Friday, December 22, 2006

Dollar Dreams from Andhra

It’s almost New Year now and a time when friends have their regular get together discussing the hits and misses of their lives over a dinner or a couple of drinks. This year also marks 10 years when I left my school to enter a new world .While contemplating a meeting to celebrate this, I realized that I am among the rare species of my batch who’s decided to not to pack my bags and flee India. There are just so many guys out there in the US that a get together there makes so much more sense than here.

What is that makes the average Andhraite so obsessed with the idea of going abroad or more precisely the US of A? He may not have any great visions on what to do when he goes there but he sure wants to land there, irrespective of the kind of work he does there. I have had friends working in petrol pumps and in bars in US which they would have never thought of doing in India. I attribute this to the mindset and the upbringing that has led them to believe that a Green Card ensures that the grass on the other side is always green.

I remember when I had given my job interview in ICICI Bank, I was asked how come I had done engineering and then moved over to MBA. I had answered that as a proper South Indian, I had become an engineer. May not be the best answer to give in an interview but that was the truth. South India generally suffers from a certain genetic disorder which forces them to become either engineers or doctors and I guess the problem is more accentuated in Andhra Pradesh.

The peer pressure of becoming an engineer and going to US is pretty high for the Andhraite. Right from childhood, he is constantly fed the mantra of “IIT” into his ears and by the time he is through with his primary school, he is ready to enter the haloed corridors of the IITs. In Andhra, students join coaching classes who tutor them to join Ramaiah or Krishnamurthy IIT coaching factories. These institutes then coach this select group of students for the IIT entrance exam. So, the crème-le-crème of the state is selected to train them into becoming IITians. For all those who do not enter IIT, we have a host of other engineering colleges which cater to this huge demand for engineers.

Post-engineering, most of the students take their GRE exam to do their M.S. abroad. Now this is of course a laudable attempt at higher education but you realize that the idea in many cases is not inspired by the concept of higher education but by the mere idea of going abroad and fulfilling the dreams that have been sown in their minds, for all these years, by their friends and family. They could be forgiven for assuming that it was for quality higher education. This argument must have made sense sometime back but now?

When one of my classmates had come down recently from Canada, he gave me gyan saying that the problem here is that people do not recognize you for your efforts unlike in the West and that there’s no strong incentive to work in such an environment. Nonsense, I say, what the hell am I doing here then? With a thought process like that and an outlook which fails to understand the progress we have made, I am really not surprised at such a remark.

The dowry amount is a strong incentive that drives parents to dream of their kids ensconced safely in California and elsewhere, while they spend days waiting for them to come back one day. So a B.Tech guy who commands a dowry price of say, Rs 10 lakh, would probably move into the 25 lakh+ category once he carries the “American abbayi” tag. I have seen palatial houses here constructed on the basis of the dollars sent back home but just a lonely couple waiting for their loved ones to come back one day and share their moments with them.

Friends tell me that this kind of exodus of people from one’s state is not a solitary case and they cite the classic example of Kerala where at least one member of every family works in the Gulf (more than 2 million of them in the Gulf). Numerically and statistically, the argument works but honestly, there’s no comparison between the 2 states when you look at the reasons for this. Majority of the Keralites employed in the Gulf work at lower strata in the Gulf society and do not represent the well-to do crowd there. This emigration is more to do with Kerala’s vehement anti-employment policy, which encourages people to look for other avenues for jobs.

But it is not my point that this flight of intellectual capital is wrong and that people should not leave our shores. After all, merely working in India does not make us any more patriotic. I am not even deriding the claims of subsidised technical education at the IITs though that can also be avalid point.Working outside India is a natural consequence of globalization where we export our most abundant natural resource-labour. This has also lead to a great deal of knowledge transfer that has been of immense utility to the country. The NRI remittances from there also contribute to a great deal in sustaining their families, though I also believe that this inflow (along with the IT pay packages) has fuelled to quite an extent Hyderabad’s inflationary real estate prices.

There’s something less tangible that we probably lose as we stay away from our roots; something I feel at a micro level when I am staying about 1500 odd km from my hometown. My point rests at a more emotional level about a sense of loss and erosion of identity that happens over a period of time.This becomes more pronounced as each generation goes by; somewhere akin to the loss of a certain genetic material found in us. Maybe it’s a purely emotional thought but as we go further away from our roots, there exists a certain loss of identity which is hard to regain as time passes.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Tata Singur Impasse

The Singur controversy has attracted a strange set of bedfellows-the Tatas and the Left Government on one side representing the so-called “capitalists” and Mamta, BJP, Medha Patkar on the other representing “people’s interests”. Politically, the Rajas and Yechurys are conveniently silent and the entire issue has become Buddha’s lone fight. It's best to ignore Mamta madam’s theatrical outbursts and so I am keeping aside the politics involved here, though the clincher in the deal may be politics.

Singur is a village about 50 km northwest of Kolkata and is predominantly an agricultural area. The Tatas want to set up their small car unit here and have estimated about 997 acres of land for this. 950 acres has already been agreed and the remaining 47 acres is still being negotiated, but we know what the result would be. The compensation agreement entails owners of single-crop land to receive Rs 8.4 lakh per acre and Rs 12 lakh an acre if the land was used for double-cropping.

The issues involved, broadly, as I understand are:

1.Agricultural land for industrialization:

Most of the land acquired for the purpose of setting up the land is agricultural and fertile land. A pro-Left article claims that this is because of paucity of non-agricultural land at West Bengal. But Bengal accounts for only 3.8% of the total agricultural land in India, so that argument does not cut ice. Even if it is so, why are the Tatas insisting on acquiring this land? For a company known for its CSR, this seems like an aberration unless they take pains to explain their decision. Is the locational advantage so tremendous that the company has to set up base there or is it because of the sops being offered by the West Bengal Government?

2.Total Land Area Required:

If a Maruti Udyog with an installed capacity of 3.5 lakh cars a year requires a total land area of 300 acres, do the Tatas require three times that much land for producing only one lakh cars? Maybe they do but then shouldn’t they be transparent about it and tell the farmers and the public what they wish to do with this land? Surely, their PRO can do a better job about this rather than maintaining a dogged stance on this aspect and insisting on going ahead with the same plans.

3.Compensation payment:

There seems to be a fairly good consensus that the compensation package paid by the Government is more than adequate and more than 94% of the land owners have agreed to sell of the land because of this. But then, it’s not just the land owners who are involved here. After the land reforms instituted here under Operation Barga, most of the land rests in the hands of land owners while the revenue/produce is shared between the land owners and the share croppers (who get the land cultivated). There are also the farmers who do the actual tilling on the land and work as daily wage earners – all this makes it a more elaborate sub-contracting set-up among owners, croppers and workers. It needs to be ensured that all the three concerned parties are compensated for this sale adequately and not just the land owners.

4.Employment opportunities for the displaced:

As mentioned earlier, there are several daily wage workers who would lose out when this land goes to corporates. This loss of livelihood may have to be compensated by the company in terms of employing them in the company or elsewhere and would again require them to train the workers in other skills. The Tatas reportedly plan to train workers for this but past records of most land acquisitions do not give us much of a comfort. We do not have a system to evaluate the effectiveness of the compensation provided and the aftermath of such acquisitions. There have been cases where the displaced receive monetary compensation but their future remains uncertain due to lack of investment knowledge and absence of any other skill sets.

Currently, agricultural land in India cannot be sold for non-agricultural purposes, so such sales happen only when the government comes into the picture by a back door approach of acquiring land from rural areas and selling it to corporates. But should they involve themselves in such transactions only for public utilities like roads, flyovers etc. or should they do this even for sale to private individuals? There may be people who do not wish to sell the space but are forced to do so because the Government thinks it is for the “greater good”.

Do we give farmers the right to sell their land to anyone they wish to? Since right to Property is not a Fundamental right (it was removed under the 44th amendment Act in 1978 by the Janata Party), it becomes an arbitrary call by the government. This naturally depresses the land prices due to lack of buyers and becomes a liability for farmers who want to move out of agriculture. The very idea of this law was to prevent reduction of agricultural land and acquisition of land by loan-sharks and corporates.

However, freeing land sales may also lead to the land going back to the hands of money lenders and zamindars – again a reversal of the process of democratization of land. Moreover, we cannot reduce the worker’s dependence on agriculture suddenly without adequately training him otherwise. And if you train him, will he be gainfully employed?

At a more macro-level, there’s a school of thought which believes that since agricultural productivity is low, the land should be utilized where it gives the best revenue. An argument for effective utilization of resources but I’m not too sure about this approach. A blogger has accused the middle class of romanticizing the notion of rural agriculture when it is totally a loss making concept.

Is agriculture a viable option, especially, considering the dependence of farmers on so many extraneous factors in agriculture like monsoon, price fluctuations, seed quality etc? With stagnant agricultural growth and lack of governmental interest (except in WTO forums and election manifestos), we may require providing farmers with this freedom to sell so that farmlands are easily disposable. This ease of disposal also brings in more buyers and increases the land rates.

However, any such decision must also take into account the social and environmental fallout of rapid and massive industrialization. Somewhere, we need to take a middle path between environmental and economic considerations. We cannot look at either of them in isolation and the challenge is to marry the two interests such that any “collateral damage” is limited. Future wars may be fought on energy and food security, as the Iraqi wars and African conflicts show and we need to be ready for that.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Great Indian Retail Mela

Ending months of speculation, Bharti has, finally, decided to hitch in with the largest company in the world, Wal-Mart, for its maiden foray into retailing. The American giant beat the British retailing numero uno, Tesco, in this venture- its first ever on Indian shores. The Tesco deal did not come through due to difference in roll-out plans between the two parties. Moreover, Wal-Mart's expertise in running a sophisticated $1.6bn (£830m) sourcing operation in India also helped it to clinch the deal.

All of a sudden, the papers are all about The Great Indian Retail Boom and everyone is vying for a share of the Indian retail pie. This sector is the 2nd largest employer, after the agriculture sector, employing 21 million people, roughly 6% of the country’s total workforce and contributing 13% of the GDP. After being stagnant for years with Lifestyle, Shopper’s Stop, and Pantaloons etc., we are witnessing big players entering the market. The Tatas have recently floated their retail chain, Infiniti Retail, and are collaborating with Australian retailer Woolworth to start their multi-brand durables store, Croma.

The Aditya Birla Group, like Reliance, is going alone and I believe that they have bought space in Punjab for their retail venture. Reliance has, in its characteristic fashion, come up with huge plans – one store in the radius of every 2 km. Its new venture, Reliance Fresh, is currently stocking only vegetables, fruits and diary products but is expected to increase its base slowly, just as Food World had done.

The Indian organized retail market accounts for only 2% of the total retail market as compared to 20% in China. The industry is quite regulated and foreign players cannot directly enter the market. Current norms allow foreign retailers to set up shop in India via the franchisee route, as has been done by the likes of Marks & Spencer and Mango. Foreign retailers are allowed outlets if they manufacture products in India (Benetton) or source their goods domestically. FDI is also permitted in cash-and-carry outlets, where goods are sold only to those who intend using them for commercial purposes (Metro, Shoprite) (Source: The Hindu Business Line).

Retail outlets are, in terms of size, primarily of three types, – you have supermarkets, hypermarkets and the kirana general stores. A hypermarket, pioneered by France’s Carrefour chain, is a supermarket departmental store which carries a huge range of products under its roof, like Giant and Big Bazaar. They occupy huge space and are few in number. Supermarkets, like Reliance Fresh and Food World, are generally smaller and sell primarily household items. They are generally based in residential centres with a decent purchasing power. Kirana stores are the small unbranded departmental stores which are spread everywhere and require less investment.

Returning to the Wal-Mart story, its overseas strategy has been a mixed bag and its struggles in Germany, Japan and Korea have been a cause of concern. A sluggish retail US market has forced it to look overseas, especially the giant Indian and Chinese markets. It has done pretty well in China and is bullish about India too. The market regulations have forced it to enter India as a faceless partner, something it would never have done a few years back.

Wal-Mart’s JV with Bharti entry gives it an opportunity to explore the Indian retail market without too much investment. Bharti has no retail expertise to run this business and therefore, would serve as the front end to the back end logistics support provided by Wal-Mart. This will help Wal-Mart set up shop in future, whenever it chooses to venture out alone and also help in understanding the local culture, which has been its Achilles heel in other markets.

The fear of foreign retailers threatening the local stores is probably unfounded because of the difference in their value propositions and customer segments they cater to. Their entry threatens the bigger Indian players and not the kirana stores. So, the loss of labour point does not stand good; local stores face greater competition from Indian retailers than foreign ones.

For the Indian retailers to succeed, they need to invest in more efficient supply chains, cold chains and increased farmer relationships which call for greater investment which can come through FDI. Increasing real estate prices also calls for heavy investment and the inflows are slow. Footfalls need not translate into revenues and margins are low because of the competition involved and the high fixed costs.

The Food Worlds and Big Bazaars still count on the small base of higher middle classes and upper classes as their customers. While brand loyalty is not a strong factor in the grocery industry, local stores are able to retain their customers because of their personal relationship and rapport with customers. They provide goods on credit to customers and also do free home deliveries. This customer relationship differentiates them from branded retail outlets which are generally frequented by customers, who are willing to pay for the convenience of one-stop shop, the brand value, high end products and the scope for window shopping.

The consumer would eventually benefit because of the choices available to him. There are, of course, fears of predatory pricing (another Wal-Mart’s legacy) and labour problems caused by the entry of foreign players. Wal-Mart’s strategy of “Everyday Low Pricing” has caused a lot of heart-burn not only among local retailers which try to attract customers with promotional strategies and differential pricing but also its suppliers by squeezing them relentlessly. A lot of criticism has also been levelled against the labour and market practices of these big retailers, including low wages, poor work conditions and unhealthy monopolistic practices.

The problems that Indian retailers face would be in finding the right kind of format for the Indian consumer. The Indian consumer is himself not a one-dimensional entity; he has varied tastes dictated by substantial geographical and cultural differences. A Food World in Mumbai may not stock the same products as a Food world in Hyderabad and this may filter down to differences even within its outlets in Hyderabad, say Banjara Hills and Habshiguda. There are also infrastructural problems in terms of parking space, poor logistics and a low focus on CRM which have to be addressed by them.

E-retailing has not caught the fancy of retailers here and the expertise of foreign retailers will help in bridging this technology and supply chain gap. There are also very few players in the semi-urban and rural markets despite all the talk about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid which clearly suggests a huge untapped market.

So, is there a successful Indian retail model which can be used as the benchmark for all further retailing activities? There may never be so and this, probably, presents the biggest challenge for the Indian retail industry.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Latin America Marches Left

As somebody who takes active interest in world politics, it is impossible not to notice the sweeping change in the world of Latin American politics – the Left is making its strongest ever showing in recent times. Veteran leader Fidel Castro has been replaced by the charismatic Hugo Chavez as the poster boy of this anti-Americanism and this could have interesting implications for the world, especially considering the diminishing stature of the American democracy.

An attempt for an alternate economic and political vision is emerging in the fields of Latin America. A vision which has contempt for American policies, IMF and World Bank strategies is gaining ground and it’s an exciting movement, fostered by the grassroots and people’s movements rather than corporate lobbying. The definition of Leftism, of course, varies from country to country. It probably makes sense to look at this trend not as a Left vs Right issue but as a shift away from a more capitalistic stand, characterized by elitist policies, to an economics dipped in socialism, driven by pro-poor concerns.

Fidel Castro, the old friend of the Yankees, has been its torch bearer for several decades now and has survived more than 50 odd assassination attempts, sponsored by the CIA. But as he grows old, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has taken over his role as the flag bearer of an alternate economic order, which is different from those dreamt at the corridors of global financial powerhouses. But what has caused this to happen?

The US pumps in a lot of effort and time in promoting US-friendly “democracies” by doling out funds liberally or through coercion (as in Iraq). But the last few years have seen it putting a lot of its energies into tackling Middle East issues. Osama, Saddam and Islamic states, being in the US radar, has meant that Latin America has not been prioritized by them (except for its paranoia towards Chavez). This has resulted in the creation of many groups in Latin America, formed by small farmers, human rights activists, and trade unionists etc. who have a fundamentally different agenda as compared to the industrialized nations - an agenda dictated by local people rather than MNCs.

Moreover, the failure of the US administration policies in fighting drugs and expanding free market reforms have provided further impetus to this. The US administration’s controversial coca eradication strategy, to eliminate the cultivation of coca, as part of its “War on Drugs” policy has alienated people in coca growing areas like Peru, Bolivia and Columbia and the rise of Evo Morales in Bolivia (its first democratically elected indigenous head of state), who is essentially a coca farmer, is testimony to this.

There’s a general disillusionment with the way US has gone about using institutions like World Bank and IMF to further its economic and political interests. More than 30 years back, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected President of Chile, Marxist Salvador Allende, in a bloody coup, covertly backed by the CIA because it would be a blow to Washington's international prestige if an avowed Marxist won a fair presidential election in South America. He held power for the next 17 years, relinquishing control in 1990 only after arranging immunity for himself and his top generals.

The Bush administration’s animosity towards Hugo Chavez (and the other way around) is quite well known. While US uses all opportunities to paint him as “anti-democratic” (despite winning 2 democratic elections) and uses this as an excuse to foment hatred for him, the world sees it clearly as a combustible conflict being fuelled by America’s vulnerability over Venezuela’s massive oil reserves. It's an open secret that there have been behind the screen attempts by US to rock the Chavez boat, though denied repeatedly by the administration.

The World Bank and IMF are not exactly the most popular institutions in the minds of developing nations. Rather than being seen as welfare financial institutions, they are increasingly being perceived as Shylock styled-creditors out to extract their pound of flesh. Nobel Laureate and former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, says one of the main problems with IMF is that it believes in a one-stop shop treatment for all economic problems facing the world and blasts it for being every bit as secretive, undemocratic and indifferent to the poor as its critics claimed.

All that the IMF seems to be bothered is fiscal deficit management through decreased govt. spending on social programmes, greater privatization and facilitation of international trade, irrespective of the problem. They conveniently forget that any such kind of reduced government spending affects the poor the most. UN estimates say that Latin America has the most unequal wealth distribution of any region in the world, despite religiously sticking to the prescriptions given by the IMF and World Bank. This kind of increased intolerance to the local needs has led to countries veering away from these institutions.

Argentina, under Nestor Kirchner, has recovered remarkably after its economic collapse in 2001 by greater public investment, hard bargaining with private creditors and has gone to the extent of prepaying its entire debt to the IMF by borrowing from Venezuela, to free itself from the IMFs clutches.

Under pressure from the World Bank, the Bolivian government in 2000 sold off Cochabamba's (its third largest city) public water system to Bechtel subsidiary Aguas Del Tunari. Within weeks of taking control of the city's water, Bechtel hit poor families with huge increases in their water bills, enough to spark a popular rebellion and chase Bechtel out of the country. This was followed by another controversial deal in 2003 where the country’s natural gas was sold off to California through a private consortium, Pacific LNG, at a pittance. The great civil conflict that arose because of this led to the resigntion of two Presidents and eventually the nationalization of all gas reserves in Bolivia in May 2006.

All these changes have seen a dramatic shift in world politics, currently dwarfed by the events in Middle East and parts of Asia. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and others are working together to foster a spirit of Latin American unity to fight the might of US and other global financial powerhouses. The focus is moving to the state and people determining the economic policies being framed rather than being dictated by colonial powers and private lobby houses which have their own vested interests.

There will always be conflicts when corporations try to use their clout and lobbying power to bag contracts heavily skewed in their favour and neglect the needs of the local population. The resultant exploitation of local conditions for greater profit making will eventually lead to a backlash against the company. Closer back home, Coca-Cola signed a deal with the Kerala Government to extract water at very low prices. The result was depletion and contamination of ground water in Plachimada in Palakkad District; so while agriculture suffered due to paucity of water, Coke was making heavy profits by selling at about 10 Rs per bottle. Hopefully, we would learn from the Latin American countries and standing up for the rights of our people.

Will this movement change the way the world moves? Can problems of poverty and malnourishment be solved by these countries by giving a human face to economic reforms or is this an aberration driven by a few leaders? Only time will tell but this is a transition we must observe carefully and it has wide repercussions in the global balance of power. As Atila Roque, Executive Director of ActionAid USA, says, “Democracy must go beyond elections of the President and Parliament. Democracy is the freedom to make innovative economic decisions that will improve people’s lives”.

As I began writing this article, news came in that Ecuador has also elected a Leftist Government led by economist Rafel Correa. One more state down.......

Friday, November 24, 2006

Riding the Chinese Dragon

A few days back I watched Karan Thapar’s show “India Tonight” on CNBC-TV 18 which discussed Indo-China relations and the presence of Tibet in our “cold” relationship. It set me thinking as to why despite all this hype about our catching up with China’s economic growth, we act like a “banana republic” ( that maybe harsh but that's a more emotional statement) in our foreign and political affairs. The two most crowded countries in the world cannot sit across the table as equals because we act in such a subservient fashion with the Chinese.

China’s supreme dictator. Hu Jintao, recently stepped on the Indian shores and a few days before that, we heard not-so subtle statements, emanating from Beijing, on Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. And what is our response? We issue a press statement reiterating that Arunachal is an integral part of India but do not even reprimand the Chinese ambassador, Sun Yuxi, who told Indian television last week: "The whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory, and Tawang is only one place in it, and we are claiming all of that." How diplomatic can an ambassador get and how pacifist can we be?

The position of Tawang, on the flanks of the Tibetan plateau, and its cultural affinity to Lhasa are at the root of a decades-old dispute between India and China. Historically, China says, the region was part of outer Tibet. Today it is part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh - but China lays claim to it in its entirety.

India's Foreign Minister tersely responded by reiterating that Arunachal Pradesh was an "integral part of India". The Chinese say that Tawang is a part of Tibet and since Tibet belongs to them, by extension of that logic, they have control over the place. Thousands of monks stay there as they try to sustain its unique culture from being marauded by imperialistic designs of Mainland China.

One of the primary tenets of democracy is the right to dissent peacefully but democratic India decided, last week, that this is dispensable. First, the police ordered Friends of Tibet activist, Tenzin Tsundue, to stay put in Dharamsala until Hu Jintao returned to Beijing. Then, the police asked Tibetan exiles to stay away from the city centre, fearing them to be a security threat - “Atithi Satkar” of the highest level that will surely make the Chinese happy.

Not only has the Indian Govt. accepted the Chinese claim of recognizing Tibet as a part of China, but it is also bending backwards to make them feel at home. Should a democracy like ours stoop to such levels to curb the rights of civil society, from protesting against Chinese aggression? Just imagine - I can protest against Manmohan Singh and Co. in New Delhi but not against Hu and his mandarins.

Our foreign policy follows a simple policy of status quo. Therefore, we neither do anything remotely out of the box nor stand up for anything (WTO was an exception) for fear of ruffling feathers. This does not bode well for a country standing on the threshold of world leadership and desiring to stand up for developing nations.

When ex-Defence minister, George Fernandes, proclaimed China as India’s “Enemy No. 1” a few years back, he was echoing the truth. But he was pilloried for raising the China bogey unnecessarily (India Today’s headline was “George in the China Shop”). While Beijing goes about wooing Africa and the rest of the world, building rail links with Tibet, supplying arms to Pakistan and fanning anti-India sentiments in Burma and Bangladesh, the Indian polity rests in peace, unaware of the changing geo-political realities that are dictating various foreign policies world-wide. We have no policy on Kashmir even after all these years, no idea how to tackle Bangladesh population infiltration and a total ignorance on the problems in the North-East.

Our home grown communists’ romance with China, however, continues despite all these “friendly overtures” by China. They are quick to pounce upon any human right violations of the rest of the world but silent when it comes to the Chinese. Our comrades refuse to break from the umbilical cord joining them to China, though there has not been any reciprocation of such interests from the other side. Wonder what Comrade VS and Comrade Hu have in common? Beijing has shed all pretensions of Marxism and gone capitalistic in a big way but messers Raja and Yechury continue to go gung-ho about communism.

Despite all their evident economic progress, China has a morally bankrupt leadership. It has built its wealth on the altar of thousands of coffins, without shedding tears for any of them. It is among the fastest growing economies but is also the world leader in death penalties with a conviction record of about 99%.A country that is so heartless that it steamrolls tanks to mow down thousands of its students, when they protest, cannot bring peace in the world.

I found this article in the Amnesty International Site (dated May 2003) which mentions that in an effort to improve cost-efficiency, Chinese provincial authorities have introduced mobile execution vans and the article goes on to give the advantages of this system over general execution systems!!! Economies of scale in mass murder!!! It would have been funny if it were just not so tragic and perverse.

It’s not just India but the entire world that stops shy of dictating terms to them. In business circles, Walmart, the world’s largest company, had to bow down to official dictates in China and allow the creation of trade unions there (their only trade union in the world). Google, the champion of free information, had to submit itself to censorship and remodel itself to survive in China.

Despite the Dalai Lama’s popularity and the entry of celebrities espousing the cause of Tibet, the movement is losing its steam and His Holiness has himself toned down his demand from “independence” to “autonomy” for the region. Its human rights violations may hog headlines occasionally but it has not stopped the Chinese juggernaut from rolling and crushing all its detractors on its way to capitalistic freedom.

Hu’s next stop is Pakistan where he’s expected to further the nuclear relations between the two countries by announcing the sale of nuclear reactors to them. The West knows this but remains a passive spectator while continuing to urge India to maintain restraint (as if we needed someone to say that). The American electorate did to Bush what the Iraqis could not but who will stop the Communist Party of China's hegemonistic plans???

Wonder if I am a bit too paranoid about the entire thing. The Chinese have a strong leadership unlike us and so I fear they may succeed. God forbids that this will be emulated else where as a workable administration model....

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Fourth Estate Trials

Sometimes, real TV can be so much more thrilling and entertaining than “Reality TV”. So, forget Rakhi Sawant’s attempts to milk a bovine and watch Ram Jethmalani’s performance on CNN-IBN as he makes mincemeat of a hapless Sagarika Ghose during a Jessica Lal case interview. He raves, rants and goes berserk in a no holds barred performance which would do any octogenarian proud and get him to replace Big B as the “Angry Old Man”. Though he is known to be a controversial lawyer and a rabble-rouser, this time, his outburst attracted a fair deal of publicity, especially among the blogging and journo world (Who else would discuss?)

Ram Jethmalani, in the course of the interview, raised a few pertinent points, albeit in his own inimitable whiplash style. He pounced upon Sagarika’s lack of legal know-how and ridiculed her claim of going against public opinion. He also blasted the media for passing pro-active judgments and undermining the judiciary.

We all, probably, believe that Manu Sharma deserves to be punished but can we advocate that he does not deserve the best defence available because of our opinion. Whether he should stand for the accused or not is his prerogative and not the press’s. The strength of the Indian judicial system is in its ability to provide a free and fair trial to both the accused and the victim and not discriminate on the basis of “informed” public opinion.

The now forgotten ISRO spy scandal represents in many ways the worst example of a case that was created and sustained by an overzealous media. What started of as an innocuous arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, went on to become the biggest spy scandal in the history of independent India. The media (especially the vernacular one) in association with the police and political class weaved a thriller script, adding dollops of sex, money and flesh to make it a scandalous affair. A few top scientists, an IPS officer and few others were implicated without any iota of evidence until the case was eventually handed over to the CBI.

After its report and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment, the matter was finally laid to rest and everyone was acquitted. But the tattered reputations and the mental agony of the people involved can never be restored. No one has ever apologized to the people whose dignity was stripped in the public and all this from the “educated free press of Kerala”.

Remember the arrest of His Holiness Jayendra Saraswathi, where the press hauled his reputation across the coals without any evidence at all to support the accusations hurled upon him. He was accused of being a womanizer, a corrupt god man and so much more that would have put any self-respecting man to shame. While the Tamil Nadu Government was vindictive about the entire affair, the scribes went all the way exhibiting their “secularism” by making a villain out of him. Can you imagine the Pope being subject to such abuse? And where’s the case now? The Andhra Pradesh High Court had remarked in its judgment that there is no prima facie evidence against the accused despite malicious attempts by the press and the Tamil Nadu Government to do so. The press continues to be silent about this.

Of course, it’s no one’s case that the Indian press plays only a “super-judicious” role in our democracy. For years the media snuggled upto the State and ignored its primary role. After the Emergency, L K Advani had famously told journalists “You were asked to bend and you chose to crawl”. But times have changed and a free global economic order has also seen the media get down and ask questions – some relevant and some which were hitherto considered as too sacred to touch.

The Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Manjunath cases are there in the judicial space thanks to the active role of the media in bringing these issues to the public domain. A running democracy requires an active press that highlights issues and brings to focus all things hidden from public view. In fact, Amartya Sen says that a Free Press can play an important role in the mitigation of natural disasters by their active reporting. The RTI Act was not amended largely due to the role played by the media in highlighting the government’s intentions and attempts in sabotaging the law.

But what happens when the press decides to arrogate many of the State’s powers to itself. Many of us fed on a regular diet of news bytes do not question them and go by what is told to us by news anchors. We all know that there’s a thin line between bringing out an exclusive story and playing to the gallery. With so many channels fighting it out in the broadcasting and newsprint domain, there is always a temptation to go one up for exclusive “breaking news” at the expense of genuine news. Like various blogs, each channel carries its own subjective interpretation of facts and the casualty is the veracity of the news item. While everyone wants a well-researched story, what do you do in case it’s too tiresome to do so? Probably come up with “confidential leaks” or “reliable sources” and present it as “Flash News”.

The horrendous massacre of Dalits in Kherlanji went unreported for about a month till they took to the streets and lead massive protests in Nagpur. Is it that their stories do not carry the same shock value or they are not worth reporting? Sanjay Dutt has been accused of a very serious crime like possession of weapons but he gets a lot of sympathy in the media – recollect his visit to the Siddhi Vinayak temple and his “reformed” existence- but there are many others like Prof. Geelani (represented by Ram Jethmalani in the Supreme Court) who are subjected to the piercing eyes of media because they represent “no one”.

A vibrant democracy requires the media to act as a watchdog for the 3 legs of policy in India – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But it is tempting for the Fourth Estate to go overboard and try to dictate terms because of the unbridled power it has. This restraint is difficult to come by because at the end of the day, it is not answerable to anyone except maybe its shareholders. In defence of the press community, it must be stressed that is not enough to be fair but also important to appear to be fair, which is where many of our journalists have failed. Journalism should not be treated as an exercise in blogging where any smart alec who has an opinion (like me) decides to express it without checking out the facts of the case.

Tail piece: The sadistic streak in me enjoyed the Ram Jethmalani interview despite his haughty behaviour. I recommend it to people to watch it and judge for themselves the “entertainment” value in it, especially those tired of “Big Boss” antics.

Also watch the video of Ram Jethmalani's interview conducted by Karan Thapar in CNBC-TV 18 posted on Nov 19th for another slice of the action. The action never stops!!!

Friday, November 10, 2006

To Hang or not to Hang???

A young lawyer from Delhi, a Kashmiri militant and an Iraqi leader – nothing in common among themselves until very recently but now their fates are linked by the Hangman’s noose and a slender ray of hope. All of them have been convicted of different kinds of crimes and sentenced to the gallows. The circumstances relating to their punishment and their crime is quite different but most people agree with the verdicts decided in all the three cases ;what is not consensual is the sentence which has been given. These sentences have once again brought into focus the debate on capital punishments.

Afzal Guru, the militant, has been sentenced to death for his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament – an attack which not only disturbed the Indo-Pak peace talks (arguably) but also struck at the centre of India’s authority. It is a crime that we all agree deserves to be punished and other than his immediate family and supporters, there are no takers on his innocence (that aspect is of course beyond the scope of this post). Afzal has himself not asked for mercy; it is only the human rights groups have asked for clemency (wrongly reported in parts of the press as seeking pardon).

Santosh Singh, currently a lawyer in Delhi, had been stalking a young girl Priyadarshini Matoo for a long time before he finally raped and killed her. He was acquitted by a Sessions Court Judge saying that though he knows he’s guilty he cannot be punished due to the lack of evidence produced by the police and prosecution. The media uproar and the subsequent public outcry lead to the case being reopened at the higher court where he has now been convicted. He has been awarded “death penalty” for a crime which does not fit into the “rarest of cases”.

Saddam Hussain faced trial for his role in the slaughter of Shiites in 1982 in Dujail, in retaliation for the failed assassination attempt on him. The case was dogged by controversies right from the beginning. Two of Saddam’s lawyers were killed while the first judge quit. He was not given enough time and space to prepare his defence. Ironically, the conviction would have been welcomed had it followed proper legal and moral protocols and been conducted under the auspices of an international tribunal. The timing of the verdict – just before the Senate polls – and the judge’s conspicuous animosity towards the accused has also raised questions on the fairness of the trial.

The vast majority of democratic countries in Europe and Latin America have abolished capital punishment over the last fifty years, but United States, most democracies in Asia, and almost all totalitarian governments retain it. As per Amnesty International's latest figures, a total of 129 countries (including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Russia, South American nations and most European nations) have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Of these, 88 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, 11 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes (such as wartime crimes) and 30 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice, i.e., they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past ten years or more and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions. Though 68 countries retain and use the death penalty, the number of countries which actually execute prisoners in any one-year is much smaller. In 2005, 94 percent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, the USA and Saudi Arabia (US and Iran on the same stage, interesting, right?)

Beyond the statistics, we need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of the death penalty?

--Is it to remove from society someone who would cause more harm?
-- Is it to remove from society someone who is incapable of rehabilitation?
-- Is it to deter others from committing murder?
-- Is it to punish the criminal?
-- Is it to take retribution on behalf of the victim?

Death is not merely a legal undertaking but has a strong social, religious and moral angle to it. It is not just priests or saints who look at birth and death as God’s handiwork; many of us also do so. There is also a strong religious notion that the act of suffering has a purifying effect on the human spirit allowing for salvation in God. The concept of death as a retribution for the sins committed is slowly losing ground. It has been argued that the person must be given an opportunity to repent for his sins and so death cannot be the way out. Is the idea behind a punishment to reform the person or to set an example in the society? Probably both and we need a more humane solution.

Death penalty supporters argue that it is a powerful deterrent to crime but there are no statistics to support this assertion. If death penalty were a proper deterrent, there would have been a reduction in crimes in such places and eventually their number would die out because the crime rate would have fallen to such an extent. On the contrary, these penalties seem to be on a rise in several countries, undermining the very rationale given for it. Death penalty sentences in India have been on the rise lately compared to the almost non-existent cases in the 60s and 70s. These are supposed to be given in the rarest of cases as per the Supreme Court ruling in 1983 but there’s a danger of the judiciary becoming “trigger free” in handing out capital punishments, especially under greater media glare (The Santosh Singh case is a clear example of that). Moreover, terrorist crimes, serial killer crimes or crimes of passion are not dictated by pure logic, so the rationale of using death as a deterrent does not work.

The next argument is one of infallibility of judgment and the irrevocability of the death sentence. The Liebman Report in 2000, concluding a 23-year study conducted by Columbia University, USA, found that 68% of all death sentences awarded were reversed due to serious legal error. In countries like India where the judiciary is over-burdened and cases drag on for years, would it be a surprise if the number of judicial errors is high. If a person is executed because of miscarriage of justice which is subsequently discovered the extinguished life cannot be restored. An innocent life lost due to callousness on the part of the law would be too heavy a price to pay.

Finally, at a slightly more emotional level, just think about the executioner who has to carry out the death penalty. It’s a profession which caries with itself the social stigma of killing someone but there are people who have to carry out this task. Leaders may take decisions but the final blood is in the hands of the executioner who has to act on behalf of the State. I strongly recommend readers to read Shashi Warrier’s soulful book “Hangman’s Journal” in which he brilliantly chronicles the agony that a hangman goes through when he has to carry out an execution. Similarly, Adoor Gopalakrishnan explores this theme in his movie “Nizhalkuthu”. In the words of Adoor, “The Hangman is conventionally considered to be one with no fine feelings. The public does not expect him to behave like a human being, the law wants him to be neutral, the State sees him just as an instrument of its operation.”

Should a civilized society use death as a tool to counter crime? It is arguable and when you consider the plight and sorrow of the victims, it is difficult to advocate the abolition of death penalty. It is an emotional issue but law must take a firm stance on this. In the Indian context, we could look at increasing the tenure of the life imprisonment since 12-14 years may seem on the lower side for extremely heinous crimes. The media must also be careful in its coverage of events. Repeatedly bombarding visuals of the crime and upping the ante for action can lead to public pressures on judiciary to hand out “populist” verdicts.

Is the Right to Life absolute? I certainly think so but then if I were to put myself in the shoes of Priyadarshini Matto’s father, would I feel the same??? Maybe yes or maybe no….

Monday, October 30, 2006

In the era of Cricket Jockeys

My earliest memories of watching cricket on television are of Australia lifting the World Cup in 1987 and a young strapping lad called Sachin hammering veteran leg spinner Abdul Qadir across the park in Pakistan in 1989. We had messers Dr Narottam Puri and Anupam Gulati as the commentators in those days – with their dull, dry flaccid bored to death voices, almost straight out of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan movie. And then, you had the likes of Sushil Doshi in Hindi with melodramatic moments of commentary like "Tendulkar ne tenduye ki tarah lapka". Commentary was incidental to the game; the action was only out in the middle.

The 1992 World Cup changed things a lot, for a viewer, as we saw Richie Benaud , Bill Lawry and members of their ilk crooning into the microphones and creating a niche for themselves. We were exposed to pyjama cricket and Channel 9’s innovations which made us realize that there was more to the game than the 22 players and 2 umpires on the ground. Dull presentations in the studios were replaced by interesting pre and post-match analysis with weather forecasts, predictions, viewer polls and pitch reports. The usage of stump cameras, coloured clothing, third umpires etc. and statistical measures (though Mohandas Menon continues to be the most reliable source) made the game more popular and helped in creating cricket experts amongst common people.

The 1996 World Cup witnessed a lot of ex-cricketers crowding the commentary box, especially with a plethora of channels waiting to pick up some ‘expert’ or the other. In many ways, the Wills World Cup was a broadcasting blockbuster and the BCCI was never the same again. Media rights and advertising now held greater premium and the game and the players finally started prospering economically even though there was no substantial increase in the playing strength across the world.

Commentators also became celebrities and so you had new guys jumping on to the band wagon. Remember the unsavoury Shaz and Waz show on ESPN-Star, which featured two middle aged commentators, flirting with babes, selected through SMS polls. Navjot Singh Siddhu became a pop star mouthing inane thoughts and testing the elasticity of the English language until one fine day, he crossed the barrier and was quietly shown the door, much to our relief. There were misfits like Kapil Dev, Saba Karim and others who made their exits from commentary panels fast enough but still did enough to remain in the studios.

With Zee and “Deewana Bana Dey” Sony Max entering cricket broadcast, we now have television anchors masquerading as sports presenters and reducing it to another form of Bollywood tamasha. But it was the 2003 World Cup, I think, that saw entertainment entering the game forcefully in the form of Ms.Mandira Bedi who has done more than the Tarun Tahilianis and Ritu Beris in spreading fashion consciousness through her infamous “noodle straps”. She earned a lot of ridicule with her strappy presence but then the marketing guys were happy that she managed to swing in non-fans of the game also. Some smart MBA’s idea of attracting women to the game but with 22 men sweating it out on the field, Mandira and Ruby Bhatia would be poor choices, surely.

Circa 2006, witness Mandira Bedi squirming and shrieking while referring to Abhishek Bachchan and Charu Sharma (whose fast receding hairline has gained more footage than his comments), blushing referring to Ash. Of course, she's been a bit more circumspect in her dressing sense this time(Sadly, for many of us).With luminaries like Boycott and Barry Richards taking a back seat in these events, it has become a free for all for these jockeys who have been mercilessly dumping us their humble pearls of wisdom. The horror undergone by the transition from watching Harsha Bhogle and John Dykes to Mandira Bedi and Rohit Roy cannot be matched by even readers of The Hindu forced to read the Deccan Chronicle. And then you have tarot reading, actors talking about their movies and you wonder what's going on? Where is the post-match analysis that ESPN-Star brought to the game??

The simple pleasure of watching the game, the replays and listening to the comments of commentators is now a luxury in the hands of these channels. With ads available at every possible break, it’s become a case of watching the game in the midst of all the ads. The last ball or first ball disappears from the screen and the channel makes a few lakhs. The advertiser is happy, the channel is happy while the viewer remains the passive spectator who has no say. Treating sports as yet another Bollywood masala saga may be tempting to channels but forgetting the legions of serious cricket fans and subjecting them to all this trash is quite unbecoming.

The marriage of Bollywood and cricket – the 2 most marketable products in India- is a great idea per-se but it must be treaded carefully so that it does not spill over into a comic vaudeville which is what it has become now. Cricket can sustain itself without wonderful bimbettes outdoing each other in “exposing” themselves (exposing their knowledge). With off-screen entertainment in the form of Warne’s (s)exploits with his balls, Shoaib’s drug antics and Hair’s tantrums, cricket has all the masala to sustain itself, so does it need the female quotient ( with exceptions like Donna Symonds, of course)?

Any day, give me the likes of Harsha Bhogle, Boycott, Ian Chappell, Sunny Gavaskar, Mark Nicholas, Tony Greig and a few others sitting out there and I am hooked on to the TV – straps or no straps. It's a big Thumbs Down to the Set Max brand of commentary...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Singapore Diary – Part 3

A few days left before I am back in India and so my smileometer is beaming high signals in the midst of hazy Singapore skies (an annual haze in this part of the year caused by forest fires in Sumatra). A sign of confused times when you make money but wonder what exactly you want to do in life and is it worth troubling your mind but satisfying your pocket. As I ponder over this question and ask myself how much I can take all this, I decide to tread the conformist path of doing nothing but journeying along till you are forced to take up the less trodden path.

A vegetarian’s life is a difficult one outside India. Wherever I go, I find the meat of some animal or the other ornately decorated and put up for sale but very few restaurants catering to the needs of a herbivore like me (Fellow Indians think it blasphemous for a Keralite to even be a vegetarian). Since I stay in a predominantly Indian environment in Singapore, its fine but otherwise it can be a tough choice. Vegetables are at a pretty low priority here.

India is quite inclusive when it comes to such eating habits as it serves both the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian palate. I find it both amusing and outright crazy when I see a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Singapore Zoo. How can a zoo which is meant to be a home for animals be a place for serving them hot? Of course, it may be a case of forward integration for the zoo!!!

I am shocked (an understatement) when I am told that it is a govt. policy that birds are not allowed into the city limits. Not allowed??? There are, supposedly, shooting squads to ensure this compliance. I cannot confirm the veracity of such a law/policy in force but honestly, I have never seen a bird here and the closest I have come to, is reading, in The Strait Times, of bird droppings being a menace for poor car owners. This would have been funny if not an example of insensitivity of the state towards anything that does not derive economic value.

We forget very conveniently that buildings and malls cannot substitute the beauty of nature and that co-habitation is the key to a greater and more fulfilling existence. Imagine a day when future generations here do not know what animals are and have to visit museums to see their remnants.

The Government plays an important role in the lives of people through the usage of subsidies. It taxes private transport and subsidizes the public transportation and housing sector. The railway tariffs are capped at a maximum value of about 3 Singapore dollars for a trip to encourage greater usage of the MRT. The surcharge on cars to increase the purchase and ownership costs (as mentioned previously), tolling on high congestion spots at peak hours (using Electronic Road Pricing) and Area Licensing Scheme (restricted zones in business areas) have eased the traffic which is fairly dense at peak hours. It has developed a system which even the Americans have tried to emulate but have not been able to do so far.

Urban development has not been given due importance in India and it is worthwhile for us to consider measures to reduce the movement of cars in cities and boost public transportation, like in London or Curitiba (in Brazil, considered as one of the best examples of urban development). Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities are all aiming to be Shanghai but they are all slowly choking and require urgent measures to get them back on track.

In the housing segment, there are two types of flats here – HDB (Housing Development Board) and Condors. The Govt. constructs and sells/leases out HDBs at lower than market rates and this serves a substantial portion of Singapore’s housing needs. Condors are private flats and are more elitist in nature. This is another example of the Govt.’s presence in a very commercial business which may be scoffed by believers of laissez faire.

A massive urban renewal programme which began in the 1960s resulted in the replacement of all slums with these housing units. The Govt. of that time required that a percentage of everyone’s wages be placed in a forced retirement account or be used to purchase a residence which resulted in everyone owning a property in the country. Slums and displacement is another serious issue that we face in India and there needs to be a further debate on how we address that issue.

Democracy is a virtue that we do not necessarily celebrate because we take it for granted. This is alien to Singapore but they do not mind it – probably a frog in the well syndrome. Singapore’s First Premier and principal architect, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, believes that democracy is a primarily Western concept and not necessarily required for Asia and so they should not be judged on this yardstick. This has found its echo in various Asian countries with China, Malaysia and a few others endorsing this opinion. He had famously stated in a newspaper interview :

I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.

But as an Indian who sees and cherishes the ideals of a free world, I do not subscribe to this thought process. Economic freedom without political freedom is a very superficial freedom, something that has earned Singapore the dubious name of a “nanny state”. Policies like excessive fines, tax reliefs for sterilization, compulsory saving schemes, strong censorship and archaic draconian laws have diminished its position in terms of human rights but it's principle has been Greater Capitalism for Socialism, dubbed by Singapore University scholars as "meritocratic,elitist,Confucianist, bureaucratic state". The principle seems to work fine currently and the people are very much in favour of it but can it sustain in the long run??? Let's wait and watch.....

Tail piece: You would be surprised to know that chewing gum was banned in Singapore until a few years ago (2004) when the US Govt. negotiated, alongside the active lobbying of gum maker Wrigley’s, with the Singapore government for the lifting of the ban. Sticking of the gum in train doors and other public places was leading to a public nuisance, so the ban was imposed. Even now it is available here only in drugstores and that too on prescription!!!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pyongyang Joins the Party

Imagine an exclusive executive club where a select group of powerful influential persons are members. These members enjoy rights denied to ordinary denizens and have a constitution which seeks to ensure that the club remains as elitist as possible. Their actions are highly questionable but they shroud it in morally hypocritical arguments of the greater good and preach the same to non-members. Persons who try to intrude are penalized and given stiff punishments so that the club maintains its status quo position. But there are always crazy plebeians who still manage to gatecrash bypassing the laws, something that represents North Korea’s entry into the World Nuclear Club.

North Korea had always been threatening to go the nuclear way (it withdrew from the NPT in 2003) and it was a more a question of when rather than if and so it did not surprise anybody except for a few news channels who had to feign surprise to give it that breaking news effect. For a number of years, the nuclear world was dominated by five countries who entrusted to themselves the task of protecting their existence and by extension, the world, till one fine day, two countries decided to no longer play ball. Pokharan and Chagai Hills pushed India and Pakistan into this club and now, North Korea has followed suit. Now there are renewed fears that Iran too would test the bomb.

Pyongyang going nuclear reveals a few things. It diminishes China’s assumed ability to leverage its relationship with North Korea and also undermines President Bush’s attempts to threaten it in terms of embargos. For countries to condemn it (including India) saying it threatens regional stability is a classic case of hypocrisy. But then, that’s a naive argument in the world of real politicking.

Even a militarily-passive Japan, which has always used the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to convey the sense of loss and destruction that nuclear weapons can bring, is under the US nuclear umbrella and so they can preach peace. Non-proliferation as a tool has not worked for more than half a century and is not expected to bring in any new dividends. What is required is a clear elimination of nuclear weapons and not reduction.

I was amongst the many jubilant voices in India when we went ahead with our Pokharan spectacle. There was this jingoistic feeling of having cocked a snook at the world-the Yankees could not stop us and now we are the super powers etc. But now, as the adrenaline levels have gone down and “Shining India” is almost a dirty word, I wonder what we achieved by going nuclear, except maybe an exaggerated sense of national pride for a few days (Of course, with exceptions like my Andhraite neighbour who was unhappy that the tests would lead to the cancellation of his son’s US visa). Does the theory of nuclear deterrence actually work? I don’t think so. The tests gave us a false sense of pride, a feeling that we are major players in the world and that the world will now listen to us. It probably does listen in many forums but that is due to our market size rather than our arsenals (Poor Shashi Tharoor is a casualty of that belief).

For a country like North Korea that stands almost at the bottom of the bottom of the economic pyramid in the world and has scores of people dying due to natural and state-sponsored schemes of disaster, you would wonder what nuclear weapons could do. Our knowledge about the country is quite limited because North Korea does not publish statistics (their own economists have no idea what their inflation rate is) except that it has the fifth largest military in the world, with the largest percentage of citizens enlisted. Maybe it gives them a sense of pride but since media is not given a proper access to the public domain; we do not even know that.

At a larger level, Kim Jong - II will leave North Korea a poorer country where hunger is fed by patriotic talk and Western phobias. Do the people have a future to look towards? A country that is so poor but believes that nuclearization will help it. Maybe, but from whom?? Let me quote the words of The XIVth Dalai Lama here which conveys all this and so much more:

Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.

Such countries will probably perish under the might of their own contradictions and burdens in the long run. As Amartya Sen discusses in his article on Democracy, a democratic state with a free press ushers in a certain amount of administerial responsibility because of the constant focus of the media on it. He successfully argues how a democratic state can ensure that there are no famines and droughts, something that Pyongyang needs to realize.

Nuclearization is a greater political decision than a military one. For starters, we do not even know whether they actually conducted the test successfully, as being alleged in certain quarters. Suddenly, there are talks of South Korea and Japan reconsidering their proliferation options because they feel threatened in the presence of a nuclear neighbour. The nuclear issue has also whipped up a great deal of passion in the forthcoming US Senate polls with the Democrats alleging that the North Korea going nuclear is an example of the failure of Bush’s much vaunted diplomacy.

The Americans have threatened to impose fresh sanctions but will it help? History shows it has never done anyone any good except possibly companies that act as intermediaries (Food for Oil Program types). The recent Iraq experience has shown them to be a total failure but then since constructive diplomacy has never been the most common means of working, the same old strategy will continue. In retrospect, we know that Iraq did not have the alleged nuclear stockpiles but if it had, would history have been different? Did this influence North Korea when it decided to go nuclear?

What drives nations to nuclearization? Maybe a false sense of machismo- the chest beating and fist thumping variety where you cannot offer anything to your people and so camouflage it using false arguments of self-pride, deterrence and defence. Ask the average North Korean the significance of this (assuming one day you can see him expressing his views) and his blank face would convey all that peace activists have been trying to bandy about. Do I sound naive or foolish when I advocate peace? Maybe but I believe that the world can only survive with the philosophy of peace and not the politics of non-deterrence ballistics.

I end my post by quoting the renowned French philosopher Albert Camus’s famous words that rings so true:

Peace is the only battle worth waging

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Singapore Diary - Part 2

The second week starts and my office work increases. I do not perform anything earth shaking except a lot of Control C- Control V job in the last few days, mostly not even aware of what is happening but hey, my targets are achieved by this simple movement of my two hands. That’s all work life has become – a monotonous drole which pays you, to show off to your peers. Stop cribbing I tell myself but then Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin and so I log in and decide to do a bit of my blogging work again – a necessary outlet for my incessantly wavering mind.

We plan to go to a place called Sentossa but the rain gods play spoil sport and we reschedule our tour itinerary to travel to a couple of museums in Jurong East. It’s all child’s play out there and we get bored pretty quickly though I manage to capture an IMAX viewing of “Mars Travel”. But the good thing is that I see industries in this part of the world and travel by the bus for the first time. The railway pass I had bought can be used in the bus (called LRT here) also. That’s nice; I had heard of plans of a similar integrated multi-transport system in India(useful info available in the Indian Economy Blog) also but wonder what happened to it.

I am not the most active temple goer while in India but I decide to check out a temple in this island city. And so here, I am in front of Sri VeeramaKaliamman Temple, next to Veerasamy Road in Little India. It’s a busy Saturday evening and lots of people around but it feels reasonably good. I have doubts if I can use my camera inside but I see a few Europeans taking photos, so I enter. Seeing me, a Japanese tourist (he reminds me of the tourist in Munnabhai MBBS) asks me in gestures if I can get his snap taken in front of the temple. I oblige hoping to get the favour returned .He's, however, not too pleased with my photography skills in my first two shots but settles on my third attempt . He’s satisfied and leaves but I forget to get my photo taken.

As I step out of the temple, I hear "Apadi Poddu Poddu" from one of the hotels. I take a walk around and realize that there’s not a single non-Indian store in the place (99% Tamil). You’d think I may as well be in Coimbatore as I see Ananda Bhavan, Komalas, Meenas and many other such hotels. A North Indian could be equally bewildered as a Westerner seeing Tamil sprayed around in such quantity.

I am allowed taxi travel as per company norms but I decide to hitch train rides daily rather than go by the cab. One reason is my nostalgia associated with Mumbai and its train travel, though they are not comparable in the actual sense. Secondly, I feel that one of the best ways to know the people of a place is to travel in the most common mode of transport there. Not that I make a great job at it (which I realize later) as I stand in the train staring at the people while most of them are hooked to ipods and lost in their own world.

(View inside the Singapore MRT-Local Train)

Nevertheless, I buy a pass (an EZ-Link Magnetic Card) and load it with 30 Singapore dollars and proceed. You swipe the ticket at a fare gate while entering a station and swipe out at another at the place you get out and the fare is deducted for the distance covered. The amount of travel inside the stations is much more than the actual journey which is a dampener at times but then since some exercise has also to be factored in, I’m ok with that option.

One first hand observation I have is of the work culture prevalent here. It is something similar to India in terms of people working for long hours. The few Europeans I see here are more inclined to visit the evening pubs or maybe dash home unlike our hardworking Singaporean. I guess it’s not just an Indian mentality; an Asian work style though not as difficult as the Japanese culture of workaholism. With no girlfriends in store and no inclination towards bars, I decide I may as well be a part of this brigade which sits late (not necessarily office work though). The MBA in me of course makes me think - Good market for stress counselors, gyms, alternative lifestyles etc.???

I am told by one of my colleagues that the Maruti Swift which is modestly priced (ok, not modest for most of us) in India at about Rs 4-5 lakh is available at about Rs 18 lakhs here and that’s the Maruti 800 equivalent gaadi here. I am shocked at this apparently huge price difference but apparently, this is part of Government policy to curb the number of private vehicles on the roads to avoid traffic congestion. Interesting, isn’t it?

It brings to focus the larger question at stake – the role of governments in Free markets. Should governments allow markets to dictate terms by following a policy of laissez faire or be an interventionist keeping the larger picture in mind? Are free markets truly free or do they breed crony capitalism? I’ll not debate that at least in this post but would like to discuss this in detail later in some other post.

Even at the risk of being dismissed as a cliche, I’d like to reiterate that you can take the Mallu out of politics but not the politics out of a Mallu. So, I look around the place scanning for some political banners, forums or any other symbols of politics in Singapore. But I struggle to find any such demonstrative political paraphernalia around unlike in India, where we are all members (active or passive) of a larger political act.

I must confess that I do not ask Singaporeans themselves about it but go by what I see around which is not a very scientific way of drawing conclusions. But then the politics of a place can be felt in the air and the remarkable absence of it is a discerning factor (at least to me). So, I turn to my old faithful Google to find out more and realise that this is a one party democracy (???).Time to revisit my understanding of democracy???

I'm running out of time;I better stop.Will continue the discussion on the economic and political style in the next post……………

Friday, September 29, 2006

Singapore Diary - Part 1

(The view from my hotel room)

I am taking a brief hiatus from my general blogging to venture into personal terrain, during my brief stay in Singapore. To be honest, I am not very keen on spending money and travelling abroad but if your employer wants to show you the world, can you say no? And so here I am jotting down my thoughts in the tiny island of Singapore- lost and confused as usual.

I reach the shores of Singapore, after a few weeks of visa related delays, at about 6:30 (4 AM IST) in the morning, with about 4 hours of sleep in Singapore Airlines. The Airlines is quite comfortable and I am escorted across without too many security checks, unlike how I had imagined it would be. I step out hesitatingly out of the plane(my confidence is always at a premium in a new environment)and bump into an old acquaintance who clearly knows the place and guides me across to the foreign exchange counter and subsequently to the taxi stand.

The taxi driver is a jolly man and gives me his visiting card, in case I wish to go for city darshan (I did not have a visiting card myself, how offending!!!). Anyway, he drops me off at New Park Hotel which is at a place called Little India. After a few hours of rest, I am summoned to office to meet my boss for the first time. And in the evening, I’m back to the hotel in the local train (they it call it MRT here). I stay next to a mall kind of place called Mustafa which has everything under the sun available.

I am glad to find that the place is inundated with Indians, especially from the south. My food is happily taken care of and I hear Tamil words wafting across the place. The Mallu in me, however, searches for a Kerala connection but I do not find any. Is the stereotyped Nair chai kada (tea stall) or thattu kada (roadside stall) just a figment of someone’s fertile imagination?

Singapore is full of streets and alleys. Every road/ street I see carries a name -something very important for us to learn; I often why India does not have proper signboards and notices everywhere rather than leaving us to the mercy of the public. Nevertheless, I lose track of my hotel briefly before relocating it after some local help (speaks volumes about my sense of direction, I guess).

The transportation scene is good with trains being the main system in this small country. The local train travel is pretty comfortable and I am at ease on the first day itself. It is similar to Mumbai with three different tracks operating through the city but there ends the similarity. The train has automatic doors; is well lit and is an indoor travel for most of the journey. The arrival of the stations is announced and displayed both in English and Tamil. If only Mumbai tried to emulate a few of these things…..But Delhites have told me that the MRT there is equally good.I assume it is but I cannot vouch for it...

Taxis are prevalent but difficult to get after about 8 pm, except of course if you call their service and book a taxi. The taxis are fairly hi-tech in the sense that they accept cards, provide bills and are connected to the local network through an interactive device always. A couple of nights back, I am given a small treatise on the call girls industry in Singapore by a friendly cab driver who wonders why India does not legalize this profession as in Singapore or Thailand.

I also learn that call girls here carry yellow employment passes and that this industry contributes about 2% of the GDP in Thailand. Wow, maybe they should think about starting a few SEZs- Special Entertainment Zones- then ? That's the in thing; ask Kamal Nath.I do not endorse the cabbie’s views but decide not to argue in an alien country and smile approvingly.

I am surprised that the office has no canteen here but looks like that’s the norm here. Everyone eats outside and I wonder if the concept of a cooking housewife is a misnomer here. With lots of hotels and joints spread across, we are spared of this chore as bachelors. I do not come across any animals here except in hotels. Maybe, no one’s ever told them that there are even other creatures on this planet. Thank God, the Holy Cow is still safe in India…

Of course, the work is no great shakes except that we are in a foreign country but then are we not living our dream of working outside India?(The quintessential Andhraite’s perennial dream). I refuse to divulge further details on innocuous things like job profile and work but if someone were to ask me about my job, I would say check the ad – Caught in the wrong job???

But where’s the poverty of Singapore? Are there no poor people here? I do not know but then this world is so different from the world I know and have seen sometimes. Once a while as I enjoy this luxurious life, I ask myself is the world between the haves and the have-notes unbridgeable? Being the pseudo-socialist that I am, whose exposure to poverty is limited to Sainath’s articles, I soon forget this troubled question and become a part of the conformist elite that lives on, ignoring how the other half lives…

Anyway, it’s a week down and three more to go before I’m back in MY COUNTRY

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lalu in Wonderland

Railway to Jersey gai ke tarah hai, jitna dhyan doge, utna hee doodh milega

- Lalu Prasad Yadav, in IIM-A

Not maybe the most memorable quote you want to store in your diary. But then being no expert in the field of Bovines, I guess I should reserve my comments on the Jersey cow and stick to the Railways and Lalu, arguably India’s most colourfully articulate politician (Down the Vindhyas, former Kerala CM , Late E K Nayanar is a close competitor for his memorable one-liners like where are there women, there will be rape). His visit to the IIM-A has generated enough media noise on how a rustic shepherd politician from the hinterland is giving lectures in management to India’s creamy layer of MBAs.

It’s been a classic Bollywood story for a small time man who entered politics, at the same time as Nitish Kumar and others, enthused by Jayaprakash Narayan’s call to fight Indira Gandhi’s political hegemony. He later on became the self-proclaimed “Poor Man’s Messiah” before getting mired in a flurry of scandals (Thanks to him, fodder is no longer a rural item).

He cocked a snook at democracy by getting his wife to take over his reins as he cooled his heels in jail. His popularity has still held him in good stead, though not the same way as earlier. His latest avatar as “Management Guru” is of course, undoubtedly his most successful one as critics have suddenly woken up wondering what is it that Lalu has done to put the Railways on track.

The Railways turnaround is a big story and Lalu’s become a management guru, teaching how to revive ailing companies (How about Bihar now?). There are, of course, divided opinions on whether this has anything to do with Lalu’s management skills or due to other reasons? Some have suggested that the economic boom has fostered greater train utility and that it was a case of being at the right place at the right time but there are also pro-Lalu versions.

It’s quite possible but then if it’s the minister in charge who receives brickbats in case things goes wrong, should we hide the bouquets if things go on the right track. To be honest, I am not very sure whether he has changed things (considering his track record of democraticising Bihar) but maybe I should not pass a judgment without actually finding out the truth. But then where are the media stories on what Lalu has actually done?

There’s a certain class hypocrisy when the only reporting that is done about him is his “starched kurta pyjama”, “outlandish language” and other not so proud mannerisms. Every time he appears on screen, the media is hell bent upon playing up his “buffoon” image. Be critical about him and I’m sure that there are any enough points to score doing that.

But reducing a man to mere caricature and making fun of him at a personal level does no credit to the NDTVs and CNN-IBNs. This is not a Lalu-specific mentality but a kind of reporting which measures people on their “so-called” civilizational attributes and blissfully ignores the actual work done by the person. Maybe the English speaking media just does not enjoy the other class doing something that the elite struggle to achieve.

Indian democracy, unlike the American one, is a very grass roots democracy. The people who vote are those who are on the sidelines but find no voice in the non-vernacular media. Wasn’t “Shining India” a triumph of our democracy when the entire press, out of touch with rural India and their aspirations, wrote off the Congress and unilaterally anointed the BJP as the victor?

There’s a certain arrogance in the media which fails to understand the pulse of the nation and paints itself in the colours of the rich and the famous. Slum displacement in the name of development is in “everyone’s interest” but try shifting the people of Cuff Parade and the same story becomes a story of human oppression (and ofcourse, an interview with the ever dependable Mahesh Bhatt).

CNN-IBN interviewed a few IIM-A students (in their early 20s) who were part of Prof. Lalu’s sessions and asked them if they were interested to join Indian Railways. One of them quipped that he would not be interested to join as a bureaucrat but was willing to join if he were invited to be a part of the top management!!! Yes, ofcourse how modest can you get with a tag like IIM-A (is it Arrogance) plaguing you? No stories have come till now of what they think of Lalu’s speech and whether his sound bytes are a value addition to jargons like “core competency” and “SWOT”.

Has the “poster boy” of political entertainment actually grown up or is it just another media entertainment story??? Whatever it is, it is a demonstration of the power of democracy where English savvy media is reduced to pour in tributes to a rustic pastoral leader, albeit reluctantly.

Hopefully, Lalu’s management gyan will give all of us fodder, sorry, food for thought….

Thursday, September 14, 2006

9/11: The Wounded Fraction

Sanjay Dutt is facing trial for the Mumbai blasts case and he may or may not be convicted but he’s done more than anyone else in recent times in making the Mahatma India’s star icon. For a simple man, ironically manifested in all our currency notes, it has been a glorious non-violent comeback (A lesson for our Saurav Dada). “Gandhigiri” is also becoming the most popular political phrase slowly, thanks to Munnabhai. What better occasion to highlight this than while talking about the fraction that has changed the world – 9/11 (It has overtaken 22/7 – the humble pi in the popularity charts). 9/11 is America’s baby out and out but until I watched NDTV/CNN-IBN a few days back, I did not realize that 9/11 was also the centenary of the Satyagraha movement.

The 1st 9/11 in 1906 was used by the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, to launch the Satyagraha movement and it had wide sweeping repercussions not just here but across the globe too. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela endorsed it later on making it a very powerful metaphor for non-violent retribution. It presented a powerful case for morally legitimate ways to fight for justice.

The last 9/11 also had sweeping global effects but on a greater negative scale. The world has not changed for the better but is more polarized now, echoing Bush’s infamous statement – “Either you are with us or against us”. That does not leave us with much of a choice then but to be against him.

I don’t even think we need to ask ourselves whether the world has been enriched by American follies – Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest are all landscapes which are testimony to the bleeding that has happened in the glorious name of “democracy” and “peace”. 9/11 was unfortunate but what about these countries and many other African republics which are rotting because of liberal America. Incidentally, 9/11 is also the day (in the 70s) when the democratically elected President of Chile was overthrown and General Pinochet took over the country in a bloody coup killing thousands of people, ably supported by US. Anyone ready to shed tears for them?

Most news channels commemorating the fifth anniversary of the WTC bombing have been repeatedly driving home the claim “The world was never the same”. Quite true, since Americans decide how the world should be. We tried coining dates like 13/12 (Parliament attack) and 12/3 (‘93 Mumbai blasts) but who remembers these poor fractions (I had to search through Google to find these dates).The life of an average Indian is probably not worth that of an American and so terrorist attacks in India do not change the face of the world and in some ways, even the country too; after all, Mumbai’s “resilience” hogged more headlines than the actual blasts.

But then, this is not an entirely an international phenomenon. A blast in Delhi which kills two is given more coverage than the death of 30-40 odd in Tripura. Only when something happens close to our home, we come to realize the potential problem in store, but till that time, token coverage and lip service is all that we can afford.

Has the world changed?

General Musharraf is the US poster boy leading the battle in the Global War on Terror. Whoever thought the perpetrator of the Kargil War would be US’s main weapon against terrorism. Even a suave IIM graduate could not have been able to reposition a losing brand like Pakistan with such elan.

After years of Blairism, UK is finally throwing Blair out after acting as Bush’s stooge for long. The law of averages has finally caught up with him and he is leaving the stage just like Ms.Thatcher did.

The Taliban is regrouping (thanks to a bountiful opium harvest also) and President Hamid Karzai’s power does not extend beyond the boundary walls of his castle.

Iran and North Korea are twitching to test their nuclear arsenals.

Iraq is wallowing in the midst of extreme lawlessness and chaos and the US Govt. has admitted that Saddam has nothing to do with AL-Qaeda or Taliban.

Osama makes guest appearances in videos keeping his halo intact and his foes guessing.

The West makes polite noises about development and democracy and continues its own way while the Rest of the World ambles along.

Who has benefited from all this?

Most of the European companies have bagged contracts (rather snatched) for Iraq rehabilitation – telecom, innovative Food for Oil schemes and of course oil.

India’s former Deputy National Security Adviser, Satish Chandra, was heard on TV the other day saying that “US is probably its own worst enemy by pandering to the likes of President Musharraf”. Once the poster boy’s role is completed, US will try to bring democracy back to Pakistan and then it would be curtains for Musharraf but till that time, its happy honeymoon for him.

Global terror has a wonderful economic side to it and who better to utilize all this than multinational companies dealing with arms (one of the most powerful industrial lobbies in US). More terror means more customers for their weapons and how can a Government who cares for its domestic industry ignore this concern?

The day is not far of when George Bush will win the Noble Prize for Peace due to his untiring efforts in bringing “democracy to the world”. And what about us? We’ll probably continue our journey with a blast here and there occasionally testing our democracy and reminding us that “An eye for an eye makes the entire world blind”. Maybe we should revive Gandhigiri then....

A fraction is mathematical representation of representing a quantity based on splitting it into a number of parts – something that 9/11 can make a rightful claim of having done.