G.S.Bali - The Officers' Minister
I have always believed that politicians, in many important ways, are better human beings than bureaucrats. They can be far more empathetic, sensitive and genuinely helpful than us " bandh gala" types, throttled by our training, self centeredness and inflated sense of importance.
G.S. Bali, who passed away in the early hours of October 30 in a Delhi hospital at the age of only 67, exemplified my thesis to perfection, as no other politician I have known in my 35 years of service.
One knew Mr. Bali, of course, as a young fire-brand Congress politician from Kangra, long before I had a chance to work with him directly in the dawning years of this millennium. I was posted as Transport Secretary with Bali as my Minister. He also held charge of Tourism. When I visited him for the first courtesy call he jokingly informed me that the Chief Minister ( the late Virbhadra Singh) had sent me to his Department to keep a check on him ! ( The CM and Bali did not always see eye to eye on many issues). In a few months, convinced that I was not doing a Pegasus on him, he manoeuvred things to have me allot the Tourism charge also. Thus began a unique relationship that prematurely ended in a lonely AIIMS ward on a cold autumn morning.
Mr. Bali was by no means your conventional Minister. He was a supercharged bundle of energy, a man in a hurry, brimming with ideas, always on the move- in Delhi in the morning, in Nagrota by the evening, and in his Shimla office the next morning, having inspected a dozen buses en route! He did not depend on his officers with the usual passive attitude of most Ministers who wait in their offices for the files to come to them.
He did his own legwork, checking buses and " nakas" late in the night himself, stopping at the favourite dhabas of the HRTC buses to see if his passengers were being ripped off, going to the depots and bus stands himself to meet the 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 up at any time of the day or night.
And they did, with gusto! Bali took all the calls himself, and many a Divisional Manager or Regional Manager, rousted from their beds by the Minister from a sound sleep, have as a result been banished by their wives from their bedrooms for ever. By his hands on approach, Bali endeared himself to the travelling public and workers equally. My main job, as I saw it, was to apply the brakes on his warp speed style of functioning !
A widely travelled man, he welcomed new ideas and innovative projects and lent them his full support. Some of the more successful ones from our tenure include the ropeways to Rohtang pass, Bijli Mahadev and Triund; introduction of Volvo buses on long distance routes; the Jakhu ropeway; modern bus stands such as the ISBTs Shimla and Kangra on PPP mode; the Tourism Department's Home Stay scheme ( a phenomenal success- there are now about 3000 registered homestays and an equal number of unregistered ones in the state). But sadly, the one mega project which could have been his lasting legacy for Himachal was sabotaged by petty politics and never saw the light of day.
I refer to the Ski Village project, a US$ 400 million venture ( at the time the biggest FDI in the Tourism sector in India) proposed by a company owned by the grandson of the legendary Henry Ford.. The project, located above Palchan near Manali, envisaged a ski lift going up to 10000 feet, an international class, 5 star, hotel and cottages, a traditional handicraft village, a helipad and upgradation of the Bhuntar airport at the company's expense. If implemented the project would, at one stroke, have lifted Manali from the over-priced slum it has become to international stature.
Both Mr. Bali and I were sold on the project and we put in long hours processing it: ensuring environmental safeguards, obtaining approvals, coordinating with other departments, devising clauses to secure the interest of the local populations. I even trekked up the line and length of the ski-lift for three days to ensure an alignment involving minimum forest land and trees.. Even Mr. Virbhadra Singh, the Chief Minister, was excited about the idea and supported it whole-heartedly.. And rightly so, for it would have put Himachal on the international tourist map and would have benefitted the state immensely in terms of employment, taxes and branding.
But it was not to be, for in 2008 elections were held and the govt. changed. The new BJP govt. headed by Mr. Dhumal decided, in the time honoured traditions of Indian political culture, that the Congress govt. could not be allowed to take the credit for such a project, nor could it be allowed to stand as a Congress contribution to the state. Opposition to the Ski village was whipped up, a committee of loyal officers was tasked to find reasons for cancelling the MOU, and the project was buried. It will take another man with the vision of Bali to resuscitate such a project, and there are not many of them around these days.
Bali was a social networker par excellence- he knew everybody, but everybody, from the Secretaries to Govt. of India to the owners of Sukhdev and Pahalwan Dhabas in Murthal , from film stars in Mumbai to industrialists in Chennai. And he took pains to nurture these relationships. A hard taskmaster as a Minister, he nonetheless gave officers the respect due to them, no Minster past or present had more friends in the bureaucracy. He never forgot a birthday or a marriage anniversary, and at times of distress always appeared from nowhere to offer his help.
Seven months after my retirement my younger son met with a horrendous accident in Chennai. He was on ventilator support in a hospital ICU for one month. Neerja and I had to rush to Chennai, a place where we knew no one: we didn't even know where we would stay. At times like these the famed IAS network becomes like a gaping fishing net, and develops a hole through which a sperm whale could swim through.
I rang up Mr. Bali: he was in Chennai on the next flight, got in touch with his contacts and ensured that suitable arrangements were made for our stay: he stayed in touch constantly thereafter. In 2007, when I myself was in IGMC Shimla in critical condition with a spinal injury, he prevailed upon the Chief Minister to spare the state helicopter to evacuate me to Delhi. It was not needed finally but he spared no effort to requisition it. Bali was not a transactional man- once you earned his trust and he took a liking to you, he was your friend for life, always giving far more than he took.
He was hospitable and generous to a fault. After every trip abroad he would distribute bottles of scotch and perfumes to all his officers as if they were going out of production. During the winter session of the Vidhan Sabha in Dharamsala, he appointed himself the co-host for the bureaucracy since his own house was located just a few kilometers away in Kangra. He always threw an elaborate party for us at his place, with the finest single malts, cognacs and tandoori dishes. Many have been the nights Neerja and I have spent at his place, listening to his rip-roaring accounts of politicians and officers, known and unknown, for he was a treasure trove of gossip and spared no one!
His sudden departure is like the creation of a black hole- a star collapsing into itself. Where he once glowed, is now emptiness. Mr. Bali lived every minute of his life to the full, abundantly if not always wisely. He still had much to do and to give, but it seems to me that, like in everything he did, he was in a hurry to go. Nothing describes his life better than these lines by the poet Edna St. Vincent:
" My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light !"
And much warmth. Goodbye, Minister.