Monday, June 23, 2014

Train travel is still affordable

How poor you think is the average Indian train traveller? I don't think he or she is very poor. And, if he or she can afford to travel by train, he or she can also manage to put in an extra of a maximum of around Rs 60, following the increase in train passenger fares announced by railway minister Sadananda Gowda on Friday and due to take effect on June 25.

Let us take one example, from the lowest class.

According to South Western Railway, Rs 60 is the increase in fare for General 2nd Class seat from Bangalore to New Delhi. It's currently Rs 395, and it has been raised to Rs 455. If the person, who has to travel to Delhi can manage to save Rs 395, I am sure he will find ways and means to put in another Rs 60, for his Delhi trip. I don't think an increase of Rs 60 is so prohibitive that he or she will have to cancel his travel plan. It may be hard, no doubt, but it is manageable and not impossible.

In the same class, the fare from Bangalore to Chennai is Rs 105. It will henceforth be Rs 119, an increase of Rs 14. Similarly to Mysore the hike is Rs 5, new fare is Rs 60.

I do understand that for the poor, even Re 1 is valuable. Why for only the poor? Even a sensible rich guy will greatly value his one rupee. My contention is that the average hike of Rs 14.2 per cent is not so steep that large numbers of people will have to actually stop travelling by train. That would probably have been the case if the increase was 100% or even 50%.

When everyone is coping up with price increase in consumer durables, and even essential commodities, why increase in train fares alone announced by the Narendra Modi government should be such a huge burden on common people, I don't understand. Look at the price of sugar, salt, rice, wheat, etc. In fact, the increase in those segments have a far greater impact on people's budget.

The protests against the train fare hike are largely political. And that too is not surprising, since even when Mallikarjun Kharge raised the fare by a nominal 2% last year, there were howls of protests from political parties.

It's also a common trend in India that when government raises prices of its services there are howls of protests. But we don't see protests when private sector manufacturers or service providers raise prices. Even poor people make use of services and goods of private players. Why should government be prevented from generating revenue for its services, I fail to understand. And no one has any complaints when private sector increases prices.

(By the way, everyone, the richest and the poorest pay the same rate for the ubiquitous mobile phone services -- even the guy who can afford to buy only the duplicate model from the grey market. May be the rich use it more than the poor.)

Indian Railways, the largest network in the world, also offers the least expensive fare for the passengers compared to many other countries. There is always a reluctance to increase the fares because trains are seen as the preferred mode of transport for the poor and middle class people. The poor financial resources has left serious infrastructural and safety issues unresolved. Our trains need to be cleaner and travel needs to be safer, Actually, it should go to the credit of the Railways that the number of accidents are quite minimal for the network of this size and complexity. But, that is no reason for complacency and passengers definitely deserve a better deal.

Railways, as a public service, and should not get caught in politics. It is as much the responsibility of the opposition as that of the government that the people get an efficient train service. Whichever party is in power, periodically there has to be increase in train fares. Train fares alone can't insulated.

One option the Narendra Modi government can try out is to have market-driven differential pricing for Super Fast and Express trains. That will bring in more revenue, without seriously affecting the lower middle class people.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Involve entrepreneurs to solve Bangalore's garbage problem

Waste disposal has become a major issue in Bangalore. Every year once or twice the issue hits headlines with people residing in areas near the landfills complaining of health hazards, and refusing to let garbage trucks into their areas.

Only a few days ago the government managed to pacify the people of Mandur in Bangalore outskirts, who were on a protest, resulting in garbage piling up all over the city.

It's not that there are no solutions. But there are many extraneous issues related to land that are thwarting attempts to implement a solution. All advanced cities around the world have adopted mechanical processes to either harmlessly incenerate the waste or turn waste into organic manure.

There is also lack of determination to look for solution and make them work. Deccan Herald has an article today on how an entrepreneur is running 170 Organic Waste Converters. One of the converters in Jayanagar, sold to the city corporation, is maintained by this entrepreneur Narendra Babu. The people of the area are  helping him to keep it going.

So it'sn't that there are no solutions. Taking a cue from the good work done by this entrepreneur, the government must get private players and citizens involved in the process. Such OWCs can be set up at various locations and a self-sustaining model devised to have the manure distributed. A win-win solution that is crying out for adoption.

It's an irony that a city like Bangalore, which has a huge number of innovators and entrepreneurs, doesn't have an effective way of handling waste.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Use and misuse of hashtag

The first time a hashtag was ever used was around 7 years ago. Today it's very common on Twitter updates and even on Facebook status messages. Some people use it even on WhatApp and SMS messages. And, it's very evident that not many people clearly understand what a hashtag means; and when and how to use it.

What is a hashtag?

It's nothing but a hash followed by a tag. The tag is a label, or key word(s) that indicate(s) a topic of discussion. So, hashtag comprises a word, or a group of words without space in between them, and prefixed with the hash symbol, #. (Wikipedia entry on hashtag)

For eg: #bbcworldcup, #BringBackOurGirls, #Firstboss

The hashtag was first used on Twitter, and works best there. It serves to group together messages on a particular topic. It makes it easy for people to search messages on that topic by entering the hashtag in the search box on Twitter.

But why have a hashtag when we can search for tweets by simply typing out a word or a phrase like we search for websites in Google?

That's right. If you want to search for all tweets on Obama, you can key in Obama in the search box and get all the tweets with the word Obama in them. So is the case with any other word or phrase. For example: healthcare, MH370, Iraq fighting etc. Indeed, you can search for tweets on Twitter exactly like you search for websites on Google.

Why use hashtag?

A news organization like the BBC or the New York Times, or institutions or advocacy groups, or individual Twitter users, may create a hashtag for an issue or an event. They publicize this hashtag, calling on people to use that hashtag with their tweets. The aim is to bunch all the tweets on that issue or event under one hashtag. It also helps people looking for tweets on a particular issue or event or a person.

For example: for the world cup football matches currently on in Brazil, BBC has created a hashtag #bbcworldcup, So all tweets on BBC related to the world cup has this hashtag. By tweeting with this hashtag, you also stand a chance of getting your tweets featured in the live stream on the BBC site.

The most famous hashtag in recent times was "#BringBackOurGirls". It was created after the abduction of over 200 schoolchildren by militants in Nigeria on April 14. (More from BBC)

There was intense debate online about who created the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. The BBC, after a thorough check, says it was first used on April 23 by Ibrahim M Abdullahi, a lawyer in Nigeria. (More)

The BBC has some interesting statistics about the #BringBackOurGirls

The purpose of creating that hashtag was to group all tweets on this important incident under one label. Whether the online activism achieved anything tangible is still being debated.

Anyone can create a hashtag. For example, you can tweet about your first boss, with the hashtag #FirstBoss. Popularize it, and get people to tweet with this hashtag. So, if you search Twitter for this hashtag, you will get to see all tweets on this topic.

Wrong use of hashtag

Merely putting a hash sign in front of a word does not make that word a hashtag. It serves any purpose only if it's clickable. So, no point using it in WhatsApp messages and SMSes. Though it's most commonly used in Twitter, Facebook too lets you see a feed of all posts with a particular hashtag.

Remember this

  • Hashtags should be as short as possible. Because, longer the hashtag, fewer will be characters in your tweet.
  • If a hashtag has more than one word, then there shouldn't be any space between the words.
  • It should be unique, or else it defeats the purpose of creating one.
  • Hashtag works only on the website it has been used. You can search on Twitter hashtags that are used on Facebook.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Memorable start to football World Cup

Brazilians weren't at their best at all. Croatia didn't capitalize on that either. Thankfully, there were some good actions in the opening match of the football World Cup final yesterday.

The first goal was (technically) an own goal by Brazil in the 11th minute, as a shot from Olic touched Nikica and rolled off Marcelo into his own net. Then came the first yellow card in the 27th minute, to a Brazilian player, of all players, Neymar. I wondered what was in for Brazil?

But quite expectedly they came good. They had to. Neymar equalized in the 29th minute.

Then the controversy in the 71st minute. Japanese referee awarded a penalty after judging Lovren to have fouled Fred inside the box. But replays from multiple angles didn't show any contact at all for Lovren to have Fred falling down. Neymar converted, eluding the outstretched arm of the Croatian keeper. That got Brazil ahead. And the crowd exploded.

Finally just seconds before the final hooter Oscar scored giving the home team 3-1 win.

Today's second match will be special: it will be a replay of 2010 final - between Spain and Netherlands. Then, the 1-0 win gave Spain the crown. Let's see how it plays out today. Spain is expected to win.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Who will win 2014 FIFA World Cup?

The world's most popular sporting extravaganza is all set to kick off in Brazil. The opening match is between Brazil and Croatia tomorrow night (at 1.30 am Friday in India) at Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo. Thanks to the time difference, it will be hard to follow all the matches live: they are at 9.30 pm, 12.30 am at 3.30 am. Sadly, some of the good matches are at 3.30 am.

A graffiti depicting human hands holding the earth
with the Brazilian flag in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
(Photo credit: AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)
It will now be a full month of fun. As 32 nations in 8 groups vie for the most coveted trophy in football, all the talk will be about who is playing whom, who will score, the deadly saves and strikes, who will top the table, and finally who will take the trophy home.

The hosts, Brazil is the only nation to have played in all the editions of the prestigious tournament. They have also won the cup a record five times -- in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002. They are always in the reckoning, more so now, to strike the jackpot. Spain comes as defending champions, but not much hopes are riding on them.

Though on paper Germany looks good to triumph, I have a gut feeling that it'll be a Latin American party. Though there were a lot of protests and strikes in Brazil, the country will finally rally behind their team on home ground, and backed by a good lineup, I think the holders of Confederations Cup will go on to lift the Fifa Cup too. From Latin America, expect a good fight from Argentina. If I have to look at Europe, my feeling is, it will be Germany, and the surprise will come from France.

Anyway, let's see how it plays out. Lots of time to discuss and debate.

Easy search on Google

By the way, Google -- as always -- has made it very easy for us to keep track of the fun.

Type or say "2014 Fifa World Cup", under the head "Matches", you get to see who is playing against whom and when. In the tab "Groups", you see the points table arranged group-wise.

Google Search result page for FIFA World Cup.
Under the tab "Matches", if you click on a match, you have details like Timeline, Match Stats and Lineup. When you click on a team, you can see more details about the team and the other matches the team will play, besides the current standing of the team in the group.

If you click on "match preview", you are taken to the Fifa site, where you have a slew of information.

Who, you think, will win the cup?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Scary drive in rain at night

Last night's drive back home after work around 1.30 am won't be forgotten too soon.

Up to M G Road it was like any other day, or rather night. After I crossed Trinity Circle, I could see lightning in the far sky, and it was becoming windy. About a km ahead, it began drizzling. That became a steady downpour when I reached the S V Road Metro station.

After about 500 meters, the downpour became so strong that I could barely see what's ahead, even after putting the wiper in full speed and turning the AC on to keep the moisture out. There were no lights on the street. Long and bright streaks of lightning helped me see the road ahead. It was a relief to see a few vehicles plying too.

Close to the Baiyappanahalli Metro Station, the rain became stronger. I could see a few vehicles sheltered under the overhead Metro rail track. But I decided go carry on, for two reasons. One, my house isn't too far off, and two, a kilometer or two ahead, there could be no rain at all! But, I began to get a feeling that I am really struggling against heavy odds.

I rolled down the windshield so that I could peep out and see what's ahead. I was also getting a bit claustrophobic with huge rain drops pounding on the car and total darkness all around.

Then on, for about half a km, I drove with just the gut feeling of where the road was. I seriously thought of what I should do in case of an eventuality like the car getting stalled or the car falling into a drain or some such thing.

Another kilometer so, and then miraculously, the rain abated and the streets was lit, though there was considerable water on the road.

The roughly 2-km drive was an unforgettable experience. Reached home, safely, actually.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

When All India Radio delayed its news bulletins

1984, June 3

In the evening, All India Radio kept announcing that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would address the nation at 8 pm. Those days no one had even heard of internet or mobile phones. Television itself was just making a beginning. Black and white ones, that too in a few homes.

Breaking news happened in either one of the three main news bulletins on AIR or in the morning newspapers. There were no expert panelists on televisions to speculate on why the PM was unusually addressing the nation. Discussions were restricted to neighbourhood friends.

Mrs Gandhi was in her fifth year as Prime Minister after spending over two years out of power. Any major policy announcements? Was she going to call early elections? But why should she? Or has there been some major crisis?

At the stroke of 8 pm, instead of the PM's address to the nation, there was an announcement that due to some technical problems the Prime Minister's speech is delayed. AIR began playing instrumental music.

8.15 pm. No speech.

8.30 pm. No speech.

8.45 pm. No speech. No Hindi news.

9 pm. No speech. No English news.

Only repeated announcements that the address is delayed, and that the news bulletins would be broadcast after the Prime Minister's address to the nation.

Suspense mounted. I don't know if that was the first time ever AIR had missed its major 15-minute Hindi and English news bulletins at 8.45 and 9. Most unusual. No clue to what was happening.

If I remember right, around 9.30 pm, Mrs Gandhi finally came on air. My father and I intently listened to know what was the speech all about. It was an anti-climax of sorts.

She said (using words to mean that) the nation was in the throes of a crisis, riven by fissiparous forces (an expression I learned those days) who were bent of splitting and destroying the nation. She called on the people to stay together to preserve the "unity and integrity" (two words she always used) of the country. She said disruptive forces (another common phrase those days) would be crushed with an iron hand. She sought everyone's support to uphold the "unity and integrity" of the nation ....

Escalating violence in Punjab

She went on and on for about 15 or 20 minutes. There was no major announcement. The big internal crisis she had been battling for about two years was the large-scale violence in Punjab. A wedge had been driven between Sikhs and Hindus. There were killings almost every day. The person everyone spoke about was a young revolutionary named Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrenwale.

He was leading a fight for a return to original Sikhism. The history is complex, and the roots are partly religious, partly political. Though Punjab was created as a state for the Sikhs, politically Congress dominated over the parties that spearheaded the movement. Akalis lost elections. There have been constant complaints that Sikhs were being discriminated and Punjabi language was being sidelined in favour of Hindi. A few Akali Dal leaders created the Anandpur Sahib resolution in 1973 that called for a number of steps to restore the pride and place of the Sikhs.

The resolution was never talked about much, until early 1980s, when Bhindrawale, leader of the Damdami Taksal group took it up. He said fighting for all the things mentioned in the resolution will solve a number of problems of Punjab -- one of the critical ones was the demand for larger share of irrigation water. The demand for return of Chandigarh to Punjab too cropped up.

Mrs Gandhi saw red. She felt the Anandpur Sahib resolution and the agitation (which subsequently took a violent mode) were divisive and disruptive in nature threatening the "unity and integrity" of India.

What was initially started as a peaceful agitation, soon became quite radical and then militant in nature. Intra-Sikh rivalries played out on the streets. There were many instances of violent clashes between police and agitators. In 1982, Bhindranwale and his armed supporters moved into premises of the Golden Temple.

Violence was becoming the order of the day. In 1980, Baba Gurbachan Singh of Sant Nirankari sect shot dead. In 1981, editor of Hind Samachar group Jagat Narain was killed. The same year a plane was hijacked to Pakistan. In 1982, Punjab CM Darbara Singh escaped assassination attempt.
In 1983, deputy inspector general of Punjab Police A. S. Atwal was shot dead while he was leaving the Golden Temple. In 1983, there were a few instances of Hindus being killed, and there was a feeling that things were spiralling out of control.

Though, things were looking alarming, Mrs Gandhi didn't announce anything related to Punjab in her address to the nation. What she said wasn't anything different from what she used to tell at every public function or when she spoke to reporters.

But I went to bed with an eerie feeling that something was happening or was about to happen. The hint was the delay in the PM's address and the consequent late broadcast of night news bulletins. It was very unusual.

1984, June 4

The next day morning we got to know in the 8.10 am English news that Indian Army had launched a full-scale military attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in a bid to flush out the armed people. Heavy artillery and powerful guns were used. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers took part.

The operation was planned and coordinated by Army chief Gen A S Vaidya and vice-chief Lt Gen K Sunderji.

There were not many details in the 10 minute or 15 minute news bulletins on AIR. The next day's papers too did not carry much information. Not surprisingly, as we came to know later that the entire operation was planned and coordinated in total secrecy. There was complete censorship on news from June 3 with large parts of the fortified city under curfew.

The only alternative to the AIR was the BBC and the Voice of America. There was in-depth coverage in BBC's South Asia Survey at 7.15 am, Radio News Reel at 7.45 am and at 8.15 pm (BBC discontinued both the programmes later).

It was a full-scale battle in Amritsar as Army faced fierce resistance. The operation was over only on June 10. Bhindrenwale died on June 6. Casualty figures were disputed. Unofficial figures are close to 1,000 armymen and over 10,000 civilians died in various parts of the city during the 10-day operation that began on June 1.

We also got to know that Indira Gandhi's speech was delayed as it underwent revision after revision as her advisors differed on what the speech should contain.

Controversial decision

All the conversation everywhere was about Operation Blue Star. There were two sides to the dabate, and what was right depended on which side you were on.

Mrs Gandhi's argument was that it was right to send armed personnel into the temple since the temple itself had been used for storing arms. She said it was wrong for Sikh groups themselves to take arms into the temple in the first place.

But the counterargument was that it was okay for Sikhs to take arms to their temple. But it wasn't right for others to do so. The temple belonged to the Sikhs and not to the Army. Many Sikhs I spoke to felt the forceful entry of the Army with arms into the temple was definitely not right. They felt government let the situation escalate, and they could have explored many other options to get the militants out.

In fact, it's said Indira Gandhi had been earlier advised against the move by some top Army personnel. She was told to use alternative methods to get them out of the temple. It was also said Mrs Gandhi with political considerations in mind had allowed the situation to fester for long time in the beginning.

But at the end of it all, it was sad that such a beautiful temple had become a battleground. Impressive structures were riddled with bullet marks. Some buildings were completely destroyed.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in five months. The Army chief Gen Vaidya was assassinated in Pune in 1986 by Sikh gunmen six months after his retirement.

But the troubles weren't over. Infiltration of separatists continued. On May 1 and 2, 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had to send in paramilitary troops to the temple to arrest separatists. But this time, there was no media blackout and it was far less controversial.

It has been peace since then. How the cycle of violence in Punjab was put down is a different story altogether.

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