Tuesday, 29 December 2009

In Memory of people who build our Bridges (or जो पुल बनायेंगे...)

It's time we paid a little more respect and attention to the people who are risking their lives to build India. 

On December 24, 2009 a bridge that is under construction collapsed on the Chambal River near Kota in  Rajasthan.
  • I can-not find a list of the names of the people who died.
  • The death toll will only mount - as divers recover more bodies from under the rubble
  • The lives of these people was a story that had a shelf live of under 24 hours for the news media. 
  • I am sure there would have been a candle-light vigil and endless panel discussion on prime time news if a handful of those who died had urban middle class connections.
  • A tweet from @ShashiTharoor attracted more empathy than the deaths of these labourers. 
  • Measured in terms of air-time, column width and media-attention, why is the value of their lives any less than other incidents?
Labour on Indian infrastructure projects works in difficult conditions. Most of the time they work without basic insurance and any safety cover. Liberalization is fine. Reform of labour laws is good. Do not forget the the labour class in the process.

जो पुल बनायेंगे,
वे अनिवार्यतः
पीछे रह जाएंगे
सेनाएँ होंगी पार
मारे जायेंगे रावण
जयी होंगे राम
जो निर्माता रहे
इतिहास में
बंदर कहलाएंगे।

'अज्ञेय'  |

सच्चिदानंद हीरानंद वात्स्यायन 'अज्ञेय'

Loosely Translated -
People who build bridges invariably get left behind.
Armies will cross these bridges. 
Demons like Ravana will be conquered and Ram will be declared a victor.
However, the people who built these bridges will be remembered as monkeys in the pages of history.
- Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan a.k. 'Agyeya'

This poem is based on a part of the Ramayana where an army of monkeys build a bridge of stones for Lord Ram to cross over to Lanka. The Bridge is referred to as Ram Sethu

PS - I was reminded of this poem by Ageya after reading a poem penned by @gyanban on the Girhotra case.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Paid News and Private Treaties (and suggestions to the Editor's Guild)

Image from beta.TheHindu.com [image]
Mahesh Vijapurkar in an article that appeared in TheHoot.org and P.Sainath with his scathing commentary (1,2 and 3) in The Hindu, exposed the obvious abuse of the media by politicians in the Maharashtra elections.

In summary, politicians and political parties were paying newspapers and the broadcasting media to provide positive coverage and screaming headlines in the run-up to the Mahasrashtra elections. Another form of spin-doctoring is practised by Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. (India's largest media house). Times Private Treaties receives a financial stake in a company in exchange for coverage in their publications. Both forms of news are referred to as “paid news”. Chomsky called it “manufacturing consent”.  Sainath and Vijapurkar have triggered a much needed debate on the ethics of such news.

The Editor’s Guild recently (re)elected Rajdeep Sardesai as it’s President. Rajdeep is editor of CNN-IBN. The channel is also the loudest mouthpiece for the Shave India campaign sponsored by Gillette [ #ShaveIndia ]. The Editors Guild responded to the “paid news” by announcing an ethics committee. The announcement came via a tweet by @rajdeepsardesai that linked to a press release on the Editor’s Guild website.  There was also a front page article in The Hindu the next day.

My Opinion
Paid news has been a problem for a long time. Self-regulation within the media has failed miserably. Urgent action is required. It is unlikely that the Ethics Committee which includes stalwarts like T N Ninan and Madhu Kishwar will be to able to clean up the mess. Unless the promise of self-regulation becomes a reality, the government will have to step in with regulation.

My recommendations
It appears that this committee will not be seeking the opinion of readers and viewers. It would be unfortunate if the most important stakeholder group for the media is ignored while addressing this issue.

In an e-mail to Rajdeep Sardesai, I mentioned some of the areas that the ethics committee should look at closely. I did receive a brief response to the e-mail that indicated that it was received and read. (I thank Rajdeep Sardesai for acknowledging the mail.)

I am led to believe (through your posting on Twitter) that the Editor’s Guild has constituted an ethics committee to frame recommendations on “paid news” and “private treaties”.  I hope this committee is able to make honest recommendations that journalists, editors and managers can turn to.  May I request you to forward a few suggestions to the ethics committee?

At the risk of sounding 'obvious', I would like to suggest the following in the hope that the committee incorporates them
  1. Independent directors must be independent. A director or independent director in a media company should not hold a directorship in ANY other company.

  2. Each newspaper/channel should be encouraged to appoint an ombudsman so that readers can send in any grievances that they may have about the quality of content. This recommendation is specifically related to manufactured news

  3. After every National and State election, a newspapers/news channel must publish the billing that they have received
      a) by candidate
      b) by political party
    (irrespective of whether the advertisement is being directly or indirectly paid for by a candidate or party. Proxy advertising needs to be clearly accounted for as well)

  4. Media houses must disclose the names of their top ten 'end' customers based on billing - every quarter (from an advertising stand-point). While it may not be feasible to disclose the value of the billing, the names of the Top10 end customers should ideally be disclosed.

  5. Editorial pages should not contain content that has been paid for (in cash, in kind or by any other means)

  6. Space that is normally used for the masthead should NOT be sold for advertising. The amount of space on the front-page/first-page that is sold for advertising should be capped

  7. Whatever recommendations the committee makes must be extended to the vernacular media as well.
I hope it is appropriate for you to forward these thoughts to the ethics committee.

Call To Action
  • Some visible steps to increase accountability is critical if the media is to get back some of it’s independence and stay true to it’s cause of being a pillar of democracy.

  • Viewers of the broadcasting media and readers of the print media (both English and Vernacular) must send in their (unsolicited and uninvited) suggestions to the President of the Editor’s Guild.
    (The e-mail ID of the President is available on the contact us page of the editor’s guild website).

  • It is imperative that ethical behaviour be restored, or else the media will face the possibility of regulation. This is not a pleasant outcome for both the Industry and the general public. 
Foot Note 
Jay Rosen in his blogpost "How to know if you are behaving ethically as a journalist: Jay Rosen’s checklist" makes an interesting read for journalists, editors and managers in the media.

    Sunday, 20 December 2009

    Predictions for India's next decade

    Irrespective of all that went wrong in the last decade for India, the growing strength of the Indian (urban) middle class has to stand out as the one trend that presents the most hope and has the maximum momentum. As long as this ‘class’ keeps the balance in favour of wealth creation as opposed to consumption, India will benefit.

    In the next decade, there will be opportunities to move forward, there will be a decline in some areas and as usual we will continue to see rapid change. Before the media steps in with their sponsored hype, allow me to present my 2¢ worth of predictions for the next ten years.

    1. Urbanization will continue. The burden of migration will shift from the metros to Tier II cities and we will see a spurt in infrastructure projects in these cities as well (finally!). Will rural and urban India run on two parallel tracks or will they be going in opposite directions? Going by the trend in this decade, there will be a large marginalized population in rural India that will be headed in the opposite direction. This will be the single largest challenge for all levels of government in India.

    2. Regulation of Indian Media will improve. There will be legislation brought into play after all efforts at self-regulation fail. Accountability within the media will increase. The focus will be back on journalism. Distractions in the form of infotainment, psephology and advertising will reduce substantially.
    3. A Green Party! Indians will start to recognize the impact of climate change. This enlightenment will result in direct action as well. A political party that has environment as it’s main electoral platform will win a seat or two in the Lok Sabha. In the worst case scenario, this party will take a toll on national parties by fracturing their vote back in some pockets. 

    4. Intellectual Property Rights will see a major overhaul. Developing countries and poorer countries will be paying “actuals” for the transfer of technology and NOT exorbitant premiums in the name of copyrights and/or patents. This will be most true in the areas of energy, healthcare and agriculture. The West will back-track completely on GATS when they realize that they will be paying more than they will earn. In particular, this will kick-off a virtuous cycle in Africa. (i.e key ingredients for sustainable development will come together at the right place and at the right time)

    5. Large Dams. The decommissioning of some of the largest dams in India will begin. There will be a realization that these dams need to be broken down into much smaller dams along the major rivers. This will be driven by an acceptance of environmental science and by a ‘real’ threat of major earthquakes. Some of the democratic people’s movements that have their roots in the impact of large dams,  may coalesce into a green-party that I referred to earlier. [The large dams debate from 1999]

    6. The mobile generation will skip the PC. A large number of Indians will have their first and (addictive) taste of the Internet through the mobile phone. This leap forward in local appropriation of technology will open up many opportunities for better governance (UID will NOT be one of them). UID as a project will slip into oblivion. It may be perceived to be successful in a few urban pockets thanks to some good PR by the project manager.

    7. Narayanamurthy for President? (Okay I am sticking my neck out here) The co-founder of Infosys will launch a bid for the Rashtrapathi bhavan. Whether or not he will succeed is not clear. His name will do more than just the rounds, he might even end up with a nomination.  He will be supported largely by the corporate lobby. 

    8. India becomes THE exit plan in Afghanistan and Pakistan for America. But first, America will continue it’s blundering ways. The continuing loss of civilian lives will mean that America will not just be “perceived” as an enemy, but will be treated as one by non-combatants and combatants alike. In a few years, India will be first nudged and then shoved into engaging in the AfPak region. The repercussions for India will not be good. The US of course will close another failed chapter in it’s history of imperial ambitions and leave somebody else to clean up the mess. The only positive outcome of such an intervention could be a conclusive resolution to Kashmir. [A status report on Obama's current strategy from an Indian perspective].

    9. If Congress wins a National election in the coming decade (60% chance that they will). Chidambaram will replace Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi will have independent charge of the remote control. This government will be packaged in populist policy but at it’s core will be a capitalist engine. This will put the poorest of the poor at risk. The government will be different because it will NOT camouflage it's complete alignment with US policies on war and neo-liberal economics.

    10. Naxal violence will be mitigated and controlled through the partial nationalization of mines. Large corporate interests will still be pillaging natural resources, but there will be reparations given to local communities both in the form of cash and infrastructure. This will happen through the partial nationalization of mines. The movement for equality and tribal rights will continue to be brushed under the carpet. The violent element in the Naxal movement will be held at bay and will rear it's head when convenient to the central government. 

    11. Circket in India will be in turmoil. BCCI will continue to behave like the school bully both in domestic and international cricket. Interest in the sport in other nations will be in decline as cricket becoming predictable. This decline in interest in other countries will have an impact on the fortunes of the game in India. The process has been set in motion and looks irreversible. 

    12. Women’s literacy will improve by a massive 30% or more. This will not happen thanks to government action but because non-government organizations working across different areas of development will approach the issue of women’s literacy as a a panacea. The impact will be exceptionally positive.

    13. India Vs China (Tortoise vs Hare). India is far less likely to implode than China. This is based on the fact that i) India's trajectory of growth is not as steep ii) Our checks & balances in the areas of finance, banking and accounting is far more transparent and robust than China's. India is more of a socialist country than China (which is the largest capitalist country in the world thanks to it being Milton Friedman's playground in the 80s). Power within India is far more distributed than it ever will be in China. 
    Happy New Year!

    Thursday, 17 December 2009

    Thinking Out Loud on Non Resident Whiners ( and a rant)

    It's funny how folks get educated in India on Tax payer subsidies and go abroad and complain about India and it's socialist policies.

    Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! and almost every other Fortune 500 company in the sates has been built with intellectual contributions from Indians educated in IITs, RECs and other government funded institutions.(Read as Tax Payer money). If you were brought up in India, almost every home cooked meal you had as a child was cooked on subsidized LPG.

    This is not an argument on brain drain. Indians are welcome to go and work in any country of their choice. We have enough and more talent from where they came from. Except by family and friends, they will not be missed.

    I too have many friends and close family working abroad who I miss dearly. The point is, I might miss them, the country doesn't . We can, as the saying goes, afford to spread the love.

    What I do not understand is why a few people of Indian origin living abroad turnaround and say that our system sucks. I concede, socialist ideologies are like capitalist ideologies. They are both imperfect and unfair.

    They (the few I refer to above) forget that they are a product of the Indian socialist system. They are welcome to live in New Jersey or Fremont or any place under the star spangled banner and support American occupation and war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine. They can continue to clap for the cause of genocide and disaster capitalism.  What irritates me is when they turn around and say that they did not benefit from socialism. They would not be where they are without many of the socialist policies that India has had in the last 60 years. 
    • They will complain that "Indians" just don't get the concept of "copyright" and "ownership" but they will be transferring and copying Indian classical music in Gigabytes.
    • They will claim that Hinduism needs a revival and is threatened by "other" religions while heating their beef burgers in the microwave. 
    • They will call you a marxist, socialist or naxalite if you point out that they are as much a hypocrite as you are. (They use labels on resident Indians like a receptionist would use post-it notes).
    • They complain about the "filth" in India. They readily forget that they pollute 500 times more than the average Indian.
    I have no issues with any of them as long as they do not bring their political ideas on capitalism and shove it down my throat in the name of the Hindu religion.
    1. If you suffer from an identity crisis...deal with it. Don't take it out on me. 
    2. If you suffer from a sense of superiority...look a little more closely and you will realise that it is rooted in your own misplaced feelings of inferiority. 
    3. If you think India is a big heap of problems...don't tell me you want to change things from "outside the system".

      Wednesday, 16 December 2009

      Jay Rosen and the Ethics of the Web.

      Came across this Video on YouTube when searching for Videos featuring Jay Rosen.
      Pay close attention to what he has to say about "Ethic of the Web" and "Newspaper Websites".
      Both TheHindu and The New York Times do not publish comments that contain links that are outside their respective domains. 

      Although his blog has not been updated in 8 months, I have added Rosen to my Blog Roll. His insight into media is a must read for any media watcher. It's not easy to read, it takes some time to get your head around the content, but once you do, you normally have a Eureka moment. Another lens through which to look at the Indian Media!

      Tuesday, 15 December 2009

      Freaks or Freakonomics (and Co-relating in the absence of reality)

      Once upon a time, I was interested in the Freakonomics anecdotes. It all changed by the time I got to the end of the second chapter of the book. It reminded me of how “sales operations” guys come up with weird theories during sales reviews. Theories that don’t help you close deals or plan sales campaigns. Freakonomics has a very similar way of avoiding reality and the "big picture". I agree (like most others) that the authors are smart guys with a great talent for writing blogging. It's the lack of perspective in their content that worries me. They do have their fair share of critics. Some examples

      I have followed the freakonomics blog on the New York Times website and am convinced that their approach to economics is culturally biased. By the way, NYT has now stopped publishing any of my comments (even when I have something positive to say about the post). Update: I stand corrected. They published this last night.

      Yesterday’s post- “Do jobs really cure insurgents?” got my attention.  The first half of the post read as follows-
      "Does giving a man a job stop him from becoming a political insurgent? The generally accepted wisdom is that it does. In fact, the U.S. and other western powers have distributed millions of dollars of foreign aid in the hopes of reducing political violence and instability. But a new working paper from Eli Berman, Joseph Felter, and Jacob Shapiro may force policymakers to reevaluate this strategy. The researchers looked at unemployment and political violence against both the government and civilians in Iraq and the Philippines. They find that unemployment is actually negatively correlated with attacks against the government and statistically unrelated to insurgent attacks against civilians."
      The working paper that Freakonomics was referring was published by National Bureau of Economic Research and based on a grant from (surprise, surprise!) The Department of Homeland Security.

      Here is my two cents- 
      • Cause: American invasion of Iraq Effect: More than 100,000 civilians in Iraq are DEAD.
        (Where do employment programmes fit in?)
      • I would not be looking towards “insurgents” as the root problem. I would look at the fact that Iraq is an occupied country that was invaded illegally and without ‘just’ or any other cause. Operation “shock and awe” devastated the infrastructure of the country. 
      • Disaster Capitalists lead by the likes of Halliburton and Black Water are “rebuilding” the country after bombing it flat. How? For e.g. - They are importing raw material after refusing use of local labor and factories to create raw material locally.
      • To try and look at the insurgency problem through the lens of “employment” is, for the lack of a better word, STUPID. You have insurgents, not because they are employed or unemployed but because their country was bombed to smithereens by American troops. 
      • You would not have to assess the functionality of development and employment programs if you had not blown up the country in the first place. 
      • As far as economic research is concerned, this paper deserves nothing less than the ignoble
      • I do not see any economic trends that deserves applause in the analysis. I would however hazard to suggest that the authors study the impact of development programs on insurgency while standing under US operated drones in NWFP in Pakistan. Maybe then, they will have better clarity on the co-relation between employment and insurgency.
      • The paper and Freakonomics blogspost has a Friedmanesque stench to it. 

      Friday, 11 December 2009

      Telangana Conundrum (Divide, divide again and rule?)

      This post is about the flavor of the week. It is my take on Telangana and the argument for breaking up the larger states into smaller more efficient states. When I sat down to write this post, I was against any division of the states. The “divide, divide again and then rule” approach was not making sense and appeared colonial. However, a little bit of research has managed to partially change my opinion. I will try and present some of the data that I came across.

      First, comments on what has been happening

      The pro-Telangana politicos are in hot pursuit of their goal for statehood. Chidambaram issued a statement that kicks of the process of state-formation.

      Going by Chidambaram’s track record on contentious issues (e.g. Operation Green Hunt) the directive to the Andhra government is probably a red herring aimed at a) diffusing a potential crisis and/or b) an effort to divide the opposition benches by throwing a bone to regional parties who have state autonomy as a part of their agenda.

      I will stick my neck out to predict that in all probability, Chidambaram will “clarify” his statement in studio interviews with anchors in a few weeks. The clarification will say that the issue is first a state subject and unless the legislature passes a resolution his hands are tied. He will once again play the “state subject” card with ease.

      As far as Telangana is concerned, he chose his words (as always), with great care. In the process, he created a win-win situation for a fleeting moment. The media, and all parties concerned, bit the bait hook, line and sinker.

      However, his statement has set the cat amongst the pigeons in regional political circles. Many regional forces are brining back their demand for state-hood. Area that are being discussed include
      • Vidarbha (Maharashtra)
      • Bundelkhand (Uttar Pradesh)
      • Gorkhaland (West Bengal)
      • Bodoland (Assam)
      Second, the crux of the debate

      Two questions that are resurfacing and are being debated include-
      • Is the division of state based on language the right thing to do?
      • Are smaller states easier to govern and they do they tend to have better administrative efficiencies?
      For starters the two questions are VERY different. The first question has political roots. Identity based on language has been a useful political platform for regional parties (e.g. MNS in Maharashtra and DMK in Tamil Nadu). I am not going to bother analysing this question. I think any discussion on these lines will be counter-productive.

      The second and far more relevant question is about  administrative efficiencies. Do Small states address development priorities and administration better than a large state? Do they have less corruption?  The rest of this post is an attempt to figure out the answer.

      Small states and administrative efficiencies?
      • Small Assemblies
        One down side of the small state assembly (number of MLAs) is that they may be unstable. Small assemblies and the divisive nature of local politics leads to brittle governments with wafer thin majorities. Horse trading is rampant and governments may change more than once between elections. Haryana, Goa and Jharkhand are examples that come to mind.

        My Argument:  If I were forced off the fence, I would say that it will not necessarily help in brining about better administrative efficiencies.

      • Corruption
        Will small states breed less corruption? Hard to say! Data that I found on the net did not provide any conclusive proof that small states fair much better than large states. However it is apparent that the level of corruption appears to be marginally less in the smaller states.
        My Argument- Based on available data. It appears that small states deal slightly better at dealing with corruption particularly when it relates to their poorest citizens.

      Note - Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Himachal, Uttarakhand, and Punjab are treated as “Large States” by the original report/source

      • Voter Turnout
        Since we are a democracy, one good way to judge how healthy our democracy is to see what the voter turnouts looks like. Data Available in the National Election Study 2009 (courtesy EPW) seems to indicate that small states produce far better voter turnouts. This is a positive sign and an argument that works in favor of smaller states.

        My Argument: Electorates seem more responsible in smaller states.

      • Literacy Rates
        One interesting indicator that should shed some light on development is literacy rates. According to the data available with the National Literacy Mission smaller states are performing much better than larger states. The area that grabs my attention is literacy rates amongst women.

        My Argument: Small states seem to have better literacy rates when it comes to women.  It reflects that a key government portfolio is being delivered more efficiently if the state is smaller. Can we extend this to other indicators? Maybe or maybe not. At the risk of sounding radical, literacy and women’s literacy are good enough reasons to start creating smaller states.

      • Sate Per Capita Domestic Product
        Data is not readily and uniformly available on Per Capita domestic product (maybe I was looking in the wrong places). I will present two graphs based on Government of India data for 2009 (data downloaded with some difficulty).
        Source: MOSPI.gov.in [India in figures - 2009]

        My Argument: If this economic indicator is to be believed, smaller states are doing better economically (at least on a per capita scale). We can find case specific reasons for each small state and why they are where they are in these rankings. However, the fact remains, that citizens in small states appear to be doing better than the larger ones. Again, an argument in favor of small states. 

      • Urbanization of India
        Over 28% of India now lives in its cities.By 2030 this number will be close to 40% (source: EPW Vol 48, 2009).
        It is not just the metros that are bursting at the seams. Like metros, towns and cities across the country have grown. What was a large town 50 years ago is now a sprawling city. Many of these cities have remained underdeveloped.
        My Argument: Infrastructure infusion into capital cities in new and smaller states will ease the burden on Metro cities in the country.There will be a multiplier effect around these cities that will give a better geographic spread to development.
      When I began this post, I was convinced that Small states would not work well. What data I found says I may be wrong. I am confident, based on what I have read in the last two days, that most development indicators will be better in smaller states. Maybe this question deserves some serious thought. If the division of states happens based on regional developmental goals and not feudal family structures, I think we should invest in the shift.