Friday, August 15, 2008

Why we can never do a 40-km trip in 8 minutes

T.J.S. George, has been a longtime China watcher. In fact, when he was in Hong Kong, he was a resource person for many world media with respect to South East Asian affairs. After a gap of about 10 years he happened to visit China again and witness the Olympic preparations and a Modern Super Power.

Here goes the first of a six-part series.

The speed at which China is transforming itself is not just impressive; it is scary.

Can such massive cities come up in the twinkling of an eye? Can such elaborate infrastructure be put in place in a jiffy? What is the engine that drives this frenetic pace of progress? Is there a target such an engine cannot achieve if it wants to?

When I visited Shanghai less than 10 years ago, Pudong was a sprawling marshland which had just been drained to make the soil ready for construction activities. The first highrise hotel was coming up and a landmark TV tower was rising.

Today, Pudong is a marvel of modernity, a glittering financial and corporate centre with facilities and institutions bigger and better than the best in the world.

A fairyland kind of suspension bridge, for example, is the most spectacular link across the Huangpu river that used to separate Pudong from Shanghai. There are several other bridges, several ferry services and several state-of-the-art underwater tunnels that make that separation a thing of the past.

Consider the road system. Shanghai was a notoriously congested city—a tangled web like central Bombay. It was impossible to untangle it. But the authorities found a way: Put an elevated road system over the city’s “ground floor.”

Today an overhead network of crisscrossing flyovers make it possible to go from point A to point B without traffic lights. From the centre of Pudong I drove for 36 kilometers before the car was stopped —by a tollgate.

This determination to do what is necessary—and do it quickly and efficiently—is what is helping China catch up with lost time.

They do everything on the grand scale, planning for a hundred years ahead. The new Pudong international airport will be good enough for virtually a century. It is about 40 kilometres from the city and magnetic levitation train covers the distance in eight minutes.

Compare that with Bangalore’s agonising access problems over the new airport.

There is nothing that China has achieved which others cannot. The difference is that China has the national will to achieve it, and the leadership to turn that will into action. We may say that the authoritarian system facilitates quick execution of plans unlike in a democracy.

Is that an argument we want to push when authoritarianism is so palpably constructive as it is proving in China, and democracy so chaotic as it has become in India?

Perhaps the key lies elsewhere.

Aldous Huxley provided an insight as far back as in 1926. Talking about “the dense, rank, richly clotted life” of Shanghai, he wrote:

"Each individual Chinaman has more vitality, you feel, than each individual Indian or European, and the social organism composed of these individuals is therefore more intensely alive than the social organism in India or the West."

In other words, whether it is communism or capitalism, the Chinese have a national character that tends to give them an edge over others.

Old Confucian saying: Shanghai ain’t about dollars

Here is the Second of a six-part series.

Flickr Photo Credit : Franck

They say Beijing is all about power while Shanghai is all about money.

Two factors combined to make Shanghai that way. First, the city was “internationalised” by marauding European traders in the 19th century. Second, the Shanghainese are the banias of China, money-savvy masters of business.

Shanghainese language, Shanghainese cuisine, Shanghainese self-confidence, Shanghainese view of life—everything about the Shanghainese make them different from other Chinese. Today Shanghai is recognised as China’s smartest city as well as its financial capital, its industrial heartland, its fashion centre, the “Paris of the Orient.”

This has led to a waning of awareness about Shanghai’s cultural credentials.

The fact is that at one point this port city was also China’s intellectual centre. It was where modern literature took root. It was where the communist movement found its initial acceptance at the masses’ level. Prominent signboards in the city centre today mark the place where the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held.

It is rather like Coimbatore putting up road signs proclaiming “This is where the Communist Party of India Marxist held its Party Congress in 2008.”

One of the world’s most famous halls for performing arts is the Shanghai Art Theatre featuring French design, German construction, a Japanese stage and American acoustics. The re-birth of the arts in post-Mao China took place in this theatre—a re-birth that reminded the world that Shanghai was the capital of China’s performing arts in the 1920s and ’30s.

Shanghai’s young generation has taken to Western pop music in a big way. But they are a demanding lot. When the American band, Backstreet Boys, recently visited Shanghai, local fans complained that the “boys” had grown old and that the sound effects were poor. For an American saxophonist’s concert last month, ticket prices ranged from 100 yuan (above Rs 600) to 1280 yuan (about Rs 8,000). Half the hall was empty.

Perhaps it is in literature that Shanghai’s past glory shines best. In early 20th century, the City witnessed the birth of a literary revolution. It was led by a man who is venerated today as an icon of China, Lu Xun. Two things were special about him. He questioned everything and considered nothing above criticism. His satirical writings ridiculing Confucian ethics became powerful hits with the masses.

Lu Xun was also the inventor of a new form of written Chinese. Till then all writing was in classical Chinese which only scholars would follow. Lu Xun boldly discarded this language and developed a new style of common man’s Chinese. It made him a popular hero.

Lu Xun was a political activist, a founder member of the League of Leftwing Writers set up in 1930. His radicalism suited the burgeoning communist movement and the party leadership took full advantage of his popularity.

Perhaps Lu Xun was lucky that he died young of tuberculosis in 1936. Had he lived into Mao’s China and the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, his story might have been re-written by the party.

As it happens, he is celebrated as modern China’s greatest writer.

In a Shanghai suburb there is what is known as a Cultural Celebrities Street. The big attraction there is a bronze statue of Lu Xun. The inscription on it is written by Mao Zedong.

Trees on the sides of his grave were planted by Chou En-lai.

There is a new garden city, and it isn’t Bangalore

Here goes the third of a six-part series.

Beijing Olympic Gardens at Olympic Forest Park
Flickr Photo Credit : Peter Konnecke

In this bestirred capital city, the Olympics began long ago.

The official approach to it has also brought out one commonality between China and India—faith in numerology and vaastu, in what is auspicious and what is not.

The most auspicious of all numbers in the Chinese tradition is 8. Therefore the opening ceremony will start precisely at 8 seconds past 8.08 pm on the 8th day of the 8th month of 2008.

Actually the manner and scale in which the Olympics is being organised say a great deal about the national character of the Chinese people—their pride in China, their vision for the future, their planning genius, their organising capabilities, their aesthetic excellence, above all, their intense desire to be liked and
appreciated by the rest of the world.

All nations hosting the Olympics use it as an occasion to display national glory. China has followed the tradition by putting up some futuristic buildings as the main venues for the Games. The central stadium is already a topic of discussion around the world as the “bird’s nest” (in picture). The swimming events will be held in a structure that looks like it is made of water.

For the Chinese, though, all of Beijing is an Olympics venue.

That is the kind of attention they are paying to every nook and corner of the place and to every nearby attraction, from the Ming Tombs to the Great Wall. And they are doing it with a speed that is astonishing.

I stayed in a hotel close to the Bird’s Nest. A large area nextdoor was being levelled by excavators, apparently for landscaping. One morning when I left the hotel, a “JCB” was digging some holes. In the evening when I returned, the whole area had become a beautifully laid-out garden with fully grown trees and large flowerbeds. The flowers, big hydrangias and azalias and petunias in bright reds, yellows and violets, were swinging in the wind.

All over Beijing instant forests and gardens are coming up. Big trees, their trunks wrapped in gunny bags or tightly wound ropes, are transplanted from faraway places. Roadside landscaping and medians are living works of art, miles of roses and chrysanthemums beckoning you as you drive past.

They don’t call Beijing a Garden City. But it is.

The greening of Beijing is part of the environmental policy adopted as part of the Olympics commitment. In all 28 million trees have been planted in the city. All Olympics buildings are lighted by solar power. All factories in the city centre have been closed and inhabitants of three lakh odd houses rehabilitated outside the city. There were no protests as there was in Delhi when the courts ordered closure of some old factories in the inner city.

Communism has its uses, especially when it is purposeful communism accepted by the people as such.

Beijing’s notorious pollution is said to be already under control. They have announced plans to allow only one-third of the city’s registered vehicles to be out on the road on any given day. From July 20, the massive construction industry will stop, not just in Beijing, but in nearby areas as well, to ensure good air quality for the athletes.

The cigarette industry is also dislocated. Smoking is a national habit in China. Paramount leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Hsiaoping were chain smokers.

The supreme sacrifice of curbing smoking is already under way. Even in the restricted rooms where smoking is permitted, they have fitted nano air filters have to break cigarette smoke down to harmless particles before it is released into the atmosphere.

They have another national habit—spitting. The traditional belief is that phlegm is evil and must never be retained in the body. Singapore ended the habit by imposing heavy punishment on offenders. China is currently trying persuasion. What is called the Capital Ethics Development Office has distributed to local people two million booklets on how to behave in public places.

It is all about smiling, queueing, not littering and of course not spitting.

Perhaps no people who hosted Olympics in the past were as eager for the Games to succeed as the Chinese now are. More than with any other people, it is for them an issue of national pride. They want the Games to proceed without a hitch. And they want the visitors to go back with happy memories. They want the athletes in particular to remember the Beijing Olympics as something special.

The medals this year will be more precious than any that were presented in previous games. The gold medals for example will have gold only on one side. On the other side will be white jade, the finest and costliest of China’s most precious gem. A usual Olympics gold medal costs around $200 (approximately Rs 8,000). This year’s gold-and-jade medal will cost $800 (Rs 32,000).

To the world’s greatest sports stars that will be a permanent reminder of China.

Nearly two million visitors are expected to visit Beijing for the Olympics. If you are planning to be one of them, think again.

A city tour that now costs 500 yuan will cost 1000 yuan in July-August. Hotel rooms will be three and four times more expensive. Tickets for the opening ceremony have already hit record levels in the black market. One taxi driver in Beijing told me that the going rate was $20,000 for a ticket. That is about nine lakh rupees.

No Olympics is worth that.

What you should do if you catch a cold in China

Here is the fourth of a six-part series.

You don’t see poverty in the urban belt of eastern China.

There is an occasional beggar, blind or otherwise handicapped, who may extend his hand for alms. One or two impoverished men may also be spotted looking into garbage bins for half-eaten food items. But you don’t see slums and ill-clad children and starving women.

Extreme poverty and overwhelming filth of the kind that hit you again and again in Indian cities seem to have been abolished in urban China. This is a big leap forward from the massive poverty of the imperialist era and the famine days of Mao Zedong’s experiments with permanent revolution.

Not surprisingly anyone who can speak English would rather talk about Deng Hsiaoping than Mao Zedong.

Anna, for example. She was born in post-Mao China and is today a manager in a serviced apartments company.

When I asked about living conditions in China, she asked me whether I had heard of Deng.

I said yes but what about Mao’s days?

Her response sounded typical of modern Chinese youth. She said: “My parents and grandparents had a hard time during Mao’s days. But he was a great leader. He made China free. Deng Hsiaoping made China happy.”

I said thousands in the big cities must be unhappy because their houses had been demolished to make way for modern buildings. Anna’s family was one of those who were affected. But they were not complaining, she said. “We are a family of poor farmers. Our land was taken away to help developers build highrise residential blocks. But we were given good prices and new houses. Most people who were displaced got a good deal. Some complained but they had to agree when all others agreed.”

An electrician who works for Anna’s company lost his job when his factory was demolished to make way for a park. He was without a job for a few months until he got his present job which gets him a little over 3,000 yuan a month (approximately Rs 20,000). That’s about the earnings of a taxi driver and of other ordinary workers.

For college graduates at the entry level, the starting salary is also about 3,000 yuan though skilled graduates from some outstanding universities may start at double that salary. You need about 5,000 yuan to live quite comfortably in the cities, so a supplementary income is welcome in most ordinary families.

It’s a very different story at the top. Leading financial companies have been doubling and trebling the salaries of their boss officers. Many big executives in the big private companies earn more than 25 million yuan a year after taxes. (More than Rs 15 crore.)

That explains why shining Rolls Royce cars are on display in automobile showrooms. Flats in Shanghai’s highrise residences were selling last month at 15,000 yuan per square metre (about Rs 1 lakh). Luxury villas sold at 25,000 yuan per square metre. The world’s most expensive jewellery names like Cartier do good business in China. This must be what Deng Hsiaoping meant when he talked about socialism with a Chinese face.

The booming economy means also a galloping population of expatriates. But unlike in India, there is a marked differentiation between locals and foreigners in China. The visible example of this is in housing: there are some buildings and some areas that are exclusively for foreigners.

A less visible but more interesting example of the divide between locals and foreigners catches our attention if we go in search of medical assistance. Urban China is notorious for bronchial illnesses like cold and flu and breathing difficulties. If you are a foreigner and develop a soar throat, you better know where to go and what to do.

A local friend took me to a big hospital in Shanghai. At the gate, the watchman told us that the locals’ wing was on the right and the foreigners’ wing on the left.

We decided to go to the locals’ wing.

The verandahs were full of patients lying on stretchers and cots with tubes and bottles attached to them. But the service turned out to be prompt. The local friend got me registered (10 yuan), a young doctor examined me (no charge, waiting time only 5 minutes), a routine blood test was done (50 yuan, completed in 20 minutes on the spot) and a prescription made out for vitamins and parasetamol (50 yuan). Very efficient and economical procedures, I thought.

Very different was the story when my host had the same sore throat complaint attended to.

He works for a foreign company which has an insurance tieup with what are known as expatriate hospitals in China. He went to one of these hospitals. He too got himself registered, a Chinese doctor examined him, called for a routine blood test and chest x-ray, then prescribed the same vitamins and paracetamol. He then got a neatly printed bill. The blood test and x-ray cost 990 yuan and there was an additional doctor’s charge of 1,000 yuan. Plus the cost of the medicines. That is, 2000 yuan (15,000 rupees) against my 72 yuan (about 500 rupees).

He could have gone to the same locals’ wing of the hospital that treated me. But his company has this insurance arrangement, so what does he do? Who is taking whom for a ride? Whether it is food or medical services, you are better off in China if you have a local friend to guide you.

Will corruption end if we hang the corrupt?

Here is the fifth of a six-part series.

The Supreme People's Court approved the death sentence against Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, head of China's State Food and Drug Administration from 1998 to 2005, who was convicted of taking bribes worth some 6.5 million yuan ($850,000) from eight companies.
Photo Credit :

Everyone knows there’s corruption in China. It’s serious and often widespread. The motivation is money rather than power. Modern China confirms yet again that when market economy rushes in through the door, corruption slips in through the window.

But, unlike India, China metes out punishment to several highprofile bribe-takers.

Occasionally it can be of the sensational, example-setting variety. The biggest example set in this new century was the execution last year of a top official, a food and drug controller. In return for bribes, he allowed eight drug companies to flood the market with substandard products. The international scandal about Chinese toothpaste proving harmful in foreign markets must have shamed the authorities into giving the drug controller the severest punishment.

Political leaders get caught too. A court case early this year involved a former chief of the Shanghai Communist Party who was senior enough and powerful enough to be a member of the Politburo as well. He was sentenced to 18 years in jail for bribery and abuse of power.

The recent earthquake in Sichuan showed that the tendency to make a fast buck is prevalent among ordinary citizens as well. Earthquake relief materials that poured in from all over the world were misappropriated on a large scale. Bottled water, instant noodles and sausages, even tents and sleeping bags, meant for distribution among the quake-hit, were found on sale in shops. Some “modernists” also used SMS to collect money in the name of quake relief and pocket it themselves.

Again, the authorities were quick to take action when the people in the affected areas rose in protest against racketeers. Fines of up to 10,000 yuan (more than Rs 60,000) were imposed on shops found with stolen goods. One shop was ordered closed.

Interestingly, the authorities urged both the people and the media to continue exposing wrongdoers. Sichuan’s civil affairs department chief said: “We hope the media can strengthen their supervision” so that the Government can “investigate immediately and punish (the culprits) heavily.”

A more serious aspect of corruption unearthed by the quake may prove vexatious for the Government. Many of the schools that collapsed and caused large casualties belonged to the relatively poorer segments of the population. Schools attended by the richer kids stood erect. Clearly some buildings were put up by contractors in an irresponsible manner while some others strictly adhered to building rules.

This was further underlined when all 61 schools built by a Hong Kong-based charity organisation remained intact in one area when hundreds of other schools nearby completely collapsed. Again, the authorities immediately understood that the stricter construction codes of Hong Kong made a difference to their schools while shoddy construction in other cases led to tragedy. Obviously there is a contractor-official collusion in many parts of China that can no longer be denied.

However, it will be wrong to look at corruption in China without looking at the progress of China. Appropriately enough, it was an Indian who brought this to my attention.

A professional banker who has been living in Hong Kong for more than 40 years put it succinctly when he said that corruption had not prevented China from notching up some of the greatest economic achievements of modern times.

From the biggest airport in Asia (Pudong) to the longest sea bridge in the world (36 kilometres), from the most daring architectural wonders to an astonishing system of crisscrossing flyovers—the way urban China has developed must be some kind of a historical record.

“If a country can achieve so much in so short a time, I won’t crib about corruption,” my banker friend said.

Is there a good reason why we are where we are?

Here is the last of his six-part series.

The Hong Kong Star Ferry - Then and Now

For generations of imperial fortune hunters, Hong Kong was a corner of a foreign field that was for ever England. The funny thing is that, 10 years after the People’s Republic of China acquired full sovereignty over the erstwhile colony, Hong Kong still remains what the British made of it.

The Red Flag flies over government buildings, of course. But Macdonnell Road and Robinson Road still commemorate Messrs Macdonnell and Robinson whoever they were. There is no rail roko demanding their renaming. Hong Kong’s superb airport is known simply as Hong Kong International Airport. There is nothing like the cries that were heard for Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj in Mumbai or are now being heard for Kempe Gowda in Banga… er, Bengaluru.

Although the yuan Renminbi is China’s official currency, the old Hong Kong dollar holds sway in this special territory. Indeed, the currency notes continue to be issued by that famous limb of colonialism, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, complete with the British lion (which is very different from the Chinese lion).

Across the waters in Macau, the Portuguese flavour is maintained undisturbed. The currency there is still the Pataka. Signboards are in Chinese and Portuguese. Street names remain as unpronounceable to the non-Portuguese tongue as before. The Rua Norte do Mercado de S. Domingos, for example.

It must be that when you are confident about your inner strength, you don’t waste your energy on superficialities. The Government of China is the supreme authority in Hong Kong and Macau. Once that is established beyond doubt, all energies can be directed towards one goal—continually improving the quality of life in these mega metropolises.

That is exactly what is happening. The iconic symbol of Hong Kong is the Star Ferry, the green boats that plough the harbour to and fro every few minutes. I was scandalised when I saw the old familiar Star Ferry pier on the island demolished.

Feeling betrayed, I walked about the area which had been turned into a major construction site. Another commercial building, I thought, cursing real estate tycoons.

Then I noticed that posters had been pasted on the temporary walls enclosing the vast construction site. They gave details of the work in progress. The authorities were constructing there “The New Central Waterfront—An Arts and Entertainment Corridor.”

The large posters, carrying text and artist’s projection of proposed facilities, graphically told the passing citizen (or visitor) what was coming up on the corridor. “A waterfront of international standard as well as a harbour for the people, a harbour of life, will be developed here for an unrivalled passive recreational open space with spectacular views across the everchanging harbour.”

Make an allowance for the bureaucratic English and you learn that “the corridor will comprise a network of bridge and deck links. New small and large-scale cultural and recreational developments will be provided.” And it was reassuringly mentioned that “the iconic Star Ferry terminal will be recreated.”

Look at the attitude of mind at government level. They not only pull down an already developed area and rebuild it in ultramodern style to ensure enhanced “public enjoyment”; full details of the plans are placed before the people for them to know what’s going on.

(For comparison, look at the “improvements” in the arterial road to the new airport at Bangalore. The public never knew what the scheme was and how a stretch of road was being altered until the work actually neared completion.)

The difference between a developed country and a developing one is that public facilities are conceptualised and put in place for the convenience of the public. You notice that when you drive around in America, go to the theatre in London, take the underground in Paris, find your way in sprawling airports like Frankfurt.

By that yardstick, China is a developed country already.

Countries in East Asia have their problems, but they are making rapid progress in making life easy and comfortable for their citizens.

Their standards are conitnually rising. Are ours? At some point we need to ask about the meaning of big growth rates and big company acquisitions, and why, alongside the burgeoning mall life, slum life is also burgeoning. Even Malaysia has abolished poverty.

In the end, why are we where we are?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Should an airport become anti-passenger?

Inside Bengaluru International Airport
Photo Credit : BAIL

What the salaried class is to income tax hunters, passengers are to aviation mandarins: Helpless, captive milch-cows. The way Air-India overcharges and ill-treats Gulf travellers is a case in point. It has had a monopoly in this sector for long and it has shamelessly used that exclusivity to exploit passengers.

Now the Bangalore International Airport is becoming a landmark example of how airport companies can squeeze the Mickey out of air passengers. It wants to impose a user fee. And no chhotta-motta thing either. It has specified an avaricious Rs 675 for every domestic passenger and an avaricious Rs 955 for every international passenger. The CEO of the company says this inflated user fee “is the core of our revenue stream without which the operations would not be viable”.

There is something fundamentally wrong when a company sees monopoly-based exploitation as the basis of its core revenue. What the Bangalore company's CEO has projected is a bankrupt business model. On his logic the new Hyderabad airport's CEO must be a dimwit for Hyderabad is levying no user fee. Mumbai and Delhi airports, recently privatised, have no user fee either. How come their operations are viable? Will they open their floodgates if the Bangalore company sets the wrong example?

Kozhikode airport made itself notorious once by charging a user fee. Passengers raised a hue and cry. The Malabar Chamber of Commerce took the lead in coordinating the protests. The boycott that followed seriously dented the load factor in departing flights and forced authorities to drop the user fee system completely.

Cochin Airport company, the first “private” operator in the country, imposed a user fee in early 2001. Protests were strong and the authorities there also abandoned the idea five years later. They gave the excuse that user fee was no longer needed because the company was profitable.

That company continues to be nicely profitable. Which shows that an efficiently run airport does not need usurious levies to build up a healthy revenue stream. It is lazy managements that resort to such anti-passenger shortcuts. Let's not forget Kozhikode and Cochin imposed user fees only on departing international passengers. It's the Bangalore CEO who has the brainwave to fleece domestic passengers as well.

That's unconscionable when the new Bangalore airport's aggravation count is already heavy. Frequent fliers from heartlands like Electronic City will need three hours to reach the airport. And they must reach one hour ahead of the flight. So we are talking of a four-hour ordeal for a 45-minute flight to Chennai.

It's about time that oversmart CEOs and companies looking for easy money are told that this is a country where people's interests count. Governments both in Delhi and Bangalore as well as business organisations must insist that (a) no extortionist user fee will be allowed, and (b) Bangalore's geography demands that the option to allow short-haul flights from the present HAL airport is retained.

The failure to provide speedy and comfortable access to the airport is something for which passengers must be compensated, not penalised. If passengers are used for artificial profit-making, then the airport company should pay the passenger a user fee. How about Rs 998?

Love in the time of patriotism

Republic Day Parade on Rajpath, Delhi
Photo Credit : The New Indian Express

It's long since occasions like Republic Day and Independence Day lost their original meaning as annual reminders of our proud nationhood. Today they remind us more of our vulnerability and the threats we face from within as well as from outside.

Major cities and landmarks turned into fortresses again on this Republic Day. Citizens were suspect until proved otherwise. Armed guards, security uniforms and surveillance paraphernalia filled every inch of the grounds where "celebrations" were due. Familiar routines were enacted, admittedly impressive in their colourful splendour and the formidability of the military might on display.

But how safe are the proud citizens of this proud Republic after five decades of celebrations? Just before Republic Day, Bal Thackeray said publicly that the possibility of a civil war in India could not be ruled out. Civil war? In an India galloping at 9 percent growth rate? That certainly is the "vision" of the man who turned cosmopolitan Bombay into parochial Mumbai in one of those transfigurations that define today's India.

Thackeray being a Johny-come-lately Hindutvavadi, his idea of a civil war can only be a religion-based one. That makes the prospects somewhat disturbing at this stage of the Republic. After all, he has already experimented with some localised wars - and got away with it. He has also acknowledged that Narendra Modi benefited from the post-Godhra war in Gujarat, but must leave Maharashtra to the Shiv Sena. When religion is used for wars, the outcome is never decisive; the Crusades lasted more than two centuries, achieving virtually nothing. Nevertheless, religious wars are notorious for blood-curdling atrocities.

It will be surprising if Thackeray's prognostications come anywhere near reality. The vast majority of Indians are simply not communal enough to accept a civil war, let alone sustain it. But there are other harsh realities behind our glossy growth to make us pause for a moment on Republic-Independence Days.

On the eve of an Independence Day not long ago, an article appeared in the friendly columns of The Guardian about India "where a baby is born every two seconds". Along with a photograph of "a homeless crowd on a Delhi pavement waiting for food handouts", the article said: "For India the one-billion population mark is a reminder of other painful statistics; 390 million people - more than the entire population when India became independent - are too poor to summon the cash for basic foods, some 465 million cannot read, the largest population of illiterates in the world, and a disproportionate number of these are women__"

Since then other statistics have come up, about the number of billionaires going up, the sensex crashing all barriers, businessmen spending 111 million dollars (yes, dollars) to "own" one cricket team in one city.

In the dazzle and razzmatazz of such glittering figures, who will notice the rising numbers of female foeticide, abuse of women in public places, a caste war breaking out near Thanjavur (not Bihar) when a Dalit's bullock won the Pongal cattle race? On Republic Day we should not spoil the mood by referring to such things. We should only think of patriotism - which fortunately this year included the French President's love life.

God, Karunanidhi and pre-Brahmin glory


Karunanidhi went to a temple in Vellore for purposes of philanthropy, not worship. Even so it attracted headlines in Tamil Nadu because the DMK patriarch is a symbol of atheist politics. That he should enter the premises of a temple and share the limelight with priests in saffron was enough to raise the question: In the ageless tussle between Brahminic Hinduism and its challengers, was the balance tipping in favour of Brahminism again?

The intellectual foundations of Periyar’s Dravida movement were rejection of God and the nurturing of Self-Respect. His call for the demolition of Brahmin hegemony transformed social and political equations in Tamil country forever. And yet one half of his modern-day inheritors is led by an undisguised Brahmin. The other half, already compromised by creeping influences of such early No-Nos as astrology, now witnesses its supreme leader supping with God’s chosen representatives on earth.

Not that there would be anything surprising if Periyar’s notions of Dravida Self-Respect succumb to the persistent pressures of Vedic certainties. After all, the far more powerful Jaina-Buddhist philosophies were overwhelmed too.

These highly evolved philosophies nurtured egalitarianism while the Vedic tradition insisted on segregation. One sought to elevate common people to higher social-spiritual levels through education; the other prescribed that the lower orders should not be exposed to learning. As it happened, it was the discriminationist school that prevailed over the equality line.

Odd? There are researchers who point to Buddhist and Jain temples that were either destroyed or built over during an era of resurgent Brahminism. But significantly, the triumph of the Vedic tradition was confined to India and Nepal while the ‘suppressed’ Buddhism spread far and wide, producing a great culture with its own art, architecture and sculpture and its own literature in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. And who can beat the Buddhist masters of the East in martial arts?

Perhaps early Jaina-Buddhist influences also explain the cultural differences between northern and southern India which do not fit into the simple Aryan-Dravidian compartmentalisation. While the basic scriptures of Hinduism are from the north, the south is home to the interpreters and the challengers— from Ramanuja and Madhwa to Basava. In such a soil, the earlier challenges from Jainism and Buddhism took root easily.

A new seminal book (Kerala History’s Basic Records by Puthussery Ramachandran) quotes inscriptions in ancient caves and temples to assert that before Brahmins arrived in southern India, Jains and Buddhists had established a flourishing linguistic culture in the region. The classical literary works of the Sangam period, from Tolkapiam to Thirukkural, were products of a pre-Brahmin flowering. From 1st Century AD, there was a significant Jain presence in the West Coast. Al- Baruni, the traveller who arrived after Shankara’s Brahminic consolidation, recorded that people from Konkan to Kollam (Kerala) were followers of the Buddha. An example of what Kannada owes to Jainism is Pampa, the venerated Adi Kavi who, born to Brahmin parents, chose to become a Jain.

Dravidian politics may indeed be overwhelmed by Brahminic politics. But the literary-cultural glory of the south’s pre-Brahminic inheritance shall never fade. It’s pre-politics as well. Which makes it precious.

Why one man's conscience mattered to all

Hans Raj Khanna
Photo Credit : Supreme Court of India

Who is Free India's most courageous judge? We'll have to recall the terror of the Emergency era to appreciate Hans Raj Khanna's claim to that title.

Those were days when the police could pick up any one and torture or kill him and no questions could be asked. There would be no information either, for news was censored, telephones tapped. People were scared to meet in street corners or coffee shops. Fear stalked the land; there were informers everywhere.

Today's generation would hardly believe that such conditions existed in India. They not only did; Indira Gandhi's India was quite brazen about it. The day after Emergency was imposed, a Presidential Order specifically deprived citizens of the most fundamental of all rights _ the right to life, liberty and equality. As in Stalin's Russia and Pinochet's Chile.

As a wave of arrests swept across the country, many did approach the courts. As many as nine High Courts ruled that courts could hear habeas corpus petitions. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise. It justified the Government's arbitrary powers and the denial of citizen's right to seek judicial remedy. In a five-member bench, it was a four-to-one majority judgement. The One was Justice H.R. Khanna.

The Supreme Court judgement of August 28, 1976, will remain a document of disgrace in our history. The four judges mangled their commonsense, to say nothing of their judicial instincts, in their effort to defend the illegal autocracy of the Government.

Justice M.H. Beg, for example, made the astonishing statement that "the care and concern with which the State is looking after detenues who are well-housed, well-fed and well-treated is almost maternal." Even as that insult to maternal virtues was being written, George Fernandes' brother was being tortured in Karnataka and engineering student Rajan was being beaten to death by the Kerala police _ to mention just two of thousands of such cases.

In a few months, Beg, with no sense of shame, accepted the post of Chief Justice of India. It was not his due, for H.R. Khanna was the senior most. But in an outrageously undemocratic moment of history, an outrageously unjudicial judge got his thirty pieces of silver. It is not known whether Beg had the decency of Judas Iscariot to repent in due course.

Khanna of course resigned. But he could hold his head high because he had summoned the courage, alone among five, to honour his oath, his conscience and the faith of his countrymen in the judiciary. He not only upheld the inalienable rights of man to life and liberty. He also quoted an American judge to assert that "a dissent in a court of last resort is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day when a
later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court has strayed."

We proudly enjoy our freedoms today because of the brooding spirit of men like H.R. Khanna. Last week Justice Khanna, aged 95, died peacefully in his sleep. The gods blessed him. Observe a moment's silence in salute to his soul.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why Australians have a right to be mad

CRICKET today being not a sport but a cashflow activity, it is fair and proper that India should be on top of the heap. Indians collect more money for cricket than Americans collect for baseball. Between Lalit Modi and Sharad Pawar, don’t be surprised if India’s cricket money one day matches Saudi Arabia’s oil money.

That’s what makes the Australians mad. After all, once upon a time they were not only on top of the heap; they helped make cricket a civilised game. They contributed to the world the greatest icon of cricket, Don Bradman. The record books were full of decent feats by decent Australians.

Then came this thing called Ponting, and a team of obnoxious weeds. They were smart enough to know that their cricket was pretty low-grade. So they turned bullies, hoping to snatch victory by browbeating their opponents.

They played so dirty that if they had won this time, cricket would have lost. Joyous as India’s victory is, the greater satisfaction is Australia’s defeat.

Let’s be fair, the attempt to win by other means was not the fault of the weeds. It was the fault of the wellestablished biological phenomenon known as atavism. Dictionaries are clearcut about the word’s meaning: ‘Reappearance in a plant or animal of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.’

As everyone knows, in the early days of colonialism England had sent to Australia shiploads of British convicts considered beyond redemption. Four centuries and several intervening generations later, what’s unusual if some characteristics of ancient ancestors reappear atavistically on the cricket fields of Australia?

What, again, is unusual if these characteristics reach their boiling point at the sight of Indians? A new generation of Indians has come up who give as good as they receive. To gentlemen they are gentlemen, to bullies they are bullies.

So Australia’s cricket fraternity developed new weapons to make India nervous and defeatist. The first weapon they employed was an infiltration specialist called Greg Chappell. He almost succeeded in sabotaging India from within by pitting player against player. But before he could complete his programme of destruction, he was invited to go laughing all the way to his bank.

Then they unleashed the bully brigade. They singled out for psychological attacks those Indians they thought were vulnerable. But the Indians refused to be cowed down. Fired by the bravado of youth they hit back, proving themselves past masters at the mind games the Australians invented.

It’s India’s cricket politicians who seemed ready to cow down. When the Australians used foul language, politician Rajiv Shukla talked like Jesus Christ. When an Australian player actually grabbed an Indian batsman by the waist and forced him to the ground, when they deployed a separate camera to keep a targeted Indian under surveillance, our politicians kept silent.

Let the politicians hold up a boycott warning against misbehaving Australians - and the bullies will come cringing, for they want the IPL millions. For that matter, why should the monarchs of the international cricket kingdom be Australians? Lalit Modi knows more tricks than any of them. Let the cash flow decide.

Another election where voters will lose

Yediyurappa in Yoga, Kumaraswamy with wife Anita and Dewegowda in an Iftar.
Photo Credit : Kannada Prabha

Only fools and TV channels predict election results. And IPS-IAS opportunists. In 1977, after two years of Emergency repression, the Intelligence Bureau famously advised Indira Gandhi that she would easily win a general election. She infamously lost.

In the Karnataka election just announced, there is one prediction the wise will make. That is: The voters will lose. In fact, the voters have already lost with the impending end of Governor's Rule. It's true that the Governor was a faithful Congressman. It's also true that some Congress High Commanders from Delhi were able to pull important administrative strings from behind the scenes.

But that was a small minus compared to the big plus of politicians staying out of sight. The good bureaucrats were able to function, the bad ones stayed mute. Files moved. The corruption graph came down. People began to see what menace "elected representatives" had become and how blissful it was to have no "popular government".

Alas, all good things must come to an end. In a month's time the people will have democracy thrust upon them.

The silver lining is that all parties are in varying degrees of confusion and mess. Besides, all constituencies have been reconfigured this time. No one can now reap the benefit of caste and clan investments of the past. New investments will take time to show results.
Perhaps the one player with some degree of credibility is, incredibly, H.D.

Kumaraswamy. Somehow this young Chief Minister had managed to build a positive image. But he has to bear the cross of a father whom no one trusts. So where does that leave Kumaraswamy's JDS?

Where indeed does S.M.Krishna's return to politics leave the Congress? With experience and urbanity on his side, he should have been an advantage to the Congress. But some Congressmen objected to his return _ mostly tired leaders who live on their yesterdays and have no tomorrows ahead. While such objections can be ignored, caste pulls are a different matter.

Deve Gowda, the country's leading expert on caste arithmetic, carries the same Vokkaliga label that Krishna does. Does this mean a split in one of the major voter segments? Has the other major segment, the Lingayats, abandoned the Congress for good and gone over to the BJP?

The leadership vacuum in the BJP is so bad that a victory for that party may well mean disaster to it as much as to the state. It did nothing to endear itself to the people during the period of half-power it enjoyed. On the contrary, it gave indications that divide-and-rule would be its preferred route to power. Is Karnataka ready for such a restructuring of the basic parameters of life?

It's a pity that fifty years of electoral politics have not yielded a decent choice of parties. They all have the same programme - power. All depend on caste and sub-caste to achieve that end. Some add an extra touch here and there - like dynastic glamour and communal emotion.

None serves the people. That's why many voters, on their way to the booths, will ask themselves: When can we have five years of Governor's Rule?