Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam’s execution: the lesson

This day will go down as a momentous one in the history of not just the Middle East but the entire world. A major player of the region’s politics has gone, gone for ever.

Saddam Hussein came to power violently. He ruled violently. He was deposed violently. There was violence after he was overthrown. And, his end also came violently. The guarantee that violence will cease for good after his death, comes only from a blind belief in the improbable.

That Saddam was a violent man is the point of view of not just George Bush. It is also of the near and dear whom he eliminated ruthlessly. It is also of the many bystanders and the silent observers; and most importantly, probably of Saddam himself. What else does his utter lack of remorse even at the gallows indicate? It’s sure he knew this day was coming; only he didn’t know when.

I switched on the TV as soon as I got up around 8.30 am. And the much expected news was out there. And around 2.30 pm, the first images of the last moments of a tyrant started streaming in. We have heard of people being hanged to death, but never seen such a chilling sequence of events.

There is a lesson in this, nevertheless. Nemesis catches up, one day or the other. The retribution comes in some way or the other.
After all, Saddam did, or at least had the power to do, whatever he wanted. He lived like a king, he lived his life to the full. And, it was time finally for him to leave. But was he one whose departure has to be grieved, especially since he himself played with death so closely all his life?

  • Video footage of Saddam at gallows: on NYT site with report
  • Video footage of Saddam at gallows: with Al-Arabiya TV report on Reuters site
  • Tuesday, December 26, 2006

    Saddam reaches dead end

    It's no longer "Will Sadddam be executed". It's "When will he be executed."

    Today's decision of an appeals court -- to uphold an Iraqi court's sentencing of the overthrown Iraqi dictator on Nov 5 for massacring 148 Shias in the town of Dujail in 1982 in retaliation for a failed assassination bid -- comes as no surprise. If Saddam had got a reprieve that would have been stunning decision.

    This is just another chapter in a saga that has played out over the last four years. Ever since the first indications in 2002 of the White House plotting to attack Iraq -- in a new tactic called 'pre-emptive strike' -- events have unfolded with little surprise.

    The case for weapons of mass destruction, the inevitability of an attack on Iraq even though the hypothetical premise for it couldn't be sustained, the UN debates, the ultimatums, the deadlines, the shock-and-awe strike, the street battles, fall of Saddam's statue and its symbolism, the "We've got him" declaration by Paul Bremer, the trial, the conviction and the sentencing... Looking back it looks all so predictable.

    When Saddam kept taunting Bush, one wondered if he wasn't aware of what he was bargaining for. Definitely it wasn't beyond him to see the writing on the wall.

    After 9/11, the attack on Taliban was a retaliation. But following up with one on Iraq carried little conviction, even in Europe, barring England. No, we will not wait to be attacked again in order to eliminate enemies lying in waiting, President Bush had said and proceeded on a plan of action with clinical precision. Bush has admitted that victory hasn't been achieved: just another way of saying, "We have failed so far."

    It's no one's case that Saddam is an angel, not even his. He sounded quite a realist, when he said, he is ready to be executed, though by a firing squad. Probably he knows the saying: those who live by the sword, die by it.

    Few think gallows for Saddam will improve the situation. Ironically, sparing him would neither. As Iraq slips from bad to worse, the world seems to wonder if the worst has been reached... so that, at least then things would get better.

    Monday, December 25, 2006

    Bangalore, look to New York

    Spiralling apartment prices in Bangalore has made good shelter quite a dream for the average man on the street. Probably the city’s administrators can look to New York for some clue on how the runaway realty boom can be reined in to some extent.

    On Wednesday, December 20,
    the New York city council approved a plan that would induce apartment developers to build tens of thousands of apartments for people other than the well-heeled. The developers who want tax breaks would have to make one out of every five apartment they make affordable to lower income people. The most striking feature is that these lower-priced apartments will have to be included in each building and can’t be built elsewhere in the city.

    The programme to make shelter affordable to the poor is not new – it is 35 year old -- but the new clauses to make it more beneficial to the people are. The revamped plan includes raising a $400 million trust to fund for developing low- and moderately priced housing, especially in New York’s 15 poorest neighbourhoods, including Soundview in the Bronx and parts of Bushwick in Brooklyn.

    If New York can, why can’t Bangalore?

    (Published in Salt and Pepper column of The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

    Thursday, December 21, 2006

    Bicycle tax

    Last evening, I was at a shop near Banaswadi to pick up my son’s cycle I had given there the previous day for repair. There was a man who had come before me and he was talking to the shopkeeper about the amount to the paid for the cycle he seemed to have purchased.

    While the man said he would pay only minus the tax, the shopkeeper insisted that since the bill had been given, the full amount, inclusive of the tax, must be paid. The buyer’s contention was he had made clear beforehand he wouldn’t pay the tax. The shopkeeper countered saying he had refused at first to sell the cycle without issuing a bill. Since the man had gone ahead and purchased the cycle and accepted the bill, he might as well pay the full amount, the shopkeeper said quietly, nonchalantly, dismissively.

    I craned my neck as discreetly as a possible to see what the amount being debated was, while the buyer – a middle-aged portly man in grey striped t-shirt who was neither well-heeled nor seemed to have had a wash in the recent past – moved aside, surprisingly I thought, to make way for me to interact with the shopkeeper.

    I could faintly see on the bill that cost of the cycle was Rs 2,000-something and the tax was in double digits starting with one; a maximum of Rs 19.

    While I moved ahead and enquired if the cycle was ready, I noticed that the man was hanging around, obviously, to settle the matter to his advantage. He would pay Rs 2,000-odd but not Rs 19. Quite principled or penny-wise-pound-foolish? I realised later who was smarter.

    My cycle had been completely overhauled; some worn-out parts replaced. I was wondering what my bill would come up to as I watched the shopkeeper scribble illegibly on a piece of paper the parts he replaced and the cost. The whole thing added up to 280. Though I couldn’t read the particulars I could read the figures. He had added correctly. As I reached for the purse, I asked the shopkeeper for the bill. “No, for servicing we don’t issue bills,” he said politely with a smile. “I know you won’t protest,” that’s what he had left unsaid.

    It didn’t take much time for me to understand why he didn’t issue a bill, though there is no way of confirming this: My bill of Rs 280 had an extra Rs 19, or whatever it was. The only clue: soon after I moved out of the shop after paying up, that man too left, after the shopkeeper said something to him. Couldn't hear that, but most probably it was: “Okay, you go, no need to pay the tax.”

    Tuesday, December 19, 2006

    Economist editor on Bangalore

    An account of The Economist American editor's visit to Bangalore. Excerpts:

    • The traffic congestion was bad enough last time. Now it is worse. There is the standard Indian chaos of cars, three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis, bicycles and nonchalant cows―with the crucial difference this time that no vehicle seems to be moving.
    • Paradoxically, although the best firms are inundated with job applications, the biggest challenge facing every company in Bangalore is how to hang on to workers after hiring them.
    • Three years ago call centres were very much at the heart of things. Now real decisions are being taken in Bangalore and higher-value-added work is being done here.
    • Reuters has outsourced some journalism here, and Bloomberg is expected to follow suit. How long before my own job is being done, for a fraction of my scarcely adequate salary, by an Indian in Bangalore?

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    One-way thinking

    Act and think -- the worst way to do something, but a practice quite routine with Bangalore's civic utilities. It was in evidence again while Cauvery water pipelines were being laid beside the Rail Line Road, near Bypanahalli railway station, East of NGEF, over the last 10 days.

    The busy road is broad enough to allow just a bus and a car cross each other. As workers dug up one side, traffic slowed down; and with a bus stop too on that road, lengthy pile-ups and flights of temper became commonplace. After laying the pipes, trenches were covered loosely with soft mud. And the inevitable happened: on two successive days, two lorries had their left wheels sinking into the soil throwing traffic to total chaos.

    After days of chaos, it dawned on someone to make the busy road one-way; and a board came up at the U-turn in front of the NGEF. The motorists were relieved, never mind the potholed alternative route through the residential layout.

    But interestingly, now after the pipes have been laid and workers have left, the one-way board is still standing. Only the motorists new to the area are taking the potholed diversion.

    Why the one-way sign still? Only the teashop owner in the vicinity seems to know: "They are making use of this chance to retar the roads." Wishful thinking?

    (Published in The Times of India, Bangalore, Dec 18)

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    Blogging set to peak in 2007

    Just the other day, a friend remarked that blogging might just soon fade away as one other technological phenomena that created waves. It was, of course, a remark made without any study, as he himself said. It was more of a perception-based personal view. I countered his argument. Blogging is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. It is not going to fade away.

    My view was, and still is, that the casual bloggers may fade out, those who just came to see what it is all about and didn't find it exciting. But blogging as a powerful media of mass communication -- a democratisation of publishing -- will stay on. The excitement of the new medium may wear out, but the medium is only going to get stronger.

    Call it coincidence: BBC has a story on this based on a study by Gartner. It says 200 million people have stopped writing blogs. It says, by next year the number of blogs will level out at around 100 million. The reason: all those who wanted blog have started, those who like it will keep blogging and the rest will stop.

    Again not based on any research, but I have a feeling that the number could still increase. Because as more children grow up and become aware of the medium, many would get on it and a good percentage may just stay on as well. Also, Gartner predicts that the cost of a PC will come down by 50 per cent by 2010. That will be additional reason for people to start blogging, especially in developing countries.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    Supreme Court on press freedom

    The Supreme Court dismissed yesterday a petition seeking a ban on publication of obscene photographs in newspapers. Delivering the judgement, a Bench comprising Justice A.R. Lakshmanan and Justice Tarun Chatterjee, came out with a number of observations pertaining to freedom of the Press and choice of media for people in a democratic country like India.

    The text of the entire judgement of the case can be read

    Here are some the observations:

    On blanket ban:

    • “Any steps to impose a blanket ban on publishing of such photographs, in our opinion, would amount to prejudging the matter... An imposition of a blanket ban on the publication of certain photographs and news items etc. will lead to a situation where the newspaper will be publishing material which caters only to children and adolescents and the adults will be deprived of reading their share of their entertainment which can be permissible under the normal norms of decency in any society.”

    On choice of media for people:

    • “In addition we also hold that news is not limited to Times of India and Hindustan Times. Any hypersensitive person can subscribe to many other Newspaper of their choice, which might not be against the standards of morality of the concerned person.”

    On publication as a whole:

    • “We are also of the view that a culture of 'responsible reading' should be inculcated among the readers of any news article. No news item should be viewed or read in isolation. It is necessary that publication must be judged as a whole and news items, advertisements or passages should not be read without the accompanying message that is purported to be conveyed to the public. Also the members of the public and readers should not look for meanings in a picture or written article, which is not conceived to be conveyed through the picture or the news item.”

    On nudity and obscenity:

    • “Where art and obscenity are mixed, what must be seen is whether the artistic, literary or social merit of the work in question outweighs its obscene content. In judging whether a particular work is obscene, regard must be had to contemporary mores and national standards…

    • “Articles and pictures in a newspaper must meet the Miller test’s constitutional standard of obscenity in order for the publisher or the distributor to be prosecuted for obscenity. Nudity alone is not enough to make material legally obscene...

    • The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities… Many cultures have produced laws to define what is considered to be obscene and censorship is often used to try to suppress or control material that is obscene under these definitions.”

    Sunday, December 10, 2006

    Blogger Beta

    When I first read about the features Blogger Beta had, I wanted to switch immediately. But I couldn't. It was unsettling to see new and smaller blogs being allowed to make the switch first. Apparently bigger blogs had to wait. Finally, my turn came, on Dec 8. That’s why my blog looks different now. The last two days I have been experimenting with the various features.

    The beta version is better than the earlier one. Not only there are many more options, it is easier to change the layout, design, colour and fonts. There is also no need to publish repeatedly after these changes are effected. It’s good to see Blogger having labels like Wordpress. It was long due. It will take some time before I label all my 300+ posts. Hope to complete it soon.

    The big drawback is, there are still not many templates to choose from. Also, there are limited changes we can make to the layout. Nevertheless, I think Blogger is the best bet for non-techies.

    Friday, December 8, 2006

    He can't send an SMS!

    SDR, who is a scientist in the US, is in Bangalore on a two-week holiday. The other day, we were standing at a roadside tea stall at Indiranagar (in Bangalore) and sipping tea. A casual labourer standing nearby and sending a text message on his mobile phone immediately caught SDR's attention.

    “Look at him sending an SMS…” he exclaimed.
    “So what…” I remarked.

    “You think he has enough knowledge of English…” he asked.
    “Obviously he has some knowledge. May be broken English,” I said. “As if we all text error-free top class prose…”

    “But I don’t know to send or receive an SMS…” he said with a shrug and a smile.

    That was a bombshell to me. My friend is from the IIT. They guy used to write codes for computer software, and he presently deals with some high-end research in Washington DC.

    I just froze for a couple of minutes lost in a whirlpool of thoughts. Around me were two guys: One a scientist who doesn’t know to send an SMS and another, an apparent illiterate who is sending an SMS. And in between we have lots and lots of people who are literate but who don’t seem so, with or without modern gadgets. I just didn’t know what to make out of this…
    And, I thought SMS was the most quick and convenient method to pass on an information.

    The report that India has overtaken China in the growth of mobile phone subscribers seemed to be making sense.
    Each month, 66 lakh people are getting a mobile phone connection in India: which means the daily growth is 2 lakh 20 thousand. I am sure this includes renewal of prepaid subscriptions besides fresh connections.

    In India as on Oct 31, 2006, there are 13 crore 33 lakh 25 thousand 611 mobile phone subscribers. But, that’s less than the number of people in China with a mobile -- 44 crore.

    Anyway, India’s mobile phone march is astounding. This is one single revolution that has touched every human being, rich, poor and those in between. Affordable rates and the ease with which one can get a connection are two factors which have catalysed the growth.

    The increased speed of transmission of information has had its cascading effects on business relations and personal relations. And, that has made this world a different place. And, mind you, it’s changing still. And, changing fast.

    Mobiles also have been a great leveller. And, it has turned on the head some of our existing concepts. Like that incident at the tea stall a couple of days back revealed.

    Figures give you an impression that all people have mobile phones. No. There are still people -- working men and women -- who don’t possess one… They don’t need, perhaps. Obviously they aren’t very mobile; plus, they have good and continuous access to a landline.

    Wednesday, December 6, 2006

    Shibu Soren gets life term

    More shocking than a Union minister being charged with murder, being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment (with prosecution seeking death sentence), is the tolerance of our political establishment to accommodate such elements. Shibu Soren is only symbolic of a malaise that is dangerous if not treated immediately.

    It seems he has a great following, has been instrumental in fighting injustice... but at the end, if he has been convicted of murder; what has all the glory come to? Soren is not alone. Most politicians, if one were to look at them as an individual, as a person, they have striking qualities. Many of them are good academic qualifications, others have leadership abilities, and many of them are, individually, very concerned about society and the country. It’s sad that we run a system that doesn’t allow the goodness of many individuals to come to the fore.

    In this context Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar’s piece in STOI of Dec 3 –
    Politics and Growth -- is worth reading. He tries to answer this basic question: “Economic theory says that rapid economic growth cannot be possible without good governance. How, then, is India having booming growth and political crime at the same time?”

    Friday, December 1, 2006


    The last month of 2006 has turned in with depressing news:
    • Maharashtra burned with Dalit fury yesterday: All it took for people in Maharashtra to begin killing each other was damage to a statue in Kanpur. Problems may be grave but is this the solution?
    • Trinamool Congress members led by Mamata Banerjee left a trail of destruction in the West Bengal Assembly yesterday: Democracy vests politicians, more than learned bureaucrats, with lots of power and privileges. With people like Mamata around, does democracy have any real meaning in India?
    • On World Aids Day, today, we are told India has the highest number of HIV-infected people in the world: One can't treat AIDS in any effective manner. Solution is in prevention. Have we as a nation really woken up to the situations and circumstances that lead a person to get infected with HIV?
    • CBI may press for death penalty for former Union minister Shibu Soren for his role in the murder of his former private secretary Shashinath Jha: When will our system be cleansed of such elements?

    And, add this to it if you like:

    • Sachar Committee report, which painted a depressing picture of India's Muslims, was presented in Parliament yesterday: The West got into a problem with Islam only recently. But India's birth itself has haunting linkages with the religion. It's not so easy to extricate a legacy of history. More so, if our lowbrow politicians, who sadly make up the majority, see in that legacy a goldmine. The story of Dalits is not so much different. When will lack of development cease to be a vested interest for our politicos?

    Ironically, the government also yesterday released figures to show that India's GDP had grown by 9.2% in the second quarter: How much do these figures reflect reality?

    • NEWS JUST IN: Punjab and Haryana High Court holds Navjyot Singh Sidhu guilty in a murder case: What's happening?