Monday, 15 November 2010

What's in it for India, Obamaji?

India is just recovering from an Obama spell for the past week or so. There are various analyses on the different things he did and did not. The best way, I think, to sum up US President Barack Obama’s visit to India is the way a friend commented on the Obama visit on facebook -- Obama angane nammaley padhapichu. He also posted a translation for the less privileged ones -- Obama has buttered us up with his sweet nothings! How true!

All the sweet talk, rhetoric on security and cooperation and ‘India’s vital role in world order’ will keep the Indian media and pundits busy for a few days. To get a hang of this a bit of Indo-US diplomatic history is essential. I’m not sure if how many caught a good analysis of the history of US meddling with Kashmir since Independence by Goplaji Malviya in the The New Indian Express (

There are many things that stand between an Indo-US relationship that India envisages and a relationship the US desires. And the reason for this is not far. President George W Bush had stated this sometime during his first term in office -- ‘the US has no friends, only allies’. And in politics there are no permanent allies; they keep changing according to the political realities of the time. This fact is tacitly discussed by Harold A Gould, a visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, in his book The South Asia Story where he describes the relationship various US presidents have had with India and it is clear that India has always been viewed with difference, as the ‘other’.

If now the US has started looking towards India it is not because India has ‘reached’ the world high table (as if often said about India). We should not forget that India’s record on various Human Indices is worse than sub-Sahara Africa. If the West has started to give India a glance it is only because of the latter’s growing economy and the chances these countries see in advancing their cause by getting into partnerships with New Delhi.

Regionally also India is not the nation to look up but one must admit that India is ‘on its way’ to greater height. The greatest example of the neglect was seen when India was not invited to the 50 nation conclave discussing the future of the Af-Pak region early this year. At that time the US did not see it fit to acknowledge India’s ‘important presence in Afghanistan’ as a vital factor’. Today Obama is all praise for the good job India has done in the war-torn country. Talk about changing perceptions!

I don’t think that his visit is in anyway a message to China. All the analysis that the US wants to check an intimidating Beijing by boosting New Delhi is thin air. We are no match for the power that China has risen to be today and no one knows that better than the US. More than $2 trillion of foreign reserves is with China. Annual trade between China and the US is around $50 billion while with India it is $13 billion.

No matter how much we try to deceive ourselves into the supposed grandeur of Obama’s visit, the fact remains that the world’s most powerful man came calling on because it was necessary for him to create jobs in the US to salvage his job. One should not forget that his ratings have been climbing downhill ever since his historic win in 2008. It seems like he lost a magic talisman he was keeping until November 4 and is now in the hunt for it. Obama’s India visit is sure a big boost for him back home as he has brought 50,000 jobs and business worth $10 billion.

Obama has told what we in India were waiting to listen. Our fixation in painting Pakistan black and that of getting a permanent seat at the UNSC have blurred our vision for the actual targets -- focusing on increasing our GDP and investing more in R&D. Obama’s visit in a nutshell has done more damage to India than the likely benefits it is to bring about. The damage is long-term and the benefits are only likely.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Media and telegenic violence

The quality of a democracy is measured in the freedom its citizens enjoy, under the Constitution, to voice their views without fear. Productive discussion, constructive criticism and the sagacity to ‘agree to disagree’ should be the yardstick used to measure the maturity of a democracy. It is not a positive sign when the state fails to protect this freedom from being questioned or intimidated by power or might. On Sunday (October 31) this freedom was intimidated when around 100 BJP Mahila Morcha women gathered outside the residence of Arundhati Roy and indulged in vandalism in the pretext of protesting against the writers pro-azaadi stand on Kashmir. Without getting into the merits of her statement, it should be said that the right to express oneself cannot be usurped. If there is anything ‘seditious’ in her words it is the duty of the government to look into it.

It is a cause for concern that similar acts of violence are on the rise; acts which once were the generally associated with the Shiv Sena in Mumbai who resorted to high-handedness in the name of the Marathi manoos, but now is common, be it the Sri Ram Sene unashamedly bashing up girls in Mangalore or religious fanatics chopping the palm of a professor in Kerala.

The police and the television media should also be blamed for their ‘tacit’ encouragement to such forms of protests. That the incident occurred at 11 am in the morning in a high-security diplomatic enclave of Luytens’ Delhi leaves a lot of explanation from the side of the police, especially because this was the second such attack on the writer’s residence, the last one in June this year.

What is disturbing is that before the group gathered and resorted to violence three different TV news channel crews were present in full gear to cover the incident. The question is: Were the news channels intimated about the protests? If so, why were the police caught unawares? Did the presence of cameras and OB vans egg the crowed to resort to violence? It is a known fact that media presence, especially live coverage, is the much-needed oxygen for such trouble mongers.

It seems that in the rat-race for survival of TV news channels, it is not just people who are being ‘sacrificed at the altar of TRP ratings’, to quote Arundhati Roy, but so are the fundamentals of journalism. It should not be forgotten that the above mentioned June attack was a result of a false report that appeared in the media about the author. The violence resorted to by right-wingers, the callousness of the police (administration) and the insensitivity and irresponsibility of the media (particularly broadcast) is a deadly cocktail that we should avoid at any cost.

(The edited version of this has appeared in The New Indian Express. Link:

Saturday, 16 October 2010

A saga of human endurance

Not every day do we come across stories of human triumph on a grand scale. Wednesday was such a day when the world turned its focus to San Jose near Copiapo, a small nondescript town in northern Chile, to watch the rescue of 33 miners who spent 69 harrowing days inside a mine cut-off from the outside world.

The ordeal began on August 5 when 70,000 tonnes of earth caved in and trapped the miners, including a Bolivian national, 2,000 ft below the surface. Initial efforts to locate the miners failed; with no progress for about two weeks the worst was feared — deaths in the mining sector in Chile are not uncommon; this year alone 36 miners lost their lives. However, on August 22 when the drill probe was lifted to the surface it had a note attached to it which read “We’re fine in the refuge, the 33”. This was enough to lift the sagging spirits of a whole nation united in grief.

President Sebastian Pinera’s government brought in expertise from around the world resulting in the spectacular rescue. The first miner to step out of Fenix 2, the rescue capsule, was Florencio Avalos, and the last miner was the shift-in-charge, Luis Urzua, who like a true leader, guided the trapped miners through the gruelling 69 days and was the last to leave. The manner in which the rescue was organised deserves our unstinted applause. The government has promised to take care of the miners for up to six months and help them readjust to normal life. However, there are issues which need to be addressed, the safety and better working conditions in the mines, not being the least of them. That the blueprints provided for the San Jose mines were outdated and that the escape routes were blocked reflect the fact that employee safety has not been a top priority. Chile, the world’s top copper producer, needs to address this issue head on.

The world has watched every step of this drama which this newspaper has reported at every stage on its world pages. It has been an astonishing sequence of events that we have watched with bated breath, involving as it did, a saga of camaraderie involving 33 miners, untold misery and uncertainty with a happy ending. In due course a more detailed narration, either on print or in celluloid, will no doubt emerge to engage our attention. Till then: Here’s to a great display of human endurance, courage and never-say-die spirit!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A nation with too few toilets

The stench of a report released last week by the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health in New York City brought the world’s attention to the fact that India’s vast open spaces are a latrine for half the population. To drive home the point Zafar Adeel, director of the UN think-tank, said that while about 45 per cent of the 1.2 billion population has access to mobile phones only about 31 per cent has access to improved sanitation. Not so long ago a WHO/UNICEF report stated that for every 10 people in the world defecating in the open, close to six were in India.

Two aspects need to be highlighted. The first is suggested by Corinne Shuster-Wallace, co-author of the report. “Even the word ‘sanitation’ is sanitised, perpetuating ancient taboos about discussing human waste…” How many people would discuss sanitation over the morning coffee? The second is the failure to create the awareness needed to drive home the importance of sanitation. Nor has the government focused sufficiently on bringing down the cost of a usable toilet and its long-term functioning. At the micro-level city corporations and panchayat bodies have given no thought to building public toilets. The few that are found are terribly maintained. How many of the bus/railway stations in our cities/towns have toilets — leave aside their condition? The government could take a leaf from private organisations that build and operate toilets in many of our cities and towns.

According to the Millennium Declaration adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2000 member countries, India included, are required to achieve eight development goals by 2015. If the IWEH report is anything to go by, India would miss five of the eight goals by miles, thanks to a deplorable sanitation scene.

If people are to view sanitation as a serious issue governments too must look at it gravely. The same focus and publicity that is given to the Nuclear Summit, to cite an example, should be given to a summit on sanitation where mayors and civic councillors would discuss how to provide citizens with what is a basic dignity, a clean, usable toilet. It is true that if nuclear knowhow falls into the wrong hands the world will be at risk, but it is also certain that diseases caused by lack of sanitation are killing millions, especially children, around the world every year, and the number is rising.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Ahmedabad jottings

Ahmedabad jottings

See the stars in daytime

They say the signs seen at the beginning of a journey are premonitions of what is to come. Since I was flying with the ‘best’ airline in the country from Chennai to Ahmedabad I did not think the flight being delayed was a bad omen. Almost all flights are late. The cabin crew at the entrance to the plane had a smile that was welcoming. I placed my cabin baggage and took my seat. If I thought travelling in the city bus was bad, this was worse. My knees hit the front seat and I had to sit diagonally to fit in. I took a deep breath and thought about him. I could understand what he meant by ‘cattle class’ and could forgive Shashi Tharoor for his candidness. After the regular safety drill the cabin crew dished out food that resembled two rock formations surrounded by pebbles. ‘Sir, it’s channa and aloo’. No sooner did I have it than the rumbling started. I dashed to the toilet in the front. There I remembered the tag line of the airline, which promises a few stars in their service. I can vouch for it — I did see stars.

Three colours, all green

Ahmedabad is a city of contrasts. If some roads are jam-packed with vehicles others are deserted. If there are ancient cars plying the road leaving behind a back cloud, there are also the latest super-luxury cars in abundance. It is among the most polluted cities in the country but has an efficient CNG system for its public transport. The autorickshaws ply by the meter, which is a welcome change. But traffic is chaotic, to say the least. Except for main signals and intersections where there is a cop, at other places irrespective of the signal — red, orange or green — it is green for everyone. Sudden breaks, a touch-and-go or a gaali is taken with the ride.

Planned transport

Though Ahmedabad is Gujarat’s main metro, Gandhinagar is the capital. It houses the administrative wing along with the sprawling CM’s residence opposite the Akshardham temple. Gandhinagar is a planned city though my cab driver was of the view that it was deserted: “Ek bhi (Shopping) Mall nahi” However what impressed me the most was the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) developed by Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The BRTS covers approximately 17 km from the RTO to Kankaria Lake with most of the lane exclusively meant for BRTS buses. This means the whole distance can be covered, at certain times of the day, within 20 minutes. If reports are to be believed the BRTS serves 30,000 people a day and is set to expand. This is exactly what a city that looks into the future wants. There is no alternative to an efficient public transport system. Another attraction, at the end of the BRTS, is the Kankaria Lake and park that surrounds it. The Atal Express, a toy train that encircles the lake, is a fun ride.

Apna style story

In and around Ahmedabad there are a lot of temples to visit and some of them, I must confess, are worth seeing. Though I cannot recollect most of their names, a common feature in most places was the tight security and though it was a weekday there was no respite for the number of visitors. Mobile phones and camera are a strict ‘no-no’ and in some places footwear along with baggage is restricted beyond a point. Another common sight is the presence of guides who promise to narrate the ‘stories’ behind the temple and the other artefacts. In one such temple a few boys approached me and offered to guide me. “Sir, story boldunga. Hill ka story” Another boy said: “Sir, poori story. Style mein boldunga.” “Sir, mandir ka story, apna story, poori story…” I paid three boys and listened to them. By the end I had got my money’s worth and stories enough for a few more temples.

Welcome mischief

Gujarat is a dry state. It is the land where Mahatma Gandhi was born and thus, I believe, there shall be no high spirits. The day I landed the local papers had carried a news item about a person who was arrested after being found in an inebriated state. But my local sources told me that getting the spirits was as easy as in any other state. The highway from Ahmedabad to Rajasthan is picturesque and one cannot but notice the difference when entering the neighbouring state. There is a beaming sign: ‘Welcome to Rajasthan’. Below it two people laughing and the words ‘White Mischief’. Soon shops selling liquor appeared. The desert state is far from dry.

Modi, the superstar

This is how a typical hoarding, hosted by a political party for an inauspicious function would look like in most states: The largest picture would be that of the party president. Next, in almost equal importance, would be the picture of the president’s son who is the heir to the throne. This would be followed by the state chief, local area secretary and other small fry. The party emblem would be used either prominently beside the chief or even in a decorative pattern along the border. In Ahmedabad and the surrounding areas too there were hoardings raised by the state government but they just featured chief minister Narendra Modi and the scheme advertised. The BJP emblem, the lotus, was missing not to mention pictures of party president Nitin Gadkari or senior leaders like Advani. It simply meant that in Gujarat Modi is the superstar.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

IPCC should clear its stand

The news that 55 countries have sent their carbon reduction plans to the United Nations, according to the Copenhagen Accord is a positive sign, as it includes countries that emit more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. But this has been overlooked in the breaking news category, given the travails of the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), headed by Rajendra K Pachauri, which has erred in more than one place in its fourth assessment report.

Doubts flared up late last year when V K Raina, a respected glaciologist, in his paper ‘Himalayan Glaciers: A State-of-the-Art Review of Glacial Studies, Glacial Retreat and Climate Change’ said IPCC’s 2035 deadline for the end of the Himalayan glaciers was suspect as it lacked scientific backing. Pachauri dismissed the finding as ‘voodoo science’.

Now the tables have turned, and how. Some of the IPCC’s claims have been exposed as more voodoo than science. The report on vanishing glaciers comes from a World Wildlife Fund report, which in turn based its report on an interview glaciologist Syed Hasnain gave the press. The next was ‘Amazongate’ — the panel’s report that 40 per cent of the rainforest would vanish is also based on a WWF report. It was not peer-reviewed. It is said that the report contains 20 such non-peer reviewed passages. Among them is a report on ice vanishing from mountaintops around the world. It is based on a student dissertation and an article in a mountaineering magazine.

The IPCC’s mistakes have allowed the immensely powerful energy lobby and its adherents to claim even more loudly that global warming is a left-wing conspiracy, making it harder to achieve a worldwide consensus on the issue. It is ironic that the IPCC, which was set up to examine the case for global warming, should be undermining it. Though the IPCC chief has refused to review the report, citing time constraints, a proper explanation is needed — especially as the next report is expected only by 2014. Pachauri, however, has limited himself to saying that the glacier report was a mistake. No clarifications have been issued on the other matters. Such an attitude is unlikely to restore public trust in the IPCC, to say the least.

The exposés show that the IPCC should tighten its review procedures. The IPCC — and the world — cannot afford to lose public trust by making mistakes that were entirely avoidable. Otherwise, it would do irreparable harm to efforts to minimise the worst effects of global warming.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Hope at last for undertrials

Jagjivan Ram Yadav of Faizabad spent more than 38 years in jail, though his case was never heard in court. He fell into the black hole of being ‘under trial’. He was arrested in 1968 on a charge of murdering his neighbour’s wife, but the police did not have the evidence to commit him to trial. If a court had found him guilty of murder he would have spent 14 years in jail. Instead, he was simply locked up and forgotten.

Yadav’s 38-year penance is the worst possible indictment of the justice system. It is a crime almost worse than murder. He was virtually buried alive. It may be an extreme example, but a great many undertrials — arrested for petty crimes — spend more time in jail than their offence warrants because they are unaware of their rights and lack legal assistance. According to one estimate 70 per cent of the inmates in Indian prisons are undertrials waiting, sometimes for years, to face the court.

Against this background, the Union government’s decision to speed up the release of more than 1.25 lakh under trial prisoners comes not a day too soon. Law Minister Veerappa Moily has asked the judiciary to complete the process within six months. The mission will start on January 26 — ‘Law Day’.

The mission should be commended in the highest terms, but is it possible to secure the release of more than 1.25 lakh prisoners before July 31? The judiciary is stretched thin and understaffed. Given these circumstances it would be a tall order to meet the six-month deadline.

However, there is hope as the ministry has made the suggestions after consulting the CJI and chief justices of the high courts. It should be noted that the CJI had observed last August at a conference of chief ministers and chief justices that “If they had served more than half the sentence likely to be awarded for their crime, such undertrials could be immediately released on personal bond.”

While the release of these undertrials is to be welcomed, it cannot be a one-off gesture to ease the congestion in jails. This has to be about ensuring justice. Jagjivan Ram spent the prime of his life behind bars, and if we are to see an end to such crimes, there must be a failsafe mechanism to ensure that the system will not allow any more Jagjivan Rams to fall into the dark places from which there is no return.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Anna University's unholy liason

‘Happy men are full of the present, for its bounty suffices them; and wise men also, for its duties engage them’. Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle while penning the opening lines of Signs of the Times would not have had Anna University in mind but that seems to be the case in the light of a recent article by our staffer in Chennai. According to the report, second generation victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy along with college alumni have requested the authorities of Anna University to return Rs 5 lakh received from Dow Chemicals as sponsorship for an annual college fest. All attempts by the group to get in touch with the authorities have been in vain. Dow Chemicals currently owns the Union Carbide India Limited factory that caused India’s greatest — even on an international scale — industrial tragedy, which killed an estimated 10,000 people within 72 hours of the leak. Many thousands more have been affected by diseases related to the leak.

More than 25 years after the catastrophe little has been done for the victims and the region is yet to be detoxified, with about 390 tonnes of chemicals abandoned at the factory, contaminating the groundwater and posing a clear and present danger to the lives of people in the area.

Anna University, the report says, has been receiving the sponsorship from Dow Chemicals for the third straight year and has been stonewalling repeated requests to discontinue its association with the company.

It is disgraceful that an educational institution with the reputation of Anna University should take such a stand and bring disrepute upon itself. That the authorities have preferred to take the money and run rather than weigh the costs of an association with such a tainted company shows that they have no thought for their social responsibility or the impact on students. Their avarice becomes even more appalling in light of the fact that the gas tragedy is covered in the university syllabus under Professional Ethics. Whatever the institution believes, it certainly does not include ‘practice what you preach’.

Strict dress codes and regulating the use of mobile phones in the campus do not make for better citizens. For that you need a commitment to right behaviour. Since the management seems so clueless, perhaps when the next Professional Ethics class begins, it would not be a bad idea if the who’s who of the university attend it. Who knows, they might learn a thing or two, even this late in life.

Tharoor finds himself caught in blind alley

It’s a little over 240 days since former United Nations under-secretary Shashi Tharoor chose the Nehru jacket over the three-piece suit, and the heat and dust of India to Manhattan traffic snarls. In these 240 days, Tharoor and the controversies surrounding him have consumed 1,542 reels of newsprint (including the vernacular media) and a good 108 hours of prime time news discussions.

Though many might doubt the newsreel-media hour statistics, not many will disagree that Shashi Tharoor is among the most unconventional of politicians to chance upon the Indian political scene. How many first generation politicians among the present crop have entered the legislature through the hustings after a successful career outside the country?

But this uniqueness has become a double-edged sword hanging over Tharoor’s head. Surprise, by now, is Tharoor’s middle name right from his selection of political outfit. For all the Congress-trashing, Sonia-bashing views he has expressed through his writings, he joined the grand old party. It can be said that the choice of Congress as a means to sit in the hot seat of external affairs was a no-brainer given the Congress juggernaut in the 2009 elections. But he chose to face the electorate, not manoeuvre a ticket to the Upper House and a ‘backdoor’ entry to power. He also fought from Kerala, which traditionally does not favour ‘outsiders’ or celebrity candidates. So Tharoor is not a pushover but someone who knows the threads.

Despite all this, Tharoor is not in an easy place. At 53 he is too old for the much-hyped Gen Nxt in the party and too young for the old-school veterans who are masters at the game called ‘Indian politics’.

The thought of Tharoor hanging out with Rahul Gandhi & Co to be clubbed in the ‘Gen Nxt’ group would be similar to the hilarious scene from Munnabhai MBBS in which when Sanjay Dutt, as a freshman, enters the first year classroom all the students greet him, mistaking him for a professor. Moreover, with his loaded resume Tharoor is not the person who would be studying the ‘real’ India in the remote villages of Uttar Pradesh.

Though Tharoor could be bracketed with the likes of Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Manish Tiwari it seems that seniority, be it of a few hours as is the case in government service, is a factor that does not weigh in favour of the new-kid-on-the-block. His lateral entry seems to have not gone well with many in the party.

The last group to hang out with is the seniors who have ploughed their way to the top through the years. Tharoor is not their blue-eyed boy. They don’t take kindly to his twittering on about travelling ‘cattle class’ or visa norms or Nehru’s foreign policy. The last may have earned him a rap on the knuckles because he is maintaining a low profile but the question is: For how long?

Another reason for the hostility Tharoor is facing within the party is the flamboyance with which he has courted the media and the young urban middle-class using his social networking skills. By being just a click away from the public Tharoor has brought down the ‘multiple layers of obstacles’ with which a politician, more importantly a minister, cushions himself from the aam aadmi. Tharoor has deconstructed the liturgical jargon associated with government communication and policies in just 140 characters. His remarks and style of working have rattled a few old guns in the party and seem to be contrary to the image the Congress is trying to project — an image being carefully woven for Rahul Gandhi to take the sceptre in 2014.

Tharoor’s campaign and election victory gathered so much media publicity that he has become a more familiar name than three-time former Kerala chief minister and current defence minister A K Antony. But he has disappointed those who yearned for a change in government policy and thought he was the answer (not much has changed on the foreign policy front; the Centre’s outlook has not changed from UPA I — it looks to the US for everything and is ditching old allies like Iran).

Fame and power come but at a cost, and who would know that better than Shashi Tharoor who has entered a maze that will take him time to figure out.