India Uncut

This blog has moved to its own domain. Please visit for the all-new India Uncut and bookmark it. The new site has much more content and some new sections, and you can read about them here and here. You can subscribe to full RSS feeds of all the sections from here. This blogspot site will no longer be updated, except in case of emergencies, if the main site suffers a prolonged outage. Thanks - Amit.

Friday, December 31, 2004

A picture of hell, and no kerosene

It’s five kilometres of hell, and it’s right here at Nagapattinam.

Kaviarsi studies – make that studied – in the sixth standard. Her schoolbooks lie a short distance away, and besides them lies a doll. The girl herself lies on a makeshift pyre on what used to be her home, her face totally blackened, her neck twisted upwards, the skin peeling off her legs like torn stockings. There is a large empty container of Pepsi lying just besides her, and four other bodies. And besides the pyre, towards the sunset, are five long kilometers of slushy wasteland strewn with dead bodies.

It wasn’t like this five days ago. We – me and two companions – are at a part of Nagapattinam called Akkarapettai, where a prosperous fishing community lived. There is a five-kilometre-long stretch of land here that was filled with houses, and had at its heart a bustling Sunday marketplace. The people here were well off – some of them had expensive fishing launches costing many lakhs of rupees. Then the tsunami came.

These settlements begin half a kilometre from the sea, across the road, but the tsunami swept everything away. Every single house was flooded away, all the way till the end of the stretch, and when I went there, I just saw one long expanse of slush. In the distance, there were pyres burning.

Dr Narasimhan, a man I’d wanted to meet, who heads a team of relief workers that has come down from Salem, told me when I called him that we had to walk into that expanse, beyond the pyres. “Walk towards the sunset till you find me,” he said, and we did.

It took us half-an-hour to traverse the half-kilometre or so until we reached him. The ground was like quicksand in parts, and our shoes would sink in with each step and resist our attempts to lift our feet again. We came across dead bodies on the way: a young girl in a basket, her limbs akimbo, and her face, with some dried blood on it, contorted in an expression that even Damien Hirst would have found too macabre. Three feet away from her lay a woman, with a frozen look of horror on her face, etched into an eerie permanence.

“In an unprecedented situation, you need an unprecedented response”

“For the next five kilometres,” Dr Narsimhan motion towards the setting sun, “you will find bodies everywhere. Only the distance you have walked so far – around half a kilometre – has been cleared of corpses. This is the furthest point till which bodies have been cleared. There is so much work to be done.”

“It’s five days since the tsunami happened,” I say. “Why is this place so deserted, why hasn’t all this been sorted?”

Dr Narasimhan sighs. “Sorted,” he asks. “All that the government has been doing is lining the streets outside with bleaching powder. They are not interested in coming here, they left this to the NGOs. And look at this.” He extends his hands towards me. “We’re doing all the work of moving bodies with surgical gloves made of latex, which are no protection against cuts and bruises.”

I had heard about this before I arrived here, in Pondicherry, where Aid workers had complained that the locals in Nagapattinam had refused to help out in clearing the bodies, and when the aid workers got down to it with their latex gloves, the bodies had started decomposing, and were difficult to manouver, with a limb prone to just falling away from the rest of the corpse.

“We need heavy earth-moving equipment,” he had said. “That way the bodies can be shifted en masse and given a mass burial. That is the only way to deal with this situation.” Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s petroleum minister, had announced on TV four days ago that such equipment was at the top of his wishlist of aid. Then why did it not materialise? Could the government not mobilise its resources even that much?

But that need is redundant now, says Dr Narsimhan. “What we need now,” he says, “is kerosene. We need to burn bodies as we come along them on this stretch, before they decompose further. And we have no kerosene.

“We’ve been calling aid agencies and so on asking for fuel to burn the bodies with,” he continues, “but we got none. We managed to file some cans of kerosene lying around some of the devastated houses, but there’s no more of even that?”

“But can’t the government give you kerosene?” I ask astonished.

“The government does nothing,” he says. “I thought differently till I came here, but now I’ve seen it for myself. Everything is left to the junior IAS officers, who are in meetings all day. Ministers come, and all they want to know is how many people are dead. They don’t care about relief work at all. In an unprecedented situation you need an unprecedented response. But that has not happened.”

The temple without a toilet

Dr Narsimhan gets back to his work, and I look up, where a helicoptor moves languidly across the sky. “That’s the fifth one today,” says a lady who is part of the doctor’s team.

“They come and ‘survey’ the area,which is so pointless, because you cannot actually see the dead bodies from here amid this debris. It is just a show, to reassure themselves that they’re on top of things. The army officers who come here, they refuse to even touch the bodies. They just hang around aimlessly.”

I ask the lady what she does, and she says that she is a journalist, but would like to remain unnamed for my story. “I have come here to help out and not report,” she says. “That is more important for me.” I look down, ashamed.

She has been here for three days, and I ask her why, mucky though it may be, the place doesn’t have any people looking for their loved ones. “Because the entire community is wiped out,” she says. “There aren’t too many relatives left of the people who have died here, and those that are have become resigned to their loss.”

“Have you been to any of the refugee camps?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she says. “I went to a refugee camp yesterday where there were 1500 homeless people. And not one toilet. Do you know why?

“Because the camp was based in a temple,” she continues, “and you cannot build a toilet in a temple. And I’d gone there to speak to them on health issues! And they cannot even wash their hands.

“And this is not an isolated example. There are scores of refugee camps like this. I hardly call this relief work.”

And how are the NGOs handling the situation, I ask.”Oh, they are doing all the work,the government is doing nothing,” she says. “But even they are competitive, trying hard to stake a claim to territory.” I had noticed a similar tendency when I was on my way here, with many trucks adorned with banners proclaiming the name of the relief agency involved. The organisation I had chosen to travel with, Aid India, was an exception, though, working hard and sincerely to solve every problem that arose.

So why haven’t the press written about this, I ask her. “The press,” she snorts. “The journalists from the Hindu are all flying around with dignitaries. That is the kind of reporting they do.”

The sun has set, and there is a column of smoke rising from the pyres flowing in the direction where the sun was. It is New Year’s eve. I say goodbye to Narasimhan and my unnamed journalist friend, and I do not wish them a happy new year. I wish them kerosene.
amit varma, 11:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Despatches 6: Politics

People have died, but politics lives on. A strange game of politics in so in Tamil Nadu. J Jayalalitha is the chief minister of the state and controls a TV channel, Jaya TV. M Karunanidhi is her chief rival and controls Sun TV. Sun TV keeps showing news that portrays the government’s relief efforts in a bad light, and Jaya TV paints quite the opposite picture. Every disaster, after all, is an opportunity to score a few political brownie points. And the lives which have been lost? Well, shit happens.
amit varma, 11:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Despatches 5: Three boats and a bridge

Karaikal is a town which was once a French colony, and the policemen still wear kepis there. There is an inlet into the town from the sea, and a bridge over this inlet a kilometre in. It is about eight metres over the regular level of the water. Yet, when the tsunami came, the level of the water rose so much that as many as three boats crashed onto the bridge, from where two were later toppled. One is still stuck to the side of it.
amit varma, 11:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Despatches 4: The collector

At Parangipettai we notice a crowd gathered in a compound, littered with old clothes that people are walking on. We walk in, on a wall there are posters of dead people, kept there for identification. There is one with the faces of six dead babies, their heads bloated, their faces contorted in a bizarre manner. What mother could bear to see this?

Inside, speaking to community leaders, is the milk and dairy development minister of India, S Ramachandran. He is busy speaking to people, but we corner the man who seems to be in charge of things. He is the sub-collector here, and his name is Rajendra Ratnoo.

“We are planning for the long term,” Ratnoo tells us. “When the disaster happened we set up community kitchens and fed them, but we encouraged them after that to go back to their homes and cook, and they did just that. We don’t just want to take care of their short-term needs and let them go. We need to give them their livelihoods back.”

Ratnoo tells us that the government has just approved a package whereby every fisherman who lost a boat will get a new boat (each boat costs Rs one lakh). They will also be given life-support systems, and until they are self-sufficient again, they will be given support like free rations etc.

“What do you think of the role the NGOs are playing in this?” I ask.

“They are duplicating work,” he says. “First of all, they are getting too many clothes. They come and throw piles of clothes on the street and they feel like they have done a great deed. And the ones who don’t get clothes end up duplicating each other’s efforts. They should just come here and coordinate with us.” I am impressed by the man’s sincerity, but I know only too well that the governmental systems have been utterly ineffective all across the affected areas.

He ends on an interesting note. He tells us of a village called Sasniyarpettai, by the coast, where he conducted disaster managements courses two months ago for floods and cyclones. Villagers were assigned different responsibilities, and techniques like how to hang on to tree stumps were practised. When the tsunami struck, only 22 out of 3000 villagers died, a fantastic percentage for a village like that.

So even if forewarned is not always possible, fore-prepared can also save lives.
amit varma, 11:44 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Despatches 3: The big house

Periye Veedu is how Raja describes his house. Raja’s house is marked with water, a waterline of about six feet outside and five inside – you climb a step to go in – but the water clearly hit higher. A clock high on the wall is frozen at 8.40, and there are markings of water besides it. A shattered television set lies on the floor. There are many film posters on the wall, of Bhoomika and Vijay and Ramba. There is also a poster of a scene from nature with a large caption that says, “When fortune knocks, open the door.”

When misfortune knocked Raja was away at sea with his brother. Their wives were at home, with their kids, the 18-month-old Viswa and the 8-month-old Monsa. At sea, Raja did not notice much – tsunamis are not felt so prominently on the sea, and begin to rise noticably when they reach the shore. But when they returned to shore, their children were dead. And the clock had stopped.
amit varma, 11:41 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Despatches 2: The waterline

We reach a village called Pudupettai, near Parangipettai, and halt our car about a kilometre from the sea. We get down from our Qualis and walk towards the sea, and as we get closer, we notice an interesting thing. Every building on our way has permanent markings on the walls that indicate the level at which the water settled when it stopped gushing forward. It’s five feet high at the building near which we get down, and starts climbing with every house we pass, till it’s seven feet, eight feet, nine feet, a record of where things stood. This does not indicate the height of the waves, of course, many of which crashed much higher, but the level at which the water remained for a long time before receding.

As the years go by, no doubt, these walls will be washed clean, one by one. Will the memories go too?
amit varma, 11:36 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Despatches 1: Clothes and garbage

All the way from Chennai to Nagapattinum through Pondicherry, Cuddalore and Karaikal, I see clothes. Heaps of clothes strewn across the road like punctuation marks in a mad sentence. From a distance, many of them look much like Mumbai’s garbage dumps, splashes of colour on a dirty heap. In Mumbai, those splashes of colour are plastic bags; in Tamil Nadu, they are used clothes.

I had written in my previous post that sending clothes was futile and pointless, but people keep doing it anyway, and most of the relief trucks that we pass are packed with used clothes. Every local we speak to ridicules the idea of wearing those clothes, but they keep on coming in an unstoppable tide. Crises like this represent a good chance for city people to empty their cupboard of old and unwanted clothes, but are they shedding some kind of guilt as well? I wonder.

(Dilip D’Souza, my travelling companion, took pictures at many of the places I will write about in my despatches, but on an SLR that is not digital. Those pics will be uploaded in a few days’ time. Saransh Mehta, a software engineer who travelled with us, was invaluable for his translating skills and his good cheer.)
amit varma, 11:30 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, December 30, 2004


In a couple of hours time, I head for Cuddalore, with a team from Aid India, one of the hardest working aid organisations on the field. I don't think I'll be able to blog from there, but I will come back and write about it. Just one note before I go: don't donate any more clothes. Dilip mentioned it in a piece some time back, and Aid India mentioned it in a post on the SEA EAT blog, that old clothes, although people love to clear out their cupboards and donate them, generally go waste, and often lie strewn around disaster areas. Even poor people don't fancy old clothes, especially when they've never worn anything like it before. I spotted sweaters in a box of clothes that came into Aid India today, and that is just ridiculous.

I'll be back in 2005. Seems a year away.
amit varma, 3:52 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Headed South

In a few hours, I shall be on a flight to Chennai, and I intend to visit some of the affected areas from there, both to write and to help. One of my companions on this journey, already waiting for me there, is Dilip D'Souza, no stranger to catastrophe. I intend to blog as much as I can - indeed, I think it is important to do so - but connectivity, as you can imagine, is likely to be a problem. So in case you find me not posting for longer periods than usual, then, as they say on Dilip's favourite TV channel, rukawat ke liye khed hai.
amit varma, 11:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Discretion in donation

Finally, Ravikiran Rao is back, blogging again at The Examined Life. He brings up a point that many of us, caught up in the desire to do something, anything, to help, have overlooked: that it's not enough just to donate, but to make sure that we donate wisely.

As I had stressed before, much of what is given to the government is wasted because of shoddy implementation and corruption. Yes, even during a disaster, and perhaps especially so. But not all NGOs are efficient, and many of those that are tend to focus, naturally, on immediate short-term needs rather than long-term rehabilitation. Ravikiran says, and I couldn't agree more: "[W]ith the glare of publicity, I am sure there will be attention focused on the short term, but when our attention wavers, I am sure that the longer-term activities will get neglected."

He solicits advice on whom to donate to. If you have any ideas, do go over and comment on his post. As for me, at the moment, I don't have a clue. But I intend to edge closer to finding out.
amit varma, 11:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |


The refresh button has redeemed itself. A couple of days back I had blogged about how clicking that damn button was getting almost traumatic, with every refresh revealing a rise in the death toll. Well, refreshing that button feels a little better today. Take a look at the Amazon page for donating to the Red Cross. There's a figure on the right which indicates donations made so far. Seen it? Now refresh.

When I first came across this page, barely a few hours ago, it was $400,000. Since then it has soared, as more and more people have put their money where their hearts clearly are.

Now let's just hope the money goes where it's intended to. Trust an Indian to be worried about that.
amit varma, 11:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Misguided bravado

The Indian government has turned down foreign aid, saying that it has "adequate resources", and the UN has said, glumly, that it can't go where it is not wanted. This is a curious turn of events. There are two possible reasons for the Indian government's behaviour.

One, it believes that it has the situation covered, is on top of the relief work required, and that this work will be most efficient if handled centrally. There is some logic to this: other organisations, also feeling that foreign aid had to be directed in a planned manner, had called recently for the UN to take charge of all relief efforts. The Indian government clearly feels that it is best placed to do that job in India.

Two, the government is behaving with misguided patriotism, and adopting an attitude of "oh, we're self-sufficient, we don't need anybody's help". A similar attitude was in evidence a couple of years back when Bill Gates visited India to help in the struggle against AIDS, and the then-health minister, Shatrughan Sinha, denied that India had a problem with AIDS at all.

Of the two, I suspect that the second reason is the real cause for India's refusal of foreign aid, and the first one is the rationalisation of it. Still, for now, we must give the government the benefit of doubt. But its relief work has been far from adequate in the past, and the inadequacy of government infrastructure is indicated by the regular famines that take place despite a net excess of foodgrains. Its delivery systems are flawed, and at a time of such a crisis, with a possible epidemic looming, India should have gladly taken all the help it could get.

Update (December 30): The Indian government clarifies its stand. Pranab Mukherjee says that India is not turning down those who want to give foreign aid, merely "telling them to wait for some time. Right now, India has the necessary funds. Only after that is disbursed will we be willing to accept all and any aid that comes our way."

Sounds fair to me. Perhaps I was a bit harsh to rush to judgement.
amit varma, 4:56 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Almost a nuclear disaster

Terrible as the consequences of the tsumani were, they could have been worse. One of the areas hit by the giant waves was Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, where the Madras Atomic Power Station is located. Had that been damaged, the resultant radioactive leak could have led to far greater losses. Thankfully, we are now told that no damage was done to the plant. However, officials did admit that the possibility of a tsunami had not been taken into account when the plant was built, and there were no safety measures in place for that calamity. It is, thus, luck and not foresight that saved the residents of the state from an even greater tragedy.
amit varma, 1:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The turning earth

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How can we sleep when our beds are burning?
From Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil.

Not only did the earthquake change the map of Asia, shifting Sumatra to the Southwest, but it even shifted the axis of the earth, according to experts. So what are you doing on New Year’s eve?
amit varma, 1:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Too many benevolent cooks

Aid agencies have started calling for the UN to take charge of the relief efforts, saying that the scale of the operations is so vast that central coordination is needed. The Guardian quoted Louis Michel, the EU commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid, as saying: “I am very anxious about the linkage between the emergency phase and the second phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction. If there is a gap between the two phases, I think it will have catastrophic consequences.”

There is, certainly, a large amount of waste that takes place in the process of giving relief, much of it by the government. Relief that is badly planned and administered can lead to disaster, as well – for more on this, read this essay.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s petroleum minister, who has been touring Tamil Nadu looking after the relief operation there, said yesterday in a television interview that one of the first items on his list of priorities for aid was “heavy earth-moving equipment”. The debris needed to be cleared, he said. I wonder how much help he would have received in that regard by now. Meanwhile people in my neighbourhood are rushing out to donate old clothes, most of which, I am sure, will be wasted.
amit varma, 1:05 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The end of innocence

One of the most harrowing images on the TV screens in the last two days has been that of hordes of children lying dead besides a road somewhere, with a local man spreading milk powder over them. At least one-third of the victims of this catastrophe are said to be children, and not all of them are as lucky as Hannes Bergstrom.
amit varma, 1:03 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it?

AFP reports that despite the massive devastation across South and South-East Asia, foreign insurers are “tipped to escape tsunami unscathed”. Unless they were holidaying there, of course.
amit varma, 1:00 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The power of wiki

Quite the most impressive online resource on the earthquake is the page devoted to it on Wikipedia. A wiki, for those not in the know, is a collaborative online site that allows anybody – and includes you – to contribute to it. You might expect it to be chaotic, but have a look at any of Wikipedia’s pages, and you will see a comprehensive, balanced and user-friendly source of information. While you’re at it, contrast the spontaneous order of the wiki with the centrally planned chaos of government machinery.
amit varma, 10:49 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Tsunami? What tsunami?

Never accuse the Indian media of good taste. Mumbai Newsline, the city supplement of the Indian Express, has carried a story today about how celebrities plan to celebrate the new year. Needless to say all the people interviewed were planning to have a blast to bring in 2005. Prahlad Kakkar, the ad film-maker, recounted a diving party he once had, and said: "This year too, I hope we celebrate our New Year’s eve underwater."

Plenty of people will do just that, Mr Kakkar. But perhaps you haven't heard.
amit varma, 1:42 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The loneliness of the long distance runner

Anil Ambani has been outmanouvered again by his brother, but has also spoken out to the press, telling them that “there is more than what meets the eyes in terms of what is happening in the market place”, in the context of the buybacks that he couldn’t prevent. The whole fracas seems set to end in a loss-loss situation. Anil, who enjoys running long distances, is certainly no lambi race ka ghoda. But Reliance was, until this happened.

Also read an earlier post of mine, “The blind faith that drove Reliance”.
amit varma, 1:38 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

If you want to help ...

In case you want to contribute to the relief effort, the SEA-EAT blog is a useful site, with lots of information on "resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts". It's an excellent initiative by as many as 15 bloggers.

Also read this post by Saheli Datta listing out organisations you could donate to, and considering future modes of prevention.
amit varma, 1:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, December 27, 2004

The rising

The refresh button scares me. Since yesterday, every time I've clicked on it, I've found that a few more hundred, perhaps a few more thousand, have died. Yesterday, this time, it was about 2000 "feared dead". Now it's 21,000 confirmed dead, with thousands more missing.

And it isn't over. The UN has issued a warning that epidemics might affect thousands more, with the infrastructure in all the affected areas having broken down badly. Getting clean drinking water is a huge problem in many of these places, and millions have been left homeless. That death toll, unfortunately, will keep rising.

In case you wish to help, The Acorn lists out relief agencies that are accepting donations.
amit varma, 5:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Memories of another tragedy

A terrible tragedy is unfolding across Asia, and it takes my mind back more than a decade, to a place I don’t much like to go. On September 30 1993, an earthquake hit Maharashtra, the state where I live in India, and killed more than 10,000 people. I was in my last year of college then, in Pune, far enough from the epicenter to hardly feel the tremors, but close enough to get there within a day if I so wanted. There was a reason to go – an organisation from my college took the initiative to collect a substantial amount in relief funds, but did not want to give it to any of the organisations calling for donations, as it was unsure the money would be used properly (rightly, as it turned out). It was decided that three or four guys would go themselves to the affected areas and figure out there how best to use the money. I was one of them.

We travelled with a team of doctors in a mobile hospital, a cross between a mini-bus and an ambulance. I won’t bore you with a chronicle of what happened there, but here are some interesting, and instructive, snippets.

Snippet one – At one point we were in a village where virtually no house was intact, and a quarter had been flattened. Only one ration-paani ki dukaan – provision store – was open, and the prices of all the commodities there had gone up by about a factor of five. There were no other provisions left in the village, and there were enough buyers. A friend and I asked the gentleman running it whether it wasn’t downright wrong to raise prices at such a time. “Kya kare, apna bhi khyaal rakhna padta hai,” he said (“I need to look after myself, you see”). As we were speaking to him, we saw a motorcade – three Ambassadors and a Jeep or a Gypsy – drive in from the distance. Many villagers went and gathered around it, and so did we, to see what was up. A minister stepped out of the car.

All the villagers started speaking at once, pointing out different kinds of problems, asking for help. He looked right through them, his eyes scanning the horizon. Then he strode purposefully towards a ruined building and his minions cleared the way. It was here that I realised that a couple of journalists were part of his entourage, and one photographer.

The minister, in spotless white starched kurta-pajama, went and stood besides the building, and asked one of his aides, “Yeh theek hai?” Is this ok? The aide said it was. He then instructed the photographer to take up position. The minister stood besides a suitably demolished structure, and an expression of empathy swept across his face. The photographer got into position. A boy entered the frame, and was shooed away. Click.

Then they all went away, as the villagers looked around, bewildered.

Had I seen this in a Bollywood film, where politicians are so often the villains, I would have thought, “there they go again, caricaturing those poor guys madly.” But this had just happened in front of me! The earthquake as an opportunity for profit, and public relations.

Snippet two – Not long after this, we were at a municipal office, where I bumped into the mayor of a rich industrial township on the outskirts of Pune. I happened to know him because his son was one of my classmates in college. So I went and started chatting with him. I assumed that he must be here for relief work, to do what he could, and I asked him how things were going, what he was doing. “We have adopted a village,” he boomed. “We have adopted a village and its people, and we shall rehabilitate them. We shall leave no stone unturned. It is our duty, you see.”

I was impressed. Civic duty and all that. The man had seemed to me, in the past, to be just another crude, amoral politician, and here he had adopted a village. “Wow,” I said, “that’s amazing. Are you going there soon? Can I come along?”

“No, I am heading back home now,” he announced, “but all arrangements have been made. We have adopted a village.”

He flounced around and left. A few minutes later I was told, by an official in the know, that the village he named was far from the epicenter, and nothing had happened there. Not a thing. It was all just a public relations gimmick.

Snippet three – The team of doctors I was with went to a local hospital, figuring it a good place to base themselves. They found that there were hardly any medicines there, even basic ones. In fact, the people at the hospital were convincing them to hand over the ones they had brought with them. Wisely, they refused, and went on the road.

Later, I got to know through officials that tons and tons of medicines were reaching the area, but were being diverted at supply centers and hospitals. A booming black market had developed in these medicines – they had come for free, so anything you could sell them for was profit. They would come into Latur (the district where much of the “action” was) and they would pan out from there across the country. Many of the hospitals just didn’t have any medicines, and the doctors I was with, who had come prepared with stocks of medicine, were far more useful than even they had imagined they would be.

In fact, it wasn’t just medicines that were being traded this way. Many countries donated all kinds of emergency material, from food supplies to blankets and so on. An enormous industry opened around all these relief materials. Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister through the second half of the 80s, had once estimated that 85% of the funds allocated for rural development never reached their intended recepient. On the basis of what I saw and heard, I’d say that he probably underestimated the amount of wastage.

The government was hopeless, but there was reason for hope. Armies of social workers and NGOs swept into action when the earthquake happened, doing whatever little they could to help without thought of benefit to themselves. (In fact, a similar pattern took place during the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, when private organisations, run by people with passion and commitment instead of tenured government servants, did the bulk of the relief work.) The minister in the first snippet above was, in fact, typical of his breed; the shopkeeper wasn’t.

Interestingly, most of the Indian media did not mention the malpractices going on regarding the relief work. Sunday, that excellent, and now-defunct, news magazine edited by Vir Sanghvi reported it honestly and well, but there was little about it elsewhere that I noticed. (The Gujarat earthquake received better coverage, though.) Were the other journalists simply inured to this kind of callousness and corruption? Were they happy to just file the easiest story they could find, the ones fed to them by official sources, and meet their deadlines? Being a journalist myself today, I remind myself of Latur whenever I find myself getting cynical – and that is, sadly, all too often.

And now we have been struck again, and watching the news, reading about what is happening, I feel numb. When something like 9/11 happens, you can feel anger, and go out there and do something about it. When something like 9/30 or 12/26 happens, what the hell can you do? Who do you blame, who do you fight? What can you feel but despair? Those who are in the position to help out do all they can – and thankfully there are many such men and women across this country. But they know, too, that we’re helpless when it comes to battling nature. We might be on top of the food chain, but we’re as vulnerable as the rest of animalkind.

Update – The returning sea: Pankaj Poddar writes in with a touching Japanese fairy tale about a Tsunami. And in case you wondered if my experiences during the Latur earthquake were something unusual, read Dilip D’Souza on his experiences in disaster-hit areas.

Also, here are some bloggers across Asia who have been posting on this crisis: Jeff Ooi. Peter Tan. Rajan Rishyakaran. Nitin Pai. Links via Instapundit.
amit varma, 6:36 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The secret behind our grandparents' good health

... is Namaste.
amit varma, 8:29 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Pornographic state

The police in Jharkhand is all fired up because on the internet, their state leads to porn. A recent discovery that is a gateway to a porn site has agitated residents of Jharkhand, some of whom no doubt wistfully wish that the state was as raunchy offline as online.

For more such contrasts, also go to, where the homepage is all about peace and non-violence. Nice.
amit varma, 8:22 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Karl Popper of Bollywood

I really think this business of predicting trends is an over-simplification. Of the 200 films that are made every year, we tend to look at three or four handpicked ones and say, well, this film did well because of a patriotic subject, or sex films are the future trend, when in fact sleazy films like Her Nights, as a genre, have been prevalent for years.

Shah Rukh Khan debunks the historicism prevalent in the Hindi film industry.
amit varma, 8:15 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

From Kavita to Anna

Who are the most memorable characters you have seen in Indian cinema? Abbas Tyrewala, one of Bollywood's brightest young talents, with scripts of films like Main Hoon Na, Munnabhai MBBS and Maqbool to his name, picks his top ten.
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Saturday, December 25, 2004

Wow, Manmohan wished me!

Top headline on the Hindu website today: "President, PM greet people on Christmas". How on earth is this remotely newsworthy? What will they come up with next?

Hmm, let's see. Today is Atal Behari Vajpayee's 80th birthday anniversary, so what about "Vajpayee cuts birthday cake"? Or, to shift to non-political celebrities, "Bollywood couple issue pre-emptive denial of soon-to-be-alleged relationship"? But I shouldn't complain, I guess, or I might be presented a newsworthy headline like "Avnish Bajaj arrested in Shankaracharya case". Better boring than downright depressing.

Now that I've got that off my chest, Merry Christmas. I turn 31 tomorrow, btw. It isn't easy.

Update – Rediff reports: "Vajpayee turns 80".

Update 2 (July 25, 2005): I'd mistakenly written "Adi Shankaracharya" in this post instead of "Shankaracharya". A reader pointed this out now, thus the late change. The mistake is regretted.
amit varma, 10:06 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Camembert this

Some terrific little riffs by Dilip D'Souza here. A sampler:

My wife, she teaches French. Likes all things French. Most especially, cheese. In France, cheeses come with these crazy names that leave me baffled.

She'll yell "Do you want chevre cheese?" And I'll say "Sure I want to share cheese, but watch your grammar!" And she'll say "Leave my grandma out of this, OK? My grandpa too!" Which is how we get into a fight.

Then she'll say "Camembert cheese?" And I'll say "If you cannot bear cheese, why the hell are you eating it?" And we get into another fight. I'm coming to the conclusion I cannot stand cheese. Camembert cheese, actually.
amit varma, 9:33 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Plastic surgery

Jaithirth Rao, discussing the problem India faces with plastic waste, says:

Our left-leaning, liberal, socialistic (can anyone tell me the difference between socialist and socialistic?) jholawalla intellectuals have a simple solution. Let us ban plastic. It must, after all, be contributing to filthy multi-national profits. They would also ban cars to eliminate exhaust pollution and ban thermometers in the hope that not measuring temperatures will eliminate fevers. In any other country, the logical response would be to set up a system to collect and dispose of plastic so that it does not disfigure our land. No, this would be too simple and logical for us. Only steps which involve cutting-off-our-noses-to-spite-our-faces will do!
amit varma, 9:04 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, December 24, 2004

From thought to action

Until 2004, says Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, "India was global more in thought than in action." But all that changed this year. Read his piece, "The global Indian economy", to find out why.

In the same issue of Business World, Ashok Desai asks whether SEBI is a watchdog or a lapdog.
amit varma, 10:42 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Nonita's 35

The editor of Elle India reveals her age.
amit varma, 10:12 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Well known, little known

After an hour-and-a-half of trawling through all the obituaries and tributes written for PV Narasimha Rao, let me present to you the one that sums him up best: "He will now confound the angels", by Ashok Malik in the Indian Express.

And in so many of the others, dead prose for a dead man. We live in the age of the cliche, and even that sounds familiar.
amit varma, 9:19 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"Please Don't Go To Sex Sites"

One of the signs put up by cyber-cafe owners all across India. IANS reports that cyber cafe owners are terrified that if Avnish Bajaj could have been arrested for goods sold on his auction site, they too can get into trouble if someone does something objectionable from their outlet. And in their case, Condy Rice won't bother to protest.
amit varma, 6:55 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bechara Bajaj

The gods are angry with Avnish Bajaj. The poor guy just barely got bail in the DPS MMS scandal, and now the police is hounding him on another issue. Indian Express reports that "[t]he Social Service Branch of the Mumbai Police has sent a notice to the office of [sic] about a seizure of fake branded goods allegedly being sold over the website."

Meanwhile, the government is apparently planning to revamp its cyber law. Bajaj's hair may well be white by then and, as the dialogue goes, it won't be because of sunshine. And perhaps not because of age either.
amit varma, 6:20 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Letting out the CAT

The IIMs are planning to outsource the Common Admission Test (CAT), reports Business Standard. While they're at it, they should also take J Ramanand's advice and make it a test one can take throughout the year, like the GRE. No?
amit varma, 5:54 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Double standards in Bangalore

"How is it all right for English-speaking countries like America to outsource jobs by thousands to tech capital Bangalore, but not all right for English films from Hollywood to run in Bangalore theatres?" asks Sujata Srinivasan in the Indian Express. She is referring, of course, to the recent attempt of protectionists of the Kannada film industry to restrict the viewing of films in other languages in Karnataka. To her horror, many of the literary giants of Kannada literature, who really ought to know better, have come out in favour of this "cause".

I wonder, if a Kannada film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language, would these people be against showing the film in America, before Academy voters?
amit varma, 6:00 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Idle worship

Some people in Gwalior are opening a temple dedicated to the former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. A gentleman named Vijay Singh Chauhan, a lawyer by profession, is the man behind the project. He says, "The temple will be a source of inspiration for future generations and will be important from the tourism point of view." Vajpayee's idol will be installed in the temple on December 25, his 80th birthday anniversary, after being dipped "in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers".

What astonishes and repels me is that, at the time of writing, Vajpayee hasn't yet spoken out against this. Is this how he wants to be remembered, as the idol of an irrational bunch of zealots? On the other hand, he did lead the political arm of the Sangh Parivar for quite some time, didn't he?
amit varma, 4:27 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Karate for a social cause

Mid-Day reports that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is "looking for 500 toughies to protect its slum demolition squads, and it will select martial arts experts over amateur muscle men." Apparently, when the slum demolition fellas go off to demolish slums, the slum dwellers, who are obviously unhappy at the turn of events, try to impede them, often with violence. Although the BMC has formed a capitalised "Strike Force" to protect the demolishers, there aren't enough of them. The article says: "Though all Strike Force members have been equipped with helmets and shields, karate experts and other martial arts exponents can deal with a difficult situation better than those untrained in fighting skills, civic officials feel."

One of the common ways of disrupting a slum demolition squad, by the way, is throwing stones at them from a distance. I had never thought that knowing karate would help you dodge stones, but I stand corrected.

In case you have a literary bent, here's another story in Mid-Day whose headline, at least, might interest you: "Zahira allowed to depose in narrative form".
amit varma, 3:54 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Mallika Sherawat blog

Don't get excited, the lady in question hasn't started a blog yet. But she says, in an interview on, that if she hadn't been an actress she would have been a writer. So a few flops down the line, she might well decide to give it all up and take up writing. Well, if Arundhati Roy can act...
amit varma, 1:06 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Tossing the infant away

Delhi schools are quite in the news these days. After the DPS MMS scandal comes the St Columba’s alcohol incident. St Colomba’s, a school in central Delhi, has expelled seven students after “they were caught drinking alcohol inside the school campus.” They were all class 12 students.

Our moral police, as well as our actual uniformed police, have lost all sense of proportion here. Teenage kids do silly things sometimes, and authorities have a right to reprimand them, but jeopardising their career in such a manner is irresponsible. Surely there must have been modes of internal punishment that could have sufficed in this case. Had the parents concerned been told about it, the kids would surely have got hell at home. But drinking alcohol on the sly does not merit such a response, at such a critical juncture in their lives. That goes for the girl in the MMS case as well, who was a victim of the whole fracas, and deserved sympathy and counselling instead of expulsion.

Newspapers these days are full of editorialising about how our society is being degraded, and how what our teenagers are up to is an indicator of that. Well, even if the bathwater is dirty, it is no reason, as that old German phrase goes, to throw the baby out. Or to blame the rubber duck.
amit varma, 4:58 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Boot's on the other foot now

After years of persecution by the BJP government, Tehelka is finally set to get its own back. Tarun Tejpal's men have just announced that in yet another sting operation with hidden cameras, they have gathered video evidence that Zaheera Sheikh, the witness for the prosecution in the Best Bakery case, who inexplicably turned hostile, was given a bribe of Rs 18 lakh to do so. This is, obviously, a huge boost for the prosecution, and the people outed by the videotape are less likely to get away with it now that their government is not in power.

Needless to say, it does not mean that the case will be resolved soon and the murderers punished, and even if they are, it will only be the small fry who are affected. Narendra Modi will continue to rule in Gujarat. Even if Smriti Irani decides, again, to go on a hunger-strike.
amit varma, 4:13 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Knock knock

Do we see reform as just a narrow economic process or one that involves changing mindsets, less regulation, enlightened law? Can a Web-based economy coexist with Weberian bureaucracy? We have a government committed to manic public spending, all in the name of that bottomless pit called “poverty alleviation”. This statist world view has another side. The mai-baap state goes hand in hand with the thanedaar state. If paternalism comes, the policeman follows.

And the policeman followed for Avnish Bajaj. From "The Thanedaar State", a piece by one of the best minds in Indian journalism, Ashok Malik, in Indian Express. (On the same subject, also read my earlier post, "Moral police goes too far".)

Update: New target – TOI

Rediff reports that the authorities have locked in a new target in their sights in the DPS MMS case: the Times of India (TOI). The Juveline Justice Board had ordered last week that "nothing should be printed that will lead to the identity of the school or the juvenile," and TOI had flouted that ruling, merrily naming the school. The school moved the court, and the principal magistrate handling the case has now asked the editor, publisher and the reporter concerned to appear before her on December 24 to explain their actions.

Oddly, TV channels like NDTV and Zee News had also named the school, but the advocate for the school, Punit Mittal, did not complain about them. Mittal's reason for this ostensibly was that the channels had promised to "remove the name of the school from their reportage." Well, even TOI could have made that promise, surely. This case gets murkier and murkier.
amit varma, 3:10 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Bathtub, not shower

It's the season of sleaze here in India. Newspapers in the last few days have been full of the delightfully acronymous and acrimonious DPS MMS scandal, as well as the Kapoor and Kapur Kissing Games (or K3G), and just as editors have finished editorialising on those weighty matters comes, darn it, another sleaze scandal. This time, it's South Indian actress Trisha Krishnan who is in the news, complaining about a 2-and-a-half minute video clip circulating on the internet that purports to show her taking a shower. She claims it isn't her in the clip. A report on elaborates:

Trisha’s mother Uma strongly denied that it was her daughter in the bathing scene. She said that her daughter does not have the habit of taking bath in the shower and uses only the bathtub. She further added that the body language of the girl in the film was entirely different from Trisha’s and moreover Trisha does not own any jeans and T-shirt similar to the one that the girl removes just before her bath.

Many of the journalists I know, aware of their responsibilty to ascertain the truth, are not taking this at face value, and are scouring the internet furiously in search of the clip. Good luck to them.
amit varma, 5:05 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A good reason to hold peace summits

No, not peace. According to an ANI report, tourism in Agra benefited enormously after Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, visited it for an Indo-Pak summit with Atal Behari Vajpayee, then India's prime minister, in 2001. Not only has interest in the city gone up, but many tourists in Agra apparently want to go to the specific places that Musharraf and his wife had visited, and get their pictures shot there.

How about a beach summit in Goa next?
amit varma, 2:42 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, December 20, 2004

Party poopers

There’s no pleasing political journalists, and thank god for that. The Congress have come to power this year, the BJP have a new president in the man who revived them so spectacularly in the 1980s, but both parties are rotting from within, according to our two biggest weeklies.

“A party at war with itself can't play an active Opposition,” say Bhavdeep Kang and Priya Sahgal in their India Today piece, “Lost In The Wilderness”. They write: “For the BJP, the only issue that is worth fighting for is the BJP itself, and it is a suicidal irony.”

If too much dissent ails the BJP, too little of it plagues the Congress. Smita Gupta and Sheela Reddy ask: “[D]oes the Congress have a patent over sycophancy, Raj style?” In their Outlook piece, “That Thing Called Spine”, they examine the chamchagiri that so characterises the Congress, and that has spread itself into the political culture of the country, afflicting even the BJP.

So that’s our two biggest parties? Who’s left? The Left. Help.
amit varma, 11:30 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Lo bhai, rasgulla lo

Laloo Prasad Yadav is flabbergasted at the fuss raised by the controversial TV footage that shows him distributing money to poor villagers. " I have been shown giving money by the electronic media," he has said, "and not taking money." The BJP alleges that the money he doled out was essentially bribes for votes, and that it violated the election code of conduct. But Yadav claims, "I just gave them some money to buy sweets."

"Who needs the EGS?" I ask. Just unleash Laloo.
amit varma, 3:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The dog that barks

I’m just going to stop this part now by quoting you a story, which I think defined for me very well what it is to be a writer. Not just a writer, but what it is to be an artist in a world such as this. There’s a paragraph in Saul Bellow’s novel, The Dean’s December, which is actually a very minor moment in the book, but it just struck me. The Dean’s December is about an American dean in a university, who has a Rumanian wife. They go to Rumania for family reasons. And this is Ceausescu’s Rumania, so it’s very bleak. And it’s winter as well, which makes it even more bleak. And nobody has much money and there’s an atmosphere of fear and it’s that moment before 1989 — long before, actually — and there’s a moment in the novel where the dean is standing at the window of the apartment in Bucharest, looking out at a park. And in the park there are no leaves on the trees, there’s frost on the ground — it’s bleak — and he hears in the distance a dog beginning to bark. The dog barks and barks and barks and will not stop barking, nothing can stop it barking, and it barks for ages and ages. And he at first is irritated by the dog’s barking. And then, because this is a dog in a Saul Bellow novel, it becomes necessary to understand why the dog is barking, and the dean imagines that what the dog is doing is uttering a protest against the limitations of dog-experience. And what the dog is saying in its barking is, “For god’s sake open the universe a little more.”

From "The typewriter of life", part 2 of the speech by Salman Rushdie that I'd linked to earlier.
amit varma, 1:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

So, um, how big is your lathi?

It is a little past midnight when the phone rings. Sayajirao Patil of Bhoiwada police station, Parel, takes the call, only to hear a lascivious female caller who clearly has things other than crime on her mind.

From "Bawdy line: Cops get lewd calls" in Mid Day. You have to wonder, if cops can't catch people who keep making obscene phone calls to police stations, how on earth can they ever solve our problems?
amit varma, 1:36 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The house of Ray and Rushdie

[M]an is a storytelling animal. As far as I know, we are the only creatures on the earth that tells itself stories, true stories, and imaginary stories. We tell ourselves stories to understand ourselves. And as a result, the story becomes important not just to writers and readers, but to all of us whether we ever write a story or read one.

Take for example the family. I’ve said one thing about families in my books. They’re often quite weird. The biggest lie that we live inside is the lie called ordinary life. “How’s everything at home?” People say, “Fine, everything’s fine.” Now actually, we know when you go behind the door of the family, it’s mayhem in there. It’s not fine, it’s not peaceful, it’s very turbulent and difficult — the mad aunts and wicked uncles and crazy relatives and corrupt’s hell inside there. And then there’s also love and understanding.... Then we become stories, and that in fact is our little bit of immortality –— “Oh, you should remember great Uncle Salman, he got himself in some trouble once...”

From Salman Rushdie's wonderful speech on Satyajit Ray and the art of storytelling. One of its trivial revelations: the old house in Ghare Baire was the same as the one in The Satanic Verses. Read it all.
amit varma, 1:45 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Dole under disguise

I suspect the most sustainable way of reducing poverty is to provide all-weather roads, power (without subsidies) and telecom to every village in India. Then the rural economy will take off, thanks to new economic opportunities. Reducing corruption, ensuring attendance, and improving the administration and courts will reduce poverty too. But this approach will not please politicians and NGOs who want to be seen giving the poor palliatives, rather than curing their ailment.

Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar’s take on the Employment Guarantee Scheme. In my earlier post on this, I’d pointed to Surjit Bhalla’s opinion, which is similar to Aiyar’s. Both of them are against the EGS on two grounds: firstly, it leads to too much wastage, as most of the allocated amount will not reach the intended recipients; secondly, that the EGS amounts to giving a hungry man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish. And even if you want to go ahead and give him fish, they say, you might as well hand out cash to the recipients directly. I agree.

In an episode of “We the People”, the NDTV 24x7 show, a week ago, this was the topic being discussed, and one young man, in response to Bhalla, said something to the effect of (I translate here) “We don’t want dole from you. We want to work and get paid for it. We are not asking for charity. We are proud people.” All of which is nice Hindi-filmi rhetoric, but what the gentleman couldn’t fathom was that every “job” generated under the EGS is, essentially, the same as dole. The job is not naturally generated from the economy, it is an artifice created to give him a certain sum of money. So why the disguise? If it is dole, call it that and hand it out.

Read Aiyar’s full article, it has some startling facts that demolish many of the assumptions behind the EGS.
amit varma, 11:17 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The blind faith that drove Reliance

Reliance may be thriving in the post-liberalisation era, but at their core, they belong to the era of Indira Gandhi. Indian companies that have modernised themselves, like Infosys, Wipro, even the Tata Group, are transparent with their shareholders, and their business dealings are clean and above-board. Reliance, on the other hand, owe their success to the Machiavellian genius of Dhirubhai Ambani, to his ability to garner patronage in the corridors of power, and to the unarticulated slogan: means be damned.

Ambani is a hero to many in my generation. We grew up in the 80s and early 90s, when Reliance was on the rise, and we admired the manner in which Ambani had built his empire despite the dysfunctional corrupt system, which would never allow honest businessmen to thrive. It was understandable to admire him, and his methods, then; but now, it is not. The system has liberalised substantially, political patronage is a far less important factor, and one would have thought that Reliance would have modernised itself as the times changed. Especially, considering that it is a company that devotes so much rhetoric to caring for its shareholders, on the issue of transparency.

Enlightened shareholders want not only to make money off the stocks they own, but also to understand how the company functions. Reliance’s shareholders have lost thousands of crores in stock market value since the Ambani brothers began fighting, and they deserve it. They have never known the exact ownership structure of the Reliance group, a tangled web of deceitful dealing that is only now beginning to emerge. They have never cared to wonder about the strangeness of how Reliance conducted its financial dealings, such as when Reliance Industries Limited, the flagship company, provided 90 percent of the funds to set up Reliance Infocomm, and yet got just minority shareholding of that company in return. They have never asked questions.

In other words, Reliance shareholders held that stock not out of rational reasoning, but out of blind faith. If things unravel, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

While on that subject, read Alam Srinivas’s cover story in the latest issue of Outlook, “The Loser Is You”. Also read the little side story that accompanies it, about the dirty financial dealings of the company. Also, here’s Prabhu Chawla’s cover story in India Today on the same subject.
amit varma, 4:41 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Exporting the IITs

Indian engineers and techies have been panning out all over the world, and now the institutes that train the best of them might also make that trip. Poornima Joshi writes in Outlook that IIT has now become a powerful brand name, and one that other countries want to associate with. Singapore wants to open an IIT there, and Mauritius, the UAE and Sri Lanka have also made similar proposals.

I can’t wait to see what spin the BJP, always brimming with nationalism, will put on this? Will they be opposed to it as they were opposed to the so-called “brain-drain”, or will they see it as a source of pride? Considering that they aren’t in power right now, I suspect the former. Political stands are never a matter of principle, but of convenience.
amit varma, 3:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Even a song has feelings

PTI reports that a man has been held for "allegedly insulting the national anthem in a cinema house in Akola on August 1, 1972." It appears that Masabkha Nawabkhan, who was 24 then and is 56 now, did not stand up when the anthem was played before a film in a movie theatre. And now, 32 years later, he has been arrested on a non-bailable arrest warrant.

I never knew it was mandatory to stand when the national anthem is played before a film, something that is a silly practice to begin with. And isn't there some statute of limitations? Bizarre.

I gave the national flag a withering look a couple of days ago. If I suddenly stop blogging, you'll know why.
amit varma, 2:16 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, December 17, 2004

Moral police goes too far

The CEO of, Avnish Bajaj, has been arrested in the Delhi Public School (DPS) MMS case. For those new to the subject, here’s the history: two kids in DPS shot a pornographic clip of a sexual act on a mobile phone, and began circulating it through MMS. A young man called Ravi Raj, a student of IIT Kharagpur, got hold of VCDs of the footage and started selling them on the auction site,, which had recently been acquired by eBay. As soon as Baazee was informed of the contents of the VCD, it was removed from their site. The DPS students involved were expelled, Raj was arrested, and now Bajaj.

This sets a dangerous precedent. If in a shopping mall an individual shop owner does something illegal, then surely the responsibility for that ends with him – especially if the owner of the mall kicks him out after it is brought to his attention. Imagine, for example, if I was to peddle illegal material through this blog. Would I be responsible or would Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, which owns Blogger, get arrested? Clearly the buck would stop with me, and international law recognises that.

Blogging services and auction sites are enablers, and it is unreasonable to expect them to monitor every shred of activity that they enable, as long as they are quick to act when any malpractice is brought to their attention. The Indian cyber laws need to be amended and modernised, and Bajaj will hopefully be released soon. The authorities should not be too harsh on Raj, either. It was a misguided act on his part, and the young man was no doubt unaware that reselling something that was freely available anyway would bring the wrath of the moral police upon him.

Instead of shooting the messenger, we need to understand the message.
amit varma, 10:43 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wag the tongue

In a matter of such national importance as the alleged kiss between Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur, how could you expect the Supreme Court to stay silent? While discussing a case pertaining to the section of the penal code that deals with media reportage of public figures, a Supreme Court bench said that the pictures and Kapoor and Kapur were in bad taste. PTI reports that the judges said: “That cannot be in public good. In the name of public good, the media might go on doing whatever it intended to do.”

In this instance, I agree with the Supreme Court. As I said in my earlier post on this subject, the pictures were neither newsworthy nor even aesthetic – they were lewd sensationalism of the most frivolous kind. That doesn’t, of course, mean that Kapoor and Kapur have a legal case against Mid Day. They won’t come out entirely as the wronged party if it is proved that their denials were lies, and it was them in the pictures. In fact, it is now being rumoured that Kapur might have known about the pictures beforehand, and that he allegedly called up Tariq Ansari, Mid Day’s director, to try and kill the story.

Maybe they’ll kiss and make up. Maybe we’ll get to see those pictures as well.

Update (December 18) - Mid Day issues a clarification.
amit varma, 9:14 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Difficult customer lashes out

The Indian government has sacked the lobbying firm that it had hired in the US, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Field. The ostensible reason for this is that the firm could not prevent the proposed sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. Rather than direct their scrutiny inwards – foreign minister Natwar Singh has been both indiscreet and injudicious of late – they have found a convenient scapegoat.

Tellingly, Pakistan has hired as many as eight law firms in the US, to look after different areas of interest. Among lobbying circles in the US, according to the Times of India, “the Indian government is regarded as a difficult customer.”
amit varma, 3:19 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

It's getting verse

An epidemic of poetry is raging in political circles in India. I’d blogged a few days ago about criminal-turned-politicians turning to poetry – now “regular” politicians, if one can describe them in that manner, are spouting verse. The Times of India reports that members of the Lok Sabha went berserk recently reciting couplets to each other during a debate on education in parliament. And what about the MPs who aren’t fond of poetry? They slept.
amit varma, 3:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

She’s about to fly

A Mid Day survey of noise levels on Mumbai’s locals shows that the city’s women are capable of producing as much noise as a jet engine during takeoff – the loudest sound in the world.

From, but of course, a Mid Day report. The survey also revealed that Mumbai’s men were were rather less noisy, reaching the noise levels of a food processor.

What was that you just whispered?
amit varma, 2:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

What did you say your name was?

Nagpur and Amravati universities are being renamed, says this PTI report, after Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj and Sant Gadge Maharaj.

My cook is also called Maharaj. Maybe I'll ask him to change his name to Nagpur University in protest.
amit varma, 7:00 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Affluent in America, insular in Britain

Two new studies on Indians abroad are out. One indicates that Indians are the best-educated and highest-earning major ethnic group in the USA. The other says that Indian students in Britain don't make too many British friends.

Update - I just came across a third study, which shows that Indian teenagers "are lighter and shorter than American children of the same age". Ah, so that's why we suck at basketball.
amit varma, 5:27 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The koel and the mango tree

Saaed Naqvi pays tribute to MS Subbulakshmi.
amit varma, 5:22 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

An ostrich with HIV

George Sibley, the US consul general in Kolkata, has said that India needs to wake up to the AIDS crisis that is simmering in the country. PTI quoted him as saying: “In terms of the threat posed by AIDS, India is at a stage today where Thailand and South Africa were 15 years back. It is for the country to decide whether it chooses to behave like an ostrich which buries its head in the sand to believe that there is no problem or recognise the threat and address it”

The ostrich sounds familiar. One of the reasons that things in South Africa got so bad was that their government was in denial. Thabo Mbeki, their president, famously denied that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus, and India has its own set of Mbekis. When Bill Gates came to India a couple of years ago to donate US $100 million to tackle AIDS in India, Shatrughan Sinha, then the health minister, denied that it was a problem, accusing Gates of “spreading panic among the general public”.

Why are ostriches, um, ostriches? I think that, in Sinha’s case, it was a case of misguided patriotism. Sinha, a flamboyant filmstar in his time, felt affronted that a firang should come and tell the Indians what to do, especially when he was the health minister and this was his domain. Mbeki, I venture to guess, also felt humiliated at having to take foreign aid and advice from people whom he had, for most of his life, viewed as his oppressors. (A similar emotion may lie behind his support of Zimbabwe’s despot, Robert Mugabe, who he percieved as being a fellow fighter against “white supremacists”.)

Mbeki eventually backed down when Nelson Mandela entered the fray and spoke out against Mbeki’s policy on AIDS. One hopes that, now that the government has changed, the health ministry will give the disease the attention it deserves. Or the Ostrich may withdraw from the sand and find that it’s a headless chicken.
amit varma, 4:52 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Speak up

Bowing to public demand, I have just enabled comments. My logic for not having them earlier was that I had been flamed too often while writing my cricket blog, 23 Yards, and wanted to avoid abusive/offensive comments. However, I also had some delightful interactions on 23 Yards, and many people convinced me that I was missing out by disabling comments. So here you go.

Be good, please.

Update (December 18) - Sorry, disabled them again because of tech issues. Bummer.
amit varma, 2:36 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Nailing a verdict in record time

A court in Chennai has taken just 40 days to clear a murder case before it. According to the Press Trust of India, "[t]he court sentenced four persons on Thursday (December 16) for murder in a case that was registered only on November 2 ... Claiming it to be a national record, public prosecutor Jyothimani told news persons that a few months ago a case in Scotland had been decided in 60 days."

To put this in perspective, it is estimated that India's legal system is so slow that at current speeds, it will take 350 years to clear the backlog of cases that have already piled up. So reaching a verdict in 40 days is something to be proud of, but claiming a "national record" is a bit bizarre. Maybe they should grow their nails next.
amit varma, 11:58 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wanting death

What should be done about K Venkatesh? This former chess player has been in hospital for the last few months with a worsening muscular dystrophy, he is already on life support, there is apparently no hope of improvement, and he has asked for euthanasia, so that he can donate his organs before infection sets into them and they become useless. His hospital refused his request, though, and when he moved the Andhra Pradesh High Court, they turned him down as well. His mother is now approaching the Supreme Court, with the same harrowing request: please let my son die.

I sympathise with Venkatesh, and admire his courage. But I doubt that the Supreme Court will accept his request. While in this particular case euthanasia might be the most humane solution, if it sets a precedent, and mercy killing becomes legal in India (which it currently is not except for brain-dead patients), the law might well be misused. The BBC story I linked to above points to the “thriving illegal trade in organ donation”, while the Sify story I linked quotes L Ravichander, a lawyer, as saying, “any such change in the Organ Transplant Act in the present social milieu will open the doors for exploitation of the poor by the rich. The rich people in search of organs will bribe the poor into an early death, even when there is a possibility of the poor surviving."

Is the possible, or even probable, misuse of a law reason enough to be against it if the law itself is just? (After all, isn't every law misused in India?) Would that not be injustice to those who would legitimately benefit from the law if it existed, as Venkatesh and his family would? These are difficult questions to answer and, of course, many people are against euthanasia in the first place. For an excellent primer on the subject, click here. Also read this interesting piece by Iain Murray, written a year ago in Tech Central Station.

Update (Dec 17) - He's gone. RIP, K Venkatesh.
amit varma, 5:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The long rope

“Pick the deserving bureaucrats. Then give them a long run,” says TVR Shenoy in the Indian Express. He argues that bureaucrats should be given enough time to settle in and make a difference to any particular government department, just as Sourav Ganguly and John Wright have had four years and counting in charge of the Indian cricket team. Taken in isolation, his logic is infallible. Any officer needs time to grow into his job, and continuity is essential if departments like the Intelligence Bureau and the Life Insurance Corporation, which Shenoy cites as examples, are to flourish. But taken in context of who would be appointing these officers, continuity wouldn’t change anything at all.

After all, these bureacrats would essentially be picked by politicians, and who is to say that they won’t pick partisan officers over efficient ones? Also, if fixed tenures are set in stone, it become harder to hold officers accountable – as if it isn’t hard enough already. Shenoy’s example of Ganguly is a good one, but he misses two aspects of that analogy: firstly, Ganguly did not start out with a guaranteed long tenure, but had to deliver results one series at a time; and secondly, many worse captains than Ganguly, like Mohammad Azharuddin, have had a longer tenure. Length and continuity, by themselves, do not mean anything. Accountability and honesty at the top do.
amit varma, 4:03 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The red and the green – Part 2

“Islamic fundamentalism and its ally Left-wing extremism are responsible for grave threats to India. The State remains in denial,” says Arun Shourie in the Indian Express.

Also read – The red and the green – Part 1
amit varma, 11:35 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Shooting in Ooty, kissing in Mumbai

Kareena Kapoor, the Bollywood actress, has announced that she is going to sue Mid Day, the Mumbai tabloid. Mid Day carried a bizarre photo feature today of Kapoor and her boyfriend, actor Shahid Kapur, locking tongues at a Mumbai restaurant called Rain. (Much to my dismay, it hasn't been uploaded on Mid Day's website.) The pictures were allegedly stills of footage shot from a mobile-phone video camera by a friend of the editor.

Kapoor claims that she was “shooting in Ooty” when the kissing supposedly took place, while Kapur claims that he hasn’t gone to the restaurant since September. Aaj Tak, the TV Channel, showed repeated close-ups of the original video footage, which underscored that besides not being newsworthy – the two have been fairly candid about their relationship – it wasn’t aesthetic either. The two of them, if it is them, look utterly grotesque in the footage, eyes half shut, lips hardly touching but tongues darting out. It's like a love scene between corpses from a Ramsay Brothers film.

Meanwhile Kapur gave a soundbyte to Star News that he and Kareena were from respectable families, and they would never have done something like this. People in respectable families, it would seem, don't kiss. Bummer.

Update - Here are some pictures, if you have the stomach for it.
amit varma, 11:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Democracy at work

Even the announcement of the floating of two special Doordarshan channels to telecast live the proceedings in both the houses of Parliament could not stop many MPs from dozing off. Barely four hours after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed hope that the new channels would improve the quality of debates in Parliament, around a dozen MPs fell asleep.

From a report by MK Tayal. Yawn, we really do get the leaders we deserve, don't we?
amit varma, 6:33 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Alcohol, masseurs, cat

“Alcohol changed my life. If you want my advice, never threaten anyone when you have had one drink too many, because that’s when you’ll have to carry out the threat,” laughs Radheyshyam Chaudhary, arrested for murder.

From “Man kills uncle for supporting wife's lover” in Mid Day.

Also in Mid Day: “Three masseurs on Marine Drive rescued a cat that had fallen into the sea, after the fire brigade failed to fish it out.”

Where do they get this stuff?
amit varma, 6:15 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The flip side of piped water

Wouldn’t you think that the introduction of piped water in a village would be seminal for the women who lived there? Well so did I, until I came across a wonderful article in the Indian Express by Ravinder Kaur titled “In a buffalo economy”, which points out the flip side of this progress. She writes:

Since the arrival of the individual hand-pump or piped water, women have been divested of the social networking and entertainment that carried on before. Although there is ease in doing chores at home, nothing has replaced the village well as a place to get together. Men have the village chaupal; women have no such legitimate social space.

… Women’s work conditions are tied to their “working environment” – homes, streets, fields. The pathetic state of sanitation and lack of sewerage systems and garbage disposal in the villages is turning them into large slums. The unsanitary surroundings especially affect the health of women and children. Women do most water-related work and sick children mean more work for them. The introduction of individual hand-pumps and piped water is a “sign” of development. Yet, without being linked to a sewerage system, it turns into a nightmare. In every village, there are overflowing or clogged drains and piles of garbage at regular intervals.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that hand-pumps and piped water are a bad thing – it merely underscores that technological development must take place in the context of the environment and the supporting infrastructure. In this case, the introduction of piped water without adequate sewerage or sanitation have increased the likelihood of health-related problems. What is progressive in isolation has had regressive effects when viewed in context. Such are the difficult contradictions that a developing nation has to deal with.
amit varma, 5:31 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

As companies evolve, so do we

Are you thinking of starting a company? In the latest issue of Business World Mahesh Murthy takes you through what to expect as your company starts to grow. He posits a “rule of threes”, and says that the character of a company changes as its employee strength increases in multiples of threes. So when three guys start a company, all three are passionate all-rounders, who throw themselves into every aspect of the business. When there are nine people, they begin to specialise, and get slotted into their roles. At around the 27 mark, structured departments are formed. And so on, through multiples of three all the way past 7000 employees. Read the full thing.

I wonder if this is analogous to how communities grew in prehistory – from a bunch of families to a village and beyond. Do the roles we assume, and the nature of our interactions with others, change in society in the same kind of way as in a company? And does it tell us something about ourselves as a species? Matt Ridley, in his wonderful book, The Origins of Virtue, writes about the correlation between the size of the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain and the ability to form complex social relationships. The larger the neocortex, he says, the more complex the society in which that species can live. And humans have one of the largest neocortexes around. Ridley writes:

Indeed, so tight is the correlation that you can use it to predict the natural group size of a species whose group size is unknown. Human beings, this logic suggests, live in societies 150 strong. Although many towns and cities are bigger than this, the number is in fact about right. It is roughly the number of people in a typical hunter-gatherer band, the number in a typical religious commune, the number in the average address book, the number in an army company, the maximum number employers prefer in an easily run factory. It is, in short, the number of people we each know well.

By natural group-size, Ridley means the maximum number of our fellow species whom we can remember personally – as he says, “reciprocity only works if people recognise each other,” and reciprocity is the key to how society functions. That is why the natural group sizes of most other creatures, including primates, tend to be relatively small. It also means that sociologists and anthropologists could also possibly come up with a “rule of threes” – Murthy’s, of course, is culled from experience, and that sounds just about right to me.

Another take on the EGS

I’d blogged on this before, but I can't help pointing out an excellent piece, also in Business World, by Omkar Goswami that dissects further flaws in the Employment Guarantee Scheme.
amit varma, 1:52 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

How to confuse a cop

Take him to an ATM. Read this story.
amit varma, 5:13 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

In the darkness, we come together

Chandrahas Choudhury writes in to say he once felt the same sentiment as I’d expressed in one of this morning’s posts (“Building patriotism”), and that he was also irritated the first time he heard the national anthem at a theatre. Over time, though, he says he changed his mind. He writes:

[T]hese days I positively look forward to it when I go to a movie. If you agree that the anthem has some meaning and relevance, then, in my opinion, the darkened theatre is actually one of the best possible places to play it, because within its upper stalls, lower stalls and balcony it contains people from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds, sitting shoulder to shoulder as they watch a movie. For a moment the theatre is the nation in microcosm. When the lights are on I am a being separate from the men or women around me and conscious of my differences from them, but in the darkness we become a kind of community, meditating upon the pluralistic philosophy, the mosaic of different sects and creeds that is our nation, and which the anthem celebrates and affirms.

Beautifully put – though I don’t agree, because I don’t think most people are given to noble musings of this sort, and the enforced standing to the anthem is actually counter-productive. But I am struck by a line of Chandrahas's, which contains such a profound truth: “When the lights are on I am a being separate from the men or women around me and conscious of my differences from them.” Is this not true with all of us? Why is this so? Why does it take the darkness of a cinema hall to unite us?
amit varma, 4:55 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sir, your seatbelt ...

You must have heard that joke about the gentleman who feels cold in a helicopter and tells the pilot, “yaar, zara pankha band kar do (shut the fan please).” Well, truth is stranger than joke, as this Indian Express report indicates. Maharashtra’s labour minister Baba Siddiqui, upset that the AC wasn’t working on the Jet Airways flight he was on, threw a fuss and opened the door. Luckily the plane was taxiing down the runaway and hadn’t yet taken off.

I’m surprised we haven’t yet had a minister stepping out for a smoke while airborne. Or drying his clothes outside, perhaps. “Yaar, ashtary nahin hai, zara khidki khol do,” I can imagine one of them saying.
amit varma, 4:54 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Building patriotism

“Is patriotism built by marching practice?” wonders Dilip D’Souza, as he looks out of his window at school students marching around the park, practising for those New Year sports meets we’ve all been through. The reason advanced by schools to justify this meaningless exercise, as D’Souza points out, is that it “teaches the kids discipline! Inculcates a feeling for the Army (soldiers march about, after all), thus a sense of patriotism.”

Every time I go to watch a movie in Mumbai, more of this patriotism is instilled into me. Before every film the national anthem plays, and we all have to stand in silence, love for the nation no doubt sweeping through our softened hearts. The consequence of this practice is that whenever the national anthem plays somewhere, I feel reflexively irritated, which is not something that I’d feel earlier. And really, the anthem has as little to do with patriotism as marching has to do with discipline, or a saffron robe with saintliness, or a wedding ring with marital fidelity. These are all merely symbols, and they no doubt have their value in moments of great emotion, like when athletes wrap their national flag around them after winning an olympic medal. But that emotion cannot be forced, and the symbols have no meaning without them. Unless they stand for oppression.
amit varma, 9:04 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Come, validate us

I had blogged a week ago about how the Indian media’s collective obsession with winning an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film is unseemly, and reveals our obsession for validation from the West. “Would Lagaan have been any better a film if it had won that Oscar, or any worse if it hadn’t been chosen as India’s entry?” I’d asked then. And now I ask, will the Meenakshi temple be any more of a great monument if it manages to get voted among the seven wonders of the world, or any less if it misses out?

The newspapers have been writing about it, TV channels are doing features, luminaries and culture czars are giving interviews about how other Indian monuments should also have been on the shortlist, along with the Taj and the Meenakshi temple, and everybody I come across seems to regard this as a matter of national pride. National pride? Based on an internet poll? When I mentioned to a friend how ridiculous I found this hype, he nodded thoughtfully and remarked, “but yaar, at least the Taj should make it to the final seven.” I can imagine the editorials if it doesn’t.

We’re not the only country obsessing over this, by the way. Read this.

More on Shwaas

J Ramanand writes in to comment on my post on Shwaas. He agrees with Girish Shahane, whom I’d quoted in that post, that the film, by itself, wasn’t all that hot. But he places it in context.

“Where Shwaas broke new ground for me,” he writes, “was in the context of Marathi cinema and being able to achieve commercial success without the usual set of songs/elaborate explanation of ideas etc that films usually think they need for survival.” And about the Oscar, he says, “I feel strongly about the rest [of the world] slotting Indian films under Bollywood – a Foreign Language Oscar would go a long way in changing that perception, so I don't mind it much.”
amit varma, 9:01 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Cricket in parliament

Navjot Singh Sidhu is making waves in the Indian parliament. The Times of India reports that Sidhu, “in a smart light suit”, was in his elements during the latest Lok Sabha session, asking questions about the highway project between Amritsar and Jalandhar. He unleashed a nice little Sidhuism at the surface transport minister, TR Baalu: “The government must first get its facts right and then distort them.” The speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, fawning over Sidhu by all accounts, asked that Baalu be given time to reply. “Let him digest the answer,” he said. Baalu duly digested, and said, “I always admired his batting when he played for India.” When Sidhu wanted to add a rejoinder to Baalu’s answer, Chatterjee told him: “I am giving in to your sportsmanship. But this should not be a precedent.”

amit varma, 9:00 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, December 13, 2004

Now India's outsourcing

TCS is on a hiring spree in China and Latin Amercia. Where are the Indian protectionists?
amit varma, 11:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Poetry and abduction

They may be killers and rapists and thugs and murderers and, horrors, politicians, but somewhere within their rugged frames a heart beats. The Telegraph informs us that a couple of Uttar Pradesh’s most dreaded underworld-dons-turned-politicians are in the process of publishing books.

DP Yadav, he of the 25 criminal cases and an infamous four-day stint in the BJP, has written a book of poems entitled Salaakhon ke peechhe (Behind Bars), as well as “a collection of autobiographical writings containing his reflections on jail life.” He has been quoted as saying, “The two books record the cry of my soul”.

Another man whose soul no doubt cries is Babloo Srivastava, who had once, bizarrely, got his goons to kidnap a businessman and bring him to the jail where he was lodged, so that he could threaten him personally. He recently announced that he has written a book on abduction. “The book will have a wealth of information on abductions,” he told journalists, “the way it is accomplished by the gangsters, how much they gain and what kind of hardship its victims are subjected to.” He was inspired, he said, in this noble venture by CBI officials.

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena, viewing Kashmir as just an internal law-and-order issue, wants to send more troops there. Why not throw in some writers as well?
amit varma, 8:05 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bon appetit

Mid Day reports that “an international model”, Gladys Isaiah, has filed a complaint against China Gate, a restaurant in Bandra, for serving her a meal with a lizard in it. She was halfway through the lizard when “she suddenly felt cold and started shivering”. Then she saw the rest of the lizard on her plate.

Dipesh Mehta, the lawyer who is defending the restaurant, told the newspaper, “[t]his is ridiculous. Tomorrow, anyone can come to a good restaurant with a cockroach and demand Rs 10 lakh as damages. It’s a very clever tactic.”

Well, now we know.
amit varma, 7:23 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

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