Why Mumbai should learn the art of cynicism?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It has been one year since the fateful day of 26/11. The day that many feel changed India. This was the day when the city of Mumbai was besieged by a group of ten terrorists. One year on, it is time we do some introspection about our preparedness against such attacks. But before we do that do we actually have a space for some meaningful and rational thinking? Are we focusing on the right things? I am not sure about this fact.
Many in media and elsewhere refer to the clichéd phrase - “Spirit of Mumbai” and talk about the resilience of the city; the city that all time is brimming with a vitality of its own. They talk about how life in this city still moves at a rapid pace come what may. I also initially joined the bandwagon that believed this city can stand up to anything. These days, the more I hear this phrase scarier I get. I think how people in this city that has been ravaged time and again by calamity (I am referring to communal violence, bomb attacks, gang wars, floods etc) be a silent spectator. The city has become immune to all that has gone wrong and is too inert, too shy, too negative and far too impotent to find answers for its own vices. Unlike many people, who think of this city resembling life in the truest sense, I feel the city has transformed into a tomb which has been ravaged by raiders many times over. This metamorphosis has been far too depressing.
Now I have come to know what is behind this apathetic state in which the city is. It is the people of this city that have an attention span of a child. The whole city was out in streets after 26/11 with the candle marches but failed to spend 15 minutes on a holiday for voting and deciding to change whatever that has gone wrong. To top it this has happened twice (in the general elections and the state assembly elections). The south Mumbai constituency which faced the maximum brunt of the terror attacks had lowest voter turnout percentagewise. Where have all the intellectuals gone? If this is the spirit of Mumbai, I am not proud about it. It is time the city becomes more cynical than resilient.

Once upon a time in Doordarshan - DD@50

Friday, October 2, 2009

Just last week I watched the video - “Mile sur mera tumhara”. Some things leave an indelible mark in your life, and this video is certainly one of them. This was a video that aptly described the concept of unity in diversity. Surely there was a time when media was an instrument to spreads communal harmony and promoting brotherhood and not about just dim-witted reality shows and breaking news. The television entertainment industry in India has come a full circle as DD completes 50 years of existence last month.
There have been other amazing things about doordarshan. Like the intellectual program called Surabhi hosted by Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane. Teaching diverse things like geography to culture was never so much fun. The presentation was so good that it would take a mammoth effort to recreate it. There was quality content on the show and TRP’s (if there were TRP’s then to measure the success of different shows back then) would have certainly hit the roof.
I was not part of the generation that saw (as I was not born then) ‘Buniyad’ and ‘Hum Log’ which were the bellwether serials. But I definitely liked watching Circus in which Shah Rukh Khan acted and Mahabharat, the epic that never seizes to amaze. DD had a lot to offer for everybody; from ‘Amchi mati amchi mansae’ to ‘Shaktimaan’. It was certainly the single biggest entertainment provider till the early nineties when cable TV entered the arena.
Also there were many unforgettable cricket matches that I have seen in our DD like the phenomenal test series of 2001 where India hosted Australia for 3 test matches. I vividly remember the VVS Laxman’s innings of 281 with Rahul Dravid where not a single Indian wicket was lost in the 4th day of the second test match in Kolkatta. Also in the same series where Harbhajan Singh who ended up taking 30 odd wickets in the series hit the winning run of Glenn Mcgrath by guiding the ball to the thirdman region.
I also remember some of the ads that were on display at that time as I was equally engrossed in them. ‘Humnara Bajaj’ was certainly my favourite and Cadbury’s ‘Kya swad hai zindagi mai’ comes a close second. For more such incredible ads watch the youtube links provided below.

Lately DD has sadly entered the phase of slow death where cable TV has almost entered everywhere in the country. The fancy news channels have become the staple diet of the Indian Diaspora. In the world of intense rivalry between different channels competing to catch more and more Indian eyeballs DD has lagged behind big time. The time has come to reform and revitalize this national channel.
Well I hope that DD makes a comeback and the theme music of DD - the famous Shehnai again reverberates in our homes.

Whose statue is it anyway!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Many of you reading this blog would be aware of the statue building exercise carried out by different state governments in India. Maharashtra will spend a bounty worth Rs. 350 crores for Shivaji Maharaj statue which when completed will be taller than the Statue of Liberty. Not to forget the Uttar Pradesh government will in all spend Rs. 2600 crores (yeah that’s right, no typing mistake) for the statues of uh….Mayawati behenji. (The actual education budget of the Uttar Pradesh government is a paltry 70 crores)

Such blatant display of we-are-wealthy-and-we-will-show-it-to-the-world kind of attitude is a cardinal sin considering that it’s the tax-payers money which will foot the bill. The feeling that these tall structures, monuments will make us a proud nation by increasing maratha pride or by giving voice to the dalits is farce. The foreigners visiting our country will surely be in awe of these tall and magnificent structures but soon the truth will dawn on them when they see the beggar on the street right next to them. Such elephantine symbols are only for the politicians who score brownie points by increasing their media exposure and not for the middle class, whose money is used for building these and definitely not for poor who would have got this money otherwise.

It takes just Rs. 5000 annually to educate a child till 12th standard. Then Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra government together have deprived education to almost 4,00,000 children thanks to the equivalent amount of money spent on building these structures. These very deprived children will end-up becoming job-less adults, bar-dancers, beggars (maybe just sitting besides these statues and seen by the foreigners) and not to forget criminals. What a great vision of India 2020, isn’t it?

But fortunately we have institutions like the Supreme Court to see if this senseless expenditure doesn’t go unchecked. Some days back Supreme Court ordered to shut all activities related to the statues within 6 hours of the order.

In our country, when people start questioning our ineffectiveness we always take the garb of culture and try to stamp our cultural superiority. But who is to decide whose culture is superior. Also this so called great culture is no good when we are not even able to feed our own people and when the farmers who produce the food grains commit suicide. A country is in a very bad situation where it’s is past more glorious than the present. And thankfully due to the Supreme Court and other such bodies we are not falling into that trap.

Destiny's child

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

There has been hectic news flow throughout the week, from Indian football team making a hat trick of victories in home turf to Andra Prdesh chief minister, YSR’s tragic death. From making 10th board exams in CBSE schools optional to the landmark declaration by the Supreme Court judges to make their assets public. But hope can come from smallest of quarters like a ray of light entering a dark room. There was an incident last week that would make every Indian proud; something that we could call world class, something which saved a little life. I being an eternal optimist will write about this positive story.

A woman in Bihar gives birth to child whose heart is protruding out of its body. This is a very rear condition and the babies that are born with this defect unfortunately die because of infection in just 3 to 6 days. A man and his wife bring this newborn baby to AIIMS wrapped in a simple muslin cloth in a hope that their baby will have life against all odds. An emergency operation was performed and miraculously the baby is stable now. First time in the world the operation involving this has been successful. This story can very well be an episode in the American hospital melodrama ‘private practice’, only that this has happened in real life. God has certainly written a wonderful script for this destiny’s child.

We as a country require heroes. The doctors who gave this baby life are one such heroes of modern India. Their weapons are stethoscopes and computers. It will be heroes like these who will take India forward in its quest for being a global power by 2020. More than a military or a financial power, India will be a soft power. Another example is people like the brave staff of the Taj hotel that stood in the line of fire to save their guests. These stories of heroics give me hope and reaffirm my belief that this country with 10 raised to 9 people has something working for it. The very people who have, made this one of the most corrupt countries in world are its biggest strength.

Coming back to the small baby, I remember the starting lines of one of my favorite movie ‘Schindler’s List’ which goes like “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”. In this case we can say, “One life was saved, 10 raised to 9 ambitions light up”.

Why Indians behave in the way they do?

Monday, August 31, 2009

There are some questions that have always interesting me. Indians are considered among the most intelligent people in the world but still we continue to be one of the poorer nations. We have had great mathematicians and thinkers like Aryabhata, C V Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujam who have made earth shattering discoveries but we also have piracy related issues and our pharmaceutical company always find different ways to copy and come up with generic variations of the drugs invented in other countries. Why always our urinals stink and our sense public hygiene pathetic. Why as a nation we are individually brilliant but collectively so naïve? Can we blame this to the colonial hangover, is it in our genes, is it the climate or it is like this in other countries also. The answer lies in one the most revered behavioral psychology problem called the Prisoner’s dilemma1. Here is the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma (according to Wikipedia) - “Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?” The payoff matrix looks in the following way.

Fig. 1 Payoff matrix in case of classic Prisoner’s dilemma

Three cases are possible –
Case 1 - In the above scenario if both the prisoners cooperate they will reap the benefit of a shorter sentence. This called Reward and is denote this as R. Here R = -2.
Case 2 – If one of the prisoner’s defects and other cooperates then this will result in the prisoner who has defected to go scot-free whereas the other prisoner is jailed for a really long term. The prisoner who defects seemed to have given in to the Temptation and can be denoted as T. Here T = 0. And the other prisoner who cooperated is said to have received Sucker’s payoff denoted as S. Here S = -5.
Case 3 – If both the prisoner’s defect then both would have gone to a medium term jail sentence. This is called as Punishment for mutual defection and is denoted by P. Here P = -4.
Also for the conditions for Prisoner’s dilemma to hold the following two conditions have to be met:-
Condition 1:- T > R > P > S
Condition 2:- 2 R > T + S
Why defection seems like a better option –
Whatever the other prisoner chooses it is always better to defect i.e. to betray as by doing so each player receives higher payoff (in this case lesser sentence). As both the prisoners are rational, they both will betray and both will get relatively lesser sentence when compared to when one stays silent and other betrays. Hence there is a dilemma.
Although it is clear that for a single game it is better to defect but in the iterative form it is not exactly like this. In real life there very few occasions like a single one-time prisoner’s dilemma.
In a onetime game it is clear that is always better to defect as the risk is lower but in an iterative PD the situation is different2. In an iterative prisoner’s dilemma defection is not always the best strategy. As this will result in always lesser points being gathered by the both the players involved in the game over repeated interactions. One needs to have a strategy that will maximize the points earned in the iterative form of the prisoner’s dilemma. The best part is that the strategy that earns the most amounts of points is surprisingly the simple “Tit for Tat” strategy.
In a Tit for Tat strategy, we start with a cooperative move and then do what the other player did the last time. This simple strategy although never wins against a single strategy but will always end up making the maximum amount of points in a tournament where all the strategies compete against each other.
Few things to note about the tit for tat strategy are that it has limited memory (so has no long term grudge), it will never be the first one to defect. But it retaliates when defected against.
An example - Tourism in India
Another example of such a dilemma can be when a tourist comes to India. India by far is the most diverse and culturally diverse country in the world. We have the deserts of Rajasthan and also the snow clad mountains of the Himalayas to the back waters of Kerala. But still we are nowhere near the most preferred destination for many travelers’. This is because when a tourist comes to our country then many think - this is my big pay day, let’s get the maximum out of this guy and we end up cheating. Right from the auto rickshaw drivers to the guides to various hill stations all take their pie. So because of the sucker payoff and unpleasant experience these people will never return to India; even worse they advice their friend to not to come to our country. Hence we end up getting fewer tourists.
Fig. 2 Payoff matrix in case of tourism in India
Similarly PD can be applied to many situations like why Indian manufacturers end up exporting low grade machinery, why we are so corrupt, why we modify our houses but end up decreasing the value of the real estate property.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner's_dilemma
2 In an iterative PD the best strategy is “Tit for tat”

Height of hooliganism - another crime commited.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Well some would say that this is nothing new for a city like Patna. But this was no ordinary crime. There were 5 top 10 men molesting a young girl in broad daylight. Also there were 100 odd spineless men watching this in complete apathy. Not to forget a road safety policeman also getting involved in this dastardly act in a wrong way. Very little can be expected from others when people meant to protect the weak try and take advantage of the misfortune of the sufferer.

As the whole incident was caught on camera this would have been an open and shut case. But in India the story is a bit different. The absolute inertia of the judicial system in our country is well known. The fact that people have to wait years and sometimes decades for justice is abysmal. This is not just unfortunate for the victim but also serves as a motivation to the perpetrators to commit more heinous crimes.

Is this the problem of weak laws, or lack of effective implementation? We all know in a country like ours it all boils down to political will. This is an acid test for the pro-reform, pro-change, and pro-development Nitish Kumar government at the state to provide justice to the victim. Any lethargy on the part of the administration would be appalling.

The most depressing aspect is the sheer forgetfulness of the media on such issues. The footage of this incident1 was flashed repeatedly and the swanky news readers put up a great show on the day of the crime as they talked about the public morality and other things. But we live in an era where even celebrity gossip fissile out in some days and news like this can best be a one day wonder. And so it was. Right from the very next day we saw the same news channels dishing out the usual. We have seen this kind of media behavior over and over again as in the news world new is hot and old is not. What about the higher social responsibilities of the media? It can be instrumental in forming public opinions and should direct its energies in the right direction. But can’t really blame them you see as they have to maintain the TRPs, don’t they?

It’s the time to remind the newsrooms that their role is not just to raise the flag when something is going wrong but also to follow-up on such incidents so that they just don’t end up into a mere file in a police station.

Link to the video –


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Swine flu or I should say H1N1 has caused a lot of media uproar. There have been minute by minute updates flashing on practically every news channel. Is the panic unwarranted, are we overreacting? The answer is yes, but only when we compare this to our innate apathy in addressing other health related issues in an adequate manner. The fact that after so many years we are still not able to eradicate polio is a case in point.

And yes we have our own set of excuses -
Oh ours is such a big country so we can’t control an outbreak
Oh our population is over 10 raised to 9
Oh we are poor
Oh its law of nature to clear out a few people through epidemics
Oh we can’t do it ….only the west can do that…..
Oh the thing is….

The above excuses come because of the dogma that resides in us as we feel that we as a nation are in a perpetual state of poverty and that basic healthcare is a luxury we cannot afford.

And here comes the shocking bit of news - all major indicators like immunization, maternal health and even family planning have shown negative growth1 (data posted at the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) health management system). It is obvious that the health ministry was sleeping as the previous heath minister was busy fighting the AIIMS director and looking on how to position his party for the general elections rather than his priority of holding an important government portfolio. Fortunately democracy has its self correcting mechanisms. His party lost the elections after deciding to fight alone and not alongside the Congress led UPA.

All the above indicators of healthcare have to be taken into serious consideration. One among them that we can ill afford to ignore is the high infant mortality rates. We cannot allow future engineers, doctors, artists, architects, teachers, nation-builders to die. Allowing this rate to remain high will be a crime of biblical proportions. The fact of the matter is that the right to quality healthcare should be a fundamental right of every citizen. This is the bottom line and no excuse can justify citizens not getting quality healthcare.

Also coming back to swine flu, this certainly is not the last epidemic that we would see. So better we learn from this experience. This time we were fortunate that swine flu had come to India after a considerable time period, but we can’t be lucky all the time. So we better utilize every bit of time to plan our course of action if the undesirable happens and be prepared to take all the preventive and curative steps at our behest. The attitude of the government in response to the swine flu outbreak in India has been more reactive than being ahead of the game in tackling the issue head on. The government had sprung into action only after relentless media pressure. The ministry imported additional testing kits, and also sent a special task force consisting of the health secretary to Pune, the epicenter of swine flu in India. Also the health minister made regrettable comments2 which reminded me of a similar insensitive comment made by Mr. R.R. Patil at the time of 26/11.

Government on its part must focus on all healthcare issues seriously and not just react like head-less chickens. Media has to learn to follow-up on the government on important healthcare issues like polio eradication, severe malnutrition and anemia among our children.

1 http://www.indianexpress.com/election-news/its-official-all-major-health-indicators-show-negative-growth/501101

2 http://ibnlive.in.com/news/ridas-family-slams-health-minister-demands-apology/98885-17.html?from=search

Sign of a maturing democracy

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On 12th July 2009, DMRC (Delhi Metro Rail Committee) suffered a tragedy which killed 6 people. On any given day this kind of an incident in India would have led to a knee jerk reaction in which some people would be forced to quit, some would be transferred and some who are really responsible for the act (who should have resigned in the first place), would be allowed to carry on. But this time something strange happened.

The person who is responsible for the whole project takes moral responsibility of the whole incident and resigns, the Delhi government and Chief Minister who are under fire assess the situation and do not accept the resignation and a team of experts is formed to investigate the matter and submit a report in 10 days. The decision was swift and it needed to be as the people who have faltered should be held accountable for their act.

Although the incident is deeply regrettable, what really stands out is the fact that all the parties involved acted in a responsible way and didn’t budge under any sort of a pressure from any side. In fact there was pressure from government asking E Sreedharan, MD of DMRC, to withdraw his resignation. This I feel is a sign of a democracy which is maturing and the one which allows good wisdom to prevail over some harsh and not-fully-thought-out decisions which do no good.

I don’t know what is the reason for the mishap – cutting corners to meet the deadline of the commonwealth games in the city, foul play, faulty design or material, human negligence, sheer bad luck only time will tell. But one thing is certain that at this moment of panic, calmness and sanity have prevailed.