The True Face of Heroism in India

Probir Banerjee and Amitabh Bachchan

This morning, in a Republic Day ceremony with only a smattering of the brainless pomp that usually characterizes Indian public events, Lieutenant Governor Govind Singh Gurjar honored our dear friend and colleague Probir Banerjee for his extraordinary devotion to voluntary service to the people of Pondicherry.

It is shameful that I am only now, upon the prompting of this recognition, writing about Probir. He is not only one of the extraordinary people who cause me to call Pondicherry “home” for half of each year, he is very much the ringleader of that inspiring clique.

Probir serves as the president of both Shuddham, our NGO pioneering simple, effective solid waste management strategies in Pondicherry, and of PondyCAN! (Pondicherry Citizens Action Network), which fights for critical environmental protection and advocates a farseeing program of integrated regional planning. He works tirelessly and selflessly to staunch the erosion of quality of life in our town and to assure that its future will be healthier, happier, and sustainable.

Probir Banerjee Receives an Award from Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Govind Singh Gujar

Probir is what my friend Nipun Mehta would call an Everyday Hero. Down-to-earth, funny, gregarious – Probir doesn’t, perhaps, fit the standard heroic image. (Even his hair is reverse-Bachchan.) But don’t underestimate him: he is strategically brilliant, politically astute, passionate about the environment and quality of life issues, detail oriented, and always willing to do the dirty-work himself. He is also our driver, though we would replace him in a second if we could actually afford to actually pay a less scary one.

There were two interesting aspects to the Republic Day ceremonies award from which speak volumes about Probir’s impact on the well-being of his community. First, of the two-dozen-or-so awardees felicitated by the Lieutenant Governor (can he do that in public?), Probir alone was honored for social service. Other honorees were policemen, intellectuals, athletes, students, and educational institutions. Second, the event program, which contains a lengthy exposition of the LG’s development agenda for the coming year contains the following nugget:

To keep pace with the developments, the Government could hardly afford to ignore environmental protection. Sustainable development is the watchword and to ensure that development is not made at the cost of environmental degradation, the Government of Puducherry has constituted a committee to campaign and implement a “Clean and Green Puducherry” policy. The Ousteri Lake has been declared a protected place for avian fauna. The Government is willing to re-examine its policies toward the prevention of coastal erosion.

Most of these ideas reached the Governor’s Palace for the first time in a series of meetings, led by Probir, introducing the new head of the Union Territory government to the work of Shuddham and PondyCAN!. (The Ousteri Lake protection involves a piece of governmental insanity which, for once, had salutary effect. It’s a story I’ll tell within the next few days. Promise.) The stated willingness of the Government to take a serious look at Pondicherry’s massive, development-induced, corruption nourished coastal management disaster is absolutely jaw dropping. What exactly it means and how the battle between the Lieutenant Governor (who is appointed by Delhi and constitutionally the head of all administrative activity in Puducherry) and the Legislative Assembly and ministerial offices (which, as a practical matter, hold sway over the budget and policies of the Union Territory, particularly in times of a less engaged, conscientious LG) will play-out remains to be seen. Politicians and administrative bureaucrats in Pondicherry have taken crores of rupees to support port development and hard-structure “defenses” to coastal erosion in the form of seawalls and groynes. It’s not clear that the Lieutenant Governor’s good intentions can alter the venal course they have set. But the mere fact that the question is on the public agenda illustrates the effectiveness of the work of Probir and PondyCAN! in less that two-short years.

So, as you raise the Tiranga Jhanda on your own flag-poles today, sing the only national anthem more in need of replacement than America’s, and recite the names of freedom fighters whose actual deeds remain only fuzzy national memories, spare a thought for Probir – a kind of present day freedom fighter whose struggle is just beginning to etch its way into the national consciousness.

Amitabh Bachchan may play heroes in the movies, but Probir Banerjee plays hero every day of the week.

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