The DefExpo 2020, organised in Lucknow from February 5 to 9, not only showcased the nation’s potential to meet strategic and security challenges, through ‘Make in India’ projects and international collaborations but also put up a dazzling display of its military prowess. Teams from the Army, Air Force and Navy, demonstrated counter-terror and hostage rescue drills, besides live displays of infantry and armored assaults on enemy positions. The skies above reverberated with the deafening roar of air shows.
Touted as the Mahakumbh of defence manufacturing companies, DefExpo-2020 may have been organised on an impressive scale by the state government and the MoD, which pulled out all stops to deliver an unforgettable experience.
Defence ministers of 40 countries and over 4,000 delegates from 70 nations were in attendance, including a thousand from India. However, the wide disparity between what was hyped as a public jamboree and what it actually delivered on the ground, left tens of thousands of visitors extremely disappointed and fuming. What was the purpose of such displays, they asked, when they were ostensibly organised for the edification of the masses, but actually staged for the benefit of ministers and politicians, who just dropped in at their convenience?
The five-day extravaganza, preceded by a media blitz, had the onlookers rooting for more, which included a large number of pass holders, VIPs and privileged functionaries with their families. They, however, formed a small segment of the huge throngs kept out of the venue or told to leave after waiting patiently for hours since early morning, whenever some Union or state minister chose to visit the Gomti Riverfront or Vrindavan Yojna, on separate days.
The swelling numbers, however, proved too big for the organisers to handle, especially on the last two days, which were the very worst, with entry being made free for the public. Was this the reason why the ‘official’ website, fearing even greater crowds on the fourth and the fifth day, did not provide accurate information or details about the programs, lined up daily at the two venues, or even indicate their tentative timings?
Even in the best-case scenario, visitors were known to have waited four or five hours for entry. Unfortunately, none of the hundreds of policemen on duty was really clued into the events. Some of them, posted at the connecting corridor was busy lunching as early as 11:40 am. They refused to answer queries and curtly gestured visitors to move ahead.
The British might have quit the country more than 70 years ago, but the men in khaki seem to have inherited their colonial mindset, which still treats members of the public with condescension. It was amply demonstrated in the case of a visitor
from Delhi. He had approached a police posse near the Hanuman Setu at the other extreme of the riverfront, frantic with worry about his missing family. Being new to the place, he said he had parked his car at the city’s main market, two km away and taken the metro to get to the DefExpo.
Since he did not bring along an Aadhaar card, he wasn’t allowed entry into the venue, not even when he had flashed his passport. Instead of helping the man, the sub-inspector berated him for being so upset, until the intervention of this columnist.
The administration ought to have chosen a more spread out location than the Gomti Riverfront, which is barely 60 meters at its broadest and appointed volunteers to guide visitors and save them unnecessary hassles. What can one expect from official machinery that leaves heaps of stinking garbage unattended and the drains to choke, flooding large swathes of the city during monsoons?
Most of the roads, except those confined to the so-called posh areas, home to most of the politicians and Who’s Who of the city, are in particularly bad shape. No repairs are ever undertaken on time, citing budgetary constraints, which is a handy excuse for inaction. Pockmarked lanes and roads, mutilated or battered stretches with loose pebbles and chaotic traffic have become the defining features of the state capital.
What this columnist experienced with his family on Saturday (February 8), the penultimate day of the exhibition, reflects the general experiences of the visitors, left to fend for themselves on the cramped, crowded riverfront. After leaving the vehicle at the parking lot, at the other extreme, one was required to walk a seemingly interminable distance to reach the first makeshift barrier.
There, a woman constable examined vanity bags of ladies in a covered booth and insisted on an ID proof, while another constable frisked male visitors, past the scanner. There was no sign of a shuttle bus service, which is usually the norm, making matters worse for families with nursing babies or toddlers.
After walking an additional stretch, one entered the section where some T-90 tanks and armored personal carriers were parked, next to camouflaged bunkers and a tent for simulated firing with different weapons. But as the ‘more happening’ display area lay in another part of the riverfront still some distance away, it could only be accessed by climbing the embankment and taking the road, until one arrived at the main gate.
Serpentine queues for males and females moved into the venue at a snail’s pace, supervised by a battery of overzealous male and female constables and sub-inspectors, who insisted on checking the personal IDs of husband and wives separately when that of the family head alone suffices in most cases. But they would have none of it, brusquely rejecting any snapshot of the Aadhaar card of either half of the couple on a mobile phone.
These arbitrary restrictions split up families, which looked for ‘lost’ members in the headlong rush. Even if they were reunited after considerable loss of time, greater disappointment was in store for the visitors. Their hopes were dashed when, very surprisingly, none of the programs scheduled for the first half, between 11 AM and 1 PM, took off on Saturday. Even the soldiers and the policemen at the spot had no inkling, but some insisted the displays were shifted to the second half between 3 PM to 5 PM.
The only distractions were stalls set up by the three services, with one of them offering overpriced marine memorabilia, or Sikh LI sepoys dressed as Nihangs, clicking selfies with school children and a live band. The morning visitors left empty-handed with their families. There was also no display on the last day at the Riverfront. One only need to recall how a similar show, organised by the Central Command of the Army some years ago, on a sprawling parade ground in Lucknow cantonment, proceeded without a hitch.
It was a roaring success with tanks, armored personal carriers, and a wide variety of artillery shells and heavy bridge building equipment on display. Children and their parents went about examining each exhibit enthusiastically, directing a shower of questions at the Army men, which they answered equally patiently. There was more than ample parking area attached to the grounds and enough space to move about.
Sudip Talukdar is an author and strategic affairs columnist