Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When ambition goes awry

" Company Limited” is on three films that Satyajit Ray made on the effects of big city life on an individual. The effects are mostly negative and this film studies how naked and ruthless ambition can erode a man’s moral and ethical character. Needless to say, this sort of temptation to get ahead of your fellow rival is something that is innate to man, but perhaps the tendency and the temptation to “keep up with the Jones” is stronger in the cities where Jones is more often your colleague sitting across the table.

So, Shyamal, a middle ranking officer in a Kolkata based company making ceiling fans aspires to become a Director on the Board. But there are other aspirants too and one of them has a relative on the Board already and so Shyamal has to play his cards really well. Observing all this is his sister in law, who idealizes her brother in law and is in awe of him. Shyamal too dotes on her and is thrilled when he learns that she is coming to visit and stay with them for a while.

When all is going well, comes the bad news. A consignment of fans meant for export has been found to be defective and has to be recalled. This is a crippling setback because as per the terms with the contractor, any delays would render the deal null and void. After studying the fine print, Shyamal discovers the loop hole. If production were to be halted due to a “force majeure”, something beyond his immediate control, then the company is not liable for damages.

Shyamal moves further to exploit this loophole. In collaboration with a labor union leader, he engineers unrest in the factory – not a difficult thing to do in Bengal at the best of times. An explosion occurs and a faithful watchman dies and in the midst of the chaos, the company declares a lock out shutting down the factory for a time. Everyone is happy or so it seems. The labor union get some of their demands met as a quid pro quo, the company is not required to pay any damages due to the delayed shipment and of course Shyamal gets his promotion as a reward.

Shyamal’s adoring sister in law sees her idol fall from the pedestal; but more importantly Shyamal sees himself fall from in his eyes. It is said that when you fall in the esteem of others, you can with effort rise back again, but when you have fallen in your own esteem, it is an inestimably difficult task to brush aside the debris and rise again from where you fell.

The film shows what ambition can do to you ; transform you from a gentle soul into a insensitive , callous and charming intriguer , who has no regret or remorse even if people are killed as part of the plot to go further in life and career. And the indifference and annonynimity of the city only fuels this dehumanization.

Change happens slowly; and often like Shyamal’s sister in law; it is often the people we betray who detect the earliest signs of our change and decay.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A middle class girl

“And Quiet Rolls the Day” was a Bengali movie made in 1979; but the story line and the ambivalent attitude of society towards women who go out to work will not go out of date any time soon. May be in the cities, it assumes a different form and expression; but nevertheless the reality doesn’t go away. In the film, a lower middle class family is dependent on their elder daughter’s income. The father is retired with a meager pension, their elder son is one of the ranks of the “educated unemployed” and the other siblings are still in school. On one particular night, the girls do not return home at her usual time from work and the family routine is upset.

Each one reacts in their own way and once again as in many occasions in life, there aren’t any black and white answers. The father walks down to the bus stop and scans every bus that stops and discharges its passengers till the last one has gone by. He is as much worried as a father, a s by the unspoken elephant in the room: has something happened to their daughter – an accident may be? If so, how would they manage their family budget now, without her income? But of course he doesn’t say it; to do so would be tactless. The father is one who cuts a decidedly sorry figure; as the one with the most moral authority in a patriarchal society, he nevertheless has very little actual power; given that he earns but a pittance through his pension and it is his daughter who provides for the household- a reality that he still has not been able to fully internalize.

The mother is able to give vent to her fears a little more transparently; she has no appearances to keep up. She is also relatively immobile; not physically but socially. Norms dictated that women of her generation rarely if ever ventured out of the house, so she cannot go and wait at the bus stop and vent her anxiety that way. All she can do is to express her veiled fears to the other children in the house. The fears are the same as those of her husband though – there is motherly love, but more importantly the larger survival question – what if an accident has happened and she is dead or maimed … how will they live without her salary. As a woman, she has other fears too; has her daughter a boy friend, a lover / has she run away with him? None of these fears are expressly articulated though; but they are subliminally conveyed.

It is interesting to see the way the younger siblings react. One of the sisters goes to a nearby shop which has a telephone and tries to call her sister’s office; the phone rings and rings but of course no one answers. The younger brother goes to the police station and eventually the morgue; just in case she is the unidentified accident victim whom the police have recorded earlier in the day.

In the midst of all this chaos, the girl turns up home just before dawn and immediately the focus of the story changes. The unspoken question: where was the girl the previous night? Given the family’s economic dependence on the daughter, the question is never voiced openly; but suspicious glances and inquiring looks abound. The girl herself offers no explanation. Eventually, the landlord goaded on by his other tenants , comes and loudly tells the girl’s father that they should vacate the palce soon as his house was meant for rent to “decent” people and not for families where daughters were “loose”. So I guess , Indian women ( may be other women too ?), are stuck between a rock and a hard place, often families need their earnings to live on or else they would be doomed to destitution ; and yet , they are expected to abide by norms of behavior codified generations earlier and which do not really work any more…. It is a complicated time … a society in transition indeed…..

Friday, November 13, 2009

A sad Bengali movie

For the last few months, I have not written anything; my blog page has been vacant all this while. But I have been watching and reading a lot. Watching a lot of movies – the dull, grainy black and white Bengali movies of the seventies and eighties of the kind that Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and others used to make.

Along the way, I must say that I have learnt a lot about the times in which my parents grew up in and the happenings that shaped their lives and why they behaved they way did on so many occasions. I also discovered that many of those so called “art movies”- parallel cinema as they call them these days struck a chord with me. The movies were usually dark, gloomy and had sad endings; but more of that later; but one could identify with the characters – they thought and behaved and acted like people I would know. They were not all black or all white. But rather like the color of the film in which they were filmed, they were various shades of grey.

This has been an important experience for me for my father spoke little of what his life as a young man was like and watching these classics from decades long gone by have helped me to try and understand the world as perhaps he might have understood it.

The film “Distant Thunder” is one that I particularly like to remember for it tells so poignantly that words like globalization might be of very recent coinage; but the events that make it all up have always been there. “Distant Thunder” is the story of the effects of the Second World War on an obscure Bengal village with the scarcity of food grain, the consequent rise in prices and all of that leading up to what is now widely known as the Great Bengal Famine which according to official figures alone killed 1.5 million people between 1942 and 43.

In the film (and the book of the same name), the principal characters know very little about the war and where the fighting is happening. The “distant thunder” alluded to is the drone of fighter planes overflying the village as move on to the war theatre in Singapore where the Allied forces and the Japanese were locked in battle. In fact, no one in the village really knows where a Singapore I located; their world revolves around their village and a few neighboring ones; the rare villager has even visited Kolkata, the state capital. In a casual conversation when one of the villagers asks where this Singapore is, the one man who knows is at a loss to explain. He finally says that Singapore is a little East of Midnapore – the district head quarters which the village has heard of but again very few have visited.

Although the Bengal famine is now part of Bengal’s racial memory and of all those who lived through it, it has not received the attention or empathy that it perhaps deserved. The partition and the misery and violence it caused received a lot more attention and visibility from the political leadership and the media of the day and the BBC has as late as in 2008 described the famine as an event that we forgot to remember. To that extent perhaps, people like my father who were of that generation and perhaps knew of friends and relatives who were affected by the famine, perhaps lived with wounds that never healed……and may be never will….

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In search of famine ...

Many years ago, the renowned Bengali film maker, Mrinal Sen made a film titled “Akaler Sandhane” (In search of Famine). The film, rich in symbolism is about a film unit who travels to a remote Bengal village to make a movie on the Great Bengal Famine of 1942. This was a man made famine as food was diverted from the market to provide supplies to the Allied armies involved in the Second World War. At the conclusion of the war, the famine inquiry commission estimated that 1.5 million people had died in the period due to lack of food. This is now widely accepted to be a very low and inaccurate estimate and today, it is guessed that the figure might be 3-4 million, since a vast majority of the people died in the country side without their names appearing on any official record.

Coming back to the film. The unit is off to a remote village and they have hired a manager to take care of the logistics. He would be responsible for arranging board and accommodation while the unit would be busy filming. Initially, the movie makers are welcomed enthusiastically; but then things happen. As the Unit manager goes shopping in the tiny village market he is buying up most of the products in the market. An artificial shortage of food items begins to occur and pushes the cost of food items beyond the reach of the ordinary villager, thus creating an artificial food shortage and a famine of sorts. Meanwhile, the Unit carries on with its filming oblivious to the local food shortages and tensions that they are generating as they dig up the past…. Many of the affluent villagers who are grumbling today are actually the children of war profiteers – those who prospered by hoarding food grains, selling them at inflated prices as their fellow men died around them – and then by buying up their property at throw away prices.

The film unit people are essentially decent people; they are just getting on with their lives and doing what they came to do, viz. make a film. If their presence is causing food prices to rise, if their probing into history is causing old ghosts to surface and haunt ; if poor people are being put to hardship because the rather extravagant consumption of the film crew has created shortages , well they are quite ignorant about the consequences their way of life on others.

Considering that India is now passing through a time where half the country is drought hit, it seems pertinent that the other half of the country and for the moment it includes me and practically every one that I know is living like the film unit in Mrinal Sen’s film unit; living our own lives and doing so in relative comfort while others commit suicide or starve at our doors.

Very often we tend to demonize the hoarder, the black marketer and the profiteer, the ones who very obviously and blatantly prosper while others suffer; but it is not too often that we ponder over the choices that we make in our lives and how it might affect others. In that sense, while we may not be breaking any laws of the land; in terms of what we consume and how much, we may well be lacking in moral sensitivity. But then , perhaps that is another story…..

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ji Huzoor Democracy

India recently celebrated (or is it observed?) its 62nd independence day and the Prime Minister dutifully addressed the people from the Red Fort. Another few months, it will be Republic day time and we will up celebrating the installation of democracy. And yet we find that democracy in India, while better evolved than many others in the neighborhood, is still rooted in feudalism. How else can we explain or understand the fact that the Rajasthan government is demanding that bureaucrats and other employees stand up when public representatives, including MPs or MLAs, arrive. “Officers (IAS, RAS) should get up from their seat when Member of Parliament (MPs) or Member of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) visit their chambers and see them off with great respect and dignity,” sources said in Jaipur on Tuesday (September 1), quoting an official order issued by the Administrative Reforms and Coordination Department. A government order threatens that if they don't, adverse entries will be recorded in their annual appraisals.

Feudal traits in our democracy obviously have other and perhaps more sinister manifestations. If Narendra Modi was able to ban Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah simply because it allegedly contains “objectionable remarks” against Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and reaches “whimsical conclusions” about the Freedom movement, this is because other parties and other state governments have banned works of history on grounds that were equally capricious. In 2004, the Congress-NCP coalition in Maharashtra imposed a ban on James Laine’s scholarly biography of Shivaji. This after goons, who obviously had the protection of the state establishment, had vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune where Professor Laine had done some of his research. Elsewhere in India, uber-regionalists, hyper-nationalists and religious fanatics pose as self-appointed guardians of literary, historical or religious icons and threaten violence on authors, playwrights, actors, artists, poets and musicians who do not conform to their hagiographic standards. The slightest deviation from the norm in representation or analysis is treated as blasphemy, defamation. And, in the absence of the rule of law being properly enforced, writers and cultural workers are forced to appease their extremist detractors.

62 years after independence during which we have only seen a steady consistent decline in the quality of our politicians, it has now dawned upon them that respect needs to be demanded rather than commanded. Isn't it a shame that the very politicians whom we elect as our representatives are more concerned about the treatment and the respect meted out to them by the government babus rather than keep an eye over the work that the bureaucrats are entrusted to carry out in public service. Lord Meghnad Desai has an interesting take on this. Writing in the DNA Newspaper, he observes that the Indian State has actually regressed over the last 60 years and observes that India was a modern polity in the 1950s and even before Independence had a well functioning legislature but has now become a feudal democracy with legislators behaving like minor rajas and nawabs.

Not that the rest of the world isn’t noticing. The Economist Intelligence Unit has developed a Democracy Index in 2007 and has been tracking the evolution of democracy worldwide since then. India is placed along with many others – Israel ,Sri Lanka , Indonesia, Philippines for instance as a country with a flawed democracy with a ranking of 35 out of 167 countries surveyed ( North Korea hits the 167th spot , Sweden the 1st and India’s bête noir – Pakistan the 108th spot in the 2008 ranking). While our relatively high ranking may be of some comfort, the fact remains that we are still considered a flawed democracy and that is something to worry about.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Needed : A space for Independents

Jaswant Singh is not contemplating retirement from active politics and the RSS or anyone else isn’t working out a rehabilitation package for him, presumably he is doing some thinking and chintan of his own. And wondering what the options before him might be – he hasn’t had much experience in party hopping; having served the BJP for the last thirty years. The publicly extended invitation to him join the Samajwadi Party is one option of course , but one can’t really stomach the thought of the urbane and very proper Jaswant Singh to share television space with the likes of Amar Singh and his party. Just as an aide memoire, one of the Samajwadi Party’s objectives as outlined in its last election manifesto was to minimize the use of English(since an outright ban is not viable any more) and to bring back more babus who would then replace computers and other more efficient technology; ostensibly to create more jobs.

And that might be Jaswant’s biggest problem ; the educated and articulate don’t have much in the way of choices; given the fact that they have an image of integrity , consistency and honesty which they would not only like to protect but also live by. Typically, for instance , a man of Jaswant’s liberal and broad minded views would be best comfortable in the Congress. But for reasons best known to him, he c hose to join the BJP and stay on there for all these decades till his recent expulsion. We would expect a typical opportunist to cozy up to any party willing to now welcome him – as say as his erstwhile colleague Kalyan Singh has done by joining Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party. But while, one may have such expectations from Kalyan , most of Jaswant’s supporters, and needless to say the man himself in all probability would be mortified at the thought of kow towing to Mulayam or the Congress. And so Jaswant Singh finds himself an unattached independent member of parliament; which is not such a bad thing in itself, but for the fact that in our political landscape, there is little space for independent members.

One of the difficulties in our system is that there is little space available to the independent member who usually is forced to fade away into oblivion. Members of parliament , who are unattached to a political party have very little scope to play any meaningful role in shaping or influencing public policy or even speaking in parliament debates, no matter how outstanding a parliamentarian one might be. Witness the fate of Private Members Bills in parliament. Although in theory , parliament can take up for consideration and even enact legislation by discussing and then passing them, the fact is that Parliament passes very few private bills. According to constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap, only 14 private members’ bills have been passed in India so far.

The fact that the culture of independent politicians cannot often make any visible impact in the running and governance of the state usually keeps many meritorious people out of politics and parliament as several such people would not like to subvert their thinking and beliefs to the ideology of any particular party. Over the years, the country has failed to benefit from the experience and wisdom of many people ; because typically to enter parliament, contest elections and make one’s presence felt, one has to be aligned to one or the other political party. Even as look at reforms in several areas of our national life, we need to work at creating a role and promoting a culture where independent parliamentarians are given the opportunity to be part of nation building and law making without depending on the crutches of political parties of one hue or the other.

The right kind of heroes

Many of us might have been following the news pertaining to the members of the judicial community in India trying for a long time; not to make their financial assets public in spite of an increasing demand to do so. That they eventually agreed was not so much a voluntary act in the usually understood sense of the term; rather it was more of a capitulation to a growing chorus of public opinion. Though a large number of the establishment seemed to side with the judges – the government tied to introduce a bill that would make it unnecessary for the judges to disclose their worth.

The wide acclaim with which the Supreme Court’s final decision that the judges would up details about their assets on the Supreme Court website shows one thing very clearly; we love transparency. Whether it is in public life, or insurance forms, or anything else. We like things out in the open and people who live at the tax payers expense to be accountable; especially when the judiciary is no longer pristinely pure and the news of their misdemeanors are frequently reported in the media. In fact, the former Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India S. P. Bharucha had suggested that up to 20 per cent of judges in India were corrupt and that was a while ago. There is no reason to believe that things are necessarily any different.

It is in this context that the act of Justice D V Shlyendra Kumar of the Karnataka High Court and Justice K Kannan of Punjab and Haryana High Court who went ahead and unilaterally declared their assets without any pressure to do so must be lauded. They are truly brave hearts. After all, the Indian establishment has an elephantine memory and long after the public adulation has faded, their act of displeasing the Chief Justice of India, might have cost them their promotions as Chief Justices in the High Courts or elevation to the bench of the Supreme Court.

If we are going to have more such brave hearts in our midst; or even want to have the days and years to come, it seems that we need to learn to honor and cherish them – not in the sense of giving them awards and medals , but by giving them an abiding space in the public memory. That unfortunately rarely happens. Rogues and criminals like Abdul Karim Telgi of the stamp paper scandal or terrorist s like Ajmal Kasab will keep appearing in the papers for months or years, but the faces of true pioneers, trend setters and Heros vanish within days. We have created false celebrities of people we really ought to erase from the public memory nice they are in the custody of the law and recognize our true heroes.

Like everywhere else, the opinion makers and movers and shakers in the country need to take the responsibility to ensure that we eulogize the right people; and the media – be it the traditional media or the emerging media of blogs, citizen journalism etc need to do all that can be done to ensure that we keep preventing the disappearance of good and positive role models from the radar screen of our memories.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Turned cheeks and closed eyes.

Shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the new regime was rounding up sympathizers of the old regime of the Shah of Iran. Among the people they rounded up was a wealthy Iranian Jew, who was a merchant dealing in precious stones. He had prospered under the Shah’s regime and indeed at a point of time had presented a diamond pendant to the former Empress. But now he was being held as an alleged “Zionist spy”.

It turns out that his interrogator in prison is a man called Mohsen who was himself imprisoned and tortured by SAVAK, the Shah’s notorious secret police which used brutally coercive methods to keep down dissenters. Obviously his heart is now bitter towards those who were sympathetic to the Shah and his rule. As the interrogator describes his experiences in the Shah’s prison, Isaac, the Jewish merchant rushes t defend himself by saying that he was apolitical and had nothing to do with the torture and the human rights abuse that prevailed at the time. But Mohsen responds “But you do! You looked the way, and that’s enough to make you an accomplice. “

If looking the other way makes one an accomplice, I wonder, of how many things I may be guilty of. There is a quote of the author Shiv Khera that I see painted on Delhi auto rickshaws, which says something like this “If robbers are breaking into your neighbors’ house and you are sleeping indifferently then be sure that the next house to be robbed will be yours”.

The philosophy of turning the other cheek to the aggressor when one is being oppressed is rather too difficult to follow. But we do turn the other cheek, except that we turn it away and in the process close our eyes that we may not see and deafen our ears that we may not hear. We have divided society, community people into two rather inconsistent boxes – the black and the white; the bad people and the good people and while that is rather convenient, it is not wholly an accurate classification; for most of us are indifferent and grey.

Isaac the merchant, busy signing contracts, chasing supplies and deliveries and updating his bank statements never expected that the world he knew would suddenly change around him till two bearded young men came by to get him. We too, busy doing the same or similar dreams, plans and ambitions are busy looking the other way…. Anything to avoid involved, anything to avoid disruption to the carefully laid out plans in our PDAs and diaries.

There is this famous quote attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemöller which goes like this

“When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. Then they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. Then they came for the trade unionists, I did not protest; I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; I was not a Jew. When they came for me, There was no one left to speak out for me.
I must say that I love reading. I have read Shiv Khera. I have read Martin Niemöller and the words are quite moving to read. But like Isaac in Tehran, and like many others I could talk about, my eyes remain closed and my hand s and feet remain paralyzed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Morality and the State

Two men were murdered recently; nothing unusual in a country of India’s size you might say, except for a curious detail. They both worked for the Railways and were killed by members of their own family. The Railways have a convention that if one of their employees dies in harness, they offer a job to one of the family members on compassionate grounds. So to get that job, the two men were killed. In one case, the murder was plotted by the man’s wife so that their son could get the job; in another instance, the killing was plotted by the son himself. Both instances took place in Bihar.

Another disturbing piece of news last week was the revelation that drug dealers have now become more creative than ever in plying their trade. They now use terminally ill people to act as carriers of illicit drugs from one point to another. People who are terminally ill are more amenable to taking risks as they have little to lose and are more open to taking risks to provide for their families while they still can in whatever way possible.

Both stories tell of the moral degradation and the loss of human sensitivity that we are increasingly experiencing. While world institutions and governments are hard at work, trying to revive the economy and providing stimulus packages, there is today nobody working to provide a moral stimulus package which is just as badly needed.

Of course, it would be incorrect to say that these sorts of issues are not being addressed at all; perhaps they are being addressed, but being addressed rather inadequately. They will be addressed and dealt with as issues of crime, which of course they are, but obviously they are much more than that. When a son murders his own mother, or a wife murders her own husband, it is foolish to simply dismiss such incidents as simply a “crime”, any more than long standing forms of protest against the state which occasionally turn violent can be simply termed as “law and order problems” and dealt with by a lathi charge or police firing.

Given that morality cannot be enforced by law by the State ; but is yet necessary for the preservation of the larger social order, there is a dilemma here for the secular state which has no place for moral arbiters. Theocracies have no such problem, they own up to a particular moral code and they enforce it, fairly ruthlessly one may say, though one could argue from examples drawn from within India as well as outside, moral policing in a society is as ineffectual as the lack of morality.

What is needed but often lacking is moral persuasion and the people who have the ability to don the garb and have the stature to do so. People who hold no formal position, but are able to influence ethics, morality and conduct within their domain of influence by sheer persuasion. Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the most notable example of this in spite of his one spectacular failure – his inability to dissuade Jawaharlal Nehru and his team in the Congress from accepting the partition of the country. Meanwhile, even as the state enforces law and order . we need a way to reinforce morality and dharma in society ; not through the route of crude regimentation ; but through more and more people ; who can help tug at our heart strings and persuade us to listen to our steadily diminishing inner voice.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Empty Nests, Empty Chairs

My bookshelves are all covered with dust. The windows open outward and they are gathering all the dust that arises as laborers hammer down the house alongside chip by chip; bit by bit. Eventually, the house will be all gone, and the sun will shine through the gaping hole for a while. Eventually, after a sabbatical of barrenness, a new group of masons and laborers will arrive and construct an ugly concrete monster that we in Delhi delicately term as “builder’s flats”.

This is the third housed that I have lived in this area and they have this one thing in common – they have had no landlords and the monthly rent has always been handed over the widowed land lady. Most of the properties were constructed by the refugees who migrated into Delhi at partition time and subsequently purchased plots in what was then considered an area in the back of beyond. Now the land lords are largely dead and the few that are left are old and infirm. But the new trend of demolishing houses indicates that now perhaps the land ladies are beginning to disappear.

Most of these families had one or a maximum of two children. And in these days of mobility, those children are no longer around to live in these houses. There was a time when boys were meant to be there for the parents in the old age and thereafter look after the ancestral property, even though the girls would get married and go. But today, boys or girls, sons or daughters, it is all the same now days.

Houses and nests are emptier these days and getting so faster. Looking at the hammers bringing down walls and roofs with each blow, and eventually leveling the ground, I wonder what it must have been 20-30 years ago, when these houses were getting built, spacious houses with two to three floors , possibly meant to accommodate not just the children , but even the children’s’ children. But it never happened. Even the children did not choose to live there; and a house bought or built with so much expense and longing was inhabited for perhaps two decades, the last of them by lonely widows finding kinship in their tenants because their own family was so far away.

Things are moving much faster these days, a lot is happening in a far shorter time. The house that my grandfather built in Kolkata still stands; crumbling away to its inevitable doom no doubt, and yet it has sheltered four generations of people who have lived and played and mourned within its walls. I am not sure if the house will be around twenty years from now; but if eventually it is torn down as many houses in the vicinity am; it would after embracing four generations be good return on my late grandfather’s emotional and financial investment.

My thoughts drift off as the dust from the crumbling walls wafts into my room and coat everything in sight, I think of my own current land lady. Her nest has long been empty and an empty chair at the entrance is potently symbolic: that there is more of furniture in the house than people; and then wistfully I think of my own modest flat. In these days where everything is so fast and so uncertain, there is possibly no assurance that even I will come to live there sometime, and for the moment, there is no saying what my child will do. Empty halls and empty nests are the markers of tmorrow.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Gay lifestyles : The public opinion isnt there

I remember the first time I met a person who was openly gay. Like many people, I had a certain mental picture of what a gay man would look like, would talk, and would dress and so on. But this man was unlike any one of those stereotypes. A well educated man, he spoke openly about his struggles as a gay person trying very hard to be hetero sexual and along with his parents doing everything possible to get therapeutic help. It is after everything that was tried, failed that he decided to try and come to terms with his situation. And that is where he ran into this massive brick wall called stigma. And alas, a large part of this stigma is fuelled by religion.

In fact religious leaders of different faiths in the country talking united on one voice on any issue is something that does not often happen. But the subject of gay rights and whether homosexuality ought to be decriminalized brought together all of them. Initially, it was the Christian clergy who seemed to be more vocal and was the religious face on television channels but later others joined in too. But is the matter of gay rights, a religious issue? Partly yes, partly no, perhaps.

But there is also the matter of distinguishing between homosexual attitudes and homosexual practice, a distinction that is often not made. Most people do not delve deeply enough to distinguish between some who may be gay by orientation but celibate in practice.
However, even as the Union Cabinet debates about the stand that it will take on the contentious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, one thing is clear. The fact that there is such a strong and vocal opposition to the move to decriminalize homosexuality obviously proves that the gay and lesbian community has as of now, not been able to create the necessary public opinion to promote their cause. Gay parades held here and there in a couple of cities – and with concepts basically borrowed from the West , only serve to prove that only a bunch of Westernized urbanites are the ones concerned about this and they are airing their concerns in what is essentially an Western idiom.

Although rights may be granted legally, they cannot be enforced unless there is a necessary and conducive social climate. There are enough examples: untouchability has been abolished in India for long; but Dalits are exploited in sufficiently large numbers; child marriages are banned; but every Akshay Tritiya, lots of children gets married in full media and public glare g socially morality ought to be enforced through law or preached persuasively as a lifestyle. History proves that criminalizing anything merely drives people underground. A century or more of the provision of law penalizing “act of carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal an offence” has obviously not prevented the development of a robust gay movement in the country. Neither has for instance, more than 60 years of keeping Gujarat a dry state done much to keep people from consuming illicit hooch and dying.

So clearly the matter is far more complex. Clearly the government will not find it easy to break this impasse. Obviously, social laws cannot be passed by ignoring religious sentiments when all the major religions have united to raise a chorus of support against the granting of gay rights, because it is against bharatiya sanskriti or Indian culture. But we must remember that in 1829, when the practice of Sati was being banned through the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, William Carey and others, obscurantist elements had sought shelter under the same veneer of culture and tradition. So, in the mean while rather than trying to be God and pass judgment on those individuals, a better option may be to offer prayers to those struggling with their homosexuality and society’s largely hostile responses to them.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Gay Rights and Wrongs

I remember the first time I met a person who was openly gay. Like many people, I had a certain mental picture of what a gay man would look like, would talk, and would dress and so on. But this man was unlike any one of those stereotypes. A well educated man, he spoke openly about his struggles as a gay person trying very hard to be hetero sexual and along with his parents doing everything possible to get therapeutic help. It is after everything that was tried, failed that he decided to try and come to terms with his situation. And that is where he ran into this massive brick wall called stigma. And alas, a large part of this stigma is fuelled by religion.

In fact religious leaders of different faiths in the country talking united on one voice on any issue is something that does not often happen. But the subject of gay rights and whether homosexuality ought to be decriminalized brought together all of them. Initially, it was the Christian clergy who seemed to be more vocal and was the religious face on television channels but later others joined in too. But is the matter of gay rights, a religious issue? Partly yes, partly no, perhaps.

The Bible of course has a lot to say about homosexuality. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."(1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
While the scripture may sound clear, the debate actually surrounds the use of the Greek word that this particular version of the Bible translates as "homosexual offenders." The term is "arsenokoite." Some say that it is a reference to male prostitutes rather than to two committed homosexuals. Yet, others argue that Paul, who wrote the passage, would not have repeated "male prostitutes" twice. Even others argue that the two root words in arsenokoite are the same terms used to prohibit any premarital or extramarital sexual relations, so they may not refer to homosexual relations alone.

But there is also the matter of distinguishing between homosexual attitudes and homosexual practice, a distinction that is often not made. Most people do not delve deeply enough to distinguish between some who may be gay by orientation but celibate in practice. The Bible , wherever it alludes to homosexuality , talks about homosexual behavior – not orientation- Leviticus 20:13 - "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable and Romans 1:26-27 - "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."

A larger question to be confronted is whether morality ought be enforced through law or preached persuasively as a lifestyle. History proves that criminalizing anything merely drives people underground. A century or more of the provision of law penalizing “act of carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal an offence” has obviously not prevented the development of a robust gay movement in the country. Neither has for instance, more than 60 years of keeping Gujarat a dry state done much to keep people from consuming illicit hooch and dying.

So clearly the matter is far more complex. Clearly the government will not find it easy to break this impasse. Obviously, social laws cannot be passed by ignoring religious sentiments when all the major religions have united to raise a chorus of support against the granting of gay rights, because it is against bharatiya sanskriti or Indian culture. But we must remember that in 1829, when the practice of Sati was being banned through the efforts of Raja Ram MohanRoy, William Carey and others, obscurantist elements had sought shelter under the same veneer of culture and tradition. So, in the mean while rather than trying to be God and pass judgment on those individuals, a better option may be to offer prayers to those struggling with their homosexuality and society’s largely hostile responses to them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Budget : A Jholawallah's perspective

For years, it has been accepted that budgetary allocations would be largely for defense, internal security and industry. Allocations for the social sector have been declining for years , ever the structural adjustment programnes began in the nineties , with the government handing over more and more segments of the development sector to the private sector under the nominal guise of the public-private sector partnerships. This year’s budget therefore, at least in its pronouncement is a welcome break, though the old demons of the PP partnerships still remain in the infrastructure sector – and it is on the backbone of infrastructure that most social development – be it health or education or economic empowerment occurs.

Some of the salient areas where the social sector has been assisted include :

• The total allocation for the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, which works towards credit support to poor women for innovative schemes, will be increased from Rs.100 crore to Rs.500 crore.

• Another highlight of the budget was that all services under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) will be made available to all children under the age of six by March 2012.

• The National Mission for Female Literacy will aim at reducing female illiteracy by half in three years.

The government’s increased expenditure on infrastructure, agriculture and urban development should boost growth and receipts, and new incentives for private investment in education, social security and energy security should provide an impetus to these sectors while strengthening India’s competitiveness. To ensure balanced and equitable development, the government has widely increased the allocations to social development schemes, which should also play a vital role in boosting rural development and demand.

Baits are being provided for NGOs and charities to be involved in environmental concerns, tax benefits being one. At the moment , a charitable purpose under the present provisions of section 2 (15) of the Income Tax Act, ‘charitable purpose’ includes relief of the poor, education, medical relief, and the ‘advancement of any other object of general public utility’… The budget proposes to provide the same tax treatment to trusts engaged in preserving and improving our environment (including watersheds, forests and wildlife) and preserving our monuments or places or objects of artistic or historic interest bringing these activities under the ambit of charity.

Of course, not every will be satisfied. As someone who is working with issues of children at risk, I cannot but remember that India has the world's largest population of children, accounting for around 375 million of the country's billion-strong people. But budgetary allocation for them has for years been pitiable at a meager 1.2 per cent of the Budget and this year does not appear to be too different.

However, the focus of this Budget and of the government is to use a combination of pragmatic, humane and bold policy making to create the economic foundation upon which we can build a progressive and prosperous nation in consonance with the concerns and aspirations of all sections of society and that certainly ought to be commended, but a certain sincerity of approach that is visible here, that one failed to see for instance in the Railway Budget, presented just days before.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Private Public Partnerships : Who is the boss ?

The most preferred model of building infrastructure today has become the public –private partnership. It is almost as if the government has somewhat shamefacedly admitted that their attempts to create infrastructure of any kind has not kept pace with the demands of the growing population and its requirements. But since complete privatization is still considered taboo, the state attempts to keep a foothold under the guise of a partnership with the private sector. But the word partnership is more or less a sham as the government , intentionally or otherwise is really a sleeping partner, having more or less abdicated key decision making powers, even when there is a key public interest involved and the government has on occasion a stake as high as 49 percent in the company’s equity holding.

Witness Delhi’s current power woes. The electricity distribution companies have lost all control over the situation and the electricity situation is as bad or worse as when power was supplied by the government run Delhi Vidyut Board. The government is not doing any thing more than having “stock taking” meetings and the chief minister is wringing her hands more or less expressing her helplessness to do any thing in the matter. Now of course, we all know that the fundamental issue is a shortage of power and of course we know that Delhi produces less than 50 percent of its power requirements. We also know that power plants can not come up in a day or even in a year and there are limitations on how much any one can immediately do. But surely, the situation can be managed a lot more tidily ?

Electricity is not the only field. Take airports for instance. In most of the airports that are being modernized today, the government is a stakeholder along with the private developers. Yet here too, the government remains a sleeping partner, appearing to rubber stamp decisions made by the private players involved. The user development fees charged at airports were mostly rubber stamped by the ministry of civil aviation , even though a an industry body as respected as the IATA recently commented that the charging of fees in lieu of amenities that would only be provided in the future after the airport is fully modernized is unethical.

Then look at schools and hospitals. Again after acknowledging that the government has on its own been unable to provide quality education , it has roped in the private sector as a partner. Private institutions got land at throw away prices and a host of other exemptions, with the proviso that in lieu of this , the public=private partnership based institutions would offer concessions and facilities to the poorer sections of society.

Have we noted the inherent flaws in the PP model ? It is essential to take note of the fact that the private sector will only penetrate sectors that are fairly certain to be money-spinning. Private investment will be ready to move into communications), but the same eagerness will not be seen in the case of rural sanitation. The distinction between the public and private sectors is not primarily in terms of operational efficiency as is often maintained (favoring the latter, often considered to be self-evident too), but in the manner in which the two recognize public need and respond to it. From this perspective, the private sector ought to be only be the junior partner in PPP, and the public sector must retain considerable powers to intervene when the acknowledged service obligations are not being met. But will it happen ? Not likely in the near future, by the looks of it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Of statues and icons


It is good to have iconoclasts in society at any given point of time. They make you think; challenge the status quo and generally make wake society of somnolence. In Bengal, people still remember with gratitude the contribution of people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the others who founded and ran the Brahma Samaj, which pulled Hindu society out of the clutches of obscurantism.

Later on, you had Mahatma Gandhi, who was so much of an iconoclast that at one point, he became an icon himself. Dr Ambedkar was another iconoclast who became an icon. His ubiquitous statues in a coat and tie and holding the constitution close to his chest are every where. In the South, Periyar was one iconoclast that I know of whose influence lasts to this day and doubtless there are others.

But unlike the worthies above, who became icons by default and their iconoclasm was one of reform and inclusion; today we have a different class of people. If there is a Mahatma Gandhi Road in practically every town, it was not because Gandhiji wrote it up in his will, or that Ambedkar issued a dictat instructing those statues be erected in every village in the country.

But today in Mayawati , we have an upside down icon ; some one who insists on demolishing the work that others have done – however incomplete that work might have been (yes, I am referring to recent references to Gandhiji’s efforts for the upliftment of Harijans( as Dalits were called then as mere natakbaji or theatrics. And then to round it up, while she is busy rubbishing the work that others have done, the only visible activity that she herself seems to have done is constructing and erecting her own statues all over Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati seems to be under the illusion that one can become an icon simply by erecting statues and then issuing a dictat that they should be suitably garlanded and venerated on all important occasions – her birthday for instance. As far as I know, in the current Dalit calendar at least in Uttar Pradesh, there is no other day more important than Mayawati’s birthday. Lives can be lost if this day is not celebrated properly. An engineer in UP, \ M K Gupta was murdered , allegedly due to Gupta’s refusal to contribute to the fund collection drive before Chief Minister Mayawati’s birthday.

Reminds me of the story of Herod the Great, a king of Bibilcal times. He was a tyrant and hugely unpopular and he had no expectation that even one person would be there who would mourn his death. So as he neared death, he had several prominent subjects of his kingdom imprisoned, with instructions that at his death, they all ought to be executed en mass. That way, he reasoned, at least some mourning would take place and some tears would be shed at his death, even though, the tears would not be for his death.

Erecting statues of yourself and seeking sainthood through the backdoor is a bit like the instance of Herod… but of course they say that history repeats itself, so this must be it, even though she claims that she is in this game only because the BSP founder, the late Kanshi Ram had willed that alongside his statue, that of his protégé (Ms. Mayawati) should be built. And then you have to get the statue right. A statue of Mayawati had been removed from a prominent location by the authorities here barely 45 days after she unveiled it as she wanted a bigger statue of herself in its place. Apparently Mayawati was not happy with the quality of the sculpture, and so she had also expressed her displeasure over the fact that it was smaller than the statue of her political mentor Kanshi Ram. So the statue got smashed, well! In Mayawati, today we have a wannabe icon and an anarchist iconoclast; but alas though you can raise the height of a statue with some ease, it takes a lot more work and to raise the height of your stature. And that leader or icon of stature is what people might be looking for and haven’t found yet!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Life at the Ajanta Hotel


Our contact in Bangalore had forgotten to book our hotel and was untraceable on his mobile; we were in a bit of a jam as we were taking an evening flight from Delhi and would reach fairly late into the city after the commute from the new airport. Staying at one of the many hotels who have counters at the airport was not a possibility given their tariffs and the size of our wallets so I went online to identify a budget hotel in a part of the city with which we were familiar. A hotel, the Ajanta Hotel on M.G.Road was identified and a couple of rooms were quickly booked. Still a nagging worry remained as MG Road is after all a big and crowded place.

The first surprise came at Bangalore airport when we mentioned the Ajanta Hotel to the taxi driver and he nodded matter of factly. He didn’t seem surprised or worried or have any questions about the location and after about an hour’s ride, he whisked out of the car and announced that we had arrived at our hotel. It was getting late and after a quick dinner, we retired to our rooms. Since that trip, I have made many, many trips to Bangalore, but whenever I can, I have always made it a point to stay there.

There are some hotels that either because of their age or long followed traditions and customs, acquire an “atmosphere” that can certainly not be ever described but fully experienced. At first glance, the Ajanta looks like a small township. It is located just off the proposed Trinity Circle metro station on the perennially busy M.G.Road and yet it is sufficiently tucked away from it to cut off practically all noise and bustle. And yet inside, it is another kind of bustle and the township is thriving.

The hotel has been popular as a hotel that hosts wedding parties and inside there are two wedding halls which seem huge. The small township inside much like a shopping colonnade that one might find in a luxury hotel but much more utilitarian has shops to cater to practically all needs. There is a florist; a big sized travel agency with several taxis parked outside, a well stocked provision shop, a snack shop, phone booths, internet cafes. Though a bit away from the main road, none of the shops are apparently lacking in business.

There is a restaurant attached to the hotel that serves you a very filling lunch or dinner for Rs 35.00, a practically unheard of price in most places ; much less in a business hot spot. The restaurant is no hole in the wall outfit; in the mornings, breakfast can be had for as little as Rs 20.00 and the fact is not secret. The dining hall is quite full in the mornings, particularly with young working couples usually dropping in for a bite, something quite affordable at these rates.

In spite of all that is happening in the hotel complex, the pace is languid and easy paced. The staff is polite, helpful and refuses to be caught up in the rapid pace of life, just a few hundred meters away and best exemplified by the construction of the Metro Station, just outside the hotel. At times, when it is no longer the wedding season, uniformed waiters (of whom there are many), wander around the lounges - one in each floor –waiting to take orders for tea or coffee or room service, at their usual leisurely pace. As I checked out one more time out of the Ajanta Hotel, one more time last week, I couldn’t hope but wander as to how long such a leisurely pace of life, tracing its ancestry from the time when Bangalore was a pensioner’s paradise would last. And yet watching the crowded dining room full of laptop wielding techies, it seems that the hotel is currently a much sought after bridge between the mad house outside and the measured grace inside. And hopefully sooner, rather than later, I will be back again.

Veg ya Non Veg : The Saga of Railway Food

Unlike most people, I rather love the train food and the elaborate ritual surrounding it – and no, I am not talking about the Rajdhanis and the Shatabdis. The exercise begins with a railway staff approaching you with the question “Veg ya Non Veg? although I don’t remember the train menus ever having changed , since the day I started using trains – which is quite a long while ago, some or the other passenger will always ask “ veg me kya hai ? “. After the waiter has rattled off the fare, orders are placed. Then the waiter disappears and after a couple of hours arrives with a tray full of food, brought either from the pantry car if the train has one or loaded from some way side station.

I look forward to this whole thing. And so, when the other day I went to the railway station in the evening to board my train and found that it was running about 10 and a half hours late ( that bit of railways , not one minister has been able to change !), I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting to have my dinner on the train and this unexpected wait meant that dinner had to be arranged some where. I made my way across the long and unending platform toward s the place where the vegetarian and non vegetarian refreshment rooms would be.

A Vegetarian thali along with an omlette was tasty, filling and at Rs 30.00 was extremely affordable. The railways ensured quality control by listing details of the thali on a notice board hung on the wall – 150 gm of rice, 100 ml of dal, and 50 ml of curd and so on. But looking around, it was with quite some surprise that I found that the familiar room where I had lunch and dinner innumerable times over the years was quite deserted and was being remodeled. A McDonald’s banner was put up in flaming red and signage proclaimed that I would be opening up soon. I thought that may be the refreshment room has shifted some where else, and having time on my hands, I looked around, but there was no refreshment room in sight, although I located a multi cuisine food court in another part of the station.

Though I love food and enjoy the variety of the food court and love my Mcburger as well, it was disappointing to see that the time honored railway run canteens and refreshment rooms have gone and replacing them are McDonalds and the other food courts, serving overpriced food, albeit of a much greater variety than was previously available and served in disposable plastic trays and accompanied by cheap paper napkins.

I am no socialist by inclination, but it seems that we are pursuing privatization with a rather unnecessary frenzy, dismantling even those pieces of the public sector that did work. The so called private public partnerships seem to be so often a sellout by the government to the private sector because so often in such partnerships, only the face and culture and share holder value driven culture is visible and almost always at the cost of the common public good.

Railway cuisine is obviously not gourmet food, but each railway refreshment room captures the local flavor and dishes in its menu, and so eating at the refreshment rooms in stations across the country is an interesting and varied experience and the diversity of the food in long distance trains as they pass through different states is a story in itself. I for one would hate to be served an alu tikki burger from McDonald as the vegetarian meal on my next train journey. I want my veg thali with the watery dal, the oily pickle and subzi and the curd to wash it down with. Just for this one reason at least, I protest against the Mcdonaldisation of the railway kitchen.

The Stock Exchange Obsession

Every body these days has a new hobby – predicting when the economic downturn or recession or meltdown or slow down or whatever will end and as a corollary they are also predicting the rise and the fall of the Sensex; in fact its rise. Sensex to cross 21,000 by December 2010 screams one headline, while on the business channels, talking heads in suits and ties and with a clipped accent speculate on the same thing. They could well be astrologers; except that astrologers usually have ash smeared on their forehead and sit on a gaudily decorated stages or dais from where they can give darshan and distribute gyan.

I for one feel rather uneasy with this constant Sensex gazing from morning till night; with a ticker running down the bottom of most television channels indicating which stock is up and down. Indeed arguably, it is not cricket but the stock exchange that is the media’s abiding interest. And it is a misplaced interest and priority. For in a population of a billion plus people, just how many people really invest in the stock market directly or indirectly? Just two per cent of Indians invest in stocks through the stock exchange and are affected by its hops and skips though monitored with closer interest than the ECG of a patient in critical care.

More people put their money in various micro finance schemes run by several micro finance institutions than in all the country’s stock exchanges together. And though investment in stocks is touted as the way to get wealthy, that works mostly for those who are already middle class or wealthy. But in terms of scale, micro finance is fast emerging as a hot opportunity for global players with an estimated USD 20 billion to be invested globally and around USD 3 billion in India, by 2010. The volume of total micro finance loans globally rose from USD 4 billion in 2001 to around USD 25 billion in 2006, according to a research recently conducted by Deutsche Bank.

So does micro finance make people rich? Arguably no, though it is certain that by making banking facilities available at the doorstep of a strata of people that banks would not normally touch, it is surely keeping them from becoming poorer, often making savings and credit available. Soft loans do remove cash poverty, but only elusively. Unless loans are converted into investments in on-farm productive activities, rural poverty will not go away.

But although micro credit may have its chink, it touches many, many more lives economically than the Sensex does, and so the Sensex has huge limitations as an indicator of development. After all, economic growth has to include the welfare and development of the country as a whole? The reach of the Sensex is limited to the rich and middle class who invest there..even if the Sensex keeps reviving at this current rate and captures the measure of the eradication of poor rather than the poverty, the success of India will not be measured appropriately.

The Sensex is nothing but a mirage of the economic growth of our country representing something that is there but never achieved. We, as the citizens of the country, need to wake up and learn that the Sensex is not reliable and it only indicates that we are getting richer from the surface and poorer from the core. If the basis of our very development is hollow from inside any milestones or success achieved will be extremely short lived and will vanish before we know it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Deemed University and a Doomed Education

t is all very well that Kapil Sibal, the new HRD minister has decided to put on hold any further affiliation of private universities under Section 3 of the UGC Act which empowers the government to accord deemed university status to institutions of higher education – both in the private as well as the public sector. According to the UGC website, there are 124 deemed universities which have been accorded approvals and while some of these are reputed institutions like Jamia Hamdard and Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, there are several which have sprung up almost overnight and are connected to politicians. Under Section 3 of the UGC Act, deemed-to-be university status is granted by the central government to “educational institutions of repute who fulfill prescribed standards”.

Deemed University ; Doomed Education

While the provision has facilitated the private education sector, it has also provided a window to avaricious politicians and bureaucrats to create a web of money-spinning institutions. Of course the recent expose by the television channel Times Now the investigation exposes how Chennai-based colleges violate an SC order and state legislation banning capitation fee. Officials of Sri Ramachandra University (SRU) and Shree Balaji Medical College and Hospital were caught on camera demanding donations from a student who cleared his Class XII exams this year and the news spread rapidly because of the alleged involvement of a UPA government minister, who was sworn in barely days before.

There is a fundamental flaw about a policy wherein organizations which did not even exist till the other day, are straight away made universities while colleges of repute which have been in existence for half a century or more and have established a pedigree and a reputation struggle on as affiliated colleges and are only occasionally allowed to be autonomous colleges. When the first three universities of pre-Independence India started functioning in 1857, all the 27 colleges running at that time were brought under their ambit. From that modest beginning a century-and-a-half ago — when the Madras, Calcutta and Bombay universities were set up — the number of colleges has seen an exponential increase. Today, there are 343 university-level institutions, managing no less than 16,885 affiliated colleges.

But ultimately, it is not a matter of whether you are a deemed university or an autonomous college; it is all about the values that you profess; and that is some thing the honorable minister will not be able to do much about. It is a sad truth that educational institutions which is where values would be typically taught and practiced are corroding on the inside.

We find it convenient these days to condemn the racism against Indian students in Australia , but the inconvenient truth also is that while education in Australia or any where else outside may be expensive, they largely come with some assurance of quality and stamp of assurance. In India on the other hand, it is quite possible that if you have burnt hard earned money to go to a newly deemed university , you might only be getting a deemed education.

George Fernandes bows out

The first time I saw George Fernandes was outside Pune railway station when he was addressing a rather sparsely attended public meeting. Although the crowd was not large, they were also those who were listening with rapt attention with an attitude akin to hero worship. He was in his usual crumpled kurta and pajama, speaking on a subject which I can’t remember. But I do remember stopping in my tracks, watching to gawk at a person, who in his time had become a mythical figure. He had arrived on the political scene by emerging as a major trade union leader from Mumbai, and had defeated the local Congress satrap, S.K.Patil in a surprise defeat that ended his political career.

Of course, the legend of George Fernandes was born during the emergency or a little before in 1974 when he organized a railway strike of such proportions that it is still remembered. The railway strike is considered to be one of the factors that eventually pushed Indira Gandhi to the wall and made her declare a state of emergency. His escapades on numerous occasions and eventual arrest further added to his aura. Post emergency, “ giant killer”, George Fernandes became known for espousing socialism by kicking out giant companies like Coca Cola and IBM out of the country.

George in his time was an effective leader who began well but has ended his political career miserably losing as an independent candidate from Muzaffarpur to an octogenarian Ram Sundar Das, after being disowned by his own party, the Janta Dal (United). The journey from his native Mangalore to Muzaffarpur via Mumbai has taken George 79 years, but the unnoticed fading into oblivion in the last election, where the once famed giant killer managed just 22, 00 odd votes’ shows that the lion has roared its last roar and has now no bark left. Vajpayee has earned much more respect after fading out gracefully after losing the 2004 elections and not contesting at all this time.

The debate as to whether politicians should have a retirement age will never end. After all, politics is a form of public service which typically a citizen ought to be engaged in all of his or her active life. May be politics has become a debased form of public service – but let us not forget that in its essence that is what it is. But whether it is the sports field, or the political arena or the field of public service, the discernment to guess when one’s time is over and to retire gracefully while some luster still remains attached to the name is an art not many learn.

Consider the case of the Marxist patriarch Jyoti Basu. After serving as the chief minister of West Bengal for more than 25 years, he stepped down from the post and then gradually from other party positions within his party – the CPI (M) but remains widely consulted and relevant and possibly more astute than those in formal positions of authority. He knew when to bow out and there by only increased his influence and standing in public life.

George saab began well as an activist who could bring the most powerful powers and personalities to their knees. That time he was altruistic. But along the way, he jettisoned not only his socialist and secular ideology but acquired for himself the sobriquet of the supreme opportunist. Who could sell his soul not once, but perhaps many times over?

The George Fernandes era is over and he is not coming back. But by not knowing when to step out of the arena and leave the team to others, he might have lost, not just his soul but his legacy too.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Cost of Living

It was late night when the accident occurred. He roads were supposed to be empty, or so the car driver thought as speeded through the main road without noticing a rickshaw slowly crawling carrying its lone passenger, the weary driver getting ready to set his last passenger down before heading home.

The inevitable happened and the two crashed. The cycle rickshaw was reduced to a mass of twisted metal while the driver was thrown of his seat but escaped with a few minor scratches. The lone passenger, a doctor heading back after along day was however hit hard and lay writhing in pain. Some one from the gathered crowd, called his wife by recovering the doctor’s cell phone that ran out of her home and rushed her husband to the nearest hospital casualty.

The young doctor on duty ordered the mandatory X-rays and discovered more than one broken bone. He consulted the orthopedic surgeon on call, who advised immediate surgery and suggested that the patient be prepared for this while he arrived. In due course, after the patient was administered pr anesthetic procedures, the surgeon arrived. But just as he was about to begin, a messenger rushed in from the Billing Section to inform that the cash deposit paid on arrival was insufficient and the operation could not begin till an adequate advance was paid.

It was midnight and the wife was in a fix. Her husband was lying on his surgical table, the surgeon was waiting to start but money was short. The amount of money required was not available at home, the ATM would dispense would only a limited amount; and so the only way finally was to phone all of her office colleagues living in the area and some how take up a collective offering. The money deposited, the surgery finally took place after a harrowing wait of close to two to three years.

After recovering the ordeal, the family has become one of the most strident advocates of health insurance, which they did not have as they were entirely dependant on medical reimbursements offered by their employers. Of course the family hardly lacks company. According to National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), health insurance penetration in India stands at a dismal 1.2 percent. On a macro level, very few households in India have contingency plans to meet their health expenses. Health risks in India are perceived differently than the western population. Prior planning in health issues is yet to be a major priority.

Without an aggressive thrust on insurance, things can only get worse. India is the most privatized health market in the world. Public support for healthcare has been historically low in India, averaging less than 1 per cent of the GDP, but what is worse is that in the last decade public health investment and expenditure has seen a secular declining trend.

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

There are a couple of reasons that Health insurance has not taken off a great deal in the country. Firstly, unlike life insurance, which is marketed in India, largely as an investment product , the value o health insurance kicks in only if and when one is seriously ill ; or else the premium is paid is seen as a waste of money. In some places, talking explicitly about illnesses and planning to deal with them is considered a sure fire invitation to sickness and an ill omen. So with al these complexities, the private insurance industry in India is still at a nascent stage and growing. To date, only approximately 20% of the total insurable population of India is covered under various life insurance schemes. Let us hope that the health insurance industry will not exploit this market but also educate it about the social net that health insurance can provide.

Friday, May 22, 2009

please do not spit

One of the announcements that are being blared out on the public address system of the Delhi Metro these days is rather stark. It pleads repeatedly a simple message “please do not spit”, meaning of course, please do not spit in the train. For effect, they are being aired over and over again in both English and Hindi. interspersed I between are other messages of course, like for instance, one requesting passengers to leave seats for the elderly and the infirm and another asking passengers not to squat in the standing area of the train but the message about spitting sticks out in the spic and span but crowded train.
You look around the train and wonder who would spit within the Metro coaches; things look pretty clean and neat. There does not seem to be any one who is puffing up their mouth as a prelude to letting off a blob of spit. But obviously there are those who do, hence the necessity of the message.

More relevant is the other message that is coming on: please do not play loud music on the train. Lots of wired people around with the wires disappearing into invisible mobile phones, iPods or other MP3 players. Again, you never really hear any loud music, but again, one never knows- there must be a reason for those repetitive messages.

Back to the train again, although I still don’t spot any one spitting , I do notice elderly gents with their crutches and walking sticks grimly holding on to a rung which is just out of their reach with one hand while they clutch their stick with the other. Muscular and mustachioed young men occupy the seats which have signage both in English and Hindi marking them reserved for the women and the elderly. As the train stops at a station, a bunch of girls who are too far away from the hand rails and are basically holding onto each other lose their footing and crash in a heap, a few of them sheepishly landing in the laps of the eager young men who are thrilled at this unexpected moment of bliss.

The doors open and a fresh crowd surges in. there isn’t any more space to stand; well not really. There is space really, except that in a portion of the floor, oblivious of the milling crowd, there is a heap of people who have sprawled out with their legs stretched out. There is a pack of cards being shuffled and then being laid out on the front page of today’s Hindustan Times which serves as a portable card table. There is lots of fun and laughter among the group; but they are quite oblivious to the mass of passengers clinging to each other’s shirt tails like bees in a hive because that is all the space there is.

The train resumes and the repetitive messages begin again. “Kripaya thukiye nahin” “please do not spit”, “please do not squat”, please do not play music. Piteous, pleading messages hoping some one, some where would look up from their game of cards and listen. Listen to them day after day, trip after trip and take note one day. But looking at the crowd and its demeanor, it looks that it could be quite a long journey.

Friday, May 8, 2009

India , the emerging imperialist ?

The old style imperialist that we all know about used to eye a nice, prosperous piece of land and then find some means of possessing it. The means have varied from time to time; a couple of centuries ago, it would have meant sending in your army to capture that piece of land and govern it my sending in your own people. That is the most classic form and that has now fallen in to disuse. However, a modified version is in place. Here you identify a stooge who is from the local people and get him to dance in your tune as you play the music. This form is still popular and quite in vogue and here the army plays an important but supposedly subservient role. And a more recent form is the economic variety of imperialism where countries subvert the economic backbone of a country to protect its own interests. This too has been in vogue in recent decades but is of course more subtle.

We in India have always considered ourselves as the victims – and so the annual breast beating rituals that occur on the 26th of January and the 15th of August. No disrespect to the freedom fighters and all those who laid down their lives for the cause. The point here is that perhaps the Indians of today – no doubt to protect the interests of Indians like myself are going about doing the same thing as the British did in their time. What did the East India Company primarily do? Trade, right? The political action that buzzed in the background was all to ensure that trade interests were always protected. We read all that in our history books – nothing new so far.

Have you imagined India in that role? Probably never. But India, plagued by an increased specter of food shortages is joining a growing band of Asian nations in eyeing the last continent left to be still eyed for trade – usually one sided trade. Weak nations with even weaker governments are willing to trade in arable land for the right prices so that we in India as well as other such emerging giants might eat well. How much land has been sold? Between 15 million to 20 million hectares, which is more than all of Germany’s farmland it seems.

Many governments, either directly or through state-owned entities and public-private partnerships, are in negotiations for, or have already closed deals on, arable land leases, concessions, or purchases abroad. Is agricultural land only available in Africa? Of course not! But it is relatively speaking much easier to strike deals with governments or more accurately individuals who control government in Africa where institutional checks and balance mechanisms are weak and prices are cheaper. So the Indian government and several companies have intensified the chase for farmland abroad and even farmers from Andhra Pradesh have gone and invested in land in Kenya.

Now our patriotic sensibilities will be deeply offended at the thought of some one calling us and our motivations imperialistic for we all like to walk the high moral ground and this is perfectly understandable. But in our neighborhood at least, India is quite known the as the neighborhood king, strutting and flaunting its strength in the tiny part of the world called South India. Check out Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and what they have to say about how India throws its weight around in its immediate neighborhood. The national interest is supreme as it was then, as it is now. From trade to imperialism, India can not be faulted on not learning its lessons from the East India Company!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tum ho toh..... Celebrating Friendships

It was one of the new Airbus 321 planes that Air India has begun to introduce on its domestic routes. I tried on the in flight entertainment for the sheer experience of it. For long, I have been used to carrying my own entertainment on board in the form of a book. I tuned into a video channel. The Farhan Akhtar film Rock On was showing. In fact it was about the end when the band Magick is getting ready to play for one lest time. It is a very different world from the one where they began playing as a band in their early youth.

Two of the four have moved on from their youthful sojourn with music and made some thing of their lives – they are successful... success in terms of what we usually define as success. Two others had not been so lucky. At the time of this final concert, one of them n fact was dying and one other was emigrating after not managing to make any thing much of his life in India. How the men bonded together after having drifted away and celebrated their friendship seeing in that bond an imperishable treasure was some thing that stayed with me long after I picked my bags and left the flight.

Friendships form rather easily in youth and wither away almost quite as easily as in the film as we pass out of our schools and colleges and get busy with our lives. If we happen to be in the same line or business or profession, we may stay in touch in the form of an old boy’s club or an alumni association … but the connections remain tenuous at best. Social pleasantries may be exchanged and hands shaken but they remain rituals of inveterate shallowness

We don’t have time for investing in relationships that truly last ; for we are too busy networking – that is the power play of today – seeking out time to meet and connect with people who matter – matter in the professional and career sphere, that is ; not in the ethereal space called friendship.

so we go to parties , seminars and conferences armed to the teeth with our wallets stuffed with our calling cards because we can’t afford not to; not going or going unarmed may mean a lost business deal – a successful deal will mean more parties and networking events and a more power packed business card. And along the way what is often sacrificed at the altar of professional networking is the rich flavor of friendships – friendships that may or may not open professional or career goals for us but will always be a healing spa for our tired and weary spirits.

as my flight descended to land in Mumbai , the closing credits of Rock On came on screen. it said that long after Magick played their last song together, they continued to meet together every week and they were not weary. not in one-dimensional networking where selfishness and self gain is couched in velvet gloves, but in inhibited friendship, they found the lyric of their lives.

“tum ho toh gaata hai dil tum nahin toh geet kahan tum ho toh hai sab haasil tum nahin toh kya hai yahan “tum ho toh hai har ek pal meherbaan ye jahaan”

Surely few gifts and few joys are worth more !

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Birthday Sir !

The first birth day greeting I received a few days ago wasn’t from any of my friends. It was from an online dining portal who wished me a very happy birthday and very quickly followed up with a query as to how I was planning on celebrating it and could they suggest some options for a nice and quiet meal from their catalogue.
I managed to send them on their way; but soon there was another one coming and this was from my financial planner. he had been suggesting for some time that I was under insured and that I ought to buy some more insurance – from him of course and after his good wishes and all, he didn’t waste any time in reminding me that in buying insurance , age was every thing and that on my birth day , I had become a year older and in all likelihood the premiums would now go up a bit… if only I had bought the policy a little earlier , the cost would have been lesser… but it was not still too late….

A little later, it was the relationship manager at the bank. He went through the motions and then went on to tell me that this was a very auspicious day to begin investments in SIPs of some high grade mutual funds that he would be of course be very happy to recommend. After a brief talk about rupee cost averaging, he urged me to consider buying some gold for the kid’s education and all that. Akshay Tritiya, the Hindu New Year was at hand and what better time to buy gold which was guaranteed to be pure. There were a couple of more phone calls from assorted people some of whom I did not know even existed, much less they knowing and remembering my birthday. By the time my friends and family got around to wishing me eventually, I could tell them with a smirk that they were rather late in the queue.

Makes me think as to how commercialized we have become and we have taken our intimate moments into that commercialized zone, where there are no barriers and boundaries to privacy ; no thinking twice before making what is often an absurdly stupid social transaction.? I mean how can you really greet any one who you have never met in your life and are unlikely to ; or at best some one you meet a couple of times a year and for perhaps for no more than an hour at a time

Less intrusive but no less bothersome are the numerous e mail messages from friends who seem to sprout like mushrooms in the monsoon around your birthday. scroll down a bit, and there is the pitch – a discounted flight ticket for the spouse , a cheap holiday package , home delivered movie tickets and there was even a free pen drive provided I shopped for a certain amount at a shopping portal.

While wanting to sell your product if you have some thing of worth is a good thing ; demeaning special days and occasions in such a shallow way that you know it is phony and I know it is phony is crass ! relationships are sacred and precious and although admittedly the state of most of them is not what it should be and we and our friends often forget dates we ought not to, few of us would like to be greeted on our birthdays by an insurance agent selling a policy on our birthday…..just in case…… that is grotesque and there is no other better way to describe the consumer age we live in!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Indentured Laborers - The First Non-Resident Indians

When we think of NRIs today, we probably largely think of wealthy movers and shakers like Lakshmi Mittal or Swaraj Paul or Bobby Jindal and the likes of them. a few will perhaps recall the many numbers of Indians who sweat it out in the Gulf countries and some others will recall the professionals – the doctors, the scientists and the IT professionals. But not many perhaps will think of the first NRIs as slaves or rather glorified slaves as the indentured laborers from India in a way were.

If you have read Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Sea of Poppies, you will know. In the 18th century, the labor needs of the rapidly expanding British Empire were met by the slave trade.This was opposed by Christian reformers like William Wilberforce in Britain and William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, tabled a motion in Parliament in 1792 to gradually abolish slavery. In 1807, the shipping of slaves to British colonies was forbidden and in 1808, the slave trade was prohibited. The gap in the labour market was filled by indentured labourers or contract labourers, and these came largely from india. Although these men( and some women); mostly from the cow belt of India and usually victims of political machinations as well as poverty and often both were treated marginally better than slaves, they too were permanently uprooted from their home lands which they would never see again. India was the source for the greatest number of indentured workers to the New World, and approximately 1.3 million individuals crossed the oceans under contracts of indenture.

As Amitav Ghosh’s book recounts, poverty, political upheaval, ecological disasters such as droughts, floods, and famines, and overcrowding were causing increased internal migration and large refugee populations. Conditions were often so bad that although many Indian communities were close-knit and, in some cases, migration overseas actually violated certain caste restrictions, many individuals often felt compelled to abandon their homes and families and seek employment in other areas of India or across the ocean in an effort to improve their situations

Many of the indentured labourers were convicts. Indian convicts transported out in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped settle and colonize the overseas European empires. Such workers filled a critical need for labor, playing an especially significant role in carrying out the building and infrastructure projects that were so critical to the institution and consolidation of the Empire. For instance, Indian convicts sent to Singapore built some of the finest colonial buildings here, including the St Andrews Cathedral and Government House. With the convicts came indentured labourers to provide manpower for the ports and railway, Sepoys and Sikh policemen, milkman, tailors and artisans, merchants and moneylenders

The end of indentured labour from India was actually decided through the intervention of the growing clout of the Indian nationalist movement; and it happened as later as in the earliest years of the 20th century- that is barely a hundred years ago. Curzon was the first Viceroy to India to actually consider the plight of the indentured labourer an issue and, although he often had to accept the commands of his superiors in England, he was staunch in pressing the issue and raising awareness. Gandhiji was also instrumental in bringing to light the racism and inequality suffered through the indenture system and low-paying labour. In fact 2016, just eight years away, will mark the centenary of the struggle spearheaded by Gandhiji against continued Indian indentureship from India to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Fiji and Mauritius, among several other countries, at the height of British colonialism, an event that might well go unrecognized in spite of the now institutionalized pravasi bharatiya divas observed every year.