Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mumbai Massacre: One Degree Of Separation

The most gruesome stories about the terrorists attack on the Trident-Oberoi and The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai and a Jewish congregation are unfortunately just beginning to emerge. As are the identities of the scores who were out dining at the fine restaurants in the two hotels that evening.

There is perhaps no aspect of this attack on Mumbai that is less revulsive and deserves any less condemnation. But if there is one element that stands out for further scrutiny, as I see it. And it is the manner in which innocent diners at the Tiffin and Khandahar restaurants at The Oberoi (the smaller Oberoi hotel next to the larger Trident-Oberoi at the southern tip of Mumbai's Marine Drive) were dragged out, made to stand in a line against a wall and executed.

Reports also have it (from some of those in that line-up who survived by pretending to be shot) that the shooter sought instructions from someone on the phone before carrying out the act. The voice on the other end of the phone, suspected to be from outside the country, asked the shooter to go ahead. And he did, perhaps emptying an entire AK-56 magazine.

Anxious Relatives

Unlike the hotel guests, there was no master list against which the authorities (confused as many of them were) could match and tally. And so the identities of those who remained inside, dead or alive, was only known when the seige at the Oberoi finally ended on Friday afternoon, having begun Tuesday night around 9.30 pm.

I met many of those relatives and friends who began milling around The Oberoi since Wednesday morning, as they discovered that their near and dear ones had not returned from their dinners. There was no way to confirm whether they were dead, alive or held hostage. And this most unfortunate state of affairs was to last almost 48 hours.

One was a father who said two of his daughters were both dining at The Oberoi, one he said managed to escape and the second he did not know about. I hope she survived but I don't have the heart to trace him down. And I could. Ditto with several gentlemen I met who even showed me the visiting cards of friends and associates they knew had entered The Oberoi on Tuesday night. And were yet to return.

The Facebook Deathlist

They were asking me for information, their eyes and voices pleading with me to reveal something that they did not know. I wish I could. At first I thought I would give them hope. But my gut and a sense of what had happened The Oberoi made me decide against it. I told them that there was absolutely no information forthcoming on who was still inside and in what condition. Also not to believe anyone otherwise because no one could get that information out, whatwith the National Security Guard (NSG) and the terrorists still engaged in pitched and clearly audible gun battles.

Another couple I met told me that their daughter told them how her friends' were posting messages on Facebook saying their parents or one parent had gone to The Oberoi and not come back on Tuesday night. "We found out about X because our daughter and Mr X's daughter are in the same class," the couple told me. And there were others too.

Well I did know Mr X and have met him a few times professionally, though I did not know him that well. In case you are wondering why I am using the past tense, you are right - I saw Mr X's obituary in the newspaper this morning, along with at least four or other people I have either met in years gone by or know of. As I could count, there has been, in many cases, barely a degree of separation, if at all.

The last time that happened was in March 1993. I was there minutes after the Air-India building bomb went off, killing scores and injuring hundreds. I knew a few people who were injured and survived. I was even standing and walking in and around the same location (A road seperates Air-India and The Trident Oberoi and their entrances face each other) as I could see. Come to think of it, it was even as chaotic this week as it was then. 1993 was the first time, If I remember, the concept of the Mumbai spirit and resilience was born. I do hope it did not die last week, indeed as many people believe it has.

Next: The Mumbai Massacre: We Must Respond

Sunday, February 24, 2008

State of Insecurity

In the last two months, shops and establishments near my office in central Mumbai have been shut down some six times. This is how it happens. One moment the road is buzzing with activity. The next, it’s deserted, the scores of makeshift food stalls and hawkers have vanished. The shutters are down. Only a few onlookers remain, gazing intently at the cars passing by.

The first trigger was the apparent suicide or murder of a Buddhist monk in distant north Mumbai. The second one was to do with a bus going off a cliff between Mumbai and Nasik. The third, fourth, fifth and possibly sixth occasion could be credited to the politician Mr Raj Thackeray. The first day, the news that he was contemplating sending out the boys was enough to send everyone scurrying home. The second time, the boys did actually emerge from the shadows to wreak havoc.

The next occasion was the possibility, just the possibility, of Mr Thackeray being carted off to gaol. The last time was a day or two later amidst an amazing arrest-to-bail farce that the whole country watched. Maybe there were other occasions when shops and establishments were summarily shut down but I wouldn’t know since I don’t usually spend all my time on the streets.

"Time To Shut Shop"

I wondered what indeed the connection was between the untimely death of a monk in another part of the city, a bus falling into a ravine and my part of the world going about its business? I couldn’t establish the monk connection but did find out that some of the deceased in the bus lived in a building nearby.

Predictably, none of the shutdowns was voluntary. On one occasion, turning off the main road into my street, I saw a bunch of energised young men going from shop to shop “requesting” the owners to close down. My own office complex too had shut its gates and the guards seemed hesitant to open them. How and why these men felt that establishments were obligated to shut shop for the above reasons is still a mystery to me.

Two fairly large Toyota and Honda car dealerships sit on the road that I refer to. I have noticed that they are typically the first to put up their shutters. Cars are usually a juicy target for any mob, as they must well know. I am not sure if six one-fourth to half working days at a Mumbai dealership would give Shoichiro Toyoda and Takeo Fukui (Honda chief) sleepless nights.

It does not give me sleepless nights, either. But the prospect of this happening on little or no provocation or being triggered by events which could well be on another planet do worry me.

"Will I Reach Home Safely Today ?"

The industrial town of Nasik has not been so lucky as my street. Estimates put losses at Rs 400 crore and over 1,500 large and small firms have been hit. Almost a tenth of the small firms have been hit, going by reports. Labourers have been forcibly evicted from their workplaces and perhaps homes. Some 6,000 north Indian labourers left the city, possibly to return later. All in a skill-starved economy.

Some businessmen I spoke to (who have manufacturing units around Maharashtra state) told me they can manage corruption, bad infrastructure, pollution and globalisation but they can’t manage fear. I can understand. On all the days the Thackeray drama raged, fear was writ on the faces of every Mumbai citizen.

“Will there be violence in my area too? Are taxis running? Will they stop the trains? How will I reach home? How will my family members return home? Should we close the office early so that everyone can go home?” Actually, send the watchman and driver home early. Because they are north Indian.” I wouldn’t wish this on any capital, leave alone the country’s financial capital.

The Indian In Malaysia

Two weeks ago, a day Mumbai city was guessing what Mr Thackeray’s next move was, I was driving around Kuala Lumpur. As a fervent believer in grassroots journalism that owes its source to local taxi-drivers, I got talking to Bala Muhammad, the driver of my London cab look-alike taxi.

I asked Bala what he thought of equal opportunities as an Indian in Malaysia. Actually, my cue came from that morning’s headlines in The Star. Following violence and protests from the ethnic Indian community, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced a charter of promises to improve prospects for Indians. Bala, it turned out, had worked as a clerk in Standard Chartered Bank, then as a tourist guide before driving taxis. He converted to Islam just eight years ago in the face of family opposition. He said Indians had got a raw deal in Malaysia particularly when it came to good jobs, more so in government. His job and faith shifts appeared to have been driven by the discrimination.

He was happy that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had stepped in, last month, to express concern about the fate of Indians in Malaysia. “This is not the first time. Indira Gandhi did the same in 1969,” he said. Presumably, he was referring to the deadly Sino-Malay ethnic riots, which left hundreds killed.

How did he feel about India taking an active interest in his welfare, I asked. “Oh, it feels good, I feel India is always there to support and give us security when we need it.”

I am not sure I feel the same.

This post appeared as an article in Business Standard

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why Blame Ratan Tata For The Nano ?

Ratan Tata is chairman of Tata Motors. He is passionate about cars. Not just driving or admiring them but about building them as well. Ten years ago he unveiled the Indica, the country's first indigenous car. The Indica was greeted with much acclaim. On the road, it was a different story. The car had several glitches and it took several years before they were resolved.

Tata acknowledged the Indica's failings from start. It was not easy. Possibly he turned the criticism as encouragement to work even harder to create an error-free product. But the Indica experience, as traumatic as it may have been at outset, did not deter him from thinking even bigger - A project to build the world's cheapest car.

So if Ratan Tata is a car maker, then all he can do, presumably, is to think of better, cheaper and bigger cars or dream of doing all of that. So he is only doing what he set out to do, or the founders of Tata Motors did when they set up the Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company (Telco which became Tata Motors recently) to make locomotives and other engineering products in 1945.

What Are The Rest Doing ?

I wonder then why people blame Ratan Tata for creating a car that might potentially swamp Indian roads or create a pollution problem. As an innovator in the automotive arena, Tata and his team are only doing what they set out to do, as best as they possibly can. Can the Nano be the most fuel-efficient car on the planet ? Or remain $2,500 for ever. Maybe not, but competition and determination might help.

That is the story of Ratan Tata. What are the rest doing, I wonder ? How much innovation can you credit those in Government who are supposed to create infrastructure, either for mass transport or private transport. Why is it that we fail so miserably in even defining a benchmark for innovation here, leave alone setting one - yes there is the Delhi Metro.

It could be argued that public funds end up funding private transport, either at the point when the cars are manufactured or are driven, on the roads. I am not sure. We pay much higher prices for cars and fuel than most, if not all developed countries do. A car that costs $10,000 in the US costs $20,000 in India. As simple as that. Fuel is much cheaper there too.

An Alternate Transport System ?

Actually, cars are insanely taxed in India. So where does that tax money go ? Why I wonder would I pay Rs 10 lakh for a car that costs Rs 5 lakh elsewhere and still not get good roads or quality public transport – at least one should flow logically, if not both. The question is rhetorical incidentally, we all know where the tax money goes or does not.

A small illustration. Mumbai desperately needs an alternate transport system. A proposal for a water transport link connecting south and north Mumbai has been floating around for three decades and more. All that someone in Government had to do (state of Maharashtra) was to take a decision.

As I have realised over the years, the easiest thing to do is to not do anything. That's what most public service in India is actually about. Business is different. Being remembered is not so simple anymore. Most battles are not fought in backyards but on the global stage. Even dynasty does not help. So why blame Ratan Tata for taking a decision and chasing a dream.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Rise Of Dhirubhai Ambani

(This blog's author is attempting to return to the fold, as it were. This is not the first attempt nor I suspect the last. The plot this time round is to make it simpler, shorter and easier to read. Which may prompt the conclusion that it was not so earlier. True, is the author's own objective assessment.)

Actually the book is called The Polyester Prince. Copies of the book suddenly appeared all over Mumbai on Sunday evening at traffic signals and pavement book shops. Prices ranged from Rs 100 to Rs 400 I was told. A colleague picked it up at Rs 100, the urchin selling it at a traffic signal in central Mumbai quoted Rs 250. The timing of the book's release - a day before Anil Ambani's mega Reliance Energy IPO opens for subscription - is curious to say the least.

The Polyester Prince was first published in 1998 and was supposed to be an authorised biography of the late industrialist. Somewhere along the way, possibly following a somewhat negative article the author (Hamish McDonald) wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the two fell out. McDonald went on to write the book and published it.

McDonald provides interesting and less known insights into Dhirubhai's childhood. His birth in Chorwad, his time in Aden where he demonstrated his entrepreneurial bent and the birth of the textile and petrochemical giant that is Reliance today. But the book also prises open the lids on episodes the Ambanis would surely want to put behind - for instance, the fascinating story and events that led to the arrest of Kirti Ambani, a Reliance employee, on charges of conspiring to murder Dhirubhai rival Nusli Wadia.

Incidentally, the book was banned ten years ago and has till date stayed out of circulation. What was selling on the streets yesterday is the pirated version of a banned title. Most enterprising, one would think, even as you wonder why now. I guess Dhirubhai himself would have said, "Nobody is a permanent friend. Nobody is a permanent enemy. Everybody has his own self-interest. Once you recognise that, everybody would be better off."

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