Sunday, May 27, 2018

Modi and the Politics of Inauguration

Can you inaugurate something that's not ready?

If you're Prime Minister Modi, you can. You parade yourself in an open top jeep, with scores of security guards and attendants, and inaugurate 9 km of a proposed 96 km expressway, that was first proposed in 1999.

The next morning, your followers wake to full-page announcements where your Union Minister of 'Road Transport & Highways...' proclaims:
"Congratulations to NHAI and Welspun Group for completing the green and sustainable Delhi Meerut Expressway in record time".

For a government perpetually in PR and campaign mode, why bother with the details, namely that only one tiny phase of the project is ready?

Talking of campaign mode, it doesn't harm the party that a by-election is around the corner, and it just happens to be a stone's throw away from the expressway. Campaigning inside the constituency would be a violation of EC norms, so let's find a new way of fingering these outmoded pseudo-democratic traditions.

Seizing share of voice in the political marketplace is Modi's forte, and he leaves the opposition flat-footed several times a week. Every institution - governmental, corporate, or non-governmental is recruited for the purpose.

Opponents can cavil, but the moment is passed.

Finicky folk can point at the facts, but this is a post-truth world.

There is a larger issue with public projects. In our country, especially, large projects span several governments, as they go from conception, through planning, to debate, costing, land acquisition, tendering, and execution. The Delhi-Meerut Expressway was first mooted in 1999. The idea was written into the NCR transport plan 2021 in 2005. Chidambaram announced it in his 2006 Budget speech. At one stage, it was to be built by the UP state government; in 2013, it was confirmed that the central government would be responsible for the project.

Given these massive gestation periods, infra-success has many fathers. What matters is who proclaims paternity loudest. Right now Modi is doing that.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Icarus, and Doping in Sports

Last night, my son and I were comparing notes on the Giro d'Italia, one of the Big 3 European cycling races, and speculating whether Chris Froome would be able to win the stage.

Waiting for race updates from the Guardian blog, I was bemused to see a spectator taunting Froome with a massive mock-up of an inhaler - Froome is fighting a legal battle for his rights to his last two racing titles over the salbutamol levels in his blood.

The next race update showed that Froome had raced down the last descent at an average of 53 Km, an hour, with a peak speed of 80 km, and was now clear in the lead for his fourth grand tour in a row, a record unbeaten since Eddie Merckx, who retired in 1978.

Thinking about drugs in sports, I turned to 'Icarus' on Netflix, a riveting 'accidental' documentary. By a bizarre set of circumstances, a playwright and stand-up comic, Bryan Fogel, found himself in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Director of the Russian anti-doping center. It's tough to believe that Grigory is not a masterpiece of film-writing and casting, as he an engrossing, complex character, who happily helps Bryan Fogel devise a personal doping program that will beat the anti-doping system.

Meanwhile, WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, is crawling over the Russian lab, suspecting that the Russian sports system is not as clean as it claims. Grigory bails out, flies to the US, and with Bryan's help, turns whistle-blower. The New York Times carries a massive story, the WADA gets in on the act, and given the amount of data Dr. Rodchenkov is able to offer up, concludes, "I can confirm, for years, that spectators have been deceived. The desire to win medals superseded their collective moral and ethical compass, and Olympic values."

The 2016 Rio Olympics were weeks away, and WADA recommended to its parent organisation, the International Olympic Committee, that Russia be banned from the Rio games. The IOC passed the responsibility for the decision on to individual sports federations; eventually, 111 Russian athletes were banned, and 278 took part.

Given the time frame, and the paucity of data from Russia, I would assume false exclusions in both sets of Russian athletes. Having seen the film, I suspect the number of athletes on doping programs who came to Rio was significantly more than those not on drugs who stayed away.

This is probably true of most professional sports - the doping docs stay one step ahead of the anti-doping docs, and in some cases, the two are the same. Under the circumstances, it's probably a huge burden on a professional athlete to stay away from doping. Everyone's looking for a silver bullet, as long as (s)he  doesn't get caught.

Would a laissez faire approach work better - find the training regimen, needles and pills included, that sails your boat...

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Flower power, at 50

The first rock musical, HAIR, opened on Broadway in 1968.
It captured the spirit of Hippiedom with the exuberance of protest, inspired lyrics, and the shock value of a nude scene. It ran on Broadway for 4 years, in London for 5, and was adapted into a film by celebrated movie director Milos Forman. A generous cousin gifted me the double album set of the soundtrack, and its songs deeply informed my teenage years.

Ten days ago, I got to see a traveling production of Hair in Munich, and I had this strange sense of traveling into the past to look at the present.

Hair was a protest against the Vietnam war, and the draft; a plea for love, peace, and clean air.

It was a paean to the solidarity of youth, to the joys of sex - of all kinds, and free love.

It was a celebration of drugs.

And, yes, to the freedom to wear your hair long.

In the context of the late 60s, the demands that Hair made of society were truly fringe. And yet, its appeal, which was quite unprecedented, could be seen as a pointer to how widely change was sought.

5 decades later, so much of that change has been wrought, particularly in the US.

Though wars may still rage across the world, annual deaths have trended vastly down since the late 60s, and Max Roser has an amazing set of graphs ( to show the changes. And draft, a central theme in Hair, was removed in 1973.

'Free' Love, meaning sex outside of marriage, barely merits mention today; same-sex intercourse, and marriage, have wide-spread acceptance, and increasingly, legal sanction. In June 2016, President Obama dedicated the Stonewall Monument in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, to honor the LGBT rights movement. In November of that year, Kate Brown became the United States' first openly LGBT person elected Governor.

During World War II, smog in Los Angeles was so bad that people suspected a Japanese chemical attack. But the US Congress enacted the Clean Air Act in 1970, and progress has been rapid. California is still vulnerable to forest fires and thermal inversion, but air pollution in the US is not a major public health hazard. Meanwhile, 14 of the world's most polluted cities are in India.

And drugs? 64 % of American citizens support the legalisation of marijuana. In 29 states, you can smoke it for 'medical use'. And legal annual marijuana sales crossed 10 billion dollars in 2017.

Long hair? Man-buns is now a thing.

I don't want to make too much of a point of this, but I was really struck by how the performing arts can anticipate change, and, perhaps, just perhaps, influence it.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Memories of Migration

Madras, we called it then, when I was 6, and 7, and 8, living in a company compound fringed by a casuarina grove. To the east were the backwaters of the Adyar river. To the south, the rambling grounds of the Chettinad Palace. Always locked, a large wrought iron gate separated us from its legendary opulence, but one summer, it’s owner, MAC Chidambaram, sent word that he would be happy to have the children of our estate ride his ponies of an evening.

Jodhpurs were stitched up, riding hats were to be loaned by the stable. 7 or 8 of us walked through that open gate in a cloud of excitement large enough to cloak my indifference. The clumsy effort of clambering onto my pony did little to enthuse me. A slow trot around the paddock, a patient syce by my side, was not my idea of fun. And when we got home, my ‘bums’ hurt. But I couldn’t be the first one to cry off riding.

Munnu, already a teenager, took to the saddle with aplomb. Within a week, the syce had handed her the reins. A few days later, she and her horse were liberated from the paddock, while I still felt like a tin soldier limping around a cardboard track. Every evening, Munnu rode faster, more freely. One evening, her horse bolted. Her syce stood rooted; another mounted a pony and gave chase. Our slow parade around the paddock halted, but now both horses were out of sight. Munnu was thrown by her horse before the syce caught up. No damage done, but the gate between Firhaven and Chettinad Palace was never again opened.

Not that we missed it. Madras was going through the parochial spasms of language riots, but Firhaven was a cosmopolitan enclave. Our 8 families  were Punjabi, Gujarati, Maharashtrian Keralite, Coorg, and Konkani. On Holi, a tub with flaking enamel was rescued from the estate stores, plonked in the centre of the garden, and filled with yellow water. On Diwali, we slept through the pre-dawn Lakshmi puja of our Mylapore neighbours, and came out at night to set the skies alight with the barbaric tradition of rockets and ‘atom bombs’. For Christmas, we dressed in red and green, and sang carols in front of a Christmas tree.

My father’s employers looked after its own. We had access to a gorgeous cottage in Ootacamund, with trimmed hedges, and a cook who served up mushroom omelettes and strawberry tarts. Most evenings, my mother would pick us up from school, and drive us straight to Elliott’s beach, where the company shack was lit by lanterns, and our cold coffee stayed that way, thanks to a refrigerator that sputtered out kerosene fumes. On Sundays, we swam in the Madras Gymkhana, and snacked on fried fish and chips.

Sifting through a rich haul of memories from these years, I found only a few from school.

One is of a girl who sat at the next desk. Several weeks after I joined school, she shyly offered me a piece of dry mango pickle. It’s leathery texture was alien, but my tongue relished its coarse, crystallised salt. As it softened in my mouth, its tartness was released in an explosion of raw mango. My memory of the scene plays out like a silent movie, lit by the Madras sun, its white shafts slanting through the deep verandahs into our class. I have no memory of what words were exchanged, if any. But I know that the pickle was offered several times, and that it was the work of her grandmother.

One of the few words I remember from my time in Presentation Convent was ‘Sangam’. Addressed to me, and followed by a question mark. I had no idea what this was about, so replied with a question mark of my own.

‘You were in Sangam’. Not much of a question mark there, more a statement of fact, from a boy I met near the outhouse toilets, reeking of ammonia and damp heat. I shook my head, not so much a ‘No’, as ‘I still don’t know what you’re talking about.’  

He didn’t elaborate, and we passed.

A couple of days later, a girl stopped me in the corridor. “You acted in Sangam?” This I could answer. “No.” She looked at me carefully, was not convinced, but moved on.

That would make Sangam a movie, I guessed. And apparently, I looked like someone who acted in it. My parents knew nothing about movies, but one of my Punjabi ‘aunties’ did. It was a big budget movie from the house of Raj Kapoor, shot in spectacular colour. And, yes, a boy acted in it - Randhir Kapoor, Raj Kapoor’s son. “But he’s much bigger than you, betey, and you don’t really look like him. Except for the green eyes, and of course the fair skin”.

Vimla Aunty was looking at my physiognomy, but my Tamilian school mates were seeing only my phenotype. They could clearly see what many custodians of Indian history try to deny.

Some ancestor of mine had wandered away from the Scythian territory “between the Caspian Sea and Jaxartes river”. I don’t know if she came in search of peace, or he came in search of conquest. I know my forebears carried the love of adventure that courses through my veins, and animates my joy in travel.

I carry no guilt if they were ferocious in battle, or brought alien customs to a distant land. I reject the notion that cultural appropriation is a crime. I’ll take my customs from whatever appeals to my changing aesthetic, and my evolving world-view, thank you very much.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Short Cuts are toxic

We Indians love short-cuts.

In Delhi, motor-cyclists routinely drive on the wrong side of India’s busiest roads, to save a 500 meter ride to the next intersection. A scant 100 meters from a foot over-bridge, pedestrians dart through rush-hour traffic, then clamber over a 1 meter verge, to save a couple of minutes.
In Mumbai 5 people lose their lives every day, crossing the tracks of the world’s busiest commuter train lines.*

An estimated 10,000 Indian lives are lost each year to electrocution, one-third of the global total. Hardly surprising, when home wiring circuits are rarely earthed, and fuse wire of the correct rating is routinely replaced by thick wire, so that blown fuses are no longer a bother.  

The Indian practice of ‘jugaad’ is clearly described by the Mirriam-Webster definition of the short cut, “A method or means of doing something more directly and quickly than and often not so thoroughly as by ordinary procedure.”

In India, the accent is on the last phrase - “not so thoroughly as by ordinary procedure”. At peak practice, ‘procedure’ is totally abandoned, as in a driving test for a driving licence, or attending classes to obtain a B.Ed. degree.

Culture informs governance, and in a society enamoured of short-cuts, politicians will look to serve up silver bullets that promise transformation, rather than root-and-branch reform. Corruption is rampant in India, and tax evasion wide-spread. The phrase ‘black money” is so endemic to our nation that, if you do a web-search for it, most references will be to India. Prime Minister Modi, with the unerring ear of a successful politician, knew that this phrase has become so emotionally loaded that he could play it for the galleries - demonise evil traders and hoarders, pipe his concern for the economically deprived, shill his devotion to moral rectitude.

And so, the short cut of demonetisation, to rid our country of all economic evil. This was peak short cut practice, Indian style. All procedure was abandoned, The Reserve Bank of India  was arm-twisted. The financial bureaucracy was kept in the dark. As a result, new currency notes were not available, and in a nation with hundreds of millions outside the banking system, the poorest and most vulnerable were hit the hardest. Over a hundred Indians died in the search for legal tender; agricultural produce was destroyed by farmers, as merchants had no cash with which to pay; between 1.5 and 2 million people lost their jobs**, and over 15 million exited the work force** as a result of the economic disruption of Modi’s great short cut.

And reform - forget it! Electoral finance, widely accepted as a route cause of black money, has been shrouded under anonymous bonds. Foreign donations to political parties were made legal with retrospective effect from 1976, via legislation passed without parliamentary debate.

A short cut. Without procedure. But it worked.

The latest governance short cut to visit our nation is the bold law-and-order experiment in our most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. By way of background, this is a region of 221 million, where the judicial system groans under inadequate staffing, poor case preparation, and a general apathy towards due process of law. Whether police stations register your case or not depends on their mood, your connections, and your caste. If they do, the courts gradually come into play. The state’s High Court, in Allahabad, has 13,600 criminal cases which have been in appeal for over 30 years. 13% of cases across the state have not been heard for over 10 years. Suspects are locked up for years, even decades, while case files are being prepared, or not, and India is unique in that two-thirds of our jail inhabitants are still to be tried - ‘undertrials’ in our parlance.

India’s creaky system serves neither justice nor law and order, and conviction rates have been steadily dropping. In 1953, 64 % of criminal cases led to conviction; by 2014, only 40%. Some of the most heinous crimes go largely unpunished - only 21% of cases of dacoity, for example, lead to conviction.

Given the data, law and order in U.P. is, rightly, an electoral issue, and the new Chief Minister was ushered in with promises of better governance and a fight against crime. Reforming the courts and the police has no electoral appeal for a Chief Minister eager to show resolve. Instead, the U.P police was unleashed to solve the crime problem without the inconvenient shackles of the law.

In its first year in power, the current UP government had 1100 ‘encounters’ with suspected criminals. In normal usage, the word ‘encounter’ suggests a chance meeting. In its uniquely Indian usage, the word means that the police go out hunting criminal suspects; if any are injured, or killed, the police claim it was in self-defence. No messing with charge-sheets, the gathering of evidence, and the backlog of courts.

And the presumption of innocence? Oh, that’s for sissies.

Confident of popular support for this dereliction of legal process, Yogi Adityanath’s police force killed 49 people and injured 370 during its first 12 months****.

This short cut through the process of law has met with little comment or resistance. The Supreme Court has abstained from comment, the Parliament is dysfunctional, and the Prime Minister is silent, presumably in assent. It is left to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to state,  “It seems that the police personnel in U.P. are feeling free, misusing their power in the light of an undeclared endorsement given by the higher- ups. They are using their privileges to settle scores with the people.”

When the police settle scores rather than investigate crime, it is a short cut, to anarchy, not order; to rule by power, rather than law. It is an abandonment of process, of justice, and ultimately of humanity.

The tacit acceptance of a police state is the most toxic short cut imaginable in a civilised society.  Pappu, father of the rape victim in Unnao, could have told you something of this toxicity, if he had survived the brutality of the police.




Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Cycling from Zurich to Munich

Sssh! Cyclist at rest.

In a Swiss summer, you can be excused for thinking you just cycled into a picture postcard, with emerald green fields on either side, and plump cows grazing against a horizon of deepest blue. Then the sun reminds you that this is reality, hot and thirst-inducing. That, and the two familiar young men a hundred yards ahead. “Stop, Kedar!”, I yell to my son, as I look up into the dark shade of a cherry tree. By the time Kedar and Simon join me, my hands and mouth are stained a deep red with the juice of fresh cherries, tart, sweet and possibly stolen.

Beyond the tree, the light is harsh, but the forest is only a couple of kilometers away, and soon we’re pedalling along a shaded path. The air cools, and through the trees we spy patches of silver water. The Rhine! In a tiny clearing, a young woman and her mother cheer their dog as she swims out to retrieve a tossed twig. We dismount, and while I refill my water bottle from a spout, Simon checks out the river. “It’s not too cold”, he encourages me. I jump in, and swim out to mid-stream. A tiny launch putters by, the dog shakes a silver shower of drops out of his fur, and Kedar spreads our picnic out onto a log - crusty bread, Emmental cheese, dried apricots, and a bag of nuts. I could get used to this.

The Rhine!

Schaffhausen is still an hour’s ride away, and in the afternoon, there’s no escaping the unseasonal heat, which rises from the cobblestones, and bounces off the walls. We fill our bottles from a medieval fountain, and under the awning of an Italian restaurant, realise we’re too exhausted to cycle on. We’ve covered a respectable 75 kilometers from Zurich, anyway, and while we tuck into our pasta and red wine, the Bangladeshi waiter makes a phone call, to book us lodgings for the night.

We leave by first light, and only the stray jogger greets the swans on the Rhine as we bowl out of town. The air is cool as we nip through little towns that are suddenly German, then Swiss, then German again. By mid-morning, we’re coasting past the Untersee, the lower Constance lake. We reach the elegant city of Konstanz before the afternoon heat. We find a gelato vendor, then a shady beach, and soon we’re savouring the coolth of the lake waters. Lunch is in a charming cafe in the University quarter, and while I devour my bar of dark chocolate in the cathedral square, Kedar does a quick tour of the interiors.

A catamaran swooshes us over to Friedrichshafen, where we spend a delightful hour among the exhibits of the Zeppelin Museum. The airship Hindenburg met a fiery end in 1937, but in the faithful replica of its spacious lounge, we sit in leather couches, and imagine we’re floating a few kilometers over the Amazon forest.

Every town in Germany has a museum to visit, or a historic cathedral. In Ulm, we spent the afternoon in an intriguing museum of “Bread Culture”.

A whimsical Salvador Dali at the Brot Museum

In Kronburg, we decided to give the agricultural museum a miss; instead we sought out the clear waters of a natural lake. The shade was deep, the grass wet and cool, and the coffee from the cafe by the shore strong and freshly brewed. I logged my afternoon swim, Kedar snacked, and Simon pulled out a paper-back. We waited until the sun’s heat was spent, then climbed into the hills, and into the late evening. Another hostelry waited, another freshly cooked dinner, a different local brew. We rinsed our cycling jerseys, and hung them out to dry.

Next day, repeat - breakfast as the village bakery opened its doors, a picnic by the Danube, Lebanese lunch on a busy street, coffee and cakes in Viennese elegance.

We left Zurich to cycle to Munich. Instead we pedalled ourselves a moving feast of strawberries and yogurt, of sunlight and dappled green, fragments of history, glimpses of modern life. We measured out 600 kilometers of togetherness, clean air and the benediction of days well met.

Farmer's market, Munich

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

An Open-water swimming log


January 3rd:
"Chai-paani ke liye kucch de do", the guard's friend told me when I looked appealingly at the barrier, between us and the open water of Manchanabele reservoir.

"No way", I said, so Georg reversed the car up the dirt track, and back on to the tarmac of the access road. We parked in a depression, out of sight of the guard house, ducked under the barbed wire, and tramped down a grassy slope to the weeds and cool mud of the lake shore.

We'd had a long day visiting a construction site near the dry red rocks of Ramnagaram village. Here, the water was deliciously cool, and the suspended silt gave it a sense of reality, akin to the fragrance of 'geel', the ittar that celebrates the falling of rain on hot, dry soil.

"The far shore must be about a km. away", Georg estimated. The light was already fading, and getting there and back before dark was going to going to be a close call. We struck out, relishing the changing light, the freedom of open water, and the joy of companionship. Georg turned back a bit before me, and just as his silhouette emerged onto the darkening shore, an army truck ground to a halt, and three figures jumped out to engage with him. I felt like a truant schoolboy, caught in the act.

I was still out of earshot when I heard them shout out to me. "You'll have to wait till I get ashore", I thought, and continued to stroke. When I looked up again, to get my bearings, they were shouting again, "All OK, Sir?"


Couldn't be better.

Smiles all around. "You went all the way to that shore, Sir?" I nodded.

"Too good, Sir"

Good night.

January 7th

To be continued