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.