Thursday, May 22, 2014

An international energy deal and lots of gas!

When a nation that has been our traditional ally and most sympathetic to our sentiments since independence and an another country which one of our former defence ministers chose to describe as ‘India’s enemy no 1’ sign an energy deal pegged at a little less than half a trillion dollars, you’d expect our TV channels (English) to either report it or at the very least ensure it has a passing mention. However, as witnessed on Wednesday, in all their infinite wisdom, the channels simply chose to ignore the issue – which could be a game-changer as far as India’s foreign relations are concerned.

The leading TV news channels – Times Now, CNN-IBN and NDTV – the first in particular, went berserk on the Arvind Kejriwal trial and his subsequent arrest and more importantly the brouhaha around the PMO’s twitter handle. With its non-stop coverage on the issues throughout the day, Times Now set the agenda for what it calls ‘super primetime’ – the shouting matches centering on them, with Arnab fIying off the handle every now and then. The other channels did likewise, with variations.

I was hoping for at least a brief report on the China-Russia energy deal – under which Russia would supply 38 billion cubic metres of gas a year by 2018 for the next 30 years – by evening, but no, our channels, it seemed, had turned Swadeshi with a vengeance. “Kejriwal refuses to pay bail amount,” reported one channel; “This isn’t a good time to stay in Tihar, says Bedi,” reported another. So, according to the Indian TV channels, all you would have gotten to know was that these alone were India’s pressing issues needing instant consideration.

A word on what the deal means to India. Facing crippling sanctions from Western Europe and the US for annexing Crimea and destabilising the rest of Ukraine, the deal has materialised for Russia at a time when it most needed it – never mind the fact that it was unveiled after a decade of discussions. Russia would now get the much-needed wiggle room it was looking for, especially after Europe – which at present accounts for over 35 per cent of its gas exports – prodded by the US and later Germany started voicing opposition. Russian President Vladimir Putin – who has been, amongst others, likened to Hitler (India’s PM isn’t the only!) by many – can now heave a sigh of relief; he may now even get to thumb his nose at the West. Staring at a looming pollution threat across its mainland, China is sitting pretty at having secured its energy supplies, a cleaner source at that. 

In short, Russia must be perceiving the deal as its ticket to boost its impoverished coffers, at a time when not many nations were willing to touch them even with a cattle prod.There is a distinct possibility that the Russian 'gratitude' may influence the traditionally cordial Indo-Russian relations, over which the Chinese could secure a footprint. Let us not forget that China has been one of the few nations that has routinely scuttled or opposed India’s proposals in the UN. In fact, a discernible shift in Russian ties with India was hard to miss when, under Manmohan Singh, it became the US’ trusted partner in this part of the globe. Are we to witness further Russian alienation? If such issues were raised by the Indian media, I did not see it.

A panel discussion on the larger picture, charting out the challenges for the Indian diplomats under the new government, too, could have shed light, but even that was absent. To be fair, however, CNN-IBN and NDTV had a discussion on foreign affairs, but restricting themselves to Pakistan, former diplomat G Parthasarathy participating in both. Sigh, when will we ever learn to look beyond Pakistan?

True, Indian TV channels have their own agenda and core issues to concentrate upon, but they would do well to take a hard look at issues that mean a lot to us geo-politically.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

We, the majoritarian Indian states...

Who says we are a democracy, a state where the voice of the subjects prevails? The international media may wax eloquent in describing us as the world’s biggest democracy. They may marvel at how our elections are conducted under testing situations, and the mass participation in the process. However, truth is, India is a shining example of majoritarianism, i.e. the will of the majority pervades over everything else. General consensus be damned. In fact, our majoritarian streak is such that even the freedom to express allegiance to languages of our choice is, at best, a mirage. Perhaps we Indians could be the template on which the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” was modeled on.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the strenuous efforts by the Karnataka government on deciding the medium of instruction in schools in the State. The government received a setback on this issue in the Supreme Court. Eager to win a few brownie points when it was in dire need of some, a plea requesting that Kannada be made the compulsory medium of instruction in primary schools in the State was struck down in the Apex court. The court ruled that parents of the wards must have the option to select a medium of instruction of their choice, be it English or any other language.

Not to be outdone, the government is said to be planning a review petition – a decision that has gained traction among chauvinists (read Kannada activists and intellectuals, who claimed that this was to prevent decay to native culture) and the Opposition parties. Trust political parties to find common ground on a polarising issue. Forgotten was the fact that factors such as increasing reach of education and improvement of its quality were far more important. Forgotten also was the fact the offspring of most of the legislators behind the inordinate and ridiculous demand were educated in English medium schools.  

This isn’t the only setback to the Karnataka government in its zeal to enforce Kannada. Early this year, the state High Court threw out an appeal to display Kannada prominently on the name-boards of business and other commercial establishments. The issue pertained to a litigation between Vodafone and the state government over provisions in a relevant law. The disparity extends to other fields as well: the entertainment industry, for instance, where movies in other languages are levied an abnormally high tax rate. This leads to a situation where the ticket for a non-Kannada language movie costs twice (or more if it is at a multiplex) as much as that for a Kannada movie.

The fact that the city corporation of Belgaum -- which has a sizeable Marathi-speaking population -- is ruled by a party with Marathi roots, the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samithi, is proving to be a thorn in the flesh to such individuals. Unsuprisingly, bickering between councilors over issues such as Marathi nameboards in shops, is routine.

Unfortunately, Karnataka isn’t the only state with such unbridled chauvinistic sentiments. Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena and its offshoot, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena, would perhaps top the chart, making Karnataka’s Vatal Nagaraj’s actions (of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike) look like a schoolboy. With Marathi manoos (pride) as their guiding spirit, they’ve attempted every trick in the textbook of lingual chauvinism to ensure that the ‘native culture’ does not get tarnished. Some of the ways in which they have gone about achieving it include dismantling of Udupi food stalls in the 1960s and 70s, engineering of communal riots, vandalising of educational institutions, blackening of non-Marathi nameboards and the omnipresent vitriol-soaked editorials directed against all non-Marathis in their mouthpieces.

And then there have been some statesmen-like utterings from politicians in the Hindi heartland, which, if implemented, could push the region into the Stone Age. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party had, in the run-up to the recent UP Assembly elections, promised to abolish English-medium education and computers from State schools. This, from someone who had had his son trained in one of the best Indian universities (University of Mysore) and in an elite Australian university.

The common factor in each of the instances has been the unlawful will of the majority wanting to impose itself on everyone.

Talking of opposition to a particular language, how can anyone forget the anti-Hindi agitiations of 1937 and 1965 in the erstwhile Madras Presidency? While the first was launched against the compulsory teaching of Hindi, the second was against its imposition as an official language. The protests led to the withdrawal/ modification of both decisions. In fact, a certain Muthuvel Karunanidhi played a key role in the protests and went on to cement his place in Indian polity. It may be outlandish to suggest that such a decision would evoke a similar response today, but a backlash may be guaranteed, at least from the English-medium school 
lobby. It's a different issue that MK's hypocrisy on the issue stood exposed when he criticised the decision of the Jayalalithaa-led government in Tamil Nadu to introduce English-medium education for all government schools. Jaya questioned his integrity by pointing out that the group of educational institutions run by Kalaignar's kin did not offer instruction in Tamil-medium. 

All this makes one wonder whether the re-organisation of Indian states in 1956, following the death of Potti Sriramulu, who staged a hunger strike until death for a state dedicated to the Telugu-speaking population, could have been avoided. The nation soon witnessed the creation of many more states on linguistic lines. Ironically, the first such state to be created, Andhra Pradesh, today stands vivisected – motivated by personal and political gain.

Sentiments of the non-majorities? You've got to be joking!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Let them eat transport cake

Around the world and even across India, public transport systems may not be readily associated with the elite. India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, has managed to turn the dictum on its head: one perhaps needs to be a part of the elite -- the other 1 per cent, in American terminology -- if they are to use the city’s public transport on a regular basis.

The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) must be India's only public transport system to hike its fares five times in the last two years, the hike amounting to a whopping 15 per cent the last time.

To gain a sense of how the hike is intently managing to put easier commutes out of the reach of the common man, here are some figures:
·        1) The minimum fare is Rs6; those for second and third stages of the trip are Rs12 and Rs14 respectively
2) A stage may involve two-three stops, spaced not more than a couple of kilometres apart (A trip just outside the third stage and onwards will cost the bus-goer a cool Rs16)

Thus a trip from Indiranagar to MG Road, a distance of 2.5 km, will set you back by Rs14. Want to travel from Ulsoor Lake to the Majestic bus stand (8 km)? Be prepared to shell out Rs21.

And in case you were wondering, Bangalore occupies the unenviable position of being the costliest Indian city when it comes to bus travel, as this report by the
Times of India  illustrates.  Talk about ticket to penury.

To understand how the fares stack up with those in other metros, chew on this: In Chennai, a city long regarded as having a superior bus service network, the minimum fare is Rs3 – that too only after a recent fare hike. If one were to travel from the Koyambedu bus terminus to the suburb Tambaram – a distance of 28 km – the fare would come up to a mere Rs15. The standing joke has been that in Chennai, travelling by bus is its denizens’ favourite pastime. In fact, such has been the sensitivity over bus prices that the ruling dispensation in Tamil Nadu attracted a lot of flak for the not-so-recent fare hike despite the transport corporation wading in deep losses. It also figured as a major issue in campaigns to the recently concluded general elections, with the opposition parties, unsurprisingly, denouncing it in no uncertain terms. Other Indian cities are as conducive to bus travel as Chennai is, the report adds. From Mumbai to Delhi or Kolkata, practically every Indian city makes allocation to absorb the losses incurred by the public transport systems.

In contrast, every time the bus fares creep up in Bangalore, the common excuse that has been trotted out is the spike in diesel fares. As if no other transport corporation in the nation faces increased costs and/ or losses. It is for this reason that we Bangaloreans may also the best well-wishers of the Middle-east, greater than Obama, the U.N., NATO, the Ayatollah, Hina Rabbani Khar and Malala put together. Not out of compassion but for a perennial wish for stability in oil prices. The exasperation at witnessing our purses getting emptied every time we board a BMTC bus can move mountains, you see.

Now you know whom Michael Jackson had in mind when he sung Heal the world…

With its single-minded approach towards profits, the impression generated is that the BMTC is a private agency, which it isn’t. The state government could, at the very least, consider privatising it – after having abdicated from providing an affordable and reliable service. At least commuters then wouldn’t grudge at the high prices as there would be a semblance of service – and accountability.

Cutting down on operating losses, by ensuring that conductors issue tickets to all commuters, could help bring down ticket prices. The phenomenon of BMTC’s conductors – and this is no sweeping generalization – not issuing tickets to commuters is an established truth. As reward for not demanding the ticket, the commuter gets a “rebate” on the fare, which adds to BMTC's financial burden. Common sense would dictate that deployment of checking squads frequently can curb the phenomenon, but it is anyone’s guess as to the efficacy of their deployment.

And then there has been the issue of successive governments going all-out to augment air-conditioned bus services (read Volvo). In about a decade, the number of schedules of the ‘Volvo’ buses has shot up to over 700, gentrifying our buses as well. In fact, certain routes, such as those to the IT hubs (ITPL in Whitefield and Electronic City on Hosur Road) have nearly become the preserve of these high-end services. It is as if those apart from software professionals do not use buses along these routes.

All this makes one wonder whether the BMTC’s mission statement of “sustainable, people-centred and choice mode of travel for everyone” was conceived as a practical joke aimed at its 4.95 million daily passengers. Profits are essential to any enterprise, but can they be the raison d’etre to a public transport system? 

It may be germane to refer to an incident that occurred in Silicon Valley (the original), when angry residents blocked company bus shuttles, notably those belonging to Google and Facebook, protesting that the infusion of tech workers has led to cost of living shooting through the roof (something that Bangalore has been witness to for at least a decade). While the BMTC can do nothing about the cost of living, a reasonable tariff could help prevent an encore to its famed Volvo buses.

The BMTC may have stopped short of saying Marie Antoinette's infamous words, “Let them eat cake”, but there is time to prevent a revolution.