Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Waterless City

Every morning I wake up to the buzz and hiss of motors sucking up water from the bore wells dug in the compound of practically every house in the area. The house I live in was for long an exception – my landlady, a middle aged widow is a kindly, law abiding woman. She did not want to deplete any further ground water resources than was already happening and continued to rely faithfully on the limited supply of municipal water morning and evening. This would then be pumped up the three storied house. Of course using ground water for domestic use is not banned in all of Delhi, but then it is common knowledge than ground water levels are depleting every where in the National Capital Region.

Even a couple of years ago, the municipal water supply through restricted was still reasonably adequate. Water was provided for two hours in the morning and another two years in the evening, and if this water was judiciously used and stored in over head tanks, then well…. one could survive. Then the supply started to slowly decline. The first to go was the evening supply….. The duration started reducing slowly over time and finally a day came when it stopped altogether. However it never became permanent phenomena – on the odd evening, water would still be supplied – but when and for how long, no one knew and it became impossible to depend on that evening supply. Then the morning supply started getting affected in a similar way and earlier this summer, one fine morning, the water simply ran dry. If at on the odd day, some trickle of water was supplied, there happened to be a power cut on at the very hour and so it proved impossible to pump anything up into the storage tanks. Though the municipal water limped back to its nominal morning trickle (about 20 minutes), it was then that our land lady gave in and drilled a bore well much against her wishes. The few days that the taps were completely dry, the government sent in some tankers but the ordeal of carting buckets up the steep stair cases pretty much broke our backs. However the bore well was pretty much in line with what her neighbors had done years ago. Blessed with a gush of fresh water at the end of a switch has lulled my neighbors into believing that fresh water from the ground was like some never ending fount of spring. Over summer I have been seeing what this delusion can lead to. Amidst some what desperate advertisements in the newspapers preaching about water conservation and rain water harvesting are some of the most grotesque uses of the scarce commodity that water has become.

On my way to office every morning, I pass a three storied house. Like most areas in Delhi, houses have not been built to accommodate any car parking, so the residents dump their many cars on the street. Every morning as I pass by, one of these cars is being washed. And though there are many advertisements suggesting that perhaps people could wash their cars with buckets of water and conserve some few listen. In this particular instance, a huge hose pipe dangles from some unseen tap on the third floor, and as it swings this way and that with water gushing, the driver tries to maneuver the pipe over various parts of the car’s portly body. And while the driver is busy with his rag and scrubs, the water spurts on to the road making puddles. Every one is oblivious and although the sight makes me cringe, there seems little that I too can do. The imagery I see every morning makes me believe that Shekar Kapur’s film “Water” is one whose time has very much come.

Shekar’s next film, Paani, is set in 2025 in a city polarized by water scarcity, a world divided into the haves and have-nots - those who have water and those who don’t. Shekhar said in an interview that Paani is not just about water shortage. It’s about the callousness of world where about three per cent of the populace are haves; the rest are have-nots. And what a wonderful way to speak of that disparity through the one resource that we’re most squandering away,”

I think that Shekar Kapur’s point is well taken – I would argue only one point. Shekhar does not need to date the film in 2025 as if the problem of water scarcity is one of the futures. He can set his film in the here and now. Ask me.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dal Makhani : The National Dish

During a visit to Manipur some years ago, I remember checking into a hotel in Imphal and beginning the thought of relishing one of my earliest trips to the North East. I have always enjoyed traveling and imbibing the culture of the places I visit and if there is one piece of my job that I do enjoy, it is the opportunity to travel around in places that one usually does not go to. One of the many ways in which I pick up the local culture is in the matter of food – I have no attachment to any one kind of food and am forever open to trying out local food and preparations. So with a lot of anticipation, I opened the hotel menu card to order.

What I found was very unfortunate. The entire repertoire of the hotel consisted of items like Dal Makhani, Shahi Paneer and Alu Matar, dishes of the kind that I normally get to see in any of the local Dhabas in my area. It was an acute sense of disappointment that I discovered that in all of the hotels of Imphal(more or less), Manipuri cuisine was not available and to get a taste of it, one had to identify the fairly seedy street food establishments in the heart of town where the ambience was not too endearing, too say the least.

Imphal of course is not the only place where this cultural invasion has taken place. In fact it could be said that Punjabi food of the Dal Fry or Dal Makhani variety is to food what Bollywood movies is to cinema in india. They seem to be every where and have over shadowed every thing like some giant Banyan tree. Now whether such a phenomenon is good or bad could be up for debate of course – arguably in many ways Bollywood films have unified the country in ways that official policies could never have done; but then of course not every one agrees and there are places in the country where Hindi films are taboo because they are perceived to be stamping out local culture and identity. But whereas so far I have not heard of food being on any separatists’ agenda yet, I would argue perhaps that food is as much a bench mark of one’s identity as cinema and language.

The associations between food and people groups is so deep that it is actually the stuff of fable. The association between a Bengali and his fish, the Punjabi and his tandoori chicken and the “madrasi” and his idli and dosa are folk lore. And so it is a matter of some worry when one finds a slow and subtle domination of a particular type of food that is not indigenous to a region, and the creeping surrender of local food habits. Jokes alluding to the Tandoori Chicken or butter chicken as the “National Bird” are basically acknowledging the slow institutionalization of a phenomenon that has gradually begun. Of course there are aspects that are involved here, including the attribution to changing dietary habits to incipient food shortages in the country and I am not touching on these things. I am only making a fervent plea to preserve and propagate local foods and delicacies and preserve them as an integral and important elements of our culture. Let them not get subsumed by any one form of food as it seems to be happening - that is all I ask

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kalawati,Government and the NGOs

While channel-surfing after the parliamentary vote, I ran into one channel analyzing the speech of Rahul Gandhi, generally considered well-delivered. The television commentator prefaced his comments by saying that Rahul Gandhi began by making NGO-ish comments like his visit to the house of the Vidharbha widow Kalawati and talking about subjects like women’s welfare. Subsequently the anchor explained, Rahul went on to talk of more substantive things pertinent to the matter at hand. This comment of the anchor made me stop and think. Think quite a bit. Because the anchor seemed to be saying that topics like citizen’s welfare are not matters of critical concern to government and that these subjects can be left to the intervention of NGOs. If this is the thinking, than it is a sad state of affairs. It seems to by default reinforce the thinking that the government’s imagery is that of a militaristic big brother, bothered only about nuclear bombs, a strong army and police and national security and the welfare of its citizens is a second rate agenda that can be out sourced to NGOs.

Actually it could be construed that it is a shame that NGOs have to exist in the manner that do and perform the functions that they are performing – running schools, and orphanages and hospitals and feeding centers and performing other such other services. A lot of these initiatives have their origins in colonial times when church run institutions and others began this work. However it is easy enough to accept and understand that social sector investment would not be a priority for a colonial government unless it furthered their commercial or strategic political interests. That these functions still need to be performed by the voluntary sector sixty years and more after independence is actually a shame. In most developed societies, governments take care of the basics necessities of their citizens through direct provision of services as in the socialist states or through creation of viable social safety nets. NGOs typically act as watch dogs overseeing the implementation and efficacy of programs rather than actually run programs.

That NGOs would usually do in relief situations where systems have broken down and governments often do not function. The fact that government involvement in the sectors of education, health care and other social sectors is at a level that voluntary organizations need to raise resources – often from overseas and deliver services on the ground, should say some thing. From time to time, the government talks of regulating the activities of the voluntary sector and especially of those who get funding from overseas. This is seen as a way of controlling the work and activities of the sector. Well, the fact of the matter is that there is a more effective and sustainable way of controlling the activities of the voluntary sector.

If only the government would take sectors like education, health care and grass root level poverty alleviation and not just macro economic structural reforms as seriously as it deals with say issues like terrorism and national security and invest in them wisely and well- not just in terms of financial allocation though that is important too, but also in terms of the brightest and the best being assigned to administer these schemes. That would pretty well make most NGOs obsolete and out of work and there would be no further need to regulate them. and in the mean time, while the government gets its act together – that is if they wish to do so, there is a need to recognize the many groups – small and big, known and unknown who serve the many Kalavatis of the land.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Making Our Laws -II

Ever since the Prime Minister moved the motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha the usually very staid and dowdy Lok Sabha Channel on television has become very watch able. The Lok Sabha is packed and the house is full. Members are jostling to get to speak and the speaker has actually got to intervene time and again to get people to keep to their time. The speeches are not flippant and frivolous either. Most or almost have done their home work listening to their speeches is extremely enlightening. Among the speakers whom I could watch live were the civil aviation minister, Praful Patel, the CPI leader, Gurudas Dasgupta and a few others. Among the nuggets of information furnished by one opposition speaker was that the Indian growth story of the economy growing at close to ten percent was not unique – this had achieved in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso among others is about the same measure.

And after all this the voting on the motion would take place on Tuesday after close to 16 hours of speeches and debates from both the treasury and the opposition benches. Reportedly while the debates are going on, the “real business” of harnessing fence sitting or disgruntled members of parliament so that they cast their vote the “ right” way will also go on in the side lines. Considering that the real business of the confidence motion will be done in the backrooms, and it the sharpness and deftness of the deals struck here that will determine the way the dice is cast, one could well wonder at the necessity of debates. Are people going to vote in the confidence motion based on the merits of the debate and the arguments presented for or against the motion by the various speakers ? It is a very unlikely possibility.

If our parliamentarians are capable of such amounts of home work and ability to speak based on facts and figures and their lucid interpretation, then one wonders why such skills and abilities are wasted on occasions where members are not principally coming to cast a conscience vote based on convictions that they develop along the way as they listen to various facets of an argument. All members barring a few independents will vote along party lines as per the whip issued by party head quarters and the party whip has already been issued based not on the merit of the arguments posed but by political compulsions.

The manner in which legislation is currently enacted in India leaves a lot of room for debate and transparency. Almost always, the bill is introduced in parliament in a some what cursory fashion and then immediately referred to a parliamentary committee for further study. After the committee has done its work – and since this is done in offices which are not accessible to the general public; lobbyists and people of influence alone can track what is happening and try and shape it according to their particular priorities. Once the bill is reintroduced in parliament, very little further debate takes place and the bill is passed with some times a handful of people in the house.

The larger body of people in parliament which could examine a bill from several perspectives which they represent hardly does so and with the result, law making remains the domain and privilege of handful of the elite. But now that we know that so many of the parliamentarians can actually do some home work and speak intelligently without disrupting the house or walking out or causing adjournments, one hopes they will find the motivation to do so on other legislative occasions too. Law making then will truly become a democratic activity with each piece of legislation examined from several angles before it becomes law.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Making Our Laws -I

A television news channel carried the news report of a clutch of civil society organizations and NGOs getting involved in sensitizing voters in Madhya Pradesh so as to keep the BJP returning back to power in the coming elections. The channel showed the footage of left leaning activist Shabnam Hashmi as among those involved in the exercise. According to her and her fellow activists; a return to power by the BJP would ensure that key institutions would be irretrievably captured and compromised ideologically. Of course, given Hashmi’s political convictions, this thinking is not unusual; but what is important here is to recognize the role and platform that civil society institutions can and do provide to the common man to enter the hurly burly of politics.

Looking at the money and muscle power that seemingly casts a long shadow over the politics of the day, the common man may well feel overwhelmingly helpless in being able to do any thing at all to make a difference. There are many who would love to more involved in the matters of governance of the country than merely casting a vote once in five years or less. Not every one wants to be a parliamentarian or a legislator and be directly involved in governance but a lot of us surely want to influence the ways in which laws and polices are formulated and then promulgated and eventually enforced. Law making is not the preserve of elected parliamentarians or a bunch of elite bureaucrats alone though they make be the ones who are the institutional gate keepers. But to the extent that laws and policies affect directly or indirectly all of us, it should be the endeavor of all of us to try and be engaged in smaller or larger measure.

This is where civil society institutions can play an important role. Traditionally in India, policies and laws have almost been influenced not through open and transparent debate but through backroom intrigue – the reference to dalal salaam by the BJP recently has some background and history attached to it for it is them acting at the behest of powerful business houses (usually) who do all the lobbying and dealing and the wheeling and the dealing.

NGOs and civil society institutions can bring these hitherto hidden matters out of the closet and help shape public opinion by bringing out nuances in various policy alternatives and options and creating an informed voter base. In the ongoing matter of the Indo – American nuclear deal for example, how many of us can really stand up and be counted that we understand all the finer points? The debate has been confined to small sections of the scientific community and the political class and mostly they see and hear what they want to see and hear. For those like former President Abdul Kalaam, the deal is a panacea for the country’s chronic energy ills, while for others the nuclear deal will make us a client state of the Americans.

Now this is not typical NGO work and those who do engage in quasi political activity do so not so much in a evidence based, semi academic way, presenting and then debating all sides of the equation but rather driven by their own ideology and convictions as Shabnam Hashmi is doing. There is nothing wrong with that approach of course – to be driven by the strength of our convictions; but the problem is that many of us simply have not had the chance to develop our stand on many issues simply because we do not know all the material facts at hand on the basis of which we can make up our mind! And this is therefore an arena where we need some sarva shiksha abhiyan!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Brown Man's Burden

Vijay teaches in the English department in a small American town in Prasenjit Gupta’s short story “A Brown Man”. He is single. His mother in India wants him to marry an Indian girl; no foreigners were to be trusted. So Vijay found Asha his girl friend for three years until she – more liberal in her ways than even the white girls his mother worried about, left Vijay for a hippie.

Vijay is single and lonely and his departmental senior Philip and wife Sharon are good friends and they are trying to act match maker; but that is not going to work for Vijay is very conscious of parental authority and won’t do any thing that will offend his mother, but then Philip and Sharon do not know that of course. So they introduce to Vijay, a distant cousin by the name of Amy who is on a short vocation and staying with them. Vijay is not too interested; remember his mother is wary of white girls out to seduce her son, but out of courtesy to Philip and Sharon who are good people, he agrees to spend some time with Amy and “show her around” the town.

Amy is a good enough girl but Vijay is not interested; he has already been hurt once and remember; his mother has warned him to wary of the white girls. “Don’t bring home a foreigner” was the unambiguous message. Though they go out several times and though they get along well enough, there is no trace of romance. He shares about the Indian girl who left him and she in turn tells him about the boy who left her. Slowly he is falling in love with a white woman despite all the warnings that he has received. On one of his monthly phone calls to his mother, he crosses the Rubicon by telling his mother that he has been seeing a white girl. She sighs into the phone. A sigh of hopelessness.

It is the end of Amy’s vacation and they are going out for their last outing. Amy has never looked more beautiful and Vijay knows that if he must propose, this has to be the night. As they are settling into their meal, a white man comes and sits down opposite their seat and looks disdainfully at him and admiringly at Amy. Vijay shrinks within himself as he remembers the many times he has been snubbed at by white people over the years. The dinner ends with the proposal never uttered and Vijay drives a very visibly low Amy back home. The next day, as Vijay drops Amy to the airport, she casually mentions that her old boy friend wants reconciliation and she was open. Vijay shrivels further inwards as he bids her good bye … for the last time and heads back home.

Is racism for real or is it an imagined shadow that Vijay seems to see every where, often without any substantial basis ? His colleague Philip and his wife Sharon cared enough about him to notice his loneliness and try and do some match making and Amy as she went out with him, evening after evening dared to hope that the man she had come to love and to admire would one day propose to her. But though he skirted edgily around the subject, he never did. He was haunted by his own mother’s demons – that white American girl was bad though Vijay’s own experience was to have been let down by an Indian girl trying hard to be “Western”.

Now that racism is no longer institutionalized, it is obviously that much more difficult to track down and identify. And how much of it is real and how much of it is magnified by past experiences, mental imagery, perceptions –true and imagined that we end up interpreting wrongly and often with tragic consequences as happened with Vijay? Vijay’s interpretation of what a white woman would be like was largely conditioned by what his mother whispered on the phone as they talked every month and indeed in India, even before he had left the country’s shores to go to America. Although he had enough caring white people in his life, he still could not bring himself to trust himself and trust them when it came to the defining moment of his life and that moment eventually passed him by.

We talk often of stereotyping – racial and ethnic and religious and others and imagine that these flawed judgments that we make of others harm them, discriminate against them, and deny them opportunities….. But stereotyping is actually like a boomerang it comes back and denies us the very same joys that we imagine others are losing out on.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Rogue Police

Dr. Rajesh Talwar, one of the accused in the now famous NOIDA double murder case was arrested on May 23rd and has since then been in custody. Although he is produced in court every now and then, bail is always denied on the pretext that further questioning is needed or various tests still need to be done. Guilty or not, even before anything is conclusively pinned on him, he has spent a month and more in jail and who knows how long he will have to stay.

What is worrisome is the manner in which he has been detained for so long a time. Dr. Talwar’s situation is not a tangled web full of complexities and spanning counties and continents like say Charles Sobhraj. Till the day of his daughter’s death, he was living a very typical normal and middle class life. There is no criminal record that he had from past days that needs looking into. Dr. Talwar is no hardened criminal who would have learned the art of handling tough interrogation – as police clients go, he would have been among the softest they would have handled, and yet between the NOIDA police and the CBI, his questioning and interrogation seems to be dragging on forever.

We have been fixated on mostly on the human rights violations that the police and other Paramilitary forces supposedly carry out in the form of encounter killings of terrorists and under world dons. These have been even glamorized in ways with Bollywood basing many of their scripts on real life police “encounter specialists” with very little attempts at disguise. Closely related is the phenomenon of torture, custodial deaths and sub human treatment. Largely this happens to people for whom there is little public sympathy or to the anonymous and impoverished delinquent; again some one who has no one to defend them. Dr. Talwar’s case is an interesting one where he has no criminal record, no hardened criminal, not much of a likelihood of him absconding or scooting off to another country. Even so he continues in jail seemingly forever. Even the CBI who are supposedly the wizards in crime investigation are sweating and struggling to question and make sense of the answers of a man like Dr. Talwar who probably had never even seen the inside of a police lock up till now beats reason.

A recent campaign that originated in Mumbai and is now aiming to spread else where to expose inappropriate practices in the police including corruption was started by I K Chuggani. A retired man himself, he began harnessing the potential, energy and the connections of many other retired people in Mumbai to start a campaign against rogue elements in the police. They have a web site, a very strong Facebook presence as well as the infrastructure of a registered non profit based in Mumbai. It is truly a citizens’ movement and one that is looking not merely for money but active involvement and volunteerism, more actively on their Facebook group. Do look them up and join in. Looking at the predicament of Dr. Talwar, I for one paused to wonder for a moment as to what my coping mechanism might be if I were in a situation similar to his and sadly enough, I found none.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Death of Angrezi Hatao

Angrezi Hatao was once a very potent slogan in the fiftys and the sixties and a campaign which made the destiny of many politicians of the time – both those who proposed it and those who opposed it. Prominent names who come to mind as leaders in the Hatao movement are Ram Manohar Lohia and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, then with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The country had gained independence from the British and the English language was considered the most visible symbol of that rule and one that needed to be abolished as quickly as possible. Indeed, the constitution itself stipulated that English would be in use as a transitional measure for fifteen years and from Republic Day, 1965, Hindi was to be the sole official language.

Indeed with towering figures like Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru wanting Hindi too, it would not have been difficult to impose Hindi and displace English. That it did not happen and indeed the Official Languages Act of 1963 was enacted allowing English to continue was primarily because of one man and one movement, the Tamil Nadu based DMK and the Dravidian movement which loathed Hindi and the North Indian domination that they associated the language with.

With a violent anti Hindi agitation taking a separatist turn, and the DMK coming to power in 1967, on a largely anti Hindi platform, English was finally given some place under the sun as an associate official language with the clear understanding that one day an atmosphere would be created that would allow Hindi to be the sole official language. But the Dravidian parties have held continuous sway since that election victory in 1967 and kept up their unrelenting opposition to Hindi and gradually the fire to impose Hindi died out. Hindi however enjoyed state patronage in the cow belt as did the various regional languages in their respective states, thus gradually chipping away at English by restricting its use in official correspondence, reducing its importance in school syllabi and glorification of the mother tongue.

The turning point for English probably came with Rajiv Gandhi, a man very visibly more comfortable with English than with Hindi. Although he just lived to serve one term, the changes he set in motion outlived him. The next regime to last a full term after his – that of Narasimha Rao brought in reforms that English more or less indispensable. The last nail on the Angrezi Hatao campaign was nailed by Atal Behari Vajpayee, one of the earliest war horses of the anti English movement ran an election campaign based largely on an English slogan “ India Shining” and introduced reforms and policies that has for the moment at least, English virtually irreplaceable.

All these years however, the Hindi states continued to promote Hindi, even as savvy states like Gujarat and slow moving behemoths like the Left Front in Bengal gradually abandoned the emphasis on the mother tongue they had hitherto promoted. Their interest was in playing catch up with the Southern States which promoted English instead of Hindi and where knowledge economy businesses began to flow naturally. Present chief minister Mayawati’s decision to introduce English in schools from Class I itself is in that sense the end of an era with states like Uttar Pradesh, which earlier eschewed English, having done a 180-degree switch, realising that it is increasingly the only way to transact with a wider world.

Today , Mulayam Singh Yadav is the only known figure still to favor Angrezi Hatao and is known to hold the conviction that English has been the major stumbling block in the development of regional languages in the country. He has gone to the extent of terming it as “the language of destruction, which has had a telling impact on the economy of the country”. But considering his principal lieutenants like Amar Singh are silent on the subject and are themselves quite comfortable in English, it is not known how much of Mulayam’s polemics is for the gallery. But come what may, with the silent decline and death of the anti-English movement, which was once an extremely emotive issue has definitely come to an end….. And probably very few are even noticing its passing.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On being a Stooge

One of the views that has been bandied about over the last months as we swing this way and that about the nuclear deal is that signing it will mean that the government would have sold itself as an American stooge and vassal. That is what the leftists are saying. Since then I have been ruminating on the words stooge and vassal – I mean is it such a bad thing after all, apart from the derogatory sounds of the words themselves. Now after listening to a Skype webcast, I am convinced that the nuances are far more complex and that provocative words hide much more than they reveal.

There are two kinds of stooges if we insist on using the word. The Skype webcast that I listened to was dominated by a man from Iraq - a very angry man indeed who is upset that his country is run by brown Americans masking as Iraqis. As a nation of immigrants, the United States has the advantage of producing individuals of every ethnicities and in an occupation situation as prevails in Iraq and Afghanistan, they come handy. They are their master’s voice and because they speak the language and some what understand the culture are useful viceroys. These are the real stooges that every one should be talking about.

Then there are those who believe that their national interests are best served by aligning to a particular power and therefore do so. After all the primary purpose of the government of any nation is to ensure peace and prosperity for their people and achieve it through globally acceptable legitimate means. In the Soviet era, the original Mrs. Gandhi, felt that India’s national interests at that time was best served by aligning with the Soviet block. Many sneered at her and called her a client state or pretty close to being one. But of course she didn’t give a damn and did what she considered right.

Come to think of it, India has its small share of stooges in the neighborhood though having not much to offer, it is losing them pretty rapidly. One of our concerns in Nepal is that the incoming government is likely to be more ambivalent in its relationship with India unlike the monarchy which was beholden to India. Arguably, it was a stooge Sikkim Assembly that passed the resolution to accede to India. Bhutan has no independent foreign policy independent of India and being a land locked country finds it to be in its national interest to remain so.

So what is the problem with being a stooge or a client state of the United States? Looking around, I see that they have done pretty well for some themselves, unless they are plagued by chronic bad governance like the Philippines. But that is an exception. For the prototype, look at Singapore. Look at Thailand. Look at South Korea—and just to compare, look too at North Korea. To look at an even bigger contrast, look at Japan, vanquished and brought to its knees by American nuclear bombs but today one of its strongest allies in Asia.

We need to get rid of a culture of machismo-driven nationalism that talks of self reliance, global domination and ideological neutrality; best exemplified by the so called non aligned movement in which every one right down to the last member was fully aligned. The government’s jobs is to ensure peace, prosperity and security for its people; that is why people it there. At one point of history ensuring peace for India meant being a Soviet stooge; today it might mean being an American stooge. And of course let us get words like stooge which sound so uncouth out of our vocabulary. Then we our self esteem and self respect would not be so badly wounded.