Growth & Corruption

“The only way to peace is through war” a quote read in one of the prescribed books in university.

As I read one of the biographies about one of the companies in India, which is generally touted as a massive success story, I wonder if the only way to success is through corruption.

India is a country that suffers from a massive dynastic hangover. Be it a political party, the movie industry or the corporate world, it is filled with people who are ‘connected’. Apparently, who your father is or who you know makes a difference to your success or failure.

Despite, or due to, such dynastic philosophies, corruption has become an embedded part of our culture.

The only way a newbie can probably succeed is by bribing a few people. Yes, there is much being said about the new start-ups and their success stories. But watch closely and you can probably hear the tremors of them navigating the red tape.

I recently read the biography of the Ambanis, which had once been banned in India, or at least tried to. A few pages down, I realised why they tried to get the book banned. It paints a very ugly picture of the way the company was built, how it promoted corruption and the deep corruption embedded in some parties of the country.

Of course, nobody can ever prove what was and what is. Many of the participants of this story are long dead and gone, leaving behind legacies that are probably too massive to dig into. But you flip through the pages of media stories on them and you can read between the lines.

The Indian media today is in the worst possible situation today, with almost nil autonomy. If they were once coralled by the need for advertisement revenue, today they are directly held back by their owners and deep party loyalties.

The days of Khuswant Singh and Goenka are long gone, who put the truth of journalism before friendships and families. Today, we have reporters angling for a plum retirement plan, inciting NRIs to their own benefit.

The Social Media Wave is truly that… it builds up with one little news item, crests and then builds up again as a follow up, till there is that big 7th wave and it cools down for the next wave.

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A Letter to The Cab Guy

Dear Taxi Guy,

I’ve been a loyal customer since you were a mere company, not a brand. Despite various people complaining about the company and their ‘pathetic’ service, I had no reason to complain and I hung around. You have been with me through late night parties, emergency cabs to work, trips to the airport and more for the past 3-4 years.

And then you became a ‘brand’. I started seeing your logo on movie promo posters, at concerts and whatnot. It was kind of cool to see a company from my hometown grow up and compete with the biggies out there and able to keep pace.

Then we started seeing hoardings all around the city, screaming about cab rides at 49 bucks. You were trying to take on the biggest public transport service providers – the auto rickshaws. I wondered about how you were going to sustain your operational costs. It wasn’t like the fuel had gotten considerably cheaper, for starters.

But I had your app installed on my phone, and I loved the interface as well. Except, almost everytime I booked a cab in the past few months… pretty much since September-Oct, the booking would get confirmed and then the cab would not turn up. Your Customer Care would apologise profusely and then the same thing would be repeated. Once. Twice. Thrice. Four Times. Five Times. And that’s when I decided to say to hell with you.

I had to scramble to find another cab service to head to a college reunion. I had to sit on the sidewalk and wait for an hour for another cab to come and pick us up after a concert because your ‘confirmed’ cab did not turn up. I had to scramble to get home at 10.00 in the night because your cab wouldn’t turn up. I nearly missed a flight because your cab did not turn up.

And I had to speak to your rude, annoying customer care at 1.00 in the morning who called me 3 hours after my booking time asking if I wanted to take the cab now, since one was available.

And through all of this, the only thing that was consistent were your apologies and that ‘you will try to serve us better’.

I booked a cab again yesterday afternoon, buoyed by the news that you had launched this new ‘mini car’ cab service. I was curious, and perhaps a glutton for punishment. The mini car was not available yet, so I booked a Mini and true to your brand – you did not disappoint me. The Cab Did Not Turn Up.

This time, thanks to your new updates on the app, I could call the driver directly. And the guy says “Well, I did get a message about the booking and then another one saying it was canceled”.

So I booked another cab – and this time a cab did turn up and imagine my surprise – it was a Renault Duster.

I wondered how you had classified a Renault Duster, a car that costs at least 10 lakhs, on par with the ‘Mini’ class, which was typically a Tata Indica. And then I realised – this is what you’ve come down to – you are scrambling to keep up with your promises and promos.

You have a shortage of good drivers. You are losing control over your drivers, who have gone back to choosing (like always) rides to the airport, which are longer and have less traffic. Have you resorted to desperately hiring anyone who is willing to drive for you, which perhaps accounts for the untoward incidents being reported all around?

Your drivers are pissed off with you because they are barely able to make ends meet when you’ve chopped their revenue share to a bare minimum. As I heard one of your drivers say, he would rather go back to driving an auto because he would be in control.

Now, with 1000 new cabs on the road, this time funded by your own money, how do you intend to really keep up the brand? Because after all the ads and the articles, you do need to keep your customer happy.

This was a tale of great potential, which has now become a big question mark. True, the Indian loves a good deal but we are also growing up to appreciate quality and service.

Perhaps it is time that you realised that.

Sincerely,

A Customer

The Kashmir Floods

The past few days have seen Kashmir feature quite prominently on my Facebook feed. There are groups I’ve been added to where Kashmiris from all over the world are posting asking about their relatives who they haven’t been able to contact etc.

To be honest, the floods did not really enter my mind initially. As Indians, we are a little numb to news of disasters. There is a particular threshold any disaster needs to cross to evoke emotions in us. It is probably because of the barrage of news we read every day in the media – suicides, rapes, murders, terrorist attacks of some sort, Naxalities killing someone, kidnapping. We live among a gruesome society and we accept it.

In the past few years, there have been quite a few calamities. I remember very few clearly – the tsunami wave, the floods in Uttarakhand and now, Kashmir.

Of the three, Kashmir seems to have the least amount of information outflow and a lot of chaos. Perhaps it was always like this but this time we see it because social media has finally caught up with a lot more people and they are pouring out their confusion onto the net.

Perhaps it is because Kashmir has a more educated, affluent section of population with a vast number of them living outside the state.

Perhaps it is because it is Kashmir.

I do not know, and frankly, am not sure I care.

What concerns me is the chaos. Why is there so much chaos? As a country who has a fair number of floods every year, we should have a decent plan of action to put into play every time. I am not going to compare the disasters because each are different in their own ways. But… why isn’t there a 12-point protocol? Or if there is, is it being enforced?

Why did it take a week for Google & India to come up with a missing persons site? Why isn’t there any website where people can click on a location and see what is happening there?

I know it is easy for me to comment on this, sitting in an arm chair, far away from all the chaos. I know this requires vast amount of ground resources. But we have one of the best fricking armies in the world, some of the most intelligent tech forces in the world and enough hands and legs to populate… well, you know. So why can’t we do this?

Or is that the people are resistant to government information? There are no mentions of the number of deaths in the floods – and I refuse to believe that there are none. What is the after plan? The worst part of a flood starts after the water has receded. Looting apart, diseases are a major concern. Restoration of spaces is a major concern, especially in a place like Kashmir where winter shows its fangs quite harshly.

Has social media brought some major flaws to the front or are we lagging behind this time? Was it this bad every time?

And this being Kashmir, how long will it take for the religious sentiments to surface and clash? And bring the army into the front again for a different purpose? And how much will this affect rescue operations?

There are hints of that on the forums that have been created to share information. Hints of Muslims gnashing their teeth at the thought of the army helping them. The Indian army. There are hints of aggression. But is also beautiful to see many others, regardless of religion, ask those people to shut up and go away and stop stirring trouble when everyone has united for something. It is these people we would need to stand strong soon… because inevitably, there will be resentment from some section of the society that enough was not done, or not done soon enough or some such thing. Because amidst all this chaos, we see only the chaos and miss the little sunshine that is beginning to help in tiny bits.

And lastly, a serious environment question that a friend of mine posed:

Is anyone thinking why these floods are happening? Does anyone even think of the ecological reasons behind this? The overdevelopment? The way tourism has destroyed some of these lands, the way development has destroyed them and left them open.

” If glaciers are melting, the mountains are being deforested, the wetlands have disappeared, traditional flood outflow channels are silted up, and there’s too much construction for the local environment to bear, then even one excessive or delayed rainfall is going to create an unmanageable catastrophe like we saw in June 2013 and are seeing again now.” the person said. 

India is headed the way of growth and industrialization. Which means great for the economy. But when I hear reports of mining projects being authorized without bothering with the environment reports, reports being squashed in the name of progress, my mind cannot help but envision us traveling in futuristic cars with oxygen masks through barren lands littered with skeletons.

There is a reason environment groups exist. There is a reason why they are labeled crazy. Maybe they are. But perhaps you need to be a little crazy to be able to shout out your beliefs from rooftops and exist. But without them, who would check the uncontrolled greed of the corporates, our uncontrolled lust for ‘progress’.

We drive further and further looking for greenery and forests. We see civilization eclipse the quaint mountainside roads we used to drive by in sheer silence and awe. We see that the roads are better, but there are also a 100 shops alongside it. We do not realise that this is the progress that we are heading for. We will have better roads connecting all cities, and the trees and animals will be pushed into the background. I would rather drive on a bad road with trees than an awesome road with buildings.

Perhaps I sound idealistic. Perhaps in real life I do go back and do things that I crib about here. But we all do that. But if we all contributed a fraction towards what we believe in, the world would be a better place.

I love progress. But I also love my trees and forests and beaches and the creatures in it. I do not think their lives are any less important than mine simply because we are on top of the food chain.

What is the point of 100 smart cities that might have to be rebuilt every few years, and we have to breathe through masks?

Studying Indian Schools

Much has been said in recent weeks about the schools in Bangalore, India. One of the private schools came under the public microscope after reports of a 6-year old child being sexually abused by teachers were published in the media.

There were protests, petitions and more asking for justice. People asked for PTAs to be more empowered, CCTVs in all classrooms and many such measures to be implemented.

And people seem to be finally waking up to the fact that there is something extremely rotten in our education system. Forget the syllabus. The functioning of these organizations is extremely flawed.

My parents have been teachers for decades. And I’ve seen plenty of parents come home and pour their woes out to them. I’ve seen students who are fighting with their parents come to my mother for advice. My mother, I am proud to say, is one of the rare teachers who actually listen. She treats the students as human beings, which is actually quite rare in the Indian education system.

Though we proudly say that we like to teach and our Indian education system is among the best, the teachers are not really the best. I’ve sat through boring classes where we were made to read through textbooks, some of which were factually wrong. I was blessed to have parents who encouraged me to think, and some teachers who nourished that as well. But for most part, you were expected to listen in class, take notes, memorize them and pour it out on the exam sheets and score the best possible marks.

Thinking was not particularly encouraged by most teachers.

And then came the breed of private schools who claimed to promote the new, innovative concepts of education like free-thinking, creative process etc. They charged a hefty fee for this process, and then there were hidden charges.

But if you are a parent, you would want the best for your child and you would send them here, no matter what. 

Today, we are forced to ask – how valid are these schools? How qualified are these teachers to actually educate children? 

How many teachers today have chosen the field because they really liked it? Most people I know are there because they couldn’t go anywhere else. I know teachers who suck at teaching or anything related to it but they’ve been awarded ‘Best Teacher’ awards by the government and affiliated bodies.

Today, it is one school under the microscope. They are being pulled up for their fee structure, lack of safety etc. But this is the story with all schools. Who are they accountable to? How educative can they really be? How qualified are their teachers?

If I had a kid, I would not be worried about how fancy the schools is. I would want my kid to have a chance to play in proper fields, get a little mud on the uniform, build crazy things in craft classes that might not be practical but show good vision, to be a part of any number of projects the kid wanted to be in, to be able to play as long they wanted to and yes, learn a little bit about history and science and all those things in a way that would interest them. Personally, I do not give a damn how many awards the school has won or if the kid scores a 96 percent on his / her exams (actually, a 96 percent in normal circumstances would be a little disturbing). 

Perhaps we are to blame for this situation. The rat race that we are all forced to be a part of. The intense competition for higher education, or even basic colleges… where each kid to expected to score no less than a 100. This is what we are building to and these schools promise to deliver. So what if the instructors are masochists, pedophiles or just not suited to the job. They manage to deliver and we are ready to pay through our nose for that. For that 100 percent.

Freedom of Speech in India

There has been much debate about the subtle curtailing of Freedom of Speech in India. There have been arrests of various reporters and cartoonists for making statements against various political leaders. People have been arrested for posting simple status messages. 

Books about Hinduism have been voluntarily withdrawn by publishers, fearing a backlash. 

The most recent case is about a bunch of Kashmiri students who were booked under sedition for cheering Pakistan during a cricket match. A match that India lost. There have been a lot of tweets against this move, calling this an act against the basic right of freedom of speech. And actually, in general circumstances, I would have been as well. I mean, it is a sport, and they were cheering for the opposing team, so what the hell.

But an India-Pakistan cricket match has never been just sport. While I might not support a sedition case, I am definitely not okay with consciousness behind this. The cricket match between India and Pakistan has always taken on momentous proportions. It is the one chance for the common man to participate in the hate game towards each other. Do we really hate each other? Would we beat up a Pakistani if we encounter him? Or call him names? Perhaps not. But a match between these two countries involves religion and a whole bunch of animosity. 

And when it involves Kashmir – a valued and disputed area, it is a potential landmine. It is no secret that the two nations have been fighting for Kashmir since Bharath was divided in Hindustan and Pakistan. India has always maintained that Kashmir belongs to us, and the people of Jammu & Kashmir are very content to be a part of us. Now, I cannot speak for those people. I’ve never even visited there and all the people I’ve met from the region are people who’ve moved away generations ago. 

So the Kashmiris face additional pressure of always showing whose side they are on – India or Pakistan. They do not have the liberty to even cheer for an opposing team (if that is Pakistan) because that we are constantly fearing that it could show the population’s inclination towards Pakistan. Everyone looks for hidden messages in every statement. Of course, the Pakistani government did not lose any time in taking advantage of the entire situation by inviting the students in study in Pakistan.

Indians have always been passionate about cricket. If you choose to support England or Australia during match against India, you will be subject to a lot of ribbing from the others. But perhaps you will not be stabbed because there are no other connotations to supporting those teams. It does not speak of a conflicting religious affiliation. It cannot be used as a political lever by the powers above. 

A Kashmiri blog said ” I wonder if a boss, who is a Manchester United fan, will fire a Liverpool fan who is his employee just because MU lost the game against Liverpool. This is hilariously absurd.”

It would be absurd, if one did not take into account the other sentiments behind India and Pakistan. If you were living in England, your boss might not fire you but he would definitely make your life a little harder for a while. When Australia lost to Italy in the Football World Cup a few years ago, the Italians walked around proudly, but very cautiously. They did not want to particularly tell anyone they were Italian till the Australians regained their good-humored sporting nature. 

I wonder if the author of the blog has ever been to a pub in Europe when a football match is on. The scene can get quite crazy. Rivarly between sporting teams has always been around, and all politics and religion into that and it is a definite receipe for disaster.

But the blog very clearly lists why this match and the following reactions are so important. Supporting Pakistan has always been Kashmir’s way of showing rebellion against India. True, they would rather not be a part of either nation and would exist as an independent little country. But what do they really want? If the elections of 2008 were any indication, they would rather be a part of India.

If the riots of 2010 were any indication, they would rather be independent. I really have no authority to comment on this subject. Kashmiri Pandits I’ve met mourn the loss of their state and talk about childhood days in Kashmir. Kashmiri Muslims I’ve met talk about the harassment by armed forces. But both have a common sentiment – the destruction of this land over territorial fights.

Freedom, Religion & Literature in India

The past few weeks have seen a quiet storm build up. In the eye of the storm is Penguin India and Wendy Doniger’s “Hinduism: An Alternative History” and a bunch of offended religious sentiment people.

Penguin India announced a couple of weeks ago that they would be withdrawing and pulping (an innocent term for destroying) all copies of the book. There was no court order banning the book but there was a case filed against it in 2010 by Shiksha Bachao Andolan.

I had not heard about the book and perhaps would have continued in ignorance if not for this announcement by the publisher. 

The argument of the petitioner was the book hurt religious sentiments, had wrong facts and thereby would case “fear and alarm among that their religion and religious beliefs are not safe any more and can be trampled with and denigrated, distorted & insulted and hence  you have intended to induce and incite them to commit offences against the State and against Public Tranquility.”

This is not the first time a book has been banned due to these reasons. But there always was a court order behind such bans and withdrawals. I am looking for Penguin’s reasoning behind the withdrawal but can’t seem to find any. But there definitely is not a court order behind this move. 

The lack of clear reasoning makes this act more scary than a court order. The move seems to be another in a growing list of things that are going against the Freedom of Speech and Expression in India. From being arrested for innocent tweets and Facebook status messages to creating cartoons on figureheads, the mantra of intolerance seems to be on the rise in India.

What seemed to be funny articles have suddenly acquired a darker meaning. Kochi – the state that was all about the proletariat suddenly announced they were seizing all t-shirts and other things with Bob Marley’s photographs on them. Why? Because Bob Marley apparently promotes weed.

Goa – the party destination of India and Gokarna, the alternate refuge for hippies, have more complaints about police raids and harassment. Cops claim that this is done to ensure the safety of the tourists, given the rise in number of rapes and murders. Hashish / Charas / Ganja – the drug of our gods have suddenly taken a more sinister meaning.

Is there a reason behind this intolerance in the country? Is the story of Wendy Doniger and Penguin just a wake up call that most of us will not heed?

**

In researching the story about Doniger and Penguin, I visited the website of the petitioner – Shiksha Bachao Andolan. 

Their description was as follows (though in Hindi) – Important role of education in national reconstruction is the goal . The overall development of the personality of the nation’s citizenry is the key role of education in any country . Education structure , curriculum – curriculum qualitatively , access and conform to the culture of the country , there has been public discussion on issues of education . Despite being the largest component of student academic world on various aspects of education debate has been kept away from him . Education for the nation re-building seminar on the role of students in an innovative effort being through education, culture, regeneration trust . This seminar is for pupils and students for students .

I came across another article on NDTV at the same time, which talked about factual errors in government-prescribed textbooks of school children. You can read the story here.

Impressionable children are being allowed to read wrong facts about Indian history. Facts and figures. Straight forward dates. And there are organizations which are worried about adults reading an interpretation of myth, religion and religious texts. Interpretations and analysis from which they are allowed to draw their own conclusion. 

I wonder if Wendy Doniger had  been an Indian, would there have been a similar riot? Foreigners are increasingly  been given the stink eye in India. Ask any foreign correspondent who has been working in Delhi in the past couple of years. 

Paranoia or truth?

The Fall Of Tarun Tejpal

I was perhaps 18 when I first met Mr. Tarun Tejpal. He was an icon to us in those days, just after the infamous “Operation West End” and the match fixing scandal in cricket. 

He was the standard to match for the journalists of our generation, and for once, the auditorium was packed willingly with student journalists keen to hear him talk. He walked in, wearing his trademark kurta, an imposing figure and charismatic. 

Strangely, I do not remember much of what he said. He spoke about the integrity of journalism and why it was important for the government to have good ‘watchdogs’. Those were the terms we used on a daily basis on those days. “The media is the watchdog of the government.” “A journalist must be unbiased and give all sides of the story.”

Tejpal and his magazine Tehelka faded into the student days, and we became jaded with the reality of journalism. We realised we were mere tools for propaganda and our ideas of being the watchdog were edited out. 

But a small part of hope was finally extinguished with the recent scandal surrounding Tejpal. More importantly, his response and reaction to the entire situation.

For someone who has supposedly constantly fought against injustice and corruption, his arrogance in the face of the accusation strips away some of the glory of his past accomplishments. 

It is disheartening to see a magazine like Tehelka, which has long positioned itself as the ‘true’ spokesperson of the people, to say that “what happens in our office is none of your business.” For Tejpal to assume that his standing excuses him from any actual punishment.

In that one statement, he became yet another power-drunk businessman / politician who believes that he is above society’s laws. That his actions do not deserve the same reaction as the rest of the commoner. 

What is the difference between Tarun Tejpal and Salman Khan, who was accused to running over and killing several people sleeping on the pavement? It is said that Salman Khan has made ‘retribution’ and is taking care of all the families of people he killed. It is said that he is taking care of their jobs and education. Yet, we demand for justice.

What is the difference between Tejpal and countless politicians whose actions have been brought to the forefront by the very same man who now claims a ‘6-month absence as the editor’ is punishment enough for his actions. 

Perhaps he never was the man that we all admired. Perhaps he has fallen from the heights he achieved, dizzy on his own power. 

But his fall marks an end of the purity of journalism in a manner that perhaps can never be restored.