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Friday, July 29, 2011

And Accountability For All

This article appeared in The Times of India, April 21, 2010.

In many ways, the government has embarked on a path-breaking route, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. For instance, some time ago, the issue of fertiliser subsidies came up. In one fell swoop, the government changed the game by targeting subsidies on the basis of nutrients. Thanks to the policy change, farmers will look to nutrients other than urea. This will increase yields dramatically. Urea-based fertilisers were once good and government policies championed their use. Over the years, it became clear that they had passed the point of diminishing returns. Everywhere in the world, governments have promoted suplhur-based and other nutrients in the mix to increase yields and protect the soil.

With all the noise about food inflation, the government has pointed to the exploitative role of middlemen in the journey farm products make from the fields to the market. In recent times, the finance minister has made several references to the need for organised retail in the grocery business, most recently at the CII national meeting in Delhi.

Coming to taxes, the finance minister cut individual taxes while increasing some indirect levies. The idea is sterling: put more money in the hands of middle-class families and let them decide what they can or cannot afford. If i am considering buying a car and it costs a few thousand rupees more, it is my call. By putting economic decisions in the citizens' hands, the government has been making a major paradigm shift.

The emphasis on infrastructure is also welcome. Roads, ports, airports and railroads are being built. The trouble is that modern infrastructure is at the disposal of government agencies and citizens with zero ethics or civic consciousness. Thus, it gets caught up in bottlenecks caused by lackadaisical enforcement and citizens who habitually violate the law.

For instance, many cities now have modern airports. They are like white elephants because, the minute you step outside, there is total chaos. It's the same thing for highways. We recently travelled to Chandigarh from Delhi. The road is a work-in-progress and there are significant flyovers and wide pavements. But there is total traffic chaos.

Even as you rev to the top speed of 90 km per hour, you find yourself having to deal with vehicles going the wrong way, underpowered trucks, three-wheeled vehicles, bullock carts, cycle rickshaws, handcarts, herds of cows and sheep and, scariest of all, daredevil pedestrians trying to cross the highway. They make the journey a nightmare. There is simply no policing, no signage or other facilities that go with modern highways. It's almost as though modern amenities are made available to citizens with a pre-modern mindset by officials with no clue about modernity.

The tragedy is that the police have no authority to enforce the law. Even worse, they don't even know the law. Just recently, I stopped a police car on the spanking new expressway that connects Delhi and Gurgaon to the airports. I told the police officer that the unchecked use of the expressway by two- and three-wheeled vehicles was a major traffic violation and that there were signs that these vehicles were not allowed. He told me to mind my own business. The government needs to show its hard-headedness in such matters as much as it is doing with the Maoists in central India.

Talking of internal security, the government has made major moves. It has taken on the Maoist movement with force. True, there are complaints of security forces riding roughshod over the ultras. But then, the Maoists are not known for grace and diplomacy either. A tough approach will not only contain the insurgents but also send a clear message that this is a hard government that will not stomach violent agitations.

On national security, the government has embarked on a new course. Even while initiating talks with Pakistan, it authorised a major air force exercise some time ago in the Rajasthan desert to demonstrate its fighting capabilities. It was a brilliant move to invite the defense attaches of major diplomatic missions, leaving out the representatives of China and Pakistan. The idea was to exhibit hard power.

To reinforce the government's hard line, the prime minister went to Saudi Arabia and urged its authorities to weigh in with Pakistan to control terrorist groups operating from there. It is clear Pakistan's government has neither the wherewithal nor the will to rein in various terrorist groups with a free run within the country's borders. A Saudi nudge could go a long way to boost the crippled civilian government against rogue elements within the army and intelligence agency.

In the end, however, you have in India an enlightened government beset by a crude political class, a malignant bureaucracy and a pre-modern citizenry. Also, the ship of state seems unable to deal with casteism, communalism and corruption. Bureaucrats blame crass politicians and the ignorant citizenry. Politicians castigate the bureaucracy. Citizens berate politicians and bureaucrats. It's a sort of beggar-thy-neighbour view enabling the entire system to elude responsibility. If everyone's to blame, nobody is accountable. What's clear is that citizens have to take on responsibility; blaming the government and politicians is not enough.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Breaking News: Drowning Out a Tragedy

Blasts Show Up Television News

What exactly were the television news crews after when they fanned out in the broken precincts of Bombay on the evening of the serial bomb blasts? They were intrusive, unmindful of the privacy of injured citizens and the grief of relatives of dead victims. Screaming and shouting, they collared eyewitnesses to ask them what they had seen. Worse, they tramped into hospital emergency rooms to focus on blood and gore. The result was a jumble of accounts. Piecing the fragments together, the picture that emerged was distorted, like looking at a high definition satellite television picture in a rainstorm.

As the news spread via television, the confusion seemed to grow. The jumbled pictures and stray, disjointed comments from shell-shocked citizens did little to reveal the dimensions of the tragedy. Amid the hysterics, rumors emerged to heighten public anxiety. Emergency services took time to get to the blast sites; police officers at the venues appeared clueless and the government response hesitant.

The next day, July 14, the focus changed completely. News channels seemed to have decided to go a step beyond reporting the news. Instead, they came up with an angle: enough of praising Bombay’s resilience; time to hit out at politicians, bureaucrats and policemen for failing to prevent the attacks. Their reporters waded into trains, scoured the city, looking for the “man in the street.” They ambushed hapless citizens and made them perform to a script.

There are two problems with this: one, can journalists in reporting an event come to it with a premeditated slant? Can editors accept their reporters passing off opinions as facts? Man-on-the-street interviews are useful as local color but they can’t be the story. Or chasing celebrities for their views on the tragedy? This latter approach can only be in pursuit of ratings.

Two, what does it mean when you say Bombay is resilient? A city can have a character and Bombay certainly does have a business-like approach to life. Residents of this city carry on efficiently despite crumbling infrastructure, slums, the underworld, housing shortages, milling crowds and a general sense of decay. That is resilience but it is on display everyday, not just at times of crisis.

It appears that the day after the blasts, the channels decided that “resilience” was an old bromide with no traction among viewers. You would have thought they would have upbraided their reporters for hyping the tragedy. Instead, they sent them, armed with a line, to barge into the tragedy once again: hectoring citizens to read from their script. The crews set out afresh to interview citizens in different parts of the city, asking leading questions. The story angle was clear: left to its own devices, resilient Bombay was angry.

“This city has been the victim of many terrorist blasts. Aren’t you angry and tense? Aren’t you tired of being called resilient and left to fend for yourself? Aren’t you tired of being taken for granted by the government?” The questions flew thick and fast as did the changing headlines on television screens. “Resilient, tired, angry,” they screamed. The television news channels seemed to have decided on the line; their field reporters goaded citizens into “confirming” the story in front of the cameras.

The journalistic practices of the television news media could be the subject of scholarly analysis some distance from “breaking news.” What is of immediate concern is that such ambulance-chasing tactics stoked public insecurities. Television reporters instigated citizens to berate the government in prime time.

This is not to suggest that criticism of the government is unacceptable. Indeed, authorities must be held answerable if they fail or are slow to respond. To do this, reporters need to ferret out hard facts. The analysis can only be effective at some distance from the events. Instant judgments spread fear and rumor at a time when public anxiety is running high.

Where they had a chance to calm things down, bring people together in the face of a major terrorist attack, the news channels took a lowly road. They hyped the events and indulged in the worst kind of speculation and rumor. Sensationalism reigned supreme.

In the face of shrill attempts by news channels to show up its inadequacies, the government response was restrained. The home minister and the prime minister winged their way to Bombay within 24 hours of the incidents. The prompt steps by the leadership blunted the edge of the media’s hysterical coverage.

Finally, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan made an appearance on all major channels and made some candid remarks about the strengths and limitations of government. His bravura performance took the wind out of media hysterics. His direct manner did much to defuse the media hype. His comments went much further than anyone in the Congress or the Opposition reckoned. Chavan was a refreshing voice on television. He spoke with a sincerity that has never been seen before. He appeared at once humble and fully in control, candid and unafraid to speak his mind.

Finally, it is a matter of some irony that the media hype may have actually denied the perpetrators of the Bombay blasts their day in the sun. Maybe India has found a way to deal with terrorism: bury it in hype, trample it in public debate. If only real people didn’t die or get injured!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

English: An Indian Language

So here we go again. Language chauvinists in Goa have launched disruptive protests against the state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction. This is in addition to Marathi and Konkani.

A bunch of rabble, associated with the Hindutva forces, stopped traffic in Panjim and threatened to hold the state hostage to their misbegotten worldview. It’s not just about Goa, it’s all over India. Same people who protested against the screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire; same people who assaulted women coming out of a bar in Mangalore; same people who renamed the airport and the railway terminus in Bombay; same people who renamed Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

English, both the language and our cultural heritage, is a convenient horse to flog. Increasingly, though, the burgeoning middle class is embracing it as the key to success in a modernizing country. Thus, while politicians go on renaming sprees, “Indianizing” names of city streets and entire cities, real estate developers across the country sell their projects with Western-sounding names such as “Provence,” “Belvedere” and what have you. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I have actually seen commercial and residential properties called “Manhattan” or “White House.”

Coming back to the Goa language disturbances, even the normally rational Manohar Parrikar, opposition leader and erstwhile chief minister, backed the obscurantist protest. He said if children are educated in English, they look down on their parents who don’t speak the language. He is right.

The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.

If you look around today, journeyman classes that offer students English-language proficiency are burgeoning everywhere. Parents and their children know that to make their way in the world, English is essential. They have no time for chauvinist arguments against the language. They just want their children to get ahead and like all solid middle class Indians place their faith in education.

This is why the Goa government’s bold move is admirable. Clearly, the state government understands that people want the choice to choose English as a medium of instruction. Given the state’s high level of literacy and per capita income, the pro-English segment is sizable and has rallied behind the government.

English has always been an Indian language. In recent years, the number of people who use English as the lingua franca has increased exponentially. A new form of the language has taken shape that incorporates Indian idioms. We are like this only. And it is increasingly accepted. R K Narayan is an early example; Salman Rushdie thrived on it.

Today global literary salons celebrate Indian writers in English bringing Indian cultural flavours to the world. I can name at least a dozen and their number is probably in the hundreds. So it is bit of madness for people in India to dismiss English as a foreign language. Supreme Court judgments are in English as are government policies. They may be translated into various languages but in the first draft they are written in English.

Vernacular chauvinists, who disparage the use of English in India, are products of a feudal mindset that portrays India as a long-suffering victim of colonial oppression. They draw inspiration from the jingoist ranting of M S Golwalkar in his aptly titled book, “Bunch of Thoughts” and amazingly enough also from the Luddite fulminations of Mohandas Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj.” Their India is a closed and diffident victim of unchaste foreigners. Today, such postures appear ridiculous and out of touch with the new, resurgent India.

Protests like the one in Goa flare up now and again, led by fringe groups that are communal and chauvinist. But they fly in the face of what citizens want. The protestors assume that the vast majority of the Indian population has no use for English. They are right; only a small section of the population use English in their lives. However, English is the language of aspirations. Even a semi-literate family in the rural areas knows that for their children to get out of the rut, the passport is proficiency in English.

Unlike yesteryear, when the language of Milton and Shakespeare was a mark of elite status, in the new India, English is the language of upward mobility. As such, it has captured the imagination of a new dynamic and youthful generation that values merit and effort as determinants of success. Its importance is gauged not from numbers but from its grip on the imagination of the burgeoning middle class.

English was introduced as a medium of instruction nearly two centuries ago by British liberals, hoping to “instruct” generations of Indian youth so they could become adequate civil servants in service of the Crown. Many young people from traditional upper caste families eagerly embraced English and parlayed it into a comfortable livelihood with steady incomes and various privileges.

As India enters a new phase, going from a uniquely-won independence to global recognition, English is again the agent of aspiration and change. And it gives me pause to think about just how prescient Thomas Babington Macaulay was when he said in his “Minute on Education:”

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”

Curiously, today’s chauvinists who protest the use of English reserve their worst for those who celebrate it as a dynamic Indian language. They call us the children of Macaulay; one of several “M’s” they hate including Marx, Modernity and Muslims.

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

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011