A Personal Praise – Hill Post
I have always believed that politicians, in many important ways, are better human beings than bureaucrats. They can be much more empathetic, sensitive, and genuinely helpful than us “gala bandh” types, strangled by our training, self-centeredness, and exaggerated sense of importance. GS Bali, who died in the early hours of November 30 in a Delhi hospital at the age of only 67, exemplified my thesis perfectly, like no other politician I have known in my 35 years of service.
Mr. Bali was known, of course, as a flamboyant young politician of the Kangra Congress, long before I had the chance to work directly with him at the dawn of this millennium. I was appointed Secretary of Transport with Bali as Minister. He was also in charge of Tourism. When I visited him for the first courtesy visit, he jokingly informed me that the Chief Minister (the late Virbhadra Singh) had sent me to his department to watch him! (The CM and Bali did not always agree on many issues). In a few months, convinced that I was not making him a Pegasus, he maneuvered things to make me assign the load of Tourism as well. So began a unique relationship that ended prematurely in a lonely AIIMS room on a cold autumn morning.
Mr. Bali was by no means your conventional minister. He was a ball of high energy, a man in a hurry, brimming with ideas, always on the move – in Delhi in the morning, in Nagrota in the evening, and in his office in Shimla the next morning, after inspecting a dozen bus on the way! He did not depend on his officers with the usual passive attitude of most ministers who wait in their offices for files to reach them. He made his own legwork, checking the buses and ‘nakas’ himself late at night, stopping at favorite HRTC bus dhabas to see if his passengers were being ripped off, heading to depots and stalls. bus itself to meet with union leaders. to hear their grievances. He even had his personal mobile number painted on all HRTC buses so that any aggrieved passenger could call him at any time of the day or night. And they did it, brilliantly! Bali took all the calls himself, and many division directors or regional directors, torn from their beds by the minister from a deep sleep, were consequently banished forever by their maids from their chambers. Due to its practical approach, Bali has won the hearts of both the traveling public and the working people. My main job, as I saw it, was to apply the brakes on his chain speed style of operation!
A great traveler, he welcomed new ideas and innovative projects and gave them all his support. Some of the most successful of our tenure include the cable cars to Rohtang Pass, Bijli Mahadev and Triund; introduction of Volvo buses on long-distance journeys; the Jakhu cable car; modern bus stations such as ISBT Shimla and Kangra in PPP mode; the Department of Tourism’s home stay program (a phenomenal success – there are now around 3,000 registered home stays and an equal number of unregistered stays in the state). But sadly, the one mega-project that could have been his lasting legacy for the Himachal was sabotaged by petty politics and never saw the light of day.
I am referring to the Ski Village project, a $ 400 million business (at the time the largest FDI in the tourism sector in India) offered by a company owned by the grandson of the legendary Henry Ford. The project, located above Palchan near Manali, included a lift of up to 10,000 feet, a world-class, 5-star hotel and cottages, a traditional craft village, a helipad and the modernization of the airport in Bhuntar at company expense. If implemented, the project would suddenly have lifted Manali out of the overpriced slum that it has grown to international stature.
Mr. Bali and I were convinced by the project and we put long hours to process it: ensure environmental protection, obtain approvals, coordinate with other departments, develop clauses to secure the interests of local populations. I even hiked the line and length of the ski lift for three days to ensure alignment involving minimal forest land and trees. Even Mr. Virbhadra Singh, the Chief Minister, was enthusiastic about the idea and wholeheartedly supported it. And rightly so, because it would have placed the Himachal on the international tourist map and would have benefited the state enormously in terms of jobs, taxes and branding.
But this was not the case, because in 2008 elections were held and the government. amended. The new BJP government. led by Mr. Dhumal decided, at the time of the honored traditions of Indian political culture, that the government of Congress. could not be allowed to take credit for such a project, nor to present itself as a contribution from Congress to the state. Opposition to the ski village was stoked, a committee of loyal officers was tasked with finding the reasons for the cancellation of the memorandum of understanding, and the project was laid to rest. It will take another man with the Bali vision to resuscitate such a project, and there aren’t many of them these days.
Bali was a quintessential social network – he knew everyone, but everyone, from secretaries to government. from India to the owners of Sukhdev and Pahalwan Dhabas in Murthal, from movie stars in Mumbai to industrialists in Chennai. And he took care to nurture those relationships. A tough master of task as a minister, he nevertheless gave officers the respect they deserved, no minister past or present had more friends in the bureaucracy. He never forgot an anniversary or wedding anniversary and, in times of distress, always appeared out of nowhere to offer his help.
Seven months after I retired, my youngest son had a horrible accident in Chennai. He was on life support in a hospital intensive care unit for a month. Neerja and I had to rush to Chennai, a place where we didn’t know anyone: we didn’t even know where we were going to stay. At times like these, the famous EEE network becomes like a yawning fishing net and develops a hole through which a sperm whale could swim. I telephoned Mr Bali: he was in Chennai on the next flight, made contact with his contacts and made sure that the proper arrangements were made for our stay: he remained in constant contact afterwards. In 2007, when I myself was at IGMC Shimla in critical condition with a spinal injury, he convinced the Chief Minister to spare the state helicopter to evacuate me to Delhi. She wasn’t really needed, but he spared no effort to requisition her. Bali was not a transactional man – once you gained his trust and fell in love with you, he was your friend for life, always giving more than he took.
He was hospitable and generous to a fault. After each trip abroad, he distributed bottles of scotch and perfume to all his officers as if they were leaving production. During the winter session of Vidhan Sabha in Dharamsala, he appointed himself as co-host of the bureaucracy since his own house was located a few kilometers away in Kangra. He has always organized an elaborate party for us at his home, with the best single malts, cognacs and tandoori dishes. Many were the nights Neerja and I spent at his house, listening to his heartbreaking tales of politicians and officers, known and unknown, for he was a treasure trove of gossip and spared no one!
Its sudden departure is like the creation of a black hole – a star collapsing on itself. Where it once shone is now emptiness. Mr. Bali has lived every minute of his life fully, abundantly if not always wisely. He still had a lot to do and to give, but it seemed to me that, like in everything he did, he was in a hurry to leave. Nothing describes her life better than these lines from the poet Edna St. Vincent:
“My candle is burning on both sides;
It won’t last overnight.
But ah, my enemies, and oh, my friends-
It gives a beautiful light! ”
And a lot of heat. Goodbye, Minister.
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