Sep 262014
 
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.

Finally,

A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

Sep 182014
 

My column for DNA last week

Land Scam. Gas Scam. Spectrum Scam. Water Scam. Coal Scam. Forest Scam. Stamp Paper scam. CWG scam.

Whatever the scam be, at the centre of it, is the ownership, control and distribution of scarce resources and scarcity. And this should hardly be surprising, because most of history has been the quest to conquer and control these scarce resources. Those who control them dominate history; those who fail to control them do not even make it to the footnotes. The more scarce the resource, and the more key it is to the future of a land or an economy, the more likely are people to use tactics that are neither legal nor honourable to usurp that resource and keep everyone away from its bounty. In a different era, might is right would have been the way of establishing control on scarce resources – wars over land, cattle, slaves, cotton, spices, colonies have been fought for less.

However, the 21st century is, allegedly, a more civilised era than centuries past, and humanity has evolved less bloody methods of allocating resources:
a) It could be individual entities that control the resource and therefore control its exploitation and distribution
b) It could be groups or cartels bidding for a resource to exploit and distribute it at a price decided by it
c) It could be the State controlling the resource, its exploitation and distribution
d) It could be a combination of these.

There are four primary reasons why there is scarcity:

  • If there is very little natural occurrence of a resource – for example gold or diamonds are scarce because they don’t occur naturally in great quantities – then optimum allocation is achieved via pricing;
  • If a naturally occurring resource is very tightly controlled – for example marijuana and opium, grow freely in nature but are heavily controlled by most governments – in such a case you use the law to ensure scarcity – because the system believes that it is for ‘greater good’ of humanity;
  • If manmade products, like stamp paper or guns, are very tightly controlled, the former from the perspective of who is the supplier, and the latter form the point of view of both who makes them and who buys them
  • There are too many people consuming that resource – oil would not be a scarce resource if very few people owned vehicles or needed energy.

In each of these cases, scarcity impacts price and availability. There is a premium to be made in bucking the system and creating an underground, illegal, or not so legal route in dealing with these things. if you looked at the 2G scam, it was companies who tried to change the rules so that they were one of the few who took control over a scarce rescource – spectrum; if you look at the Adarsh scam, it was that land is at a premium, especially in South Mumbai, and flats are scarce; and so on. In each case it may be a good idea to understand what is the scarce resource to understand the direction of greed.

At the core of all the scams that we have been witnessing are three very critical, and interlinked, issues:
* Who owns these scarce resources? The ownership of these resources is somewhat ambiguous. Although theoretically, the citizens of India should own all the natural resources that exist within her boundaries, the practise is quite different; the people have very little to say on the allocation of resources or the priority of its use. The Government of India leases out the right to exploit these resources to various corporations – either public holdings or private enterprises – who are supposed to use their expertise to harness these resources for the greater good of society, while still making a profit. The enterprises more or less run these licenses as though they were owners.

* How do you allocate scarce resources? The resources in question – be it land or spectrum, be it drinking water or forest land, be it oil or gas are scarce. Its use by one set of people means less is available for other sets of people. Most of these are not renewable – you can no more grow more spectrum than you can create more petroleum deposits. Are these resources that are nature’s bounty to be split up equally and equitably amongst the people, or do you wait for the market to allocate. And, if the market allocates, how much does the state charge; and finally

* Who benefits the most from the exploitation of the resources – is it, we the people? Is it the corporations? Is it the government?

* And, how do you define profits or measure benefit? Will there be more equitable distribution of resources, so that more people benefit from it? Or should it be measured in terms of the extraordinary profits earned by select few from exploiting scarcity?

It is in this context that we need to look at two of the most important decisions on natural resources that will be taken this month. The first will be the Supreme Court’s decision on the coal scam, and later in the month will be the Government’s decision on the KG basin gas pricing issue. Both are vital in their own way, because both will impact the right of Indians to have affordable energy.

At the core of both lie two simple questions – who owns the natural resources of the nation, and who decides how they should be allocated. Is it the Government who decides what is ‘greater good’ of the nation at large and do all other agendas, including the corporate agenda, get subsumed by this greater good?; or does the government get out of the business of allocation and allow business to choose the most optimum path – even if this optimum path means price fixing cartels, that maximise profits for a few, and a highly improbable trickledown for the rest?

If we assume that the Government needs to act on behalf of the people of the country, and this includes ensuring that the economically and socially marginalised have equitable access to scarce resources; then the decision before the Government is simple. It is also the single most honourable thing to in a situation like this. Cancel all the licenses and start afresh. Let the Supreme Court judgement be the start of a new, transparent and people friendly era of resource allocation that puts the interests of India and Indians above all other interests.

The Supreme Court has declared all the coal licenses to be illegal. There were 218 such licenses allocated of which only 40 are operational, and 6 more are expected to be operational in the near future. While the media and lawyers can debate whether this is judicial overreach or not, the fact remains that the verdict is the best thing that happened to the people of India and its government.

For the Government this is a judiciary sent opportunity to clean up energy production. For coal, they can start with a clean slate and allocate on the basis of the priorities of 2014. They will need to bite the bullet for this, because those who currently own the licenses are powerful industrialists with tremendous clout. And, once they bite the bullet and manage the fallout – maybe the government should have another look at the KG Basin Gas allocations, before they look at pricing. Or maybe the SC can.

Sep 082014
 

My column in the dna, last week

 

There are milestones and there are millstones. The former help you in terms of direction, the latter become a weight around your neck dragging you down. Often, the same event is both. And, a 100-day target, in a cranky democratic republic like ours, definitely counts as being both. However, given that this Government, like the last one, has given itself a 100-day target to showcase its achievements, and since their opponents are using the same to ask ‘what achievements’ — it is only natural that the rest of us (including the media) looks at the 100-day milestone. A word of caution here — it is too early to judge achievements, that will take at least a year, if not more. However, what can be looked at, and evaluated, are broad policy outlines.

The Good 100 days 

Focus on sanitation: The single most neglected area in India, sanitation, has been brought out from the shadows that it has lurked in, to the forefront of conversation. Given that more homes in India have TV sets than toilets, and given that the lack of toilets and adequate sanitation lead to a variety of issues from diseases to sexual assaults, the Narendra Modi-led government in general, and Modi in particular, have done a good job in getting this talked about. What would be good is if, in addition to building toilets, there is a certain emphasis on training people to use toilets (as opposed to the world outside), and understanding basic hygiene.

Make sons accountable: For this columnist, the single most interesting portion of thePrime Minister’s Independence Day speech was him saying “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are?” This was in the context of the growing violence against women – especially sexual violence. The focus on personal and parental responsibility was timely. In a society where it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of rape — both as an act of sexual violence, and in its aftermath of being judged by society — this was a welcome statement.

Calling off talks with Pakistan: While it is important to talk to Pakistan, it is equally important that the powers in Pakistan understand that they cannot arbitrarily break all norms of civilised behaviour, all rules of bilateral understanding, and still expect that India behaves as though nothing untoward has taken place. It is essential that the message that India is displeased is conveyed, and calling off the talks is a good way of getting the message across.

Scrapping the Empowered Group of Ministers: One would assume that a minister is empowered to take decisions. Therefore, to have an empowered group of ministers to take the same decisions that an individual minister is supposed to make is inexplicable. Why would you need a group to take a decision that a single individual would make? The Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the EGoM, hopefully, would mean greater ownership and accountability for individual ministers, as well as hurrying up the decision-making process.

The not-so-good 100 days
Scrapping the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats
: While development is vital for India, it cannot be at the expense of our natural heritage. This is something that we hold in trust for future generations, and we cannot destroy it in the name of development. It is imperative that the Narendra Modi government reconsiders its decision on not just scrapping the Gadgil report, but also the way fragile ecosystems are conserved. While there will be tremendous corporate pressure on the government, it needs to remember that if the ecological balance is disturbed, no one will make profits. China is paying the price of its development sans ecological perspective, India need not do the same. Being environment friendly, acting at one with nature, is as much a part of our civilisational ethos as language or ‘culture’.

Governmental silence: The Government of India is not just the government of its supporters but of all the people of India. While the party may feel persecuted by, real or imagined, left-liberal domination of the media, it still needs to communicate. Reading ministry press releases is neither interesting nor illuminative. The government’s silence looks less like strategy and more like petulance. In fact, often it appears about as communicative as UPA II. So advice to the government and ministers is — stop sulking, and start communicating. And no, Twitter and Facebook accounts are not enough. Your communication needs to be more inclusive and interactive.
Part-time defence minister: We have Pakistan to the west; China to the north; and the armed forces of India with rapidly aging equipment. There are issues of recruitments, corruption, infrastructure and more plaguing the armed forces. One would think it required someone who gives full time attention to these, rather than someone who juggles another ministry, especially one as taxing as Finance.

Price rise: It is hurting. When staple food becomes a luxury, when basic vegetables become unaffordable, and when the response is the same as the earlier government, then you have a problem on your hands. This government has no more been able to put a lid on inflation, than the previous government had. And, it’s method of communicating this has been as effective as the last government.

The current Government of India looks more decisive than the previous one. It has made the correct noises on a whole range of issues from Indian manufacturing to boosting tourism, from health care to education, from smart cities to cleaning up rivers. But, right now these are just words. To be able to evaluate the impact of these, these policies need to be implemented and progress needs to be monitored over a substantial time frame. For now, all that can be said is that it is a good start. But, unless the aam janta gets to see very rapid changes and benefits, their disenchantment will be equally rapid.

Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Aug 082014
 

My column in yesterday’s DNA

All events take place from the point of view of the observer. With every observer, the perspective is different; the angle with which they see an event is clouded by where they stand — both physically and philosophically. Take something as simple as the eating of meat, in general, or beef or pork, in particular. For many western cultures, both are part of a sumptuous meal. For Hindus eating of beef is a sin as the cow is considered holy; for Muslims and Jews the eating of pork is considered a definite no – the pig is considered impure. For others, especially staunch vegetarians of the PETA variety, the eating of any meat is morally indefensible and if they had their way it would also be a crime. None of these groups is wrong — their views are formed by their beliefs. And it would be fair to say that in this particular case — the eating of meat — there are many truths, and each one of them is equally valid. For most issues in the world today the maxim that there are many, equally valid truths, can be said to hold true. And, nowhere is this more apt than looking at the issues in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas.

The first valid truth is that the situation in Gaza is untenable. We have all seen deeply disturbing visuals of children dead; of old people left to die; of homes that are totally bombed out; of the consistent stories of horror and terror of a civilian population that is unable to live a life approaching normalcy. We have been exposed to photographs and videos of devastated hospitals, of schools that have been blasted out of existence, of homes that no longer exist. More than anything else that makes one cringe, is the look of emptiness and the expressions bereft of hope that is plastered on the faces of the survivors. Do the people of Gaza have the right to live a life without fear, without the terror and horror that we have been seeing (and they have been experiencing)? The answer is definitely a ‘yes’.

The second, equally valid, truth is that Israel has the right to exist and thrive. Its people and population have the right to live without fearing another genocide. The Jews, through history, have been persecuted and the culmination of this was the concentration camps set up by the Nazis. The land promised to them in the aftermath of World War I, only became a reality after more than 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Israel is the only homeland for the Jews. Associated with this truth, is the fact that Israel is in a neighbourhood where her neighbours want her destroyed and annihilated. Does Israel have the right to protect its people and territories and ensure that terrorists don’t harm it — most definitely yes.

The third truth is also about Israel and its treatment of the people who live in the occupied territories. The fact remains that those inhabitants are treated pretty much the same way as any occupier treats a conquered land. People are blockaded, jobs are difficult to find, education is scarce, civic amenities a distant vision and most importantly, civil rights a myth and the basic human dignity of those who live in the occupied territories is eroded on a daily basis. And this is even before the current targeting and indiscriminate killing of civilians. Would this lead to a rise in anger against the occupiers? Most definitely, yes.

The fourth equally valid truth is that Hamas that controls the Gaza strip wants to control all of Israel. It has refused, consistently, to recognise the State of Israel. In fact, its charter has consistently refused to recognise the two-state formula whereby there would be two states — the State of Israel and the State of Palestine that coexist in relative peace. The leaders of Hamas have called, repeatedly, for the destruction of Israel and its people. Furthermore, it has repeatedly used its own people as human shields in its ongoing war against Israel.

The fifth truth is that Palestine itself — split between the West Bank and the Gaza strip — is amidst a tug-of-war between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, that controls the West Bank, and the more militant Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip. While Fatah is relatively more amenable to peace, Hamas is not. It is difficult to have peace when one side will only be satisfied by the utter destruction and annihilation of the other.

There is one more truth here and that is the issues here can, most optimistically, be defined as being complicated. If you had to do a timeline of the conflict it can go back to early history of humanity. From that period till now, the history of the region has been bloody and brutal.

The past cannot be solved. It exists. The future is what can be redrawn. The question is, therefore, quite simple, sans all the collected rhetoric of the last three millennia — peace or war? Coexistence or mutually assured destruction? The way forward is not to assign blame — if we go down that path there is no end to it. Rather, the way forward is to find a solution, for the future.

The world needs to stop taking sides and work towards a unified goal. Peace and coexistence are possible, only if there is no war for a few generations. If the people of Europe, who have traditionally fought each other throughout history; if the people of India, whose kings have fought battles with each other through history can live with their past and work together for a better tomorrow, more or less accepting multiple forms of diversity, there is no reason why the people in Israel and Palestine cannot. The people deserve a chance.