Feb 122014
 

My column in @DNA last week

My earliest memories are of growing up in Delhi, and going to school there. Amongst those memories was a line that a six-year-old had seared into her subconscious — tu kaali hai (you are dark). It wasn’t a line thrown at her by classmates on a playground, but by the teacher in the classroom. A first standard student does not really have the wherewithal to cope with race, and I guess I was no different. I cried to my parents, and they assured me that my colour was the best, and the teacher was possibly jealous and brave girls don’t run away from school or teachers but face them with confidence. My father was transferred to Mumbai the following year, and in a multicultural school with classmates from different parts of India, I never felt different.

Much later, I came to know that Mumbai was the setting for anti-South agitation before I was born, and my parents lived in fear of the violence encroaching into their lives. Then, the 1990s saw the Bombay riots targeting Muslims, and more recently the anti-North Indian agitation — the anger against the perceived ‘outsider’ played out to its logical conclusion by those who benefit by these divisions. Studying in England, I was very conscious of ethnicity and nationality. The occasional taunts of “Yo Paki, go home” were met by “I am an Indian student, and will go back when I finish my studies.”

India has always lived with flashpoints based on differences. There have been a multitude of Hindu-Muslim riots since (and even before) Independence. Through the early 1980s, there was the targeted killing of Hindus in Punjab by Khalistanis. There was the targeted killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots. In 2002, there was the targeted killing of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, and then there was the targeted killing of  Muslims. More recently,  in 2012, there were riots in Assam between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims that combined aspects of religion, ethnicity, race and linguistic divisions to a bloody end. And towards the end of last year, we saw the Muzaffarnagar riots that were neither ethnic, nor linguistic but based on religious ‘otherness’. We have seen violence against South Indians (Madrasis) in Bombay, against Tamil speakers in Bangalore, against North Indians (bhaiyyas and Biharis) in Mumbai and more. And, I am not even counting the violence in the name of caste in this list.

Every time there is a riot or violence, we blame the political class and reassure ourselves, “We have lived in peace for generations, they fanned the flames.” This is an argument that has been bandied about and accepted. As a result, we have never really examined our own individual biases towards the other — religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic. We live with the myth that we are tolerant towards others, liberal about different ways of life, respectful of diversity. The fact remains that we are not. We may pay lip service towards values of tolerance, wring our hands when there is a breach of peace, shed tears at violence — but the reality is that, as individuals, we are not very tolerant of those not like us. The most recent manifestation of this has been the violence towards Ugandan women and the killing of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam. These, as much the riots, highlight the deep intolerance and fear of the other.

There can be many steps taken to address this. The first is at home. Our values are formed by what we learn at home. What is it that we teach our children? Our concepts of sharing, mingling, forming bonds with others are shaped here. So when we tell children not to ‘play with others not like us’ what is it that we are teaching? The second is at school. Unity in diversity is not just a phrase; it is real. Do we teach children about heroes from other states, do we let them understand the beauty and vastness of India beyond data points? Maybe at the 9th and 10th standard level, we relook at civics to examine diversity and differences and how those who are not like us are also like us.

The third is the media. How much of diversity is reflected in the images that we see and consume? How many of us even know about the lives and lifestyles of people not like us beyond the stereotypes? Hollywood adopted positive role models of African-Americans long before Barack Obama became the President, way back in the 1960s. Where is the diversity on our screens? The fourth is society. How welcoming are we of people not like us? Do we rent accommodation to them? Do we hire them? Do we make friends with them? And lastly, it is the state. What is the kind of mechanism put in place to make people who are immigrants feel at home? Much as we complain about the racism in the west, go to any government office there and there are multilingual forms available as are translators. If you, a Hindi speaker, went to a Chennai police station (or vice versa) to fill a report, would you even understand what was being said? How do you assimilate if you are not made to feel part of the system?

Race, religion, ethnicity and language — factors that unite us but also mark us as being separate from others. This sense of ‘otherness’, unless dealt with, can and has become a flashpoint for violence and hatred. The solution is not being separate and guarding what is perceived by some as uniqueness; rather, it is accepting and living with diversity. There are many ideas of India, possibly 1.2 billion of them  — and each of these is just as beautiful and as wondrous and as Indian and as real  as your or my idea of India is. Maybe it is time that we recognised and accepted that.

Feb 122014
 

My column in DNA on 23rd January 

On Tuesday evening, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, ended one more high-pitched protest. At the end of it, two police officers were sent on leave, pending judicial investigation. The seeds of the drama were sown when the newly appointed law minister of Delhi, Somnath Bharti, decided to take the law into his own hands. Aggrieved at what he believes was police neglect, he and his supporters held up Ugandan women, assaulted them, subjected them to a humiliating body search, got them to give urine samples in public — and then threw a hissy fit when people objected to their behaviour.

Bharti’s contention was simple. There is a drug menace in the locality he serves, Africans are associated with drugs, ergo, Ugandan women who are also Africans must also be drug pushers, involved in prostitution and guilty by virtue of their race. Confronted with dissent, from an otherwise fawning media, Bharti became shrill, even threatening to spit on the lawyers —Arun Jaitley and Harish Salve — who had dared to question his behaviour and represent the women.

In any other organisation, Bharti would have been pulled up and reprimanded. However, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is not just another organisation. It is the self-styled representative of the common man (not woman). It has a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority that makes it believe that its members have the right to do whatever they deem fit, and anyone who questions this is morally inadequate and compromised. Therefore, rather than taking action against the overzealous minister, Kejriwal took to protesting against the police and Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, and sitting on dharna outside Railway Bhavan. AAP’s demand was simple — transfer the policeman who dared to offend the minister. When accused of anarchy, Kejriwal said in a statement to the press, “They say I am an anarchist. Yes, I am. Today, I will create anarchy for Mr Shinde.” Part of the protest was a threat to disrupt Republic Day celebrations. Again, Kejriwal had a well-crafted sound byte, “Republic Day does not mean people enjoying tableaux at Rajpath… it means the rule of people.”

The problem of setting yourself up as morally higher than mere mortals is that logic, rationality and the rule of law go for a toss, and the demands of the party become the demands of not just those who support it, but the demands of all citizens in general. India is a constitutional republic, where elected representatives exercise power on behalf of the people and within the rules laid down by the Constitution. While protest is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, protesting without negotiation is childishness. The behaviour of the Aam Aadmi Party over the last week has been akin to children throwing a tantrum after being told that they cannot have an extra helping of sweets. It is not the behaviour that one expects of elected representatives.

There are multiple problems that India faces. A system that is infected by corruption, a political class that is arrogant in its approach to the issues facing common people, large business that tries to subvert the system by collusion, an administrative system that gives citizens the run around. In all of this, a party that claims to stand for the interests of the aam aadmi and speaks up for their concerns and issues is an obvious attraction. However, a ruling party taking to the streets in protest against policemen not bending to the will of a minister is less about the general will of the people and more about the hubris of power and the imposition of will and wilfulness on the system.

That citizens of India (or Delhi) want to live in a safe and secure environment, without being bothered by drug addicts, drug pushers and commercial sex workers, is not being questioned. What is being questioned is the presumption of guilt and vigilante action to tackle this guilt. The excuse given is that it is a new party, give them time. The problem with giving a free pass to a new party, or anyone else, is that you are condoning mob action that deprives individuals of liberty, in the name of keeping ‘society at large’ safe. If behaviour like this is not checked, then tomorrow, it could be your liberty and dignity at stake.

BR Ambedkar in his famous speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, said, “The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enables him to subvert their institutions’. …As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.”

The first thing, of course was the need “to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods.
These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

Dharnas and drama are great for television viewing, wonderful for ratcheting up the pitch, and increasing audiences for TV news — but the question we all need to ask (and answer) is, what is the cost to the Republic of India?

 

Feb 122014
 

My column in the DNA on 9th January 2014

I joined the media in the mid-Nineties.  The television industry was new, budgets were low and we all did everything — we wrote, directed, edited, ran about to find costumes, painted sets on the shoot floor — and it was hard work. Most of us worked 18-20 hour days, for weeks on the trot. We shot in all kinds of places — most of which were lonely where we could film without crowds getting into the frame. Areas like Shakti Mills made for the best-shoot locations — because they gave a certain ambience, a certain atmosphere. We never thought of it being unsafe. And then when the shoot was over, we would take the rushes to a little edit studio in some bylane and edit till late into the night. And at twilight, when the roads were empty, would walk to the main road and catch a rickshaw or taxi to get home. I have forgotten the number of days that we all did this. And yet the predominant memory was of fun. It was a Mumbai recovering from riots and blasts, and yet, I cannot ever remember feeling unsafe or insecure about the environment. Things have changed. The sense of being ‘unsafe’ is palpable.  The sense of not being safe is at the back of the mind — and it doesn’t have to be late at night, or in a lonely area.

What is safety? Most of us know instinctively what it means. Safety is being able to walk home from the station without being robbed, raped or run over. Safety is the ability to cross the road at a zebra crossing without it feeling like an obstacle race. Safety  is the ability to visit a public toilet on the highway, without wondering who is watching. Safety is the ability to take a train without being pushed out (by the crowds). Safely is the ability to walk down a street without feeling eyes following you. Safety is walking on the pavement without being run over by two-wheelers. But, safety is more than that. We know that instinctively too. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Safety as the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury; The Miriam Webster Dictionary, on the other hand, defines Safety as freedom from harm or danger: the state of being safe; the state of not being dangerous or harmful; a place that is free from harm or danger: a safe place. And these definitions, more or less dovetail with what we believe about safety.

But, are we safe?  If you look at the crime statistics, most of India still is a relatively safe place. There isn’t the kind of madness associated with the drug cartels in South America that impacts ordinary citizens, nor is there the state of constant civil wars that parts of Africa have seen in the last few decades. We don’t have a Syria-like situation, nor is there the kind of ethnic targeting and killing that you see in Pakistan on a daily basis. There are riots that lead to murders, arson, and rape — however, they are contained in a small geographic area. There are sporadic terror attacks.

And while most of us manage to go about our lives without being attacked, do we feel safe about our lives, or the lives of our loved ones? Let me give you an example. For many in my generation, the normal thing to do was to walk to school. We would often cut across slums, construction areas, empty lots, bus depots, railway tracks to get to school and back. Would you be comfortable with your children doing the same? Talk to people and they will say the same thing: “It was different in our generation. Things have become so unsafe”. Frankly, I am unsure whether we felt safe because it was safer, or because we knew no better.

In a way, our sense of safety has been threatened not so much by a serious spike in crime as much as a phenomenal spike in information. Things that would not be talked about or discussed openly even a decade ago is in the public domain now. We feel unsafe, primarily because we read about things that threaten our innate sense of security and well-being.  You cannot open a paper, turn on a television news channel, turn to the Internet without gory details of violent crime assaulting you and your sense of safety. It seems like a dark alley outside your home, and that the only safe harbour is to lock yourself behind  the double doors of your home, and hope it keeps the ‘bad guys’ out.

However, hiding away in our own self-made fortresses may not be the solution. After all, how long do we hide? And, do we bring up the next generation in fortified ghettos or do we make the world safer for them? I would think that the answer is the latter.  It is election year, and our vote is at a greater premium than ever before. All our leaders are more accessible across media and platforms. For the first time, the middle class seems to be an important part of the election process. Ensuring that politicians and parties put our safety as part of their manifestos is necessary. Also, we should not be satisfied with general, vague statements such as ‘we will make India safer’. We need to ask how — how are you going to make India safer? We need to nail it down to specifics, for example police recruitment or better street lights. There is a power that many voices have, that a lone complainer does not. Maybe it is time these voices got together to push the agenda, and that agenda is safety.  The sense of not feeling threatened while doing the mundane things in life — such as walking down a street. That is not too much to ask for, is it?

Dec 232013
 

This column appeared in the DNA on the 14th of November

If Campa Cola had created so much buzz when it was a soft drink manufacturer, it would probably still be in business, selling aerated water to the consumer market. Alas, that was not to be the case. Campa Cola, for those born post the liberalization era, was one of the largest soft drink manufacturers in India. It made its mark at the time when Coca Cola departed India in the late 1970s. It was also one of the first victims of Pepsi and Coke re-entering India. The land allotted to Campa Cola was acquired by builders who constructed upscale apartments. The builders had permission to build apartment blocks of six floors each. Many of the buildings are much taller. The tallest one is 17 floors high. All this happened a long time ago, and like much else in India there was a ‘nod-nod, wink-wink among all concerned’.  Banks give loans, owners buy properties, electricity connections are given, tankers supply water, and it all proceeds as though everything is normal and legal. The modus operandi is as follows: File a plan, get municipality approvals based on the plan, begin construction, violate all that is in the plan, and then pay a small fine to regularise the construction. It happens all the time. There are posh localities in the suburbs of Mumbai that still get water via tankers, five years after residents have moved in, because the entire complex is yet to get an OC (Occupation Certificate) from the BMC. And more often than not things like this gets regularised — someone knows someone, who knows someone, and for a little compensation (for greasing palms and getting through the bureaucratic labyrinth) everything gets fixed. Except that in the case of Campa Cola houses it did not. The current fracas is over 35 floors that were constructed without permission, occupied without an Occupation Certificate, and which was ordered to be demolished by the BMC.

Naturally, the residents were shocked. They refused to move out. Upper middle class agony, expressed in fluent English and anglicized Hindi makes for great news television. It makes audiences identify with those portrayed. And, more importantly, it makes news anchors outrage in an even shriller manner. Suddenly, the residents of the Campa Cola Compound were no longer the educated, well-heeled, well-connected individuals who had access to lawyers and could check contracts and building paper work, but innocents who were duped by a corrupt system. And once the media got into the fray, so did the politicians. To give him his due, Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan refused to pass an ordinance that would halt the demolition. But, the rest got onto the bandwagon, including his own party members. Suddenly, a bunch of people who should have known better while they were busy breaking the law, were portrayed as babes in the wood. The very same people who would otherwise rant when illegal slums and pavement dwellers began using the same analogies to defend their illegal constructions. ‘we have always lived here’ ‘our children grew up here’ ‘where will we go’ ‘our entire community is here’.

Any house owner in Mumbai (possibly elsewhere too) will tell you that buying a flat is fraught with tension. The chain of ownership is often vague, and very often there are situations where buildings have neither Occupation Certificates, nor No-Objection certificates. Most of us are not used to reading technical documents in archaic technical language, and most just glance at the requisite paperwork to see if it is complete before buying. But, ignorance is not a defence against breaking the law.  And when you strip the Campa Cola Compound case of all the emotion, the tears and the angst, all you are left with is one thing: The law was broken, and those who broke the law may get away with it, with the media whipping up outrage to dissuade the law from taking its course. At the time of writing this column, the Supreme Court — reacting to media reports — has stayed the demolition.

In April this year, the residents of Golibar, a slum in Mumbai, were protesting for the same reason.Their homes were being demolished to make way for buildings. They had occupied the land since the mid-1960s. Television news did not care. Demolitions are proceeding as per plan. In June this year, slums at Ejipura in Bengaluru were demolished after residents were evicted in an area they had lived in for decades. Media coverage was nowhere near as sympathetic.

It seems that the middle class likes the idea of the rule of law when it is applied to others. It is quite comfortable breaking the law, and sheds copious tears when it is caught. The sentiment is simple — the rich get away with it because they have influence with those in power. The lower middle class and poor get away with breaking the law because they are the mass, and political parties need mass votes. Given that the middle class have neither the political influence nor the numbers, it does the next best thing — use the media, made up of people like them, to amplify issues. And it has worked.  While in the occasional case like a Jessica Lal when the media got it right, the fact remains that this sort of coverage of raw emotions has repercussions in terms of the rule of law. Think back to the hijacking of IC 814 and ask if the media had not constantly broadcast and amplified the heart-rending anguish of impacted families would the Government of India have been placed in such a ridiculous position?

Two sections of India that most often talk about declining morality and increased lawlessness have in the last week gotten together to do both: The middle class and the media. It is pointless to point fingers elsewhere. If you want the rule of law, you start by following it, not by breaking it, because others do just that.

Dec 232013
 

This column appeared in the DNA on the 31st of October

About a decade ago, I traveled to film my first documentary. It was a hot and dry May and we were filming the destitute Dalit and Pardhi women near the town of Udgir, Latur District, Maharashtra.

The documentary was on how self-help groups helped the women achieve financial independence and reclaim their lives through grit, courage and hard work. Each self-help group, which had approximately 20 members, and each woman in that group saved one day’s wages between Rs20 and Rs50. When the group reached a certain threshold in savings, the NGO working with the group gave them a female goat. The idea was simple: the female goat would mate and before long there will be a herd of goats. And that is exactly what happened. The women, in a span of two years, had a herd of 250 goats and were earning money with goat milk and milk products. What was interesting was what they did with the money they set up an anganwadi and a pre-primary school where their children could study without discrimination.
While one celebrated the women’s success, I couldn’t but help thinking ‘What was the State doing?’ Isn’t it the role of the State to provide quality education? After all, we are paying taxes, and the application of tax money includes education, especially for the poorest. There was a governance gap, and  destitute women used their miniscule incomes to plug that gap to give their children a better future.

Earlier this year, in the scorching heat of May, I was out filming another documentary in Vidarbha, Yavatmal, Nanded, Adilabad and adjoining districts. The documentary was not on farmer suicides as documentaries on Vidarbha tend to be but on the traditional knowledge of the Banjara and Kolam tribes. What I saw in the villages was impressive. Water pumps in every 10 homes, concrete roads, good sanitation, primary schools and girls and boys going to school. There seemed to be a lot more worldly goods two wheelers, DTH connections, TV sets and the like.

Older teens were in nearby cities for further education both boys and girls. On the face of it, governance seemed to have delivered the basics and more. But, two interactions left me wondering. A villager told us that his son was in the ‘shehar’ studying engineering. That they had managed to cobble together the first year’s fees, but were thinking of mortgaging their land for money needed in the second year. Our local guide was also the principal of the local college and he informed the villager that for his son, education at this level should be free because of a variety of central and state schemes. In another case, there were these old women, very feeble and totally blind with thick cataract. We asked why they didn’t get their eyes operated, and the answer was it was too expensive. Once again, cataract operations for women (and men) in that category are totally free provided by both the State and various NGOs. People simply didn’t know about it. There was a governance gap, and the poorest, weakest and the most marginal had slipped through this gap.

The role of the government is simple. It is to get things done based on policies that they have put in place. If the policy is subsidised food items and kerosene delivered to the population, then the governance gap arises when the public distribution system fails to deliver; if the policy is quality education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14, then the governance gap is the inability to provide schools and qualified teachers; if the policy is free medicines and hospital treatment to the poorest members of society, then the governance gap is not enough hospitals and doctors; if the policy is a society where women can walk without fear on the roads of India, then the governance gap is lack of adequate policing; if the policy is the creation of several thousand kilometres of roads in the country, then the governance gap is the shortfall; if policy is about keeping the borders secure, then the governance gap is incursions into the Indian territory; if the policy is a safe and equal society for all citizens, then the governance gap is riots. The list can go on and on. We just have to look around us, in our own everyday lives and see the governance gap.

Every time someone breaks a signal and drives away, there is a governance gap, because at the most basic level there is no respect for the law and law-breakers can get away with it.

Gandhi had talked about Sarvodaya (welfare of all), but he clarified that this is based on Antyodaya the welfare of the last in society. It is impossible for the Centre or even state legislatures to look at the needs of the  Antyodaya. For that you have local governments corporations and panchayats.  If you look at the West, the basics health, social service, education, sanitation, garbage collection and road maintenance are mostly in the realm of services provided by local government. The states and the Centre put in place policies that help local governments deliver, but the local governments will have to take these services  to the local community.

To ensure good governance, citizens have to be informed about what the government plans to do, and they should be empowered with the ability to question the government when it doesn’t deliver.

In reality, a highly centralised set-up makes that difficult. The best way to ensure good governance is to enable local governments and local representatives to deliver quality services to the local community where they live and work. And, more importantly,  empower citizens who live in that area so that they can take their representatives and administrators to task if there is ‘no delivery’.

Unless there is decentralisation, and local corporations and panchayats are  empowered, the gap in governance will continue.