Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wasted Years, Wasted Lives

The West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee has been lamenting lately of late regarding the “wasted years” of the state – primarily in the sixties and early seventies when Left sponsored militancy was at its highest and the resulting anarchy and chaos led to a massive flight of capital from the state. This flight of capital toppled West Bengal from its position as the premier industrial state of India, a position that it has never since regained.

Today as it teeters, on the edge it would seem of another round of the “wasted years”, this time led by Mamata Bannerjee and her band, it would be worth lamenting the many, many wasted years, in several parts of the country that have damaged and shattered so many lives in this country. Think J & K, think the North East, think Orissa, think Bihar, think the many states affected by Maoism, Naxalism, call it what you will, and calculate the total. It is staggering and to any body who lives in this country or loves it, the details are pretty heart breaking.

In Jammu and Kashmir, according to the trade body, ASSOCHAM, the current agitation involving the land for the Amarnath Yatra (one has to qualify in the J & K context because they have had so many agitations) has led to an economic loss of close to Rs 1500 crores and growing. And this of course is only a business perspective. It does not count the innumerable human lives snuffed out because of the chronic insurgency going back to 1989. Although in human tragedies, numbers will never tell the full story but still to tell it… More than a dozen Islamic militant groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or its merger with Pakistan and in the process more than 68,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Similarly Kashmiri Pandits have suffered crimes amounting to ethnic cleansing from the Valley and roughly 12000 were killed since insurgency began in Kashmir, and 300,000 have been displaced, though some sources claim that more than four to five thousand Kashmiri Pandits were killed. Some sources claim that nearly 500,000 internally displaced families of Kashmiri Hindu live in the National capital region,

Similarly, although we don’t often notice the North East on our radar, Terrorist attacks are claiming more civilian lives in India's northeast than in Jammu and Kashmir. The region is also witnessing more insurgency-linked violence. According to latest central home ministry figures, there were 1,489 incidents of violent incidents in the northeast in 2007 compared to about 1,000 in Jammu and Kashmir. Civilian casualties in the northeast during the same period stood at 498 as against 158 civilian in Jammu and Kashmir

The North Eastern states have as many as 30 armed insurgent organizations with demands ranging from secession to autonomy and right to self determination. Besides, the region is an ethnic minefield, as it comprises of around 160 Scheduled Tribes6, besides an estimated 400 other tribal or sub-tribal communities and groups and it is impossible for any one to meet their often conflicting demands related to their ethnic or tribal identities.

I suppose that the balance will never tilt one way or the other- is economic prosperity more important or preserving your language or culture or tribal identity is. Chambers of commerce and upwardly mobile professionals make take out their calculators and compute business and economic losses but for others, ethnic, tribal or religious pride takes precedence over every thing else, even if looks foolish. Meanwhile, while governments struggle over the issue of whether to preserve national boundaries or respect ethnic or linguistic or caste ones, thousands of lives and years will waste away into oblivion.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Illness : Robbing You of Home and Hearth

The other day, there was a commotion in the office when news came around that the electrician who was having his lunch had suddenly fallen with a thud in the midst of it and fallen unconscious. He was rushed to a near by hospital where tests revealed that he had brain haemorrgage as well as blocks in his heart. The hospital didn’t have the expertise to deal with this and after putting he on a ventilator rushed him to a hospital which has neuro surgeons and cardiac surgeons on its roster. Meanwhile, the office scrambled to arrange money for the lowly paid electrician who could be given to his family as a loan for this treatment and the staff scrambled to take an offering which could be given to his family as a gift.

PS : The electrician has since passed away....

Another person has a liver failure and needs a transplant. His wife has come forward to donate but the cost of the treatment is so high that he has to sell his house , recover the proceeds and then pay the entire amount to the hospital as a deposit before any thing will move.

A third case I remember is that of a man in an Uttar Pradesh village, dismantling his house – literally brick by brick, so that he could then sell the bricks and settle his relatively modest hospital dues.

To put things in perspective, we need to know that “the poor have to increasingly resort to taking debt or selling assets to meet costs of hospital care. It is estimated that 20 million people each year fall below the poverty line because of indebtedness due to healthcare. This is worrisome given the fact that more than two-thirds of the country’s population is already either poor or living at subsistence levels.”

With the government virtually fading out of the health care sector under the guise of promoting public private partnerships, finding alternate options has become imperative and yet not easy. With health insurance seemingly the only viable option to meet health costs in the future, it seems important that the penetration of health insurance be increase but several variations be explored within this domain including micro insurance.

Yet this is never going to be easy in the unorganized sector. For instance how do you provide health care to handloom weavers, who occupy among the poorest segments in the unorganized sector? There are 6.5 million of them scattered across the country and are not always fixed in their occupation. Though there is a scheme in operation for them operated by the Union Textiles ministry, progress in enrolling members is slow. And there are many more segments of the population that are far more unorganized than textile workers.

If the product is properly customized and premiums where need be part subsidized by the government, the market for health insurance in its various variants is huge as currently the penetration of health insurance is estimated be 0.02 % or less of GDP.

However like any other nascent industry in the country, the insurance industry is having to cope with its teething troubles, one of the main ones being the inadequate regulatory norms with in the insurance industry itself. The unethical norms in hospitals which routinely over charge patients who declare themselves to be insured and the inability of the insurance companies to evolve common treatment regimes and protocols which would have led to some rationalization of tariffs and fees charged by the hospitals.

But this has not happened yet and the variation in hospital bills and the variations in tariff between the metros and non metros are astounding and this disconnect raises the insurance premiums which are then recovered from the customer. In a nascent industry, high premiums will further act as a disincentive to newly entering customers. However, even in this evolving situation, it is necessary to popularize and promote insurance as the only solution in the foreseeable future to the challenge of the rising costs of healthcare and in particular for those in the unorganized sector. Providing tax exemptions might be a beginning but then there is a large gap in those who do not pay taxes and who in many ways may be the ones who need health insurance the most….

Friday, August 29, 2008

Growing up with Enid Blyton

I remember the time I checked out four books out of our local public library and brought them home. My dad, who liked me to read and particularly read English books, was delighted and sad at the same time. He was thrilled to see me read but yet he wasn’t pleased to see who I was reading – the British author Enid Blyton. My dad, a literature student would have rather preferred that I read Shakespeare or Dickens… but I preferred Enid Blyton. And today I find that though Enid Blyton has been dead since 1968, British voters have voted Enid Blyton at the top of a list of 50 all time favorite authors. And yes, Enid Blyton is ahead of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and all those classic names.

Did Enid Blyton write classy literature that surpassed Shakespeare? Of course not. Shakespeare and the other authors are all masters of their genre and indeed if the entire world is a stage, then Shakespeare is one of its finest chroniclers. But what made Enid Blyton so timeless is that she journeys with you from childhood into adolescence – at least the choppy waters of turbulent adolescence if not the full course.

From the early childhood books of Noddy and Big Ears and onto the marvelously imaginative fairy tales, containing elves and fairies and gnomes and all manner of other characters- some good and some not so good, to the adventures of the five find outers, the secret sevens, the famous fives and others … it was a fascinating collection of racy adventure and fun – and all anchored in sound family foundations and good food.. Enid Blyton’s ability to describe a good English meal was particularly inspiring.

I suppose that part of the mystique of Enid Blyton is that there have not been that many writers of children’s’ books. In that list itself , there ma not be more than four or five and even they did not write, except for J.K.Rowlings, did not write exclusively for children

Decades after I touched an Enid Blyton book, if I remember her with so much fondness, I suppose it is because her books taught my generation to live and enjoy life to the full– and the skills for living she weaved in seamlessly in her books. In a value neutral world, Enid Blyton books could always be counted on to highlight the traditional or even old fashioned values of thrift, honesty, courage and integrity. Yet they also promoted the virtues of healthy curiosity, a sense of adventure and risk taking and problem solving, all good qualities to have as you entered into adolescence and subsequent adulthood.

Most of all Enid Blyton celebrated camaderie and friendship – between humans who worked together as teams bound together by love and genuine affection and equally importantly, she emphasized the bonding between humans and animals. Animals, particularly dogs were almost always a character in her books and the affection between animal pets and human masters was an abiding theme.

Close to forty years after her death Enid Blyton’s books continue to enthrall another generation today is good news for it reflects the enduring need for books that combine entertainment with education – not in a pedagogical sense but in the sense of teaching people the art of living – not through any expensive course--- but simply through the pages of a book. But the British survey results are also bad news. For if a long dead author is still at the top of the charts, it goes to show that we are not producing enough Enid Blytons today…

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Broadband on Battery

While booking an air ticket online the other day, there was a power cut just at the point when the gateway was processing the payment from the credit card and the modem shut down. The resulting confusion led to stress as I tried to contact the travel portal, the bank and the airline to get a clear picture regarding ticketing, charging of payment and so on. Online travel portals are not your typical travel agent of old whom you knew by name and had done business with for years. The anonymity of the voice on the other side of the line, the peculiarity of the problem and their obvious inability to understand, let alone help only added to the confusion. This practically undid any advantages that doing transactions online might have provided.

In India, there is a lot of political backing from both the major political formations to increase internet penetration which is among the lowest in the Asia–Pacific region.

India has the lowest Internet penetration rate at 3 percent in the region, according to a survey by U.S.-based digital research firm comScore Inc. According to the survey

- South Korea boasts of the greatest rate of Internet usage, with 65 percent of its population using the Internet in May.

- China clearly has the largest online population with 91.5 million people. The number of monthly unique Internet users in India is just a quarter of that figure at 22.8 million.”

- South Korea has the most active online population, using the Internet an average of 17.4 days per person in May, and dedicating 31.2 hours to viewing 4,546 pages during the month. Indians on the other hand got onto Cyberspace an average of only 11.4 days per person in May and viewed 1,400 pages over 14.7 hours.

Clearly though, the government is not pushing for internet penetration so that citizens can watch videos on Youtube. Rather the intent is to promote e-commerce and e-governance through the internet platform and thereby increase productivity and efficiency. While all that is a good thing, the commensurate development of an infrastructure backbone is missing.

For instance, look at energy and power generation. After all, my story started with the recounting of a power failure in the middle of a commercial transaction. Even as I write this, electricity in India’s national capital goes on and off several times a day.

Anybody who has ever experienced a power cut in India would know empirically that India simply does not produce enough electricity for its needs and will not do so in the foreseeable future although thenational electricity policy envisages power for all by 2012 and per capita availability of power to be increased to more than 1,000 units by 2011-12. With the deadline barely four years away it is impossible that this goal would be ever met.

While industrialization is progressing at a rapid pace, the fact that power generation has not kept up has meant that even relatively less industrialized states like West Bengal which once were power surplus, have power cuts now. In fact, the more industrialized you are, the more is the demand. Maharashtra, for example, faces a deficit of more than 30 per cent In fact, the colloquial term for power cuts “load shedding” has now become part of the country’s rural folk lore.

As I complete typing this piece on a laptop and upload it from a speedy GPRS modem, I remind myself that having a increasingly high tale density of phones and laying strategies to wire up the country to the customer’s doorstep and using Wi Max to connect up the whole country won’t work if we don’t have a proper infra structural backbone. You can’t run a broadband service operating on batteries ! It just does not work !

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Human DNA

As the violence in Jammu and Kashmir escalates beyond what bounces of our television screens, the vibrations are also cascading across our borders. Pakistan has of course reacted harshly to the “excessive use of force” to control the civil unrest there and in a typical knee jerk response, the Indian government has condemned the comments from the Pakistani Foreign Minister as an interference in India’s internal affairs.

Of course there is this much to be said in that all countries in the sub continent are from the same genetic make up very literally and all can be blackened with the same brush. A lot can be perhaps said about Pakistan or any other country around making pious statements about human rights considering the overall record of every one here. But still the question begs to be asked – when do political boundaries blur and our human identity begins asserting itself?

When do we feel free and are given the freedom to express a genuine agony and anguish at the violence, broken and bereaved families that every unplanned funeral brings in its wake? This is not about fishing in troubled waters or scoring political brownie points at all. But I wonder - does it become treason to mourn the loss and grief of another because they live across a border that is not even a century old when cultural and ethnic bonds go back a thousand years or more?

When a lament from a neighboring country at the violence that is prevailing here and is flashing globally across television channels and internet news sites is understood to be interference, then the question arises for Indians as to what should they do. People with ethnic backgrounds and languages spoken in India live in all countries that surround us – Bengalis – even Bengali Hindus (for those whom this distinction matters) in Bangladesh, Tamils in Sri Lanka being the most prominent but by no means the only ones.

It seems easier to reach out across borders when natural disasters strike – like tsunamis or earthquakes or cyclones; but some how there is an insurmountable barrier when it comes to even making statements of empathy and condolence when the tragedy is manmade.  Even a word can impute a motive when at least at the level of the common man or woman, none is intended,

Most of us are it the political establishment or those who are part of civil society will find it well nigh difficult to look the other way in the guise of non interference in the internal affairs of another country. If Tamils were to be in the midst of widely publicized media footage be subjected to violence or the Bengalis were, it would be politically inexpedient to sit back and do nothing.

If non interference in the affairs of others is the norm, then nobody in the international community should be speaking into what is happening in Zimbabwe, or Sudan, and India itself should not have moved resolutions in the United Nations when South Africa was still practicing racism. But it is good at times, indeed necessary for people to speak up, take note and make a point in the international communities and forums so that what would otherwise have gone unnoticed and remained hidden in shadows

Of course there is such a thing as undue interest in the affairs of another country; as perhaps best exemplified by the US invasion of Iraq. But there is also such a thing as too little of an interest in the affairs of the world. After all, it is only those who live in glass houses who are scared of stones and so they do not throw any. The world’s largest democracy should not be fighting shy of facing criticism when there are plenty within the country’s own borders who are concerned. Let us own up to the fact there is a common human DNA that makes us all speak up.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

India : Winter in August

The loud euphoria that we experienced when Abhinav Bindra won the Gold medal made me wonder about what might be the level of excitement that one might expect in countries where winning medals is a little more common. Are they the same? How is it in China where at this time, they are leading the United States. Long considered the lead medal winner in the Olympics. When some in say the US or South Korea wins a model what would it be like? I am sure that victory is cherished every where but do things go berserk as they seemed to do in India?

Watching the television channels meant going through the usual inane experience of the breathless and overwhelmed anchors grabbing the parents of the shooter and discussing his status on being further elevated among the ranks of the eligible bachelors of India.

It probably reveals the levels of pain in the nation that we are happy and ready and willing to grasp at the tiniest wisp of good news that comes around. After all every morning’s news just makes for escalating bad news. Every one seems to be holding on mere shreds of hope. Even the Olympics have been stained. Witness the upheaval for example when Monika Devi of Manipur was subjected to a dope test and implicated only to be told too late that the test was flawed. That agony has been drowned by the rapidly escalating violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ever since the early days of the New Year when first the stock market started crashing, it would seem that nothing has gone right for India. The rising crude oil prices, the accompanying inflation, the rising interest rates on loans, particularly housing loans, the continuing terrorist attacks, instability in the Central Government, numerous incidents have rocked the nation, literally leaving it battered and bruised.

This Independence Day that will be upon us in a couple of days will be the bleakest in years. Most parts of the country are disturbed and traumatized in one way or the other. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir looks to be so bad that the government is short of its weapon of last resort – the armed forces are in short supply and there is talk of shifting troops from the Line of Control into areas like Kishtwar in J&K.

The newspapers are running advertisements that trains are being “regulated” in Assam. Night running of trains is being halted and when they do run they will run with bullet proof coating as befits a country and a railway system in siege. Because this year likes many others, the ULFA is bleeding Assam to death. Any one else calling a bundh on Independence Day would have run the risk of being accused of sedition but not them.

In Jharkhand, Shibu Soren is proclaiming openly that he should be made the chief minister replacing the present incumbent practically overnight or else like a petulant child, he would again withdraw support potentially plunging the beleaguered central government into yet another crisis and in the process reducing the already polluted market place politics to the haggling and bargaining that goes on in the village haat. In every place there is nothing but gloom except in that one gold medal that was our destiny this year. Even the silver medalist of the last Olympics, Lt.Col. Rathode failed to qualify for the finals in his particular shooting event. Meanwhile, in Delhi, the skies are often overcast in that broody way, that casts a pall of gloom every where. The rains have ensured that there is a slight nip in the air and the temperature is many degrees below the normal. May be it is time to get the sweaters out….. it looks like it might be winter in August…..

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Our Personal Laws are out of sync.....

Those who have been following the travails of the baby born to a surrogate mother of Japanese nationality can only feel sympathy for the infant with three mothers but cared for by a grand mother. The father, Dr Yamada, got the baby conceived by one woman, had the baby born through a surrogate mother and then divorced his first wife and remarried. Along the way, he created a legal tangle which he still has not been able to disengage from.

Although India has become the favored destination for those who are looking for surrogate mothers for their yet to be born babies as more and more Indian women are prepared to go through surrogacy, the laws have not kept up adequately to cope up. Of course it is another matter that the reason that India’s laws being so lax and medical expenses being affordable and wombs being so readily available that has contributed to India’s rise as the favored destination for surrogate pregnancies.

On the odd occasion, having antiquated laws can be of help too. There is a story that the reason that the cable TV revolution and the mobile telephony revolution took off so well and so fast in India is because the laws governing these in the initial days was the 19th century Indian Telegraph Act. The law regulating cable television was enacted only in 1995 by which time cable television was firmly entrenched. Similar is the case with mobile telephony – by the time the relevant telephony was firmly entrenched and had proved itself to be a boon.

But when it comes to personal laws and laws governing family life, such a delay can lead to numerous heart aches. For instance in the case of little Manji, there are several cards stacked against the baby. For instance, though India is the land of the great surrogacy bazaar, there are no laws governing surrogacy in the country and the surrogacy bill meant to regulate it is pending in Parliament. In its absence, the laws that apply quite mirroring the situations cited earlier- are the laws governing adoption- and principally when it comes to foreigners ,it would be another 19th century legislation – the Guardians and Wards Act of 1890

Laws in India are paradoxical because they seldom seem to be in sync with society. On hand we have laws which society has not fully accepted like the laws banning child marriage which are flouted with impunity on occasions like akshya tritiya. Look at the data: According to UNICEF, 82 percent of girls in Rajasthan, where the practice is particularly widespread, are married by 18; 15 percent of girls in rural areas across the country are married before 13; and 52 percent of girls have their first pregnancy between 15 and 19.

Or look at Sati an act whose practice and glorification has been banned on many occasions. Historically, efforts to prevent Sati by formal means were extent even before the Moghul rulers came to power. Yet as we all know and read about, sati still happens clandestinely in the country in conservative communities from time to time.

On the other hand, in matters of adoption, succession, divorce and many others including surrogacy society has moved far ahead but laws have not. The adoption laws for all but Hindus are antiquated; The Supreme Court of India, has only in 2007 accepted a petition to make provision for Christians to be able to adopt children legally and the journey ahead is long for Muslims who have not yet even begun. Similarly the divorce provisions for Christians which was codified in 1869 were modified only in 2003 to reflect modern social realities and again the journey has not even begun for Muslims. And then of course we have not even begun thinking properly about emerging areas like surrogate parenting and all that.

Some times I wish that the Uniform Civil Code hadn’t got bogged down in religion based politics and got buried for ever. While the men go and fight out petty battles to score petty points and bills keep pending in parliament, women and children suffer… like Manji, the daughter of Dr Yamada.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Zid karo : persevere and change your world

The Dainik Bhaskar group of newspapers is running an interesting advertising campaign titled "zid karo –duniya badlo" - persist and change the world. The campaign provides illustrations about how Indians have typically taken the path of least resistance in life – if you encounter a road that has been dug up, you take a different road… if eve teasing is prevalent, and you simply tell your daughter, sister, wife - whoever - to simply stay at home. Instead of trying to deal with the issue at hand…. The simpler thing of course is to simply evade the problem and seek out a short term solution.

Most of us I guess are busy getting on with our lives…. We are busy doing so many things that we have no time to get involved … and that is the honest truth. But equally true is the fact that in any society there are several competing voices clamoring for attention and each voice has its logic and rationale trying to justify why they alone should be heard and none other.

Change is only going to happen only when sufficient numbers of people join hands to draw attention to a mistake or an injustice or indifference on part of the state or others in authority. Some people may call it advocacy, some may call it lobbying. Further, some may be professionals whose job it is to draw attention to matters which are hitherto invisible like the media or it could be the ordinary citizen.

Because social change is slow in coming, most of us give up along the way. We live in a world where most of us are taught to expect rapid results or examine our methods. Persistence nor patience is not in our vocabulary. But as the Dainik Bhaskar campaign reminds us, perseverance is the key. "Zid karo aur karte raho ta key ek din duniya sunne ke liye majboor ho jaye" advises the narrator very wisely.

"Will I make a difference" is one question that we often ask as we mentally prioritize our day and push any thing that will not contribute to our career and the pursuit of creature comforts and carry on with life leaving the space of vocalizing demand and expressing concerns to fanatics of various shades- religious and other.

"Will I get the credit" is the other question that we ask and because most often the answer is no, we give up and get on with our life. Persistence is not an easy option at the best of times and the fact that often there are no tangible rewards to the time and energy expended is a good reason to opt out. But if there is one place where that well known quote that "there is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit" it is here – in the battle to make change happen, reform happen, behaviors change , obscurantist practices disappear and many other changes that are needed in our society.

Far too many things we leave to our leadership to act on – be it the political leadership or any other. But even the best of leaders will only act on the voices, demands and representations that are made to them. their opinions , views and decisions will be largely shaped by the many things they see and hear - some tangible, but largely intangible.

Silent whispers begin in the mind of one man or woman. That whisper over time can be magnified into a voice that cannot be easily ignored. A whisper can become a cry…a yell… a demand that cannot be easily put aside. Some times many whispers coalesce into one amplified note. But shaping and reforming of world views is not the matter of a day or even months… it can and usually takes years and that journey is filled with disillusionment, discouragement and jeering and criticism from those whose world views are being threatened. But as the Dainik Bhaskar advertisement reminds us, zid - that dogged perseverance and persistence that simply will not be cowed down is the way to go. If you want to change world views, opinions, thoughts, policies, laws. There is only one sustainable way - Persevere. "Zid karo aur duniya badlo…."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

India's tryst with abortion

When the Bombay High Court refused the plea of Niketa and Harish Mehta’s plea to be allowed to abort their unborn baby because of congenital defects in the fetus, they were of course merely stating the law. Perhaps the Mehtas were hoping that the court would interpret the law, which of course they did. But that has not solved the problem.

There are two aspects to abortion – moral and economic, and the Indian Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1972 presumably attempts to address both and does so partially in both cases. Prior to 1972, abortion was illegal in the country and so if people needed one - and they often did - they went off to a quack and had one. Don’t forget that abortion was (and still is) used largely as a birth control measure in India to prevent unwanted pregnancies; mostly in situations where contraception was unavailable. So the MTP act recognized this reality and laid down a lakshman rekha within which pregnancies could be terminated. Pro-Life or not, this act had a role to play; in fact, pro-lifers should actually thank the government for this law – before the law was passed, in every abortion at a charlatan’s shack, both mother and child could have perished; after the act was passed, at least the mother was given a chance to live.

Having said this much, it is however imperative to recognize that the moral dimension of the argument is as important – is in fact sacred and sacrosanct. The sacredness and sanctity of life before and after birth is important to affirm and uphold. It is because this sacredness is neither affirmed nor preached nor practiced that we willfully and deliberately in many parts of the country abort - now that technology has made it possible – our female fetuses without batting an eyelid. After all, if a fetus is only a bunch of cells and has no spark of life in it; why keep it if it does not meet my tastes? One is free then to pick and choose as per one’s taste.

It is this same lack of sanctity for life that contributes to violence in society. Life is a continuum –it is not a before and after story. If life is sacred and valuable and worthy of the protection of the state, it is worthy of protection all the time and not just after birth. Those who are willing to kill before birth will have no compunctions in killing after birth too- so we abort female fetuses before birth and ill treat them and rape them after birth; the unfinished task of killing and maiming that remained unfinished is completed in the cradle and beyond. The Bombay High Court has done right by affirming the sanctity of life in the Mehta case; but the institutions of State need to be proclaiming the same sanctity of life every time a case is brought for trial where some one is trafficked – a human being is bought and sold like chattels, every time there is a rape offender brought up for trial; every time a murderer is tried for his offense- the sanctity of life is a holistic ; it originates before the cradle and ends only at the grave – it does not end even in extreme infirmity.

But as I said, there is an economic dimension to abortion too and that too needs recognition. Many parents simply do not have the economic means to bring up a child which will need prolonged medical or other social support – they just do not have the money. They may recognize the sacredness of life, they may shudder at the thought of aborting their unborn child; but given the dire circumstances of their life they really do not know what to do. In the Mehta case, one of the Bishops of the Catholic Church in Mumbai appealed to the Mehtas not to abort their child and offered an adoption possibility through church run child care institutions. This was a fine gesture but clearly in a country of India’s size and scale not an adequate enough response. Clearly the economic constraints of the situation are typically not taken care of and without providing safety nets through innovative schemes of involving insurance, social security and other support mechanisms that both government and the various arms of civil society can provide, clearly laying down the law and enforcing it mechanically is not enough.

The Bombay High Court has done well in interpreting the law the way it has; by reinforcing the sanctity of life. But clearly it would have done better had it also directed the state to apply its mind on the economic and emotional aspects of bringing up a child with multiple deformities which can drain the resources of many a brave heart

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Do Bigha Zameen : A Modern Retelling

It is more than a matter of the 400 acres of land at Singur. The Tata plant running into labor trouble at Singur is an example of several tectonic shifts in our politics.

We have here a bizarre situation where a party committed to the welfare of the toiling masses provides police protection to a capitalist firm — after being accused of having acquired land by force using the party muscle to coerce the local “peasantry” into parting with it.

The peasants are being led by a party comprised of more or less one person, Mamta Bannerjee, whose ideology on most matters is unknown except that she loves to oppose any thing and any one with a passion. Of course, her supreme passion is to hate the Left Front. But, she opposed the Congress leadership when she was in it, opposed the NDA when she was part of it and retains an ambivalent relationship with it even now. And, of course, she opposed several in her own party who tried to give it an identity and an ideology.

The irony is probably all the more jarring because the Left Front’s once stellar record in land reforms must be staring it glaringly in the face. Although most of the country has passed laws paying lip service to the “land to the tiller” concept, it has been the earlier Left Front governments in the Jyoti Basu era that took the matter of land reform seriously and single mindedly pursued it.

“When Benoy Choudhury became Minister of Land and Land Reforms when the Left Front came to power in 1977 after two short earlier spells be began ‘Operation Barga’, Bargadar being the word used for sharecroppers who had no security of land. West Bengal’s reforms turned out to be the best land reform and distribution system in India. The so-called land reform schemes in the other states like U.P. and Bihar had just been a hoax, the landlords continued to rule their empire with an iron hand. Benoy Choudhury and the team he created saw to it that sharecroppers had tenure over their land and could not be evicted.”

From the time of Benoy Choudhury the journey was long. In the early days of Left Front rule, land reforms were of such high importance that in the West Benga “quota” of the CPI (M) politburo a seat was held by the land and land reforms minister and, of course, the portfolio itself was awarded to a senior minister. That the same “seat” is now occupied by the industry minister since the last party congress speaks a lot about the distance covered.

The situation of the Left is understandable. Industrialization may be a necessity, but it has to live up its own formidable legacy in giving land to the landless and not taking it away as it is doing now. The trouble is compounded by the fact that today there are no leaders of the stature of a Benoy Choudhury who would command the credibility that he and others like him with a mass base did. That would have allowed them to have communicated with the people in a vocabulary of their own and be believed. Today, the few mass leaders that the Left has are pygmies compared to the giants who preceded them.

And meanwhile, as the Left Front sorts out its fractured identity, we will be treated to the spectacle of the party of the “toiling masses” providing protection to merchant princes even as the Trinamool Congress, a part of the right-wing NDA committed to free enterprise, agitates for the aspirations of the poor. Keep your television sets on in the coming days. A “worker’s party” using police to keep agitating peasants at bay will be a sight to behold.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Story of London Tod Singh

On many television channels, the day of the confidence vote, the news coverage was accompanied by the jingle — “Singh is King” — the new movie starring Akshay Kumar coming up for release next week. Of course, many anchors were heard speculating as to which Singh was the king of the day – Manmohan Singh or Amar Singh.

But the original Singh who was “king” enough to be king maker passed away without fanfare last week. What impressed me, as I passed by the AK Gopalan Bhavan in New Delhi on Sunday where the body of Harkishen Singh Surjeet was kept for public viewing and last respects — at the CPI(M) office — was the vast number of peasants and workers who had come from far away places to pay tribute. Clearly this was spontaneous, no one had hired them to shed tears and wring their hands in mourning. The gesture from the large numbers of Sikh peasants in red turbans offering Laal Salaams was very genuine.

Harkishen Singh Surjeet was a key figure in crowning VP Singh, HD Devegowda, IK Gujral and the UPA. By default then, Manmohan Singh. Surjeet was perhaps more known as a deal maker par eminence in his latter years. However, he was still a deal maker with a difference – he personally remained spotlessly clean and though he presumably used all the methods in the book to get his job done, no gains ever personally accrued to him. His methods might or might not have been pure but in his thinking and ideology, his motives certainly were.

But going back in time, Harkishen Singh Surjeet’s early life, inspired by Bhagat Singh could be the stuff of myth, legend and cinema. After all Surjeet began his career as a member of Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha. On the first anniversary of his hanging as the Indian Express put it “… some of Bhagat Singh’s followers had decided to pull down the Union Jack and hoist the tricolor at the Hoshiarpur court. But when these people didn’t turn up, an enthusiastic teenager who incidentally had turned 16 that very day performed the act. When produced before the British magistrate, he stated his name as London Tod Singh (one who could demolish London).”

The story of Surjeet’s early life reminds us to actually take a look at the many ordinary people who took part in the freedom movement and often with significant daring but little or no recognition. Not, of course, that freedom fighters were looking for reward and recognition but the saga of London Tod Singh and many others are part of our freedom struggle and heritage which we know nothing about.

We are so fixated on leaders and political figures that we would make it appear that freedom was won by the individual acts of a few prominent figures. Obviously that was not so, but in the absence of any stories and anecdotes we do not know any better. How many more London Tod Singhs do we have in our midst? Sixty and more years after independence, certainly not many – if at all any. And then how many of us knew much about Surjeet’s extraordinary youth when he was still alive? Certainly not many.

We spend a lot of money tending to our tombs and mausoleums preserving a piece of our heritage. But clearly there is also a need to capture portions of our history while they are still amongst us. Or else they will be gone and we will be the poorer for it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Gulzar's Hu Tu Tu..... A Misplaced Idealism

In the midst of the 25 crore per MP conversation going on all over, I returned to Gulzar’s Hu Tu Tu, which explores political venality so well. Even the name of the film conveys a meaning – Nana Patekar, who etches a key role in the film explains that politics is like Hu Tu Tu – the Marathi name for Kabaddi- politicians grabbing, dragging and pulling each other down as often as possible and the one who pushes and shoves most successfully gets to win.

Gulzar’s film was made in 1999, close to a decade ago and watching it today, and then watching Parliament in session last week and then reading all these news pieces about the horse trading and the alleged barter of parliamentarians in 2008, it would lend credence to the quote that the more things change, the more they essentially they remain the same.

Since Hu Tu Tu, other films on a similar subject have been made - most notably recently Aamir Khan’s Rang de Basanti and Hazaron Khwaishen Aise- ­ all dealing with the same subject and delivering a similar message – that politicians are vile and that the youth are unsullied and pure and broadly sinless.

That conclusion is no longer entirely true unfortunately. Youth may be idealistic as they enter adulthood but if their seniors are sullied, it does not take too much time for the young people to be sullied too. To give an example, the emergency and the Total Revolution movement of JP brought to the fore front a whole generation of young people into politics – people who upset the hitherto followed caste and class equations in Indian politics. Leaders like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad and many others were products of the student movement offshoots of the JP movement. If they were ever inspiring idealists – even in their youth, that period of their life has been left long behind in shadowy mists. Here and there a Nitish Kumar or an Arun Jaitley might be different but no more.

Take a look at university life today to dispel any remaining myth that the youth of today are honest and idealistic and the grey haired seniors are alone the villains. University life today is not essentially about academics in several places; it is about delinquency of the worst order. Look at Lucknow University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Meerut, Agra and Patna Universities for examples.

So why are our movies so clear cut in their solutions – so black and white – young is good and noble – and old is dying and decaying? I guess it is because probably it is nice to throw some light of hope as you end a movie and hold up the youth as symbols of change and metamorphosis even if it is not entirely true. In all the movies cited, Hu Tu Tu, Rang De Basanti and Hazaron Khwaishein Aise, the young people are disgusted by the decadence all around and end up wielding the gun in quasi revolutionary style as if solutions to complex social and moral problems really lay in the barrel of a gun.

So am I some kind of prophet of doom, seeing gloom where others see different? Not really. I see hope; but the thing is I see hope every where- in the old and also in the young. To end with an example; in the recent parliamentary debate, I saw hope in the 80 year old Somnath Chatterjee and I saw hope in the 38 year old Omar Abdullah. Where I did not see hope was in the relatively middle aged 60 year old Prakash Karat, incidentally another product of the emergency era. Perhaps middle age indeed is the fountainhead of cynicism and the period to beware of.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Life in the ATM Mode

A blogging acquaintance of mine( I would love to have called him a friend but we have met just a couple of times !) is conducting an interesting experiment in living which interests me very much. He calls his experiment going “ off consumption” and he is doing some thing which I would love to imitate.

Gaurav Mishra is(was)- he is now a Yahoo fellow a young, single and very eligible IIM-educated, upwardly mobile marketer on the corporate fast-track in Mumbai, India’s business capital. With his education and potential he could have taken the route that most of his peers have. But then a bug bit him and for a year he decided to experiment with his life by going “ off consumption”. He would eschew materialism – if that is a good word to use, and not buy anything that was not an absolute necessity. He wanted to check out if the experiment would leave him ill-equipped to handle life and work in Mumbai or, will it leave him with invaluable insights into what drives us to consume, or not, into the nature of consumption, into human nature itself?

To quote Gaurav himself

When I passed out of IIM Bangalore six years back, and had some money for the first time, buying and owning things were important to me, if only to prove to myself that I could afford to. So, I set up a full household, acquired costly tastes, ate out five nights a week, and played host the other two nights. Basically, I spent the next six years spending as much money as I could, to make up for not having enough in the previous twenty one years.

Then, one day, I realized that I had run that race (with myself) and it had left me tired. I had already bought all the things and experiences I wanted, and even some I didn’t really want. I couldn’t really buy what I wanted anymore, because the things I wanted now could not be bought. My hierarchy of identities had changed; creating meaning, relating to people, and having life-changing experiences were more important to me now than owning things. So, I decided to stop buying things I didn’t need, go off consumption for a year, in the hope that a year of austerity would cleanse my soul.

Gaurav’s experience and experiment excites me because the conclusions that he has reached are perhaps nothing new – they are to be expected perhaps. At one level, he is a walking talking picture of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He has seen it, been there and now wants some thing different. He wants to live a different kind of life – a simpler less cluttered life may be but still not the life of an ascetic mind you. Gaurav describes the life that is to be ideally lived as one “that fits into a backpack, so that you are free to indulge your wanderlust, to travel the world in search of meaning, maybe even walk into the wild.”

This really enthuses me for that is the kind of way I would want to live my life. It is no longer fully possible Buddha like to just do that perhaps, for most of us and that is why the last we can do is to enjoy these delights vicariously. Meanwhile, Gaurav’s motivator – Ernie the attorney sums up the lifestyle that he describes as life in the ATM Mode :

  1. Minimize the amount of stuff that requires three-dimensional presence (I have to have a house and car or scooter etc, but keep that stuff to a minimum)
  2. Maximize the use of the Internet as a source for managing personal tasks, information, bank accounts etc.
  3. Constantly ask how to accomplish these goals, and don’t be afraid to try novel approaches; but don’t get bogged down experimenting with new approaches just because someone says they have promise.

Many of these things I do. A lot more I wish I could do. And because I can’t, I wish Gaurav’s experiment all possible success.