Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Remember Yeltsin? (and understanding the root of the Naxal violence)

When the democratically elected parliament of Russia was attacked by tanks and burnt black by Boris Yeltsin, the western media labeled it as a victory for democracy. The country's oil and gas could be sold to Oligarchs who were owned by western businesses in a free-market. The rest of Russia went to hell.

In India, about 800 million people still live on less than a dollar a day. A vast proportion of this country is surrounded by abject poverty. These people are also sitting on natural resources like forests and mines. Poverty is a form of violence. Forgetting that these people have been at the receiving end of the poverty of violence is stupidity. To look at them as if they are the aggressors is putting the cart before the horse.

We need to understand that the mining conglomerates and Indian chaebols like Tata  are waiting on the sidelines and salivating at the prospect of receiving the land which these people protect and live on. It is these companies that will benefit when Yeltsineqeue democracy triumphs by killing and evicting the residents off their own land.

Yeltsin's "democratic" moves ensured the democracy was nipped in the bud. The "freemarket" bought the countries natural resources at throw-away prices and a vast population in Russia slipped into poverty as mines and oilfields changed hands.

The "democratic" march of Indian armed forces into vast areas of this country where the administration has no control has a simple lesson. Democracy has failed these people and continues to fail them.

Azadi! Azadi! - Democracy, the Indian Army and Kashmir

I came across this paragraph in the article titled "Is Democracy Melting?" by Arundhati Roy.
The war in the Kashmir valley is almost 20 years old now, and has claimed about 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured, several thousand have "disappeared," women have been raped, tens of thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir valley, making it the most militarized zone in the world. (The United States had about 165,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at the height of its occupation.) The Indian Army now claims that it has, for the most part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that's true. But does military domination mean victory? 

The comparison with Iraq is a cruel reality. What will it take for the the "democratic" government in India to come good on it's commitment to the United Nations to conduct a plebiscite in Kashmir?

The media as usual is silent about key issues that affect Kashmir. This includes and is not limited to the overwhelming presence of the military.

On a relevant side note, as India embarks in it's next phase of "auctioning" of the country's assets, Kashmir could possibly serve as the distraction that the private sector needs before digging their hands into what has been built using common property resources and tax payer money.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

An Interview with Robert Fisk

Unfortunately I have still not been able to lay my hands on Robert Fisk's book "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East". I hope to get a copy soon though. It has been recommended by several people.

Fisk is recognized as one of the great journalists of our time. [You can read some of Robert Fisk's articles here]. Unfortunately there are few like him in Indian media (P Sainath being one). Journalists with potential are being eaten up by the system. You can not expect much when some of the largest media houses own equally large advertising businesses. An unsanitised version of the truth may be offensive to their advertisers and might upset the incestuous relationship that corporates and the media share.

If the following interview with Fisk about the book (and other things) is anything to go by, I can not wait to get my hand's on a copy.



Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Goldstone Report Summary (and an excercie is pr├ęcis writing)

Background 
The media is India is largely silent on the Goldstone report and is obsessing over Twitter, a war with China and nuclear weapons. Since the media in India chooses to ignore the report and not talk about the middle east, I thought I would make it easier for our journalists who believe that news comes in 140 characters or less. Here is my attempt at a summary.
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Most people around the world were shocked by the actions of the Israeli Government in December 2008 and January 2009. The military attack on the civilians of Gaza happened after a three year "blockade" of Gaza. Another ingredient (but not equal ingredient) in the escalation was repeated rocket attacks by militant groups in Gaza on civilians in Israel. The Goldstone Report is the report of the mission headed by Justice Goldstone and appointed by the UNHRC to look into the entire episode. The report was published in mid-September. [Full version of the Goldstone Report]



Disclosure -
  • I do not claim to have read the report word-for-word but I have looked at what I would think are the key sections (and that is a lot of reading).
  • The content and intent of this report needs to be discussed by the common-man (aam-admi) in India and in every developing country in the world. 
  • The finding of the report are emblematic of the length and extent to which a “modern” and “democratic” government will go to grab what is not theirs based on a false sense of insecurity.
My summary (and this will be a long one)
"both the Israelis and the Palestinians share a secret fear – for some, a belief – that each has no intention of accepting the other’s right to a country of their own."

1. Casualties
  • Israeli Casualties (13 Israeli citizens killed in the entire episode)
    • 3 civilians in Southern Israel
    • 10 soldiers
      • 1 soldier in southern Isreal
      • 9 Soldiers killed in fighting inside Gaza
        •  4 of these soldiers were killed in friendly fire

  • Number of Palestinians Killed – (Varies based on the source)
    • 1,387 to 1,417 (Goldstone Estimate)
    • 1,417 (Gaza Authorities)
    • 1,166 (Israeli Government)
    • If we take the lower end of the Goldstone Estimate, for every one Israeli casualty 106 Palestinians lost their lives.
2. Basis of the report
  • 188 interviews with people, 300 reports and documents and over 1200 photos and public hearings in Gaza and Geneva (permission for such hearings in Israel and West Bank was denied.
  • The report does not hesitate in stating that Israel authorities refused to co-operate with the mission
  • There were restrictions based on the mission by Israeli authorities.

3. Root Cause Analysis
  • The blockade of Gaza by Israel was at the root of the problem. Preventing the free movement of people and blocking the movement of essential goods (e.g fuel, food and healthcare) into Gaza was a key cause to the crisis.
  • The demolition of homes, forcing the separation of the people of Gaza and West Bank also contributed to the escalation.
4. Police Deaths
  • Within the “first few minutes” of the operation in Gaza [on Dec 27 2008] 99 Policemen in Gaza were killed across six police facilities.
  • By the end of military attack 240 policemen representing a sixth of the police force in Gaza was killed.  
  • Israel’s rationale for this move is that the Gaza Police is part of the Palestinian Army.
5. The “we warned you” Rationale
  • The warnings issued by the Israeli authorities comprised of pre-recorded phone messages, leaflets and light-firing on roof-tops.
  • The phone messages lacked any specifics which made them dysfunctional. The warnings urged people to move to the city-centre – which was where there were fierce gun-battles, making the instructions counter-productive. 
  • The report summarizes this by saying that the Israeli authorities did not do enough to distinguish civilians from combatants
6. White Phosphorous
  • Israeli’s used white phosphorous bombs on the Al Quds hospital forcing a serious fire and causing the evacuation of seriously injured people.
  • There was a “reckless” use of White phosphorous in densely populated areas.
7. Destruction of civilian targets/civilians
  • 3,354 homes compactly destroyed, 11,112 partially destroyed
  • Palestinian jail, legislature building – were civilian targets that were destroyed beyond repair
  • Two hospitals - Al Quds and Al Wafa were civilian targets that should not have been targeted. 
  • On the attack on the UN site in Gaza, the report is categorical in stating that Israel’s storyline is inconsistent, factually incorrect and filled with contradictions. 
  • There are documented instances of Israeli combatants targeting civilians who they knew were not combatants 
  • The report presents documented cases of “intentional’ Israeli attacks on civilians.
  • There was “arbitrary” killing of Palestinians. 
  • In an area already blockaded for three years, Israel targeted -
    • Chicken Farms,
    • the only flour mill in Gaza 
    • a wall to a sewage lagoon (releasing 200,000 cubic feet of sewage)
    • the only cement packaging plant
    • food and drinks factories
    • neighborhoods that did not have any combatants
  • Women and children who posed no threat to Israel ...were held in degrading conditions and without access to food, water and sanitation
  • Civilian detainees were held in sandpits and Israeli combatants took positions and were firing from inside the sand-pits. 
  • Israel strategy around the acts was based on maximum damage to civilian properties that would in-turn handicap civilian life. 
  • Thanks directly to the attacks a precarious situation of food insecurity will worsen in Gaza
8. Use of Palestinians as human shields

  • Palestinians groups, by launching attacks from crowded areas, were exposing residents to retaliatory attacks. There is not enough evidence to completely rule out the deliberate use of civilians as human shield by Palestinians.
  • Israel too, used Palestinians as human shields when entering locations that has Palestinian combatants.
9. Rocket Attacks on Israel
  • Since 2001 there have been over 8000 rocket attacks on Israel.
  • Starting June 2008, 3 Israeli civilians have died in the rocket
  • Of the 1000 people injured in the rocker attacks, 914 of these were injured during the Israeli Assault on Gaza (Dec and Jan)
  • 95% of the children in Serdot suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.
  • The rocket firing by Palestinian combatants has affected the education system and violated the basic rights of the citizens in the communities most affected. 
  • The rocket attacks, according to the Goldstone report are “deliberate” and “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians and are not targeted at military assets. There only purpose is to spread terror in the civilian population.
10. Human Rights Track Record in Israel and Palestine
  • Both the Gaza and Israel authorities have come in for sharp criticism on their ability to protect citizen’s right.
  • Neither of the two sides are doing anything to make themselves more accountable when it comes to dealing with human rights violations within areas under their control.
  • Prima facie it appears that neither side will be ready to open criminal prosecution against war criminals on their side of the border.
11. Reparations
  • The reports puts the bill of damages in Palestine at about 1.3 billion USD. 
  • To this must be added interest, human cost and the cost to the environment.
  • 613 Million USD is required in the form of urgent and aid for rebuilding basic infrastructure.
12. Conclusion
  • The battle in Gaza during 27 Dec 2008 and 18 Jan 2009 can-not be understood in Isolation. This battle was direct result of Israel’s policies and Human Right’s Violation that they committed against the Palestinians.
  • The “collective punishment” heaped on the Palestinians by the Israelis is unacceptable
  • The 3 year blockade that preceded Israel’s attack has already brought the people of Gaza to their knees. The blockade has forced in-human condititons on the entire population of Gaza. 
  • The continued blockade is making it almost impossible to reconstruct basic civilian facilities in Gaza. People are stilling living in rubble, without sanitation and with almost non-existent healthcare.  
  • The report finds that the attack was planned and not targeted at specific combatants but targeted at the people of Gaza.   
  • Whenever Israel used the term “supporting infrastructure” they meant the people of Gaza.
  • Attacks were aimed at crippling civilian life in Gaza and went well beyond targeting combatants
  • The Gaza authorities need to stop rocket attacks on civilians in Israel. 
  • There are victims on both sides of the border. 
  • Israelis and Palestine have no spaces to engage with each other constructively. All they have today are checkposts and gunpoints.
  • The problems between Fatah and Hamas are making the problems in the region worse. The political stakeholders need to find a constructive way of settling their differences
  • The International Community has failed to protect the civilian population of Gaza from repeated war crimes by the Israeli forces
  • Israel needs to be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity based on the attack and the blockade
  • Israel detained civilians during and before the attack. This is inconsistent with International Law. 
  • Israel can-not force the separation of the people of Gaza and the West Bank. 
  • Palestinian authorities failed to control rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel
  • Authroities in Gaza used extra-judicial instruments to tackle dissent
  • Israel remains unaccountable for it’s actions against the people of Palestine. This ensures that further military action by Israel in Gaza will remain a clear and present danger.

My comments - 
  1. I have tried to be as neutral as possible when constructing this extract of the report. I have not touched upon issues such as the use of depleted Uranium by the Israeli forces and some of the evidence and letters that are available in the report. 
  2. If the international community does not react based on the content of this report, it will send a dangerous signal to repressive regimes across the world.
  3. The UN, based in on it's past record of looking the other war when it comes to Israel, will not be able to take any action based on the report and will not be able to prevent further atrocities by the Israeli forces. 
  4. Many parts of Asia are gripped by war and/or the fear of war. This report presents an opportunity for citizens across countries to replace war lobbyists and to build a groundswell of support for peace. Tough ask but possible. 

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Salma Sultan's Question on contemporary Broadcasting

Most Indian's of my age grew up watching Salma Sultan on DD. It was nice to see her in the studios once again, albeit in the gaudy setting of NDTV and CNN IBN, on the occasion of DD's 50th anniversary.

Salma Sultan asked a wonderful question to Rajdeep Sardesai. The question is important and the fact that the question came from a pioneer of Indian News Broadcasting is equally important.


Here is the question to Rajdeep -
" yes .... we were very calm and we did not raise blood pressures like you people do...and aah..I think with changing times maybe this is something that people want or maybe this something that you want to give to people. This is a dilemma I have not been able to solve whether you are giving that kind of style to people or people want that style. That you have to answer." [SIC]

The honcho of the Indian Broadcaster's association (Rajdeep Sardesai) avoided it tactfully by saying that it was a difficult question and softened it further by saying he would need a show where he would be answering questions and not asking them.I am sure the viewers got the point.

She raised a wonderful point on the tonality of today's broadcasters and if "pace" was a good enough excuse to manufacture news and fear.

For those of us who would like to see the full interview -

Saturday, 19 September 2009

FDI in Agriculture by TNCs (and a shallow Op-Ed in The Hindu)

Today’s edition of The Hindu carries an article titled “Developing countries now dominate global agricultural plantation business”. The article was written by Premila Nazareth Satyanand who …"writes on foreign direct investment issues for the Economist Intelligence Unit, UNCTAD and the World Bank".

The primary objective of the article is to extract the key message in the UNCTAD report titled
World Investment Report – Translational Corporations, Agricultural Business and Development”.
The Op-Ed has not done justice to the content of the original report and has selectively highlighted parts of the report to make an unfair case for increased participation of TNCs in the agri-sector India (both inward and outward).

Firstly the Op-ed paints a selective of the agricultural sector. While I commend the writer in sharing the good news, the writer falls short of reality. There is a denial of the crisis that is facing the agri-sector across the world. Farmer suicides, manipulation of seed prices, and the roll of American and EU subsidies in depressing crop prices in favor of TNCs is not touched upon. (In all fairness they were not explicitly highlighted in the UNCTAD report). 

Secondly, Transnational Corporations (TNCs) have historically been a stumbling block to equitable development. The role of TNCs  in the Indian Agri-sector through companies such as Cargill and Monsanto has been more noted for farmer suicides and seed price manipulation than equitable development. 

Lastly, the Op-ed stopped short of directly highlighting the scores of red-flags that the report threw up. After reading parts of just one chapter in the report (Chapter IV – Development Implications of TNC Involvement in Agriculture) it became evident that report holds enough content to put a speed-breaker and erect entry-barriers to TNC participation in the agri-sector. If it is bad for us, why should we encourage our companies to behave badly in other countries?

The UNCTAD Report that forms the basis of the writer’s enthusiasm also highlights several other issues that would be of concern to the small farmer (and of no concern to the typical reader of The Economist).

A few of these issues
  • Adverse impacts of TNC participation in the agri-sector include driving farmers out of business, and making small farmers dependent on global marketplace and pricing dictated by a handful of large TNCs (which does not include any third-world TNC).
  • The report categorically states that the transfer of agricultural technology is constrained by geographic and climatic conditions.
  • Only 1% of TNC budget has been spent on developing crops that are suitable to third world countries.This is much more than a bottle neck as the Op-Ed would have us believe. 
  • Most first-world agricultural innovations are protected by patents, making it close to impossible to appropriate technology locally.
  • The report clearly states that the expectations around technical contributions of TNCs “cannot be high”. Areas of technical participation are, according to the report, limited to seeds, agrochemicals and machinery.We know what seeds have done in Maharasthra, we know the impact of agro-chemicals on the health of farmers and the environment and we know that machinery is not always affordable to the small farmer. 
  • The report also categorically states that “technology transfer to TNC owned farms does not readily diffuse to local producers and nor is this usually in TNCs’ interest.” (!)
  • Most seeds that TNCs provide cannot be replanted and this leads to high degree of dependency on the TNCs for seeds. 
  • TNCs have been participating in the agri sector in India for close to two decades. The impact that they have had on the poor farmer in India is limited in the best of cases. The report still demands an “incentive” for TNCs to help improve the lot of the poor Indian farmer. This to me is unfair. If you have not been able to do anything over two decades with the current level of incentive, what is going to change if incentives are increased?
  • The report admits that TNCs are likely to drive small farmers out of business and says that in “some” (read as rare) circumstances they may have a beneficial  impact on the quality on employment. 
  • On the one-hand the report admits that TNC participation is largely limited to plantation crops. On the other hand, it says that child and bonded labor is part and parcel of the plantation system in many part of Africa. TNC participation has yet to change this reality and needs to go beyond lip-service. Why should we encourage outward FDI in such cases?
  • The report admits that the global supply chain commandeered by retailers is powerful. An example of how this power is used positively to benefit the farmer is not clearly given. What examples are given, benefit consumers in the first world more than they do consumers in the developing world or the farmers themselves. The demands of this supply chain on quality increases the consumption of pesticides and agri-chemicals and puts a greater burden on the farmer and his land. 
  • While farmers enter into contractual agreements with TNCs voluntarily, the report clearly states that it is close to impossible for them to make an exit from such an agreement. This "lock-in" works in favour of the TNC and is un-equitable to the farmer. 
  • Crop variety is compromised by TNCs, which puts the farmers at risk and open to the price vagrancies of the global market.  
  • Funnily, the report says that public investment in rural areas is necessary to encourage private investment. I thought citizens in rural India needed roads as much as a TNC. In other words, public investment should be directed at attracting FDI and not improving the quality of life of farmers! I am expected to pay taxes so that TNCs can make easier profits!
I fail to understand what is at the root of this ebullient enthusiasm in the Op-ed other than the transfer of land-ownership and a control of food pricing in favor of TNCs. The article fails to do justice to the content that has been made available in the report. The fact that the red-flags have almost been brushed under the carpet borders on manufacturing consent for the TNCs and not a case for improved food security. Such a one sided picture is suitable to readers of the Economist but is not in the interests of the Indian farmer (irrespective of whether he is rich or poor). I can not agree with the Op-Ed's argument that the monstrous TNC's from the first world such as Cargill and Monsanto need to be replaced by equally monstrous TNCs from countries such as India.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

How free is free-market?

Ever since the gray clouds of economic recession started to gather over America, we have been treated to an unending cloud-burst of political rhetoric on the beauty and virtue of the free market. These virtues are, to say the least, debatable.

A large portion of India’s modern media houses are thriving in an environment of zero accountability. Their sales guys (who sell ad-space and columns) have a stake in what goes in as news, opinion and editorial content. Newspapers have commoditised every last inch of their paper including the masthead. You can replace the Times of India masthead with an advertisement if you have enough money in the bank. One can manufacture any amount of news if you are willing to pay for it.  The reader is not a customer to the newspaper anymore. The reader is a part of the market that the news-paper is bringing to the advertiser. This is an excellent example of the way the free-market works. The media, thus, is a key player in building opinion about the free-market

800 million Indians are living on less than a dollar a day, we have a serious agrarian crisis on our hands, we are a pseudo republic and becoming a politician is based more on genetic pre-disposition than intent (unless of-course the intent is to create personal wealth). Indian democracy is failing and the gap between the people who “have” (education, water, food and shelter) and the “have-nots” is growing exponentially.

In such a backdrop, if you stop and ask the media to read about and listen to what is happening in Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Iraq you will be called a “socialist type”. The privatization model of the IMF, World Bank and WTO failed miserably in Latin America. In every country that adopted the model, it made a handful of people extremely wealthy and drove the rest of the nation into poverty and/or war. When countries refused to accept the model you got an Iraq like situation. You create a disaster and rebuild the economy with American corporate ownership. (For more on the Latin American story, I strongly recommend Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein as a “must-read”).

We are at the cross-roads in India. If we chose to ignore the reality in which 60% of our country lives, we will be looking down the barrel of a gun very soon. Why are 200 districts affected by “naxal” violence? Why does it require a Lalgarh like siege to bring basic facilities such as roads and healthcare to the poorest parts of this country? The media is not going to expend profitable column space reporting on these particular issues because they throw up a clear and present danger for their advertisers. Solutions presented by the media focus on private participation. The media, towing the line of their advertisers, wants electricity, water, sanitation, education, public transport and everything else in private hands.

Explain this to me like I am a six-year old. If the government cuts of all sources of revenue how can it invest in areas that are in desperate need of development and basic utilities? If you kill all sources of revenue for the government how can they catalyze development without getting into a debt-trap? Would you ask a drug company to stop selling drugs and only focus on R&D? Where will the money for the development come from? It’s about improving efficiency in government but the mainstream media has us believe that it is about transferring ownership.

The focus has been to sweep the discussion on reforms in the public sector under the carpet and replace that discussion with a discussion on privatization. The interests of the 800 million forgotten Indians will not be served by expecting the profit oriented private sector to deliver services to a population that can not afford one meal a day.

With such realities staring us in the face, I wonder how we can continue to support a free-market economy that benefits a few urban elites. We should allow and be open to private participation in areas where they can deliver services more efficiently than the government. Do not allow the private sector to replace the government as a service provider if the underprivileged sections are going to be ignored. For example privatizing electricity and public transport may work for urban India. Small farmers however, can-not afford to pay market prices for power. Similarly, private bus operators should not be expected to subsidize bus-rides to remote villages. The government does have a responsibility to the people and they can not pass the buck to the private sector.

The term free-market is a misnomer. The market is never free. The market is always open to manipulation by people who have the most control over resources. The cycle is vicious. If you do not have resources at your disposal you can never benefit or reap profit from a free-market. The market will always benefit from your participation, but you need not benefit by participating.

If you want a genuine market which controls itself, which is something that might help India, you need to get rid of the Oligarchs and companies that are too big to fail. Companies that can manipulate prices, manufacture public opinion, buy politicians and dictate policy need to play by the rules. This is not possible because playing by the rules would be counter-productive to their interests. The mining lobby in Karnataka is a great example of how proponents of “free-market” can make politicians play musical chairs, rape the environment and escape the tax system.

Less than 2% of this country invests in the stock market. Why should the destiny of all it’s citizens be linked to the Sensex? What is most unfair about the system is that it is able to hide the truth. The truth is that the free-market marginalizes those that are already underprivileged and benefits those that already have an unfair access to wealth. Unfortunately the number of journalists interested in this side of the story is shrinking.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Agricultural Imperialism

When a country is being bombed by drones it presents a unique opportunity for capitalist imperialists to alienate people from their land. Land is the one asset that can prevent a person from falling prey to religious and capitalist fundamentalism. Take that away and you have a surefire recipe for profiteering.

In the background of drone bombings by the US, there are reports in the Pakistani media of the government giving away land for commercial farming. According to the report, irrespective of the sate of food security in Pakistan, these commercial farms can repatriate their produce (send it out of the country and into the hands of the new owners of the land).
  • If somebody needed a formula to create terrorists, this one seems to be close to perfect.
  • Bomb them with drones from above, pull the land from under their feet and deny them food when they are starving.
  • I am sure the Indian right-brigade is taking notes and wondering how they missed this trick of alienating people from their own land (thereby enslaving them).
This does have a similarity with the SEZ issue.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Explain this to me like I am six year old

  • If you can-not allow an athlete found guilty of drug abuse to compete in a sporting event, how can you allow a sporting event to be managed by a known drug felon? (I am referring to Lalit Modi and his brush with the law in the US as a student)
  • How can an environmental activist in their right mind ask for the involvement of the TATA’s in anything? (I got shouted out of a DL for critiquing the TATAs). That's like a Brahmin priest asking for Beef!
  • Why have the English news channels in India not yet been hounded by the public for a) horrendous reporting b) selective story telling c) astroturfing and d) manufacturing consent
  • It is mandatory to place a label of ingredients on manufactured food. Why is it not mandatory to publish a list of advertisers on manufactured news?
  • Why do intelligent people use “I AM THE VICTIM HERE” whenever you talk of poverty being brushed under the carpet by the media.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Does size really matter?

When it comes to a nuclear phallus, does size really matter? Questions around an arms build up in the subcontinent is raising it's ugly head again.

At the risk of being called sexist, I would like to state on record that when it comes to nuclear armament, size does not matter - neither is it a deterrent. It is nothing but a guarantee for madness or Mutually Assured Destruction (I lifted that acronym from a really bad Hollywood flick).

There seems to be a growing number of right-wing twits and bloggers on the Internet that keep discussing the quality and quantum of the nuclear arsenal in India and Pakistan. Their posts and tweets almost always have a call for war.

While I appreciate their cynicism of peace initiatives, I would like to blame the media on all sides of all borders for fear-mongering and egging folks to demand for crazy things like "retaliation" and "destruction". These twits on the internet find their stories from the media.

If and (not when) we embark on our next war with our neighbors, I will like to put the blame on two parties who are well represented on both sides of the borders. Politicians (who are fed like stall pigs by disaster capitalists) and the media (who are paid to disseminate fear by disaster capitalists).

Trivia - name a peace expert that you have seen on NDTV, TimesNOW or CNNIBN (remember peace expert and not "strategic expert", "defence expert" or "intelligence expert").

Friday, 11 September 2009

Unions?

Jet Airlines pilots put up the worst possible case for a union. They acted arbitrarily, were blackmailing the company, and were out maneuvered by the company and the media. They now make unions of white collar workers look like greedy and dysfunctional goons. But there is still hope.

Many companies in India have a clause in fine-print that prevents employees from participating in a union. This is true of all major IT companies as well. Contrary to popular belief the job of a union is not to go on a strike. The job of a union is to ensure that employee related issues such as (and not limited to) pay and occupational health and safety get adequate attention.

In my personal opinion Unions are important, particularly in large companies because their role can be expanded to go beyond the employee benefits and welfare. If engaged with in a symbiotic manner it can drive up productivity and profits. I admit, these are text book interpretations of what a union can do.

But let me go a step-up further. Unions, if used well can also ensure that a company behaves in manner that is in the interests of the general public.

Hypothetically let us assume that you are a brilliant software engineer. You use your skills as a part of a team with expertise across various domains to develop a missile guidance system for short range missiles. IF this work is being done for Isreal or the US Govt - you are supporting their occupation and war efforts in Asia. You are in effect helping them continue their campaign of destroying economies and rebuilding them with US ownership. A union would be in a position to lobby with the management to refuse work that can be described as "abetting war crimes".

Imagine if Halliburton or Bechtel had a Union for officers/management in the company. You would never have had a war in Iraq. Halliburton/Bechtel would not have had the balls to profiteer from the war at the cost of it's own employees and innocent civilians in Iraq. It would not have mattered if Cheeney was promoted to President replacing Bush - the war would still have not happened. The war could have been prevented if the insiders had a union through which to voice their conscience.

A union will be able to balance the overwhelming mandate of greed and profiteering that an executive management has to deal with. They will be able to use their position to ensure that the management does not profiteer at the cost of other stakeholders.

In hindsight, the Satyam saga could have been averted if there was a Union in place and a union member was on the board of the company. Maybe the independent directors would have had an alternative and formal source of information related to ground realities.

Capitalism develops complex games and complex rules to move wealth from one hand to the other. The financial instruments that sparked the current global crisis is a good example of these complex games and rules. Unions present an excellent check-point and counterbalance to this gluttonous greed that has got hold of the juggernaut that is right-wing capitalism. Profiteer at any cost as long as the people who die and suffer are not of interest to the media.

It must be compulsory for companies that have an excess of 1000 employees to have a union. How would this help?
  • The unions could prove to be of invaluable help in creating internal mechanisms for whistle blowing. (This benefits everybody concerned).
  • The unions could ensure that the company does engage in business that is not in the interest of stakeholders who do not have a share of the company's profits
  • It will prevent the management from misusing company funds and resources for personal gain (a la Satyam).
  • It will provide a safety net. An entity other than a vulture fund, might be willing to take over and rebuild the company in case the company is on the brink of failure.
What are the risks?
  • Unions can fall into a conventional trap of becoming a one trick pony. No Raise = Strike! As the jet pilots have shown, you do not need a union to perform this trick, you just need to be a pony.
  • Unions must understand that in order for growth to be inclusive all stakeholders have to compromise. If they don't - they will revert to being a one trick pony
  • Unions have to develop a mindset that goes beyond the welfare of its members and looks at the welfare of all stakeholders. They have to learn to to walk on a fine line balancing interests of all stakeholder.
  • There is no such thing as a fair democracy. Unions have to strive to be democratic but can not let themselves be manipulated by political parties. We need to formally de-link the structure of the union with the structure of politics. Congress, BJP and CPI can not use unions as vote banks for elections.
  • An active union member should not necessarily translate into a politician.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

NDTV Greenwash

This article of mine, originally appeared under the Title "Go Green or Smoke Screen" at the TheHoot.org. The link to the complete article is here. Since they are making their greenwash campaign an annual affair, I thought it would be worth a re-publish in my own blog.
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Go green or smoke screen?

Is it logical to have the leader in one of the most polluting industries in the world as a sponsor for an environmental campaign? ANAND BALA has a problem with NDTV's choice of a partner for its green initative.

Posted Thursday, Feb 12 13:38:17, 2009

The choice of Toyota as a sponsor for the NDTV Greenathon, was conspicuous. The automobile industry in not the cleanest of industries when it comes to the environment and Toyota produces a lot of diesel fumes in India.

Before I get into that, I would like to congratulate NDTV on roping in such a large number of celebrities for such a noble cause. I hope that some these celebrities decide to give up on their SUVs and settle for less polluting modes of transport (even if it has four wheels). NDTV has kindled something positive. Thank you.

I am sure when the pundits at NDTV debated the choice of Toyota and it must have crossed their minds that it does not make logical sense to have the leader in one of the most polluting industries in the world as a sponsor to an environmental campaign. They must have come across reasons(s) above and over the sponsorship fee. I am hoping they will be able to share those reasons at some stage. I am not too sure if this was a CSR initiative of NDTV. If it was I think it raises a few questions.

Fact: Toyota is the world's largest auto maker.

News reports in late December and early January indicate that Toyota is the world's largest automobile producer with over 8.9 million units produced in 2008. The silver lining is that this was a dip of about 4% compared to the same period last year. These figures (other than the decline) cannot have a positive impact on the environment. Let us do some math with this number of 8.9 million units. If we were to get very conservative with this number (assume all these cars are small cars, they all run on petrol, they all clock less than 10,000 KM a year and they sold only 8 million cars) we would need to plant 96 million trees a year to offset the carbon emissions! (This is a global figure)

Fact: Toyota sells/has sold a lot of diesel engines in India.

Japan (the home country of Toyota) has a ban on diesel cars in some urban centres. This is in an effort to reduce rising pollution levels. Some Indian cities have made attempts to ban diesel cars but this has not yet happened.

There are over 160,000 Innova vehicles on the road. The vast majority of which (to my understanding) run on Diesel. Let us assume that they have sold 100,000 diesel cars, each clocking up approximately 15,000KM/year (conservative again as many Innova vehicles are taxis). We would need about 1.7 million trees to offset the carbon footprint of the Diesel Innovas! This excludes the Qualis (now out of production) and petrol variants of the Innova. If Toyota wants to make a profit out of India they should (at the very least) plant about 5 million trees a year to offset emissions from all their models and past sales.

Pundits will argue with me on the assumptions that I have used to arrive at these numbers. In my defense, these numbers are about as conservative as you can get and if we were to sit down and make these calculations the number of trees required would be much higher than 5 million in India and 96 million globally for Toyota. I have been very generous is selecting the footprint calculators on the net and have discounted some of the results as well.

I believe that Toyota chose to sponsor NDTV because it felt it was a great Corporate Social Responsibility vehicle. Toyota, like any other company that has ever been in India, has the right to advertise and engage with the media. The onus of taking a position and choosing the right company as a sponsor should be with the media. Will NDTV be willing to run a researched piece on the number of trees required to offset the total number of cars that Toyota has produced over the years?

Toyota has a green image. That image however has more to do with environmental norms for cars in Japan than with anything else. Their hybrid models are available in certain countries and hopefully will make an entry into India someday soon. If they were truly green they would have phased out diesel engines on their cars. Unfortunately, hybrids are still polluting. The electricity that we use for these cars still needs to come from a thermal power plant or hydro-electric plant (read as large dam). Both these have an environmental cost. The question about cars is not about how clean they can get, but about how we can take them off the roads and substitute them with mass public transport.

Toyota is trying to be green. Good for them. They need to be told that they are doing what is expected of them (the bare minimum). Anybody who produces millions of vehicles should not be cast as an environmental champion, particularly by the media.

To end, let me give a rather extreme analogy. Dow Chemicals has a lot of CSR initiatives. But the Indian media would hesitate to engage with them because they manufacture hazardous chemicals and companies under their control have a disastrous environmental track record (especially in India). Should they be considered "green company"?

I would venture to say that cars are a big issue when it comes to pollution and we need to be careful when we paint their manufacturers as champions of the environmental cause.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

9/11, it's aftermath, and the failed war on terror

In two days the papers, airwaves and twitter will be filled with memories of 9/11. We will be told again and again of how innocent Americans fell victim to the greatest war crime in the history of terrorism.

Let me place on record the following

A) Areas where I categorically agree
  • Many innocent people died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (and the other attacks on the same day).
  • Acts of violence whether subjective or objective are inexcusable
  • Nobody and I mean nobody deserves to die at the hands of another human being. (Whether he be a commuter on Mumbai suburban or a resident of Manhattan)
B) Why I disagree with a whole lot of other issues
  • 9/11 was no excuse to attack Afghanistan
  • Fear mongering is no way to justify a war against any country. In fact there is no rational reason for a war.
  • Supporting genocide in Palestine is wrong, wrong wrong!
  • American intelligence agencies and the American government are not what one could describe as innocent sheep. They knew that they had proliferated enough terror, know-how, hate, weapons and fear to guarantee a counter-attack on American soil (it was "when" and not "if").
  • America has refused to learn it's lesson. If you (read Govt of USofA) spread terror through military oppression there are people as evil as you who will not hesitate to strike back.
  • American has killed 100,000 civilians in Iraq, stood by in silence as Gaza was stormed and continued to drop bombs on NWFP in Paksitan, and have "built-up" troops on Afghanistan's soil. I hate to say this, and it is an unfair reality but these will eventually come back and bite them. America too will lose innocent civilians through terror as direct result of it's action post 9/11.
  • An environment of terror prevails in many parts of the world. This environment of terror has been created partly by the neo-liberal capitalists of the world, partly by right-wing religious fundamentalists (across all religions) , partly by the media who profiteer through fear, partly by gullible citizens who very easily believe that the sky will fall on their heads, and partly by the chaos of having all these players interact one-way or another.
  • As I write this piece, news channels will be selling ad-space for 9/11 memorials. Suicide bombers will be in training for another bombing, the US will continue to use drones in remote AfPak regions, children in Gaza will not have access to food, clothing and shelter, defense budgets will continue to expand and 800 million farmers in India will continue to live on less that a dollar a day.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Declare Advertisers

  • It is becoming increasingly obvious that the media is willing to sell more than just advertising space. e.g. Anil Ambani
  • The print media was completely sold-out (pun intended) during the elections. (TheHoot, as usual, was the only one to openly talk about it) The CEC has washed his hands of the whole affair and wants to newspapers to own up.
  • The Media wants to regulate themselves. But it seems there is just way too nuch money doing the rounds for it to be a reasonable expectation.
I think it is time for the media to start publishing on monthly, quarterly and annual basis its top sources of revenue and high level detail around these sources. I think it is relevant for the public to understand who are the advertisers, who are the people who by column space and air time, and how much money is made from pimping vis-a-vis journalistic pursuits.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Amazing Piece by Lawrence Lessig on Corruption

Astroturf - A better term for Manufacturing Consent

The Hindu ran a piece today from The Guardian on Astroturfing titled "Dealing with Fake Support" [original here].

The Astroturfing principle is very similar to Chomsky's manufactured consent and is a more vulgar manifestation. Astroturfing is about lobbyists and PR firms creating artifical grassroots support for an issue of public interest such as the environment. Astroturfing @ wikipedia


My last two pieces on Air India and the Facebook Messages are good examples of Astro Turfing. The Facebook messages on healthcare in particular is a good example.

Here are some more examples of Astroturfing -

  • NDTV Greenathon a.k.a NDTV Toyota Green Campaign
    The world's largest manufacturer of cars wanted to convince us that they are really concerned about the environment. An article that I wrote on this available here.
  • DNA, TOI and Bartering
    Both DNA and TOI barter ad-space for either vouchers or an equity in the company. For example if I were running a retail chain - TOI would run wonderful articles about me in exchange for either vouchers or equity depending on the volume of coverage that I desire. You would see "active" discussions on their websites as well with some amazing feedback on my store etc etc etc. The perception of "public support" based on articles that have actually been bought that makess it astroturfing.
  • India Shining and BJP
    India shining will remain the best known example of Astroturfing from an Indian perspective. The year they ran the India shining campaign was the worst for farmers and availability of food grain was less than what it was during the Bengal Famine. We had the entire media talking about how wonderful everything was based on sound-bytes from ordinary citizens from urban India. The fact that this was staged and fake came out in the elections. QED.
In a nutshell Astroturfing will be prevalent and enabled by social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. We will see increasing noise about schemes such Unique ID in these spaces. Beware. We have to watch out for how these messages are manipulated by firms that specialize in marketing through social networks.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Media on Air India vs Kingfisher

The recent engine-fire incident on the Tarmac in Mumbai was handled a little inappropriately by the media. All the passengers made it out safely and relatively unscathed. This was something that needed applause. As to whether the pilots and crew made some procedural errors during evacuation is something that merits internal investigation but not necessarily under the glare of the media. An incident like this re-validates the claim that Air India needs to upgrade it's fleet on a war footing.

Frankly, in an emergency, I would much rather have an air hostesses with 20 years experience than a high-school graduate more concerned about the length of her skirt.

What the media does need to pay attention to is what Aviation Industry experts are talking about globally. Some of the comments that they make about Kingfisher makes you want to roll on the floor and laugh. The experts have written of Kingfisher as a failure and have categorically labeled Mallaya as a beer baron who should not be allowed to come anywhere near an Airline company. The media has missed the signals on Kingfisher but continues to hound Air India.
Here is a sample of the Kingfisher reputation -- Kingfisher Airlines - Under the Influence? or Government moves to protect Air India.

Air India is an asset and it needs to provide connectivity to parts of this country that will never interest private players. They have a rich experience and like most large players in Aviation are facing some turbulence. Any moves to privatize Air India or dilute government ownership has to be questioned. Globally, most large players are getting through this period with the help of unions and government support. Why should Air India be any different?

If the management is able to get a grip and unions begin co-operating there is no-way that the turnaround will not happen. At this stage the only stakeholder group interested in the demise of Air India seems to be the Media. Now why is that the case?

The media however needs to be held accountable for manufacturing an incorrect story around procedural lapses. Such news stories do massive damage to an Airline, the media should have been applauding the Pilot, Crew, Fire Department and the ATC. I think the media has crossed the line again. Will the media be willing to say that KF is endangering passengers because it is not able to pay in time for it ground services and is cutting corners in the process?

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Face Book and Manufacturing Consent

Social Networking sites are attracting an increasing number of users from India. The benefits are many. For example, my class reunion was made possible because people were "found" on Facebook. As a tool the "warm and fuzzy" opportunities that sites such as Orkut and Facebook provide are beyond debate. Twitter takes it a step further by allowing for proliferation of information "at the speed of thought".

On the flip side, Facebook is losing visitors on account of privacy concerns and twitter forces "concision" of an idea because of design limitations. The applications/sites can not be blamed for these two issues. A user, by his willingness to participate, accepts that there are risks and limitations to the virtual spaces that social networking sites create.

My key concern is not with the motives of the websites/applications. None of these sites claim an altruistic motive and not a single one of them wear's a halo around their logos. They all claim to be in existence to generate a profit.

The gray area is around the quality of information that they generate in "public spaces". A vast majority of people are still not on the information superhighway. Public debates and discussions about them (people not on the web) in social networking spaces is incomplete without their participation.

Let us take a specific example. The elections in Iran were received with a great of deal of criticism by the American media. The evidence that the media had - was not so much based on ground reporting as much as it was based on comments and posts that were appearing in social networking sites. One has to admit, and even the most die-hard fan of Web 2.0 has to agree, that the rural Iranian is not the most likely person to use the web to express dissent. And if the American media is to be believed it is this demographic group that voted the incumbent back to power (albeit based on a populist policy of re-distributing a bumper potato crop). Is it "democratic" to have Facebook/Twitter/YouTube users manufacture an opinion that is built on a) incomplete facts b) has only one side of the story and c) is detrimental to the interests of the people who do not have the "access" to join the debate. The closest offline example that comes to mind is the way the television media covered 26/11 without any regard for the victims or the security forces engaged in a gun battle with the terrorists.

In a more recent example - activists are passing "scraps" that encourage people to engage with a "cause" by reciprocating a "scrap". A closer examination of these causes leads me to believe that these are not necessarily the right campaigns to be supporting from a third world perspective. The very contemporary American debates on universal healthcare and reproductive rights of women are two such causes/campaigns that are spreading like wildfire across Indian users.

The American healthcare debate is about getting large corporates to take more ownership and less profit from the American healthcare system. The nature and complexion of the healthcare debate is very different in India. We cannot blame or invite insurance companies into the debate as insurance is not within the reach of 800 million Indians. To talk about the role of private healthcare would be pointless as they are non-existent or out of reach for a majority of Indians. The two debates are very different. We can cannot cloud our debate on health with the American perspective. Our perspective needs to be more socially oriented and has nothing to do with monetary profits. The American perspective is about finding a means to equitably redistribute profits from the healthcare system to those who are in genuine need of health care. There is a big difference in the two debates and it boils down to Vitamin M. India centers it around health, America centers it around money.

Indian laws that protect a woman's rights exist. The problem is not with what is legal and what is not. The problem is with how these laws are interpreted and implemented. Female fetocide is illegal, but it still happens. Dowry is illegal, but it still happens. Rape is illegal, but it still happens. In India the debate should not be about what the law should be but it should be about empowering people and the appropriate stakeholders with tools that will help them enforce these laws. To stand up and shout for rights would be distracting attention from the root issue of how to get existing laws implemented. The Indian Web 2.0 user is quick to jump on this "Westernized Perspective" without realizing the futility of such an approach in the Indian context. Why should our debate on gender, sexuality, affirmative action be based on Western precedents when a) their problem statements are different and b) our ground realities are different.

There is a tremendous amount of noise that is being generated about "issues of concern" in Social Networking spaces. This noise is making it increasingly difficult to understand and find diverse perspectives. One is being forced to take sides without understanding the complete issue. The side that gains momentum is typically the side that is able to make the most creative use of the Web 2.0 medium. Hypothetically, it would be possible for a good strategist to use these spaces to manufacture opinion about a specific issue (e.g. Iran). To do this would be politically incorrect as it would be manufacturing consent. Will web 2.0 be able to facilitate any sort of debate on development in India that is inclusive?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Rain?

The monsoons have failed. I make this comment based on my recent visit to villages near Nagothana in Maharashtra. To hear from farmers first hand clears up the garbage being published very quickly.

I spoke to a person called "Mama" who works at a "resort". Mama, primarily a farmer works at the resort. He says - that he cannot remember the last time the rains were so bad. The farmers, he says, are going to have an impossibly difficult time and he thanks his stars for having a steady job in the resort. Conversations with locals both at the EcoMantra property and Palas resort leads me to the conclusion that we are in a mess. The agricultural sector will take a few years to recover and these few years give an opportunity to further alienate the small farmers from the rest of the country.

The media is ready to link the delayed monsoon with a failed economy but not with the disastrous lives of farmers. People will disagree. They will say that the monsoons (or the lack off) are getting lots of coverage. My reading is that the coverage is limited to the impact that the failed monsoons will have on the lives of the middle-class urban Indian and not on the lives of the farmer community.

Could it be possible, that the media is SOFT on the story for several reasons -
  • Large retail chains are hoarding pulses and food grain in an effort to manipulate prices.
  • Advertising related to cricket is critical to the electronic media. The fact the Sharad Pawar happens to be a key player on the BCCI team and the Cabinet Minister for agriculture seems to be working in the favor of the government as far reporting on farmers is concerned
  • The media somehow believes that it does not need to cover issues related to farming because their readership is Urban India. They are under the misguided belief that the average reader is dumb and insensitive. They can not be further from the truth.
Anand