The Democratic Process

For more than two decades, I’ve been an ardent believer of democracy and the democratic process. I’ve been eager to vote. I’ve believed the wrong people and found some pleasant surprises.  I’ve been eager to vote. I’ve been eager (more in the last few years) to be involved in the political process. But I’ve also begun to wonder, in the last few years, if the democratic process and the system is perhaps flawed and not entirely meant for progress in India.

Democracy is based on votes of the majority. The majority wants and needs.

In a country like India, majority is an illusion. We are divided by geography, religion, caste, geographical cultures, religious cultures, language. And well, some times even skin colour. There are so many divisions but some mainline ideas unite us – one of them being the want to be a part of this country.

Not everyone wants to be a part of India, or a part of the state they are currently assigned to. They don’t want to be a part of the religion they are assigned to either.

And these ‘don’t wants’ form an important vote bank, as witnessed by the whole Lingayat politics in this year’s Karnataka elections.

Identity politics are very important for vote banks. Dalits, Muslim, Other minorities who have been told to be vary of the majority wave that can trample their identity. The ‘others’ who have been marginalised for so long that they would rather believe that their identity would be trampled again in the democratic state, if they did not have someone particular looking out for them. Even among the majority wave, many tend to differ. How do we define a religion that isn’t a religion at all but a collection of ideas that a vast pool of people gave a geographical name that became synonymous with the collective idea?

Each part of Hinduism can be broken into smaller subsects and individual identities, which is perhaps the future. The Lingayats, the Patels, the vokkaligas, Patidars and so on.

Politics works on two possible factors – Fear & Need. The fear can often give rise to a need or a need can give rise to a fear.

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Who are these people who we supposed to vote into power? Who joins politics? Certainly not those who truly want to work for the betterment of the society. And the key requirement of these politicians is a vote bank. And a vote bank, contrary to popular belief, isn’t only about good work done that could translate into winning votes. While the good work does make a difference, it seems recently that more votes can be gained by keeping various sections dependent and under the thumb. The people who can be swayed with a promise – forever. A token effort, some money and the votes are won.

The only advantage democracy has is people retain the power to vote someone out of power. But that process, too, mostly works on paper. Because that process assumes every citizen is aware and participates in the democratic process. Whereas in a country like India, most of the voters are barely aware of what is happening beyond their little village. They are concerned about their loans, water and electricity issues and believe that the guy who comes once in five years would actually make a difference. And they listen to the few people who are making a difference – the kingmakers. They are swayed by money and hope. The educated class – a small percentage of voters – are the only ones perhaps thinking. But they too are swayed by identity and caste politics. After all, everyone wants to protect their own. The deciding voters are clueless for most part.

It is to the benefit of the politician to keep this status quo. To create a fear. A cause that will force people to vote for them. Each agenda is set based on a sub-region and these typically do not meet the true requirements for progress. Everyone promises a better life, but how many are voting just on that promise? Some vote for their identity, some for their money. Some vote because someone else told them to and some vote because they don’t know what is the alternative. In the end, when the results are out, fragmented by multiple purposes, nobody remains the winner – especially not the common man.

The democratic process, which intends to bring out the wishes of the common man, is fragmented and eventually, someone else ends up grabbing the power and we are back to square one.

The only slight, minuscule edge we have in this process is that every election, a small section of people might grow aware and vote for something beyond money, alcohol, religion and caste. But with a population of billion and growing, this is a tediously slow process – which means we remain powerless for longer as the majority leaves the decision making in someone else’s hands.

If the people who want to be voted are in it for the money and power, and the people who are supposed to vote for them are clueless – how does the process succeed?

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Exploring Tamil Nadu: Part 2 – Rameshwaram

We were supposed to be traveling alongside the river the entire journey to Rameshwaram. At least, that’s what Google maps said. Real life is a different story. There is a river, as seen by the basic overgrown with plants. But either lack of rains or a dam somewhere has stopped the water, making parts of the basin slushy and the rest barren.

Barren soon became the word of the day as we headed closer to Rameshwaram. The landscape grew flatter and more barren. There were long stretches where you could see miles on either side, and there was barely a bush in sight. Brick kilns were common, and progress was slow because the road remained a narrow two-lane ‘highway’.

Rameshwaram was a barely ignored ‘second-grade township’ in Tamil Nadu, and their sole claim to fame was the legend that stated Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka from here to rescue Sita, his wife. There’s also a place that Hanuman supposedly leaped from to reach Sri Lanka.

The town’s modern claim to fame is one of India’s most renowned personalities & former President, Abdul Kalam.

 

Salt basins and palm trees are common as you get closer to Rameshwaram, almost frightening in its starkness and flatness.

Soon, the road began to narrow again and we were on the famous Pamban Bridge.

The bridge was first a railway bridge only, built in 1914, connecting the island town of Rameshwaram to the mainland.

Rameshwaram is actually located on Pamban Island. The railway bridge was India’s first sea bridge of any sort, and the longest till the Bandra-Worli Sea Link displaced it in 2010. A road bridge was constructed parallel to the rail bridge in 1988.

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I was super thrilled by the colours of the ocean as we got on the road bridge, and despite multiple “No Stopping” signs that every other car was ignoring, we pulled over to take photographs.

As I often say, a photographer sometimes just clicks the shutter. Nature does the rest. Right as I ran over to the side with my camera, a train was on the bridge. There are very few trains, so it was a stroke of luck that I got to shoot it, and in such awesome light conditions. The wind is strong enough to knock you back a couple of steps, so I had to struggle to keep my bandanna on and shoot at the same time. The ocean looks wild, with a multitude of hues of blue that I’d last seen on the Australian coast.

We then wandered over to the other side of the bridge, which looks like an entirely different world. The colours are still vivid and varied, but the ocean is calm and serene. Infact, it looks like a postcard, with fishing boats bobbing gently in the water, and quaint little huts on the beach.

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The town of Rameshwaram is literally a back-of-beyond town in Tamil Nadu. Reading the stories of Kalam gives one a picture of the town about 50 years ago, and seems like it has only progressed a little since then.

Since the primary visitors here were temple devotees, who preferred simplicity, the infrastructure is built to accommodate that.

It means basic hotels, with mostly vegetarian restaurants.

I ended up signing up at the most fanciest place, since that was the only one with car park, and of course, we didn’t really want to rough it out.

The sense of ‘flat & straight’ continued past the bridge, almost seeming like we didn’t move the steering at all, except to avoid pedestrians crossing the street.

It was close to 4.00 PM by the time we arrived in town, and our first concern was to find a place that served something beyond the typical idli & dosa fare popular in the region. Luckily, we passed a “Sea Star Hotel” with a massive board sporting photographs of various indistinct dishes.

The hotel turned out to be THE fanciest hotel in the place, at least from the outside. On checking in, we realised it was still for the devotees who came to the temple but didn’t want to rough it out. The food was vegetarian, the hallways had the smell of incense and decorations of flowers, and our welcome booklet included the various times of aartis and poojas happening in town.

We had two destinations here: Dhanushkodi, located about 20-odd kms from Rameshwaram and the newly-inaguarated museum of President Kalam.

It was close to dusk by the time we started out to Dhanushkodi. The moment you veer out of Rameshwaram, the bleakness starts. Salt marshes on both sides of the road, and water that seems like land.

Dhanushkodi was declared a Ghost Town after it was badly hit by a cyclone in 1964. Exposed on all sides, there are little scrub bushes that offer no protection from the wind. The visibility is great, and the road straight & long enough to land a plane.

All the earlier research I’d done indicated that you couldn’t go right till the tip in a car, and would need to rent a jeep or a 4×4. But to our surprise, the road continued. Unfortunately, there are cops patrolling the area and no people are allowed beyond the point after 6.00 PM, and we had to turn back.

(To Be Continued)

Has Life Really Changed After Demonetisation?

The blackish-golden anniversary of Demonetisation. This was definitely the biggest defining moment politically in my lifetime. After all, I was not a child of the freedom movement, nor was I around during emergency. I was around when the economy opened up in the early 90s, but that was a gradual impact.

Something as explosive as this? Yep. First time. And a part of me hopes there will be more and a part of me hopes for a quieter life.

Has life really changed after demonetisation? Living in Bangalore, I could perhaps say yes. My grocery store accepts PayTM now. I can pay as low as 10 bucks in PayTM. People who would have never gotten a bank account are online now and use it frequently.

I’ve fallen back to the habit of carrying little to no cash (picked up on my days abroad). So yes, I can live without cash now.

But what about outside Bangalore?

I still ensure that I carry cash when I go traveling. Because especially after demonetisation, there is a fear of ATMs running dry. That is the biggest nightmare. Stranded somewhere without money. Because a lot of other towns and cities are not as happy with online transactions. Card machines don’t always work. Or they say they don’t work, because they still do not trust banking and online transactions.

The culture of cash and mistrust of banks is too deeply rooted in us to be removed by one round of demonetisation. It isn’t just the corrupt guys who like to keep cash. It is everyone. My parents. Maybe your parents. My neighbours. I’m sure your neighbours too.

Did corruption come down? I seriously doubt it, especially since the number people asking for bribes or cutting short things hasn’t really gone down.

But in a country like India, the only way we’ll ever do anything is if we are dragged, albeit, kicking and screaming. So maybe the demonetisation did not entirely work as intended but it did make us aware of online payments, get a section of people on it, and it taught us how to stand in line. Pretty good for a first attempt, I guess.

Happy anniversary!

A Rant on Shopping

Four hours on the street and not a single thing bought. Three hours online and all I have to show is a single little top that, lucky me, was on a sale.

The modern woman today is apparently particular about what she wears. The modern Indian woman is apparently even more exacting.

Why then in the hundreds of sites and apps are similar products of bad quality? Where are the rich fabrics, the fun designs? And if you do come across one or the other, they come with a hefty price tag with it.

Shopping today is no longer fun. It is a riot of clothes, bad tailoring, worse fabrics and makes you wanna scream. Every time you see those little list “5 must haves in your wardrobe”, you wanna slap the writer because you know most of that is paid. Or the writer has a fantastic salary or an inheritance.

The common girl simply cannot survive fashionably in this city. Reading the listicles online make you wonder if all those good things are simply eluding you.

I’m someone who appreciates quality. I hate this concept of fast fashion where you clothes not only go out of style in a few months, but fade away as well. As someone who has my favourite clothes from a decade ago (and yes, many of them came back into fashion as well!), I choose my clothes with care and love and I want them to last.

But in the days where ‘subscription’ is the norm and not buying, fast is preferred over quality, fashion doesn’t allow you the same luxury. From what my fashion-conscious friends tell me, there are some brands that do last but the price tag… well, I mentioned that before already right?

There was a time when I bought Ferragamo and Bardot and dailywear were brands… but it is all so boring today. Putting together a look requires more effort… even the t-shirts are badly shaped! The $2 t-shirt fits me better than the $20 branded wear.

And since this is a rant, I can perhaps conclude it – where the hell do you get quality, funk and prices for normal human beings?

Superwoman

Once you are past the age of 30, your Facebook feed invariably consists of baby posts and mommies posting about their adorable munchkins or how tough it is to be a mommy. There are those one-off posts from women who do not want to have babies, and are feeling pressurised by society to have kids.

Strangely, most of the women are sharing posts about how tough it is to have it all and how they don’t want their child to grow up being a ‘latchkey’ child.

The term ‘latchkey child’ apparently originated in 1942, but in India, I first heard it at the age of 18 when someone called me a ‘latchkey child’. And here I was thinking it was pretty cool to come home, open the door myself and decompress after school, and that my mother thought I was responsible enough not to burn the house down in the few hours I was at home by myself.

I loved coming back to an empty home, with the knowledge that others will be home soon. The house is quiet, nobody is asking you annoying questions about how your day went and you can just sit and stare at a blank wall and let all the stress of the day go away before the others come home.

I’d be mostly out of home in half an hour, playing with friends, so my mother had the same privilege of coming home and not having to tend to a child immediately, after a stressful day. She’d sort herself out with her stuff and was probably a lot calmer.

Looking back, I had absolutely no issues being a ‘latchkey child’ and would not want to change that for all the money in the world. It taught me how to be alone and keep myself occupied. I did not burn the house down. I did not even flood the house. I learnt how to sleep alone. I wasn’t afraid of the dark or cockroaches and lizards.

So when I hear about all the fuss and worry about mothers wondering how to let their kids alone, I wonder if it is more guilt on their part than about the child. With the numerous technology tools today, it is easy to monitor the child at home. And thankfully, being in India, you always have neighbours to look out for the child. Massive apartment complexes have enough security that you do not have to worry about your child running out on the street.

Being a working mom can be challenging, no doubt. I can only imagine the guilt you would feel for enjoying yourself when your child is home with the father or other family members. Perhaps you feel guilty about enjoying your work and wanting to go back to work. One of the Sex & The City Episodes is one of the few popular media to cover this logically… about a woman wanting to go back to work after having a baby. Fathers do. Perhaps they don’t have a choice, even if they wanted to spend the whole day with the child.

So why do women question themselves when they have another interest other than the baby?

Are we bad at customer service?

So the world’s talking about Indian startups and companies. About time too, since we have a few in the top 10 unicorns, and we are the call center of the world. India’s name is definitely on the map.

We’ve tough contenders for Amazon, Paypal, Uber and several other modern-day firms. But when it comes to customer service, Indians seemed to have skipped a page in copying their foreign counterparts.

For instance, Flipkart & Amazon. I’ve been using both for a while. And to be honest, I supported Flipkart a lot stronger than Amazon initially. ‘Apna company’ and all that. But eventually, I got tired of waiting for the company to get their act together and entirely went off the site. There were a few strong reasons, and all of them were related to customer service.

I ordered a TV… and after several days of hemming and hawwing, Flipkart said they cannot deliver the TV. True, this is a vendor issue.. but if Ebay and Amazon can do it, why not Flipkart. I’ve had mostly bad experiences with Snapdeal.

Amazon on the other hand, had a great customer care service who respond to you prompty and ensure that the problem is SOLVED.

Next, Airtel vs Vodafone. Airtel has the worst possible customer service – ever. In any field. Their representatives are rude, nasty and honestly, don’t know what’s happening in the cubicle, let alone the company. I’ve had wrong billings, active connections long after the cancelation requests were placed, arrogant retention service reps telling me to go to Vodafone & refusing to give a decent postpaid plan. The arrogance of the company is horrifying! You’d think they were doing you a favour.

Uber vs Ola: Tried talking to Ola customer care? Or hell! Even a cab driver? The process of reporting is convoluted. The cab driver once charged me extra for toll charges, and when I received the bill (a whopping 650 bucks for 6 kms or so), it included the toll charges. The CC asked me send a mail, with copies of the toll paid and several other details. It was so tedious that I never followed up. Uber drivers on the other hand are some of the most well behaved.

Why do we lack customer service? We are supposed to be among the most hospitable cultures in the world. Then again, we also have a ‘make do’ attitude to do with that hospitality.

One company that I do appreciate is UrbanClap. They’ve got a brilliant customer care team who are tracking queries and more importantly, follow up with you after a few days to ensure that you aren’t facing any issues. More importantly, the person who calls you introduces themselves by name. Each email has a name and a number. Such a level of initiative is unprecedented, particularly in startups! I hope they continue!

Most recently, I’ve had the unfortunate experience to deal with Infibeam. I ordered some toners from Canon (after a loooong search!) and surprisingly, Canon outsourced this openly to Infibeam. The mail I received was cc’d to a rep of Infibeam. Its been more than 20 days and there’s been no sign of the toners, nor any incoming updates from Infibeam. When I reached out, the standard reply has been “give us 48 hours to look into this.”

I wonder why a full fledged company should have so many issues in communicating, when a small manufacturer in Ebay or Alibaba respond to you quicker.

If we truly want to be an international player, we need to up the game – not just in other countries, in India as well. The Indian sentiment will only go so far!

Books on Indian Startups

I’ve been reading about startups… Or tech companies that were once startups.

So far I’ve read about Twitter (a couple of books), Amazon, Facebook, WordPress (in progress) and a few others.

Midway through this process I began wondering about the “inside story” of Indian startups. We’ve got some good ones. We have a few in the top 10 unicorns as well. So where are their stories? Considering some of them have been around for nearly a decade, hasn’t it been long enough for some books to surface? Or is it too early?

I found one book about Alma Mater. An autobiography. That’s it. There are bibles mentioning a ton of them but where are individual books?

It is the world of click button publishing. An authorized bio, no matter how white washed, could be out in a matter of a few weeks. Haven’t any of the PR Gurus thought of this for their clients?!