Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I Finally Made It To IIM Ahmedabad (A)

23 comments
I finally made it to IIM Ahmedabad. Obviously I mean a short visit to the campus. What did you think ? Anyway I always thought the campus was tucked away in some quiet corner, away from the city. I guess it must have been at one time. Now, the town of Ahmedabad has pretty much wrapped itself around the institution, honking cars, dusty roads et al. Similar to IIT Bombay.

The Louis Kahn brick structure has stature and exudes the quiet grandeur, despite the scores of cracks in the walls and arches that look like they are going to give way any moment. Looking at the arches, I am reminded this is a Government institution. I understand the IIM Calcutta buildings are in worse shape so..

I realize there are actually two campuses, the old brick one whose photographs we see all the time and a new one built in `exposed concrete’ whose photographs we do not see. Not surprisingly because the exposed concrete (the result of thought out architectural strategy and not an accident) will take some time getting used to. After all your first thought is, hey, when are they painting these walls ? A busy road that separates the two campuses but an underground tunnel with a permanent and insightful exhibition of IIM’s history connects the two.

Its A New Course

My colleagues and I are being given the tour by Prashant, a PGPX student and former TCS guy – the one-year MBA programme, which despite whatever else anyone at IIM might say, is pitched directly against the Indian School of Business (ISB). I mean the 1-year-duration part, not necessarily the cut-off age or other factors. Be that as it may, the fact that IIM has responded is worthy. Given its parentage ie.

The one-year course has much higher cut-offs, you have to be at least 27 years old, or roughly seven years of work experience. All this was told to me by Prashant as well by professor of marketing Arvind Sahay who is one of the faculty members overseeing this course. It’s a bit of a pet project for Sahay and I would wish the team all the best.

Sahay is one of the many boyish looking professors who dot the IIM landscape. I met another IIM A professor T T Rammohan Rao (TTR as he is called) in Mumbai recently. My first words to him were, "Oh, I thought you were much older." "I am sorry to dissapoint you," he said with a twinkle in his eye and in a tone that must be trademark sarcasm. Incidentally, a study of Sahay's bio (IIT, IIM, PhD from Austin, U Texas in marketing, Assistant Prof at London Business School) can inspire or depress, depending on where you are in life. I guess I tilt towards the latter !

Job Market Will Set The Tone

Now the big question. How will IIM A’s new course stack up against the Indian School of Business (ISB) Hyderabad ? It’s a tough one. Sahay admits they are a late entrant in this format - the first batch passes out in March 2007 – and there is a while to go. Placements were on as we were walking around the campus and presumably in a month, things will be clearer. Sahay did say a couple of big placement offers had already come in.

From a course perspective, I did get the sense that IIM has tried hard to distinguish itself from ISB– notably its focus on a higher percentage of resident faculty. I also got a sense that the one-year is pretty exhaustive. The students point out that they are working all the time. That is not a comparison with ISB of course, just an observation. I also felt that IIM might have responded better and faster, if only it could.

My gut tells me that ISB might lead in the job market for a year or two more before it becomes a neck n neck battle. If the job market continues to boom, you might see equilibrium achieved even more quickly. I am basing this on the fact that the input in both cases is more or less similar and of a high quality. I have met ISB students and I met some IIM PGPX students – I see no structural differences ! Would be interesting though to hear what everyone else thinks !

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Five Tips For Surviving India's Budget Airlines

18 comments
For the last few days I have been flying a mixture of high and low cost carriers (though the opposite of low is not high by any stretch) and I feel confident enough to put down a small survival guide. I welcome you to add/subtract to this list. Hopefully we will have a useful Indian budget air travel guide at the end of it !!!

Choose the right Low Cost Carrier (LCC)

I am a great admirer of Capt G R Gopinath but his airline is a no-no as far as I am concerned. I like time-bound arrivals and departures even on holidays and personal visits and Air Deccan has not delivered on this count. I speak from personal and collective experience here.

Actually, Air Deccan (they do fly sectors others do not) is okay if it’s the first flight out in the morning. These are usually on time. But first flights are usually at 5 am or thereabouts. For people like me, that’s last night. Spice Jet and GoAir seem to be doing pretty okay on schedules, from my own experience.

Always ask friends and colleagues about their experiences. Ask only one question. Was it on time or not ? If not, was it the airline’s fault or ATC etc etc. My advice is to use punctuality as the ONLY benchmark in your assessment. The rest does not really matter.

Takeaways

1. Punctuality over everything else
2. Choose the early morning flight if you don't trust the airline to be punctual
3. Visit both travel as well as airline websites
4. My choice of aircraft..Boeings are a little more comfortable and agile than Airbuses


Ticketing And Fares

All airlines have pretty robust ticketing platforms, including Air Deccan. So you can buy your ticket online quite effectively without any hassles. And they do get honoured when you land up at the airport. If there are any problems here, I am not aware of them. Facilities like choosing your seat do not always work. On Spice Jet for instance, I’ve found that the java application does not run all the time.

On fares, remember that Air Deccan is not necessarily the lowest. So, do browse through sites like www.travelguru.com (my friends) or other ones like Makemytrip and cleartrip. They all seem competent.

If you don’t always want to go the internet way, use call centres. They are quite efficient and can take you through the process of choosing ticket, airline, giving you some basic advice and so on. Again, I’ve only used Travel Guru which I am happy with. I am pretty some of the others would be good to.

Tickets are typically emailed to you. Its possible you might get a better deal that what you got on the airline’s website but its not likely to be killer one. The advantage is that you can enquire after special offers, packages and the like. Increasingly, you can book hotels as well. I did so for a personal trip to Hyderabad this time and the hotel was a good budget one and everything went smoothly. I didn't have to pay because I had already given by CC details to Travel Guru.

Travel firms or agencies help when you need tickets in a hurry. Or want to cancel and rebook. I did that once from Bangalore airport if I recall correctly. I cancelled my delayed flight, checked out the best fares that were on offer (for flights in the next two hours) and booked another ticket. All in about three minutes. I then walked over to the airline counter to collect the ticket ! Remember, for all the sophistication on the internet front end, the back end is like any other travel agency !

Takeways

1. Start by scanning the travel websites
2. You could use the travel website/agency to look for deals. You could get good budget hotel deals as well.
3. Call the travel website helpline to work your way around.
4. Always visit the airline website to see if the deals match
5. Credit cards are safe, at least I think so.

Departure

This is the tricky part and can call for considerable mental and physical preparedness. Let me give you an example. I was flying Spice Jet from Delhi to Hyderabad a few days ago. I reached the airport an hour and ten minutes before departure. I spent roughly 20 minutes in the line for baggage screening, 40 minutes in the line (systems were down for 10 apparently) for check-in and another 15 or 20 for security check. Not adding up ? Of course not. The flight took off late, not because of air traffic or fog but airport congestion.

Now,I catch the same Spice Jet flight back from Hyderabad to Delhi the next morning. This time, I spend 2 minutes in line for baggage screening, 1.30 minutes at check-in (there was no one ahead of me) and 3 minutes at security check. Is there a pattern here ? To some extent possibly. Delhi airport is a bloody mess. GMR (the chaps who run the airport) have cleverly segregated low cost from high cost.

Either way, its good to be mentally geared. And its not the time factor only. Be ready to confront bawling babies, stressed out mothers, countless parents scurrying after restless children, family members shouting for each other and minor bruising from baggage trollies as they brush past you.

The good news it that quite likely you will meet a fellow traveler who too is rolling his or her eyes at all of this. So you can strike up a conversation on budget airlines in general and maybe other things of mutual interest in specific. Years of Shaolin Temple training in patience and silence ensure that I am not the first to plung into such conversations. I do go along if approached though.

Takeways

1. Gear up mentally before you leave for the airport. Meditation might help.
2. Reach at least 1.5 hours before. You could reach 1 hour before but be ready to race around like a headless chicken.
3. You could be surprised too, the way I was at Hyderabad.
4. Remember, the LCC terminal will resemble an inter state bus terminal or railway station.
5. Prepare to meet all sorts of folks. Enjoy the experience. Think of it as a microcosm of India etc.
6. And yes, the bus ride to the aircraft will most probably be in a scavenged and retrofitted state transport bus. There will be no aircon and it will wait to fill up, rather than rush off with small batches. Just like the ST buses.

On Board

Actually, this is the easiest part because there is little given or taken. You might be served some bottled water (smallest size)and VERY light snacks like a biscuit. Or maybe you could buy some food. Either way, do NOT go in expecting four-course dinners. I am surprised how many of us still do. Come on, you can’t pay Rs 1 + taxes for a Delhi – Mumbai flight (or wherever) and expect food. Bring your own.

Air Deccan has free seating. Not sure about all. So remember you have to make a run for it. If you have travelled in Mumbai locals as I have, this is the easiest part. Just don't try and jump into the aircraft or out before it reaches the tarmac, as you might into or out of local trains leaving and approaching Churchgate station.

Takeways

1. Carry food, water if you feel like mid-air meals.
2. Do not expect any inflight service, except water.
3. Don't expect flight attendants to rush to you when you jab the button. Not that they do in high cost carriers either.
4. Carry reading material. Mostly, there will be no newspapers. Expect one inflight magazine which should take you roughly 2.5 minutes to complete.


Arrival

Not much to report here. Baggage will take as long as anyone else, though some airlines are faster at baggage extraction and dispersal. In the last two days I have spent roughly one hour waiting at the Delhi and Mumbai airport aprons for a parking bay..yes, I couldn't believe it, but turned out that neither could the pilot - of the Delhi-bound aircraft - who kept expressing shock and surprise !

Takeaways

1. The same ST bus will fetch you
2. Once in the exit terminal, you will mingle with passengers who've just arrived on high cost carriers. Don't know if you will feel good or bad about this
3. Once you step out of the terminal, you will be at the mercy of tough looking taxi drivers, credit card subscription agents and sundry touts. In this, you will be treated on par with your HCC passengers.

Happy Flying..

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What's The Difference Between A Mumbai Taxi Driver & India's Leading Hotel Chains ?

16 comments
Well, nothing ! I remember every time the local train system conked for some reason the taxi drivers used to drive up their fares. The meter was forgotten. So a Churchgate to Bandra ride which was, lets say, Rs 300 by the meter, suddenly became Rs 600. Stranded passengers wanting to reach home obviously had little choice.

I think of the Mumbai black and yellow taxi cabs when I check into hotels these days, particularly the leading hotel chains in India. As I am right now in Delhi at a `prominent' address. The hotel is nice, as it always has been. Except that the tariffs have been jacked up beyond comprehension. Worse, they are mostly quoted in dollars. Its like the rupee had gone out of fashion. Or the dollar figures make the tariff seem smaller. Incidentally, I recommend you carry smelling salts in case you feel dizzy at the check-in counter. And while checking out.

I have no specific problem with the hoteliers. Since they are in this business to make profit. Except that they switfness with which they've raised rates, almost unapologetically, makes me feel they are behaving like Mumbai's taxi drivers. Yes, yes I know there is no fixed or regulated tariff for hotels.

But It's The Same Product !

But its the same product. The rooms are the same, the linen is identical, the telephones don't work some times, housekeeping often forgets to bring what you asked for and the food, well, is the same. Service, let me tell you, is not top of the line. The difference is you know the customer will return. Where will the guy go ? And yet, you are paying twice as what you did six months ago.

Makes me think this is a good time to buy hotel stocks, since I might benefit from their success if not their product. And yet, I don't find the hotel stocks exactly soaring. I wonder why.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What's Wrong With Bengalooru ?

16 comments
Nothing at all. I have no objection to name changes. After all, individuals do it all the time..particularly in Bombay (oops Mumbai) where I stay..remember all those who added alphabets to their name because it was felt to be numerologically beneficial. So, you had Shobhaa and Kiraan and so on. Some of the revised names are downright hilarious. But then who cares, its their choice.

So, do I not have a problem with Bengalooru or is Bengaluru ? Of course I do. And two principal ones. And they are to do with the motivation and cost behind the name change, rather than the name change itself. The first is debated extensively but the second, rarely. Lets talk about motivation first. I would think that regardless of all the political sermonising that accompanies such moves, the motive is very simple - which is to create some connect with a vote bank that is potentially about to drift or already has drifted.

I always have one question when our smart politicians embark on such moves - why now ? Believe me, I am yet to hear an answer that makes logical sense. Its not just Bangalore but Bombay as well. Why was it done when it was done ? I mean, there have been several phases of heightened state-level patriotism over the past few decades in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka. There have been agitations, protests, demonstrations and legal battles. And yet, no one thought of it earlier. Why ?

Bankruptcy Of Ideas

Let me tell you my answer. For one, because earlier, there were greater, more imaginative causes. It might have been the creation of the state itself or a linguistic issue or something more fundamental to do with preservation of historical identity. What is it now ? Well, nothing but a desperate move by a polity that's utterly bankrupt when it comes to causes.

And if you don't have a cause or you are seen not to have done something for your people, what do you do ? Well in India, try and stoke some local fervour by changing the name. Because that way, you can think you've achieved something grand so that you could return to protecting your wayward children as they run amok with their Hummers (or its equivalent in value and attraction) and beat up innocent people.

To dwell on Karnataka in specific, what comes to mind when you think of how local politicians have performed in the last few years. Let me tell you what I can remember. For one, they tried to stymie every major infrastructure project that was on the anvil. Like the Bangalore-Mysore expressway and the new international airport. Then, they focussed their attention on changing legislation to kill the expressway because their ego was hurt or their dirty games were exposed. And finally, they tried to force schools to teach in Kannada.

Show Me One Fundamental Change ?

If there is anything that Karnataka's politicians have done that reflects stellar political leadership and innovative action that has fundamentally changed people's lives for the better, please let me know. Because I really don't know and I can't see. Yes, they did allow Infosys to stay on and not drive them out of the city or descend on Electronic City with bricks and stones. Though, they did succeed in driving N R Narayan Murthy out of Bangalore International Airport Ltd (BIAL).

But I digress. Now, let me come to the second point about cost. Do you know the cost or effort involved in a name change ? Well, I am not sure myself, but let me make some educated guesses. A name change means that every railway station, government office, airport and road will have to go in for a fresh coat of paint or put up a new hoarding.

It means fresh printing of Government stationary and changes in official gazettes, rule books and what have you. Frankly, I don't even know how vast this effort is. All I know is that it is. So we are talking crores of rupees or millions of dollars. And please don't tell me that the coffers of our respective state governments are so full up that these are just niggling expenditures.

BAN Or BEN ?

In addition to the Government spending crores of rupees of public money, thousands of private organisations have to do it as well. Airlines, shops, companies, bus services, newspapers, books and what have you. Think about it, officials sitting in airports spanning from Singapore and Bangkok to London and Frankfurt have to figure out whether the initials BAN will work in the new dispensation or does it now become BEN. In which case, is it clashing with another BEN.

So, while the likes of writer UR Ananthamurthy (a crusader behind the Bangalore name change to whom I bear no disrespect) may be thrilled at the prospect of having achieved a literary and cultural goal, the politicians of Bangalore have proved, yet again, that they are supremely bankrupt when it comes to political goals.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

India And India Inc: Tata And Tata-Corus

11 comments
The day champagne bottles were popped to mark the success of the $7.6 billion Tata Steel bid for British steel maker Corus, the newspapers also noted, somewhere inside, that the district of Vidarbha in Maharashtra had seen another four farmer suicides. This brought the total to almost 1,000 suicides in about a year's time. In just one region.

Tata-Corus was the largest Indian takeover of a foreign company and will make Tata the fifth largest steel player. We must also be the one of the few countries in the world where poverty, deprivation and debt have conspired to kill people at a rate that would match any war zone. Except that there are no suicide bombers here, there are just suicides.

Increasingly, when I am asked by people about what’s happening in India, I say there are two India’s, India and India Inc. There were always two Indias or maybe more but the other India earlier was just educated, aware and ranged in income levels from the middle class to the affluent. Everyone knew they existed but no one really cared beyond that. We could have been another Latin American country.

What Will Happen to Corus ?

I happened to be in London the day Tata’s bid for Corus became public. I also happened to visiting some journalist-friends at the BBC’s White City offices where BBC World is headquartered. Even as I was sitting in the now fully digital newsroom, the tickers began firing more and more takes on the possible deal. The BBC producers quickly realised that this was now the big story of the day. Not just for the Asia editions but also global bulletins.

Being a journalist from India and all that, they felt I might be able to provide some insights. So, I was asked, first, if this bid was for real. Second, they asked, what would now happen to Corus ? Yes, I said to the first, but I didn’t know what to say to the second question. I mean, no one has ever asked me that one before. Its always been, what will happen to some poor unsuspecting Indian company. Not because of a takeover, because we’ve ensured that we don’t really allow those but because of competition that we’ve fortunately allowed.

So there is India Inc, whose image outside is getting more and more menacing, so to speak. I was in Bavaria, Germany before I visited London and a German journalist friend mentioned how there was concern amongst some workers in local engineering firms particularly after Indian companies (like Bharat Forge, M&M) began snapping up assets here. There was even concern over India’s medical tourism initiatives because German medical practitioners would potentially be hit.

Not Just Bangalored


And I am quite happy for that, more so than perhaps the traditional Bangalored view (I will dwell on this more later) where thanks to flat world and all that, Indian engineers and call center executives began plucking jobs out of cubicles of firms in the western world. That’s worrying but not as much as the spectre of someone coming out of the blue and taking over your company one fine morning, or so I would think. Tata taking over a Corus is not outsourcing. It is sheer might and puts Indian companies on the same platform as any large western or for that matter eastern multinational. This my friends, is not a global delivery model. It is a global model.

And there is India, where farmer suicides continue. Where the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra says 40% of the suicides have nothing to do with debt. So in effect, he is not responsible. Didn’t realize that politicians were only responsible for covering people when they went bankrupt. Else, its clearly your lookout. Why then do we arrest people for trying to commit suicide ? I mean if you are not in debt, than its fine, go ahead.

So, India Inc is taking good care of itself, but what's to happen to India ? Well, in a limited way, I think that steps by private sector giants like Mittal and Reliance in building massive supply chains with giant retail front ends with the farmer at the back will create a better deal for many millions. If nothing else, many farmers will get better prices for their product and they will be encouraged to move beyond being marginal land owners. Nothing that the government is doing or is planning to do in this regard will do, much as I hope it will. I only wish we could have similar initiatives for basic education, sanitation and roads. Unfortunately, as we all know, this is still Government territory.

India And India Inc Converge

Until recently, I always thought that it would be the Government that would prop up India while India Inc got the glory and recognition. Increasingly, I feel that India Inc is the only salvation for India as well, at least when it comes to raising incomes and providing livelihoods to the larger millions. Obviously India Inc does it for a profit. But that’s better than the Government trying to do things and handing out monies to middle men. And doing a pathetic job in any case. You don’t have to go to Vidarbha in central Maharashtra, the roads outside my house are a good enough start.

The best thing is that the Tata Group has known this for decades. Its interesting that Tata Steel, whose expenditure on Corporate Social Reponsibility (CSR) is perhaps the highest amongst all Indian companies and thus a wary pick for stock market analysts has also turned out to be a prowling tiger on the global stage. At least today. And that’s where the interests of India and India Inc have converged, I would think. And will come even closer. I think so. Am sure Mr Tata thinks so as well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Veil Debate: The Immigrant View

8 comments
The veils debate has come to India, as I write. And it continues to rock Britain, ever since former home secretary Jack Straw set it off two weeks ago (read previous post). Polls in Britain, including one initiated by The Guardian newspaper say that "53% of voters think Mr Straw was right to suggest that the full veil creates a barrier between Muslim women and other people, with only 36% believing he is wrong on the issue."

I started out by saying its somewhat of a non-issue in India, like in many other countries. For the simple reason that unlike Britain, there is no immigrant issue here. Incidentally, the TOI today quotes Islamic scholar Zeenat Shaukat Ali saying "Quran doesn't ask Muslim women to use a veil. It wants them to dress modestly and behave in a dignfied manner." The veil has, Ali says, become a symbol of dignified dressing and its not a form of opression.

Like before, let me focus on the nation-state issue that I raised earlier. Which is really what a state can or should expect from its citizens, particularly immigrant citizens. Maybe there should not be a distinction in that. But my sense is that countries are beginning to distinguish between the two in some ways, at least in defining what they expect from them, for instance Canada saying knowledege of English is a prerequisite.

Do Immigrants Care ?

What I wonder and to an extent worry about is really the motivation behind migration. I also wonder whether most modern day migrants realise what they sign up for. And let me add that Indian immigrants to the west are not an exception here. My question: do immigrants understand the notion of a nation-state or is it only defined by what the emailer below says.

I will connect this with the subject of veils later but my instinctive answer is no..most migrants couldn't really care about the nation-states they adopt. Of course some do and perhaps make their adopted nations proud. The vast majority are in it for the free ride. And that is worrying. I will build on this later, but meanwhile let me quote two mails (presumably genuine) that appeared on the website of Britain's largest newspaper, The Sun.



Mike on The Sun
13/10/2006 14:07:33
Re:Show your face!

To right they should, it makes my blood boil all this fuss over the Muslim faith. If they want to live here then abide by British way of life, after all if any British citizen was to go and live in a Muslim country they have to abide by the Muslim way of life. And never mind all this multi cultural society clap trap they are just politician's words for i dont want to ignite a debate in case it back fires on me. But i say well done Mr Straw for being honest if only Blair and his i am OK jack sod everyone else cronies were as honest. there are only 3 things that attracts people to this country and that is 1.health service, 2.council property, and 3. State benefit.


wiseman
14/10/2006 00:59:58
Re:Show your face!

I would just like to state, the last I checked this is a free country whereby where Muslims have integrated with what every colour of human you like and successfully co-exist with each and other British Citizen. Including freedom of speech and freedom to where what ya like and do what ya do best so long as you do not breach the law.

Please can somebody point out.. Is it against the law to where a Veil?????

Didnt think so... All the same I aint saying that there should be either, A muslim lady wears a veil based upon here dedication level of her faith to safe guard rapist as such who find it in their minds to screw what they choose a disgusting matter of which we all would condemn full stop.. BUT if he cant see ya face wey hey atleast he aint getting any fresh ideas.. What Ya rkon..

Mr Straw, I personally think is quite intelligent, but as they say donkeys are stupid, but Mr Straw aint a donkey, but has clearly demonstrated that he can walk on all fours... Clever lad.. but credit to the man he has caused a nationwide fiasco.. and given those idiotic extremists an excuse to jump on.. No wonder the security of this country is in a shambles they put the wood on the fire then complain when the water runs out... British politics... Just another b movie..

I Muslims lady in a veil, is a Muslim lady in a veil a standard human being, an affectionists, a patrion to her country and her religion, neither is shew forced or expected to where a veil but wheres on her own free will to further confirm her faith and beliefs..

Besides I do not feel that to understand ones feeling really requires the view of a face. If you really are caring and passionate god gave us understanding and feeling of words that mean heavily in sudden sentences, the great english dictionary and language further supports my point.

I am a Muslim totally integrated in to the british society, my occupation employs and invests in all colours of human regardless to race or what they wear i respect their beliefs and there religion and watever else they need from me as this means integration..

Get over it people.. wats the point of a debate when all it is gonna create is bad feeling in the general public nationwide and further disturbance to whats left of the peace and harmony our fore fathers have left us with..

I am a British Muslim, proud to be British and proud to be a Muslim, if ever I was asked to choose between my nation from my relegion I would end up in a phsyco ward as i just cudnt just they are both dear to me.. but if push came to shove.. then i am glad to say the British justice system still caters for all walks of life..

Take care all.. and just relax.. we are not the enemies and neither are you, we all in one boat but if we dont paddle together we gonna sink.. lets not let that happen..

All the best..

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Should (Muslim) Women Wear Veils ?

13 comments
Its quite amazing when you think of it..walking or driving around East London, where I am staying currently, I see far more veiled women than I see in Mumbai or Delhi or any Indian city. Which is not to say they are not there. Its just that in my travels in India, I do encounter burkha clad women but rarely veiled women and that too fully veiled ones at that.

Former British home secretary Jack Straw has kicked up a blazing debate in Britain by saying Muslim women should consider dropping their veils in order to communicate better and foster community relations. He expressed this in an article in a local newspaper The Lancashire Telegraph where he said he felt uncomfortable speaking to veiled visitors to his constituency in Blackburn.

A day later (two days ago) he did something unusual for politicians (at least considering where I come from) reacting to a backlash – he stood by his statements. Then, he went on to say he would prefer it if Muslim women never covered up. When asked if he would rather the veils be discarded completely. “Yes, It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”

Muslims Split Too

In the same article Straw said a meeting with a veiled woman had made him consider the apparent incongruity between her entirely English accent and UK education and the wearing of the veil. “It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking,” he wrote.

Interestingly, the issue has split Muslims in Britain as well. Groups like the Lancashire Council of Mosques have attacked him, others like Dr Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain said he understood Straw’s views. “The veil does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this,” he said, adding Muslim opinion was divided on the veil (Evening Standard).

Prime minister of Britain Tony Blair, the Bishop of London and Jemima Khan have backed Straw’s right to comment on the matter. While the PM has not said anything further, Khan (a convert) has said there is nothing in the Koran which says covering the face is mandatory.

A Question of Identity

The issue as everyone know is larger. Its about integration. Britain clearly feels that millions of immigrants later, there is not a cohesive British identity, rather one of split identities. The fact that radicalized Islam has reached out to some young British Muslims too causes concern. Another raging debate here is whether universities are being used as recruiting grounds by such groups. There is a report out on the issue.

Am personally quite fascinated by this subject, not as much as the impact of radical Islam (though I’ve been doing some reading on its origins) but the very concept of a nation-state and its collective identity. Jack Straw may be right or wrong in his views but I would support his asking whether certain cultural practices go against the grain of his nation-state.

I would support similar questioning in India as well –not on veils since I don’t see it as an issue. Nor is it in other countries including apparently America. That's also to do with the nature of immigration I guess, of the kind permitted into the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Or the kind of people and when they came in.

Problems For The Future ?

My sense is that more and more countries are going to question their policies of free-for-all immigration and assimilation, often driven by economic necessity, on social grounds. It seems to me that the social price (tension between communities) to pay for relentless opening up of a country is not going to be offset by economic gains. This is a problem that will occupy the liberal politicians of the west in days to come. I wish to initiate some debates on this as well.

I do wonder at this point whether:

a) Do nations have a right to determine what their citizens wear ? Where does that definition stop or should it stop ?
b) Does the wearing of a veil by (mostly Muslim) women go against the grain of the society of they live in ?
c) Who decides, particularly in a democracy where a veiled UK citizen has as many rights as a non-veiled one !


The answers will be interesting and varied and may have ramifications on our own multicultural society and elements within in that may `break’ out or have a distinct identity.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Challenge To BMW !

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After two extremely trying encounters with the British Airports Authority, which saw me compete for The Great Healthrow Terminal Marathon and British Airways who told me on arrival at Munich that my only checked-in baggage with all its toiletries and clothes had been misplaced, I stepped out into the concourse into the bright sunshine.

My troubles seemed to melt away as my eyes fell upon the BMW 7 series, extended, waiting to ferry, lo and behold, me to the Bavarian countryside. I strapped myself into the front passenger’s seat and began admiring the console. Having sat in aircraft cockpits, the experience was not wholly new. The young driver, a half Greek, half-German student studying medicine in Munich, was my guide and host for the next hour and a half.

The BMW 7 series is no ordinary car, but you possibly know that. I learnt quickly that I could hit the rotary dial located where the gear shift usually is, call up the menu on the screen placed on the dashboard and, among other things, fiddle with the suspension settings. “Will it be soft or sporty ?” asked the young driver. I chose soft and tweaked the electric switches to become even more comfortable.

No Limits Here

Autobahns don’t have speed limits right, I asked ? No, he said. I can go faster but we usually don’t. I looked like I rode autobahns for a living. I mean, we can go fast, but I don’t know if you would be okay, he said, adding insult to injury. Go ahead, I waved my hands. At which point, he dabbed the accelerator I think. I say I think because I didn't feel anything, but the speedometer leapt from 140 kmph to over 210 kmph.

I don’t know if it was the G-Forces or the fact that we were suddenly rocketing ahead of the seemingly crawling traffic but my heart skipped a beat. The young man seemed to have sensed some tremors on the passenger seat so he slowed down, to a sedate 160 kmph. I pretended to look at the GPS reader very carefully. "Aren't we in the same direction as Salzburg," I asked.

The highway was packed with trailers, heading towards Munich. Viktor, the driver, pointed out that the trailers were mostly Italians wanting to have a go at the Oktoberfest, presently on in full gusto in the city. Much as I wanted to, I never did make it there. Though I did see the lights of the fest from a distance in a tall building in Munich.

The Ultimate Suspension Challenge

While autobahns don’t have speed limits, recognize that you can rarely go over 180 kmph, such are traffic conditions at least on the arterial highways. The inner roads have speed limits. While the 7 Series comes with a host of other features, best left to automotive journalists to describe, I think the part I liked best was the suspension.

In fact, the Indian in me already wants to throw a challenge to BMW engineers. First, for the Indian versions (not 7 series), they should add a option called Bombay Roads, in addition to soft, sport etc. And promise that this will be the ultimate spine protector anywhere in the world. Think about it, its the automobile engineering challenge after, maybe, cars that run on water ! And I guarantee people will line up outside the dealerships.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

To Fight Terror, First Stop Getting Terrorised

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By his own admission, UBL got some 2,500 innocent citizens killed in the bombings of 9/11, including of the World Trade Centre twin towers. America knew he was coming for them, but did not know how, where and precisely when. We seem to have a better understanding of all of that today, except maybe when. And yet, our lives have not got simpler, just more painfully difficult. Let me narrate an incident that's still fresh in my mind.

Between last night and this morning, I spent approximately two hours at security lines between Mumbai (Bombay) international airport and London Heathrow airport. If you think security in India is tight, you’ve got to see this and what it can do. It took me two hours to transfer from one terminal to another and I made it to my connecting flight to Munich with five minutes to spare. The only reason I was accepted is my luggage was on board.

Fifteen other passengers were not so lucky. Their baggage was offloaded as we sat in the aircraft. Like me, they all had confirmed tickets and someone waiting for them at Munich. And it was not their fault they were late. “We will put them on the next service,” the captain of the British Airways flight announced cheerfully. I am sure they did not similarly when they landed at the gate.

Banking On Averages

I arrived in Munich almost three hours later (the flight was an hour late) to discover BA had misplaced my only suitcase. The amazing thing was there was a Lost Baggage counter right next to the baggage carrousel. I’ve never seen one so close and so strategically located. Its like every airline that arrives at Munich usually forgets a few pieces of luggage behind. Not surprisingly, our half-full Airbus A320 had seven or eight people standing for lost luggage.

That’s still not the issue. Baggage gets lost I guess. Actually this is the first time its happened to me. So from a law of averages perspective, Im doing okay. The BA lady at Munich was pleasant and helpful. She ran my numbers through the computer and said the baggage would arrive in a few hours. She promised to deliver it to the hotel by late evening, despite it being 150 km away in a Bavarian village.

So what’s my grouse ? Its like this. I usually carry my toiletries in my hand baggage, along with my laptop and other electronics. Thanks to this heightened state of alert where toothpastes and shaving creams are seen as explosive material or triggers for the same, every bit of toiletry has to be thrown out. I thought I would use the small toothbrush and toothpaste that BA gave me on the first leg at Heathrow.

The Fear Of Terror

No way. I was running all the time, or standing in lines. The last line was the security check to enter Terminal 1 where I had to chuck the little tootpaste and toothbrush into a huge bin. What I thought was a 45-minute process of transferring between terminals took two hours, resulting in the last minute dash into the connecting flight. So, here I am in Munich, with no extra clothes and no toiletries. And no time to brush my teeth !

And that's my point. Terrorism or the fear of it has made us alert and aware of a whole new world out there. Its put on us guard. That is very good. I know why the United Kingdom is on high alert but now its getting a little ridiculous. Even Indian airports are following the same security rules whether or not the threat perception is the same. Fear obviously spreads faster than anything else. And Im not saying this because I had to run around for tootpaste and shaving cream.

Some of my fellow delegates from India told me they had vowed not to transit through Heathrow till things settled down. Guess I should have been a little smarter about this. But then that's precisely the point. We can’t get so scared that we make our own lives so miserable and difficult. Or keep configuring and reconfiguring our existence because of some madman sitting in a cave and plotting the world's end.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

India's Feudal Politicians - II

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In July 2000, a boy was discovered by Scotland Yard in a `drunk and incapableÂ’ state at Leicester Square, the heart of London's West End. If you've been to Leicester Square as I have, particularly on Friday night, the most likely state you will find anyone is drunk and incapable ! That's one good way to put your worries behind and have a jolly good time, I would think.

Anyway, this boy seemed in bad shape, "lying on the ground, clearly ill," and he had been vomiting. An ambulance was called and medics determined that he did not need hospitalization. He was then hauled off to Charing Cross police station, not too far off. When questioned, Euan John, as he called himself, gave an old address and a date of birth which made him appear over 18 years of age.

Here is another London story. William Straw, all of 17, was caught by the police after he tried to sell $17 worth of cannabis to a lady reporter who was apparently following up on a tip she had received concerning the young man's activities. At some point, the story made it to the news, though not in the manner it was planned.


No prizes for guessing, both these adventurous boys are sons of powerful British politicians. Before we come to what happened to them, lets see what would have happened in India, were similar incidents to occur. Take the first case. Well, you would not even know about it because chances are that the affair would have been suppressed right there.

The second would have been tougher, but rest assured the reporter would have been in jail. Actually that happened in Britain as well, for possession of cannabis. But more on that later. Not quite here. Not only would the reporter be in jail, a private secretary to the politician concerned would have issued a statement saying, "Politicians or their wards cannot be exposed to sting operations."

Fix The Witnesses

Next day, there would have been a hue and cry in parliament asking for the heads of the reporter concerned and maybe the publisher or owner of the media house as well. Surprised ? Well, let me assure you this has already happened not once but many times over in recent years. And the beauty is that this behavior inevitably cuts across party lines.

What would have happened to the legal case, if any ? Well nothing. Witnesses would have either been bought out, threatened or hounded out. The chief inspector of the police station in question would have been transferred, ideally by next morning. The constable who effected the arrest would have been hiding in his house, or looking for another job. All the while fearing for his and his familiy's safety.

So, by the time the matter reached the courts, if it did, all would have been resolved, under the table or over. Else, it would have been put behind as a little prank the boys played. Maharashtra state revenue minister Narayan Rane usually does that when his sons go out of control in their locality in Mumbai (Bombay), which until recently was the same as mine. Click on this link if you donÂ’t believe me. But then, I don't know who one should fear more, the father or the sons, or the trio.

Back In London

Lets return to the cooler climes of London. The first case involved Euan Blair, son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. As per law, the boy's parents were summoned to the police station. They didn't go to Charing Cross, but Kennington, to avoid the media onslaught. So that was one concession. According to reports, the parents and son were there for 30 minutes while, among other things, Euan was reprimanded severely by the inspector in charge.

Downing Street later stressed that “Mr Blair and his wife Cherie acted as `appropriate adults' at the police station when police would have spelled out `in ordinary language' to Euan the full consequences of his punishment. So, the prime minister and his wife had no choice but to behave like normal parents and pay the price for their son's excesses. Obviously, the media had a field day all through.

In the second case, Jack Straw was forced to do something similar. Actually, I read the account as published by then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan in his book The Insider (an amazing read actually). In the book, Morgan describes how the Mirror was first tipped off that William Straw was into the drugs scene at a pub near the family's London home in Clapham.

A Drug Deal That Blew Up

Morgan says he sent two of his top investigative reporters, Dawn Alford and Tanith Carey to take a look, undercover. After getting a little friendly at the pub, Alford ended up buying the cannabis from William. Now comes the fascinating bit and do bear with me as I narrate from the book, a copy of which I have. Even as Morgan and his team debated what to do with the information they brought back, Alford got a call from William Straw's pub mate to say there was another big party the coming Saturday night and there would be `plenty of drugs'.

At this point Morgan says his team debated the matter. The decision, arrived in consultation with legal help, was not to run an expose because the boy was a minor. However, since the law was likely to be broken again and since the father of the son was the home secretary, they would call the father and alert him. Morgan called up Straw and in a conversation mentioned that the latter's son had been caught selling drugs.

Morgan says Straw called him back the next day and said his son had confirmed that he had indeed sold drugs. "We are still talking over it as a family and I will let you know if we will be saying something," said Straw to Daily Mirror's Morgan. At this point Morgan's interest was the putting the story out and ensuring no one else did it first. He hung up after eliciting a promise from Straw that the Mirror would like to know first.

Boils Down To Functioning Democracy

The next day Morgan ran into a government functionary who revealed that Straw had visited the local police station the previous day and reported the event. Straw apparently concluded that a crime had been committed and as Home Secretary, he had no choice but to report it. Dawn Alford, the reporter who bought the cannabis from William, went to the police station to give a statement and was arrested. Later, she was released on bail.

The press went to town with it, without naming Jack Straw because the law prevented the naming of the minor. In the headlines, he was "a Cabinet Minister" whose son had been trapped in a drug deal. The media, not surprisingly, was on the issue for several weeks. As it happened, despite an injunction and gag orders, all the names eventually made it into public domain.

Several things emerge from this. For one, democracy works better in Britain than it does in India. Of this, I am pretty clear about. Particularly since I have interacted with British politicians and seen the system at work. Which is not to say the British system does not have its problems or scandals. Of course it does. And there are no dearth of scoundrels either.

Moral Of The Story ?

The point is that for whatever reason, strategic, political, opportunistic or plain common sensical, both politicians did the right thing. Which is to co-operate with the law and not subvert it. British media did allege that there was favourable treatment in both cases. And there may have been. Intrerestingly, both politicians were on the backfoot trying to defend their respective positions. And not on the attack saying, "If I don't get privileged treatment, who will ?"

The moral of this long story is that our political class operates differently. They are two sets of rules, for the rulers and the ruled. I am not saying this applies to all politicians but surely a few who can make life difficult for you and me. I shudder to think what would happen if my car were to accidentally cross a Narayan Rane family member. I would expect that my being a `media person' may help, but god knows how and when.

What would have happened if the BJP were in power, Pramod Mahajan alive and his son Rahul Mahajan found drunk and drugged with his secretary lying comatose next to him. Well, you know what happened without the BJP being in power and the father no more. Forget the legal complicity, remember the bit about the `poor' 31-year-old boy making a mistake.

And then, what's changed is really the media, particularly the 24/7 variety. Think about it. That's the only thing that might make the likes of Deshmukh, Rane and the countless other feudal politicians ruling this country think twice before they let their wrath loose on their subjects.

Thank you to all of you for sharing your thoughts on a subject I feel strongly about as well - this is a sequel to the previous post on our arrogant and feudal politicians. Instead of responding individually as I would have liked to, I thought I would put down the next instalment in this train of thought..

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Our Incredibly Arrogant And Feudal Politicians

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You haven't heard of Leeladhar Borikar, nor had I until two days ago. He is a Superintending Engineer at the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company (MSEDCL) in Nagpur. He is in the news because he dared snip off the power connection to Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's official residence in Nagpur. Why ? Because the CM's department forgot to pay up some Rs 1.5 lakh worth of dues.

You might have heard of Yakoob Qureshi, the Uttar Pradesh minister for Haj (imagine, you can have a minister for the Haj when maybe a good travel agent would do) who put a price on the head of the Dutch cartoonist for his drawings of the Prophet. Well, he is in the news again, this time for threatening to kill (yes kill unless there is dire misreporting here) Indian Railway officials for catching him while traveling ticketless on a train to Lucknow. To compund matters, the railway officials made him pay a fine of Rs 14,000.

What's common to both cases ? Both incidents took place in the last few days. And both smack of incredible arrogance and utter shamelessness. On the part of politicians, bureaucrats and their collective ilk. In both cases, the persons concerned or their side kicks (of which they are always so many) were furious that they were hauled up by a government authority. And both reacted in a manner that can only be termed feudal.

"I Will Get Your Whole Family Killed"

In the Nagpur power cut case, `Senior IAS officer' Jayraj Phatak, labelled as a Government spokesman, went on to say that position of Chief Minister called for special treatment. "It (the treatment) cannot be the same for the tehsil office and the CM". So, the action of suspending Borikar was justified.

The Haj minister went a step further. "Tumko jaan pyari nahi hai kya. Poorey parivaar ko jaan se marva daloonga...pata bhi nahi chalega." Yes, the translation of this reported utterance, "Are you not afraid for your life ? I will get your whole family killed. You won't even know." Given the methods used to settle differences of opinion in some parts of our great country, I am inclined to believe the Haj minister may well have intended to carry out his threat.

Deshmukh whose boundless administrative incompetence needs no introduction, responded as any infuriated politician and feudal lord would. He ordered a `thorough' investigation into the cutting off electric supply and as to why the Public Works Department (PWD) did not pay the bills, though apparently it had adequate provisions for the same. Possible, but Mr Deshmukh, when did you last speak to your state finance minister. Last I did, your state government's debt stood at Rs 100,000 crore ($22 bn) and rising. Despite all the announced, fresh investment intentions.

"Don't You Know Who I Am ?"

While he tries to do that, I would like to know the result of the thorough investigations that his Government has conducted into:

1. The July 26 floods in Mumbai and the Mithi river disaster. And what is the status report on work done ?
2. The Vidharbha starvation deaths which show no sign of stopping.
3. The Mumbai bomb blasts two months ago. What has changed in law and order staffing and structure that can make me the citizen feel more safe ?
4. State of Mumbai itself. Even something as simple as potholes cant be fixed.

Would like to add to the list but really would not want to strain our overburdened administrations. Moving on, Qureshi apparently asked the Ticket Collectors (TCs) how dare they enter his compartment and ask for a ticket ? And then the immortal line, "Don't you know who I am ?" Qureshi did have some form of documentation, but predictably, not in order. One was a fax copy of a ticket for two people from Hapur to Lucknow and the other a ministerial requisition form - neither were valid travel documents.

There is nothing new in what either minister did. Just that the brazenness with they flout every basic tenet of behaviour expected of an elected representative baffles me. And this is despite a hungry media, a more open society et al. And as always, we have an amazing knack of being straddled with wannabe fedual lords for politicians. For whom democracy is a joke and their reign in political power, an extension of their fedual reigns in their ghettos, hamlets or villages or wherever they come from. And the unfortunate truth is that we allow them to rule over us.

Owning Up A Mistake

A good politician, gentleman and a good citizen would have owned up a mistake immediately and paid up. Or, if he or his department was bankrupt, would have requested a small moratorium. And demonstrated to the citizenry that he was indeed serious about this apology, serious about not commiting this offence again and how he would cut back on costs. It would have been a great opportunity to show some basic courtesy and decency if nothing else. And maybe got some votes.

Obviously, such phrases or actions are alien to our fine politicians and their men who did what comes best to them. Cajole and threaten. So, Deshmukh's men suspended the righteous engineer and Qureshi warned that blood would be shed if the Railway officials persisted in doing their job. After all, the honour of a politician lies above all laws of the land and blood of its citizens.

The good news it there was a huge outcry and Borikar has been reinstated. The technical line is that the suspension did not follow the normal procedure. Which means Borikar has difficult days ahead. Deshmukh and/or his cohorts will not rest till they have run him and his family to the ground.

I am pretty sure both he and the Haj minister, or their loyal followers, will set out to finish off these `ordinary' citizens and `public servants' who came in their way - and tried to do their job. Not knowing their job is only to catch people like you and me. Not them, particularly whilst in power. Unless of course you and I can help it. And take these guys on where we can.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Nation Of Potholes

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A few years ago, this was touted as the new dream road, a toast to West Bengal and Kolkata's (Calcutta) future. The New Town/Rajarhat road which leads from Salt Lake to the airport was as smooth as silk. I remember racing towards the airport at a 130 kmph and wondering how Kolkata had changed so much. This road strikes out from the city and heads out into open fields, now earmarked for IT parks and the like.

Construction is on but the road is in shambles, as I discovered last week. After getting thrown around like a doll for some distance, we were mercifully transferred to the other lane. So, most of this once gleaming road has been closed off, for pothole covering work. The ride into the city after clearing Salt Lake was not much better. But than who ever expected Kolkata to have good roads. So on we went, bumping along, negotiating potholes and tram tracks till we reached Alipore.

Last month I drove to Pune. This is an uplilfting experience since there are very few moments you are actually seated. For the roughly 50 km run from Mumbai to Khargar, its like flying over the lunar surface. Then you touch the Mumbai-Pune expressway which is obviously a dream. And then, its the last 25 km into Pune city. I thought roads could not get worse than this. Actually, they don't...because they are not roads any more..its very simple, just a change in nomenclature. What I thought was the Aundh road turned out to be a dirt track most of the way.

A National State Of Mind

I am not even talking about Mumbai roads because there is nothing to talk about them, except perhaps gaze in utter amazement and initiate scientific studies on how mankind could create something so beautifully random. Or contemplate how this randomness can actually be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

Imagine, if you let our road contractors loose in Baghdad, then Bush would have been saved a lot of money in Iraq and misery at home. Every Baghdadi would have had spinal failure by now. I mean, I have nothing against Iraq specifically, but lets say we wanted to invade someone. Think about it..now outsource from India..Strategic Pothole Disability Weapons (SPDW). Incidentally some Iraqi roads are the world's best even now - a friend did a Amman-Baghdad run, more than 1,000 km in 8 hours last year !

Potholes are a national problem. And they reflect a national state of mind. One of the ultimate Indian disregard for workmanship, the supreme chalta hai way of life. The quality of products and services put out by India's private sector have improved dramatically over years. So have those served by the once moribund public sector. Though not to the same extent. But when it comes to roads, we are treated to the same standards that applied when governance and controls were at their worst and apathy highest..maybe the seventies or eighties or both. Tackling this is going to be one mighty challenge.

The Last Big Hurdle

I always wonder, as I negotiate the roughly 300 or 400 potholes, bumps and uneven roads that I do in Mumbai, everyday - what makes these guys do such shoddy jobs ? Are they blind ? Can they see, feel, experience, or are they bereft of some of the senses which you and I are thankfully or perhaps not so thankfully blessed with ? Yesterday, I wondered if I could somehow unhook my spinal cord and place it in some cyrogenic freezer, to be retrieved at a later date.

And do our civic authorities and officials not experience these terrible roads themselves ? Do they know not what a basic evenly laid out road is ? Did they study geometry in school ? Or is schooling not a prerequisite to bag contracts with Mumbai's BMC or whoever the giver of contracts in your city is. I am pretty sure not. I have questions but no answers.

I do know that our central and state government services are the last biggest hurdle we have to cross, if we are to aspire for anything that resembles a decent quality of life. And they will kill you for even trying..as they put me to slow death everyday. Till then, suffer along !

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Wanted: More Wiki India Concepts..

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Some time ago I had written about how Wikimapia was a huge benefit in a country like India where we had little or no mapping of relevance. Particularly the kind of digital and satellite maps you can zoom in and out of many parts of the world.

I don’t know about everyone else but many friends and colleagues at work have found the concept and its utility fascinating. Considering you can identify and mark your home or area out on the map, wherever in the world. A friend who lives in north Mumbai’s Yari Road area found that his neighbour’s teenage daughter had already imprinted her name on his building. And just six families live there.

A colleague from work told me how the satellite picture of his village near Ratnagiri on the south western coast of India was taken exactly 1 year and 8 months ago (or some thing as precise). How, by looking at some construction activity which had just begun there.

A Wiki Project on Bribes !

The Economist in its latest issue talks about the Wiki principle in some detail. I also learn from the same article that “the word “wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word for “quick”, but also stands for “what I know is…. Wikis are thus the purest form of participatory creativity and intellectual sharing..” The same issue of The Economist carries an extensive survey on how newspapers’ very existence is at question.

Everyone is aware of collaborative experiences like Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia now believed to be several times larger than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And expanding every day.

It strikes me that we should look to create more Wiki concepts like Wikimapia. Except that it could be dedicated to India or specific, information-starved areas within India. For instance, a Wiki project on government departments that accept or demand bribes with details of who, when and in what circumstances. Of course its prone to misuse. But so are so many things. Though experience suggest collaborative projects have a tendency to self-correct over time.

Right To Information Magnified !

Or a Wiki concept on the number of times your local MLA has actually done some work..or even your local usually lazy corporator. Or the last time the roads were paved and with what. You can even link with Wikimapia’s satellite images. To create a richer experience. Obviously this is your version of events but like I said before, it will self-correct. Think about it, its like a Right To Information Act concept magnified several times. But I sense it could work. Am sure you can think of more such Wiki concepts !

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Behave Yourself, You Are On An Aircraft

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A few years ago, I was on a KLM flight from Delhi to Amsterdam's Schipol airport, my destination as well. The plane took off at 6 or 7 am in the morning. It had been a tiring night, leaving the hotel at 3 am or some such hour and then dragging oneself to the Indira Gandhi International.

Not so for many of my co-passengers and country men as I discovered. Barely had we lifted off, some of them began walking up and down and loudly greeting their friends sitting elsewhere, like the take-off had been something to celebrate. Next, the purser was summoned and alchohol was requested for. The purser declined saying service would start a little later.

They waited for a little longer and then dispersed. I found out where a little later when I took a walk to the lavatory in the rear. A group of 10 or so men had collected and were imbibing fine scotch, or so it looked like. "Some whiskey for you ?" one of them asked me in a tone that was more a suggestion than a offer. I declined and requested to be allowed to pass. The `whishkey' was offered once more, till another, presumably more considerate, member of the group raised a `cheers' to me and moved his friend out of the way.

Their Idea Of Fun

For the next couple of hours, the pursers and air hostesses were constantly badgered for alchohol and accompaniments. When the purser put his foot down, they would cosy up to him, put an arm around his shoulder and wink.."Come on yaar, just one drink for us." The audio levels of the conversation at the rear steadily rose. By the end, it could have well been a Sunday morning bazaar.

The young men were having fun, the rest of the aircraft was not. There was a strained silence all across. Most passengers, particularly some younger women, looked extremely stressed. Like me, everyone was hoping these guys would not do something stupid. And not knowing what would happen if they did.

This was a few years before 9/11. No one had used aircraft as instruments of destruction so the fear was limited. People on my flight were worried about a law and order problem. They were not worried about any terrorist problem. At least I don't think so. Fortunately, nothing happened and the exuberant gathering soon dispersed, fully satiated and settled down to sleep.

Decorum On An Aircraft

I am pretty sure this sort of behaviour would have caused equal consternation today. With a difference. Some of the actions and defiance could be interpreted as terrorist behavious. Or someone with a design to do serious damage, either to the aircraft, the people or a third target.

The problem is many people fly for the first time. Understanding decorum and behaviour on aircraft (or for that matter buses and trains) is not something that comes naturally. No one teaches it to you. Perhaps its time that we did. Notices at international airports (I noticed them in the US I think) already warn you against making any statement about a bomb in your baggage..jocularly.

Some not so frequent fliers might think its fun to run around the aircraft, brandishing cell phones and the like. Some of us who grow up don't do so respecting authority. After all, this is something you do as a kid, not as an adult. We also assume authority everywhere to react the same way our local `pandu' does - a fiver and he's on his way. It struck me that the young men who boarded the KLM at Delhi were treating the purser like they would a local constable or some minor government official.

No More Mid-Air Antics

Well, don't expect airline staff or marshals on board to think similarly. And not just on international but aircraft flying domestic skies as well. Not any more. The world has changed, mid-air antics will not be tolerated. And you better understand that. Airlines need to to their bit to tell passengers in no uncertain terms that funny behaviour will not be tolerated. For their own good. Its not tough to do it.
The guys on my KLM flight to Amsterdam got away luckily. Personally, I would have liked to see them taught a lesson. Maybe a small one, but one nevertheless.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Air India & The Fine Art of Airline Upgrades

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Three days ago a Bollywood actor and her friend had a flaming row with Air India counter staff after the latter allegedly denied the friend an upgrade. Getting upgrades on airlines is an art, though with Air India, it could be argued that its a science as well. I've been lucky on a couple of ocassions on international carriers, where profile and the right VIP associations are not necessary preconditions for upgrades.

What I mean is its been plain luck. Mostly, its been a surprise at the boarding gate, where my stub has been taken, a new seat number written on and handed back. But I've always wondered whether its an easy thing to ask for, leave alone fight for. Am not saying the young ladies in question demanded they be upgraded or else..aviation minister Praful Patel would be summoned to set things right, as some newspapers reported.

Air India's own reasoning for offering the upgrade was apparently that the actor had commercial importance and hence was upgraded. For a change, I can't argue with that one. Though Air India could fly all the Bollywood actors it wants and it couldn't save themselves from plunging into losses this year. Or for that matter the next, if it remains the way it is.

The Art Of Getting Upgrades

The fact is that many passengers have mastered the art of getting upgrades. Many plan it long before the actual flight takes place. To that extent the Bollywood actor in question hasn't figured life out completely. Most passengers, having secured an upgrade for free or at an remarkably lower cost, boast about the feat endlessly. I recall doing it a few times myself. After all, why woudn't you talk about the equivalent of hitting a mid-air jackpot ?

A young lady recently gave me a long lecture on how airline miles should be accumulated for free tickets and upgrades. She said it was utter foolishness not to take advantage of such facilities. I've been a little more careful since then. But as it happens, after that lecture, I have not flown that much.

Ive seen people asking for upgrades at counters. And mostly nicely. Not saying I will call so and so and get you fixed if you don't give it to me. These are the most decent chaps. They want the luxury of business class travel, can't afford it but don't mind asking. The not so decent ones are those who've obviously fixed it before arriving at the airport. And I don't mean by sending a requisition form to the airline concerned.

Till Death Do Us Apart

Being a Government-owned entity in India is not an easy thing. Which is why Air India typically faces the worst of it. Not to say that the airline itself is not at fault. I've stood in business class lines (paid for) where most of the people before and after me were employees or relatives of employees travelling on free tickets. And wanting further upgrades and adjustments.

Once I noticed an oldish couple showing American passports and collecting boarding cards. This followed a long, painful and totally pointless discussion with the counter staff where they bargained like they were buying fish at the Bandra (in Mumbai) fish market. They were either employees or relatives. But it amazed me that you could actually be a citizen of another country and still claim benefits from a state-owned airline !

I would love to write more on Air India, an airline I vowed not to fly even if I die - translated, even my coffin (were I to cop it on international soil) would not be brought back on this airline. But that's for another day.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

India-China, Do We Suffer From The Burden Of The Past ?

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Try this for irony. Prime minister Manmohan Singh says Mumbai must emulate Shanghai. At the same time, his defence ministry prepares to bomb the city ! It is perhaps in the nature of defence reporting that coverage of the not so successful Agni III missile launch included casual references to its capability of hitting "high value targets" in China, notably Beijing and Shanghai.

The casual references were unfortunately followed (independently or otherwise) by not so casual actions. Chinese companies - note that it is not all foreign companies – were denied entry into the ports sector. Investment proposals from Chinese companies such as ZTE Telecom (trading arm), Huawei (manufacturing) have been rejected, on `security' considerations, which are not altogether very clear.

Putting aside the sectoral sensitivities, broadly, the polity is divided in two camps. Hawks who see China as a permanent threat and others who see it as an economic ally or better, an example to emulate. Its a somewhat unusual extreme. Yet the positions are clear. What is not so clear to me, a younger Indian, is why China is perceived as a specific threat ? And what defines this threat today ?

Legitimate Concerns

Yes, there have been legitimate concerns. For instance, the nuclear arming of Pakistan in the 1980s and the `encouraging' of separatist movements in the north east in the 60s and 70s. Though these events are more than two decades behind.

So, is China a threat because of a burden of memory on those who were at the receiving end of a distant event (the 1962 border war) in history. Then all the more reason to debate or address some of the issues raised above. Because in not doing so, we are perpetrating a slow brainwash of this generation as well.

How ? By possibly extrapolating Mao Zedong's aggressive world view on to his clearly pragmatic successors three decades later. It was Mao who said "the time had come to teach that representative (Nehru) of the reactionary national bourgeoisie a lesson." And dispatched some 30,000 troops to do the job. *

The Real Mao ?

There is more to Mao. While India has stewed for decades over the 1962 debacle, little is known about what transpired on the Chinese side, about the war itself and the people behind it. And insights into the real Mao, devoid of propaganda, have only begun emerging in recent years. Like how for Mao, the India war was but one move in the geopolitical chessboard - China expert Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea referrs to Mao's India war as based not on territorial concerns but strategic considerations.

Interestingly, Nehru's own role in that period has been debated. From his botching the Sino-India border issue to being seen as competing with Mao (who thus struck back) for the position of Asian leader. Leading to the 1962 war. But Nehru comes out largely fine. Not so with Mao. Critics today refer to him as a tyrant and dictator worse than Hitler, charging him with the death of tens of millions of Chinese.

Moreover, some of his policies have been publicly repudiated by successive Chinese governments. As far back as 1981, a Communist Party' Central Committee resolution said Mao’s Cultural Revolution was carried out "under the mistaken leadership of Mao Zedong". Though Mao has not been completely discredited, surely not to the extent many China watchers would like him to be.

Why The Distrust ?

There is of course the eternal question of who drew first blood ? From what I read, including Ministry of Defence history accounts of 1962, India's own actions are under a question mark. John Garver, a China specialist, has written that Chinese reacted because it feared a concerted Indian attempt to undermine its position in Tibet. Not to mention Mao's machinations.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand. Why would we express such evident distrust with a country we do $11 billion of trade ? The Chinese for sure don't view Indian investment with any suspicion. If I were to go with one point of view, 1962 happened precisely because we miscalculated or didn't fully understand Chinese intentions. By the looks of it, we are doing it again, albeit with no military implications. Or so I hope.

While much political progress has been made in recent years (AB Vajpayee's visit, Nathu La pass opening), we still hold on to some inexplicable hardline. As has been argued in the past (Jairam Ramesh: Making Sense of Chindia), Indian investments into China are far smoother than the other way around. I can and have got a Chinese visa in Hong Kong in hours. Chinese businessmen on the other hand complain of onerous procedures to visit India.

Business As Usual

Indeed, having invested there, firms like Mahindra & Mahindra are now planning expansions in capacity. Software majors TCS, Infosys and Satyam will soon employ in China as many engineers as they did in India just a few years ago. Of course the Chinese have more restrictions on foreign investments than India does. But they apply uniformly, not selectively.

And finally, most Indians living in China would admit to you that this is amongst the few, relatively developed nations where they are treated so well. We also seem to overlook that most of the Chinese leadership is technically trained. This makes them focus more on practical delivery. Remember Deng Xiaoping's statement about it not mattering what colour the cat was. As long as it caught mice.

* Philip Short: Mao, A Life.

This article appeared in the Business Standard this week and has already attracted some criticism !

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Do Innocent Lives Matter ?

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Over 54 people including 37 children (United Nation figures) died early this morning when Israeli air strikes leveled a building in Qana, in southern Lebanon. The Middle East has been in flames ever since the Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and the Israelis retaliated, 19 days ago. Since then, both have been raining rockets on each other. The Israelis say the Hezbollah is launching rockets from civilian areas, like Qana. It now accepts this morning's strike was a mistake.

From all appearances, the Hezbollah, an `extra-constitutional' authority in Lebanon is guilty of drawing first blood. But the point here is not the genesis of the conflict or where its headed. Nor is it about how this morning's air strike and the casualties thereof has caused the Lebanese to go ballistic. Not just in Lebanon but all over the world. Mind you, its not just the Lebanese, there is support in the rest of the Arab world as well.

And its not about the support either. Its just about how the killing of innocent civilians in general and children in particular can cause so much consternation in the international community. US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice postponed her scheduled trip to Beirut today following the bombings because the Lebanese said they were in no mood for discussions. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan later condemned the killing of innocent women and children. As did many others.

The Price Of War..

I observe this in the context of our own reaction to terrorist attacks on our women, children and families. Note that terrorist attacks are far more dastardly acts than those of war. The conflict between Israel and Lebanon can be termed as war, since Israel is responding to what it sees is an attack on its sovereign nation. And yet, the cost of casualty is the same.

I recall some one saying that we don’t have the time nor the inclination to mourn our dead. Because, after all, so many of us die and in so many ways. And yet, when someone butchers innocent women and children (as opposed to their dying while crossing the street or being hit by a garbage truck) the rules change. The world at large seems to have understood and accepted this. I am not sure we have.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

26/7: A Memorial For The Mumbai Citizen We Never Mourn

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On a low wall between the recently spruced up area where tickets are sold and platform No 1 at Mumbai’s Mahim railway station is an embedded granite plaque, visible to those walking in through the main entrance.

Written in the Devnagiri script and gold letterings are the words “Shradhanjali”, meaning In Memoriam. Just below in equal prominence is inscribed the name of President APJ Abdul Kalam. The plaque notes the bomb blasts that ripped through seven Mumbai local trains on July 11, and records the President’s homage to the victims on behalf of the nation.

In India, loss of public life is rarely mourned in a manner that represents an organised attempt at grief and remembrance. Not that we are a stoic society. Politicians and perhaps others who have commanded public memory are paid generous homage. While for ordinary citizens, remembrance is mostly a private affair, in homes and sometimes institutions.

Human Lives Are Precious

To be fair, there have been memorials erected after natural calamities, like at Nagapattinam after the tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu, or following armed conflicts. But terrorism, for instance, is different from natural calamities and conflicts. It calls for a different kind of response: the first being to demonstrate to terrorists that innocent human lives are precious, and that people will rally around, whether in anger or grief.

Rarely have we demonstrated this in the past. Government involvement in such tragedies typically kicks off with untimely VVIP swoops on hospitals and end with ex gratia payments. Rarely does the state or its constituents pause to truly remember for the lost life, particularly after the event and deed fade from memory, typically a few days.

There could be other reasons as well. But the fact is that you won’t find a memorial for the March 1993 blast victims or the August 2003 blast victims in Mumbai. Or for all those who died in last July’s floods. But contrast Mumbai’s fate to similar tragedies elsewhere in the world. From the Madrid train bombings and Bali’s bomb blasts, public memory is retained in the form of permanent memorials and annual services held there. Incidentally, the toll in Madrid and Bali was roughly the same as Mumbai.

Memorials Elsewhere And Services

In Madrid, a Forest of Remembrance was created in a park with one tree planted for each dead. Incidentally, Spain broke with tradition in 2004 (after the bombings) when it held the first state memorial service for people outside the royal family—at least in the history of Spain’s new democracy.

The October 2002 Bali bombings saw permanent memorials being erected in Indonesia and Australia, from where 88 of the dead hailed. In addition, there were many individual memorials put together by families of the dead, mostly teenagers. A function to put up a new memorial at the Bali blast site in 2004 was accompanied by a Balinese Hindu ceremony.

And there is 9/11. While there are ceremonies every year, a formal memorial will open only on September 11, 2009. Called Reflecting Absence, it will comprise two voids in the original footprints of the Twin Towers. Each void will have a pool of water filled by waterfalls on all sides. A forest of oak trees will surround it. The final design was selected from 5,000 entrants hailing from 63 countries.

2-minute Pause A Beginning

Is India ready to follow suit? This writer is not an expert at analysing the psychological reasons for the inability to unite in public grief. Suffice it to say that something changed with Mumbai’s train bombings. The city’s trains, buses, taxis, office-goers stopped to observe a 2-minute silence at peak hours last week. Even the usually charged pizza delivery boys alighted from their scooters to stand still. And thousands paid homage at railway stations.

The 2-minute silence did not bring the city to a grinding halt. But for a first attempt of this kind, it was notable. Citizens even complained they did not hear the sirens that were supposed to alert them to the moment. Now, there is talk of a wear-white day on July 26, the day floods and an incompetent local administration brought the city to its knees last year. Over 400 died in Mumbai that day and over a 1,000 in Maharashtra.

Many people have argued that Mumbai’s citizens should express anger at the administration’s inability to take care of its own. Ever since last July’s floods, the city has been let down at regular intervals. Living in Mumbai—a land mass that struggles to carry a population four or five times more than it can sustain—itself is a challenge.

Anger And Grief

More than anger, which sometimes can flame out, grief as expressed in permanent memorials may be a more powerful emotion. It reminds and binds, and forces those in power at the moment to revisit old memories. Expressions of remembrance also suggest recognition that the ordinary citizen’s life is indeed not that cheap. As most of us now believe. Public support and bonding are rising, whether for Mumbai’s train victims or wronged individuals elsewhere. The Mumbai train blasts seem to have provided the complementary force in tipping the scales. I hope I am not being premature in calling a trend.

This piece appeared in the Business Standard on Tuesday, 25th July, a day ahead of the first anniversary of Mumbai's 26/7 floods disaster

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blocking Of Blogs..What Are We Protesting !

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People are up in arms over the Indian government's decision to block `objectionable' sites and blogs. And rightfully so. However in doing so, I think many of us are missing the point by miles. To address the issue, you've got to define it. My sense is that many have failed to do so. Let me try !

The 20 Sites/Blogs Or Something Else ?

What are we protesting ? Are we saying there is a freedom of speech/expression issue because 20 sites have been blocked ? In which case, we should protest when Da Vinci Code gets banned in some states, books like Satanic Verses get banned or for that matter Shivaji's biography. Or MF Hussain's painting. Of course there are many more books, paintings and movies which have been banned and not just because they are harmful to minors.

My point is you can't keep quiet for one form of content and get all roiled just because it gets delivered digitally. A digital delivery (if you ask me) does not make it any less `bannable', at least in principle. Yes of course you can download lots of other stuff which is banned in the physical world. But that's a reverse argument and may not work here !

So, if you are with your government on the fundamental issue of banning, or have not protested in the past, then you've got to pipe down. Else, protest all forms of bans on all forms of content.

Technical Incompetence

The Government wants 20 sites to be banned. It sends out a notice to some 150 internet service providers asking them to do as much. Between their technological incompetence and their enthusiasm to please the Department of Telecom, many ISPs banned access to all sites with some extensions, blogspot being one example.

Now, that has nothing to do with freedom of expression. That is plain incompetence and a technical inability to manage firewalls and gateways. Am sure the Government has nothing to do with it. Nor does it want to. Yes, its order has resulted in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. But its unintentional as I see it.

The guy you have to catch is your ISP who needs to ensure he blocks only those sites that the Government has asked him to. This takes a little hard work from what I understand. But then, its nothing to do with a clampdown on freedom of speech.

Once again, the ISP could be the overzealous MTNL or BSNL, going all out to keep some bureaucrat/politician happy. But that still does not alter the fundamental fact. That's not what the order is asking for. So, protesting in the general direction of the government is pointless.

Now, Does It Merit A Ban ?

Now comes the issue of merit. Is a website that is vaguely attacking Left leaning political parties elsewhere in the world harmful to our digestive process. Am not sure. Is a website that directly or indirectly urges anti-national forces to rally together harmful ? Yes it is. Should we let it be in the interests of complete freedom of speech. Am not sure. You need a very, very liberal approach for this. In any case, this is a separate debate.

Either way, it boils down to a discussion on whether the content on a certain platform (in this case digital) is subversive or dangerous ? It could be magazines, newspapers, films, books or paintings. And what should be done about it. That again is a larger issue which needs to be tackled separately. It has little to do with blogs or websites. Both are delivery platforms for information and opinion. So, lets not make this is a blogs and websites issue. Focus on the fundamental issue if you want to and/or have the energy to. Till then, happy blogging.

PS: My ISP seems to have held on to his horses, at least so far

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Resilience, Immunity and Kindness in Mumbai

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Some bloggers asked why I am not angry at the administration's failure over the city's serial train blasts. Why not take the Government on, first, for not seeing this coming and second, for not being in a position to help its citizens who were in dire need of medical and other assitance ?

I agree I should express my anger. I intend to do that and put my thoughts down on two other points on as well. Sure, the authorities (police, fire) should have resopnded and in large or larger numbers. But as I have argued in the past, we are a shining example of utter mismanagement of governance. Does it make sense attacking it again ? Maybe. But the sources of mismanagement must be addressed first.

The second and the larger issue is that we don't have enough hands devoted to protecting us. That is a fundamental problem. There are not enough cops, whether within the railway system or out of it. There are not enough traffic cops and there are not enough ambulances or people to man all of that. Sure, the cops have a way of dissapearing when something happens. Or rushing to guard Sonia Gandhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav as they make their uninvited visits. But its only part mismanagement. The fact is that there are not enough of them.

A State of Bankruptcy

Any solution should keep this in mind. So, I would sit down with the (bankrupt) Maharashtra state's balance sheet and ask how much are we spending on law and order and where can we cut and prune if we want to do something about it. I should request someone more numerically inclined like Bombay Addict to carry out this exercise but

I have the answer instinctively. Seventy (70 %) per cent or more of the state's budget goes to pay salaries of employees. Not on any form of development work. Of these thousands of employees I can safely wager that we can cut back 20 to 25% and not feel a thing. Instead, we could focus on recruiting more law enforcement hands. And also give them the right facilities, from modern arms and ammunition to working conditions. I would now focus my anger there.

Which brings me to the much discussed points about resilience and kindness. I think we tend to mix them and sometimes confuse one for the other. Here is my take. Suppose you are driving on the road and something (like an accident) happens in front of you. Someone is injured. Or its a bigger accident with lots of injured. Usually (not necessarily) you get out the car and see what's happened. Or if you are walking by, you will run towards the scene. Chances are you will help and take the person/s to hospital.

No Help Coming

Why do you do that ? For the simple reason that you instinctively know there is no trauma care in India. Don't expect blue and white helicopters to materalise out of the sky to airlift the wounded. Or for that matter, expect to hear sirens in the distance within four minutes of the bomb blast or the accident. Because someone dialled a 100. Try and see if someone even picks up.

Even if an amublance set out in your direction, chances are its stuck in a traffic jam - every time I see one stuck I shudder. Recognise we don't have dedicated emergency lanes on our highways, leave alone roads. But guess what, we all know that, even the urchin on the street knows that. So, you take matters into your hands. And see where you can help out. Because that's the only way you can save the poor sod. And that poor sod might you or me one day.

And that's why we are kind. Because there are those of us who feel for our fellow human beings, citizens (and thank god for that) and want to help in some way. Because we know there is no other way that help will be delivered. So, whether its that instinctive response to run to a site of an accident when you hear that sound of metal hitting metal or whether its to stand on a road in the middle of the night with bottles of water, biscuits and tea, it all stems from the knowledge that someone out there needs help and you are quite possibly the only person or set of persons to do that.

Resilience Or No Choice ?

Now the resilience. Why are we resilient ? As many others have said before me, because we have no choice. Both my friends who were in trains (the other first class compartments) that were targeted by the serial bombers are back on them today. Why, because they have to go to work. Yes, there were some who stayed back home the day after. Particularly the younger lot whose worried parents prevailed upon them. But what do you do two days later ? Sit at home. And for how long ?

And what are your options if you can't look at a Western Railway local again ? Will you buy a car and fill petrol at Rs 52 a litre or whatever it is and drive 60 km both ways from Malad or Borivali (north Mumbai) to your place of work in south Mumbai ? Or will you now travel by bus ? Would you spend two and a half hours doing that each way ? And what makes you think buses are safer ? We've had bombs being set off in buses as well. So, what does it boil down to. You have to get onto the train and get to work. At some point. Because you are a bread winner for the family or maybe you are alone.

Most people I know (including me) work for a living. And have no choice about it. Though many of us like doing what we do as well. So there is an added attraction. Most of us don't have a legacy to fall back on either. Turns out even those who have a legacy want to work and prove themselves. That's the kind of infectious energy this city has.

And Finally, The Spirit Word

So that's resilience. Its a combination of a lack of choice and the need to be doing something with our lives. That's not necessarily the same as kindness and the spirit of helping each other. Maybe the two connect, maybe they don't. The resilience makes us seem immune as well. Guess we are, by inference. Because if I were not immune, I would be sitting at home. If I am immune, I am back at work. That makes me resilient and immune as well. I don't see something wrong in that..

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Terror In Mumbai: Life Must Go On

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Two people I know were on trains which were the target of powerful bomb blasts which ripped through seven crowded commuter trains between 6 pm and 6.30 pm on Wednesday evening. The toll as of now is 163 dead and over 400 injured.

Both were headed to their homes in north Mumbai and only by pure providence did not get into the northern first class compartment which they well might have. For those who came in late, Mumbai’s trains have either nine or 12 coaches and two or three first class sections within those coaches. Women travellers have a dedicated section as well.

The bomb exploded as the train had just begun leaving Jogeshwari, a north Mumbai train station. And came to a halt immediately. My friend says commuters standing on the crowded platform were hit as well, by the force of the blast as well as by flying iron sharpnel. The second friend was on the train which halted between Bandra and Khar stations (a little north). He says the blasts were so powerful his ears were ringing even four hours later. He jumped off on to the tracks, walked back to Bandra and got onto a bus.

Traffic Jams & Good Samaritans

I drove home around 12.30 am and encountered traffic jams all the way. Some people took five and six hours to do the usual one to one and a half hour drive. The trains were stopped immediately after the bomb blasts were reported and hundreds of thousands of passengers were consigned to the roads. The jams had nothing to do with the blasts otherwise. They were another reminder of the failure long ago of the city's carrying capacity.

While people like me were trying to negotiate the jams to reach home, thousands of residents were on the streets with water bottles, packets of eats like potato chips, biscuits and the like. Between Worli and Bandra (where I live), I must have been offered water and chips by at least 50 people. They ranged from young, smartly attired boys and girls to old men and women. Some stood in groups, others alone. Some even with stainless steel pans with glasses.

Those who were not offering water and food were directing traffic. Many of them had plastic raincoats on. It had been raining off and on since evening, though not very heavily. I passed the Hinduja Hospital and the Lilavati Hospital on the way. Both usually have milling crowds around them when a `VIP’ is lodged. This time it was ordinary people, waiting for news about their friends, relatives and loved ones.

Life Must Go On

Mumbai (Bombay) has been numbed once again. First it was civic apathy, then vandalism by the Shiv Sena party’s supporters (protesting the defacement of a statue) and now this. The serial bomb blasts will have the most impact. Its not easy to board trains and public transport after an event like this. Worse, if you were in the adjoining compartment when the bomb went off.

And yet, there is no choice. There is no other option. Life must go on. Despite knowing that every vulnerable chink in Mumbai city has been exposed. Those who survived Wednesday's blasts have only fellow passengers to thank. Television imagaes showed many being lifted and hauled off. Others, with bloodied faces and tattered clothes, staggered out of stations and helped themselves into waiting taxis.

Against that gore, I think of one old lady who must have been standing for several hours with a plastic bottle. She offered water to every other car that passed. It was 1 am in the morning when I drove past. And several hundreds, if not a few thousand cars and buses must have passed her last night. Many must have stopped to accept her kindness. I waved my thanks to her as well. But she had already moved on to the next car, waving her bottle. I think of her and I know I must get back to work. Like we always do.

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