Who am I?

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I am not religious, but I don't mind calling myself spiritual. Religion, I believe, has, over the millennia, been used as a prop to perpetrate a lot of human suffering. Faith is what matters. I don't believe in the definition of God as a creator. According to me, my God resides within me. Some call it conscience, some call it the sub-conscious, some call it the soul. I don't mind calling it God. So by definition I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but by essence, I may as well be. My God does not reside in a temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. It is right here, within me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Long Walk

When the minute hand of my watch seemed to leapfrog the markings depicting minutes, the torrent of realization hit me in the face with full force. The initial impact of it was so much that it caused my jaw to literally drop down, a reaction which was mirrored in the look of the grey lady that passed me by. Grey lady I christened her because the grey in her hair begrudgingly eclipsed her furrowed skin – that showed her old age – claiming itself as the dominant feature. Late as I already am, it would be better if I quicken up my pace, lest I miss my bus, I reasoned. In all of two months, it was only once that I had missed my bus. And unexceptionable that once should be, at least in my mind, as I had woken up 8 minutes prior to the departure of my shuttle – the epithet for office bus in the newly-acquired-by-me jargon – for no reason at all, as I wanted to do something like that for a lark. I believed the mundane schedule of my newly acquired professional life was acting like a leech, sucking away at the vestiges of childlike qualities in me, which were already wallowing in scarcity. But today was different, I thought. Today I had no excuse to present myself with. So I packed some power into my stride and hurried through the narrow road winding its way through the neighbourhood at strict right angles – at most places at least.

 I could feel the i-pod against my leg, safely cocooned in my trouser pocket. The thought of switching it on, putting on the earphones and filling up my world with beautiful songs, swooshed away with the same celerity with which it had presented itself – I did not want to delay my journey on foot any more than it already had been and the time it would have taken to position the i-pod out of my pocket could prove decisively fatal. I saw two kids playing badminton on the left of the road. The elder one – seemingly 14 years of age – had a reproachful expression on his face as if saying how dare the younger one – of about 12 – smash the shuttle so well that it was physically impossible for the elder one to reach it in time with his limited talent. My heart leapt with joy at the ironical but justified nature in which situations asserted themselves in this world. But the instant I gave my mind the leeway to wander so, a loud honk made itself felt in my ears indicating that I had trespassed into the vehicular territory – that is, the middle of the road. Moving out of the way and concentrating back on moving swiftly, I looked ahead. 

The crossing from where I would be able to spot the presence – or absence – of the shuttle in its supposed position was less than 100 metres now. I dwelt on the option of covering just these hundred metres on an auto rickshaw – as I had already done once – and indulging myself in the same impishness that I mentioned earlier, but dropped the idea  after a little deliberation as it required a healthy mix of timing, good fortune and assertiveness, neither of which seemed to be my companion this instant. So I continued walking. In half a minute – how precious even a few seconds seemed now – I reached the T-junction and instantly peered into the welter of vehicles to my right, seemingly racing towards me. And I spotted it. Coming towards me, with B6-083 splotched thickly in red at the top right corner of the wind screen, was the shuttle. My head instructed my heart to relax a little in its race towards inexplicably high rates of beating. I was going to get into the bus on time. I should feel relaxed, I told myself. I waved a hand as the bus was just about 40 metres away now. But then something happened. 

He sped away, ignoring my presence like an elephant would miss an ant and inadvertently result in a walkover (again, literally!) for the ant, that is me in this case, who was waving his hands frantically, even making loud calls, hoping that my entreaties would fall on some ears. But to no avail. It was all in vain, the hurried walk, the decision to not put on the i-pod. I had missed my bus. I looked down and noticed, to my chagrin, that I was not wearing my access card around my neck (something which gives your ego a vanity shot in the arm as you can claim yourself to be an employee of  XYZ company). And this was the reason why the driver of the bus refused to notice the insane flutter of my arms. I reflected a little on the course of action I could take. Then I realized that it was a historical day now. Missing the bus somehow added to my list of tomfooleries, I convinced myself. I felt younger at heart, chuckled, turned left, and started walking.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Brink of Oblivion

     According to a recent Times of India poll carried out in 4 metro cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai, 85% of those who responded felt that the Commonwealth Games were a “success”. The same percentage felt that the Games have enhanced India’s image globally! Let us start to understand this claim by delving into the minds of the thousands living in the “metros” who responded in majority to the poll. 

     How do we define “success”? Any even-minded individual would answer that it can be defined by measuring the enhanced quality of life something has provided to people influenced by it. It could also, according to people far removed from the ground realities and feeding off of popular media, be measured by the “prestige” it has brought to the nation. Agreed, it has provided New Delhi with a facelift in some parts of the City. But it’s like trying to conceal your true age by applying anti-wrinkle cream and hoping that it works.

     In February, a Monitoring Committee was formed in accordance with a Delhi High Court directive, to probe allegations of labour laws violations at the Games sites. The findings of the Monitoring Committee were shocking, to put it mildly. According to the 115-page report, in most of the sites that the Committee visited, the labourers were paid a wage of Rs 100 a day, when their statutory minimum wage is Rs 203. According to unofficial reports, around 2 lakh labourers were employed in the CWG preparation. A People’s Union of Democratic Rights study shows that by denying CWG workers their rightful wages, contractors saved Rs 360 crore a year. No employment card or ID card for workers were provided, which means that most of the workers, being unregistered, could not register grievances, could not claim the benefits of laws like Payment of Wages Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Contract Labour Act, the Equal Remuneration Act, the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act and the Building and Other Construction Workers Act. The report also says that most workers were charged between Rs 300 and Rs 800 for boots on the site, when the “law” makes helmets, boots and gloves and safety accessories mandatory and free! Why are these “laws” in place, one wonders, when they are easily defied by some of the biggest construction companies in India, employing the majority of labourers in India for “grand” events like these? At one site, the report found 10 mobile toilets for 150 inmates. The toilets were never cleaned or maintained. No evidence of medical examination of workers from time to time was found. “The camps are totally unacceptable from the point of view of decent human living. Tiny rooms represent hovels where human beings have literally to crawl like animals”, noted the Committee. And then we say that the Games have been a success! Success for whom? Disgust is a word which does not even remotely come close to the emotion one should feel, when one thinks of the Rs 40 crore spent on just the imported balloon used during the opening ceremony!

     Before the CWG, authorities “moved” – a euphemism for “kicked out” – over one lakh homeless – more than a third of the city’s homeless – from night shelters, and demolished hundreds of homes. Bamboo clusters were planted to hide slums from tourists. And most of the apathetic Delhi populace were ignorant of it, or rather chose to look the other way, because admitting connivance in the oppression – to use a mild word – was uncomfortable, but rejoicing in the online communities touting CWG and thrashing naysayers was a sudden fad, easy to defend in the name of “national pride”. The shanties built for the workers out of iron sheets and tarpaulin burned like an oven in the Delhi summer, when the preparations were well under way. Bricks were used, not to build the migrant labour camps, but to hide the camps from the city life behind high walls. The message sent out by the authorities – it’s OK for the labourers – who built the very Commonwealth Games which the people are so proud of – to burn in the shanties and die of Dengue but it’s NOT OKAY for their abhorrent condition to be visible to the city people and the foreign tourists and athletes that the Games would bring along. And then 85% of the people living comfortably in the metros say that the Games have enhanced the status of India in the global community! Bah!

     In this light, when one looks at the past that was the Commonwealth Games and looks to the future where unabashedly 82% of the people want India to make a claim for hosting 2020 Olympics, I, for one, feel ashamed for inadvertently being a part of a system where the rich grow richer, the poor are left behind and the middle class latches its wagon onto that of the rich, and hopes to be one them someday, not giving a fig as to what happens to the destitute and the misfortunate – that form more than half of this country. Since liberalisation, India has leapfrogged many a nations to reach the forefront of this inane race to be the first, to appear to best China, to have an even greater “growth-rate” (I cannot think of a better oxymoron!). Admitted, the reforms might have given some impetus to infrastructure and industrialisation. But, as countless examples in history have served, a nation cannot be called “great” if it ceases to care about its voiceless and marginalised. India’s standing in the world community cannot be measured by the “success” of major events like CWG or even Olympics, but by providing basic livelihood to the 450 million, surviving on the brink of oblivion.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Common "Wealth" Shames!!

         Considering the history of inept planning and even worse implementation, what with an administrative system that reeks of lassitude, what else could we have expected of our leaders? If that is not a rhetorical question, then I will do the honour of answering it myself (in fact I’m etching to do it!). The Commonwealth Games could go still downhill from here. Worst case (or best case?), India could end up winning most of the medals at the games, because almost all of the participating countries would have withdrawn by then. Moreover, these days my imaginative mind also nudges me to think further! What if the opening ceremony is accompanied by a terrorist attack in the Games Village itself, or some major roof comes down on certain spectators (God forbid!) and the Games stand forfeited?
        But thankfully, none of this is happening right now. Nor does it seem likely, if the placating statements passed on by the Government are to be believed. Now that the top people seem to have intervened, there are hopes afloat all around of a better show (better than the image projected by the ‘filthy’ games village, as described by an organizing honcho!). But this very happening makes one wonder why did the powers-that-be wait till the very last day (literally) to intervene? Or why did the preparations for the games begin almost more than 3 years too late? Or where did the 70,000 crore of the taxpayer’s money, that made this Commonwealth Games the costliest ever, disappear off to when the rooms provided to some athletes were ‘literally crappy’? These and many more questions can only be answered by the very same people who are organizing this mess. But let us wait for the mist of 11 action days to clear to make some sense of this melodramatic blame-game at the centre. But one thing is for sure, the Commonwealth Games have not made us proud. Instead, it has done the exact opposite – it has made us Indians hang our heads in shame, even before the Games have begun.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Stones, Blood and Tears

          None of us sitting in the cushy armchairs supported by the hefty salaries can imagine what transpires in the troubled parts of the country – especially in Kashmir. And still, strangely though, everyone has an opinion to offer – from thoughts of the stone-pelters being PDP paid workers, to docile suggestions of a cabinet reshuffle; from the inability of the government to successfully ‘suppress’ the ‘violent’ movement, to (and this was one of the strangest suggestions I’ve heard) thinking ways to capture back the Kashmir territory under Pakistan occupation (PoK), as the whole Kashmir is legitimately India’s! 

          It is not so much as the lack of astute thought, but the inability to empathise with the ordinary Kashmiri at such a time of peril, that is snowballing into what could lead to a violent uprising that no one would be able to ‘suppress’. It is not possible for an ordinary Indian, cut off from the state of affairs in this precariously placed state, to fathom what goes on in the mind of a Kashmiri when he goes ahead and throws a stone towards the very people who have vowed to protect them. Do you think he believes that he can really harm the police-wallah? Or is his puny stone any match to the bullets and tear gas shells of the armed policeman? No. He knows he is no match. But still, he breaks a curfew, endangers his life to throw a harmless stone. He wants to make a statement with this action of his. A statement that simmers with resentment against the state atrocities. The Kashmiris want the CRPF and the Army out of the state, to put it plainly. How can they feel protected by the very people who have raped their daughter, killed their father or taken their son away from them? In the past 2 months, 55 unarmed civilians have been killed in the police and CRPF firing. Not a single police personnel has been killed by the hurled stones. Doesn’t this say something about the state of mind of a troubled youth, full of anger against the state that he wants nothing to do with? He does not want to kill. He wants to be heard, and throwing a stone has been the best, and the most liberating act of defiance that he can register. 

          But sadly, the power hungry honchos at the centre do not see the big picture yet. They do not see this resentment boiling over and giving way to something much bigger than what happened in 1990. Even the Prime Minister should bow his head in shame if a person from his party now mentions a possible hand of Pakistani terror outfits behind this whole ‘exercise’. It is very obvious to one and all that Pakistan has nothing to do with what is happening in Kashmir today. And if the people at the centre refuse to repeal, or atleast majorly amend AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act, that gives extreme autonomous powers to the armed forces – an Act which is being grossly misused and which is at the root of all heartache), and go and talk to Kashmiris and listen to their pain, make them feel that they care - unless this is done, and quickly, something unprecedented might happen after which it would not matter which Kashmir should be on which side of the border.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Precarious Kashmir

This article appeared in the August issue of the online monthly magazine Orange19. You can go to www.orange19.com and check out the August issue. You can also visit their facebook page.

Kashmir is bleeding. The continuation of violence – typically stone-pelting – by the rebellious young Kashmiris has brought Kashmir to its knees. The continued threat of the Islamic right is a grave concern for everyone who has a stake in Kashmir. But what we are seeing is a dilly-dallying on the part of the ruling National Conference-Congress coalition government – not because they do not want to do something about it, but because they have no clue where to start from.
When Mr. Omar Abdullah was crowned as the Chief Minister in January 2009, Congress believed that the apparent youthfulness and sincerity of the son of the person who has done much for Kashmir could bode well for the future of the beleaguered state. But things have turned out differently. When he came to power, he pledged zero tolerance to human rights violations. He also mooted the possibility of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to look into the same. At best, this has turned out to be a pipe dream. After the recent spate of remonstrations, Mr. Abdullah “talked about” a cabinet reshuffle at the top, hinting to drop certain tainted ministers. He is also said to “plan” to overhaul the top echelons of J&K police.  One wonders why is there all talk and no action.
In 2000, National Conference pushed for a resolution demanding autonomy for Kashmir but this demand was rejected at New Delhi by the then ruling BJP led NDA alliance. It’s a demanding question why has not Mr. Abdullah put forward any such idea now, when their alliance partner, i.e. Congress, rules at the centre. The centre also has its share of follies. For instance, the workable suggestions put forward by the five working groups established by the Prime Minister himself at the end of the 2nd Round Table Conference in 2006 have been all but cold shouldered.
It is undeniable that the popularity of Mr. Abdullah has plummeted during his 18-month tenure. A queer yardstick for this is the proliferation of hate communities on social networking sites like Facebook. “We Hate Omar Abdullah” is as much fraught with political satire on the CM and his misgovernance as it is with vituperation and venomous hatred spelled out in abusive, but very clear words. “We Hate Barkha Dutt” incriminates her for her apparent prejudiced and one-sided coverage of the clashes and goes one step ahead with suggested ideas of her being “stoned to death”. These middle class youth are remorselessly separatist and do not want anything to do with India. It is prevalence of such thought which strengthens the agenda of the Islamist separatists like Syed Ali Shah Gilani of the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat.
There also seems to be a deep-rooted division in the ruling coalition. In the all-party meeting called by Mr. Abdullah on July 12 to plan a common strategy, Mr. Tara Chand, the deputy CM and the Congress leader in the state, was conspicuous by his absence. When asked, he simply stated that he was not invited. This, when the PM openly invited Ms. Mehbuba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who stands in the opposition. Also, recently a delegation of Congress leaders from the state met Ms. Sonia Gandhi demanding a rotation of the post of CM in the state. These divisions do not augur well for the people of the troubled state. What J&K needs today is coming together of all opinions, ideas and oppositions and chalking out a common strategy for the future of the troubled state. Nothing short of it will do. But alarmingly the truth is far far from this quixotic dream.
The solution to the Kashmir problem is, admittedly, not simple. The central government can start by providing better equipment for the paramilitary forces and the police by arming them with non-lethal crowd control strategies. Also, strengthening the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) should be a screaming priority now. Evidently, CRPF has a crippling shortage at the crucial Assistant Commandant level – the officers responsible for handling forces the size of a company or about 125 men. Many of their best officers are siphoned off by Special Protection Group and the National Security Guard early in their careers. The training of its recruits also seriously lacks the quality that is demanded of its members at crucial moments which is made evident by the fact that it has no high command school dedicated to counter-insurgency tactics.
It is time for the NC president Mr. Farooq Abdullah to relinquish his post as his attention is divided at the centre, him being the Union Minister for Renewable Energy. The alarming situation in the state demands undivided attention of the helmsmen. Also the government should give a fillip to education and investment in the state by providing attractive opportunities for the private organisations to invest.
A more concrete mechanism should be put in place to check inflow of “foreign” aid to fund the insurgency in the valley. Local citizens’ bodies could also be set up to liaise with the state administrators and police to put forward the concerns of the citizens in a quicker and more effective manner.
Finally, the questionable role of the CRPF and the Army in the state will always remain a moot topic. In this regard, the government can address the concerns of the human rights activists by diluting the misused Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), if not outright rejecting it.
It is time for the Indian leaders to own up one’s fault and stop blaming Pakistan for inciting hatred in J&K. Let’s admit it, what we are currently seeing in the state has very little to do with Pakistan. It is the suppressed post-1989 generation -that grew up in the shadow of bullets and bloodshed - that has time and again felt discontented and betrayed by the Indian state. Today 7 out of 10 Kashmiris are below the age of 25 and antipathy towards the ways of governance by the Indian leaders only fuels the separatist ideologies. The post-2008 election euphoria was replaced by a sense of complacency among the honchos at the top and the 18 months that followed could have been used to build on the relative calm to push for concrete conflict resolution processes. Let us all hope for better governance in the future, lest the floodgates open and palpable resentment give way to complete rebellion.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sick Idea!!

So I’ve noticed, the genesis of many beautiful and potential laden ideas lies in the time when I’m down with sickness. The utterly confounding realization of this idea occurred to me today when I was lying in my bed, enjoying an off from work because of the abrupt onset of fever yesterday. It is not just the seminal ideas, but the thoughts fraught with inspiration that shoot a virtual rocket of awakening through my consciousness. It felt as if I woke up from a long dream to a world I had known all along – to being the person that I was once upon a time. To the imperturbable and no-nonsense version of me that I had but forgotten. To the disciplined and persevering version of me whose fleeting image I could almost touch but not quite. I woke hungry for a precept which once defined me – having clarity of a vision which I, in my long days of uncaring lethargy, had long assumed indelibly nebulous and hazy. The irony, in me feeling more refreshed than I had in months, despite being down with sickness, made me smile. Good morning, me. A new day has begun.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bending the Scales of Justice

This article appeared in the June issue of the online monthly magazine Orange19. Check it out here and check out he June issue here.

June 7, 2010 - The air has the stench of alienation. The journalists, the activists and the victims are ordered to stay out of the courtroom as the 100 pages of verdict are being read. Seven accused, two years imprisonment with a fine of Rs. 1,01,750 each. Submit Rs. 25,000, and you could be granted a bail immediately.

Such was the gross impunity with which the ‘justice’ was carried out on this fateful day. Union Carbide top man Warren Anderson safely ‘absconding’ since long, it was the victims who had to tread the barren path through more than 25 years of hell. And today, the ‘justice’ mocks at their faces.

The Supreme Court judgement of September 13, 1996 - which converted the offence from culpable homicide not amounting to murder (with maximum punishment up to 10 years) to rash and negligent act causing death (punishable up to a maximum of 2 years) – evidently tied down the hands of Chief Justice Magistrate (CJM) Mohan P. Tiwari. But there seems to be a greater connivance on the part of the state and central governments that allowed Anderson to flee from India under what seemed to be US pressure. “House arrest or no house arrest, or bail or no bail, I am free to go home..There is a law of the United States..India, bye bye, thank you” were his final words before he left the country. If you read those words closely, his scoff is almost audible.

On the fateful night of December 2-3, 1984, the poisonous Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaked from one of the tanks, in which it was stored in large quantities, killing 2,500 people immediately and 1,500 more subsequently, according to the official estimates. Other estimates put the total death toll at around 15,000. Defects in the plant like bulk storage of MIC despite common knowledge that a leak could cause havoc, possible corroding material in pipelines and in valves like iron, copper, zinc and tin, a faulty refrigeration system – the working of which was a stated necessity and could have provided a lot more reaction time, no safety guidelines provided to people living in the areas near the plant by UCIL despite the awareness of the possibility of a leak, no alarm system to check the quality of MIC before it was stored in the tanks – another stated necessity, only highlight the already emotive issue of corporate accountability. One of the ‘absconding’ accused, the US based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) – the parent company of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) – had also released an Operational Safety Survey Report, dated July 28, 1982, prepared by a team of experts; the report showed that there were a number of deficiencies in the maintenance of the MIC unit. This report strongly points towards the extreme callousness displayed by the accused despite knowledge of the bending of rules that was prevalent. It is a travesty of justice, to say the least, that the people who never felt a tinge of guilt are still at large enjoying the immunity from the Indian justice system.

Another seeming connivance emerges when you look closely. UCC had a share of 50.9 per cent in UCIL. In 1973, UCIL had entered into an agreement with the parent company, according to which UCC was to provide UCIL with the best manufacturing information then available. The 1996 Supreme Court judgement also allowed the shares owned by UCC to be sold to raise money for the construction of a hospital by the Bhopal Hospital Trust (BHT), a body created by UCC. Thus it became all the more difficult for the prosecution to prove that the top people of UCC sitting in the US knew all about what was going on in their subsidiary in India.

A great paradox, which emerged during the trial, was in the title of the case itself. It read State of Madhya Pradesh through the CBI vs Warren Anderson and others. Strange it is that the verdict did not even mention the name of Warren Anderson. The case accusing him of culpable homicide not amounting to murder is still pending. But the erroneous title of the case gives the false impression that the case against Anderson et al is closed as well.

The levee seems to be on the verge of breaking for the Congress which suddenly finds itself in a morass of its own wrongdoing. Apart from the opposition parties aiming for the kill, voices of dissent can be heard even from within its own walls. The latest move by the Congress of appointing a Group of Ministers (GoM) to look into the matter seems like a desperate scurry for cover. The latest in the series of events is the recommendations of the GoM of a hike in compensation for the victims, review of the unfair verdicts, and a fresh effort for the extradition of the fugitive Anderson. If the suggestion for enhanced compensation for the victims is accepted and implemented fairly, then this might be the only silver lining for the victims as well as for the party which claims itself as the saviour of the aam aadmi. The aim for extradition of Anderson is as much a non-starter as it is unrealistic. The government could not convince the US government to extradite Headley for the heinous crime that is so fresh in the minds of every Indian. So a similar hope for Anderson is like wishing for the stars - Quixotic and impractical.

The irony rides high when one considers that Barack Obama expects British Petroleum to pay up to $20 billion as the total clean up costs. The total loss of human lives amounted to 11. And the settlement seems to be going into completion soon after the spill is fully contained. Compare that with 28 years of uncaring silence by the Indian state and a puny compensation by the Supreme Court verdict in 1996 to rub it in. Let us keep our fingers crossed that the government does not yet again fail to deliver due justice to all.

It is all summed up in what an activist said of the pitiable state: “This is definitely not what we were waiting for. In 2006, the Prime Minister promised us an empowered commission that would look into the rehabilitation of survivors. Till today the commission has not been formed. What the government has demonstrated over the years is that the lives of ordinary citizens are expendable. The Prime Minister has told us that the Bhopals will happen but the country must progress. In Bhopal, first there was an industrial disaster, then there was medical disaster and now what we are watching is a judicial disaster.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Subdued Super Saturday

The hum of the AC has inconspicuously settled in the background. The accented baritone of Evan has ceased to seem uncommon and has now blended itself with the monotonic drone. I, with a subdued effort, try to keep my eyes open despite the awareness that they must be bloodshot by now – the way they always are whenever I’m seduced by Lady Slumber, especially in such lectures. We flank one end of the rectangular table as Evan scribbles something incomprehensible on the white board which, to my mind, closely resembles the gibberish that I had a habit of writing when I was 3. Digvijay neighbouring me on my left stifles a monstrous yawn. It is raining outside – as I noticed when I made a sojourn to the washroom in the hope of watering down my unceasing desire to visit dreamland, but in vain – and the rain makes me think of the rising anticipation of what lay ahead on the weekend – whatever remained of it.

Today is a Saturday and the vanity of the evident brutality – that is, me sitting in a conference room of the MNC I work for – is a nudging reminder of my ongoing suffering. The gloomy prospect of working on a Super Saturday – a Saturday which hosts a Germany vs. Argentina football world cup quarter final should be called a Super Saturday, no less! – the gloomy prospect should have looked appealing to, in my opinion, not even the workaholic ‘techies’ – as they like to be called. But here we all are, including me I admit, wasting away a perfect Saturday afternoon – though there was not much prospect for enjoyment outside of home because of the rain, but, to me, perfect nonetheless. The flowing reverie of my thoughts was impaled by the now sweet sounding voice of Evan wrapping up the session. I gathered my wits, along with my pen and notebook, and scampered out the room to the environs of freedom and an evening of, I hope, good football.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Dream

I could feel the dampness streaming across my forehead. But I dare not wipe it off for fear of losing my concentration. It would be difficult to swim through the bright ball of fire glowing some distance ahead of me. But I desperately wanted to see what lay on the other side of it. The ball was very near now. I could feel its heat starting to incinerate the hair on my elbows that were extended ahead of me. My head started to spin the way it did, benignly, after two pints of beer. I was losing my focus. The dampness of my forehead had started to accumulate and then flow through my eye lashes- I still did not close my eyes. But it was becoming unbearable. Worst of all, I was beginning to founder. The ball was contracting. With a sudden realization, I knew I would not make it through. It was all a mistake. I wanted to scurry back, but I knew it was too late. My flesh was burning. And then my eyes.

I stared at the bedside lamp for the whole two minutes it took for my heartbeat to slow down. The recurring dream. I pulled myself off the bed and walked to the kitchen without my slippers. The light of the refrigerator, as I opened it, felt refreshingly alive. I took out a bottle of water and walked to the open backyard. The moon was frowning angrily at me. But as I kept staring into its face, I realized the menacing glower was just an indifferent smile. The whiff of cold air licking off the trickle on my forehead as I drank the water made me think of my helpless state. The same dream had driven me off my bed for six years before one morning I woke up refreshed after an uninterrupted slumber. The dream had stopped pricking me just like that. And here I was, two years later, bathing in the frigid moonlight, jolted by the re-emergence of my nemesis.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nutrition: Thought for Food Should be the Government's Food for Thought

Copenhagen Consensus, a project headed by a panel of leading economists, seeks to offer solutions to complicated social-economic problems. In May 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus panel considered 30 options and ranked the provision for micronutrients as the world’s best investment for development. The underlying reasons are abound.

I will start off with some facts first. Approximately one-third of all children in the developing countries under the age of five are Vitamin-A deficient. In India, 330,000 children die each year from Vitamin-A deficiency. Those that survive infancy may have very low immunity later on in life, and their bodies may be weak, prone to disease. Some of them may have congenital defects which might surface later on in life, while others may become blind at birth. In short, chances of them going very far in school are abysmally slim. And we should not forget the fact that most of these undernourished children are from very poor families.

Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy results in 115,000 deaths throughout the world each year, accounting for one fifth of total maternal deaths. It is a profoundly sad paradox that the country that takes pride in calling itself the next big superpower has the worst Vitamin-A rates in the world in children below the age of 5 years - 57% of the children in India are deficient in Vitamin A while the deficiency percentage for iron is 69%. 33% children in India suffer from iodine deficiency. The most insidious aspect of this is that the cost to minimize this mass-deficiency is minimal. It is the political will that is missing. And it is a shame that this fact itself does not make most of the highly talked-of Indian middle class sit up and take notice, let alone be bewildered by the facts. It is too engrossed in its apathetic attitude towards the pathetic plight of the people of their own country.

If India wants to address the problem of the ever widening gap between those who can afford and those who cannot, leaving behind its children and women is not justified by any yardstick. The government has to work hand in hand with non-profit organizations that are always ready to share their reach and resources for a noble cause. One such organization is the Micronutrient Initiative, based in Ottawa, under the aegis of the Canadian government. The organization has been active in many countries and it has delivered tremendous results. Micronutrient Initiative is a live example of how effective and affordable vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients can be. Vitamin A doses cost about 2 cents each and only 2 annual doses per child are required. Cost of iodization of salt is 5 cents per person per year. Micronutrient Initiative has developed a nutri-candy that fulfils most of the daily requirements of vitamins A, C and iron. The tests of this candy in Haryana and West Bengal have shown a 15% reduction in anemia and deficiencies in Vitamin A. Due to encouraging support of the Canadian establishment, between 1993 and 2007, Micronutrient Initiative has played a huge role in reducing the number of countries with iodine deficiency disorders as a major public health concern from 110 to 47. And there is a bright scope in the future. For example, approximately, 1.5 million children in the world die every year due to diarrhea, most of whom belong to India. Providing those children with zinc supplements, which bolsters the immune system, could reduce the number of deaths by as many as 20%. And the cost of zinc supplements per person per year is just one dollar. A puny amount, considering the huge amounts of money siphoned off by the Indian bureaucrats every year.

The following are the cost effective solutions offered by Micronutrient Initiative that are ready to be scaled up with help from the governments:
I. Fortification
- Fortifying flour and other staple crops with Vitamin A, folic acid, iron and zinc has been an effective means of reducing anemia and birth defects.
- Salt iodization reduces goiter and improves cognitive development. In communities where iodine intake is sufficient, average IQ is shown to be on average 13 points higher than in iodine-deficient communities.
II. Supplementation
- Where a population is at risk of Vitamin A deficiency, providing young children with Vitamin A supplementation every six months reduces mortality by an average of 23%.
- Zinc supplementation, given with oral rehydration therapy, can reduce the duration and severity of acute diarrhea.

Iron Intensification Program by the Government of Nepal, with the help of Micronutrient Initiative, has drastically reduced anemia rates in women since its inception in Nepal. If India hopes to tap the huge skilled human capital that will be at its beck and call in a few years from now, it has to learn something from our neighbour country and Canada, and wake up from its slumber of lethargy and indifference to do the needful.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

When Death Whispered in My Ear

How often do we complain about our life? One just has to take a real hard look around and one notices everyone carping over unsatisfied desires, unfulfilled cravings. Little do we realize the importance of this life, whatever we have. Many a times, people have acknowledged the unpredictability of life only once they experience a defining moment which shatters all their hitherto presumed ethos. Let me take you to the night of February, the 17th, 2010, to explain what I mean.

Sudhanshu is comfortably steering the Mahindra Scorpio down the road to Chandigarh. We are returning from Hisar from the marriage of a friend’s sister. Prateek is placed in the navigator’s seat. I’m listening to Remember Me Lover by Porcupine Tree with a single earphone cocooned comfortably in my left ear; Bulla, sitting on my left, is listening to the I-pod from the other earphone. Jassi is sitting on the other end of the back seat, while Sangwan and Tanuj occupy the perpendicularly placed hind-seats at the back. The road has narrowed down a bit in this stretch. Vehicles, big and small, pass us by on the other side, the glare from the oncoming head lights blinding us each time. The vehicle runs at around 100 km per hour, though the speedometer of the rented vehicle does not function to vindicate that. The clock shows 9:31 pm. It has been barely 10 minutes since we started after halting to wolf down paranthas for dinner. It is while I’m trying to focus on the ethereality of the song when I, like all of us in the car, notice that the vehicle passing us by on the other side was no ordinary vehicle. It is a tractor carrying with it a huge pile of dried hay on its back, with the width of the hay far exceeding what could be assumed as the actual width of the vehicle, looking at its headlights. The glare, blinding us like it does, does not make the line of the thick stacks of hay protruding from the sides of the vehicle visible to us. So it is only when our vehicle just crosses the line of the headlights of that tractor when Sudhanshu, along with the rest of us, notices the thick stacks of hay protruding from its sides, which make the actual width of the vehicle twice its original measurement. Picture driving at a hundred km per hour, and suddenly you realize that the road ahead of you, a puny 5-7 metres ahead, is blocked and the only way out is to steer sharply towards the left, out of the line of the hay stacks. So this is what Sudhanshu does. Our Mahindra Scorpio makes a crisp left turn, exhibited sharply, at a hundred. Before we could consider ourselves blessed for being forgiven by the ominous stacks of hay, Sudhanshu has to take a sharper right to steer our vehicle back towards the narrow road. And this is when we feel our vehicle on twos. Two wheels, in case you are wondering. Let me slow down the time for you people to picturize and vicariously feel what we felt. My minds continually wavers between the two extreme thoughts – we will make it comfortably back on the road; oh no, we are not going to make it. Let me be clear when I say this – had Sudhanshu been a bit lax in pulling back the vehicle to the road with moderate strokes of the steering wheel, or had he been less attentive, had his reflexes been slower than they were, either we would have slammed into the stacks of hay, giving an angular momentum to our vehicle at a hundred (imagine that!), or, had we come unscathed from the stacks of hay but had our vehicle not been pulled back after that, it would have upended sideways and would have undergone numerous somersaults on the unforgiving tarmac before we could count our remaining bones, that is, in case we could count at all. But life has a way of giving you another chance just at the moment you feel everything is lost. This is exactly what happened next. Miraculously, we found our vehicle steadying on the road, its right to left, left to right oscillations getting less wild each time. And that is when we realized what just happened. It all took not more than one and a half seconds.

All of us, awestruck, exchanged our thoughts on our lucky escape for most of the remaining journey. The most serendipitous thing about the event was that at our stop for dinner, Sudhanshu had asked everyone what we would like to do in case we have only five more minutes to live. Little had we known then that life has a defining moment in store for us, barely 10 minutes away. Remember Me Lover (serendipitous again, eh?) by Porcupine Tree is the song that I would have been intently listening to at my last breath, had life decided to not give me another chance. This event reinforced my beliefs with respect to everything in life. Enjoy every moment as if it is your last. Stop crying over spilt milk. Like the Rolling Stones song goes: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well, you might find – You get what you need”. Life is short; only a big heart is necessary and sufficient.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


A discussion about the Indian education system in our Group Discussion today made me think about various things. First of all, what is the government doing to address the glaring loopholes in the Indian education system? Secondly, how much of what the government is doing in the name of development is being implemented in a proper manner? Agreed, our HRD minister Mr Kapil Sibal has been tinkering with the board exams to bring out their true essence, and he has also been touring the world’s best universities and trying to convince them to open a campus in India, but so far it has been a lonely road at the top for him. The government has made a provision for free education for children in the age group of 6 to 14 years, but what about the quality of education? I do not see any bigwig in the government talking about that. According to a study, 71% of schools in India have 3 or less than 3 teachers. The student to faculty ratio in India is 26:1, which is shameful when we compare it to the global average of 15:1. When are we going to address the problem of dearth of quality teachers? Although the sixth pay commission has made a commendable effort of bringing up the salaries of teachers at par with those of people with other professions, but there is no denying the brutal fact that teaching is not something which is looked up to in our society anymore. There used to be a time when a guru was revered and respected like a God. But things have taken a turn for the worse now. A teacher working for the honour that comes with the job is a rarity. A teacher looking forward to educate the masses is rarer still.
Almost every day, each one of us, in his daily dose of quotidian life, realizes that the touted GDP growth rate of India is just a fa├žade to conceal the real face of the country. A country, where 80% of the households earn an income of less than Rs 10,000, calling itself an emerging economy is ludicrous; calling itself the next superpower is, well, laughable. We, as a country, are not going anywhere until we address the morass of backwardness – both economic and mental. And the shortest path across this slough is by working at the roots – primary education. One reason for economic disparity in India is because a person who has studied up to 10th standard from a state board would not be able to rub shoulders with a person from, say, CBSE board. There needs to be a common platform to address the issue of multiple education boards in India. Also, the infrastructure – which includes the teachers, benches, black boards and other equipment which are generally included under the basic definition of a classroom; books and notebooks provided for by the very government which is earning brownie points for “providing” free education – needs to be developed. All students should be uniformly addressed up to 10th standard so that a person from a rural area or from a backward class need not require reservation for himself in secondary and higher education. This would in turn give rise to meritocracy and less of deserving students will be left behind in the race. I know words are easy and acting upon them is where all the effort lies, but it is high time that our politicians walk the talk and give us – the proud citizens of this country who are eagerly looking up to them – something tangible, so that we can tread with our head held high, no matter where in the world we are.