Friday, January 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire... and what should a movie be ?

A question that will never be quite settled is related to the extent of realism in cinema: should cinema expose harsh truth or should it portray a carefully sanitized picture of society. This question has again come to the fore front with release of Slum dog Millionaire , which on one hand has been nominated for the Oscars and on the other is dogged by controversy with actors like Amitabh Bachchan having panned it – ( though reportedly, he has retracted those comments).

Partly this is because of the different expectations that people have from cinema and the role that cinema has in society – and this question too will never be satisfactorily answered. Actors like Amitabh, who have been principally entertainers, see the medium as principally a vehicle of entertainment – some thing affordable and accessible to the common manta the end of a day’s work.
Other film makers have thought and acted differently, Satyajit Ray being the one most well known of them. He used films to portray the stark realities of Indian society – the poverty, the corruption and the decadence of a country in transition. of Ray was a lot more than a chronicler of penury and hardship ; his films made money, won praise and gave Indian films their first ever visibility on the world stage.

The films that Amitabh made and makes are of course quite different – escapist, mainstream masala fare is what we call them, where the money and fame is and parallel cinema is the homely cousin which wins awards and acclaim but don’t necessarily entertain the common man who sees on screen the reality that he has been part of all day long.

Parallel cinema of course decidedly doesn’t entertain; what it does is make a statement on aspects of society which ought to be noticed and attended to but sadly no one does or did till the movie came along. While Satyajit Ray did make pure entertainers, especially his children’s’ films in particular, his contemporary, Ritwik Ghatak, the noted Bengali film maker made movies inspired by the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath among people uprooted from places where they had lived for centuries.

Of course Amitabh is not incorrect when he says that “If Slumdog Millionaire’ projects India as Third World dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations,” It is just that there is and always be a difference of opinion about just which aspect of reality should the creative artiste; be it a movie maker or a journalist or a novelist focus on ….. The subjects of celebration and veneration or the objects of ridicule and revulsion.

Using depictions of poverty solely as a means of publicity or getting recognition is definitely pandering. But we cannot get away from the fact that a very large fraction of the billion-strong population of India does not have access to the basic amenities of life, and this is the most obvious thing that will strike an observer from a Western country where these amenities are taken for granted and where these films are getting mileage and Oscar nominations. Meanwhile both kinds of movies deserve a place in the sun. it is the typical Bollywood movie, of the kind in which Amitabh acts that have made Hindi films the force that they are today…. when they are watched more by people outside India than within. And it is the kind of film that Satyajit Ray and others like him make that initially gave Indian films a foothold in places like Cannes. Slumdog Millionaire is incidentally a bridge. It is not the kind of film that Shyam Benegal or Adoor Gopalakrishnan would make; it also obviously is not the kind of film that Amitabh Bachchan would have acted in. a perfect balance, one must say.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A School and a Schoolboy

Many of us India have always wondered about where the tax payer’s money is going. Ever since Rajiv Gandhi made that famous statement about 15 paisa of every rupee allocated by the state was actually utilised for the given purpose, the figure has slid down now to 5 paisa! So this story of a young man who told this story and who boasts that half of his body belongs to the government of India because he was brought up and fed and sheltered at the expense of the state is a touching one indeed.

The story of Viswas begins in a small Andhra coastal village where his father was a family physician to the local landlords of the area. The father was not a qualified physician; he was a traditional healer who had learnt the craft from his family. Although he and his family were not living in penury, they were not rich either. The father had enrolled Viswas in the local village school and in time was expected to take up an apprenticeship with his father and learn the trade.

Slowly he crept up the ladder in the village school till class V when the elderly school headmaster called him to his office and got him to fill in some forms. Viswas filled in the forms because he trusted the headmaster and he was a kind man who cared for his students and the child had grown to be fond of him. Shortly after filling in the forms, he was called by his class teacher and told that he would have to appear for a set of examinations based on his Class V subjects. Viswas was good in his studies and he sat for his examinations with out any difficulty.

A day came when Visas was called to the headmaster’s office again and told that he would no longer be studying in the local village school. He had gained admission to the Navodaya Vidayala, where he would get free education in the residential schools of the Navodaya Vidyalaya Society till he passed his Standard XII. There would be other opportunities for him to apply for scholarships to further pursue higher education in a congenial environment. By the time he finished his education, he had finished his M.Tech

The Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya were first set up in 1985 cater to the educational needs of the talented students generally belonging to the rural areas of the nation. The schools were a brainchild of P.V. Narasimha Rao when he was the minister for human resources development in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet. One can come across Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas everywhere in the nation, except in the state of Tamil Nadu with approximately five hundred and fifty seven of them operating all over the country. Even the teachers in these institutes are selected with care with a national level competitive examination recruiting trained and qualified teachers for the schools.

Visas finished his Class XII and then went on to study M.Tech. Among his friends are an NRI academic, an income tax commissioner, a software engineer and a college lecturer. Viswas himself too teaches in a private college and is busy guiding other small town boys and girls about the way to a bright career. Viswas has company. There have been Navodians who have joined the elite Indian Administrative Service. The Navodaya Schools, by picking up students from some of the remotest parts of the country and giving them an education that they might never had and providing them with opportunities they would perhaps have never even dreamt of are one small example of Bharat Nirman. A small illustration that there is plenty of good in government; with all the rot, decay and corruption that we talk about day in and day out.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Silent Labor

Innocent victims of the Satyam saga are the close to 53,000 employees of the Satyam group who obviously have done nothing wrong; they were slogging away at their posts doing their assigned tasks. One of the many priorities of the new government appointed board is to protect the interests of the employees. While the board is to be commended for taking its responsibilities seriously and laying out its priorities, the government seems to have acted as it were to keep the “India Shining” image gleaming and polished for the world’s gaze.

While the government has acted with alacrity, to protect the interests of the well educated and well paid Satyam workers, who are able to generate media attention, bog on line, and basically lobby to protect their interests, it would be great to see the government react with equal speed for those who don’t have that kind of clouts. India is home to the second largest labour force in the world. And more than 90 percent of those eligible to work are employed in the unorganized sector. Despite tough labour laws, unorganized sector workers remain deprived of legal protections

The first National Commission on Labour (1966-69) defined unorganised labour as those who have not been able to organise themselves in pursuit of common objectives on account of constraints like casual nature of employment, ignorance and illiteracy, small and scattered size of establishments and position of power enjoyed by employers because of the nature of industry etc. Nearly 20 years later the National Commission on Rural Labour (NCRL: 1987-91) visualised the same scenario and the same contributory factors leading to the present status of unorganised rural labour in India.

The unorganized / informal employment consists of causal and contributing family workers; self employed persons in un-organized sector and private households; and other employed in organized and unorganized enterprises that are not eligible either for paid, sick or annual leave or for any social security benefits given by the employer. The bulk of the working population is in the unorganized sector (i.e. 91% of the total population) and this workforce is as yet not actively unionized. The organized sector, which is generally extant around urban settlements, accounts for only 9% of the total work force.

The contribution of the unorganized workforce to the economic health of India society has largely remained neglected. In India, this sector accounts for

- 60% of Net Domestic Product (i.e., GDP minus depreciation),

- 68% of income, 60% of savings,

- 31% of agricultural exports, and

- 41% of manufactured exports.

Women workers in the unorganized sector – the farm workers, vendors, casual construction labour, domestic help, home-based workers – are even far more neglected and unaccounted-for part of the informal economy. This is so, since the self-employed women work from homes and their contribution is mostly not calculated into the national economic data. However, according to the National Sample Survey ’05, one-third of the informal sector workforce (about 120mn) comprises of women. Collectively, they accounted for 96% of the female workforce in the country, and contribute to about 20% GDP of India.

But this is a largely docile, silent and submissive work force more pre occupied with making ends meet and putting a meal in the stomachs of their families every evening, they don’t hunch in front of computers writing blogs and signing on line petitions. Their cause championed only by an increasingly irrelevant Left. This silent cause will cause will therefore will trawl through the corridors of power at the proverbial pace of the snail.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Human Body : The Great Commodity Exchange

Every year, The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 mandates the State Department to report as a way of combating human trafficking around the world and punishing those responsible, the annual Trafficking in Persons report. The document for 2007, the latest available, says that as many as 800,000 people -- largely women and children -- are trafficked across borders each year around the world. Many are forced into prostitution, sweatshops, domestic labour, farming and child armies.

Most of us Indians would not like to know that India is a key source, destination, and transit country for humans trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. While no comprehensive study of forced and bonded labour can ever be completed, there are estimates that the trafficking “industry” touches 20 to 65 million Indians. Women and girls are trafficked within the country for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriage. Children are subjected to forced labour as factory workers, domestic servants, beggars, and agriculture workers, and have been used as armed combatants by some terrorist and insurgent groups. India is also a destination for women and girls from Nepal and Bangladesh trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

Due to the clandestine nature of the problem, little is known about those who carry out human trafficking. Studies show that they may be family members or friends, brothel owners and brokers, community leaders, women in sex-work or people in powerful positions such as police and other government employees. Data collected from victims of trafficking for the UNIFEM study, suggests that 50% of traffickers are women (reported in Sen, A. 2005: A Report on Trafficking of Women and Children, UNIFEM).

And India, says Global Citizens Trust (GCT), is becoming a hub for prostitution, pornography and cyber crime and a growing destination for sex tourists from the west. A large number of women and children from neighbouring countries are also trafficked into the country, with around 10,000 persons brought in from Nepal annually, according to Kumar Yaru, editor of Rajdhani national daily, a Nepalese newspaper.

Trafficking can be disguised as migration, commercial sex or marriage. But what begins as a voluntary decision often ends up as trafficking as victims find themselves in unfamiliar destinations, subjected to unexpected work,” A BBC report for instance quoting the Assam police informs that since 1996 3,184 women and 3,840 female children have gone missing in the state and many have ended up working as call-girls around Delhi or used as “sex slaves” by wealthy landlords in states like Punjab and Haryana. That piece of statistic means that we are talking of about two women a day.

The market rate for a bride currently it seems is between 4,000 and 30,000 rupees ($88 to $660) and the custom of buying brides has not just infected the states of Haryana and Punjab only, it is spreading. In a district where the urban sex ratio is the lowest in the country at 678/1,000 and where the largest tehsil has a sex ratio of 535/1,000, the system of bride buying has become quite rampant in the last five years. Shahjahanpur’s block Bhawaal Kheda has several villages where, due to the low sex ratio, men have been buying brides from states like West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar.

Article 23 of the Constitution of India prohibits trafficking in any form. We have special legislations like the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), 1956, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000.

However , several members of the Indian parliament (from various political parties), the country’s law makers have been implicated in a scandal where these elected representatives, the diplomatic passport-holders, were trafficking people out to foreign countries by taking them along as spouses or children, and helping them clear the immigration check-points at India’s international airports.

So, even as Trafficking is understood and interpreted as modern-day slavery, and a matter of global concern, with India as one of the worst affected countries, clearly a lot needs to be done before the great commodity exchange trading in human bodies is controlled , let alone wiped out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Life of a Cow

Cows and pigs are emotive animals in India. They are what you need if you want to start a communal riot. Time tested and effective. If you slaughter a cow and throw some pieces in a temple or a pig and throw its carcass in a mosque, you have it made. A potent prescription for creating social unrest and chaos. After all, cows are sacred to Hindus and pigs are unclean to Muslims.

So it might come as some news that in Muslim Bangladesh, every third cow that is used in the country is “imported” or rather smuggled in from India. A large number of cattle worth crores of rupees from as far as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Haryana are smuggled into Bangladesh through the porous borders of the North East. By the time the harried animals reach Bangladesh, they are half-dead while many perish on the way and the government does not receive any revenue from this illegal trade. The Rs 2,500 crore Bangladeshi leather industries reportedly thrive on cattle smuggled from India… According to BSF sources cattle worth Rs 25 lakh were seized along the Indo-Bangladesh borders in the North East in November, 2008 alone. The volume of the illegal trade involving those not caught may run into crores of rupees.

So what is to be done? Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary has a solution; set up beef processing units in the North Eastern states. In this largely tribal part of the country, beef is widely consumed, and the cow, quite literally is now holy cow. And going by India’s weather beaten, unity in diversity” dharma, the people in the North East ought to be allowed to eat their cow, if that is what they want. So will Governor Mooshahary’s proposal that state governments should set up beef processing units in the region where cattle meat can be used for consumption and even exports to foreign countries including Bangladesh work?

Cow slaughter is a politically charged issue in India. In 1966, barely months after Indira Gandhi had become the Prime Minister; she had hiccups when a movement demanding cow slaughter culminated in a massive demonstration outside parliament on 7th November, 1966. The government is not helped much by the fact that cow slaughter is enshrined as a Directive Principle of State Policy in the Constitution. Though this is not binding, it does serve as a moral pointer. Besides, other public figures like Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who commanded wide respect supported anti cow slaughter movement.

If Mooshahary wants beef processing units set up in the North East, another group of Indians feels that not enough is being done to protect the cow. The Sankaracharya of Gokarna Peetha, Karnataka, Jagadguru Swami Raghaveshwar Bharati has just urged the Centre to declare cow as a national animal and ban its slaughter. He proposes to hold a 108-day Rath Yatra to spread the massage of ‘save cow and save village’ across the country during which signatures of about 50 crore people will be collected and it will be submitted to the President. in another part of the country, when the Khasi Jaintia Butchers’ Welfare Association (KJBWA), in its general meeting decided to hike prices of beef from the existing rate of Rs 90 per kg to Rs 100, and from Rs 100 a kg to Rs 120 for the thigh portions, the news made it to the newspapers as a matter of concern.

so there is the cow for you in India- an animal who is the object of politics and economic gain between neighbours at one end, an object of agitation by some ; an object of veneration by some other and a business opportunity for the butchers’ association and its customers. how we manage these amazing contradictions, is part of the story of incredible India.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A roof above our heads

For the larger part of 2008, middle class people in Delhi looked forward to the housing scheme of the Delhi Development Authority who offered 5,238 flats n various sizes and prices by lottery among 5.67 lakh applicants. What made the flats attractive was the fact that they were priced 50 percent lesser than the market rates. In 2006, the DDA had put up 3,000 flats for sale for which it received over two lakh applications.

And of course hundreds of thousands of Mumbaikars lined up on Monday for a chance to own a flat in prime areas, as the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority (MHADA) opened the process of allotting low cost flats. 3,863 low-cost flats are being allotted in prime areas like Versova, Ghatkopar, Chembur and Goregaon. There are different housing schemes for different income groups and again the flats are being offered at nearly half the market price, ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 50 lakh. And of course the political potential of a roof above your house has been well exploited by the Shiv Sena who has demanded an 80 percent reservation for Maharashtrians in the allotment.

Housing is a hot potato…. riven with shortages, land mafias and crime; all playing on the shortages for housing units; particularly low cost housing units. According to a 2007 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation, one out of every seven urban households in India today lives in slums. About eight million households live in slums now — two million more than those lived there a decade ago. Further, according to data provided by National Buildings Organisation, combined housing shortage in the country has increased by 134% during the last six years from 10.56 million units in 2001 to 24.71 million units in 2007. The number of urban households during this period has increased by 11.5 million. Many of them found their ways to slums for shelter.

Of course you wouldn’t guess that there is a housing shortage by looking at the housing portals and the Sunday classifieds in any of the leading newspapers. A recent television commercial recently even offered a free Mercedes car thrown in with a high end villa. The economic melt down has frozen or brought down property prices to an extent, but of course, recession or no, the advertised houses will forever be out of reach for those lining up to collect the forms for the DDA or the MHADA flats.

One of the reforms that are urgently needed in the housing sector is the need for a regulator. The sector doesn’t have one despite its size and importance and the fact that the government recently saw it fit to nudge housing loan interest rates downwards in a bid to increase demand. The lack of a regulator means that builders can be any body with cash – and possibly muscle power to invest and acquire land. There is no universal service obligation to ensure that a certain portion of houses and private builders build are for the lower income sections of society. This is much needed much like airlines are required to fly to financially unlucrative locations because they are in the strategic national interest. or the telecom companies which pay a universal service obligation service fee to the state so that remote parts of the country can receive connectivity.

the housing sector so far has received none of these attentions and has become the domain of big private builders who build only for the rich. as long as this climate stays the way it is, with only a few state players building a miniscule number of flats and then selling them by lottery, the misery of those get passed over in the drawof lots will know no end.

Monday, January 12, 2009

How Sacred is Life ?

Certain themes tend to be the proverbial red rag before the bull. For the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, euthanasia or mercy killing is one of them. As of course is abortion. And when the church finds itself in a position where it finds itself confronted by a piece of legislation that is being enacted precisely to this en d and that too by godless communists the stage is set for a confrontation. As is happening in Kerala at the moment.

While no one will dispute that life is sacred, it is the very sacredness of life itself that is now seen through a variety of prisms and what different people see reflected through the prism is quite different. Advocates of mercy killing will say that a man living as a vegetable dependant on others for very existence is an affront to the dignity of a human being and there must be a way out with adequate safeguards where a man can choose to take his life either through conventional suicide or assisted means where his friends and family carry out the wishes of a person expressed and willed earlier.

The more socially conservative would say that no safeguards are adequate enough and that in an unscrupulous society, society would find it very easy to get rid of those it considers an unwanted burden; those who are no longer economically productive, the weak and the elderly. This is of course entirely plausible; human kind has an intermittent history of having exactly that.

Then of course there is a third strand – the spiritual strand which claims that life is created by God and can only be extinguished by God alone. This is the Judeo- Christian view and the view that has traditionally influenced our law making till the recent times. If suicide is a crime under the Indian Penal Code thus far, it is precisely because of this influence.

But the Indian tradition is not so uniform. There is a long tradition in the Indic religions of the wise and enlightened being able to discern as to when their useful span of life is over. And when that discernment dawns, they then intentionally withdraw from life in various ways. The Mahabharata story of the Pandavas retreating to the bitter cold of the Himalyas where all of them except Yudhishthira died of cold and exhaustion is a well known example. In recent times, Acharya Vinoba Bhave is another personality who chose to embrace the Jain tradition of santhara which involves fasting to death after living a rich and long life. Many others also follow this practice from time to time.

But clearly issues like mercy killing must be viewed with in the social context in which they are enacted and a just question that deserves to be asked is about the quality of life that citizen’s experience. One must not forget the many that are able and agile and are in the prime of life who aren’t waiting for laws to enact to take their life. The stressed students who die before and after our back breaking board exams, the farmers whose suicide we no longer read about because terrorism captures every headline, are they able to live lives of dignity ? life is sacred all right but the essence of its sacredness needs to be affirmed in many ways and not just by forcing a man or woman to live when there is nothing much to live for.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ross Island : A slice of incredible India

If one were looking for an authentic location for a “horror film” with a period touch to it, they should try out Ross Island in the Andamans. Just a short boat ride away from Port Blair, the place reeks of history and the ruins – of very recent vintage are so kept that they provide an “atmosphere” to the small island and it is quite possible to realistically imagine what life might have been like two handed years ago on the island. 81also to imagine the manner in which with efficiency and vigor, the British colonizers of the time were able to provide for every imaginable comfort of the time in that fairly small sized island.

In fact, although the Andamans are best known for the famous cellular jail in Port Blair where celebrities like Veer Savarkar and many others were imprisoned, the Cellular Jail was only completed in 1906. In 1857, when the Bitish needed to quickly exile the perpetuators of what they called the Sepoy Mutiny, it was to Ross Island that they turned to for setting up the penal settlement where convicts were kept till the cellular jail was completed. In fact the Andaman government functioned out of Ross Island till the Japanese occupied them in 1941 and the National Tricolor under the auspices of the INA’s Azad Hind government was hoisted here in 1943 by Netaji, when he stayed here as a guest of the Japanese commander of the islands.

Today’s visitor of course is greeted by a bunch of ruins but what will immediately strike is the organized manner in which the British administration ran the islands and how self contained it was; and true to character; preserved the class distinctions of the time; a club for the White who is who, a subordinate’s club for the other Whites, and of course a native’s club for those served the white masters – each with their mess, tennis courts, billiards table and all other amenities.

Considering that the ruins are just about iffy years or so old and that the island was a bustling township till the Japanese left, the buildings – a run down church, a cemetery, abandoned offices and buildings (– all the staple ingredients of a Bollywood horror film of the Ramsay Brothers genre are present on Ross!), the buildings look a bit gaunt and haunted. Of course, nature and the saline water and the all pervasive nature of the forests have all played their part – looking at the density of the forests in the Andamans, one would never think that afforestation is even an issue.

Ross Island of course is only one out of the many treasures of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, a place most people may never visit; simply because it is too far from our radars. The government too has not entirely encouraged tourism; with sensitivities around defence installations the indigenous people – the Jarwas and others, and the gritty determination to preserve the last of the truly virginal forests that India has. Infrastructure outside Port Blair and a couple of other centers tends to be patchy and a lot of the travel has to be done by ferries and country boats as most of the islands are not connected among themselves by bridges. But that rustic and rugged terrain only adds to the charm of a place that a large number of us will only read about occasionally in the newspapers and may be in our history books.