Sunday, September 24, 2006

India's Feudal Politicians - II

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

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

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 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 they put me to slow death everyday. Till then, suffer along !

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Wanted: More Wiki India Concepts..

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 !

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