Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The National Rifle Association's PR disaster

This has been a fortnight of PR disasters. After gruesome crimes and horrific incidents in the world's flag-bearers of democracy- the USA and India, the targets of the agitation were involved in huge PR disasters. The government of India and especially the Prime Minister, were committing one PR disaster over another, in their response to the protests and reactions over the horrific gang-rape incident in Delhi.

Across the seas and oceans, the USA was rocked by the mass killings in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. As is common (and very necessary), there were huge voices and loud calls in support of enacting laws for regulating the ownership of guns and ammunition across the country. The Americans, who fiercely defend their constitutional guarantees, were bound to be vocal across both sides. First, since the constitutional gives rights to people to own guns, that right needs to be protected. That the guns end up taking lives of others (who are not necessarily the gunman's enemies) is an other matter. The National Rifle Association (NRA), which is an association of gun owners in America, is an extremely powerful body with over four million members. Not only are they an association, they are lobbyists too and powerful ones. They spent more than US$24 million in the 2012 elections towards funding political campaigns of candidates who were favourable to them. But, if they had spent a fraction of that amount on PR management, their  CEO, Wayne LaPierre, would not have ended up in a PR disaster soup.

After the mass killings in Connecticut, where most of the victims were young children, many aged less than 12 years, there was an outcry to have stricter gun control. The NRA was expected to say something, not that many expected it to say anything in favour of gun control. But even the NRA's members would not have expected it to be such a huge PR disaster. In a press conference, LaPierre said that the only way to stop gunmen from going on a rampage is handing guns to good people. So, instead of limiting the types of guns available and the number of people those who can own those, LaPierre wants everybody to have them. In the moments of grief, this isn't a welcome statement. It is almost like saying you need to fight more wars to have more peace. This was a pure PR disaster, indicating the mindset of the NRA members. Sure, you are a rifle association, so then why should civil population have access to assault weapons and military grade guns and ammunition? That too, in Wal-Mart, as if it were a weekly purchase of eggs! Nancy Lanza, the mother of the killer (Adam Lanza) in the Connecticut shootings, owned an array of guns in her home, which were accessible to her sons. Now, why did she need so many? If she was a collector of some sort, then shouldn't it be necessary for some regulations that ensure the safety of the weapons and restrict their accessibility?

Sure, your constitution guarantees the right to possess a firearm for self-defense within the home. But, is this the age when you might be attacked by a group of bandits, that you need to possess military grade assault weapons? And if so, why can't you let the police classify your area as such. Certainly, areas that are relatively safe do not need you to possess assault and automatic weapons. But then, for a safe society, all Americans need to accept that they need to adhere to certain restrictions. Will these restrictions guarantee a certainty in safety. Absolutely not, but then adhering to the 2nd amendment's provisions also has not done the same. Wonder how many people who matter would now want to side with LaPierre, after his press conference?
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Saturday, November 24, 2012


The year 2012 marked fifty years of the James Bond franchise. It had been already fantastic for Bond in 2012, with an appearance in the opening ceremony in the London Olympics as the Queen's escort. That is perhaps a huge tribute to Bond's contribution about "being British" and  it sealed Bond as a cultural characteristic of Britain. Skyfall, too had a grand premiere coinciding with the release date of Dr. No, which also saw the Totals too in attendance.

So, how is Skyfall, when compared to the previous Bond movies? First, it is very rare in Bond movies to not know who the villain is for the first 20-25 minutes. Perhaps, the only time it has happened is in The Spy Who Loved Me. Secondly, this is the first Bond movie in which the villain has no more than a personal agenda. Raoul Silva's sole motive is to avenge the perceived injustices committed by M when she was in Hong Kong with Silva working under her. In all previous Bond movies, the villain had a motive to achieve either a monopoly which would lead to economic benefits or achieve a stage to be in a position for obtaining windfall economic gains. Except, in Thunderball and From Russian with Love, where the villains wanted to establish a new 'perfect' world. In terms of gadgets too, this is not a very typical Bond movie, especially when you have seen the action involving Q's gadgets. It is more along the lines of Dr. No, where Bond is armed with very minimal gadgetry, a Walther PPK and a bag with fifty sovereigns, a knife and an explosive opening case. I cannot recall Bond finishing off the villain with something mundane as a knife in any movies. This is perhaps because of continuation of the reboot, which began with Casino Royale. Of course, with Q coming back, it marks his trademark requests to Bond about returning the equipment in one piece and we all know how Bond treats it. And finally, after fifty whole years, we know the full name of the new M. And Miss Moneypenny's too. If Gareth Mallory continues as M and Eve Moneypenny is allotted screen space in Bond 24, it is the first time M's and Moneypenny's full name would be known to people. All in all, Skfyfall marks some notable departures from previous Bond movies.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Dear Indian media, there are others apart from US elections

This post is born out of frustration. About reporting in the Indian web and electronic media. With the US election scheduled in November, everyone was busy reporting on the tiny details of the two candidates. Where Obama spoke, where did Romney have dinner, how their wives felt, etc. Hell, on the last two days, the reporters went into a kind of frenzy, reporting every step the two candidates took, that Obama cried during his final speech and many more. Now, most of the netizens will not be able to point out on the map, any of the cities or towns these two campaigned in. So, why are these elections so important to hog a major portion of the news space in India? Do we have no other newsworthy matters in hand?
Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister, chose to visit India at perhaps a wrong time. Because our media was not interested in bringing to us what Harper had brought for the country. Our media felt that it is of more importance for Indians to know who the next US president is! So, nothing was in the prime time about Harper's visit to India. Nor was anything reported about his security personnel rejecting Indian measures and shipping in their own security limousines for Harper. Who is going to find out the truth of why this happened? When a visiting dignitary has to bring in his own security vehicles, is he being snobbish or is our government guilty of inadequacy? But of course, this doesn't matter to our media. What is more important news is how Obama cried in his last campaign speech.
Forget this negative part. The Harper government signed a few agreements with the Indian government. Of these, one was setting up a research programme with three Canadian universities and the IITs in the area of clean water technologies. But we know nothing of that! More importantly the two governments signed an agreement where temporary Indian employees working in Canada and temporary Canadian employees working in India and their will not have to contribute towards their social security or pension plans. This allows both, the companies and their employees, to save costs incurred on things whose benefits they wouldn't have ever received. Do we know of this? No, but we do know that Obama cried during his last speech. Doesn't matter if many Indians working on-site have been crying for years on the unjust contributions they have to make to the US social security system, when they are not eligible to receive any benefit from it.
We cheered Obama when he came to India and hailed him to take the nuclear reactor deal forward. But nuclear reactors run on uranium, which will not come from USA, but from Canada as it has one of the largest reserves of uranium. But we do not yet know at what stage is a deal for uranium supply with Canada? And what did Harper's visit achieve in that direction? We will have to read Canadian newspapers for that because our dear media was busy dissecting why Romney lost and Obama won! More importantly Canada wants to sign a free trade agreement with India. What will this agreement cover? What is the Indian government's view about this agreement? No we won't know of that till our media finds time from reporting how democrats and republicans will never reach any agreement because each controls one house of the US government.
Seriously, I am tired of this minute-by-minute updates of all that doesn't matter to our country. How do these affect India? In almost no way. Romney or Obama it doesn't matter to us. They don't do us any favour. While India has been purchasing military equipment from the US firms through its tax payers' money, the same are given to our western neighbours as part of aid to "fight terrorism". And why cheer Obama who has, during his campaign, talked of India only as a job stealer through outsourcing? More importantly, why not cheer Harper, who has given Indian employees on Canada their fair dues?  What I am seriously tired of is the Indian media. They have their own ideologies and iron-cast agendas. They won't budge from that. The nation's interest is secondary. That's why we saw more headline space for Sandy, compared to Nilam. In the web media it appeared as if Nilam had just kissed the Indian coast while Sandy rammed through the USA. New York's preparations where highlighted throughout, but not Tamil Nadu's. And of course, they conveniently missed the fact that the same Sandy had caused far more devastation in poor countries like Haiti and Cuba, which face crop loss too. But alas, they weren't having elections where the state was ruled by an opposing party to the president.
Dear Indian media, there are others apart from US electionsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, September 24, 2012

The FDI threat?

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, finally 'bit the bullet' and announced a slew of economic reform measures. When cornered, even a cat puts up a fight. The government definitely was cornered by a lots of issues. The biggest being fiscal deficits. Now, there may be a big, big controversy and disagreement over how oil companies compute their losses made on sale of diesel, petrol, kerosene and LPG below market prices. But, the point is that these are auditor-approved losses and hence, the government has to compensate for these losses, as they do not allow the oil companies to freely set these. And hence, the government had to raise the price of diesel, as crude price was rising through the summer and almost through the entire year. But, that is not the point of discussion here.

The second, which we would all agree with is the aspect of foods getting destroyed due to lack of adequate storage and distribution infrastructure. Hence, an artificial inflation, when harvest quantities at farms are not drastically short. The government, on its part, failed to erect cold storage facilities, store houses and a flexible policy on farm harvest procurements. For decades, the wholesalers in the agriculture produce market committees (APMCs) have ruled the roost and enjoyed a monopoly in procuring farm produce. The monopoly extended to labour that could be used to load and unload the produce. The farmer was forced to pay for labour to unload his produce. He couldn't get cheaper labour of his own to do the work. These two monopolies- the wholesalers and the APMC labourers- have never worked in favour of the farmers. What more, they are such a strong political force, that very few have dared to take them on. These people have never invested or enabled anybody to invest in infrastructure that will prevent loss of food products between the farm and the fork. The government's monopoly too, has hurt the cause. We keep on hearing about how grains are rotting in granaries and not effectively reaching those who need them. But, will FDI solve this particular problem? I do not think so.

A set of people who would be affected by entry of Wal-Mart, etc. are the kirana shop owners and people whom they employ. But, they have been weathering the heat from players like Big Bazaar, Reliance Fresh, More, etc. Why would they suddenly wilt if Wal-Mart arrives on the scene? As I have said in a previous post, big retail shops tend to sell products in large packaging. E.g. a toothpaste of 200 gm., or three soap-bars together. But, when a city like Mumbai has more than 50% of its population living in slums, are they going to buy from the big retailers? Mind you, many of them are not poor in the perceived sense, but just that they can barely make their ends meet. Most of them, have a monthly credit with the local kirana store. And they buy stuff in small packages. A bar of soap, half-a-kilo of sugar at a time, etc. FDI in retail, if implemented as seen in North America and Europe, is not going to help these marginal families.

A bigger issue that should be of worry to many, is the accounting practices of many of the wholesalers and kirana store owners. Never, do we get a receipt, with its sales tax and VAT numbers. Most of the sales accounting is done on a piece of newsprint quality paper. So, many of us, of the salaried class, whose income taxes are routinely cut even before we get to see our pay-check should be definitely worried if these kirana stores are paying the taxes that are due. Will the big-box retailers be honest enough to pay their taxes? May be not 100%, but compliance would be way better than the kirana stores. If you haven't noticed, do check the receipts you get from stores like Big Bazaar, D'Mart, etc. They do carry a CST/BST number and VAT registration number and the sales do get recorded into their accounting system. Kirana stores have, for long, not modernised their business practices. If they do not, then they would definitely lose business to the big-box retailers, whether Indian or foreign.

Finally, is the government in a looking-London-talking-Tokyo mode? There was a time when the unions of employees of leading national banks went on strike, refusing computerisation in banks. They feared that this would lead to job losses. They pressurised the banks into agreeing on a fixed pace of computerisation, which was so slow that banks would never have achieved computerisation in a reasonable time-frame. To get over this, the government allowed private banks into the market. These had completely new labour, free from the union tactics of nationalised banks' employees. They introduced a slew of computerisation and digitisation in their working, which made banking easy. People flocked to them in large numbers. This scenario made the unions of public banks realise that if their branches are not computerised fast enough, they would any way lose business and customers. And after two decades of allowing private banks, government banks are still competing and flourishing, only because their employees chose to adapt. Similarly, is the government forcing the wholesalers and kirana owners into modernising their business practices through another way? Ghee seedhi ungali se nahi nikal raha, to ungali tedhi karni hi padati hai.

Finally, is FDI in retail going to benefit anybody? It is definitely a double-edged sword. Consumers may get better quality stuff at cheaper rates. Producers may get better deals. But all depends on how honestly is the policy implemented and how honestly is the implementation tracked to achieve its stated goals.
The FDI threat?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, August 10, 2012

Privatising health care: A planning commission proposal

The Planning Commission of India came up with a radical proposal to move the mechanism of managing and delivering primary healthcare from the government to a select network of private organisations. Though this is still a proposal and the final outcome may differ, it is a dangerous move. Of course, we agree that the current government handled system of primary health care is in shambles, but then privatisation is not the answer to improvement of services.

The Planning Commission, instead of suggesting a sustainable mechanism of improving easy accessibility to and availability of healthcare, wants the government to get out of it to a large extent. Instead, it wants the these activities outsourced to the private sector!! Nothing could go far wrong from that. Do you think any private sector healthcare provider would want to invest in remote and rural areas? The Planning Commission wants the healthcare centres modelled along the lines of those in the US and Mexico. But do you know that around 50 million people in the USA are uninsured and hence, do not have access to healthcare. That amounts to 16 % of the population in a country which is the world's largest economy. Did the concept of 'managed care' (as defined in the Planning Commission's draft) help assure access to healthcare?

The health industry in India itself is testimony to the fact that the private sector isn't interested in spreading into areas which are not financially viable. So, we see big hospital chains only in metro cities. The small towns and villages are served either by small individually operated hospitals or government ones. Of course, I am not asking super specialty facilities in every town, but that's the point. Run a search through the internet and you will find thousands of instances where private hospitals have not reserved beds for treating the poor people free of cost, despite this being mandated by law and Supreme Court judgements. And we want to leave basic health care in the hands of the private enterprise?

Another case is about drug research. The pharma industry too has been spending millions of dollars (rupees, pounds, etc.) on developing drugs that cure lifestyle diseases, but very very few are involved in discovering medicines for T.B., which kills thousands of poor every year!! This is a fact and can be searched easily on the internet. The point I am trying to make is that the private sector, by definition, will be looking to maximise its return on investment. Hence, they are not going to willingly venture into areas where they see losses or no return on capital!

We in India hail the telecom sector as an example of what privatisation achieved. Sure, we have the lowest call rates in the world, sure mobile usage has peaked and reached various corners of the country. But, this was partially fuelled by the government's decision to give spectrum at affordable cost. And still, many taluka headquarters aren't served by anyone else other than BSNL! Forget remote places, but on the popular beach of Ladghar in Dapoli (Ratnagiri, Maharashtra), the only network they ever receive is BSNL's (March 2012). Moreover, when it comes to customer service (and especially billing disputes), most readers would agree that the private sector is as good (or bad) as BSNL. So much for the private sector's achievements.

The Health Ministry has rightly torn into the Planning Commission's proposal and the furious uproar has led to the Commission saying that these are proposals and not final action plans. I hope this is not implemented. It will be the beginning of a dark era in primary health care. And till now, I haven't even talked about what the unholy nexus between private parties and those in the government can possibly do to see that the private sector is not unnecessarily burdened with the social objectives of the government. That would lead to a cheap game of playing with the lives of the vulnerable people.

I am waiting for P. Sainath to say something about this. It would turn out to be a wonderful piece by him.
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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Numb3rs: TV series

Oh yes, I'm watching many T.V. series now-a-days. Numb3rs is an FBI detective T.V. series that ran between 2005-2010. Agent Don Eppes is an FBI agent in Los Angeles and handles crime cases that occur in the L.A. area. In this work, he is assisted by his brother, Charles Eppes, who is a professor of Applied Mathematics in the (fictitious) CalSci university. Charlie (as Charles is fondly called) tries to apply his mathematical and statistics knowledge to come up with probabilistic solutions about the crime and about persons involved in it.

Now, here is a professor, who is involved in solving crime for the FBI, using all the knowledge of mathematics he has. Moreover, the FBI officers are portrayed to take his methodologies seriously, even if the conclusions may some times seem wrong or absurd. This  portrayal of a mathematics professor does help in creating a positive image about professors in research universities. There is a big prime-time audience watching this programme.There are many parents and teens in the audience. These are impressionable minds. If they see a particular character being portrayed positively and in a heroic manner, they would certainly develop a liking towards such a character. Remember, how as kids, being a policeman meant having the ability to bash up the bad guys and create piece for the good ones. This is partly because many Bollywood heroes (especially Amitabh Bachchan) were portrayed as positive inspectors. Or like Iftekhar, who invariably was the DCP or DIG in almost every movie. Or how we didn't want to be the lala or sethji since they were portrayed as someone who lives off by making poor people suffer.

 Can something similar be replicated in India? I'm not talking of a detective series alone, but a serial where college professors are shown to positively contribute towards problem solving. Can the 'consulting' aspect of professors be woven in to the story? Today, in most TV series in India (and even movies) a professor is portrayed either as a caricature or some one who is always too theoretical in his/her approach to anything in life. People, therefore, tend to view a professor's career too, in a similar manner. So, while parents complain about the deteriorating quality of teaching, no positive image of professors/teachers is being created, which would motivate young children to take up those jobs. The 'soft-power' of the television needs to be harnessed effectively. Someone in the film/television industry must help out with this. Anybody listening?
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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Undercover Boss: TV series

I began watching this TV series Undercover Boss on Netflix just a few days ago. I get to watch the  American version of this show on Netflix. So, the story line of this reality show is that the top boss (usually CEO, but in some cases, the COO, marketing head, legal advisor, etc.) of a particular company go undercover (under a disguise) for a week and work at the lowest level in their organisation, in different locations.

The workers, with whom they 'train' for their job, are (generally) told that this person is one amongst the two who are competing in a reality show for filling one open position in the corporation. They (the employee) have to evaluate his/her (the CXO's) performance on the job. The selling point of the show is that a wealthy CXO, who lives in a mansion, has expensive club memberships and jet-sets around US (perhaps the globe), is willing to reach employees at the lowest rung and work with them to understand the company better. At the end of the show, (s)he is supposed to announce what is being done to make the company a better place to work.

Of course, the show was meant for prime-time viewing, which means there has to be lots of drama and emotions thrown in. Human beings have a somewhat irrational reaction towards emotions and reality shows take complete advantage of this. So, the boss is sent to work with people who have struggled a lot before having this job or who have a family crisis or issues, which strike an emotional chord with the boss (and more importantly the viewers). In almost every show, the boss come out realising the (s)he cannot deliver with the same efficiency that those workers have been delivering (Oh, give me a break! Even I cannot do someone else's job with the same efficiency, but same hold true the other way round). And it also dawns upon them about how those employees are the ones who have made the company successful.

Well, well. Where was all this knowledge hiding till now? When you are chasing quarterly results, busy trying to impress Wall Street and shareholders, employees' happiness and well-being tends to take a back seat. But, at the end of this show, the CXO is supposed to realise what is not working in the organisation. (S)he has to attempt to fix the flaws that are stagnating or contrary to overall employees' growth. But you almost never see that happen!! On an average the CXO works with 4-5 employees in different locations and doing different jobs. Each employee narrates a set of problems (s)he is facing in life. Some are personal and some are professional. Some professional problems are a result of personal issues, while some personal problems arise from professional (on the job) issues. The CXO in almost all episodes seem to address the problems of individual employees. So, as a reward the employee sees his/her problem being addressed in the form of a vacation or a one-time cash grant. But then, doesn't this leave other employees, who were not selected to work with the CXO, unhappy? They could have problems far more serious than those selected. Besides, by announcing personal reward, how does it benefit the organisation? Where are the policy changes? Of the more than ten episodes that I saw, there have hardly been 3-4 policy decisions compared to almost 60 personal rewards. Or will there be policy decisions behind the camera? If that's the case, how will the prime-time viewer know whether the company is actually doing something for its employees? And the intention of the show is to demonstrate that the top management is willing to actually look into employees' problems and not just indulge in improving the top-line and golfing!!
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The mockery of sentiments

Our elected representatives were at it again. What would have remained confined to the eyes of a few, had they not raked it up, came out in the open for every one to see. And why did they rake it up? Because, they felt that the incident would hurt sentiments of certain people.

The cartoon of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, sketched by Shankar in 1949, would have remained confined to the field of political science. But, our MPs didn't realise this and raked up the issue in the Parliament, saying that sentiments would be hurt. Thus, with the widespread reach of electronic media, the cartoon was now known to all and sundry, including those, who would have never even thought about the relations between Nehru and Ambedkar. Bowing to 'popular pressure', the government decided to withdraw circulation of the books that contained the cartoons. And going overboard, they decided to remove all political cartoons in NCERT textbooks!! 

Where is our society headed? A cartoon hurts the sentiments of people. But, failed promises by politicians don't!! Election after election, politicians have failed to live up to the promises made in their election manifestos. Till date, they have failed in ensuring the implementation of the most important functions of the government. But, this doesn't hurt peoples' sentiments. The Parliament is disrupted at will, bills are past without engaging debates. But this doesn't hurt peoples' sentiments.

This year, many parts of the nation are staring at a drought. This has led to migration of the village folks to cities in search of work and water. The nation has spent crores of rupees on sold called irrigation projects. But we haven't been able to guarantee adequate year-round supply of potable water. Forget the national level, even at city level there is no guarantee of adequate supply of potable water. This, doesn't hurt peoples' sentiments. Scam after scam is being unearthed. But those accused in such scams do not display any guilt. Instead some are promoted and most are backed by their respective parties. Such acts, do not hurt the sentiments of the people.

What hurts people is a cartoon, which was symbolic of the situation in 1949!! That's the claim of our elected representatives. But respected sirs and madams, what about you hurting our sentiments, when the government has failed to provide even the basic needs of millions of ordinary citizens across the country? Will Parliament be ever disrupted on this issue? Will crowds need to vandalise offices of MPs because manifesto promises were not fulfilled? Or have the MPs not yet understood what our true sentiments are!!
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Monday, May 07, 2012

India's Iran oil imports and US persuasion

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, is on a visit to India, her last one before the term of this government ends. The Hindu reports the following about one of the points on the agenda of her visit
In the run-up to the Indian leg of her visit, agencies have reported an official of her delegation as saying Ms. Clinton will once again persuade Indian leaders to cut down their dependence on Iranian oil. The official noted the stepped up Indian purchases of oil from Saudi Arabia which, he believes, means lower procurement of Iranian oil.
She can afford to give advice. Because, as of 2009, USA produces around 9200 bpd of oil. This is out of its consumption of around 18000 bpd. Which means, US domestically produces around 50% of its crude oil requirement. Moreover, their natural gas production (as of 2010) is approximately 21500 billion cubic feet (bcf), which is around 87% of their total requirement. Of its imports, the largest contributor is its neighbour, Canada. And the remaining they get from friends like Saudi Arabia and Brazil. Plus, it has loads of shale oil and gas reserves, which if it exploits to the fullest potential can lead to US ceasing oil imports.

On the other hand, as of 2009, India produces 835 bpd of oil domestically. This is barely 28% of our total requirement of 3008 bpd. Which means, we import around 72% of our oil requirement. Moreover, with oil being priced in US Dollars, the US does not take a hit on currency fluctuations. But, we in India, are susceptible to both, fluctuation in crude oil price and currency fluctuations.

Hence, it is important that we tread cautiously on Hillary's demand to reduce imports from Iran. She would be delighted (at least in the media) to see us completely halt imports from Iran. But, we have to be aware of the risks involved. Moreover, we are a sovereign democracy and do have the right to decide on who our trade partners will be. And if we oblige to Hillary's demands, what do we get in return? China will march in and persuade Iran into giving huge discounts on crude oil and won't even care a damn about what US or its European allies have to say. Will Hillary return favour by doing away with the arbitrary rise in rejections of business visas and reducing the visa fees to an acceptable level? Will she promise (and deliver) complete access to technology related to power generation using nuclear energy, which they have been trying to restrict through some back door measures or the other?
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

RTE and the government's responsibilities

With the Supreme Court of India upholding the constitutional validity of the Right to Education (RTE) Act (2009), many human rights' and social organisations are cheering out loud. This, they say, will allow children of economically weaker sections to study in private schools, where tuition costs are definitely higher and perhaps not affordable to all those who are meritorious enough to deserve them. But, the main hurdle, like all other laws of our country, is how to effectively implement this act. The implementation should not unduly burden those students' parents who are legitimately paying their wards' fees, through their hard-earned (and well deserved) salaries. How will the government ensure this?

The government imposes a 2% education cess on all the taxes that we pay (income tax, service tax, etc.). Thus, all those who pay taxes, are already sharing a certain amount of the burden. So, isn't the ball now in the government's court, to put this money to its stated use? If schools begin to pass the burden of those students whom they admit under the RTE Act provisions to the others who have already paid full fees, this situation will lead to double taxation on the families. The Minister for HRD, Kapil Sibal, has said 

...under the RTE Act schools which have not taken any benefit from the government will be compensated by the government...
 But, what has not yet been clarified is what would constitute these 'benefits'. Most education institutes have received land at concessional rates from the government. This is the basic government policy, so that infrastructure costs get lowered and the cost of education does not spiral skywards. Thus, the government has to clearly list the items which would render a school ineligible for such compensation. In the Times of India, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has written
Reimbursement provided by government, therefore, will be adequate to meet the costs of educating children from weaker sections in such schools. But states must put in place open and transparent systems, preferably online, for reimbursement in a time bound and efficient manner.
Granted that the institutes will be reimbursed student expenditure at a rate decided by the government. But, what is the guarantee that records will not be fudged? Though Mr. Sibal says that most education institutes are run by charitable and religious trusts, many such trusts are headed by politicians, who were part of formulating the RTE Act. Recently, the Maharashtra government decided to conduct an actual head count of the number of students enrolled in government-aided schools. Unsurprisingly, it found that the head count was inflated, in some cases, by more than thrice the actual number of students attending, thereby siphoning government money into the pockets of the schools (and 'charitable' trusts). With these charitable trusts being headed by political persons, we can now realise, where the government's money goes.

In many countries (especially in the developed ones), school education is the state's responsibility. The provincial government runs the schools and functions like the educational institutes in our country. Thus, with the government partially (or fully) subsidising primary education, this reduces the financial stress on parents. Providing education is definitely the responsibility of the government. This has been the case since the beginning of civilisation. In ancient India, education of all sorts received infrastructure and operating support from the state. The sages built and lived in ashrams, which were developed with help from the king/emperor. Universities used to run on support from the empire and the wealthy in the community. This is because an educated society definitely has a better outlook towards life. Educated people can take informed decisions and also realise what it takes to lead a better life. That is why education should be a social issue, not a privilege. By asking unaided schools to share the government's burden the government is trying to shrug off its responsibility. Instead, it should improve and strengthen the government-run schools by introducing better infrastructure and increasing the accountability of the teachers employed.
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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Indian media and the National Film Awards

Considering some of the free time I have got now-a-days, I have begun spending some of it to analyse some of the views of Justice Katju and P. Sainath. "Why so?", would be your question. That is because they both present a view that is many a time completely ignored in mainstream media, especially the electronic one. The more I view news channels, the more am I beginning to believe that the Indian media lacks the necessary depth, rigour and commitment to educate the Indian public in issues relevant to India.

While there are a lot of isses, which the media doesn't give proportional coverage, I will restrict myself to the field of cinema. The Indian National Film Awards are a tribute to the best of Indian cinema, which spans across more than eighteen languages (excluding local dialects). Awarded every year, by the President of India, these are considered a pinnacle of achievement by many in the industry, as the nominees have to compete across the entire spectrum of Indian cinema, rather than be restricted to a particular language(s).

The regional Indian cinema has been at the forefront of meaningful entertainment, frequently combined with conveying important social messages and practices. Especially, cinema in Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali (or Bangla) and also in Tamil, Telegu and Kannada, has been active in these areas. What Bollywood (or mainstream Hindi cinema) considers as 'parallel' or 'experimental' cinema is a proven track for good (and reasonably commercially successful) cinema in regional languages. The enormous variety of such cinema provides a huge opportunity for the media to build products around this cinema and improving the knowledge of the general public about this area. But the media still basks in the glory of Bollywood. New, for the media, could range right from Vidya Balan winning the National award to whether Salman and Katrina are still together.

The media, which devotes a lot of time running programmes about the Oscars and give a minute-by-minute update of the ceremony, has done nothing to bring forth the procedures of the National Awards. The task of the jury is not yet known to us. How do they judge cinema of languages which they may not know at all? What movies are nominated for the awards, how is the nomination and elimination procedure? How is the jury selected, in the first place? For the media, their task begins only after the awards have been announced. If anyone from Bollywood has won an award, then run endless programmes about that person and the movie for which (s)he received the award. But, at the same time, regional cinema winners are completely ignored after their name and award has been announced. E.g., Vidya Balan winning the award (and she deserved it) received extensive coverage in the print and visual media. But, what about Girish Kulkarni, who won the best actor award? How much mention did he get, compared to Vidya? That too, when his movie (Deool) has showcased the dark (and economic) side of religion and religious beliefs. The movie has also won the President`s golden lotus award and award for best dialogue. Similarly of other films like Byari and others. While the media gave extra wide coverage to A. R. Rahman receiving the Oscar, how much do we know of Neel Daat and Mayook Bhaumik, who won the National Award for best music direction? Or about Anand Bhate and Rupa Ganguly, the best playback singers?

I do not intend to say that news media should screen such movies. But the print and electronic media can definitely bring forward the artists who have at least been nominated for such awards. Of course, Bollywood has a marketable value, far higher than regional cinema, but then shouldn't the media help in furthering the cause of regional cinema and also, help inculcate and improve interest in good regional cinema? Similarly, the government of India to is at a fault that it hasn't been able to create an environment and viewer interest like the Oscars have done. The government should also pro-actively help develop interest and curiosity in the National awards so that the 'market' for such cinema improves.
Indian media and the National Film AwardsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, February 20, 2012

Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts: P. Sainath

Let me begin with two quotes:
How agonized we are over how people die... how untroubled we are by how they live

- P. Sainath
Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime

- attributed to H. de Balzac
In brief, these two quotes sum up the effect of government-led development on those displaced by it and our attitude towards the plight of those affected by such development.

P. Sainath is a well respected authority on the subject of the economic and social status of the poor rural people, most of whom were either displaced or detached because of the development and industrialisation policies of the government (both central and state). Moreover, from his articles, it seems that the government isn't willing to learn from its mistakes and most of the rectification is finally left to a few brave individuals and local officers (who can be transferred as per the whims of any politician).

Everybody Loves a Good Drought is a collection of articles written by P. Sainath as a work funded by the Times of India fellowship. He toured a lot of districts across states (mainly Orissa, undivided Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh), which were 'backward' according to the government's definition. The book is nicely divided into sections such as the adverse effect of government's development policies, the effect of lack of education, the desperate state of the financially poorest sections of the population and the way the poor are striking back. His research and field experience shows that in district after district, the economically poor and politically unorganised people are the ones most vulnerable to the adverse effects of so-called 'development'. Imagine the plight of people who carry 40-50 kg of coal loaded on a cycle over almost 40 km so that the end up earning hardly Rs. 10-15 per day! Or places where the government organisation has almost decimated the local variety of bull and replaced it with a hybrid one, which yields more milk. Never mind the fact that the hybrid variety was more prone to illness and more expensive to maintain, thereby turning the milk surplus region into a milk deficit one.

There is a place in Orissa, whose official name is 'Cut-off area', as it is so remote, being submerged by a dam, whose water and electricity have ended up darkening and drowning the future of the people in this area. In all places the policies are made at the top and implemented without understanding the implications at ground level. No minister or officer as ever bothered to personally visit some of these areas to get a hands on idea of the problems faced and solutions needed. More often than not, it is the flawed implementation that leads to such disasters. And more often than not, the government prefers to rely on feedback from 'expert groups', rather than the locals who are experiencing problems. The book describes their plight in detail. It also highlights, how the mighty and powerful (and obviously politically well-connected) are trying to crush the few seedlings of dissent and resistance that are rising out of the desperate need for survival.

The fabric of the developed urban India is stained with blood of the tribals and extremely poor rural population who have been hounded out of their traditional homes and lifestyle using draconian laws like the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. This may be because we chose to turn the Nelson's eye towards such issues. The media, which was supposed to be our eyes and ears, has chosen other priorities, thereby losing focus on this beat. India may be shining, but for what percentage of the population? Backward areas, with no access to education, health care and proper legitimate means for earning a livelihood. Some British era views of development are still being perpetrated and thereby forcing many of the population to abandon their traditional ways of living and be forced into oblivion or the clutches of debt and perennial poverty.

The book is a must ready for everybody who keep on harping of the progress India has made. The realisation that a lot still needs to be done, will arise. And a realisation of how it should be done. We wonèt need a Swades movie, to inspire people to work for the country. My feelings are, that this book should be enough for us to do that.
Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts: P. SainathSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why the IPL is going wrong for Indian cricket?

No, this is not to blame for the disastrous tours of England and Australia. But it is got to do with wrong precedents being set and incorrect models being created. Previously too, I have blogged about the kind of culture that the IPL is ending up creating, especially on the franchisee side. But, in itself, IPL is not to be blamed for everything going wrong. It might just turn out to be the proverbial final straw that broke the camel's back, which has followed a series of rather unfortunate events. Some for which the BCCI is to be blamed and some for which we, the society, are to be blamed. The IPL is geared towards making a good business case first, and then an opportunity for players to display their T20 skills. It has been made completely commercial. And the BCCI has managed to get everyone, from ex-players to 'cricketing experts' on its side to tom-tom the benefits of the IPL. Many of these people claim that IPL has benefited fringe players like Swapnil Asnodkar, Paul Valthaty and others, who could get their 'skills' noticed because of the IPL. 

But are the franchisees actually interested in developing domestic cricket? The one which is supposed to feed the lineup for international cricket? None of those who shine at international level have honed their skills in the IPL. They have gone through the gruel of Ranji trophy, Duleep trophy and U-19 levels before being chosen for the test side. Moreover, the way the IPL is handled and organised itself is a huge contradiction, much like the Parliament and legislative assemblies in India. Those framing the rules of business, are themselves competing for the business. N. Srinivasan, the current BCCI secretary and a board member for eons, is the owner of the Chennai Super Kings franchise, through India cements. When the players of the game begin framing the rules, there is always going to be suspicions of not being fair and neutral.

Now, for season 5 of the IPL, Sahara India has begun claiming about unfair treatment. They are right, when they say that a replacement of Yuvraj Singh is needed. But, they go on to say that there is no Indian player of the same marketable value as Yuvraj, so they want a foreign player. Thus, what is more important to Sahara is their RoI, rather than creating a franchise where budding players can display their talent. A player's marketable value is important, than his talent. This is the same case with all other franchisees. How many have played a positive role in developing local cricket? How many have actually taken the pains to take cricket to areas which have good talent, but not enough facilities? Have the franchisees declared any plans to upgrade existing or build new training facilities and/or stadia for budding local cricketers, who might not currently be a part of the IPL? Has the BCCI ever thought of this issue? 

Time and again, comparison is drawn with the football clubs in Europe. These clubs have been built over time and locals have been naturally drawn towards loyalty of their clubs. They act as a talent breeding centre, which feeds into the national teams of each nation. Finally, creating and nurturing the lines that feed the national cricket side is left to the BCCI. So, Saurashtra bears everything it takes to hone Ravindra Jadeja into becoming a strong international cricketer. Only after he has been tested at that level, does he catch the attention of the franchisees who now want to pick him up at all possible costs. This is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Many states have rightly withdrawn the status of 'sport' to the IPL and have begun collecting entertainment tax on the matches played.

The great Indian media too has had its role in making the IPL larger than life. In an era of breaking news, a flash of 30 runs scored in 16 balls makes more headlines than 150 scored over a day or bowling 30 overs in  a day for getting 5 wickets. When Valthaty became the highest scorer in the IPL, the news anchors were clamouring for his inclusion in the India ODI side. This goes on day-in and day-out, leading the public and layman fans to believe that IPL performances are the benchmark for selection to the international side. Moreover, Valthaty features on the front-page of every newspaper, even if he has scored 45 runs off 20 balls. But a player's photograph rarely appears (even on the sports page) for his heroics in the Ranji trophy. Newspapers allocate a major portion of the sports page for each of the IPL matches, but Ranji trophy games are reported in one column, with the heroics of the players going completely unnoticed. Take up any leading daily in your area and you can see that Ranji scores are presented in brief, whereas IPL score cards are presented in complete detail, with analysis from their regular cricketing experts. Twnty overs per side of cricket is analysed in great detail, but these experts do not sit and analyse the Ranji trophy games.

Not currently, but gradually, this would create a belief and mindset that cricket should be played in a manner so as to come onto the radar of the IPL franchisees. People will subconsciously begin believing that since the media gives prominence to the IPL, compared to the Ranji and Duleep trophies, it is far more important than the latter. All that needs to be done is bang a few balls into the boundaries or limit the score by bowling a few tight overs and you could be netting in far more money that you would have made over your entire career (if you didn't play international cricket).

As a society, we too are to blame for this. We haven't rejected the commercialisation. We have favoured batsmen hitting the balls into the boundaries and have never liked to see the stumps being castled too often. Perhaps because we are more of arm-chair analysts and very few have played the game seriously at any level. So, it isn't much difficult to cheer a ball crashing into the boundary, but requires more knowledge to realise how a few kmph difference in pace can deceive the batsman. Talk to parents of young cricket aspirants, majority would want their ward to become Sachin Tendulkar. Very very few would want him to emulate Anil Kumble or Zaheer Khan or Kapil Dev.

So, finally, whose game is it any way?

Why the IPL is going wrong for Indian cricket?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Secret of The Nagas: Amish

The Secret of the Nagas is the second book of the Shiva Trilogy planned by Amish. The first one is the Immortals of Meluha. A brief review of the plot. Shiva is a tribal residing in the Mansarovar area. He and his tribe have been brought to the ancient land of Meluha as a part of Meluha's quest to find the Mahadev, about whom prophecies said that he will come from outside the SaptaSindhu. The kingdom of Meluha impresses upon him that the kingdom of Swadweep has joined hands with the Naga people (who are the cursed ones) and unleashed a reign of terror and evil. The Mahadev's task is to get rid of the evil. Alternately, Shiva can be proclaimed a Mahadev only if he is able to root out the evil. This is interpreted as subduing Swadweep and forcing them to reveal the location of the Nagas. Shiva sets out on this quest.

One Naga is however, stalking Shiva's wife. Why is he doing that? What does he intend to do with Sati? Moreover, is the Meluhan interpretation of evil being associated with the Nagas, really correct? Everyone seems to insist that the Nagas are evil. But, is this interpretation true? The Neelkanth can become a Mahadev, only when he interprets the true meaning of evil. Shiva, the Neelkanth, has set out on this quest. He has to change his interpretation of evil almost every day. Will he be successful in doing that? Who will help him in his quest? How will he do that? What is the secret that the Naga community guards? Shiva, the Neelkanth, has to find out what is the evil that ails all communities. Who will aid him in this quest?

The Secret of the Nagas tries to answer these questions. Of course, being a part of a trilogy, this will only reveal as much is needed, while keeping the interest and anticipation levels high. The book is fast paced and stylishly written. Amish has an interesting interpretation about the events in the Hindu religion. The books reveal that he has studied the religious events exhaustively and hasn't let the well known tales affect his re-interpretation. The characters and description of various Gods that we have read or heard in mythological stories have been re-cast into human beings. To enjoy the story, you have to first unbelieve in what you believe. So, be prepared to encounter definitions, which might run contrary to your beliefs. This story has action, drama, emotion, love, hate and almost every other emotion. Be prepared for a roller-coaster ride across the ancient Indian lands with the Neelkanth, as he embarks on the quest to fulfil his destiny.
The Secret of The Nagas: AmishSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend