauty across the valley is still intact, though weathered after a 10 year hiatus. The people are still welcoming, hospitable and respectful. But I have a huge concern about the future – blatant corruption, frequent hits to the livelihood of the common man and gross neglect of the tourist attractions could catapult the valley back into the dark days of insurgency. Hopefully Kashmir will witness a new generation of leaders – leaders who focus on growth and economics instead of separatist politics!

Legends of leadership and management – Akbar the Great (1556 – 1605)

In Politics on September 17, 2015 at 7:08 AM


He never had a formal education; was brought up by his guardian while his father struggled to retain his position, yet Emperor Akbar the Great boasted of a 21% contribution to the World GDP between 1556 and 1605 when he headed India Inc. as its Emperor!

The vision and its execution: Akbar has a vision of a strong and lasting Mughal kingdom over India. Instead of focusing just on the military to achieve this goal, Akbar expanded his focus to socio-economic and political areas. The end result was a strong and vibrant economy in a secure and peaceful state. For this, Akbar the Great makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management from history!

A secular state: Very early in his reign Akbar realized that he could not establish a permanent and stable rule in India without the co-operation and acceptance of the majority Hindu population. So instead of establishing a theocratic Islamic State, Akbar established a secular state. But he went several steps further and ensured the nobility and theologians understood and adopted the concept of secularism. In 1575, he built a hall called the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) at Fatehpur Sikri, to which he invited theologians, philosophers and selected courtiers renowned for their intellectual achievements to discuss and debate matters of spirituality and religion. Alfred Tennyson’s poem Akbar’s Dream explicitly lauds the Ibadat Khana while decrying 19th century British intolerance.

Akbar’s council of ministers and advisors was a blend of intellect and diversity. It was a collection of artists, intellectuals and statesmen, transcending religion and ethnicity. His passion for knowledge and interest in learning from great minds attracted him to men of genius, from the Hindu Rajput General Man Singh to the Moslem historian Abul Fazal.

Akbar was so liked by Hindus for his secular outlook that there are eulogies in his name in several religious hymns.

Defense/Military Organization – a very agile setup: The Mughal Empire was in a fledgling state when Akbar ascended the throne. There was a need for expansion as well as establishment of absolute authority upon the existing kingdom. Akbar recognized the need for a strong military to achieve this goal and strengthened it both at the hardware and resource levels. Instead of maintaining a mammoth centralized force, Akbar conceived and implemented the Mansabdari system. Under this system, each officer in the army was assigned a rank (mansabdar), and assigned a number of cavalry that he had to supply to the imperial army. The top three commanding ranks were responsible for 7000 to 10000 troops. As a result, majority of the troops were supplied by the mansabdars, the central army on its own was very small. Akbar also implemented an excellent system of performance management which entailed promotions and salary hikes based on merit to ensure a very high quality cavalry.

The high quality cavalry was further supplemented with the latest artillery. Akbar sought the help of Ottomans and Europeans in procuring firearms and artillery. Mughal firearms in the time of Akbar came to be far superior to anything that could be deployed by potential enemies – regional rulers, tributaries and landlords. Such was the impact of these weapons that Akbar’s court historian Abul Fazl, says “with the exception of Turkey, there is perhaps no country in which its guns has more means of securing the Government than [India].”


Building a vibrant economy: The reign of Akbar is characterized by commercial expansion. The Mughal government encouraged traders, provided protection and security for transactions, and levied a very low custom duty to stimulate foreign trade. Bands of highway police called rahdars were enlisted to patrol roads and ensure safety of traders. Akbar also made efforts to improve roads to facilitate the use of wheeled vehicles through the Khyber Pass – the most popular route of traders and travelers in journeying from Kabul into Mughal India. He also strategically occupied the northwestern cities of Multan and Lahore in the Punjab and constructed forts near the crossing of the Grand Trunk Road and the Indus river, as well as a network of smaller forts called thanas throughout the frontier, to secure the overland trade with Persia and Central Asia.

Land revenue reform – use of data and analytics: Land revenue was the chief source of revenue for the government during that era and Akbar tasked his Finance Minister, Todar Mal to come up with a robust, reliable and just system of land revenue. And the outcome was one of the highlights of Akbar’s reign. The three main features of the land revenue system were: (a) Survey and measurement of land, (b) Classification of land on the basis of its productivity and (c) The assessment of land-revenue. The classification and assessment of land was based on data over a period of ten years. This ensured fair and tiered taxation based on past productivity and prices.

Akbar was a great commander, a team player, a leader with a vision and a brilliant manager. And it is no surprise that he also made it to Time Magazine’s Top 25 Political Icons of all time!

Which other figures from history were iconic leaders and managers? Would be great to see your picks.

The Presidential Debate – selecting the right candidate

In management, Politics on August 14, 2015 at 12:17 PM

DebateThe Republican Presidential debate concluded recently – the questions were specific, but the response from the candidates was by and large – vague. Each candidate seemed to come to the podium with “We need to make American great again and only I know how to do it.”

In an era where fact checks happen in an instant and a bluff is called in real time, Presidential candidates need to have specific resolution plans for key issues being discussed. Debates need to be centered around specifics, not pie-in-the sky solutions.

So can the moderators guide debates in a direction where candidates are forced to talk specifics. Besides knowing their positions on key issues, we need to know if they have concrete resolution plans for these issues.

The final Presidential nominee should be a good blend of leadership, management and operational efficiency.

Leadership: The President must have a vision of where the country and the world needs to be at the end of their tenure. This would entail newer laws and agreements on the domestic and international front. On the domestic legislative front, the President has 5 frontline managers – the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate and the Speaker of the House. A strong leader will work very closely with these frontline managers to realize his/her vision for the country. This means he/she must be open to feedback from diverse viewpoints and not mind tweaking the implementation towards realization of the vision. Same scenario plays out in the international arena as well – the ability to get divergent viewpoints and personalities to come to an agreement.

So one of the key questions to the presidential candidate must be:

What is your past record with getting legislation passed when the opposition is in majority?

Management: The executive arm essentially entails management – management and maintenance of peace at home and abroad. And management of the local and global economy. Here, a strong candidate will have full awareness of the current issues and constraints coming in the way of resolution. Presidential candidates need to realize that once elected, they will face experts in various fields and any quick fixes they may have promised the electorate will need to withstand the intense scrutiny of ground reality. President Obama’s PRISM program is a great example of a promise that failed to withstand the onslaught of ground reality.

So another key question to be asked of a Presidential candidate with respect to a current domestic or foreign policy issue can be –

What do you think are the key constraints facing the current administration towards resolving <this> issue and how would you overcome these constraints?”

Operational Efficiency: The President is the CEO of the Federal government. So every President must target leaving the government more efficient (less expensive and more nimble), than when they assumed office. So the President must have an operation efficiency goal. This could entail consolidating departments that have a similar charter, to obtain economies of scale OR systems integration between the DHS and DMV to drastically reduce cost of information sharing.

So a key question here could be:

“Do you have any plans to make government more efficient? If yes, what’s the plan?”


Based on these characteristics, one would expect Governors to better suited than their Senate counterparts to be the Head of State. But thinking outside the box, CEOs would be great Presidents. HP’s Carly Fiorina is one such candidate in the Republican fray and if Starbucks’ Howard Schultz joins on the Democratic side, a Schultz-Fiorina contest could be very interesting. Hopefully then, the focus would be on specifics!


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