The darkest spot in shining India – poverty

March 7, 2008

Around 800 million people in India live on less than Rs. 20 per day. Around 250 million live on less than Rs 12 a day. The hopelessness of the situation can be gauged by the fact fact that people are eating rats or selling their children for buying a day’s meal.

BBC’s photo feature on poverty-stricken villages in N. India.

The cover story of this week’s economist mentions poverty as one of the two main barriers holding back the Indian economy.
Economist Article – India’s economy – What’s holding India back?

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, which promises wage employment to every rural household and assures at least 100 days’ employment, has not been really successful, thanks to corrupt officials. But more than this scheme, the government needs to think about rigid labor laws. A more flexible system could be a step towards generating more employment. A bigger percentage of the public finances needs to be spent on providing access to basic facilities such as water, electricity and education.

On a side note, I wonder what India’s extreme religious right would say if the people mentioned in the BBC feature converted to Christianity and were given one meal a day and their kids a decent education. Money cannot buy happiness, but it gives you an option to choose your miseries. On the other hand, you could use your money to buy someone else’s miseries. In case, you decide to do that, take a look at:
www.giveindia.org

Shaking hands with the devil

March 5, 2008

Any list of prominent Indian freedom fighters would aways have one name — Subhash Chandra Bose, also popularly known as Netaji (‘Respected Leader’). His courage, charisma and determination made him a legend in the history of India. Bose — a militant nationalist and revolutionary – was at loggerheads with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s opposition led him to resign from the INC and eventually to form an independent party. In 1941, Bose escaped house arrest in India and made his way to Germany. In Germany, he set up the Free India Legion and Azad Hind Radio. The Free India Legion was largely composed of Indian PoW captured in N. Africa. The Indian Legion was attached to the allied German forces (Wehrmacht). The oath that was taken by these recruits:

“I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose.”

Hmm..obey Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a man who was responsible for eliminating 6.1 million Jews. Does the end always justify the means? Moreover, did Bose think that Hitler’s love for the Aryan race would prevent him for making India a state within the Third Reich? Even, Bose knew that he had committed an error of judgment by placing his trust in Hitler. When he met Hitler in May 1942, he realized that he was merely being used as a pawn and eventually fled to South-East Asia. But why shake hands with the devil at first place? Now, more than 60 years later in a free democratic India, probably it is hard to fully comprehend the mindset of our grandfather and great grandfathers.

I came across an article in BBC in which the correspondent tracks down one of the recruits in Bose’s army, Lieutenant Barwant Singh. Personally, I feel that such interviews would shed new light on the history of freedom struggle and the impact the struggle had on the lives of everybody. A friend of mine once decided to interview not only the freedom fighters, but also the ordinary citizens who lived through the entire struggle. A brilliant idea, but never took off. Perhaps, we need an equivalent of PBS in India and we need it soon. Very few of these people are alive and probably do not have too many years left. A loss of knowledge of experiences of those times would be sad.

BBC – Article – Hitler’s secret Indian army

Unfair attitude toward unfair (dark) complexion

March 3, 2008

We (Indians) are known to be obsessed with a fairer complexion. The words fair and lovely are synonymous for us. Skin lightning creams such as ‘fair and lovely’ make millions of dollars in India. Most matrimonial advertisements start with the word ‘fair’/’gori’ (‘wheatish brown’ /’saawali’ for those not blessed with a light skin color 🙂 ). The Indian movie-industry (bollywood) also favors the fair skin. Some of the most popular bollywood songs glorify the white skin (‘gori hai kalayian….’, the literal english translation: ‘white are my wrists….’ 🙂 ). Even the most talented actresses in Bollywood have to apply loads of skin powder to pander to the Indian masses.

Is this compulsive preoccupation with fair skin and skin lightning restricted to India? Not so. A quick google search reveals that 2 out of 5 women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea and Thailand, use skin lightening creams. The use of these creams is widespread in South America and Africa as well. Throughout the world, white female models outnumber the black ones by a huge majority. This seems a bit paradoxical when a lot of white females spend obscene amounts of time and money on skin tanning. Is it just that most of us are not happy with our natural skin shades or there is a difference between tanned skin and dark-colored skin? Probably both.

Is this obsession merely an individual preference for a light skin color? Nope. There is definitely more than meets the eye. A lot of Indians use the word ‘kallu’ for referring to Black people. ‘Kalla’ means black in Hindi, but the word ‘Kallu’ is usually used in a derogatory sense. Recently, the Indian health minister chided the Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan for setting a bad example to the youth by smoking in movies and public. But what about the actor’s endorsement of a fairness cream? Just as smoking is harmful for the lung tissues, so is this obsession with fair complexion for the ethos of our society. Everyone is free to make personal choices, but passing these prejudices from generation to generation is not helping us. All in all this is just another brick in the wall of social/racial segregation.

Uganda — Phoney Kony

March 3, 2008

The Ugandan government and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have agreed to a ceasefire till the end of March, when the final agreement might be signed. The government has rejected LRA’s core demand of removal of International Criminal Court indictments and rightly so. Hopefully even at the end of March, Yoweri Museveni (the president of Uganda) will not grant Joseph Kony (head of LRA) amnesty and let him spend the rest of his life as a state guest in some foreign nation (like Idi Amin who spent his retirement in Saudi Arabia). Kony and his commanders have committed the worst crimes in a 20 year insurgency in Acholiland, a region in Northern Uganda. He has been fighting to establish a Christian nation, which will be ruled as per the biblical 10 commandments. Perhaps, Mr. Kony needs to reread the bible and explain the routine hackings, mutilations, and padlocking vaginas. Peace talks have been ongoing for a year and life has improved for some of the 1 million people displaced by the conflict. But the sense of fear is still too much for people to live a normal life.

Economist Article – Uganda – Still gripped by fear
BBC’s profile on Joseph Kony
BBC Images of the young innocent victims of the war

Ray of Hope in Kenya

March 2, 2008

After two months of mayhem, there is now a hope for an end to bloodshed in Kenya. The two leaders, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, have signed an agreement of power-sharing. So what went wrong….

Tribal Voting Patterns (Let me vote my caste in….)
The major ethnic groups in Kenya are Kikuyu (21%), Meru (5%), Kalenjin, Luyha, Luo (14%), Kisii, Kamba, Swahili, Masai, and Turkana. But Kikuyu and Luo tribes have shared the bulk of political power. Their party KANU ruled Kenya for 40 years which also included 24 years under the corrupt Daniel arap Moi.

The Kikuyu Tribe, which originally belongs to the Bantu group and which organized the Muo Muo rebellion against the British, dominate the Central Province. The tribe’s fiercely loyal to Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki, who came to power in 2002, was expected to end corruption and rejuvenate the economy.
But rifts Within the National Alliance of Rainbow Coalition, a coalition between Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK), has solved none of Keyna’s problems. Members loyal to Kibaki formed NARC-Kenya and Kibaki as their presidential candidate.

The Luo Tribe dominate the Nyanza province. Luos have supported Raila Odinga, who is a Luo and heads the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Kibaki joined LDP in 2002 after Moi supported Uhuru Kenyatta – a son of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta as the presidential candidate. The LDP later joined NARC under a power-sharing agreement, which provided a prime-minister position for Odinga. Kibaki did not appoint Odinga Prime Minister on assuming office. This led to a rebellion and the formation of ODM.
BBC’s article on Odinga mentions that his supporters say that he is fearless and a successful businessman and hence the right man to put an end to Kenya’s problems. His detractors call him a dictator in the making. The other tribes and Muslims, who feel marginalized under Kibaki, have also supported Odinga.

Elections in December 2007 returned Kibaki to power for a second five-year term, but Odinga has accused Kibaki’s Party of National Unity of rigging the vote. What followed was an internecine feud amongst Kibaki’s Kikuyus and the rest of the tribes. The violence was dominant in Central Valley, Nyanza and Rift Valley. More than 1000 people were killed and about 300,000 displaced. There were numerous reports of mutilations and rapes.

Kibaki and Odinga, have finally reached on an agreement. The credit for securing the peace deal goes to the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and African Union president Jakaya Kikwete. The agreement gives Odinga the post of prime minister and the cabinet posts to be divided equally between parties. It remains to be seen how long the peace deal would last and if the two leaders can restore the diverse social fabric. As Kofi Annan said: “The journey is far from over. In fact it is only beginning.”

Zimbabwe’s 3Ms (Mugabe, Makoni and Morgan)

March 2, 2008

Robert Mugabe celebrated his 84th birthday and launched his campaign seeking a sixth term in office. The campaign speech blamed the usual suspects (the foreigners especially the westerners) for the economic problems. It is not too hard to comprehend the everyday struggle of survival for Zimbabweans with inflation at 100,000% and an unemployment rate of 80%.
The current economic problems have been attributed to failed land reforms of 2000. The land reforms allowed the seizures of lands owned by whites to be distributed among the local black population. The bread-basket of Africa has been turned into a begging-basket. Locals depend on foreign remittances and UN food program.
Even the schooling system (probably the only reason why some Zimbabweans still admire him) is also buckling under hyperinflation. An adult literacy rate estimated still at 80-90% is steadily decreasing. Amnesty International and Human Rights have reported widespread human-rights violations by Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), which reports directly to Mugabe. CIO is reported to be behind the publishing of alleged photographs of Bishop Pius Ncube, a vocal critic of Mugabe. The scandal led to the resignation of the bishop.

The big opposition against Mugabe’s rule is coming from the two presidential contenders MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni who till recently was a part of ZANU-PF.
Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai, a former mine worker, ran against Mugabe in 2002. The elections were rigged and marred with violence. He was charged with treason for an alleged assassination attempt on Mugabe. He was later acquitted of the charges. In March 2007, he was arrested on his way to a prayer rally. His torture not only grabbed headlines of most newspapers but also provoked reactions from around the world. He will be contesting elections this year, but factions within his party have weakened his chances of becoming the president.

Simba Makoni
Simba Makoni has been widely hailed as a serious contender to Mugabe. Makoni, trained as a chemist, served as a deputy minister of agriculture in 1980 and a finance minister from 2000 2002. He is amongst the few uncorrupt politicians in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Dumiso Dabengwa is the first Zanu-PF leader to support his bid. A splinter MDC group led by Arthur Mutambara, has also endorsed Makoni. But he still needs the rural support and backing of a few ZANU-PF leaders.

Hopefully the elections in March 2009 would be free and fair, and the last for Robert Gabriel Mugabe KCB.

References:
BBC Article – Q&A: Zimbabwe’s economy
BBC Article – Profile: Morgan Tsvangirai
BBC Article – Mugabe rival wins key supporter
Economist Article – Zimbabwe -Simba Makoni is getting up steam
Economist Article – Zimbabwe – Divide and Conquer

The unbearable depression of being (a mediocre)

February 22, 2008

All my years from adolescence to adulthood, I thought I was more than a mediocre. I convinced myself every day every hour that someday sometime I will find something I will excel at. Now at the cusp of 30, I’ve realized that there is nothing really that I do well. As Kurt Cobain said, ‘I am worse at what I do best’. Unlike Kurt, I do-not really feel blessed for this gift. So what all did I try…

books – kafka, marquez, murakami, joyce all put me to 8 hours of blissful sleep. I’ve failed to grasp what/why they were trying to convey. Personally, the different literary techniques (stream of consciousness, symbolism, magic realism) are all symptoms of thought disorder.

computers – Pablo Picasso said, “Computers are useless. They can only give answers”. I don’t even know what questions to ask. The only times when query results have made me happy were the results from ‘youporn’ :-). All computer programs I’ve written so far either crashed or gave the three letter word ‘NAN’ (not a number) as output. The only saving grace — my company still has not fired me, but that might change soon.

geography – Someone asked me the location of Burkina Faso and I told him it was a country in south africa (well i got the continent right!)

gmat – After reading 10000 blogs of past/current MBA students, I thought an MBA might help me to improve my personal and professional skills and to shape my career to the best of my potential (not that I have much potential). I decided to give the GMAT. The score I got — LBS, HBS, GSB, INSEAD would not even piss at me.

history/current affairs – I thought I was good at military history, until I started watching history channel. Everytime I pick up ‘The Economist’, I feel depressed. I cannot comprehend that I am living on the same planet as people in Darfur, Chechnya or Bhutan. But what do I do? Eat like a pig and sleep like a baby.

philosophy – Objectivism, subjectivism, existentialism, nihilism, rationalism, empiricism all sound the same to me. I wonder if Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Poincare were inhabitants of another planet.

music – I can not tell the difference b/w beethoven’s fourth and mozart’s fourth or the difference b/w a clarinet and flute acoustics. The only time now I listen to music is when I do not want to talk to my boss.

science – Even after reading the idiot’s guide to Einstein, the Theory of Relativity sounds greek to me. Every time, I look at Boltzmann transport equation, I wonder if I even have minuscule amounts of the matter people call brain.

sex – The organs are about to decay due to lack of any stimulation. Did I mention I come from the land of kamasutra? I’ve more sex in my brain than in my groins.

six pack – Even my mirror is ashamed to reflect my one pack. I should have listened to Payton Manning….mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fattest dog of them all?

sports – The teams I play volleyball for are at the bottom of their leagues and of course, I’m part of the reason (rather I’m the reason). I still cannot swim in waters with depth more than 5 feet (I’m six feet tall). Adventure sports – I piss in my pants every-time I think about whitewater rafting, skydiving or bungee jumping.

socialising – I do not drink, dance or date. Girls prefer at least six hundred feets between me and them. Unless the world is shrinking or starts shrinking, the probability of reducing the proximity remains close to zero. Socialising as of now is restricted to watching office space every friday night.

stocks – Investors in the sub-prime market should look at my portfolio to stroke their ego.

So, what am I doing in life? But what is life? According to a friend of mine, life is an incurable sexually transmitted disease. So I guess all I am doing is living the disease.

Like Uncle, Like Nephew — Amchi Mumbai

February 19, 2008

circa 1960 – Bal Thackeray starts his ‘Maharashtra for Maharahstrians’ campaign. The S. Indian migrant workers (’lungi-wallas‘) and the businesses of South Indians are attacked by Thackeray’s cronies. After the S. Indians, the Gujratis bear the brunt of Bal Thackeray’s campaign.

2008 – Raj Thackeray attacks the N. Indians (and Amitabh Bachchan) for not respecting the Marathi heritage or not doing enough for Mumbai. He accuses the N. Indians of taking the jobs away from the local population. So, what about the jobs created by Ambanis, Wadias, Tatas…?

Its time for the Thackerays to stop trumpeting their regional propaganda and spoil the cosmopolitan character of Mumbai. I’ve never understood the terms ‘True Marathi’, ‘True Tamilian’ or ‘True Indian’. What is the difference between ‘True Indian’ and ‘True Human Being’? ‘True this’ and ‘True that’ are nothing but jargons of populist politicians who donot have real issues to talk about. Would the Mumbaikars stand up and tell Mr. Raj Thackeray to shut up?

Vir Sanghvi on the Thackerays in his weekly column ‘Counterpoint’:

Mini Me and Dr Evil

Lula – pragmatist rather than populist

February 19, 2008

Brazilian stock-markets took a nosedive when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva came to power in 2002. The investors were suspicious of his left-leaning economic policies. But Lula proved them false. He has maintained pragmatic socio-economic policies unlike Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. His antipoverty schemes are being exported to other countries.
Economist Article – ‘Brazil – Happy Families’
The Brazilian funds in the ‘BRIC’ family of funds might be the slowest-growing, but they are also the most stable. Investors are in for long-term investing.
Economist Article – ‘Brazil – Land of Promise’
Brazilian production of electricity from sugarcane looks more promising than US production from corn. Lula and his government created concessions for seven federal roadways and privatized two banks. Hopefully the corruption scandals tainting the PT will stop and reform process will continue.

Kosovo

February 18, 2008

So, Kosovo becomes the sixth republic to secede from the Federation of Yugoslavia after Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Economist Article – Kosovo – Independence Day

US, UK, Germany, Italy and Japan have already endorsed the new country. As expected, Spain, Serbia, Russia and China have expressed concerns.
BBC Article – Recognition for new Kosovo grows

Does Kosovo sets a precedent for N. Caucasus regions, Basque, Tibet, Catalonia, Kashmir…? I am waiting on the reaction of the Indian government on Kosovo and if they would apply the same standards to Kashmir.

Kosovars, congratulations and good luck!