Are our lawmakers above law?

VIEWPOINT

S.Madhusudhana Rao

That is the question our ‘honourable’ members of Parliament and legislative bodies throw up with their uncivilized public behavior from time to time. By doing so, they reaffirm, rather unwittingly, the Orwellian aphorism that some are more equal than others. A week ago, Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad had endorsed George Orwell’s prescient observation in his famous novel The Animal Farm in word and deed.

What Gaikwad had said after slapping an Air India official 25 times with slippers, tearing his shirt and breaking his spectacles, for his ‘insulting behaviour’ with an ‘honourable’ Member of Parliament was on record. He confessed, in fact, he bragged about it, what he had done to a senior staffer of the national carrier. For a couple of days, while the TV and social media had named and shamed the pubic representative of Osmanabad Lok Sabha Constituency from Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena reacted cautiously first and then launched an offensive against Air India for the ugly spat between the SS leader and the carrier’s official.

It’s a calculated move on the part of Shiv Sena leadership to turn the tormentor into a victim and ward off political fallout by building pressure on the Central government and the party’s bitter ally Bharatiya Janata Party. A week later, it has become clear that the BJP and Shiv Sena have turned the Gaikwad’s onboard tantrums into a battle of who-calls-the-shots when relations sour.  

The contentious point is Air India barring Gaikwad from flying for his obnoxious behavior, a move followed by other commercial carriers which, in effect, grounded the MP. He has to travel either by train or by road to attend the Lok Sabha. His travel travails have struck a sympathetic chord with Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan who favours an amicable solution to the row between Air India and Gaikwad. But it looks unlikely as the MP and his party is now trying to turn the tables on the national carrier. To some extent, Shiv Sena has succeeded in shifting the focus from its MP’s reported unruly behavior to his privilege to fly in Business Class on official business and portraying him as the aggrieved party in the hands of ‘imperious’ Air India officials.

After moving a privilege motion in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday against Air India for disallowing Gaikwad to fly, Shiv Sena MPs met Speaker Sumitra Mahajan to impress upon her the need to take action against AI staffer Sukumar Raman who they claim had misbehaved with Gaikwad. They also alleged that Sukumar had ‘provoked’ the MP in such a manner as to react.

Though the Speaker has not given her mind on the complaints made and issues raised by the Shiv Sena members on Wednesday and Thursday, she is reported to have told them that she is waiting for a report from the Civil Aviation Ministry.

While the law takes its own course – and time – with Sukumar and Gaikwad filing police complaints against each other and the Aviation Ministry conducting its own inquiry, it should not become a mere academic exercise: who is at fault and who should apologize first and ‘restore’ the dignity of honorable MP.  Nor the more pertinent issue of the public conduct of our elected representatives be lost in the nitty-gritty of their perks and privileges and the proposed review of how to tackle rogue air passengers.

The Civil Aviation Ministry is reported to have considering the revision of 2014 provisions that bar unruly passengers from flying (whether law-makers will come under that category we don’t know). ‘Unruly fliers’ are categorized as those who endanger safety of passengers and the aircraft; drunken behavior, obstructing the cabin crew from carrying out their duties, disregarding cabin crew instructions, etc. But the rules lack clarity and they can be subject to legal scrutiny. 

A national policy with broad guidelines to deal with uncouth, lewd and lecherous air travelers is most welcome, in the interest of general public, but the onus of disciplining legislators should be on the political parties. First and foremost, the elected representatives are expected to serve the people, not behave like their masters. Unfortunately, the fact remains, once elected, a majority of law-makers behave as if they are above law and seek privileges that are denied to most of the common people.

In focus is Gaikwad. He could have opted for Economy when there was no Business Class in the flight instead of picking up an argument and beating up the airline official. His unpardonable behavior, now being fully supported by his party, has further lowered whatever little respect people have for legislators of that ilk. Such conduct not only shames the party to which the law-maker in question belongs but the lofty ideals of democracy.

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A celebration of consumerism

TONGUE IN CHEEK

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Madhusudhana Rao S

If consumer is the king, the Indian buyer has become an emperor! So it seems if we go by the advertisements that flash on the computer screen and the number of full page display ads newspapers are getting these days. One English paper I read has more ads than news during so-called festive days.

The festive season which is a ‘sale’ season for online and offline businesses begins just before Dasara. It goes on at least for three months until the middle of January. The nine-day Navratri is followed by the Festival of Lights, then Christmas, New Year and ends with Sankranti. Almost all these events are celebrated by Indians in various parts of the country and the world. In fact, Diwali has become universal, thanks to Indian Diaspora and the entrepreneurship of some communities who have migrated to almost every corner of the globe and introduced their culture and traditions to local people.

A spin-off of these traditional festivities is exchange of gifts, buying gadgets, clothes, vehicles and home and kitchen products and even new houses. So, every festival provides an opportunity –and an excuse for shopaholics – for everybody to go on a shopping spree. The most appetizing part of the festive season or ‘sale’ season is discounts and special offers, coupled or bundled with other items, which can be bought on easy monthly installments through credit cards.

The offers and prices are so enticing that you feel like replacing everything in the house! If you have an inclination to do that, there are exchange offers, of course. Instead of giving away to somebody or dumping the unwanted stuff in the bin, you will get the satisfaction of not cluttering the house with the unused and getting rid of the items for a small consideration. 

If you are unable to do it because of attachment that grows over the years and the unrealistic bonding you establish with all the materialistic things around you, there is a danger of your house turning into a warehouse. Beware, then, before being pulled into buying something new or upgrading your visual pleasure with a big TV or increasing the comfort level with a plush sofa set that promises to sink all your worries.

You will be spoilt for choice after flipping through newspaper pages. Festive offers, from shopping malls to big retail chains and e-commerce giants drive you crazy. Competition is healthy, of course, but cut-throat competition is suicidal. But that is what the consumer is cashing in on. Wait for the best bargain and grab it is the bottom line before zeroing in on a purchase. In a way, the consumer has never had it so good. The beneficiary is the buyer who faces a dilemma his parents had never faced two or three decades ago.

Owning a colour TV or a fridge or a scooter was a luxury and a distant dream for them. Only an annual bonus and savings or a bank loan could fulfill the wish of married people. Others used to include the items in the wish-list to be presented to prospective bride’s father before entering a ‘happy’ married life.

Now, anything and everything is on tap; just a click away. Siblings or children living abroad could order them online from abroad. Wish … lo and behold, it’s delivered at doorstep. In fact, we are in the midst of a sea of consumerism, confused and overwhelmed by the product range.

Is it a sign of economic development or is it our craze for latest gadgets and gizmos, often dumped in the country by multinationals or China since they can’t sell them in the West? Or, is it simply loads of money that is in the pockets of people which make them splurge on anything they fancy? Difficult to say, but mostly it is the availability of money and goods in open market that is fuelling consumerism in an unprecedented way.

But that’s no reflection on other parameters of our living standards like health, nutrition, education, infant mortality rate, clean air and water, infrastructure, among many other  indices. We are on par with some of the least developed countries if we go through the annual reports of global agencies.

Consumerism may be fallout of economic liberalization but we need to get our priorities right and put them in proper perspective. If villagers have to travel to towns and cities for medical treatment and can’t get potable water but electronic appliances and apparel home-delivered, the situation calls for introspection.

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Why we need to remember Mahatma every day

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Madhusudhana Rao S

At a time when we have consigned to history books what the Father of the Nation had preached and practiced, country-wide observance or celebrations of the 147th birth anniversary of the apostle of peace on October 2 look incongruous. The related events are no more than paying lip service to Mahatma Gandhi.

In fact, the birthday and the death anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led a non-violent movement to free this country from the shackles of colonial British rule, are observed in a ritualistic manner without giving any thought to ideals he strived and died for.

In our yearly calendars, his dates of birth and death – October 2 and January 30, respectively – are prominently marked and declared official holidays to remind the old and new generations of the sacrifices the man with a frail frame and steely determination had made for India. The two occasions will also give political leaders of all hues an opportunity to pay tributes to the Mahatma.

Today, his dust-coated statues at town centres, public squares and village corners will be washed and garlanded by mostly local Congress leaders. In a customary fashion, they will also recall the services Mahatma Gandhi had rendered to the country at political, social and community gatherings.

As the commemoration day wears off, he will fade from our memory and slip into history once again.

By remembering Gandhi for a day or two we, Indians as inheritors of Mahatma’s legacy, are not doing justice to one of the greatest leaders of all time. We have little regard for his cherished principles, respect for his unique concepts of non-violence, religious tolerance, equality, simple living, to name a few.

Not surprisingly, what will be missing in uninspiring speeches made at October 2 and January 30 events is Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a modern India. None mentions Gandhi’s concept of Ram Rajya because understanding of his principles of statecraft are zero. Moreover, his ideas on governance are being increasingly challenged. 

Often, during special events, Gandhi’s thoughts and their suitability to a developing country come under intense scrutiny. While Gandhians see solutions to every problem plaguing the country, others cite various ways of modern economic development to buttress their arguments that Gandhian model is out of synch with the 21st century.

But the fact remains that the Gandhian model is more suitable for India than the western models. The reason being, despite socio-political and economic development, India lives in villages and their all-round growth holds the key to the country’s progress.

The planned development that has been changing millions of lives across India have benefited the urban classes more than the rural masses who are still languishing in poverty, ignorance and exploitative conditions. It’s a challenge for every government as how to uplift them. Gandhi viewed the village as the epicentre of growth and wanted the rural areas to be the base on which India’s prosperity could be built in a pyramid-like structure.

While one of his most cherished principles, non-violence, has lost its meaning in an atmosphere of intolerance, non-cooperation has become a tool in the hands of uncouth politicians. Over the years, Gandhi’s peace weapons and noble ideas, despite their altruistic intentions, have undergone a metamorphosis. By giving Gandhian ideas a modern touch, we can find solutions to many of our problems. But, unfortunately, Mahatma’s myriad thoughts have remained in quotation books with our leaders finding no relevance to politically volatile country.

A Gandhi quote “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit,” mirrors the present day culture of prejudice and intolerance  in every walk of  life in our country.

Nevertheless, Gandhi has grown in stature outside our country. His three cardinal principles of non-cooperation, non-violence and truth have been recognised and acknowledged as weapons of peace in the conflict-ridden world. In a befitting recognition of Mahatma’s contribution to the world, the United Nations has declared October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence, giving Gandhi’s birthday a universal stamp of endorsement.

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States in troubled waters

Madhusudhana Rao S

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Madhusudhana Rao S

The ongoing water row between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has thrown States, the Supreme Court and the Centre into a tricky situation. The gauntlet thrown down by the Cauvery dispute is whose is supreme. Is it the collective will of people as represented by the elected legislators or the Indian Constitution or the decision given by the highest court of the land? It’s not the conflict that often arises between the executive and the judiciary but a state’s refusal to obey the apex court’s order on water sharing.

Karnataka legislators’ unanimous decision at a special session of the State Assembly last Friday that the government should not release 6,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu from September 21 to 30 as ordered by the Supreme Court has set the stage for confrontation between Karnataka and the Supreme Court. Non-implementation of the order ‘in public interest’ means inviting judicial action and Tamil Nadu moving the court once again for ‘justice’.

It’s interesting to see what action the apex court will initiate against Karnataka for contempt of court and whether it demands the central government’s intervention. However, it’s noteworthy the court had asked the central government to set up a Cauvery Water Management Board within four weeks. The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, in its award, had recommended constituting such body. But the most important question is whether a state can defy a Supreme Court order claiming that it had taken the decision in the interest of the people. When every state government is supposed to function for the welfare of the people, Karnataka’s claim holds water for Tamil Nadu as well as far as Cauvery water is concerned.

But such arguments will be applicable to any river dispute in the country. Only a court of law, after hearing the stakeholders, will be able to resolve the row according to the constitutional provisions. If states start taking unilateral decisions on inter-state disputes, it is tantamount to undermining the Indian Constitution. Such political decisions by any state raise many other issues that impinge on states-centre relations. In fact, but for a brief advice from Delhi, the Modi government is a mute witness to the raging row between the two southern states ruled by non-BJP parties.

In a way, that has been the practice all these years whichever party/coalition is in power in New Delhi. For instance, take the Cauvery row. Though it is considered and described as an inter-state water dispute, its impact on the manufacturing sector, businesses and the national economy is perceptible. Moreover, it has driven a wedge between Tamils and Kannadigas and the rancour has spread to every strata of life in both the states.

That means an inter-state water dispute will have wider implications. It can even undermine national integrity. If we look at them from a national perspective, inter-state water rows should no longer be considered as regional problems and left to the mercy of social and political forces.   

Since Independence, we have had a number of water disputes between two or more states. The latest to join the long list is Telangana and Andhra Pradesh over sharing of Krishna and Godavari river waters. Almost all the rivers in the country are involved in nearly a dozen disputes of upper and lower riparian states. Though many have been resolved through centre-initiated negotiations or special tribunals, disputes arise when upper river basin states construct dams citing various reasons such as more water flowing down during heavy monsoons or sharing the quantum of water.  However, Cauvery is the mother of all such disputes in the country.

Though the 802-km Cauvery can’t be counted among major rivers, it is the main source of friction between a relatively docile Kannadigas and emotional Tamils. The river basin covers an area of 44,000 sq km in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 sq km in Karnataka. Since there is more basin area in Tamil Nadu than in Karnataka, the former insists that it should get more water. It also claims that over 30 lakh acres of land is irrigated under Cauvery and denial of its share means robbing lakhs of farmers of their livelihood.

On the other hand, Karnataka asserts that the original British era agreements made in 1892 and 1924 between the then Madras Presidency and the Princely State of Mysore were made in favour of the former and needed a thorough review. In other words, Karnataka demands equitable distribution of water between the two major shareholders.

Years of negotiations and efforts to reach an amicable solution have not yielded any result. Amid escalating seasonal tension between the two states, the central government had set up a tribunal in 1990 to resolve the contentious issues. It took 16 years to decide on the quantum of water to be shared by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. However, when the verdict was out on February 5, 2007, neither state was happy. Under the award, Tamil Nadu’s share was fixed at 419 tmc and Karnataka’s 270tmc a year. Meanwhile, two other states, Kerala and Puducherry, which jumped into the fray with claims over Cauvery water, had been awarded 30tmc and 7tmc respectively. With water allocations further diminishing, the two major stakeholders had approached the Supreme Court for a review of the tribunal award which was published in the Central Gazette six years later in 2013, that too after an apex court order!

In a classic example of government apathy towards a burning issue and let it widen the rift between the states, neither a board nor a committee has been set up to implement the tribunal’s verdict in letter and spirit. In other words, the tribunal’s final allocations have largely remained on paper. (Only a powerless supervisory committee is there for namesake).

Over the years almost every state involved in river water disputes has witnessed Cauvery-type agitations, often violent. But very few have been resolved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders because water is increasingly becoming a precious commodity and no state government would like to part with it willingly. Reasons are many.

States’ reluctance to share water with neighbours has to be seen in the light of failed monsoons, ever increasing demand for more water, poor conservation, unabated pollution of water bodies and enormous wastage. Rivers being major source of water, states have to save it by any means to meet local demand before thinking of sharing it with others. Therefore, dams, reservoirs and other schemes aimed at increasing water self-sufficiency in one state lead to friction among riparian states.

The friction is bound to increase in the coming years with abnormal climatic changes we are witnessing now. Both the central and state governments need to address the problems arising out of climate changes now to lessen river water confrontations in future. As the second most populous country in the world with a perennial need for water for human welfare, economic growth and industrial development, we must realise water is a finite and precious resource that should not be wasted or dumped into sea. As such, rivers should be treated as national assets and treated accordingly by the states and the centre. When a dispute arises, it should not be allowed to play out on the feelings of people nor should it be exploited for personal or political benefits. Had the previous central governments intervened in the Cauvery dispute and ended it, the issue would not have been hanging fire.

At least now, will the powers that be act without succumbing to regional chauvinism and political opportunism keeping national interests in mind?

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Monsoon blues in Mumbai

S Madhusudhana Rao

My visit to Mumbai after a gap of nearly 20 years has not produced any big surprises. If there is any, it is the population that seems to be bursting out of every inch of the megacity. And, of course, an increasing number of glass and concrete structures that are soaring into the sky. The textile factories’ stacks which used to dominate the Bombay skyline once upon a time have been replaced by tall commercial and residential complexes now. The vertical growth seems to have been matched by horizontal expansion of slums and chawls. Hutments and skyscrapers have mushroomed together cheek by jowl.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

When I look at the picture on a larger canvas, say from the 20th floor of a residential tower, the glaring disparity between India’s poor and the rich hits in the face. The leftist refrain that the rich-poor gap is widening after liberalization makes sense. While the tall shining edifices stand testimony to an economically growing India, tin-roofed dwellings at their feet reflect the level of poverty prevalent in the country. Nevertheless, there is no class conflict despite glaring differences in income, spending and living standards are concerned. That filthy riches and penury co-exist is an accepted fact of Mumbai life.  Probably, in no Indian city would we see such a gaping gap as in Mumbai.

But the differences merge during the nine-day Ganesh celebrations which culminate on the day of immersion. This year it was on Thursday, September 15. Mumbai erupted in joy. Neither heavy rain nor jam-packed pot-holed roads had diminished the people’s fervour. Thousands of day-long song-and-dance processions from different areas of the city to the immersion spots on the seaside continued until wee hours amidst Ganapathi chants and bursting of firecrackers. The celebrations were not very different from those held in Hyderabad. But Mumbai ones were bigger and grand in scale since the gala festivities were patronised by who is who of Mumbai’s film fraternity, industrial tycoons and business biggies.

Once the elephant-headed God was given a fond farewell with a dip in Arabian Sea, the commercial capital of India was back to business. Business establishments were swarming with shoppers; eateries were serving Mumbai’s favourite and famous chats; roads were full of people walking or driving and trying to beat the deadlines set for themselves to accomplish multiple tasks. Time is money, after all, and Mumbai is the wealthiest of all cities in India. If we go by real estate prices, one should be either a millionaire or a black moneybag to buy a modest flat.

Though the city is the richest in the country, it continues to suffer from lack of civic amenities. In fact, the condition of roads has worsened since my last visit. More garbage, dirty beaches, shrinking greenery and less breathing space have become ubiquitous features of once a beautiful city called Bombay.

Whom to blame for the plight of this megapolis? Exodus of rural population to Mumbai in search of work or corrupt officials and political leaders? Now, it looks nobody could do anything about it as the city has grown out of control. Mumbai is a prime example of urban chaos and crisis at their nadir. The city needs a different development model to bring in a modicum of order.

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A tale of two states: Politics, Pushkaram and an Olympian

S. Madhusudhana Rao

In recent days, the talking point in elite and social circles in Hyderabad is not the silver lining on our Olympic hopes but the rain of money and gifts on PV Sindhu, the only silver medalist, who gave 1.2 billion people a little pride in our women’s power.

If the crores that had been showered on her by various state governments, including the two Telugu states, and organizations were history, the BMWs gifted by cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar to Sindhu, her coach and mentor Pullela Gopichand, another Olympian Sakshi Malik and gymnast Dipa Karmakar had wowed many admirers. Were these top brand cars personal gifts of Little Master? Of course, not! But they were merely handed over to them by Sachin on behalf of Chamundeshwarnath, president of Hyderabad District Badminton Association. But, still, the luxury cars have revved up Sindhu’s admirers’ enthusiasm. The in thing now is endorsements being offered to Sindhu, including brand ambassadorships.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

In all fairness, none is grudging the largesse the girls have begotten. They deserve all encouragement and support from the people, governments and relevant sports bodies to reach new heights in their respective fields of activity. More importantly, financial incentives and national awards will have a catalytic effect on budding sports personalities to perform better at global level.

But, the central issue that is lost in the glitzy celebrations of winning two Olympic medals is the imprudence of showering one or two persons with high rewards. It is apparent in the case of Sindhu who is a Telugu girl. Ironically, her nativity – Telangana or Andhra — and caste have triggered countless social media battles. Not to be left behind, to score a few brownie points in the game of one-upmanship, the respective chief ministers of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have publicly exposed their regional chauvinism at the felicitation functions held in Hyderabad and Vijayawada.

It hasn’t occurred to the TRS and TDP government leaders that Sindhu is an Indian first and her native state is secondary. Taking credit for Sindhu’s success with claims and counter-claims by rival Telugu states’ chief ministers is outlandish, to say the least.

Nevertheless, their public claims, particularly made by AP leaders, raise a pertinent question: When do our political leaders start thinking in terms of a nation rather than a region? When the whole country has applauded the ‘silver shuttler’ in unison, the Telugu states have struck a jarring note.

In fact, the political differences between the two Telugu states were nowhere as stark as at Vadapalli, about 200km from Hyderabad, in Nalgonda district.

Vadapalli is a small pilgrim town famous for its historic temples of Sri Meenakshi Agasteswara Swami and Lakshmi Narasimha Swami. The temple town is considered holy since it is located at the confluence of Krishna and Musi rivers. It came into prominence during the last month’s Krishna Pushkaram (August 12-23). Vadapalli is also the place where a majestic Krishna River bifurcates Telangana and Andhra Pradesh; but linked by a state highways and a railway bridge.

During normal days, Vadapalli attracts a sprinkle of devotees. But during the Krishna Pushkaram, Vadapalli and the Krishna river bank on the Telangana side had been transformed into a showpiece of the ruling TRS government as part of the event arrangements.

The facilities provided by the K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR)’s government for the devout arriving there, mostly by road, were elaborate and impressive. A number of special bathing ghats were built for the holy dip and transport arrangements were as flawless as possible.

Across the River Krishna, facing these ghats, were those constructed by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government with similar arrangements. However, the interesting point was the ghats provided for the people taking the ritualistic bath on either side of the Krishna River were painted in pink (the official colour of TRS) on Telangana side and yellow (TDP’s colour) on the Andhra side.

What’s more, leaders of the ruling TRS and TDP parties on both sides of the River Krishna were beaming at Pushkaram visitors from hoardings put up for the occasion. Greetings and welcome banners were hung from lamp posts and not to be missed were the two Telugu chief ministers’ life-size portraits hailing “the auspicious event of Krishna Pushkaram” at every nook and cranny.

Vadavalli ghats were a classic example of how a quintessentially religious event was soft-sold by the two Telugu state government leaders for self-promotion. Indeed, it’s a case study in how politics could overshadow a once-in-12-years sacred event and ruling party leaders at local and state level could exploit it to the hilt.

Are the states increasingly turning to mass events that are holy in nature to boost ruling parties’ popularity and vote share? If it is so – sure, it is – we are mixing populism, politics and religious sentiments. A heady cocktail, indeed.

On the other hand, Sindhu’s episode shows how a personal triumph has been successfully hijacked by the Telugu states’ leaders to project themselves on a wider canvas.

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Public backlash sends draft encryption policy into recycle ban

S Madhusudhana Rao

Here is a government that came to power using the latest technology in mass communications such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps millions of smart phone users across the country in good humor with his tweets and FB updates with selfies whenever he moves out. He wants a Digital India with Smart Cities and every nook and cranny networked. After all this hifalutin talk, we end up fighting the government for our right to privacy from bedrooms to boardrooms! In the process, the government is making an ass of itself with its flip-flop policies on digital media.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

About a week ago, a draft proposal to control secured communications online, called National Encryption Policy, was released for public debate. Not many people, except software developers and experts in related fields, knew about it until Monday when the Internet exploded with the news about government’s intentions. Massive denouncement online and offline has forced the government to withdraw the proposal.

Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told a news conference in New Delhi on Tuesday that the draft National Encryption Policy would be reviewed before it was presented to the public for suggestions. The minister said: “I read the draft. I understand that the manner in which it is written can lead to misconceptions. I have asked for the draft policy to be withdrawn and reworded. Experts had framed a draft policy…it is not the government’s final view. There were concerns in some quarters. There were some words (in the draft policy) that caused concern. The draft will be reviewed and re-released. Experts will be asked to specify to whom the policy will be applicable.”

The government’s hasty retreat raises several questions. One, does it not think before contemplating policy decisions with wider implications? Two, the so-called expert advisors are so dumb that they blindly follow someone’s idea without applying their minds and draft a policy for public debate?  Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed the draft policy document was released without his knowledge. If it was true, he should pull up the officials concerned for the mess-up, but he had not promised to do any such thing. That means the National Encryption Policy draft was released to test the public reaction a la porno ban and Net neutrality. In both cases, the public had forced the BJP government to eat humble pie.

The binned proposal has faced the same fate as an earlier move to ban/block adult sites. In both cases, Netizens have raised privacy concerns and government’s attempts to interfere in the lives of people in the name of security and safeguarding moral values. While the porno ban proposal was defended on the ground that unrestricted and freely available online porn is corrupting the young, the encryption policy was aimed at, ostensibly, addressing the government’s security concerns.

The draft encryption policy had proposed that users of social media like WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber need to keep a record of personal data, read chats and exchange of photos, etc, for 90 days and they will have to provide these details in unencrypted form whenever they were sought by authorities. If the users couldn’t provide the details, they could be penalized.

Data maintenance stipulation was also applicable to government institutions, public sector units and private business establishments besides individual users. Moreover, the social media apps and platforms had to register the mode of encryption they were using with the government or adopt government-approved encryption services. Those (operating from other countries) who would fail to do so could be declared illegal in India.

Several objections had been raised on two fronts over the original proposal: encryption and threat to personal freedom to communicate with others online on any platform. A majority of users know little about encryption. In fact, there is no need for them to learn about technical aspects of digital communications.

Encryption originated and was widely used during battles to send secret messages to commanders on the war front through signals or codes. Only the sender and receiver would understand their meaning. Later, when machines started transmitting the messages from military headquarters to forward areas, decoders used to decrypt the messages. Now, with the development of sophisticated technologies, whatever message you key in will be converted into digital form and automatically encrypted by the users’ devices before transmitting and after receiving the data. At the receiving end, it is decrypted by his/her gadget and shown on the screen.

Every app or mobile company will have its own system of encryption and decryption to protect users from the onslaught of hackers, cyber crooks and online frauds. Financial institutions like banks, transactions involving credit cards and online business portals use highly secure encryption techniques to prevent hacking. In a majority of cases, only the users’ devices will have the conversion mechanism to scramble and unscramble the data sent by others through what is called ‘key.’ That means only those who have the ‘key’ on their devices could see the messages in a system known as end-to-end encryption.

For example, if two militants are using a smart phone with such a facility, none would know the info being exchanged unless one has the ‘key’. For intelligence and security agencies tracking criminals and terrorists it’s a problem to gather data on their movements and activities or to snoop in on their online activities. If the Indian security establishment could secure the required data under the National Encryption Policy, it hoped to crack down on anti-national elements with ease.

The issue here is, why did the draft policy include social media and want both encrypted and decrypted data stored in original form for 90 days? In any case, Indian security agencies have all the needed wherewithal to monitor suspicious and hideous activities of militants in the country. In fact, by asking the users not to delete chats, messages and personal info, the government is unwittingly exposing them to hackers and online frauds. In other words, what it wanted to achieve would have had an opposite effect!

A more serious issue is government’s bid to intrude into an individual’s private life. What he/she does online is his/her business and it is uncharitable on the part of government to make it public. And, is there any guarantee officials will not misuse such policy?

Nevertheless, as an afterthought, Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said those using social media platforms and web applications fell outside the scope of the encryption policy proposal. Before he announced the government’s climb down, an addendum was issued to keep the social media, secure banking and online business transactions out of the policy purview.

Still, the proverbial sword of Damocles is hanging on the digital media and personal liberties since the government has not ruled out another policy after a review of the disbanded National Encryption Policy. Though no time-limit has been set, it can come in some other form.

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Dragon development, tiger economy

S Madhusudhana Rao

In capitalist philosophy, competition helps consumers as the competitors produce better quality goods at competitive prices to sell more. At least in theory, it sounds good. But, in practice, whether the principle works to the satisfaction of consumers is a different thing. Market forces and conditions, demand and supply and user preferences, product branding are among many other factors that determine the failure and success of competing sides not only in business but even in politics.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

A political case in point is the way the Chief Ministers of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are trying to score over the other at every level. It is no secret that both K Chandrasekhar Rao and N Chandrababu Naidu want to put their respective Telugu states on the world map and they are going extra mile (thousands of miles, in fact) to woo investors and invite foreign capital.

For KCR, the job is a lot easier because Hyderabad is already a well-developed city and is globally known for its IT, pharma and ancillary industries and defence gear manufacturing. Chandrababu has no such inherited advantage. He has to build his Andhra Pradesh state from the scratch in bringing it up to acceptable global standards which is why his task is herculean and cut out.

In their bid to accelerate development, both CMs look towards development models. While Chandrababu is very much inspired by Singapore and Japan growth stories, KCR is swept off his feet by the dragon economy after his just-concluded China visit. During his 10-day trip, the Telangana CM and his 12-member delegation had visited many places to study Chinese progress first-hand. The dazzling urban development has impressed him so much that he is reported to have decided to send all his party MLAs, MPs and senior government officials to China on study tours in batches. They will go by regular commercial flights, not by a special executive jet as he travelled during his recent trip. KCR also wants to develop Hyderabad on the lines of Beijing.

Strangely, his return coincided with AP Chief Minister going to Singapore to discuss plans to construct the new capital city Amaravati with the city state government officials. Also on the agenda were talks with global corporations on investment in AP. We should admit that both the leaders are working truly in a competitive spirit to make the Telugu states the best among all. But in the missionary zeal to see dazzling development in the twin Telugu states, the constraints the two CMs have to face and the limitations they have in pursuing other countries’ development models are often overlooked.

Both China and Singapore which have showcased their glitzy growth in their steel and glass structures, Metros, swanky shopping malls, spick and span streets and disciplined life are authoritarian. Both are ‘one-party democracies.’  Government orders, people obey. There were many untold stories behind the dazzle of development. Neither the government nor the people would dare to disclose them. To put it simply, some have to sacrifice to make some others happy.

Can Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments implement plans that they consider change the face of their states’ urban landscape without encountering resistance from the people and opposition parties? For that matter, can they move ahead without facing legal challenges or without running into constitutional hurdles?

China and Singapore conjure up Technicolor dreams on a widescreen but realizing them in Indian democratic way is a task. For that matter, Dubai, one of the most modern metropolises in the world, which is an Arabian Night’s dream coming true. The Rulers of Dubai could raise it from the desert because their writ runs without being questioned. The oft-asked question about China’s development is, at what cost.

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OMG, please save us!

S Madhusudhana Rao

Hyderabadis have started giving a fond farewell to Ganapathi, the elephant-headed God on Sunday, immersing him in city lakes, against the wishes of citizens concerned with environment and “keep water bodies clean” activists. However, there is a perceptible change among devotees as many of them have opted for so-called eco-friendly idols, though they are not so in reality. The only saving grace is they were not made of heavy metal. Instead, Plaster of Paris and several coats of paints had been used for glitter and glamour. When these idols were immersed, still the substances pollute the water bodies.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Thousands of idols of various sizes are either tossed or dropped into lakes and ponds dotting different areas in the twin cities. No doubt, immediately after they go down under the waters, divers and scrap-dealers would bring them up, dismember and cart the parts away to various points for recycling. This exercise is to minimize pollution in the water bodies, make them breathe with life and not to silt them with thousands of Vinayaka idols whose toxic body paints can turn the waters into poisonous cocktails of mercury, lead, arsenic, etc.

Though most of the immersed giant idols are retrieved, small ones, made of insoluble materials will remain in the water body polluting it heavily. Add to these, tonnes of pooja materias thrown into the water, choking the lake or pond for days to come. Polluting stagnant water in large scale is detrimental to the health of lake as well as to humans as the rotten smell contaminates the oxygen content around. These are all preliminary lessons in health and environment; still none follows and pollutes the waters near and around us with gay abandon. There are laws and court strictures, of course, to curb such practices; but they are observed more in breach than in practice.

To strike a balance between our celebrations, ritualistic practices and disposing of the residuary materials is not difficult, provided there is a will on the part of participants and organizers of mega Ganesh events. Or else, we have to pray to Lord Ganesha to save us from pollution after performing the pooja.

The ritual of discarding the idol after pooja is as ancient as the legend of the birth of Ganesh, a story every devotee is familiar with. It is said that every year a new idol has to be used for pooja and after it is over the deity has to be immersed in a water body like pond, lake, stream, river, sea, etc to make the clay idol disintegrate and become an integral part of the nature.

It is believed that since all the Ganesh idols were made of clay in the olden days they absorb all the negative vibes and are unsuitable for keeping at home. So, they have to be kept out of home and the best way is to dispose them of in water bodies. In rural areas, some people leave Ganesh idols in farms or under trees in backyards of their homes for luck and prosperity.

Over the years, religious practices, traditions, social and cultural ethos and values have changed so drastically that what is supposed to be a simple family worship has become a public affair with an ever increasing outpouring of adoration for the God of all reasons.

Decades ago, the norm was to keep the clay idols palm sized; now an attempt has to be made to secure small and handy Ganeshas made of black or red soil without any frills. Most of the time what is sold in the market during the pooja time is idols made of many fancy materials other than the traditional raw material using all sorts of chemical paints to make the little Lord attractive.  Whether he needs so many embellishments is a different matter but he is made to appear in various poses and avatars whose number has been increasing year after year.

The forms, the costumes and the attires in which Lord Ganesh appear every year are interesting. Surely, he has been made a fashion icon and he is the only god in the Hindu pantheon to adapt himself to any style in a jiffy. What’s more interesting is , he can even wear designer clothes, jeans, hats, T-shirts, suits in all hues and shoes and rock and roll with his constant companion rodent. This year, he turned the hero of blockbuster movie Baahubali, a cricketer, Batman and finally embraced the selfie fad! He was depicted as taking a selfie with Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati!

Ganesha’s accommodative spirit is worth emulating by minions who worship him. Without minding his physical form, he can do anything that is imaginatively human. Creativity is the spur of Ganesh avatar and ingenuous artists can create him in myriad forms, stressing the underlying philosophy that the Supreme can exist in any form, size doesn’t matter. What’s important is faith and devotion, not pomp and exhibitionism, though they have become the hallmarks of modern worship.

Also, the way Vinayaka, the God whom the faithful worship before launching a new venture in the belief that he will dispel evil and make the endeavor a success, is ridiculed in cartoons, portraits and in various image forms is abhorrent.

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Rivers of Politics

S Madhusudhana Rao

Like individuals, every country and its leaders dream big. But fulfilling mega dreams is not an easy task. For, it involves enormous resources and mobilization of funds over a long period. Nevertheless, from ancient to modern times, humans have gone to any length to realize their visions without which pyramids could not have been built and man couldn’t have landed on the Moon.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Technological advances and scientific breakthroughs have proved that nothing is impossible to achieve if there is a will. If it is lacking, no progress is possible and dreams remain pipe-dreams. One of the mega proposals, call it a pet scheme or a dream project, in post-independent India is the Garland Canal or inter-linking of rivers from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

When we look at the country’s river map, it is clear how fortunate we are to have so many rivers and their tributaries flowing from east to west and north to south. Since they are all rain-fed except the Himalayan Rivers, they flood in the monsoon and dry up in the summer, causing immense hardships to the people in both the seasons. In other words, we have excess water for some months and no water – not even for drinking – for some months. How to correct the imbalance and make water available to all the regions across the country throughout the year is a challenge.

It was first addressed by the British and the renowned British engineer Sir Arthur Cotton, who is remembered in Andhra Pradesh even today for his pioneering coastal canal system and the railway bridge at Rajahmundry, in 1834. But the proposal had not gone beyond the conceptual stage until the legendary civil engineer Dr KL Rao, who was irrigation minister under Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, revived the idea in the 1960s-70s.

His proposal to link northern and southern rivers to augment resources through a series of canals, tunnels and reservoirs had generated more heat on the huge cost involved and the scheme’s impracticability than its usefulness and long-term benefits to the entire country.

The plan, though discussed off and on in the media, had been lying dormant until APJ Abdul Kalam resurrected it in 2002 when he was the President and Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The duo had seriously toyed with the idea but the Supreme Court acted on it by giving a suo motu notice to the Central government.

The NDA government took the first step by setting up a task force to conduct feasibility studies and the panel continued the work until the UPA government came to power in 2004. Thereafter, nothing much happened and whenever the issue was raised, there were more people, including experts, to shoot down the proposal than those who sought a comprehensive scientific study.

Experts, from the very beginning, have been divided over the plan’s feasibility. Now, with cost escalation, nobody dares to calculate the project cost that would run into billions of rupees which is a dampener to any government. More than the cost and the long time-frame, the project idea is getting dammed by the States and different political parties to protect their own local interests.

Raising the bogey of “an unworkable” idea and resource crunch, states have been opposing it. But in reality, political leaders fear that they lose their clout among farmers if river waters turn into a national resource and a single authority starts administering it. Which means it is water politics that play a key role in execution and implementation of the project. The BJP government dreams of the multi-purpose grand river-linking plan but it hasn’t done anything in that direction. Whenever and wherever possible, if the states had worked towards linking rivers, probably, we would have averted water crisis of alarming proportions.

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  1. September 17, 2015

    […] Despite legal and rival challenges, the TDP government has succeeded in linking Krishna and Godavari, a dream of lakhs of farmers in AP who are expected to benefit immensely. If the scheme is successful, it may pave the way for linking more rivers in the coming years. (See Rivers of politics) […]

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Junk food for thought

S Madhusudhana Rao

Who doesn’t love junk food and fizzy drinks? Unless you are a fitness freak or health buff and mentally control your saliva glands, your mouth waters when you see yummy burgers, crunchy garlic breads and salty snacks. To glide them down the throat are sweetened aerated waters. All loaded with hundreds of calories in the form of carbs, fat and sugar. You know they are bad for health and they accumulate in all wrong and unwanted places.  You have to work out a few hours more every day to melt away the extra pounds gained from guilty pleasures.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Of late, I have been reading alerts and warnings born out of limited and extensive research about junk food and how bad it is for every part of your body, from head to toe, making me wonder if it is so bad why not ban it as a cure for all the health problems? Governments don’t do it. Because it’s your prerogative and your right to eat what you want and ruin your health. The so-called ‘bad foods’ help fatten governments financially. They collect taxes from all those who sell junk or fast food, just like the governments do in the case of tobacco products.

Governments don’t ban tobacco because lakhs of farmers are dependent on the crop, an equal number of workers on processing, production, packaging and distribution of cigarettes. Various levies on the final produce fill state coffers substantially. A ban means losing a chunk of government revenue. That’s why and how you enjoy simple pleasures in life risking health. However, a red alert “Smoking is injurious to health, major cause of cancer and cardiovascular diseases” should make you think whether you want to light a ciggy or kick the butt for good.

Coming back to junk food, Australian researchers say that the part of the brain integral to learning, memory and mental health is found to be smaller in junk food lovers than in those who eat nutrient-rich food like fruit, vegetables, fish, etc. In other words, their indirect message is, junk the ‘unhealthy’ and relish fresh food. Though the researchers have measured the size of hippocampi  — left and right side of the brain — in Australian adults aged between 60 and 64 years using MRI, they believe the findings are relevant for people of all ages, including children.

A few months ago, an American study had claimed that fast food consumption could reduce academic growth in children. The Ohio State University scientists said kids eating more junk food in 5th grade face the risk of scoring less by the time they reach eighth grade. Another research study at the University of California, San Diego, has suggested too much of junk food can destroy memory, especially in young to middle-aged men (what about women?)

To my knowledge, no such studies have been made in this country, mainly because the fad is just catching up with the young generation. Still our older generation loves old fried stuff either made at home or in street corners. Despite heavy calorie count and fat, the traditional Indian snacks are presumed to be not as health-risky as the processed junk and fast food. In any case, one bite or two into it once in a while should not make you lose a bit of memory or kids lose out in class scores!

Watchword: Moderation, not indulgence.

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MIM factor in Bihar polls

S Madhusudhana Rao

With Hyderabad-based MIM jumping into the Bihar poll fray, political equations in that state are likely to change. Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi’s announcement in Hyderabad on Saturday that his party would contest the Bihar Assembly elections had ended the speculation about the party’s participation. But the MIM decision has set in motion wild guesses about its impact on an already crowded political scene.

Bihar polls will be held in five phases between October 12 and November 5 for the 243-seat state Assembly. So far, the fight is between Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav alliance and BJP-led NDA. MIM’s foray into Bihar is likely to change the complexion of voting.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Asaduddin’s decision is not totally unexpected. Ever since the fiery orator and a member of parliament from Hyderabad has decided to make MIM a pan-India outfit with the ostensible intention of representing minorities at states’ and central level, he has been eyeing local and Assembly elections outside Telangana.

The party’s breakthrough came when AIMIM captured two seats in the Shiv Sena-BJP citadel when Maharashtra State Assembly elections were held last year. While the party’s candidate had won the Aurangabad Central constituency, by defeating Shiv Sena contestant, BJP lost its stronghold Byculla in Mumbai to the MIM. While the twin victory is a booster shot to the party that is trying to expand its footprint from Hyderabad, MIM’s success, for the first time in Maharashtra Assembly polls, had caused consternation in the BJP and SS circles. Also of concern to them was three MIM candidates came second and nine secured third position in the 24 Assembly segments the party had contested.

In fact, the right-wing parties have to blame themselves for MIM finding a foothold in Maharashtra. Its expansion in mainly Muslim pockets of Vidarbha and Marathwada regions had been glossed over. As far as in 2012, the ‘outsider’ MIM had won 11 out of 81 seats in Nanded municipal elections. If that was the first challenge to the supremacy of Shiv Sena, BJP and Congress, MIM had repeated its feat with double vigour in Aurangabad civic polls in April this year.

It won 26 seats, emerging as the main opposition party in the civic body controlled by BJP-Shiv Sena combine. MIM’s inclusion of Dalits in its fight against the established parties had paid off. According to the pattern of voting and poll analysis, 15 Muslim-dominated areas and five Dalit-majority constituencies were responsible for MIM’s impressive debut performance in Aurangabad civic polls.

Thus Maharashtra has proved to be a springboard for MIM’s all-India ambitions. In recent times, Asaduddin has made no bones about taking his party to as far as West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Karnataka. He has already confirmed that his party would contest the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections due in 2017 during his Iftaar parties in that state in July this year. In West Bengal, MIM has been strengthening its grassroots level support base with an eye on the next year’s Assembly elections. Karnataka too is on its radar.

Having tested and tasted poll success formula in Maharashtra at local and state level, Asaduddin is now venturing into Bihar where caste and community are expected to play a major role in the forthcoming elections. However, for the time being, he is focusing only on one region, Seemanchal, which is among the most backward regions in the country.

Seemanchal has four districts –Araria, Purnia, Katihar and Kishangunj – where more than 90 per cent of people live in villages. The population mix is both Muslim and Hindu but in some areas Muslims are in majority and they are predominantly farm workers.

Asaduddin plans to put up 25 candidates and his poll battle plan runs on the lines of development, backwardness and neglect of the poorest of the poor, means Muslims and Dalits. As a prelude to his action plan, Asaduddin said on Saturday: “Seemanchal is a victim of backwardness and injustice. The party intends to demand a regional development council.”

While he is trying to project himself as the face of Muslims at all India level, by appealing to his community and other minorities with a development agenda, will the Hyderabad MP pull it off in Bihar is a million dollar question. Main parties in the fray have dismissed the MIM factor. But they must be harbouring fears that the Muslim party can split the vote which will help BJP. Whatever the voters’ verdict may be, two factors play crucial role in deciding MIM’s fortunes in Bihar. One, the party’s penetration into Seemanchal; two, the non-Muslim vote, though the large minority communities can tip the scales. But it all depends on how much MIM leaders influence the voters in the most backward districts of Bihar.

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The dark side of Facebook

S Madhusudhana Rao

In the wired world, we have come to a stage where if you don’t have a Facebook account, you don’t have a face. With 1.18 billion active users as of March 31, 2015 in the world, the popularity of the social site and its influence on the young and the old and leaders in every field of activity is well documented.

India is next to the US in the number of users and their base has been expanding by leaps and bounds. India has more than 110 million accounts, while the US has 152 million. If the current trend continues, India will overtake the US in a few years.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Thanks to affordable smart phones and Internet penetration, the burgeoning youth population has been swelling the Facebook ranks in this country. With people, known and unknown, connecting and communicating with each other at lightning speed, Facebook has succeeded what the United Nations has not been able to do in uniting the world. If that’s the bright side of FB, its dark side is exploited by uncouth people such as sex maniacs, terrorists, religious fanatics, cheats and elements of that ilk.

Their sinister and diabolic designs that undermine social, family, ethical and religious values come to the fore only when the victims expose them or caught during investigations of cyber crimes. Two cases, both belonging to Hyderabad, show the downside of Facebook and should open the eyes of those who blindly believe whatever FB pals say.

The first case relates to a 21-year-old engineering student, Abdul Majid, from posh Banjara Hills in Hyderabad. It seems he is more interested in seeing girls in nude than engineering subjects. For 18 months Majid had befriended nearly 200 school girls on Facebook posing as a girl and charming them with sweet nothings during his chats. What began as a teenage chit-chat had finally ended up in Majid cajoling the girls to share their intimate details, including their nude pictures. If any girl refused, he either blackmailed or harassed her. Local TV and press reports said, quoting police officials, that Majid had opened eight FB accounts with different female names to make friends with girls from reputed international schools with the sole purpose of collecting their nude photographs.

Majid’s dirty game came to an end when a girl student dared him and went to the police along with her mother. He was apprehended on Friday and a search of his mobile phone revealed hundreds of nude pictures of girls which he could have possibly used to blackmail his victims for sexual favours or to extort money.

This case is bound to ring alarm bells in the homes of school-going girls and trigger a debate on the perils of FB and whether parents should keep an eye on their children’s Facebook activities. But what eludes common sense is why did the girl victims share their secrets and personal details with a totally stranger whom they had not physically seen. Was it a blind faith in FB that whoever had come on line was speaking truth, nothing but truth? Even if we assume Majid had mastered the art of bewitching young girls, why did they oblige his demands for bare pictures?

Answers may be difficult to come by. But what schools could do is to introduce a weekly class for children to educate them on do’s and don’ts while interacting on the social media.

More dangerous than Majid’s modus operandi to lure girls is a 38-year-old woman’s use of Facebook to recruit young men for the dreaded militant organization the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) which is waging wars in several countries in the Middle East to overthrow governments.

Hailing from Tolichowki in Hyderabad, Afsha Jabeen, alias Nicky and Nicole Joseph, was deported from Dubai on Friday where she had been based for several years. Married to a Dubai realtor and mother of three daughters, she was running an FB group called “Islam versus Christianity Friendly Discussions” to draw the attention of young men and women and motivate them to join IS. She was caught in Dubai after a joint operation by Indian and the UAE intelligence units.

In fact, it’s no secret that FB is being used extensively by militant groups to recruit fighters. Despite having several monitoring mechanisms, it’s not possible for any country or organization to filter secret messages radical elements send; or, for that matter, individual chats such as those initiated by Majid to attract school girls. Though both cases are different in nature, the common platform the accused had used was the same and the tactic they had adopted too was also the same: persuasion.

It means the power of persuasion is stronger than pep talk and lecturing. FB users in this country should know the social media and the Internet are double-edged weapons and they should be used with discretion and caution. If the users are unaware of the pitfalls, as in the case of school girls, they should be educated before they join the FB community.

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  1. SANTOSH B.R. Dr. says:

    NEED TO SAY MORE ON WHAT IS WRITTEN! EVERY WORD IS TRUE. THE YOUTH HAVE TO REALISE THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES AND BE RESPONSIBLE THAN GOING FOR IT. IT WOULD ONLY RUIN THEIR LIVES AND IN TURN THE SOCIETY AND THEY WILL HAVE TO LIVE IN A DEGENERATED SOCIETAL CONDITIONS IN THAT COUNTRY TO ONLY SINK FURTHER DEEPER INTO THE QUICK SAND

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A picture that rattled the world

S Madhusudhana Rao

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photograph of a three-year-old lying face down on the shore of a coastal town in Turkey has done much more. It has moved the conscience of the world and focused its attention on the plight of refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East.

The lifeless boy, Aylan Kurdi, could have gone unnoticed, like dozens of others, in a nondescript way but for a woman photographer of a news agency who splashed it across the world. The toddler was identified by his father who survived a boat accident in which all his family members had died while sailing to Greek island of Kos from war-torn Syria. Aylan’s body was washed ashore the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Aid and sympathies have started pouring in soon amidst demands from social media activists that governments should do something to mitigate the problems of refugees and migrants who are flooding Europe. But sympathies and aid pledges alone won’t help Europe resolve a crisis of gigantic proportions, seen for the first time since the end of the Second World War.

TV visuals disturb us: Waves of people, young and old, men and women, children and infants and even the infirm trying to reach various countries in Europe by rail, road, and air or by simply trekking miles and miles along railway lines and roads.

How and from where did they come is a mindboggling question. Obviously, the mass exodus to Europe has not started overnight. For the last few weeks, reports have been appearing in the media that lakhs of refugees have been moving to safe destinations in a desperate bid to escape conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and even from some African countries where Islamic militants and local rebel groups have been seizing territory after territory and terrorizing civilians.

The UN Refugee Agency has warned long ago that a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions is staring in the face of the Middle East and if the global response to it is not swift, the crisis will engulf Europe. As anticipated, Europe is swamped by refugees and its collective response is poor and divided.

While some countries like Germany and Austria have opened doors to the refugees, others like Greece and Hungary have taken a tough stand against allowing migrants. Britain, under pressure, has agreed to take in a few thousand displaced persons. But all the 28 members of European Union are not in positive disposition to accept the refugees.

National interests, economic problems, societal concerns and political considerations are weighing heavily on some of the European states to admit thousands of alien country people with a different ethnic background and religious orientation. In the coming days, EU will be wrangling over the refugee crisis precipitated mainly by Syria.

However, the West has to blame itself for the present chaos caused by its inaction in Syria and ineffective and slow response to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militancy. “The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted,” Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London and until recently the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told the New York Times. “Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria, and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today.”

Four years ago, at the height of Islamic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, when rebel forces had tried to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria, Arab Gulf states’ and American reaction was to wait and watch first, followed by moral and material support to insurgents and later adopting an apathetic attitude towards the Syrian crisis. The situation has become more complicated with Russia stepping in to counter the US with arms and ammunition. Now, it has turned intractable as Islamic State militants started nibbling away swathes of Syrian territory. The current scenario can best be described as a three-way war between government forces, rebels and Islamic militants for territorial gains with each side supported by the US, Russia and Iran and their allies.

The sufferers are civilians who are innocent victims of civil war, external interference and indiscriminate bombing by Syrian government forces. In the initial stages, poor civilians crossed borders into neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan with their belongings. As the triangular war intensified, the trickle of displaced persons has turned into a torrent. As Jordan and Lebanon have reached a breaking point with refugee burden, the Syrian exodus to Europe has started via Turkey and Greece.

Only the fittest can survive thousands of miles of the arduous journey from their homeland to unknown destinations. Aided, and even encouraged, by international migrant smugglers, the refugees brave treacherous sea, border police patrols and inhuman travel conditions, often without food and water. In their quest for better future, refugees die in boat hulls and transport trucks due to asphyxiation or simply vanish into the waters when their vessels sink or capsize. The toddler’s body that washed ashore and became the symbol of refugee crisis was only one of several hundreds of people who drowned in their bid to escape a hell called Syria. It is feared that thousands of Syrians will start leaving as the Islamic militants seize more villages and towns as they advance towards Damascus, the Syrian capital.

That means Europe is in for more trouble from the refugee influx. The options before the European Union are limited: It has to press either for a solution to the Syrian crisis or find a way out to avert a catastrophe. In the near future, neither is possible because the US, its allies and the Arab Gulf states are in position to extricate Syria. In fact, they are least interested; they will let it destroyed.

The big promises made by donor countries to feed and shelter the refugees have mostly remained on paper. The aid coming in is only a fraction of what had been pledged. In any case, looking after nearly 11 million Syrian refugees (conservative estimates) for an indefinite period by international relief agencies is a mammoth task and no country will willingly share the huge financial burden, however resourceful it is.

Ironically, the main players in the ongoing regional conflicts are keeping mum over the refugee crisis. For example, Russia and Iran which back the Assad regime and the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE which support the rebel groups have done little for the displaced persons. In fact, the Gulf States have slammed the doors on the refugees, leaving Europe to tackle the migrant problem.

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Uneasy questions about BJP-RSS meet

S Madhusudhana Rao

The three-day conclave of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that ended in New Delhi on Friday with several union government ministers presenting report cards to RSS top brass has raised another dust storm in political circles. Congress has accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of being run by its mentor RSS and hits out at the presence of ministers at the meet. The main opposition party said that the government is answerable to parliament, not to an organization with a communal agenda.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

BJP countered it, saying Congress is being run by mother-son duo. Though it is a weak defence against the opposition onslaught, the ruling party could not proffer a better justification, giving the impression that the RSS-BJP umbilical link can’t be severed in any circumstance.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh is more forthright when he said, “I want to clarify everyone that I am a RSS ‘Sayamsevak’ (worker), the Prime Minister is a RSS ‘Sayamsevak and no one should have any problem in it.” Rejecting the charge that the ministers had broken the oath of secrecy administered during the time of assuming office, Rajnath Singh said: “We have not broken any oath of secrecy. By attending a meeting, be it public or an indoor, no oath of secrecy is broken.”

Nevertheless, the BJP-RSS ‘coordination meeting’ saw several key ministers, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, take part in the deliberations ranging from internal security to external threats; Naxalite problem; J&K situation; economic development; social welfare schemes, etc. In other words, the meet had reviewed the 14-month-old Modi government’s performance. Modi’s addressed the conference on the last day, in which he is reported to have listed the government’s achievements and sought Sangh Parivar’s cooperation and guidance in fulfilling his poll promises.

Besides Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Manohar Parrikar, Venkaiah Naidu and Anant Kumar were among the central ministers who attended the conclave chaired by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and briefed the 93 representatives of Sangh Parivar’s 15 affiliates on the respective ministries’ performance. Not surprisingly, RSS has given a pat to Modi team with Bhagwat complimenting the government’s work  as “very satisfactory.”

Although the RSS-BJP coordination meeting does not affect the common man, it is disquieting to the extent why should elected representatives present the government’s performance fact-sheet to a socio-cultural organization? When the RSS claims it is apolitical and not remote-controlling the Modi government, the conclave’s assessment of NDA rule raises suspicions about the motives behind the saffron brigade’s “review session” with key union ministers.

One of the reasons could be to get a feedback from the government on its programmes and their implementation and penetration. Another could be to complement government efforts at the grassroots level. It means the RSS wants to play the role of a watchdog. But given the background and its agenda, RSS and its affiliates do not instill confidence in the general public, particularly among minority communities. This is where public perceptions of BJP differ and they are visible in social media. Comments about the coordination meet are galore and they are divided on expected lines of communalism and secularism.

In fact, it’s no longer a secret that BJP ministers in the NDA government regularly attend briefing sessions held by the saffron party’s ideological mentor RSS and its various affiliates. The purpose of such meetings is ostensibly to give a feedback to ministers concerned about how various government programmes are being implemented at grassroots level and coordinate RSS wings’ activities with the ministers. On the face of it, such confabulations look innocuous. But when we go deeper, if the meetings between government ministers and their party’s ideological affiliates become frequent, there is a clear danger of RSS pressing the elected representatives to follow its agenda.

Given its Hindu ideological moorings and leanings and RSS’s dream of establishing Akhand Bharat and bringing back the past glory, how much influence the ‘brain-storming’ sessions will have on BJP leaders is a point worth pondering.  Of more concern is whether the ministers and their Modi-led government would take into account the RSS bosses’ suggestions in formulating the country’s policies.

That fear has been lurking in the minds of many people ever since the BJP came to power. Coordination meetings such as the one held in Delhi will further strengthen the belief that the government is acting according to an agenda set by its ideological mentor. It is believed that the Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani follows the education plan chalked out by RSS. It is a known fact that the leaders of the RSS and organizations of such ilk have been pressing the government for review of history and sociology curricula. In fact, some of the BJP-ruled states have effected changes in school history books, raising hackles among historians and intellectuals.

The main grouse of Sangh Parivar is the Indian education system is western-oriented; prominence is given to a few leaders, little emphasis on traditions and moral, cultural and social values, among other things. They feel these ‘anomalies’ need to be corrected and recent proposals point to this direction.

So, it was clear that the coordination meeting was aimed at clearing misunderstandings that might have arisen out of statements given by ministers and Sangh Parivar leaders. At least the interaction might help avoid friction between the BJP and its parent body over controversial and sensitive issues such as Ram temple in Ayodhya, Article 370 and a uniform civil code. But that’s a mirage because these issues are divisive in nature. If Modi tries to strike a balance he will come under pressure and run into confrontation with RSS.

He has already done that, a day after the RSS meet, by saying that radical elements trying to force their own ideologies on others gave rise to conflicts at a Hindu-Buddhist conclave in Bodh Gaya on Saturday.

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Patels add another worry for Modi

S Madhusudhana Rao

The poster boy of Patel community in Gujarat, Hardik Patel, is an unlikely comparison to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But often the 22-year-old invokes the legendary ‘Iron Man’ of India to champion reservations for Patels in jobs and college admissions in his state during his speeches. He has thrown enough hints suggesting that he would like to be called Sardar Hardik, in an apparent indication that the struggle for his clan quotas is as lofty as it was by  the  ‘strongman’ of India’s Independence movement.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Hardly known outside of his home state, Hardik launched the quota stir on July 6 this year under the banner of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) at a modest rally in a small town Visnagar. None had thought that the fiery speaker would become a rallying point for millions of Patels, also known as Patidars, in a month’s time and hit the national headlines. In fact, he has achieved a cult status with his Ahmedabad rally on August 25 where lakhs of Patels had gathered to hear him.

The massive public meeting where Hardik had thundered that “reservations for all and no caste-based quotas” could have been passed off peacefully but for the Gujarat police’s alleged highhandedness and over-enthusiasm. The cops’ attempt to disperse a motley crowd at the venue after the meeting was over and the arrest of Hardik Patel had resulted in violence that claimed at least 10 lives.

The fallout, as later developments have proved, is the PAAS convener, who could be easily mistaken as a student leader with a youthful demeanor and bursting energy, has been catapulted onto the national stage. Now, his agenda is pan-Indian and ambition is political. Since his release, he has grown in stature and his voice is being heard across the country. The fact that he has taken the quota battle cry to Delhi and is planning to hold meetings in Patidar-strong states like Uttar Pradesh to galvanize Gujarat Patel counterparts shows that Hardik is on a national Patidar unity mission.

Already, Patel leaders in politically sensitive Uttar Pradesh have sounded out their support to the PAAS founder. Their backing comes despite the fact that the community locally known as Kurmis enjoys benefits extended to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

Their interest in PAAS campaign is to pitch their demand. Sarvesh Katiyar, national president of the Akhil Bharatiya Kurmi Kshatriya Mahasabha, told the Hindustan Times, “If he seeks our support, we will surely extend it. While it is true the kurmis get reservation in Uttar Pradesh, through him we could raise the demand to increase our quota.” In the coming days, as Hardik’s campaign starts gaining more support from a youthful population – he puts the total number of Patels of all categories at 27 crores – he hopes to turn it into a formidable movement.

But the two national parties BJP and Congress dismiss such a possibility in the context of reservations since quota demands are state-specific and community-based. Given the mindboggling number of communities, castes, sub-castes and groups that exist in this country, any attempt to unify one particular community, albeit with different names, spread across a few regions is bound to fail because it is difficult to sustain the tempo over a period of time and the ethnic differences intrinsic to such campaigns.

However, what can’t be ignored are the issues raised by Hardik Patel. Though the categorization of communities into Scheduled Classes, Scheduled Tribees, Backward Classes, Other Backward Classes, etc. is intended to help economically weaker sections of society, the classification has led to compartmentalization of society.

Over the decades, political parties have turned various ‘class’ segments into vote banks. Not surprisingly, state governments have been vying with each other  to extend benefits to these ‘classes’ under certain percentage of quotas and reservations in government jobs and seats in educational institutions.

In the name of social justice and affirmative action, some parties have gone overboard to appease people belonging to various castes and sub-castes to create perpetual vote banks. In the process, the caste-ridden society has divided further and those who have been left out of the groups resort to agitations for getting a ‘class tag’ to benefit from the quota/reservation regime. Thus what we witness today in peaceful or violent stirs for reservations is a manifest of political exploitation of affirmative action.

When poverty has neither religion nor caste, why special privileges are given to caste-based groups? Moreover, their scope is widened whenever there is a strong violent demand from some sections. Poverty is universal and the parameters we set for defining it may vary from country to country. In India, we witness rich and poor in every community. In the so-called forward communities, we do have people living in penury. But they are denied the benefits extended to ‘categorized’ people simply because they belong to upper castes. Is it social justice?

Similar is the case with job and college admission quotas. A brilliant student may not get admission to a professional college or a topper may be denied a government job under the admissibility criteria. The quota/reservation decisions have been challenged many times in courts which have set limits in some cases. Despite courts’ guidelines, demand for quotas keeps raising in one state or the other. If it was Rajasthan by Gujjars, it could come from Jats in Haryana. Now, it is the Patels’ turn in Gujarat. What these demands boil down to is it’s time to decide once and for all whether we want to continue with caste as the yardstick or poverty level as the base for affirmative action.

Hardik’s demand to include Patels in other backward castes (OBC) or abolish the caste-based quota system may not find many takers among the mainstream political parties. For, Patels of Gujarat are considered among the most prosperous communities not only in their home state but all over the world. Motels in the US are synonymous with Patels. At one time, they used to boast that there was no motel in the US without a Patel! Similarly, their penetration in East Africa is so deep that most of the businesses are in their hands. The diamond city of Surat that cuts and polishes three-fourths of world raw gems is in the hands of Patels. Nearly 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population is Patels whose business and trade acumen is legendary. Then how can they demand OBC status? If the government accedes to such demand, what about communities that are suffering silently because none raises voice for them?

Hardik Patel says the prosperous Patels in the state and their NRI cousins are only a minority. The majority of Patels in the countryside are poor and they should be brought under OBC. While the claim deserves the benefit of the doubt, what perplexes political observers and ordinary people is Hardik’s sudden rise. His claim he doesn’t have any political support is difficult to swallow. How did he mobilize lakhs of people for his Ahmedabad rally and who is backing him from behind? These are all unanswered questions.

Whatever the mystery behind Hardik Patel’s power is, he has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose citation of Gujarat model for national development has taken a severe beating. Also, the state government’s (mis)handling of Patels’ rally shows there is something amiss with Chief Minister Anandiben Patel’s governance. Another worry for Modi.

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Femme fatale and the media

S Madhusudhana Rao

What is trending in the media now is the murder of Sheena Bora. Excuse me, who is that, you may ask. To explain who is/was she, I need to write thousands of words which I consider is a waste of time. Even if I present an abridged version of Sheena Bora’s story, culled from various sources, readers will lose track of it after knowing the multiple relationships of Sheena’s mother Indrani Mukerjea and dramatis personae involved in the tangled web of love-family-murder mystery.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

However, what’s clear from the revelations tumbling out like skeletons in the cupboard by the hour is the Sheena Bora case mirrors the emergence of a new Indian nouveau riche, their ambitions, aspirations and opportunistic relationships.

This is a real time story of an ordinary girl, read Indrani, with high ambitions but arguably caught in the vicissitudes of life but makes it finally, again, seizing every opportunity and exploiting the situations that have cropped up as she snaked her way up.

Until a week ago, Indrani Mukerjea’s name – and face — was confined to only social circles of Mumbai and the media circuits. But now, she has taken the print and digital media by storm. Ever since the story broke out four days ago, Indrani episode has had the dubious distinction of being the lead in major English newspapers. India’s successful cryogenic rocket launch or Pakistan’s unabashed nuclear boast with a veiled threat could not make it to the top as titillating details of Indrani’s intriguing life had started emerging. Full-page coverage with every possible angle probed, familial links and bonds traced, motives attributed, secret desires psycho-analyzed and passions unraveled must have made investigators’ job easy. In fact, news teams have done half the police job in a bid to beat the competition in coverage. Is our media going overboard or is it sensationalizing a socialite’s high life with a secret past bloodied by the alleged murder of her own daughter?

It’s difficult to say at a time when the oversell of politics has reached a nauseating point. For many readers, the Indrani trail is a welcome departure from the run-off the mill news breaks. That means the universal truth that sex and scandal sell still holds good for the spicy news hungry.

When we look at the unfolding story and when it comes to a logical end, it could be an excellent material worthy of a Bollywood potboiler with all the ingredients such as suspense, love, glitzy life and murder in right proportions. But even before it hits the screen, we have a blow-by-blow account and details of Indrani’s case on social media. The kind of interest it has generated is unprecedented; it can be explained only in terms of churning the society has been undergoing in the country.

The casualty is privacy. Everyone who has come in contact with Indrani is being exposed or volunteering him/her self to link the dots in her relationships with sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and spouses and friends. When we look at the picture in totality, what matters is the complex human nature and to what extent it goes and depths it descends. While the law of the land takes its own course in dealing with the case, Indrani personifies the ‘other woman’ usually found in urban India. Liberal in views and ‘liberated,’ one can find many Indranis in westernized Indian society. But they are discreet in their actions and relationships. They are exposed only when their heinous crimes come to light.

This is in no way defending a woman with diabolic designs, but to bring into focus how we are getting into the fast lane of westernized life without realizing the inherent perils present. More dangerous is the hypocrisy. On one hand, we try to maintain traditions, follow culture and appear to be God-fearing; but on the other hand, we try to do exactly the opposite. In Indrani’s case, the motive behind Sheena Bora’s killing in 2012 is said to be her love affair with the son of Indrani’s ex-hubby. Was it considered as incest by Indrani? Nobody will know until she reveals the truth.

In recent times, among salacious crimes involving parents is Arushi Talwar murder. It too got wide publicity and media coverage. The collateral damage that such sensational attention-grabbing reporting causes is trial by media. How far it is justified is debatable.

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Of onions and rupees

S Madhusudhana Rao

What has rupee and onion in common? Strictly speaking, nothing. But of late, they are vying with each other to overtake in value race. The inorganic rupee and the organic onion are moving as fast as possible in opposite directions. While the former has chosen the downward trend the latter, upward movement. Nevertheless, their individual or combined impact on the people is the same in value terms.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Thanks to the global manufacturing hub China and its continuing currency turmoil, rupee has fallen to over Rs 66/dollar and the Indian stock market plunged into an abyss. Even if we brush off the Monday massacre on the bourse as investors’ problem, the common people’s concern is the falling value of rupee and its purchasing power at local market. For example, how many onions can you buy with one rupee? If you are lucky, you may get an onion bulb weighing a few grams.

On Sunday, a kg of onions retailed at over Rs 70 in Hyderabad. In the national capital, they were priced at over Rs 80 and in a few days, the onion price is expected to touch Rs 100 a kilo! Old timers would recall that at one time it was the cheapest in vegetable markets in any season. Now, it is so pricey that hotels and restaurants have stopped serving onion as an accompaniment to the main course at lunch and dinner!

Is there any relation between depreciating rupee and appreciating onion? Surely, it needs some painstaking study. While the rupee value is linked to global currency markets, onion is a 100 per cent home-grown product. Its wild price fluctuations and acute shortages are nothing to do with rupee’s yo-yo behavior. However, a close look at the rupee and onion’s upward and downward movements suggests there may be an inexplicable mysterious link.

Nevertheless, a periodical onion crisis points to something more than what makes us cry over the skyrocketing prices: It is the looming agrarian catastrophe, caused by south-west monsoon failure and governments’ faulty farm policies. Now, it’s only the onion price; later, it is feared, the prices of all essentials, such as pulses, grains, vegetables, fruits, etc. will go up.  Even the bottled water cost will rise if rains give us a miss.

Governments’ quick-fix solutions like subsidized supplies to unaffordable people and imports to ease shortages can mitigate consumers’ problems. But they are not permanent solutions. What we need is a long-term sustainable plan to resolve not only the annual onion shortage but also the seasonal problems of plenty and scarcity through judicious management of production-storage-distribution system in the country.

A case in point is the ongoing onion crisis. Why do we face it year after year? Sometimes, it is state-specific and some other time nation-wide. There are umpteen reasons. Some of these proffered by leaders and officials don’t cut many onions: Crop failure (none can question it); unseasonal or lack of rains (blame them on the Rain God); exports ignoring domestic demand (dollar is more precious than onion); and simply a seasonal problem (really?).

For a decade or so, we have had the onion crisis; first, once   in two three years and later almost every year. Still, officials/governments have not laid out a strategy except shedding a few tears. Often, market forces and hoarders had a field day, letting the prices soar. Once they reach the sky, the union government starts thinking of remedial measures by way of imports from countries like China and Pakistan and as far as Iran.

The problem is not the price but the onion quality and its shelf life. If buyers could recall, many consignments of imported onions were rejected because either the onions had rotten by the time they reached our shores or been found unsuitable for human consumption after reaching the market yards. In some cases, they were found inferior in quality to locally produced varieties. In fact, the Indian onion is said to taste better (stronger punch) than others and in overseas markets it commands a premium over others. The smell and the taste are the two overriding factors for rejecting the imported stuff. That begs us to ask the government why it can’t avert a crisis of sorts beforehand.

Meanwhile, the bulbous favourite of millions of Indians has become a prime target for thieves and robbers in Maharashtra. At two separate places, robbers trucked away 700 kg of onions from a Mumbai shop and 2,000kg from a farmer’s storehouse in Nashik district in as many days. If the trend continues, insurance companies can offer onion cover to dealers and farmers.

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NaMo moment in Dubai

S Madhusudhana Rao

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to a mammoth crowd of over 50,000 Indian expatriates at Dubai Cricket Stadium on Monday was described as a repeat of New York’s Madison Square Garden event last year when the PM wowed a similar number of Indian-Americans.

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Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, presenting a Hindi translation of his book to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In fact, the number of Indian expats present at Dubai meet to hear Modi was a fraction of the total Indian expat population working/living in the United Arab Emirates. Had the organizers found a bigger venue than the limited capacity cricket stadium, it would have been a record of sorts for Modi meetings overseas. With extra seats provided inside and outside of the stadium, the organizers had restricted the entry through a strict registration process.

For most of the Indian expats – 30 per cent of the UAE’s total population of 9.2 million – it is their second home. For many, the seven Emirates that constitute the UAE, the Gulf country is first home because they have been living and working or doing business for generations. Though there is no concept of granting citizenship to expatriates, they feel at home because of liberal socio-economic policies of the UAE in general and Dubai in particular.

So, when Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Abu Dhabi-Dubai in 34 years, his visit could be termed historic in many ways. The last visit an Indian PM made to the Emirates was in 1981 by Indira Gandhi. Since the 1980s, the Emirates has progressed phenomenally and the two chief architects of the federation – Dubai Ruler Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi Ruler Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – and Rulers of other Sheikhdoms had given way to young, progressive and western-educated royal scions.

In other words, the current leadership has a better understanding of geo-political situation and the UAE’s strategic importance in the Arabian Gulf region. Despite Modi’s surprise visit –it was announced just about a week back – on August 16 and 17, the UAE leadership went out of its way to accord him an unprecedented welcome and attached great importance to his visit.

As usual, Modi proved to be an instant hit with the royalty and the laity, thanks to his judicious use of selfie diplomacy. His visit to the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, the third biggest in the world, raked up a controversy and triggered needless nitpicking back home. But it was a PR exercise that impressed the Islamic country with a healthy dose of tolerance for other religions. Moreover, the tour of the mosque, which is also an architectural wonder, must have sent a message to those who harp on Modi for his Hindutva credentials.

Similarly, his visit to zero-carbon futuristic city of Masdar on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi was yet another proof that he was ready to embrace new technologies and in the coming days, we need not surprise if he adopts some of the cutting-edge knowledge projects being developed at Masdar and seek Indian partnership in them there.

However, the icing on the cake was the Dubai event. A majority of Indian expats work in and around the most modern metropolis in the Middle East. It’s a magnet that attracts skilled and unskilled manpower and billions in investment from around the globe. It’s a mini India as well as a mini world. Its commercial importance could be gauged from the fact that most of the business is in the hands of Indian expats. Those who have gone there and prospered in hospitality, education, health, import-export trade, industry, realty and retail sectors are legendary.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

With $60 billion trade turnover in 2014-15, India is the second largest trading partner for the UAE and for India it ranks third after China and the US. While 45,000 Indian companies operate in the seven Emirates, UAE companies have their presence in Indian real estate, energy, ports, and other sectors. More importantly, the number of flights between the UAE and India –a staggering 950 per week – shows how closely the two countries are air-linked and connected by traditional relations. At the same time, expat remittances from the UAE to India, estimated to be between $12-15 billion in 2014, were a source of foreign exchange for the government while they help improve the economic conditions of families of lakhs of Indian migrant workers back home.

Considering these facts, why closer ties with the Arab Gulf countries in general and the UAE in particular have been relegated to the backburner by India? Until the NDA government came to power, Indian foreign policy had been West-centric. First, the US followed by Russia and others and then the balancing act to give our non-aligned status a veneer of uprightness.

With Look East policy, there is a tectonic shift in India’s foreign relations but the volatile Middle East has been largely left out despite the fact the Gulf countries have the mass of Indian workforce which is instrumental in the region’s economic and infra development.

The Indian government’s standoffishness has only helped Pakistan to fill the space, invoking brotherly ties. Incidents like Babri demolition and communal riots had also helped Pakistan to stoke anti-India feelings in the  Gulf country. Until recently, these were very strong and now the perceptions are changing with Pakistan emerging as the hotbed of militancy. The Gulf region itself is facing threats from Islamic militants and terrorist groups. The raging wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq and the spread of Islamic State have serious security problems for oil-rich Sheikhdoms. In such a scenario, the UAE seeking strategic partnership with India to fight terrorism is a significant and important development for India.

UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has summed up what his country is looking up to during Modi’s visit in an article published in local press.

He wrote: “From a foreign policy and regional security perspective, the UAE has placed India at the forefront of its international partnerships and recognises the importance of broadening a comprehensive dialogue with India that deepens and diversifies our areas of engagement. There are particularly strong opportunities for UAE-India security cooperation in combating terrorism, which both our governments condemn in the strongest terms in all its forms and manifestations, as well as in the maritime domain.

“The UAE feels strongly about the need to counter extremism and incitement to violence, and has recently passed legislation that bans hate speech and the promotion of violence. India shares our concerns over the rise of extremism. The barbaric ideology that extremists embrace threatens values that the UAE and India hold dear, and both our countries have a mutual desire to see the region and the entire world free of the scourge of extremism.”

The article seems to be a catalyst for Modi’s full-throttled lambast at terrorism in his one-hour Dubai speech. From good Taliban, bad Taliban to good terrorism and bad terrorism, Modi took a dig at Pakistan. This was the first time that a foreign leader has hit out at Pakistan, which considers itself close to the UAE and other Gulf States and assiduously cultivates them, on the Emirates’ soil. In a way, it’s a strategic move to convey the message in unambiguous terms. Earlier, the UAE had never allowed anyone to directly or indirectly criticize Pakistan from within the country. Thus Modi’s reference to terrorism and militancy shows the UAE has come on to India’s page to tackle the terrorism menace.

The understanding or the strategic relationship for which the foundation was laid has some other benefits for India. For a long time, Dubai is known to harbor elements that are inimical to India’s interests. It also has been a transit point for Pak-trained Jihadists to sneak into India through Bangladesh. Criminals wanted in India find Dubai a safe place or use it as a springboard to move out. A case in point was Dawood Ibrahim. The new partnership will help Delhi to ferret out ‘rats’ from the UAE.

Besides elevation in UAE-India relations, Modi’s trip would be remembered by expats for the Abu Dhabi government’s munificent gesture: Land for a temple, a long-standing demand of Hindu community. And, the Prime Minister’s announcements of a welfare fund, a portal to address expats’ grievances and other problems were music to their ears.

On the economic front, the UAE has agreed to invest $75 billion in India’s development and open more avenues for Indian companies to take part in the Emirates’ growth. Modi’s statement that India’s investment potential is more than a trillion dollars should enthuse potential Emirati investors. But they will also be wary of our notorious red-tape and bureaucracy, the two demons that spoil the party.

Modi has done well, but the momentum he has given to Indo-UAE ties has to be maintained in the coming years to tap the huge investment the Emirates has offered. Otherwise, it becomes another wasted opportunity to cash in on goodwill generated by Indian expats in the UAE.

(The writer has worked over two decades with Dubai-based Khaleej Times)

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Sealing mouth in civilized way

S Madhusudhana Rao

Pay without work may be a dream job for many, but not for a French engineer. Charles Simon, after receiving $5,500 per month plus bonuses for 12 years without going to work for a single day, is mulling to sue his employer SNCF, the French national railway system, for ‘punishing’ him.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Simon gets paid for just sitting at home and doing nothing related to his profession. Officially, he has been an employee of the rail company; but barred from attending to his work in office. By European human rights standards, it can amount to mental torture and the perpetrator can be dragged to court.

But Simon’s claim is different: He wants to sue SNCF for spoiling his career. He was suspended in 2003 after he was alleged to have leaked a financial fraud to authorities. But he has never been reinstated or fired. Simply, he was asked to draw his salary and sit at home. While his monthly pay and annual bonus get credited to his bank account month after month and year after year without failure, Simon has got bored to the bone.

Finally, after receiving a total of $800,000 during his forced ‘retirement,’ Simon has decided to sue the rail company and let the world know his plight of sitting at home, cooling his heels for eternity. It is not clear why he has waited for so long to seek justice.

Nevertheless, Simon has told a local TV, “I am asking for recognition for the wrong this has caused me because if I hadn’t been sidelined, I could have had a fine career.” He also blamed his bosses for ruining his career and claimed that after he told local authorities about a $22 million fraud in a subsidiary of the rail company, his boss asked him to go home and wait until they could find him a different position. But the new post has never materialized nor his complaint letters to SNCF chief and Paris Workers’ Tribunal ever answered.

It is a civilized way of sealing mouth of a whistle-blower. But it is an exception to the rule of jailing, harassing and bumping off persons who can’t close their eyes to public frauds or pocket money in lieu of disclosures.

Contrast the story of Simon with the sagas of whistle-blowers in other countries. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame is being hounded by the US (the Australian has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than three years); Edward Snowden, who leaked highly classified information from US National Security Agency about its massive global surveillance programs is hiding somewhere in Russia to avoid arrest; and Bradley Manning who leaked mountains of secret data to Assange was jailed.

Nearer home, in India, dozens of whistle-blowers have lost their lives and many in government service are being harassed for tipping off watchdogs and alerting investigating agencies. Indian Parliament passed a Whistle blowers Protection Act sometime back and some of its provisions were amended in May this year and passed by the Lok Sabha. Rajya Sabha is yet to clear the amended bill.

What Charles Simon of France, Julian Assange of Australia, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning of US and Satyendra Dubey, Shanmugam Manjunath and many more in India prove is money, power and authority can’t bury their innate urge to expose frauds and confine them to the four walls of their homes.

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Our tryst with democracy

S Madhusudhana Rao

We are celebrating 69th Independence Day today (August 15, 2015). The usual fanfare of school children saluting the Tricolour and singing the National Anthem, chief ministers inspecting a guard of honour in their respective state capitals and delivering inspiring or insipid speeches and the prime minister reminding the country of the challenges ahead from the ramparts of historic Red Fort in Delhi have become more ritualistic than altruistic.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Nonetheless, we go through these motions year after year knowing full well that what we need in the 21st century is a new thinking at every level and inspiration and motivation to move forward in a complex world that is becoming fiercely competitive. It is important, of course, that new generations should know the sacrifices our forefathers had made to unshackle India from the clutches of colonial rulers and the contributions made by leaders to develop India post-Independence. Ignoring or belittling them is betrayal. At the same time, trying to bask in the glory of somebody and live in borrowed clothes is fooling the public and may prove to be self-defeating.  Both traits, unfortunately, have become national and they are more pronounced now than at any other time.

If we go back into history, in the first two-three decades of free India, zeal, enthusiasm and national pride had fired the imagination of people and leaders. Freedom fighters, irrespective of their caste, creed and religion, stood by their principles, lofty ideals of rebuilding the country and gave little weight to their differences. Their guiding spirit and goalpost was one and the same: To make India great, modern, democratic and secular. The Indian Constitution is a living example of all these.

Half a century later,  the generation of leaders who sacrificed their blood and sweated for the country’s development by choosing political and economic models that they thought would serve the country’s interest best, were all gone and a new crop of leaders — some  might have been born just before the Independence — have taken over. But the legacy they profess to follow is seen only in words, not in deeds. In fact, the unity of purpose the leaders of yore had exhibited is hardly visible now.

The just-concluded monsoon session of parliament is one example. The three-week session was a washout. In fact, it was predicted even before the session opened on July 21. If debate is an essential element of democracy, it was replaced by confrontation in both Houses of Parliament. Single-mindedly and with one-point agenda to disrupt parliament proceedings, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and party vice-resident Rahul Gandhi had succeeded in their pincer attack on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in and outside the parliament with protests and personal invectives.

While the Lok Sabha managed to work just about half the allotted time, that too without 25 Congress members who had been suspended for five days for unruly behavior by the Speaker, the Rajya Sabha functioned just about nine per cent of its allotted time.

Disruptions are not new to Indian parliament. For over a decade, every session has been seeing disorder in one form or the other. However, in the recent session, people’s representatives had crossed all the boundaries of civilized behavior, prompting veteran parliamentarian and National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar to say that he had never witnessed such rancor and personal vendetta as shown in the House during his entire political career.

After watching tit-bits of parliament proceedings on the TV, should we, ordinary people of India, have to hang our heads in shame or applaud those for paralyzing parliament in the name of upholding justice and forcing the government to remove the allegedly tainted heads of two state governments and union foreign minister? Arguments and counter-arguments, merits and de-merits of holding up parliament can be innumerable. Depending on which side of the political spectrum one is, one can go to any length to denounce Congress leadership for its vituperative and un-parliamentary language and decry BJP leaders’ reticence to come out clean on the issues raised by the opposition. But, what is clear is Congress is trying to turn the tables on ruling BJP by adopting the same tactics the saffron party had used during the 10-year UPA rule. It’s a tit-for-tat political strategy. With slim strength in Lok Sabha, Congress could feel satisfied that its sound and fury tactics had paid off. Moreover, it had managed to stonewall Modi juggernaut inside parliament which the grand old party had miserably failed to do in the last general election.

Who is the beneficiary and who is the loser? The Congress leadership may be beaming for outmaneuvering its bête noire and has promised to do it again if the government does not concede its demands. Needless to say, the aggressive attitude and posturing is aimed at reviving Congress political fortunes. If we leave the party’s future to voters without pre-judging the impact of its current actions on them, the backlash can be disastrous.

The loser in the political game of one-upmanship is the country, the people, the tax payers and the aspirational young men and women. Every parliament session costs the country crores of rupees (estimates vary). Besides loss of time and money, stalling parliament is no solution to the country’s multitude of problems. If the national parties keep reenacting the parliamentary drama every five years, what’s the recourse for hapless people? Will petitions signed by industrialists and intellectuals, PILs urging the Supreme Court to intervene or public rallies calling on elected representatives to work for the people change the scenario?

The larger issue is not the monsoon session was a near washout without any major bill such as the land legislation or Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill being taken up because of logjam but can we afford inordinate delays in enacting laws? It doesn’t matter which party is in power. When a particular party is given a five-year mandate, it is incumbent upon other parties to be watchdogs of the ruling dispensation. Though in reality it is a utopian vision at state and central level, the least we expect is to let state legislatures and parliament function in a dignified manner.

When it is not happening for whatever reason, people lose faith in the institution of democracy. It doesn’t augur well for the polity. So, before saying Jai Ho or Jai Hind, people and their leaders need to introspect and think about the future of the country rather than selves. In this context, it is worth recalling the words of the first Prime Minister of Independent India Jawaharlal Nehru. He said in his famous Tryst with Destiny speech on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947: “Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India …”

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