Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Tragedy of Being Rahul Gandhi

Just when you think Rahul Gandhi cannot outdo himself, he comes out with another gem.

On December 5, amidst one of the several Parliament gridlocks over the use of abusive language by a minister (as if it has happened for the first time ever), Rahul Gandhi stood next to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi placed outside the Parliament House, and sported a black band over his mouth, accusing the government of muzzling the voice of the Opposition, a charge that he has been repeating for a while now, as exemplified by his rushing into the well of the house on August 6, 2014. This protest was over the issue of Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, who was caught using the word haraamzaada (illegitimate child) in a public rally in Delhi. Of course, he seems to have forgotten how his own henchman from Uttar Pradesh, Imran Masood, threatened to chop Narendra Modi to pieces among other many gems that dot the internet.  

Not just that, Rahul Gandhi had also found the time and gall to dare the government to run a bulldozer over him (meri chhati par se bulldozer chalana hoga) in an attempt to create a storm about the razing of slums located over land that belonged to the Delhi city’s forest department. Of course, it was convenient to forget that court orders were what prompted this action by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, but the empowerment was targeted, which was staunchly opposed by Rahul Gandhi.

It is easy to be critical of Rahul Gandhi for theatrics. Of course, one must remember that every politician tends to be theatrical in their mannerism when the cameras are turned on (the best example being the gaggle of Aam Aadmi Party these days). However, the problem of being Rahul Gandhi tends to compound the problems of Rahul Gandhi among other things. Often it has been discussed, as did even a biographer, of how Rahul Gandhi is just not made for politics. As The Economist observed back in 2012 from Aarti Ramachandran’s book,

“The overall impression of Mr Gandhi from Mrs Ramachandran’s book is...a figure who has an ill-defined urge to improve the lives of poor Indians, but no real idea of how to do so. He feels obliged to work in politics, but his political strategies are half-baked....”

This was further compounded by his disastrous performance at his interview with Arnab Goswami for Times Now in the run up to General Elections of 2014, where he came across as misguided, naive and unaware of the problems that India faces. The very fact that he repeated the phrase ‘women empowerment’ as a solution to everything at least forty times did not help his cause either. The interview spun off so many spoofs that it became impossible to keep track of them, with each progressively deriding Rahul Gandhi for being among other things, being dumb. I would stick my neck out and say that it was this interview that did more damage to the All India Congress Committee (AICC) than all of Narendra Modi’s rallies put together, since transcripts of the interview went viral across newspapers in various languages. What did not help matters were rumours that Priyanka Vadra and Jairam Ramesh were prompting him from behind. And this, when the ever raucous, permanently outraged Arnab Goswami was at his feeblest ever.

Subsequently, Rahul Gandhi seems to have been absent post the debacle of 2014. He seems to be stuck in a political system that treats parties and outfits as personal fiefdoms, where the entire universe legitimizes untold acts in the name of this sunny son, who becomes no less than god for the outfit members. His sincerity seems to be always under a cloud of suspicion not just by the media but even by laymen and some sections of the Congress, who are now demanding that Priyanka Vadra, her sister, be brought into the scheme of things so as to revive the sagging fortunes of the party. His own party seems to have made him a pariah of sorts when it comes to campaigning in state assemble elections, evident by his conspicuous absence or low key appearances in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, for he is believed to cause ever more harm to the party by his campaigning than the campaigning of Narendra Modi by many within the Congress. Moreover, Rahul Gandhi as a politician seems to be even more prone to gaffes than Smriti Irani as a minister is these days.

Much like business, in politics two kind of people tend to flourish - the leader and the manager. The leader is a natural at it, able to generate debate, discussions and deliberations not just within the organization but also outside, and is often a first mover on many things, setting the trend. (S)he has the gift of the gab, and is intellectual but conveys ideas in terms others understand easily. In contrast, the manager is a fast second mover, who is able to see the bigger picture, spot the trend, and mobilize resources quickly to enable smooth transitions, sans which the organization would go bust in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the voters, Rahul Gandhi seems to be neither. He seems reluctant about everything, and all his attempts at best seem half-hearted and ill-thought. His agenda seems to be often insipid and uninspiring for his own party workers, forget the people on the street. Moreover, leaving aside general elections 2014, he just gives mere soundbites instead of interviews or writing op-eds, thus removing himself entirely from the fickle consciousness that is collective memory. Plus all his efforts to reach out to the masses are construed as nothing more than political stuntbaazi, and is often reduced to a topic meant to provide much sought after comic relief.

Laymen on the street often make the telling remark that Rahul Gandhi should just quit politics because he has neither the wit nor the intelligence to be a part of it. Unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Rahul Gandhi is not going to heed to their request any time soon. Till then, enjoy the political clownery.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

धन्य है नानक

जिन समझ जुग बीत गया
इक पल में यूँ समझाया
भक्ति का इक नया स्वाद
जिह्वा पे ऐसा चढ़ाया
प्रेम भावना मन में राखी
करुणा करना सिखाया
धन्य है नानक महापुरुष
के तू हम सब में आया

पढ़न गया था अक्खर को
पाठी को पाठ दिखाया
राह चलन की सीख दियो
मौलवी को राह दिखाइया
जात पात के भेदभाव को
अंकुश ऐसा लाया
धन्य है नानक महापुरुष
के तू हम सब में आया

छोड़ घर बार चला फ़क़ीर
संग चला दोस्त मरदाना
ज्ञान की धुनी रमते निशदिन
काबा भी धाम बनाया
वाहेगुरु चहुँ ओर बसे
ये चमत्कार है दिखाया
धन्य है नानक महापुरुष
के तू हम सब में आया

जा हरिद्वार जो देखियो तो
खेतों को पानी चढ़ाया
दिव्य ज्ञान के अन्तर्रहस्य
को सूरज यूँ है दिखाया
शेषनाग को कहे के जा
अब अमर हो तेरी माया
धन्य है नानक महापुरुष
के तू हम सब में आया

बैठ जहां वहाँ नित स्थान
धरम का पथ बनाया
हिन्दू मुस्लिम नर नारी
छूत अछूत मिटाया
मात पिता जहाँ अपने पूत को
गुरु का स्थान निवाया
अकाल पुरख के नाम से
करतारपुर धाम वसाइया
अन्तकाल अंगद जी को
गद्दी सौंप गुरु बनाइया
करतारपुर धाम वसाइया

काल के द्वार खड़े जब नानक
लोगन करी लड़ाइयाँ
हिन्दू के या मुस्लिम के अब
आखर रीत मनाना
नानक बोले सुनो भई साधू
सब मुझ संग फूल लगाना
जो फूलों में रहे महक
वही मेरी रीत मनाना
रात चढ़े दहुं ओर फूल
फिर करी प्रभात तैयारियां
आय सवेर जो देखे हैं
सब आंखन है भर आइय्याँ

नानक स्थान पे कछु नाहीं
बस फूल की सेज सजी है
खुशबु नानक के सुमन की
चहुँ ओर महक रही है
देखा, अंत काल में सब कुछ
ब्रह्मलीन हो जाएगा
क्या तेरा क्या मेरा सब कुछ
मिट्टी में मिल जाएगा
ज्ञान के मोती बिखराकर
यूं हम पर प्रेम लुटाया
धन्य है नानक महापुरुष
के तू हम सब में आया

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Is Child Labour Really a Problem?

There was a lot of introspection and self criticism yesterday with the joint awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi. “Child labour is a curse”, “robbing childhood from the children”, “slavery”, “feudal mindset” - these and a thousand other charges have been flying around. Grim stories of rescue missions were recounted by the dozen, and the State was held culpable for the crime of not taking care of its citizens. However, a large number of these arguments to my understanding are very lopsided, and typically amount to the welfare state paradigm that the economic right finds highly problematic for a host of reasons.

Please do not for a minute think that I am promoting child labour as it is understood and depicted often in popular culture as an exploitative system. Often however we tend to drag children belonging to the teenage group into this whole cycle of ‘giving their lives a fair chance’. On the contrary, a careful assessment of what is happening in today’s world needs to be weighted alongside to develop a real picture of whether child labour is an issue or not.

There are several questions being raised on the validity of university education (graduation, post graduation, even professional degrees), and criticism of the pedagogic system across all levels of society and schools of thought has varied from futility to utter failure of producing employable people. The myth of people getting jobs after getting a university degree has permeated to such depths that it will take decades to even realize the monstrous cycle that people at large are stuck in. Countries hit hardest by austerity measures in Europe - Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Iceland and Ireland - as well as those like the United Kingdom and France struggling to stay afloat, have been recording unbelievable levels of unemployment. The situation is tragic enough for journalists to have labelled these people as Europe’s lost generation. High youth unemployment rates - ranging from 21% in the UK to a whopping 55% in Greece. across these nations is contrasted starkly by the availability of jobs for which they are highly overqualified (imagine a physics graduate taking your orders at McDonalds). These 2012 numbers, provided by the European Commission’s Eurostat agency, are not indicative of another massive problem plaguing the world today - underemployment. The levels of motivation and the hope of a better life are dwindling fast amongst Europe’s youth.

Another interesting bunch of statistics come from the United States’ Bureau of Labour. The 2013 projection numbers reveal that while a bachelors’s degree from a college tends to raise income from the average weekly median of US$827 to US$1108, the jump towards a postgraduate degree is not comparable. This marginal increase in income is compounded by the high levels of debt being accrued by students in pursuance of the better life dream as pointed out in data collated by Forbes magazine’s Jesse Colombo. The financial ramifications of the student loan bubble shall be far worse than the housing bubble burst which caused the 2008 recession, one which we never really came out of. Huge student debt has meant that the emotional sense of a pointless life is creeping up rapidly across the American youth too. 

Much of this is true for China as well, with unemployment rates being noted to be as high as 20% as per this CNBC editorial. However, as the China Household Survey numbers show in this editorial, there is a big twist to the tale. As the writers of the editorial - Terence Tse and Mark Esposito note: 
“...China's economic miracle has insofar been driven by three sectors: export-driven manufacturing, construction and large energy and capital intensive heavy industries dominated by the state, none of which offer large number of white-collar jobs suitable for university graduates. 

By contrast, low-skilled workers with a primary and junior secondary education, especially young migrants from the rural China, can easily find jobs in the transportation, construction and catering industries. This is especially true in coastal provinces such as Guangdong and Fujian as well as major cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Indeed, currently these businesses are finding it tough to recruit and retain workers as demand is high and supply is low. This, in turn, has led to the continuing increase in wages.

Such numbers are turning out to be true for India as well. In 2013, a Labour Ministry survey found that with an increase in education levels in the country,the unemployment rate was also increasing across age groups. The survey noted worryingly that in rural areas,the unemployment rate for graduates and above for the age group 15-29 years was estimated to be at 36.6 per cent while in urban areas, the same was reported to be 26.5 per cent. 

Thus, such numbers raise certain critical questions that need to be discussed threadbare across all sections of the intelligentsia. Firstly, is education the guarantor of a job? Clearly, these numbers show the answer to be a resounding no. One should temper this argument with the fact that a lot of this data points to the futility of university education in its present context. However, it does raise pertinent question on whether we really need modern education as we understand it to create economic prosperity across countries.

Secondly, what needs to be observed with greater interest is the fact that skills for several kinds of jobs seem to be directly correlated to the number of years spent in a particular profession. This may be considered particularly true for artisans, furnace workers, cement mixers, crane operators etc. - mostly what are considered to be low-end jobs for university graduates, but have decent pay packages associated with them. Clearly, lack of formal education may not appear to be an issue to sustain economically. Has anyone then tried to correlate the fact that many of these workers may be school dropouts or school diploma holders at best? My own interactions have shown that a lot of these people started out quite early in their jobs due to financial constraints or emotional issues at home. It is time to take a relook at the emphasis of how schooling and education may not necessarily be the panacea needed. In fact, in many developed economies, children start working as early as twelve years to supplement their pocket money income. Ironically, that is not labeled as child labour.

Thirdly, the need for apprenticeship is underscored all over again. The Indian Apprentices Act of 1961 was a disaster till major rectifications were undertaken to skew the imbalances created. Germany, which has by far the lowest unemployment rate (9.1%) in Europe, has a robust apprenticeship system that sees more than 14 million apprentices today working across various industrial sectors, developing essential skills. In stark contrast, India with its billion plus population, has only 25,000 apprentices, pointed our earlier this year by an appalled Arun Shourie. Also, Indian Technical Institues (ITIs), which were supposed to have produced technically skilled workers, have been a big disaster, with the number of industry-employable people being produced being a far cry from. So, can child labour be struck outright as a criminal offence, a blot on society? Or should we reconvene discussions to understand what really should constitute the definition of child labour?

The age of 14 is allowed under Indian law for legally working in a job. Would that constitute child labour as well in the eyes of the welfare state? Most likely. People singing the refrain of not giving a chance of people to ‘be like us’ is just another way of saying that what these people are doing is beneath their dignity. This proves the fallacy of the argument of equality as propagated by welfare statists, whereby people not possessing university degrees automatically qualify to be children of a lesser god. The right to choose is certainly an essential one that all children must be provided with. But throwing the baby with the bath water, a typical harebrained act of welfare state propagators, has a huge socio-economic cost associated with it. Child labour if forced is certainly an appalling crime. Also it is nobody’s arugment that children should be indulging in jobs that are dangerous and put grave risks on their health the longevity. And no, this is not an ugly romanticization of Oliver Twist in any which way. But perhaps all child labour need not be seen with the same lens. Renegotiating what child labour really means is an idea whose time is now long overdue in the world. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Musings on Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and Implications for Greater China

Protests Inspire Creativity, and Ever More So in Hong Kong (courtesy BBC)
The recent upheaval with the Occupy Central movement, becoming more popular internationally by the name Umbrella Movement, has taken nearly everyone by surprise. This has happened because the silent majority decidedto stand up for what it believes in, sacrificing nearly everything that provided semblance to their lives in a mad, chaotic city state like Hong Kong (HK). Life is hard in Hong Kong, so the people standing up for greater democratic rights becomes even more appreciable in my personal opinion. There are a few trends that can be seen on the surface emerging from this movement so far, and a lot of them, far from being very pessimistic (as some Facebook posts being shared by HK-ers) are encouraging.

The people of Hong Kong have been exemplary in the discipline and peaceful nature that has been maintained so far during these protests. It is Gandhian in nature, thus making many neutral observers like me smile warmly. This is good, as we have often seen such protests, moving eastwards from the Gulf nations of West Asia and Northern Africa, boil down to violent clashes and brutal crackdowns. To this end, even the federal government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) should be commended from refraining to use the Army or any other paramilitary forces - instead it is CY Leung's city government that has egg on its face in the pepper spray fiasco.

All this is happening amongst a series of protests across Greater China region, where there have been protests against Big Brotherly treatment on issues as wide and varying from trade (Taiwan) to political reform (Hong Kong). While President Xi Jinping's government had to inherit much of these headaches, it is in his best interests - political and economic - to hammer these issues out rapidly. To use a corporation analogy for the government of PRC, there is an urgent need to assuage disgruntled shareholders before your capital stock takes a thrashing on the corporate governance issues on the stock market. The important shareholders exiting from your options altogether always spells bad news.

Another interesting development, despite all efforts to block coverage across the Mainland, is the interest of people in the unfolding of events in HK. People will not turn out on the streets in large numbers for demanding greater democratic rights, but a significant number of people (forming a critical mass of thought) are certainly inclined towards HK-ers. Many of them perceive the demands to be legitimate. That does not mean that Mainlanders want democracy right now - however, it does hint towards the rising expectations of political reforms within the next generation, and needs attention.

The interpretations of Basic Law in my opinion can still be read to make everyone happy. However, that is only possible if a window for reconciliation continues to remain open. People in HK are willing to show that they will walk the extra mile if given a chance. It is now for the PRC federal government to be gracious and walk the extra mile. Crossing the bridge has become essential and it should not be afraid to do so.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The India China Powwow - Will It Ever End?

Modi and Jinping relaxing on the traditional Sankheda swing (picture courtesy Firstpost)
The coverage being given to the visit of President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is apt for the political leader of a country with the kind of economic stature it poses today. However, the battle of cultural perceptions has been scored by India hands down, especially when one reads the jokes pertaining to Gujarati cuisine and the fabled 'Gujju accent'. That apart, there have been a lot of symbols on the first day itself that can give you a fair idea of how a Narendra Modi-led Government of India wishes to position itself with respect to China. Be it the exhibition of Buddhist artifacts or the vegetarian dinner menu, the signs are that we wish to maintain peace at an equal footing. That is not such a bad option, as the PRC leadership takes only those countries seriously that will not be subservient. To this end, an incident about Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, came to be respected by PRC is enlightening. Upon being gifted a book by British journalist Neville Maxwell on the India China conflict of 1962, Lee sternly asked them to take it back and not involve Singapore into problems that mean nothing for it. This took the PRC leadership aback, but that translated into immense respect for the man.

On Xi's part, the message is interesting. A visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, the spiritual home of Mahatma Gandhi in India, and an intellectual adversary of Chairman Mao, the President has indicated deep interest in harbouring long term peace with India and the mutual interest in the status. Of course, there is a military standoff going on at the Chumar sector in Ladakh, but a close assessment of the Chinese situation shows that since the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is not directly under Xi's control as of now, the political intent of the PLA is to keep reminding Xi where his priorities must lie. And it will take some time for Xi to gain strength over the military. In fact, there have been repeated statements about India being important for China to change the world for good from his end. It sees India as an investment destination as well as a market for quality goods as a hedge against the faltering economies of the West among other things.

Cultural ties are already on the rise without any extra efforts, so there isn't much that needs to be done about it, especially with more and more Indians studying and working in China. The success of Indian movies in China and Chinese movies in India are a good indicator of how much closer people are than the perception on either side goes.

But that is where the bonhomie tends to come to a grinding halt. The border issue has been festering for far too long to allow any form of friendship to develop. While the ASEAN model of economic cooperation is sought here (ironically India and China contributed to the formation of ASEAN), both parties know that it cannot sustain itself for too long. The golden period for settling the disputed border has arrived, and unless it gets settled now this problem will be pushed into the next decade. Both sides realize the importance of a face saver for the other, and the sooner this issue is resolved, the better it is.

However the advantage that India has lies not so much in the economic sphere as in terms of soft power. The PRC government runs the country more like a corporation, and it is always in any corporation's interest to resolve all legal matters quickly before it leads to mounting costs, thus reducing profits in the long run. Indians by and large will be fine with the status quo becoming the international border; however, the mounting economic costs of the unsettled border will mean headaches for China since it will not be able to continue raising its military expenditure astronomically with the United States breathing down its neck. That approach, as a corporate negotiator looking for a good deal, instead of a man haggling over what the price a kilo of chicken will be, may cut ice with the business minded Chinese.

In Indian culture, the swing (jhula) has a lot of symbolism to it. However hard or fast it may swing, friends sharing it stay on it together. To reach that phase however, there is still work to be done. The powwows will continue forever, but it has to come to an end which is meaningful for all. Ties will not go the next step, and the Chindia century or the Asian century will never dawn if the two largest countries are not able to settle the border issue permanently and honorably.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

एक शमा कहीं जली है

एक शमा कही जली है

हुस्न-ए-मग़रिब पे
एक दाग़ आज लगा है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

इन्सां को आज फ़िर से
कोई बुत बना गया है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

नुजूम के तारे कोई
ग़र्दिश में लपेट गया है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

वक्त की भट्टी में उन्हें
तपिश में छोड़ गया है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

चिलचिलाती धुप में यूँ
नंगे पाँव चलता देख रहा है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

ख़ाक छानते हुए कोई
ग़ुरबत में  रो रहा है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

काँटों की सेज पर बैठा
कोई हमको छोड़ गया है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

नाकामियों का सेहरा
कोई सिरे बाँध गया है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

इंसानियत का जनाज़ा
आज फ़िर से उठ रह है
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

यादों की शमाएं हमने
आतिश-ए-हस्सास से जलाई थी
उम्मीदों के दरीचे हमने
इन्ही शमाओं से जलाये थे
पर ये ज़मीन में कुछ बात है
के अनकहे अनसुने किस्सों से
ये ज़मीं आज भी रोशन है
खुश्वार है, उम्मीद से है
आज फ़िर
एक शमा कहीं जली है
एक आतिश कहीं लगी थी

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fighting Depression

The recent news of the demise of Robin Williams left a void in me that I do not think will be filled up soon. An actor whose work taught us as much about life as it rendered entertainment, and that too from a rare genius, is hard to replace. The world will surely miss him, but yes, there is an important thing to realize, one that we often overlook due to our own personal discomfort, little knowledge about issues of mental health and general disapproval of such people and ideas that leaves much to be discussed.

Depression is a deeply personal fight for me. People who may know me are aware of my fight with depression on more than one plane. My mother has been fighting this problem for over a decade now, and though it started off due to hormonal imbalances, the clinical depression has set into an ever-constant fear, that she shall be left behind all alone in this world. That triggered off a host of other health issues, including bacterial antral gastritis. Fighting this disease for so long has its moments of agony, of utter melancholy, of loneliness that cannot be filled. The fight has been getting personal with each passing day for me, as my own fears seem to be coming true. But with time, I learnt a few valuable lessons about life from my mother, as she has been on this emotional seesaw for ages.

You cannot just ask people to snap out of it. Depression is not a potato wafer that can break when you chew on it. It is like chewing gum - the longer you chew, the more unpleasant it becomes; however, it cannot be spit out under any circumstances. I detest people who make light of mental illnesses of others, of those who belittle depression, but then realize that it has a lot to do with their lack of knowledge about it.

The idea of death looms very large in the minds of depressed people. There is no reprieve for them from this idea. The inability to let go of their own 'sins' of their past continually haunts them. Their inability to 'move on' is not their fault. The brain functions in such a strange manner that there is no room or allowance to move ahead. Depression is certainly a killer, and as I said earlier prompts many people into hurting themselves to the extreme. However, what is little understood is that it also causes several diseases that are in the long run life threatening. Antral gastritis poses the threat of becoming stomach cancer; cardiovascular diseases stem from among other things eating disorders and lack of physical activity that accompany depression in people. Since people stop feeling good about themselves, they take no efforts to do anything that makes them feel good, that makes them want to be themselves, express their ideas, thoughts and emotions.

People can try treatment via various therapies for it, but it still remains there, like a dybbuk, waiting to take hold of your mind just when you are at your most vulnerable. Once the depression sets in, it possesses you. Medication is often bad - it turns people into nothing better than a vegetable, and withdrawal from the medicine often makes the condition worse. As a patient undergoing counselling, much like any other day in the story of life, you do not feel like getting out of bed on many days, as you have no courage to face the world. Whenever you are in public, you always feel that you are under observation, under scrutiny. It is like being a teenager all over again, except the level of presumtive attitudes and judgmental nature in your own worldview tends to be much much worse, pushing many people to the extent of rejecting themselves utterly, to the point of attempting suicide in extreme cases. However, what is known to certainly help many people fight this monster on a daily basis is just hearing them out. But getting a patient of depression to talk is nearly impossible, for the fear of judgment and ridicule looms large over the mind. As a listener, you have to coax, plead, fight, find some way or the other to get the patient to share the state of their mind, their fears, their apprehensions, their hopes for the future with you. Often it can be seen that a person is aided by such sessions, even if done by an ordinary non-judgmental person. Other things that help patients include exercise, painting, music, dancing, but these are often akin to taking anti-depressants. They are helpful but only in a symptomatic manner. The elephant in the room never really leaves without talking.

Friends and family can truly never understand what is going on in the mind of the depressed person, as the experience is always unique to each person. And yet, often people think that being sympathetic is all that is needed. That is like putting band-aid on a cancer tumour. What is really needed  is empathy. A patient ear, an understanding mind, acceptability is what a patient gropes for in that emotional maelstrom that (s)he is falling in. These are often no more than straws, but the patient is more than grateful for even these straws. So always try to reach out to people who say they have been fighting depression. Believe me, when a person says that (s)he is depressed, it is not a lie. It is just that they are brave enough to admit it, and do not believe in the falsehood of 'sucking it up' and 'being a sissy' or 'being a wimp' or 'it is all a farce, a drama'. What they need is someone to reach out for them. You don't have to paint a rosy picture or show the rainbow after the rain. All you need to do is to assure the person that you are an ear that is willing to hear them out, a person who they can entrust their 'secret' with. You can encourage them to visit counsellors, but it is social acceptability that they seek, not acceptability of a counsellor or a psychiatrist. Let us all try and be more acceptable of people fighting depression in our lives instead of accommodating chain smokers and binge drinkers. It is not a communicable disease, trust me.

A WHO Clip About Depression is what I would request all of you to share. It is a good primer. Another movie that people should watch is The Truth About Depression, a documentary made by BBC Ireland, that sums up quite well the challenges faced by people who have been fighting this disease.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


It was one of those humid sunny days that the season always brought in. Sweat drips down not just your brows but streaks across your back, making every effort to discomfit you. More often than not, the attempts are successful, if you go by the number of people making irritable faces, attempting to reach out to their backs, as if their contorted hands will help improve their position; after all, even if one such streaker were to be successfully thwarted, another would come racing.

I was amongst the countless many, as I stood there. The sun decided to come out today, making the afternoon an unbearable affair. Nothing monumental about it. As is always the case, I stood at a bus stand along the R..... Road, hoping to catch a bus that leads me to my destiny. The bus could hopefully give me a temporary reprieve. Air conditioned buses had been introduced recently, and the heightened fares seem to have had little impact on the enthusiasm of one and all in boarding it. And who can be blamed for it? The sweltering heat and unbearable humidity could be combated for a few moments at the cost of a few extra bucks; and clearly everyone looked forward to these few moments of relief in the midst of not just irascible weather but also a life that led to little else apart from being constituting a milling crowd.

The settings are usual for me. Every day, at this time of the day, after four, I am waiting for a bus. It is almost always after four when I head towards the bus station. I don’t have a watch with me, and I conveniently keep my cellular phone away from me in a bag slung around my shoulders out of fear of it being pocketed away by certain unfriendly people who haunt crowded spaces with much glee. And buying a cellphone is double the trouble. Money has to be poured down the drain for a perfectly useless device that has made us all dependent on itself even before we could take cognizance of the fact. I will also lose contact information of scores of people, to whom I shall have to apologize for no fault of mine, and request for re-sharing those details. As it is, I am not sociable; to lose a phone would be nothing less than a disaster for me. Hence, in my effort to not cause inconveniences of this sort, I hide my phone. Thus, all I ever know about time in that moment of the day is that it is certainly after four.

I always wonder what made that day what it was. There was nothing but ordinariness about the day. The sun was where it always is; the people’s movements were what they always are; my indifference was what it always is. But is it only about the weather, the sun or the people engaged in their randomness, their organized chaos? Or is it about moments that are indelible in time; moments that stick in your head for a lifetime? Perhaps it is the former; or maybe it is the latter. I don’t know; it is all starting to sound delirious....

Just then, I notice a girl walking across the road. Why do I notice her? Is it love at first sight? Or is it physical attraction? The girl clearly is not noticed by anyone else. Perhaps it is one of those moments where we have nothing to do, and so we start looking at people, trying to pass time by making educated guesses about them. But this girl...there is something different about her. She has your average looks, and she is dressed ordinarily, with that typical bag every woman carries with her when moving around (I guess). And yet, all I could do was to look at her. Some strange magnetic attraction had pulled my gaze towards her, and my eyes follow every movement of hers. The heat of the day is getting to her like it is to everyone else, including me. I noticed her wiping the sweat off her brow with something like a handkerchief, or was it a tissue paper? Sometimes, even the smallest of details make a substantial difference in the story that is to be told. And yet, even at that distance, it was as if someone had magnified a telescope on my eyes, solely focusing on her, her face. There was some kind of visible irritation on her face. It must be the weather. Such irritation often arises in this sweltering heat and suffocating humidity. But beneath those layers of irritation, there was a strange calmness that concealed itself well from everyone around her. Barely did anyone around her take notice of her presence. It was the usual; you ignore my existence, while I continue to ignore yours. The indifference is always mutual.

As the moments passed one could see visible tension on her face. Clearly, she was looking for someone. Or something. Her line of sight kept shifting every few moments, but seemed to be following a steady direction. As I kept staring at her, I began to notice her features. The eyes were a normal shape; her nose was somewhat long and pudgy at the same time. Clearly, she was not wearing any make up, though there was quite an effort to look presentable made on her part. The fidgeting with the clothes seemed to give away her discomfort with the apparel. Perhaps it was a little loose for her, a bit oversize. Her body type was average, and so the clothes seem to be slightly big on her, nearly engulfing her into their various reams and folds. And yet, she kept playing with them around her waist, almost having fun with them.

All of a sudden, I note her gaze becoming steadfast. It was probably to my left; I thought I would look around to whatever or whoever it was in some time, when she raised her right hand. It was slender, not beautiful by any means. She took that hand across her waist, and firmed something.

And then, even before I could realize what happened, there was a blast.

The girl blew up, and so did many others who stood by her, unaware of her existence. The bus stand was ablaze, and there was blood all over. Vehicles had come to a standstill, while a nearby scooter (or was it a motorcycle) had flown right across the road due to the impact.

People were running for their lives, screaming to reach out to heavens know whom, while I stood there, transfixed.

Or perhaps I was stunned and horrified, too much in shock to even understand what happened right then and there in time.

I would never know who she was. All I know is that it was her.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

India's Big Budget - What Should It Be?

"I know I have a Tough Task" - Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi in a Pose for cameras (courtesy Dainik Jagran)

It is ironic that every budget is labelled historic in India, completely sidestepping the incovenient facts. Any country that has raised itself in our geographical vicinity has shown policy stability. An annual general budget is a moronic idea to promote economic stability, and I believe it should be replaced with an economic charter at the beginning of the government with no changes through an amendment to the Constitution. Alternatively, governments should focus on one budget and pass votes on account in subsequent years that uphold the policy framework laid out in the budget earlier.

Unlike February, the General Budget is being presented in the middle of a truant monsoon this year. A change of government with a mandate not seen since 1984 has meant that Narendra Modi has a tide of hope carrying him. This tide can also leave him high and dry if he fails to propel growth, control inflation, and also push for job creation on a scale not seen since Chinese economic reforms. Also, this budget needs to expand the economy while maintaining fiscal prudence. There are already signs of what may happen, and so, as I see it, the budget may be seen highlighting among other things points that I put down here:

1. A sovereign wealth fund on the lines of Singapore's Temasek Holdings that manages all Public sector enterprises may be proposed by the government. As Raghav Bahl has pointed out, such a fund would be able to mobilize over US$1trillion, and coupled with DoPT reforms that give such companies complete managerial autonomy, a lot of the fiscal deficit can be covered up.The government in fact has shown keen interest in the proposal of all public sector banks to set up an asset management fund to manage non-performing assets. Investment can be sought in these funds by large international financiers, including the Gulf countries, Japan and Korea, thus raising further monet for the government.

2. Tax policy of India will see major changes. While the disastrous retrospective taxation is certainly going to see the cold storage, the government looks keen to bring out Goods and Services Tax (GST), and this intention may see a mention. A first step towards that may be a reduction in the various cesses and service tax rates that the government levies. At the individual level, income tax exemption limit may just see an increase to INR 5lakh, which is intended to offset the impacts of inflation on tax paying middle classes. Income tax rates may be lowered significantly, and instead, one of the two things may happen. A consumption tax like the one in Japan may be introduced by this government, knowing Modi's fascination with Japan and its economic recovery. Alternatively, a banking transaction tax may be introduced.Also, Value Added Tax (VAT) rates may be reduced periodically.

3. Incentives for industrial manufacturing may see a major revamp across major sectors. The government has announced funds for the revival and re-establishment of electronic manufacturing clusters in India, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China for the establishment of industrial parks across India by Chinese industries has been cleared by the government. This MoU may in fact be extended to Japan and Korea, who are already major investors in India. Exclusive economic zones shall see a major backing, and the current government may be able to sell this idea better, as it has more confidence of the industry. Taxation, as discussed earlier, shall also be tweaked, to see a reduction in the corporate tax rate down from the current 30% while reducing the tax holiday period. 100% Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in defence, a big employing sector, has seen flip flops by industrial lobby groups, the move has revived significant global interest into investing in India, particularly from such large defence hubs like France and UK.

3. Banking sector may see a major shake up with the introduction of three things - license to Postal Services to set up their bank, which has major inclusion effects for India's poor; divestment of public sector banks to raise funds coupled with greater autonomy; and allowing private sector banks to give loans to Micro Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (MSMEs). These have the potential to change the banking sector in an unprecendented manner. The last one may have particular impact on employment, since lack to access of easy capital is one of the key reasons (apart from  archaiclabour laws) why MSMEs are unable to expand. Also, asking banks to clear up their debt backlogs may be given a go ahead.

4. Energy subsidies may be removed across major products, particularly diesel. Prices have already been hiked for non-subsidized LPG cylinders, an indication of what may happen. Energy subsidies are bleeding the economy, and there is enough evidence to suggest that. States may be however asked to reduce their tax and octroi rates on fuel so that the consumer is not pressurized. Also, cash transfers shall be pushed to help the poor manage their fuel expenses, utilizing the Aadhar card scheme or the National Population Register (NPR) of the Home Ministry. 

5. Agricultural sector shall see the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) being linked to asset generation schemes, particularly the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sinchai Yojana that has been anounced by the President of India. Ministry of Surface Transport is pushing for a scheme to promote horticulture along national highways while greening them under NREGS while setting up a long term income source for poor villagers. Crop insurance may see a re-introduction, and interest rates for farmer loans may be reduced sgnificantly.

These are just an indicative host of measures. These are essential for reviving the economy at a large scale, and need to accompany major law reforms that accompany, which can happen without the consent of the Parliament, since they fall under the purview of executive decisions, like labour law reforms. The government has to fulfil hopes and aspirations of millions unlike anything before. Hopefully it shall not let us down.

मिट्टी के दीए

सरजू निराशा के बादलों से घिरा बैठा था। दीवाली की दोपहर हो गयी थी, और अभी भी सरजू के ठेले से सामान ज्यों का त्यों पड़ा हुआ था।  बड़ी आस से उसने...