Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Indian Rich and Ruling class - Endangered species?

Being Rich is a blessing. It is an enabling state that can lead to salvation. Yes, Gautam Buddha was a rich Siddhartha once. It is only the rich who can think of higher purpose of life. One who has to struggle to make two ends meet never has time to dwell upon metaphysics. I sometimes wonder if the higher goals of life, the so-called self-actualization need by Maslow, is invented by idle rich who were bored to death. Anyway, the advent of religion and the clumsy rules associated to it, acted as opium for masses. As such, historically, the rich and the ruling classes (rich and ruling classes are interchangeable words as generally one means the other, save some exceptions) never followed the rules of religion, as they believed that it is for the ordinary folks.
Things changed after industrial revolution. Thinkers like Marx (nothing to do with our own Indian leftist parties who represent very distorted leftist ideals) made people think in the direction of sharing of resources. Things started changing, albeit slowly, and there came few people who led by example. Some had inherited wealth, like Raja Rammohan Roy, and some who had earned it by their own work, like Bill Gates. The common thing was that they used their wealth, not for themselves but for others. Raja Roy spent it on upliftment of Indian society. Bill Gates is still spending it on various philanthropic activities. I can make the list of such greats but that is not central to the idea of this blog. I am pained to see the current situation in India.

The rich industrialists and even otherwise well to do in our society are born hoarders. The money-for-myself-and-my-family ideal flies at the face of the religion they follow. Irrespective of divergence on host of issues, all the religions agree on the point of helping fellow humans. And Indian rich and ruling class, as history goes, doesn't believe in helping others. The callousness with which they ignore the surrounding poverty is unbelievable. Just two days ago, Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh talked about the responsibility of rich CEOs towards the society and suggested that the salaries of CEOs should be reconsidered. The CII (confederation of Indian Industries) vehemently denied the proposal, all the while agreeing to PMs point that the disparity should be brought down. PM had also hinted few days ago that profit making corporate sector should share their goods with fellow citizens in order to include them in the mainstream. Again there were some empty talks by CII and such chambers and nothing concrete came out. The PM is a world renowned Economist and when he is bothered about this disparity, it is not for nothing. The rich and ruling, immersed in their rat race to make and hoard more money and profits, have become blind to the impeding danger. The kind of disparity seen in India will certainly lead to an Indian revolution on the lines of Russian Revolution and the rich and ruling class can be sure of meeting their fate. One can't fool people for long.

It works this way. Psychologically. A man will or won't do illegal act (like looting the rich) based on risk to reward ratio. Before liberalization (say 1990), the risk involved in looting the rich was high, the rewards were moderate (as there were not many rich) and hence the ratio of risk to reward was poor. Currently, due to increase of income of upper middle class and the rich, the risk remains the same but the reward has considerably gone up. The risk to reward ratio is attractive but still not beyond a point that would trigger mass looting or anarchy. There will be a tipping point. The moment the risk to reward ratio touches that point, one can expect the poor millions from all sides to pounce upon the rich and carry away whatever they lay their hands on. Any police or army can't stop this. The number of looters will be very high. And it's quite possible that the lower ranks among the police would side with looters. I am not giving any cock and bull story. It has happened quite a number of times in history. Shall I count them? The time bomb is now ticking in India. And here we have, our own CII and their stooges who don't want to have anything to do with building the society. They don't want to share their riches. They don't want to shoulder the burden of carrying fellow citizens along. And they want the government of protect them and their interests. They want this protection from the same government, which actually represents the millions of poor, and not the miniscule percentage the rich and ruling form. And when the head of that government suggests them to do something, they pooh pooh the idea. This is why I hate Indian rich. They stink. I am yet to see one Indian businessman who can donate at the magnitude of a Bill Gates, a Warren Buffet or for that matter Raja Rammohan Roy. Yes, there are Tatas, Infosys foundation and the likes. But what's the percentage of their charity to profit. It is nothing if one compares it to someone like Buffet who gave off two thirds of his wealth earned over lifetime in charity. Can any rich in India do that? It is not for me to ask them as it is they who possess the wealth and so the decision to give it to others should be taken by them alone. All I can do is, looking at the situation, suggest them to do it at the earliest to save their faces before it's too late. And yes, count me on the looters side.

(Cartoon from 'The Hindu' dated 28th May 2007)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Reservation for Women in Politics

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more-equal than others" So said Napoleon the pig, in Animal Farm, George Orwell's novel. "So we, the pigs, would decide what is best for you". And all animals nodded their heads in affirmative.
Cut to circa 2007. Indian Parliament is geared up to pass a bill reserving 33% of seats for women in parliament. All men are born equal but women are more-equal and hence this move, proclaimed a politician supporting the move in the name of women emancipation. They have been suppressed historically and it's high time to set it right, thundered the women liberation groups. They constitute almost 50% of population but are not proportionally represented in parliament and hence this move is needed, cried the media. This will usher in much waited women emancipation in India, noted the so-called intellectuals. All the time, the actual lot of women, supposed beneficiaries, toil away their lives in remote corners of India. Cooking food in primitive ovens, the smoke eating into their lungs. Carrying water for miles. Malnourished, underfed, uncared. Working double shifts to make two ends meet. They have never heard about the parliament. They don't understand politics. They are like the animals of Orwell, always nodding their head in affirmative. Who are the pigs here? You decide.
To put things in perspective, let's see how politics helps people in general and then analyze women in politics. Let's first get into the ideal world, with utopian values, and ideal politics. The politicians are actual representatives of people and work towards their betterment. They decide policies that would enable people to actualize their potential. They keep a tab on executive so that the benefits reach the people intended. They seldom have personal agenda. The election is a process to choose the best among the good to represent people at the highest level, say a parliament or a senate in democratic setup. Well, that was ideal. Let's introduce the vices and see the real situation in our country. There are no values in politics. The politicians represent caste or religion more than just people. The politicians do work for betterment, not of people, but of their kith and kin. They tie up with executives in order to bend the system to their benefit. Elections are process to choose the man with highest number of goons and maximum amount of money. A considerable section of parliament is filled up with people having criminal record and pending court cases. What an irony that some politicians who once had cases of rape and molestation against them now fight for women emancipation! Politics can't be more colorful than it is at present in India.
Now let's analyze where women can fit in this scheme of things, i.e. Politics in India. Let's start with the basic process of getting elected. It would be naïve if one says that one can win elections in India without money and muscle. Women, by nature, are averse to these methods. I am not talking about Phoolan Devi but ordinary Devis here. Yes, there are exceptions viz. Indira Gandhi or Jayalalitha. But they are just that. Exceptions. And as they say, exceptions prove the rule.
Let's now see the performance of women in politics in India. We do have glorious example of Indira Gandhi again but that has more to do with her individual talent than with her being a woman. In fact, her being a woman was more of a hindrance during her initial years in politics when she had to take on the male dominated congress syndicate. But for every Indira Gandhi we have a Rabri Devi who is just a proxy for a male behind the scene who actually calls the shot, in this case Mr. Lalu Prasad. Let's go to general scene from specifics. Let's see the general performance in women in politics and the best example is of the women in panchayats. This is an apt example as we already have women reservation here. So women are adequately represented, to the order of 30% approximately. Things do look hunky dory here but scratch the surface and one can easily see that it is a Rabri Devi case multiplied. Most of the women in Panchayat are not active members. They seldom have decision-making powers. The men behind the scene call the shots. It can be her husband, her father, brother or anyone heading her family whom she reports to at the end of the day. Yes, one can show exceptions here but I am talking about general case. Truly speaking, it is these male members of her family, who are responsible for canvassing for her during elections and getting her elected. And they do it because men cannot contest the seat reserved for woman candidate. So they field a woman stooge to contest and win. It is truly sad but why is it this way? The answer has more to do with sociological structure of Indian family and society than with the actual virtues or vices of the women at helm.
Understanding the evolution of women rights and empowerment in India is required to understand as to why a forced increase of women participation in politics is not called for. Barring Vedic times when the status of women was almost equal to men, we see that throughout history until late 19th century women had a secondary role in all walks of life. 'Men', ironically, started the change in mindset in India and the struggle for women emancipation. Be it Raja Ram Mohan or Vidyasagar, men, except for rare cases, led the charge. Women emancipation started not by a revolution of women against discrimination but by enlightened men of 18th and 19th century. It picked up in 20th century when national leaders supported the cause of women. India was one of the first countries to grant voting rights to women in early 20th century, much before many of the European countries. So, it can be safely said that it was top-down process rather than a bottom-up process. In fact, it is really surprising as to why women never rose up against the shabby social system that kept them low. In India, women emancipation is similar to a case where food is provided to a person before he felt hungry. Needless to say, the effect never trickled down. The point is that the steps helped few upper class families and left out the majority, especially rural areas. One can still see women living middle age style life in rural India. This is true of any top-down process. The effects seldom trickle down.
Why did the above happen in India? The answer lies in the lack of groundwork. The groundwork was not ready for women to participate in society on equal terms. The groundwork includes literacy, economic empowerment, decision making power, societal protection etc. The list is not exhaustive but just an indication. Unless these issues are addressed at the bottom level, one cannot say that the groundwork is ready for women to take the lead. Anything done artificially with a heavy-handed top-down approach would be like garnishing a dish without care for the taste. It may look good but the dish can't be savoured. This would be exact effect if women were made to participate in political process at this moment. It would be artificial, not an outcome of advancement of women in real terms, which is desirable. The moment women become equal to men in terms of literacy, when they have economic freedom to call the shots, when the society is advanced enough to avoid muscle and money factors in election, when women have an equal say in family level decision making, when women have societal protection to venture out and take the lead, only then, women can participate in politics in a constructive way.
One might say that this would never happen and so it is just a utopian idea. However, it is not so. There is a silent revolution in progress in India, which is a true bottom-up process. It has started with Self Help Groups for women. It has begun with the small savings accounts for women in Post offices. It has picked up with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. It is accelerating with the literacy levels of women increasing every year. It is spreading with women getting equal rights in parental properties. It is advertising itself with examples of few women like Indra Nooyi or Kiran Mazumdar who are showing the way to others. The revolution looks poised to succeed, without doubt. The moment is not very far when women would be at their rightful place, demanding their pie in the society. And the demand would not be a begging but an order. This, and nothing else, is true women emancipation. The day is not very far. It may take a maximum of a quarter of century. And then, the groundwork is ready for women to jump into the political fray. And then, they would not need any artificial prop like the women reservation bill. In fact, it would not be a wonder if women go all the way and reach more than half the seats in parliament. That would be something one can be happy for. Let it happen soon. Amen.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Dhanno manno ki kahani - Higher education in India

Dhanno and Manno were two little kids in a huge joint family of 100. The family was poor and survived on agriculture. The members hardly had two square meals a day. None in the family was qualified enough to look for better opportunities. One day the headman of the family, who was old and wise, called the whole family for an after dinner meeting. When all the members of the family assembled, he took the head count and then spoke thus:
“Dear family members, I have grown old and I have seen 10 generations in my life, five senior to me and five junior. This family of ours has not seen any good times for as long as I remember. I know the reason. It is this vicious circle of poverty. When we are poor, we cannot educate our children and give them enough training to succeed in life. We cannot nourish them and make them strong enough to compete with others. And when they grow up, they are weak and uneducated. This makes them poor. And this cycle continues, generation after generation which I call, the vicious circle. If our family wants to break this circle, we have to make a sacrifice. We have to sacrifice a small amount everyday and ensure that the next generation gets all education and nourishment they need. Let them be the leading lights for the upliftment of our entire family. The money we have to spend for their education has to come at the cost of whatever small luxuries we afford, but let us do it for one generation for the benefit of many generations to come. I hope none of your would mind my suggestion. Let us take the youngest generation of Dhanno and Manno and give them all we can. Let us give Dhanno and Manno the wings to fly.”
The whole family was unhappy at the prospect of losing small luxuries of life but after some contemplation about future prospects, agreed. Thus started the education of Dhanno and Manno in right earnest. Dhanno and Manno went through school and then college. They excelled in whatever they did. So much so that the whole village and then town and then the state noticed. One day they got good jobs at big organizations far away. They left home with heavy hearts. Soon they excelled in their organization and were promoted to higher positions. They were known all over as brilliant professionals.
Dhanno always remembered home and his family. He sent back some money saved from his salary every month, which took care of the household expenses. The old man was no longer around to see the day but others were happy to see the fruits of their sacrifice. Dhanno occasionally came to the village to see his family. He looked after the progress of the younger generation regarding education and other requirements.
Manno had changed after coming to city. Seeing the lights and luxuries of life, he completely forgot about his family. He thought his childhood environment to be hell when compared to present heaven. He became a part of the newfound dreamland. He wanted to forget his dusty, illiterate siblings and relatives. He never came back to his family.
Nevertheless, the family back home grew prosperous, thanks to Dhanno. There were always sufficient Dhannos in each generation to take care of the entire family and in few generations, all the members of the family were literate and rich. Most of them had moved to various cities and countries. They came together once or twice annually during major festivals.
One day Dhanno retired and came back to his family home. He was now the headman. And he was wise with experience. The family had assembled from various places for a festival. Everyone had nice experiences to share. He called the whole family for an after dinner meeting. When all the members of the family assembled, he took the head count and then spoke thus:
“Dear family members, I have grown old and I have seen 10 generations in my life, five senior to me and five junior. This family of ours has not seen any better times for as long as I remember. It is all because of one wise man 5 generations ago and a sacrifice of one whole generation of all the small joys in their lives. Let’s remember them on this day, as it is to their perseverance that we are in a position to enjoy better things in life. Thank you.”

Tiru speaks:
In the above story, replace the joint family of 100 but 100 crore Indians. The Dhanno and Manno are the products of our elite institutes such as IITs, IIMs, NITs and also other subsidized higher education colleges which churn out lakhs of graduates every year. The education at these institutes are highly subsidized at the cost of other citizens. Fortunately, we got more Dhannos than Mannos in past 60 years. The great grandfather Nehru, who made a similar speech many years ago regarding higher education, would have been happy to see today’s India. Yet the family is not out of trouble. 35 out of 100 members are uneducated. 30 of them are still below poverty line. That means, the sacrifice continues. We still need many Dhannos. The day of an old Dhanno making the final speech is yet to come. May it come soon. Amen.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lalu & Indian Politics: Why we need more Lalus

“Navajish hai sabki, karam hai sabhi ka,
Bade fakhra se hum bulandi par aaye,
Tarakki ke saare mayaron se aage
Naye dhang laaye, nayee soch laaye.”

(With the blessing of all, the outcome of hard work of all, we rose to the top with a boundless pride, we crossed all the benchmarks of workmanship, we ushered in new ways, a new vision)
- Lalu Prasad Yadav, Railways minister of India, during Rail budget presentation on 26/02/2007

I had once witnessed a queer incident onboard a train. In our country, it is a general trend that people board II class sleeper reserved compartments without reserved tickets (i.e. just a general ticket) and travel short distances during daytime. This is common in north India. Sure, it leads to some discomfort to reserved ticket passengers but in India, ‘adjustment’ is a word everyone is familiar with. So, the short distance intruder becomes a friend and people pass time talking with them about the local conditions right from the weather to the cost of brinjals in that part of the country.
This doesn’t happen in Air Conditioned compartments. For two reasons. One, AC passengers do not take kindly to any intruder into their ‘reserved’ area. Two, the TTE is very harsh on anyone entering into AC without proper ticket for short distance travel. The TTE is also a demon for hawkers entering in AC and hence no hawker dares to enter the conditioned area. That day, an unfortunate couple in their late fifties had boarded the AC compartment without a proper AC ticket (I believe they had a general ticket). They looked shabby from their clothes. It was a clear case of lack of knowledge on part of the couple than any ill intended desire to travel in AC for free. But our TTE gave such a rude treatment to those two that the wife started sobbing in front of everyone. The words used by TTE pierced my heart and I had to control myself hard from pouncing on him and giving a solid punch right on his nose. The TTE ushered them out of the compartment and they were standing near the toilet till the next station arrived. I guess they got down on that station and entered a general bogie, as I didn’t see them afterwards. They were humans. Just like me. Just like the others in AC compartment. The TTE probably had parents of that age. The woman sobbed when treated badly. She had dignity or the sense of self-respect. Perhaps, even her husband never talked to her in that language. What right did the TTE have to treat her that way? What was wrong with us, sitting in the AC compartment, that we didn’t stop the TTE from bombarding his abuses on the couple? That incident changed the way I look at many things.

On an average, India is still a poor country. Most of the people have never traveled in an air-conditioned compartment. It is a distant dream. Air travel is a fantasy, a fairy tale for them. On top of it, the treatment they are meted out from TTEs creates such terror that they never dare to step near an AC compartment. A train in India has two parts. One is for the Indians (the AC compartments where I, me, myself approach is appreciated) and the other for Bharat (the sleeper and general compartments where ‘adjustment’ is understood and humanity is valued).
All politicians in India know this. Every rail minister, right from Independence to this day, knew that this distinction exists. Every rail minister travels by Indian part of a train, not the Bharat part. Therefore, it never hurts him. Gandhiji traveled in Bharat part but he was long forgotten by railway ministers. Till Lalu Prasad arrived.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, the current railway minister, flagged the first ‘Garib rath’ train last year. This train is fully air-conditioned and the fare is one third of regular AC. This, he said, was to help the poor enjoy Air Conditioned travel. What impressed me was that one particular statement in his speech, while flagging off the first Garib rath.
He said, “I know how rudely a poor man is treated by the TTEs in the AC compartment. They are shooed away just like dogs. No more. This whole train is for poor people and no TTE dare now shoo them away.”
I was clean bowled by that statement. Here was a leader who knows the masses. Here is a leader who can connect directly. Here is a man, who has not forgotten the roots from where he came. Here is a man who can punch right on the nose of that TTE and not just sit and watch like I did.
This railway budget, presented yesterday plans 32 new Garib-raths. That means, lakhs of poor will now travel by AC. At least once to see how it feels. And the number of such trains is going to increase. For good.
IIM Ahmedabad, the topmost B school of our country, invited him to explain the turnaround of Railways from a loss making entity to a mammoth profit booker (20000 crore rupees last year, a whooping sum). The Ivy League students interacted with him while on a visit to India to understand his methodology of work. I personally believe that it is the good work of Babus in Railway board that is responsible for the turnaround. But I know that all the people friendly measures taken are the initiatives from this one man, jokingly called Laloo by everyone.
Lalu has taken other measures too. One may read the Rail Budget to get the details. For once, I see a people friendly budget. In real terms. Not just empty talk. In Lalu’s own words, from yesterday’s speech:

“Maana ki badi-badi baaten karna hamen nahin aaya,
Magar dil par badi kaarigari se naam likhte hain”

(Agreed that I can’t talk big things, but with great craftsmanship I do the filigree)

Lalu Prasad is a grassroots politician. He was once a rickshaw-puller. He has pulled the rickshaw with rich people sitting on it. He has not forgotten.
Lalu has been named in various cases of corruption earlier. Even if they were true (the court says otherwise), I would still vote for Lalu. For the simple reason that it is a very small cost to pay for such a large improvement in lives of ordinary people. Other politicians are equally corrupt but they never do anything for the masses. They never connect. Lalu does.

Go on Laluji, my support is with you. Let a thousand Garib-raths roll on the tracks. Let a crore Bharat smile everyday when they travel. Let no TTE abuse any passenger. Let no woman shed tears on Indian train. Let another thousand Lalus become ministers in India. In your own words from Budget speech:

“Jitna ab tak dekh chuke ho, ye to bas shuruat hai,
Khel tamasha aage dekho, dariya dil saudagar ka”

(What you’ve seen till now is just the beginning. Watch out for more from this big-hearted showman)

Bharat waits.

(Cartoon from online version of 'the hindu' dated 27/02/2007)