Monday, January 31, 2005

Field haunt

Some things you see 'on the field' will haunt you a long, long time.

And some things you push back to the edges of memory, again and again, so you can forget they ever existed.

Swarangsat Mushahari of Ghumurgaon village is one of my haunting memories.

I met him when we were both trying to cross that shaky bamboo bridge, in lower Assam. He on foot. Me in a car, praying hard, for the woven bamboo, though remarkably delicate and quaint beyond words, looked too fragile to be a bridge.

He, and two dozen other kids, crossing the bridge to go home, over an almost-dry river bed, far under the bamboo bridge.

As a wolf to his prey, the reporter to her sources.
I cornered a few children - what school do you go to? Government? Aided? Do you get rice? Is it cooked? Do you want it cooked? Wouldn't you like a nice hot meal in school?

Swarangsat Mushahari (I didn't know his name, when I began talking to him) of Ghumurgaon village, student of class 5, replied in the negative.

I was taken aback. Why didn't he want a hot meal?

Because, he said, he wanted to take it home instead. To his parents. To his mother and father, who's home and fields were washed away in the floods last season.

He wants dry rice, the 3 kg a month quota, so it can be sold, to fetch other things at home.

Then I asked him his name. He whispered it out.

I didn't quite catch it and asked him to speak up louder. He whispered it again, and then, he broke down. Swarangsat Mushahari of Ghumurgaon village began to cry.

And, for the life of me, I couldn't understand why... what did I do?

And then it hit me -

Mushahari... Moosa-haary?

The rat-eaters?

There was a little crowd of children about us. Some were grinning. Some were intrigued by my camera. Other adults began to gather round. And in front of all these children, I had asked him his name.

The tears rolled down little Swarangsat's cheeks. He wiped his eyes.

And I dismissed the crowd of onlookers, very ineffectively patted his head, got back into the car, and fled!

That's the haunting memory collected from the Bongaigaon trip. And the more I want to forget, the harder it is.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Bazaar on wheels

Laloo Yadav's attempt to popularize Village on Wheels did break its snub-nose, after landing with an unceremonious thud on its low-budget face. However, the unofficial bazaar on wheels series is quite a sight.

The engine chugs to life and the trains in Bihar turn into a lively travelling bazaar, providing an endless source of entertainment to the travelling consumer.

I saw this first-hand in the Northeast Express, from Guwahati to Patna. The air-conditioned compartments turned into delightful corridors where you may buy everything... and I mean EVERYTHING... you can imagine, short of nuclear bombs and submarines.

It began with muri-bhel and fruit-salad-walla. I must admit I was surprised. It had been a long, long time since I saw the fresh salad-bearing vendors on trains, ever since I started traveling in air-conditioned classes, I suppose.
This surprise was not unwelcome. I like salad. I like fruit. and crisp, chatpati bhel is way preferable to stale, oily daal-wada.

Then came the guys selling watches and plastic glares (dhoop ka chasmaa). And hard to believe it may be, but these guys were also selling 'numbered' eye-glasses. The real thing that opticians prescribe for you.
You could take a rough 'test', by trying on every pair of spectacles that the vendor had, and if you could read a fine newspaper print with the pair, you bought.

Then the guy selling toys arrived - and these weren't wooden handicrafts. These were high-tech stuff. Dancing dolls, racing cars, helicoptors, singing GI-Joe clones... you name it!

Then came the baggage vendors - bags in leather and rexene and cardboard and whatever you want. Suitcases, airbags, backpacks... The elctronics guy had a great collection too - walkman, discman, batteries, rechargeable batterries, battery recharger, calculators, mobile phones, call-ID fixed-line phones, WLL phones, VCD players....

VCD, did I say?
Yes, they also sold pirated versions of every single movie and music album, released or unreleased, on VCD (AND DVD!!). I saw a fellow-traveller lean in and whisper a movie-title into the vendor's ears. The CD walla, a boy of about eighteen, frowned and asked aloud "What? Is that the name of the hero or heroine? What's the title?"
The passenger quickly hushed up the young boy and whispered again. I suspect he was looking for porn of some kind, for the boy clicked his tongue disapprovingly and left quickly.

The consumer-king attitude engulfing my fellow-passengers began to put me off.
I had a brief respite with the peanut-walla and the aloo-chip walla, who were relatively soft-spoken.

I was just settling down for a nap, but it was not to be.
The next vendor appeared with shoes and slippers. "Only hundred rupees... you want?"
No, thank you. I do not want. But sleep, of course, was kissed good-bye.
The bazaar took over.

Almost every other item had been inspected by every other passenger. Almost every other vendor went away smiling, despite the hour-long bargain session he'd just been subjected to.
Passengers knew they had a long, long journey, and time to kill.

Many bargained just for the pleasure of it. Many made a killing. Money changed hands all through the day. Vendors would pass the compartment again and again, calling out loud, bazaar-style. They would disappear for a bit, probably into the next compartment, or maybe to rest their parched throats.

Then the whole chain began afresh - chinese pain balm, followed by body massagers, followed by cameras and binoculors.
Safety pins, sarees, trinkets.
Baby frock and adult gamchha, checked lungi and plain white kurta-pajama.

But the prize catch was this guy selling vests, undies and (the horror!) panties.
No one bought any.
I was quite sorry for the panty-walla. I even considered picking up one pair - black nylon imprinted with orange sunflowers and trimmed with yellow lace.... it was truly a collector's item. you don't get to see this kind of erm... unusual, fashion sense everyday.

But I decided against it, seeing that the men in the compartment took particular care to avoid looking at this particular vendor.

I finally bought some more chai. Then some more. Then more and more and more. Chai!
The bazaar has something for everybody, after all.

(C) Annie Zaidi, Jan 2005

Friday, January 28, 2005


I am often asked why I did not attend Lucknow University, since Lucknow is where the grand-maternal family is based. It sounds better, at any rate, than Maharshi Dayand Saraswati University, which gave me my B.A. eventually...

In response, I tell them this tale from long, long ago... oh, maybe eight years or ten - but that's a long time in the news world.

Sunil (who runs an NGO called The Ant, in Assam, along with his wife Jenny) told me this story, and he in turn was told this story by a certain gentleman who rues the day he had to show his face in Lucknow University. Let's call this gentleman Ajay Bhaiya.

Now, Sunil had been speaking in glowing terms about Lucknow - the land of culture and tehzeeb. The land of pehle aap and Tunde kebaab. Ajay Bhaiya snuffled, snorted and retorted - 'culture? Well, let me tell you this....'

Ajay Bhaiya had a younger brother. Let's call him Vijay Bhaiya. This lad had just been admitted to Lucknow University, once known to be an esteemed institution that gave us many progressive poets and freedom-fighter-barristers.

One night, Ajay Bhaiya got a phone call asking him to come to Lucknow immediately. He said he'd come the next day, if it could wait.

It could not wait.

It turned out that Vijay Bhaiya was in deep shit. He'd been taken away to be 'penalized' by the local university daada.

Young Vijay was a soft, idealistic, romantic type, it seems. And soon after he joned Lucknow University, he fell head over heels in love . The object of his affections, unfortunately, turned out to a dainty lass whom the university daada had his eye on. It went without saying that no one, but NO ONE, so much as looked at her.

Vijay, being smitten and new to Lucknow University, did not know of this rule. Daada's goons thought it fit to acquaint him with these rules. I suppose they were nice, in a manner of speaking, for they did begin by simply talking.

Vijay (Uff! Blind, blind lover), instead of quietly letting go, decided to fight back. He spoke of the sanctity of emotion, the power of 'love', and the fact that it was a free country and he and the girl cared for each other. Foolish, foolish loverboy.

Word filtered back to Daada.

Daada ordered, 'the boy must go'.

Which is not as bad as it sounds. He was not about to be killed. But Vijay Bhaiya was asked to leave Lucknow University and, if he liked his health, the town.

Ajay Bhaiya was summoned to the University, then. He was politely escorted to a dark, dingy room within the campus. There was a table. There were henchmen all around. There were guns being playfully fondled. And there was Daada, sitting at the table in a spotless kurta-pajama.

Ajay Bhaiya was asked to take a seat ('tashreef rakhiye') and then told summarily to take his brother and leave Lucknow.

Ajay Bhaiya began to plead on his brother's behalf. "He is a child. He is naive. Give him a chance."

Daada very politely said that he understood but Vijay Bhaiya must leave the university.

Ajay Bhaiay tried once more. "It's a matter of his studies. His years will be wasted. Give him a chance."
Mistake, that one... It was not a matter of studies, but of life and death.

Daada kept his cool however and said, "Look, we (hum) are not in the habit of raising our voice. Please take the boy and leave. He can't remain on this campus...." and after a pause, added, "After a few years, when our temper has cooled off a bit, we might allow him to return to finish his degree."

Ajay Bhaiya, ignorant man himself, continued to plead; perhaps he was encouraged by the quiet manners of the goon. "Please, Daada. He is a child. His life will be ruined..."

Daada finally stood up and picked up a round object, held it up for Ajay Bhaiya to see. "Look. We have these bombs here. These boys are very playful. They love playing with these things... We are telling you, go while you can."

Ajay Bhaiya, we assume, went while he could. And Daada, we suppose, must have cooled off with time. And though I can't be sure, I doubt whether Vijay Bhaiya ever went back to Lucknow University to finish the degree.

And oh yes, there is also the little business of Farhad, my friend Saira's schoolmate.

Farhad got through to the medical course in Lucknow, it seems. But he didn't make it on merit alone. He promised to pay a 'donation'. But after joining college, he couldn't (or didn't) cough up the entire amount within the stipulated time frame.

One fine morning, a motorbike with two guys on it, vrrroomed close, and passed by Farhad.

He'd been shot in the head. And that was the end of his education in Lucknow.

Lucknow... my once-gentle city. Sigh! Oh well, the daada-log at the university are rather soft-spoken, I hear.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

There is no simple way of doing a story, it seems.
And there is NEVER one single, straightforward story with any given story.

Each issue is entangled with a dozen different issues. In a country like India - dozens of states, hundreds of cultural differences, millions of problems, a billion people... how is one to point to a given situation and say - "This is the problem! Let's crack it"?
How does one solve a problem without resolving the other composite sub-problems?

I set out to investigate the implementation of the mid-day meal scheme in the country, following the Supreme Court order and its January 2005 deadline.
But this is not a simple matter of receiving government funds and grains, setting a nice fire going and cooking over it, so that millions of primary school children can rest assured of at least one meal a day.

The mid-day meal scheme combines the undoubtedly noble objectives of feeding kids, getting them to enrol in school and giving them an incentive to stay on. But how is one to implement the scheme in a village that doesn't have a school at all?

The implementation of this particular scheme has to be preceded by another scheme that ensures the existence of at least one primary school in each village.

Authorities might argue that there are schools of some sort in various rural panchayat-areas, across the country. But each panchayat areas could be spread over dozens of kilometres. Especially in tribal-forest areas like Chhatisgarh and Jharkhan, or desert regions like Rajasthan. Each hamlet (not panchayat-village) needs a school of its own.

If a child (and we're talking about primary-level kids, which means they're likely to be between five and eleven) is expected to trek twenty-odd kilometres everyday... where's the point? He's going to burn up more than those 300 calories stipulated as the mid-day meal norm, just trekking about!

Assuming there is a school in each hamlet, you have to ensure that some sort of infrastructure is in place, in each block-district. Even if you make it legally binding for the grains to reach the school through the nearest FCI (Food Corporation of India) depot, the scheme simply WON'T work, unless there's a motorable road in place. And maybe a ferry too, for villages that lie across a river. Across streams, rivers, mountains and ravines, over bridges and in times of flood - transportation is the single largest hitch to implementation. Often, kids are charged a few rupees each month (which they can ill afford) to help pay transportation costs, though of course, I cannot prove this in a court of law.

Even if the local administration is incorruptible, it isn't easy to ensure a smooth flow of foodgrains to each tiny school, when you're using bullock-cart or a bicycle to transport the stuff. And can you imagine how difficult it is for block officials to monitor the scheme, if they can't make regular visits to the schools?

Assuming there's a school and there's a road to ensure steady foodgrain supply, you need to have a teacher.
The local master/guru/teacher is lord of the village school. He/she opens the school-doors each morning. No master, no school, no meal. It is the schoolmaster who keeps accounts, receives funds, hands money over to the cook to buy other essentials like firewood, utensils, salt, pulses and veggies. The teacher may not cook himself, but the meal will not be made available to the kids in his absence.

Across the country, there is a huge problem of teacher-absenteeism. Especially in places where the teacher doesn't receive his salary on time, or doesn't make enough to bother about the job. It makes more sense to lock up the school and keep filling in the attendance register from home... just for the record... just in case there's an enquiry. The teacher has to have some sort of personal incentive to make this system work.... right?

Assuming you have a school, some infrastructure, a teacher who turns up on a daily basis, and assuming the foodgrains get lifted from the FCI godowns in time and delivered on time after provisions have been made for transportation costs, we need people who are not corrupt.

In India, that's a tall order.
You need to ensure that there is no leakage at any stage of the chain. The FCI must hand over ALL the grains, and the block must depute someone who won't pilfer any stuff during transportation. You need a fair-minded fair-price shop dealer, and a clean panchayat, and committed school-teachers and an honest cook.

And to top it all, you have to have an infallible monitoring system... And there is no such thing as an infallible system.
You could have inspection officials or you could have the block officers. But you come closest to the ideal if you press into service those who are most directly benefitted by the scheme - i.e. the poorest families, specifically the mothers of those children who need to eat a decent meal, as often as they can get it.

In Chhatisgarh, the monitoring system has begun to function. The women of the villages, mostly tribals, have taken the lead, as they force their teachers and panchayats to behave. They've tackled the public distribution system leakages, and the aanganwadi system which has fallen into complete ruin. They're beginning to whip local politicians and standing for panchayat elections themselves. They're showing us the right way to democracy.

In Chhatisgarh, I think, the mid-day meal just might work.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Auto-maton - 1

There I am. Second day in Delhi, rushing to work in an auto-rickshaw (they refer to them as 'three-wheeler' here) all the way from Vasant Kunj to Connought Place, when bang in the middle of a busy road, the rickshaw driver stops.

I poke my head out of the auto and ask 'kya hua bhaisaab'?

He very calmly tells me that there's a red-light ahead and he needs to stretch. So I twiddle my thumbs and softly curse as he stretches, takes a short walk (he's left the engine running, incidentally) relieves himself, whips off his belt and undoes a few buttons, as he returns to the driver's seat. "I've just had breakfast. Plenty of gas," he offers, by way of explanation.

A few kilometres down, he stops again. This time there's no red light. I wonder whether the auto engine needs repairing. To my astonishment, the rickshaw-driver saunters across the road (having left the engine running, again), and he vaults over a fence onto a strip of grass adjacent to the pavement. There, a young boy is painting a fence a dark shade of green.

Our man coolly picks up the bucket of paint and a brush, walks back to the auto and starts painting. "This gaadi needs painting," he says. "It got scratched a few days ago."

The young painter is here now, hot in the pursuit of his paint bucket and brush. They argue in muted tones while the driver continues his paint job. In-between, he keeps up his attempts at conversation.
"Madam, this paint matches my rickshaw colour (in delhi, CNG autos are green and yellow). I might as well do it now... hey, you boy! Shall I cart off this paint-bucket? You can always get some more."

The boy obviously did not agree.

I fretted, fumed and pointed out that people like me take autos only when they are in a hurry to get some place; else, I might as well have taken a bus. Our man grinned again and kept applying the finishing touches. I gave up.

And oh, he did charge me twice as much as I owed him....

[That's the first in the Delhi auto series.]

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Japanese want to help India in these trying times of Tsunami.

Their ambassor says they 'respect India's policy of not requesting international aid' but also want us to know that they're waiting with help. We only have to ask.

And oh, we have to factor in the 'accountability' factor. They want to know where the money's going, how and by whom it's being spent. So forth...

That's tough, eh?

We can't get someone to account for a hundred quintals of rice in a fair-price shop in a single village. How do we account for millions of dollars, especially now, in all this chaos and confusion?

All the same, it's fair enough that they ask for it. They are probably used to it.

They're also rather kicked about having given the most - $ 5 million - aid worldwide. Oh, the ambassor did mention that they are NOT in competition with any other country, but nevertheless, at last count, they were the biggest donors. 'I'm just stating facts here.'

Of course.

Though, I too am rather kicked that the Japanese have, very effectively, 'kayoed' (that's the headline one of the newspapers had) Bush's grand announcement of millions of dollars... They were so stung about being called stingy. But like the nice man (forgot his name) wrote in his column in the Asian Age today, it is a rather stingy amount. Even now. Smaller, non-superpower countries have given more generously. For chrissake, even poor embattled North Korea gave $ 1.5 million, a sum they can't afford to spare.

To be honest, I'm glad it's the Japanese. I don't like the idea of the USA being on top of the world. They're heavy and suffocating enough, as it is. And they're dangerous, with all their guns and grinning soldiers.

And I'm awfully glad we aren't accepting international aid. I don't think I could have taken the burden of being grateful to George Bush, on behalf of my countrymen...

Fadereu is right. We don't need them. We'll bury our dead and rebuild our homes with our bare hands, if we have to. We'll live in bamboo and learn to wake with the sun and sleep with the dusk, if we have to. Maybe that is a better way to live... The tribes survived, didn't they? They heard the wind. They heeded the birds. And they still try to shoot down helicopters with bows and arrows. Maybe that is the better way to live.

The bio alternative - fuel blends on a test-run

The glower on most Indians' faces, right now, threatens to be matched only by the darkening of our political horizons, thanks to yet another hike in petrol, diesel and LPG prices.

With petrol prices touching Rs 39 and diesel climbing upto Rs 26.28, and little likelihood of international prices falling, the general mood is sombre. Given that domestic crude oil accounts for barely 22% of India's needs and that oil imports form more than 30% of the total import bill, of which diesel forms a large chunk of 40%, finding a viable alternative becomes imperative.

However, going by the recent reports and the tests held at the International Symposium on Fuel and Lubricants held in Delhi, we might have at least a 'blended' solution at hand. Bio-diesel is here, ready and waiting.

The research and development wing of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has been testing energy alternatives like Bio-diesel for the last few years. Bio-diesel, a fuel based on oil extracts from plant seeds, is a viable option, since it is not only a renewable source of energy, but also has low sulphur content and better lubricity than petro-diesel. It has been successfully used in several countries, although India could not afford to use sources like palm oil or soya or indeed, any other edible oils since we are also one of the largest importers of edible oils.

Researchers turned to non-edible oilseeds; what emerged as the most viable option, was the humble Jatropha Curcas, locally known as Ratanjot, grows wild on wastelands across India. According to Dr DK Tuli, CEO of Indian Oil Technologies Limited (R&D centre), they already have 20 buses of Haryana Roadways running on B-5 (a 5% blend of Diesel and Bio-diesel). "At the symposium, two Tata Indicas were also test-driven on bio-diesel and even a train, the Shatabdi between Delhi and Amritsar, has had a smooth test run. Cars will not require engine modifications, and the efficiency of the engine isn't effected, may even be improved because of better lubrication."

Tests indicate that vehicle performance is satisfactory with 20% blends. But so far, IOC has been promoting bio-diesel in phases, with the introduction of only 5 or 10 % blends. Dr Tuli added, "An experimental production facility in Faridabad is producing 60 kg per day. OIC has also has a licensee in Goa, who will set up a unit with a 10-15 thousand tonnes production capacity. We need many more Jatropha trees of course, to be able to exploit this commercially. But we are really not keen on doing plantations ourselves. But there is an agreement with Indian Railways, who gave us abandoned tracts of land in Gujarat to convert into Jatropha plantations. Elsewhere, farmers are realising the importance and have started planting Jatropha trees. I estimate that at least 40,000 hectares are already being cultivated."

Officials are enthusiastic about bio-diesel in India, not only because it is an energy alternative, but also because it seems to make environmental sense, and holds the potential for large-scale employment opportunities in rural areas.

The Tenth Planning Commission has said in a report that it intends to bring 4 lakh hectares under Jatropha plantations as part of its National Mission on Bio-Diesel. 200 districts were identified, in 19 states, on the basis of availability of wasteland, rural poverty ratio and climatic conditions. Madhya Pradesh tops the list, with Rajasthan, Jharkand and Maharashtra coming in next.It is estimated that it will take three years for the seeds to mature, and that approximately Rs 10,000 will be required per acre, as investment in a given year of plantation. The Planning commission intends to invest heavily since plantation activities hope to generate 127.6 million person-days of employment. Seed collection would generate another 8 million person-days, while more people could be employed for processing, transportation and other related activities.

The residue from the oil-cakes could be used as organic manure. The report also said that it could save India Rs 20,000 crores in crude oil imports by the end of the tenth plan.

Dilip Chenoy, Director General of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers agrees that tests have been successful and looking at India's fuel requirements, it's very important to give bio-diesel a chance. "Fundamentally, it is viable and technically, it can be done. Tata Motors and IOC have already done some successful runs. A lot of fine-tuning has to be done though, before it becomes commercially viable. For it to be commercially viable, it has to be priced equal to or lower than regular diesel. That is not likely to happen before three to five years."

Bio-diesel would now be priced at Rs 40-45 a litre, according to Dr DK Tuli, and until the production of Jatropha increases, the prices cannot be brought down. One hectare with approximately 4400 plants on it can yield upto 1500 litres of oil. But at least 3 million hectares of Jatropha plantations will be required to produce enough oil for 10 % blends.

The plantations should also help to rehabilitate wastelands and help build a greener environment. Bio-diesel cuts down on emissions like particulate matter, Carbon Monoxide and total hydrocarbons. However, it does slightly increase nitrogen oxide emissions, a fact that is deepening the furrows on some environmentalist foreheads.

The issue of increased NOx emissions was something the Central Pollution Control Board was aware of. However, according to Dr Tuli, this is not a concern yet. "If used in 100% form, there are higher NOx emissions. Maybe about 3-4% higher than diesel but not so in blends. And at present, we are only looking at 5-10% blends."

The ministry of non-conventional energy sources is working on alternatives through the National Hydrogen Board, which is trying exploit Hydrogen, and blend it with CNG. Ethanol can also be produced from renewable sources like sugarcane, sugar beet or starch. Ethanol and Methanol, however, are oxygenates with 25% oxygen. They have not been very effective because of the corrosion factor and toxic emissions.

In the meantime, diesel consumption is growing at 5-6% every year; India's total carbon emissions are said to be increasing at 3.2 % per annum. In the given scenario, the case for giving bio-diesel a fair chance seems to be a strong one.

Octover 2004.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

One thing flummoxes me (yes, I can use the occassional fancy word) - How is it that India is a poor country?

Look at us. We manage to make money on EVERYTHING!

The most ordinary, god-fearing, family-tied, spiritually-sustained, salaried Indian makes money in some exceptionally creative ways.

We managed to invent this practically unique system of social mobility through dowry. The groom's family immediately jumps into a whole new social sub-class and the bride's family goes straight to debtor's hell.

Most urban Indians who're blessed with a single NRI relative jump boat soon enough and go make their lakhs in another country. Few come back. Those of us who're armed with a half-decent education scan the newspapers for jobs, and when they weren't available locally, we got enough white-collar jobs down from the west to keep thousands of us in high spirits and low worry-waters.

The cop standing at the traffic signal, waiting for it to be broken (broken signal' does not refer to smashed lights, but to the practice of not waiting for the red light to turn green). That helps supplement income. In the countryside, district officials manage to supplement income by engineering remarkably complicated leaks in programs like Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yogna, intended to provide employment to those who need it most, in rural India.

Village panchayat officials manage to fudge Food For Work records with elan, so that there never is enough rice to dole out in exchange for labour, even if there is some political will. This rice is, then twice paid-for. Once by the government, at procurement prices. Then, a second time, when this rice enters the open market, having escaped the ignominy of being subjected to the Public Distribution System, at throwaway prices.

In fact, district officials even manage to make money by making smaller sized Food for Work exchange coupons - less paper used for a given amount of coupons, which leads to savings in the funds allocated by the government, which of course, is not refunded by the government but helps supplement income at various levels of the local administration.

This is not a rant. Really! I'm seriously impressed. We're good at cutting corners.

Other people seem to look at very conventional ways of income-generation. They look at manufacturing, setting up industries, stock markets, office-jobs, services and so forth.

But just look at the sheer diversity and range of services we Indians provide internally! There are a zillion levels of middle-men in each and every sector. There are go-betweens even for marriage settlement. There are NGOs, who try to set right whatever's gone wrong (at least, some do). There are lawyers, whole armies of them, who argue for the gazillions of people who've been either dispossessed or disenfranchised or simply, criminalized. And an equal number of lawyers who argue from the other side. There's a huge judiciary and we could do with many, many more, for there just aren't enough judges. There are the ever-swelling ranks of the political parties (hey, never heard of a political party downsizing, did we?). There are those who make a profession of simply, speaking for others....

I mean, look at us! And I repeat, this is not a rant. I'm asking a very serious question. How is it, that with such a wealth of human ability, India's so poor?

We're good. We know how to circumvent the establishment when money's at stake. We know how to break the rules without disturbing the delicate balance of powers that be. We're good at looking at every single project/sponsored program/policy-change/law and coming up with ideas about how this project/sponsored program/policy-change/law can fetch us money. We have got to be good at making money.

Somebody please explain to me - why, then, is India a poor country?

14th Nov, 2004.

And so, there's the first brush with political journalism. Though, what isn't political, now I think about it?

Of course, I'd been to Mantralaya and called up health ministers and local MLAs, in Bombay. That was different. This was about watching major politicos giving bytes to news channels. This was about being where it happens. This was like being at a film shoot - the sense of watching it happen, knowing you will see it on the screen later. (Weird, but after 5 years in Bombay, I'd never seen a film shoot happening up-close. I don't count the one at Madh Island, watching Sonu Nigam's debut prantics (nice word, na? Prantics = prancing + antics. Did I just invent it?).

So there I was, very very wet behind the ears (and in the armpits - since I walked down Akbar Road, with the police cordoning off the entry with a good old-fashioned jute rope) ambling across to the Comgress' HQ in Delhi.

And it was the wrong there for day to go the first time. Some rally/function had happened and there were men there by the thousands. Crisp, detergent-advertisement-white kurtas, for the congress workers and party functionaries; limp, bleached-by-the-sun-but-yellowed-by-wear-white for the aam junta. There were hundreds of them, pouring out onto Janpath and
Shah Jehan Road and heaven alone knows where else.

There were a few women - a dozen or so - in fancy banjara costumes. Just goes to show how hard it is to get women taking an active interest in politics. Or maybe it isnt. Maybe they weren't invited. Maybe the party workers didnt see the need to mobilize them. Who knows?

The men decided to relieve themselves the moment they left the grounds of the congress party office. There was a whole line of them, lining up facing the red wall outside, which was getting very wet at the bottom. Wonder what Sonia Gandhi would think if she saw this spectacle. Row upon row of men, pissing on the walls of the Congress' office.

I kept my embarassment in check, and went about asking everyone, starting from the guards, to the functionaries, to the receptionists - how I can get a quote from one of the Congress functionaries. I finally walked into the media office and got conversing with a certain Mr Durrani. He asked for my visiting card and when I began to explain why I didn't have one (because they havent yet been printed; because I only just arrived; because I'm a newbie;
because....) he asked me my whole history.

Then he told me to go speak to Girija Vyas. He kept referring obliquely to some 'list', with reference to my story (which was about a generic update on the petrol pump scam of 2002, since the Supreme Court-appointed probe panel had come to the comclusion that 297 of the 409 cases being investigated were indeed 'improper' allotments).

I entered the office, where Girija Vyas, in her crisp cotton sari, held court. One of the men immediately made place for me and I plonked down, staring round-eyed at the journalists laughing so easily and sipping chai. I waited and waited and waited for these other journalists to leave so I could ask my questions. But they had this strange habit of asking one question at
a time and generally gossipping about other partymen for ten minutes. The general buzz was discussed. Rumours about Pranab Mukhjerjee's being sidelined were discussed. Anupam Kher was discussed. Individual newspaper policies were muttered about. One fat man kept laughing about how no other paper had the guts to write the way he did.

I tied and re-tied my shoelaces and waited for them to leave. The women were all in crisp cotton suits and saris. They must've been senior journalists. I was so terribly out of place in my jeans
and sneakers. For all that, the men outside had known I was a journalist the moment they looked at me. Maybe they thought I was a firang journo. Maybe my cloth jhola gave me away.

A few women left, a camera crew entered. It seemed like I would never get a chance. Then finally, Girija Vyas herself asked me if I needed to ask some questions. I asked my first question, the moment I brought up the petrol pump scam, she told me she would deal with me later and asked the camera crew to finish taking their interview. She seemed to be losing her good mood too.

Then, she suddenly said she had to run away to another meeting and that I should call her tomorrow. She gave me a landline number and I walked out, worrried that some servant would pick up the phone and she wouldn't come on the line. I had a deadline at noon and this was my first deadline at Frontline. Wouldn't want to push that one.

On my way out, Mr Durrani outside the office spoke of the list again. And I asked him 'what list?' He handed me a copy of the Indian Express. There, on the front page, was a list of those benefitting from the government's largesse with petrol pumps. And the first name on the list was that of Ms Girija Vyas.

I thanked Mr Durrani and left, but I was perplexed. If I had been a Congress functionary, esp one working under girija vyas, the last thing I'd do was to show a journalist the means to ask damaging questions. I was ignorant and should have read the article myself. But this was strange - that a partymember should tell me to read the article and ask questions

The next morning, I did call girija vyas and she did pick up the phone herself. And she actually dillied and dallied but answered my question. Obliquely, of course. And then, she asked that her name not be mentioned in the article at all. She said I was like her little sister (sister?
daughter's more like it, I'd think), that I ought to help and understand. And that she was so sorry I had to wait so long yesterday.

And I wished I didn't have to speak nicely. But there didn't seem to be any reason to be rude either. I did put in at least one quote, attributing it to her though. I had to. Can't be nice to those who benefit from government largesse and want to hide it, can I?

Shining shoe-shines

Yesterday, the papers (Indian Express) told us about the shoe-shine boys who are donating to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund, towards helping the Tsunami victims.

They said they're giving five rupees each. They make fifteen rupees a day. That's one-third their income. That probably means a whole meal. It means two cups of tea, when they're homeless in a Delhi winter.

This morning, the papers told us about Karan Johar, SRK and Rani Mukherjee turning up to hand over Rs 25 lakhs each.

I wish they hadn't. At least, I wish they had refused to be photographed with the PM. Much as I love SRK and Rani, I cannot bring myself to feel anything about this whole donation business. My first thought was - "You'd better! Imagine making a crore a film (Karan Johar probably makes more) and then taking a whole week before parting with a few lakhs."

But those shoe-shine boys.... twelve-year olds - boys who must be dying to spend every extra rupee on food. Boys who have no shoes and no treats.... I could kiss them for their five rupees.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

New Year, last last.

Dec 31, 2003.
New Year's Eve.

I have been reading in the papers that the cops plan to come down hard on the hard-partying weave-driving junta. No tension. Why should there be? I don't drink. I don't drive either.
I hardly ever go out, actually. Last new year was spent with the TV.

Phone Call. Email. Friend coming down from Jaipur. So New Year is happening after all.

And tension is happening at home. "Other people drink. Other people drive... What if they drink and drive?"
What if they spill my guts over a road-divider?
What if the cops give chase?
What if they do, I said.

4 pm. Linking Road.
The shops are stuffy. Women are scrambling over each other's heads and there's a long queue outside trial rooms. Less is... well, very definitely, less. I am squirming at the idea of this appalling lack of fabric in the 'clothes' here today. It is winter, you know!
Friend from Jaipur reminds me of my own fabric-challenged wardrobe. But still... standing on Linking Road, looking at these flittery little scraps on hangers, I baulk.

5 pm. Still at Linking Road.
Friend can't find the right size. She says Bombay girls are skinny. They are, I agree. We rummage some more. Go to more shops. Then, when the size is right, the stole doesn't match. More rummaging. I don't like shopping. Sigh!

7pm. Andheri.
Mad rush to the bath. No time for full-scale bath. Scrub-scrub face. Spray-spray pits.
No.... wait! Rub-rub; push up; pull down. Damn! The skirt is too short after all. And I don't have the legs for it.
Never mind - my friend consoles me - you're not quite a bomb, but you make it to the sparkler category. I smile and pick up a smoke-grey eye-pencil. There was a time when this same friend used to watch me all dressed up, and whistle. "Hai, main mar javaa.n cyanide khaake!'

8.30 pm. On the road.

We're going out with friend's younger brothers... shessh! Pathetic!
And my head hurts. Too much walking around in the sun, I suppose. But this is new year's eve, for god's sake. And i havent had a drop to drink! I don't deserve a headache.
Friend pulls over at a chemists'. I swallow two disprins with two glugs of cola. Multinational trash; pesticides... I remind myself. I drink it anyway.
Later I have multinational chips. And more multinational cola.

9.40 pm. Famous studio.
We're early. There's already a crowd outside. All the better, says friend's cousin. We need parking space when it still exists.
We stand under the shade of the trees and check the babes out. The baba-log arent worth checking out. 90 percent of them are from junior college. It's an awkward age, and they insist on wearing silk-cotton-mix black blazers. Gel, black jackets, black pants is the norm.
They women wear little. Plenty of back, plenty of leg. Not so much navel, this year. No cleavage. They're all too skinny for cleavage.
The plump ones seem preoccupied with hiding their... assets. Pity!

10.30 pm. Still outside.
The organisers haven't opened up the venue yet. We're hungry. We're restive. We've checked out enough babes. And it annoys me that the guys are so... so.... so ordinary.

10.45 pm.
I'm stamping my foot with impatience. We've had more multinational chips and multinational cola. The guilt....uff! the guilt!

11 pm. Inside Famous Studio.
We're inside! It's smoky. The music is warming up already. The food is piping hot. One dance and then, fooood!

12 pm.
Dancing. dancing. dancing. tired.
dancing. hugging strangers. strangers hugging me...
An uncle-ji (at least 50 years old... what the hell is he doing at this 'young' do?) has been creeping closer all the time. I whisper to friend's brothers. They disappear for a minute and uncle-ji comes up. Totally 'tunn'! I escape to another corner of the floor.

12.45 am.
Break to drink water and go to the loo. The loo is a portable yellow affair.
Cousin says he just saw a girl butt-naked! The child was so drunk that she thought the outside of the loo was the inside of the loo....
Oh dear! What do I say?
I see three girls in three corners, throwing up. One boy is sprawled on the stairs, his friend patting his head. Vomit lines the floors. I hit the floor again.

1.30 am
Dancing. Dancing. dancing. dancing. Water!
I am looking for friend. She's disappeared.
I step out and watch girls being carried out like corpses, dead to the world.
The watchmen look grim.

2.30 am.
Dancing. Someone calls me 'pocket-size'. For the rest of the evening (morning?), the name sticks. Someone else calls me 'item'. That sticks too.
More passing out. Fewer people seem to be standing on their feet than I last remembered.

3.30 am.
Dancing still. I dont care who's passing out anymore.
Friend's brother tells me he's 15 pegs down. He has a glass in one hand and a bottle in the other. It's ok, he says. I can drive. I think of the cops. And the breathanalyser.

4.30 am.
My high heels are killing me. But there are smashed bottles all around. Kicking off the shoes isn't a smart idea. I'm still dancing. Item numbers galore.
Cousin has already had three shots at eating food. His brother says - it happens; alcohol affects different people differently.
I ask him if he's going to be able to drive. Of course, he says.
He's behaving alright though he must be at least 20 pegs down.

Dancing and dead, but walking out slowly. Friend's brother smuggles out two bottles of vodka, stuffed inside my handbag. The bag breaks. But the bottles are safe.
No issues - the bag came off Linking Road anyway. Low damages.

5.30 am.
At churchgate station... bun-maska, chai.
Sleepy drive begins. I stay awake. No cops. No breathanalyser. Cousin is sleeping. Friend is sleeping. Friend's brother is driving.
Is he sleeping? I call out to check. He says he's awake. But he drives straight into a mini-crater on the road. (Ward K, Andheri-marol! Will you never change?)
We all sit up very straight and very awake.

6.30 am. In bed.
Don't bother to remove the make-up.

8 am.
Phone rings. Damn!

12 noon.
Awake but can't bear to wake the others up, yet. So, I lie awake and resolve to not drink more than 5 cups of chai a day. Resolutions, resolutions!

1.30 pm.
Chai time.

2 pm,
Chai again. Breakfast at 4.30 pm, again in Bandra.
It feels like morning.

7 pm
I throw up. I didn't drink a drop. I don't deserve to throw up!

Sigh! Happy new year. Whatever!
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