Sunday, February 21, 2010

When roots die...

I have just returned from a place in Assam which is particularly notorious for its bandhs. The area is tribal and the tribes are forever fidgeting to preserve their language, culture and identity by calling strikes and bandhs and generally shutting normal life down. It seemed to be a big nuisance to us big city people bound by our deadlines and calendars, but preserving their uniqueness is a big ticket issue for the tribals. They are prepared to die for it. If needed, they are prepared to kill for it too.

In the jeep, pass through this bandh prone territory; we discovered a truth that is disturbing. And that is that the real reason why, we dwelling in big cities or something similar, find all this agitation about self identity, so very odd and parochial is that perhaps many of us have no identity left to talk about. People like me, who have largely lived in neutered cities all our lives, can probably with some minor hiccups adjust anywhere and live anywhere, but we don’t really belong anywhere in particular. Like the Bedouin nomad of yester years, we are the vagabonds of today. We can pitch our tent at any place that allows us to do so, that is to say, we can off load our back packs, charge up our lap tops and hook up our data cards and within minutes we are functional. We can live anywhere, sleep anywhere, work anywhere, but many of us just don’t belong anywhere and that is the plain truth. In the old days, when people asked you (as they still do), “where are you from”, they had an answer. Today many of us would be hard pressed to say where we are from because we aren’t from anywhere really.

Is the question about self identity and the isolation that inevitably follows when one becomes aware of it merely a philosophical question or is there more to it. And it is because there is a lot more to it than we care to understand or discern; that we skirt so uneasily around the subject. Choices for example. The choices that I make or I choose not to make are largely shaped by the way I have created my identity ; by the way I have chosen to see myself. If I see myself as an Indian, then all of my world view would be detrmined by that one lens – typically I would do all I can to further the interests of my country through my education, through my career choices, through whether I choose to emigrate to another country and many other such. If I see my identity reflected in my religion that would dictate my choices: religion would be the prism that would determine how I dress, what I eat, how I perceive people of other faiths who are “different”. And the same follows for distinctiveness that is centered around language, tribe, ethnicity or any other shared commonality among peoples.

Identify is important; no matter how deep we try to bury it deep within the layers of our consciousness. Without it we are nothing but dressed up mercenaries ; prepared to ship in and ship out depending on how green the grass is at any given point of time. Identity begets loyalty, commitment and passion. The challenge as always is finding the balance – oscillating between rootless drift and deep rooted intolerance.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

the Great Indian Nurse Drain

A big neighborhood hospital near my office is having a strike. The nurses are on strike. A whole bunch of them are sitting hunched up under a tree opposite the hospital gates with slogans and banners. There is shouting or sloganeering and a small posse of police women who have posted in the area are bored to death, because there is nothing happening that demands or needs their intervention. Inside, the hospital looks crowded as usual and I can see a few nurses in their uniforms rushing to and fro, busy as usual. The media has not taken too much note, though a local paper did publish a small column recently mentioning that the strike had entered the 8th day without any resolution in sight.

Come to think of it, in India’s hierarchical and rarefied medical fraternity, nurses don’t unfortunately figure very high for all the hard work they do and for all the skills that they possess. The glamour, the money and the recognition all go to the doctors alone, almost always. For instance, look at this year’s Padma awardees. The list contained the name of the doctor who treated the Prime Minister during his bye pass. The doctor is eminent in his field no doubt, but on his own he could have achieved little. Yet the entire Para medical team consisting of highly skilled technicians and nurses did not warrant any merit or attention.

Many countries now recognize the important role that nurses play and in fact in Europe where immigration rules are otherwise tightening, nurses are still being welcomed with open arms. But in India, there is little appreciation of the career of Nursing and also little effort has been made to challenge the stereotyped image of the servile and inferior position that nurses usually have in society. Though there is great disparity in the pay, position and benefits between the doctors and nurses, they are the key ingredients in the high tech health care world of today

One of the results of the way we treat our nurses is that many of them are migrating in droves to countries where they will be paid better and treated a lot better. The Times of India carried an article some time ago, where it quoted a nursing college principal as saying that 80%--yes, 80%--of her students apply to recruiters for foreign nations. For instance, although Filipinas traditionally filled many nursing vacancies in US hospitals, the trend is now moving toward Indian nurses. "Dr. Mark J. McKenney," a U.S. recruiter who directs Nurses for International Cooperative Exchange (NICE), notes that nurses can earn $50,000 per year in the U.S. according to the same article.

Speaking on the occasion of the National Florence Nightingale Awards last year (possibly the only day we pause for a day to remember nurses!)To mark the International Nurses Day, the President had remarked that it was a matter of pride that the quality and commitment of Indian nurses was getting recognition. She had also commented on the acute shortage of nurses in the country by pointing out that there are about 3.7 lakh nurses in India while the requirement is going to be about 10.5 lakh nurses by 2012. But dreaming of filling up this gap may be wishful thinking. While the shortage of nurses is a global phenomenon, most other countries have realized their worth and treat them well as pay them better. We are falling short on both counts.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Starvation or Death

Yesterday, the government of India made a decision, for the moment not to allow genetically modified Brinjals for sale in India. The decision that India has made will perhaps influence other countries. Particularly, a leading daily has reported that Bangladesh and Philippines are eagerly watching the course that India sets and that might guide them too.

Both Bangladesh and Philippines have large populations to feed and therein perhaps lays the commonality. And that too to a large measure will be the guiding factor in any decision that the government makes.

It is not that the dangers and the uncertainties of the genetically modified revolution driven by bio-technology and often called the second green revolution by its votaries are not known. They are known. The concept is new and no one knows fully the long term implications that going this route will have. And this is a fact. Those who love the hate the multi nationals talk of how a few giants will eventually come to monopolize seeds and then acting as a cartel control seed prices and threatening national food security, bring nations to their knees.

If OPEC countries can act as a cartel and to a large extent control global oil prices, why not seed companies? Multi nationals after all are beholden to no one but the balance sheet and the shareholders. This is true.

There are also environmental and health hazards up on the radar; some of them are known or can be predicted but there are many which may be totally unknown at the present time. All of this is known and it is true; but yet in this present day and time, there may be no other options but to go this route.

Looking back at history, at the time of the first green revolution when fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds began to be used in a big way in the 60s, the dangers that could be posed were known then too. But again there was no alternative.
Traditionally practiced forms of farming had peaked in terms of what could be produced in terms of yields and the population was growing. India was literally surviving from “ship to mouth” as it was called then with food imports literally being rushed to ration shops to ward off impending starvation and the memories of the Great Bengal Famine of the 40s which killed close to 3 million people or more were still fresh.

And so the government of Indira Gandhi went ahead to back the efforts of MS Swaminathan and others. The dangers that fertilizers, chemical pesticides and such were not and could not be avoided but systemic famine and mass starvation became history. It is not that fertilizers and pesticides were good; it is just that the alternative is worse.

Today again, we are standing at just such a perch. According to the economist Yogendra Alagh, with the emphasis on infrastructure, SEZ and so on, and the resultant neglect of agriculture from the ’90s, the agricultural growth rate went down.

For nearly a decade, agricultural production had stagnated. The spectacular yield growth recorded in the post-Green Revolution years in Punjab and Haryana has receded into history. Of the multiple problems confronting agriculture, rapid fragmentation of land holdings is keeping pace with increasing population. In 1976-77, the average size of the holdings was estimated at 2 hectares, while in 1980-81, it came down to 1.8 hectares. Today, it stands at a mere 0.2 hectares.
The total number of land holdings in 1981 were around 89 million; today these have crossed 100 million. By the turn of the century, the average land holding will come down to 0.11 hectares. It is quite obvious that with such small land holdings, Indian agriculture cannot adopt high-tech farm practices. So in the long run , do we really have the choice to avoid genetically modified foods on our dining table? I think not. The choice it would seem is inevitable…. Tomorrow if not today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Living in Debt

Recently I ran into a friend whom I had not met in some years. It turned out that like many who have been affected by the economic downturn, he too has been hit and has been out of a job for a year or more now. Having exhausted all his savings, he was in a situation where his children’s school was telling him that they would drop their names from the school register if he didn’t pay up their fees on which he had been defaulting for some months. After exploring all possible alternatives, he approached a kabuliwallah, the dreaded traditional money lender of Afghan origins immortalized in Tagore’s short story of the same name and its subsequent movie version.

The kabuliwallah lent him money at the horrific interest rate of 80 percent per month and fully aware that his client was unemployed and possibly unable to return his money immediately, further added a stipulation that if my friend failed to pay the interest at least, he would further pay a penalty of 60 percent per month on the interest. This left the family, already in considerable difficulty, in dire financial straits. Of course, the situation of my friend was not of his own making ; he was not spending or living ostentatiously; he was simply unemployed for so long that his savings ran out, pushing him into a corner. But around me, I do see people who seem to have control over their spending, live beyond their means and eventually get into a debt trap.

While the debate between living frugally (as our parents usually did) or the times today , where we often live to spend will always be debatable, going into a debt and then staying there is a point where surely a line has been crossed. And while living off credit cards and personal loans itself is a nightmare, taking loans at incredible rates from unorganized but dreaded money lenders like the kabuliwallahs is perhaps an inevitable step towards doom. And yet money lenders are an integral part of the Indian horizon and according to S. Parasuraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Moneylenders are now an inextricable part of the rural economy," So much so the bank has become secondary, or even redundant in rural India."

And then for a picture of urban India, just look at this: Outstanding loans on credit cards reached $6 billion at the end of 2008, up 85 percent from the previous year, according to CRISIL, a ratings agency. In New Delhi alone, already overburdened courts are dealing with 400,000 cases of bounced checks, mostly payments for credit card purchases, according to government figures.India currently has 30 million credit card holders, triple the number half a decade ago. In the past two years, the average credit card spending by an Indian has jumped about 30 percent, to Rs 2,400 per month ($48). Indians took on credit-card debt worth $14 billion in 2008, three times higher than just four years ago.

Although slowly counseling facilities like DISHA and Debt doctor and others like them are beginning to emerge to provide advice, counseling and even debt negotiation with the organized sector like banks and other financial institutions, just how deep is their reach? And just exactly how many people actually know about their existence? Few? And how many of the clients of these credit counseling services are those who have borrowed money from money lenders? Probably none. And considering that Self help groups and cooperative societies where interest rates are more affordable are the fourth and fifth preferred choices for sourcing loans according to the Invest India Savings and Income survey for June 2007, and have a share of 9 per cent and 6 per cent respectively in unorganized sector, the demon of debt is not likely to go away any time soon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

India’s Elderly: A long and lonely walk

Now that the political tributes to the late Jyoti Basu have sort of ceased, examining the last years of his life, highlights for me a concern that we in this country have largely neglected. The thought first came to mind when the outgoing west Bengal governor, Gopal Krishna Gandhi went to pay his farewell calls to the late Jyoti Basu. As a gift, Gandhi, brought along a stack of books for Basu.

Jyoti Basu accepted the gifts graciously but commented wryly through his aide, Jyoti Krishna Ghosh, that due to age, he could neither see, nor hear nor read properly and could even barely carry out a conversation. It would have been a difficult time for a man whose mind remained sharp to the end and who in his time led the state for over two decades to be reduced to such a sad state.

While India is often hailed as the land of young people, it is also a land with a significant number of elderly people. The number of people who are elderly in India was 77 million in 2001and it is anticipated that by 2021 it will reach 137 million. India now has the second largest aged population in the world. Yet while the young are hailed as the citizens and leaders of tomorrow and other such soubriquets, the elderly, the leader and builder of our yesterdays usually are left to live lonely and unfulfilled lives with little attention paid to their wants and needs.

Euthanasia or even assisted suicide is banned in India, although given the physical and emotional deprivation that many of our elderly population are forced to live in, many have from time to time opted for this. Some traditional practices like the Jain practice of Santhara or voluntary fasting to death when one believes that one’s life has served its purpose are tolerated; this is not a mainstream tradition. So given that advances in medical science usually now ensures a longer life span than was possible a generation ago and given that euthanasia and its likes are banned and rightly so, what is one to do? Is it fine to just consign the elderly to the pages of history and allow them to live physically but deprived of all that makes life meaningful.

The fact that Indian society is getting fragmented today has only added to the problem. Not only is the extended family passé, event the sense of community is fast disappearing. Elderly grandparents are now opening Facebook and Skype accounts to keep some semblance of family in a widely dispersed universe. We know, they know , everyone knows that a virtual community is just that “virtual” and it can never replace actual face to face human bonding , and neither do social networking sites have any such pretensions.

Although it looks for the moment that there is no way out of this one way ticket to gloom, it would be nice if gerontology had a higher profile in the country than it currently does. While geriatrics, while deals with the medical aspects of ageing has some visibility, there is very little going on in terms of the social, mental and other processes that have to do with ageing and tries to come up with solutions and options. Civil society responses to the elderly and their plight are limited in scope and number, although this is slowly changing. Meanwhile, denied death and also denied an abundant life, our senior citizens live in a perpetual twilight of despair.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Population and Identity

All this talk of Mumbai for Mumbaikars is making me very nervous. I don’t know to what part of the country I can lay claim to. As a man from Bengal, largely brought up in Delhi, partly educated in Pune and also owning a small flat there and further married to a lady from the Philippines, just who am I? The identity question is beginning to haunt me, for over years, having travelled to practically every part of India, I realize that I can largely live and adjust everywhere. I have no food fads, no clannish tendencies to hang out with my own kind (just who would they be any way?), or any other parochial tendencies that I am aware of or any one has pointed out. Further, having served a stint in the Armed Forces, I have imbibed the ideals of secularism and national integration to the brim. I am the living, walking and talking model of the Nehruvian cliché of “unity in diversity”.

But today I wonder where I belong. Do I belong to Bengal? May be because I speak, read and write the language. One good thing about the Left Front government is that it has been socially inclusive in keeping with its ideology and so linguistic and ethnic differentiations are rarely talked about or a matter of debate.

But identity is obviously something important to Indians and the Indian identity; notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the RSS and other nationalistic entities is clearly not enough. Although the RSS has mistakenly tried to propagate an idealistic myth that a common religion (read Hinduism) will automatically lead to a unifying pan Indian identity, this is clearly not the case. Religion is obviously not very unifying in Mumbai where the Shiv Sena and the RSS are speaking in a different tongue, even though they espouse the same faith and do so with passion and fervor.

So “mile sur mera tumhara” is out and linguistic and ethnic based xenophobia is in. Treading the fine line between being conscious of and being proud of one’s identity – be it ethnic, religious or linguistic on one hand and being intolerant of those who are different on the other is always a delicate matter , but we seem to be losing the battle here. Clearly the Indian identity is a tenuous one at best and dangerously at threat at its best.

At the root of all this battle for identity is some thing that was once recognized as a national priority ; but is now consigned to the dustbin of history. India’s family planning program , driven by its burgeoning population. In my childhood and youth, I lived through slogans like “do ya teen bus” and even later “ hum do, hamare do’, slogans, today’s population hasn’t heard of. As the population keeps growing, opportunities diminish – be it for education or jobs, or houses or basic civic amenities.

As these diminish, migration ensures that people move elsewhere in search of these opportunities and in the process swamp languages and cultures and ethnicities by the sheer power of numbers. If you need examples look at Tripura , once tribal dominated but today effectively controlled and even governed by Bengalis, the same with Silchar in Assam and of course – the much talked about Mumbai, the door to opportunity for supposedly all.

It is a pity that in today’s consumer driven market , high populations are an asset, though on the overall balance sheet , an exploding and uncontrolled population growth is really a liability , threatening life and livelihood in every possible way and thereby eventually beginning to threaten identities and nationhood as we have known and understood it. It is a pity that the Family Planning program is dead. We need it back and badly and soon.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sunlight, shadows and Dhoop

Perhaps it was a matter of chance that I was watching the film Dhoop which deals with the subject of the family of a Kargil martyr on Republic Day. Perhaps it was incidental that the film has a shot of the ritual laying of the wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti by the Prime Minister as a sequence. Watching the movie raised two questions in my mind – the first perhaps has been addressed often enough though not remedied ; and the second question – well that is perhaps very little asked.

The story line is simple. There is a middle aged couple – Om Puri – who is a professor and his wife(Revathy) who is a librarian. Their only son (Sanjay Suri), initially somewhat against their wishes to join the Army and eventually does so. He is posted to Kargil as a Captain and in the 1999 hostiles is martyred. After the initial ceremony honoring the dead is over , the family including Sanjay’s fiancée (Gul Panang) begin moderating their grief and begin to pick up the pieces of their life.

It is at this time that a letter arrives from the government allotting the family with a petrol pump plot – apparently a routine bureaucratic gesture to the families of the martyred. The middle class family is initially reluctant to accept the offer – they are middle class professionals content with their jobs and salaries but are persuaded to accept the pump as a memorial to their dead son.

It is at this point that reality hit home . The harsh reality that after the garlanding of the body is done with and the Last Post has been played , the martyrs are just another statistic. As they begin the journey to take possession of the plot where the petrol pump is to be located , they encounter apathy, corruption and behavior of the vilest kid possible. One police man who(among others) has to give an NOC and needs a bribe to do so, gleefully informs the parents that is a windfall for him as so many people have been martyred from Haryana and each martyred family is a potential bribe giver.

Coming back to the two questions , I started this write up with. I have heard the first question posed often enough on television channels and a lot of breast beating at the apathetic treatment that is meted out to martyrs’ families. And this is a sad fact and must be deplored. But the other question that tormented me as I watched Om Puri on his scooter go from office to office and in almost every instance be confronted by the demand for a bribe was this : in the dance between the one who gives bribe and the one who takes it, who actually is the villain ? So often , we paint the giver and the taker with the same brush of criminality and sin when the one who empties out his pocket is often a victim of extortion and utter helplessness.

In the film , the grit and determination of Om Puri and Revathy, aided by the spunky Gul Panang is commendable , but how many people in real life can really sustain the pressure of being surrounded on every side by venal, greedy, vulture like people with no semblance of feeling except that of becoming richer at the hapless expense of the other. Can you ? Can I ? Every time I bribe, am I the sinner or sinned against ? Makes me wonder.