An open letter to KGAF heritage walk organisers

Dear Kala Ghoda Arts Festival’s Heritage Walks organisers,

Greetings from a participant in your 2014 Heritage Walks 🙂

I almost ignored the Heritage Walks section of the 2014 edition of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF). Not because I suspected the quality of the programmes (they are always good!), but because my previous experience with your Heritage Walks was not very nice.

It was in 2010 (or maybe 2011), when I participated in two walks — (i) Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) and (ii) Ballard Estate. The CST walk called for registrations via email for 30 available seats; and I was lucky to get one of them. When I arrived at the meeting point outside CST on the day of the walk and at the appointed time, I found a large crowd gathered there. Most of them had not registered and were determined to be on the walk one way or the other. And they succeeded as your people were just not able to turn them away. This meant that we ended up as a pretty large group and I barely got to hear what the guide spoke.

The Ballard Estate walk turned out to be even more chaotic. This walk had no pre- registrations and interested participants just had to turn up at the World War I memorial in Ballard Estate at the appointed day and time. About 150–200 people turned up that day for the walk. I left 5 minutes into the walk when I found that I could neither see the tour guide nor hear a word of what she spoke.

Thereafter, I restricted my KGAF participation only to the events on Rampart Row every year. Till I came across these words on your website with regard to the 2014 Heritage Walks.

Participants are welcome on FIRST COME – FIRST SERVE [sic] basis… (Maximum people – 50 on first come first serve [sic] basis)…
Note: Only 1 token would be handed over to one person. No email registrations would be accepted.

The “First come – First serve” [sic] and the “Maximum people – 50” clinched it for me. After choosing which ones to go for, applying for time off from work, and reaching well in time to stand up in the queue for the registration tokens, I managed to participate in 5 Heritage Walks and Tours at the KGAF 2014.

Every heritage walk revealed yet another interesting aspect about this beautiful city of ours. Unfortunately, every heritage walk also revealed how much things had not changed with regard to organising and conducting them. The words on your website just remained mere words and didn’t translate into action.

Let me elaborate with details from each walk:

Bombay High Court Walk : When I arrived at Gate No. 4 of the High Court, the starting point of the walk, after collecting my registration token from your help desk (and after being given wrong directions), it was to see a familiar sight — that of people without tokens or prior registration gathered there. Because this was within the closed premises of the High Court, the extra numbers did not matter too much and the walk was manageable. This was not the case with the next walk.

Jewish Heritage Walk : By the time the tokens were handed out at your Help Desk, the line had grown beyond 50 (in fact, Bhavani, a fellow blogger was the last person to get the token for this walk). When we assembled at the starting point outside David Sassoon Library, there were an equal number of people waiting there without the registration tokens. And since they refused to leave or were accommodated by your volunteers (I’m not sure which as it was too crowded and noisy to figure out the reason), the walk was conducted in 2 batches — one for those with tokens and the other for those without.

Stained Glass Walk : This was the only walk which did not have ‘gatecrashers’ and was conducted smoothly. In fact, this walk had less than 50 participants; perhaps, that’s why it went off so well.

Art Deco Walk : This could have ended up as a repeat of the Jewish Heritage Walk as many people just landed up at the starting point without the registration tokens. Some of them, however, went away when they saw the crowd, though an equal number didn’t and ended up joining the walk. Another walk managed with a difficulty.

Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour : Since this was a boat trip, I was pretty sure there would be no extras or gatecrashers to the 60 seats announced. I didn’t realise how wrong my assumption was.

After seeing your tweets on how one should come early for registration to avoid disappointment, I was at your Help Desk by 6.45 am on the day of the tour. By the time the registration tokens were distributed at 8 am, the line had snaked out of sight.

KGAF 14, Mumbai
7.55 am: Waiting to get a registration token at the KGAF for the Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour

There were about 35 people ahead of me, though I became the 47th person to receive the token. The difference was thanks to people barging into the line shamelessly, your volunteers and Help Desk people nowhere in sight, and your security looking the other way. When the registration was declared closed, many people left in disappointment. But many more stayed behind to protest angrily and even threaten to not allow the boat tour to happen.

This spilled over to the meeting point for the start of the tour where, along with the registered participants, a large number of the protesting, unregistered participants had gathered as well. I don’t know the details of what happened or how it happened, but when the boat left the harbour, there were about 120 people, instead of 60 that were supposed to be on board. Those with registration tokens were supposed to be on the upper deck and those without on the lower deck. But, of course, this didn’t happen as some people refused to move to the lower deck and your volunteers could do nothing about it. The tour guide had a mike and spoke from the lower deck for most of the time, but due to a malfunctioning audio system, those on the upper deck and with the registered token did not hear him always.

Now that I have shared my experience of the Heritage Walks, I have a few things to ask you:

  1. One of your volunteers said that ‘it was not fair to turn away interested people. So what if they had not registered!’ Tell me, was it fair for those people to read your website and actually believe it? Was it fair on those people who took leave from work or arranged for baby-sitting or child care services or travelled all the way from Kalyan just so that they could come early and register for a walk. Was it fair for those people to find that all their planning was in vain as they were jostling for space with people who had not registered, or had just strolled into the walk and were welcomed by your volunteers. If you did not mean to follow your own procedure for registering on the walks, why go through the entire charade of putting up one?
  2. The security guards were completely useless and ineffective, except for a mention of  ‘please stand in a straight line’ to the people waiting to collect tokens. On the morning of the Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour, they pleaded helplessness against dealing with the crowds that had queued up. It is only when your Help Desk people walked in, shortly before 8 am, that they started patrolling the queue. But by that time, it was too late and many people had broken into the queue. Please, may I know, what was the brief given to the security?

  3. Your twitter feed kept urging people to come early and register for the tours. Obviously this was not meant for your volunteers who would saunter in 5 minutes before the registrations opened. While this was not really a problem for the other Walks, it was a big problem for the Mumbai Port and Harbour Tour. After all the publicity done and your volunteers telling people to come early for registrations, how could you not have predicted the turnout or crowd behaviour that day?

  4. During one of the walks and in response to a comment by a participant, the tour guide had snapped and responded, “The KGAF is doing so much already and all for free. You shouldn’t be demanding anything more.” I don’t know the context of the comment as I did not hear it. I also do not know the context of the response, which I did hear. True, every aspect of the KGAF is free, thanks to the generous sponsorship that you receive, and I’m sure everybody who participates are grateful to you for that. But the choice to offer it free is yours and not a demand made by the participants. So, if I were to ask you to follow what you have stated on your website, would I also be considered as demanding?

Dear KGAF Heritage Walk organisers, it is not like I did not come away with any positives. I loved all the walks as each one introduced me to a side of Mumbai that I had only a passing knowledge of. I came away from each one feeling happy and proud of living in a city with such a fascinating and varied history hidden at the most unexpected of places. All the walks, without exception, were well curated and led.

But all this does not take away or make me ignore the shortcomings in organising and conducting the walks. I don’t have an issue with 50 participants, which is a large number, or even that it is offered only once during the KGAF. I do, however, object to all my planning and waiting in the queue to collect a token coming to nought when the casual participant walks in and your volunteers say nothing. While I do understand the difficulty in meeting the expectations of so many and disappointing many more, you cannot lay down a procedure and then not follow it yourself. You have been organising Heritage Walks for so many years; surely you should have understood the Indian psyche by now.

Just because the walks are conducted free of charge does not mean that participants like me cannot expect you to keep your word. I hope that next time around you come up with a system that you not only expect the others to follow, but will also be one that you follow. There are many ways this can be done, and it only can be done if you really mean it.

Regards,

Sudha

23 thoughts on “An open letter to KGAF heritage walk organisers

  1. Interesting to read about KGAF walks, as I have never attended the fest or the walks. I personally believe that anything that is offered free is never valued neither at its market value nor at its intrinsic worth.
    I am sure there is a cost associated with conducting these walks even when they are conducted by volunteers. How about charging just a token amount and then all who join by paying the small amount join for a cup of tea and snacks at the end of the walk ? This way the event is not commercialized as well as a small discussion can be done in the end, And oh, I so agree that those who took the pain to make arrangements for their kids etc. and booked in advance are being taken for a walk…err ride here….just my .02 cents

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    1. How right you are about this statement –> “anything that is offered free is never valued neither at its market value nor at its intrinsic worth.”

      The basic idea of the KGAF is to make every programme available to the public for free. So while this means that anyone and everyone can come and partcipate, in reality this is problematic. This can work for open air events to a certain extent, but for closed door events like workshops and food demonstrations and heritage walks, this is a disaster.

      I hope that by the time next year’s edition comes around, some of the lessons learnt and feedback received will actually result in better planning and implementation.

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  2. well written, Sudha! I am going to show this to Samhith and remind him that he promised to write his version of waiting for the boat trip 🙂
    Coming back to KGAF, there is no doubt that it is growing by the day. However, considering its growth, its high time they learnt lessons from the problems they have faced year after year. While the idea of not refusing people who want to join the walks is admirable, it is not at all practical, and its time they think of ways to accommodate all those people. One of the best things I liked about the stained glass walk was the workshop that preceded the walk.. that, and the fact that the walk began a bit away from the busy venue probably was the factor which resulted in the walk going off so well, and the reason there wasnt a crowd. That should at least give them ideas for planning their walks next year.
    However, all said and done, the thing that they most need to do is to make sure that the rules they themselves have laid down be followed. If people are incapable of following rules, as we saw so well the other day, we need people who can enforce the rules and make sure they are followed. whether it is the security which does the difficult job,, or the event management company or the association, is immaterial. What matters is that they be prepared for such things. After all, it happens year after year.
    This was the first time I attended the walks, and so enjoyed them. If only they were a bit better organised, I might actually think of getting Samhith to bunk school for a day and take him on one 🙂 And now I hope he doesnt read this comment when he reads your post!

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    1. Anu, the problem with the KGAF is that they know that people will come any which way. You saw what happened at the Registration Desk on the day of the Harbour Tour ~ only a few people were conccerned and spoke for those cheated out of a seat. The others just didn’t care and the KGAF will have them as an example of how only few people are complaining. Tell me, how many bloggers have written about this or even shared on the social media about the negative experiences? Hardly any. And that is what the organisers are going to capitalise on !

      I wish I can say that my post and the discussion generated here and on Twitter and Facebook is going to make the KGAF relook at their guidelines and strategies, but I know that they will ignore it. Just as they ignored the tweets I sent to make them aware of what was happening at the Help Desk that day or the tweets I tagged them with this post. They only want to hear good stuff.

      I can hope that things will change, but I doubt it as this lack of response smacks of arrogance.

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  3. I read this post and for the most part was in despair about how undisciplined we are as a people. When there are clearly stated regulations in place, what gives people the right to just barge in and demand to be accommodated. This puerile sense of entitlement that people have, that justifies them shamelessly barging into lines, demanding things that they cannot have access to, is just part of a larger malaise that afflicts our society.

    Since this is a repeat experience you have undergone, it seems the organizers are well aware that crowd control is a problem. And given that, I think that you are completely justified in being miffed at the experience. The organizers should definitely have done something to control the crowds. Sadly, this is far too common a phenomenon, that one see very often.

    The Heritage Walks sound like so much fun. But to have the walk inundated by a mob, takes away from the experience of appreciating the monuments and nuances of heritage that make Mumbai unique. Truly sad.

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    1. The Heritage Walks are fun and a great learning experience. See my next post.

      To be fair to the KGAF, they have been experimenting with various formats every year. Email registrations, turning up at the site, pre-registrations, tokens, et al. But they haven’t worked as they have simply not been able to turn people away, or hold additional walks. It is time that they do something about this for it is no longer the quality of the walk compensating for the goof-ups that have happened.

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    1. There are many solutions for this, Milind. All of them begin with saying a simple and firm ‘No’ to those who don’t register, who gatecrash or who just stroll in. No solutiion will be effective if you cannot say no when you have to.

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  4. City walks are fun and they are ‘supposed’ to be fun. When organisers make statements like ‘how to disappoint the interested people?’ they are forgetting the fact that a casual walker might not be follower of their program and might just be there to ‘lets see what’s happening there’… a vigilant follower might be deterred from attending if the event is so poorly managed.

    One reason why I keep avoiding getting ready and going all the way to the city, is the fact that i’m not too good with un-organised crowds. For last 3 years, my experience with KGAF has been declining rapidly. and this year was no different. No crowd control, a mess when it comes to so-called-security-checks, and by god, completely over-flowing venues… I so dearly wish, I had stayed home with my 2 year old. 😦

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    1. You’re quite right, Shraddha, for I think that is what happened for the Jewish Heritage Walk this year and the Ballard Estate Walk in 2010. I’m not too good with crowds either, but my love for the KGAF programmes is more than my dislike for crowds. I too go through periods of “never again”, but I keep coming back. Maybe a day will come when I won’t go back, if things don’t change. Let’s see 😦

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  5. The attitude is really appalling — ‘why are you complaining when it is free?’ And by inference it also means that the service can be bad/substandard. Instead they can charge a fee for the walks, as they do in London and then give a good tour with proper commentary in manageable groups. I am sure someone who is really keen to see and know about the heritage sites wouldn’t mind paying for good service. One even wonders if the gatecrashers had got an invite from the volunteers themselves?

    I must admire your perseverance though. Better luck next time maybe?

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    1. The attitude is a bit like goverenment hospitals, don’t you think so? While I appreciate all the work that the KGAF puts in and also the difficulty in turning away people, it still does not excuse them from their flexible policies and making a fool out of all those who planned their walks in advance, and stood in the queue to collect their tokens. I’m not sure if it was perseverance; to me it seems it was more of foolishness to go through this again and again 😦

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  6. Hmm – Now THAT is also a part of the Indian psyche – the feeling that if you are doing something for free, you are handing out charity and the recipient ought to be happy for whatever they get 🙂 Not necessarily on the part of the organization but the individuals who handle things 🙂

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    1. Very well said, Suresh. It is also the Indian tendency to outsource the problems and the blame as well. When arguments broke out after the tokens were distributed, one of the representatives said, “I’m only from the event management company so it is not my problem.” If you see, the details of who handled what during KGAF, you’ll see that someone handled the social media, someone else handled the website. And ultimately no one seemed to know what was happening. Individual viewpoint or organisational, the Kala Ghoda Association, which organises these programmes cannot wash off it hands from the responsibility of mismanagement.

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  7. I think this is a big dilemma. While on the one side their heart is in the right place having organized everything, the lack of proper organization is also annoying. I think if they go to such lengths to make people register etc., then yes they should be a little bit more careful about following the rules they themselves put forth. It might be that they are scared of annoying people and thus when they come unannounced they find it hard to turn them back, but that is not an excuse.

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    1. They simply have to learn to say “No” to those who don’t follow their rules and say “Yes” and follow their rules. It really is that simple, in my opinion.

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  8. Hi,
    Sounds like the walks were totally chaotic. Thanks for saving me the trouble. I am now positively put off despite the interesting nature of the sights, and will think of joining one of these guided walks the day they become organised.
    I had been for a few heritage walks earlier and they were a total rip off!

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    1. The walks were indeed bad, Sthitapragya, which is the reason I didn’t participate in any last year. A friend braved the crowds and went last year and said that there wasn’t any improvement from the previous years.

      I have been on only a couple of heritage walks here, both conducted by Breakfree Journeys, and I liked them. My worry with most heritage walk companies is that enthusiasm and love for the city does not quite match up with research and knowledge about Mumbai. A new heritage walking company casually announced that there is a stupa in Dadar. When I asked for details they said, look for it and you’ll find it. I kid you not. People fall for this kind of crap; fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

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