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Showing posts with label delhi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label delhi. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…

The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Shanghai Surprise - The Heritage of Global Origins

Shanghai: This city, the largest in the world, was never on my bucket list. Now, I want to go back to hang out and discover the promise it revealed on an abbreviated trip. What a wonderful town! Just an off-the-top assessment: this city was born global and has embraced, unlike Bombay, its international heritage. 

So here's the thing: you land at the Pudong International Airport and get the sense of desolate grandeur and last-mile incompetence that you see at Delhi's T3 white-elephant terminal. The difference is the immigration officials all looked very professional; there were no casual "supervisors" hanging about; no officious flunkies escorting VIPs; the security men were real, not guys scratching their privates. 

Our designated chauffer was waiting with a graphically soothing placard; young fellow who spoke English and was exceptionally polite. He drove us on wonderful, well-lit expressways to our hotel. We couldn't see much of the city because of the smog but the lights on the highway were bright and we zoomed into the Pudong city center with the smoothness you can only associate with Western transit.

My lack of enthusiasm for the trip-to attend an Asian PR conference-was challenged by my two daughters who accompanied me. "Get over it, Dad. It'll be great," they chorused, brushing aside my concern about language and my Indian jaundiced eye. I was just 13 in 1962 when China delivered the knockout punch that sent the burgeoning republic of India into a tizzy from which it is still to recover.

On my own, I would have checked into the hotel, attended the conference and done the regulatory sightseeing, eaten the standard five-star hotel food and come away marveling at the city with its colored-light modernity.  With my daughters in attendance, we traipsed through the Huangpu and Xuhui districts and saw parts of the city that I probably would never have visited, especially when the day temperature was two degrees Celsius and windy.

Shanghai is seared in my memory because of my daughters; the one is the mother of my precocious granddaughter; the other a New York sophisticate. They are so cool and so well-informed that I just let them take me here, there and everywhere.  We walked through the old town, wandered through Xintiandi, the upscale part of the French Concession neighborhood that also boasts of the home of the suave Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), who served as the premier of China from 1949 t0 1976.

Zhou was the interlocutor for Jawaharlal Nehru at the Bandung Conference of 1955, in which the first principles of the Nonaligned Movement were articulated; a year before in Peking (now Beijing), Zhou signed with Nehru the Panchsheel Treaty, binding India and China to an agreement of peaceful coexistence.

As we walked through Xintiandi, I marveled at the restoration; here was a city that embraced it European heritage…so unlike any Indian city.  My time in Shanghai was cut short because of a family emergency but we did get a chance to walk around People's Square and take in the Bund, a gorgeous esplanade on the Huangpu River, with its barges and bridges. 

From the Bund, you can see in shimmering watercolor impressionism, the high rises of Pudong, which my girls called the Gurgaon of Shanghai; looking to our back, we saw the traditional Tudor-style buildings, including the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where we stopped to have afternoon tea.

We walked and walked, marveling at the sheer exuberance of street life even in the cold two-degree-Celsius weather.  As we followed Nanjing Road to People's Square, I kept thinking that the Bombay of the 1950s that I knew and loved could have become like this, except power-grubbing politicians, venal bureaucrats and apathetic citizens destroyed it and condemned it to be a slum. 

Unlike any city in India, Shanghai seems to be livable for the average citizen; you can actually walk the streets, which you cannot in any Indian city; its riches seem to have been shared with the people. Roads, sidewalks, gardens, public art and mass transport; they have it all in spades; they also have preserved and enhanced their colonial heritage. "Inclusive growth" is not a slogan here; it's real. 

In the most superficial assessment, if one is to compare to Shanghai to Bombay (and frankly, there's no comparison), it is clear that Shanghai is in a totally different league, comparable to Paris. Duh! It is called Paris of the East.

Shanghai has almost 24 million people compared to Bombay's 21 million. There can be no question that life seems to be hugely better in the Chinese city. These comparisons are impressionist, I grant you. There's no mistaking, however, the dignity of common people and the preponderance of public goods. If Bombay is part of a democracy (and this is dubious, given the thugs of the Shiv Sena) and Shanghai of  an authoritarian system, then without any survey or anything,  just looking at the ground reality, I'd rather as an ordinary citizen be living in Shanghai.

In the end, two things stood out. One, the Chinese political system, opaque though it is, seems to throw up decisive leaders, committed to enhancing the public interest. Two, the life of citizens seems to be light years ahead of the daily hassles, slum culture and criminal violence in Indian cities.

As for the race between India and China, I am saddened to report India never even made it to the starting line. It is very likely, as a friend told me, that India is to China as Mexico is to the United States.

This article appeared on Times of India website on January 29, 2013.

Shanghai Surprise - The Heritage of Global Origins

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.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neo Middle Classes Protest

High on Aspirations, Low on Talent

Let me just say it straight out. The Delhi protests against the shocking rape of a young woman in a bus were led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities and colleges where underpaid teachers spew their leftist propaganda to taint impressionable minds.. They are high-minded but like all university students in India, somewhat moronic on the organization front. Their post-modern protest, inspired by the leftists of Europe and North Africa, simply didn’t work. They neither have the ideological fervor of their Western European counterparts nor the rage against the machine of their Tunisian and Egyptian idols. What they are confronting is a political system that is bereft of vision beyond electoral calculation, a bureaucracy that is inept and obstructionist, a business class that is free of ethics and morality. And this is not today’s news; the gridlock has been in existence since 1947. How otherwise do you explain the lack of basic infrastructure, not just roads, power, public transport but also the lack of education, public health and social security?

It is mind-boggling that the protesters and the media, egged on by shadowy political interests, can hold public debate  to ransom over a sordid criminal offence by marginal people like the monsters on the bus. The protest is all about the government and how insensitive it is. The young men and women seemed to be more interested in having major government officials talk to them. The real issue to be debated is what kind of a society has been created in which marginal men from urban slums take not just the law into their own hands but visit terror on hapless citizens. You don’t have very far to look: the outskirts of Delhi, beyond the Lutyens zone, is a free for all. Scofflaws rule the roost. They harass women; drive like lunatics (including city-certified public transport drivers); they also rain chaos and arbitrary violence on unsuspecting citizens. This is a society and culture in which the girl child is killed at birth; those that survive rarely make it past five years of age; the remnant end up being victims of dowry and bride burning. Very few girls born in India make a steady income and or attain social dignity. Dare I say it: if you are born a girl the chances of you having a normal life are minuscule.

These are the issues the heinous rape should have brought forth in public debate. Instead, the neo middle class protesters, egged on by the RSS, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev,  focused on the government and its shortcomings. I dare these kids and their mentors to go protest against the “khap panchayats” of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, never mind Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; or the Maoists in the central spine of India; or the cultural fascists in south and central India. Easiest thing to do, especially if vested interests ply you with funds, is to assemble at India Gate and capture the attention of the marketing-driven media.

Looking at the chaos of cities and small towns and the complete neglect of rural populations, not just this government but going back to 1947, it is apparent the entire governance structure is about privilege and corruption. Even high-minded leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are unable to make a dent; their writ simply doesn’t run. As the Singapore Prime Minister said in a recent interview, India is held in thrall by vested interests. What he was saying, in a polite way, is India suffers from a lapse of governance: bad roads, poor street lighting, discontinuous water supply, no sanitation, poor public health facilities, and dysfunctional schools.

In the end, there are two ideologies in India; one, the Congress that has its hands full just running the government peopled by know-nothings and do-nothings. Two, the others are all against the Congress and hoping to run the system, not for change and development; but for personal aggrandizement. What remains is the permanent government, the bureaucracy, and they have been having a ball since Rajiv Gandhi, with 220 seats refused to form the government in 1989. Since then the toadies have emerged from under their stones with caste and communal demands while the vested government officials simply twiddle their thumbs. Or milk their positions for rent in issuing licenses and permits.

So poverty endures in a country that is getting richer by leaps and bounds. No government will pay heed to middle class demands for better governance. The refrain is we represent the poor who have nothing so you should accept an abysmal quality of life. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank, who has succeeded in keeping interest rates higher than anywhere in the world, was quoted as saying, “Inflation is my concern because I represent the poor  people, who are most affected by spiraling prices.” Or some such words; never heard a central banker talk like this.

The cogent way to fight this government apathy and ineptitude, as Mahatma Gandhi did, is through lawful protest and constitutional propriety. The neo middle classes of India, schooled essentially in value-free disciplines such as engineering, management and vocational studies, have no appreciation for that. Their cause is just; their methods are hugely questionable.

An edited version of this article appeared on Times of India website on December 28, 2012.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advocacy of interest or corporate bribery?

"...to secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on the power brokerages and influences peddlers in Delhi and other states."

Though the BJP's noisemakers may not appreciate it, through their hysterical outbursts against Wal-Mart, they may have unwittingly sponsored a major reform in pursuit of good governance. In its misbegotten campaign against the American firm, the BJP threatened to disrupt Parliament again, as it has done repeatedly for the past nine years. This prompted Parliamentary Affairs minister Kamal Nath to agree to a public inquiry into the company’s lobbying activities in India. Though a spectacularly ignorant BJP spokesman suggested that the minister’s assent to an inquiry proved their point, the truth is that the UPA’s quick response saved the day and it appears that much overdue legislation will now be enacted.

The BJP’s empty-vessel strategy to corner the government on lobbying by Wal-Mart boomeranged in Parliament because of Mr Nath’s finesse. Reports say the government will appoint a retired judge to conduct the inquiry. Most likely, the exercise will stretch out and will hold no more sensation value; the BJP will find some other dubious platform from which to rant against the UPA government. As such, the inquiry will join the long list of commissions that have provided not much more than sinecures for superannuated law officers.

On the other hand, the government could actually use the inquiry to clean up the murk that surrounds lobbying in India. To secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on power brokerages and influence peddlers in Delhi and in the various states.

A thoughtful judge at the helm of the inquiry might recommend the establishment of a Parliamentary registry that provides credentials to lobbyists, individual as well as firms. In accepting such credentials, lobbyists would be required to disclose their clients and fees received. The registry could go a step further and demand from various government ministries, departments and agencies periodic reports on any contacts they may have had with lobbyists.

Recommendations of this nature could bring much needed transparency to the conduct of public affairs; you won’t have a BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes or a DMK minister A Raja playing fast and loose with the allocation of telecom spectrum. A whole horde of middlemen, the kind you see at power lunches in The Taj or cocktail parties at The Oberoi, will stand exposed. The business of lobbying could become professional and cleansed of the stain of corruption.

Lobbying is a time-honored practice that dates at least as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta in 13th-century England, from whence sprang the right of association and the right to petition authority, the cornerstones of the lobbying profession.

Closer to home and to the age, lobbying has had many beneficial outcomes. These include campaigns for universal primary education, against sex trafficking, to lower taxes on toiletries and cosmetics, to amend laws governing the business of financial services, courier firms and cable operators, among others. They have been successful and have benefited the public interest as much as the interests of those who sponsored them.

This article appeared in Hindustan Times on December 16, 2012.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Confusing consumerism with modernity

In a 2007 column, your correspondent worried about the confusion between consumerism and modernity and still remains worried.

Years ago, on a flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I sat across the aisle from a woman and her pre-teen son.
The son asked his mother if he could move to an empty window seat. “Just so long as you obey what the captain said: keep your seat belt loosely fastened at all times,” she told him. The boy sat by the window and fastened his belt as he stared out of the window, wonderstruck by fluffs of white clouds floating by and every now and then, another jetliner flying past in the distance.
Meanwhile, the pilot announced we were headed for turbulence. He instructed passengers to return to their seats and ensure their seat belts were fastened. The little boy quickly went back to the seat next to his mother and buckled his seat belt while I panicked silently at the thought of a bumpy interlude.
Cut to November 2007: On a flight from Goa to Delhi, I am sitting behind a family of four. The parents are engrossed in conversation while their two pre-teen boys run amok.
One of them stood right in front of me, noisily wolfing down a bag of potato chips while crumbs fell all over the aisle; when he finished, he blew into it, hoping it would pop, while his brother stood up on his seat, laughing at the older one’s antics.
They screamed and shouted with little regard for other passengers.
The boys’ behavior was irritating but they could be forgiven because they were both under ten years old; deeply offensive was the indifference of the parents. They mostly ignored the boys. The circus continued through the flight; the parents said nothing in admonition.
As the plane came in to land, the two boys got into a fight about the window seat. They raised such a ruckus that the parents were finally moved to do something: they asked the two to share the seat.
As the flight landed and the parents buckled up, the two sons shared the window seat, without seat belts fastened.
Observing such crass behavior, I began to understand why brats grow up to be boorish men lacking civic sense. They drive rashly, be it bicycles, motorbikes or cars; they cross the street anywhere they want; they urinate all over the place; they harass women; and generally make an all-round nuisance of themselves.
The literature says such behavior begins with the family and ends with the school. In India, both are dysfunctional.
The family is, by and large, a totalitarian setup in which children are made to conform to their elders’whims and fancies; schools reinforce conformism. There is no room in either institution for creativity.
Most children end up as nitpicking nerds or mindless conformists; above all, they become seekers of instant gratification.
Meanwhile, the media are pushing similar notions in which conformity is valued over creativity as is obvious from jewelry commercials; narcissism triumphs over civic values: just look at the motorbike commercials.
I once sat through a meeting wherein a senior adman made a presentation about the changes in India to an audience that consisted of senior executives of a global firm. He said India was modernising tradition; we were taking age-old ways and sprucing them up with glitz and glamour.
He confused rituals with tradition and consumerism with modernity.
The brats in the plane are victims of an emergent culture that emphasises narcissism; as long they conform to the family’s whims and fancies, children are in a curiously cynical manner, indulged and ignored.
Neither the family nor schools focus on socialisation, in which children are taught to balance their narcissism with respect for the rights of others.Not all the malls nor cell phones and fancy cars add up to modernity.
Not all the jewelry at Karva Chauth nor big fat weddings and expensive Diwali gifts add up to tradition. India has a long way to go before it gets the right definitions of tradition and modernity.
This column appeared in DNA, November 21, 2007.

Confusing consumerism with modernity

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Scofflaw Conundrum

So I am driving down the broad, new Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road that is the capital city’s pride and joy. There’s this high-end Mercedes pointed the wrong way in my lane. It’s been stopped by a policeman and the driver is on his cell phone. I stop my car and tell the officer he should get the car off the road and issue a ticket for going the wrong way, northbound on a southbound carriageway. The policeman tells me: “I have stopped him but he is calling his boss to pull strings.”

He was doing what he can without much success. The phone call may have called him off. Given there is just one for policeman for nearly 800 citizens and three for every VIP, there’s not much the police can do. Their job is to smooth the way for VIPs in the chaos of Delhi. We have to lump it.

Meanwhile there is all kind of mayhem on the newly built road. Cars are zipping past, oblivious of the speed limit; others are making all manner of illegal lane changes and turns; as for the other vehicles including motorbikes and rickshaws, transit buses and the newly-introduced “Grameen Seva” shared taxis (they are rickety contraptions with engines not much larger than a lawn mower but with cramped accommodation for nearly 10 passengers), they drive on the road without any concern for safety or rules.

Actually where we live, on the capital’s outskirts, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past year, with the Metro making inroads. There are fancy stations (infested with street vendors), steel-and-glass bus stops (uglified by handbills) and high-tech street lights (which have never been lit because of a turf war between the National Highway Authority of India that built the road and the Public Works Department of Delhi that is in charge of lighting).

The entire modern infrastructure that was supposed to uplift our lives has done little to improve the civic experience. The spanking new and wide road is now a market with fruit sellers, chaat carts, illegally parked cars and lunatic drivers. Chaos rules and you feel you’ve landed in a battlefield of crazed individuals, ineffectual police and poor planning. It is as though modernity has been aborted by the pre-modern economy.

Above all, you get the feeling that putting modern amenities in the hands of neanderthal civic officials and junglee citizens is a bad idea that has metastasized into a life-threatening situation, never mind enhancing the quality of life.

The narrow road that leads from the iconic MG Road to my house is an example of the ineptitude and criminal neglect of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is probably the most corrupt organization on Earth. The only way to describe it is to resort to Hindu mythology: it combines the evil machinations of Ravana and the wicked insidiousness of the Kauravas. 

It is a road I have fought to better with some amount of luck because of the backing of the political leadership. There are superficial improvements but the road still becomes a morass of sewage water and gigantic potholes during the monsoon.

Despite all the new accouterments of modernity, commuting in Delhi is a nightmare. After all, no matter how slick you make the monkey cages in zoos, the inhabitants will still be all over it. In the end, through behavioral modification, primates can be taught to use their new facilities.

But how do you deal with humans, who have mutated into scofflaws over the sorry history of this much-conquered place?

Delhi’s scofflaw citizens are the archetype of a culture that is steeped in mythology, feudalism, ideology, elitism (think Lutyens Delhi) and rampant narcissism. Their gruff and scruffy ways are the despair of citizens whose lives are vandalized by their behavior.

I have lived in the capital for two decades. We live in a bubble suffused with the warmth of family and good friends. Our granddaughter was born here, the first ever in generations of my wife’s and my family.

Plus, the city has an enlightened political leadership under the aegis of a three-term chief minister, who battles constantly with civic agencies that are not really under her control. The only reason Delhi has not degenerated into a Hobbesian mess is because Sheila Dikshit has held fort against the barbarians.

In the interim, infrastructure has improved exponentially but civic life has taken a dive. The metro, the fancy buses, the bus stops, the new roads…all come to naught because of the behavior of scofflaws; 21st century civic amenities are wasted on them.

It hits civil people, and they may well be a majority, between the eyes: modern infrastructure, poorly implemented by the corrupt and inept civic agencies and abused and vandalized by scofflaw citizens.

Delhi’s ugly reality is the outcome of years of feudalism, colonialism, refugeeism, socialism and today’s ersatz culture that mixes mythology, superstition, mercantilism and amorality. Delhi has no modern urban roots; it has, for sure, a pre-modern urban idiom derived from the Mughals, which has been raped and pillaged by the refugee culture that took hold after Partition.

The capital city’s citizens are held hostage to scofflaws, who drive insanely, urinate in public, deface public property, molest women and create mayhem in public spaces.

Delhi is a city on the boil. Unless the capital can muster the political will and the police resources to fight this scourge, the scofflaws will turn it into a moffusil town. It’s already happening on the city’s edges.

This article appears on the Times of India website.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Capital Letter

European Odyssey: Barcelona Journal

How many streets must a tourist walk…

Wrong shoes. Bad mistake. Barcelona knocked the stuffing out of my back. We walked and walked and walked and walked. Mostly in celebration of the freedom to walk the streets, which you can’t do in Delhi. BCN is a wonderful city, as we all know. A bit like Paris. Indeed the French were early settlers. Nice buildings, great cafes, superb metro, the buzzing waterfront, museums, surprisingly nice beer, awesome food and drink Sangria till the sunrise. 

Thought of the word “anomie” in trying to describe a tourist’s jaunt through this comely city. All the other times I’ve been here, it’s been on a mission: a junket, a conference, and several meetings. This was the first time I came here at a loose end. A quick search of the web told me my first instinct about the word was right. Wikipedia says that “in common parlance,” the word anomie is “thought to mean something like ‘at loose ends.’” 

And you don’t get much more common than a tourist, tramping the streets of this city of creative geniuses including Picasso, Miro, Dali and Gaudi. So anomie is the word.  Gilded somewhat from the Wikipedia definition, I extended it to mean “footloose and fancy free.” 

From our apartment in the upscale Eixample district, we walked everywhere or took the Metro. We went to the Cuitat Vella (Old City) and meandered through the byzantine streets of Barri Gothic (the Roman Quarter), spilling onto the tourist-infested Las Ramblas to the Paral-lel metro station and up the funicular to the Miro museum atop Montjuic hill. We wandered the narrow street of La Ribera to the Musee Picasso. Just north of Eixample past the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s famous church into trendy Gracia and beyond that into Placa de l’Angel, considered home to the finest of the numerous urban renewal projects the city is famous for.

But how much can you walk? With my bad shoes and my spasmodic back, I was often reduced to debilitation. Had to sit and down a beer, eat some tapas. So how much tapas can you eat? How much Sangria can you drink? Judging from my own record, a lot. It became sort of addictive; every hour my back would act up and I had to sit. A beer or glass of wine, grilled meat and all was well again. Back to the trudge. This worked the first day; after that my traveling companions, my wife and my New York daughter, got wise to it. And so I had to walk hours before relief. 

At times, my daughter, clever young woman, would back my complaint of deathly pain and sit down and have a beer with me. It was all very democratic. Sometimes two-to-one against me; sometimes in my favor. Sat in more cafes, I did, than even in Paris. Ate more, drank more, walked more. The only time we didn’t sit in a cafĂ© and chose instead to look at a map to find a recommended restaurant, we stood under a tree at the entrance to a park right beside the Miro museum on the Montjuic hill, a tourist trap in the southeast part of the city. We were all three of us, sprayed with what appeared to be bird poop. 

As we reeled from the violation, a woman ran out from the park and said, “Come, water to clean.” Gratefully, we followed her. But there was no water. A man appeared with tissues to help us clean the crap; another man appeared from the bushes with a bottle of water. “Such nice people,” my wife said. And asked where they were from. “Portugal,” the woman replied.

But the poop spill was substantive, so we hopped a cab to go back to the apartment to get cleaned up. “Obrigado,” said my Goan wife in farewell to the threesome. But clearly they had no idea what it meant.

In the apartment, I discovered I had been pick-pocketed. Fast forward to when we recounted this to our friends. “Chechens,” they said. Despite my sheer despair at losing all my credit and debit cards, money, driver’s license and what have you, I could not help marveling at the slickness with which the threesome had diddled us.

As if that was not enough, thanks to my research on my phone, we chose a Basque restaurant for dinner. The street number suggested it was close to our apartment, so we walked. For miles, back to the center of town. It turned out to be an expensive retro restaurant. It was good as we ate the food and drank the Rose Merlot. But as my wife said in a conversation much later, after we were back in Delhi, “I don’t remember the food I ate.” 

Between the loss of my wallet and the fine dining experience, I could not help but feel the jabs of tetanus-shot disapproval from my wife and my daughter. Later, on the flight to Paris, as our plane bucked like a startled filly in a thunderstorm, I thought to tell my wife she should consider forgiveness. But she was fast asleep as I, the original white-knuckle flier, contemplated a fiery death, convinced the plane would crash, crippled by lightning and high winds.

Hasta la vista, Barcelona!

This appeared on Capital Letter, The Times of India Blogs on October 11, 2011.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Goa Journal

The Anxiety of Freedom

Panjim: The beginning is mundane. You arrive at a jetty on this capital city’s iconic waterfront, tumble out of the car, make an awkward climb to a floating jetty and jump into the boat. After that, it is a liberating experience.

Within minutes, the speedboat set off to explore the Mandovi River and its backwaters. We flitted in and out of waterways and their littorals, the mangroves that seemed to eat into the river as our boat maneuvered past overhanging branches through the twisting, winding backwaters. A calm descended on us; the outside word ceased to exist.

For a fleeting moment of schadenfreude, we thought about friends in Delhi and Bombay, stuck in traffic jams and all manner of urban discomfiture. As we floated through the backwaters, it seemed to me we had chanced upon an undiscovered world. And as we emerged from this mysterious water world back into the mainstream, we were confronted by sweeping vistas on offer by the mighty Mandovi.

Rivers play an important role in the life of India. They are considered sacred but modern India treats them as sewers, dumping waste and poisons in them. Most rivers in India are dirty and dying. The Mandovi is, in stark contrast, clean and is used for commerce and transport. Now, it is being increasingly used for pleasure.

And so it was for pleasure that we found ourselves rolling on the river. With the wind upon our faces and wonder in our eyes, we floated in the waters and saw a Goa that is mind-boggling; away from the beaches and the tourist spots. Time stood still here and the two hours stretched to an eternity.

The Mandovi tidal basin is an intricate system of wetlands, marshes and paddy fields, intersected by canals, dykes, bays, lagoons and creeks. The river and the backwaters are governed by regular tides that reach up to 20 miles upstream.

Our two-hour long experience on the Mandovi filled us with reverence for the majesty of nature. The river seems eternal; I use the word “seems” because it is impossible to grasp and define eternity in terms of years, centuries or millennia. And understanding this, the use of “seems,” puts you face to face with spirituality and its temporal offshoots: faith and communion.

Herman Hesse in his book Siddhartha wrote about “the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom."

Over the years, I have come to celebrate diversity, to value harmony. Now I am concerned about religion and its effect on, “the anxiety of freedom.” These imponderables have occupied my thoughts. I have often wondered, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to be a man of faith?

But where do you place your faith?

Of all the religions, I have always been intrigued by Catholicism and its celebration of faith and communion, week after week; generation after generation; across communities, nations and cultures. Each Sunday, believers go to church and reaffirm the dogma that Christ was born of Immaculate Conception; He was crucified and rose from the dead. This they call proclaiming the mystery of faith. They receive the wafer and wine believing them to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which they call the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the thanksgiving.

That afternoon on the boat, contemplating the majesty of the river and its various branched waterways, I began to get a glimmer of the spirituality of faith and the mystery of communion.

And no, I have not found religion. I still remain firmly a skeptic. But that experience on the Mandovi will make me a tad slower to challenge matters of faith. Call it the anxiety of freedom.

On our way back to the dock, we stopped midstream for a libation and a view of Panjim as the lights came on. It was a spectacular sight; the neat laidback city on the estuary came alive with its nocturnal personality. It was not Manhattan or Chicago but from the darkness enveloping the river, it was a sign of civilization. In the end, despite the majesty of nature, the lights of Panjim were comforting, a sign that in the end, civilization is what this world is about.

As we returned to shore, we were forced to contemplate mundane problems like where to have dinner. We settled on a restaurant in Candolim, the hip and happening place in north Goa. When we reached there, a solo singer was in attendance.

When we walked in, he launched into the Louis Armstrong 1968 classic vocal that celebrates nature, humanity, eternity: the wondrous mystery of life: What a wonderful world...yeah!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

India: Hostage to a Demented Culture

My father, who is in his 90s, suffers from dementia. As such, he has no memory of the past and no idea of the future. He lives in the here and now.

Just the other day, he fell and hurt his head. We took him to the emergency room at a local hospital, where the doctor examined him and declared him fit.

The nurses cleaned the superficial cut on his head and released him. In the interim, I was heart broken to hear him utter the words, “internal sorrow,” not once but twice.

As I got to thinking about his condition, I couldn’t help marvel how closely it parallels the state in which India finds itself: without any wisdom from the past, without any vision of the future; just the here and now.

The words “internal sorrow” are often expressed and lived out in the myriads of petty conflicts and self-centered postures.

India is in a state of dementia, largely because of the here-and-now culture that has taken hold since the turn of the millennium. It is hard to discern if there is anything learned from the past or if there are any plans for the future. And let’s not blame just the government or politicians; the citizenry has a lot to answer for.

At a recent lunch in the Delhi Golf Club, I saw the unseemly spectacle of a child fooling around with the lawn umbrella, changing its incline in dangerous ways while his mother shoveled food into his mouth; or on a Spicejet flight a few weeks ago, where a mother, diverted her bawling son’s attention by allowing him to play with the call button that summons a stewardess.

Both taught their sons to be oblivious of other people who might be disturbed and diverted their attention rather than discipline them.

Such children grow up to be inconsiderate adults, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, who have no restraints on public behavior and the need to be alive to the privacy and wellbeing of others. Thus, on an automated walkway at Delhi’s dysfunctional Terminal 3, a couple, obviously well educated and affluent, walked abreast, not giving way, unmindful of me right behind them, in a hurry to get to the gate where my flight had been called.

These child rearing practices have bred a uni-dimensional culture. Such cultures are demented in the sense that only a self-serving present matters; there is no learning from the past, no dimension of a better future other than instant gratification. Barbaric rituals and hypoglycemic hypocrisy are the hallmarks of such a culture.

In the grip of this demented culture, India is increasingly rich but less modern; increasingly powerful but less civilized. And government and politics and corruption and inequity have little to do with it.

Some years ago, I complained to a senior police official about the inability of his force to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I could have five million traffic cops on the streets but still you will not have order; the culture seems to breed chaos.”

More recent: another senior policeman told me last week the problem is that despite clear-eyed laws, “we are told to encourage consensus even in the face of flagrant violations.” In other words, “adjust!”

Yet, civil society groups, the media, the business elite and the intellectual set would have us believe that the system works but is subverted by corrupt businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. The arguments are essentially messianic based on a belief that ascetic figures like Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare; brand ambassadors like Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan or soothsayers like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Satya Sai Baba could restore values and bring order into public life

Messianic zeal in Indian public affairs is the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, who acquiesced in his lifetime to the title, “Mahatma.” He was indeed a great soul who challenged and ultimately defeated the British Raj.

Trouble is Gandhi had a lifelong problem with modernity. His book, Hind Swaraj, was a diatribe against modern culture, which he equated with Westernization. His retort on Western civilization, (“I think it would be a good idea”) remains in my mind the tipping point in his conversion from political strategist to the Mahatma.

In that flippant remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that brought modernity and economic prosperity to the West. Gandhi’s view of the West still has acolytes in 21st century India.

That is one reason why economic prosperity is there for all to see in India today; but modernity, defined as civil values stemming from a concern for others, is a long way away.

The key to India’s modernization is education. Today, parents demand a “good education” so their children can find steady, well-paid jobs in India and around the world. The system is geared to vocational, technical and management training; it does not provide a liberal arts perspective in which civility and socialization are inculcated in students.

What’s more, parents fail to understand that “success” does not come just being “well educated.” The most important thing is for their children to be “well bred.” This means that their children should not just be knowledgeable and bright but aware of their civic responsibilities: don’t drive like lunatics, don’t litter, don’t pee in public, give a thought for others and be courteous.

Above all, parents need to inculcate in their children pride in the neighborhood, the city, the country (not the stunted nationalism that the Hindutva hordes propagate). Children can be well-educated through schools but well-bred only through parents. They hold the key to India’s modernity.

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

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011