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.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Boycotts: Gandhiji’s Forgotten Weapon

In pre independence India, I read in history books that Mahatma Gandhi organized the boycott of foreign goods both as an act of defiance to the British as well as to give a boost to the local Indian economy by promoting the use of Khadi and other indigenous products. I wonder why that potent weapon has gone into disuse. When Gandhiji first gave a call to boycott foreign and mostly British goods particularly textiles, the effect was potent enough for him to make a trip to the Lancashire mills and spend time will the mill workers on his next British trip. He felt duty bound to explain to them why he was doing what he was doing and his gesture was well appreciated.

I have been thinking of this gesture and its relevance more for two reasons. Firstly but not most importantly, I have been reading a lot about Ashok Todi, the father in law of the hapless Rizwanur Rehman and how he apparently used his wealth to purchase access to the powers that be in the police establishment to kill the marriage of his daughter Priyanka to a man he considered way beyond his class and means. Of course the CBI is investigating as to whether he killed any thing more than just the marriage of his daughter, so it would not be wise to speculate on that for the matter for now.

Among the facts that came to light during the whole media coverage of the episode was that Mr. Todi is the man who owns the Lux Cozi brand of hosiery products. No one till now knew much about the Todis but the brand was fairly well known because of the fairly strong advertising campaign that it ran and the fact that celebrities like Sunny Deol used to endorse the product. In a way, it could be said that but for the brand that he owned, he would have been just as another businessman accused of a crime as many businessman often are and public interest might not have been so sustained.

This is not just plain hypothesis. The Kolkata based Telegraph indicates that in this festival season, the sales of Lux Cozi have dipped in their sales indicating a wide spread loathing for Todi, his brand and that entire he represents. The 200 crore brand has suffered losses in sales as people have voluntarily chosen to shun the product and switch to some other make. According to a hosiery dealer, “The timing has been bad for them and the poor show in the past month is bound to affect their balance-sheet”.

The other scenario where I thought a boycott might be relevant is in the entry of the giants into the organized retail sector. We keep hearing of a lot of discontent about the entry of these big players into organized retailing and what it might do to the mom and pop stores that flourish currently in every neighborhood. The concerns may often be valid and part of the battle is being fought in the political battlefields and this is fine. But there is another kind of battles which concerns me. This battle is being fought by vandalizing shops, smashing window panes and enforcing forcible closure of these shops.

Now no one really knows how much public support these agitations really have. It does not take long for a bunch of goons to shut down establishments and bring things to a standstill. But if these agitations have any popular base or support, why not political parties or social organizations having a mass base come forward to encourage boycott the products sold from these shops and force a natural closure than resort to wreckage and aggression.

Gandhiji in his time had an aim not very different in mind when he called up the Indians of his time – both elite and the commoner alike to shun the products of organized retail and don Khadi. But his methods of a boycott of a product backed with sound reasoning and a viable alternative proved eminently successful and Khadi products retain their relevance, albeit as a niche product till this day. But today unfortunately, all we can think of if we wish to oppose some thing is to reach for stones to throw and property to destroy. The weapon that once was so effective is not uneven unsheathed today, let alone tried for its efficacy. But I suppose that it is a lot easier to pick up a few stones and smash shop frontages than walk from village to village and educate people about what they should and why with motifs and examples that connect and make sense. It is simpler to break a few bones and get what you want!