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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Govt’s decision to convert Parliament House into a museum is not without reason

The government’s decision to convert the historic Parliament House, built in 1927, into a museum is not without reason. Signs of ageing of the iconic circular structure have been apparent for some time.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Updated: November 10, 2019 11:16:34 am
Abhijeet Banerjee, Nobel laureate, Parliament building, Parliament, Opinion, Indian Express Since a major gas fire in the kitchen, cooking in the heritage building has been forbidden.

The fact that Nobel prize winner Abhijit Banerjee was imprisoned in 1983 in Tihar for 12 days for participating in a dharna against the then JNU vice-chancellor has evoked interest. Sunil Gupta, the former legal adviser for Tihar Jail, in his new book, Black Warrant, provides an interesting postscript to the tale. Some 250 JNU students were arrested for arson and rioting, but amazingly, 170 students, including 55 women, managed to escape right under the noses of the jailors. A large number of visitors met the students on their first day in jail. In those days Tihar visitors were identified simply by a stamp on their wrists. The students took advantage of the hot and sweaty weather in May to transfer the stamp image from one wrist to another. The bumbling jail authorities did not notice that three times the number of visitors left the jail as had entered. They also discovered belatedly that the arrested students had all given fake names and police never bothered to verify their identities. So the escapees could not be traced. Incidentally, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was then a member of the Free Thinkers group, one of the two student bodies which organised the protest.

Crumbling House

The government’s decision to convert the historic Parliament House, built in 1927, into a museum is not without reason. Signs of ageing of the iconic circular structure have been apparent for some time. In the 1990s, when Najma Heptulla was the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, a terrible stench sometimes pervaded the House. Eventually the drainpipes under the floor had to be dug up and diverted. During P V Narasimha Rao’s tenure as prime minister, there was pandemonium in the Lok Sabha one day when a piece of cement fell off the roof. To keep away pigeons that regularly perched and cooed in the Lok Sabha’s high ceiling, a large net was installed under the dome. Later, the windows of the dome were permanently shut to keep the birds out. Since a major gas fire in the kitchen, cooking in the heritage building has been forbidden. Food is now brought from outside and warmed on electric heaters. Thankfully the parliamentary staff seems to have successfully tackled the monkey menace. There was a time when simians roamed the circular verandahs.

Daunting Task

The Jal Jeevan Mission under the Ministry of Jal Shakti is envisaged to achieve for Narendra Modi’s second tenure what the Swachh Abhiyan campaign did for his first. The mission’s budget is a whopping $51 billion and the goal is set very high. At present only 18 per cent of rural households have tap water connection and the aim is to provide the entire country safe drinking water. PM Modi hopes to replicate the success of WASMO (the Water and Sanitation Management Organisation), which he established in Gujarat in 2007 as chief minister. Today, 78 per cent of rural households in Gujarat get water supply through taps. Modi has ensured that those recruited for the water ministry have domain knowledge. Secretary Parameswaran Iyer has focused on projects concerning water and sanitation through most of his career, including in the Swachh Bharat Mission. Additional Secretary Bharat Lal is usually associated with his tenure as resident commissioner, Gujarat, and as joint secretary in Rashtrapati Bhavan, but he has worked earlier both with water projects in the Rural Development Ministry and with WASMO in Gujarat.

Not So Meek

N C Saxena, who was a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) during UPA time, in his recent book, What Ails the IAS, suggests that Manmohan Singh as prime minister did not follow Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s writ unquestioningly, as has been alleged. He notes that Singh and his adviser, Montek Ahluwalia, often differed with Gandhi, who chaired the NAC. The PM was not in favour of safety net programmes such as NREGA, for example, writes Saxena. Significantly, the NAC was not reconstituted immediately after the Congress returned to power in 2009 and, according to the book, Singh reluctantly revived it in March 2010. The Food Security Bill was delayed for two years by the then PM and the Act finally passed with modifications because of pressure from Gandhi, it adds. Saxena also points out that Singh did not renew the membership of three NAC members, including the outspoken Harsh Mander, in 2012 even though Gandhi herself acknowledged their valuable contributions.

Faces to Remember

Well-known artist and Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jogen Chowdhury, whose term expires next March, has put his years in Parliament to good use. He has sketched the faces of many colleagues in the House over the years, including Manmohan Singh, Smriti Irani, Sitaram Yechury, Amit Shah, Ghulam Nabi Azad and the late Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. The artist plans to compile his parliamentary sketches for a book. Chowdhury describes his experience as an MP as, “invaluable for an artist. It was like watching different characters on a stage”.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 10, 2019 under the title ‘JNU Escape Artistes’.

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