Anna Hazare and the hazar hopes

I haven’t actively been a part of the Anna Hazare movement. It does have my full support but I have not been out there on the streets, waving a banner or whatever.

But I discovered today that one the messages making the rounds is actually genuine and figured I could do my part by forwarding the message.

The message: The Government has put condition to get 25 crore people to support JanLokpal bill. To give your support, call +91 22 62550789 (as given by Kiran Bedi) from your mobile. You call will disconnect after 1 ring and your number will be registered automatically. You will get an SMS confirming this.

Naturally, I was skeptical. Any Indian would be… we get tons of such spam messages, including ones that claim for every message you forward, 1 paise or some such amount will be credited to a cancer patient somewhere.

But someone reliable said this actually works. So I picked up the phone, made a call and the call actually disconnected after one ring and I immediately received a message from UR India stating “Thanks for registering your support. If you want to volunteer, please log onto http://www.indiaagainstcorruption.org or send an sms at +919212472681″

I was quite blown and immediately forwarded the message to many on my contact list.

A friend called me right away, asking how I could be so stupid as to forward such messages and spread more disorder. “Be sane! No government would do such a thing!” he said.

I don’t know about any such government. Infact, this was the same sentiment I had. But then this is the Indian government. We believe in the power of cellphone. Villages that do not have electricity have a television and cellphones.

But these are the facts: The phone number is a registered one. I got an SMS.

I don’t know if the government insisted on this. I do know that the campaign was started to get people to support the movement. 25 crore is a huge number. It should have some impact.

The campaign was also supposed to have ended over a month ago but the number is still active and people are still calling in. For a culture that seems to be hooked to cellphones, this is the most effective way of getting people involved – particularly, when it costs them nothing.

I don’t know if it will work. But I’m willing to try. Because I am tired of having to pay a bribe for every little thing – to get a certificate to buy a piece of land, to sell a piece of land, to get my vehicle insured, to get a license to ride the vehicle, to build a house, to clean my gutter, to ensure the safety of my neighbourhood and hell! to prove that I exist in some form of ID.

Perhaps bribery is entwined into our culture but this is one of those things like sati and child marriage that we can do without.

I don’t know if the price of booze will go down if we manage to get back all that cash stashed in the Swiss Banks. But there is a chance of a better life.

I don’t know how we will survive without bribery either… yes, I am aware that everyone someone has a property transaction, there is the white money – declared legally on paper and the black money – paid in cash and the total amount being the real value. If people were really taxed for all this amount, they probably would not be able to survive.

I don’t know what the issue with the taxation structure is in India. But it does seem to be that it is grossly unfair and the common man would not be able to lead a decent life with these inflated rates unless he stashed away some cash.

It isn’t supporting corruption to say this. A few thousand is bad, but it is no where comparable to those who earn millions and do not pay tax. And aren’t held accountable. The ones who take away the money we do pay as tax.

I guess I’m expecting a chain reaction… one part gets clean, eventually everyone will.

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The Midnight Bangalore

Officially, the city of Bangalore shuts at 11.30 PM. No restaurants, pubs or other establishments are allowed to be open post this deadline.

Cops patrol the roads, forcing stragglers to move on, restaurants to shut and of course, earning their commission from those who want to stay open a little longer.

The small problem with this, though, is that Bangalore is a 24-city. We are the capital (or used to be) of outsourced markets, so there are tons of call centers and BPOs running around the clock. Which means that at least 40 percent of the population is awake at night. And another 40 percent perhaps wrap up work only by 10 PM and barely have time to unwind.

Given the direction the government is headed in, they do not care much about things like ‘unwinding’.

But in India, like many other countries, there is a little space between what the government orders and what actually happens. If you are one of those who are lucky enough to stay awake and out past the Cindrella hour, you see this city morph into something that was not believable in the early 90s.

Though the city does boast of being one of the most expensive ones in India and states that much of its population earns 6 figures incomes, it sadly forgets the population that caters to keeping up this infrastructure. Every person cannot afford a cup of tea at The Leela or one of its equivalents.

The most prominent fixture of these hours is the chaiwalla. They are available at particular street corners, known to every cab driver in the city and many others. He is generally on a cycle with two bags hanging on each side – each holding a vessel/flash containing tea and coffee. He also carries cigarettes and in certain cases, other substances.

The cops know the necessity of these people. They sip the same chai too after all. But they also take a cut of the profits, the ‘fee’ to allow these guys to serve one of the necessities in the city.

Then there are the food carts, a lot more rarer than the tea cycles but equally important. The one that I was familiar with was just near the flyover on the old Airport Road. I could often smell the fresh omelette or some such dish as we drove past him, finishing a long day of work. Cops often shooed him away but how long could they keep him away. Every person who knows where to look finds these places.

The alternative – you need to know the restaurants that stay open past the deadline. I used to be surprised how the cops never came here… there would be a line of cars and enough people for one to think it was the latest club. But I guess hefty fees keep them away. After all, people do need to eat after a heavy clubbing night.

These restaurants even offer car service… you stop near the restaurant and one of the waiters take your order and money and return a few minutes later with your order, all neatly packed in containers. Finding a spot to eat is your problem (more so, since the cops do not appreciate you lounging around in these times of terror).

Shivajinagar food street – the one place that stays open regardless of the season or the political climate. Perhaps it is driven by sheer need of people but there’s always decent food available here. It isn’t pretty to look at and many might be put off by the dingy surroundings but the food is as good as any restaurant in the city.

Some fuel pumps stay open as do remote medical stores. Try getting an aspirin or a pain killer in the city post 10 PM and you’ll learn to stock up on medicines.

Surprisingly, the city does not have a 24-hour tow service or a service that’ll help people with flat tyres. But if you are lucky and a little bold, any passing cab would help you – if you have the nerve to stick your thumb out.

The government is apparently making all efforts to make the city safe. There are road blocks where you are ruthlessly questioned about your papers and asked “why is a girl like you out so late”. Cops are not aware of women working late in the night, I guess, least not beyond a particular set of women. But these blocks and patrols are so marked that you know where is a safe spot and how often cops come around.

Cops do not make me feel particularly safe, especially after some harassing incidents in recent times. But the concept of ‘we try to make Bangalore safe’ continues to be a joke.

The severe lack of after-hours infrastructure drives the city towards creating its own structure.

Public transport still continues to be a joke. No buses post-11.30 PM. Autorickshaws charge an arm and foot to ferry you, and you learn to pray seated in those three-wheeled death traps.

But the roads remain empty, some traffic lights working and most of them blinking amber. You see white cabs zoom past you, reminding you that there are other awake souls like you. Dogs rule the roads, chasing your car or bike like you invaded their territory. You enjoy the empty roads, the peace and hope you are not stopped by a cop to answer ridiculous questions about ‘your purpose on the road’.

Protest March?

I have about 4 event invitations in my inbox for Independence Day. One of them is for a photowalk to capture the ‘theme’ of independence, the others vary from celebrating our independence with some partying to protesting against terrorism with a march or some such thing.

I don’t really have anything against these token marches but with increasing attacks – terrorist, moralist or any other -ist, I’m getting a little annoyed about the purpose of them. While they are an excellent way of proving ones support, too many marches are diluting the value of these things.

Remember Tianmen Square? Or the Dandi March? They held some respect and value, if only for the strong beliefs of the people.

I’ve been to enough protest marches in my time. We stood on roadsides, silently holding up posters protesting atrocities against women; we danced on the streets celebrating gay rights. But certain things cannot be achieved by just a ‘protest march’… like terrorism. Do terrorists really give a damn about a protest march?

What really lies behind the terror attacks? Why do these people volunteer to blow themselves up? These are questions that one rarely asks before condemning everyone involved.

As I read more about terrorism in Kashmir and other parts, I wonder about those little boy who pick up guns, be it in Kashmir or in Somalia. About those people who volunteer to blow themselves up for 1000 bucks a month for their families.

I once argued with a friend that the foot soldier doesn’t know any better. He is economically backward, probably illiterate and picks up the gun for 1000 bucks and month and states religion as his cause because that is what he has been told. He is told that a particular country/person is his enemy, given material that supports that argument and made into a solider.

But as I read more about people from educated, affluent families support terrorist organizations, I begin to believe that I am wrong. But it continues that religion is only a part of the whole picture.

And it also follows that a simple march against terrorism doesn’t hold much value against those who are intent on destroying.

The Road Of Indian Journalism

Have you heard of this thing called ‘Medianet’? If you are an average citizen, you might not have. If you are a reporter, the chances are you definitely know about it… and you’ve chosen your camp as well.

Let’s try another question… have you heard of the ‘Radiagate’? That whole scandal about that woman who apparently had the power to influence politicians and appointments and all that. I’m sure a lot of you wouldn’t mind being her, despite the scandals.

These are two issues that the Indian media has surprisingly been quiet about. Not a carefully guarded secret but something not bandied about in public either.

Of course, after the ‘sting’ operation by a foreign newspaper, some of our own presses have begun declaring that the supplements, which were thought to carry news, are actually ‘advertorials’.

To me, that move comes as a relief, even if I find it a little funny.

The India media has been sliding down for a long while now. Bribes and corruption exist among the watchdogs too… and has only gotten worse since it all became about the bottomlines.

24 hours of news has to be filled, and it needs to be ‘fresher’ and ‘different’ from the other 24 channels reporting the same thing. Considering how many channels have a chance to get scoops, it is only natural that they each resort to the shock value. And as the audience gets a little numb, the voltage is hiked up a little more.

People break down under constant pressure. Burnouts happen. So sometimes, we do take the easy way out. If someone like Radia offers us an exclusive in exchange to play messenger, the journalist compromises. It doesn’t seem like a big thing.

Then we grow lazier. We want the stories to come to us. If someone offers you a story on a platter, you do not bother digging into facts?

The first rule I was taught in journalism was never take anything at face value, always verify the facts. Even if the PR sent me the release, I would have to double check everything.

Recently, someone wrote an article about how the PR people were harassing the journalists to get their articles in place.

The field of PR and brand management were created for a reason. The PR does have some use to a reporter… they are under as much pressure to get publicity for their company as a reporter is under to get news. Perhaps more.

Any PR person with ethics would not cross boundaries to get their articles in place. Any journalist with ethics would not take the freebies in return for an article.

So it all comes down to ethics… and what you are willing to do to get that job done. If you want to be lazy, if you want to compromise on quality, if you want to misuse the power that you do have.

We become journalists because, somewhere, we were all idealists and we believed we could make a difference.

We can. If people do believe us.

But now, we don’t believe that we can. So where does that leave the idealist?

More Jobless Words

The US unemployment situation continues to remain bleak. People still do not have sufficient jobs and those who have, are worried about losing it.

And President Obama has been trying to bring back ‘lost’ jobs to the country.

The question most experts have been asking though is if it is possible to plug this leak of jobs that has been happening over decades. Much of the US industry was built on outsourcing and immigration. President Obama might have grand aims but achieving that is a distant dream.

The best to do that though seems to be targeting those countries to whom jobs have been outsourced and trying to bring those back.

Infosys is one of the biggest countries to whom jobs were outsourced. They are Indian and have one of the cleanest slates in a country that is known for corruption.

But according to the latest news, that is no longer the case. They are being pulled up on allegations about visa fraud (if it could be called that).

While I get the point that the US wants to protect its jobs and its citizens, was not there a reason why these jobs went abroad in the first place?

No matter which way you see it, hiring a worker in India generally costs the company one-fourth the price of the same level worker in the US. I’m not debating which worker is better. I’m just talking about money – which is what all companies are about. Not delivering the best service and all that stuff. It all comes down to the bottomline.

If you pay an Indian $40,000 annually, that equals roughly to about 20 lakhs in Indian rupees. That is a lot of zeros in this economy, while in the US economy it might just be the average salary.

So an average worker here is paid about $600 to $800 a month for the same skills that a worker in the US is paid about $2000 for. Plus, things like overtime and stuff can be easily overlooked in a culture where working itself is expected to be the reward.

There are also things like health insurance and other benefits that were not often provided by an Indian company till recently.

How does Mr.Obama plan to compete with such basic economics?

India boosted itself up based on these basic currency differences. We had the language in place, thanks to our British obsession. And we are experts at putting up anything overnight, or delaying it for decades.

Now, there are cheaper countries like Phillipines who offer the same service for ever cheaper. For companies that are already in a cash crunch, how would they even think of refusing these places?

Denying visas would definitely work but it would take a decade or more to bring up America’s skill sets back to the levels of doing this work. Some jobs have been left by the roadside, or outsourced, simply because it was cheaper.

Maybe I am slightly biased in this case, being Indian and all that. But when I look at the basics of the whole thing, I wonder how these jobs would go back to the US and how those companies will have the infrastructure built there – cheaply – to have it all in place.

Ethical Dilemmas

There are two points that keep looping in my mind – one is the article recently carried in The Hindu, an Indian newspaper about Assange (and there is nothing new in that interview either) and the other is this cartoon that has been making the rounds stating “Assange: I give you government secrets for free and I’m a terrorist. Zuckerberg: I sell your private information to corporates for a ton of money and I’m a hero.”

Zuckerberg changed the face of social networking and perhaps the world forever. The way we contact people and relate to people has changed forever, and I can vouch for this personally. But the fact also remains that Facebook has come a long way from what it was supposed to be and is now plagued by corporate honchos and mindsets and stock markets and fat bottomlines. Freedom of speech and all those other rebellious thoughts that Zuckerberg once stood for are gone.

While I never agreed about Assange’s policy of giving out secrets like candies on the street corner, he was doing what we reporters strive to do everyday. Of course, we pay a little more attention to details, accuracy and such sometimes. But the thing is the world needed Assange as much as it needed Zuckerberg. America, as wonderful a country as it is, remains drunk on its own power like any other country. Unfortunately, in America’s case, the power is real.

Their opinions matter, their decisions have the strength to destroy or build a country. Critics might argue that it is changing, but it has not reached a point where the world can take a decision excluding the US. Someone has to make them accountable.

If US had handled this issue in a more dignified manner, the world’s sympathy would’ve probably swung that way. But the force with which they came down on Assange, labeling him a terrorist, cemented whatever vague thoughts the world had about the country.

US has had a bad run in the past few years. First, the war on Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then hints that Iran would be next, with sanctions and such. Of course, Ahmadinejad is no innocent sheep, but what about the millions of people affected by these random decisions? And even as the world burned, George Bush – perhaps the most hated man across the world at that point – was reelected based on issues like abortion and gay rights, making the citizens of the world wonder if the country was even aware of the impact they had globally.

Of course, nobody ever thinks of the global perspective. When I vote, I’m really not thinking if the PM will have a good foreign policy. I’m thinking more in local terms. But the resentment levels against the Americans was rather high, and this just added more fuel.

Assange was the one opportunity to swing the tide… instead the US government called in the SWAT team, called him a terrorist and said nothing would do but to shut him away. I don’t remember reading about any denial of those cables that came out though. Did they ever say they were fake? Would falsely denying them make the US legally liable in some way?

So they accepted these were real, but they just did not like it that someone brought out these secrets into the open.

Should Assange be prosecuted? Perhaps for some of the charges… and definitely if the charges about assault in Sweden are true. Did he do the wrong thing by putting these cables out and several other documents? I’m still on the fence on that but I lean towards ‘i don’t think so’.

The 2010 News Chronicle

2010 nearly comes to an end… and personally, there are various things I remember. But I was wondering, news-wise what sticks in our mind? Public memory is notoriously short… and that includes me.

These are some of the things that remain in my mind as some of the most powerful things this year. They might not include everything and perhaps the most relevant… as journalists, we sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees.

  1. The BP Oil spill disaster: tons has been written and we’ll probably begin to face the consequences of this spill for generations to come
  2. Facebook privacy fiasco: Zuckerberg and his statements!
  3. The 33 miners stuck underground for nearly 2 months
  4. The iPhone 4, the iPad and all that jazz: I can’t remember much in terms of technology this year… was there something that I am forgetting? I mean… the iPhone isn’t really new, the iPad is also old news and there were repetitions of those things from various companies.
  5. Wikileaks drama: It shook the world and made me wonder about the purpose of Wikileaks
  6. Obama’s visit to India: Didn’t really shake the world, but as an Indian, it was hard to miss
  7. Commonwealth Games: and all that it entailed. News-wise I wasn’t sure how important it is. The lede probably got buried under all the media houses shouting, but definitely worth a mention
  8. The numerous scandals in India: the 2G scam, the CWG corruption, the Radia tapes…
  9. Aung San Suu Kyi being released
  10. Displacement of the gypsies from France: strangely, this is one issue that remains in my mind. I’m not sure how much international attention it gained and how long it lasted, but it stays
  11. Sachin’s 50th Test Century: The man is indeed a legend
  12. The Football World Cup: and the saddest, most boring final I’ve seen
  13. Inception: The Movie of the Year
  14. Endhiran: The Indian Movie of the Year

 

Things that I did not remember but was reminded by photographs:

  1. The earthquake in Haiti
  2. Floods in Pakistan
  3. Olympics in China (jeez my memory is really full of holes)

And then there are other things that I remember simply because I write about it… like China and its currency, the G20 Summit in Seoul.