Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nira Radia Tapes and fall of a giant from the pedestal

The most important fall-out of the leak of Radia Tapes is the fall of an important figure from the public pedestal. Ratan Tata. He has been no.1 in the list of the few industrialists and businessmen that the Indian public trusted. But the Radia Tapes have damaged that reputation. The fault is not with the people who leaked the tapes. The fault is not with the magazines which published them. The fault is with Ratan Tata. If you keenly listen to the tapes and digest the contents, it becomes clear that Tata dreaded the probable return of Dayanidhi Maran as Telecom Minister. He wanted some one, any one other than Maran. But Raja was good enough for him. Pliable, accommodating, approachable, practical. Seen in the context of Tata's telecom interests, the desire to see Raja as Telecom minister is not all that saintly. In fact, the efforts mounted to bring Raja as Telecom minister is very evident from the tapes. This effort made by Tata , besides of course others, has dented Tata's image, may be irretrievably and for ever. This is sad news for a man who will be retiring in a year or two.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tamil Newspapers and their news priorities

While I buy 'The Times of India' newspaper for national news, I buy a Tamil newspaper to get to know what is happening around me. The Tamil newspaper ' Daily Thanthi' costs more than the Times. However, it has less number of pages than the Times. The print quality is pretty good and a lot of colour is used. There are more advertisements than what Chennai edition of the Times manages to get. The most important thing to note is that Daily Thanthi is one of the highest circulated vernacular newspapers in the country. Now let us see what constitutes 'News' as far as this paper is concerned.

The front page news invariably is about the state of Tamilnadu. Right now, there is an investigation going on into the duplicate mark sheet scandal. On the 15th July, this was the main front page news. The only other news on the front page was the police firing in Andhra Pradesh and the consequent death of 4 agitating fishermen.The rest of the front page is dotted with colourful advertisements .

In the inner pages, considerable space was devoted on the above date to the following news items. 1. Life term punishment to the Bangalore woman who murdered her fiance with the help of her lover eight years ago. There is a large colour photo of the grim-looking woman published. 2.Arrest of the clever real estate owner who succeeded in selling Govt. lands to a Govt.-owned oil company. Photo of the clever man published. 3.Large photo of actor Sarath Kumar seeking the blessings of the chief minister of Tamilnadu on the former's birthday. In the photo, the actor is smiling broadly, his wife Radhika is smiling more broadly and the C.M. is almost laughing. 4.Half of page 5 is devoted to the speech given by the owner of the newspaper at the inaugural ceremony of a 3-star hotel at Tiruchendur in South Tamilnadu. 5.Suicide of a Kannada film actor after murdering his wife.Photo of the actor and his wife taken in better days published. 6.Arrest of more persons in the case involving corrupt chief engineer of Tamilnadu Electricity Board. (Photo, though not in colour, of the corrupt chief engineer and his corrupt deputy.) 6.Arrest of the married lover of a murdered woman on charges of homicide. (Photo of the married lover-boy turned murderer published).7. The editorial page has an editorial questioning the Govt.'s choice of the persons for Republic day awards. But three times the space given to the said editorial has been given to what the chief minister Mr.Karunanidhi has written in his party's newspaper 'Murasoli' attacking the opposition leader Ms.Jayalalitha in chaste Tamil.

If I have not listed any major national news ( not considering the judgement on Bangalore woman and the suicide of Kannada actor as neither national nor very major) among the seven items mentioned above, the fault is not mine. There is very little national news in this newspaper. There are three or four national news items ( BJP protest against Karnataka Governor, Manmohan Singh's speech on Naxalites etc.) but tucked in some corner of inner sheets. Of course, those readers hungry for national news can locate them with some effort. And some sports news, stock market news etc. too are found.

One should not forget that this newspaper has its fingers on the pulse of its readers who constitute a substantial percentage of the state's population. So, assuming that the paper gives what its readers want , people 's primary interest is what happens in the immediate surroundings of theirs. Say, within a radius of some 250 to 300kms from their home. This must be true about people in other states of the country as well; and about regional newspapers in other parts of the country too. Murders most foul, the police catching the murderers, the background of the murder, major thefts in the locality, film actors' real life affairs and other extra-curricular activities, Sex Sanyasis, their extra-religious but juicy escapades.......... these are what sustain people's interest and the readers get their 'paisa vasool' if the newspapers sprinkle such news liberally and make them well-spiced. Economy, GDP, Indo-Pak dialogue, Afghanistan, global warming, Maoists ....... these must be happening in another planet, a million kilometres away from where the readers live in flesh and blood. Are the English newspapers listening?

Paranormal Activity

Recently I watched the English movie " Paranormal Activity". I understand that the movie has been shot with a shoe-string budget. No recognizable actors. No superb cinematography. But the effect the movie creates on the viewer is terrific. The fear that we all have, at least most of us have, for entities that are not human has been well-exploited. I do not remember to have seen any thriller or horror movie in which suggestion that something sinister is about to happen is used so effectively. There are two endings in the DVD. I do not know which ending the movie screened in cinema halls has. But the DVD gives you a choice. Though both the endings are tragic, one is more dramatic while the other is slightly less stomach-churning. I strongly recommend that you see the movie. But there is a strong possibility that if you see the movie late night, then the hours following the end of the movie will see you sleepless, avoiding looking directly at every shadow that appears on the window glass of your bed room .

Turkey- a slice of my experiences

I had done quite a bit of research on the net prior to my trip to Istanbul. I had even identified an Indian restaurant in Istanbul, since finding a restaurant for vegetarian food is quite a task while travelling anywhere outside India. I had informed myself about how the taxi drivers in Istanbul used a novel method to cheat the tourists. I had noted carefully how Turkish Lira had undergone three changes in the last 5 years. But the real life experiences do not exactly go the way one had prepared oneself for. Well, not all surprises are unpleasant !

Actually, Turkey is well-known for its Mediterranean cuisine. It has plenty of vegetables and fruits in it, besides olive oil. But Mediterranean cuisine is more common in places like Antalya than Istanbul. Nevertheless, I identified a Turkish vegetarian restaurant in Istiklal Caddessi area of Istanbul. I could have gone to the Indian Restaurant Musafir easily. But I was more interested in eating vegetarian food in an authentic Turkish Restaurant. And I did find one small joint after some enquiries in that area. I was not in for disappointment. What the restaurant called Vegetarian Plate had tomato soup, rice( a bit sticky ), brinjhal , some green salad, a loaf of bread and a sweet. Finally Turkish coffee. Very satisfactory evening. While in Antalya, I had it much easier. Every lunch or dinner I had in the hotel had plenty of green salad, cooked vegetables , nuts, fruits etc. Besides, of course delicious Turkish sweets.

But the taxi drivers proved more cunning than what the Internet had informed me. I had read on certain travel websites that the taxi drivers used to cheat the tourists, taking advantage of the similarity in appearances between the 5 lira currency note and the 50 lira one. When the passenger gives the driver a 50 lira note, the latter instead of giving the balance claims that the passenger had given only a 5 lira note and shows a 5 lira note. The 50 lira note very quickly had vanished into the driver's pocket and equally quickly a 5 lira note appears in its place in the driver's hand.The tourists try to argue but finally get tired enough to shell out the taxi fare once more. There are dozens of complaints of this nature in the said travel websites. But what happened to me was something entirely different. Tired after a visit to the museums in the far-away Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, I decided to hire a taxi to reach my hotel which was in the Taksim Square. The driver at the very outset made it clear that he would not be switching on the meter and would be charging 25 Lira since the traffic, according to him, was heavy that day. I agreed and got into the taxi. The driver appeared friendly and even identified me correctly as Indian. He kept chatting about the chaotic traffic in Istanbul; it was another matter that I did not find the traffic in Istanbul half as chaotic as in Mumbai. Finally when the taxi reached Taksim , I paid him the agreed 25 Lira. He got furious and said that what we had agreed was 35 lira. I heard it as 45 lira and asked him " 45? no, we agreed on 25". He replied " I am not asking for 45, but just 35." He was pronouncing 25, 35 and 45 in an identical way. I think that it was deliberate on his part. Then he showed the meter which he earlier had said he had no intention of switching on ; the meter showed 40. I had no choice. Heads or tails, the driver wins. I paid 35 lira and got out red-faced. So, the drivers in Istanbul can beat you in the game of taxi fare whatever be your preparation.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Identity Politics, a Divisive Mantra

Politics itself is divisive. It does not unite, but divides. However, democratic politics is unavoidable since no better system of governance that would have the stamp of approval by the governed has yet been invented.But identity politics is pure poison.
*Linguistic Identity Politics: Linguistic states were formed in India in 1956 with the good intention of encouraging preservation of sub-cultures. Culture of a society is very strongly bound with the language spoken by the people of a region. But look at the consequences of the formation of linguistic states. Biharis are beaten up in Maharashtra. Kannadigas do not want to share Cauvery water with the Tamils. Kannadigas and Maharashtrians are quarrelling over the district of Belgaum. Assamese resent Bengali immigrants. But what was most unexpected are the fissures within a linguistic state. U.P. a Hindi speaking state could not satisfy the aspirations of its Hindi speaking hill-inhabitants and Uttarakhand had to be formed. Bihar , another Hindi-speaking state had to agree to let Jharkhand region to have its own state since the tribal there felt being exploited by the mainstream people of the rest of Bihar. Telengana people can not stomach the dominance of their Telugu-speaking brothers in Andhra and Rayalseema areas of Andhra Pradesh. The people of Chattisgarh separated from the Hindi-speaking state of Madhya Pradesh though the people of both M.P. and Chattisgarh speak Hindi. Now, the people of western Uttar Pradesh want a separate state. The Marathi-speaking people of Vidharba region want a separate state carved out of the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra. It is clear that concept of linguistic states has failed.Language alone can not unite.
Racial Identity Politics of Dravidian parties: This is much worse than linguistic politics and has the potential to split the nation. The British , for their own selfish reasons, propagated the theory of Aryan-Dravidian divide. In the early part of the last century, some organisations in the then-Madras Presidency started using this theory as a tool to beat the upper castes of the state with; it was widely perceived that the Brahmins of the South were originally from the North and by implication, they were not part of Dravidians. So, some of the educated non-Brahmin communities effectively deployed this perception to bring down the Brahmins from the latter's dominant position in the society and professions. When the country achieved independence, some new political parties were formed in South India and these parties in their efforts to defeat the Congress party used the weapon of ' Dravidians being different' to spread hatred against the North and by implication the all-India Congress party. This poisonous Aryan-Dravidian theory ( which has been rubbished of late by many historians as baseless) brought the Dravidian parties to power and gave the people a fictitious feeling of having men of their own feather in power. But the damage the Dravidian identity politics has caused to the sense of unity is considerable.
Religious Identity Politics: In the name of secularism, most of the political parties have been deceiving the minorities ; they talk of protecting them without doing any thing substantial to improve their living standards. But this very talk is seen by the Hindus as appeasement of minorities. This reaction by the majority community has enabled the more extreme sections of the Hindu population to practise politics based on religion. The issue of secularism has dominated politics for close to two decades, creating a set-back to efforts to tackle real issues like economy and governance.
Caste Identity Politics: South India started it ; the politicians connived among themselves to award the Backward community status to most of the castes. The so-called upper castes were systematically edged out of the Public sector and Government job market. In that process, they were driven out of the state; huge sections rendered helpless by the unjust reservation policy migrated to the North in search of higher education and employment. The politicians of the South especially Tamilnadu are gloating that they have solved the caste problem; what they have done is execution of a South Indian brand of ethnic cleansing. Bloodless, if it offers any consolation. The Northern states have just begun messing up with the caste issue. Mandal was the start. In the north, it is competitive backward politics. Mulayam - Laloo brand which recognizes only Yadavs as the backward community deserving help, Nitish brand which talks about the Most Backward Communities ( euphemism for all backward communities except Yadavs) etc. This fire which has been started by the politicians will not stop in a hurry. What gets burnt out and what escapes unscathed are things that are in a sealed container called Future.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bhopal Gas Tragedy - A Witness

I was a resident of Bhopal when the tragedy in the form of leakage of a deadly gas from a factory struck the beautiful city of Bhopal. The tragedy happened , I remember, around the time between midnight of the 2Nd December and the early morning of the 3rd December 1984. I was fast asleep and so perhaps was every one of my neighbours in the posh residential area Arera Colony . Arera Colony is situated some 10kms away from Union Carbide factory where the leakage of gas occurred. When I got up at 6.30 am on the 3rd of December, there was commotion in the street outside. People were looking scared, talking among themselves in small groups in fearful tones. The servant maid just then entered our home and gave us the piece of information. "Gas has leaked and several are dead". Gas? Which gas? LPG? She said, not domestic gas, but some factory gas. Those were not days of round the clock Television. We had to switch on the radio ( which was yet to become a museum object) to learn more about the gas leak. Soon it became clear that some poisonous gas had leaked out and killed thousands of people in the older section of the city.My neighbour suggested that we must drive away to the nearby town of Hoshangabad since there were rumours that the wind was pushing the gas towards our part of the city ( This was later found to be false). The main road was already chocking with cars and scooters and people were trying to get as far away from the affected part of the city as possible.We decided to stay put and wait for the Govt.'s advice. Soon it became clear that the lake, a prominent landmark of Bhopal, had acted as a shield and checkmated the spreading gas, confining it to a smaller area in the older part of the city. Unfortunately, the older part was also the more crowded part. That was why the casualty figures ran into thousands.
Bhopal was stunned into inaction for several days thereafter. There was hardly any one other than the rescue workers venturing into the affected localities. On the third or the fourth day, myself and a colleague of mine drove to the old city . There was eerie silence everywhere. Some dead bodies were still on the street corners. It was not the lovely Bhopal I had come to know in the previous two years since my shift from Bombay . Soon, the profiteers and bad elements took over the scene. Blankets and clothes donated freely to the suffering people started appearing dramatically in the evening market for sale. Social service organisations, some of them genuine but many of them out to make a fast buck out of the tragedy descended on the scene. There was even a cartoon in the Times of India ( by Lakshman) which showed a big-built suited-booted lawyer from the United States bending his huge body to meet the eyes of a roadside beggar and asking him " Hey, would u like to sue the Union Carbide? This is my business card. 50 percent would be my share".
25 years have passed. Who knows how many of those affected still live? Who knows how many of those claiming today to have been affected that day 25 years ago are really those whom the poisonous gas had harmed? The sudden swing into action by the Govt. of India and working out a relief package are laughable. 25 years for the court to deliver a judgement? Can any thing be more cynical than this? Would the world have condoned Union Carbide and Anderson if the disaster had happened in some Western country? Would the compensation amount given by Union Carbide have been so low? Human lives are cheaper here, right?
What has the country learnt from this industrial disaster? Is a disaster-management plan ready? Will it be far less damaging if a second Bhopal were to occur somewhere?

Low Interest Regime - Pensioners' Dilemma, Industries' Bonanza

If the interests of any two groups are diametrically opposite, then they are Pensioners ( Retired people) and Industries.
The industries and the Business want lower lending interests from the banks. When they borrow at higher interests, their cost of production goes up. The demand as an inverse function of the price of products goes down. The Businesses make lower turnover and lower profits. So, whatever be the rate of inflation, the business lobbies with the Govt. and the Reserve Bank of India to retain the lower interest regime. In these days when every one watches the GDP rate , the Govt. certainly does not want the rate of growth to slip and get the blame for slowing down the economy. If inflation climbs up , the Govt. thinks that the growth in economy will put more money in the hands of the people and silence cries of protest on inflation. Well, to some extent, the Govt. is right. With pay-packets constantly on the rise, the public in the age group 25-60 is not as worried about inflation as used to be the case a decade or two ago.
But there is one group which is eyeing the double-digit inflation with tremors and low interest regime with annoyance. It is the pensioners. Those people whose survival depends on the pension they receive or the returns they get on their investments. This group gets hit on both the fronts. High inflation reduces the value and purchasing power of the money they have. Besides, the low interests offered by the banks on the deposits ( which depend on the RBI monetary policies) put less money in the hands of these people who do not earn a salary income any more. Many pensioners think and rightly so, that they can fight inflation through judicious expenditure of money and wise choice of goods to be bought. But they are helpless when the interest income on bank deposits keeps decreasing as keeping the cost of money low enough to benefit the industries becomes the guiding mantra of the Govt. This dilemma of the pensioners has no chance of a happy resolution since numerically the pensioners are a small minority in a country where the majority of the population is under 40.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Hindi Movie Jism, a carbon copy !

Recently, I saw two DVD-s one after another. It was purely coincidental that I had ordered on the DVD rental company Jism, a Hindi movie released in the year 2000 and Double Indemnity, a Hollywood movie released in 1944. The two DVD-s were delivered to me on two successive days.

The English movie was delivered first. I enjoyed the movie very much though the movie had been released more than 65 years ago. It was a black and white movie. The director kept the tempo alive till the very last frame. It deals with an insurance salesman who falls for the charms of a scheming woman who wants her husband to be murdered and to pocket the money from a double indemnity insurance policy. The insurance man resists at first; but the fatal attraction that the woman holds for him makes him commit the murder. It is too late already when he discovers the true nature of the woman.

To my utter shock, I discovered that the Hindi movie Jism had the same story line. Since there was a time interval of 5 decades between the two movies, the producers of Jism perhaps thought that no one would notice; even if some film buffs do notice, they would not mind. But in my case, I saw the two movies back to back; on two successive nights. Without the prior knowledge that the Hindi movie was a carbon copy of the English one. I felt angry at the producers of Jism for such a blatant pilferage.

The Indian story unfolds in Pondicherry. John Abraham is a lawyer ; in the English movie Double Indemnity the fact that the hero is an insurance salesman lends enormous authenticity to the wily woman targeting him to be the tool of her wicked plan. After all, the main purpose was to get the insurance money and who better than an insurance salesman can be of help !The Hindi movie has kept the basic features of the plot such as the woman having been earlier the nurse who had murdered the rich man's first wife before marrying him, her pretending to be in love with the hero etc. But the hero being a lawyer and not an insurance man robs the movie of the cleverness of the plot to murder the woman's husband. In the English movie, the care the insurance salesman takes to create witnesses for the train journey the victim undertakes and the tension the eccentric and unpredictable but seasoned boss of the salesman causes to the salesman after the murder make the movie gripping. In the Hindi movie, murder is committed in a very amateurish way and even a child could demolish the alibi the hero creates to prove that he is not the murderer. In place of the insurance man's boss playing a vital role in the English movie, the Hindi movie creates a police inspector who is shown more emotional than rational. The songs and dances that are typical of any Indian movie drive away the edge-of-the-seat feeling a viewer could have been made to undergo in a suspense thriller.

Having twisted unsuccessfully the original plot in order to create an impression that this one is a different movie , the Hindi film carboncopies some scenes needlessly ; one such scene shows the tense hero trying to start the car( after the murder) , the woman watching his unsuccessful attempts and snatching the ignition key from his hand and starting the engine in a jiffy. In the English movie this scene adds to the suspense since the car is only a few metres away from the Railway track where the body of the woman's husband had been thrown by the lovers . In the Hindi film, since the corpse is thrown in a deserted factory ( without even a night watchman being present to guard the factory ) , the scene of the lovers trying to hurry away in a car that has starting trouble looks unconvincing and leaves the viewer cold.

My respect for the old Hollywood thrillers has increased after watching Double Indemnity and its unprofessional imitator Jism.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Portents for future of Indian Democracy

The politics in India is churning. For the better. Look at the following straws in the wind.

*Shiv Sena is licking its wounds and has withdrawn its boycott call of Shah Rukh Khan's film " My name is Khan". The principal reason is that there is no enthusiasm from the Marathi Manush for the latest clownish act of the Sena.

*The BJP has come out against the parochial slogan of its long-time ally Shiv Sena "Mumbai for Marathis". The Sangh Parivar including the BJP would have nothing to do with such sectarian stands; they would rather have Mumbai for all Indians.

*Mr.Narendra Modi, the Gujarat CM has praised the Home Minister Mr.P.Chidambaram and the Home Secretary Mr.Pillai for the swiftness with which the two are proceeding on the various internal security matters.Good deeds deserve non-partisan praise ! One efficient administrator praising another efficient administrator !

*The Congress party has held its ally Mr.Sharad Pawar responsible for 'talking up' the prices of essential commodities. The Maratha strongman's irresponsible statements on prices fuelling speculation and hoarding have been condemned by all the parties except his own.

*Mr.Amar Singh has been sacked from the Samajwadi party . The party has decided to say 'Good Bye' to the policies of co-opting and doing the bidding of Corporate Honchos and Bollywood biggies. Now the party will return to its Socialist moorings.

*Mr.Rahul Gandhi, the 'crown prince' of the Congress party is talking of inner-party democracy and openly admitting that the doors to most of the political parties in India are closed to every one other than the relatives or friends of the leaders of the parties. He wants this to change and is willing to do his bit towards change in his own party.

So far so good ! At last some steps towards a more matured politics.