Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Acid Test For Indian Society

A week back three youngsters in their budding twenties poured acid on two unsuspecting girls causing serious third degree burns in Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, India. The reason for this heinous crime was one of the girls had spurned the overtures of one of the culprits. Both the girls are battling for life with one girl, doctors say may lose vision permanently and both the girls, if survive, will need multiple plastic surgeries. It is no wonder that the entire town came out in rallies and expressed sympathy for the girls. However, what was surprising was every section of the society, including the students, demanding the police to catch the suspects and encounter them which meant shooting them to death. Instant justice in this instant world ! A day later the three suspects were caught, interrogated, confession extracted, paraded before the media in the late evening and Lo and behold ! all the three suspects end up dead in the middle of the night on the outskirts of the town. The official version was police had taken them to a location where the suspects said they hid a stolen motorcycle but when they reached the spot, the suspects tried to attack the police and so were promptly shot to death. This usually is the standard official version for most of the deaths in the police shootouts. As news spread, there were celebrations in the town, people praising the police for swift action and awed college students pestering the police officers for autographs. Even in state capital, the educated elite were openly praising the police for this instant justice delivered. To my horror, even the state government released a statement that indirectly meant that any such acts will invite similar response. A few sane voices and their feeble protest at this form of delivering instant justice were drowned out in the cacophony of jubilation. We have been witnessing similar jubilation and approval across the country whenever such incidents take place. In the wake of sympathy on the plight of the girls and the hatred on the perpetrators of the crime, we seem to have forgotten that we are in a civil society governed by the laws of the land and judiciary. While it is true that many of our laws do not reflect the modern realities and need to be comprehensively changed, it is as reprehensible as the crime itself to eulogize custodial deaths. Instead of bringing pressure on the governments to amend the laws to make the punishments more stringent and revamp the judicial process for quick trials, we seem to have taken the easier option of condoning and even demanding instant justice. We should not for a moment forget that this makes every individual policeman, the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner. Is any one person or a group capable of playing all these roles without bias.
Have we as a part of the civil society forgotten the brutal Bhagalpur blindings in 1980, where the police blinded about 30 undertrials with cycle spokes and then poured acid into the eyes. Most of them were petty thieves, waiting for the trial to commence. Can we condone the act in the name of instant justice since the case would have taken a long time to conclude in the usual process? Or for that matter, the police shooting of a business man to death last year in Delhi due to mistaken identity. It could be you and me tomorrow in the place of the businessman.
I ask those of you who have openly come out in support of the police shooting to death the three suspects, shall we as a society dispense with the judicial system altogether and give rights to the police to deliver instant justice. A thief can have his hands amputated, a person accused of murder can be hung to a lamp post and eve teasers stoned to death in public. There are societies where such forms of public punishments are in vogue. We call those states barbaric.
Despite the passing of the Protection of Human Rights Act in 1993 and establishing a National Human Rights Commission, incidents of police brutality continue to take place in various parts of the country. This is because of the silent approval of the public.
The acid test for the Indian society is whether in the near future it opts to pressurize governments to amend the laws and make punishments more stringent, revamp the judicial process for speedy trials, demand better policing methods and respect the Human Rights or continue to encourage models of instant justice. There will lie the answer to where as a nation we are headed.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Vampire Companies In Drug Trials

It was an innocuous small news item buried in the local pages of the Hyderabad based newspapers a few days back. The news was that a person undergoing drug trials complained of chest pain and died before he was shifted to a corporate hospital. Hardly any news, when in our country only double digit deaths find space on the front page. However, this is no ordinary death. The death is due to the plague that is the hallmark of a majority of Indian entrepreneurs. The plague of greed for money at any cost. At the cost of the lives of thousands of poor citizens of this country through clinical trials, which are outsourced by the giant global pharma and bio technology companies. A city based bio company has been conducting drug trials on this person, which the company spokesperson accepted and added he was a “Volunteer” who was administered a dose one day earlier, was put under observation for 24 hours and released. So he argued the reasons for the death of this “Volunteer” cannot be attributed to the drug trials. Shockingly, he also added that this “Volunteer” was also undergoing a drug trial for another company. As a spin doctor of the bio company, he should have known that the rules of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization clearly forbid clinical trials of more than one drug in a span of 90 days on the same person. But that is only the Law and in this country it is the least respected, especially by the money-making class.

So what in essence are these drug trials, called as clinical trials? When a new drug is formulated in the research labs of the pharma companies, it needs to be extensively used on human beings to determine dosage, efficacy and after affects. In the US and Europe, trials for one drug costs anywhere from 100 to 150 million dollars because of the stringent conditions and high hospital costs. To save such a huge spending, these corporations have started outsourcing to Indian companies at one –tenth of the cost. Where on Earth can one find a nation with a deadly cocktail of half a billion people mired in rampant poverty and illiteracy, a plethora of diseases, two million private hospital beds , completely unethical and greedy entrepreneurs, lack of proper regulation, blatant corruption and a slipshod state machinery to enforce whatever little regulations are in force. So almost all the giant pharma . corporations have zeroed in on India. According to a Confederation of Indian Industry study, clinical trials in India in 2002 generated $70 million in revenues and reached $200 million by 2007. McKinsey estimates that by 2010, global pharma majors would spend around $1 billion for drug trials in the country.
How do the Indian clinical trial companies which grab the outsourcing deals conduct the clinical trials? The modus operandi is simple. Middle men sift through the records at the government hospitals to identify those with a particular disease or a combination of diseases. They are then filtered as per the need of the age / gender group. Since most of the visitors to the government hospitals are poorest of the poor, it becomes a cake walk for the middle men to cut a deal. For as little as 100 to 150 rupees a day!! The “Volunteers” are regularly monitored with changes in dosage. At prior defined periods, the “Volunteers” are examined for any symptoms of side effects and the progress of the disease. If there are indeed side effects, sometimes fatal, they are disposed off with a few thousand rupees. Since the law stipulates that drug trials can be conducted only on “Volunteers”, the illiterate “Volunteers” are made to sign /put thumb impressions on the declaration of volunteerism absolving the companies from any legal consequences. The poor “Volunteers” get a few thousand rupees each in a year and in most cases life time misery with side effects, the middlemen get a few lakhs each for supplying the “Volunteers” and the company profits by a few million dollars. The entire process or the findings need not be registered with or divulged to any regulatory body. Perfect, isn’t it?

What has happened as a stray incident in 2000 has become rampant today across India. In 2000, the use of a banned drug on unsuspecting poor cancer patients by the prestigious U.S. John Hopkins’ Hospital in collaboration with the Regional Cancer Treatment Centre in Kerala was exposed by the centre’s radiology head. Two patients died as a result of the drug trial. Bowing to the public demand, the Kerala Government requested Dr Parikh of the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai to probe the incident. Dr Parikh collected documentary evidence of JHU releasing funds for the drug trials with the conscious knowledge of that drug having been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration. The drug was developed by a team of researchers of JHU's department of biology. This has forced the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to inquire into the trials. As usual, the results are still not public and no action has been taken against those responsible, where as the Johns Hopkins University barred the principal investigator from heading future research with human subjects. NGOs estimate that at any given point of time, clinical trials are being conducted for more than 100 new drugs in India involving thousands of “Volunteers” across multiple cities. They fear several of these drugs are either banned in the developed countries or new experimental component mixtures derived from the banned drugs.
Recently, India has made some regulatory attempts, amending its Drugs and Cosmetics Act to require compliance by trial conductors with a set of good clinical practices / guidelines along with the ethics committee that the ICMR formulated. But this is clearly not enough. The government should make registration of every drug trial compulsory, the findings to be divulged, mandatory compensation payment for those affected and strong penalties against the defaulting companies.

Till then, like vampires sucking blood out of the living, companies will continue to suck out profits from the misery of the Poor.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Banner Anger

The anger against politicians for not taking the November 26th terrorists attack on Mumbai seriously was uniform across the country. Here are some of the banners giving a glimpse of the anger, mailed to me by one of my friends, Kali Krishna.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

India's Heart Broken, But Not The Spirit

We Indians have faced several terrorist attacks in the past, some brutal as 1993 Mumbai blasts. We have had live coverage of the attack on our Parliament building itself. But the images of November 26th 2008 attack on Mumbai will stay etched in the memory of Indians for a long time. The images of indiscriminate firing from a van into thick crowds, the bodies strewn all over the street after an explosion, the injured at VT railway station dazed and bleeding profusely being helped by people, the funeral of the three top cops who were killed in action and the imposing red coloured dome of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel spewing out fire and smoke will stay with us for a long time. The terrorists have chosen the places of attack to have maximum death toll and coverage. While the taking over of Oberoi Trident Hotel and Nariman Point were to take hostage of maximum foreign nationals, it is evident that the taking over of Taj hotel and causing explosions in it, was no doubt to hurt the national pride of Indians.
It is now part of the Legend of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the patriarch of the Tata industrial Group, who has commissioned the Taj Palace Hotel building in 1900 after being refused entry to the now-defunct Apollo Hotel, which had a strict Europeans-only policy. The hotel was deliberately built with its rear to the harbour in an apparent snub to the British Monarchy, who entered through the harbor. Now the terrorists have snubbed all Indians by causing massive destruction to the hotel.

As the first pictures of the live coverage of events at Taj and Trident were beamed across a nation, it was a shock to watch the complete chaos. There was no unified command and policemen were simply running helter skelter, with everyone talking on mobile phones. On Mobile phones !! It was apparent that there was not even a unified communication system in place. As usual the combined forces of the Army and Navy along with NSG commandoes brought order to the chaos and fought hand to hand to kill the terrorists. But by then the damage was done. Over 200 dead and 500 injured.

As details emerged slowly, more shocks were in place. After getting information on a shootout at CST by terrorists, the top three cops of Mumbai together went in a van. Together !! And became sitting ducks. With all due respect to the dead, this singular act of travelling together to face the terrorists shows the lack of processes and professionalism. More shocking was the news that the NSG commandoes had flown all the way from Delhi but had to cool their heels at the airport for hours together as there were no further instructions. Detailed plans of the Trident and Taj hotels were found with the terrorists but the commandoes did not have one. We saw the Taj burning for hours on without any sight of a fire truck. One came in after three hours. It took our Prime Minister 20 hours after the attacks to convene a cabinet meeting. It took 60 hours to eliminate all the terrorists.

The worst shock was allowing the visual media to beam the live images of the commando action. Someone has forgotten that the terrorists too might be watching TV and alter their plans accordingly. Even the helicopter dropping off commandoes on the roof top of Nariman Point was also beamed live.

No sooner than the operation ended, the blame game started. The central intelligence agencies say they have forewarned the state which neglected the warning. The warnings usually are something like this, “ Terrorists belonging to X, Y or Z group are planning to launch an attack from land, sea or air on important landmarks and busy public places in the next three months.” Which state will heed to such warnings, when on an average, small or big, a dozen terrorist attacks take place every month in some state or the other in the country.

Revolting it was to watch the politicians give sound bytes, blaming the ruling party and the ruling party defending itself and pointing out similar attacks in previous government. With crass insensitivity, even before the dead were laid to rest, our politicians jumped in to take political advantage of the incident. We Indians act like Ostriches, burying our heads in the sand so as to not see the obvious. Ringed all around with six countries – Pakistan, China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka- whose animosity and in some cases blind hatred towards India is open and whose support to several terrorist groups in India is an established fact, terror is here to stay for a long time. What we need is not statistics to determine under which party’s rule more were dead. What India needs is a strategy at the highest level to tackle terrorism. It might evolve this time, because the attacks on 26th were also directed at the mighty and powerful, who have been insulated from terror all along, as the terrorists always hit only the general public travelling in suburban trains, or shopping in crowded bazaars. There will be enormous pressure from this group on the governments to act decisively and plan thoroughly for the future.

For the time being Indians are heart-broken but strong in spirit as evident from the reopening of the Leopold café as a defiance within two days after the deadly attack on it. As news of its reopening spread, thousands descended on the café to show solidarity. Unable to manage the crowds, it had to shut down after two hours. Incidentally, the café is owned by a Muslim.
I pray to God to give strength in their hour of grief to those families who have lost their near and dear in the carnage. I salute the armed forces for their bravery and sacrifice.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gals, Guys, Gays, Biceps & Buttocks

When does one realize that one has aged and out of touch with the world around. Well, when one doesn’t know how to react to a situation that appears normal to everyone around, but extra-ordinary to you, it is then you have aged. This revelation dawned upon me rather forcibly a couple of weeks back and reaffirmed a few days back. A couple of weeks back, I got into the office lift on a fine morning. A twenty-some girl also got into the lift and as the doors were about to close there was a flurry of activity outside and the door opened again. Another twenty-some girl came breezing in and in the same breath asked the other girl “ Did you get it done”. This girl started giggling and to my thorough panic and embarrassment lifted her shirt a few inches up to reveal a gold ring on the navel. Both of them immediately fell into an animated conversation and stepped out at their floor. I was completely flummoxed. Not with the act of showing off one’s navel’s accessory but for the fact that both these girls cared two hoots for my presence and didn’t even give a glance. I was thoroughly embarrassed for having invaded their private space—the office lift.
A couple of days back, another set of two girls and a guy in the twenties were having a chirpy conversation with a torrential non-stop flow with an equal mix of Hindi and English, which this younger generation seemed to have mastered. I was just a pace behind them waiting for the lift and tried to claw out some meaning. They were talking about a movie Dostana and “how John and Abhi pretended to be gays , locked their lips in a passionate kiss and how one of their mothers accepted it and John is sooooo cuuuute with his exposed butt”. What ? Butt ?!! Buttocks !! cannot be, I must have heard it wrong, I thought. At that moment, the guy turned his back to the girls, pulled the trouser down a good length to reveal his upper half of the butt. I was incredulous and could not grasp what he said and nearly got a fit when one of the girls gave a friendly whack at his butt and said, “ John’s is better.” As they were getting out of the lift, one girl turned halfway to me and gave that half smile may be indicating that all these Pats on Butts were common in their group and I was simply out of place. With an effort that would have got accolades from the very best poker players, with a dead pan face I smiled back in the same reassuring measure as if I witnessed these PoBs every day of my life. None of the others even glanced at me while walking out of the lift. I realized then that my aging was official.
As I mulled over this incident, I realized that the movie is the same whose poster I gawk at everyday while driving to the office to have my eyes full of the perfectly lipped ( no, no not a spelling mistake ) Oomph oozing, bikini clad Priyanka. My vision was so focused that I barely realized the two hunks on either side of her. I was in wonderment that two leading actors did not hesitate to act out as gays and even locked the lips. Amazing! More amazing is how causally these youngsters took to the movie and the concept. And above all butt bearing on the screen ! Over the years, I have watched the progression of the screen heroes move from biceps to triceps to six packs and flaunt the body sculpting in a song or a fight. But imagine someone going with a trouser half falling off, flaunting his butt. From now on, the screen hunks may also do all sorts of workouts to have a butt that is better shaped than his competitor. We may see a new breed of physical trainers and gyms with special equipment even for general Janatha. Anything is possible with these youngsters.
Same is the case with the latest Airtel mobile phone commercial with Sharukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan. With “I miss you so much”, groans by Saif boring deeply into the sockets of Shah Rukh’s eyes in the bath room and bed room, they give a gay touch. Actually, SRK is helping Saif to record a voice message to Kareena with a deep painful resonance , which he finally extracts from Saif with a blow at a strategic place. How times change ! And how much of change from Generation to Generation.
Sometime in mid 80’s, a Bombay Journalist has come out openly in an interview about his sexual preference which has created quite a stir. At that time even the elegant word Gay ( actual meaning is carefree / happy ) was not widely used and even the Press used to stick to the cruder version of Homosexual. Well, one evening I was nursing my drink in Hyderabad Press Club along with a friend when suddenly one of our common acquaintances walked to our table with a stranger. I got up, shook hands with the acquaintance and as he was introducing the stranger I began shaking hands with him. At the very moment his name and city were mentioned, I had this irrational urge to pull my hand back, rub the palm on to the trousers and just somehow not be there. However, with supreme effort and with a normal face, I completed the hand shake and indulged in polite conversation for a couple of minutes. Both of them noticed that they were not being invited to join the table even for a cursory drink and left. And that was me then, the liberal of the liberal belonging to Gen X. Any guy from this Gen Y would not have flinched and might have even hugged and kissed him.
I am astonished at this Gen Y gals, guys, gays for their obsession with biceps and buttocks and their amazing ability to convert instantaneously any space into their own private space.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comedian-in-Chief of the USA

Recently when I was talking to one of my friends Radhe, he mentioned that he watched a few days back the deadly one-liners of Bush on YouTube and he almost split into half laughing. While it is such a disgrace to America for having elected someone like Bush for two terms, on hind sight one may feel it is a historical necessity for future generations for centuries together to take this as an example of whom to never elect. Coming back to the one-liners, I just searched on the net and compiled a score of them to commemorate and commiserate his two terms. Here they are. Straight from the mouth of the Comedian-in-Chief of the United States of America

Health Hazard caution: Some may cause you to be sick to the last bone.

  • This is an impressive crowd—the haves and the have mores. Some people call you the elite, but I call you my base.

  • For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It's just unacceptable. And we're going to do something about it.

  • I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don't always agree with them.

  • I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.

  • I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe - I believe what I believe is right.

  • I think war is a dangerous place.

  • I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though I wasn't here.

  • If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier - so long as I'm the dictator.

  • It would be a mistake for the United States Senate to allow any kind of human cloning to come out of that chamber.

  • This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating.

  • I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being President.

  • Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people and neither do we.

  • Do you have blacks, too? (To Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso)

  • When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.

  • You're free. And freedom is beautiful. And, you know, it'll take time to restore chaos and order - order out of chaos. But we will.

  • It is clear our nation is reliant upon big foreign oil. More and more of our imports come from overseas.

  • I think we agree, the past is over.

  • And there's no doubt in my mind, not one doubt in my mind, that we will fail.

  • We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease.

  • I'm also not very analytical. You know I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Creates History In A Nation That May Soon be History

My first reaction to the US presidential election results was “Thank God! McCain did not win”. This World is not ready to tolerate another uncouth, ill tempered person who is completely ignorant of world affairs a la George Bush. Neither were Americans. Barack Hussein Obama, whose Muslim father was from Kenya and mother from Kansas has assured himself a place in American history, by being the first non-white American winning the US Presidential election. By electing Obama, the New Age American people have proved that they have come of the age of racism. John F Kennedy during the last year of his life 40 years ago predicted that a black person could be the President of the US in 40 years. He was ridiculed then. He is proved right now. The reasons for Obama’s easy win are numerous. The US and the World has witnessed 8 years of unprecedented hypocrisy, blatant lies and the US administration acting like a subsidiary of big corporations. The poisonous foliage called Bush has brought down the prestige and credibility of America to abyss. The last straw was the implosion of economy. The American public has put behind them their color prejudices and voted decisively for the 46 year old Afro American.
U.S. politics has never seen anything like Obama. The 46-year-old senator from Illinois had a change-oriented message that resonated with voters and a personal history he calls a uniquely American story. In spite of initial media ridicule about his race, name and antecedents, Obama has surprised even his worst detractors with his tenacity and youth following. His emphasis on need to change has resonated well with the beleaguered America. Obama will be the first Black man to walk into the White House as its master.
So what will happen after Obama takes over on January 20th , 2009. Nothing drastic will happen. At least not in his term or terms. Why not, one may ask. Obama has played well to the gallery by emphasizing on need to change without specifying what and who needs to change. The public who have been sick for the last several years with the Bush administration and its policies and paranoid of their future after the unprecedented financial crisis assumed something else will change which would be for better. Very few of them have realized it is they who have to change. Let me list out a few items where change is necessary and see if this is possible in the near term of say 20 years from hence.
1. The US government living off its treasury bonds by selling them to foreign nations should change. Its current debt is close to 3 trillion dollars and a lion’s share of it is from dictatorial countries in Middle East and China. At any given point of time, these countries can bring down the dollar to such a hyper-inflation stage that the US will buckle on its Knees.
2. The Americans living off on debt with utter disdain for borrowed money just for a wee bit more materialistic comfortable life should change their life style in line with their actual incomes.
3. Americans constitute 5% of the world population but consume 25% of the total energy. This needs to change.
4. Americans consume 900 billion calories of food every day, some 200 billion more than needed. Enough to feed 100 million people. They need to change their eating habits.
5. Americans throw away 200,000 tons of edible food each day. Because the food industry provides umpteen varieties of the same food item in the name of consumer choice, which are thrown out when they near the expiry date.
6. About 80% of the corn and 90% of oats are fed to livestock. 60% of available land is used for beef production. About 100 liters of water is required to produce one KG wheat where as 10,000 liters of water is required to produce 1 KG of beef. Agricultural priorities need to change.
7. Americans are just 5% of the World population but own one-third of world cars and produce carbon emissions equal to the rest of the world. This needs to change.
Now we know why nothing will change in the near short term or near long term. For any drastic change to happen suddenly in societies, countries and the World a cataclysm of event or events should happen. It could be as simple as oil producing nations refusing to deal with dollars and insisting on a more stable currency like Euro. This will lead to demand for dollar collapsing and since the dollar doesn’t have the backing of Gold standard, it could simply turn into worthless paper.
when one reads world history what strikes forcibly is that the people living in those times could never believe that the end was near. No Roman had believed during the height or decline of the mighty Roman empire that it would cease to exist. No English man believed, even in modern times, that the mighty British Empire where the Sun never sets will be bankrupt and crunched to its original pea nut size in a matter of a couple of years. No country or power is an exception to this nature’s law.
I only hope that Obama will at least lay the foundation for this change and the future leaders and future American generations will change the destiny of this once great country for better. If that doesn't happen --------
Amen !

Monday, October 13, 2008

FIRE Vaporises Global Wealth

I was never good with numbers in my school or college. Due to this drawback, I have never opted for any course in accounts or economics. So I just couldn’t understand in the beginning the recent global financial crisis and because of not having any knowledge on this matter, I stayed away from blogging. However, as reams and reams are being written daily, it slowly dawned on me that there is a close connection between these banks and myself. The connection is Fraud and Forgery. You see my father was an old fashioned parent who believed that making money freely available to children would spoil them. So he would give certain fixed pocket money monthly and insisted on proper accounts to be submitted during every semester holidays. That posed a huge problem to me as the 20 movies I used to watch on average a month and the 2 packs of cigarettes a day could not be accounted for as they were and also the pocket money was never sufficient. So I used to replace movies with masala dosa and cigarettes with chilli bhaja while accounting and show huge unexpected expenses for books and other study material, the money for which I used to claim was borrowed from friends. To receive a feel good fat cash bonus before returning to the college after holidays, I used to tamper the mark sheet from college. This is nothing but Fraud and Forgery for personal gains. I realized that these giant financial corporations have done the same. Fraud and Forgery for personal gains. So we have a common thread and I can now freely blog.
My Fraud and Forgery continued taking it to the next level as I moved up a year in the college the expenses too have increased. My father got suspicious and looked so close into the accounts as to find out in person the cost of masala dosa and chilli bhajja. He also approached the college office to compare the actual marks with the declared marks. The result. Severe financial restrictions were imposed and I had to qualify with concrete evidence to whatever I said from then on. I quickly fell in line.
It is sad to see that governments didn’t have same common sense as my father, a school drop out had. They have given away trillions of dollars of tax payers’ money as a bail out gift to these mega corporations instead of punishing them for their crimes. In the name of saving the economy, governments world over have pumped in trillions of dollars, in lieu of worthless paper. Even on the brink of bankruptcy, the power of these mega corporations to influence the decision making of governments is mind boggling.

All these years, these corporations pressurized government after government to deregulate and have little or no government intervention at any stage. This process, the banking gurus said, was essential and essence of capitalism and free markets. The result. The combined greed and fraud of Financial Institutes, Insurance sector and Real Estate ( FIRE) has vaporized wealth across the globe.

So what really happened. The Real Estate sector banked heavily on continuous price appreciations and built excess capacity. The people too banked heavily on continuous price rises and bought houses they could not afford because the banks were giving loans 100% of the cost. These banks then bundled up these mortgages as bonds and sold them to other banks all over the World. The Insurance companies guaranteed these mortgages as well as loan repayments for a commission. When people wanted to sell the houses for a profit after some time, they realized there were no takers in the market because every Tom, Dick and Harry had a house. Prices crashed, millions of people defaulted in EMI payments and the mortgages have suddenly become worthless papers. Not knowing which bank had how much of this toxic debt, banks refused to extend any credit to each other. Starved of liquidity, bank after bank went bankrupt. The infusion of trillions of dollars by governments will only act like a drip to a dehydrated patient and not as a fuel for a rebound. The Stock markets , as usual operate only on two factors. Fear and Greed. This time fear has set in and the market wealth of all the companies has just vaporized by more than half, thanks to FIRE.

The lesson we have to learn is that while the concept of free markets is good and that of government controls bad, the operation of free markets almost without any kind of oversight or control (which is what happened on Wall Street where government restrictions were over the years subverted by lobby-driven legislation) is doomed to lead to catastrophe. This is not the first time this has happened, and it will not be the last unless the governments take some tough measures. The governments at least now should ensure that the Financial Institutes come out clean and arrive at the truthful value of assets they hold. New mechanisms should be in place to ensure transparency in book keeping and severe punishments for those CEOs and Boards who inflate the profits for personal gains.
Meanwhile, let us all brace for a severe credit crunch and an economic slowdown, if not recession.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fortune For 500, Misery For 5 Billion

The global economic power of giant Trans Continental Corporations has grown to the point that they have become bigger than most of the countries where they do business.
Altogether, of the 100 biggest economies in the World, 40 are countries and 60 are corporations. The world's Fortune 500 companies last year earned one-third of the World GDP of 70 Trillion dollars.
Anyone would assume that with such a large revenues, these 500 companies would have employed a substantial portion of the world’s workforce. We will be shocked to know that all these companies together employ less than 20 million out of an available 3 billion workforce, according to the Washington based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). According to IPS, about 5 billion people, close to 80% of global population together earns less than half of the earnings of these companies.

If we look at the topmost 50 companies of these 500, it is evident why most of them are at the top. Their earnings are from natural resources. Oil, ore,minerals and metals and their by products like steel, aluminum, and power. These natural resources belong to the countries which means people, but these are given away for long term lease or sold at throwaway prices by the governments. For example, in 2004, oil was $ 25 and in 2008 over $100 a barrel. Was there any additional investment or additional employment generation between 2004 and 2008. Nil. Same is the case with iron ore, aluminum, coal, lime stone where prices have trebled. The iron ore mining companies in India used to sell the ore in 2004 at $35 a ton and pay 50 cents to the government as cess. In 2008 the ore is selling at $ 140 a ton but the companies continue to pay 50 cents only because of the long term lease contracts. If we look at the soaring profits of similar companies across the World, it is evident that the situation is same everywhere. And who bears the brunt. Billions of people suffer with rising costs and billions of windfall profits are pocketed by these companies.

Corporate globalization continues to increase at a hectic pace. The elixir of corporate is growth ... unquenchable growth. And profit. It’s imbedded in their genes. So these Trans Continental Corporations do everything in their power to grow and get profits. And power is one thing they have in abundance. Unlimited power with heads of governments wringing their hands at World Economic Forum and pleading for investments, offering huge tax breaks, huge tracts of land and a host of concessions. The Heads of State know clearly that while they govern a State, it is these Corporations that rule. In this process, these Trans Continental Corporations transcend responsibility to nations, people and employees. A Union Carbide can brush away with impunity the biggest and the most horrible industrial disaster with just $500 compensation to each of the surviving victims. And then one fine day it disappeared from the face of the earth. Just like that with a merger. A Dow Chemicals can refuse to clean up its shut down factory full of deadly chemicals , yet governments clamber over one another inviting it to set up business in their states. A Chiquita Brands International, the US company engaged in Banana business in Columbia , can get away with just a $ 25 million compensation to the hundreds of families of victims who have been killed by rebel forces in Columbia who were funded for a decade by the company to protect their business from disruptions. A Tata Motors can get away from moving a project to another place at a loss of 1500 crore rupees but consistently refuses to pay a few crores as additional compensation to 400 farmers whose land was acquired forcibly by the government for the project. That too after 40 people agitating for additional compensation were killed. The Sanlu group in China, biggest maker of milk powder can get away with mixing melamine in the milk powder resulting in 10,000 children becoming sick and 500 babies dying of acute kidney failure. After a mega merger, a giant corporation can get away with firing thousands of its employees by declaring “ these positions have become redundant”. Positions not people. These are not isolated incidents but regular happenings across the World. It is evident that these corporations transcend responsibility to nations, people and employees. So to whom are they responsible. The oft repeated remarks of the spin doctors of these corporations is that they are responsible to their investors is another sham. The investors are mega financial corporations who hold large chunk of stake in these companies. The retail investors are miniscule and a necessary evil who have little say or knowledge of their companies operations. In a recent AGM of Reliance, when one shareholder questioned Mukhesh Ambani how and why he is building a 27 floor billion dollar home for himself and how he could gift his wife a Jet with company money, he was asked to sell his shares and move on if he doesn’t like what the company is doing. Anyway, not even one per cent of the world population invest in companies. In effect, these corporations are responsible to no one. Trillions of dollars at their disposal and unbridled power derived through that money without responsibility to anyone. What a deadly cocktail !
And what do they do with this power. They use it to corner more profits. Take for example the carbon credit system. It was originally conceived to encourage the big corporations to be eco friendly by reducing pollution. How is the system in the current form. Carbon credits can be traded internationally, which means these big corporations continue to pollute but will buy the carbon credits from smaller companies. They have made a mockery of the system.
The most influential business group advising government on US-EU commercial relations', the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) consists of 100 CEOs of these most powerful corporations. When presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state meet at the World Trade Organization, this more permanent group provides its agenda. It is apparent that WTO is toying TABD agenda of watering down environment, consumer and worker protection laws in selected nations under the guise of binding free trade agreements that give them complete freedom to move their goods and capital across borders.
If WTO has its way, here's an example of how it works. Years ago a US Pharma giant has manufactured defective heart stents which cracked, killing close to 200 patients in whom they had been implanted. However, they had been cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration. So even though India has far superior heart stents, we cannot stop these defective stents from being dumped into our market . If we do WTO imposes trade sanctions on us. Neither can any nation stop Genetically Modified food products.
The most sinister thing is these Corporations control the media. Most of the television media ,movie industry and great part of print media are owned by these corporations either directly or through subsidiaries. About 80% of commercial television time , which actually sponsors TV programs is bought by them. The result -serious issues that affect these corporations are trivialized in TV media and buried deep inside newspapers. In affect, these corporations control our awareness of issues and influence the thought process. One of the best examples can be the Al Gore- Bush election. Major TV stations announced first of Al Gore win but within hours changed their stand and bombarded the viewers for weeks on Bush win. The reasons are fairly clear. Al Gore is eco friendly, is conscious of energy crisis which is unpalatable for big corporations. The fact that the perception of millions of people has been reversed or at worst confused at the bidding of these corporations to place oil friendly person to the highest of the office in itself tells the power and reach of these corporations.
The stark reality that Trans Continental Corporate rule has replaced democratic government rule is the single most important issue we now face. It will take great courage and common global action to challenge and overcome this monstrous threat to the well-being of the vast majority of humankind--and even to the planet itself.
It is predicted that by 2025 World will be full of robots. There is every possibility of this being a reality though not with the mechanical / electronic robots. But we the human beings will be robotized in our thought process and shepherded along the highway to an Orwellian night mare by these faceless Corporations for whom profits alone is reverent. Everything else is irrelevant.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Politics for Power on Power

As expected the Opposition has continued to cry foul on the Nuclear Deal notwithstanding the 45 nation Nuclear Supply Group has given a green signal for nuclear trade with India. The main point for the Opposition is that India cannot conduct nuclear tests in future. But no one clarifies why there is a necessity for us to conduct tests in future, when we have already conducted two in the past and world wide a self moratorium on tests is on. The nuclear bomb technology is so perfected that more tests are simply not needed. This is nothing but politics for power on nuclear power.
India is in dire need of electricity and is currently has a shortfall of one lakh Mega Watts, almost 10% of the entire production. If the country has to grow at the current rate of 8 to 9 % year on year, experts estimate that it needs an additional million MW by 2020. And we have run out of options. Chances of increasing the hydel power are slim due to large scale submersion of fertile lands, displacement of people, and stiff opposition from environmental activists. Our coal reserves last just for another 50 years and most importantly coal based thermal power plants pollute. The carbon emissions from the coal based power plants are high. Currently, every new plant that is coming up is dependent on imported coal, a drain on the forex reserves. We have very few natural gas reserves and in Andhra Pradesh, 4 gas based power plants have not yet been commissioned for want of gas linkage even after a decade. The wind and solar power have its own limitations. We have no option except to go for nuclear power. The current Prime Minister had the courage to look beyond his term, into the future needs of this country. Bravo!
The USA gets 25% of its power from nuclear power plants. The French gets 80% of their electricity through nuclear. India gets just a meager 3% from its nuclear plants.
With a growing economy, a population explosion, increasing energy demand, limited availability of conventional sources, and a strong consensus for environmental protection, India is harnessing energy ranging from jatropha biodiesel to atomic power. This is the only country in the World to have a separate ministry for non-conventional energy sources.
Efficient, reliable and environmentally sustainable energy supplied to each household at the least possible cost is a dream of Indian government. While successive Central governments have been seeking energy security by 2012 for India, the current government went further to prescribe “Energy Independence” by 2030.
Though commercial primary energy consumption in India has grown by about 700 percent in the last four decades, India’s present level of energy consumption, by world standards, remains very low. The current per capita commercial primary energy consumption in India is about 350 Kilograms of Oil Equivalents per year (kgeo/yr) which is well below that of world average of 1,690 kgeo/yr. By 2010 per capita energy consumption is expected to increase around 450 kgoe/yr. Compared to this, the energy consumption in China is 1,200 kgeo/yr, Japan is over 4,050 kgeo/yr, South Korea is 4,275 kgeo/yr, and the US is 7,850.
We have a long way to go. And nuclear power is the only way.

There are 15 nuclear power reactors in operation in India. Most of them are operating at 30 to 40% of their capacity for lack of fuel. In addition eight more nuclear power reactors are currently under construction, and another 8 mega plants on the drawing board. We need equipment, fuel and other related things urgently. The urgency the government is showing to clinch the deal with the US and NSG is commendable.

Contrary to misconceptions, Nuclear energy is a clean energy with no emissions except water vapor. Nuclear technology has vastly improved over the years and another Chernobyl is not a distant reality. The nuclear waste that is generated over the years can easily be stored, buried deep in the desert. When we can conduct actual nuclear bomb tests deep down in the desert, we can easily store a few hundred drums of nuclear waste in the desert.

This government, especially the far sighted Prime Minister deserves kudos and the opposition all the boos.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What Will Happen on 21/12/2012

I watch History Channel frequently. Recently a series of programs were shown on Mayan civilization. Mayan long calendar and Mayan prophecies were discussed at length. I was intrigued by the calendar which ends on 21/12/2012. The program has several renowned scientists, astronomers, historians giving their opinions on the Mayan calendar. What is Mayan calendar and what is the significance of 21/12/2012. One of the Ancient civilizations, the native Americans called Mayans, who had developed a celestial calendar ( similar to Indian Panchangam) to calculate precisely the planetary movements for thousands of years ahead ends at a certain point of time. The calendar was decoded about 50 years back and when the end date was correlated to the Gregorian calendar it corresponded to December, 21st, 2012. This gave rise to speculation that the World will end on 21/12/2012. The fact that Astronomy agencies like NASA confirmed that the once in a 26,000 years celestial event of the Sun aligning with the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way will take place on 21/12/2012 at 11.11 am GMT further fuelled the speculation of doomsday. December 21st is also the day of Winter Solstice ( shortest day of the year) when the Sun crosses the sky at its lowest point all year. According to astronomers, the year 2012 also corresponds to the 11-year Sunspot cycle maximum. So the day is certainly special. We have the Earth’s North pole aligning with the Sun, and the Sun aligning with the center of the Galaxy after 26,500 years makes it certainly special.

The Mayans prophesized that our Sun, every 25,600 years synchronized with the enormous central galaxy. And from this central galaxy receives a beam of light which causes the Sun to shine more intensely producing what our scientists call 'solar flares' as well as changes in the Sun's magnetic field. Mayans called it the pulse of the Universe. This causes a displacement in the Earth’s rotation, and because of this displacement great catastrophes would be produced.

Doomsdayers believe that Mayans have predicted the end of the World. They base their belief on Mayan’s prophecy and the fact that earth’s pole reversal is already overdue by more than 300,000 years. They say that when Sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way, it receives intense cosmic energy causing sun storms so huge that the Earth which on that day has its North Pole aligned to the Sun, will be doused by the energy resulting in pole reversal, the magnetic North becoming the magnetic South. This sudden reversal, they say will bring cataclysm of events wiping out life on Earth. NASA agrees that Pole reversals do happen in cycles of 300,000 to 500,00 years and the last Pole reversal has happened 800,000 yeasr ago. However, NASA pooh-poohs the idea of sudden reversal.
The naysayers say that the end of Mayan calendar denotes the end of this age and the beginning of a new golden age, ( Kali Yug to Satya Yug) where humanity will experience a new dimension and all the misery in the World will end. They base their arguments that when the previous alignment has happened 26,000 years ago humanity was not lost. In fact it progressed rapidly from Stone Age to Bronze Age.

The net is peppered with contrasting literature on the subject with apocalyptic visions of doom, special-interest theological interpretations and scholarly dissection. However, everyone agrees that on that day something will happen

I am of the view that for humanity to be wiped out, we do not need a once in a 26,000 years celestial event. A software glitch in the orbiting military satellites that carry deadly biological weapons or a nuclear button pushed by a senile head of a tiny republic can wipe out life on Earth a hundred times any day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Loot of Water

Water, the most essential element to sustain life and the largest natural resource that regenerates every year without human intervention is being plundered for profit. It is the fundamental right of every citizen and communities to have access to clean drinking water. But where is clean drinking water. Unfortunately, it is bottled up by giant corporations who profit by it enormously. As local and state governments increasingly absolve themselves of their primary responsibility of providing potable water to its citizens, the big corporations have stepped in. With a media blitzkrieg of tap water denouncements, the bottled water industry in India has been growing at a phenomenal rate of 40% year on year. The packaged water business is worth Rs 2,000 crore, with over 1,200 bottling plants and 100 brands of packaged water battling it over for a larger piece of the 5 billion liter lucrative business across the country.

Bottled water is a business built on the foundation of bad governance, inequity and blatant exploitation by overdrawing groundwater, and robbing local communities of their water resources and livelihoods. The worst part is in several cities, the water board itself supplies lakhs of liters of water to the bottling companies at throwaway prices of one rupee per hundred liters, which the company treats, bottles and sells at a price 1000 times than it has cost it. At the same time, water boards fail to supply drinking water even in meager quantities to the citizens on a daily basis. In several places, the bottling companies pay a nominal cess of Rs 5000 per year to the government for the use of ground water. High powered pumps are used to draw the ground water 24 hours, 365 days depleting the ground water and leaving the nearby farmers high and dry.

Calls from Citizen groups and NGOs to regulate the bottled water industry from plundering the natural water sources have gone unheeded. Instead, the State too joined the bandwagon of the Corporates. Take for instance the Indian Railways which transports millions of passengers every day. Instead of focusing on providing clean drinking water at every railway station, it has started its own brand of bottled water. India's enormous water resources seem to be for the taking, by the State and the Private Corporations.

Ironically, for the rich and the middle class, especially in cities, bottled home packs have become part of household grocery bills. Neither these sections nor even judiciary is aggrieved at this usurping of peoples' rights. This has given enormous scope for the bottled water industry to come out with new marketing strategies such as 20-litre jumbo home packs. As the most influential sections of society unquestioningly consumes bottled water, the pressure on the local administrations is eased and they further neglect to supply clean drinking water to the rest of the populace.

Providing safe drinking water is the responsibility of the State. That they have failed miserably in doing so is evident from the fact that over 1,600 Indians reportedly die every day because of waterborne diseases. Despite this macabre scenario, the Central and State Governments have literally washed their hands of the responsibility of providing clean drinking water to its citizens denying them their fundamental right.

Apart from the fundamental rights issue, there are compelling reasons for the State to regularize public water distribution systems. If calculations by the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute are any indication, it takes about 300,000 barrels of oil to manufacture the water bottles Indians use each year. If we add the substantial amounts of fuel used in transporting water and the cost of recycling, the environmental costs of bottling water are substantial.

If affluent Indians are gravitating towards bottled water for obvious reasons, it is baffling to see Americans consuming bottled water when even water in their toilets is as clean as bottled water. The country has by far one of the best public water supplies in the World, yet Americans have consumed last year 25 billion liters of bottled water valued at $ 15 billion. A report by the Washington-based advocacy group, National Resource Defense Council, says one-fourth of all bottled water is just bottled tap water and another two-thirds is ground water-- sometimes with simple additional treatments. Thanks to a campaign by Corporate Accountability International, the dark secret of the bottled water is out in the open. However, unlike in India, the local governments in the US have started campaigns to educate the public on the cleanliness of the tap water.

In the absence of an effective nationwide policy and norms for groundwater use, it appears that the bottled water industry is getting away with making huge profits out of a resource that rightfully belongs to all citizens. India should revisit its policy on allowing Corporations to blatantly exploit this natural resource and strengthen its water distribution systems. Otherwise, soon the Corporate Companies will have a stranglehold on this most essential item, the elixir of life, WATER.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Heady Cocktail called IPL

Sixes galore, Sexy sirens oozing oomph, legends licking their wounds, rookies ruling the roost, celebrities hogging the cameras, corporate honchos cheering or sneering their teams, last ball defeats, one run margin victories, celebration kisses, frustration slaps, the glitz and the glamour have all made the first Indian Premier League tournament a heady cocktail. And everybody’s head turned.
IPL is not just cricket. It is much more than that. It is multi-billion dollar business doused with showbiz glamour and publicity. It has seeped into everything and it is everywhere. Newspapers write reams about it, TV commercials eulogize each team with song and dance, T-shirts, caps, mascots, fireworks and what not. Everyone is gripped by the massive fever of it.
Is it good for cricket. A tough question to answer but it has done a whale of good for cricketers. With one shot and with just one tournament every player has become a millionaire. With hitherto unknown names like Rohit Sharma, Venugopal, Amit Mishra, Sangwan, have overnight become heroes.
As for cricket is concerned, the game has been evolving over the years. From only leisurely 5-day test matches to 60 overs one days to 50 overs day night matches to Twenty20. All forms of game survived and prospering without any threat from one form of game to another. And the composition of international cricketers into different teams in IPL too is not new. It has happened 3 decades back thanks to Kerry Packer. Frustrated by the refusal of the establishment to allow his TV stations to have a slice of the cricket pie, media magnate Kerry Packer surreptitiously signed dozens of the world's leading players. The ICC and national boards spluttered and tried to ban players, but in the end were forced to cave in to Packer, whose deep pockets and slick marketing methods left them looking like past age dinosaurs. The legacy of World Series Cricket is felt to this day and as a result of the two-season venture, cricket was changed irreversibly.
Lalit Modi’s brain child, the IPL too is making the national cricket boards of different countries splutter. Lured by the big money, players are putting enormous pressure on their respective boards to influence ICC to draw up international cricket schedule keeping in view the dates of IPL. That is the power of money.
What has the common cricket fan has in all this. For an average Indian who wants to enjoy his evening with as much low cost as possible, the IPL has come as a boon. It is double edged with live entertainment of cheer leaders, cameras zooming on to the glitterati combined with cricket. Cricket in fact is a side-kick here. If IPL is glitzy why not add more glitter and glamour to it?
Three Cheers to IPL.

Monday, May 12, 2008

One Man's Vision- Life to Many

It was 3 am sometime last year. I was waiting for my cousin at the Begumpet airport. The ambulance of the EMRI with lights flashing came in. Two young medical attendants stepped out. As the curious crowd looked on, they pulled out a stretcher and walked a few yards. An old woman with ragged clothes and unkempt hair was lying on the floor semi-conscious. She had no possessions with her except for a stained German silver plate, obviously used for begging. The medical attendants carefully laid her on the stretcher and pushed the stretcher into the ambulance. With its siren blaring and lights flashing it sped away to the nearest government hospital. The full impact of it struck me after a few minutes. In this country, where medical facilities for the Poor are nominal, a dying beggar was given emergency medical treatment and shifted to a hospital. And at no cost.

It was 3 years ago. Senior Executives trooped out of the meeting with a look of incredulity etched on their faces. They were coming out of the Founder Chairman of Satyam Computers, Ramalinga Raju’s office room where he unveiled that day his vision of an Emergency Management Research Institute ( EMRI) and a toll free number to call in emergencies similar to 911 in the US. In response to the emergency call, ambulances with ultra modern life saving equipment and trained personnel will rush in. All this service at no cost and all funding from his pocket. Without exception, all the executives were skeptical. He would not budge. Like a bull in a China shop, he smashed away at all objections and with a passion bordering obsession, he followed up his vision into action. The result. Raju brothers have spent over 50 million dollars from their pockets and the nation now has a single toll free number 108 for all emergencies and Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat have over more than 600 ambulances equipped with the state of the art life saving devices and thousands of trained personnel in emergency medicine. The movement of the ambulances is tracked through GPRS from a central station. Anyone with just access to a phone can utilize these services without spending a single rupee. Till date over 30,000 lives have been saved. Other states are now queuing up to enter into MoUs with EMRI to manage the emergencies. Latest is the Indian Government which is entering into an MoU with EMRI for a nation-wide emergency management.

In all these years, the governments in spite of having massive infrastructure and monies at their disposal could not even conceive let alone implement such an initiative. Now in a short span of less than 3 years, Raju has proved that a world class system is possible even in India that is accessible to all people at all times at no cost.

Raju brothers might have been poorer by a few hundred crore rupees, but they have earned the gratitude of a billion people. One man’s vision now saves lives of thousands. Raju deserves the Noble Peace Prize.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Airport is International but Standards are Indian

A few weeks back the New Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad became operational. Lot of hype was created about the excellent infrastructure in the airport and the international standards it adopted. I happened to pass through the airport last weekend and I was shocked at the poor standards.
The airport has a three lane road leading to the single entrance gate. The passengers disembarking from vehicles take at least a minute to unload their luggage and lug it on to trolleys. Since there is only one entrance gate, vehicles get piled up one after the other in no time on all the three lanes. Since at the entrance security person must look at the tickets before allowing passengers entry, invariably a queue is formed. I have never heard let alone watch a queue to enter into an airport until this time. All this because of the single entrance gate. Only B-grade airports in small town have single entrance gates.
As you enter the airport, the high ceiling with glittering steel girders and dazzling lights greet you. You are impressed. You look down to the floor and you are greeted by a dull coloured one sq.foot granite slabs. Because of such small sized pieces the spaciousness of the lobbies does not get reflected. The chairs are comfortable. The washrooms are cramped. You will have to literally rub shoulders with your neighbor peeing along with you and if you venture a sideways glance you will be shocked to see the other man’s dick.
Aerobridges are in use. But when I returned the next day, the plane was not connected to the aerobridge. I could see passengers from several other aircraft being ferried by buses. As bus after bus discharged its cargo of passengers near the single escalator, again a queue is formed. You come out of the airport again through a single exit gate. There is only a three-lane road adjoining the kerb, which is hardly 100 meters long. The lane adjoining the kerb is occupied by the radio cabs, shuttle buses and only four car slots are left for the passengers. One lane is occupied by VIP cars with red bulbs on the roof. Since only four car slots are available for passengers, by the time they put the luggage in the boot the only lane available for traffic flow gets blocked. Passengers have to wait for at least 10 minutes for their cars to come, as drivers have to walk a long way to the parking and drive to the exit gate at a crawling speed . As passengers pour out from the exit gate, the kerb is jammed with people and trolleys. Chaos reigns supreme.
This is the most passenger unfriendly airport I have ever passed through.
If I rate Changi airport at 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5 on passenger friendly amenities, I will hesitate even to rate this airport at 2.5.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Mystical Dollar And The Number 13

Of all the currencies I have held in my hands, the US one dollar bill is the most intriguing. There are more mystic symbols on the one dollar bill than on the walls of Greek temples. Even dollar symbol $ is intriguing. Remember not long back we used to draw two vertical lines on the alphabet S to denote dollar. It is believed that the dollar symbol is nothing but the abbreviation of the United States, the alphabets U & S super imposed on one another. The bottom of the 'U' disappears into the bottom curve of the 'S', leaving two vertical lines. Now only one line is drawn.

Coming back to the symbols on one dollar bill, I have always wondered what the symbols meant until recently when the meaning of the mystic symbols was revealed by Discovery Channel in a program “ uncovering the past”. The dollar bill was designed more than 200 years back. On one side of the bill, the portrait of George Washington is displayed in the center of the bill. To the left of George Washington is the Federal Reserve District Seal. The name of the Federal Reserve Bank that issued the note encircles a capital letter, (A-L), identifying it among the twelve Federal Reserve Banks. The sequential number of the bank, (1: A, 2: B, etc), is also displayed in the four corners of the open space on the bill. To the right of George Washington is the Treasury Department Seal. The balancing scales represent justice. The chevron with 13 stars represents the original 13 colonies. The key below the chevron represents authority and trust.

The Reverse:-

The reverse of the one dollar bill has an ornate design which incorporates the Seal of the United States. To the left is an unfinished pyramid with 13 steps. Pyramid is associated with Strength and Durability."The unfinished pyramid symbolizes a country which is strong and will last for ages but is in building stage. The separated cap of the pyramid, portrays the all-seeing eye, an ancient symbol for divinity. . The Latin phrase Annuit Cœptis, 13 alphabets, is located above the pyramid. It literally means "he/it favors the things having been begun." Another Latin phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” is shown on a ribbon below the pyramid and it roughly means "a new order of the ages". Written at the base of the pyramid in Roman Numerals is MDCCLXXVI or 1776, the year the United States Declaration of Independence was signed.

The eye above the pyramid is popular among conspiracy theorists, and alleged to have connections with the Free Mason cult. Several of the initial dollar bill designers including Thomas Jefferson was believed to be Free Masons. To the right is the Seal of the Unites States portraying its national bird, the Bald Eagle. In front of the eagle is an unsupported shield which symbolizes the fledgling country's ability to stand on its own. . Above the eagle's head is a glory with 13 stars, representing the original 13 colonies. Clutched in the eagle's beak is a ribbon with 13 alphabets which reads "E PLURIBUS UNUM" (From many, one) indicating a unified nation. It also holds an olive branch in one talon and arrows in another and the head always pointing to the olive branch symbolizing the inclination for peace but the readiness to fight.

Of all the countries superstitious about number 13, the US takes first place. We do not find 13th floor, room no 13 anywhere, yet look at the repeated appearance of 13 number on the dollar bill.

13 stars above the eagle
13 steps on the Pyramid
13 letters in ANNUIT COEPTIS
13 letters in E PLURIBUS UNUM
13 vertical bars on the shield
13 horizontal stripes at the top of the shield
13 leaves on the olive branch
13 berries on the olive branch
13 arrows

In several cultures the number 13 is powerful and represents the beginning. May be the bill designers added all the mystic symbols on the dollar bill to make the currency a formidable one.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lesson From Nepal

A stunned world blinked. The comprehensive victory in the recent polls in Nepal by the ultra radical Maoists has shaken democratic countries, especially India. Much has been said and written on the implications of this Maoist win to India but very few have tried to analyze why Nepalese preferred the Maoists over the mainstream political parties. Nepal being a land locked country depends on India for all commodities. And like India, Nepal has more than two-thirds of its population earning less than a dollar or two a day. When prices of grain and all other food items spiraled in India in the last two years, its affects were felt by the Nepalese. And so they chose the ultra left wing which promises to the population at least two meals a day. What is the lesson India needs to learn. That the vast majority of population on the brink of malnourishment and hunger will choose extreme radical political players. Witness the huge response the Communists got when they called upon the Poor to loot food godowns in Andhra Pradesh. When hunger gnaws in the belly and when parents watch their children eat only a morsel of food at each meal, rationality is replaced by blind hatred at society.

The rhetoric of the Harvard/Cambridge educated trio- the PM, FM and PC Vice Chairman- that globally food prices are on the rise and they are helpless in containing the prices might make an interesting reading for the Financial Rich and the Intellectual Rich savoring the newspaper along with their breakfast but will not cut any ice with the 800 million people whose previous night’s dinner consists only half of what they used to eat earlier. That is if they had dinner at all. Just a comparison of the prices of the 6 essential items two years back and now starkly gives the picture of the misery two-thirds of our population is facing.

Price of a KG Rice has risen from Rs 10 to 18, Dal from 20 to 45, cooking oil from 35 to 75, milk from 12 to 21, common vegetables from 5-7 to 15-18 range and cheap liquor from 25 to 55 rupees.

And what have gone down.

Prices of luxury cars, mobile phones, call charges, air conditioners, plasma tv sets, air fares, branded apparel, luxury watches, Imported liquor etc have gone down considerably as year after year the government reduces taxes on such items. To be “ fair” to the Poor, the government reduces for them too. Allocations in budget as a percentage are reduced year after year on education, public health and public distribution system.

The propagandists of "trickledown effect theory" should at least once try waiting for a few drops of water with their mouths open at the elbow of the person drinking water with cupped hands from a gushing tap. They will then understand better what it means to wait for the trickledown effect.

Unless these anomalies are corrected, India will be taking rapid strides towards Anarchy.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shantaram- A Book Review

Books have a profound affect on me. I mull over each of them for a long time after I finish reading savoring the way a story is told or at some things that are said. And I continuously read one after the other picking books intrigued by a review or the content in the blurb. Most of the books gifted to me are about dogs. So when this gift from a colleague reached me, I unwrapped the gift wrapper and looked at the bulky book with trepidation. The title Shantaram, very Indian in nature, also did not match with the Australian author’s name, Gregory David Roberts. The blurb was interesting talking about an escaped convict from Australia who had settled in Mumbai and among several other things he had done, being part of Mumbai mafia was one. I kind of guessed the story might be about the adventures of the author. But as I read this opening paragraph,

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming of my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is an universe of possibility. And the choice you make between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

I reeled under the impact of this profound statement. I plunged into the book. The book is autobiographical and unfolds the remarkable story of an Australian fugitive finding a new life in Mumbai. Gregory David Roberts , the author, was convicted in Australia for armed robberies that he had participated in order to feed his Heroin addiction. He breaks out of the highest security prison in Australia and escapes to India on a fake New Zealand Passport. He lands in Mumbai, becomes associated with local people and makes lot of friends. He goes with the name Lindsay. He meets a local tourist guide Prabakar, who finds him a place to live in a slum away from the eyes of the law. The slum people refer him as Linbaba. This slum is to be his home for the next few years where he runs a makeshift first-aid center in the slum. He also lives in Prabhakar’s village for six months and is rechristened as Shantaram by Prabhakar’s mother. Eventually, he engages in criminal activities like smuggling and counterfeiting, and even starts gun-running to Afghanistan. Going through a tough life is one thing, but putting it down as a book to which readers can relate to is another matter. The author’s writing career before his Heroin days in Australia comes to help. The book is also unique because it is one of the rare real stories in which a foreigner has taken a deep plunge into the deepest of Indian society’s complexities and also done a successful job of understanding the underlying unifying theme. Of course he admires Indians for what they are but never hesitates a moment before showing things that are obviously wrong.
Interspersed amid the numerous characters like Rukhmabai, Prabakar, Karla, Didier and Kader are the sweat and grime, dirt and squalor, disease and fire and extreme poverty - all narrated with genuine affection, passion and generosity. This love and generosity towards the characters and circumstances is what sets Robert’s work apart. What could have been a mere narrative of poor people’s lives is transformed into an extraordinary story.
The other aspect of this book is the details the readers get about the systems that operate in most of the world. The police, currency, gold, drugs, prostitution etc. At no point in the book they overwhelm the main story though. And the best of all are the one-liners from several characters in the book, especially from Karla and Didier, that leave you pondering over them for a long time.
Shantaram is not just a book about crime and criminals or about the slum life. It is a spiritual journey into life itself.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Headline Howlers

Of all the varied professions I have been in, I find the print media job, especially editing, the most stressed out. Some days, news just pours in moments before the page sign offs and the editorial staff have to race against time. During the thick of the things, working under enormous pressure and constraints of font type and size, column lengths, single lines which limit the number of alphabets, the headlines given some times unwittingly create double meanings, different meanings and outright embarrassing howlers. And they pass through at least two levels of validation before they get printed. I too was guilty of such howlers during my stint. Here are a few that I remember to have caused me to smile and sometimes split with laughter.
A recent one on Delhi Police coming down heavily on jaywalkers:-

Police Begin Campaign To Run Down Jaywalkers

A not so recent one on Bush and Iraq

Bush Wins Vote On Iraq, But More Lies Ahead

Headline for a story on the Golf Champion, Tiger Woods using his own golf balls during practice sessions.

Tiger Woods Plays With His Own Balls, Says Nike

Headline for a news item on scraping the bottom of a ship, Queen Mary

Queen Mary Gets Her Bottom Scraped

After packs of dogs have created havoc by attacking students of a college in Hyderabad recently, one newspaper headline said

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victims

Some more gems from the memory lane

Clinton Lies on Lewinsky

Iraq Head Seeks More Arms

Panda Mating Fails - Vet Takes Over

Cold Wave Linked To Rising Temperatures

Two Ships Collide - One Dies

Miners Refuse To Work After Death

Eye Drops Off Shelf

New Vaccine May Contain Rabies

March Planned In May

Crash Courses For Pilots

Man Found Dead In Graveyard

Dead Man Returns

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

When some two decades back, after a gap of several years the endangered bird, The Great Indian Bustard was sighted, one newspaper headline screamed

The Great Indian Bastard Sighted

There are some great headlines too. There was this village in Kerala where the villagers unanimously resolved not go to movie theatres. The headline was

Hicks Nix Pix

There are some like this one passed on to me as legendary by a distinguished senior editor, now no more. In fact this gentleman had taunted me when I was a sub (cub) editor to give a catchy headline to the following one line story:-
“A lunatic has sex with a nurse and escapes from the asylum.”

I tried several but none could satisfy him. The catchy one, he said was

Nut Screws, Bolts.

It is a different matter though that one day, actually night, the same gentleman has put a file photograph of late Sanjay Gandhi on the front page instead of Rajiv Gandhi who was on a visit to the state. That too overruling the persistent objections of a junior on the same page duty. I can never forget the face of our executive editor and the chief editor the next morning.

Print Media can be not only informative but also entertaining at times.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Funny English

When I was teaching English in various colleges during the most part of 90s, my introductory lecture for the fresh batch of students always was on the importance of learning correct English as well as the craziness of the language. As anecdotes on the pitfalls of incorrect English, I used to regale the students with examples of grammatically wrong and incorrect spellings on sign boards. The opening example of how even missing an apostrophe could be disastrous used to be “ A bread shop owner by name Anu had a sign on his shop--- Anus bakery- The best loafers in town.” My students never missed the apostrophe again and were always careful with verbs. Child beer for Rs 50 only, Trespassers will be Persecuted, Pubic Phone- call charge Rs1/-, are some of the other examples I used to repeat year after year.

I also used to entertain the students with examples of how crazy the language is in spellings and pronunciations. Over the years, I compiled several hundreds of such examples. Here are a few of them to tickle your funny bone.

• The rule is that the rule doesn't always rule.

• There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

• When the stars are out, they are visible, but
When the lights are out, they are invisible.

• If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?

• Come on, let's polish the Polish furniture.

• The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

• Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

• How can 'A Slim Chance' and 'A Fat Chance' be the same?

• Why are 'A Wise man' and 'A Wise guy' opposites?

• The bandage was wound around the wound.

• She did not object to the object.

• The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

• Boxing rings are square.

• A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor it is a pig.

• The traveler decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

• The farm was used to produce produce.

• If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

• Although the masculine pronouns are he, his and him, we must be grateful that the feminine pronouns after 'She' don't become 'Shis' and 'Shim'.

• How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

• I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

• When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

• You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns down,
in which you fill in a form by filling it out
and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

• No sooner had my eye fallen upon the tear in the painting, then this eye of mine began to shed many a tear.

• It's not ridiculous, but entirely sensible to ship by truck and send cargo by ship.

Some other day, I will share funny Newspaper headlines.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Rang De Basanti- Film review

My two- week rest at home post hospitalization did some wonders to me. Though I have operated from home attending office work through Blackberry and Internet, it still gave me ample time to take care of the two German Shepherd pups that have just come to my home a week back and to watch movies in my home theatre. A friend of mine who dropped in left two dozen DVDs with me. I have watched a dozen, most of them the usual love triangles, separations and coming together at the end. But for one movie, Rang De Basanti. What a movie it is and how wonderfully it is told. Indian cinema has sure come of age.

Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra brilliantly merges three plots in the movie. The first is about a group of friends from completely different backgrounds , their bonding and the carefree lifestyle they lead. This is the generation X. The second plot is about the past, when freedom fighters sacrificed their lives during the struggle for Independence.. The third plot is the parallel drawn between Indians ruled by the British and Indians ruled by corrupt politicians today. The message is subtle at first , but echoes piercingly before it reaches its finale. The parallel is drawn so brilliantly that it neatly fits into the story.

The film opens with Sue McKinley (English actress Alice Patten) quits her cushy job in London and comes to India to film a documentary based on the lives of freedom fighters- Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Raj Guru, Azad and others. Her Indian contact, Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), introduces her to her own group of friends. They are DJ (Aamir Khan), who, despite having completed his studies five years earlier, still hangs out on campus, Karan (Siddharth), the son of a corrupt industrialist,(Anupam Kher), Aslam (Kunal Kapoor), who battles with his family which opposes his friendship with Hindus, and Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), a harmless half-wit who has everyone in stitches with his comical behaviour. Sue recognises something in the group that suggests they would make ideal participants in her documentary. Between them, four of the six roles are covered. For the fifth, Sue chooses a radical Hindu, Laxman (Atul Kulkarni), whose inclusion is not without tension, and Sonia takes the role of the only female revolutionary, Durga Vohra.

Initially the friends are indifferent to the subject, but along the way they are forced to confront their own attitudes, bringing about a remarkable metamorphosis. And when their common friend dies in MiG crash they are shattered. But more shattering was to come when the Defense Minister blames the pilot and defends the spare part suppliers. The friends plot and kill the defense minister. They then enter a radio station and confess their crime on radio and the reasons for doing it. The commandoes storm the building and kill all of them.

Without being in any way preachy or using worn out cliché dialogues, the director Raykesh Mehra turns the spotlight on the youth and exhorts it. Eventually, when we come out of the theatre , one message lingers. It is encapsulated in a line used by one of the characters in a moment of quiet contemplation and repeated in the climax. No country is perfect. It needs to be made perfect. The profound relevance of that line applies not only to India but to most of the world today. Be sure not to miss Rang De Basanti. It is a classic film without the pretensions of an art film.