Sunday, December 30, 2007

Goa's Tourism based Politics

Ever heard of Matanhy Saldhana, the public figure from Goa? He used to be the state’s minister of tourism once and currently is more known for being at the fore front of a movement to stop tourists from coming to Goa. But perhaps many readers of this piece may not have heard of him. What about a story from Indian lore which talks about a wood-cutter who was sawing off the very branch of the tree that he was sitting on? Yes, Kalidasa, the classical poet. Arguably, many more people would have heard of him. Now trying to compare Kalidasa the poet with Saldhana may be attempting to do the impossible but as things stand, fact is mimicking fiction and Matanhy Saldhana is doing just that, as he cuts off the branch of the very tree he sits on. For Saldhana in his bid to attract attention to his agitation against SEZs being set up in Goa has decided that no tourist should be seen in Goa post December 28th.

I don’t know if this particular agitation has much of popular support and at the time of writing it is not clear if the movement is petering out and if I, the VIP suitcase toting middle class Indian tourist can visit the place next week as I want to. But of course SEZs have attracted a lot of controversy in Goa and else where, so this piece is not about the merits or demerits of these zones. But for those who promote them, the principal reason for doing so is economic advancement of the state and the ongoing prosperity that this industrialization will eventually bring. So it is safe to assume that if any one chooses to oppose the creation of the SEZ, they have a better option to propose to the people of the state.

That however is not the case here. Mr. Saldhana and his friends in the Goa Movement against Special Economic Zones (GMAS) which includes the Opposition BJP have decided to hit their fellow citizens where it hurts the most, by throwing uncertainty into the whole tourism based economy, peaking in the New Year celebrations on Goa’s beaches. Now a lot could be said about Goa’s tourism including some unsavory bits and a case could well be made out that the booming touristy economy has given rise to several social ills like pedophilia, drugs, and human trafficking. It would have been wonderful if instead of opposing the inflow of tourist’s altogether as they threaten to do, the Goa movement folks took up cudgels to clean up the tourism industry and control the kind of tourist who comes to Goa and keeping their eyes open to see how they spend their money. It would have done credit to Mr. Saldhana, a former tourism minister to be at the helm of just such an agitation and the BJP’s moral policing unit could do the cleaning up that they normally do.

Instead of taking on the human traffickers and the drug cartels and the pedophiles whose presence and activities are doing lasting damage to Goa’s social and moral fabric, the agitators take on the run of the mill tourist coming in by bus or train and plane and make sure they don’t come to Goa. Perhaps they want that the tourists instead discover some other hospitable locale where they can empty their purse and puff up the local economy instead of contributing to Goa’s own. And in the end may be, Goa will neither have an SEZ, neither the leisurely tourist with the generous purse, who has migrated else where to more welcoming climes. And Mr. Saldhana and his ilk like the Kalidasa of old end up cutting the branch of the tree on which they were sitting. Kalidasa of course under went a transformation and went on to leave a timeless legacy. Whether the leadership of the GMAS will do so is what we wait to see with bated breath.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Instant Prosperity through Instant Loans

The neighborhood grocery shop where I buy my supplies has a sticker prominently displayed near his counter which reads “Aaj Nagad, Kaal Udhar” (cash today and credit tomorrow). Clearly it is an attempt at dissuading customers from buying their supplies without paying for them on the spot. It is not that the shop was completely unwilling to provide credit; it is just that they were a bit discerning. Although I have never made use of the credit facility myself, I often see the shop staff taking orders on the phone and noting down details for orders to be fulfilled through home delivery with the bills to be settled on pay day. The shop has a fat and stubby note book where they keep the details of the orders fulfilled thus.

Outside the shops are stickers of another kind. They talk about “Turant Loan” available on call and a mobile number is provided for customers in need of a car loan or a personal loan. Some stickers announce that loans will be dispensed with minimum of fuss and documentation. Which is probably the big draw. I still remember the days when loans were available only from nationalized banks and getting a consumer loan or a housing loan was an even more notorious exercise as they were not considered the priority in the economy of the day. But things have obviously moved on in capitalist India Udhar is still out but loans, especially of the turant variety are very much in though.

Economic growth, especially without sufficient education on how to manage the newly created wealth leads to two kinds of phenomena, both heading down the same path. The first is that it creates a class of the nouveau rich who have the money but not necessarily the wisdom to use it well. As the International Herald Tribune pts it, thirty years ago, luxury in India meant having a phone connection at home, an Indian-made Ambassador car parked out front and a bar of Toblerone chocolate carted home by an uncle visiting from abroad.

All that is as passé as the decaying Ambaasador Car. A recent report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research in New Delhi forecast that the number of "crorepatis," Indian society's rough equivalent of millionaires, rose by two-and-half times in the last three years to an estimated 53,000 households nationwide; at today's exchange rate, an Indian "crorepati" household earns about $232,000 a year. A lot of that group of people today wants to flaunt their wealth and what they have and along the way carve out the unmistakable picture that “size does matter”.

What happens when the prince and the pauper are exposed to the same goods but their purses don’t match? The paupers who don’t have that kind of money but want the products that wealth can buy do one of two things. Either they head for the man who has put up stickers on the lamp post promising them turant loan and put in an application irrespective of their capacity to repay or they are turning to urban crime, the rates of which are rising.

Sadly, the future is going to be no better. According to a survey conducted by the Cartoon Network, children are now key both as direct and indirect consumers in the Indian market as they exercise a major influencing power, or alternatively termed as “pester power”, on parents in buying big items like cars. They spend nearly Rs.291 crores as pocket money and this is only in the fourteen cities where the survey was conducted. Clearly the time has come for policy makers and planners to wave a magic wand and provide India’s huge population with tatkal prosperity by removing the social inequities that exist, so that there will be less reason for availing the turant loans.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Celebrating the unknown Indian

Reader's Digest recently planted 960 ‘lost’ cell phones in 30 public places in 32 cities around the world to test people’s reactions in a cell phone honesty test. The most honest city in the survey turned out to be the smallest city in the group, Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, where 29 of 30 cell phones were returned. But bigger cities showed they also had trustworthy citizens with Canada’s largest city, Toronto, coming second with 28 of 30 phones returned, followed by Seoul and Stockholm. New York came fifth in the list, tying with Mumbai, and Manila in the Philippines.
Many people predicted in preliminary interviews that return rates would be in the single digits but the average return rate on the ‘lost’ phones was 68 per cent. People didn’t expect a lot of good Samaritans. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about how we view our society and fellow men and the cynicism that typically drives our thinking. Maybe we should revisit our opinions and honour the many good Samaritans and the unknown men and women who keep society stable and our country liveable.
I have been thinking this way particularly because this is the time of the year when traditionally the media sifts through all the news makers of the year gone by and identifies the one celebrity who has made or is perceived to have made the maximum difference to the country’s life and profile. Typically they come from the world of politics, sports or entertainment as these contribute the most to the national image, at least in mainstream media. TIME, for instance, has already identified Vladimir Putin; CNN-IBN is still sifting through nominations and so are several other media houses.
But if our society survives, endures and even makes us feel proud of our Indianness today, it is not because of the contribution of stray celebrities here and there and their piecemeal contributions - in fact, it may be that celebrity contributions don’t really contribute any thing substantive - apart from a little feel good factor, what is there to celebrate if a top notched cricketer breaks another record or India wins a test series or if a celebrity superstar brings home another super hit?
It is of course extremely unlikely that advertisement driven mainstream media will ever recognise as the Indian of the year in any year, some one who is not already a celebrity and a magnet that will draw in advertising revenue. After all, these recognitions are not awarded to acknowledge true innovations or any genuine contribution to nation building in any field of human endeavour but rather to ensure that people buy a particular issue of a magazine or to make people watch a particular television programme and generate more and more advertising.
With the alternate media going from strength to strength, may be this is something, this genre of media should consider taking up. The intent here should be not to create a parallel set of alternate celebrities propped up by a parallel medium but rather to celebrate happenings, occasions and doings that serve as markers in those intangible areas of life and living that mainline newspapers and mediums normally would not capture but which nevertheless make us more human. Maybe in the manner in which the Godfrey Philips awards unshackled and redefined bravery, the definition and understanding of what it means to be a celebrity needs to be unshackled too and the unknown Indian holding things together needs to be celebrated rather than the single celebrity.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Asoka - The Convert and the Missionary

While researching the Ashoka Foundation and to answer my question- namely why did an American, Bill Drayton name his foundation identifying and promoting social entrepreneurship after the great Mauryan emperor, I came across several articles which convinced me that the Emperor himself was worth researching and writing about and not just the modern day foundation named after him. After all, how many today know much about him except that the lions on the National Emblem and the wheel on the National Flag are Asokan in lineage?

At a time when conversion is dirty word and people convert for political or economic benefit so often that every act of conversion is looked upon with an eye of suspicion, Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism under the guidance of his teacher Upagupta was a monumental act because his philosophy of governance guided by the law of piety turned traditional norms of empire building on its head. Guided by the Buddhist doctrine of the sacredness of all life, he redefined the concept of empire.

The greatness of an empire was to be determined not by the size of the empire, nor by the size of the standing army, nor by the number of people conquered in battle. Rather it was to be measured by the manner in which the subjects of the kingdom were looked after - their welfare, their happiness, their prosperity was the yardstick of the Ashokan empire. Most conventional emperors of that time, notably Alexander the Great lived by the sword, sacking cities and extending the boundaries of their empire. But Ashoka was different.

Ashoka is a living example of the sweeping changes that can occur when the highest levels of polity are guided by moral rather than political imperatives and motives and will always underscore the huge difference it makes when those to whom power has been given experience a genuine conversion. One of the most interesting and perhaps even unlikely tributes comes from the journal of the International Committee of the Red Cross in an extremely erudite essay; the journal hails Ashoka as the forerunner of the humanitarian conduct of war that would be millennia later codified as the Geneva Conventions. It is another matter though after the famous war of Kalinga in 256 BC till the end of his reign in 232 BC, he never fought another war and focused instead on ruling his kingdom based on the principle “"All men are my children'; and, just as I desire for my children that they may enjoy every kind of prosperity and happiness both in this world and in the next, so also I desire the same for all men.

Ashoka was not just a convert, he was a missionary too. “In his efforts to propagate Buddhism, Ashoka built shrines and monasteries and inscribed Buddhist teachings on rocks and pillars in many places. He sent missionaries to countries as remote as Greece and Egypt; his own son, a monk, carried Buddhism to Sri Lanka, where it is still the major religion. Despite Ashoka's vigorous exertions of faith, he was tolerant of other religions. The empire enjoyed remarkable prosperity during his reign. The life and conversion of Emperor Ashoka, one of India’s greatest emperors looks like the stuff of myth and legend. But it is actually the story of a convert and his journey and because in this case, the conversion of a king, the conversion also marks the transformational journey of a kingdom and its people.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Freedom of Expression in the Information Edge

The reappearance of Taslima Nasreen in the news – She has apparently been told to stay out of sight - underscores the need to define the definition and limits of freedom of expression in a society circumscribed more by technology rather than geography. Taslima is no writer of great literary merit in the opinion of most critics but in spite of expressing the most outrageous opinions, her troubled situation becomes a human rights issue. Outlook magazine has commented that of the six literary awards

she has won, four are for human rights and not for literary merit and her dissenting voice is more the shrill, attention seeking voice rather than one without any thing substantive to say.

It is not that there have been no dissenters before and no iconoclasts before. Remember Voltaire. His comments in the eighteenth century in relation to the church were as violent and volatile as Taslima’s comments today. Probably more, for Voltaire was a renowned intellectual. He along with his contemporary Rousseau provided the ideological base for the French revolution. Although Voltaire earned notoriety more for his stance on the dominant Catholic Christianity - he scoffed at such foundational Christian beliefs like the Trinity or the Incarnation. But he was eclectic in his disdain for faith of any kind – he wrote a play about the founder of Islam LE FANATISME, OU MAHOMET LE PROPHÈTE” IN 1741 which portrayed him as a man of intriguer and greedy for power. He had a lot to say about the Jews too.

Voltaire and others who wrote and believed thus did have their enemies but their thought and writing and therefore their influence never crossed a certain geographical boundary and therefore the social ferment that their opinions could cause remained restricted; in this instance to Europe. Voltaire’s volatile writings never got amplified beyond Europe and so they never even made ripples beyond a certain piece of Europe. Voltaire was a firm votary of the freedom of speech and expression and he had no shortage of enemies in his time. After he died, the church refused him a church burial because of his disavowal of basic Christian beliefs and even after his eventual burial, religious extremists opened up his grave and dumped his remains in a garage.

This tangent on Voltaire was only to make one point – that people with disruptive and iconoclastic views have always been around and sometimes they had influence within their frontiers, but their views remained contained and their influence remained restricted. The opinions they had and the reasoning they presented for their beliefs was disseminated at a measured pace and allowed for a reasoned rebuttal.

Today all that has changed. Anyone can jump online with their opinions and half backed creativity and have their thoughts amplified many times over in the space of a short spell of time. Before one has had time to collect one’s thoughts, a controversy has erupted disrupting the lives and livelihoods of innumerable people disconnected from the writer’s utterances. I have been caught at least once on many of the road blocks in Kolkata when Muslims clogged the cities arterial roads and can honestly say that it did not really appear that many of the people involved in the road block had read any thing by Taslima and possibly any work by any writer.

In this technological age, where rabble rousers can amplify and distort thoughts and expressions within hours and create trouble, the whole concept and understanding of how “Freedom of Expression” should be expressed needs to be thought through afresh even though it will probably make most liberals cringe

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Social Entrepreneurs -Silently Changing the World

When I had first heard of the Ashoka Foundation, I had imagined in my mind that it would be the social arm of a traditional Indian business house. With a name linked to the Emperor Ashoka, this was not a very unlikely possibility. Later on, when I discovered that they promoted social entrepreneurship, it still did not mean much to me.

Entrepreneurs we have all heard of. They are the business people with a difference; the ones with a prophetic footprint, who see an idea where others see only obstacles and then they unlike the dreamers and the visionaries go and do some thing about it. If there ideas succeed and they often do, the world is a different and often better place for their efforts. When I think of this genre of businessmen, the names of Sabeer Bhatia and Sam Pitroda are some of the Indian names that come to my mind.

So just who is a social entrepreneur? Allow the Ashoka Foundation, which popularized the term to explain: Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka expands by saying that “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry”

Although the term is one not often heard used in India, we have plenty of them starting of course with the emperor Ashoka whose conversion to Buddhism sparked of a 180 degree change in methods of governance in ancient India that was radical. Drayton cites the shift in the emperor’s paradigm – from merely holding on to the kingdom and enlarging it to ensuring that subjects living in the kingdom are well cared for and looking after their welfare as one of the most monumental acts of social entrepreneurship which inspired him to name his foundation which would support future entrepreneurial initiatives after the Buddhist icon.

Drayton has other unlikely inspirers he counts the late Acharya Vinoba Bhave and his innovatively conceived Bhoodan and Gramdaan initiatives which largely failed as experiments in social entrepreneurship. The early years of the foundation and the movement it seeks to catalyze are documented in the appropriately titled book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Penguin Books, India) authored by David Bornstein which was released in India by the IT entrepreneur , Narayana Murthy of Infosys.

Have there been other social entrepreneurs in India since Ashoka? Oh, yes plenty. But their names might not be as familiar to the average Indian as the entrepreneurs from the world of business. I, who work in the social sector could recognize only a few whose work and activity occasionally draws them media attention – Javed Abidi, the disability activist, Flavia Agnes, the human rights lawyer, who appears occasionally on NDTV, Anil Aggarwal, the environmentalist whose crusade brought CNG buses to Delhi and Jeroo Billimoria of child line and a few others.

I think that social entrepreneurs deserve a bit more of name recognition, brand recognition too if you will, for the invaluable work that they do quietly and largely unsung in the grassroots. For at the end of the day, it does not matter how much India’s economy grows and what our GDP is if the disabled do not have access to jobs and amenities, if children do not have access to help, shelter and safe spaces and the elderly lives of lonely neglect. Gandhi famously remarked that the way in which we treat minorities is the measure of civilization in a society. In differing ways, we have all failed Gandhi’s test but the social entrepreneurs are trying hard to make a difference. They deserve our applause and laudation.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Being Schooled or Being Educated ?

The other day I went to hear a lecture by an American anti establishment intellectual David Barsamian who was saying that in the US, they are good at teaching Quantum Physics, Rocket Science but were very poor at teaching many of the other things that go to form an education. He was alluding to larger matters of global import but the stories of the frequent shoot outs in the US malls and schools flashed immediately to mind. But then why worry about the US- Don’t we have similar issues to deal with in India.

Literacy has long been measured as a yardstick for human development and while that will remain so, the question perhaps needs to be asked – is literacy a good enough indicator to measure a person’s education, when all that it actually tells you is that a person can read, writer and do a little math. To learn to do that, typically one goes to school, but not necessarily so. One can learn these “off site” too. How important is schooling? How important is education? Does going to a school ensure education, and by extension, going to a “good” school, whatever that might mean, ensure a better education? What about the celebrated Emperor Akbar? From our history books, we know that he was illiterate. Was Akbar educated or uneducated?

Azad Yadav, the father of the accused Akash has told the Indian Express that he had sold off land in the villages lying in the hinterland and moved to the city, so that his sons could get a good education. Did he get a raw deal? He isn’t the only one to do so. Lured by the prospects of making a quick fortune in the city, many are selling of land in their ancestral village with the motive of obtaining a good education for their children.

Almost on cue to cash in on the boom, schools whose credentials and pedigree no one knows has come up. The Euro School, is itself just five years old, and is too new to have developed any deep rooted traditions and customs. If it is guided by any moral philosophy as say the Rishi Valley or the Vasant Valley, or the several other schools which are ideology driven, then it is a carefully guarded secret. The indicator of a “good” school is today the number of air conditioned classrooms and heated swimming pools and the number of computers and internet connections in the computer laboratory. Conspicuous by their mention if not their absence is the teaching of ethics, cross cultural living and the inner values that could help a child steer a course in a rapidly changing world.

But I want to come back to the Emperor Akbar. Azad Yadav wanted a good education for his son and at best got him a good and fancy school but perhaps not much of an education; especially if education is fundamentally about formation of the inner person. Akbar remained unschooled all his life but here is a summary of his life and reign: “The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1543-1605), though illiterate and unable to read or write, demonstrated a remarkable appreciation of other religious thoughts. He was also a connoisseur of music and fine arts. The Mughal architecture, that later culminated in the glorious Taj Mahal, found its beginnings in Akbar’s rule. Music and miniature paintings reached their zenith. The court of Akbar held some of the best India had to offer at that time. The great administrator who was also an aficionado of the arts attracted the best contemporary minds to his court. Nine such extraordinary talents, who shone brightly in their respective fields, were known as Akbar’s nine gems. The foresight of this illiterate and dyslexic Emperor was remarkable and unique in history”

Going to school is not the same thing as getting an education. One can be illiterate and be educated beyond measure and one can go to the best schools and be uneducated in just about every thing that matters. So the next time a human development report is released some where and the literacy rate shows a rise, let us applaud; for literacy has its own relevance but let us be circumspect too. For being literate is not the same thing as being educated and literacy rates will never tell us the whole story.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Fulfilled Life ?

Reading about Mark and Cathy Delaney made me think about Swades playing in reverse. In the movie, Shahrukh Khan, a rich Indian working for NASA returns to India, initially on a holiday but then stays on to pay what he considers his social debts. Mark and Cathy are a real life middle class couple hailing from Australia who live in a Delhi slum in a bid to understand the problems the urban poor face by actually enduring such problems physically. They then try to see how the problems- be they inclusion of names in the electoral rolls or non availability of rations in the public distribution system. The couple have two children who seem to have taken to this well too.

While a lot of NGOs work among the urban poor and do so by adopting a “9 to 5” system, coming to office in the morning, going and spending time in a slum and then returning back to the comfort zones of their homes before dark, this family has chosen to actually live in shanties where typically middle class families would avoid staying even out of compulsion. It is truly an interesting scenario because although this is exactly the kind of identification with the people that voluntary agencies were known for but have given up.

Of course while lauding the life style the family has adopted, a couple of things do need to be pointed out. Firstly, any time things get really difficult, the family has the option to opt out of the slum and move back to their home land, an option that their Indian slum dwellers do not have. Secondly, the article mentions that their expenses are underwritten by friends and supporters back in Australia and that means that although living expenses in a slum will not be high, they do have an assured source of income that allows them to live there and play Guru, a privilege that most others living there do not have.

As someone who has worked practically all his life in the development sector with the hope that my small efforts will make a small difference in the human development indices of India, I am often confused when I read stories like this as to which way is best. Mark Delaney’s route is quasi-Gandhian in its essence - I was just reading about the Harijan Basti close to Delhi’s Mandir Marg where Gandhiji lived close to a year hoping by his example to identify himself in some way with the plight of that class of people.

But was Gandhiji successful? The beloved Harijans of Gandhiji prefer to call themselves Dalits and are closer to Dr.Ambedkar than Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji is no doubt considered an iconic figure by most but most of his methods are considered quaint and dated except by the most die hard of his followers.

Meanwhile, the voluntary sector has mostly gone professional. Yes, the jhola chaaps still exist but that exists in most cases more as a statement of attire than a vocation that it once was. Mostly the voluntary sector has turned professional and is more tuned to 509 deliverables, results and evidence. Methodology doesn’t count for much but results do. And so NGO workers like me function in day to day life not with Khadi spinning charkhas but with e mail weaving lap tops.

I like to think that my methodology of doing things that scientifically work and are proven to make a difference is the way to go, never mind if I live in a middle class housing colony or a shanty with a tin roof. So who is on the right path? I guess, it is time or is it the folks living in the slum colonies keeping the Delaneys company who will pronounce the final verdict!

Betrayed by a Name

I have met Annie Zaidi only once for a couple of hours at a read meet organized by the literary group Cafetari. On that occasion, I remember wondering as to what part of her name meant what. If I didn’t ask, it was partly at the end of the day it didn’t really matter and of course it might have looked pretty crass asking that sort of a question. But now I am hoping that I will meet her more often. For Annie’s essay on growing up with a Muslim name in India which I read a couple of days ago left me aching. Maybe it is because I myself am a Christian and a minority though my name doesn’t indicate so, I am one nevertheless, and I too in this forum and else where never try to hide it. And even my simple essays which address issues of broad social are viewed by some as attempts at prosleytisation by proxy. And going by what she goes on to say in her essay, my question about her identity might not have been so boorish after all.

I finished reading Annie’s write up only to switch on the television and found Times Now running footage on Ranjan Singh Negi, the man who conceded 7 goals to Pakistan in an Asian Games match 16 years ago and lived since then with the unproven stigma of having accepted a bribe to betray his country. His story was of course the one on which Chak De India was based and it would seem that his rehabilitation is complete with him being appointed as the goalkeeping coach for the latest version of the Asian Games coming later this month. At the end of the show, I could not help sit back and wonder that if it took so little for a man from the majority community to be so labeled and so long for his rehabilitation, how easy must it be to label some one who because of his or her name, the most visible of all markers along with dress, are seemingly almost asking for it.

I guess it hurts more when you are profiled for what you are not just because a few people fit the description and all you are, have done and plan to do are just swiped away with the ease with which one might swat a housefly. That is how easy it is to dismiss a race, a religion, a skin color – a couple of words are all it takes to label and it stays with you, going where ever you do, much like chewing gum on the seat of your pants, an irritant and a stain that never quite goes away.

Annie mentions somewhere in her essay that she never mentions her religion and once when practically accosted to reveal who she was on a railway platform, she hedged and dodged, because it was difficult to lie and also difficult to tell the truth. Eventually she lied. It proved easier. But doesn’t a bit of ourselves die a little every time we lie and wear a mask like a coat of amour? More so when you really know that you have done nothing to deserve going through life wearing a mask defending yourself against a shadowy identify that has never been you?

In sum total, I read narratives like this and am confused. As some one like Taslima Nasreen would affirm, it is still far better to be a minority in India then practically any where in the neighborhood and yet still because as a secular democracy, the standards that were set in the early days of our independence are so high, that even the smallest deviance seems a big leap backward. After reading Annie’s piece, I looked through the Citizens for Peace site for comments and found that I wasn’t the only one touched by her moving prose. But then Annie is a journalist after all and can craft her words well and perhaps in the process expunge some of her pain. I wonder about the many other minorities who don’t have that privilege and opportunity and wonder what burdens and crosses they carry buried in their heart

Large Weddings, Short Marriages

Recently I was reading about the wedding of the daughter of Vandana Luthra, the founder of the VLCC fitness centers. In fact I saw a picture of the qawwali singers brought in to entertain the wedding guests. Apparently, there was a pretty glamorous pre-wedding bash too as part of the package. But I don’t need to know about celebrity weddings to know that India’s middle class is increasingly having lavish weddings.

I don’t live in a celebrity-studded area in any sense of the term, but even in my extremely middle class locality I know. The decibel level of the sounds and the fire crackers is increasingly as is the garishness of the decorations and the impunity with which people encroach on public land for private celebrations. It seems from the scale of the celebrations that apart from ostentatious display of noveau rich wealth, they seemingly are trying to purchase their children’s’ happiness with new found wealth. But it doesn’t seem to be working.

Here are some of the issues that are creeping up the underbelly of the grand wedding ceremonies:

1) Dowry: The evergreen and custom-sanctified practice has been banned many times over but things aren’t getting any better, never mind the rising levels of education. In fact, the Law Commission has recommended the imposition of capital punishment in dowry cases according to a statement filed by the Law Minister in Parliament. That is the latest in a series of steps increasingly getting harsher but with no visible impact.

2) NRI Brides who often are married off in haste by their parents so that they can repent at leisure after being dumped by their NRI husbands. The number of such women who are being physically and financially exploited. NRI grooms and Indian brides have become an organized business, run much like a mafia.

3) Domestic Violence: A recent Indian Express report indicates that close to two thirds of married women in India are victims of domestic violence and that close to 70 percent of the women between 15 and 49 are victims of rape, beatings or coerced sex.

4) Then there is the case of the parents who fund these lavish weddings. Here is their plight: “Pan-India surveys reveal that almost 30% of India’s elderly are subject to some form of abuse or neglect by their families. Ironically, in spite of this, only one in six of the abused elderly reports the injustice. Shockingly, 47.3% of abuse against elders is committed by adult caregivers, partners or family members”.

What it really means is that the same parents who organize these weddings with such pomp and show haven’t probably made enough provision for their own needs and perhaps their own children and their spouses have inherited the same propensity for more and even more wealth which they can flash. The recent passing by parliament of a Bill making it obligatory for children to provide for their elderly parents is an indication of the fact that the land of Shravan’s filial piety is changing its contours very rapidly.

Finally what about the marriages themselves? Well according to TIME, though the official divorce statistics are still very low, divorce rates among middle class families are also climbing. It seems that this being the age of instant gratification, people seem to marry in haste and walk out of it in post haste as well. With social stigma still surrounding divorce, the numbers of cases reaching the courts still do not reflect the real picture, In urban India it has doubled over the past five years, despite the fact that failed marriages remain a cause for shame in much of the country and that divorced people, especially women, continue to face fierce social stigmatization and often find it hard to remarry.

The TIME article goes on to say that the market for divorced people is now large enough for it to warrant a separate matrimonial website- While the magazine does its own analysis of divorce, what I find intriguing in the meanwhile is the contrast between larger weddings and shorter marriages. May be a fit topic for some one’s Ph.D.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Technology and Child Labour

Bibek Debroy, the economist, has made an interesting point in the Indian Express about child labor that should make NGOs, child labor activists and even the government take note. He states that in a societal problem like child labor, passing legislation is not going to solve the problem. Rather he argues that the induction of technology that makes child labor uneconomical will work better and argues that changes in society have rarely occurred because of legislation and activism though they may provide the ballast from which other more relevant techniques are launched. Introduce technology that makes using child labor an uneconomical proposition and over time it will wither away.

Debroy brings out other interesting facts. One that the United States, the supposed custodian of all that is moral in today’s world hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the seminal document on child rights. Also that when legislation was passed in the US Congress to ban child labor, it was struck down by the US Supreme Court on the grounds that the statute violated a child’s fundamental right to work. What eliminated child labor eventually in the United States was the Great Depression when so many industries shut down that plenty of adults became available for employment at discount prices driving children away from the market for good.

I find Debroy’s thoughts and his historical illustrations going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution revealing because they are quite out of the ordinary from a typical NGO perspective. Also, it possibly addresses the question that nobody has been quite able to answer – it is fine to ban child labor and insist on children going to schools, but in the typical poor family, the incentive to go to school isn’t there; what is there is the motivation to go to the market place and earn a living. But what if an environment were to be created where technological upgrades made it impossible for a child to be employable unless he first went to school and got some basic education? Would it work?

A Brazilian friend of mine shares his experience. Brazil is a country known for the sheer numbers of street children in its cities. It used to be that kids would drift into big cities like Sao Paolo, merge with street gangs, and do odd jobs along the way, typically as motor mechanics. That was then. But then as cars began to be more advanced in their technology and parts began to get computerized, car repairs required less and less crawling under the belly of a car and poking with a screw driver, and more and more knowledge of how to interpret and fix diagrams on a computer screen.

Eventually it came to the point that it was no longer possible to repair cars without basic school education and some understanding of computers. Kids began to drift into school and began getting educated not because they liked it or school had suddenly become exciting but because to remain employable they needed skills that could only come with education. The goal of education for every child became attainable not because of stringent legislation or strident NGO activism, but because going to school and getting an education became a necessity for sheer survival.

Over time as the profile of the child on the street changed to those of an educated lot, rehabilitation became easier as children taken off the streets had more options and choices than their predecessors and had lesser motivation to return back to the streets once they were resettled. Did economics dissolve the street kid and child labor phenomena in Brazil? Of course not. Did it make the job manageable and the problem containable? Certainly, yes. Will it work in India? Bibek Debroy says so and it is certainly worth a try.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Technology and Child Labour

Bibek Debroy, the economist, has made an interesting point in the Indian Express about child labor that should make NGOs, child labor activists and even the government take note. He states that in a societal problem like child labor, passing legislation is not going to solve the problem. Rather he argues that the induction of technology that makes child labor uneconomical will work better and argues that changes in society have rarely occurred because of legislation and activism though they may provide the ballast from which other more relevant techniques are launched. Introduce technology that makes using child labor an uneconomical proposition and over time it will wither away.

Debroy brings out other interesting facts. One that the United States, the supposed custodian of all that is moral in today’s world hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the seminal document on child rights. Also that when legislation was passed in the US Congress to ban child labor, it was struck down by the US Supreme Court on the grounds that the statute violated a child’s fundamental right to work. What eliminated child labor eventually in the United States was the Great Depression when so many industries shut down that plenty of adults became available for employment at discount prices driving children away from the market for good.

I find Debroy’s thoughts and his historical illustrations going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution revealing because they are quite out of the ordinary from a typical NGO perspective. Also, it possibly addresses the question that nobody has been quite able to answer – it is fine to ban child labor and insist on children going to schools, but in the typical poor family, the incentive to go to school isn’t there; what is there is the motivation to go to the market place and earn a living. But what if an environment were to be created where technological upgrades made it impossible for a child to be employable unless he first went to school and got some basic education? Would it work?

A Brazilian friend of mine shares his experience. Brazil is a country known for the sheer numbers of street children in its cities. It used to be that kids would drift into big cities like Sao Paolo, merge with street gangs, and do odd jobs along the way, typically as motor mechanics. That was then. But then as cars began to be more advanced in their technology and parts began to get computerized, car repairs required less and less crawling under the belly of a car and poking with a screw driver, and more and more knowledge of how to interpret and fix diagrams on a computer screen.

Eventually it came to the point that it was no longer possible to repair cars without basic school education and some understanding of computers. Kids began to drift into school and began getting educated not because they liked it or school had suddenly become exciting but because to remain employable they needed skills that could only come with education. The goal of education for every child became attainable not because of stringent legislation or strident NGO activism, but because going to school and getting an education became a necessity for sheer survival.

Over time as the profile of the child on the street changed to those of an educated lot, rehabilitation became easier as children taken off the streets had more options and choices than their predecessors and had lesser motivation to return back to the streets once they were resettled. Did economics dissolve the street kid and child labor phenomena in Brazil? Of course not. Did it make the job manageable and the problem containable? Certainly, yes. Will it work in India? Bibek Debroy says so and it is certainly worth a try.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Generation X Lady Doctor

Female medical students are putting up a unique case to oppose the scheme that all medical students before being awarded their degrees must serve a year in the states where they are studying, possibly in the rural hinterland. They are saying that because of this requirement, their marriages are going to get stalled that therefore the health minister should go around hunting for life partners for these damsels. Listening to this story, one does not know if one
should laugh or cry. These students are studying in government institutions – Nalanda Medical College is the institution mentioned and the ruckus is because the new requirement would increase the duration of the course to six and a half years from the five and a
half years (including internship) as is the arrangement now.

Now consider this. The students are going to government medical colleges which means that their education is to a very significant extent subsidized by the tax payer. These are not students of snazzy self financing institutions - and even if they were, the agitation
would still be questionable. Secondly, these students are students in one of India's poorest states and if any state in India needs doctors in their rural hinterland to serve, it is probably Bihar and its neighbors. Thirdly, by extending the duration of the course to six and
a half years, the ministry is not stepping beyond any kind of line. The norm in fact for medical colleges in most countries is to have courses of exactly this duration and actually much more before one can actually get down to practicing medicine.

It is a symptom of the consumerist culture these days that has so seeped into our marrow today that the state requiring its citizens to perform a civic duty in lieu of subsidized education is met with opposition using the most ridiculous of reasons. When I read these
sort of articles and the grossly selfish mind set that is perpetuated by these sort of demands, I wonder if for certain kinds of professions at least, meritocracy and the entrance examination driven system that decides who enters the portals of our medical colleges and other such
institutions is a flawed methodology.

Professions like medicine require and demand a certain kind of moral fiber, character and aptitude that determines whether one has the basic service mentality to enter into this kind of a profession. But these things are never assessed in our exam driven system except in a
handful of institutions like the Gandhian college at Wardha and the Christian Medical College, Vellore and the one who gets the nod to get admissions in the government colleges are the ones who head the merit list and in the private colleges, the ones who have some money and
some merit.

In a profession like medicine which is part science and part art, is the merit list the best indicator of who is going to be the best kind of doctor - the most humane, the most caring and the most ethical? hat kind of medical ethics might I expect from some one who even as a
student is so self centered as to only worry about when they can get arried and settle down even before they have done a day's work? If they are on emergency duty in the casualty ward, would these doctors of tomorrow be tracking the well being of their patients or tracking
their watches so that they can go back and attend to their families?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to get married and having a family but these things need to have a perspective. Imagine a soldier in the midst of a conflict wanting to go home to his wife and kids. That they don't is largely why the armed forces survive as an institution and
the country is safe in their hands. A doctor's situation is some what similar. If I were in need of acute and a pretty intense level of medical care I would worry if I knew that the treating physician was some one trained in Nalanda Medical College with one eye on my pulse
and another on the clock because she wanted to fix dinner for her husband. But till we change our methodology of evaluating candidates and look at other intangible factors other than the academic score card, I guess I will have to just keep worrying.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Are We Slow and Unresponsive ?

The Indian Express in its op-ed column of Dec 01 informs that the Prime Minister in a recent speech delivered on November 29th has lamented that our system doesn’t value time and that it is one weakness that worries him a great deal. The Prime Minister isn’t completely correct. Witness the manner and speed in which the law was passed to fix the age at which the Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences retires at 65. Parliament typically doesn’t have time to transact much business and even the current session has already been adjourned several times over Nandigram and other matters. But this particular bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha on November 23rd, by the Rajya Sabha on November 29th, received in the President’s Office on the following day and signed with in hours in to law. By sun down Dr. Venugopal the doughty fighter had lost his job and there was a replacement in place. Clearly when it comes to vendetta the system responds lightening fast and the Prime Minister couldn’t be more wrong.

In the old days, if you annoyed the monarch, you had your head lopped off. This happened the world over but at a point of history, when at least in England , some folks thought that even the sovereign had crossed a line, the elite got together to draft the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 to force the king to guarantee certain institutions of State, basic functional freedoms. The Magna Carta is today accepted as the essential building block of democracy around the world with adaptation and modifications as needed.

But as the Ramadoss episode demonstrates we may have the veneer of democracy but the vestiges of feudalism and crude demonstration of power die slow. In the olden days, the King’s frown was enough to bring down the sunset on an unlucky victim, today the King needs to do some paper work and win over a bunch of pliable people. And the job is done. Clearly, the spirit of democracy has not sufficiently seeped in to our marrow. For instance, The Lok Sabha instead of engaging in any debate over the treatment to Malkaysians of Indian origin and coming out with a reasoned diplomatic response, chose to do what it is best at – get adjourned after a group of Tamil MPs created a ruckus. Presumably the members did not have the energy to debate and discuss a tricky issue event though a Malaysian minister had issued a stinging rebuke to Karunanidhi walking a diplomatic tight rope.

So is the Prime Minister right, and are we slow and more so slow because we are a democracy and supposedly we have mechanism that tries to ensure that laws made in the country best reflect all shades of public opinion and that consensus building exercise takes time? Wish that were the case. In his speech, the Prime Minister cites the instance of South Korea in the old days when it was a totalitarian regime and the Finance Minister of the day had to make a decision on devaluation of the currency. He needed to make a short phone call to his president to ascertain his views and that would take about half an hour and that he felt was a bit too long a time. Man Mohan Singh goes on to say that decisions in democracies do take a little longer than thirty minutes but laments that in India the pendulum has swung to the other extreme and decision making takes forever.

Perhaps our good Prime Minister should be more specific and also lament our priorities. The trial in the Mumbai bomb blasts took 13 years and more, with mercy petitions on behalf of those sentenced to death pending since 1992, the women’s’ reservation of seats bill in parliament eluding a consensus since it was first introduced in 1996, there is a lot for our law makers to mull over certainly. But whereas these things can wait, what seemingly can’t wait is the passing of a law whose sole purpose is to ensure that a person and that too a person of eminence whatever his frailties is sacked and sacked fast and quick, so that his minister boss can strut. India is 57 year old democracy alright on paper, but in real life, the shadow of the jahanpanah’s wrath still looms long on the lok shahi that we think we have.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Living by Candle Light

Some years ago I made a trip from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh to Patna– an episode I will long remember. The journey we were told would take about five hours we were told but since it was raining we left afternoon giving the trip a little more time than we were told was needed. We crossed the Ganga at Ballia and crossed into Buxar where we entered Bihar. Between the winter sunset and the cloudy sky, it soon turned dark and scary. We wound our way through several trails and village roads as our driver soon realizing that the trip would take more than five or six years began looking for shot cuts.

With not a trace of electricity in any of the villages, the only lights apart from the car headlights were sinister flashes of lightening illuminating a few meters ahead in grotesque flashes and the occasional flickering candle light from a village hut. As the car sped forward, gaggles of women would scatter as the car lights focused on them as they sat for their ablutions by the road side. With a pitch dark sky, a thousand stars but no moon and the brilliant flashes of lightening lighting up what appeared to be abandoned buildings but were simply huts with no electricity or candles. Altogether, the whole scenario looked like a lift out of a set from a Dracula movie with total darkness all around and shadowy figures appearing and disappearing at irregular intervals.

But perhaps the sets from the Dracula movies will become more common and we will learn to live by candle light as most of our ancestors had done. For the facts are clear. India's peak power deficit touched a 10-year high of 14.6 percent between April and October, due to an exceptional spurt in demand and worse-than-expected capacity addition. India's government has further scaled down its expected power capacity addition in the current year to 12,000 megawatts from 17,000 megawatts. Further poor as well as slow planning and decision making processes ensure that even if projects are passed rapidly, it will still be years before the plants begin production. Meanwhile 412 million people live with no electricity and those who do have suffer long power cuts. Power thefts as well as transmission and distribution losses continue unabated all over the country.

Besides there is political opposition to whatever mode of electricity you try to generate. The opposition to the Indo- US nuclear deal has become common knowledge but what has become hidden in the fine print is the fact that most of India’s nuclear power plants are operating at levels of peak capacity due to a chronic shortage of uranium pending the finalization of the deal. So on one hand we are increasing demand and not adding commensurate capacity and on the other hand, the existing capacity is lying underutilized. Opponents of the nuclear power are also those who fear Chernobyl style disasters or slow effects of leaking radio activity leading to environmental and public health impacts among other things.

Similarly thermal power plants have their detractors. Down to Earth, the leading environment magazine lists that coal based thermal power plants in particular are high in air pollution, water consumption waste and carbon dioxide emission and others are not far behind. So it does not advocate the functioning any more of thermal power plants. Next on the list of are hydel power plants of which India is a huge reservoir, but wait a minute –while Hydel power plants are the least polluting of them all but seem to cause the largest amount of human displacement and suffering. The agitations surrounding the environmental and human displacement caused by the Narmada and the Tehri Dam have carried on for years and there have been others like the project in Kerala adjacent to the Silent Valley that have never taken off. In India where all kinds of lobbies are active and vocal and their paths often cross, we have never been able to determine the balance between addressing human and environmental concerns with the concerns of economic advancement without balancing one apple cart or the other. And even as we learn to do that, we might also learn in the meanwhile to live by candle light as they do in the villages of Bihar.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Do Our Languages Need a Life ?

A recent issue of India's Outlook magazine covered the valiant efforts being made by some languages to survive and the threats looming over them. According to the report, this silent killer which does not attract so much attention takes away one language every fifteen days some where in the world. In India, the Mysore based Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) is at the vanguard of efforts to salvage Indian languages from extinction. Among the languages on death row are languages like Great Andamenese (7 speakers), Onge (100 speakers) and Ahom (150 speakers). The urgency for these languages is obviously great and efforts are being made to salvage the language and the culture associated with them for posterity even if the tribes which speak these languages seem doomed.

A couple of issues later a debate began regarding the need for these languages to survive and for CIIL to do the work it is attempting to do. An anthropologist argued that it made little sense tracking grammar and diction of a language that would soon be history. Wasn’t there any thing better to do? What after all would be the value of preserving a language if there was no one around to speak it? Another reader argued that this was not extinction but rather evolution. The big ticket languages like Hindi, Bengali and Telegu for instance would certainly swallow up a lot of the smaller languages but the languages themselves would survive in some form – albeit in a different avatar – much like Sanskrit or Latin surviving not so much in terms of the numbers of people speaking them but in they having contributed a large chunk of the vocabulary of the languages that live and that people speak. A third reader went on to say that even the major regional languages – the vernaculars as we used to call them are becoming irrelevant and with the gradual creep of English, even the so languages that millions speak are no longer the same – watch for example the gradual emergence and promotion of hinglish from a semi pariah bastardized conglomerate of words to the preferred form of communication of most. This reader went on to include that the death and demise of any language and culture that did not serve commercial and business interests was inevitable and that eventually regional languages would be reduced to being the vehicles of ritualistic communication and nothing more – much like Latin chants or Sanskrit mantras. So are institutions like CIIL fighting a fool’s battle? Do languages have a right to live and thrive and a right to protection against extinction? Ever since Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani island in 1492 to "take possession" of the land for the king and queen of Spain, his legacy of erasing the language, culture and customs of the conquered has been derided a lot, but has nevertheless had no shortage of disciples to carry on with his ideology. And so main landers displace islanders and highlanders, the neo colonizer conquers lands politically as well as economically and displaces the defeated and all of those victorious stamp their cultural footprint on the dust of the defeated.Each extinction of a language means that a fascinating way of putting words together is no longer alive and that an intangible part of our human heritage is gone forever. I remember the outrage of the world when the Bamian Buddhas were blasted out of existence by the Taliban. They had stood for two thousand years and more and were a symbol of our existence and our history. And yet as pointed out in the beginning of this article, every fifteen days a language that may be older than even the Bamian Buddhas dies out unlamented. And yet sadly our eyes shed few tears at this slow and silent extinction that is happening before our eyes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sein Myint : The Man With No Name

I met Sein Myint in a refugee camp, the only home he has ever known. He doesn’t remember much of his childhood except that he was born in a remote village in Burma. When he was still a small child, the soldiers came to his village and burnt the place down. They needed the land as the village stood in the way of a gas pipeline that was going all the way to India.

When the soldiers had finished, they had lost all their belongings. With just the clothes on their back, the family fled into neighboring Thailand since when he has been living a tenuous existence as in the eyes of the world, without any papers or documents, he does not legally exist. His Burmese birth certificate was burnt by the soldiers and though Thailand allowed him and many others like him to live in enclosed refugee camps, they did not issue him any papers or identity card.

Sein Myint’s loss of identity and lack of papers is more than symbolic. When he entered Thailand, he was a small boy and was enrolled in a minimalist school in the refugee camp that provided education until the 10th grade. With little access to books and other tuition, Sein Myint nevertheless passed his examinations. But he does not have a pass certificate as the certificate requires a name and place of birth to be entered and the refugees do not have papers to prove that their names are what they say they are and where they born. They can not prove that they are Burmese citizens and they obviously are not Thai subjects. Without a high school certificate, there are no hopes of any further education if he could at all get out of the camps legally which he cant. Which means that after all this education, he can do stray menial jobs or clerical work at the camps.

The situation of the women is more awkward. Presumably to avoid any claims to citizenship at a later date, pregnant women who are migrants of this nature are promptly deported to Burma. Any one who escapes detection and some how gives birth to a child in Thailand is in an awkward situation as the baby is deemed an illegal migrant at birth ands is liable to be arrested. Attempts to go back to Burma aren’t very helpful either as the Burmese too deny the minimal facilities available to the women if they do not have the requisite identity documents.

The question of identity is always an important one but perhaps no where more so than in the case of people who are stateless – those who are in desperate need of papers of some kind to prove who they are, what there name is and where they belong to – the most elemental of all. It is an eye opener to sit and meet with people like Sein Myint- flesh and blood humans like you and me and realize that in the systems and databases of this world they simply do not exist – they have never been born, never went to school, never worked and in short did none of the things that define the life and existence of almost all of us.

Their birth place has been obliterated under the pounding of jackboots and when their time is up, there is little room to speculate that their deaths will be recorded any better. The whole life of a stateless person may begin and end without any record of their ever having lived except in the memories of their loved ones. That is a frightening and a very, very sad thought at the same time. The ubiquitous birth certificate, high school certificates and other papers I routinely take from granted have suddenly become very important for it is a shuddering thought to think of what it might mean for me to live life without them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Philanthropists Wanted

As some one associated with the NGO sector, chasing funds is one of my responsibilities. It is not a pleasant job; at times one can feel a kindred spirit with a beggar though of course here one is not soliciting funds for one self but for a larger and nobler cause. Although most NGOs can trace their roots to small community initiatives, often usually religious ones, the scope and size of the work today means that the voluntary sector is no longer truly voluntary in nature.

Over many decades, the sector has become highly professionalized and needs sector specialists in all areas to deliver results and be effective. Also it means that the small resources that a typical voluntary agency would normally be able to raise are no longer sufficient to do the job. Voluntary Agencies have evolved into Non Governmental Agencies which are in turn part of an amorphous entity titled “civil society”

In the process of going around looking for funds from the “for profit” sector so that they can be transferred to the “not for profit” sector, the discovery that I have made is that we in India are short of folks like Bill Gates or Bill Clinton who actually earn money the hard way and they donate it all or most of it so that society, indeed humanity at large can benefit. Some like Warren Buffet have even chosen not to set up trusts named after themselves but rather contributed to existing set ups so that they could then save the start up money and the recurring administrative costs that they would otherwise incur. Because they do that ,charities around the world including those in India can take up pressing projects that might other wise never find takers.

Many projects NGOs take up would never find commercial viability. Initiatives like the Gates Foundation funding that has gone in to develop vaccines for diseases like malaria and AIDS survive largely because of these contributions given generously. Malaria is for instance largely a disease of the poor and the pharmaceutical giants invest next to nothing in researching malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases of the poor because they can never hope to recover the costs involved in such work.

Of course India has its foundations and charities. Some like the Tata Charities are over a century old and some of the other ones like the ones connected to the IT Majors are new. But the general culture seems to be that if you have got it, then flaunt it. So we have stories of Mukesh Ambani giving his wife an airplane for her birthday, a pan masala baron giving his daughter a Bentley or is it a BMW on hers or Lakshmi Mittal hiring a palace to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. And following behind in the ranks are hordes of other people on our Page 3 Lists who want one day to be able to buy planes and cars for their wives and daughters. The passion for philanthropy is missing.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre of Policy Research writes in the Indian Express, today, much of what passes as philanthropy is really setting up your own institutions, whose purposes you direct and control. He contrasts it with of the striking features of Indian philanthropy before independence was that it was genuinely philanthropic and some where that of the striking features of Indian philanthropy before Independence was that it was genuinely philanthropic. A lot of it was directed at creating public institutions that the donors did not control. That culture now seems to have passed away from the India scene. Even as we read about Indian industrialists getting wealthier and wealthier, and also read in the same vein about William Buffet giving away 85 percent of his fortune, the topmost question on my mind is whether we can expect to have in our amidst a man of the generosity of Buffet any time soon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ghost of National Security

The news that Imran Khan’s cancer hospital has been sealed in Pakistan is unfortunate. It seems from the newspaper reports that after Imran Khan decided to go into hiding expecting to be arrested, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital was cordoned off and effectively shut. The hospital is perhaps one of Pakistan’s best cancer hospitals and provides free treatment to 75 per cent of patients with the remaining 25 per cent paying fees. All funding is raised through donations, zakat (Islamic tax) and selling of hospital services. The hospital is a registered charity in Pakistan, UK, USA and UAE, and is connected to specialist cancer hospitals in the UK and USA.
The fact that the government put power politics before the welfare of the people is a sad thing. I am not going into the merits of arresting Imran Khan or even any of the other politicians but the thought that Imran Khan, in the eyes of the authorities, posed such a grave danger that they thought nothing of closing down a hospital doing yeoman service in a country that surely needs more and not less of these charitable initiatives. This brings me to the question of what is the responsibility of a state and its government. Is it simply to perpetuate itself and hold on to power or is it to look after the welfare of its people and if so, what can be the justification of shutting down a hospital just because its promoter or patron has run foul of the law and that too not on any criminal grounds but rather on political considerations?
I would have thought that in a situation where the government is by itself not able to provide for the welfare of its people, the last it can do is to provide a conducive environment for charity to flourish and philanthropists to do their bit, as Imran is trying to do. I guess the same thing is applicable in a business context. Would the Pakistan government also be shutting down businesses if they happen to be owned by folks on the wrong side of the political divide? Who then will invest there then?
But let me not talk of Pakistan alone. We can talk reams about India too. For years, the army was occupying school and hospital buildings and other civilian structures in Kashmir. After occupying them for close to two decades to fight militancy, the army has only recently vacated them and even this happened after a lot of reluctance and after the personal intervention of the defence minister, AK Antony.
I wonder if any one has done any research as to the damage to the educational opportunities of Kashmiri children because some soldiers with guns were using their school building as a hold out to safeguard national security and how many people, whose lives could have been prolonged had they been given access to timely healthcare, died because the army was occupying hospitals as free housing. And it is possible that many of the same things are happening in other disturbed areas of India like Chattisgarh and parts of the North East. Information of this nature will never be readily available for we have two, no three phrases under which the state can always find shelter: ‘National Security’, ‘Public Interest’ and ‘Official Secret’. Under these three phrases, one can hide anything and typically forever.
Well if some security analysts read this, perhaps they might have a different opinion, whether here in India or in Pakistan, but the way I see it as a common man is that national security and holding on to power or territory for its own sake is making a mockery of nationhood and sovereignty, if governance, the raison d’etreof a government to be established isn’t happening in small or large measure.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Women in Leadership : Do They Make a Difference ?

Newsweek has in recent weeks been dealing with the subject of women in leadership roles and asking the question in various ways - what does it mean for a woman to be a leader? In what way, do they do things differently than men for instance?The coverage has been through feature stories as well as profiles of women leaders as well as interviews of women leaders. One of those featured in an interview is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a politician from Liberia.

Ellen has this to say :

I believe women in leadership can be a little more sensitive to human needs, show more respect for life and dignity. In the past, I've been considered as one with a strong will, as a firm disciplinarian. But now, I'm most concerned with being a mother to Liberia. I want to heal the deep wounds of this nation, particularly among our youth. One must show loving care to them. One must be motherly to them, and make them feel wanted.”

These are noble and kind words and if indeed women are bringing more sensitivity to human needs and show more respect for human life and all that, then we ought to be having more and more women in leadership. But somehow, surveying the horizon, it does not look that way. Sure there are competent women leaders and they are raising by the day and that is good, but that does mean that because of such women leaders, society is more humane?

Shortly after I switched on the television to hear that ICICI Bank had been fined a whopping 50 Lakhs by a consumer court for trying to recover a vehicle using recovery agents who used metal bars to injure a supposedly defaulting customer, except that they didn’t even get the correct person. The fact that this has made to even overseas magazines like Forbes can’t be helping the bank's image much especially at a time when it is trying to expand overseas significantly.

ICICI Bank's CEO, K.V.Kamath was recently awarded the Business Leader of the Year award by the Economic Times at a function in which the finance minister presided. Kamath has undoubtedly nurtured a giant banking behemoth, no doubt about that. He is also known for his efforts in empowering women. According to CNN –Money:

Kamath has consistently chosen women rather than men to realize his vision for ICICI, where women account for 30% of the staff. But he denies he has given them preference for top jobs. "It's clearly a result of merit and of not distinguishing between a man or a woman," he says. His criteria have been to pick "leaders with ability, intellect, and the entrepreneurial ability to lead teams" - and he values women's "ability to think in a much more detached manner than men."

I am sure that Kamath has done all that and that his leadership has been quite extraordinary. In fact, the rest of the article goes on to say how many of the women employees are competent and efficient and could have earned a lot more elsewhere but stayed on with ICICI Bank because of the environment that was provided to them in which they were nurtured and grew.

But looking at all the home grown women leaders that ICICI Bank has provided and the news I get to hear about the bank’s business practices – whether it be done directly by them or a recovery agent hired by them, the comments of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf come back to mind… all those high sounding words about life, dignity, human needs and all that. I am left with the question that remains unanswered – women in leadership roles is a good thing from a gender perspective surely, but in terms of the values, practices and priorities that they bring to the table – are they any different as Ellen Johnson would have us believe ?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Roof Above their Heads

The Press Release of the ministry of rural development states about Indira Awaas Yojana, “Housing constitutes a very basic requirement for human survival. It assumes great significance for the rural poor in that it lays the foundation for a life of dignity for them by dispelling the gloom of shelterlessness and conferring a distinct, secure identity. Addressing housing shortage is thus an important strategy of poverty alleviation in India. The 2001 Census places the rural housing shortage figure in India at 148 lakhs. The Bharat Nirman Programme has recognized and accorded due priority to the need to end shelterlessness and it is envisaged to construct 60 lakh houses over the next four years across the country, starting from 2005-06.”

Apart from this, The National Housing Bank has just introduced a scheme to help ease the housing shortage by providing interest subsidies of close to 6 percent so that 31 million housing units can be made available at a cost of Rs.1 Lakh. It is a very welcome move. It will not remove slums from our midst nor will it address the needs of the very poor or the daily wage earner but it is still some thing that will help, especially if taken contiguously with the National Rural Employment Scheme, which if well implemented will generate the income that will be needed to pay off the subsidised housing loans.

But this rather helpful piece of news was offset by another piece of news that the Indian Express published on October 26th, informing that the government was pursuing a project to provide housing for the retired judges of the Supreme Court because several judges had “complained to the Law Ministry about the exorbitant cost of suitable accommodation in the capital post their retirement”. The Law Minister, HR Bharadwaj had adopted the matter of “exorbitant cost” of housing in Delhi as a matter of concern and was trying to get a project expedited so that 50 odd apartments could be constructed expeditiously. According to the newspaper report, though, the project was still stalled some where in the maze of our labyrinthine bureaucracy.

But this rather sad cry from the highest levels of the judiciary that they find housing in Delhi exorbitantly costly and so need subsidy from the government to buy flats and bungalows only demonstrates that even those who spend their lives adjudicating over the rights and the wrongs of others ultimately are no better than any one else when wanting freebies for themselves. Imagine the Supreme Court judges, all of whom before being elevated to the bench were judges in the High Courts or advocates with flourishing practices and, who have lived in the lap of luxury for most of their working lives, coming out and saying that they are in relative penury and need a holding hand. Isn’t it an embarrassment to all of us?

The salary of a Supreme Court judge may not be substantial by the standards of the income that an advocate of standing makes but they are certainly more than adequate and come with numerous benefits made available to them at the cost of the tax payer. No Supreme Court judge is penniless after retirement. More often than not, their experience is put to use in one or the other commissions of enquiry or other arms of the government, which have come to be headed by retired Supreme Court judges. These offices carry their own salaries and perks.

The pension that they earn is no mean amount. Given all this background and the hardships that they themselves have experienced, the learned judges could have passed directives to the government to more urgently address the housing shortage in the country, which is expected to cross 45 million dwelling units by 2012, or to reform the antiquated urban land ceiling laws. Instead of pushing the government towards a change in policy, the judges are happy to register with government help a welfare society where flats can be built at market rates and the judges can pay for them in easy installments.

Surely the judges are entitled to settle post retirement wherever they please and set up housing societies if they so wish but why would they need the government to help them out in this regard? When the rich and the powerful, especially the judiciary, still generally held in relative esteem are found to be as self serving as any one else, it is a sad day. There were the days of Judges like V.K.Krishna Iyer, when the Court was very deliberately pro-poor and sensitive to their needs. And there are these days when judges are chasing ministers so that they can have a retirement nest for themselves and that too at a time when the judiciary as an institution has emerged as a powerful institution whose voice today perhaps carries a longer distance than ever before and its directives would have echoed a long, long way.