Friday, 28 November 2008

Mumbai: A Lesson of Living and Loving??

Over the last two days, like most of the world, I have expressed my emotions without inhibition. Be it a feeling of violation or be it anger towards some of the reactions that I am hearing, I have been voicing my views actively. At the same time I have been analyzing and debating with friends, measures that India probably needs to install going forward. Everyone has their views of what should be done ranging from compulsory military service being introduced to imposing of military rule in the country. Given the absolute shock value of India’s own 9/11, people’s ideas are also extreme.

While I would love to comment on all of this, I think there is something more fundamental that I would like to address before that. And that is the uncertainty of life. As a friend mentioned in his email yesterday, “there is absolutely no certainty in life about what lies ahead for us.. We could be driving on a road and a crane could fall on us or we could be having dinner / doing business in a hotel and get shot down... The inevitability of death to this body of ours seems so crystal clear.” His email had me thinking – if I were to die today, at this very moment, would I feel that I had lived a meaningful life? Would I transcend into the other world knowing that I had rendered all my duties? Will my conversations with God convince Him that in me He had a lot to be proud of? And above all, will I be able to close my eyes without any regrets?

I do think I lead an honest life, doing all that I do with sincerity. At the work place I believe that I have always strived to give my best, sometimes even getting unduly attached to my work. In fact, friends have often jested with an opinion that I am married to my job. There I have absolutely no regrets. On the personal front I am not so sure.

My family knows of their importance in my life and my unconditional love and support for them. However, I do think that I could spend some more time with them. There are friends who I think I would like to see and spend some more time with. I have been promising them a visit for a long time, not realizing that I need to grab the opportunity when it comes. Procrastination in being with the ones you care about might not be the smartest idea given the uncertainty of life. I am seeing this more clearly than ever before, today!

And then there comes something which I has been nagging me for the last twenty four hours – how measured should one be in human interaction. If a desire to express an emotion or admiration exists, is there merit in debating its articulation and the timing of the same? Is the deliberation worth, given that a prolonged delay could snatch away any opportunity of making these feelings known? How fair is it that the human race, in spreading terrorism and fear, has little qualm; but in spreading love and togetherness we sometimes take an eternity. Resolving this very basic conflict will hopefully help each one of us improve our own lives and also show us the way forward in these troubled times.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Mumbai - Calm Collected Response Need of the Hour

This continues to be Mumbaikars' worst nightmare prolonged beyond comprehension. However, I believe that as a city we need to remain calm and not be instigated. A number of our "celebrities" have made inflammatory remarks and displayed not just immaturity but a total lack of balanced view. [1] As educated citizens we should refrain from reacting to these statements with aggression.

The need of the hour is for us to stand together and help the task forces in the rescue operations. We need to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the authorities at the earliest. It is imperative now that we all display maturity, efficiency and professionalism. Mumbai is a city that has come out of various crisis only because of its spirit and unity. This time we need to deploy our perseverance, courage and togetherness like never before. Let the world know that not only are we not deterred but we also salute and support our defense personnel who have done a tremendous job in the last 24 plus hours.

[1] Point in case is Mrs. Shobha De, who in her attack on the government and authorities has completely forgotten that lapses have happened on the part of private enterprise as well. This is not the time to point fingers and call for public uproar. The hotels have lost a number of their staff, 14 policemen have been martyred and over a 125 civilians have been brutally murdered. My deepest condolences to all the bereaved families.

Mumbai - My City of Dreams

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I sat in the office, across from the Oberoi hotel, beaming with excitement. It seemed to me that finally my wish of returning to Mumbai, my city of dreams, was going to be fulfilled. All organizational issues seemed to have been resolved and the paperwork was apparently nearly complete. I flew out of Mumbai with eager anticipation, to pack my bags and bid adieu to London, my city of bridges.

Today, I am at home in London sitting spellbound by the television coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. I am feeling violated and vulnerable. It is as though my house has been broken into and ransacked in my absence, and I have to watch from afar as a mere passerby. The office has also informed me that my departure will now not be in the next ten days as I had expected, but is subject to security concerns being alleviated and the firm getting enough comfort that it is safe for me to return to my own city. While I appreciate the thoughtfulness, I am saddened that my watch from afar will probably be prolonged.

Truth be acknowledged, my presence in Mumbai is not going to have even an iota of impact on the current situation or the lives of the inhabitants. I am no anti terrorist expert, nor am I trained in combat and neither am I equipped to handle rescue operations. By the grace of God, my near and dear ones are all safe and sound. So why is the delay of just a few days becoming such an agony for me? Because it is my home that is burning and I want to be there. If not for anything else then to share the pain that the others are going through.

I moved to Mumbai as a teenager about sixteen years ago, having lived all over India and South East Asia. My experiences in each of the places we had lived in were unique, but Mumbai somehow was just different. It was in Mumbai that I first got in touch with my true values and keenest ambitions. The tryst with schooling here honed my leadership skills. My interest in theater developed in this city which is the hotbed of Indian theater. It was Mumbai that became the stepping stone for my career trajectory and lastly it is Mumbai where I found some of my best friends. Mumbai has never come forward to embrace me like a mother for a child. But it has always inspired me to go after what I believe in, and in my quest it has been a silent supporter.

The shores of Worli Seaface have provided me with long walks and a cool breeze, when I needed to clear my head and think clearly. The tea stalls at Churhgate were mid night thirst quenchers after a long and arduous day of play rehearsals. Juhu beach and Chowpatty highlighted the simple pleasures of life, ranging from a road side snack bite, a camel ride or the absolutely gorgeous sun set over the Arabian Sea. And I cannot forget the Mumbai roads – the institution that brought me closer to the street kids (the ones selling small wares and the ones forced into begging) who showed me how despite all odds one can still smile and persevere.

The Taj Mahal hotel is special to me for a number of reasons. Shamiana, the coffee shop was a treat spot for our family for a large part of my childhood. Amongst the most cherished memories I have of the hotel are of an evening a few days before I was to fly out to for my MBA. In front of the Taj, overlooking the sea, two of my closest friends stood by me and expressed their concern over my well being in a foreign land. To be honest, more than anything else, they were worried that I would fall for a Frenchman and be heart broken. So in all candidness they had selected the picturesque spot to lecture me, so that if nothing else, the view would draw me back to Mumbai. (Strangely enough, they are now both settled in the US for good!) It is unbelievable that the same architectural icon that I remember so vividly, and was at just a few days back, has been gutted by a terrorist attack. The burning images of the Taj seem to be movie trailers that I wish I had never seen.

My romance with Bombay and the stories of our rendezvous’ are endless. I can continue to narrate instances and experiences from dawn to dusk. Bombay holds all that is dear to me and it is for that reason that I want to head back and head back soon. In this hour I want to make sure that while the battle has been tough, the dreams that the city held still exist; and the city only perseveres harder to achieve its own dreams and destiny. I want to fly home, home where I belong and I want to fly now.

Mumbai under Siege - Are Citizens not Responsible?

2008 has been an unprecedented year in the history of India’s struggle against terrorism. No longer are violent attacks limited to Tier I cities and no longer are the perpetrators targeting public transport systems. It has suddenly become a campaign aiming every city which is even slightly sensitive to communal tensions. The modus operandi is to destroy the most basic every day hang outs – shopping areas, restaurants, hotels and even residential locales. And if the ongoing terror siege of Mumbai is an indication, terrorist organizations in India are succeeding in their mission.

The media has been covering the Mumbai attacks through the night and has over and over again blamed the government and law enforcement agencies for this tragedy. Given the enormity and the gravity of the situation, indeed the very first question that needs to be answered post resolution is why and how did this happen. However, is it a question that needs to be answered only by the governing entities? I do not think so.

As a nation, and more so as the city of Mumbai, we have fought terrorism for a long time now. There is an inherent realization in each one of us that we are probably not safe. But there is no effort from the citizens to help the police. We frown upon their check posts, we do not co-operate with their random scrutiny and some of us do not even consider answering their questions worth our while. When the government implements new laws to fight terrorists, “minorities” amongst us just jump at the opportunity and play it out to be an oppression dictate.

Private organizations have made little effort in beefing up security at their own premises. It is not just in terms of scanning people and their belongings (which in fact some offices implement very efficiently), but in terms of installing security cameras, having a trained vigilance team in place to monitor the footage and employing qualified security guards at and around entrances. If one considers why the two hotels (the Taj and Trident) could be taken under control by terrorists, one reason immediately stands out. Both have multiple entrances which can be broken into without being noticed. Who should take responsibility for safeguarding private premises? If we start expecting the police to do so then I think we should stop expecting them to monitor other crimes in the city.

There are critical questions, however, that the authorities need to answer. Despite the robust intelligence infrastructure that the country has, how was the possibility of such a shootout and siege missed? How could the weapons be used in open public places without the attackers being detected? Why did it take the fire brigade 30 minutes to reach the Taj? And lastly why was media allowed to come in close proximity of some of the attack sites, such that forensic evidence could have been destroyed?

Yet again our city of dreams has been invaded and our attitude remains unchanged. We are still looking for a scapegoat to pass on the blame to. But it is high time that we realize that it is only collective responsibility and joint accountability that will lead to a meaningful fight against terrorism. In the absence of this we remain a vulnerable and ready target for those who want to create chaos and disrupt lives; more than they already are.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Economics of Education

Professor King of East London University turned Halloween 2008 into a “Death of Capitalism” party but he is probably celebrating a little prematurely. Like the immortal Bollywood hero, capitalism has suffered incomprehensible battering, is severely injured and is hooked to enormous life support systems. However, with all global experts aiding resuscitation efforts, recovery is now visible; albeit sluggish. Just like the Bolllywood film, which, without the miraculous recovery of the hero would be a big box office flop; normal life in most of the world today will deflate without the existence of capitalism.

Capitalism has permeated our lives to an extent where most of our actions depend on their economic consequences. This includes even the most basic of human necessities such as access to education. In India for example we permit child labour with the excuse that in some cases it is the only means to help families survive. There is never a thought given to the fact that in addition to employing the tiny hands, the mouldable brains could be simultaneously nourished at the work place. But in the guise of practicality (i.e. economic gain), idealism is in hiding; setting lower benchmarks for the society. And we are thrilled at achievement of the mere stretch of our hands needed to touch these low ceilings.

Thus it is heartening and inspiring to know that the Indian parliament has finally (after six long years) passed the Right to Education bill. Now the state is not only guaranteeing free education to all children between the ages of six and fourteen, but also taking accountability such that a legal action is possible in case a child is wrongfully denied access to schooling. Without diluting the original draft, the bill also requires doing away with donation, capitation and interviewing the child or parents as part of a screening procedure. On the face of it, this seems to be a very fair enactment of a fundamental birthright of children.

There is also a requirement for private schools to reserve 25% of the class capacity at entry levels for the disadvantaged children from the neighbourhood. Now this makes complete sense as opposed to the caste based reservation that exists at the under and post graduate levels in India. The Right to Education bill seems to be aiming at creating a level playing field by providing an equal opportunity to all children and hopefully the government will supplement this in the coming years with financial aid for the meritorious but financially challenged pupils. The current “quota system” on the other hand is a blatant exploitation of the prevalent illiteracy to gain electoral votes.

Coming back to the basis of today’s society, the effective enactment of this bill can have far reaching economic benefits for the country. The theory of economics has for long been a proponent of increase in productivity as a means to economic prosperity. The first step in increasing productivity is increasing education levels. This is proven in examples of both Tamil Nadu and Kerela in India[1]. Literacy rate in Kerela is close to a 100%. The availability of skilled workforce in Kerela has earned it the number 5 position in the country in terms of investment attractiveness and infrastructure penetration. This in turn makes the state the third most affluent state in India.

In the 1980s, Tamil Nadu government decided to introduce the mid-day meals in schools. While it is debatable that the introduction of the scheme was more to gain electoral ballots than to promote education, the non-bureaucratic implementation of the scheme resulted in each child in the state spending an average of seven years at school. This is amongst the highest figures in the country and has contributed to the average 6% - 7% growth of the state economy over the last decade and a half (more than the national average in some years).

These two examples give a small preview of what is achievable if the nation with the world’s second largest population can effectively implement the Right to Education bill. Add to this that the average age of the country is c. 25 years and the impact seems to be even more far reaching.

No economic growth is possible without political stability and education can go a long way in making the Indian population more aware of the realistic situation. India is a land of myriad sensitivities. Varied cultures, languages, religions and castes complicate the comprehension of the simplest of view points. Add to this the extensive illiteracy prevalent and today a potent brew is available for the country’s power hungry politicians. Creating communal tensions and using cultural biases to skew perception of the masses away from the truth is what Indian politicians are most adept at.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) chief[2] has recently used cultural origins to create a so called “social welfare” agenda to fight the upcoming general elections. This is because probably he has no other action point on which he can sway the votes of the people in his favour. Instigating the indigenous population of Maharashtra (against immigrants from other Indian states) seems to be a low hanging fruit from which a violent and visible battle can be started. What the leadership has forgotten to highlight is that while immigration into Mumbai exists, the employment opportunities are also almost on an equal footing. Emigrating to other states in search of better livelihoods is an equal option to the people of Maharashtra. There is no law which is pro-immigrants in the state. And finally the same politicians who are crying foul against north Indians have fought previous general elections with predominantly north Indian parties to win a piece of action in the centre. But why has the common man not thought about these arguments, because his mind has not been trained to think beyond what he hears!

In a recent address Justice Shri S.Rajendra Babu, stated “It [education] emancipates the human beings and leads to liberation from ignorance.”[3] With one step having been taken in the right direction one can only hope that with increasing literacy levels, awareness permeates our social framework, such that we are no longer slaves to someone else’s ideas but we can use our own intelligence to make rationale decisions, understand our rights and acknowledge our duties. Hopefully India’s investment into education will be fair and lead us to more prosperity and stability.

[1] Source: India Brand Equity Forum
[2] Followed by the leadership of the Nationalist Congress Party
[3] Inaugural address by Justice Shri S.Rajendra Babu, Chairperson, NHRC at National Level Seminar on “Right to Education ” held on 11th and 12th September 2008 in New Delhi