Sep 222013

My DNA Column on the 5th of September

What is Money ? We know what it is when we see it. We know its lack when we don’t have it. We know its drop in value when we go to the market and come back with the half the goods we got last year. But money in itself, unless you are a miserly hoarder of it, has no intrinsic value.Its value comes from what the government assigns to it or what people believe it to have. The reason gold has value is not because it is valuable in itself; rather it is valuable because people and institutions believe it to be valuable.

Today, we know that money has lost value because of the things we cannot buy with the money we have. When we look at a home our parents purchased for under Rs5 lakhs a fortune in those days and that house costs upwards of a few crores.We know it when we go to the market, and onions that used to cost Rs12-a-kilo a few months ago, cost five time that. It is when the education we had, for a few hundred rupees a couple of decades ago, costs a few lakhs. The biggest impact of inflation is the loss in value of money.Inflation impacts not just our today, but also our tomorrows.

If you want to know how much the value of money has changed in the years since Independence, there is no better indicator of it than Bollywood. The era immediately after Independence reflected the hope and decency that people possibly saw. Money was not as important as family, values, friendship, and loyalty were. If at all money was referred,it was a need, not an overwhelming drive. The 1950s was an era where people prayed to God for a Sava Lakh ki lottery (Chori Chori). By the 1980s this had become 11 lakhs of bounty (various state lotteries). Today lottery prizes are upwards of a crore. A leading gameshow that offered a crore as prize money a decade ago, is offering seven times that much in today’s market. Back to the 1950s, Kishore Kumar playing a car mechanic could fix a broken-down car for Rs5.75, in the incredibly hilarious Chalti ka Naam Gaadi.Today, even servicing the car costs much more than that.But money was not always about irreverence or fun. Sometimes the lack of it was the difference between life and death or at least dispossession. Two films of that era that drove home this point were Do Bigha Zamin and Mother India. In the former, the main protagonist was the farmer Shambu, played by Balraj Sahani, who is about to lose his plot of land for a debt of Rs65, that has ballooned to an unmanageable Rs235 with compound interest, to the moneylender.The moneylender wants to use the do bigha zamin to put up a factory. Shambu goes to the big city to earn money to pay off his debt, but is unsuccessful. In a way, the issues remain the same what has changed is the price tag. In Mother India, the debt borne by Radha (Nargis) and Shamu (Raj Kumar) is a crippling Rs500. Radha works hard to pay off this debt and bring up her children well. Both these films resonated with the audience and got the cash registers ringing.

In the 1960s, the value of money, and the values associated with money both changed. The world became darker. Heroes became greyer. The turn of the decade saw the famous Dev Anand-starrer Kala Bazaar, where the hero is a black marketeer. Dev Anand steals Rs3,000 to start a business in black marketing movie tickets.The movie for which he is selling tickets in black is Mother India a two-rupee ticket that goes for a princely Rs50. In today’s India, there are few films that need tickets in black. Supply of films is everywhere and the scarcity caused by restricting screenings to a few theatres is gone. A few years later, Shammi Kapoor as Pritam Khanna, in the film Professor, is battling with his mother’s tuberculosis.It was an era where a sanatorium was considered to be the ideal treatment for TB (today someone with TB is treated as an outpatient). He pawns a counterpane for Rs5, and then fakes his age to get a job. Then, as now,  jobs were at a premium.

A decade later, in the 1970s,  Bollywood depicted mothers who sent their children to bed, using the threat of a dreaded dacoit (Gabbar Singh) who had a bounty of Rs50,000 on his head.A few years ago, students watching this film, in Mumbai, laughed out loud at the famous “poore pachaas hazaar” line, a clear indicator of how the value of money had changed. In another famous film from the 1970s Vijay Kumar (played by Amitabh Bachchan) in Trishul buys a plot of land in Model Town Delhi for Rs5 lakh and starts his own construction empire. That land, in today’s terms, would be worth crores. There is, of course, the famous Deewar, where neither a bungalow nor cars, nor fame, would be equal to the respect that the hero has in his mother’s eyes. But, that was a different time.

In the last two decades, the loss in value of money is reflected in Bollywood too. Tens have no value. Hundreds have been replaced with tens of thousands; a lakhpati is a common man, a crorepati is middle-class. It is those with hundreds of crores (if not thousands) who are classified as rich. And, if that doesn’t tell you about inflation, nothing will.

Money makes the world go around, go the lyrics to a famous song. But money that made the world go around yesterday is no longer enough today. And, that really is the crux of inflation.


Sep 222013

My column in the DNA on the 22nd of August

Are Indians Safe? Not Really.

On August 20, in the burgeoning metropolis of Pune, Narendra Dhabolkar left the home he was staying in to go for a morning walk. It was to be his last walk. Dr Dhabolkar, who founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith) was shot twice at point blank range and murdered.

A few days earlier in Ahmedabad, on August 17, an art exhibition by 11 Pakistani and 5 Indian artists was vandalised by alleged VHP activists. The activists were protesting against Pakistanis being allowed to exhibit in India. They tore the paintings and destroyed furniture.

On August 15, 60-year-old Ram Vilas along with other members of the Mahadalit caste in Bihar were gearing up to hoist the National Flag on the occasion of Independence Day. A mob of landlords attacked them with sickles, sticks and axes. Ram Vilas did not survive. Other member of his community, including women and children, were injured.

Towards the end of July, Ilavarasan, a young Dalit man, who married a Divya, a woman  from the Vanniyar caste was found dead by the railway tracks. Ilavarasan’s family claims he was murdered. The marriage of Divya and Ilavarasan, led to her father committing suicide and had sparked anti Dalit violence in three villages in the Dharmapuri — ironically the Region of Righteousness.

This litany of death and destruction, of the violation of some of the most fundamental of our rights as citizens — the right to life, the right to freedom (including expression), the right to equality, can fill an entire library. Since December last year, since the Delhi rape case dominated the headlines, the question that has been asked is: Are we safe?

(a timeless scene from India, that may lull us into believing that the country is safe. However, issues lurk just below the surface and are waiting to bubble over)

There are many levels on which we can define safety. The first is the simplest one: Can you go about your daily life without a risk to life or limb? On the face of it, the answer is yes. We live in a fairly free country which is mostly peaceful. There are riots and terror attacks, but they don’t define everyday life in most places. In much of India, most of us manage to go about our daily life without thinking about losing our lives. But if we really think about it, is that the case? Think about travelling from point A to point B on our roads. Think about those who break traffic rules and drive on the wrong side of the road without thinking about oncoming traffic. Think of the pavements that are taken up by shops and hawkers who push pedestrians onto busy roads.Think of overloaded buses that challenge the laws of physics. The suburban trains packed with commuters, many of whom can be seen hanging out. We take the shoddy infrastructure, the breakdown of basic common sense — not to mention breaking the law — and go about our everyday life without thinking about the risks that we take with our basic security. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP’s) 2009 research estimates that there are close to 1100 accidents in a day in India, that lead to 1400 injuries and approximately 340 deaths every single day. Are we safe? The answer is ‘No’.
The second level at which we can define safety is whether we can lead our lives the way we wish, without the fear of mobs, without falling foul of caste panchayats or fatwas or people who generally want to interfere with our life and our choices, because it does not agree with theirs. In much of India, people are not safe from the diktats of community-imposed rules. We hear stories of women burnt for being witches, of men being stoned to death for asserting their rights, of children who are discriminated against for being of a particular community.These reports have become so frequent that they are now deemed as being ‘normal’. Big cities may not have caste or community-based oppression that one sees in the hinterland, but there is a different sort of safety at risk here.

Personal safety — we hear about children being violated, about women who are victims of acid attacks, about men being attacked and left for dead. The anonymity of the city and the lack of the sense of community pose a different sort of danger to personal safety — that of random crime. Are we safe? The answer is again ‘No’.

Then there are terror attacks. There are terrorists who think nothing of placing a bomb in areas where there will be maximum loss of civilian lives. There are riots that are engineered by interested parties that terrorise local populations and put at risk safety and security of people in that area. There are areas dominated by Naxals who don’t just fight with the government, but also terrorise villagers and tribals. Are we safe? No.

And finally, there is the government that is supposed to provide us with governance. And the primary responsibility of the government and good governance is to address these issues so that ordinary citizens can go about their everyday life without worry or care. And the government has failed on multiple levels in enabling citizens to feel safe and secure.

Citizens aren’t safe from hunger, from poverty, from crime, from terror, from the diktats of self-appointed spokespeople for communities. Our personal rights are violated, our security undermined, and the promise of safety a mirage.

The Fundamental Rights as laid down by the Constitution of India promise us a great many things. The Right to live our lives in a safe and secure manner, without fear, should have been an outcome of these Constitutional guarantees. It is the delivery of these promises that will enable safety. Until Fundamental Rights become a State-backed guarantee, the promise of safety can be written on water.

Aug 152013

My column in last Thursday’s DNA

The monsoon session of Parliament has started. There is thunder, and lightning, the road ahead seems to be full of potholes, ditches. The lights have gone off and navigation is difficult. The 40 odd bills that lie before Parliament seem doomed to remain ignored by our esteemed Parliamentarians who have better things to discuss than mere bills. So, as the monsoon fury is unleashed within Parliament, here is a quick A to Z of the monsoon session.
Adjournment – “Parliament is Adjourned” seems to be the most popular headline. Our esteemed Parliamentarians are so outraged at the State of the Nation that they want to go to TV studios to discuss what ails the Nation. Bills can wait.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the principle opposition party, that hopes to form the next Government. It has an excellent complement of Parliamentary debaters – if only there weren’t that many adjournments, their speakers would get to shine.
Central Bureau of Investigation, also known as the caged parrot. The Government’s continued control of the CBI and its rejection of the SC’s demand for complete autonomy was one of the things that was to be discussed and deliberated in this session of Parliament.
Durga Shakti Nagpal – the IAS officer suspended for doing her job in UP. The newest reason for proceedings in Parliament to be brought to a grinding halt . The Samajwadi Party’s stand is ‘our right to do what we want in our fiefdom. After all, other parties have done the same’. Instead of discussing how to free up administration from arbitrary politicians, more arbitrary behaviour on display.
Elections – coming soon at a constituency near you – the greatest tamasha of the next five years. Watch out for people who you have not seen in the last five years, and are unlikely to see in the next five years, make you promises that will put a snake oil salesman to shame. Parliamentary work plays second fiddle to election mode behaviour.
Food Security Bill – the Government’s flag ship programme that was promulgated as an Ordinance last month. Debated in studios and op-ed columns, but yet to be debated by Parliament.
Government – that is supposed to deliver governance. There is a litany of governance failures over the last 4 years, from roads not built to disaster management that is not in place, from equipment for the armed forces to an economy that is on the brink. MP’s ought to be discussing this in detail. But, studios are definitely more interesting, and require less preparation.
Households – Indian families that are bearing the brunt of inflation, of an economic slowdown and of fewer jobs being created. Parliament should be discussing and debating this.
Indian National Congress – the largest constituent of the current UPA government, that hopes to form the next Government, despite the last 4 years
Janta Dal United (JDU) – the party of conspiracy theories. From claiming political opponents poisoned the mid day meal, to Lalu Prasad Yadav is colluding with Narendra Modi – the party is trying its best to ensure that silliness becomes the hallmark of statecraft. It’s actions in Parliament reflect the same.
KCR, K Chandrashekar Rao, Member of Parliament, Leader of the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, and the person whose actions have got Parliament into an uproar.
Legislation – the outcome of Parliamentary deliberations .
Manmohan Singh – the Prime Minister. A person whose should have spoken up 4 years ago. M is also Meira Kumar, speaker – whose most famous lines are “baith jaayiye” (please sit down)
Narendra Modi – the man leading the BJP into the next general elections. Though he is not member of Parliament, his shadow looms large.
Opposition –practically everyone, including some on the Government benches
Parliament – Only Parliament is empowered to make laws, said Parliamentarians, at the height of the Jan Lok Pal Agitations. But, bills when they are presented to Parliament, are seldom discussed in detail, when voted on, are symbolised by absenteeism.
Quattrocchi – A name that has stalled many previous Parliaments. Will not stall this one, because he died earlier this year.
Rajya Sabha – the council of elders. Currently home to Sachin Tendulkar.
Samajwadi Party – if a Bollywood film maker represented a political party with these attributes, it would be said that the film industry is caricaturising politicians and showing the political system in a poor light. But, they exist and have ambitions of doing to India what they are doing to Uttar Pradesh
Television – around 400 news TV channels exist, and our Parliamentarians are more keen on making an appearance to debate on Television, than turn up to work in Parliament.
Uproar – another common headline “uproar in Parliament”
Voters – that is the people of India, who have to make a choice next year. BJP? Congress? Third Front ? Fourth Front? NDA 2? UPA 3? – who will it be for the next five years? Parliament is seen as an extended promo for the elections.
Winner – the trouble is that all parties are looking at sharing spoils. Unless the two main parties aim to win a majority on their own, this level of grandstanding in Parliament will continue.
X factor – that unique attribute that makes voters gravitate towards leaders. Works well in a Presidential system, but its effect is yet to be known in a Parliamentary System where dynastic politics and caste equations hold sway at the ballots.
Youth – it is estimated that over a 100 million first time voters will be casting their vote in the next elections. It seems unlikely that the post reform generation will vote the same way as their elders. MP’s seeking re-election will do well to address this audience while they make their appearances in Parliament
Zero Hour – where MP’s can raise matters that matter without prior intimation. But, the entire Parliamentary session is a giant zero hour. Maybe it is time to have one day in a working week for Parliamentary business, and declare the remaining four as extended zero hours.

Jul 252013

My column in today’s DNA

4 8 hours. It has been an interesting two days in terms of news coverage. The British royal baby and Bollywood royalty makeup dominated news.
“It’s a Boy” screamed the headlines, across the world. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, did something that women, since the beginning of time, have been doing without much fanfare — she delivered a baby. A baby boy. The third in line to the British throne. The countdown to “The Birth” had been going on for a week. The news media probably showing far more excitement than possibly the family of the child. And, finally, when the expectant mother was admitted to the hospital, the coverage reached a fevered pitch. Post the official announcement by the British royal family there were two million mentions of the baby online. And, people began putting out the most inane things. One news handle tweeted “Kate Middleton in Labor: What to Expect -hopefully a baby?”

On television, in print, on social media there was no escaping the ‘Royal Birth’. Every minute of labour was documented. Speculations from the sex of the baby to the name began flying around. And finally when the baby was born the media behaved as if they had collectively undergone labour, and went advertising one of the most normal events — giving birth — as something that seemed like a cross between the second coming and an alien invasion. The British tabloid The Sun changed its masthead for the day; they called themselves ‘The Son’. Another British tabloid proclaimed “Our Little Prince”; the Times announced that “A Prince is Born”, USA Today had an infographic on the new born and where he stands in relation to the rest in terms of succession. Indian media too was excited about the Royal Birth. One will soon see stories of various Indians who helped deliver the child or were somewhere in the vicinity of the hospital when the child was born. The British satirical magazine’ Private Eye had the best possible take on the whole story “Woman has baby”.

A day earlier there was similar excitement about another equally ‘important’ story in the Indian media. The two superstars of Bollywood Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan had hugged and made up at an iftaar party hosted by a Mumbai politician. The hype in the news media that surrounded this (non) event was remarkable. From the genesis of the feud, to the history of the tussle, to the long bleak years and the final rapprochement — the hug was covered as though it was the end of war between two sovereign states, and every aspect of the battle, replete with characters, generals and battlegrounds was laid out. And now that the ‘Hug’ has been analysed to death, questions arise if it was a casual hug, a general hug or a hug to change history. The nation holds its collective breath to find out what happens next in this great crisis.

In the 48 hours that these two events were taking place, other things were also taking place in the world. In India, five states have been devastated by floods. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are all facing the fury of monsoons. Many rivers have broken their banks and are in full spate. Millions of people have been impacted by the floods. Thousands have lost their homes, and hundreds their lives. If this was Hurricane Sandy impacting the US, there would be a raindrop by raindrop coverage of the discomfort to the citizens of America, on Indian ‘National’ TV news media. But, displacement and discomfort of fellow citizens matter very little.

In the last 48 hours the violence in Iraq escalated. The al-Qaeda mounted an attack on two prisons — the notorious Abu Ghraib and Taji, and allowed some of the most violent extremists to escape. It is estimated that over 500 of these highly motivated people are out on the loose. Ever since the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the level of violence within Iraq has been on the rise. Bombs, pitched battles on the roads, rocket attacks have all been part and parcel of everyday life. The al-Qaeda wants control of the government and establish its own form of Islamic Theocracy, while those in power wish to hold on to their positions. And, the battle has been on. This audacious direct attack on a heavily guarded prison camp has just upped the stakes. But, there is very little coverage either in India or outside. 500-plus of the most hardened terrorists out in the loose and there is very little media buzz.

In the last 48 hours relief and rehabilitation in Uttarakhand have become more difficult because of rains. Landslides and poor weather are making it tough to build back. It is just over a month since some parts of the state were devastated by floods, and rebuilding is taking more time than expected because of relentless rains. People are still staying in temporary relief camps, in tents in this weather. Little or no reportage.

There is something very damaged in the state of the news media. An attention span disorder that makes it flit like an out-of-control butterfly. There has been a skewing of priorities insofar as content is concerned. The fluff takes precedence over the real pressing issues. And, while there is space for the fluff, the frivolous and the fun, surely it cannot be at the expense of real issues. The aim of news is a lot more than to titillate and entertain. It is more than asking two strident spokespeople from two opposing parties something that makes them even more strident, less informative but more entertaining. There is a role to news beyond creating high drama. In fact, creating drama is not a function of news. Reporting drama is.

Jul 112013

My column in today’s DNA -

Last week, USA celebrated its Independence Day. Last week Edward Snowden spent another day not knowing if he would continue being free. Last week Julian Assange spent another day holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy. Last week more prisoners in Gitmo were force-fed to break their hunger strike. The world’s champion of Liberty and Democracy, last week, seemed even more tarnished than ever.

In 1865, the people of France decided to gift the people of the United States of America with a statue to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the American War of Independence in 1876. Obviously, when the people of two countries are involved, so are their governments. It is little surprise, therefore, that a project that involved the French funding the statue and the Americans funding the base went over budget and got delayed by a decade. When it was finally installed it became the symbol for Liberty. The iconic statue that holds the torch of liberty in one hand, and the American Declaration of Independence in the other, and a broken chain at her feet, symbolized hope, freedom and liberty from persecution. Poet Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called The New Colossus in which she described what the statue meant in one of the most poignant lines with respect to freedom and a safe harbour: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It became the hope for safe harbour for almost a century, a promise of safety, a place to escape from oppressive governments and systems.

For all those who grew up in the last century, United States of America remained the place where the persecuted could claim asylum. The most powerful nation on earth also had that wee bit of compassion, often taking up cudgels for what it termed ‘prisoners of conscience’. It gave refuge to religious minorities, political activists, actors, ballet dancers, whistleblowers, scientists, the dispossessed, the persecuted and more. People went to the US to escape from tyranny. The other way was rarer. There were young men who sought refuge in Canada to escape military conscription to fight in Vietnam — but the government and the military heeded the protests and dispensed with conscription. This is not to say that the US government was kinder, more compassionate than others. It is more to say that the people of America took their freedoms seriously and fought to ensure that the government did not impinge on their rights.

The turning point in the intense love affair between the Americans and Freedom came with 9/11. The events of that day devastated their sense of security and well being to such a level that the emotional and psychological devastation wrought by the terror attack has made the citizens of the US immune to the human rights abuses that are being perpetuated in their name. The first was the giant prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, popularly called Gitmo. Thousands suspected of being terrorists were picked up and are held without trial. There are reports of human rights violations, torture and the sort of behaviour that one expects from a South American military dictatorship — not the nation that claims it is the champion of liberty and democracy. While President Obama promised to shut not just Gitmo but also the remaining worldwide secret network of prison camps, and signed a directive to that end, nothing has come of it. Recently, human rights activists and Muslim leaders appealed to the President not to force-feed prisoners, who have been on hunger strike, during the holy month of Ramzan. A nation which prided itself on religious and political tolerance is today, possibly, the greatest human rights violator. The excuse given is simple: national security trumps human rights. That the war against terror is greater than the right to life or liberty. That the state has the right to take pre- emptive action against terror suspects, and label those who question it as not acting in national interest.

If Gitmo does not tell you how much the US has moved away from its core ideals, then look at the way that the US, led by President Obama, has persecuted Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The way it used its tremendous clout to deny refuge for these people. Again in the name of national security. But, who is the nation? What is national security? Do you and I as individuals have the right to know if our personal security is being breached by the government? If every individual in a country has their personal security breached, is the nation still secure? And, how do you deal with whistleblowers who tell you that your government has let you down.

President Obama recently visited South Africa where he took his children to visit the prison at Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. He declared that Mandela was his hero. He had earlier also said that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were his idols. These were men who braved intolerant systems for greater good. Risked their life and freedom for others. It is ironic that the man who won the Nobel Prize for Peace almost as soon as he took office is taking a stand that deprives people not just of their right to privacy, but also hounds those whistleblowers who reveal the government’s breach of not just the social contract with its own people but also the government’s own breach of the law. Obama’s record on human rights and snooping on his own citizens (not to mention citizens of other nations) is making Bush Jr seem like an upholder of human rights. Maybe it is time he visits the Statue of Liberty and reads the sonnet to The New Colossus.