Saturday, November 24, 2007

Have we surrendered to terror?

As families lie shattered in the three cities of Uttar Pradesh -- Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi -- following the bomb explosions there yesterday, a few thoughts come to mind:

1. In UP, yesterday it was the judiciary that came under attack. One of the reasons being spoken of is that it's a retaliatory attack against lawyers for having refused to plead for people who have been charged with terrorist motives. In neighbouring Pakistan too the judiciary has been under attack for the first time. There, it's by the nation's President Gen Musharraf, for not toeing his line and overstepping the limits that he had drawn.

2. Why hasn't our security agencies been able to ensure the safety the citizens? One headline yesterday was "Terror revisits UP". The question is when will these visitations be stopped for ever?

3. How seriously do authorities take these incidents? Even before any proper examination or analysis has been done of various attributes of the tragic event, the security agencies have pointed their fingers at various organistions. All suspicions, nothing is for sure. Why do they have to do this, in the first place. Not surprisingly, not many of the charges against the suspects in such incidents have stood the test of scrutiny in the court of law.

4. In a way, it's only natural that the investigators haven't been able to do a thorough job given the politics that is insidiously brought into such tragedies. Within hours chief minister Mayawati was blaming the central government for not getting its intelligence right. In the cacophony of allegations and counterallegation muddied by insinuations, it's no wonder that neither public places are well-secured nor a meticulous investigation is done in the event of a tragedy. The investigating agencies lack both financial and human resources. The inputs hardly match the enormity of the problems we have.

5. Foolproof security is a myth. As former British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher said after escaping a bid on her life "They (terrorists) need to get it right only once; we need to get it right always." She was making a reference to the challenge. That was when terror strikes were not very common. The availability of low-intensity devices and the deviant human beings proclivity to reach for such devices is a bane of civilisation. (Look at how quickly Kolkata was paralysed few days back. That too was terror.) Today, the challenge is all the more, but how well have we stood up to it?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bangalore politics stinks

Sick -- that's in one word the state of politics in Karnataka today. Since September, the state's politics has been going from bad to worse. To what depths it can further descend remains to be seen.

In yet another disgusting turn of events, Janata Dal (S) which only a week back agreed to support a BJP government, today evening changed tack, told its MLAs not to support the government in the upcoming confidence vote, forcing chief minister B S Yeddyurappa to resign. Thus BJP's first government in south India lasted just a week. This is the second time in two months that JD(S) has played the villain.

Nowhere in the world politics has a great reputation. It's the art of intrigue, manipulation, stage management and skulduggery. However, there can also be good politics: of course, it can only seemingly be good. That's when politicians behave well, stick to accepted norms of a civil society, uphold social values, respect commitment to society and work for overall social welfare.

Politics is a mechanism of administering a society and bad politics can wreak havoc. When politics goes from bad to worse, it can have catastrophic effects on social stability. In democratic societies, good politics facilitates the fruition of inputs into various social sectors, like education, health, shelter, nutrition, infrastructure, etc. The fledgling Naxalite movement is one example of what bad politics can result.

As things stand today JD(S) is the spoiler. It's hard to imagine what people like JD(S) leader Deve Gowda, who is no less than a former Prime Minister, have in mind when engineering such reckless destabilisation games. It's not even greed for power; because, even greed for power has to end at some point. And it is also amazing that there'sn't a voice of sanity anywhere near him.

The ideal solution will be to dissolve the Assembly and order fresh elections. And hopefully, the people will set things right.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pakistan: past and future

The Newsweek of November 19 is a must-read for students of the sub-continent's politics.

One, there are two good articles on Pakistan. In the lead piece, "Pakistan's Pinstrip Revolution", Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria speaks of the nation's struggle to break free of the military's stranglehold. "Pakistani reality is awash in grays. The task for the US and other friends of Pakistan is to guide it on a path that keeps the country stable and the jihadis at bay, pushes the political system towards greater legitimacy and openness and keeps the key forces within the society working together," Zakaria says.

The other article, 'Trapped on the Razor's Edge', is by Sumit Ganguly, Director of Research at Indiana University's Centre on American and Global Security. In a previous post, I had wondered why India and Pakistan have gone the way they have, though they got freedom within hours of each other from the same Britain.

Ganguly, coincidentally, suggests various reasons to explain why in India politics and democracy call the shots, while in Pakistan it is the military. "Top priority should include curbing military spending, limiting the scope of military intervention in government matters and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. Without such changes, you can expect Pakistan to keep repeating its history for many years to come," Ganguly concludes.

Two, a special report on 1968: the Year that Changed Everything. A highly readable retrospective of how the 1968-ers of the US and Europe viewed the world.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Journalists and their family life

This week it's my turn to take leave. Last week it was my wife's. Reason: To be with our son during his studies as he prepares for his exams. No longer people take leave only for going on holiday tours. Thanks to modern-day lifestyle, dictated by long and unusual working hours, parents have less time to spend with their children.

Journalists, like us, are among the worst hit. When children are at home in the evening, we are in the office. Even though people on Sundays follow news on radio and TV, and on Mondays read newspapers, few of them realise that journalists work on Sundays too. Yes, both of us work on Sundays, and our Sunday is on a weekday! Besides, most public holidays too are working days for us, with the result, in a year, there are very few days when all of us are at home through the day!

There's an opinion that such work schedules aren't good for the family. In fact, people do ask us: "How do you manage?!" There are also parents, faced with their children's dream to be journalists, who ask us: how good is the career, is it safe, is there family life for a journalist?

My answer: we manage just as others do. It's not journalists alone who lead such lives. Families where parents have the perfect 10 to 5 job aren't free of problems, are they? I know a family: the husband and the wife are officers in banks; but they are in two cities and their daughter stays with her grandmother. If that you think is the worst part, the best part is the daughter is so much smarter than some other girls whose parents are always with them. I am sure there are many such examples to show how generalizations aren't true.

Of course, more time with children does have its benefits. It'll be quite wrong to say that our son doesn't miss us. The same holds good for us: we too miss the evenings with our son. Family life of most journalists isn't the same as of many others. We do miss the usual weekends; but we do find time to go out as a family, relax, unwind and recharge ourselves. There are lot of advantages when you are a little different and you aren't following the crowd! That's the fun! One example, as we work from afternoon to night, we never get caught in the rush-hour traffic.

It's a tough job, no doubt. However, I believe adversities do play a positive role in shaping our lives; they make us a little harder and more prepared to face challenges in life. The trick, I guess, is not in ducking problems, but in working around them. And, it's not the problems we should be worried about, it's the way we tackle them.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

JustFemme -- women's new e-magazine

I hope there is nothing stopping a man giving publicity to a women's venture! From Shruthi's blog I came to know of JustFemme, what's perhaps India's first e-magazine "by women for women". The cover story is about an illiterate woman who "has almost single-handedly done what hundreds of educated men and women have failed to do.... " Read on here. To read Shruthi's article, click here.

The vision statement of the e-zine is impressive: "Our Vision is to be spunky and unabashedly female. To question the stereotypes. To see reality as it is. To grow beyond." Both men and women are victims of stereotyping; only it is harder for women to break free of it. Much of the ills of the society are also a consequence of this stereotyping. It'sn't easy fighting it; requires sustained effort.

Times have changed, women have come a long way. But that's no reason for complacency. There is still a long way to go, and en route there will newer issues to tackle. Woman has a unique role in family and by extension in society. It's a role that no man can substitute. Once upon a time this role used to be seen as a liability; probably because only those roles that a man could also take over were valued. Definitely that is not the case today. Her role is valued, respected and cherished. And women themselves aren't feeling inferior about this role, but justifiably proud.

Wishing JustFemme all the success!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Less noisy Diwali

Did anyone get a feeling that this year's Diwali is less noisy? I felt so.

Even those who went for crackers avoided the high-decibel ones. I found many children totally avoiding crackers. I am told many apartment complexes too had decided to boycott the atom bombs and the like.

This is a positive trend, and I hope it catches on and gains momentum in the coming years. Diwali, after all, is a festival of light. But during the past years it had become a festival of noise, not even sound. The worst affected are children, elders, pets and patients.

The sparklers too have their downside. The smoke pollutes the air, and the festival is a horror for asthma patients. I hope in the years ahead we get more disciplined and organised as far as festivals go.

Happy Diwali to all! Let the season usher in happiness, success and prosperity!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Stability more important than democracy in Pakistan

(Updated on Nov 10, with a new related links)

There is nothing surprising or unexpected about the emergency in Pakistan. Kargil war should have been General Pevez Musharraf's high point. But he lost that badly. He thought he could salvage some thing by overthrowing the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. But 9/11 changed all that. The world around him hasn't been the same ever since. The purported aim of emergency to save Pakistan from terrorists sounds good, but the turmoil that could lay head is worrying so much that it offsets any signs of hope.

India and Pakistan were born together, twins so to say. But it always remains a puzzle why Pakistan has gone the way it has in comparison to India. Democracy could never take root there. Military is so much a part of the official government dispensation that whenever democracy seemed to be taking shape, the army bounced back, and it was all back to square one. The sad part is that the country has not benefited much either from democracy or dictatorship.

The situation in Pakistan is as much murky as it is confusing, and there nothing much to choose from. Personally I would say, the choice in Pakistan is not between dictatorship and democracy; but between stability and anarchy. How Musharraf achieves that is a test of his leadership.

The means is not as much important as the end. But if the desired end is not achieved something should be wrong with the means. With Pakistan a part of a wider conflagration, the current turmoil is worrying. The earlier things sort themselves out there, the better.

Related links:

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Around Bangalore and in Kolar

Not so often I am away from blogs. As regular bloggers would admit, this online journal stuff can get addictive. The maximum duration I can stay away from blogs without any adverse effect is a week. It's mostly more important and immediate work that keeps me away from weblogs. But, before long, the urge to find some time to blog becomes compulsive.

Last week, Mr Henry Whitfield was back with us. He is a family friend of ours who first came to India from the UK in 1968, and has been coming back quite frequently; one, to pursue his passion of climbing mountains in the Himalayan region and two, to see -- not the glitzy side of India's development but -- the heritage and traditional features of the country. One of his interests is rocks and minerals.

He is easily one of my best and closest friends, for one simple reason: his attitude and approach to life, the amazing realistic view he has to everyday situations; his ability to soak in and enjoy the precious moments that life has to offer. That's possible for him because he has loads of patience and he is in no hurry to flee the present to some unknown future.

On 25th, he reached Bangalore by the Rajdhani Express around 8.30 am, some 2 hours behind schedule. As we drove into the city, his initial comments were that traffic in Bangalore was much more organised and less chaotic than in Delhi. But the next day, Friday, his impressions changed. He discovered how it had deteriorated since the last time he was in the city a year back. We got caught in a awful jam for more than half and hour near the Ulsoor Lake. We abandoned plans to see a few places of interest and instead decided to get to shopping right away.

On Saturday, in the afternoon he made a trip to Lal Bagh alone. But it ended some disappointment: a plant that he bought from the nursery there got badly squashed in the crowded BMTC bus. In fact it was meant to be an addition to our little garden at home, but he was so upset at the way the plant got damaged in the crowd, he just dumped it by the way side. We felt quite bad about it. "It's okay, I must understand that such things do happen, and it's by no means the end of the world," is what he said about the incident.

On Sunday Mr Whitfield was at the at the get-together of the alumni of Sainik School, Kazhakootam. He had taught chemistry in the school from 1968 to 1971 along with my father. In a short speech there he said how important it was for all of us to get into a routine that's different from the usual one. "When I am back in the UK, I follow a particular routine. When I come to India, when I am at the foothills of the Himalayas, when I am climbing the mountains, when I am touring places, I follow a very different routine. It's refreshing as much as it is educative. Such occasional changes from the normal, helps us widen our perspective." A very profound thought.

On Monday, around 8.30 am we set off to Kolar, some 70 km east towards Chennai. The small town is known for the gold fields, which are now shut down. It was Mr Whitfield's interest in rocks and minerals that prompted this visit. He was quite curious about the KGF, the geology of the area, the methods used to extract gold, the reasons why such a successful mine has now been closed down. He said a number of mines back in the UK had shut down simply because they ran out of the minerals and ores. We were very lucky to meet an engineer, Mr K M Diwakaran, who was very optimistic about the future. He is the president of the Bharat Gold Mines All Employees Industrial Cooperative Society Ltd that's involved in efforts to revive the mines. His estimate is that in a year employees would be recruited and mines would reopen.

A section of the dysfunctional mine.

Another view of the mine.

Kolar Gold Fields is said to be one of the oldest mines in the world, though the modern history begins with the systematic mining by the English firm John Taylor and Sons in 1880. One of the first hydro-electric projects in Asia was built in 1902 to provide power to the mines. The Mysore government took over the mines in 1956, the government of India took over in 1962 and the mines closed down in 2003.

We visited the a portion of the mine and the mill tailing dumps called the cyanide dumps, because of the cyanide content. These expansive elevated plains of deposits are nothing but the mining waste and have accumulated over the years. The dumps which have in them gold worth crores themselves provide gold extraction work for so many years. At some places it rises to up to 30 meters. From the top one gets a good view of the town. It's a scenic area and not surprisingly many movie shootings have taken place there. We understood that the mines closed down because of a variety of factors: lack of far-sightedness on part of the authorities, poor management methods, and the bureaucratic lethargy many public sector firms in India have become victims of.

A section of the vast cyanide dump.

Mr Whitfield, who has a keen interest in rocks and minerals, examines a piece from the dump.

On the way to the top of the dump.

A view from the top.

Kolar has plenty of interesting places to visit. Just heard about them, didn't get time to visit. However, one wonders, why these places aren't developed into tourist centres. For a huge country like India, the tourism potential is wasted untapped.

On our way back, at a spot some 35 km before K R Puram, we saw a large nursery, from where Mr Whitfield finally bought a plant, that bears bright reddish yellow flowers. The next day, Tuesday, we had lunch at the Tamarind Restaurant on the Ring Road near the Ramamurthy Nagar junction. "The ambiance is very pleasant. I must say this is one of the best hotels I have come across in India, and it gives, what we call, good value for money."

After the lunch, we headed to the railway station to book his reservation for onward journey to Pune. He is going there with the hope that he would be able to see a quarry (quite unlikely since one needs to get permission, which he felt may not be easy) or at least meet someone who deals in minerals. I am yet to hear from him. Hope he has had some luck! He got a berth in the foreign tourist quota in the Udyan Express for Wednesday.

From the railway station we headed to the Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He found the spiritual and tourist side to the place quite innovative and was quite skeptical if a similar thing was possible back in his country. He felt Iskcon has been able to combine both remarkably well.

I spent a lot of time talking to Mr Whitfield: our likes, our prejudices, our cities, our nations, the world we live in, the leaders, heroes, and villains. He has the typical British understatement, and of course, what makes conversations interesting are the insights he brings into a subject.

I asked him what brings him back to India over and over again. "One, obviously the mountains and the nature in general," he says immediately. "It's remarkable to be in the midst of people who are extremely calm; Indians patiently work around situations that are very difficult, hardships that we in the West aren't used to... I must say trees are a refreshing sight in Bangalore. Roads in Delhi are broader but the city isn't as green as Bangalore. I'm sure the roads here will get better the next time I'm here."



Last year's visit by Mr Whitfield:

- Friend from Britain
- Business at Sangam
- The Gumbaz