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.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Mahesh Bhatt tries to censor wife

Mahesh Bhatt, who normally speaks out vociferously against censorship of any sort, wants a scene snipped from his wife Soni Razdan's film, Nazar. The scene involves a kiss between Ashmit Patel, an Indian hunk, and Meera, a Pakistani beauty. Meera, castigated by Pakistan's culture ministry for the kiss, requested Razdan to remove it. Razdan wants to keep it. But Bhatt says:
I think we should be sensitive to the ethos of that land [Pakistan]. Anything that upsets their sensibilities I wouldn’t be a party to. Today, I am not just a filmmaker but also a bridge builder between the two countries. I didn’t know there would be so much of hullabaloo that I would be writing to the President of Pakistan about it.

Right. As if Mush has nothing better to do with his time.
amit varma, 11:03 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Business Nostradamus

That's Mahesh Murthy I'm talking about, who makes his annual predictions for the year ahead here. He generally gets them right, not through dreams or visions, but cold logic and the experience of having been there, done that and cashed in his stock options on the T-shirt.
amit varma, 10:35 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Finance and poverty

How do you help the poor? By modernising finance. Vijay Kelkar writes in the Indian Express:
The direct links between finance and poverty cannot be over-emphasised. The poor have highly volatile income, and would be great beneficiaries of finance in order to smooth consumption across time and control risk. When two identical people in the country borrow at starkly different rates, it is an inefficient use of resources. Solving these gaps is good for the poor and good for growth. Modern IT systems have led to a dramatic drop in the cost of processing transactions, and have made it possible to carry finance to the poor. Fostering more modern finance is pro-poor.

Read the full thing.
amit varma, 10:31 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

National pride at the Oscars

So what if our films aren't good enough? Our brothels are.
amit varma, 10:19 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The multi-billion dollar enterprise

Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar writes in the Times of India:
Almost as soon as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming came into effect on February 15, Kashmir suffered the highest snowfall in three decades with over 150 killed, and Mumbai recorded the lowest temperature in 40 years. Had temperatures been the highest for decades, newspapers would have declared this was proof of global warming. But whenever temperatures drop, the press keeps quiet.

Things were different in 1940-70, when there was global cooling. Every cold winter then was hailed as proof of a coming new Ice Age. But the moment cooling was replaced by warming, a new disaster in the opposite direction was proclaimed.

Aiyar wonders how we can possibly trust a computer model that aims to predict the weather 100 years from now when "[m]eteorologists are a standing joke for getting predictions wrong even a few days ahead."

"The models have not been tested for reliability over 100 years," he writes, "or even 20 years. Different models yield variations in warming of 400%, which means they are statistically meaningless." More:
In the media, disaster is news, and its absence is not. This principle has been exploited so skillfully by ecological scare-mongers that it is now regarded as politically incorrect, even unscientific, to denounce global warming hysteria as unproven speculation.


[T]he global warming movement has now become a multi-billion dollar enterprise with thousands of jobs and millions in funding for NGOs and think-tanks, top jobs and prizes for scientists, and huge media coverage for predictions of disaster.

The vested interests in the global warming theory are now as strong, rich and politically influential as the biggest multinationals.

Read the full piece. Also read my earlier post on this subject in The Middle Stage: "Book causes global warming".
amit varma, 1:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The inexpert view

I had speculated once that Mallika Sherawat might start a blog. Well, that now seems unlikely, with mainstream media courting her assiduously. The Telegraph reports:
Perhaps, there is no better symbol than her when it comes to vital statistics.

This year, the budget will also be on MTV. The channel is going to air a session on the annual event that it has more or less bypassed in previous years — and Mallika Sherawat will be one of the panellists.

I can't decide which is more ghastly – the first line of that report; or the news that it reveals. Well, at least Sherawat will entertain us.
amit varma, 12:58 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Flight delays, and raisins for a paunch

Coomi Kapoor writes in her column, Inside Track, in the Indian Express, of how an Indian airlines flight in Patna was delayed because the pilot "had just received instructions from the Chief Minister’s house that the aircraft was not to leave until the arrival of a certain passenger." There was a journalist on board that plane, and Kapoor tells us about the confrontation between the journo and the VIP, when he did eventually turn up.

She also tells us about Lalu Prasad Yadav's eating habits. The main component of his diet is raisins, and despite that, he "still sports a noticeable paunch."
amit varma, 12:52 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The marriage of style and substance

I had linked earlier to a piece by Ramachandra Guha in which he lamented that Indian historians did not try hard enough to write for an audience broader than an academic one. (Guha modestly did not name himself as an exception, but he clearly is one.) Well, Rudrangshee Mukherjee weighs in on the subject in the Telegraph. He writes:
There is history-writing that is good and enjoyable to read; this appeals to anyone who cares to read and has interest in history. There is the other kind which is good history-writing because it is based on facts and their analysis but is boring to read. The latter kind puts off non-historians and is read by only those historians who have a specialists’ interest in the subject. Most Indian historians have contributed to the second category.

One reason for this is that most Indian historians write with a contempt for style. Style is supposed to demean analysis and take away from the scientific nature of the analysis. Books get written in a prose that is devoid of any style or literary quality. Overlaid on this is the temptation to fall back on jargon and cliché. In the days when economic history held sway, nothing could be written without reference to the “mode of production” leaving readers unfamiliar with the Marxist lexicon utterly bewildered. Mode of production was soon to be dethroned by hegemony. The influence of post-modernism has brought in the current favourites like discourse, trope, power and so on. These terms, convenient shorthand for complex ideas, are understood (or claimed to be understood!) by the cognoscenti but for the ordinary reader, not interested in history, they only serve to stop access by hindering comprehension. They are alienating devices.

Ramachandra Guha makes the suggestion that Indian historians are too timid and worry about the fact that their works, if available to a wider audience, might provoke sectarian violence. I would like to argue that the failure lies not in an absence of courage but in an inadequate appreciation of the role style and good prose play in making history-writing attractive and persuasive.

Mukherjee concludes: "Good prose is an aid, not a hindrance, to good analysis." Right on – or as a blogger should perhaps say, write on.
amit varma, 12:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A nation divided by indirect taxes

Gurcharan Das writes in the Times of India:
There is really one paramount issue that concerns us all, and we should remember it tomorrow when the finance minister gets up to announce the nation's Budget. Fifty-seven years after Independence India is sadly not a common market where goods and services move smoothly. If Bollywood, cricket and Hinglish unite us, our irrational system of indirect taxes divides us. Anyone who sells a product across India lives through the nightmare of state sales taxes, central sales tax, entry tax, turnover tax, service tax, excise, octroi — all cascading to make us perhaps the highest indirect taxed nation in the world. Octroi is the worst. Today a truck takes 40 hours to deliver goods from Delhi to Bombay. Of this, only 24 hours are spent driving; the remaining 16 hours are spent avoiding or negotiating bribes at octroi nakas.

Das, the author of India Unbound, is not one of those columnists who highlights problems without suggesting solutions. Read the full piece to find out what his remedy is.
amit varma, 12:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Factor in corruption

Tavleen Singh writes in the Indian Express that the levels of corruption in the Indian bureaucratic machine are so staggeringly high that the budget that the finance minister P Chidambaram will shortly present is almost redundant. It is essentially a declaration of intent; how much of that money, our money, actually gets used as it is intended to? Singh writes:
In Hyderabad an Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax, P Ananta Ramulu, was found to have Rs 2.07 crore in various bank accounts whose papers he concealed in clocks, cupboards and wood panels in the family home. This crorepati began his career as a stenographer. In Gorakhpur the CBI found a railway medical officer called Asim Kumar who had Rs 1.58 crore worth of unexplained assets that included a flat in Delhi and a ‘‘palatial house’’ in Gorakhpur. What would a railway medical officer make money out of? In Delhi they caught an Income-Tax man called Pramod Kumar Gupta who had Rs 26 lakh in cash and was building himself a many-storied house in Ghaziabad. In Maharashtra they caught two excise officers with flats in Pune and Mumbai, and in Chandigarh an Assistant Provident Fund Commissioner called Manoj Kumar Pandey from whom they recovered Rs 44.5 lakh of unexplained assets. Out of our provident fund money?


[T]he eve of Budget Day is a good time to discuss this since it is the only time the Finance Minister renders to us an account of how the Government is spending our money. In my view it has been spent on the wrong things for too long. It is on account of bad housekeeping and convoluted, loophole-ridden rules that one of India’s international achievements is to always rank high when it comes to measuring the corruption of countries. Think how much Cabinet ministers and high officials must be making if a railway medical officer in Gorakhpur can build himself a palace? Yet, year after year the Finance Minister gets away with not explaining why we spend more money on armies of corrupt, unnecessary officials when we so desperately need to spend much more money on important things.

Read the full thing.
amit varma, 12:19 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sex and revenge in cricket and films

Remember the allegation of rape made against a Pakistani cricketer during their tour of Australia? Well, LP Sahi of the Telegraph reports that according to the players accused, the allegation was simply a weapon of revenge used by a disgruntled woman he'd once had an affair with. Sahi's report says:
According to The Telegraph’s sources, the cricketer and the woman did have a relationship on Pakistan’s previous (1999-2000) tour of Australia — only, that was time-bound.

So, while the cricketer forgot about her, the woman actually hoped he would marry her — and said as much when she met him, after four years, in end-December.

The initiative for that meeting, in the team hotel, was taken by the woman.

Going by what the cricketer told the team management, she became hysterical when he explained “developments” in his “personal life” ruled out marrying her.

In the woman’s eyes (and heart), that was betrayal.

This seems a credible account to me, especially since the lady in question eventually refused to file charges. The accused player, by the way, was not Shoaib Akhtar, contrary to speculation that began after Shoaib left the tour around the same time as the allegations.

This case is rather similar to that of Preeti Jain accusing Madhur Bhandarkar of raping her. The accusations of rape gradually transformed to allegations of exploitation, and Jain claimed that she had slept with Bhandarkar after he offered her a role, which never materialised. Asked about the casting couch on Shekhar Suman's chat show, she said something to the effect of: "The couch happened, but not the casting."

The lesson learnt from these two incidents: Men will promise anything for sex, and women will do anything for revenge.
amit varma, 11:48 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bhrigu's question, and Lalitha's nonsense

Arun Simha, who many of you probably know as that excellent guest-blogger on AnarCapLib, has restarted his own blog. It is called Bhrigu's Question, and becomes a worthy attention to my blogroll and my bloglines subscriptions.

One of his recent posts that I enjoyed, called "Too much prejudice", talks about a scene in Bride and Prejudice where Lalitha assails Darcy for wanting to buy a luxury resort in India, with a misguided left-wing logic that mistakes investment for imperialism. Amused by this, Arun cites the incident when "VS Naipaul was asked by a journalist whether India was becoming too materialistic. Naipaul snarled back, 'Yes, the poor need it!'"

amit varma, 11:32 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, February 26, 2005

One at a time, please

Mid Day carries the bizarre story of a prisoner who escaped from police custody because both the policemen guarding him went to the toilet at the same time. The prisoner, an alleged chain snatcher named Bhuraji Regar, was under guard at a hospital, and the cops handcuffed him to the bed as they went to relieve themselves. Strangely, they did not take turns to go to the loo, but went together. When they returned, their man was gone.

The cops were named Kokane and Borade, and I can easily imagine a David Dhawan film that incorporates this incident, with Kader Khan playing Kokane and Shakti Kapoor playing Borade. The prisoner, of course, would be Govinda, and Shefali Zariwala would be the nurse who performs an item number.
amit varma, 5:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A pundit from the neighbourhood

I don't think I've ever waited so eagerly to read a new book as I'm waiting for Pundits from Pakistan, a book about India's tour of Pakistan last year written by my friend and former colleague, Rahul Bhattacharya. It isn't just because of my personal association with the man that I say this, but because his writing, an exhilarating mix of microscopic detail and wide-angle insight, leaves other Indian cricket writers in the shade. Consider this excerpt from the book, which talks about Virender Sehwag's batting:
For ages cricketers have been raised to the commandment 'thou shalt play in the V'. Sehwag plays in the V all right, the V between cover point and third man. There is nothing scandalous in it. It is his percentage area. New Zealand's Stephen Fleming once set him a field with three gullies and two deep third men. Sehwag's strategy against strategy is to pretend that there exists no such strategy.... He waits at the crease, his rear foot ready to withdraw outside leg stump. This is his instinct to create width. If he finds the ball to be anything short of full, he retreats deeper into the crease. This is his instinct to create length. To generate momentum in his upper body, he frequently gets off the ground, sometimes with a scissoring motion of the legs. Having set himself up, he lets his marvellous hands take over, slicing, slapping, slashing, swatting above or in between the fielders in his V. Just like that, a reasonable delivery by every conventional parameter has found itself beyond the rope.

The excerpt was carried by India Today as an accompaniment to Sharda Ugra's excellent review of the book. She feels that it raises the bar for Indian cricket writing, which would be true if there was a bar to begin with. Journalists don't often write about their own breed, and Ugra's acute sense of observation makes her a perfect person to do so. She writes:
In India, cricket's intrinsic inclusiveness – the tiny wicketkeeper as much a part of the game as the giant fast bowler – sometimes escapes its professional observers. In the Indian cricket press, an insulated, ultra-competitive world of minor triumphs (more petty victories, really), there exists a perennial pseudo-struggle over nomenclature. It has also given birth to an inverse snobbery, an insidious disdain for anything that manages to be both contemporary and sophisticated.

The scoop is at war with the simile, the quotidian forever knocking heads with the quixotic. Cricket "reporters", "writers" and "journalists" are not just three names for the same job, no sir. They represent camps where the rules of engagement state that style and reflection begin and end outside Asia. Who the beep do you think you are, having idioms above your location?

Marvellous, and so, so true.
amit varma, 4:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bihar's new aspiration

Not long ago, I'd blogged about Ashok Malik's piece in the Indian Express where he'd written that Bihar was waiting for "its new big idea". Well, his editor, Shekhar Gupta, writes today that Bihar has found it. He writes:
If there is one thing the Biharis yearn for, it is education. Wherever you go, the only industry that is mushrooming is private education. Private coaching centres merely complement government-run schools which are the only ones authorised to hold annual exams. So you enroll in a government school where teachers never come, classes are never held, but go and study in a private school where often the same government teachers moonlight. You see these "schools" wherever you look, including in the outhouses of temples.


So to the old Bijli-Sadak-Pani metaphor, Bihar is adding one more now, Padhai.

Read the full thing.
amit varma, 4:01 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

India to overtake China

Don't get excited, I'm talking population. The Telegraph reports that India will be the most populous country in the world by 2030. This landmark event, which will no doubt please our nationalists, was earlier due to take place in 2035. The trend has changed not because Indians are procreating more furiously than before, but because the Chinese population growth rate has altered. The report says:
Changes in China’s population trends have been brought about not only because of its strict policies on family planning. “Modernisation and uprooting people from traditional lifestyles into the modern economy” have created “other opportunities that compete with having large families, like consumerism, travel and education” for the Chinese people, said Thomas Buettner, chief of the UN population division’s estimates and projection section.

But isn't that a trend also on the increase in India?
amit varma, 3:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Violence on the hockey field

I've always advocated a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to foul play on a sporting field, and there are few fields of play quite as foul as the hockey grounds of India. Games regular break into violence encounters, with players fighting each other, players assaulting referees, and so on. Football hooliganism in England comes from the fans; hockey goondagardi originates with the players. What a shame.

The latest such instance is of Deepak Thakur, the India forward, being beaten up by an opposing players during a game between Indian Oil and Punjab Police. NDTV reports:
Indian Oil's Thakur had objected to Punjab Police defender Kanwalpreet Singh's tackling of Prabhjot Singh, an IOL forward.

Incensed over the objection, Kanwalpreet, himself an international player, hit Thakur on the face repeatedly with his stick.

Following the incident, the Indian forward had to be rushed to a city hospital for treatment.

Medical tests revealed Thakur had a broken nose and injuries on the right side of the face and hand, hospital sources said.

Punjab Police has, deservingly, been thrown out of the competition in which this game took place. And although it won't happen, Punjab Police should throw out Kanwalpreet. The guy's a policeman, for crying out loud. His job is to protect people, and to uphold the law. Or is that too much to expect from a cop?
amit varma, 3:33 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A bloggacious rendezvous

The timing and venue for tomorrow's bloggers' meet stands confirmed at 3 pm, Cafe Coffee Day, In Orbit mall, Malad. If Cafe Coffee Day is too crowded, we'll relocate upstairs to the food court. As I'd mentioned in my last post, if you're wary of how you'll find us, email me and I'll send you my mobile number.
amit varma, 3:21 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Great Indian Blog Mela

George Orwell once wrote, in an essay titled “Why I Write”, that “there are four great motives for writing”. And what are these? One, sheer egoism. Two, aesthetic enthusiasm. Three, historical impulse. Four, political purpose.

Welcome to The Great Indian Blog Mela.

Let us begin with a question that Primary Red poses: "What influence will India have on 21st century thought and imagination?" He believes: "A great power is marked not just by guns and gold – but principally by exportable ideas that inspire the world." And "contemporary Indian thought," he says, "is increasingly noisy, unoriginal, and (deliberately or otherwise) designed to shock, like a mirror reflecting our broken world."

Well, yes, but as Hurree Babu of Kitabkhana could tell you, if Percival C Wren of Wren and Martin fame could have such an influence on the world, heck, we all have a chance.

The lit bloggers are nice and active this week. Nilanjana Roy tells her readers why she hates the 300-word review, while Sankhya Krishnan bites off more than he can chew, and then goes chomp chomp chomp. And lest you despair that the blogosphere is full of critics but no storytellers, here's some nice micro-fiction from Ammani: "A Quick Tale 2". And a touching love story by Rajesh Advani.

Jai Arjun Singh writes beautifully on books, and on much else besides: check out his post on Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, in which he explains that despite the film being "[t]oo heavy-handed, too self-consciously full of imagery and metaphors," it nevertheless "takes your breath away". Samanth Subramanian has mixed feelings about Aviator: he enjoyed the film, though he says that it's "[n]ot quite Taxi Driver, but then again, what is?" Samanth and Baradwaj Rangan, a fellow film reviewer, have started a blog called Reel Two in which they discuss films – the format is similar to Slate's Dialogues, and it promises to be a good read.

To end our section on films, J Ramanand discusses how Ketan Mehta's The Rising is likely to lead to "[t]his season's politico-historical-film controversy".

We've done books, we've done films, what about television? This was the week when Indian Idol entered its last lap, so that was inevitably on many bloggers' minds. Yazad Jal was outraged that campaigns are being run for the final two based not on their ability, but on their geographical location. So was Rashmi Bansal. I put in my two paise as well.

Now for some economics. NS Ramnath points out that pro-rich policies aren't necessarily anti-poor. Ashish Hanwadikar argues that socialism cannot be "chosen" by the people, as some people claim. He also explains how the choice of the dollar as "an international currency of choice" depends on the Middle East. Meanwhile, W says no to subsidies.

Moving on, JK of Varnam has a nice historical post on the interactions between Albert Einstein and Jawaharlal Nehru. Patrix writes on "building bridges" by "raising barriers" in the Middle East. Nitin Pai worries that India's "diplomatic tactic" of withdrawing support for Nepal's army may become "sustained policy", thus helping the Maoists gain in strength.

Many Indian bloggers tend to live abroad, and they often blog about their experiences. Surya, who is in Germany, writes about how she has a hard time convincing people that Malayalam is a language and not a dialect. Saurav Sarkar objects to Indian triumphalism. Ajay Bhat tells us how advertisements in the US "seem to make everything so easy".

It's often quite hard to motivate ourselves, isn't it? Pradeep Ravikumar examines how motivation is a need for our species. And Gaurav Sabnis, in a touching tale, watches motivation at work in a panipuriwalla. More than human motivation, though, it's "Animal Cognition" that concerns PhilOsOpher Mom.

Can a blog mela go by without a dig at mainstream media (MSM)? MadMan exposes some sloppy journalism by the Times of India, and Pradyuman Maheshwari writes more on the subject, as does Sriram.

Elsewhere, MSM lashes out at blogs, and Shanti Mangala leaps to the rescue. There have been many fine defences of the blogosphere recently, a couple of which I'd linked to here.

There are weightier worries than MSM, though. Billboards and cricket selection, to name just two. Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta, who writes like a dream and updates like a demon, is upset with billboards because "they hide the trees". And Anand Vasu feels that Mark Waugh, who had "a solid go" at the Australian selectors recently, is a "Pot calling a kettle a pot".

Do you believe in God? Ravages doesn't, and he writes about an argument he had with a theist friend of his. (Read the post with MadMan's comment for closure on the subject.) And Nilu reports on a conversation between two different types of theists.

Ok, no God. What about Mukesh Ambani? Venky reveals how the elder Ambani brother's claim to have got an MBA from Stanford was exposed by none other than Steve Ballmer. I wonder if Ambani had any trouble with his finance midterm exams, which another MBA-in-the-making, Chandoo, writes about here. Avinash Tadimalla doesn't care much about finance midterms, and more about people who can't spell. He also weighs in on "An Ideavirus for social work". Speaking of social work, aNTi has something to say about the unfair criticism of Preity Zinta for "not helping with the relief efforts" after the tsunami.

You're still here, are you? Well, New York is distant. We end this Blog Mela with Bridal Beer. Thank you for visiting.

Update: Chandoo's hosting the next Blog Mela, click here to enter.
amit varma, 3:19 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, February 25, 2005

Gender warfare in the buses of Mumbai

Mid Day reports that the seven female bus conductors in Mumbai have asked to be shifted to clerical jobs because of the daily sexual harrasment that they face on buses. Their employer, BEST, has refused because, in Mid Day's words, "transferring the seven women could start a gender war within the organisation".

There's a film in this somewhere, but I hope that Pooja Bhatt never makes it. On the other hand, Bipasha Basu as a bus conductor would make for a pleasant commute.
amit varma, 12:14 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Let the market, not the government, fix prices

Gautam Chikermane writes in an excellent piece in the Indian Express:
Sunk in the swish five star hotel sofa, the builder says: “Service tax on construction companies and transporters is a big burden, it must be removed. Since June 2003, the prices of steel and cement have risen by 80 per cent, the government should control them.” So, should then the government fix building prices so that home buyers are also not too out of pocket? At this unexpected backhand delivery, the builder is quick to defend his right to charge market prices, even as he lobbies hard for concessions.

Death is the only way — this thinking, this attitude, this whole approach has to die. Come budget time and for decades now, we have been seeing one private interest group after another approach the finance ministry with its list of demands — demands that help that industry become more profitable, either at the cost of another industry or consumers. For decades, the finance ministry has been accepting, rejecting, modifying these demands.

Chikermane feels that "[t]his whole business of influencing the government to create artificial prices is an old-world legacy that must end". Only the market should set prices, he says.
In any living school of economic thought, the one entity that does have all the information all the time to be able to take the right decisions most of the time is the market. Critics may term the market an “abstraction”, “operator driven”, “manipulable” and so on. But like democracy in which you can’t fool all the people all the time, the scope for market manipulation too is limited. At the smallest opportunity of arbitrage, new players will come and collect excess profits, bringing the market, and hence prices, back to equilibrium. Most important, one person or group is vulnerable to lobbying pressures; a whole market is not.

Read the full thing, it's a lucid and wonderfully argued piece, though I fear that P Chidambaram, our finance minister, will go nowhere near what Chikermane recommends.
amit varma, 11:44 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Indian Idol, and The Wisdom of Crowds

The final episode of Indian Idol was good fun, with Amit Sana and Abhijeet Sawant both singing beautifully. Sana had come second in the last round, and I'd speculated in a previous post that his fans would be more motivated to vote than Sawant's, because they'd be eager to catch up, while Sawant's could get complacent. I'd also written that Sana's rumoured throat infection might actually help mobilise his base further. In the event, there didn't seem to be much wrong with his throat, and his performance was wonderful.

Sawant is a complete package, tall and good-looking in addition to being a fine singer, and his voice has both both clarity and depth. But Sana is better at the harkats, the little embellishments and improvisations that a singer adds to the songs. This was most evident in the third song that they sang. Both were given the same song to sing, an original number created specially for the occasion. It was a mediocre composition and a terribly boring song, but Sana added all kinds of delicate harkats to it, and ended with a wonderful scat that indicates that he can sing a lot more than playback. Sawant didn't add so many harkats, but he made it sound more energetic and fresh that Sana had.

The judges seemed to favour Sana a bit, showering him with praise and giving him a standing ovation, but in my book, whoever wins deserves it, and whoever loses out nevertheless has a fine career ahead. Indian Idol may have begun with the intention of creating one big star, but it has actually given birth to quite a few of them – Sawant, Sana, Rahul Saxena, Rahul Vaidya, Prajakta Shukre and Aditi Paul all have wonderful careers ahead, and their market price per live show must already be in the lakhs. I don't know how restrictive Sony's contract with the winner will be, but the runner-up might actually end up making more money than him in the medium term.

Crowds v Experts: Avinash Tadimalla and I have had an interesting email conversation regarding Indian Idol and The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki's wonderful book that posits that group decisions are often better than those of individual experts. We came to the conclusion that the phenomenon Suroweicki describes isn't applicable to Indian Idol for two reasons.

One, the conclusion is subjective and not objective, so we can hardly determine if the crowds got it 'right'. Two, one of the conditions Suroweicki mentions for crowds to come to a good decision isn't neccessarily present here: diversity. By that, I don't mean that the voters aren't diverse, but that the spread of that diversity may be uneven or skewed. There's no way to measure that, and there are too many factors in play to be able to judge which way the audience will turn, and if they would make a correct decision if an objective one was possible.

So here's a question: if the Indian cricket team was selected by the people, via SMS, would it be better than the one selected by selectors? (It would certainly generate a lot of revenue.) My answer is that it wouldn't (because most of the voters wouldn't have enough reliable information about upcoming players on the domestic circuit), but if you read Suroweicki's book, I think you'll agree that the question isn't as outrageous as it sounds.
amit varma, 11:29 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Shoaib and the girls has this rather bizarre feature headlined: "Which Pak Cricketer Would You Date?" In it, Shoaib Akhtar reveals:
I have thousands of girlfriends – although I suppose I should just call them friends. I think they are little more than fans.

Once I had to change my Telephone number 20 times because they [female fans] got hold of it. It’s absolute madness in Pakistan. If I go out all the women rush towards me in order to have a chat, they grab me and at times even tear off my clothes.

Nice stuff, especially the bit about his clothes being torn off. Imagine a naked Shoaib running through the streets of Karachi chased by 50 crazed women, scraps of his clothing still sticking to their bloodied hands. He runs, they run, and then they all jump up in the air and chuck.
amit varma, 12:38 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Government abuse of the Indian flag

Not long ago the Indian government told the Indian cricketers that they could not bear the Indian flag on their helmets, or on any of their clothing. And now, they've stopped Narain Karthikeyan, the first Indian to get a drive in Formula One, from sporting a flag on his helmet. Karthikeyan, clearly upset at the instruction to remove the flag, was reported by as having said: "We're only doing the country proud. I can probably sell that helmet space to sponsors and make a lot of money, so it's their [the government's] loss."

I am not one for symbols of patriotism, but the flag of every country does evoke certain emotions, and everyone should have the freedom to express themselves in that regard. The Indian flag belongs to the Indian people, not to the Indian government. Navin Jindal, now a parliamentarian, had gone to court some years ago in order to be able to hoist the flag outside his offices, and he had won that battle. I don't know the legalese behind why that ruling does not apply to this case, but I find it sad that our sportsmen are not being allowed to express their pride at being Indian.
amit varma, 11:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Don't abuse your boss

The Supreme Court has just ruled that "using filthy language against a superior without any provocation" is valid grounds for dismissal. What constitutes "provocation" is, of course, always subjective: for example, my boss often compares me to Shoaib Akhtar, a gentleman with whom I have nothing in common whatsoever. (And no, I don't chuck, so that's not a valid explanation.) Now, that is certainly a provocation, the way I see it. And I came close to losing it one day and screaming at him, "you Javed Miandad!"

But I didn't. And now I can't.
amit varma, 11:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

One for the road?

You'd imagine that any danger that comes from being on the road, whether as a driver or a pedestrian, comes from the other people on it, who may be driving rashly or getting in your way. But in India, you don't need people on a road for it to be a danger. Mid Day reports that a lady named Vandana Madvi fractured her arm because of "a bumpy ride from Mumbai to Nashik". (There must be doctors among you who are thinking, "Fracture? Impossible. Show me the X-ray." Well, the report has a picture of the X-ray as well!)

Spurred to action by Madvi's fracture, an activist named Kewal Semlani wrote a letter to the Mumbai high court. The court, treating the letter as a public interest litigation, has "hauled up three government bodies responsible for the state of our roads". Read more on this here. Scrolling down to the bottom of that page will give you a list of ways in which the road could harm you.
amit varma, 3:47 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Four-ball overs

It's finally been decided. Prasar Bharati, or Doordarshan, will telecast the upcoming cricket series between India and Pakistan. Zee and ESPN will have to wait their day. It is good news that the series is being telecast at all, but watching Tests on DD is an ordeal because of their poor production values and bad commentators. The part I hate most is how they often go into a commercial break with one ball left in the over, and return one ball late in the next over. That's like cutting off one-third of the game. Brutal.
amit varma, 1:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Air for your mobile phone

Want to charge your mobile phone, but there's no power point in sight? Don't worry. PTI reports that we may soon be able to charge our mobile phones using wind energy. The report says:
Students at the Department of Industrial Design at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi have attached a turbine with a mobile phone that helps charge it even when the user is travelling, Head of the Department Professor Lalit Kumar Das told PTI.

"The electricity generated by the turbine when moved by wind energy could charge a cellphone in an emergency. It generates electricity to the tune of 3 to 4 watts which is sufficient to charge a mobile phone," he said.

The specially designed turbine, which costs about Rs 200 [apprx. US$ 4.5] to be developed inside a laboratory, is so small that it could be easily kept in a pocket, he said.

The report does state that the pocket turbine is "best suited for coastal areas where the wind flows almost continuously". So if it's not a breezy day, you might just have to blow really hard, and really long.
amit varma, 12:57 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The psychology of Indian Idol voters

Yazad Jal has a post expressing outrage at Mid Day's campaign to get Mumbaikars to vote for Abhijeet Sawant in the final episode of Indian Idol because he is from Mumbai. Yazad asks:
Will you vote for someone in a game show just because he's from your city? Or your region? Or religion? Or caste? Or would you rather go on ability? And what do you think of a newspaper which prefers to toss out ability in favour of more sectarian reasons?

Well, long before Mid Day started running this campaign, people were voting on the basis of other things than ability anyway. Consider how long Ravinder Ravi lasted, to the astonishment of the judges and fans, despite singing so badly. Apparently there was a pitched campaign for him in Ludhiana, and a legion of supporters shattered by his (well-deserved) defeat.

I've been watching the show from the start, and it's interesting to see how vote banks of different people have shifted with their elimination. For example, Rahul Vaidya was the strongest candidate much of the way through, but while he is an excellent singer, he has a polarising personality: people tend to either like him or dislike him. The first category of people was strong when there were many candidates in the fray, as the second category's votes got split. But as the candidates dropped out, the vote banks of the eliminated candidates shifted to people other than Rahul, and by the time there were four people left, he was no longer the leader, and was eliminated after the round of three.

Ditto Ravinder Ravi. He had his die-hard fans who kept him alive, but the votebank of every eliminated candidate shifted to other people, and his number of votes remained stable, until he was eventually eliminated.

But shouldn't the winner be chosen on ability, you ask in consternation. Well yes, of course it should. But in reality, it can't be that way with so many people voting. With most of the finalists being more or less equally good singers, one's qualitative assessment of a singer tends to be swayed by subconscious biases, and the sum total of those biases ultimately makes the difference.

Both the finalists, for example, are excellent singers, and any difference in their abilities will be such a nuanced, technical one that only experts will be able to pass judgement on it, and even they may differ. Most of the people voting will effectively vote on the basis of other considerations, convincing themselves that their choice is the better singer, but actually swayed by other things. (The number of factors influencing that could range from where the singers are from, what kind of songs they sing, what kind of clothes they wear, how much the voter can empathise with them, and so on.)

So who will be the first Indian Idol? Abhijeet may win because he is taller and good looking. Amit Sana may win because he came second in the last round, and his followers may vote more desperately while Abhijeet's may get a bit complacent. (One reason why this trend might be strong: Sana's throat infection. His chances might actually get better if he sings badly, and they can't be harmed, because everyone knows by now what a good singer he is.) I think most regular viewers of the show already know who they will vote for. It's just a question of mobilising the base, which made such a huge difference in Bush v Kerry.

My two favourites among the final 11 were Rahul Saxena and Aditi Paul, though. I think Saxena lost out early because everybody assumed, including me, that he's so damn good that one doesn't need to waste an SMS or a phone call voting for him. Aditi just chose the wrong song, and had a bad day. Among people who didn't make it to the final 11, I thought Sudeshna and Ronkini rocked.

While stating a fact, by the way, I am not proposing a value. Just because biases play a big part in determing such contests, I am not justifying it, or saying that should be the case. Of course the winner should be the person who is qualitatively the best. But who is to judge that?

Update: Rather than be graceful about his defeat, Vaidya is already crying foul about being voted out, blaming it on a betting syndicate and saying: "I have heard that I lost because some bookmakers in Dubai had to make a lot of money." I believe that his lack of grace is the cause and not the result of his being voted out. Sawant and Sana are nice, humble guys, a refreshing contrast to Vaidya's braggadocio. That did matter, I think, even for people who felt that Vaidya was the best singer of the final three.
amit varma, 12:12 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

No chicks, no TV

Remember the controversy of the four sadhus of the Vadtal sect who were allegedly involved in a pornography racket? Well, the trustees of the temple to which these gentlemen belong has now issued a directive to all members of the sect, placing some daunting restrictions on them. The Indian Express reports:
The new code of conduct announced on Monday bars contact and conversation with women, ownership of private property and all luxury items including the telly.

So they can't even talk to a woman? How bizarre. Imagine this:

A vadtal sadhu is sauntering along the street when a lady approaches him. "Excuse me," she says, "could you tell me the way to the nearest temple please? I need to pray urgently."

The sadhu, a young man who has been making valiant attempts to restrain his hormones, recoils in horror as he remembers the code of conduct, and confirms, with a quick glance at the woman's anatomy, that she is indeed a woman. He turns away and starts walking off briskly.

The woman follows him. "Listen," she says, "It's really urgent, I must pray now, and you're a sadhu, you obviously know where the temple is. Please tell me where it is."

Our sadhu walks faster. The lady gets pissed now. After all, she's only asking for directions, and she has puts lots of deo today, so it can't be body odour. She runs after him, determined to extract an answer.

He goes faster and faster. She chases relentlessly, all the while chanting, "Where's the temple, where's the temple, where's the temple?" He runs, she chases, she chants. He enters the city area, ducks into a lane, and before she can follow him into it, in the few seconds that he's out of her sight, he rushes into a shop there.

It's a TV showroom.
amit varma, 9:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bihar – waiting for "its new big idea"

For all those who thought they had figured Bihar out, Ashok Malik is around to shatter some myths. For example, he tells us in "Gonzo goes to Bihar":
For the past decade, there’s been a trying sameness to writings from and on Bihar. The “lower caste” vote for Laloo because, thanks to him, they can “now look the upper caste in the eye”. Ancient inequity is cited. This year’s pet villain was Lord Cornwallis, whose Permanent Settlement of 1793 was pointed out as Bihar’s original sin. Land reforms are droned on about, even if no one’s sure if Bihar has any surplus left to distribute.

This is a 1970s era socialist tearjerker — gonzo journalism meets social justice narrative. It is drawing room theory, not borne out on the ground. Caste in Bihar has ceased to remain hierarchical. Individual prejudice remains and will remain; yet, as political communities, all castes are equal — equally squalid, equally violent, equally disreputable perhaps, but still equal.

This is what happened in UP by the mid-1990s and has been reached in Bihar too. It explains why Paswan, a Dalit leader, is reported to have the most mafiosi. It shows in upper caste Bhumihars voting for a backward, ultra-left CPI(ML) candidate in Paliganj. It tells you why some Yadavs are breaking away from Laloo and doing deals elsewhere.

Social justice/OBC assertion was an evocative slogan and a big idea in 1990. Laloo both represented and captured the mood. Today the process has moved on. Post-social justice Bihar awaits its new big idea.

There's much more, from one of India's finest journalists. Read the full thing.
amit varma, 8:38 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Kissing the enemy

How far can India and Pakistan take nationalistic rhetoric and jingoism? Don't answer that; read this. This IANS report filed from Islamabad says that Pakistani actress Meera is facing punishment from the culture ministry because she kissed an Indian actor, Ashmit Patel, in a film called Nazar. The report says:
Official sources here said the film's "objectionable scenes" showing Meera kissing an Indian actor had prompted the Pakistan government and the culture ministry to impose a heavy fine on the popular actress.

The sources said people had reacted strongly to some of these scenes as they were against Islamic ethics and moral values.

The government has directed the culture ministry to take severe action against Meera as Pakistani actors visiting other nations were seen as ambassadors of the country.

On a tangent, Adnan Sami has just got divorced from his second wife, and has told Mid Day that he is "definitely on a hat-trick".
amit varma, 2:32 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

How free choice can be illiberal

Primary Red of Secular-Right India writes:
At a recent New York dinner a few liberal Americans, and their angst-ridden Indian counterparts, challenged us on the irony of illiberal Pakistan's support for Kashmiri self-determination, versus liberal India's resistance to it. The following is our response [snip]:

Consider a hypothetical 10-year-old tsunami orphan, facing these terrible choices: either join an ill-run orphanage or become a bonded laborer or a street urchin. Her choosing freely from among these is hardly "free choice", is it? In other words, free choice absent good options is meaningless.

Why this principle doesn’t apply in Kashmir is baffling. Here, India is pressured to allow Kashmiris "free choice" from among terrible options all of which, as we shall see, would reduce their existing freedoms. Liberals aggressively demand Indian flexibility on Kashmir - implicitly condemning Kashmiris to an illiberal fate.

Read the full thing, the comments are also interesting. As I'd said about a previous post of theirs, it's thought-provoking stuff.
amit varma, 2:20 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The next knowledge superpower

Jim O'Neil sends me a link to a special series on India by the New Scientist titled, "India: The next knowledge superpower". The introduction to the series says:
There's a revolution afoot in India. Unlike any other developing nation, India is using brainpower rather than cheap physical labour or natural resources to leapfrog into the league of technologically advanced nations. Every high tech company, from Intel to Google, is coming to India to find innovators. Leading the charge is Infosys, the country's first billion-dollar IT company.

But the revolution is not confined to IT.

There are some excellent articles in there – I counted at least 14! Read them all.
amit varma, 11:45 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Salman and his baseball bat

The Sun reports that Salman Rushdie recently lost his cool at a journalist who had earlier written that Padma Lakshmi, Rushdie's wife, stood "for a love of money and commodity". Rushdie apparently told the reporter:
If you ever write mean things about my wife again, I’ll come after you with a baseball bat.

And no, it wasn't Patrick French, with whom he had that juicy literary spat I'd written about yesterday, but some fellow called Guy Trebay. Salman's not in a particularly good mood these days, is he? Maybe he's upset at being left out of the Booker international shortlist.
amit varma, 8:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Annie Hall happens to Amartya Sen

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent report of how Amartya Sen recently had an Annie Hall moment in China. What's an Annie Hall moment? As the piece puts it:
In the Woody Allen movie "Annie Hall," a character is sounding off about the Canadian media theorist Marshall MacLuhan when the subject himself appears and says: "Excuse me, I'm Marshall MacLuhan. You know nothing of my work." Woody Allen then turns to the audience and asks, "don't you wish life were like that?"

Well, I certainly do, and good Mr Sen has got a taste of it. Speaking at a gig in Hong Kong, he apparently claimed that, in WSJ's words, "Maoist China had actually made great strides in medicine, bringing down child mortality rates and prolonging life expectancy. Moving to a privatized system was making the system less fair and efficient." Here's how the WSJ guys, no doubt guffawing and shaking madly in joy as they wrote it, described what happened next:
To back up his remarkable claim, Mr. Sen said that the rate of growth in life expectancy in China was slowing down. Or at least it was doing so compared to India, which is catching up with China in life expectancy. "The gap between India and China has gone from 14 years to seven [since 1979] because of moving from a Canada-like system to a U.S. like system," said Mr. Sen, adding that he thought this change by China was a mistake.

But, alas, there was someone in the audience who actually had lived through the Cultural Revolution in China, and had been one of Mao's "barefoot doctors." He didn't see things quite the same way as Mr. Sen. In fact, he said the comments had quite surprised him.

"I observed with my own eyes the total absence of medicine in some parts of China. The system was totally unsustainable. We used to admire India," said Weijian Shan, now a banker in Hong Kong. Mr. Shan then added an anecdote that tickled the audience, telling how when he first visited Taiwan in the 1980s and saw young medical school graduates serving in the countryside, he thought to himself, "China ought to copy Taiwan."

Read it all. Sen v Shan has a nice sound to it, as if it's the tagline of an Indian co-production of a Jackie Chan film. Chan, of course, plays Shan, and wins mightily in the end.

Update: Anand of Locana writes in to me saying: "I feel the WSJ report doesn't do justice to Sen's position on the whole issue. Sen is clear that it's the lack of democracy that's at fault in the very slow progress as far as life expectancy in China is concerned. As for the comparisons with the Maoist period, that inference is based on the facts at hand." Anand points to an essay by Amartya Sen in the New York Review of Books that lays out Sen's position better.

Anand also writes:
Somebody sounding off about someone else and the latter correcting the former is understandable and that's quite funny too. But is that the case when someone "sounds off" about a society, and a single person from that society "tries to" correct the former's stand? I think there's a lot of difference between the two situations. For instance I'm from Kerala, and now if I claim that I've seen more men in Kerala than women, and hence Sen is wrong in saying that Kerala has a 1.06 women to men ratio, will that constitute an Annie Hall moment?

Fair point, Anand. So we'll make the Sen v Shan battle less one-sided in the film, with Chan playing Shan and Govinda playing Sen. That should be fun.
amit varma, 5:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, February 21, 2005

You scratch my book, I'll scratch yours

An excellent new literary spat is brewing, this one between Salman Rushdie and Patrick French. Amit Roy of the Telegraph reports that French, while reviewing Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, spoke about how some of "India's eminent writers" were "insider-outsider[s]" who had the "cultural confusion of the expatriate". To support his point, he quoted Rushdie saying: "Rajasthan is colourful".

Rushdie took umbrage, claiming that the line, from an essay in Step Across This Line, was quoted out of context. In his rejoinder, he wrote: "I was talking somewhat satirically about the tourist-Rajasthan that was presented to Bill Clinton on his visit to India ... It is quite improper to quote my essay selectively so that he can praise my friend Mehta by making me look foolish."

Well, to get to the heart of the matter, here are the original lines from Rushdie:
Clinton did, however, watch dancing girls twirling and cavorting for him in Amber’s [the fort] Saffron Garden. He’d have liked that. Rajasthan is colourful. People wear colourful clothes and perform colourful dances and ride on colourful elephants to colourful ancient palaces, and these are things a President should know.

The last seven words ("these are things a president should know") indicate that Rushdie was obviously being satirical, and French missed that.

It so happens that one of the books I'm reading at the moment is Shashi Tharoor's Bookless in Baghdad, and that has an excellent essay on another juicy spat, between Norman Mailer and John Simon. (I think Simon comes out better in that one.) The essay was also published in the Hindu, and you can read it here.
amit varma, 7:04 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The monthly bloggers' meet

The last couple of Bloggers' meets in Mumbai have been delightful affairs, and you can never have too much of such a good thing (I wrote about them here and here, and others wrote about them too.) So now it's time to think of the next one. It had been suggested that we meet up on the last Sunday of every month. This month, that's the 27th. So here's my suggestion:

Date: February 27
Time: 3pm
Venue: In Orbit, Malad (Cafe Coffee Day downstairs to begin with, with a shift to the food court upstairs if there isn't enough space.)

The meeting was in town last time, so it felt fair to have it in the suburbs this time. (The venue was arrived at after discussion with other bloggers, including townie Yazad.) Feel free to just land up, and, if you don't know any of us and face the danger of missing all of us (as happened to Anand last time), just email me and I'll give you my mobile number.
amit varma, 5:19 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Embedded journalism in Mumbai

There are few better ways of getting insight into a story than making yourself a part of it. Mid Day does this marvellously well. Consider this story they have run today: "Mid Day reporter turns watchman for you". What the newspaper wanted to highlight was how easy it is to become a watchman of a building without any kind of background check being done on you. Other newspapers would perhaps have interviewed a watchman or two and got some quotes from the head of a security agency. But the Mid Day reporter on the story, Prasad Patil, actually went and got the job of a watchman, and acted as a watchman for a couple of days.

His account of how he got the job, and the pictures with it, give the story instant weight and credibility. This brand of embedded journalism is a Mid Day speciality, and they often surprise us with such wonderful stories. A month ago, for example, seven of their reporters became hawkers for a day. And some years ago, in order to highlight how difficult it is for disabled people to get around a city, Annie Zaidi travelled around for a day in a wheelchair. You can't argue with argue with stories like these, and are forced to notice them.
amit varma, 4:54 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

See my shoes

I made an unscheduled visit to my office yesterday afternoon, and guess who dropped in.

So where am I in this picture? Well, with atypical modesty I decided not to thrust my way to the front, and I've ended up as the bobbing head behind Mohammad Kaif's shoulder. Of all the shoes in the picture, though, my shiny ones made arguably the greatest impact.

For those interested in seeing what Cricinfo writers look like, this is the line up: Left to right, Rahul Bhatia, Chandrahas Choudhury (standing), Anand Vasu (sitting), Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Kaif, my head, Sambit Bal, Mangesh Zemse, Leslie Mathew.

Dravid was kind enough to face up to a few balls in the corridor, and I am proud to say that I bowled him twice in a row. After the second time, beaten by sheer pace, Dravid exclaimed: "You guys allow him to bowl like this?" Somebody murmured "Shoaib", and I slunk off embarrassed.

Lest I become known as a cheat, let me explain. We play on a 9-yard pitch with rubber balls that are slightly less hard than the rubber balls one normally plays with. This means they can be squeezed a bit before release. So what I do is, using two fingers, squeeze the ball tightly and impart tremendous forward-spin on it, which makes it accelerate through the air furiously as the spin kicks in. My arm-speed and velocity of elbow-straightening – for we all chuck – are less than any of my colleagues, and the finger-spin does the trick. I often have to restrain myself and bowl slower – my legspin is especially docile – but bowling at one of the best batsmen in world cricket, I suppose I got carried away and let it rip.

Lest all this be misconstrued as a boast, let me confess that I am as out-of-place at regular 22-yard cricket as Parthiv Patel would be in the NBA. But I do have shiny shoes.
amit varma, 2:21 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Shiv Sena da jawab nahin

The Shiv Sena calls Kapil Dev "an enemy of the game", and demands an apology from him. Kapil cries on BBC.

Well, not quite in that order ...
amit varma, 12:51 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Paws, claws, canines and jawbones

Avijit Ghosh writes in the Telegraph:
It was a three-month long undercover operation that led to a west Delhi warehouse. But when Inspector Rakesh Giri raided the godown with his team of policemen, he just wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the haul — and the savageness of the gore. Blood-soaked paws, claws, canines and jawbones of tigers and leopards were packed in cartons. Some big cat skins were stained with blood. “It was like being in a slaughterhouse,” says Giri.

The godown in question belonged to Sansar Chand, a wildlife smuggler often described as the Veerappan of the North. (And who apparently isn't a poacher himself, but "outsources the job".) Ghosh describes how the cops did a fine job by finding Chand's storehouse, but how the man himself is absconding, as poaching and wildlife trading continue unabated. Why so? Ghosh writes:
The larger truth though is that judicial convictions relating to wildlife cases are abysmally low. Out of 748 cases in India where the skins of tigers, leopards or otters have been seized, there have been only 14 convictions. The cases also proceed at a snail’s pace taking about 8-10 years before being decided. A designated court for wildlife has more than 250 cases in Delhi alone.

What happens to the skins, I wonder.

Update: Read Manoj Kumar Misra's an excellent comment on why "wildlife smuggling cartels" are flourishing in India.
amit varma, 12:36 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The buffalo, the BBC and a taste for tobacco

The Hindustan Times has a story on a buffalo that refused to be milked without BBC? Excuse you? Ok. BBC is an acronym for Buddhi Bardhak Choorn, also known as Khaini, a kind of tobacco that a buffalo in Jharkand has become addicted to. The report reveals:
For its owner Mangra Munda, a resident of Lohardagga district, the addiction has turned into a headache. For along with fodder, he has to shell out plenty of tobacco.

His buffalo demands the chewing tobacco six times a day and makes life difficult if it doesn't get adequate amounts.

"If we fail to provide chewing tobacco on time then it becomes horrible. The buffalo's strong urge for tobacco makes it wild and it can do anything for khaini. It starts to break the rope it is tethered with," Munda said.

"If it is not tethered, it smells out people consuming khaini and follows them around. Sometimes it wanders off quite a few kilometres and returns only after consuming some of it."

All this reminds me of a friend who was similarly finicky. Once we were sitting at a restaurant called High Point in Lokhandwala, and we ordered tea. As the waiter was leaving the table, my friend said to him, "dekho yaar, bhains ki doodh se banao, main gaaye ki doodh nahin peeta." ("Look dude, make it with buffalo milk, I don't have cow's milk".)

The fellow went off and returned 10 minutes later with two cups of tea. My friend picked up his cup, took a sip, and spat it out with an expression of disgust. "Abay, kuttey ki aulaad," he said, "yeh tho bhains ki doodh nahin hai." ("Eh, son of a dog, this is not buffalo's milk.")

He couldn't tell Coke from Pepsi, though.
amit varma, 11:51 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Blog Mela Uncut

Shanti's Blog Mela is up, do check it out. I'm hosting the next one, so send in your entries to me. As I don't have comments enabled, you'll just have to send me an email. The guidelines:

1. All posts between February 18 and February 24 are eligible, including those two days.
2. All posts should be made by Indians or should focus on India.
3. Deadline is by the end of the 24th, US time. My blog mela will be posted on the 25th.

Be good, be bloggacious.
amit varma, 11:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Who needs a passport?

Tavleen Singh isn't amused by the "annual chanting" of terms like "liberalisation" and "economic reform" as budget day approaches. These are just jargon, she says, and little has changed in India. As an example, she cites the procedure for getting passports. She writes:
Luckily, foreigners need never to apply for an Indian passport or they would discover just how Third World we are. A passport is not a favour but the fundamental right of every citizen but the procedures involved are so convoluted that if a billion Indians decided to apply for passports we would have to call out the Army. Most countries require a single signature on a one-page form. Indians need to fill in a form that if every "annexure" is counted becomes the size of a small pamphlet. Under the new "tatkaal" scheme you are exempted a police inquiry but need the signature of a civil servant above the rank of joint secretary, plus a ration card, plus you need to write your signature at least twelve times and give your thumb impression three times. Since "tatkaal" is available only to more privileged citizens, think of the absurdity of the ration card requirement. Why should anyone above the poverty line still need a ration card?

Why should a police inquiry be a requirement when in these computerised days a passport can be cancelled in a minute? How many ordinary Indians know an official above the rank of joint secretary?

Stupid, outdated, cumbersome procedures that cost taxpayers vast amounts of money are the leitmotif of Indian governance.

There's more. Read it all.
amit varma, 2:30 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A mirror for our broken world

Primary Red of Secular Right India writes:
A great power is marked not just by guns and gold -- but principally by exportable ideas that inspire the world. Like other great civilizations, India too has had its share of such ideas (e.g., Yoga, Syncreticism, Taj Mahal, etc.). Our lament is that these ideas are antiques and that contemporary Indian thought -- much like contemporary global thought -- is increasingly noisy, unoriginal, and (deliberately or otherwise) designed to shock, like a mirror reflecting our broken world.

Read the full piece. I don't agree with all of it, and will write more on my reasons for that later. But it's a well-articulated and thought-provoking piece that deserves to be discussed.

It also quotes from a Daniel Henninger piece that I'd discussed on The Middle Stage. Strangely, that other blog of mine seems to have one-fifth the number of readers that India Uncut has. Bummer.
amit varma, 1:01 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Refrain, Indian historian!

In an essay in the Telegraph, Ramachandra Guha bemoans that Indian historians rarely write for an audience broader than an academic one. But he pinpoints the reason for this. He writes:
Indian historians are, for the most part, too insular and timid to take history to the people. Indian media is too vulgar to do so. And there is yet a third problem, that in India, history is most contentious, productive not just of intellectual argument but also of sectarian violence. If heads can be broken and libraries burnt on account of a single line in a book about Shivaji, can one imagine the reaction to a series on television about the Mughals? Or a series about the national movement? How would we accommodate, in one straight, simple narrative, the viewpoints and contributions of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Nehru, Bose, Jinnah and Savarkar? These men argued among themselves in their lifetime, and their followers fight their battle more fiercely now. How to make a programme that is appealing and attractive, and yet won’t spark a hundred processions and a dozen bloody riots? Rather than confront the question, it seems more prudent to duck it.

Read the full piece, the bit about Indian historians is just one part of it. Reviewing a book called History and the Media, edited by David Cannadine, Guha casts his eye over historians of the past who have reached wide audiences, and on the vibrant new genre of tele-history.
amit varma, 11:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sex doesn't sell

So it emerges. Who would have thought?
amit varma, 11:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The politics of economics

There is, says TN Ninan in an excellent piece in Business Standard, one thing more important for India-Pakistan relations than the bus service between Srinagar and Muzzafarabad: "starting a lorry and train service to carry goods between Amritsar and Lahore."

A free-trade agreement between the two countries will be a win-win situation, as trade always is. It will, in fact, hold more benefits for Pakistan than for India. Ninan examines India's free-trade agreements with other coutries in the region and writes:
What is interesting is that India has accepted non-reciprocity as a principle in its trade deals with Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, and will almost certainly do so with Bangladesh.

In other words, while Pakistan sees India as some kind of regional bully, the fact is that India has given more in trade negotiations than it has taken.

It is not that no trade takes place between India and Pakistan. Since official trade is discouraged, rampant smuggling is said to equal official trade (governments on both sides lose customs revenue as a result).

And there is much larger trade (estimates go up to $2 billion) through third countries like Dubai. This is an expensive way to get goods across.

The loser is the consumer in both countries, and no one can be the gainer in this game.

But Ninan sees hope in the South Asian free trade area that Saarc members have agreed to create starting 2006. If that helps free trade between Pakistan and India, he writes, "economics will have found a way around politics".
amit varma, 10:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The healing touch of cricket

Should India play cricket with Pakistan? This was a much-debated question before India's tour of Pakistan last year, and I'd presented both sides of the argument in a piece on Cricinfo ("The humanising factor"), unsure of what the right answer was.

One one hand, I'd pointed out, sport, like war, is a zero-sum game, and one side has to lose for another to win. Human progress, and diplomacy, on the contrary, are positive-sum games, where everybody can benefit. Sport, thus, can be like "mimic warfare", as George Orwell once put it. This is particularly a danger with India-Pakistan games, which often give too much scope for jingoism.

On the other hand, sport gives a human face to people from the other side, and helps us feel warmer towards them. People of both countries have constructions of the other nation which are caricaturish and false. Actually interacting with people from the other country, seeing them in the flesh, helps to dispel those mythical images.

So which point of view do I now hold? The second one. Last year's tour was a massive success in terms of bilateral relations, and the people of both countries ended it feeling warmer towards the other one. What was especially stirring was the welcome Indian journalists and spectators got in Pakistan.

Sambit Bal writes in his column in Cricinfo that a senior Indian cricketer recently expressed a worry to him. "I just hope," Bal quotes him as saying, "[that] we, as a nation, are able to reciprocate in kind to the manner Indians were treated in Pakistan when they toured last year." Bal continues:
It's a fear palpably felt by every Indian who set his or her foot in Pakistan during those magical days. Like us, he had seen doors and hearts open, he had felt the warmth and goodwill which was too spontaneous to have been a put-on, he had seen the Indian flags flying proudly in the stands, seen pictures of Indian revellers on the streets of Lahore, and like us, he too is left wondering if India can match the grace and the hospitality. Will we see Pakistani flags fluttering in our grounds? Will we see a procession of Pakistani bikers on our streets? Will we able to celebrate the event of cricket, irrespective of who wins?

The early signs – the pitch at Mohali being dug up, the arguments over Ahmedabad as a venue – haven't been encouraging, but once the cricket starts, hopefully that will change.

Saeed Naqvi wrote a wonderful piece yesterday in the Indian Express which also demonstrated how cricket can bring people together. Describing a local tournament in Gujarat, he wrote:
The tournament has been a unique effort in healing communal wounds. Each of the 64 teams has been composed of Hindus and Muslims in equal numbers, more or less. As Mehboob Chacha observed, stroking his long, grey beard, selecting teams in such a communally charged atmosphere was not easy. Mehboob Chacha is part of Janvikas and Yuva Shakti, groups which provided the sinews for much of the post-pogrom relief in the area. He was the first to have thought of cricket as a great healer three years ago.

After the ’02 disturbances, he had noticed youngsters had stopped playing together, something they always did in his living memory. Initially it was difficult to put together a team across the communal divide. Many, on both sides, had lost relatives in the pogrom and could not now reconcile to playing together. The traumatic events had torn the social fabric to shreds.

And cricket helped put it back together. Read the full story.
amit varma, 6:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

No harsh remedies

Nitin Pai fisks the Tech Central Station piece by Amir Attaran and Roger Bate that I'd discussed earlier. Nitin begins his piece thus:
Remember how poor labour standards in the third world were used to prevent manufacturing jobs from moving out of the West? Remember John Kerry’s Benedict Arnold speech and the hoopla over business process outsourcing? The latest entrant into this list is concern for India’s sick poor.

Read the full thing.
amit varma, 5:56 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Egg from Mars

The Times of India has egg on its face, says MadMan, and it comes from Mars. Read more here.
amit varma, 4:26 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, February 18, 2005

Mulayam v Mayawati

Politicians may be a cynical breed, but their supporters often are not. The Hindustan Times reports that two cops – one a fan of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the other of Mayawati – recently began a political discussion about the merits of these two leaders. Things got heated, and the argument had a violent end. The reports says:
[A] few days ago, a constable had shot and grievously wounded his colleague in the Police Lines. While it was earlier believed that the brawl happened after Ram Chandra Gautam, a Dalit cop, got heavily drunk, investigations have revealed an entirely new story.

According to eyewitnesses, Gautam was a Mayawati supporter, while his colleague Ram Awadh Yadav backed the SP leader. Gautam was also known to consume alcohol in the Police Lines, despite an order prohibiting the same.

On the fateful day, the two cops apparently got into an argument over which political leader was the best. Mulayam Singh, claimed Ram Awadh, was a good man and his government in the state would complete its full term. Unable to stomach such high praise, Gautam allegedly opened fire.

This is not just a story about a drunk policeman, but also about the politics of caste. The reason identity politics is so dominant in India is that for many people, their identity is the only crutch they have to get through what, by Western standards, are fairly difficult lives. For Dalits in UP, Mayawati not only represents an escape route from centuries of degradation and exploitation, but also embodies who they are and what they believe in. She might be a venal, manipulative politician, but they have no choice but to be in denial about that – or they will have no hope left. So by praising Mulayam, and implicitly dissing Mayawati, Ram Awadh effectively told Gautam that he was worth nothing, and deserved to be treated like shit.

Then the shots rang out.
amit varma, 11:54 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Horses, dogs and Indians

The Times of India reports that Princess Michael of Kent is not in a good mood these days, and the reason ostensibly is her daughter's impending wedding with a gentleman of Indian origin. Lady Gabriella Windsor is all set to wed Aatish Taseer, a London-based journalist who also happens to be the son of the columnist, Tavleen Singh. Princess Michael apparently wishes that her daughter was as choosy about her mate as English people are about their horses and dogs. She is reported to have said:
The English take the breeding of their horses and dogs more seriously than they do their children. God forbid that the wrong drop of blood should get into their Labrador. But their children marry anywhere.

So what should Aatish do the next time he meets his mum-in-law to be? Here's my advice: neigh furiously.
amit varma, 11:28 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Straw on the ground

Rediff has a couple of pictures of Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, rolling chapatis at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and then eating the food cooked there. He looks distinctly uncomfortable in the second of the pictures, sitting cross-legged on the floor. It's a fine gesture on his part – diplomacy is full of such fine, and empty, gestures – but not on the part of his hosts. They should have got Straw a chair to sit on. Do they really want his abiding memory of India to be a post-meal ache in the thighs?

Update: Ajay Srinivasan writes in:
Good diplomacy is also in conforming to the host country's customs. Intentionally or unintentionally, by sitting on the ground he has caught your attention and got you to think sympathetically about him, hasn't he?

What I am trying to say is that he could have been offered a chair and he could have opted to sit on the ground. In that case, kudos to him.

Good point.
amit varma, 1:44 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The health of India's healthcare

Amir Attaran and Roger Bate, in a piece in Tech Central Station titled "India's Deadly Lies", attack the Indian government's manoueverings against the WTO's patent rules for medicines. They make some interesting points.

One, they write that "most of the medicines that WHO terms 'essential' in developing countries are no longer patented -- fully 98% of them are off patent." In other words, they contend that, contrary to the rhetoric of anti-globalisation NGOs, patents "aren't an obstacle to essential medicines."

Two, they point out that India's "health systems are crumbling, making it patently obvious that its government cares not a jot for its people." They say that "by some estimates India may have more HIV positive people (over 5 million) than any other nation, including South Africa." (For my earlier post on Aids in India, click here.)

Three, they note that "India spends 4.5% of its GDP on health, of which only 0.9% is public expenditure. No government in South Asia spends less, making New Delhi dead last (tragic pun intended) in providing for its citizens' health."

Here's more:
[S]een from a slowly-propelled bicycle, the health of poor Indian villagers is shockingly worse than in much of Africa. Few medicines, whether patented or not, are available in public hospitals, principally because the government does not care to provide them. We are haunted by the sight of a man, crossing the road, dragging behind him a leg made lame and elephantine by lymphatic filariasis -- a disease for which Western pharmaceutical firms offer the medicines not just cheaply, but for free, if only the elites and Brahmins officiating in New Delhi cared to distribute them.

The international community should not forgive India's perfidy lightly. The next time Indians arrive at the WTO with a pressing demand, let it chill on the agenda. And the next time India seeks foreign aid for AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, et cetera, donors such as USAID and the Global Fund should absolutely refuse. Any country having spent billions of dollars to acquire nuclear weapons, or on follies such as a lunar exploration probe (coming in 2008!) clearly has significant sums to spend on public health; frankly, India neglects its citizens' health out of choice rather than fiscal stringency. [Italics in original.]

Strongly worded stuff. No matter what you feel about the patents regime of the WTO, though, one thing is undeniable: the Indian government's delivery systems for public healthcare are abysmal, just like its delivery systems for anything. The solution for this lies not within the ambit of government, but outside it. The answer lies in free markets, and in globalisation, enabled in a manner designed to drastically reduce government interference and control.

(For more of my thoughts on this [sigh], read my earlier posts, "Fighting poverty" and "The myth about the rich and the poor".)
amit varma, 12:56 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Rent-a-womb service

What is an orphanage in search of a revenue stream to do? Well, if there are girls in the orphanage, you could always rent their wombs out. No, this isn't tasteless speculation, but real life. The Times of India reports that an orphanage in Ghaziabad has done just this. The report focuses on a 22-year-old girl called Sonia:
Sonia is an orphan, who's already been through two broken marriages—without any court being involved. In the second case, she was given to an already married, 48-year-old merchant in Sonepat, so that he could have a child by her.

In May last year, the two 'married' in a private ceremony. After two months of trying to bear a child, she returned to the orphanage. The merchant reported to the Garhmukteshwar police that he had bought her from the orphanage for Rs 71,000. He also alleged that the orphanage sold girls and then got them back for another sale.

The girl apparently remembers only the last three years of her life, and has undergone psychiatric treatment in the past, which is hardly a surprise, given what she must have been through. Her first marriage went bust because her husband and his family, in her words, "found out I was a Muslim, and made life miserable for me. So I returned to the orphanage."

The two photographs that accompany the story, one on each page, are wedding photographs of Sonia with each of her husbands. Look closely at both the pictures, at her and the men with her. In their eyes, there is no humanity. In her eyes, there is no hope. Justice? Forget about it.
amit varma, 3:25 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The punishment of due process

In a marvellous piece in the Indian Express, "Truth, confessions and videotape", Pratap Bhanu Mehta pinpoints why India's justice sustem is so dysfunctional. He writes:
In India, we do not get punishment after due process. Due process is the punishment. After all, aren’t there more than seven million arrests a year, a thousand undertrials in prison who have already been there more than five years? And what about the scourge of custodial deaths, a phenomenon every civilised police force has managed to abolish. Perhaps Pappu Yadav is an apt symbol of the inversion of values that corrosive skepticism allows: the jail as a secure rest house, freedom as fraught with danger, as [SAR] Geelani has found out. At whose discretion we get justice, who knows.

Mehta points to Geelani, Anara Gupta, the Shankaracharya and Vicky Thakur as examples of people to whom, regardless of the question of their innocence or guilt, injustice was done by the justice system. Gupta's case, in my mind, is especially bizarre, because even if she did what she was accused of, it shouldn't count as a crime. We have too many archaic laws in our books, but even if we didn't, the system would still be a mess.
amit varma, 2:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Defacato interruptus

I'm at home today, and all alone. That is a dangerous thing. Why so, you ask? Well, it's because of what I call "Murphy's Toilet Law" (please don't tell Murphy I'm misusing his name like this). This is how it plays out:

You will be alone at home. For many hours you will do what you do, and no one will ring the doorbell. Then you will feel the need to go and defecate. You will enter the toilet, and as soon as you have finished half of what you need to do, the doorbell will ring. You will hurriedly clean up, put on some clothes, and rush to the door. You will get rid of the visitor. And you will go back to work.

You will not feel like going to the loo for the rest of the day, but a vaguely solid sense of intestinal dissatisfaction will linger.

So is that better, or worse, than a bad lens day?
amit varma, 2:12 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The price of celebrity

I've written before about how India is such a celebrity-crazy country, and it looks as if the crazy part of that is turning dangerously loony. Rediff reports that Sania Mirza has been provided with security because she is "facing a problem from autograph-hunters and stalkers". This is a problem brought about not just by her tennis-playing skills, but also because she is young, pretty and photogenic – in other words, perfect celebrity material.

With time "autograph-hunters and stalkers" get a life and move on. But, as I have lamented before on 23 Yards, celebrities, especially sportspeople, aren't safe.
amit varma, 1:26 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

I recommend: