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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Taliban -- a wounded tiger

K Suryanarayana, the Indian engineer, who was kidnapped by Taliban on Friday, has been beheaded.

What did Taliban gain? This is not the fist such incident. What do they gain by indulging in such gruesome acts?

Inspite of all the powers we claim to process, how helpless we all are. We have won over innumerable beings that pose danger -- even in very minute ways -- to us; but why we haven't been able to win over these terrorists who seem to call the shots at will?


Does this mean that the worst enemy of human being is another human being?


Is it Nature's way of telling us: "Don't think you are invincible, don't think you have conquered everything on the face of Earth. I know how to get back at you, using your own people."

Doesn't Taliban now look more dangerous than when they presided over Afghanistan? They bombed WTC, gave a new dimension to terrorism and forced world's geopolitics into a new direction. George Bush got Taliban dislodged from Afghanistan; but didn't succeed in destroying it.

A wounded tiger is more dangerous. Taliban is no different. They are dispersed all over. They lurk in the shadows. They have got more vicious. Their near-invisibility also gives protection to their sponsors.

Taliban still survives because the war on terror left their sponsors, Pakistan, untouched.


Musharraf will survive. Taliban will survive. Bush will survive. Lesser mortals will have to count on their luck.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Exit polls predict LDF win in Kerala

Exit polls conducted by Malayalam television channels have predicted a landslide victory for the CPM-led LDF in Kerala, after the second round of polling today.

Read more

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nepal -- Trouble not over yet

Nepal is only seemingly normal. It's too early to say that we have seen the last of the troubles in the Himalayan kingdom. I don't think anything much has changed. The king decided to revive Parliament. But dissolution of parliament was only part of a larger problem, wasn't it?

The crux of the Nepal problem is a two-fold poltico-social one.

Political -- the active role the king plays in administration.

Social -- the corruption that bedevils Nepal's democracy.

Monarchy is a major issue. But, the bigger issue is corruption.

A brief peek into the past:

* From 1846 to 1951 Nepal was ruled by a hereditary prime minister of the Rana family. The Ranas were overthrown in a revolution led by Nepali congress and the monarchy.

* Ever since king and politicians took over the administration, they have always clashed over policy. First elections were held in 1959, and the very next year, the king dissolved parliament and banned political parties!

* During the eighties, there was the party-less panchayat system of governance. No one liked that either. In April 1990, after a similar violent agitation, the king abolished the panchayat system and introduced multiparty democracy.

* In May 1990, absolute monarchy was abolished. Political power was transferred from monarchy to an elected government. The present constitutional monarchy was born then.

* Now the issue is total overthrow of the monarchy. Just get rid of the king!

Both Maoists and political parties -- the Seven Party Alliance -- are now pressing for an election to the constituent assembly which will end monarchy and make Nepal a republic.

Will the king willingly abdicate? If he does, one irritant is gone.

Like the political parties, the Communist rebels too are against the monarchy. If the king goes, the Maoists too will be happy. But only partly.

Why? Because, they are basically upset with the way Nepal's democracy is -- or at least was -- being run. Maoists too used to be part of the democratic system. But they pulled out because they were disenchanted with the ballot. They turned to the bullet.

Maoists realised that the political class is not bothered about the country's poor. They also felt that the lower castes are victims of upper caste hegemony.

Today, Maoist rebels, who draw inspiration from Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, are a real force; on a par with the Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Therein lies the danger. Danger for Nepal and for India.

The underlying turmoil within the larger Nepalese society wouldn't go away with the mere restoration of parliament or even abdication of the king.

Looking far ahead, if at all the king went for good (it'sn't going to be that easy), then the common enemy of the Maoists and the politicians would have gone. Then for the Maoists, the main suspect would be the politicians. Would that gap be bridged? If so, how easily?

Only if Maoists and the mainstream politicians see eye to eye, will Nepal be firmly on the path of peace and development.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Lessons, not regrets

There is a quote attributed to American actor Jennifer Aniston: "There are no regrets in life, just lessons." Whatever be the context in which she made that observation, it is not just a profound thought but seems to make a lot of sense.
 
Regret is an emotional feeling that stems out of a desire or a wish that things could have been much different from what it presently is. When things go right often most of us rarely have an inclination to take notice, and be grateful. When things go wrong, some of us just don't care, while the conscientious amongst us regret. Some go on to even brood over it; not for some time, but for days on end.
 
Regret is also a very negative emotion. The point is: why feel bad, if we did the best that could be done, and yet things went wrong? True, there is no need to regret. Suppose we didn't do our best, well, make sure we do our best next time round! 
 
To care less when things have gone wrong is worse. If we have some conscience, we should feel bad; not indifferent. Indifference would indicate detachment; a state of being disconnected; possibly even arrogance. That could eventually lead to us being not counted at all, and even doom.
 
When things go wrong, learn lessons. That's being positive. Regret only ensures that we are at the same place, but lessons would ensure that we move ahead. We would correct the mistakes, try something different, chart a new path, try new combinations, adopt a different approach... That's being active, dynamic, getting ahead. 
 
Never regret. Learn lessons!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

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Monday, April 17, 2006

No rehabilitation, no Narmada dam work

Today's Supreme Court observation was bang on target. Rehabilitation is the issue; and the judges have rightly said that the dam construction has to stop if affected people aren't adequately compensated.

Both dam and rehabilitation are important. That's what Supreme Court said. And that is why both Medha Patkar and Narendra Modi felt they had won and ended their fasts.

I don't think the issue will be resolved anytime in the near future. Because the problem is not so easily solvable. The number of people being displaced and the area going under water is so huge, it is practically impossible for the government (mainly of Madhya Pradesh) to find alternative land.

The people who are getting displaced are all dependent on land for livelihood. It's not like your company is sinking, so you quit and join and another company. Is it right to be so indifferent to these people?

One of the reasons for the World Bank and other partners pulling out the project in 1990 is the high human cost of the project. The moot point is not when we will address it, but how we will address it.

The big beneficiary of the project is Gujarat but most the submergence and displacement of people is happening in Madhya Pradesh. But Gujarat government and its politicians haven't spared even one little thought for the people who are being adversely affected.
Why? Is it because those people live in Madhya Pradesh? Isn't this "why should we bother" attitude bad?


The politicians and the government of Gujarat will not lose anything if they give at least moral support to the people being displaced. Shouldn't the beneficiaries at least acknowledge the sacrifice of millions of people, if not help in some way to ameliorate their difficulties?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Depoliticise Narmada, rehabilitate people

Development issues should never be political. Generally they are not in developed and advanced societies.

Good roads and transportation, adequate supply of potable water, uninterrupted power, ample opportunities to pursue education and career are basic rights. And, they should have no bearing on which party is in power.

But, India is an exception. Development issues are highly politicised. So much so all development is stalled. From the tarring of the road to building of dams, examples are a legion.

We still have not been able to resolve the Narmda dam controversy, even after at least 25 years. Though the project was first conceived by Pandit Nehru as part of development projects for nascent India, complex legal issues involving different states delayed the formal announcement till 1979.

Over 3,000 big and small dams are to built over a stretch of 1,200 km. The Sardar Sarovar dam is the biggest and dogged by controversy.

The supporters of the project say that the dam will supply water to 30 million people and irrigate crops to feed another 20 million. But the opponents say nearly 2 lakh people will be displaced and damage the ecology of the region. They also say that rehabilitation of such a huge number of people is practically impossible, and alternative methods of irrigation and water supply haven't been explored.


What is not disputed by both sides is that the dam will greatly benefit people in drought-prone areas. While issue of possible ecological damage can be left to debators, that of rehabilitation Project Affected People should be addressed clearly.

Many independent studies have shown that villagers and tribals who have been affected have been left to the mercy of the elements and rehabilitation packages are merely on paper. Many international donor agencies and partners like the World Bank pulled out the project citing environmental and high human costs in early 1990s.

Build the dam, but don't kill people in the process is what activists like Medha Patkar have been saying, and I fully agree with her on that count. Tomorrow the issue comes up before the Supreme Court.

Why is development at the cost of human lives, when development itself is meant to improves the conditions of the people. Why is the government not rehabilitating these people properly? Is it because they are poor?

How cheap on part of politicians of Gujarat to politicise the issue.

Just a quick recap:

* March 8: Narmada Control Authority gives go-ahead to increase the height to 121.92 meters from 110.64. The Supreme Court had refused raising of the dam height in 2003.

* March 12: Medha Patkar and 50 others sit in dharna in Delhi, since the Supreme Court had said that the dam height can be increased only after properly rehabilitating the affected people.

* March 27: Medha goes on fast unto death.


* April 5 night: Police swoop down on Medha and take her to All-India Institute of Medical Sciences. Two others Bhagvatibhai and Jamsingh are also in hospital. They continue fast in hospital.

* April 7: A three-member team led by Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz visits the valley.

* April 10: Team submits report to Prime Minister. Widely speculated that the team found rehabilitation inadequate and recommended stopping of work.

April 14: Reports that Soz has ordered stoppage of work.

* April 16: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi begins a 51-hour hunger strike against stoppage or work. PM assures all-party team from Gujarat that work has not been stopped.

* April 17: Supreme Court to hear petition on stoppage of work.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mobs overrun Bangalore

The way Bangalore descended to chaos, violence and arson during the funeral procession of Rajkumar today was unimaginable. And, it was there for all to see, across the nation, as television channels beamed images of hooligans pelting stones at vehicles, setting buses on fire, fighting pitched battles with police. We all saw a policeman being chased, cornered and beaten up by the crowd. It was a very disturbing sight. It was senseless madness on the streets as the government just stood by.

Government? Well, has there been one after S M Krishna's Congress lost power in 2004? Today's mayhem was further proof that there is no governance at all in India's famous technology capital.

At the end of the day, there was just one question on everyone's lips. What was the reason for this violence? Who gained what? And, that too during the mourning of the passing away of a such a saintly figure like Rajkumar. While fingers are being pointed at the government and police for not anticipating such a situation, no one really knows what drove the frenzied crowd to indulge in such violence.

It is impossible that admirers and fans did all this. It just can't be. Anti-social elements have capitalised on the occasion to run riot. Every society has a section that is susceptible to behave in such a fashion. Good administration will be on guard and thwart such attempts. But it was not to be.

I feel really sad that a person like Rajkumar, who by sheer hardwork raised himself to such a stature and won the hearts of multitudes, had to depart in such a fashion. How could it be that he was surrounded by people who couldn't think better? What did all that adulation over a lifetime mean? I just don't know why the people immediately close to Rajkumar and the government machinery couldn't seize the situation and give a more respectful and dignified farewell to Rajkumar.

The day and the events wouldn't be forgotten so easily. It's a blot on Bangalore which wouldn't go away so soon. Probably in all these, there is some indicator to the sort of social fabric Bangalore has allowed itself to have. The day has left too many questions the answers to which may not be easy to find.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rajkumar's death

The news of Kannada thespian Rajkumar's death flashed on TV channels around 2.30 pm. My immediate thoughts were how the grief would spill on to the streets. It would be a hectic day for me in office. And, not leaving anything to chance, I left home around 3.30 pm.

I immediately got a bus which was virutally empty. But as the bus neared the city centre it began to get packed. Inside the bus passengers were keeping themselves updated on the developing situation and engaged in animated discussion as to how it will play out. The general consensus was that there wouldn't be any violence as the death was a natural one. The Brigade Road paid parking bay was unusually empty and shops had downed shutters. Streets were getting crowded with people rushing home, and the tension was palpable. In the midst of it all I was struck by an irony: While everyone was rushing home, I was rushing to the office!

In the office, reports of violence started trickling in. What started the violence was the lack of any clarity over where the body would be kept for public viewing. Sadly, the body was taken to and moved out of three places before finally keeping it at the Kanteerava Stadium. The public who had gathered at various places lost cool, felt cheated and went on the rampage.

Knowing Rajkumar's iconic standing among legions of admirers and sundry fans, some effort should have been made -- at least after the tragic moment if not before -- to decide on the place for keeping the body for the public to pay homage. And, going by precedents, the crowd frenzy should have been expected. It's sad the body was taken around the city in circles with no one having an idea where it should be kept.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Way out of caste cauldron

When things are looking up, something has to go wrong.

In an ill-conceived political move, Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh is spearheading a government move to bring in enhanced level of reservation (or positive discrimination or affirmative action as known in the West) for Other Backward Castes in specialised and technical educational institutions, like the IITs and the IIMs. Worse, apparently, even super-specialised courses may be brought in the ambit. Now, admission to such courses is determined by merit alone.

WHY WRONG TIME

This issue comes at time when the world -- especially the scientific and intellectual community -- has acknowledged the superior educational standard of Indians. Our level of excellence is being rewarded, well deservedly, by way of plum postings and lucrative pay packets on global scales. Indians are going places. Economy is booming. India is no longer the country of rope tricks and snake charmers.

Politicking is the last thing we want now. Arjun Singh is playing with the future of citizens, the future of the nation. This is anti-national. Isn't there any law against this?

Arjun Singh clearly has eyes on the votes. Had politicians really meant to better the lot of the underprivileged, over the last half a century, he, his predecessors and other members of his ilk, would have uplifted these sections of people, and the issue of reservations for underprivileged would haven't existed now. After all, the provision of reservation in the Constitution is only a temporary one.

WHY IS ARJUN SINGH WRONG

An understanding of two aspects will cut through the clutter.

One, at higher levels of education -- from post-graduation onwards -- quotas, under whatever head, will only result in compromising the quality of professionals we produce. An important parameter of a nation's greatness is the high level of intellectual and scientific attainment of its citizens, however intangible it may be. Ironically, every tangible achievement rests on this intangible parameter. To emphasise the need for technological superiority in today's world is merely to state the obvious.

We need good doctors, good engineers, good managers, good teachers, good professionals. It is competence of the doctor and not his caste that will save my life. It's the efficiency of our professionals and not their caste that will make my life better and my nation great.

Two, the Constitutionally mandated reservation policy adhered to in letter and spirit over the last 50 odd years has, to be fair, done more than its share of good. It has helped millions of people raise themselves to better their standards of living; the legion of beneficiaries itself being a testimony to that fact.

We can't be blind to this level of progress. When things have got better let's capitalise on it. Things have improved to the extent that caste is no longer a credible indicator to a person's level of educational, professional or financial status. So, instead of enhancing the level of quotas, the government should customise the policy to the present level of progress.

Are we to then say that there aren't any more underprivileged sections in our country? Definitely not. Caste-based discrimination continues. And, it continues not just in the illiterate backyards of our society but also in the upper class.

Social ills never go away. It only metamorphoses. As time passes, old problems need new solutions. The solution can definitely not be a half-a-century old one. The entire provision of reservation in the Constitution must be revamped to conform to the present-day reality.

WHAT IS THE WAY OUT

Caste can't be cast away. It will continue to dictate terms at least in our subliminal level. We can only make less apparent the absurdity of the primacy of caste. There are many ways to do it.

1. Change the way we look at caste itself. It is looked upon as a handicap, a social handicap. But unlike other handicaps (physical, emotional, intellectual or financial) this is addressed in a generic manner. That has to change. It has to be addressed in an individual manner. In fact, the age of generic solutions is gone.

X belongs to caste AB. The question that needs to be asked -- wherever and whenever it is relevant -- is: Is the caste a handicap for X? But how do we, even X, determine whether it is a handicap? One indicator is denial of an opportunity or a material object because of having been born to a particular caste. The solution can't be generic. It has to be on an individual basis, depending on the context, situation, place, time and any other parameter particular to the issue on hand.

Caste could be a handicap for a village woman when she draws water from a well. The same caste could be a handicap for a software professional when she seeks her parents' approval for marriage. Caste is the same; problems are different; so, solutions too are obviously different.

2. We need to remove the mention of caste where it doesn't really matter. If we are trying to remove discrimination, then continued and unwarranted mention of caste just defeats the purpose. Any application form, mostly government, has a column where the applicant's caste has to be mentioned. Just scrap it. Scrap it from school admission forms, college admission forms, examination application forms, job application forms.

3. If the idea is to address the social handicap of caste, reservation in schools and jobs on the basis of caste is not the solution. In fact the current policy on those lines is having the opposite effect. The inefficiency in any field for that matter is being attributed to non-meritorious candidates benefiting undeservedly from reservation. Here is where we need to stress on nothing but primacy of merit. If good doctors happen to be from a particular caste so be it; because we need good professionals. What we trying to achieve desperately is equal number of doctors from all castes. How ludicrous!

4. There are underprivileged sections of society, and one indicator is their financial standing. At elementary levels, a concern has to be shown to the deprived sections of people, so that they don't miss an opportunity that is theirs too. Enhanced opportunities can be provided by fee concessions or discounts on sales prices for educational material or such other devices depending on the particular context. But after creating conditions equal for all at elementary stages, when time comes to pick the best, the only determinant should be professional merit.

SEIZE THE CHANCE

The current reservation convulsion is not new. There was a violent one in 1990. We missed a chance to set things right. We just had spirited debates, agitations and a few lives lost. Unlike then, today we have technocrats and professionals at the helm of even our political establishment.

Today, as history repeats not so much in all its ferocity, we have a chance, yet again, to redeem the situation; for the benefit of all of us; for the benefit of India.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

A bizarre experience

A week back, my friend ABC asked me if I could help him out with some work. Initially reluctant, after hearing from him on the nature of the task, I agreed.

Last Thursday, he called me. "When will you be free for a meeting?"

Me: Saturday...

ABC: But on Saturday Mr XYZ won't be in town. So will Monday be fine?

Me: Yea, perfectly okay. But not in the afternoon...

ABC: Around 11.30 - 12?

Me: Perfectly fine.

Monday 11.15 am. A car comes to pick me up. I reach the destination. An office. I am ushered in by a peon at the door. I walk to the reception. To the welcome smile of a lady, I pose the question: "Can I meet Mr ABC?"

The receptionist tells me that he is in another office of the same organisation. I begin to wonder if I have come to the wrong place. But quickly I calm myself with the thought that the driver couldn't have been wrong. He must have been told specifically where to take me.

In a strange place, I don't know who else to ask for. Then my thought quickly goes back to the telephone conversation on Thursday. ABC referred to one XYZ. May be I am supposed to meet him? So, I quickly recover ground and ask for XYZ, without even knowing who the person is. The receptionist confirms my name; and nods in approval. She then directs an attendant to take me upstairs.

A typical office. The attendant shows me a person who is sitting inside a (transparent) glass-covered chamber, and tells me to take a seat. I look around. I am not alone. There are 5 people seated on a sofa. I keep looking into the glass chamber and try to catch the eye of the gentleman -- supposedly XYZ. Initially, I am delighted at the success rate of the eyeball hits, and eagerly expect a smile from him and an invitation to come in, as and when he is free. Anyway there are five people who have come before me. I must wait.

Suddenly the sight of the clock with just one needle on it strikes me. I realise that it is 12 noon, which means it is well more than 15 minutes since I arrived for the meeting. I also observe a curious phenomenon. Some people are just walking into the chamber instead of waiting for their turn.

As it gradually becomes evident that nothing is happening, I begin to feel uncomfortable.


My earlier thought, that I have to wait for my turn, slowly gives way to confusion. I wonder if I too should just barge in. But I decide against that since I don't know Mr XYZ one bit and probably the people who barge in, out of turn, might be his close confidants.

Since I am supposed to meet (Mr XYZ?) around 11.30 - 12, I also wonder if I should make my arrival in the office evident in some way -- maybe Mr XYZ doesn't know me or hasn't been told that I have come.

But since even the peon and the receptionist seem to be aware of my schedule at the office, I thought it is only natural that Mr XYZ is also aware. Or at least the receptionist would have told him. I did see Mr XYZ taking quite a few calls. One of them should have been the receptionist's.

I decide against barging in without being called. I think it will be rude. I decide to wait patiently. Probably Mr XYZ is busy or he is waiting for someone else to join us.

As a steady stream of people keep going in and out of the chamber, I feel a sense of restlessness welling up within me. I shift my posture on the sofa, throw my head back and look up letting out a deep of sigh of resentment.

Headline writers in newspapers have a favourite expression: "left in the lurch". I couldn't help thinking if the headline has now come to haunt me.

What do I do? I get up and head for the exit. The peon looks at me. I ask him, gesturing to the gentleman in the chamber, if he was Mr XYZ. The peon says yes, and tells me that I have to wait. I shuffle my way back to the sofa and sit down.

I look into the chamber. As usual there is someone. Within a minute he walks out, the peon walks up and tells me to go in. (Why the heck couldn't he do that 45 minutes back?)

Finally, I meet Mr XYZ. I introduce myself. He seems to be totally unaware of any plan for a meeting, except for the fact that my friend ABC had spoken about me to him... Since I am short of time, we quickly get into our discussion...

The meeting with him got over. Still reeling under the pre-meeting experience, I wasn't quite sure if I would be dropped back. So, I was greatly surprised when the attendant at the door told me, "Sir, the car is waiting for you."

What baffles me still is how could the well-placed gentleman, Mr XYZ, be unaware of my plan to meet him, when even the peon, the driver and the receptionist of his own office was aware!

And I wondered how foolish I was to have waited for close to 45 minutes... Probably I should have checked with the peon much earlier, or just thrown my wait around, or even begun to walk out since no one seemed to recognise me!

I couldn't help getting back to my friend ABC. He was profusely apologetic. And explained what could have gone wrong. I know my friend well. So, there was no need for an apology at all.

But at the end of it all, you find there is nothing more enlightening than such experiences in life.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Malfunctions

At the Lakme Fashion week, there was Wardrobe Malfunction.
 
In Washington DC, there is Lobby Malfunction, as our diplomats falter trying to lobby for the nuclear deal.
 
Closer home, my scooter refuses to start, my PC hangs more often than before, my telephone ring tone is erratic, and my time management has gone for a toss with too many things to do in too little time.
 
What else isn't working in this world?!