Archive for June, 2011

Plodders, not racehorses, on the podium

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 June 29th, 2011 Aditi PhadnisAditi Phadnis

Two important bureaucratic appointments this month suggested it was back to the rule of the ‘seniormost’ principle. Ajit Kumar Seth, a strictly middle-of-the-road bureaucrat was appointed Cabinet Secretary and  Ranjan Mathai, efficient, competent but by no means brilliant, was appointed Foreign Secretary. The two men have two things in common: they are the seniormost in their batch; and in their careers, they’ve been plodders, rather than racehorses.

These appointments are something of a revolution, given the way the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has handled such postings in the past. The UPA superseded 12 (or is it 16) bureaucrats to appoint Shiv Shankar Menon as Foreign Secretary in 2006. This meant that when he became National Security Advisor (NSA) in 2010, he was the juniormost officer in the hierarchy – Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar was 1970 batch; Defence Secretary pradeep kumar and outgoing home secretary GK Pillai were batchmates (1972 batch). In the past the NSA has concurrently been Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (Brajesh Mishra) or such a senior diplomat that no jury of his peers could come close to judging him (JN Dixit).

In the case of the cabinet secretary the pendulum swung to the other end. The outgoing Cabinet secretary was on serial extension leading to the impression that no bureaucrat in successive batches was good enough to be considered for the job. K M Chandrasekhar was appointed in 2007 and retired in 2011, which makes him the cabinet secretary with the third longest tenure of service after BD Pande (1972-1977) and CR Krishnaswamy Rao (1981-85).

This time, the government has opted to play safe. Uncontroversial, low-key officers not prone to rocking boats will man key posts. This could mean two things: no turf will be touched and there will be no hurricanes in Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen, any way); and the dream of the Performance Management division in the Cabinet Secretariat, that  the Indian bureaucrat will be one who will rise in the service in direct proportion to his performance and not merely on the basis of seniority, will continue to be what it is – a dream.

The circus called Admissions DU

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 June 29th, 2011 Tarun Chaturvedi

The Delhi University admission circus continues unabated. Welcome to adulthood – the first aspiration of the young adult of landing with a seat in a Delhi University college of choice and a course of choice may still be elusive.

Starting from the imbecile 100% cut-off announced by Sri Ram College of Commerce on day one to the possibility of a third cut-off list coming soon, we keep getting our daily dose of entertainment. Like it or not, prime coverage has been accorded to this event both in the national electronic and the print media, giving it a national event status. We are being forced to hear numerous debates – involving politicians, academicians, students, parents etc. Each participant wants us to hear his own view and obviously considers his solution to be the panacea for all ills which plague the system.

To me the entire debate seems to be a waste of time. It makes no sense to debate on a non-issue. On day one the Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal admitted a 100% cut-off was “irrational.” He continued (with his usual habit of commenting without understanding the issue) and said, “In one college, in the commerce stream, the cut-off is 100 per cent. I felt very sad especially for parents whose children have worked very hard and got 97.5 per cent…I want to tell the parents and students that we are on your side and will request the Vice Chancellor and colleges to take note.”

CPM leader Sitaram Yechury sarcastically remarked that the present scenario of sky-high cut-off would have kept even Shakespeare out of college. More recently we had the India Today cover page screaming “95% and Nowhere To Go”. A harassed set of parents wept saying how much more should they expect from their child who had got 78%.

In all this milieu, the main issue has been lost. Absolute marks in today’s competitive world make no sense. Everything in today’s world is relative. Every aspect of life is a race. If you clock better that Ussain Bolt you may be happy, but even with that timing if you are last in the race, who cares about your timing. This holds true for marks also, they are good or bad only when compared with others, else in absolute terms they convey no meaning and hence deserve no respect / condemnation.

There are around 6,000 seats in the Delhi University for pursuing graduation and so it is certain that only the top 6000 candidates, amongst all who have applied, will be admitted. There ends the story. Who cares if the last candidate to get in had 90% or 45%. He still remains the 6,000 ranked among all the applicants. In the various talk shows, I keep hearing participants saying that even after getting above 80% they have no college to go to. And I find in discussions across the cross section of the society that such candidates get a lot of sympathy. But the truth remains that these candidates are not within the top 6,000, the system does not care if they have 80% or 85%.

The crux of the matter is the less number of seats at the Under Graduate level as compared to the applicants - and no body seems to address this issue. The authorities who matter are not realising that if this issue remains unaddressed for long, the entire DU will loose its relevance in the near future. Good students who are being forced to pursue the graduate course from Open schools outside the DU will finish graduation soon and will take on the DU graduates in the post graduate / professional courses. Very soon the honour associated with being a DU graduate will be lost. It is a wake up call for the DU authorities, if they want to continue to remain on the top they better increase the seats and allow a larger cross section of the students to be benefitted or else very soon the entire DU would be pushed into oblivion.

So dear Mr Kapil Sibal if you actually want to live up to comment (mentioned above) and be on the side of the students, a more serious correction in the system is required than merely assuring that you would request for a lowering of the cut offs. Please take note - start delivering and stop the lip service of assuring. The future of the country is at stake.

Why do we need ‘Slut Walk’?

Monday, June 27th, 2011 June 27th, 2011 Nayanima BasuNayanima Basu

Alright, alright. I know this one is going to make sound like a big prude. I’m just about getting ready to be labelled a holier-than-thou cow. But I’ve grown up on a diet of legends such as Mother Teresa, Matangani Hazra, Rani Laxmibai, Razia Sultan, Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu and a whole lot of other women who did this country proud. I learnt about them in textbooks and comic strips, and marvelled at their achievements in movies, plays, puppet shows.
 
Which is why, I got really peeved when a friend called me up and announced excitedly that she was taking part in what I can only put down as an insanely mindless protest march — the Slut Walk.
 
The concept originated in Canada in reponse to a police officer’s suggestion in April this year, that women wearing provocative clothing were more likely to get molested or raped. The cop in question categorically advised women to ‘avoid dressing like sluts’, hence the term.
 
The Slut Walk has gained popularity in North America and Europe, although marches are also being India, Brazil, New Zealand and South Korea.
 
I am particularly upset with the way some Indian women have taken to emulating the West at the drop of a hat. I am not sure the so-called protests with achieve anything apart from generating television TRPs and big moolah for the organisers. And, of course, some cheap and possibly unwanted publicity for the participants.
 
If the objective of the march is to stir the collective conscience of the Delhi Police or the rapists/molesters for that matter, the participants are barking up the wrong tree. In any case, many of them, like my friend, seem to be in it only because it is fashionable to do so.
 
As a society, we seem to have missed the whole point. Rapes are on the rise simply because the rate of convictions is phenomenally low. What we really need is very strong anti-rape laws supported by an equally strong justice-delivery mechanism.
 
You wouldn’t ever see men do anything so stupid as a Slut Walk, would you?  When was the last time you saw a male cheerleader in any sport? Yet men still rule the world and will continue calling the shots as long as we women insist on showing ourselves in such poor light. Why do you think advertisements on Axe, Zatak or any other male grooming products end up showing women in such repugnant manner? 
 
Back in the 1960s and 1970s the so-called radical feminists ruined the image of womanhood with the famous ‘Burn the Bra’ campaign. The event marginalised feminism and silenced some of the more meaningful voices who would have otherwise fought a tough war. It trivializes the social-footing of a woman.
 
How on earth can we stop as hideous a crime as rape by holding such protest marches? On the contrary, such protests completely defeat the very purpose for which they were designed. Stop this nonsense in the name of ‘women empowerment’.

Offence is best defence — Govt vs civil society

Friday, June 24th, 2011 June 24th, 2011 Tarun Chaturvedi

What was most feared is about to happen. A ray of hope that was built up in the form of a civil mass movement against corruption is on the verge of dying even before the “mass” could be added to the movement. It is interesting to note that this death is not due to the lack of effort made by the civil society leaders or the inclination of the masses, but is because of some deft and shrewd political moves by the members of the ruling party. They have cleverly involved the civil society groups in various forms of debates and discussion but have not even touched the core issue raised by the groups – CORRUPTION. In cases where such moves have failed to deflect the heat from the issue of corruption they have used force to silence the critics and have justified the use of force even in the Supreme Court.

The debate on whether the civil society groups have the right to raise issues on which the Parliament is allowed to legislate has just begun. This is a classical political move. If the opponent is raising pertinent questions, duck the questions and engage the opponent in a verbal duel over his powers, the methodology of raising issues, his ignorance about how the government functions, etc.

The civil society groups, whether they are headed by Anna or Ramdev, are quite unaware of this side of politics in which the likes of Kapil Sibal and Pranab Mukherjee are veterans. As a result of this political naivete, we are now being made to hear televised debates regarding the rights of the civil society. The print media is no different and has started giving it cover-page stories. So we have Manish Tiwari telling us that the civil society groups are trying to hold the government to ransom, Pranab Mukherjee comes up with an even better one –- the groups are trying to frame legislation which is the domain of the elected parliamentarians. As usual, the civil society groups have started to explain their position on these technical issues and are now on the defensive. The government has applied the principle of -– “Offense is the best defence” and for the time being it seems it has been fairly successful in it.

But this is surely a short-sighted approach. The ruling party leaders need to realise that the government functions within a democratic framework and will have to face the electorate again. While the nation’s majority may feel helpless for a while, being at the receiving end of the mauling caused by corruption, this helplessness will gradually give rise to resentment and anger. This will have serious repercussions at the ballot box. The nation’s majority will turn away from the parties constituting the government in case the wounds inflicted by corruption are not healed in the remaining period of governance of the ruling party.

Wake up, dear leaders, and stop basking in short-term glory. The wrath of the people is building up. If you want your party to have a long life in governance, do something to save itself from the wrath of the people.

Whose agents are they?

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 June 23rd, 2011 Sundaresha Subramanian

Agents are many. I didn’t encounter the deadly varieties in the first of half of my life, being from, what oversmart marketers in Bombay often derogatorily call, a Tier-II city. All I ran into were the seemingly harmless ones like the news paper agent, travel agent or a lottery agent. The only deadly agent I knew then was Pierce Brosnan.

In the topmost tier of the Prima Urbis, there are agents of kinds I hadn’t even imagined. My first big shock was of course the real estate agent for reasons everyone in Mumbai knows. Then there were agents for jobs, marriages, modelling, movie roles etc. And, there are agents who will pump bullets into unsuspecting journalists on bikes for a few thousands.
Agents sure have a role to play. With the buyers getting more lazy and sellers more greedy, the scope of agentosphere has grown manifold. With advent of internet, it can only grow faster.

No wonder, agents now wear pin stripes and drive big cars. My own realty man says he wants a Nano as he is getting old and the “party” would be happier if he drove ‘em around to show houses, especially in the rains.

Unlike James Bond, agents are family men, bound by emotions and fuelled by aspirations, I thought. Yeah, They are normal people like you and me, except when they are doing deals or hunting for them. When they spot their game, like any carnivore, they chase, hunt and prey.
The financial sector agent in general and mutual fund agent in particular, though has a slight variation. Over the years, he is used to a routine. Like a wily old fox, he spots the odd stupid buffalo. Then he tricks his way into her heart and walks her to a lazy tiger doctor’s den at the pretext curing her non-existent illnesses. No prizes for guessing what happens next. The lazy tiger keeps a lion’s share, fox gets the rest. Fox happy. Tiger happy. Buffalo dead. End of story.

Enter Jungle King. Jungle King told fox to help the stupid buffalo because he needs advise more than the tiger doctor. Fox was worried where will I get my meat. King said ask the buffalo. If she is happy with your advice, let her give you some milk. In simple words, fox can’t hunt with the hound and run with the hares. Story has a new end : Fox goes to new forest. Tiger made to hunt for game. But buffalo alive and mooing.

Exit old King. Enter new King. New king says a good jungle should have place for all three. Buffalo can live but tiger can’t starve and fox can’t go away. Now how do you do that?  If fox gets new buffaloes for tiger and if fox brings them from far flung areas,  he can get a 100 grams of the buffalo blood.

Can the fox ever be the buffalo’s advisor? Can fox and tiger gang up against the buffalo? Can the king decide how much the buffalo should pay the fox? Will the fox be happy with 100 grams? Will this make jungle a better place?

Kungfu Panda 3 might have some answers.

We are all corrupt

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 June 21st, 2011 Nayanima BasuNayanima Basu

Remember that comedy of the 1980s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron? While it evoked a great deal of laughter, there was a not-so-subtle message in  it as well — the very people we invest our faith in can be the ones who let us down badly. In the movie, that role of the so-called custodian of morality who succumbed to the lure of money was very ably portrayed by the late Bhakti Barve.

Fast-forward to the present times. I just couldn’t contain my amusement while simultaneously feeling sorry for what has become of our country. Like everyone else, I too want corruption to be eliminated from society once and for all. The question is, who is to be the torchbearer in the war against graft. Godmen or so-called Gandhians?  I am not convinced.

The Lok Pal Bill entails creation of an ombudsman who would, if Anna Hazare and his ilk have their way, have the power to question the Prime Minister of the country. And that ombudsman would be an academician, a scholar, a professor, just about anyone who commands respect in society. But there is a small problem here — who is to guarantee that newly-appointed keeper of the is himself corruption-free and has always done things legally?

It was different under British rule. At that time, we were up against a foreign power and there was a common thread called nationality that bonded people together and sacrifice their lives for the nation. Today we are fighting our own. And we don’t really know who the enemy is.

I have a bigger issue here: Aren’t we ourselves the enemy? If we are truly concerned about eliminating corruption and poverty, we could start by discouraging such practices individually. We could, for instance, contribute in our own little way by not bribing the passport officer to obtain the document or join an illegal driving school that promises to issue a valid driving license even before you learn how to hold the steering wheel.

The RTI Act has been around for a while. How many people you know have used it for genuine purposes? And how many genuine people really know how to file an RTI application? A colleague from Mumbai tells me he took a dip-stick and asked 10 fellow journalists knew how to file an application. Surprise, surprise… just one of the ten respondents knew, and that too because her father had literally made a hobby out of using the RTI as a weapon.

Call me a die-hard cynic, but I figure it will be the same with Lok Pal. There will be give-and-take, and while there will be celebrations galore once the PM comes under the ambit of the Lok Pal — IF at all he comes under its ambit — elimination of corrruption will remain a pipe dream if the ombudsman does another Bhakti Barve on us. Another question here. How will the ombudsman be chosen — and by whom?

***

This one is for you Babaji? If you were truly serious about your mission, you could have made your point by fasting in Haridwar itself. You had the media at your command, surely your campaign wouldnt have gone unnoticed. But since you decided a Chalo Dilli would be more effective, all you had to do was to court arrest when the cops came to Ramlila Grounds. Your running away from there and donning the garb of a woman only displays a lack of conviction in your crusade. Jai Ho.

Google’s +1 — hit or miss?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 June 21st, 2011 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi

On June 1 2011, Google released the +1 Button for the whole web. In its official blog, Google writes, “+1—the digital shorthand for ‘this is pretty cool.’ To recommend something, all you have to do is click +1 on a webpage or ad you find useful. These +1’s will then start appearing in Google’s search results.”

This should be seen as a social recommender built-into web and search, sort of a cross between Facebook Like (which only shows up in Facebook) and Social Bookmarkers such as Digg, Delicious etc (which only shows up in their respective systems). Google’s +1 would be deeper integrated in web and search, making it more universal. So far so good.

But Google’s latest social feature, similar to Facebook’s ‘like’ button, will only work for Google if it can manage to import data from Facebook, Twitter and similar sites, into the individuals’ Google Profile thereby making Google, the gatekeeper of social interactions.

While there is probably a need for this as there are too many points of interaction – SMS, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail, Messenger, etc, we do know that Facebook has made it fairly clear to allow Google to access data it holds.

+1 could work for advertisers online. Let’s say you’re a big Google AdWords advertiser. You pay 25 cents a click. Now you start using +1 and your users drive up your ranking for all the keywords you are relevant for. This way your noticeability goes up and drives more organic clicks. So you pay less as your organic SEO is improved (non-paid traffic) and your ads convert better (paid traffic that converts better is cheaper in the AdWords algorithm).

In short, with +1 the ability for users to recommend paid search ads to their friends will potentially increase CTRs and thus lower overall advertiser costs. Currently, every user now sees different ads based on their search history whether they are signed in or not, but this is now a step further into personalising the ads a user sees.

Another plus for Google is that it owns search engine referral traffic, which is the primary traffic driver for websites. So if +1 recommendations can influence your page rank then its a wise thing to have on your website.

What I am wondering is that since ‘Like’ and ‘Tweet’ buttons have been around much longer, it is only natural that they have cultivated their follower habits. So will we take to another social sharing tool? And really, will we have the faith to try +1 out after the dismal social tools –Wave, Buzz etc — that Google dished out earlier?

Of course it might be too early to write off +1 Button. But given the string of failed attempts from Google in social media, there’s always going to be skepticism. And the odd thing with social media is that trying too hard is not quite cool. And if you are not quite cool, you can’t tell people “this is pretty cool”.

Breaking Bad

Thursday, June 16th, 2011 June 16th, 2011 J Jagannath

What would you make of a brilliant chemistry teacher, who uses his chemical expertise to churn out the purest form of methamphetamine the US state of New Mexico has ever seen? Before you jump to a conclusion, allow me to work a Nazi metaphor here: not everyone who worked at the concentration camps is evil. Walter White is diagnosed with an acute form of lung cancer and obviously his piffling teacher salary will never be a cushion for his wife, a disabled son and a soon-to-be-born daughter.

Thus, to provide for his family after his truncated life, he gets down to ‘cooking meth’ with his erstwhile not-so-bright student and currently a drug peddler-cum-junkie, Jesse Pinkman. This duo is probably television’s equivalent of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and a more menacing one at that. While White is the matter, Jesse is the anti-matter and their banter is easily the show’s greatest strength. This must be one of those few television dramas whose mise-en-scene is not contributed by the garage sale of a rich man’s mansion. Barring the household squabbles of White, rest of the action happens in the open and this is the sort of action that can give you anxiety attacks.

Apart from the lead duo, there are a bunch of other characters who could easily straddle both the worlds of David Lodge and Werner Herzog. There’s White’s tough-as-Kevlar cop brother-in-law Hank, whose psyche goes for a toss after a ghastly experience. White’s sister-in-law Marie is a kleptomaniac and is forever in a state of self-denial. Of course, there’s White’s wife Skyler, a perfect embodiment of a household dominatrix. As show progresses there are other minor but hugely memorable characters that keep giving the show its Eurostar brio. Of the three seasons, the last one has some high-octane drama that would put even Robert Rodriguez to shame.

More than anything else, this show only reignites Gore Vidal’s assessment of USA: United States of Amnesia. Here’s a show set in the sleepy town of Albuquerque where all the settings are natural and the show’s creator Vince Gilligan has a Zen-like focus on the failings of the much ballyhooed Great American Dream. This is one show that will richly recompense for whatever time you expend on it. David Foster Wallace merits to be quoted here: “Entertainment provides relief. Art provokes engagement.”

Breaking Bad is art with capital A.

PS: Fourth season begins on July 17.

Windies Cricket RIP

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011 June 14th, 2011 Praveen Bose

I had stopped watching cricket since the match fixing scandals broke out a few years ago. You can’t escape a fleeting glance of it once in a while when you pass by a TV.

There’s no dearth of those who swear by cricket, though they can’t tell if late cut and upper cut can be seen in the same sporting arena.

But then TV channels want only eyeballs, so what if the eyeballs are controlled by a brain that has been left incapable of differentiating the good, bad and the ugly side of the sport.

Perhaps the people living in the West Indies have decided to keep cricket off their minds. I chanced to get a glance of a one-day match being played, at 11 pm. It’s got to be the Carribeans. Yes, it indeed was. But I was put into doubt. There were advertisements in Hindi in the ground.

I was too proud to ask where the match was going on. Only a few days ago did a never-ending domestic series of cricket end. With those matches going on up to midnight (I think!), I took it for granted that this match too was happening here. Where else would anyone notice a Hindi ad?

I could not make out why the stands were all empty. Then I realised it must be a stadium in the Carribeans. The stadium was small wiih very low seating capacity.

Perhaps the Hindi ads in the stadium stood testimony to how the Indians have conquered cricket. And, perhaps how the West Indians have given up cricket. After all, barely a few miles off their coast they have a very lucrative sport, which is faster and less time consuming one than cricket — basketball. No more Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshal.

Now what? Just as we have redefined Democracy… it’s time we redefined cricket, Indianised it. After all, it’s now an Indian sport.

Dream on

Friday, June 10th, 2011 June 10th, 2011 Pablo ChaterjiPablo Chaterji

I recently received an email forward in which there were lots of photographs of nude women. Oh, wait – that was the other one. The one I’m referring to also had lots of photographs, but of the Google office in California, along with descriptions of what was in the photos. I’m sure most of you have seen this email, which essentially makes you feel like a complete moron for working anywhere except at Google. Free food and snacks of all kinds? Pets allowed at work? Near-Olympic level sports facilities? Igloos, cubes and yurts to work in? Massage chairs? Lava lamps? Scooters to commute between meetings? The Google office is every working person’s wet dream – only it’s all true. This set me thinking – in a situation of total fantasy, what would my ideal workplace be like? Well, here it is.

In my Utopian world, we would be required by law to report to work no earlier than 12 in the afternoon. It has been proven many times by highly scientific research (my own) that waking up by around 10 am and then getting to the office in a leisurely manner improves workplace productivity by a factor of 3.782(x2+y4 = a lollipop). The office itself would be situated inside one of Mumbai’s old mill compounds (I’m not quite sure why; that’s what I see whenever I daydream about it), except that instead of the glass-and-steel monstrosities that are now the norm, the building would be the original factory premises, suitably modified. It would be painted in bright, pleasing shades, like the Goan houses you see in TV commercials, and have greenery everywhere. It would also contain the following – a huge, temperature-controlled warehouse to store all our cars and bikes; a go-kart track; a cricket field with a bouncy wicket that takes turn on day 2; an infinity pool, a badminton court and a table-tennis table; a movie theatre; a fuel station dispensing only the finest petrol and diesel; a jacuzzi and sauna already occupied by Monica Bellucci, Paz Vega, Gong Li and Scarlett Johansson; a gaming arcade with every console and game known to humankind and a giant aquarium in which you could go scuba-diving. In keeping with the times, the entire premises would be solar-powered and all waste would be recycled.

The work space itself would be large and airy, with huge French windows overlooking a sun-deck, containing beach chairs already occupied by Victoria’s Secret models not clad in any of Victoria’s Secrets. All of us would have individual workstations designed as per our flights of fancy, with computers powerful enough to warp time and broadband connections fast enough to download the entire Internet at a click. There would be a spacious kitchen manned by a cordon bleu chef named Sabapathy (just for the incongruity of it), who would rustle up delectable world-cuisine and keep us supplied with endless quantities of hot chocolate, coffee and other beverages. Sabapathy would also double up as an expert test driver and rider, so that we could claim that he was the world’s fastest chef.

A typical working day would consist of a lazy, buffet brunch at about 12.30 pm, followed by a compulsory siesta of two hours (highly scientific research has proven that siestas make you live longer). Once awake, we would partake of light snacks and beverages and go and watch a landmark of world cinema in the movie theatre, to broaden our horizons. To keep ourselves fit and thus live even longer, we would then proceed to the sporting facilities, followed by a dip in the pool and a languorous session in the sauna, keeping Monica and Co. company. Then Sabapathy would treat us to a Michelin-star dinner, following which we would go home for a good night’s rest (there would also be a 7-star guest house on the premises, in case somebody didn’t feel like driving). When would we work, I hear you say? Well, outstanding stories would automatically get written as soon as we thought of them – a bit like now, really.