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Showing posts with label Sheila Dikshit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sheila Dikshit. Show all posts

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A new age of unreason

On a television talk show recently in which I was a participant, the question posed was “Have opposition politicians misunderstood the nature of lobbying?” The moderator went straight for the jugular, asking the BJP spokesman to defend the assertion of a senior leader of his party, who had asserted in Parliament that lobbying is illegal in India.

The anchor said his due diligence had satisfied him that lobbying is not illegal. Somewhat disingenuously and with the brash confidence of a man who knows little, the BJP participant contradicted him, saying there is no law that makes lobbying legal. To which the anchor responded: laws make things illegal, not legal. The BJP man was having none of it. “Why are you standing up for a corrupt company like Walmart?” he asked the journalist. “How can the spokesman of a leading political party accuse an international firm of corruption on prime time national TV?” I interjected. The BJP stalwart was undeterred and continued his rant, insisting lobbying is illegal and no different from corruption. It was plain that he knew very little about business processes and public policy apart from a few stray facts he may have picked up from newspapers.

Later, Delhi’s middle classes led by Left-leaning student unions took to the streets to protest the rape of a woman on a bus in the capital. Their demand was for the police chief, the chief minister and the Union home minister to resign. Granted, the police in Delhi are not very high on anyone’s security assurance list, and that one may have reservations about the Congress governments in the state of Delhi and at the Centre. But, the heinous crime was committed by violent psychopaths, like the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t hear any calls for Obama’s head or of the state governor or police chief. Crimes are mostly dealt with in retrospect, except in the Tom Cruise sci-fi film, Minority Report, which is about seers gifted with the ability to look into the future and prevent crime.

Crimes are committed the world over and sometimes law enforcement agencies are able to anticipate and prevent them. Mostly, they simply happen and police hunt down the perpetrators and turn them over to the criminal justice system for prosecution and, if proved guilty, punishment.

Then there’s the massive media hype about Narendra Modi winning a third term in Gujarat. The truth is he won by a smaller margin than five years ago; even his vote share has declined. Yet the talking heads and anchors of cable television and newspaper reporters would have us believe he will be the next prime minister of India. This is an individual who refuses to apologise for the riots that killed thousands in Gujarat when he was chief minister as well as home minister. While he has never been able to shake off allegations that he connived with mass violence, there’s no doubt he should be held responsible because he was the man in charge.

Every time this issue is raised in public, his supporters who are few but loud, raise the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Both incidents, 18 years apart, involved a lapse of governance leading to wanton loss of life and are condemnable. Except in the Gujarat case, the riots were followed by the systematic boycott of victims which pushed them into ghettos, a situation that persists to this day. Modi’s triumphalism and communalism is shameless and unapologetic as evident by his reference to Congress member Ahmed Patel as Ahmed mian.

A common thread runs through these narratives: lack of reasoned discourse. Between the media, opposition politicians and sundry activists outraged by some atrocity or corruption, debate has transformed into noise in which prejudice is the norm. The talking heads of television, pundits of print and those who attend exclusive parties in the capital, talk at each other without the slightest deference to reality. Did Walmart bribe government officials? Was Sheila Dikshit asleep when the heinous rape took place? Will Modi be the next prime minister? These are the questions being debated in public. Walmart may well have indulged in corrupt practices; there is an internal inquiry and some executives of the company have been suspended. The Delhi chief minister reacted with powers under her control — and that excludes the Delhi police — by scrubbing the licence of the operator on whose bus the woman was raped. And Modi actually lost ground in Gujarat; he still has a brute majority but his national ambitions have dimmed.

The Age of Unreason is upon us. People who would normally know better, including businessmen, members of the academy, activists, journalists and other groups which influence public opinion, seem to have lost their bearings. Pursuing their own limited agendas, they have put a crimp on Indian modernisation. As a concerned Indian citizen, “J’Accuse”, in the words of French writer Emile Zola. But while Zola complained about anti-Semitism in France, my complaint is about anti-Congressism. It seems to me that the entire political debate in India is focused on this grand old party. Those who hate it have forums to express themselves; those who are voiceless seem to vote for it, even in Gujarat.

The Age of Unreason is what 21st century’s second decade will be called in India. Everyone shouts and postures. And judgment seems to have fled to brutish beasts.

This article appeared in Education world magazine in January 2013 issue.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Andy capped - How to outsmart the smartest of smartphones

Bunny recently outsmarted a smartphone. We’d heard of smartphones. Like we’d heard of flying saucers, and of the giant Hadron collider which scientists have been using to discover whether the Higgs-Boson god particle actually exists. But, as in the case of flying saucers and the giant Hadron collider, we’d never actually met a smartphone. Not until our friend Rajiv got himself one.

Rajiv – who runs a PR company and has been known to hob as well as nob with people like Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit (though the rumour that he calls her Auntiji is probably not based on fact) and the current tenant of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prez Pranabda – has always been a well-informed and generally clued-up guy. But ever since he got the smartphone he’s become like a brainiac with a genius-level IQ, a sort of Viswanathan Anand who’s been taking IIT-JEE coaching classes on the sly, or an Einstein who’s been given a prescription for Dabur Chyawanprash Golis for Gaining Gyan.

Something or the other, to which no one present seems to know the answer, crops up in conversation. Like who won the last but one assembly by-election in the Phalana-Dhimka district of Gujarat. Or whether it was Mukesh or Mohammed Rafi who did the voice-over for the hero in the Dilip Kumar-starrer Naya Daur. Or what the mean temperature in Vladivostok is during the winter solstice.

And before you know it, Rajiv has whipped out his smartphone, performed some tantric jantar-mantar with it, and come up with the answer to whatever the question was: the winner of the Phalana-Dhimka by-election, the playback singer for Naya Daur, the mean winter solstice Vladivostok temperature. In Celsius, as well as Fahrenheit. So there.

It’s spooky. It’s the electronic age equivalent of a magical brass lamp with an inbuilt know-it-all genie at your command. And Rajiv is not the only person we know who’s got his own rent-agenie in the form of a smartphone. A number of our other friends have got them as well.

The result is that what is called peer pressure – also known as keeping up with the Joneses, though of course in India it wouldn’t be the Joneses, but the Suris, or the Mathurs, or some such – began to build up on Bunny to join the smartphone set. Being so technologically challenged that for a long time i imagined the keyboard formulation called QWERTY to be an umbrella organisation for LGBT fraternities, i was automatically excluded from any such pressure. My getting a smartphone would be like Manmohan Singh being given a gift voucher for Elocution Lessons on Public Speaking. Gee, thanks. But what the heck am i supposed to do with the darn thing?

So Bunny dutifully began to bone up on smartphones. She found out that the name of the genie inside smartphones was Android, Andy to friends. And Andy had something called apps, which are to Andy what abs are to John Abraham, a sort of existential defining trait: i apps, therefore i am.

Thanks to its apps, your personalized Andy could play you music, show you a film, tell you what time it was on the planet Mars, and teach you Gangnam style horse dancing in Seven Easy Steps. All this for about 30,000 bucks, plus or minus change.

Then Bunny asked herself a question: did she really want – for 30,000 bucks, plus or minus change – something that would every day, in every way show her how much smarter it was than her? How smart – or how dumb – was that? That’s when Bunny outsmarted the smartest smartphone ever invented. By deciding not to buy a smartphone.

This article by Jug Suraiya appeared in Times of India on December 14, 2012.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

India at the limits

Command-and-control system failure


If you ever needed evidence that socialist ideology, political populism and the utter lack of governance holds India to ransom, all you have to do is to study the power crisis gripping India. For the past several weeks, the country has reeled from outages that last so long that they have become the norm; the few hours that power is available are the unusual occurrence. The gap between supply and demand is thought to be in excess of 15 percent on the average: ranging for zero in the case of Lutyens Delhi, home of the ruling class, to more than 50 percent in rural areas.

India’s power crisis bears examination because it highlights the sheer inability of the public sector edifice to meet the demands of a rapidly growing economy.

Let’s start at the source. The predominant fuel used in power generation is coal. The mining of the material is in the hands of a government monopoly, Coal India Limited, widely regarded as inept and corrupt. Faced with demands for increased production, the company actually told the coal ministry it is lowering its production target for 2011-12 by four million tons. Most analysts believe when March 2012 comes rolling around, the company will report a much bigger shortfall. In the first half of the year, ended September, Coal India fell short by 20 million tons.

Among other fuels, the government has been unable to secure assured supplies of natural gas or alternative fuels to mitigate the coal deficit.

Power generation is also largely a government monopoly run by similarly inept and corrupt public sector companies. Despite grandiose plans to increase power generation, the government achieved only 50 percent of its targets in the 20 years ending 2012. A Planning Commission official was quoted as saying that if the power ministry had succeeded in meeting its targets, the coal shortages would have been worse.

One of the key risks in the generation of power is environmental pollution. The agency in charge of ensuring that the risk is mitigated is the ministry of environment and forests, which in recent years has become a hotbed of populism. The ministry, in 2009, announced a ban on mining in forests and tribal areas. It also opposed hydroelectric projects in various parts of the country. Its views on nuclear power are also skeptical, led by fears of accidents.

Beyond that, because power supply is a concurrent subject, state governments are in charge of the distribution of power to citizens. Mostly, provincial governments supply electricity through state electricity boards (SEBs). Again, corrupt and inept, the utilities are bankrupt entities. A 2001 Planning Commission report on the working of these utilities says, “It may be noted that the information provided in the report is not always based on audited reports of the SEBs as the accounts of many SEBs are audited with a considerable time lag.”

In certain cities like Bombay and Ahmedabad, where the generation, transmission and distribution of power in the hands of private companies, the costs of power are higher but the supply is reliable. I have lived in both cities and thereafter in the US, so my first experience of a power cut was in Delhi. Things improved dramatically in the capital after 1998 when the Sheila Dikshit government privatized power distribution. Just the drastic reduction in the huge (nearly 50 percent) “transmission and distribution” losses (theft) made more power available.

India’s power conundrum provides a snapshot of the challenges policymakers faces as they try to cope with the demands of a new India. The Socialist command-and-control system simply does not work. As its hold diminished, businessmen and entrepreneurs showed that without the dead hand of government bearing down on the economy, they could work wonders.

But what the noted German social psychologist Erich Fromm called the  “freedom from” moment has passed; the “freedom to” moment of the modern economy calls for bold political leadership such as greater, crony-free privatization; it demands better-trained, more responsive and transparent government agencies.

Most of all, the burden has to be shared by citizens themselves. This is not an area of focus in public debate. It’s not just politicians and bureaucrats that are responsible for taking India forward; citizens cannot absolve themselves from the responsibility of the “freedom to” opportunity.

Here’s what I mean: on a recent flight, as the plane landed and the seat belt signs went off, I was buffeted by a rush from behind as some passengers dashed for the doorway, hoping to disembark first. There was absolutely no reason to do this because in the end we were all going in the same bus and we would arrive at the terminal at the same time.

My conclusion was that these men and women who sought to push their way up front were so focused on their personal agendas that they forgot their civic sense. If passengers disembark row by row, things get done in a much smoother and more pleasant way.

It’s the same for the traffic on the roads, though the consequences there are far more dangerous. This extends to paying taxes, avoiding bribes, evade building codes,  littering, urinating in public and all the “me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost” attitudes that make it so hard to be a citizen in India and make the public space into such a disagreeable environment.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, November 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

American Life 9

Let It Snow…

New York: Since yesterday, the weather service forecast, picked up in the local media, was a blizzard would dump up to 18 inches of snow on the city.

The last time a blizzard struck was over the Christmas holiday and left the city reeling under the devastating impact of more than two feet of the white stuff.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his city administration attracted a lot of criticism for the responsiveness of municipal agencies in the crisis.

That’s why, two weeks later, the mayor was upfront in the media, outlining plans to handle the upcoming snowfall. In the event, the blizzard turned out to be a non-story; it was nowhere in magnitude anywhere near the great Christmas whiteout.

Though some of the outlying boroughs like Long Island reported accumulations of up to two feet, Manhattan was spared the savagery.

Even so the mayor was out there, giving citizens a ball-by-ball account of the response by civic agencies early this morning.

He was out there, holding a press conference with his senior officials, urging citizens to lend a hand as the civic crews cleaned up the 8 to twelve inches of snow that fell.

As the day progressed and a sunny cold morning slipped into a cold, blustery and partly cloudy afternoon, the mayor’s efforts were given the thumbs up by citizens and the media.

It was an eye-opener for me; over the past couple of decades as a keen observer of the state of civic services in Delhi, I’ve been severely critical, dismissing all the main agencies as corrupt and inept.

Most of Delhi’s agencies are leaderless because in its wisdom the federal government, which is based there, created an incredibly complex chain of command.

Consequently, the agencies have had pretty much a field day over the past six decades; opaque and incompetent, they created neither civic services nor infrastructure; instead they feathered their own nests, appropriating funds and delivering nothing.

Since 1998, the capital has had a chief minister, a leader with a vision to grow Delhi into world-class city.

Despite the obstructive and corrupt bureaucrats who man the various civic agencies, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has managed to deliver significantly in terms of public goods; the mendacity of the city’s bureaucrats can be seen in the shoddy work and corners cut as a way of embezzling public funds.

These thoughts clouded my head as I watched with admiration the huge effort, both before and after the snowfall, by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.

What’s the difference in the two situations, I asked myself; in the Delhi one, we have morally challenged officials and goal-oriented ones in New York?

The more I think about it though I am convinced that morality and ethics are at the root of the two different approaches of civic agencies in New York and Delhi.

Delhi’s civic authorities seem to treat their jobs as a way to enhance both their social standing and their bank accounts; their counterparts in New York City see their positions as a public trust and work to make things better for the citizens they serve.

It may sound simplistic and naïve but that is the essential difference between two worldviews and is manifest in the incredible difference in standards of civic services and infrastructure between New York and Delhi.

But there’s more to it than just the contrast between the two cities; the issue is about the fundamentally different approach to government in the US and in India.

In India, government has more to do with privilege and perks than public service; it offers the well connected an opportunity to garner position and wealth; in the US, citizens of position and wealth are inducted to public service.

To be sure, just as in India, there is corruption here too in America; difference is that crooked public servants here are by and large brought to book and jailed; in India, usually they go scot free and seek protection from the law by becoming members of Parliament or state assemblies or patients in hospitals.

The noticeable lack of “development” that hits you between the eyes when you land in India is a direct outcome of these two startlingly different views of government: in the US, the government seeks to empower citizens whereas in India, the government actually disenfranchises them.

For instance, over the past few decades, the Indian establishment has talked ceaselessly about “sustainable development” and actually turned it into a weapon against industrialization, urbanization and economic growth.

Meanwhile in recent years, restaurants in major American cities have promoted a “hundred mile menu” that involves sourcing ingredients from within that radius; this simple marketing strategy saw the rapid growth of sustainable farms across the country.

This recent development underlines the fundamental difference in government in the two democracies: between empowerment and disenfranchisement.

It’s a sobering train of thought on the eve of my departure to Delhi, India.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011