Archive for October, 2009

Twisted Logic

Monday, October 26th, 2009 October 26th, 2009 Praveen Bose

The silk industry in India has been complaining of dumping by the Chinese. There are press conferences every now and then by either the industry or the reelers or some other aggrieved party to complain about the cheaper Chinese silk imports.

The Chinese have also been facing flak from across the world for their ability to sell cheap products abroad. Indians are not far behind. The Indian businesses are having to deal with products being imported from China that are cheaper.

While the consumer is happy with cheaper products, the businesses are definitely not. The same is the case of consumers and producers of silk.

Those who are directly competing with the Chinese imports in the domestic market are hurt. On the other hand, those who want to reduce their input costs are happy to import from China.

With the Chinese pegging the Yuan to the dollar is helping to drive down the yuan as the dollar falls as the US’s influence. But, the Chinese influence is not falling though. The cheaper Yuan helps one import cheaper from China.

But, not even the China baiters can keep their hands off the Chinese goods it seems. The silk industry which keeps complaining of cheaper imports from China, itself now has to turn to the Chinese to help them cut costs.

At a press conference while complaining of the problems faced by the industry, one complaint was that of the rising input costs. But, how does the industry intend to cut the input costs of Indian silk products.

Looks like the industry wants to use one Chinese to fight another. Some members of the industry said: “We will import Chinese machines as they are the cheapest in the market. Only then can we bring down our input costs.”

Some twisted logic this. But, it makes sense though.

Bridging the great divide

Sunday, October 25th, 2009 October 25th, 2009 Aditi PhadnisAditi Phadnis

The Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation is a non Government Organisation (NGO) working with the specific problem of Indian and Pakistani citizens in the two Kashmirs – Azad Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir. These problems are human, and in many cases are stories of great pain that only divided families, torn apart for no fault of theirs by forces of the state, can feel. Sixty four participants representing all communities and regions of J&K, Azad Kashmir as well as India, Pakistan participated at an Intra-Kashmir Conference,  titled, Jammu-Kashmir: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead, from October 9 to 11 at Srinagar.
The conference was the first major initiative on Kashmir taken by civil society since  the Mumbai terror attack last year and was held in difficult circumstances. The organizers believe that  when governments stop talking, there was far greater responsibility  on civil society to ensure that the communication channels are kept open to build public opinion that would eventually nudge the governments to resume dialogue.
Representatives of different political parties and separatist groups, members of trade bodies from J&K and AJK took part in the three-day deliberations. The themes of the conference sessions included –  What can help the dialogue process to move forward; What Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) can help in addressing the trust deficit, and expanding economic cooperation across the Line of Control (LoC).
The recommendations of the representatives are interesting in a state where the problems are endemic but have been put aside by India as well as Pakistan because of so many other pressing issues facing both countries. However, it is useful to bring these centre stage. 
Without going too deeply into it, the group endorsed the Prime Minister’s approach as spelt out at the Sharm el Sheikh conference in Egypt where he met Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani: it felt terrorism should be delinked from dialogue and for maximum gains, the progress in the peace and normalization process should not just be result oriented but must be time-barred as well.
The two Kashmirs have been talking. But there are practical problems. A communication infrastructure needs to be erected. One radical suggestion was that  institutions like universities and cultural associations need to open up branches for joint collaboration.
Trade across the Line of Control began in October 2008  but has been continuously facing obstacle. The suggestions from delegates to the conference were practical and urgent in nature. Though the traders were keen to work on a vision document for generating a shared understanding on the future prospects of trade, the need was felt for  multiple entry passes for the traders engaged in the LoC trade. Once this is agreed upon, the Joint Federation of Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry should be given the authority to recommend the members from their respective sides for multiple entry trade passes.
At this point, traders wanting to go to either side of the  Line of Control are hostage to the Cross-LoC bus services. Delegates felt traders should be allowed to use their own cars till the LoC crossing points. They also felt they were working blind and unless there were periodic meetings of traders on both sides, it was hard to assess supply and demand.
Infrastructure on both sides is a problem. Traders wanted an expansion of loading and unloading areas at the LoC clearance points. What would be really helpful, they said was warehousing facilities. Banking and postal facilities were an immediate necessity. Roads and bridges  needed improvement on both sides so that at least trucks carrying 15 tonne loads can pass over.
Traders also felt that it was not just the manner of doing trade but also the items to be traded, on which fetters should be removed. Today, officials in India and Pakistan decide what items to trade in. This should be left to market forces. Traders on either side should have the opportunity of placing the list of items in demand on the particular side, for information of the traders on other side, at the Trade Facilitation Centres.
To remove transport bottlenecks, traditional routes between both sides could be opened with priority to the routes with trade potential. – traders demanded, specifically, the following Cross-LoC links: Chhamb-Jourian, Handwara-Nawkoot, Nowshera-Khoiratta and Kargil-Skardu.
There are some items like tomato and onion which have a unique supply demand and price structure equation on both sides. For example, the price of tomato has been shooting to Rs 120/KG in AJK but when supplies are made available from J&K, the prices have often come down to Rs 60/KG. The same is the case with onions on the Indian side of LoC. This can be corrected if market forces are allowed free play. Today, LoC trade is permitted only on a few fixed days of the week. It should be allowed on all days.
For families that divided, life is especially difficult. The conference felt that travel facilities should be thrown open for all the subjects of the state instead of only the members of the divided families.  The group also suggested that the status of the travel applications should be made known to the applicants online. The participants were unanimous in their demand that the travellers from both sides be allowed to ride across in private vehicles.
The group greatly felt the need of establishment of a joint disaster management institution to play its role in the face of any calamity that hits the Himalayan region which sits over a seismic fault line.
The group also recommended that both governments in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar should cooperate with each other in rehabilitation, settlement and return of the displaced persons, as the case may be. 
But is anyone listening ?

The Aging not Welcome

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009 October 20th, 2009 Praveen Bose

Those with a cell phone connection are well aware of the numerous calls from many a firm wanting to sell you products and services.

The number of calls from banks and other firms wanting to sell you financial products and services are dime a dozen.
It’s often a big challenge to shake them off. Most of the call centre agents are trained to absorb any extant of abuse it may seem.

If I, as a working professional, gets a call it’s not easy to shake them off. After some adverse reactions and after they were stopped with a ‘Laxman Rekha’ by the government, they had become less persistent. I hoped to get some relief only after I registered my name with the ‘Do Not Call’ directory. What prompted me to do so was a call centre agent who made my skin creep with his over-persistence.

There is no such problem with my father though. He refuses to register his name on the ‘Do Not Call Directory’. Despite this, he doesn’t seem to be getting too many calls lately. I was surprised till I heard him speak to a call centre agent when he called regarding a financial product he wanted to sell him. The bank wanted provide him a depository services.

“I am a retired person.” Bingo! Now I got it. It were these five words that put all those people off, who wanted to dip their hands into pockets of people. A retired person’s pocket as he explains to a salesman is “always empty. And, I have no pension.”

So, now no insurance firm or any bank or investment consultant or an investment adviser wants to waste time speaking to a retired person. Now I wanted to try the ploy while I wait for my ‘do-not-call’ registration to be activated.

But, the first time I tried, the agent seemed shocked. “Are you sure you are the person? Or, are you impersonating the person?” Now, I seemed to be in a spot! Impersonation is not a nice thing to be accused of. The agent seemed to have all details about me on his computer screen.

So, instead of do-not-disturb, I hope to have as much fun with the call centre executives as possible as I shall soon be off the list of people who are not on do-not-call directory.

CSR, in style!

Friday, October 16th, 2009 October 16th, 2009 Praveen Bose

The HR department of a multi-national corporation which is into developing embedded software, decided to get their employees involved in some CSR activity.

The employees were also told they would get credit for participating in the CSR activities. They took time to work on the right kind of CSR activity as they had to first of all get the right approvals from the agencies concerned. They also could not spend too much time on getting the approvals necessary.

Finally, they opted for a lake that near their office. All these days they had seen the degradation around the lake. It had a lot of visitors and when people came, they defintely came with their eatables packed in plastic bags, or carton boxes. After taking in the scenic beauty of the lake, the visitors or picnickers would dump their empty sachets and, plastic covers and bags after refreshing themselves. 

Since the road that necklaced the lake was the only way to reach the office, there is no escape for anyone passing it twice a day from noticing the degradation.

So, finally over 50 of the staff of the firm set out for the lake. In their orange attires provided by the firm which alone had held up the noble work by over a week.

Come the D-day and all landed up at the lake in their ‘uniforms’ with gusto they set out clearing the surroundings of the lake of the plastic covers, and other plastic wastes. Also, there were the discarded paper and plastic plates left there by visitors to the lake.

Within about 3 hours, they were finished with their work and patted themselves for the good work done. But, they were all dead tired from the hard labour. Now was the time for refreshments. Well, out came the plastic cups and tumblers, and plastic and paper plates. After they were finished, they just discarded the garbage on a side of the lake, just from where they had cleaned the garbage.

So, did they clean up the mess they created.

NO! They were too tired and were preparing to go home after a hard day’s labour!

“Some other firm will do that with their employees. We did our job,” said a participant.

Don’t blame the malls

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 October 15th, 2009 Prafull Shirsat

Exercising one’s franchise is one right many Mumbaikars don’t want to enjoy, especially if it means jostling in serpentine queues on a hot October morning, waiting for your turn to cast your vote. Little womder then, that the city maintained its record of posting a sub-50 per cent turnout despite support from shopping malls–many remained shut during voting hours — and the fact that polling was held mid-week, and that offices were generally shut that day.

Could the numbers have been better, even marginally? My own experience at the booth seems to indicate so. The lady just ahead of me in the queue, who produced her ration card as proof of identity, was told bluntly that she wouldn’t be allowed to vote as the proof wasn’t valid. “Go back home and get something better,” she was told. Just as she was about to turn away, I intervened and told the election officer that she wouldn’t come back if she left without casting her vote. He wasn’t moved. Rules are rules, you see.

He was right, there is no dispute about that. The Election Commissioner has clearly stated that ration cards will be allowed as proof only if the entire family comes together to the polling station to cast their votes.

However, couldn’t the rules have been bent a little here? A photograph of each voter is in any case available at the booth and all the officer on duty had to do was to take one look at the photograph to ascertain whether or not the voter was genuine.

In places that have gained notoriety for booth capturing, bogus voting and other malpractices, the stick-by-the-rules approach of the kind displayed by the election officer is perfectly understandable. But Mumbai? For heaven’s sake this city is known more for its citizens’ apathy to get their butts to the neighbourhood polling station than anything else.

On the one hand the government is throwing away crores of rupees on high-decibel awareness campaigns to get a stubborn Mumbaikar to vote, on the other a genuine voter is being deprived of her fundamental right only because she didn’t tag her family along. Had she brought her family, would it have lent authenticity to the document she produced?

These were some of the arguments I presented before the officer. And he bought them. The lady was ushered in. So far, so good.

But wait, the story doesn’t end here. When my turn came, this guy seemed to have a problem with my press card. I had already waited quite long and didn’t have the energy to get into another argument. So I simply took out my PAN card and cast my vote.

That was yesterday, Octber 13, 2009. This afternoon, I googled to see what was and what wasn’t acceptable as valid proof, and found that my press card was perfectly valid. One website lists as many as 17 documents that can be used as identity proof. However, I guess it was the way the proof was described (see below for verbatim description) that confused the poor officer on poll duty.

Service Identity Cards with photograph issued to its employees by State/Central Government, Public Sector Undertakings or Public Limited Companies.

Isn’t a press card issued by a newspaper standard proof, if the publication is owned by a public limited company? I believe it is and that this time around, the officer was wrong.

I could have started another argument here, but relented, as the people behind me started making a noise. Couldn’t blame them — it was indeed a hot October morning. So i did the next best thing, Flashed my PAN card and exercised my precious franchise.

The point I am making here is that it would help if poll officers were instilled with the ability to distinguish not just between authentic and fake proof, but also between genuine and fake voters, before making this big hue and cry about Mumbai voter apathy. Who knows, how many have stopped visiting the local booth because of similar treatment meted out to them in previous elections?


Officers on the beat

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 October 13th, 2009 Rrishi Raote

As if there wasn’t already enough reason to fear and doubt rather than respect the police, this past week offered a fresh bouquet of police crimes. ContentSutra lists four random instances from around the country, two of which happened in the Delhi region. (more…)

Not just another civil rights activist

Saturday, October 10th, 2009 October 10th, 2009 Prashanth Chintala

The death of a human rights activist is rarely a lead story of newspapers, especially in Andhra Pradesh. However, that has what happened when K Balagopal died in Hyderabad on Thursday night.

All the three leading Telugu newspapers in the state, Eenadu, Saakshi and Andhra Jyothi, carried the news prominently in the front page either as lead or second lead. The New Indian Express also carried it as a lead story. Ofcourse, 57-year-old Balagopal was not just another civil rights activist.

A brilliant mathematician who obtained his PhD from National Institute of Technology-Warangal (then Regional Engineering College) and a post doctoral degree from the Indian Statistical Institute, Balagopal had been a professor of mathematics at the Kakatiya University before plunging full-time into human rights activities in 1985. He gave up his academic vocation for public cause.

A man of rare integrity, Balagopal commanded respect from all, including the top police officials against whom he led a relentless struggle. To fight the cases of the downtrodden, he also obtained a law degree and practiced in the state high court. He was known for taking up the cases of the poor without charging them anything.

In 1980s,  Andhra, particularly the Telangana region, had been the hot-bed Naxalites. The state tried to suppress the movement with an iron hand and in the process became famous for the so called “encounter deaths”. As a general secretary of AP Civil Liberties Committee from 1983-1998, Balagopal organised fact finding missions and exposed the darker aspects of the state power.

Consequently, the police dubbed him as a naxalite and harassed him.  Once, he was kidnapped and released after the incident caused a furore. On another occasion, he was badly beaten up thrown into a gutter thinking that he was dead.

But Balagopal protested not only state violence but also private violence including that of the killings of Maoists. He left the civil liberties committee and floated Human Rights Forum in 1998 to broad-base the civil rights movement. He had set a new trend by organising “Public Hearing”  on various issues in which intellectuals, retired judges, writers and activists, irrespective of their political and ideological leanings, took part.

The most important aspect of  Balagopal’s life was the way he lived. He practiced what he preached. His lifestyle was simple and  he remained committed to his principles till he died. He exuded moral authority.

No doubt, people say, the death of Balagopal due to an heart attack is not only a loss to his wife, who is a journalist, and his son, who is a student, but to the entire society.  

Perils On Way to Being a Super-power

Friday, October 9th, 2009 October 9th, 2009 Praveen Bose

Leaders, both business leaders and political leaders, are often seen patting themselves for taking India perilously close to being a super power.

But, not in political terms or economic terms. But, as a super power for providing IT services for businesses around the world. Wealth creation is what the leaders speak of when they speak of their achievement. Buts, has it translated into proportional rise in welfare?
Just as in achieving anything, there are sacrifices of many, maybe in their thousands or even lakhs, on the way to being a great nation or economy. On the path to becoming an IT services super power, there are tears and curses of a million young hearts.

The onsite-offshore model was fine when you had to manage the show with bachelors and bachelorettes. But, over time, they have grown up.
“My husband’s away,” said a melancholic friend. “He will be away for two months.”

Only a couple of months ago he had returned from a nine-month stint onsite. Then, she had been with him. But, this time he was asked to pitch in for a colleague whose visa had fallen victim to fickle-minded foreign relations.

How much longer are we going to play deaf to the cries of the thousands? Perhaps, till the tears start to wash away the cash piles of the industry.

Maybe a 3D hologram of the individual who is away if it can be transmitted over the several time zones in realt time, or perhaps 3D fax???

An army of unhappy citizens is not what a country needs. Alexander could not go on with his conquests and was forced to return to Macedonia because of an army of imhappy, homesick soldiers.

Digest this

Friday, October 9th, 2009 October 9th, 2009 Pablo ChaterjiPablo Chaterji

They say an army marches on its stomach. If that were true, then no army would get anywhere in a hurry. Can you imagine a whole bunch of jawans crawling from base to battlefield on their stomachs? The whole shebang would be over before anyone could say ‘Fire!’ Yes, yes, of course I’m taking it too literally; the imagery was too amusing to resist. What the phrase refers to is the simple fact that without a regular and plentiful supply of grub, we’d ALL be shafted, never mind the army. Team BSM is no different, and I thought I’d give you a little account of some of our go-to places when we feel like a bite (which is pretty much all the time).
I’d like to start with Anna, our wonderful Tamilian street-cart owner, who’s an absolute magician with batter and deep-frying. In the morning, he serves up piping hot idlis, but it’s after 5 pm that the real action begins. Whether it’s his patented mix-plate (one medhu vada, one potato vada, lots of sambhar and coconut chutney) or his heavenly butter sada (a crisp dosa squirting butter at every bite), there is absolutely no going wrong with this man. He’s the bedrock on which many hundreds of people survive, and when the municipal corporation occasionally drives him away, a cloud of depression descends over the entire locality. ‘Anna for President’ is what I say.
Within touching distance of Anna is Chacha, a short, wiry old man with every one of his years visible in the lines on his face. He’s the sukha bhel (bhelpuri without the chutneys) specialist, apart from being a provider of freshly roasted peanuts. To watch him at work is an experience in itself. Barely have you placed your order than he’s off, flicking the ingredients into a paper cone with barely perceptible movements of his wrist; the end result is a sweet-salty-pungent snack that’s hard to beat for both taste and VFM (Rs 5, anyone?). Chacha is also occasionally harangued by the corporation, but being a one-man, mobile operation, he usually finds it easier to leg it.
A few yards down from Chacha is a lady (name unknown, so let’s call her Mausi) who serves up fresh-off-the stove bhajiyas of every persuasion – potato, onion and spinach being the chief attractions. Her vada pav is arguably the best in the vicinity, and her dry garlic chutney is lethal in the way it creeps up and clobbers you over the skull. Mausi is peculiar in that she’s only to be seen dressed in a nightie, no matter what the occasion. I strongly suspect she has bespoke Kanjeevaram nighties that she stuns people with at weddings and the like.

Mausi’s friendly neighbour is another nameless character, whose areas of specialization are pani puris and the unique-to-Bombay ragda patties, both of which he has mastered to a nicety. His pani puris are just right – not too spicy, not too sweet – and the delicious ragda patties (essentially mashed up aloo tikkis with chhole)… well, I defy you to try one plate and then refuse a second.
There are two or three more establishments that we frequent, chiefly a sandwich joint where the owner plays Telegu movies at full volume and a chap who makes bread pakoras, but these tend to be stand-bys, for when our feeders-in-chief are indisposed for whatever reason. No matter where we’re putting down our hard-earned, though, there’s always one ever-present element – our 100 per cent pure, unadulterated, certified love for food. Indeed, if by some horrible twist of fate all these places were to shut down, it’s entirely possible that we might stop coming to work.

‘Sir’ – a much-abused word

Thursday, October 8th, 2009 October 8th, 2009 Joydeep Ghosh

While growing up, the word ‘sir’ meant respect for elders, mostly teachers. Of course, it did not mean that we did not make fun of them in their absence… well, sometimes in their presence as well :)

But coming from a smaller town (Patna) and a family of school and college teachers, I almost grew up with the words ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Student would come to our house every evening to, either study or learn music.

In fact, some people even called us ‘Ghosh madam ka beta’ or ‘Biplab sir ka bhanja’ (nephew).

But nowadays, the usage of the S word irks me quite often. And it is mainly due to telecallers from mobile, credit card, bank and ‘god-knows-what-else’ companies. Some of these callers have almost perfected the art of calling you ‘Sir’, even if they mean ‘Jerk’.

For instance, I want to settle a credit card bill for months now. So every time someone calls from this bank, I request them to send me a bill (which incidentally has not been send to me for over a year). Instead, they keep on tell me to pay a small amount (referred as ‘bucket amount’) and promise me to settle the bill next month.

The conversation goes something like this.

Me: “Kindly send me a complete bill. I am tired of paying these small interest amounts.”

He/she/ (from the call centre): “Definitely sir, but kindly pay Rs … and I promise that next month we will call you and settle this.

Me: “But you have been saying this for the last one year.”

He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, this time we will definitely do it.”

Me: “Sorry, I refuse to pay this small ‘bucket amounts’ every month.”

He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, your decision. But the interest will keep on mounting. Next month someone else will be on this case and I won’t be able to help you.

Technically speaking, while the call centre person is ‘Sir-ing’ me all this time, he/she/… is almost threatening me.

Some others use this word just to sell a product. Like, “Sir, we have this great offer or product.” And it is rather frustrating when the callers do not realise that a person may know more about some insurance or mutual fund product.

Typically, they try to sell a unit-linked insurance plan as a mutual fund. And conversations are like this… “No sir, you are not getting it. This is not an insurance plan, but a mutual fund.” – Yeah, and I am Salman Khan,

But the best ones are these. Recently, I got a missed call from a cell phone number. On returning the call, the person said, “Sir, I am from ****phone. We are offering you a free number.”

Me: “I never applied.” He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, it was a lucky draw.”

Me: “I don’t want it.” He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, it comes with a free gift.”

Me: “No, I don’t want it.” He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, our call charges are lowest, we will give you X plan. You will save Y money every month.

Me: “Ok, I will take it. He/she/ (from the call centre): Sir, what’s your name? …