Friday, June 2, 2023

We must not forget Major Hari Pal Singh Ahluwalia, the great mountaineer and a friend of the specially-abled


By R.K. Sinha

Major Hari Pal Singh Ahluwalia was a man who wore many hats. He was an exceptional mountaineer, a warrior of the battlefield, a renowned writer, a friend of the disabled, but he was also no less than a hero for the country’s 60-plus generation. Major HPS Ahluwalia was a member of the mountaineering team that scaled the summit of Mount Everest on 20th May 1965. He was a part of the mountaineering contingent of the Indian Army. 

The Indian team successfully climbed Mt. Everest after six years of the historic ascension by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, therefore implying that Major Ahluwalia was among the first Indians to do so. In 1965, Major Ahluwalia also fought in the war against Pakistan and taught the enemy army an unforgettable lesson on the battlefield. He passed away last Friday at the age of 85.

During the war against Pakistan, a portion of his body was paralyzed. However, that did not deter him from going after his vision. Throughout his life, he worked in favor of those with disabilities. He founded the Indian Spinal Injury Center in New Delhi, where diseases related to the spinal cord are treated. It is the best hospital of its kind in India. 

Major Ahluwalia’s life was legendary and awe-inspiring. He was a soldier, mountaineer, writer and founded a hospital. We need to change our insensitive mentality about the interests of the disabled people of our country. Persons with disabilities should also be treated as equals as they do not need undue favors. In India, people with mental and physical disabilities face discrimination every day. Are homes or commercial buildings being built for the disabled in our country? The answer to this question is disheartening.

The reason is that we have an unsympathetic attitude towards the specially-abled right from the government to the society. There are numerous aware citizens like Major HPS Ahluwalia who keep opening the eyes of the government and society, telling them that they cannot be left to fend for themselves. 

There are 16 types of disabilities in India. Major Ahluwalia himself used the aid of a wheelchair. He believed that the wheelchair-bound population should have the same facilities to get out of their homes, take a bus to college or the office, and go to shopping complexes or other public buildings like the ordinary public. But the situation is such that people with disabilities cannot move effortlessly in most places. We are failing to plan enough to provide adequate facilities in high-rise buildings and homes for them. The same is the case with the elderly. In India, the elderly and the disabled face blatant neglect.

In a few days, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present the Union Budget. If, in this budget proposal, she grants tax relief to those builders who are helping the differently-abled in any manner, then in a way it will be an honest and fair tribute to Major HPS Ahluwalia and other specially-abled. 

The real estate sector in India has taken a quantum leap in the last few decades, but those real estate companies are scarce which are building their projects, keeping in mind the convenience of the specially-abled and elderly. Even today, one will rarely find such residential and commercial buildings in which wheelchairs of the disabled can fit inside the lift. There is so little space in the lifts that it is not only difficult but next to impossible to carry a wheelchair inside them. Cabinets in bathrooms and kitchens are so high that it is extremely difficult for a disabled person to use them.

Under the pretext of Major HPS Ahluwalia, it is also significant that we promote and encourage other climbers. Those climbers who have had commendable achievements must be their due share of recognition and reward. Roads in the capital are named after the two climbers who first scaled Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. There is a road named after Sir Edmund Hillary in the Chanakyapuri area of New ​​Delhi. He was the High Commissioner of New Zealand to India from 1985–1989. The doors of Edmund Hillary’s office were always open to mountaineers, sportsmen, writers, etc. He was a very popular diplomat. There is also the Tenzing Norgay Road in Chanakyapuri. It is wishful-thinking to see a road or institution named after Major HPS Ahluwalia in different parts of the capital.

Everyone knows that Bachendri Pal Ji was the first Indian female mountaineer to surmount the treacherous slopes of Mt. Everest. Having been impressed by her,  Anita Kundu from Haryana has also scaled Mount Everest. The tricolor has been proudly waved thrice at the top of Mt. Everest and on the remaining highest peaks of the seven continents. The Indian couple Vikas Kaushik and his wife Sushma Kaushik have accomplished the distinction of being the youngest couple to climb Everest. At 45, Premlata Aggarwal had set the record for the oldest person to climb Everest. He had also scaled the summit of Everest along with the Kaushik couple.

It is of utmost significance that one understands that mountaineering will gain momentum only when the government, public sector, and private sector collectively bear the expenses of these mountaineers’ trips as mountaineering costs are exorbitant. One must remember, that in India from the 1960s to the 1990s, the army used to bear all the expenses for the mountaineers of the army to conquer Mount Everest or other peaks. The Army has a sufficient budget for its mountaineers. 

But there is an urgent need to think about those climbers who are not from the Army. Care has to be taken to rehabilitate those who get injured during these expeditions. Mountaineering is the only adventure sport in which the climber risks facing death every moment. One minor carelessness bears life-taking costs and could lead to being buried alive in the deadly cracks of ice.

(The writer is a senior editor, columnist, and former MP. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author.)

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