A prolific and indefatigable optimist

BY hoot| IN Opinion | 31/12/2014
George Verghese took intellectual positions that defied consistent labeling. He was dubbed a stateist on some issues, anti-establishment on others.
THE HOOT profiles him.
BG Verghese looked frailer each year in his last few years but was extraordinarily prolific to the end. At the release of his last book, Post Haste: Quintessential India, one marvelled at the turnout. People from across the professional and ideological spectrum, and spanning four generations, filled a large hall to capacity. It was a tribute to the institution that he had become: a journalist who had scholarly knowledge  of several subjects, a "doer", and an indefatigable  optimist.  He had arranged for a dak runner, a man who delivers mail on foot in the mountain areas of Himachal Pradesh, to release the book. The idea was typical of George Verghese.
The concept of retirement was alien to him. His last visit to the North East was in November, and earlier this year he visited the Andes in Ecuador as  part of an Indus Basin study group wanting to learn from the experience of the Andean glacier monitoring study. On his return he wrote in the Hindustan Times about the health of glaciers as an index of climate change.
His career of over 60-plus years has been extraordinarily varied.  He began as a journalist in the Times of India, but also served as an information adviser to Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister. He returned to journalism and later became an  editor of the Hindustan Times, opposing Gandhi’s annexation of Sikkim and her imposition of the Emergency. He was sacked for his pains. He fought an election in Kerala when the Emergency ended, encouraged, as he put it, by both the left and the right.
When the Janata government came into power in 1977,  L K Advani, as the information and broadcasting minister, asked him to write  the first blueprint for an autonomous public broadcaster. He called  it Akash Bharati. In 1997, when Prasar Bharati was notified, Jaipal Reddy, as information and broadcasting minister, put him on the first board of the public broadcaster.  He remained a champion of public broadcasting to the end, but took a dim view of what Prasar Bharati had become.
In the early eighties Verghese was to do another stint as editor, this time of the Indian Express. He would use  his experience of working with Ramnath Goenka and considerable additional research to write a biography of Goenka, Warrior of the Fourth Estate.
He joined the Centre for Policy Research after his retirement from the Express. He was information consultant to the defence minister for a short period during 2001, during the first BJP government. Verghese was a member of the Kargil Review Committee and co-author of the Kargil Review Committee Report tabled in Parliament chronicling the sequence of events leading up to the India-Pakistan confrontation and recommendations for the future.

George Verghese was a recipient of the Magsaysay Award in 1975, Assam's Sankaradeva Award for 2005, and the Upendra Nath Brahma Soldier of Humanity Award in July 2013. He has served on a number of official and unofficial boards and committees and was  associated with a number of NGOs in the fields of media, education, the environment and community relations.
He was also a member of the Editors Guild of India Fact Finding Mission to Gujarat in April 2002.
He was perhaps both the pioneer and the last practitioner of what is rather unimaginatively called development reporting. He had  a keen and enduring interest in such reporting and the social transformation it can help bring about. He  authored several books including Design For Tomorrow early in his career following an extensive tour of the country and its infrastructure projects.  Waters of Hope, Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers, Winning the Future, India’s Northeast Resurgent, and Reorienting India. Rage, Reconciliation and Security (Penguin 2008) deals with managing India's diversities. His personal memoir and "worm's eye" view of India, First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India, was released by Tranquebar in October 2010. 
Verghese took intellectual positions that defied consistent labeling.  He was dubbed a stateist on some issues, anti-establishment on others. He followed  his heart and head and his instinct for change via better governance. Yet he was a stalwart supporter of non-governmental action, doing a stint at the Gandhi Peace Foundation after his aborted HT editorship.

He had the intellectual courage to oppose popular stances.  Whether on the Maoists, or on the Narmada dam, or on damning Tarun Tejpal. He was a proponent of big dams, looking beyond the shortcomings of displacement to the importance of the Narmada dam. He chose to see beyond the romanticizing of the Comrades in Chhattisgarh by Arundhati Roy to the pointlessness of the brutality that the Maoists were resorting to. He chose to oppose the media pillorying of Tarun Tejpal in November-December 2013 to defend in print Tejpal’s contribution to investigative and campaign journalism.

His personal  integrity is amusingly summed up in his autobiography  with this account of the only election he fought: “I polled some 1,80,000 votes and BK Nair, the Congress candidate who was a “well-known trade unionist, got some 230,000 votes -- he won by a handsome margin. But I polled more votes in my constituency than Indira Gandhi did in hers or Sanjay Gandhi did in his… I was very pleased. I had lost in terms of votes, but I had won a moral victory. 

“The day after that, I went to submit my accounts. I had spent less than Rs 17,000; I had used my own car, so there were only the expenses of petrol and some food. One of Parkinson's laws came home to me -- electoral expense, like all other expenses, expands with the money available. At the collectorate at Alleppey, they were astonished. It was unheard of -- who submits election expenses? That's a tragedy and remains so.”
With the money he did not use up for his election expenses, he set up the Media Foundation. Over the last 13 years he found the time  and energy to feel personally  responsible for the viability of  The Hoot, dashing off fundraising letters  every now and then. When the site was launched in 2001, he wrote to many a media owner he knew personally,  suggesting that this was an opportunity for the profession to  regulate itself by supporting an accountability forum for the media.  They resisted his appeal -- not one contributed.

But George Verghese remained an optimist to the end.  And typically, for those who knew him, the car he owned remained a Maruti 800. 
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