Sunday, May 31, 2009

Our poverty + their wealth = India


Sometimes it takes a foreign eye to see India in perspective. Known statistics, for example, have been humanised by The Economist to paint a telling picture of the Indian reality in its post-election glow. The juxtaposition of facts goes thus:

“About 27 million Indians will be born this year. Unless things improve, almost 2 million of them will die before the next general election. Of the children who survive, more than 40 percent will be physically stunted by malnutrition. Most will enroll in a school, but they cannot count on their teachers showing up. After five years of classes, less than 60 percent will be able to read a short story and more than 60 percent will be stumped by simple arithmetic”.

This is by no means a damn-India editorial. Far from it. The cover story is headlined “Good news from India”. True, The Economist often adopts a know-all attitude and gives lectures to all and sundry. This is no reason why we should shy away from facts that are known to us, too, as facts.

The underlying fact about India is that six decades after independence, it remains an extremely poor country. There is widespread poverty in China, but not of the pitiable levels of human degradation we see in the slums of India. Countries like Malaysia needed only two decades to virtually abolish poverty.

Why have the many governments of India allowed the poverty of India to continue as a humiliating spectacle? The main reason must be that our politicians were busy with other things. When they did talk of poverty, it was only for purposes of gimmickry. Indira Gandhi sold the slogan “Garibi hatao”, won elections – and that was that. In his otherwise insubstantial book After Nehru, Who?, American author Welles Hangen wrote in 1963 what is true to this day. “The tragedy of India”, he said, “is not poverty, but the mentality that accepts, even condones, poverty”.

That mentality persists. When a film depicting the horrors of Indian poverty wins Oscars in Hollywood, we protest against foreigners looking only at the negative side of India. We don’t do anything about eliminating the negative side. In fact, we, too, try to profit from it by starting “slum tourism” in Dharavi.

Today we have a new union cabinet of mostly capable men and women, headed by one of the world’s most respected economists. Predictably, we hear of 8 percent and 10 percent growth. Spectacular growth has taken place since Nehru’s Socialist days. A nouveau riche class has arisen. But more than half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. The very poor remain very miserably poor.

There are vital problems that do not depend on growth rates for a solution. The highly influential ministers from Tamil Nadu, for example, will need only a fraction of their influence to put an end to the shameful two-glass system in the teashops of the deep south. The powerful ministers from Punjab and Haryana can take effective steps to stop the practice of female infanticide. The high-calibre ministers from Kerala can help save their state’s rivers from being killed by sand mafias.

Of course none of them will do any of this. Our politicians are primarily self-centred. We will see poverty and misery continuing while the wealth of the ruling class increases. Organisations like the National Election Watch have computed that the average assets of MPs increased from 2004 to 2009 by 103 percent for Congress, by 155 percent for the BJP, by 463 percent for the DMK and by a breath-taking 831 percent for the JDS.
Poverty? What poverty?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The ‘Family First’ farce of politicians


Original Cartoon curtsy : Kumudam

From the sublime to the ridiculous. From the orderly conduct and salutary results of the election, to the ugly scramble for portfolios by our greedy politicians. How selfish are these “leaders”, how narrow their minds.

The coalition setup in the last five years was marred by the blackmailing tactics of the junior partners in the Government. Some ran their portfolios as private fiefdoms. The Prime Minister seemed to have no voice even when ministers like T.R.Baalu and A.Raja took highly questionable decisions that attracted charges of massive corruption. When an alliance minister is answerable only to his party boss and not to the Cabinet, it is coalition adharma.

There were several paragons of corruption in the last Government. But the DMK was special because it projected the view that India was just a part of Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu a part of the family estate. How else can we explain the DMK’s proprietorial demand of nine specified berths?.

Don’t forget that the proposed ministerial list was headed by son Azhagiri, daughter Kanimozhi and grand-nephew Dayanidhi. Isn’t a modicum of administrative experience necessary for a minister in such a vast and complex country as India? Azhagiri’s experience is confined entirely to the streets of Madurai. Kanimozhi has hardly ventured beyond poetry. Yet, they are fit to be rulers of our great country because their father loves them.

But then, do we have a right to fault Karunanidhi if he puts his family’s interests above his country’s? The Family First thesis was elevated by Indira Gandhi into a major plank of patriotism in India. The promotion of sons, daughters, wives, nephews and girlfriends has become the most outstanding feature of our democracy. Politics is the preferred family business today.

The Congress continues to spearhead this idea. Look at the way the Prime Minister publicly pleaded with Rahul Gandhi to accept a ministerial position. See how every Congressman attributes the present victory to Rahul Gandhi’s brilliant campaigning and brilliant tactical thinking. Manmohan Singh is hardly given any credit although his quiet efficiency and clean image have been major factors in the Congress victory.

To be sure, Rahul Gandhi is an energetic modern-minded young man and therefore an asset to political India. So are Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot, Navin Jindal, Jitin Prasada, Priya Dutt and Supriya Sule. But so, too, are Shubhra Saxena, Sharandeep Kaur Brar and thousands of others. The first lot got on top because they are the children of their fathers. Not the second lot.

Shubhra Saxena came first out of nearly 12,000 men and women who wrote the final IAS examination this year. She has IIT background and international work experience which makes her, in terms of qualification and ability, equal to the Deora-Pilot-Jindal-Gandhi lot. But she won’t be on top of the political heap because she is middle class and her father and husband are neither famous nor wealthy. Same with Sharandeep who came second in the all-India rankings.

For that matter, someone like Indira Nooyi (of Pepsico fame) was once reported favourably disposed to a political appointment in the US. Why are such people of proven quality not available to the political leadership in India? At best they can only become unseen, unheard-from backroom advisers, like Sam Pitroda is to Rahul Gandhi.

Our system is strong enough and will eventually triumph. But the first step to that victory is the recognition that political power as a family right is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. Thanks to Indira Gandhi, it has became a reigning concept in India. The concept gives opportunities only to those who have the right fathers. It is bad for India. It must go.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Watch out: The country is churning


Two factors have led to the enviable position the Congress is in today – and its popularity is not one of them. The real factors are that (a) the BJP has lost its acceptability in the imagination of the general public and (b) the Left has collapsed as an ideological platform. The prominence the Congress has achieved as a consequence is sure to be a passing phase. India is in the midst of a vast churning process. Uncertainties, shifting alignments and ad hoc patchups are part of such a transition. Two or three more game-changing elections like this and we will have moved from a dynastic system closer to a mature democracy.

That BJP’s sun was setting was clear towards the end of Vajpayee’s term. With hindsight even his critics would now agree that it was Vajpayee who made BJP acceptable to people outside the Hindutva core. He was politically moderate besides being personally popular as writer and poet. By contrast Advani was inextricably identified with hardline Hindutva. He was perhaps the first to recognise this as a liability. Hence his attempt to soften his image with stratagems like the Jinnah-was-secular speech. But it boomeranged.

The spectre raised during this campaign, that Narendra Modi is the one to follow Advani, will have scared more people away from the BJP. The fundamental reality remains that India, which of course is a Hindu-majority country, has not given the BJP blanket victory at any time other than during the Vajpayee interlude. This is because the majority of the people the BJP claims to represent obviously do not subscribe to the Hindutva brand of intolerance. That is the best guarantee of India’s future as a democracy.

For the BJP to regain public confidence, it will have to re-invent itself. This will require visionary leaders of the kind the BJP is not currently blessed with. Those it has are unable to think beyond the likes of Modi. Unfortunately this proclivity prevents the BJP from developing into a balanced right-of-centre party for which a need exists in India.

The need exists for a truly left-of-centre party as well. It is one of the tragedies of India that from the time of the Congress Socialist Party, the leftwing in the country has always lacked coherent, farsighted leadership. With the 1948 Communist Party policy of “armed revolution now”, the Left lost ground across the country. The base it retained in Bengal and Kerala have been steadily eroded. In three decades of unchallenged power, the Left Front Government in Bengal was unable to address basic issues like poverty and infrastructure. When it finally made an effort towards industrial progress, it was so heavy-handed that it only took an eccentrically led formulation like Trinamool Congress to prick its balloon.

The CPM in Kerala for its part turned into an unabashed corporate enterprise with mafia squads to enforce its power over others, including other leftwing groups. The infighting between the party leader and the party’s chief minister had reached obscene proportions. The party’s arrogant and dictatorial ways were causing perceptible disgust among the people. But the Politburo had no eyes to see what all others could see. The result is that Prakash Karat can no longer save India from the clutches of America.

Can Manmohan Singh? The Congress is in danger of getting entrenched in its dynastic ways and the dealmaking for which its managers are famous. This time it will be directly accountable for its commissions and omissions. To that extent it is on the firing line. By giving a fairly clear mandate to one party, the people have won this election. Whether that party will win remains to be seen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Swine to brinjal: We have no escape


Cartoon :

Imagine, if you can, five lakh pigs in one enormous lot. Now imagine them crammed into a narrow factory, crammed so tight that many are trampled to death by others. They stay there for months, feed there, fatten there unnaturally fast and are finally slaughtered there.

Imagine, if you still can, five lakh pigs shitting and peeing in a confined space. The vast cesspools of excreta that are formed are euphemistically known in trade circles as lagoons. A pig produces three times the excrement of a human. So a five-lakh pig population, the standard strength of a factory, will produce as much fecal matter as the entire human population of Bangalore, Mangalore, Hubli and Dharwar put together.

This horrendous mass of excreta is highly toxic as well. Because factory pigs are ingested with huge amounts of antibiotics, vaccines and insecticides. Add to that the rotting bodies of still-born pigs and dead ones. Naturally the lagoons of highly poisonous filth have killed rivers and whole populations of fish. The meat products coming out of these filthily maintained pigs in these unimaginably filthy environment is marketed as “simply the finest pork money can buy”.

If you can imagine all this without feeling sick in the stomach, then you are beginning to understand why the world is periodically assaulted by potential mass killers like the Swine Flu.

Everyone knows that the current swine flue started in Mexico. But not widely publicized is the fact that the world’s largest pig products company, the Smithfield Corporation of America, is behind it. In fact corporate publicity has been focusing on the message that “you cannot get swine flu by eating pork”.

Smithfield factories kill 270 lakh pigs in a typical year. That is enough stinking lagoons to drown 81 million humans, or the entire population of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Beijing, Tokyo, Jakarta, Mexico City and New York City combined. Imagine, if you dare.

To dispose of so much muck is terribly expensive. So the company does not bother. For violating basic rules about food and environmental safety, Smithfield was once fined $ 42.6 million. Currently it is under US Federal investigation for toxic environmental damage caused by pig excrements. When we see those masked passengers and doctors and nurses at the world’s airports, think of what profit-chasing corporations do in their greed.

Smithfield is by no means an exception. It’s only months since America reeled under the scandal of deaths from eating peanut butter. Through carelessness salmonella poison had contaminated this universally popular food item. The Peanut Corporation of America, the world’s largest, was forced to close down.

The damage done by the McDonald’s culture is of course an old story. The real point is that fast food chains have completely changed the way potatoes are planted and cattle stocks are raised and slaughtered. ( Those who like throwing up may wish to read the book “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser).

Kollogg’s is a respected name in the world of packaged breakfasts. Yet, a few years ago, it was found selling a product made with Star Link corn, a genetically altered variety not approved for human consumption.

Genetically altered food is beginning to consume us too. We don’t even have inspectors and testing systems that are above board. Such official agencies as we have often collude with genetic engineers. Corn or brinjal unfit for human consumption may well be on our plates, and we won’t even know. Maybe swine flu is safer.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Quattrochi: Cover-up at any cost


Since the dawn of independence, no one has received from the Indian state more privileged treatment than Ottavio Quattrochi. He is a business dalal, a middleman, a fixer of deals collecting commissions along the way. Usually when a fixer is caught in a compromising position, his patrons and beneficiaries drop him.

Not if you are Quattrochi. When he was caught, not only was he not dropped; the Indian state repeatedly went out of its way to protect him. Consider just the landmarks. Following official disclosures by Swiss authorities about Bofors bribes, Quattrochi’s escape from Delhi was facilitated by government ministers. When he was arrested by the Malaysian police in 2002, the CBI made such a hotchpotch of India’s case that the courts in Malaysia released him. Exactly the same thing happened in Argentina five years later; the Indian authorities made such a pathetic show that the Argentine court was forced to set the man free. Quietly the Indian authorities also arranged to release the bribe money they had got frozen in Quattrochi’s London account. In a final act of grace, the CBI has asked for the removal of the Interpol warrant against him so that the spectre of arrest in strange lands will no longer bother this favoured apple of the Congress Party’s eye.

There is a further pattern in the way Congress leaders spring like wounded tigers to the defence of Quattrochi and his protectors. Their main argument is that no court has found the man guilty. Of course not. No court will ever find him guilty as long as those whose duty it is to provide evidence decide not to do so. Quattrochi’s defenders also say that “there is not a shred of evidence” against him. Great quantities of evidence have in fact been made available by Swiss authorities, Bofors company officials and independent Swiss and Swedish and Indian investigators. When Congress spokesmen ignore all this and ignore how cases are prosecuted shabbily with the intention of losing, they are assuming that Indian citizens are a stupid lot. Alas, they are not.

Stranger still is the timing. The party is in the midst of a make-or-break election. Yet, it takes suicidal steps. First, foolish selection of candidates in most states thereby consciously losing seats it could have won. Second, out of the blue, a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler thereby reopening the wounds of the Sikh community and losing tens of thousands of crucial votes. Then, out of the blue, a clean chit to Ottavio Quattrochi, a man either hated or suspected by most Indians.

Why? Why the desperation? And why now when the electoral price to be paid is likely to be very heavy? We can all guess the answers. We can also conclude that decisions of such momentous consequences cannot be taken by factotums in the CBI or this ministry or that. They can only come from a source of unchallengeable centralised authority, a wielder of absolute power whose resoluteness has the solidity of a rock and the immovability of a mountain.

Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren immortalised those qualities. They could set the screen on fire with their raw power and earthiness. Jean Renoir admiringly called Magnani “ the complete animal”. Loren’s passionate portrayal of tragedy in war-ravaged Italy remains indelible in our minds. Between them the two ladies made the world aware of a primeval force – the gritty, determined Italian middleclass woman. Before that primeval force the Indian state today bends and sways. Let us hope it won’t break.