Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lalu spreads cheer

The Union railway budget today was a typical Lalu show: a theatrical display replete with animated gesticulations and carefully choreographed oratorical performance. It’s difficult to see him in any other manner, is it not? He is often seen as a comic sidelight of Indian politics; and today as he was rolling out one concession after another to the Indian railway commuter I wondered what he was up to and where would stop.

* Fares for AC I class reduced by 6% in lean season and 3% in peak season
* Superfast surcharge in second class reduced by 20%
* Passenger train tickets will cost Re. 1 less on non-suburban routes
* Railway tickets will be available at petrol pumps, ATMs and post offices
* Around 800 bogies added to popular trains
* Unreserved compartments to have cushion seats
* Number of unreserved compartments up by 6
* Concession for UPSC Examinees up to 50 per cent
* 8,000 automatic vending machines to be set up
* More berths per coach, lower fares
* Specially designed coaches for handicapped
* Sleeper coach berths to go up from 72 to 84

A railway budget has never been so sweet in the recent past. But on second thoughts, it wasn’t so much of a surprise, after all. He has turned the railways around. Profit up by Rs 20,000 crore, that’s what he said today! Lalu has been riding the crest of a wave lately, and it only looks he is getting carried higher and higher.

Imagine he was once synonymous with corruption: a self-centred villain, numb to people’s sensitivities, who drove Bihar deeper and deeper into social chaos. It’s widely speculated that had it not been for the Election Commission’s strict policing, he would have rigged his way back to power over and over again in Bihar.

There’s an unanswered question: if he was so capable as to turn around the railways, why couldn’t he do that to Bihar? What prompted such a turnaround in a man like Lalu? No answers still, only speculations. One of them is: He lost in the election in Bihar. He had to win elsewhere. He had to prove a point. He just decided to turn good, to steal a march over his arch rival, Nitish Kumar, and the New Indian Railways was born! Whatever be the reason, nothing matters, as long as the commuter benefits.

Among all the sweetness of the budget, one element of bitterness remains: As Lalu Prasad was reading out his budget speech, our distinguished lawmakers, who symbolise the great democracy that we are, couldn’t lend their ears to the honourable railway minister and hear out the budget speech quietly in dignity. Why they couldn’t, is as much a mystery as Lalu’s turnaround.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

P Bhaskaran passes away

It’s difficult, sometimes, not to notice a sad coincidence. Within a couple of days of Sham Lal’s passing away, another legend, P Bhaskaran, has bid goodbye for ever. Both were icons in their respective fields: journalism and cinematography. In Kerala, one whole generation grew up listening and humming the songs Bhaskaran penned; lyrics which hid within them ideas that struggled to break free in a society shackled by parochial taboos.

Neelakuyil, made in 1954, was a landmark in Malayalam cinematography. P Bhaskaran not only penned the songs, he, along with Ramu Karyat, directed it. The movie was based on a story written by Uroob. The movie, the first Malayalam movie to be shot outdoors, also won the President’s medal. The movie also had launched Sathyan, another great Malayalam actor.

Incidentally, Sashikumar, the well-known TV personality, and currently with the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, is Bhaskaran's son-in-law.

Photo credit: The Hindu

Obituary in Malayala Manorama

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rail travel safety

On Monday, Lalu Prasad will present the railway budget. When safety of train journey is such a hotly discussed subject now, I don't know if he has taken not of this news item from Britain:
  • An elderly woman has died and five other passengers have been seriously hurt in a train derailment in Cumbria. Several carriages were left on their side after a Virgin London to Glasgow service crashed at Grayrigg, near Kendal, at 2015 GMT, at about 95mph. Police said 22 people went to hospital and dozens more were "walking wounded"...
    What is remarkable is that only one person, that too an elderly woman, died after the train travelling at 95 mph derailed. (BBC)

Minister Lalu Prasad must naturally have these doubts:

- why in India when a train moving much slower derails, more people die?

- is it because in India, we have much poorer rescue arrangements. The minister must know that a good part of rail lines in India run through areas that are absolutely inaccessible.

Any thoughts on rail travel safety?

A journalist extraordinaire

Sham Lal, who passed away yesterday, belonged to a different strand of journalism. He illustrated that journalism is not just about reporting news. Journalism, as a social subject of mass communication, is also a lot about the message, how it’s conceived, crafted, delivered and pondered over. It’s as much about the language as about the content. He was a great literary critic. Not many have combined so well literature and journalism. My first exposure to Sham Lal’s writings was when I used to go through The Times of India’s issues at the Trivandrum Press Club, while I was doing my MCJ in Kerala University. The column ‘Life and Letters’ was a must read. A collections of his pieces is available as ‘A Hundred Encounters’. There is something about his style that is addictive. International affairs is my favourite, and among the most memorable of his writings are on the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European countries. (Photo credit: The Hindu)

The Times of India paid tribute to this great journalist with a special Edit Page today: Homage to Sham Lal.
Leader article: Above the Fray by Dileep Padgaonkar
In a Jungle of Theories, by Sham Lal
Life of Letters, Tribute by Ian Jack, Editor, Granta

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Terror on peace track: new realities

India’s, or rather South Asia’s, terror tales have turned a new chapter, with the explosions on Samjhauta Express near Panipat late Monday night. For the first time, Pakistanis have died in large number in a terrorist attack on Indian soil.

The current investigations will at some point lead to Pakistan. How Pakistan reacts to this will be of interest. Will there be some difference from the way it reacted to Indian investigators’ findings after the Mumbai blasts?

Post-Samjhauta blasts we have also heard new voices coming out of the Pakistan establishment. One reason is of late Pakistan has also been a victim of terror. India has always been the victim for a good 50-odd years. Probably here we are negotiating an important turn. The way Pakistan approaches terrorism as a victim will be crucial in healing the sore that Kashmir has been.

As the Pakistan establishment reconciles to the new reality – as a victim – India too will have to make changes in its perception of the neighbour. We have been seeing Pakistan merely as a perpetrator of violence in India; as a villain. Are we now seeing Pakistan on our side, as a victim? The current split image is bound to create some confusion.

Pakistan has in the recent past proposed joint fight with India against terrorism. We at that time wondered how that could ever happen. That statement in fact had come out of Pakistan’s realisation of it too being a victim of terror. As Khurshid Mohd Kasuri sits down for talks with Indian leaders in New Delhi today, this issue of joint fight will definitely be mentioned, though it may not be publicly acknowledged.

It is time we broke out of stereotype. Pakistan too is fighting a terror war of its own. And at some point there’s a commonality with the one that India is fighting. Indian diplomats and politicians should capitalise on this new turn of events, push the peace talks on to a wholly new track; that’ll finally help Pakistan turn off the terror tap once and for all.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Glorious moment for my alma mater

I should have been at my school. It was a rare occasion.

The Chief Army Staff, Gen J J Singh, was at my alma mater, Sainik School, Kazhakootam (Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala), on the 17th. More than that, Gen Singh was accompanied by three top officers in the Army – Lt Gen Thomas Mathew, Lt Gen Issac John Koshy and Lt Gen S P Sreekumar, all from the first batch of my school, 1965.

Every since these three old students, got promoted to the top rank, within the last year, my school has been on a high. And this visit of the Chief of the Army Staff has appropriately topped it.

January 17 was the birth anniversary of another old student, Col N J Nair. He was awarded the highest peacetime decorations of Ashok Chakra and Kirti Chakra while combating terrorism.

Nair, who belonged to J J Singh’s Maratha Light Infantry regiment, was awarded the Kirti Chakra in 1983 for his valiant efforts in fighting insurgency in Mizoram. Ten years later, he was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra when he laid down his life while fighting off an ambush in Nagaland.

Report in The New Indian Express, Zee News

Turning cricket fortunes

This World Cup in the Caribbean will be interesting, definitely; more so because of the revival of the Men in Blue and the Men in Black.

For the first time in four years, Australia have been dislodged from the top. It wasn’t so surprising that Aussies were beaten by the Kiwis yesterday. They are shorn of their best known faces: Ponting, Lee, Gilchrist, etc.

For once India has been performing consistently. The victories don’t anymore look like a flash in the pan, instead like the result of some consummate planning and skilful execution. Interestingly, in Vizag, we notched up 263 without the efforts of Dravid, Sachin and Dhoni. But an explanation has to be sought from Sehwag for getting run out the way he did.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cricket world cup

The cricket world cup is just under a month away. The Indian team is much on expected lines. All are discussing India’s prospects. But what strikes me most is the paradox: how we all feel this is a good team comprising talented players, all capable of delivering the best, winning performance… But at the same time, how we also feel it would be a big surprise if we manage to beat everyone and win the cup!

If we are good why aren’t we winning matches?

If we are good, why aren’t we confident of winning the cup?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cashing in on Bangalore's parking woes

While Bangaloreans fret and fume over the lack of parking space, city administrators, unable to offer any workable solution, look the other way. Saturday evenings are the worst in the city centre -- every parking lot is chock-a-block with vehicles.

In these moments of ordeal, some security guards of multi-storeyed complexes have found an ingenious opportunity to make a fast buck. After office hours, they offer basements or the pavements (that are usually not open to the general public) for parking, at a price of course.

The rates are arbitrary and depend on a variety of factors including the supply-demand economics: bigger the crowd, the higher the rate. It also could depend on the financial status of the security guard at that moment. If he has had a lot of cash flowing in, probably you could be lucky to get away with as little as Rs 10 or Rs 15. But of course, you may have to shell out more if you bring in a swank limousine.

Some guards have ingenious ways of measuring the urgency of the vehicle owner. Already having gone around a few circles, the annoyed drivers, wouldn't mind being asked a few questions like: "Where are you going, when will you come back?" From the answers and body language, the guards make a quick assessment and charge accordingly; the rates sometimes as high as Rs 40.

Call this a creative business model or exploitation of hapless citizens, but surely city administrators can learn a few lessons: turn vacant public lands into paid parking zones; work out win-win business models with private parties who have space to let out.

Over to commissioner K Jairaj and administrator Dilip Rau.

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

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Newspaper circulation going up

This is probably against conventional wisdom in a tech-driven world; but not surprising. Technology has replaced some devices with newer ones, but not all. We still have pencils, pens, inks, white paper to write on, radios, television sets, cassette players, cinema halls, theatre, bicycles, motorbikes, grinders and mixers (though precooked food is available)…

We do get excited over the theoretical possibilities that technology offers. At the turn of the century, during the dotcom boom, one of them was how we would all shop online and we would see the slow death of retail markets. The other was how we would all stop reading the newspaper and just be content with what we got on the mobile devices.

I guess our love for the written and printed word is very innate to human nature. So, it’s not surprising that newspaper circulation around the world has gone up.

Look at these latest figures put out by the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers. (Source)

  • Circulation of Indian dailies jumped 33 per cent.
  • Global newspaper circulation increased 9.95 percent.
  • Daily newspaper titles surpassed 10,000 for the first time in history.
  • India has 1,834 dailies (in 2005) up 22.8 per cent from 1,493 dailies in 2001.
  • The circulation of India's dailies consistently increased from 5,91,29,000 in 2001 to 7,29,39,000 in 2003 to 7,86,89,000 in 2005.
  • More than 450 million copies of newspapers are sold daily world over.
  • Even in North America and Europe both circulation and the number of new titles have increased.

  • A previous posting, on June 9, on the same topic

    Tuesday, February 6, 2007

    Highway mirage

    A zoomed-in image of the mirage seen on the Alappuzha-Chenganassery State Highway. Mirage is an optical illusion, wherein one sees a non-existent pool of water over heated surfaces like roads, pavements, deserts etc. The air immediately above the road is much hotter, forcing the light rays to bend, a phenomenon called refraction. The pool of water is actually a distorted image of the blue sky. The light rays from the sky falling on the hot surface get distorted because of extreme heat and appear from a distance as a pool of water. Objects like vehicles are seen in this pool. Since the vehicles are seen below the normal surface, such mirages are called inferior mirage. What is pictured above is also called "highway mirage". The opposite is superior mirage, which is typically seen in very cold conditions. Objects are seen floating in such situations.
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    Alappuzha-Chenganassery highway

    The Kerala State Highway from Alappuzha to Chenganassery is broad, smooth and a pleasure to drive on; except over a small stretch of about a kilometre which has been dug up for relaying. One is treated to a picturesque landscape, the greenery significantly enhanced during the monsoon. It was a hot afternoon, and the mirage was very clear, even the reflection of vehicles. A close-up of the optical illusion is posted above.
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