Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Indian School of Discrimination

The Ash-Abhi wedding was supposed to be the biggest media story this fortnight but the dynamic duo of Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty decided to take the top spot sweeping this hot news from all the channels. Everywhere, you had stories of the British model of racism and the suffering of Shilpa in the hands of a bully Reality TV contestant, Goody, and suddenly UK and India were locked in the biggest diplomatic row between the two countries in recent times.

Enough has been said of the so-called racist attack by Goody and her gang against Shilpa and I’m not going to get into the nuances of the attack involved. Clearly, there were racist remarks involved and Ms. Goody (no longer a Goody, I guess) has been thrown out of Big Brother while the media and the governments on both sides have denounced the racist behaviour in strong terms. There has been a lot of commotion involved with the matter being raised in the British Parliament and widely debated in the media in both countries.

While it’s fine for the ordinary Indian out there to feel outraged, why is the Government dirtying its feet in the entire affair by getting involved unnecessarily? Is the issue so important that it has to issue statements and ask Mr Gordon Brown for an explanation? The British PM-in-waiting, Gordon Brown, in India on a trip, expressed his regrets at the turn of events and stated that such behaviour damages the British image. Our honourable MoS of External Affairs, Anand Sharma, said that “The government will take appropriate measures once it gets to know the full details” while the FM added, for good measure, that the controversy will not affect Anglo-Indian relations. Thank God, we want Arun Sarin and Tesco to invest here, don’t we??

Ms Shilpa, “an award winning Bollywood actress” (as BBC referred to her) is not in “Big Brother” to represent India. She’s being paid about Rs 3.2 crore to be a participant in “Big Brother” – a huge amount for an Indian actress. Like every other Reality TV show, this is another obnoxious show where people live together and fight to vote out each other periodically from the show. Shilpa is very much aware of the rules of the game and should expect such jibes which are more in tune with the kind of programme it is. Getting ragged and then raising the bogey of racism may not look like the smartest thing to do but then, who’s benefited the most??? Shilpa and the programme “Big Brother” of course.

The “Big Brother” acknowledged by a Channel 4 executive as “the most boring BB that we have had in years” was on the verge of being axed and all this publicity has given it a new lease of life. Last heard, Shilpa is being flooded with foreign offers, a move that may revive her career which is currently going nowhere. Now, who can say for sure that his entire conundrum was not the creation of some smart spin doctor who used “racism” as a strategy to boost the TRPs of the programme?

Jade Goody (Wikepedia lists her profession as Reality TV contestant) is of course no do gooder. She has been rightly condemned for her racist behaviour and booted out of the programme. The fact that more than 10,000 complaints were received by Channel 4 expressing the dissatisfaction by the majority against her behaviour probably is a sign of the racist slur actually existing in UK.

Many people have used this controversy to raise their voice against the discrimination they have been facing and the presence of a celebrity like her and the extensive media coverage has only helped them in underscoring their feelings which has been badly shaken, more so in the post-9/11 era.

It is also time for us to look inwards and ask whether our attitudes are any different from the West. Ask the Muslim, who has lost his family and home in the Gujarat riots, how it feels to live under Modi’s rule of law? Ask non-Hindu families how easy it is to get a proper accommodation in “forward looking cosmopolitan” Mumbai? Why do we have villages in Tamil Nadu (and elsewhere) where upper and lower class people are served tea in separate glasses? Did not Khairlanji ridicule our claims of abolishing untouchability? Every now and then, Shiv Sena thugs raise the anti-South Indian bogey, asking “lungi wallahs” to get out of Mumbai (this strategy no longer works, so it has been consigned to the Sena Strategic Archives), while the North-East remains an area which is present merely in the Indian map taught in geography classes in schools.

This brings into picture the nature of the Indian School of Discrimination. Are we merely victims of this racism which is making its appearance everywhere- politics, sports, cinema and you name it. Globalisation has brought about an amalgamation of cultures, at times when people are not ready for it. This conflict surfaces in such situations as exemplified by the “Big Brother” fiasco. So, while the economic status of people may have changed; it has not resulted in much of a social and cultural change.

Fair skin is marketed truly an asset in India, as illustrated by our classified and skin cream ads. Check out the matrimony section of any paper and you will see the demand for fair-skinned, beautiful girls with white, wheatish, “mera wala cream” and god knows what complexions. The Fair and Lovely Ads amplify our obsession with colour with ads promising fair skin and the resulting marriages. All instances of how we worship the “white colour” ourselves though of course, we do not admit it.

And don’t forget the Indian class discrimination. Just for a minute, think that instead of the sultry Shilpa Shetty, it is Rakhi Sawant out there. Would we be so sympathetic about the entire affair? Rakhi has already been branded a “slut”, “item girl” and what not. Her involvement in such an incident would have lead to people brushing aside the case and suggesting that she’s in it only for the money and so no point cribbing. And what is Shilpa there for? Showcasing Indian virtues!!! The poor Indian worker gets railed and abused doing menial work in the Gulf but don’t even expect the Government to bat an eyelid? After all, what are the rights of these nameless people in front of the Shetty babe?

So, while is is fine to condemn racism and other -isms let us not forget where we stand in these matters. Being self-critical is no weakness; as we move ahead, let us not forget that growth does not mean only sound economics but also an ability to respect different views, faiths, cultures and live in harmony in an inclusive fashion, without trampling anyone's feelings.

Finally, there is a business opportunity in every story. The Indian tourism department, in a show of Gandhigiri, invited Ms. Goody to India and the latest news is that she's going to be in India shortly. Now that is a smart PR job!!!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

On the Rickshaw's Deathbed

My first recollection of the humble rickshaw is the immortal scene from the Bimal Roy classic Do Bigha Zameen. The protagonist Balraj Sahni keeps galloping across the roads as his customer screams “Aur Tez..Aur tez…” until he finally collapses and the cart topples. It’s been so many years now but this poignant scene remains etched in my consciousness even after such a long time. It once again flashed through my thoughts when I recently read reports banning the rickshaw from our roads. Things haven’t changed; we still want to move faster and faster and the sufferer remains the rickshaw puller…

The hand-pulled cart has been, for years, a quintessential Bengali wonder which has never made it big in the rest of the country. I’m not too sure why this has happened but the Communists now have plans to get rid of this “inhuman” profession which seems to be a stark reminder of everything the red card carriers want to bury. This city has long conjured cliches of humanity’s epic struggle for dignity, amidst grinding poverty. None more so than the Rickshaw wallahs – barefoot human beasts of burden fighting for their very existence on the city’s streets, immortalized on the silver screen by Dominique Lappiere’s City of Joy .

Kolkata attempted to ban the practice in 1996 blaming the rickshaws for clogging up the city’s already congested streets. The pullers fought off that challenge; a year later, it offered rickshaw pullers 7,000 rupees to turn in their vehicles but there were no takers. Now that the Government has amended the 1919 Hackney-Carriage Act governing slow-moving vehicles, you can find comrades hatching a battle plan once again, in their dilapidated union office.

The main grouse raised against these rickshaws is that it is inhuman for anyone to carry the burden of other human beings on themselves. It is a retrograde practice and goes against the spirit of human rights and compassion that we cherish so much more nowadays.

Yes, the hand cart is inhuman and the coolie has a glamorous job profile!!!

I am not too sure what is so inhuman about pulling a cart? It would be inhuman if they were forced into this but they are not. How different is it from the many other labour intensive jobs like working in mines or fields where people have to slog it out for a paltry sum of wages? Does banning the cart that feeds thousands of people give them a greater dignity of labour?

The Government has promised to provide a compensation and alternate means of livelihood. It has said that these hand-pulled carts would be replaced by cycle or motor ones. It has, however, not said if it would provide the rickshaw runners with these new vehicles. Even if the compensation were to be given, it would only be given to the licensed rickshaws, which form a paltry 10% of the overall rickshaws (As per the last estimates about a decade back, there are about 35,000 hand-pulled rickshaws and 45,000 cycle rickshaws). The rest of the faceless set of rickshaws would be driven into unemployment just because the Government thinks it’s better to do nothing than doing something which may be “undignified”.

The rapid pace of urbanization has a corroding effect on the environmental and social conditions in cities. With the auto industry accelerating and the Tatas all ready to roll out their 1 lakh car (where else but in Singur in West Bengal), we can expect an avalanche of polluting automobiles sweeping the roads. But when the Government thinks it’s more important to create SEZs for auto majors, why think about handling the road infrastructure or lack of it?

It may not be very glamorous for the State to be a part of the green brigade but the least it can do is not destroying such non-polluting transportation systems, which employ thousands of people, especially the most vulnerable ones. Cars are owned by well to do people and they contribute heavily to the atmospheric pollution. The sufferers are primarily the people who live in the fringes in cities – on the pavements and slums created by poor infrastructural policies.

Another argument put forward is that rickshaws slow down traffic, leading to congestion at all busy roads. Don’t even think about the numerous cars (currently growing at more than 20% rate) that clog India’s poorly managed roadways and the autos; the culprit is the poor man’s rickshaw. Since it’s easier to ban the rick rather than try to improve the urban infrastructure, the State is going ahead. We live in a fast world where being “slow” is a sin. There’s no time for anything in the world and we cannot wait for things to happen at their own time; anything that does not conform to this principle is archaic and needs to be removed.

Every city has its own set of landmarks or heritage structures which gives it that distinct look and it is the rickshaw, that has dotted the cluttered the lanes of Kolkata, that has served this purpose. Moreover, hand carts are generally used not in the city but in these numerous by-lanes which traverse through the length and breadth of the city. No other means of transportation can take their place through such places. But by targetting this vehicle, the only “non-polluting” means of transportation is being eradicated from the Earth.

But come to think of it, the reason for this sudden enlightenment and human compassion is nothing else - the State’s attempt to hitch their cart onto the band wagon of globalisation. And in this pursuit of money, there's no place for such images of backwardness which have to be cast into the past. Buddhadeb and his party are looking at giving it an image make over and so, the humble rickshaw will be booted from Kolkata’s bylanes. So, if you want the see the rickshaw again, the only place available may be the celluloid screen...

However, if you think that Bengal is the only place determined to get rid of its past, you are wrong. Delhi has banned rickshaws in many parts of the city and China, the home to the largest cycle market, is taking steps to ban them in Shanghai and other places. Globalisation is fine but can’t we try to modify it to have a policy of Green Globalisation, where everyone has a scope to live and let live…

Friday, January 12, 2007

Freedom to Reclaim Lost Dreams

A couple of weeks back, I had written about the Andhraite’s obsession with dollars. While some agreed with my observations, a few others suggested that it is a pan-India issue and that one of our main problems is a lack of career understanding in India. We take up jobs merely because we need jobs and that there’s never been too much of an input for us regarding things like career interests and passions in life. We work because we really do not know what else to do in life.

I have not met too many people who are happy about their work life. Of course, this can be explained as a perennial mindset of many of us who do not how to be happy. But I’ll leave the philosophy part aside and try to understand what drives this stagnant feeling in many of us. We all want to be free, have our own set of choices that dictate our lives but are we actually free to decide our own career paths? Or are we even capable of choosing our own career paths? You read everywhere that the economy is opening up and that opportunity is springing up across all sectors but many of us (me included) are stuck in jobs we did not ask for but have stumbled upon.

We work in life not for ourselves but for our parents, peers, the society and every other block that fits into our sphere of influence. We may want to break out of that mould later but by that time, we become risk averse. The family, spouse and kids come into the picture and so a steady income becomes a necessity. Seduced by thoughts of owning a house or a car, we break up our life into a set of EMIs that go on upto infinity.

Life = Summation(EMI) where n= 1 to infinity

And after sometime, if you were to look into the mirror, you will not see yourself – just a pale shadow of that spunky youth, masquerading as you. The alien facing you has a fast receeding hairline, his paunch enters the frame before his face and you see a plethora of bills floating around him, crying for his attention. You then decide that the mirror has grown too old and replace the mirror, dismissing all these images as mirages which are fleeting and try to get back to the conundrums in your life.

The first thing is to ask ourselves what is it that we want to do or achieve in life. Rashmi Bansal, in an interesting article in rediff, talks about our need for mazza (fun), izzat (respect) and matlab (meaning) in our jobs– her spin on our good old Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we crammed in our MBA classes. She cites call centre jobs as a fresher’s delight to make a fast buck which may lose its sheen later due to lack of izzat associated with it. The wannabe IT job that I am stranded with gives me the izzat but not the matlab and so there’s a requirement to get out of it. Many of these companies hire people but do not know how to utilize them and they end up as unwanted baggage. Both parties carry on this painful responsibility for too long until a point comes when you become immune to the problem or perish.

The matlab factor may be in the form of sectoral change, entrepreneurship or non-profit jobs or something weird. I am sure 90% of us are not very sure what we want to do or what we are good at. We are like bottle caps tossed up in the high seas, scattered here and there due to the gusts of wind and waves and without any destination in mind but waiting for a captain to steer us to safety some day. But this moment never arises and we regret it much later in life.

We all start with a pure paisa based approach but somewhere, some of us begin to rebel against that. This is either due to a better understanding of our needs, a sense of guilt (don’t write this off- it actually happens) or at times, just the idea to do something offbeat or challenging. The stagnation can be very difficult and requires an outlet but finding that can be equally tough. It requires us to get out of that comfort zone and think beyond the obvious.

The fact that Radio Jockeys, wedding planners and non-profit jobs are gaining some modicum of respect is a good sign but then how many of us find ourselves in such “off-beat” professions. We all need greater career counselling services to select our areas of interest and work in them, without any sense of inhibition. We live in such capsule existences that we are not aware of the various opportunities around us and so we take the off-beaten tracks of engineering and medicine. Why? Because we need to tell the society that we are gainfully employed, as per its perceptions.

As an inspiration, just check out this organization - Room to Read, started by John Wood, Microsoft’s erstwhile Director of Business Development for the Greater China Region. In 1998, John Wood was a rising executive at Microsoft when he took a vacation that changed his life. What started as a trekking holiday in Nepal became a spiritual journey, and then a mission: to change the world one book and one child at a time by setting up libraries in the developing world. He was soon driven to leave his career with only a loose vision of the change he wanted to bring to the world. Room to Read is now an award-winning non-profit organization that has established more than 3000 libraries and donated more than 2 million books and started about 200 schools. Make sure to grab a copy of the “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World”, written by him, where he discusses his decisions, his quest to change the world and his current work.

I love the Tata Dicor ad which targets us, the segment of bored well-to-do class of customers and says so much more with its punch line “Reclaim your Life”. I am looking forward to live those lines…

I always wanted to quit on a Monday morning..
I always wanted to swim with the whales…
I always wanted to take a one-year trip… around the world
I always wanted…I always wanted…

Looking forward to any suggestions to live life fully and escape from the cubicles of Dilbert in which many of us find ourselves trapped in. Let’s not grow old, regretting our inability to enjoy our existence and work and lead dull dreary monotonous lives….Life’s worth so much more than that…I’d like to stop working for money but hey, who will take care of my EMIs???

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Don't ignore Irom Sharmila

Identify this photo. You will not be able to do so; even if I were to give her name, you will not be able to recognize her. She has also not made it to the front cover of tabloids like the Times of India and would continue to remain this way as an example of our lack of concern for “the fringes”. Mamta Banerjee went on a hunger strike recently but called it off after 25 days after high level intervention while this frail lady has been fasting for the past six years and the only thing that has happened so far is that she has been arrested repeatedly for attempted suicide but no attempts have been made to address the main issue.

Irom Sharmila, 35, has been on a hunger strike since November 2000 protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur which gives the Armed Forces draconian powers, worse than even in TADA or POTA . AFSPA is a law that can come into force in any part of India, declared as “disturbed”. The act allows anyone of any rank in the army or a paramilitary force under its operational command to shoot, arrest or search without warrant; and to kill on suspicion alone. Furthermore, there is little scope for judicial remedy. The legislation defines 'disturbed' as an area which requires the aid of the armed forces, without spelling out criteria. This has led to states being declared 'disturbed' for years — Nagaland for 46 years and Manipur (Sharmila’s state) for 24.

Her epic fast started six years back when the Army, in retaliation to an insurgent attack, went berserk and shot dead 10 civilians. From then till now, Sharmila has been observing a fast against the repeal of this act but to no avail. Instead she’s been arrested on charges of attempted suicide and put into custody repeatedly without granting bail. She has also been nose-fed forcibly to prevent her fast. Her frail 35 year old body has grown extremely weak but she continues to stand firm in the true spirit of Gandhigiri.

The Central Government had constituted a high level official panel under Justice BP Jeevan Reddy Committee to review the provisions of AFSPA. The Commission, in its 147 page report, in June 2005,stated that the protection of soldiers from legal proceedings already existed under Section 49 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (ULP Act) and unambiguously recommended repealing the law. However, the Central Government has been sitting on the report since then and the Defence Minister A K Antony recently stated that the law will not be repealed but will be made more “humane”.

This law has been in force for almost 50 years now but this has not led to any insurgency reduction in the North-East. If after all these years, the Government refuses to look at this matter as a social and political problem and tries to flex military power to address the problem, it reflects poorly on the State. This lack of progress should have spurned the Government to abandon it rather than stand by it but it stubbornly refuses to engage with the political leadership of the insurgent groups and continues with its one-dimensional thinking.

We are quite proud of our democratic setup and do not hesitate to emphasise this when we compare ourselves to China but isn't it shocking that we have such archaic laws which infringe upon our human rights. The Government is least bothered and is not willing to invest time and energy on such minor issues because it believes that there are several other pressing issues to be taken care of. The indifference is quite appalling and Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Right Committee have expressed their concern over India on its continuation of denial of democracy.

The Indian Army is too much of a holy cow to be criticized, so any excesses done are painted as “counter insurgency operations” and the people who condemn such incidents are “leftists” or “pseudo-intellectuals” who do not understand ground realities. This allegation may be true in many cases but we need to be self-critical and not always gung-ho about our systems – this is an important activity on our growth as a democracy that cares for people.

But then has the North-East ever been on the radar of either the media or the administration? It stands alienated at some corner of the country, abandoned by the State and the elite and let down by the liberals. The North-East has never meant to us anything more than maybe a Bhupen Hazarika, a Danny or a Baichung Bhutia .There have been thousands of deaths (reported and unreported) but our concern or rather lack of concern for the “fringe people” – that was what we have reduced them to- is rather shameful.

There’s a media blind spot towards issues affecting the North-East and therefore anything to the north of Bengal has become of no concern to the rest of the country. We look at it in the form of a nuisance value being created by a set of rag tag guerillas, supported by an “invisible foreign hand”, merely out to foment trouble in the country. After all, when the country is making giant strides, why would you care for people going over insignificant fasts in alien parts of the country?

Thomas Friedman refers to the world as a flat entity but as Noble Prize winner Joseph Steiglitz says in his interview to The Hindu recently, “...not only is the world not flat but in many ways it's getting less flat”. The difference between the haves and the have-nots increases, so while the Government focuses on greater economic policies, it forgets that social and economic factors must never be looked at in isolation and a lot of social problems crop up due to economic disparities. Let us not look at human rights as a dispensable commodity which can be negotiated when the time arrives; that would be a failure of the idea of a "Welfare State".

We have just welcomed the New Year with a great deal of pomp and joy but as we sit in our AC cubicles and drawing rooms, let us spare a minute for the likes of Irom Shamila and others who are waging their own lone battles against the State. The fight for basic human survival is universal and we must support it wholeheartedly.