Archive for January, 2012

Leave me alone, please!

Monday, January 30th, 2012 January 30th, 2012 Kalpana PathakKalpana Pathak

When last month a travel portal in a survey found out that Indians are among the most vacation-deprived, I was least surprised.

Going on a holiday or seeking leave from your boss, for that matter, is always an event.

Firstly, you wonder what will the boss say.

Secondly, if by the boss’s grace, your leave has been accepted, under no circumstances will you get out of his cabin sans the guilt pangs about going on leave when the entire world is working hard.

No wonder the survey says that over 28 per cent of Indians do not make use of leaves allocated to them due to their bosses.

Despite all this, I take leave. But yes, when I put in an application for the same, I prepare myself for a few words of wisdom from my seniors.

Some always tell me that when they were my age, they worked round the clock and terms such as vacations or compensatory offs didn’t exist in their dictionaries… that at this young age, I should be in office early and leave late… that how journalists actually work the least in the media industry… and that…

But, ahem… may I still have the privilege of taking a few days off? Please.

My friends who love to listen to their bosses, have an even more interesting experience to share.

One of them, when recently visiting Mumbai from Bangalore, brought her laptop along.

Her organisation, she said, was creating a new vertical and she, along with her boss, had been made in-charge. Her boss had asked her to manage the nitty-gritties in flat seven days, the days she was off for.

In her boss’s words, “Considering your record has so far been fantastic, please do not spoil it by taking long leave.”

In those seven days, she did not step out of the house to either meet her friends or even see what has changed (or not changed) in Mumbai.

So when the survey adds that 53 per cent Indians regularly checked work-related emails on vacation, you can understand why. On the other hand, 41 per cent of Americans never checked work-related mails while on a holiday.

I think for us to enjoy our allocated leaves, we  will have to behave like the Europeans, treat vacations as an entitlement and not as a luxury (that one begins to feel guilty about).

A Republic of Delhi or a Union of States?

Saturday, January 28th, 2012 January 28th, 2012 Jyoti MukulJyoti Mukul

As the Republic Day parade went past our television sets showing the Raj Path and the surrounding Lutyens’ architectural marvels in full splendour, a special feeling came to me yet again. Not that I may be counted as a hard-core patriot—-I am as much an Indian as anyone else–but, simply put, I like the grandeur, the spirit of celebration and maybe just the bandobast around it. I prefer it to the forced colouring of my face in Holi, to put it very frankly.

I have seen the show live from the vantage point exactly opposite the VVIP enclosure and if family members are game will like to go and witness the show year after year. Part of the reason is that as a former Delhiite, now living just little away in adjoining Gurgaon, I feel that the parade is part of the city’s identity just as the Bollywood is for Mumbai. And to that extent, I can boast of the parade. There were days when my school would send a contingent to do a drill and we would anxiously wait for them on our TV sets back home. In those days, only Delhi schools could make it till there.

One thought that, however, came to me only this year was why shouldn’t the Republic, belonging to 28 states and seven Union territories, not distribute this pride evenly across all its population? Not that many of my friends or family feel the same thing as me. Still, among the many more, who stay outside Delhi, the novelty of the show and the grandeur that comes along with it can probably create a spirit that is akin to what I feel. Of course, some will argue that the people in smaller cities probably envy Delhi and the NCR more for the malls, pubs and restaurants and not really the parade for times have changed but I am sure when they see the VVIPs in their cars with beacon lights and smartly dressed military bands march past on the roads, they will feel part of the Rajpath which till then has been witnessed by them only on TV sets.

More importantly, the reason I am arguing for the Republic Day parade to move to say Kupwara, Kulu, Bhatinda and further down geographically, one small city in one state at a time followed by another in another state next year, is not to light up the false sense of patriotic feeling or feel sentimental about the whole thing, but also because it will mean better infrastructure for these cities. More VVIPs and a parade of national symbols of pride will certainly require an infrastructure that suits the Republic of a billion plus population. Few crores and maybe a little less elaborate affair could give the cities a facelift. India, after all, is not just the Republic of Delhi but as its constitution says, in the very first article, India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states.

Why should you read Google’s new privacy policy?

Friday, January 27th, 2012 January 27th, 2012 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi

Instead of having several privacy policies for multiple products Google (YouTube to Orkut), users’ data will now be governed with just one policy across its products.

In a company blog post, Google privacy director Alma Whitten writes, “If you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

The point that is underlined by Google is that for all those who want to use Google’s services, (which are free), it will be mandatory to accept the new guidelines. Google collects user’s information in 2 ways: details that user reveals while signing up for an account and how user uses Google services everyday. So, if you spend an hour signed in to a Google account searching the web for diets and weight loss programmes, the next time you log into YouTube or Google+, you might see recommendations for videos, ads, links etc featuring local gymming centres, dieticians, along with ads for weight loss merchandise and the nearest place to buy them. In short, Google collected your details and web habits, streamlined it for the marketers and sold it to relevant bidders who want you as their customers.

And it is not just Google. Facebook and every other popular internet service stores as much information as possible about their users so they can sell more advertising at higher rates to marketers looking to target people interested in specific products.

All signs point towards the fact that Google wants to compete with Facebook that already uses targeted recommendations on its sidebar advertisements. Ever wonder why after you “liked” that rock band’s fan page, ads began popping up with every log-in about their concerts and band t-shirts? The network is closely watching your interests.

When Google says — “Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience ” — users should read it as is that come March, what they do on one Google-owned site will affect what content they see on another Google-owned site.

Privacy advocates argue that if Google is meant to be a service designed to help users then why doesn’t it include a choice to opt out? Others point that user data, which sell for up to $5,000 (nearly Rs 2.5 lakh) a head to marketers, is critical for Google that missed earnings expectations for the fourth quarter.

For now, Google refuses to react on the backlash it has been gathering with its new privacy policies.

PS: Those who are wondering what is the closest thing to opt-out? Answer is, remain logged off from a particular account while browsing the web, or in extreme case, cancel the account.

Making R-Day more relevant

Friday, January 27th, 2012 January 27th, 2012 Vishwas

By the time I woke up on Republic Day, some part of the money I had paid as tax last year was wasted by Indian President, Pratibha Patil, on checking out well-built soldiers of armed forces that turned out in full battle regalia.

The nation did a lot to impress her: An endless procession of regiments, bands, cavalry, antiquated artillery tanks and modern missiles, interspersed with school children and tableaux. I won’t be surprised if it turns out later that some of the tanks and missiles do not even work.

It is beyond my comprehension why this elaborate extravaganza is made part of Republic Day. Such military parades used to be a regular feature of communist countries. But even they got bored of this and discontinued it long ago. For some reason, India refuses to grow in its thinking by letting this go on.

My point is that if the government really has a very compelling reason to let this continue, then the least it could do is revive the raison d’être of this custom. Originally, the parade was started to instil a feeling of pride among Indians. But now the purpose is missing. Most Indians care little about it. There are people who oppose it primarily because a substantial proportion of the armed forces budget is diverted for the preparation of this mammoth exercise. But defying all clamour, India has retained this practice. If the exercise cannot be discontinued, at least the government can make it a little more relevant.

And why only blame only the government for not thinking enough. The we-won’t-change mindset is just about everywhere. Take our TV channels for example. When I switched on the box on Republic Day, the ones that looked the most insane were the movie channels. They were all showing “patriotic” movies such as Karma,  LoC, Kargil and Gandhi. I mean, come on! Why “patriotic” movies on R-Day only? Do people really wake up on Republic Day or Independence Day with a sudden rush of patriotic fervour and take delight in watching movies in which virtuous India trounces devilish Pakistan? Isn’t that ridiculous?

But there is some history behind it. This is the Doordarshan (DD) legacy, which the new movie channels have been carrying forward. Years ago, DD would show movies with a holi song on Holi, a brother-sister love song on Raksha Bandhan. I don’t know if they still do it because I don’t watch it anymore.

Clearly, the DD guys lacked imagination and were too lazy to think of something more interesting. For them, a special telecast or programme was just about connecting an occasion with a related song in a movie. But what are these highly-paid producers of these new-age channels doing? They are just sticking to a trend set by DD many years ago. And why is that? Because breaking away from a trend would require them to use their mind. And obviously, they are too reluctant to do that.

The two instances prove at least one thing: We need to do more thinking in order to be in sync with today’s world. Things that worked well in the past may not do so in the future. And if this is the lesson each Indian has to learn then the beginning should be made first by the First Citizen of the country.

My friend Claudio

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 January 25th, 2012 Pablo ChaterjiPablo Chaterji

This is old news, but I am going to write about it regardless. I was having a conversation with some fellow hacks a couple of months ago, during which one of them mentioned that Claudio Castiglioni, the head of the motorcycle firm MV Agusta, had just passed away. Normally, news of the death of a prominent business personality tends to briefly enter my consciousness, swirl around for a bit and then exit stage left – call it fatigue, disinterest or whatever you wish to, that’s just the way I function. The mention of Castiglioni’s passing, however, struck a chord; he was the first head of a company with whom I had had an extended conversation, way back in 2007, and I had come away impressed, just a little intimidated and also very pleased.
I had showed up at the MV Agusta factory in Varese, in northern Italy, in order to meet the man himself and hopefully snag a ride on the ridiculously sexy F4, and as his assistant bustled me through to the conference room (through an office where, among other things, I saw a nude calendar with a Honda logo on it), I felt a nervous energy course through me; the man I was going to meet was a legend in his own right, and I didn’t want to come across as a dithering idiot.
After a wait of about five minutes, Castiglioni didn’t so much enter the room as wafted in. He was clad in a fabulous suit, obviously bespoke, which looked like it had been tailored straight onto his person; his patent leather shoes shone brightly, and his long-ish hair was expertly coiffed – here was a gentleman just as stylish as the motorcycles his company produced. He extended his hand for a firm handshake and his face, although welcoming enough, had a slightly reserved look on it, as if he was sizing me up – which he probably was.
When he spoke, his tone was an intriguing mix of warmth and caution; it was like he was alternatively extending a carrot and a stick. Although fluent in English, he elected to speak in Italian through a translator, which added to the slight sense of distance that he seemed to want to project. To my fairly bog-standard questions, he gave clipped, polite answers, and I began to feel a bit hemmed in; I needed to figure out how to cut through his invisible veneer of propriety.
It happened when I abandoned my pre-written questions and attempted to turn the interview into an informal, freewheeling chat, beginning with my bringing up MV Agusta’s glorious racing heritage and the way it had influenced him in his running of the company. His eyes lit up at this point, and from then onwards, the only way for the meeting to go was up. He loosened up almost visibly, holding forth at length about his passion for speed and beauty in equal measure, a fact that had undoubtedly led to him buying up brands like Ducati, Moto Morini, Husqvarna and, of course, MV Agusta. In the process, he gave the world achingly desirable motorcycles like the Ducati 916 and Monster and the MV Agusta F4, all instant classics, and when he died, he was in the process of developing the F3, a 3-cylinder, 675cc version of the F4.
After a 30-odd minute chat, during which I saw him go from being slightly reserved to almost brotherly, it was time to wind things up; he was running late for another meeting. I did the fanboy thing and asked him to autograph an MV Agusta brochure and, with a flourish, he wrote something across its cover, shook my hand warmly and was gone. The translator looked at what he’d written and smiled – it said ‘To my friend Pablo, with best wishes, Claudio’. R.I.P, Claudio Castiglioni.

At the Alma Mater

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 January 24th, 2012 Praveen Bose

It was a return to those good old days when I had had the umpteen conversations, some sensible and others not making much sense, with my professor who had been the most encouraging of all the profs in the university, at least as far as I was concerned.

“You write a good paper and I will get it published in a Economics journal,” he had promised me. It was not that I was the best or the brightest, but I was the most well-interested in the discipline in its widest of wide definitions. Being narrowly focussed was not my forte. That ended all prospects of being accepted by any of the professors as their research scholar.

But, the said professor had advised me: “Don’t waste your time here on higher studies. Do something more worthwhile.” I have no regrets as of now though for that sound advise.

The vast university campus, of 2,300 acres, was left unexplored by me. I got a chance to go to a couple of spots I had only heard of during the post-graduation days. Studying all the while? No. Reading books of interest… in the library!! Perhaps that’s what endeared me to professor, who, even after 17 years acknowledge my presence and took time off for me from his truly busy schedule.

What endeared him to me was that he papered over all my shortcomings, while focussing on my strengths. I now understand what I read in many a news report and know what’s happening and why it’s happening. Though it’s taken me a while to connect the theories to the real world happenings.

Better late than never though.

Entertainment unlimited in Bengal

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 January 24th, 2012 Namrata Acharya

In Bengal, the word Poriborton (change) is now a cliché.

Till about some eight months ago, one could spot absolute strangers in buses, trains, metro rail and neighborhood street tea shop, suddenly entangled  on a serious political discourse on Mamata vs Buddha. If compiled in a book, the scholarly discussions would make a good research paper for sure.

These days, such erudite Adda sessions are missing. Just to tell readers a few lines of Adda: these are notorious  gossip sessions, often attributed for Kolkata being home to a “work shy population”. May be  Didi is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility or may be, the pro-Poribortonists know they won’t draw any attention of peer group in cribbing about the thirty four years of communist Bengal.

There is no sense of disappointment either. The public memory is too short to remember the London promises for Kolkata. Yet, Didi knows what it takes make front page picture, most of the time effortlessly. More importantly, she knows how to make people laugh. Little wonder, Didi is a hit in youtube with her unique speech at the Bengal Leads summit. If the diplomats were taken aback by her affable style of conversation cutting all protocols, industrialist were astound to hear Didi calling Sanjay Bhudia, Managing Director, Patton Tanks as “Mr Patton”.

“Mr Jindal is here? You have some land problem? Government, they cooperate with you or not? Fully we cooperate,” was for Sajjan Jindal, chairman-cum-managing director of JSW Steel.

To everyones amusement, the East Georgia and Calcutta University educated chief minister was heard saying, “Bangladesh is on the border of Pakistan.”

She comes out with her best in open-air forums in districts. At the inauguration of book fair, addressing a motley crowd of
representatives of different countries she asked everyone to consider “Bengal as their neighbouring state.”

India has no dearth of entertaining politicians, but it seems Didi is here to give tough competition to Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav. More importantly, Bengal is yet to get London roads, but there is no dearth of entertainment for people in Bengal as long as Didi is here.

UP elections and economic reforms

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 January 18th, 2012 Tarun Chaturvedi

The economic reforms are stuck. The government at the centre (UPA) has been jammed since long. Some of the major reforms have gone to the backburner manily because of the electoral politics being played by the major alliance partners. Mamata Banerjee has suddenly become the villan for having opposed FDI in retail and then again putting her foot down at the time of the Rajya Sabha voting for the Lokpal. Rumours tell us she has been instrumental in opposing a large number of reform oriented bills the UPA has wanted to introduce.

If the above is true, then has the UPA decided upon a strategy to tackle the Kolkata Lady or has it resigned itself to time? The outcome of the elections in Uttar Pradesh may throw up some light on the future course of the economic policies of the UPA. Going by the current trends, it is clear that the BJP and the Congress are fighting for the third and the fourth place. That leaves BSP and SP in the race for the top slot. Anybody who has been following the trend in UP will clearly agree that the gap between the second and third in the UP outcome will be huge.

Given the above scenario, both BJP and Congress will be happy to play king makers. This is where the future of the UPA’s economic reforms comes into play. If SP manages a close second and is able to form a government in the state with some support, Congress will be the first to spring up and help. Of course, in return it will expect the 23 MPs of the SP to become a part of the UPA in the centre. This will ensure the UPA does not have to depend on Mamata, who controls only 19 MPs. If this scenario becomes a reality, the UPA may be in a position to take a strong stand on certain economic reforms without bothering about the noise created by Mamata Banerjee. Hence all hopes of economic reforms (much needed) now depend upon whether the SP can cycle (its election symbol) its way to power in UP.

But hold on, weren’t we taught economic reforms are dependent upon the state of the economy and not on the election outcomes of a particular state? Well, it seems times have changed since we were taught this, so let’s adjust to the new reality. So the UP election results hold the key to the future of the economic reforms in India. Let’s all wait for them.

Sibal, look at Singapore!

Monday, January 16th, 2012 January 16th, 2012 Devjyot Ghoshal

Is India trying to do what the smaller but technologically-adept Singapore has attempted at, but nominally given up: control the Internet?

Because if the campaign for “screening” content on social media websites began late last year with Kapil Sibal’s charge that images and statements could stoke instability, violence and religious hatred in the country, the recent decision of the courts to take up the matter and summon some 21 Internet companies on similar grounds raises serious questions about the extent of free expression allowed in India.

As fundamental as the freedom of expression is, this latest attempt at exercising control over the Internet also reveals the clear lack of adequate thought on part of the government, additionally having not looked into the experiences of countries like Singapore; and the judiciary’s statement that India, too, “like China” can block websites, sounds like a grim warning by a newly-appointed schoolteacher yet to truly understand the rules of the playground.

No doubt the Internet isn’t a saintly domain. It hosts, breeds and disseminates an incredibly wide cross-section of opinions, criticism, information and disinformation. And it is this unregulated, collosal nature of the Internet, and its often unpredictable reactions to events (political, social or otherwise), that makes it the incredibly powerful medium that it is.

With such unbridled power, as Singapore’s government has learnt in recent years, come new risks. In a country where the majority of print and television news outlets are state-owned and assiduously monitored, the Internet has emerged as the new medium not only for the distribution of information but also as a forum for volatile political debate.

With one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the region, the emergence of the medium as a possible game-changer in last year’s General and Presidential Elections could easily have provoked the city-state’s authorities to firmly pull on the censorship blanket.

Instead, the government has seemingly chosen to use the Internet, and specifically social networking sites like Facebook, as a way of reaching out to the citizenry, especially many young Singaporeans who share less in common with the older generations that created a First World nation out of a tiny port-dominated territory and resultantly, are less connected to the ruling People’s Action Party.

Politicians in Singapore use Facebook, for instance, to engage with their electorate and although there is often venomous, harsh, and sometimes personal, criticism, the underlying logic is that favourable opinion can be shaped if adequate and robust information is provided to the average Internet user.

The Singapore experience also effectively negates the propagated logic about how the Internet can cause social discord, particularly between ethnic and religious groups. Despite a small population of 3.8 million citizens — with 74 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Malay and 9.2 per cent India, and with Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism as major religions — Singapore doesn’t place the onus with Internet entities such as Google, Facebook or Twitter to filter content and maintain social stability.

Quite conversely, the overt censorship that it exercises relates mainly to pornographic content, regulated through Internet service providers, while individual sites (and not social network like Facebook, Twitter) which may risk escalating religious tensions can be and have been banned.

At the same time, individuals users responsible for posting racist comments or any statement or graphic that could incite tensions are liable to prosecuted, which probably means that, in a broad sense, while social networks are expected to maintain internal standards with regard to the content being posted, the eventual responsibility lies with individual users to temper the content they put up.

As has been already written about extensively, the Indian government’s position of asking Internet companies to regulate or screen content will require a small army of people to filter all posts, a proposition that is nearly untenable. Instead, the government could do well to look at the Singapore model, if it is indeed so uncomfortable about the negative powers of the Internet, and place the onus on the individual user, rather than the website.

The ajinomoto in freedom of expression

Monday, January 16th, 2012 January 16th, 2012 Jyoti MukulJyoti Mukul

It all began with a pan in a van. It showed the Chinese mettle against dosa and samosa. The Chinese noodle selling vans seen around in most Delhi markets in the 80s gave the first taste of China to many of us—may not be an authentic one but it certainly acted as an initiation into a culture that, in those days, tasted of ajinomoto and cabbage liberally sprinkled on to the noodles that were tossed up and caught into the pan at the right time by the cook in the van, as customers waited eagerly for their share to be packed in small plastic bags. And, then there were the Chinese ink pen and pencil box unique in their double case sold at shops selling imported goods.

Our association with China or with the Chinese has evolved since then; we now accept more products from there which has made the Oriental neighbour our biggest trading partner. What is about China that enchants us so much? It is nothing to do with the taste of ajinomoto, that Indians later started shunning for the fear of losing their brains, but it has everything to do with the love for the unknown. And from that van the enchantment has moved on to the state-of-the-art roads and railway infrastructure that China is suppose to possess.

Many of us may not have seen the famed infrastructure which from this side of the border looks worth aspiring for even if it means cursing our democratically elected government. The Indian middle class and many in the decision making circles are full of stories of the strides made by the Chinese in all spheres. If this was not enough, we had a judge telling us the other day that if China can block social networking sites, so can we. Yes, we want to imitate China in every other thing. Probably, it is right to be inspired by the economic strides made by that country but probably, it is far too much to threaten a China like ban whatever may be the form of expression.

To begin with, China does not permit a free press. Well, that may not be a new statement but the court’s observation set me thinking—how about having a judiciary that is China style. Not many in my known group knew much about the Chinese judiciary. Some time spent on the net, reading about the Chinese judicial system did not leave me much impressed.

According to one report, not all judicial pronouncements are made public there. Novexcn.com, that provides translations of Chinese laws and regulations, as well as some political, social, and economic news about China in English, says the Chinese government may decide to publish a case or cases that tend to convey the message that the government would like the world to understand, which is usually that China’s legal system is fair, transparent, and the “rule of law” is strong, well established, and respected. It also says that the government of China exerts strong pressure on the courts in cases which they believe there is a national policy interest at stake, or are politically sensitive. Inspiring?

Like everything that we desist in our country and want to ape China, we can leave alone everything that we cherish in our country and desist in China—or at least let the people decide for themselves. The ajinomoto can be left to that which is originally Chinese.