Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sambar to Samba: Karnataka minister go a long way

In January if you were to spot a group of dhoti-clad, middle-aged, potbellied, Ray Ban flashing men speaking in Kanada at the Iguazu Falls at the Brazil-Argentina border or at the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro make sure not to disturb them — they are the latest batch of MLAs from Karnataka who are on a ‘study tour’ to various South American destinations. These ‘crusaders’ have set out with the consecrate purpose to imbibe the best Latin America can offer and reproduce it in their respective taluks and panchayats back home in Karnataka. The state legislature’s committee on estimates is planning to send 30 of its MLAs to visit Argentina, Brazil, Peru among other places at a cost of around Rs. 7.5 lakh per MLA.
Such ‘study tours’ to exotic destinations are perhaps as old as the republic and are not unique to MLAs from Karnataka. Last month, the Goa deputy chief minister Francis D'Souza-led 38-member team visited Italy, Germany and Austria to study solid waste management. In 2012 the Kerala sports minister landed in soup when he and the sports secretary planned to enjoy the Olympics on the taxpayers money even when many athletes were not getting paid. What is surprising though is the gumption and alacrity with which public servants choose to go on such trips. Even as this batch of MLAs plans to go to Latin America a group is currently soaking the wonders Down Under. All this at a time when not less than 65 taluks in the state have been declared drought hit.
 The committee head and Congress MLA Mallikaiah V Guttedar justifies the trip by saying “don’t you send school children on vacation….similarly MPs and MLAs are being sent through the legislature committees.” Fellow MLA BC Patil shares Guttedar’s views: “Why shouldn’t we go on a junket? It’s our privilege as legislators” — and it is this false notion that it is the prerogative of a legislator to waste the taxpayer’s money that baffles the common man. The lack of concern shown by the legislators, including chief minister Siddaramaiah who thinks it is not a big issue, at a time when the state’s finances are in the red is alarming even by the low standards set by our leaders — considering this Nero at least played the fiddle.
Many state BJP leaders, perhaps after understanding the public mood, have decided to not go on the ‘study tour’. However the saffron party cannot claim the political moral high ground because when it was in power CM Jagadish Shettar had to recall his legislators who were touring Argentina and other countries. Thanks to an increasing presence of media and social network sites, coupled by a growing demand for transparency and accountability, the ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ arrangement by MLAs across the political divide will not sell anymore.
In this age of Internet where information is just a click away, it is foolish to justify such expensive trips. The MLAs should rather listen to the people who have elected them and search for solution in consultation with them and experts in the field. Expensive trips are not the answer. And this time the people might be gracious to forgive them even if they were to search for such information on their iPads in the assembly while a session is on.
(This appeared in Hindustan Times on December 28)

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Bitcoin: Is India ready for the virtual currency boom?

With the advent of debit/credit cards and online trading it was said that currency notes would soon vanish from the markets. While this did not happen it made financial transactions much easier and quicker. This also ushered in a virtual and dark world of financial fraud. Governments and regulators have since been hard pressed in checking fraud and adapting to changes around the world. One challenging development in the online trading space is the growing popularity of virtual currency, and among the many it is Bitcoin that is jingling the loudest. Bitcoin is a decentralised digital currency which is an open source peer-to-peer electronic mode of payment. The risk with virtual currency increases when there is no authorised regulator for what is essentially a private enterprise. With an almost zero physical presence the fear is that this could be misused by fraudsters to lure gullible investors. Its virtual and unregulated nature makes it suitable for online gambling, illegal drugs, etc. While Bitcoin is relatively marginal in everyday real-time transactions, it is mainly used for speculative investments — in which the potential risk is exponentially high.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is, and rightly so, concerned over the growing popularity of Bitcoin. As for now the RBI is adopting a wait-and-watch approach. But it is doubtful as to how long it can stay on the sidelines and observe the developments without intervening. This is mainly because of a sudden increase in the demand for the virtual currency. With many establishments in the United States, China and not to mention online sites accepting Bitcoin, pressure will increase for its transaction in India.
With the markets being volatile and gold — the preferred investment option in India — losing its sheen, Bitcoins are likely to draw the investors’ attention. Add to this the fact that its value has surged almost five times — from $207 a few months back to $1,000 (Rs 63,000). With millions of transactions daily the world over and a total circulation estimated around $1.5 billion, Bitcoin by its sheer volume demands that government financial regulators keenly watch it. This should be a top priority for the central bank and the finance ministry and proper checks and balances are essential to make sure that the Indian investor does not burn his fingers dabbling in this.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Protests in Thailand: Bangkok does not fancy this sibling bonding

It is a yesterday again on the streets of Thailand’s capital city Bangkok. Anti-government protests have rocked the city for a few weeks now and on Monday the protestors — by most estimates more than a lakh — laid siege to the finance ministry calling for the ouster of the government. Bangkok had witnessed protests against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and in 2008, the latter which led to the shutdown of the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The immediate provocation for the protests was an attempt by the government to pass an amnesty bill on November 11, which was aimed at whitewashing the charges of corruption against Thaksin, who is the brother of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The senior leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, says the protestors will not settle for anything less than the “Thaksin regime being wiped out”. While the anti-Thaksin voices are predominantly urban, the ruling Pheu Thai Party enjoys support in the populous rural areas of Thailand. The Pheu Thai Party, founded by Thaksin, had a resounding victory in the 2011 general elections. Also to be remembered is the massive protests in 2010 by the ‘red shirts’ demanding Thaksin’s return. However, the ‘no-confidence’ motion Yingluck is facing in parliament is crucial and it needs to be seen how it will impact the situation in the country.
The developments in Thailand are important also because of the impact it can have in the region and this is something India should keenly observe. Since 2001, India and Thailand have been exploring ways of increasing economic ties and a framework agreement for establishing free trade between the two countries was signed in 2003. That a Free Trade Agreement featured in the talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, when Singh was in Bangkok in May, stresses the importance of the ties. Already, under the Indo-Thai Early Harvest Scheme (EHS), almost 82 items of trade are exempted from duty. The Thai PM invited India to invest in its deep-sea ports and special economic zones in Myanmar. This is a part of Yingluck’s ‘Look West’ policy and while Bangkok is building ties with New Delhi, it is also sending a clear message to Beijing. With two-way trade between the nations at almost $9 billion in 2012-13, India has a stake in political stability in Thailand. As for now it should wait and watch the events rather than jumping into hasty conclusion.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Uttar Pradesh: Mulayam’s Hindi is Akhilesh’s English

'Son, the Hindi for ... SIM card is...' 
Recycling is an environment-friendly process and old things, as much as possible, should be recycled. However, it’s another thing to recycle old ideas, especially the redundant ones. Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s call to ban the use of English language in Parliament should be seen in this light. Mr Yadav was speaking at a function at Etawah in Uttar Pradesh where he said that many leaders had a ‘double standard’ when it came to Hindi, as they asked for votes in Hindi but spoke in English in Parliament. His suggestion to use one’s mother tongue in Parliament is a flawed one and does not act in the favour of his idea to promote Hindi. The mother tongue of more than half of the members of the Lok Sabha is not Hindi and if one were to take heed of the SP leader’s suggestion, there would be more than 20 different languages spoken on the floor of the House. The resultant scene can only be described as pandemonium.
To look at English as a vestige of our colonial past is wrong, as today the language belongs to all its users, both native and non-native speakers. In a multi-lingual country like India, where dialects of the same language change every 100 kilometres, English is the lingua franca and linguam primarium. English is a thread that connects various states and cultures. Many states in India have suffered because of an aversion towards English — the case of West Bengal is an example. India’s IT/ITES revolution owes its success a great deal to the language. Many of the political leaders who talk about the need to shun English make it a point to send their children to English-medium schools and to universities in the US, the UK or Australia.
This fall back on the attitude towards the usage of English by the Samajwadi Party leader shows the party’s paucity of ideas in this election season. Uttar Pradesh, where the party runs the government, has recently been in the news for the wrong reasons like the communal tension in Muzaffarnagar, which saw many people die and scores of people living in relief camps months after the riots. The healthcare scenario, with a high infant mortality rate, is not very impressive and there is a lot of scope for improvement. Rather than focusing on these and other pressing issues, Mulayam Singh’s statement has shown that the hope placed on a young Akhilesh Yadav as the chief minister of the most populous state in the country was misplaced. The young chief minister of UP, who himself holds a degree from the University of Sydney, Australia, must work towards dispelling the impression that his government and party are resorting to retrograde ways to reach out to the people and instead take all the steps towards putting the state on the development path. Shunning English is not a step in the right direction.

Iran nuclear deal: It's an opportunity the world shouldn't miss

For decades Iran has been the bad boy for the West. The antics of its leaders in public coupled with its nuclear ambitions have not earned it many friends. But since June, when Hassan Rouhani was elected president, there have been changes in this outlook. The earlier round of talks, to put a tab on Iran’s nuclear programme, held in Geneva, between the West and Iran missed an agreement after France scuttled the deal at the last minute. While differences continue among the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, and Germany) and Iran, leaders like US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron have made the right moves: Mr Obama has stuck his neck out to stress the need for talks and the easing of sanctions, while Mr Cameron called up Mr Rouhani (a first in a decade by a UK PM) to ‘address concerns on both sides on the nuclear issue’. Given this, it is not in the best interests of anyone to further impose sanctions on Tehran. The loosening of sanctions would mean that Tehran has more flexibility with its trade on gold and oil, which is good news for New Delhi.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy and commerce minister and leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, said a few days ago that Iran was six weeks away from enriching weapons-grade uranium. The fear of nuclear proliferation is not without merit but what about nations that have nuclear weapons acquired under the table, like Pakistan or North Korea? Douglas MacKinnon, a former White House and Pentagon official, has rightly asked, in a Fox News op-ed: “Are we endangering our own safety and that of Israel by over-exaggerating the nuclear threat posed by Iran while drastically under-estimating the growing threat posed by Pakistan?” There is a need for international pressure and scrutiny on Islamabad for its clandestine nuclear dealings. This is the clear and present danger — more than the likelihood of Iran’s plans.
The talks with Iran are perhaps one of the greatest tests for Obama. A deal could also bring greater peace to the region and change the course of world politics.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Colombo CHOGM: The shadow is bigger than the object

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which concluded in Colombo on Sunday, is a good example of a ‘meeting for the sake of meeting’. Mainly a conglomeration of countries that were at some point in history ruled by the British, the Commonwealth has little in common today. The glue that holds the Commonwealth together is the commitment of member nations towards democracy, human rights and rule of law. With many nations criticising Sri Lanka, which hosted the CHOGM, for its human rights abuses and war crimes, the relevance and need for the Commonwealth is being put to question. A usual criticism of the Commonwealth is that it often refuses to take a strong stand against erring nations and this timid approach has eroded its credibility.
That only 27 heads of government attend the Colombo CHOGM shows how the 53-member Commonwealth is battling a split right in the middle. Among the prominent leaders who gave the Meet a miss were Queen Elizabeth II (for the first time in over four decades), Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam. While Mr Haprer’s decision came early in October, Mr Singh’s decision was a last minute one, making it clear to world nations that it was a decision based more on politics than on principle.
The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the Colombo summit has strengthened the organisation and that there was a "reaffirmation of the spirit and willingness of wanting to stay together as a unique collection of nations". The events that unfolded tell another story. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to the Jaffna region and his statement that if progress was not seen before March, he would urge the UN Human Rights Commission for a “full, credible and independent international inquiry” in no uncertain words brought the focus on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s human rights record. The objection of Australia and Canada to back a 'Capital Green Fund' for smaller states and struggling African nations to tackle climate change can been seen as a failure of the Colombo CHOGM. The statement released after the Meet stating that the countries agreed to address issues like poverty reduction, trade and youth affairs, among others, pales given enormity and potential the group reflects on paper. Irrespective of the fate of the 2015 CHOGM in Malta, one thing is clear: the Commonwealth today is more a relic of the past than of any significance today.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Opinion Polls: Congress should not sulk, BJP cannot gloat

The Election Commission of India’s (ECI) suggestion to put a lid on pre-poll surveys has found support from unexpected quarters with the Congress endorsing the commission’s views. Stating that they are not ‘scientific’ and are not conducted in a ‘transparent manner’ the grand old party has written to the ECI, which had asked various political parties to submit their views on banning such polls. The Congress’ dislike for opinion polls is understandable. After all, in most of the polls that have been released, the party is forecast to take a beating in the upcoming state elections. In Delhi, a state-union territory the Congress has been in power for three consecutive terms, an opinion poll shows the party trailing behind. The results are not encouraging in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh either. 
Psephology is a science that analysis political results. Depending on region, society and various other factors psephologists more often than not are able to reflect the sentiments of the electorate before voting day. Many democracies around the world also have opinion polls. Nathaniel Read ‘Nate’ Silver, the famous American sabermetricist (Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball statistics) and psephologist, has been successfully forecasting the career of major baseball players and forecasted correctly 49 of the 50 state winners in the 2008 presidential elections. Such popular was Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog the New York Times licensed its publication in 2010. In 2012, Silver forecasted the winner in all the 50 states. Opinion polls and pre-poll surveys help in gauging the public mood. While there might be room for doubting the neutrality and objectivity of an opinion poll, it should be remembered that these surveys are not oracular prophesies. Nor are they edicts carved on stone and remain unchanged. Depending on various factors they can change proving these surveys wrong. At present exit polls are banned and there is a ban on opinion polls 48 hours before the day of election.
The Congress will do well to remember Sophocles in Antigone: "No one loves the messenger who brings bad news". Rather than taking objection to opinion polls, the Congress should look at it as a harbinger and realise that there is still time for course correction before the general elections in 2014.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Free the babus from the shackles of politicians

In what is a giant stride towards freeing the bureaucracy from the shackles of the political establishment, the Supreme Court on Thursday passed a judgment asking the Centre and state governments to ensure that civil servants have a fixed tenure. In order to look into this the court has suggested the setting up of an independent civil servants boards (CSB) within three months that would recommend to the government on matters relating to disciplinary actions, transfers and postings of civil servants. Acting on a two-year-old PIL filed by a group of retired bureaucrats, the apex court’s judgment requires that the Centre and states pass supporting legislation. The court was particularly critical of the political establishment in observing that civil servants had no stability in their tenure and were at times being transferred at the “whims and fancies of the executive head for political and other considerations and not in public interest”. The court has asked bureaucrats to put in writing the oral orders given by their superiors. The observation that a fixed tenure would “promote professionalism, efficiency and good governance” highlights the present plight bureaucrats face because of political interference.
Seen in the light of the recent events which highlighted the case of IAS officer Ashok Khemka, who was transferred while investigating the land deals in Haryana of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, or the case of Durga Shakti Nagpal, who was suspended and later reinstated for taking on the sand mafia in Uttar Pradesh, an independent CSB will put a check on arbitrary transfers and suspensions. That Mr Khemka and Ms Nagpal are not one off cases adds more urgency for a politically independent body like the CSB. Others who faced the political heat are: C Umashankar, the IAS officer who took on the Marans in Tamil Nadu; Ashish Kumar, who took on the sand mafia in Tuticorin; Manoje Nath, for taking on corruption in Bihar; Sanjeev Bhat, EAS Sarma is a long list. While the BJP has welcomed the judgment, the UPA government has criticised it and understandably so. Many feel that the court order is unworkable and is seen as yet another instance where the judiciary and political establishment will be at loggerheads. The government’s claim that it has been working towards bringing more transparency through its draft ‘Civil Services Performance, Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010’ is a bit late in the day and cannot but be seen as a poor effort to counter the CSB.
The euphoria over the judgment will be short-lived if it goes the way earlier administrative reform suggestions have gone. The Centre’s push for a fixed tenure for civil servants in 2007 saw just four states agreeing to it—interestingly Haryana was one of the states. The second Administrative Reforms Commission 2012 also suggested the need for a fixed tenure for civil servants. Recommendations by the PC Hota Committee and the Fifth Pay Commission for civil service boards have not been taken up by the government. The 2006 directive of the apex court calling in for sweeping police reforms to make the force more professional and free from political interference is gathering dust.

NaMo, RaGa.....politicians give facts a miss

Political leaders shooting off their mouth is nothing new. Often in the heat of addressing an audience politicians add, twist or delete historical events to suite the occasion. The problem arises when the public and an attentive media highlight these ‘white lies’. When caught politicians either stand by the comment or use the bogey of being ‘misquoted’. While some of these gaffes are controversial and insensitive, like Congress leader Beni Prasad Verma saying that “I am happy with this inflation”, many are comical and some are replete with fudged facts. Comments that twist historical facts expose the grasp our leaders have over history.
Many of the statements made by Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi seems to give facts a miss. Some of the examples are: statements saying that Alexander came up to the Ganges, that Chandragupta Maurya belonged to the Gupta dynasty, that China spends 20% of its GDP on education (Beijing devotes hardly 4%), that Gujarat under him empowered women while sex ratio has fell in the past decade and is below the national average. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi also got it wrong when he referred to the ‘large 70-foot ashes with dead bodies inside’ in Uttar Pradesh in the heat of the state election campaign.

It not just national leaders who are prone to the gaffe bug. Topping the international list would be former Alaska governor Sarah Palin remarks that "But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies" or "You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska." Former US president George W Bush was so prone to mistakes that his ‘Bushisms’ like "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully" have etched their place in public memory.
Some gaffes make us laugh while some appal us. Either way it is in the best interests of leaders that they pay more attention to their speeches — because the callous attitude shown towards what one says does not inspire confidence and reflect their commitment towards what they are capable, or willing, of doing.

Monday, 28 October 2013

NSA snooping: Merkel likes her phone, Obama likes it better

For decades intelligence agencies in the United States have stuck to the Russian proverb made famous by former President Ronald Reagan ‘trust, but verify’ as a guiding principle in its relations with other countries. In September, speaking in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington had updated Reagan’s quote to “verify and verify”. This is not surprising given the reports of large-scale electronic snooping by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA), made public after intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked the data to news agencies.
What makes the latest expose on US snooping startling is that it says Washington was extensively spying, not just on potential terror suspects, but also on close allies, right up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Earlier French President François Hollande had raised objections with US President Barack Obama after it was revealed that the NSA had indulged in widespread phone and Internet surveillance of French citizens. The heads of the European Union meeting in Brussels have raised serious concerns over the NSA’s actions. Merkel was quoted by her spokesman as having told Obama that: “between close friends and partners, there should be no such surveillance of the communications of the head of government”. These acts of snooping by the US seem to reiterate that Washington still holds on to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's idea: "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. Something, it seems, Merkel forgot. On Friday, Germany and Brazil got working on a UN General Assembly resolution to safeguard Internet privacy.
That this information would not have been available to the world if not for the revelations by a whistleblower, and consequentially, the NSA and other agencies would have gone about snooping not just terror suspects but also government heads and officials, points to how close we are today to the dystopian world seen in George Orwell’s 1984. Also pertinent is the issue that at present all the major internet-related data storage is America-centric. Last month, Brazil had planned a legislation to ask Google and other major networks to locally store data after widespread electronic snooping by the NSA was reported. Unfortunately, there is at present no better alternative to secure data storage than the US. It is in the interest of every nation, including India, that this imbalance is addressed to protect national-level confidential data from going into the wrong hands, even if it is the NSA.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Muslims keep abreast with social trends the halal way

Mention the word ‘halal’ and what promptly comes to mind is the meat shop in an old part of the city, or the ‘We Use Halal Meat’ signage hung at an eatery. Well, not anymore if you are in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Thirty-eight-year-old Turkish businessman Haluk Murat Demirel recently opened a first of its kind online sex shop ( What makes this shop stand out is the claim that all the good sold and services provided are certified ‘halal’ —in other words, in keeping with Islamic law. The website in addition to selling condoms and herbal aphrodisiacs also counsels about ‘halal’ sex.
While it might be preposterous to think of Haluk Murat Demirel as a pioneer or visionary, his venture should get us thinking. The ‘helalsexshop’ shows Demirel’s entrepreneurial skills but more pertinently it points towards an increasing trend where so-called social ‘needs’ and services are being tailor-made to address the requirements of any particular community.
In 2010, following the controversy after images of Prophet Mohammed did the rounds on Facebook with the page 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day', IT professionals in Pakistan launched ‘MillatFacebook. Similarly, in 2012, Salamworld was launched in eight different languages as an alternative to facebook. The Washington Post quoted Abdulvahed Niyazov, one of Salamworld’s owners, saying that “the content that is being used on other social networks is not very secure and full of haram”.
On the larger picture both what the ‘helalsexshop’ and Salamworld is trying to achieve is to cater to the ‘worldly’ needs of a growing young population within the community and, at the same time, trying to stay within the precincts prescribed by the religion.
Such developments, though it might sound ‘haram’ or queer to many, reflect a changing society and are important because it goes a long way in deconstructing the Westerner’s image of Islam, which is heavily loaded against it after 9/11. As William Stoddart in What Does Islam Mean in Today’s World? writes: ‘That the Western public conflates terrorism and Islam is the lamentable achievement of the ‘Islamic terrorists’.’
A positive to take from this is that rather than getting cowed down by the threats by radical groups, like the Taliban, the youth are innovating ways to keep themselves abreast with a fast-changing world.
Religious exclusivity is not a new phenomenon. For a very long time we have had educational institutions and areas demarcated in cities and villages that are ‘exclusive’ for members of a particular religion/caste. This exclusivity is no confined to one particular faith and can be seen across religions in various hues and shapes.
Humans adapt to the changes around them and so does a religion. As anthropologist Professor Richley H Crapo in Anthropology of Religion notes ‘religion is part of the system of culture’ and plays a role in the ‘human adaptation to the circumstances of survival’.
While orthodox views are still prevalent in all religions and more often than not supersede the moderate and liberal voices, not all hope is lost. Haluk Murat Demirel’s venture is an example.
(An edited version of this appeared in The Hindustan Times on October 24)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Banning menace: Reason for Bollywood to cheer

In February, information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari tweeted: ‘Committee on Cinematographic framework (will) give latitude to review every aspect of certification process holistically & ensure integrity’ and the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee has used that latitude to come up with a progressive model Cinematograph Bill to replace the Cinematograph Act 1952. The I&B ministry setup the Mudgal panel after the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu banned Vishwaroopam. This was not a one-off case. While Prakash Jha’s 2011 film Aarakshan was banned in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar was banned in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP. Other films include Parzania, Firaaq that won two national awards, Madras Cafe, Bandit Queen... the list is endless. Done to not ‘hurt’ the sentiments of a particular section in society, such arbitrary bans have not only hampered artistic freedom but has also emboldened keening fringe groups to have their five minutes of glory by raising frivolous excuses to stall the screening of a film. It should be noted that these films run into troubled waters even after getting the go ahead from the censor board, thus rendering such vetting processes meaningless.
In the wake of such issues, the suggestions put forward by the Mudgal committee are noteworthy. The committee’s suggestion that the selection to the advisory panels of the Centre Board of Film Certification be more professional, consisting of members who are skilled, is spot on. The present practise of political appointments, often with people who have no inkling of the job required, is detrimental. Another suggestion is to increase the mandate of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) to hear cases regarding an objection to any particular film, rather than a plaintiff approaching court as it happens at present. The suggestion to have more categories for classification of films and to bring age-specific divisions is a step in the right direction. The committee has also suggested that in cases where a state uses law and order as a reason to ban a film, ascendency must be given to the powers of the Cinematograph Act. Law and order being a State subject, this suggestion is likely to run into rough weather — and that would be unfortunate.
While the Mudgal committee has come up with astute insights, it is still a long way before these are implemented. There are many stumbling blocks in the way that might force this report to end up in the dusty pile of unimplemented reports submitted by various other government-appointed committees in the past. The Mudgal committee has done its job. Now, it is up to the government, both at the Centre and states, to see that it is implemented without much delay.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Commonwealth: Stephen Harper’s boycott throws light on defunct world bodies

“I never worry about action, but only inaction.” This Winston Churchill quote sums up the problem the Commonwealth is facing today. After the recent exit of Gambia, on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed that he would be boycotting the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in protest of the human rights record of the host nation Sri Lanka. That this will be the second high profile leader giving the November summit a miss is definitely not good news for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which has been working overtime to play the good host and divert the UNHRC heat over its questionable human rights record. Queen Elizabeth II, citing the distance of travel, will be missing the summit for the first time in 42 years.
The Commonwealth is facing a lack of credibility and ceases to command the respect it did a few decades back. This is not a problem unique to the Commonwealth, but is faced by many similar groups. The eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a prime example of how futile can a group be if its objectives are hijacked by member nations. For a greater part of its 27 years of existence, the SAARC has been a forum where ties between India and Pakistan have been more in focus, than the proceedings of the group. In such a situation, the very purpose of the group is lost in the cacophony of the narrow agendas pushed by the dominant members in the group. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is still afloat — never mind that the Cold War is over and that many member nations have warmed up to the two superpowers.
In contrast to this, as a sign of the times, groups formed on an economic-trade objective seem to wield more power and sway than groups formed for ‘promoting peace, co-operation and justice’. The BRICS — consisting Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — is an example. And so is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has created forums, like the East Asia Summit. The fact that larger non-member nations like the United States, Russia, China, India, etc attend such forums reflects the prominence of the group. Similarly groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Gulf Cooperation Council have prominence because they remain relevant in the present scheme of things. The same cannot be said of the Commonwealth, NAM, or even the SAARC.
The purpose and necessity of these relics of a bygone era should be assessed. These groups have been rendered obsolete in the present world order and, more often than not, tend to stick on like a bad habit. Rather than sticking on to their objectives, they tend to take the middle path, in order to avoid differences and harsh actions on member states that violate the group’s core principles. For these groups to remain in the reckoning, it is essential that they reassert the principles for which they were formed. Failing which, they are best remembered for past actions.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Global AgeWatch Index: Ageing gracefully is not an option in India

In a country that has more than 50% of its population under the age of 35 years, it is expected that the older people are taken good care of, if not revered. That, sadly, is not the case in India where the older people are often seen as cheap labour or as a liability. Instances of children abandoning their parents by the roadside or at old age homes reflect this. The economic pressure and the breakdown of the joint-family system have adversely affected the dignity of life of older people. This plight is worsened as, unlike many developed Western nations, the safety net of social security is absent. As is always the case, when faced with a crisis, it is the older women who doubly suffer.
Given this, it is not surprising that India is ranked at an unimpressive 73 among the 91 countries surveyed as ideal for older people to live. HelpAge International launched on Tuesday the first-ever Golbal AgeWatch Index ranking ‘countries according to the social and economic well-being of older people’. The parameters for developing the index were: the income status (including the pension coverage, poverty rate in old age), health (including life expectancy at 60, and psychological wellbeing), education and employment (including educational status of old people) and the living environment (including physical safety, civic freedom and access to public transport). Sweden tops the list, followed by Norway and Germany. India can take cold comfort in the fact that Pakistan (ranked 89) and Afghanistan (91) are at the bottom of the table. On the other hand, China (35) and Sri Lanka (36) have fared much better. Colombo’s long-term investments in education and healthcare have paid off providing a better standard of living for its older people, and New Delhi should take note of this achievement. The study dispels the myth that the wellbeing of older people is better in wealthier economics. None of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — that accounted for 40% of the global population and 25% of the world’s GDP based on the purchasing power parity in 2012, figured in the top 20 nations on the index. The high ranking of countries like Bolivia and Mauritius showed that smaller economies could also be good places for the old. The West, especially Scandinavian countries, has done well and this is mainly because the system is geared towards the demographic shifts taking place.
India has at present about 8% of its total population above the age of 60 and in the coming decades this is set to increase. The index shows that India’s rank in health is low. This is mainly attributed to the lack of availability of good healthcare facilities in rural India where most of the country’s ageing population resides. Some states, like Kerala, already have a significant number of older people and in the coming decades, unless farsighted policies are implemented, the quality of life for older people will not improve.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Sri Lanka: Hope for Lankan Tamils

If Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa thought that the spotlight was no longer on his regime after United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had raised concerns over the human rights conditions of the Tamils after visiting the country, the Sunday results of to the Northern Provincial Council elections would have been a shocker. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 of the 38 seats in the elections sending a clear message to Colombo, and the world, that it was time for giving more regional autonomy to the northern areas. The ruling United Progressive Front Alliance managed to secure just seven seats, while the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress won the remaining one seat.
 The Sunday results are perhaps the worst electoral defeat for Mr Rajapaksa after his government came to power in 2005. Last month Ms Pillay visited Sri Lanka and did not mince her words in expressing her disappointment at the progress the Rajapaksa government had made in integrating the Lankan Tamils in the north of the country even four years after the bloody civil war came to an end. The election results underline her observations.
The results have placed a lot of challenges in front of CV Wigneswaran, the retired Supreme Court judge and TNA leader who is the frontrunner for the post of the chief minister of the province. The high voter turnout and the overwhelming majority the TNA has received is also a sign that the people are not happy with the measures the government has taken in the past four years to improve their lives. Mr Wigneswaran’s view that the TNA is willing to work with Colombo within a united Sri Lanka is proof that he has not been swayed by the views of nationalist groups, especially the Tamil diaspora, that is rooting for a separate state. The TNA has said that it will work for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution and will push for meaningful devolution. It is to be seen how much Colombo will be willing to cooperate on this issue. The people have reposed their faith in democracy. Now, it is for both the TNA and the Rajapaksa government to not disappoint them.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ram Jethmalani and AP Singh point to a greater malaise

 While it is the expected of a lawyer to win a favourable verdict for his/her client, one would expect that certain ethics and niceties are maintained in the process. Recent examples, however, point towards a different reality. Ram Jethmalani, the defence counsel for Asaram Bapu in the sexual assault case on a 16-year-old girl, argued on Tuesday that the girl was suffering from a chronic disease “which draws a woman to a man”. Even if one were to go by this bizarre argument, Jethmalani may have overlooked the fact that the sexual history of a victim of rape cannot be brought to defend the accused. This statement has come even after medical tests conducted on the girl concluded that she was of sound mental health. Such demeaning and below-the-belt statements are uncalled for and are aimed only at smearing the character of the victim.
Jethmalani’s comment comes a few days after AP Singh, the defense lawyer for two of the four accused in the December 16 gang rape case, said that the verdict was ‘politically motivated’ and he would burn alive his daughter if she were to roam with a man at night or have pre-marital sex. That Singh made this observation after a Saket court awarded death sentence to the four accused is important and it seems like he was suggesting that the 23-year-old paramedical student, was out of her house ‘with a man’ at the wrong hour of the day.
Lawyers are free to choose their clients and defend their case in any court. Many a times the legal acumen of an astute lawyer can win the case in favour of his/her client. However, it reflects a lack of respect towards the legal profession and poor work ethics of the lawyer if he/she resorts to any measure to see that the case is won. The statements made by both Singh and Jethmalani point to two aspects. One, to ensure that women are respected and are given their space in society, it is important to change the mindset of men. Two, there should be mechanisms within the legal system that do not lend itself to vilification of victims of sexual assault and rape. It is a welcome move by the Bar Council of Delhi to take exception of Singh’s statement and ask for a clarification. The Bar Council of India also should take note of the insensitive statement made by Jethmalani and take appropriate action. Further traumatisation of victims, be it by the investigating officers or by legal luminaries, must stop. This is an important step towards achieving justice and reducing crimes, especially against women.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

National Flag: Don't wear your patriotism on your sleeve

 How much do you love your country? And to what extent would you go to see its honour upheld and to ensure no one disrespects symbols that represent your motherland? This is a tricky one. Now try answering this one: Are you more patriotic than the person sitting next to you? Or than your neighbour?
The Supreme Court's order on Monday asking the Centre and the BCCI to reply to a petition that the officials had failed to protect the honour of the tricolour during cricket matches held in Kolkata raises these questions.
The apex court was reviewing an appeal against an order of the Calcutta High Court. A petitioner had moved the high court complaining that spectators had dishonoured the national flag during two matches that were played at the Eden Gardens ground in Kolkata.
Spectators, in various photographs that were presented as proof, were seen using the flag as a turban or putting it over their shoulders. This, it is contended in the petition, was a serious violation of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 and the Flag Code of India, 2002.
While there is no standardised metre to measure patriotic fervour, we have many informal ways of grading it. You're different from the 'others' if you have a thumbnail-size tricolour brooch pinned to your breast pocket.
It is still, however, unlawful to 'wear' the national flag and to display it anywhere south of the belly button. If you have a beach shirt with the Union Jack design on it or a stars-and-stripes undergarment and thought of getting its desi version, hold on to that thought.... or even better, just forget about it. Such spontaneous outbursts of patriotism need to be exorcised as the misuse of the tiranga could land you in jail.
Honour and respect are intangible, superfluous social constructs that cannot be defined in definite terms. Attempts to give them a definite boundary, as the national honour Act and the flag code does, often end up creating confusion. Until there's more clarity on this, don't drape yourself in the tricolour on a cold winter night while cheering for Team India.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Kachchatheevu: A no man's land everyone wants

Kachchatheevu, an uninhabited island, a little over a square kilometre in area, has been a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka for decades. The Rajya Sabha on Monday saw MPs from Tamil Nadu criticising the Centre for its affidavit to the Supreme Court, which stated that no portion of India’s land was ceded to Sri Lanka. The Centre was responding to a petition by Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, filed in 2008, seeking the apex court to declare unconstitutional the 1974 agreement. Tension over the island came to focus in 1974 after the Centre signed an agreement with Sri Lanka accepting that Kachchatheevu was not a part of India. According to the agreement signed between the two countries, fishermen from both sides can use the island to dry their nets and even pray at the St Antony’s shrine in the island. Politicians, across the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu, claim that the Centre ceded the island without passing a resolution in Parliament and thus it is an invalid agreement. To bolster their claims politicians claim that the island was under the king of Ramanathapuram and later under the Mdaras Presidency. Over the years, especially after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, there have been an increasing number of reports of confrontation between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen and cases of the Sri Lankan navy firing at Indian fishermen. More than 150 Indian fishermen have been arrested and are at present facing trial in Sri Lankan courts.
The manner in which the Centre ‘ceded’ Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974 should be seen not as an aberration but as a general tone adopted by New Delhi while dealing with the states. Much of the problem surrounding the rights over the island could have been avoided if in 1974 the Centre had taken the then state government in Tamil Nadu into confidence. Today, a similar pattern can also been seen in the way the Centre has gone about unilaterally on its decision to carve out a Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh, so much so that it has not even won the support of its state leaders on the decision.
For our democracy to be robust and to function in the manner it is meant to, the Centre cannot treat the states as lackeys. States should be seen as equal partners in the democratic process and in decision-making and should be consulted on matters that concern the respective state. This is all the more important in a coalition era where regional parties play an important role in government formation at the Centre.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Madras Cafe: good filmmaking ensures no bullet wasted

The movie business is evolving with every passing day and the rules of the games are changing. Lately, there seems to be a talk of only how much a movie earns (Rs100 cr….Rs200 cr…..), of the ensemble of stars or some trivial fact that is not worth remembering. The subject and story of the movie is that missing bit, something like fruit pulp in an aerated drink. And at a time when going to a theatre means removing your grey matter or smelling some nitrous oxide just to remain sane, Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe is a welcome relief. At the outset let me make it clear that this movie is not going to the film archives for being a ‘path breaking cinema’. And yet this is a movie worth watching, if not for anything, for the simple fact that the makers of this movie have stayed true to their job. Rather than going over the top with jingoistic dialogues or cacophonic screams of patriotism, Sircar keeps the whole tenor at a mellow, on-the-ground pace giving the whole experience more credibility.
John Abraham is the main protagonist, but as you would have read by now, the script is the hero of the movie. Madras Cafe, by far, is the most rewarding performance by John Abraham. For an actor, whom I have always thought, was getting typecast as a macho-man of Bollywood, John pushes the bar high. He, probably, had the freedom of doing such an intense film because he is a part producer of the film. That however does not take anything from his performance in the movie.
Credit should be given to Shoojit Sircar. After Vicky Donor, not many would have betted on him to pull through a good movie in an entirely different genre. Casting in the film has also been commendable. Sircar seems to have got the right actors to do even small bits, be it Siddharth Basu as the R&AW head or Prakash Belawadi as the Jaffna Indian official.
Contrary to what has been seen with movies of this genre in India Sircar does not include a song in the movie. An item number (that petty excuse to get people talking about a movie) could have easily been put to show how the Tamil rebel leader enjoys his evenings, of course with a bonfire!
Rather than using John for his muscles and Nargis Fakhri for her looks, Sircar gives the characters they portray respectability and credibility, which is very essential for a movie that, though is claimed to be fictitious, has an uncanny resemblance to an event in history that is still a political hot potato for India and Sri Lanka.
Digressing from the movie, the timing of the release of Madras Cafe and its importance is interesting. It is quite understandable that the politicians in Tamil Nadu have seen red over the film. For the Congress this is a sure morale booster and I’m wondering why they have not gone about distributing free copies of the film. After all, it revisits the assassination of our former PM who was stressing for peace in the neighbourhood. What better message to give in an election year. I still can’t understand why the BJP is opposing the film.
All said, Madras Cafe is a movie worth watching and you will not have to keep your brains back home. In fact do brush you history and Tamil a bit.
This latte tastes better than an Express blend.