Sunday, October 25, 2009

We use sports to destroy

It’s unpleasant, but true. India’s official set-up does not have the calibre to organise high-end international games. Cricket fests, yes, but something like Commonwealth Games, not to mention the Olympics, is simply beyond the ken of our mandarins.

Other countries garner international respect by holding big-ticket Games in exemplary style. We have already invited an early dose of disrepute with the Commonwealth Games authorities in London going public about India’s unpreparedness. Suresh Kalmadi, the bossman of India’s games establishment, hasn’t got the point. He has picked up a fight with the Games Federation, and announced that all preparations are on track – a demonstrable terminological inexactitude.

The Kalmadis of the establishment are of course the problem. India is the only country where every sports body is headed by a politician. And they are permanent fixtures. K.P.S.Gill had to be bulldozed out of the Hockey Federation’s chair after the whole nation was ashamed by his mismanagement. Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi remains President of the Football Federation although he is, unfortunately, incapacitated by illness. BJP’s V.K. Malhotra has been President of the Archery Federation for 30 years. Cricket is controlled by Sharad Pawar and Rajiv Shukla and Arun Jaitley in a unique NCP-Congress-BJP trimurthi coalition. From wrestling to the National Rifle Association, politicians control everything.

The reasons are two-fold. There is a lot of money in sports (and money is to politicians what honey is to ants) and there is a lot of patronage bossmen can dispense at will. There is some obligatory auditing of moneys received, but the sports federations function largely free of accountability. As for privileges and patronage, we only have to remember that Indian sports delegations that go to international meets are notorious for having more officials than athletes in them.

What we lack is a national vision and a national pride. If we had these in sufficient measure, we would have seen in international sports events an opportunity to achieve overall national progress. Barcelona is still remembered for the imagination with which it used the opportunity provided by the Olympics it hosted in 1992. It rebuilt its entire transport system, completely renovated its airport and spruced up its infrastructural facilities. These turned Barcelona into one of the finest cities in Europe.

By contrast, what did we get from the Asian Games in 1982? It gave our political hangers-on a golden chance to praise the organisational genius and fantastic efficiency of Rajiv Gandhi. But the facilities it created were more a blot than a gain for Delhi. Like the destruction of Siri forest for the Asiad Village.

This time too, destruction has been rampant. Delhi University has a disused stadium or two. These could be updated and modernised. Instead they set out to cut hundreds of trees, many of them a century old, to put up a new rugby stadium. Rugby being an unwanted game in India, this expensive stadium will go into disuse after its one-event glory.

Another 891 trees were cut in the Siri forest for basketball/squash courts. A Supreme Court-appointed committee found the site unsuitable anyway and recommended a Rs 5-crore fine on the Delhi Development Authority. Architect Charles Correa quit the Delhi Urban Arts Council refusing to act as a rubber stamp for the unscientific, arbitrary building spree. The Games Village is rising, on the strength of a Supreme Court judgment, on the banks of the Yamuna threatening, according to experts, Delhi’s largest natural groundwater recharge area.

In the end the authorities may blunder through and the Games may open on schedule, but at what cost? The Barcelonas and the Beijings of the world make their cities more liveable under the banner of sports. We destroy what we have. But the politicians are happy. Perhaps that’s all that matters in India that is Bharat.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Genetically engineered India

Prolonged court cases, the Supreme Court’s intervention, scientists’ arguments and vociferous campaigns by civic groups have amounted to nothing. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has allowed commercial cultivation of the dreaded Bt. brinjal. If this decision is ratified by the Government of India, some 170 of our commonest food items will also become chemically altered. Rice and wheat, potatoes and onions, mustard and bananas will all be genetically manipulated for us.

What’s wrong with that? Basically two things. First, GE’s benefits are temporary. In six to nine years the pests develop resistance and the technology falls flat, necessitating increased doses of pesticides. This is already happening in Gujarat where Bt. cotton conquered the market. Sheep grazing in Bt. cotton fields have died. In the case of food crops, GE causes direct health hazards, a fact that has persuaded Japan and Europe to ban GE foods. An Austrian Government report warns that GE foods can cause infertility in humans. The highly rated National Academy of Science in the US has published a finding that dietary DNA can find its way into our blood and transform our body cells. French molecular biologists said, among other things, that rats fed on Bt.brinjal suffered diarrhoea and liver weight loss.

Secondly, the technology forces farmers to buy the engineered seeds separately each season. Which means that the company that supplies the seeds can not only manipulate the prices at will, but also control the entire food security of the country by, for example, supplying inadequate or faulty seeds of rice and wheat one season. Monsanto did use its monopoly to increase prices in 2006 and make excessive profits. The company was taken to court under the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Act. It lost the case.

The brazenness of Monsanto and its Indian face, Mahyco, has been evident in other forms also. Field trials of Bt okra were started in a village in West Bengal on the basis of “permission” given by the local panchayat which of course had no authority to do such things. At another level, the biosafety studies data submitted by Mahyco to GEAC were kept secret. It took a legal battle lasting more than two years to bring them to light. What’s GEAC’s game?

The Biotechnology Regulatory Committee had ruled against Bt.cotton field testing. GEAC ignored it. Open-field testing of Bt.brinjal, not allowed in any other country, was allowed in India under GEAC pressure. The main reason seems to be that GEAC has members who have either done assignments for Mahyco or have partnership agreements with it to develop Bt.brinjal. The names of such members have been made public. The “architect of biotechnology in India”, P.M Bhargava, who was named by the Supreme Court as a special nominee to attend the GEAC meetings, found that test data given to the GEAC was given by the applicant company itself. “At every stage there is a bias if not deceipt all the way”, he said.

K.P.Prabhakaran Nair, Professor at a German Foundation, who chaired a Supreme Court ordered experts committee asked: “Why is the GEAC in such a hurry in this matter? When the scientific truths about GE products are as clear as daylight, why is there hesitation to try alternatives to GE food? Have we learned nothing from the setbacks caused by excessive use of pesticides? In Mexico where the traditional staple is corn, American attempts to introduce genetically engineered corn were rejected. Why is India’s response different?”

Because in India the interests of the few take precedence over the interests of the country. Because India is the paradise of manipulators who can make the impossible possible. Because India, alas, has genetically engineered Indians in key positions.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making a farce of vulgarity, too

Mukesh Ambani’s salary is Rs 44.2 crore a year, about three and a half crore a month. In a country where the poor outnumber the well-to-do, that seems vulgar. On the other hand, the big salary works out to 0.23 percent of the Ambani companies’ net profits. That doesn’t look vulgar.

Sun TV’s Kalanithi Maran and wife Kavery take a salary of Rs 37.08 crore each. That works out to 16.96 percent of their net profits. Is that vulgar? Anil Ambani’s salary is Rs 30.02 crore a year, or two and a half crore a month. Is that vulgar?

The answer is really simple: Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When Serena Williams obliges an ESPN publication by posing in the nude (Good heavens, Serena Williams of all people!) it is vulgar according to the Tennis Federation. But it is inspirational to herself and to others according to Serena. Who is wrong?

Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid might have been speaking in the spirit of the latest government fashion, austerity, when he asked corporate CEOs not to give themselves vulgar salaries. Was he asking them to get on the hypocrisy bandwagon on which government ministers are currently riding? The government’s travel-economy-class movement was a farce from the start. It has been shown up as such by several ministers buying economy class tickets and upgrading themselves on board – an irregularity against which Air India pilots have formally complained.

In the true spirit of farce, the Congress Working Committee recently decreed that all Congress ministers must take a salary cut of 20 percent. This is in a culture where a minister getting a salary of Rs 10,000 routinely gets the Public Works Department to spend Rs 50 lakhs to refurbish his official residence. Irresponsible spending of this kind by a class of public men who create no wealth is what is really vulgar.

Of course wealth creators often go vulgar, too. Some notorious cases came up in America recently when CEOs gave themselves enormous bonuses and other benefits even as their companies were sinking. Asatyam Raju apart, the worst that has come up in India are CEOs indulging in vulgar consumption with yachts and private jets and mansions in world metropolises. They often justify this by saying that politicians demand use of these facilities which make the yachts etc legitimate business expenses.

Besides, CEOs have shareholders and company reports to cope with. Politicians say they have voters to cope with. Which is a half-truth. The way Big Money is spent during election time, it is clear that coping with voters is not what it is supposed to mean. If you have uncountable cash and the muscle power to go with it, voters are negotiable. Think of those Bihar netas who won with big majorities while they were in jail.

The system is elastic enough to facilitate hanky-panky. Consider, for example, the affidavits politicians file at election time. Four MLAs seeking re-election in Haryana this month, all from the Congress, have reported an 800 percent increase in their assets since 2004. If this is not vulgar, what is? Yet, no questions are raised about the sources of this income – not by the Congress Working Committee, not by Salman Khurshid, not even by the Income Tax Department.

Clearly this austerity business is tomfoolery. Vulgarity, like decency, is a state of mind. What doesn’t come from within cannot be enforced by state fiat. The Fifth Pay Commission asked for a 30 percent cut in the number of government employees. (Central Government employees alone number 3.3 million today, not counting defence personnel). A reduction of that kind is the way to meaningful austerity. All else is deception. Of the vulgar kind.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hail the all-American world!

The American dollar may not long remain the natural international currency, job losses may be hurting Americans more than others, and President Obama may no longer look like the magic man he was thought to be. But don’t underestimate America. It will continue to control the world as tightly as ever.

Even at the height of its superpower omnipotence, it was not military-economic might that really gave America the power it wielded. Arms were just the icing. The cake was the cultural hold America established over the hearts and minds of peoples across the world through music and cinema, education and books, food and drinks and glamorous drugs, jeans and T-shirts and brandnames and the thousand tantalising ingredients of pop culture. Each of these ingredients is a throbbing organism with the power to enslave those who come in contact with it. America is the only nation in history to rule others through civilisational conquests.

Look at the number of emotionally charged national symbols it wields. If the first US astronaut, upon landing on the moon, had planted there a bottle of Coca-Cola instead of the American flag, it would have been just as natural. For Americans the Bottle and the Flag are equal in status. The MacDonald Arch, another national emblem, proclaims American supremacy as emphatically as a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal. The way Hollywood has cut across linguistic and cultural barriers around the globe, Bollywood can never match even if Raj Kapoor is a household name in Russia, Amitabh Bachchan in Morocco and Rajnikant in Japan.

Perhaps the most deep-going, subliminal – if also pernicious – mind control weapon at America’s disposal is its news media. We hardly notice it, but we get most of our information about the world through American sources. CNN is the ubiquitous presence in every respectable hotel room in every city in the world. In India this presence is not confined to hotel rooms; CNN is directly involved in one of our national news channels. Rupert Murdoch owns a major entertainment channel.

Our newspaper mughals make much patriotic fuss against foreign direct investment in our media. They forget that even without any investment in shareholdings, foreign interests control their news and features columns. Almost all our papers are dependent on Reuters, AP, AFP and Western Syndicates because our mughals, for all their patriotism, know that maintaining their own bureaus abroad will cost big money. Dependence is cheaper than independence.

American media has been forced to become cost conscious lately, with major newspapers closing and network TV scaling down. But what is left of it is enough to control news and opinion that reach – and influence – much of the world. This was brought freshly home to Asia when the Far Eastern Economic Review formally shut down in Hongkong a few days ago.

From the late 1940s the Review was the most influential weekly in Asia and countries interested in Asia. Its monopoly of influence was broken only in 1975 when Asiaweek quickly gained ground by being proudly Asian as opposed to the Review’s perceived Western (British) stance. But soon the twists and turns of business saw both magazines falling into American hands, the Review into Dow Jones’s and Asiaweek into Time Inc.’s. In due course, Time Inc. killed Asiaweek and Dow Jones ( now a Murdoch property) killed the Review. Murdoch-Dow’s Wall Street Journal and Time Inc.’s Time magazine now fly the American flag over Asia, unchallenged by lesser flags.
‘Asia through Asian eyes’ was the slogan that helped Asiaweek rise. Forget it. You can only have Asia, and the world itself, through American eyes. Hungry kya? Have a MacChicken with Coke. You’ve no choice.