Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reconciliation difficulties

There are times, I believe, when there can be no reconciliation. None that I can imagine.

People use that word so easily: reconciliation. Reconciling with the Taliban. With people who encourage people to stone women to death if they attempt to find love outside their miserable marriages, and cut off their noses and ears if they decide to walk out of an oppressive marriage. How does one reconcile? By saying - "Okay, now we're not enemies any more, you can go home and resume your lives. We aren't going to fight you." Is that it?

How do women reconcile themselves to that sort of reconciliation? I know there are horrors enough in my own country, democracy or not. But if there is nothing else, there is the constitution. What would I do if someone physically damaged me and I knew there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it? No filing of complaints with the police, no access to gender-neutral courts, no resolution through the local religious leaders. I keep thinking of that teenager who tried to run away from abuse and whose nose and ears were cut off. I don't know what I would do if I lived next door to her, or slept in the bed next to hers at some secret shelter for women. I might want many things from the world, but I don't think 'reconcile with the Taliban' would be one of them.

Someone has said that to watch oppression or to know that your friends, those who you considered your own, stood by and silently watched while someone else went about the business of oppression, is unforgivable.

We have more than enough evidence of growing intolerance in our backyard. If its not religious fundamentalists (any religion's fundamentalists), it's political extremism and linguistic chauvinism - all driven home through a combination of actual violence and the threat of losing your livelihood if you don't toe the line.

In a state that has a government led by a party prides itself on its secular credentials, its championing of the rights of minorities etc. A woman who refuses to wear a burqa or hijaab in an environment where everybody else does wear one is a minority. She has the right to wear what she likes. Just like a minority educational institution has the right to exist. If one right is lost, the other deserves to be lost too.

I just wish the Aliah University would remember that. And the government of West Bengal. It has no business reconciling itself to economic and social blackmail of this sort.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

some more world class

What, or rather, where do you think the writer is talking about? Subsidies on transport etc?

"You will see the shiny metros with their relatively empty coaches – with excellent security systems, I might add – but you will not get any insight on why they go empty and need large operating subsidies."

Not India, no. Not yet. He's talking about 'world-class' transport infrastructure that our politicians and bureaucrats want to emulate. He's talking about the USA.

"Upon seeing the deserted neighbourhoods, you might ask, why did Camden deteriorate? Well, the story goes like this. From the 1950′s onwards, USA embarked on a massive project to connect its cities with “interstate” highways. But rather than making cities more prosperous, these new highways precipitated the flight of the white middle class into the sparsely populated suburbs. These new suburbs were accessible only by cars, because public transport was unviable at such low population densities. As a result, a car become a basic necessity in American life and no one walked or cycled on the streets any more. Trips became longer, highways became congested and the governments built more highways to meet the demand that they themselves had artificially created."

It is a must-read and I hope the chief minister reads it. Please bring it to his attention, somebody.

The transport system in this city is a godawful mess and far too much of this mess is artificially created. Perhaps I will write about it some day from a citizen commuter's perspective. For now, there's this post.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Rs 17 crore a day. A day! And that's just the monies on record. No wonder the stakes are so high.

Maybe someone can nudge Bollywood in Bellary's direction. Only the mafia can afford to fund the kind of budgets Hindi films come up with these days, and only they can afford to digest the fantastic losses and not burp up a protest at the end of the week. What's a crore here or there, eh?

That aside, read this piece.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Speaking of which

I hope Bombay get some urinals too. I have mixed feelings about stepping out of home on a rare, clear afternoon in this gorgeous monsoon weather and the first thing I come up against is an open drain with more brown water gushing past within than the Yamuna has had for the last few decades, and then to spot a gleaming silver Esteem car, out of which a man in a pair of branded jeans emerges, struts towards the drain and urinates into it.

It is not nice at all when you have to hurry past and a little further, what do you see? Another car - a bigger, more expensive one - with another young man urinating into the same excessive ditch. I can swear that the fellow's haircut must have cost him more than six month's worth of peeing in pay-n-use toilets in the cities. It really is time we got public urinals on every other street with massive fines for not using them.

Love, like, hate, hope.

One has to love this country. If, in the midst of a minor parliamentary crisis in one of our most populous states, you can have images like these... I mean, one is appalled. And one has to love this country.

You must have read the morning papers, so I don't need to reproduce the photos but if you haven't, go look at the links.

And one also has to wonder at this country. A country that gets rid of its poor, its homeless, its desperate and hardest working people, even its dogs and bullocks and rats and snakes and elephants - all of which we worship - so that white people are not shocked when they look at us.

This is a disturbing article. Packing off 75,000 beggars, sending them out of Delhi? Not to mention 250,000 stray dogs.

Someone mentioned this on Facebook:"75,000 beggars, 60,000 pavement squatters, 800,000 slum-dwellers and 250,000 dogs" compete with "26 new flyovers, 18 railway bridges, 3,775 low-floor buses" for an Oct 3-14 (Nero's?) party whose budget inflated from initial $413m to an estimated official figure of $2bn (unofficial estimates of $6bn)"

What shocked me more than the statistics or the article itself was the response. One gentleman left a comment saying: ' is a natural tendency and even I like to clean up my house and 'push things under the carpet' whenever I ve visitors at home although there is no human cost attached to it.'

I couldn't get past that one word 'things'. Things? Things under the carpet? And 'my house'?

And that was just it. That is one of the most telling narratives about why we cannot treat ourselves with the respect we deserve as citizens. Because some of us view other people as 'things'. Dirty, messy, extraneous rags that you need around the house because what else will you use when you mop up your floors? Like servants - the people who migrate from villages that have been made poorer over the years - who you assume have no purpose in life except to come shine your floors and clean the fungus off your rotting furniture and pull your cycle rickshaws. And when the nice visitors come, it is time to brush them under the carpet. Keep the mess in the kitchen, or under the bed, or pack off the guy who sleeps on the rickshaw at night back to some village since you are so afraid that the nice visitors might be shocked at how messy your rags are.

What makes us so ugly? What does it cost the state to start looking upon people as citizens?

And beggars and pavement-dwellers are citizens. They're citizens [notwithstanding snarky attempts by the West Bengal official quoted in the article who suggests that despite being Bengali-speaking, the beggars may well be Bangladeshi, which of course would mean that the state will not have them stay. Because Bangladeshi beggars don't deserve to live, right?] and they have a right to be in the house. It's their house too. It's our house.

I am sick of people complaining about migrants and slum-dwellers who mess up your 'developed' cities. This is how cities develop. Maybe we should teach children in their history lessons in school. Cities are centres of power and they grow bigger because there is a lot of administrative and service-sector work available. But hardly ever have cities been planned to accommodate a set number of people with all the facilities they need, pre-fabricated and easily available. When population growth happens, then the state realises that it needs to expand services and citizens realise there is a larger business opportunity. That is why builders and carpenters, sweepers and restaurant-owners stay. That is how they grow. How can a builder possibly lay larger claims to the city than the labourer he brought in to build his building? How can we who live in these buildings forget that the labourer has at least a right to sleep on the streets, if we cannot find him affordable housing?

Cities like Bombay and Delhi develop explosively when there is a problem in other parts of the country. We know that. We know that displacement and drought and water and electricity are a problem. We read newspapers. We know we don't have our own water bodies, not enough to meet our needs. So we take water from villages settled beside rivers. We use their water to build dams and generate electricity to light our streets and give us air-conditioning. Then they don't have enough water and so they come to cities. And we accuse them of stealing water and electricity. Of messing up our cities. We are distressed by their presence because they are things that will need to be brushed under the carpet when nice clean visitors come visiting.

Phew! Okay, so I've let off steam. And now to go back to the article, the one positive thing I spotted was that the MCD will be building 10,000 public urinals and fining people for spitting. Hallelujah! Yippies! I hope they do. I hope the snake-charmers don't show up until after the games begin, though. It will be so much nicer for the nice, clean visitors to get a chance to watch the charmers in action. The snakes might frighten them, true, but think of how much it will boost tourism after the games are over. Delhi will be full of foreign people armed with snake-repellents and cameras and hoping to catch a glimpse of SRK playing the been.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The T-nT girls

Saw this piece, thanks to Nilanjana.

American women reporters were barred from press briefings, banned from going nearer to the front than the nurses in the field, and were not provided by the military with transport, as their male colleagues were.

Most galling, however, women reporters had to wait to submit their reports until after the men. Similarly, when the British government accredited 558 writers, radio journalists and photographers to cover the D-day landings, not one was a woman (even though many women had both seen and reported the Blitz three years earlier).

Some women war correspondents wrote under different names.

From inside Germany she reported on the hundreds of anti-Semitic laws passed, the beatings (and worse) meted out to those opposing Hitler, and the building of a concentration camp at Dachau in 1933.

When her articles raised Nazi hackles she began to publish stories under the name John Dickson, a reporter apparently living in Paris.

Also, there were women like Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway's wife and, later, professional rival... Tall and leggy, her shoulder-length hair worn loose, Gellhorn chased her stories in tweeds and gowns.

She pitched a piece to Vogue on 'the beauty problems of the middle-aged woman' that paid for her ticket. 'I am going to Spain with the boys,' she wrote to a family friend. 'I don't know who the boys are, but I am going with them.'

But her marriage to Hemingway ended when he pitched for a job she had been chasing. He got the job. But she got the scoop. Here's how:

She boarded a hospital ship and locked herself in the bathroom until it sailed from port, emerging during the crossing to help take in the wounded... was among the first on the beach at Normandy, scooping Hemingway in the end, to file a story about the wounded that humanised the cost of the victorious assault.

The piece is absolutely enriching and for many, many women writers, will also be liberating. I might even buy the novel written by the author, though I have to confess I'd much rather have read a non-fiction account.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

lies, fines, and libel

Monsanto has been a bad boy again! And has got one little rap on the knuckles for its lying, legal wigglsomeness. Makes you wonder... a company that afford to pay $2.5 million as a fine, for a single misbranding episode on a single seed species... how large must the global food pie be and just how high the stakes? And if the stakes are really so high, how much lies will food companies tell?

No wonder food and agri companies are fighting so very hard to lobby for lax food labeling laws, to the extent of getting states in the USA to pass 'food slander' laws. Now you cannot point to a certain food and say its bad for your health, not unless you have pockets deep enough for a courtroom battle. It sets a dangerous precedent in my view.

I mean, in the past, Macdonald's has defended itself in court claiming to serve healthy food, while accusing activists of libel. "David Green, McDonald’s Senior Vice-President of Marketing (USA), stated 'McDonald's food is nutritious' and 'healthy'. When asked what the company meant by 'nutritious' he said: 'provides nutrients and can be a part of a healthy balanced diet'. He admitted this could also apply to a packet of sweets [candy]. When asked if Coca Cola is 'nutritious' he replied that it is 'providing water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet'. He agreed that by his definition Coke is ‘nutritious’. "

The case, incidentally, is known as Mclibel and for those who are keen, there's a website detailing the long legal battle. It is worthwhile reading if for no other reason than to be inspired by how two regular people with difficulties in their own personal and professional lives, who obviously had much better uses for their time and very limited reserves of money, chose to stand up for their beliefs, to see how they refused to get bullied by a big company with deep pockets, and how it is possible to win sometimes, even if you lose.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Terrors, past and present

I've been away for a bit. Traveling in Madhya Pradesh, trying to reach a more clear understanding of displacement, particularly that of tribal populations, and state policy. Saw a lot of interesting stuff that I am still processing. Might post bits and pieces over the next new weeks.

In the meantime, here's a lot to chew on: did you know that there was a Jewish terrorism before there was a Palestinian one? That a former Israeli PM was once a wanted man with a hundred thousand pounds on his head? Did you know who bin Laden was ,before he was considered a threat?

This is a great piece on terrorism - understanding it, defining it, combating it. Without acknowledging that 'terror' has often been a word used to come down hard on people who were oppressed, or dismissed, or treated unfairly, India doesn't have a chance in hell of resolving her own 'internal security threats'. What a pity that the author is already dead. Now is when he is needed most to talk sense, particularly in India.

And here is a very simple, straightforward introduction to the way India is entangling itself in multiple cycles of threat, dismissal and resentment. A four step process that basically boils down to - first you ignore them, then you oppress them, then you dismiss their protests and oppress them some more, and when they force you to listen, you ignore the real issues anyway.

It is interesting, what the piece says about Madhya Pradesh being one of the few states that has theoretically agreed on consulting with the gram sabhas before taking any major decision that might translate into capturing local resources. I will remember to factor that in when I think about the stuff I've been seeing and listening to.

Both must-reads.
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