Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Asia's World City: Part 1

That is how Cathay Pacific calls the Hong Kong state. And indeed, it is a world city. Hong Kong's development and current state traces its roots in the deep water harbour. Hong Kong's location was unique, as it allowed smaller ships and barges from the Pearl river to ferry raw material upto the deep water harbour, from where it would be loaded onto the large ships for further transportation. Thus, being a port, Hong Kong was visited by lots of ships and its crew. Further, being a British territory for a long time, it saw settlements from various British colonies such as undivided India, some parts of the African continent, etc. And as Hong Kong transformed itself into a financial centre of the Asia-Pacific region, it saw further influx of various nationalities from around the world.

Hong Kong's economy is heavily loaded with financial services, followed by tourism. And they have pulled all stops out, to attract tourists to the city. The connect begins even before you have bought a ticket to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) has a website in place for you to plan the journey. To start with, they offer free tourist visa on arrival for citizens of various countries. So, you can buy your ticket, take your passport and board the plane and enter Hong Kong in a jiffy. Even at the airport, the HKTB goes all the way to ensure that you get to know about the tourist spots in Hong Kong.

One thing that amazes you about Hong Kong is connectivity. The airport is around 25 km. from down-town, on a separate island. It is connected by Airport Express buses, which can take you to almost any part of Hong Kong and by Hong Kong's famous MTR. In effect, if traffic permits, you are not away from down-town Hong Kong by more than an hour.

If you are a tourist in Hong Kong, Tsim Tsa Shui (pronounced as chim cha sui) is the place to stay. Why? Because it has all sorts of accommodation options, ranging from budget hotels to luxury ones. And because of its proximity to most tourist locations in and around Hong Kong island. Also, staying in Tsim Tsa Sui lets you avoid the office crowd that pours into Hong Kong island. Tsim Tsa Sui also has connectivity to two MTR stations: Tsim Tsa Sui and East Tsim Tsa Sui, which further connect to the outer islands and other tourist locations of the SAR.

Must do in Hong Kong: Take a harbour tour on the Star Ferry to experience the colonial history and activites of Hong Kong. Go to the Avenue of Stars and take a picture along with Bruce Lee, Hong Kong's most famous international superstar. And on a clear night, if there have been no thunderstorm warnings, you can watch the Symphony of Lights show, which involves an orchestra of lights being beamed from more than twelve buildings from Hong Kong bay and Kowloon Island.

I will follow up more details about Hong Kong tourism in the next post.

Asia's World City: Part 1SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands: S. H. Zaidi and J. Borges

The mafia dons of the Mumbai underworld are quite well known and perhaps even romanticised. The careers of Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Varadarajan Mudaliar, Ashwin Naik, Bada Rajan, Chota Rajan and of course, Dawood Ibrahim are colourfully, yet well documented.

But, behind the curtains, in the backdrop, were quite a few women, who were so resourceful and determined to stand on their own, that some of them almost challenged the supremacy of the reigning dons.

The book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands traces the lives of thirteen such women, who made it big in the underworld. Some, who were forced into the underworld due to their circumstances, and some who were determined to carve their own place in the underworld. Their exploits have perhaps led to unknowing consequences. E.g., when Haji Mastan wanted to get into real state business, he sought Jenabai Daruwali's help. She suggested him to bring Dawood's gang and Pathan gang together. With this formidable alliance, Mastan did manage to get a foothold into the real estate business of Mumbai, but the collateral damage was done. The formidable alliance of Dawood and Pathans might have accelerated Dawood's rise in the underworld, creating a menace that we have to still bear with. Similarly, Arun Gawli seems to have lost a big time opportunity to get even with Dawood. Sapna didi, who harboured a grudge against Dawood, wanted to align with Gawli as she felt she was too small a force to inflict any harm on Dawood's operations. But Gawli's distrust about Muslims, led him to reject aligning with Sapna didi.

The stories of the wives of Dons are even more fascinating. They all took active interest in their respective husband's work, once they were on the run. The dons trusted their businesses in the hands of their wives. And these clever women learnt the ropes quickly and also realised how to protect their husband from harm. The likes of Asha Gawli and Neeta Naik joined politics to ensure their husbands, Arun Gawli and Ashwin Naik respectively, aren't gunned down by the police. While some others joined their husbands in their flight from law.

More such stories, some fascinating, some sad, find place in this book. It is worth grabbing a copy and driving through the untold stories of the Mumbai underworld. Certainly, crime is much more fascinating to read.

Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands: S. H. Zaidi and J. BorgesSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

VFS: The most expensive courier service

The first thing you need, if you have to travel abroad, is a visa to the countries you have to visit. And so, begins the hunt for what is the type of visa you need, the checklist of documents, photographs, etc. In India, most of the embassies, those who witness a large amount of visa applications for their countries, have now begun outsourcing part of their work to VFS.The VFS centres of the particular embassy/consulate collects your visa documents and passport, on behalf of the embassy, sorts them in the order required by the embassy and deposits those with them. On the scheduled day, VFS collects those documents and brings it back to its centre for you to collect those.

For all this business, VFS charges every applicant a processing fee, which ranges from Rs. 600 onwards. If the embassies themselves were to do all the administrative jobs that VFS does, they wouldn't be charging us any service fees, as it is included in the visa fees. But we pay these fees to VFS, because it helps us escape those long queues that we might encounter at the embassies/consulates. Also, it helps us realise whether our form is correctly filled and the right set of documents are attached, thus reducing the chances of visa being rejected due to incomplete documents, incomplete forms, etc.

This means, the VFS website listing the document requirements itself should be updated with the latest visa application requirements of the concerned embassy. If not, then there is a chance of a ruined trip to the VFS office. E.g., take the VFS website for the Chinese consulate. To apply for any visa, it does list the requirements. But, after you have gathered everything and gone to the VFS centre, you are told, "Sir, for the business visa, you need to submit your savings bank account statement." You tell them, that isn't mentioned on the website. Then "executive" says, "Sorry sir, the website might not have been updated." So, how am I supposed to know about what documents are required? I cannot have the latest requirements planted into my dreams. Then, she says, "If your airline isn't a Chinese/Hong Kong airline, you need to get your ticket stamped by the airline office." Again, you tell her that this isn't mentioned anywhere on the website.

You start feeling helpless. You have double, triple checked whether all the documents are in order. And you have referred to the website of the organisation authorised by the consulate for the document requirements. And for all this outdated information, VFS charges you Rs. 610 as service fees. Plus, costs you a futile journey to the VFS centre. Makes you wonder, is VFS only a courier service, transporting your documents to and from the embassy for you? Seems to be a pretty expensive service.
VFS: The most expensive courier serviceSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, May 06, 2011

U.S. turn around on 26/11 and the MMRCA deal

The US state department spokesperson, Mark Toner almost went to say that the terror acts of 9th September 2001 and 26 November 2008 are not comparable. How did he justify Operation Geronimo? He says "What we've said all along is that this was an individual where, when we had actionable intelligence against him, we acted upon that because we believed he was a direct and imminent threat to the United States."

But the United States appeared reluctant to support India, if it chooses to carry out a similar operation against terrorists who have engaged in (proxy-) war against us. So, even if we have concrete information about Dawood Ibrahim's location and decide to carry out a similar operation, US won't support us. Why?

Now, if we try to connect the dots, what emerges is the fact that just last week, India rejected the bids of two American firms, namely Boeing (F/A-18 Hornet) and Lockheed Martin (F-16), from the $126 billion MMRCA deal. Had this deal been through, it would have generated lots of jobs back in the US, besides giving a fillip to either Boeing or Lockheed Martin. Add to that, a continued business in terms of spares, re-fitting, weaponry, etc. Alas, that was not to be. No matter how many times the US repeats that it respects India's decision, they are definitely hurt. There is a growing section that feels that India is ungrateful. They feel that the US has done a huge 'favour' to India by working out the 123 agreement, which ends India's isolation from the nuclear world. In reality, there was no 'favour' but purely business considerations. But, the US still has to see the economic benefits of the deal, as no concrete agreements have yet been signed with any of the American suppliers of nuclear power generation equipment.

So, a sore United States doesn't want to extend any more 'favours' to India. They are definitely hurt. One, the MMRCA deal has gone to Europe, with American businesses losing more than a $ 200 billion business over a long span. Two, the nuclear agreement hasn't led to any economic benefits as yet. Three, India abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution against Gaddafi in Libya. And hence, they are trying to distance themselves from being committed to helping India, in case it decides to carry out direct operations on Pakistani soil, in a manner similar to what they did. This denial, would boost Pakistan's confidence and shrink India's to a certain extent. It exposes the double standards of the US, where they are allowed to violate the sovereignty of any country in order to kill a person they call as their enemy, but other nations cannot do so. Of course, a few American citizens too have lost their lives in the terror attacks and the US may pursue the terrorists, to avenge killing of "their citizens", with none in the world questioning its aggression.

Note: This portion added as an afterthought
But, it now makes me wonder, what would America's position have been, had India short-listed either Boeing or Lockheed Martin in the final rounds. Surely, not as cold or opposite to what it appears today in the newspapers. No doubt, they would have further pressurised Pakistan into "taking action" against the perpetrators of  26/11 and then also went on to say that they are parallels between 9/11 and 26/11. At the very least, Mark Toner would not be make these statements in the media today.
U.S. turn around on 26/11 and the MMRCA dealSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend