Wednesday, October 29, 2008

JNU Elections : Somethig to be learnt here

don’t think that the Lyngdoh commission had Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in mind when they put together the guidelines to manage university elections in the country. The much larger Delhi University certainly, and definitely the many universities of North India known for violent student unrest like Lucknow or Aligarh may be. But by putting in umbrella restrictions across the board, the commission’s dragnet has pulled in the elections of JNU, which although unabashedly elitist in character, were at least conducted in a manner that elections ought to be conducted any where- with reasoned debates and discussions and eminent speakers and thinkers pitching in for their respective ideologies and then of course- finally the vote.

Of course one could wonder what use debates on climate change or gender based budgeting or neo colonialism might be on a university campus where arguments ought to be about clean toilets or the quality of the mess food. But by raising issues in a campus election that are well above the narrow university or hostel interests, these elections having teaching us about what elections really ought to be – not quite forgetting the local muhalla politics, but very clearly recognizing that there is a bigger world out there and the concerns of that bigger world matter in our little world even if we don’t quite see that bigger world and don’t quite understand all that there is to understand about what goes on in it.

That education is important for all of us. For so often our elections are dominated by the pettiest of issues and the larger sense of connectedness, of belonging to a shared world, competing for shared resources and sharing a shared fortune escape us; for they are never discussed; never debated, never conversed; except in the paneled world of academics. And if at all, at any point, the common man gets to know that there is indeed a world outside his or her immediate domestic concerns, it is at election time, when people turn up, if not exactly at their door step, at least in the their neighborhood, and make speeches in which potentially at least, issues of global or national import can touched on.

I have never been enamored of the numerous street corner meetings that the CPI (M) and its partners routinely organizes all over Kolkata. The sound system is loud and crackly, the chairs are rickety and the seating and the crowds spill over out into the streets. But one thing the leftists have done – they have ensured through their dull, dowdy and yet well prepared speeches that even the casual passer by pausing for a few minutes is exposed to a grounding of world affairs that he on his own might never have got.

Admittedly the world view presented is biased and there is a lot more to be said on practically any subject than what the comrades present; but a kind of political education is beginning to happen. The speech and the conversation in these discourses isn’t about the shortage of rice in the ration shop alone though this too would be taken up. It is of course up to the other parties now to counter the leftist world view with other ways of looking at the world and how well they take up the cudgels and make use of this opportunity and that is a different matter. But an election based on rational argument and debate, rather than the battle of a bunch of goons and hoodlums is JNU’s contribution to India’s culture of elections… And that relatively important contribution is worth preserving; if only because the commodity is so scarce.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A ride to the moon

Last week, I was on my way to Champa, a small sized town in Chattisgarh. After I reached Raipur, my host told me that we would be staying over in Raipur for the night and then proceed in the morning. In the morning , I was presented two options ; either to travel via the highway via Bilaspur and face massive traffic jams or take unpaved roads through villages and have a relatively traffic free ride. The foot note was that the highway wasn’t great either – it was paved but in large chunks, there were potholes. There is no chance of them being repaired any time soon, while we were travelling, election dates in Chattisgarh were announced, the Model code of conduct kicked in and ensured that every thing and every one froze in its tracks.

The purpose of my visit was to examine a civil society initiative which has been working together with initiatives such and the government’s National Rural Health Mission, the World Bank funded Chattisgarh District Poverty Reduction Project and others to improve the quality of life in the area. Here we aren’t talking of quality life as in having access to credit cards, ATMs, broadband connections, mobile phone connectivity and all that. Champa and the district of Janjgir-Champa are known for deep-rooted social inequities and political realities which work towards extensive exploitation of tribal labor. Wage rates are low and differentiated between men and women. Even in agriculturally advanced areas, immigration keeps the wage rates depressed. Widespread incidence of bonded labor has been reported.

We were discussing all this stuff and the World Bank estimate that 80% of India’s 1.1 billion people live on less than $2 a day, meaning more than one-third of the world’s poor live here. One in three Indians lives on less than $1 a day, meaning they qualify as extremely poor. It was then that the news of our having launched the Chandrayyaan, India’s first unmanned space shuttle to the moon was launched to be greeted with hysteria and joy approaching the second round of nuclear explosions at Pokhran conducted by the NDA government. India Today’s Raj Chengappa compared the satellite to a comet and the sound of its rocket engines to the music of a Rock Band. The Times of India shrieked that Obama had stopped breathing in the middle of his campaign to take note and say that the launch was a wake up call for America and that from now on the US would have to sweat to retain its commanding leading the space arena. We read all that and then craned our necks out in to the star lit village night wondering if we would get a glimpse of the yaan as it swung by.

But this is not a matter of expending money on what one might say are India’s chronically deprived underbelly. Even as I write, the press is reporting about hoe the soldiers in Siachen are being issued old and even torn clothing because new one’s haven’t been procured and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report to parliament reveals that most of India’s submarine fleet is at the moment incapacitated and in the event of a war today, the Indian Navy is unlikely to be able to afford any protection to the country’s shores. With serious slippages in the induction plan, the navy is left with an ageing fleet with more than 50 percent of submarines having completed 75 percent of their operational life and some already outliving their maximum service life.

Well, from the point of view of scientific advancement, it may be very well and good to send a mission to the moon – not just an unmanned vehicle but even a manned vehicle. But what ought to be a nation’s supreme priority? Would it not be to ensure that its citizens live well, eat well and that it is capable enough to defend its borders and look after is soldiers who are deployed on is frontiers? In many ways unfortunately, the way we make political decisions on national spending is often dictated by emotion as if exploding a few bombs or sending up a man on the moon would make us world power. But the real indicator of a world power is not in this external symbolism but in how wealthy and happy and secure its citizens are – and it is to that end that we should be spending our resources.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Out to grab a billon votes

The agency Janagraha’s One Billion Votes campaign is timely. In particular it attempts to address the apathy that many middle class urban people demonstrate towards their civic duties and responsibilities while assuming naively that things would always work. The task is ambitious and labor intensive for the Jaago Re campaign does not merely educate the youth abut their fundamental duty as citizens to vote but also facilitates the process. Interested voters can actually enroll their names on line and then take a print out and submit the form to the local election office and Jagoo Re promises to track the applicant’s details till his or her name appears on the electoral rolls eventually.

The campaign has evolved from last year when it began airing advertisements on television provoking debates on the kind of politicians that should run the country and in what way they should be equipped in terms of education, experience and commitment. In a country where candidates are voted in either because of their personal charisma or their party affiliation, these were and are indeed path breaking questions and relevant across the country and not just the urban constituency where Janagraha is primarily engaged.

The advertisement now airing on television, challenges the youth to be involved in the decision making processes that go into shaping the manner in which the country is governed and begin doing that by not using the public holiday declared on election day to take in a movie or catch up with friends, but first do what is required – go and vote. The imagery use is strong : if one election day, you haven’t chosen to go and cast your vote and are instead doing other things, then you are asleep and need a wake up call is a strong one.

Hopefully the campaign will evolve further as Janagraha’s vision is much more than herding the electorate to the polling station, though that is a very important. Swati Ramanathan, the co founder of Janagraha states that a central tenet of their vision of democracy is that the electorate should not merely elect their representative but also remain engaged with them in the post election scenario and work to make elected representatives accountable and answerable on a long term basis.

How this is achieved will be an object of interest to many ; after all a major reason for the apathy of many towards the electoral process is that irrespective of who is elected, there is no institutional and formalized mechanism to enforce accountability from the elected representative. Once elected, the chasm between the electorate and the politician invariably widens to the point the electorate has little access to the one he or she has elected. Possibly these concerns will find expression in Janagraha’s other efforts in advocacy ; another of their thesis is that India’s ddemocratic institutions and processes are out-dated and do not adequately reflect the progressive needs of India of the 21st century, Janaagraha’s advocacy efforts are focused on structural reforms. For scalable, sustainable change most of the reforms require institutional change backed by appropriate statutes, policies and procedures.

While this campaign caters to the entire nation, certain services of the website will initially be available for those residing in the top 35 Indian cities and towns (7 Metros and 28 Class 1 towns), which account for 30% of the urban population. Going forward these services will be made available across the country in a phased manner.

The partnership with Tata Tea will facilitate the process and provide all the necessary support needed for the mammoth project. It is a perfect example of corporate-public partnership aimed at bringing about meaningful change in the society and possibly will model a meaningful kismet connection between a corporate entity, civil society and the common man.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waking up to Tata Tea

As elections begin appearing on the horizon, two socially relevant advertisements are being aired on television. Both are sponsored by Tata Tea and are a good blend of brand promotion and social content. In one of them, a candidate seeking votes approaches a home in the typical loud and boisterous style. He is asked by the young man in the house to explain his qualifications, area of competence and work experience. The politician guffaws loudly walks out asking if he was being interviewed for a job as in the background, the young man counters that indeed he was foe the politician was in the running for the biggest job of them all… the job of wanting to run a whole nation.

There is another one. In this, it is election day and a bunch of young people are hanging around making plans; no not about elections or voting or any thing like that. They are planning some thing else. They are planning to go to a movie; making the most of the public holiday that election day is. When a bunch of activists go up to them and ask them to have some tea and wake up, one of the girls perks up to say “I am not sleeping, OK? The deftly delivered punch line is “election ke din, agar aap vote nahin de rahein hain, to aap so rahein hain”.

Tata Tea’s partnership with the group Jaago Re is worth recounting. As indeed is the extremely noteworthy mission of registering and motivating one billion people or the whole of India’s adult population to vote and helping them to do so with practical tips and help. The creatively produced film is so refreshing because it makes social advertising so different from the normal patronizing messages from celebrities that we are so used to – remember Shahrukh Khan or Amitabh hectoring reluctant parents to take their kids to the immunization booth for their polio drops as the UNICEF logo hovers in the background?

The reputation and production levels of government sponsored (mostly) social messages and advertisements was such that in the days, when they were aired before the commencement of movies in cinema halls (in the pre television era mostly), people would try and time their entry into the halls after they were over. Dull and dowdy and extremely preachy in tone, they would talk down at the audience in an extremely patronizing and moralizing tone and probably put off even those inclined to listen.

By establishing and building on the link between waking up to one’s social responsibilities and waking up in the morning to a cup of Tea – (Tata Tea of course !), the commercial brand is introduced unobtrusively into the message without it ever appearing to be forced or artificial. In fact, in the film, those who are found to be oblivious of their social responsibilities as citizens of the country are deemed to be sleeping and in dire need of a cup of tea so that they can wake up and begin shouldering their duties as citizens, in the first instance by exercising their right and duty to vote! Tata Tea incidentally has produced other films with a similar mix – notably one dealing with poor road construction and another dealing with the meance of pan stains in public buildings and offices. Watch them and enjoy with a sip of Tata Tea !

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Death by Delay : The Clogged Legal System

The news that Justice Mohapatra probing the Kandmahal disturbances in Orissa has said up front that his enquiry would take a year or more even before he has started on the job is disturbing. Of course it is the norm in India for justice to crawl at the pace of a snail and for verdicts to be delivered at a glacial pace but in this instance; none can be blamed if they begin to suspect that here is a case where a kind of verdict has been delivered even before it has begun. For who knows what the political landscape will look like in a year’s time? General Elections would have been held by then and a new government would have come into power.

Is that what the Navin Patnaik government counting on? Hoping that the typical delays of Commissions of Enquiry coupled with a changed political climate would render the findings of the commission toothless? After all, the instances where enquiries have lingered are legion. The first Justice Nanavati Commission that probed the 1984 anti Sikh riots submitted its report in 2005 after 10 extensions. This was obviously years after the event when many key figures were dead or in oblivion. The Nanavati commission appointed to probe the Godhra train accident asked for 12 extensions and submitted its report six years after the accident, just weeks ago. The Liberhan commission has notched up 16 years of existence and earlier this month was given its 47th extension. There is no assurance that this would be the last.

Of course it is easy enough to exploit loopholes in the legal system, when in any case it is drowning and choking under inherent systemic flaws. The Supreme Court Registry reports that at the end of August 2008, close to 48,000 cases were awaiting a verdict from the highest court in the land. As on Jan 31, 2007, a total of 40,243 civil and criminal cases were pending there and according to statistics, the no. of such cases was around 29,000 in the start of the year 2006.

Further, as you go down the ladder, the situation gets more and more alarming. Available data shows that a total of 3,991,251 cases (3,287,037 civil cases and 704,214 criminal cases) were still pending in 21 high courts of the country till Dec 31, 2006. Pendency in subordinate courts had increased from 2.04 lakh in 1999 to 2.57 lakh in 2005. In 2006, the figure has slightly come down to 2.49 lakh. According to a rough and ready calculation, at the current speed, the lower courts, may take 124 years for clearing the cases, currently pending.

As legal education takes root in the country, it is only to be expected that litigation will slowly increase and it therefore important to ensure that alternate dispute resolution mechanisms be looked at and popularized. Some of course like the lok adalats and the consumer courts have gained some currency but their full potential is yet to be realized; a few others like arbitration have never been very popular except among corporate disputes. Many other traditional methods of arbitration and dispute resolution are outmoded and increasingly out of date. The typical reaction – to increase the number of courts, judges et al is only a partial solution as this route will only keep increasing the burden on the tax payer and the exchequer. Till that time, and till an alternate dispute resolution mechanism comes together, justice delayed will continue to be justice denied – whether it is in a politically motivated enquiry commission or the pettiest of cases in the small causes court.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Monsters in the Mind

Since wars begin in the minds of men…, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” – So begins the loftily worded preamble of UNESCO in defence of its mandate to further the cause of education and culture around the world. And perhaps justifiably so…. any one who has read the latest India Today issue peeping into the minds of terrorists, Zia ur Rehman, Sauquib and Muhammad Shakeel can find it to be quite a terrifying read.

The three are a chilling example indeed of how war or terror – whatever be its ultimate expression does indeed begin in the minds of humans. But the worrying thing is that the armaments necessary for such a battle are not readily available in the country and so this decisive battlefield may be getting conceded by default. If the mind is the decisive battlefield where things happen, then some attention needs to be paid to the mind of the Indian people and its health.

But what has the mnd got to do with rising fanaticism and one of the most visible manifestation of which is terror ? has got to do with the matter of terrorism, you might ask. Well look at this : According to a study on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children and adolescents affected by the communal violence in Gujarat, conducted in February 2006 by mental health professionals belonging to the Psychiatry Department of B J Medical College and Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad, close to five percent of the 255 interviewed showed signs of the disorder even four years after the riots; 9.4 per cent suffered from depression.

The genesis of the study in itself points to a problem that has up till now been more or less ignored. According to Dr G K Vankar, head of the psychiatry department at the Civil Hospital and the principal author of the study, the research was done on the request of the non-government organisation Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). The organisation’s staff, who works with the riot-affected, felt that several children had become “rebellious”, says Vankar. “The children were not obeying their mothers, they were not studying,” he adds.

How far of a journey is from the pain and the traumatic scars of the riots to the jihadi uncovered by India Today? Not very long it would seem “We’re all equals in the jihad for Allah, but I was associated longer with the Allah ke bande (men of God). He was happy with the way things were happening. A handful of Allah ke bande were able to paralyse the economic life of such a big country by targeting metros and nothing much could be done about it. We gave back what we were getting from them,” Shakeel says.

Could we have done any thing to retard the spread of hatred and fanaticism ? May be , if you see that a lot of indoctrintation and brain washing happens in a context where the mind is often unble to make discerning judgements and think for itself, allowing one to implant alien ideas and giving them a welcoming home

If we consider that nearly two third of persons with known mental disorders never seek help from health professionals, that is a large number. Most others utilize the services of other agencies and resort to harmful practices and keep on visiting faith healers and delay the treatment till the condition deteriorates which compels them to seek the treatment from established institutions. Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment reaching people.

7 percent of Indians, or around 7 crore people, suffer from mental disorder in one or the other form, but the healthcare facilities are woefully inadequate. Describing the situation as serious rights issue, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken up the matter with the Medical Council of India (MCI).

Well with psychiatric conditions and mental illnesses slowly creeping up the statistical ladder, it is good that that the Human Rights Commission is taking cognizance of the fact. One only hopes that it will do more than talk to the generally somnolent Medical Council and find some more active players to take note of this monster in the mind.

The views expressed in this post ar

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Miley Sur...... Mera Tumhara

I still remember the public service advertisement that Doordarshan once aired (miley sur mera tumhara…) kind. Such advertisements still air of course except that I like many millions don’t want watch Doordarshan any more or listen to All India Radio any more. Most of these advertisements were rather staid and dowdy and there was not much to commend them. Except of course the message itself. In those innocent days, we used to laugh at them and try to take a break when they came on. But I miss them now and miss them horribly. Growing up sneering at those famous “unity in diversity” advertisements and social studies lessons, any time and every time I came across them, I realize what a purpose they served and perhaps silently and unobtrusively, even in the midst of seeming derision, these messages served to knit the heart of the country together.

Perhaps those who listened and imbibed those messages inspite of every thing had managed to keep the country around and united all these years. Those advertisements came to mind again after I heard of Harbhajan Singh being censured by first the Sikhs and then the Hindus for his act of “glorifying” Ravana through his actions on a television dance show recently. It made me stop and think as to how thin the walls of tolerance are in our country today. Of course the morality brigade on Valentine’s day has always been there but preoccupied these days by our following the increasing intolerance towards Muslims and Christians, we have forgotten the chilling fact, that these days it is not enough any more to be a Hindu alone in this supposedly tolerant of other Hindu beliefs, Hindu majority secular country. No – indeed you have to be a particular kind of Hindu.

This is no defense for Harbhajan Singh and Mona Singh and their conduct. Personally I would say that shows like Ek Khiladi Ek Hasina suck any way and ought to be condemned to death for their crassness any how, whether or not the duo purported to be Ravana and Sita jamming on stage. But, Ravana has been glorified before – by Periyar Ramasway of the Dravida Kazakham in anti brahminical protests and who saw Ram as a literary and religious symbol of bigoted racism and saw the tragedy of Ravana and Sita as symbolic of the plight of the millions of Dravidians in India who were stripped off their Dravidian (Tamil) language and victimised by the caste system as Shudras (lower castes) and Panchamas (outcast - untouchables).

Even concluding that Periyar was an unconventional man and an iconoclast, it speaks of the tolerance of the times that he was able to speak and talk and write thus. Besides Periyar, even in the main stream of Hindu thought Ravana was and is eulogized in places and even this year he was honoured and praised in Allahabad as a learned Brahmin following a tradition that reports say go back at last 500 years.

For that matter, you have to be a particular kind of Muslim too to count as one. Zia Ur Rehman, one of the terrorists nabbed from Jamia Nagar and interviewed by India Today. Zia spits at hi father’s conventional piety and says that he (his father) does not know Jihad for Allah and that he would happily plant a bomb in the market where his mother buys her daily provisions because she would get a fast track to jannat that way. Peering into the mind of the young jihadists caught in Delhi is a scary thing, for what you get there is not only a particular brand of religion that they practice but also a brand that refuses to acknowledge that there is any place in the sun for any thing that is not just like them and their way of life. Scary isn’t it?

Miley Sur, Mera Tumhara the advertisement or even the song might be passé, but I guess that the relevancy of the song is probably more today then when it was first composed and sung. For even as I write and you read, almost every thing around us is all set to divide, fragment and fracture that reclusive “unity in diversity” that we once so much took for granted.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fading Glory: Moving On and Rocking On

Saurabh Ganguly’s decision to retire from all forms of international cricket reminds me of the late Vijay Merchant, a renowned cricketer of his time and the time he chose to retire – at the peak of his career. When asked by a reporter as to “Why” Merchant turned around and told the reporter that the reason was precisely that – he wanted people to speculate constantly as to “Why”, why did Merchant retire, and not go on till the point when people began asking the question Why Not”- why is this man Merchant carrying on endlessly, when he so obviously has passed his prime?

Vijay Merchant obviously had a point but it seems when applied to Ganguly, every thing is not quite black or white- every thing is a shade of grey and looking around it seems that both sets of questions – “why” and “why not” are being asked. Did he retire too early or too late? When is it ever the right time to retire? Is there any? Should one go on for ever or if not for ever, for as long as one can, if one is clear about what will be possible and what will not be?

Taking the topic of retirement beyond Saurabh Ganguly to the common man, the discomfort of retirement today is magnified by the fact that whereas life expectancy across most sections of society has increased astoundingly, the skills that one brings to the table typically gets obsolete far more rapidly. So what is one to do? one wants to work for as long as on can, both for fulfillment, pleasure as well as the sheer necessity of earning a living for the long years that one has now to live and without the definitive assurance of any support or assistance from one’s children as was the expectation in the old days.

One can of course choose not to retire and continue on in oblivion driven and motivated by created urges provided one has the resources to do so. Dev Anand would be a suitable example. In the fifties and sixties, he was part of the trinity of Hindi Film heroes including Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and himself. Today Raj Kapoor is dead, Dilip Kumar is retired but Dev Anand at 86 has just started his new film Chargesheet and post that, he has already thought through the subject of his new film after that based on Pandit Ravi Shankar. In many ways Dev Anand has grown irrelevant as hardly any ones watches his films any more and one never knows when his film is released and where. And yet Dev Anand goes on and he has said many times over that he has no plans to retire from film making. Ever. Period.

In the end perhaps, may be we should not be talking of retirement but of retooling, of moving on into new and more relevant things … but not fading out into oblivion. Today’s generation does not value age or experience much … and yet the discernment that age brings, that experience brings, can never be replicated through case studies and lecture notes. After all life can not be simulated… it has to be lived in real time… and so be it Saurabh Ganguly or Dev Anand or the common man… We sooner or later need to vacate wherever we are now and yet as we move on… we can still ensure that we still Rock On……

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Tears are Salty

Gulzar’s then well received film “Namkeen” was released way back in 1982. The film has a cast of woman characters and the lead is Waheeda Rehman, a spectacled old lady led into manual labor by the vagaries of her husband, a sarangi player who is insatiably addicted to alcohol and the rural theatre of nautanki and though not explicitly stated, to the debauched life that such artistes were generally understood to be attracted to.

There is certain helplessness, hopelessness and a sense of doom about the manner in which the three daughters of Waheeda – Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi and Kiran Vairale carry themselves that is jarring. . Because of course, if women are really the burden they are shown to be in the film and as their own mother understands them to be, then no amount of legislation will effectively deal with the matter of women’s’ empowerment.

Waheeda’s constant lament about the “burden” of three daughters also grates for it is really a matter of how those three women who otherwise come through as extremely capable and competent have been socialized by their own mother. In her prime, Waheeda herself used to perform in Nautankis with the quick silver name of Jugnu. Undoubtedly, a burnt and singed Waheeda kept the girls in a quasi purdah and away from the beckoning arms of the nautanki arc lights but did she really succeed? Of course not.

All three daughters are maimed by this mania- Shabana very literally as the girl who can write exquisitely beautiful poetry but cannot speak, the spunky Kiran Vairale, who is the picture of docile obedience and dogged rebellion at the same time and of course Sharmila, the text book woman of sacrifice but whose sacrifice not only leaves her own life incomplete but also avails little in the context of the family she struggles to protect.

The story of Namkeen could have been a lot different if the notions of sacrifice – especially meaningless sacrifice and almost always by women had not been so prevalent. The matter of sacrifice – just how important is this or the survival of a family, a society? a society that is entirely sold over to the notion of self satisfaction is of course a matter of concern but is a society that is morbidly crucifying itself, particularly the woman are, just how healthy is that ? Is it a virtual replay of the notion of Sati- then an incineration of the body and today a casting out to the ashes of one’s emotions – a more repetitive act? - is after all a woman’s happiness in particular a trifling thing and can be and should be and is some thing that can be and is something to be glossed over? Come to think of it, just how prevalent is the notion of self giving, self effaces effacing sacrifice today? Or is something that was prevalent in the 80s of the last century and then quietly disappeared like a silent mist?

Unfortunately in society there are no grey areas for behavioral norms - all conduct and more so for women has to be interpreted in black or white although most of life is actually grey and the movie indicates that the taste of life and its inevitable tears is neither sweet nor sour… it is simply salty.