The youth hostel scheme has been a non-starter in the state. Chitleen K. Sethi checks out why these hostels have failed to attract travellers
THERE is many a slip between the cup and the lip. More clich`E9d than this is the fact that in our country most of the well-intentioned government schemes go off-track and misfire.
Take the case of the Centre’s ambitious plan of setting up of youth hostels in the country. As many as 72 youth hostels were set up across the country to serve as places where young persons and students on excursion, study tour, camps etc could get good accommodation at affordable rates. However, the ground reality is quite different. In Punjab, which got the highest number of youth hostels sanctioned, the hostels have been (mis)used.
Four out of the six youth hostels sanctioned in the state were constructed in the 1990s with funds provided by the Centre as part of the scheme. But then Punjab is not a state where one would get to see Central schemes becoming easily operational in an effective manner.
Three of the four youth hostels, which the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports set up in the state, are non-functional. Even though the ministry’s website lists the four hostels at Amritsar, Patiala, Sangrur and Ropar as available for travellers, these hostels exist only in name as the purpose for which these had been set up has been missed altogether.
In Sangrur, the last time a traveller stayed in the youth hostel was four years ago. In fact only 68 persons have stayed in the hostel since it was built in 1991. In Patiala, security personnel have been the permanent ‘guests’ in the youth hostel for most of its existence. Only 128 persons have availed of the facility so far.
The Amritsar youth hostel is being used as a transit point for the Delhi-Lahore bus passengers. The youth hostel at Ropar is the only one that is functional, but it is caught in a web of administrative wrangling.
Compared to the situation in Punjab, Mysore, Panaji and Peddem Mapusa, Chennai, have shown more than 70 per cent occupancy rate.
In the absence of day-to-day monitoring by the Centre these hostels have also been "officially encroached upon". Portions of these hostels are being used as offices of the assistant directors (ADs) of the Department of Youth Services, Punjab, a fact, which has not been taken to kindly by the Centre.
A recent directive issued by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports regarding handing over the functioning of these hostels to the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan has also invited the wrath of the state department, which is not ready to give up the facility. The department claims it has set up the hostel with much effort.
The department officials, however, do not term the use of rooms in the hostels as "encroachment". "The youth hostel scheme is a joint scheme of the Centre and the state. The state government has provided the land on which these hostels have been built. While the Centre only paid for the construction, it is the youth services department of the state that has been associated with the construction and setting up the facility. To ask our ADs to move out now is not fair," says Hirdaypal Kaur, director, Youth Services, Punjab.
While there seems to be a tug of war to "control" the youth hostels, the facilities in these leave much to be desired. The neglected state of hostels illustrates the state government’s apathy.
None of the hostel buildings has been repaired since construction work. While the outer walls of the buildings are marked with cracks and crevices, inside the rooms and dormitories, seepage has painted telling pictures of neglect on the walls. The condition of electrical wiring in the Patiala and Sangrur hostels is ‘shocking’.
There are glaring gaps between the original plan and the ground reality. These buildings had been well-conceived and have a modern and functional design. Each hostel was to have a large area allocated for a large kitchen, a common room and a mess. But these facilities are not in evidence in any hostel. The kitchen area and the halls remain unused and locked most of the time and are opened occasionally to be spruced up.
The hostel at Patiala, located in one of the best areas of the city, was constructed in 1999. In less than 10 years it wears the look of a dilapidated historical building. The "illegal occupation" of the new building by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s security staff has led to this ‘ruinous’ effect. Now the electrical fittings are broken, windows panes smashed and walls damaged.
The Punjab State Electricity Board that apparently did not bother about electricity bills for five years, suddenly woke up in April last year and slapped a bill of over Rs 2 lakh on the hostel. "Since the hostel generated no funds during the past seven years of its existence, we could not pay the bill. Hence, the supply of electricity to the hostel was cut off. We spent the entire summer without electricity. I wrote numerous letters to the state government but nothing was done. The hostel remained without power until August when we borrowed money from the Sangrur hostel and paid the bill," said Rajinder Singh, the hostel warden.
In Patiala, the hostel appears to be all set to shed its image as Amarinder Singh’s ‘outhouse’. The hostel warden has got catchy hoardings painted outside the hostel to project it as "a home away from home". Despite the warden’s enthusiasm, the hostel is in urgent need of repairs. Some furniture has been rustled up and some repair has been carried out but the place remains uninviting.
The Sangrur youth hostel is unique as no youth has ever stayed in it. Thanks to the industrious strategy of assistant director youth services, Gurcharan Singh Samagh it has enough funds to be described as the richest of all hostels in the state. He has managed to "recover" rent from the security agencies like the CRPF that used the hostel rooms every five years during elections. "We have Rs 15 lakh in the hostel kitty," says Samagh.
Though this hostel is in good shape, the authorities seem to have no desire to attract travellers. "We do not discourage anyone from staying here but the hostel is located near the Army area and is out of the way for visitors," says the assistant director.
The hostel at Ropar, located on the busy main road, has been attracting travellers despite its bare bed facilities. "We are staying here as this hostel is functional," said a bank official from Maharashtra, who was staying in the hostel.
The Ropar hostel is the first in the state to be handed over to the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan. S.S.Saini, Nehru Yuva Kendra Coordinator, has replaced the warden of the hostel. "A lot needs to be done to improve the facility. We will try and make this into a profitable venture," said Saini. Additional director youth-services J.S Rahi, who has his office here, claims that Saini will remain in charge only till a full-time warden is appointed.
At Amritsar, the youth hostel is being used as a ‘bus terminus’ for the New Delhi-Lahore bus as the department of youth services has handed over the hostel to the transport department. Passengers board the bus from there. The Punjab government has been asked by the Centre to notify another site where the bus can halt. However, until an alternative site is allotted for the bus stand, it cannot be shifted.
The tussle between the additional directors, who have their offices in the hostel, and the warden/caretaker with each claiming to be in charge, is a major point of contention.
According to the union ministry, the functioning of each hostel has to be monitored by a couple — the warden and his wife. But that is not the case in Punjab. The Patiala hostel got a warden only recently and the one in Sangrur does not have anyone in place.
The mere presence of a warden does not ensure good functioning. The warden of one of the hostels had to be removed after serious charges of misuse of authority were levelled against him. It was an additional director, posted in the same hostel, who managed to ring in profits in the eight months.
The ministry also laid down that a hostel management committee, constituted under the ex-officio chairmanship of the deputy commissioner, would look after the day-to-day functioning of these hostels. But this committee does not exist anywhere. It finds a mention in the files meticulously maintained in the youth hostel at Patiala but the committee has apparently never met.