From our print issues

Condensed in time and space: Sonepur Mela

By Abhishek Choudhary

1 December 2014

Despite its decline in size and stature over the last decades, the mela represents the desires and deprivations of a rural society in flux.
Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

An evening ‘theatre’ at the mela.
Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

A few hours before I was to leave Sonepur, I went to meet Vishwanath Singh, who at 93 is the oldest surviving freedom fighter in town. I wanted to hear him talk about Sonepur’s volatile political environment in the pre-independence years. Instead, he said, “Mela ab kamjor ho gaya hai” (the mela has grown weaker). This was one of the few clear sentences that the senile man had successfully summoned, and he said it with a tone of finality. But I had heard this from too many mouths during my stay, and it appeared little more than a sentimental adage of a dying upper-caste man.

This article was first published in our quarterly issue Are We Sure About India, January 2013.

This article was first published in our quarterly issue Are We Sure About India? (Vol 26 No 1), January 2013.

This notion was less apparent to me on the first day, though. Arriving from Patna as a first-time visitor to this ancient pilgrimage site, I had been strolling around, bemused, trying to make sense of the multitude of traditions here, all the while jeering at the contrived attempts at branding and promoting the site. The Bihar tourism department had – along with an event management company from Delhi – strewn posters across important points at the mela, each with a garish, verbose quote.

On one of the posters sat a pristine gold Buddha against a pink horizon. The quote, for which ample space was reserved on the right side, read, “Bihar: The fountainhead of the first republic of the world.” But here too – as much as anywhere else in Bihar – a calm, quiescent Buddha didn’t fit into the cacophony of the hundreds of loudspeakers from the sectarian kirtan mandalis which populated the mela on the first day, all desperate to outcry each other. Local politicians spoke copiously of how cultural and historical branding would help us ‘preserve’ our heritage. Government stalls sang paeans to the incumbent. Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) stalls hawked ‘new’ commercial products.

Sonepur is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Ganga and the Gandak, in west Bihar, 27 km from Patna. Something between a village and a trifling small town, it is quiet and insignificant for most of the year. In the month of November, however, the place starts bustling with preparations for this ancient mela. It opens on the full moon of the month of Karthik on the Hindu calendar, when Hindu devotees gather for Ganga-snan, a holy dip at the confluence. This is followed by a month-long mela, traditionally popular for its cattle fair, somewhat grotesquely known as the ‘largest in Asia’.

My hotel room overlooked the railway line that goes to Gorakhpur from Hajipur, cutting through Sonepur on an old, imperial bridge that splits the town into two neat halves. On the left, at the tip of a U-shaped road, is the main temple of Hariharnath, where bathers offer water to the god. On the right is the Angrezi Bazaar, generally quiet, and on one of its corners is the old, imperial Dakbunglow. The mela is spread over both sides, and bordering the mela are the cattle fairs, with spaces demarcated for each one – ‘Haathi Mela’, ‘Ghoda Mela’, etc. Then, at the very centre, are the ‘theatres’, making themselves conspicuous. So too are the government and FMCG stalls, the circuses, rides and handicrafts.

Perhaps this ghost-slaying enterprise would have looked ludicrous anywhere else, but the ambience of that cold, foggy, full moon night – the inundating crowd, the harsh din, the smell of marijuana – gave it a certain authenticity.

By the afternoon of the full moon, all roads leading to Sonepur were closed to vehicular traffic, which had given way to a colourful human flood moving swiftly towards the town: men and women, sadhus and saints, people of all social distinctions, with gunnysacks on their heads and children clutching at their waists. This crowd, a local shopkeeper told me, came mostly from dehaat, the surrounding rural districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and was punctuated sometimes by a few blonde or non-resident Indian faces, almost all of them carrying mammoth cameras. On reaching the confluence, they dispersed in all directions, hurrying to find a place where they could spend a few nights. A bath in the holy water would follow the next morning, then some feasting and shopping at the mela for a day or two before they headed back home. As the evening progressed, the mango groves became a sea of men and women asleep on makeshift beds of straw, their bodies wrapped in blankets. Many slept inches away from the elephants.

Around midnight, on hearing a group of men singing to the drumming of a dholak, I peeped through the crowd to see a ghost-slayer practicing his craft on a woman, who was violently shaking her head before a smoky, incensed fire. I only had to walk a little farther to hear similar rhythms and see other men and women shaking their heads, all of them here to drown the evil spirits in their bodies at the holy confluence. Perhaps this enterprise would have looked ludicrous anywhere else, but the ambience of that cold, foggy, full moon night – the inundating crowd, the harsh din, the smell of marijuana – gave it a certain authenticity.

The horse mela. Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

The horse mela.
Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

The ‘largest cattle fair’ in Asia
In Thiruvambadi Thamban, a Malayalam action thriller released early last year, the hero’s family is involved in trading elephants in Kerala. The film’s climax sees the hero heading back home after purchasing an elephant from the Sonepur mela. The elephant fair has always been Sonepur’s singular attraction, distinguishing it from other popular Southasian melas. I had seen photographers following the elephants everywhere, sweet-talking the mahouts into posing them for a nice click or two. Later, I saw some of those pictures under headlines proclaiming ‘Sonepur mela inaugurated’.

In reality, however, what happened in Thiruvambadi Thamban wasn’t possible anymore. Over the last few years, conservation laws had rendered the sale of elephants illegal. The laws also made it much more difficult to obtain no-objection certificates for taking the elephants to other states – most notably Assam and Kerala. And while such legislation had affected trades in other animals and birds, none was as badly affected as the elephant trade.

Accounts from the 19th century report that on some years as many as two thousand elephants were brought to Sonepur for sale. That could perhaps be explained by the needs of the time: the elephants were used in British cavalry regiments, were in high demand among zamindars and high imperial officials, were used to haul timber and wagons for the expanding Indian railways, and also served a multitude of other commercial and religious purposes. Gradually, their numbers in Southasia diminished, initially through hunting for ‘gentlemanly pleasures’ by the British, and then as a result of industrialisation, deforestation and, especially in the last few decades, poaching for ivory. By the time the government enforced its plethora of wildlife conservation acts, their numbers had already plummeted to an all-time low.

Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

These circumstances had also had a proportional effect on the number of elephants brought to Sonepur for sale. There were other reasons too: the use of elephants for commercial purposes was being restricted, and with mechanisation it was also becoming less profitable. The zamindari system had withered, and it was increasingly difficult to maintain the beasts. It was no surprise, then, that I counted less than forty elephants at the mela this year. But now there was another factor at play: their dwindling numbers had turned them into precious antiquities, ownership of which was a prestigious end in itself. And, therefore, new methods for sale were devised. Now the owner simply ‘donated’ the animal to the buyer as a daan, charity. A more elaborate method was to treat the elephant as a piece of land on the stamp paper. The prices, in both cases, were of course negotiated separately.

Sunil Singh had proudly introduced himself to me as the maalik, owner, of the elephant fair, and just when I thought we’d broken the ice, I received his admonition. “Can you tell me,” I had asked him, “how many elephants have been sold this year?” “Sabse pehle toh aap bhasa sudharein!” (Please correct the way you speak), Sunil Singh retorted in a tone that was civil and tender, yet also egoistic and even mildly scornful. “We don’t sell our elephants; we gift them to someone we think would take good care of them.”

I sat on a chair under Sunil Singh’s grove, a few feet away from his mammoth, tuskless elephant, and attended his monologue, mildly suspicious of his demeanour. It began with how, as a young man in the 1980s, he had seen his family managing sales of more than five hundred elephants at the fair; and how, in a sharp contrast, in 2012, being at the fair was only a matter of continuing the old family tradition, minus any financial benefits. His son was studying engineering somewhere in South India, and was home on this auspicious occasion. I had seen him a short while ago, fiddling with his mobile phone.

“Even now, if you go to a village in a Mercedes car, nobody would remember it the next day!” Sunil Singh continued, chuckling. “But if an elephant crosses that village, the villagers will recall it for the next 10 days!” This was shraddha, devotion. “Ab bataiye, iss soch ka koi jawaab hai?” (Tell me, is there any answer to this mindset). His tone was becoming milder.

Lekin, ab kya…this fair is merely a symbolic ritual now!” he said poignantly. “I can tell you this tradition is going to go extinct, very-very soon!” Next he was heaping contempt – on politicians, NGOs, the World Bank and Maneka Gandhi. I mumbled weakly that I also didn’t like Maneka Gandhi, before I was abruptly cut off by a new flurry of sentences.

These theatres, devoid of artistic merit, present female dancers as sexual objects that can be seen, and sometimes even touched, ‘live’. All of which made for a curious dichotomy: while the theatre girls called themselves dancers, the audience considered them mostly randi-log, whores.

“How can they just seize the domesticated animals without an iota of planning for their resettlement?” Singh groaned, referring to the wildlife protection laws. “They haven’t had training for a jungle life; they would get killed there in a day by the untamed animals. That’s what happened to all of them – they all got killed, sab ke sab, in the name of ‘conservation’! Why don’t these wildlife people first barricade the railway lines on which elephants keep getting knocked down every day?”

I kept nodding, vaguely sympathising with the animal-lover in him.

Sunil Singh became abruptly dismissive when I suggested that the decline had something to do with a gradual decline in the fortunes of the upper castes. I had seen a few nouveau riche Yadav names on the elephant stalls, and I pointed out to him that this wouldn’t have been possible, say, fifty years ago. He evaded an answer with a brief assertion, “Aisa nahi hai…There are still enough people who keep them!”

The combination of ego, tenderness and hypocrisy in his voice was typical: it was an aging zamindar struggling hard to maintain the old order, aware that he was fast losing ground. I myself had grown up on a staple diet of such nostalgia, and it bored me now. I was preparing to leave when he started recounting to me the vices of paaschaatya aadhunikta, Western modernity.

Soon after, I met Lalan Mahto, who gave me an antidote to Sunil Singh’s version of events. Mahto was a slight man with grey hair and a laughing face, who sold grain and sugarcane to the elephant owners to feed their animals. He was an old-timer at Sonepur. Captive elephants, he said, had a major problem: “They can’t mate and reproduce, and that limits their numbers.” He was more ambivalent about the government’s wildlife policies.

Unlike Singh, Mahto didn’t believe elephants were kept by their owners purely as a matter of devotion. Given how their numbers had been falling, there had been a huge appreciation in their prices. “Ten years ago, you could have bought a bona fide elephant here for five lakhs rupees,” he said. “Now, you might have to pay many times more than that!” That appeared a more plausible explanation as to why landlords were still flocking to the mela. He surreptitiously gestured that three-four deals had been made this year so far, and then whispered into my ear that one of the elephants was given as a daan for ekyaawan laakh, fifty-one lakh rupees.

The overriding image of mela is the debauchery of its popular ‘theatres’. Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

The overriding image of mela is the debauchery of its popular ‘theatres’.
Photo: Anirban D Choudhury

Love and longing
For the locals, the overriding image of the mela is the debauchery, though often imaginary, of its popular ‘theatres’. This year there were eight of them, and outside each were large posters of voluptuous, big-breasted women to lure the men in with the promise of a fun-filled night of music and live performances.

On one evening, I went inside the makeshift indoor stadium of one of these theatres and found a mildly pornographic scene: about forty girls stood in an arc on a cramped stage, dolled up in glittering miniskirts, gowns, and other scanty clothes, their faces painted with cosmetics, and some wearing fake jewellery. They swung their arms, legs, hips and breasts, though to no particular rhythm. The powerful speakers emitted ear-numbing songs, almost all with sex-charged lyrics, which, it appeared, were composed especially for such performances.

Turned out I had arrived a little too early: this was the warm-up session for the girls, which they used to bait the men standing outside into buying tickets before the curtains closed to allow paying patrons only. The crowd of men was growing – tempted – but ruminating over whether it was worthwhile coughing up INR 200 for the night.

Inside, a moustached, pot-bellied man sitting in the front row now stood up as if in a trance: he started dancing, holding a whisky bottle on his head with one hand, his other arm and his hips swinging wildly, scarcely in time with the dancing girls. With time, the lyrics and the gestures were becoming lewder. A man near the stage now frequently cried into the mike: “Ladkiyon, aage badho aur samaan hilao! Chalo, samaan hilao!” (Girls, move forward and shake your breasts! Come on, shake your breasts!).

The theatre – or nautanki, as it was earlier called – had in past centuries been one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the Hindi heartland. Patronised mostly by Dalit men until the 1920s, it was known to blend together everything – melodrama, dialogue, humour, music and dance – and was in many ways the forerunner to the present-day Hindi film industry. The women’s roles were also played by men, who dressed up as girls and, in fact, commanded immense popularity. The nautanki troupes travelled to perform at many melas and other popular occasions, where shows would begin in the evening and continue without intermission until the early morning.

Women joined these theatres in the 1930s, largely for commercial reasons. By the beginning of the 20th century, the emerging Indian middle class had begun to distance itself from the popular culture of the lower classes, who were considered uncivil, effeminate, and even obscene in colonial discourse – an image later reinforced by puritanical, masculine upper-caste nationalism. The new, educated middle class was becoming acquainted with cinema and the European realist theatre, and nautanki was becoming financially unfeasible. Women performers revived the genre, adding extra enticement for people who had never seen women in an open performing space before.

Preparations for the inauguration of the mela. Photo: Sharell Cook

Preparations for the inauguration of the mela.
Photo: Sharell Cook

Gulab Bai, the first female performer in nautanki, became popular as the lead heroine in legendary love stories like Laila Majnu and Raja Harishchandra. While the lyrics in some of the songs she sang were sexually explicit, they often intertwined desire with larger social issues – dowry, women’s oppression. In fact, ‘Paan Khaaye Saiyaan Hamaro’ – one of the most popular Hindi songs of all time – gained fame through Gulab’s performances in the theatres before Raj Kappor used it in Teesri Kasam. Gulab also founded her own theatre company, which became a regular part of the mela at Sonepur.

But even the presence of women couldn’t stop the form from declining: by the 1970s, popular cinema and television had invaded even the smallest of towns, changing people’s tastes. Gulab was awarded a Padma Shree in 1990, but by then nautanki as a popular form had almost died out.

The theatre troupes at Sonepur now are random assortments: girls come here from different parts of the country, are managed by middlemen, and hardly know each other. The finances are also a potpourri; running a theatre, one owner confessed, costs around 25 lakh rupees per month, often with more that ten partners investing. Many theatre owners at Sonepur are small-time contractors for public works the rest of the year.

Most of the theatres at the mela had misappropriated the names of popular nautanki performers from yesteryear. There were two theatres each named after Gulab Bai and Shobha Bai, even though none of them had anything to do with the original forms of nautanki that these women had practiced. These theatres, devoid of artistic merit, present female dancers as sexual objects that can be seen, and sometimes even touched, ‘live’. All of which made for a curious dichotomy: while the theatre girls called themselves dancers, the audience considered them mostly randi-log, whores.

Tin cubicles had been erected behind the stage to house the entire troupe for the month. The girls shared each tin box with their partners or their group, also sharing a bathroom and a kitchen. I asked Gabbar – a dark, slender and rather soft-spoken Rajput with a funny moustache, who owned one of the theatres – to allow me to talk to some of the girls. He sent a fair girl with hair dyed a dark bronze and bright tattoos on both arms. She had come from Ajadpur Mandi in Delhi, and this was her sixth year at Sonepur. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, and I asked how many more years she intended to come here, and what her plans were for the future.

 “I’ve my passport ready!” she replied chirpily. “I am planning to go to Dubai! I know girls who do ‘events’ there. I’ll also do that!” I enquired as to her education, to which she replied, confused, “MA mein… nahi, twelfth mein,” before finally saying, “Twelfth mein hoon.”

“You won’t be able to recognise any of these girls,” Gabbar said, beaming beneath his moustache, “if you see them on the stage in the evening.” I couldn’t decide whether that was intended as a compliment, but I could see why he had said so. Without makeup, wearing grimy nighties – some with babies clutched to their waists – most women looked ordinary, just like any other girl born into penury.

“Do you like it,” I asked another girl, “when audiences make vulgar sexual gestures at you?” She had come here with her husband, and had emphasised her surname – Chauhan – while introducing herself. “They come here to have a good time,” she said, quietly, “it’s alright!”

Since large-scale public displays of dissent had been nearly impossible in colonial days, congregations like these – mixing the nationalist agenda with everyday religion – were an important platform for mobilising people.

At last came a 20-year-old Gurkha girl who had come to Sonepur for the first time. She had come here through a broker: from Darjeeling to Madhepura, and from there to Sonepur. She had no family except an elder sister, who didn’t talk to her anymore. She had a raw, somewhat uncorrupted face, and sad, revealing eyes. I felt she was a little uneasy here. She was the only girl who disclosed to me her earnings – six thousand rupees for the month. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, she said.

Did she have any plans for marriage? “Pehle thoda paisa kamana hai” (I want to make some money first). Did she like it here? I knew it was an unintelligent question. “Ab aadat ho gaya hai” (one gets used to it), she said with a wry smile.

‘The Limited Raj’
While sipping chai at a shack near the Angrezi Bazaar, I had seen a torrent of garish-looking VIP vehicles leaving a nearby building which, someone later pointed out, was the Dakbunglow. Some of the politicians who had come to inaugurate the mela had stayed there, and were on their way now to declare it open. They were flanked by a makeshift cavalcade of men, shining in red and gold uniforms, perched on ponies. This entire ritual, the shack’s owner said, was an old tradition.

While preparing for the trip, I had read accounts of the mela site’s history and politics: its use for shows of dissent by the natives, and for suppression and displays of power by the British. The narratives were replete with events of great significance for the region. For example Kunwar Singh, who had led the 1857 mutiny in Bihar, used the mela as a cover for planning the revolt, for training men, and purchasing horses and weapons. Sonepur was the site of the establishment of the Bihar Provincial Congress Committee in 1908, and host to the founding meeting of the Kisan Sabha, the Bihar Provincial Peasant Committee, in 1929.

It isn’t hard to understand why Sonepur had been a volatile political centre: here, as in other melas and kumbhs, religiosity drew a sizeable annual crowd from the surrounding areas. Since large-scale public displays of dissent had been nearly impossible in colonial days, congregations like these – mixing the nationalist agenda with everyday religion – were an important platform for mobilising people. In the 19th century, the mela was spread over twelve villages and continued for over a fortnight, giving popular leaders and dissenters enough mobility and leverage to gather people and convene meetings.

It was disappointing when, on reaching Sonepur, I struggled to find any popular written or oral documentation of these historical events. Most people – including journalists – had only heard of them faintly, and struggled to recall details. Few knew anything that added to what I had already discovered. It was then that I met Sudhir, a local resident and journalist, who seemed more informed than the others and agreed to show me around.

We went to Babhangama, a village on the Hajipur-Chhapra highway, about seven kilometres from the present mela site. This was one of the villages, Sudhir said, where Kunwar Singh had prepared the mutiny, and it had also been a centre of dissent in the early 20th century.

Kunwar Singh – an influential Rajput landlord known for promoting melas – held a meeting at Sonepur in 1845 to discuss the possibility of revolting against British violations of cultural and religious practices. His attempt at mobilisation did not work out at the time, but the meeting did secretly issue expressions of support to non-British powers – regional Hindu and Muslim notables, the Mughal emperor, and the king of Nepal – in hopes of winning the support of sepoys and attracting other assistance.

There is no way to verify the veracity of this tale. There are no written documents of the meeting, and the villagers themselves weren’t able to offer much illumination. But I was taken to a dark, dilapidated storehouse in one of the Rajput houses, where many dozens of old, corroded weapons – swords, shields, javelins – stood slanted against the walls. The aging owner said these weapons had been preserved over many generations. There were similar repositories in nearby villages too, he said. The only explanation I could summon for the lack of any documentation was that such activities were essentially undercover, and conducted at a mela which itself was active only for a small part of the year.

Hindu devotees gather for Ganga-snan, a holy dip at the confluence, on the full moon of Karthik, after which the mela is declared open. Photo: Sharell Cook

Hindu devotees gather for Ganga-snan, a holy dip at the confluence, on the full moon of Karthik, after which the mela is declared open.
Photo: Sharell Cook

It was important for the British to officially control important religious and political spaces. Their presence at the mela began in the late 18th century, when British authority was expanding to the countryside. It started with officials being sent to the mela to prevent gambling and drunkenness, and to ensure that zamindars didn’t levy taxes. In 1801, the government, owing to its need to purchase horses for the cavalry, started promoting the Sonepur horse fair.

Sonepur grew popular with time: by the mid-19th century, it was hosting an annual festive meeting of British officers from all across north India, who flocked here with their families to escape the drudgery of their small-town postings. They came here to enjoy a three-day holiday with horse racing, polo, golf matches and ballroom dancing. The resulting expenditures didn’t strain the exchequer as they were subsidised through levies imposed on the merchants at the mela.

On two occasions in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny, the Dakbunglow at Sonepur had hosted the viceroy. A late-19th-century memoir, Sonepore Reminiscences: Years 1840-96, by a planter for whom the Sonepur mela was “what Christmas is to home folk”, wrote in great detail of the1871 visit of the ruler of Nepal, Jung Bahadur Rana. Rana was seen as a “staunch ally” of the British in suppressing the mutiny, and was graciously hosted at the annual meet by Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India.

Interactions between the British and the natives were few, and occurred mostly between the local Maharajas and colonial officers. It was important for the colonial state to have alliances with local kings, who in turn exercised a great degree of control over their native territories. This indirect rule is what the historian Anand Yang called “The Limited Raj”, and the Sonepur mela presented an example of it.

To the uninformed eye, nothing about present-day Sonepur betrays signs of a recent imperial past. From a distance the Dakbunglow looks like an ordinary building, and one has to look closely to recognise signs of old British architecture – thick walls, high ceilings and doors. The grandeur of the mammoth rooms is wearing off, but there are still signs – the big chandelier, exquisite drawing rooms and dining rooms, a giant chair – of the opulence of past viceroyalty. Sudhir told me that as recently as two decades ago, few people at the mela dared go to the Angrezi Bazaar, apparently because of an “inferiority complex”. Even after independence, he said, the mela continued to draw large numbers of old landlords and senior officials.

I was eager to meet someone from the older generation who remembered the tussle for power between the British and the locals. Among the few still alive was Vishwanath Singh, who had once had a reputation as a fierce adherent of the Congress.

When I went to visit him on my last morning in Sonepur, he was sitting still in his courtyard, firmly ensconced in an old wooden chair, under the morning sun. “I shall soon be no more,” he lamented in clear, even elegant, English. He kept repeating that refrain, frequently breaking into tears, throughout our forty-five-minute conversation. His wife sat at some distance and looked on, expressionless. Age had clearly got the better of Vishwanath; his memory had suffered.

He mumbled about how he and his partners had undertaken processions near the Dakbunglow. He spoke a few words on Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi’s visit to the mela. As a young graduate in Patna, he said, he had actively participated in the Quit India movement of 1942. “Jawahar had complete control over Congress,” he said. And Gandhi, I asked? “He had the job of taking everyone along.”

Vishwanath stopped abruptly in between sentences, trying to summon his fading memories. Whenever he failed, he would sob, “Ab hum kya batayein?” (What do I tell you now?). His grandson, a young man of twenty, had come to sit by his side, perhaps a little embarrassed by his grandfather’s senility. And then a final pronouncement: “Mela ab kamjor ho gaya hai” (the mela has grown weaker).

This was the quintessential irony of this place: everyone you met would tell you stories of the freedom struggle and the many triumphs of the locals, but they would also point out – or at least imply – that all that was good about the mela had to do with the British. On the previous day, a horse-trader in the Angrezi Bazaar had told me that the mango groves looked healthier because they had been planted by the British.

A few days after returning to Patna I called up Lalan Mahto, the laughing elephant-feed salesman, to ask for an update on the elephant sales at Sonepur. He said, warm as ever, “Wahaan se toh hum kabke waapas aa gaye” (I got back from there long ago), and explained that all the cattle fairs had wound up at around the same time I had left. Everything else at the mela, he said, was still doing brisk business.

~ This article was first published in our quarterly issue Are We Sure About India? (Vol 26 No 1), January 2013.

~ Abhishek Choudhary is an editor with and his writing has appeared in Ananda Bazar Patrika, Governance Now, Himal Southasian, Indian Express and the Caravan among others. He tweets at @cyabhishek.

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