Monday, December 06, 2010

The Indian in the Lobby

There is a scene in The West Wing where the Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, goes to a Washington Post reporter to ask for information. This is part of the scene:


What kind of information?
You know what kind of information.
You know no one knows where I got it.
You know in the highroad, I’m not supposed to hand out any information I get.
You’re right.
You know I’m right. It’s not my job to help you out. As a matter of fact, I get fired from my job for helping you out.
I know that.


In an ideal world, the reporter does not help move the story. In the same scene, Danny says, "Josh, the information I get I have to print." I bring this up because, well, duh.

But my real interest lies not in discussing Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi -- let their editors decide what the punishment should be and their viewers/readers decide if they want to continue following them -- but the role that Niira Radia plays. Simply put, I believe that companies, NGOs etc have agendas they want to push, and have people they would like to see in power, and try and achieve these aims through lobbying.

I recently linked an article by Arindam Chaudhuri in which he attempted to defend the journalists by writing about the acceptability of lobbying elsewhere. While everyone was aghast that I would even link an article by this guy, my reason was because I was curious. I've grown up interested in politics and spent a summer as an intern in Washington DC where lobbying was a very acceptable profession. In fact, in my dealings with the development sector, I found myself becoming more and more interested in India's position on the use of ICTs and wanted to write articles with my opinion. Isn't that agenda pushing on some level? (Or it would be once I finally do it...) Aren't we all lobbying in some ways? Of course, it sits better when it comes from passion (like say, the environment or child rights) than a corporate entity and its paid professionals (big pharma)!

There is a reason I think lobbying should be made legal in India -- not that it is illegal right now. I get there is this danger that the firm with the most money will have the most influence, true, but that has been the case till now as well. Lobbying is not necessarily a bad thing. If you stand for something, be it big business or human rights, you want legislators to enact laws that further your cause. You might be right, you might be wrong, but you certainly have a conviction. You, as part of an advocacy group, need to convince the legislator of your opinion, and often even the public. Technically, everyone's understanding of the issues become better. Politicians are meant to vote one way or the other after being persuaded on the merits of the case. In fact, the link between the group and the politician can become a straight line and we can finally have some clarity as to what half a dozen of our politicians actually stand for. Their positions made clearer by the company they keep. I would love for our politicians to have to explain their votes to the public, and also declare their positions on a variety of things. Hardly any Indian politicians have detailed websites with a clear outlining of their positions. The first time the public hears about an issue is in the event of a scam.

The other day I was talking to some friends over dinner and one of them said that in India our MPs don't have the kind of staff that US senators and congressmen do. In fact, there are bodies. I met the founder of one, PRS Legislative Research, at my final round for a scholarship interview. Incidentally, he got it and I didn't, so maybe there is a brighter future there. Of course this organization offers research help to MPs but my point is that our elected members are mostly pretty unaware of most issues (as are the rest of us, to be honest) and by having organized sectors present sides of debates might not be the worst thing.

I suppose the point I am trying to make, which lies at the heart of the matter, is that legislation is very important to interest groups and lobbyists, and something we, as the public, don't pay much attention to. My hope is that getting more groups involved with public policy will pave new ways for the public to be informed of what it actually is. What is *in* this Bill?

To Radia and what she was trying to do. Yes, she was trying very actively to get her guy elected so that she could help deliver, in the long run, some very tangible results for her clients. That's not the lobbying I am talking about, because this is interference in the very formation of the cabinet, and if our PM took cues from corporates on that, it would be a very sorry day for us all. That is playing king-maker.

I guess the question isn't 'does lobbying subvert democracy or strengthen it?', but really, can there be democracy without lobbying? Aren't the millions of online petitions we sign part of lobbying? Dinner parties with well chosen guest of honors lobbying? And it seems, the tilt of a media story lobbying? I mean, an argument can be made that lobbying would be lobbying by any other name so lets call it what it is and figure out how we can make it work for us.

Monday, November 08, 2010

After the politics

This was no pat on the back for being good guys. This was not just affirmation and the encouragement of Indian global political aspirations. Barack Obama gave a stunningly candor speech about what lies ahead for India if it aligns itself with the United States. Truth be told, there are many intricacies which cannot possibly come out during a speech in Parliament and I will let those smarter than me and in the know be the judge of that. But as I had done many years ago for The Indian Express, I'll look at this speech and ask the question -- "whats in it for me?"

Obama said that if we take this offer (which we can't refuse?!) then the generations to follow will only hear about the US- India partnership as a historic detail because India would have transformed by then. Just like kids today don't know a world without the internet, I suppose the streets of India will change to look a little more Western, and frankly, that appeals to me. (I'm mainly thinking of streets without filth right now and its making me uber happy!) But, to the offer -- adopt a foreign policy similar to the US and we will prop you up as a world leader/regional leader through political and technological support -- is an interesting one. One that we should take?

Firstly, foreign policy. My internal alarm when up when a reference to India's peacekeeping troops came just a little before his call for India to become more vocal on matters of democratic movements. I'm ok with India preaching about democracy, we are so self satisfied about it, might as well leverage it. But at the same time, I'm not sure I can imagine a country where our troops are all over the world "peace keeping" during transitional shifts to democracy, which as we know, can take a really long time. These efforts have crippled the US to some extent, and I think Obama needs backup. So, is this something we are ready to do more frequently? I mean, a world leader, seat at the Security Council, more say in international economic bodies... this is what India wants in theory. Obama has listed out some conditions attached to US support. At the same time the US wants to, and for India to, "engage East". China was never mentioned in the speech although Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan were (all the problem kids) so one can only imagine what he was hinting towards without saying. The underlying sentiment I got was that India will have to stop with the matyr/victim/good guy complex and start taking an assertive role in the international arena if it really is to become a global player. So, in that sense, we will need really strong leadership and a concrete foreign policy. Manmohan Singhs comments about the outsourcing industry and dialogue with Pakistan was heartening during the afternoon press conference because he indicated what he was thinking. Since Singh he didn't speak in Parliament, he made it quite clear that India also has things to say and America has to listen. To that end, as Obama indicated in Mumbai, our PM too understands his audience!

There were other sentiments expressed in the speech that appealed to me. Obama was very clear about the fact that India has taken some good decisions (ending the License Raj) which has led it to develop in a strong way. Of course, anyone who knows the country knows exactly how lopsided development really is, but I take his point. He also pointed out that earlier US-India collaborations resulted in the Green Revolution etc and moving forward the US can supply much needed agricultural know-how, storage & transport technology and weather forecast technology. He also talked about defense and civil space, which means satellite technology and so on. (Ask my mom about this!)

For me personally, a very welcome part of his speech was this: "This leads me to the final area where our countries can partner-strengthening the foundations of democratic governance, not only at home but abroad.Now, in a new collaboration on open government, our two countries are going to share our experience, identify what works, and develop the next-generation of tools to empower citizens. And in another example of how American and Indian partnership can address global challenges, we're going to share these innovations with civil society groups and countries around the world. We're going to show that democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for the common man-and woman."

This is a direct reference to ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development) and e-governance which is critical if the entire country is to be lifted out of a cloud of poverty and disinformation. The knowledge divide is a real thing. I have a meeting in two days with the National Institute of Smart Governance, a body that helps government organizations digitize and become accessible to common citizens. We already work with American organizations like CISCO and of course, many Indian technology organizations, to implement, scale and replicate projects. But by no means is this near completion. By making this, and marking this a priority above what was said at the WSIS - World Summit on Information Societies - Obama has, for me, hit the nail about what kind of a society we should expect to live in if we shed our distant skins and work closely with the Americans.

"Seize the possibility of this moment" is what Obama said to those of us watching TV. And its a tempting offer to imagine a life a little more American in nature, especially given that some of us have lived in the US/Canada and understand what it means to live in a society like that. At the same time, we have seen from the outside the pressures of assuming the role of a global/regional leader -- the responsibility it brings forth.

Today I spent some part of the afternoon with professionals who have been given scholarships by the Ministry of External Affairs to study development journalism. Ministry officials have told me on other occasions that India does so much in the regional sphere but people don't know about it. As a attempt to showcase our soft power leadership the Ministry is now on twitter and facebook with updates about events, schemes, scholarships. I can see why the UN seat appeals to us so dearly.

So, the ultimate question remains - is India just a market for the US? Is India a much needed ally that America is ready to invest in to make it (truly) an equal? Will India gain or lose by closer ties with the US?

Obama has come to tell everyone he knows there is a new world order only when it comes to the fact that it is not a unipolar world anymore. But democracy and free markets are still what *should* be winning and he needs India to jump on this bandwagon. How much of our economy and defence will we have to open up in exchange for (what I believe) will be leaps and bounds in social/civil/agricultural society? But there comes the sobering thought: outside of a few national level politicians, can our petty, corrupt, illiterate, incompetent politicians understand the nuances of this offer? Or perhaps embracing American ideals and meritocracy will allow us to, in the long run, purge this political system as well? Too much, too much? Probably.

A girl can dream!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Before the politics

Obama has a matter of fact style of speaking which has appealed to me since I saw him campaign. He deftly explained issues about Muslims, war, extremism to voters back then, and he explained his protectionist logic when the economy demanded it. In India, he has equally been calm and measured in telling us again and again that America's interest lies in trading with India: you have a growing market and we want this trade to be a two way street. Unemployment has rocked America and Obama is here with a clear economic agenda. And another thing is clear: Obama is not making a political argument for business, he is making a business argument.

If you saw some of the panelists on TV giving their opinions, you then saw that unlike some of our trigger happy anchors, seasoned diplomats and officials have been taking pains in explaining why Obama cannot come to India and start immediately pandering to a country that honestly can't even vote for him and even more honestly is not his top priority in the war on terror. Before he landed in India, in an interview to PTI, he made it quite clear that Pakistan needs to control terrorist elements that are bred there, but to make similar statements just as he landed in India would color this trip quite differently. For many of us watching the first speech at the Indo-US Business Council in Mumbai (on TV - I wasn't there!) it was immediately clear that this speech was not aimed at India but at America. He was quite frankly telling the Americans that I am going to solve this economic crisis even if it takes going to every Asian country and signing business deals myself. That he did not point out to the Indians - us - what the advantages of these deals were was never more obviously then the befuddled expressions on the faces of so many illustrious anchors, but this is the job of the Indian government, not Obama. He wasn't giving that speech to win the heart of the business community - after all, $10 billion deals were already signed - but he was there to announce these to this constituency.

If people have immediate needs - shelter, food, clothing - "healthy materialism" as Obama called it in a town hall meeting "is made happen by businesses and people". I think he needs the common American to not worry about these things, and that is what he is doing. Plain and simple. Of course, tomorrow's address at Parliament may open up some political questions but I am not sure that is his focus. He has already said that he is the President of the United States of America, as differentiated from the leader of the free world, and I think this is a different Obama than the guy we saw cockily accepting a Nobel Prize based on intention! The more measured personality we see, trapped by the recent mid term elections that has seen Republicans win the House in the US, is not what are used to seeing. After all, when he visited Cairo, his speech made a play to end animosity between the American and Muslim word. We are used to the "yes we can" stuff which is why we want him to come and give some impassioned speech about how India is wonderful and Pakistan is evil and Afghanistan is useless and because we are such an emotional people we are reacting rather personally to the fact that he hasn't! But diplomacy is diplomacy and what is talked about in private between government often never makes it to the public fora and I didn't need to have seen The West Wing to know that, but I have and I do.

What has been pointed out by many, and is clear to anyone watching analysis of the past two days is that we don't hold the US or even President Obama in awe. People, including the students who met him, have raised some tough questions and made some valid points. I haven't yet seen all the articles in the American press to analyze how Americans are reacting to "this" India but as someone pointed out, the India-US relationship is more equal today because economics is taking the front seat. In fact, we feel richer and so by extension, more comfortable to call out the Americans on what they are "not" doing, but in truth if this was simply a political visit, over time India might not have this backbone. In a political context we still have a desire to get a pat on the back for being the good guys in South Asia and that has never been more obvious that sentiments expressed all over the media. However, economically, its different. America was hit hard by the recession, we were not in comparison, but to grow we need more markets and the US is one of them. So do they.

I'm looking forward to the speech in Parliament. It'll tell us more about how India is viewed in the global marketplace.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Delhi O Delhi!

Going back to my CWG story.. Remember when we said the CWG Village site was not good because its right in the path of the Yamuna Floodplains? Well. Hello floods.

Anyway, while watching the madness that is the CWG, and even worse, the media coverage of the CWG... I was asked by TV NZ to comment, and I thought, why the hell not!

So here it is:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dear Diary

(This is fictional. A silly little short story I'd written for someone a while ago, in hopes of getting published, but sadly, it was rejected. Hope you crack a smile... even a little one?!)

Dear Diary,

I gave in my article to the boss today. He grunted, as is usual fashion, and told me he’d get back to me. My heart was racing the entire time and even coffee didn’t slow it down. But that was, if you can believe it, the best part of the day. In the afternoon he came to our room again. At first, the entire edit/op-ed page was furiously typing into our (pretty old) computers, that we didn’t even notice. Then suddenly, without warning, he told the op-ed editor that the main piece for the day had the intellectual equivalence of a rasogulla and could not go. This got me really happy. I stole a look at my watch. It was 5pm, far too late in the day to commission another article. So, this meant, I calculated, that each piece would shift up the page, leaving a gaping hole. And perhaps, I thought, raising an eyebrow, mine could fill that hole.

The room was tense as op-ed editor and edit editor (lets just call him ‘Boss’) had a silent fight. How can you say that, she cried, the writer is a well-respected political science professor from Chandigarh! He taught me when I was in college, she added. I think she was trying to build her case but I suspect that did more damage than the Chandigarh part. Boss was unmoved and mumbled something and left the room.

So here we were, stuffed in our little edit room, with nothing but the slow hum of that damn A/C. You know, there is also no privacy, so Facebook is out of the question. I know this for a fact because once, during lunchtime, I sneaked a peek at last weekend’s pictures. One of my senior colleagues walked in right when a picture of me drinking directly from a champagne bottle loaded. Enough said. Also the reason I can never update my friends about the crazy things that happen here.

The room felt quiet. Then someone offered their support to op-ed editor who bravely brushed it off. I was wondering if it would be too insensitive to offer my article as filler, but decided against it. You know, I started in my most concerned voice; I do have a piece that can come to the rescue today. Op-ed editor ignored me. Go to Newsweek, she ordered, see if Fareed Zakaria has a new article we can use.

Damn you Zakaria. You already have Newsweek. Can’t you give me this little paper?

Dear Diary,

We had another fight in the edit room today. Op-ed editor commissioned a piece from some uncle in Chandigarh. Boss clearly saw this on the system and came by. He said it was overreaching. Whatever do you mean, she asked, offended. It is like a transvestite that wants to vote twice. I started laughing although I wasn’t even sure I got the joke. Two angry glances later, I pretended to drop something and hid under my table.

Dear Diary,

So today I decided that I would gather up the courage to ask Boss if he has even read my piece. The first time I went to his desk, he seemed to be writing the day’s editorial. I got distracted by the fact that he had set Microsoft word to a green background and then chosen a incredibly childish font to type with. If you ever needed to know how to make terrorism fun, this is it.

A little while later, I returned to hover when I found op-ed editor at Boss’s station. She was, quite sarcastically, asking him if today’s lead met his intellectual sensibilities. Yes, yes, he grunted, I trust your judgment. She seemed a little confused by this.

I wonder if he trusts my judgment, I… well, wondered. Boss, I asked hesitantly, have you had a chance to read my article? I can work on the end if you like. This was met by silence.

As you know, Diary, I am obsessive and I think Boss knows it. He looked at me. Kept looking. Then said, no, I actually haven’t read it. By then I had completely forgotten what I came for. Well played Boss, well played.

But in the evening, while we waited for the designers to make the final pages, Boss came to our station. Over the shoulder of op-ed editor, he asked her if she really wanted to keep the main headline. Why, she asked as if she had been stabbed, what is wrong with it? It stings you like your junior colleagues wit, he said, looking at me. I’m pretty sure that was a serious dig at me so I pretended I was shooting him with lasers from my eyes. I think I won that round.

Dear Diary,

Today was really exciting! It was 6pm and Boss came into the room and told op-ed editor that her lead article was fantastic. As she beamed and beamed, he added that it was so good he was taking it for his page. Leaving us with, as usual, a gaping hole.

World. War. Three.

Dear Diary,

As I walked to the water cooler (fine, I’ll be honest, a cigarette), I saw op-ed editor go into executive editors room. She was never seen again.

I’m kidding. Jeez. She came to the room and told me she was taking a few days off. She looked really upset. I didn’t want to make a faux pas, so I simply nodded.

Then Boss came into the room. After she left. So I’m quite sure he had been watching the coast. You are responsible for the page now, he told me. I know you are new, and young, and have the attention of a fly, but I think you can do it. A Bengali fly, I asked, because that would be a compliment? No smile back. Fine, I’ll be honest, just a Bengali grimace.

I did complete the day, thank-you-very-much. He did change all my headlines, but what the hell. There were no typos and I left work on time. Job well done.

Dear Diary,

It has been four days since op-ed editor has gone to an undisclosed location. I joke; she is sitting at home. I even sent my mother’s sari-wala to help cheer her up.

I went to show Boss the final page before sending it for printing this evening. I went to his desk. He wasn’t there though a detective novel, almost finished, sat on his chair. I went to the executive editors office. They liked all my headlines and actually complimented me.

Using the moment to my advantage, I ventured, so Boss, have you read my article? I will, he said dismissively. I really wish I had superpowers. Evil superpowers.

Dear Diary,

Today Boss called in the afternoon. He admitted, quite sheepishly, that he liked my article. He then offered to help me structure it better so that the argument is stronger. He also suggested I find some more data to back up some of my claims.

Well, hello there. In honor of this great moment, I have cancelled drinks tonight and will work instead.

Dear Diary,

Guess who came back to work today! Everyone was quite happy, including me! I missed the company. It seems Boss and op-ed editor have made up and everything is as it should be.

Except for one thing. My revised piece, which was meant to go today, was held back. I think Boss didn’t want to force my article down her throat on her first day back. I can respect that. I said nothing, and did all.

Dear Diary,

You won’t believe what happened today. Boss finally told op-ed editor that I had written something quite good, and that it should go as lead on op-ed. She read it and agreed! I was so excited.

You get your picture on the op-ed page as well. The photo department called me downstairs to shoot something. I didn’t know if I should smile or not. Why? Because from here on this is the picture that will be kept on file every time I write. What if I write about murder or something really sad, and in my picture I’m grinning like a jackass? In the end I settled for a little smile. Later I realized one of my fangs was visible. So not ladylike.

Anyway, it was 6:30pm. We had the articles on the page. It was looking good and I couldn't wait for tomorrow when everyone I know would open the paper to see me! Suddenly, op-ed editor says that I should go as second lead since the other writers were far older and wiser than me. Sorry, she said, but sometimes you have to suck it up. I nodded away.

But I couldn’t believe it. This was totally unfair. I felt like I should get a little reward for holding down the fort while the grown ups fought.

Boss had come to check on the progress so I tried to appeal to him telepathically. I didn’t work so I tried to give him the whole big, sad eyes routine. Baited and hooked. He didn’t want to say anything to op-ed editor, clearly, so he just kept standing there. After a while, he took the computer from the designer and changed my headline to something quite provocative.

Everyone will look at that first; I know it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: well played, Boss, well played.

Dear Diary,

So everything is back to normal at work. We had a meeting in our little room and the first twenty minutes went in asking the Boss to decide for us at what temperature the AC should be set at. I said it should be eighteen degrees because with so many people in the room, it is at least twenty-two by the time it gets to me. Mr Cold Feet over there said it should be put on twenty-five. So I said why don’t you wear a sweater to work. And he said because it’s June in Delhi. And I said, well you just made my point for me.

Boss seemed to enjoy the passionate fight, mostly because he didn’t give a damn.

I had another idea for an article but I know it won’t be printed for at least another two weeks so I should sit on it. Mull it over. Not be impatient.

Of course, that means I did none of the above. I asked op-ed editor if she thought my idea was good. She gave me an obligatory nod and told me to go ahead and explore the idea. So I chased Boss down the hall.

I started to jabber on when he told me this wasn’t a good time. He had some problems at home. Later when I went home I sent him a message asking him if everything was okay. He said, forty-two percent it was.


Dear Diary,

You might have figured out now that the life of a junior op-ed writer is a lot of chasing and a little writing. I’ve had to walk up and down the corridors of the office so much that I’ve stopped wearing heels altogether.

So as things stand, I have submitted my second piece to the Boss. He has grunted and said he will look at it. Articles from Chandigarh have started to resurface. I can only guess that it will take another monumental blowout to get my lovely fanged picture and byline on that page again.

Ain’t life grand.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Is the best over?

When I was invited to Santiniketan, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect. I know about Rabindranath Tagore and the history (and what I didn’t I googled) but I really haven’t come across someone from Santiniketan either through work or the media – ever. I wasn’t sure if this is a wholly Bong college now, or if people from across India went there. I didn’t even realize it was a government college. I had assumed the Tagore family might be running it.

Anyway, so I went to the university – “from nursery to PhD” I was told really proudly. Of course Tagore is an overwhelming influence and his houses, chai spots et al are part of the guided tour. You even get to see Indira Gandhi’s dorm. There are sculptures all over campus. Most of them are by some guy, Tagore’s friend – whose name I can’t remember. They are really good! Classes are still held under the trees in the open. I asked if there is a holiday on rainy days, but sadly I was shown some covered spots. The college classes are held in buildings.

It was a typical government college in many respects. A bit run down, you can see the lack of proper infrastructure, and you can sense the complete lack of technology. At the same time, you can imagine the sculptors and painters loving this place.

Anyway, to my real story. The next day I spoke at the 10th anniversary of their media department. I was telling the mass com students that outside of TV, print and radio, as journalists they can become part of the development sector. I told them about the community video movement that we are spearheading. Etc.

So, it went well. Then came their regular program. “Discussions” which were actually debates. Two professors were called to sit on the stage and grade each speaker on style and presentation. No kidding. I thought I was back in high school!

But what really disappointed me were the debates. I have always sensed this since the time that I studied political science at Welham Girls, but the subject of politics (and media) seems to have an inbuilt institutionalized negativity. While I realize that corruptions and nepotism are all to real problems, but we teach students to hate the system, to hate politicians, to hate the media and to hate Indian government.

Ok, so things I picked up in the debates.

1. Youth in politics: Everyone talked about Rahul, Varun Gandhi and Sachin Pilot. That only children enter politics and that other young people have no chance. This really pissed me off. While I’m no BJP/Left lover, but these parties have seen many bright individuals rise through the ranks, as have other parties. It’s the Congress along that has this mummy-daddy issue written all over it, but I still don’t think that is the approach to take. When you talk about youth in politics, ESPECIALLY for students, counting only those who stand for elections is such a disservice. What about strategists, speech writers, online departments? When Advani ran last time, his office was filled with volunteers who came to help by leveraging their professional experience. It was all over the media. But it seems no one in Santiniketan could be bothered to read the papers. For soon-to-be professionals this is crucial,
2. Apathy: Let me say this for the record. I really really REALLY don’t think “todays youth” disinterested in politics, I have seen a lot of evidence to the contrary. Only one debater said that not everyone needs to be interested in politics, so lets not generalize. I was so surprised that that all the speeches said “During 1947, the youth came out to support the country… but today..” Ok, I know this college has a great Tagore hangover, so I will allow it, but seriously this logic is deeply flawed. Times, what was at stake, and passions were completely different then. Liberalization has happened, so many more avenues are open, people are rightly trying to build personal careers and personal lives. Politics is a career option and to be honest, when people are affected by a crisis – Jessica Lal to 26/11 – they pour out onto the streets.

I don’t mean to single out Santiniketan, it was a wonderful experience and the students there were very bright and articulate. But it did worry me as to what we are teaching our kids. (And really most of these ‘kids’ were just a few years younger than me.)

That these political science and mass com students are proceeding with a sense of disempowerment and even worse, that the best is over is criminal. That everything about this life, this India, is terrible. That politics is for criminals and there is nothing we can do about it. Ok, that is a gross generalization. I did meet a young girl who stood for local elections to prove a point. She is a great example of how we need to stop bitching and start doing.

I tried to tell the Professors my points and that there is a lot of opportunity and that students should be idealists not bordering on depression, they agreed. But I didn’t get the sense anything was going to change.

I see honor killings on TV and I see scams everywhere. We need to inculcate a sense of confidence in our students and I really don’t think we are doing that.

This is worrying.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I went to China and all I got was a suitcase full of clothes

50% of my house (mother, father, dog, me) is preoccupied with China. (I am not, dog is not). Its often China this, China that. Foreign policy, territory, look at what the Chinese are doing now. My parents went to China last year and came back super impressed with the technological progress. I heard about Shanghai's elevated roads for weeks. I remembered that, a few years ago, when an Indian Express reporter had gone to China, she had written that you never see an extra person hanging about in China. They are all doing something that means something. And they stand in lines. You know, everything that is not India.

So, with all these things in mind, I decided to join a friend in Beijing and Shanghai. I had a list of things I wanted to see: The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Military Museum; everything that sounded deadly, and to be honest, scary. Even my Express editor had made a face when I'd mentioned I was going to China..."why there?" So you can imagine, I was expecting some form of a sterile clean hospital masquerading as a country.

Hello, shock -- I didn't expect you! The Chinese are noisy, pushy, smelly (noodles and cigarettes), juvenile, talkative and obsessed with ice cream!

As I travelled through the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, the question that was swirling in my mind the whole time was: "how would I describe China in an article?" And the same answer kept coming back to me again and again. I felt that the urban populations -- because I never ventured out of these two cities -- are encouraged to be, and also trapped in, a state of perpetual adolescence. Perhaps its the consumer culture that is literally exploding from every corner because of new-to-China capitalism. Perhaps its the fact that its a Communist country that needs its people distracted enough to not challenge government. Perhaps it is the fact that the state encourages these mass good that spill onto the streets. Perhaps its the fact that most of urban China consists of young, single, trendy people with no siblings; so therefore very independent lives which cash to spend and not much family to spend it on. (In fact, imagine a generation of people who have no idea what it is to grow up with a brother or sister. They have at the most, two first cousins.) They are riding the wave that the Chinese government is providing them: fast jobs, flashy cities, deep pockets, and the joy of being an only child. Perhaps its all of the above!

And what do I mean by perpetual adolescence: fasination with cartoons (especially wearing cartoon themed clothes), ice cream nearing a national obsession, most grown women wearing only "cute" clothes (its as if the concept of 'sexy' has not yet arrived in China) and finally, a meekness and an inability to think for yourself.

To clarify, I don't mean that there are no independent, mature, wordly men and women in China. There are. But allow me to highlight some simple stories that might show you what I mean by stunted personalities. Of course, there is no doubt that this is a direct result of a communist regime where rules and rules are rules -- and they are not meant to be broken. We took a boat ride in Shanghai. By the time we reached the top of the boat, all the chairs were taken. Predictably, we asked the waiter if we could have another chair. He said no, only these chairs were available. I looked inside; a few rooms had spare chairs. Can we bring them out, I asked. No. Getting angry, I said I didn't want to stand through the boat ride and went off downstairs, with my friend Ankur, to find the captain. Finally the captain gave us 3 folding chairs from a stack of folding chairs downstairs. We came upstairs, sat on them. Another Chinese couple looked at us curiously, and inquired about getting chairs as well. The waiter said no, they listened. Finally, an hour later, when we were leaving the boat, the couple noticed the stack of folding chairs on the way out. The man went beserk. I hadn't really seen that. I thought about it -- in India, the enterprising waiter would have made a big production about getting a chair to earn a tip. Not in China. A rule is a rule is a rule. The same thing happened with us at the Shanghai Museum. Purchases were paid for on one card, but we wanted separate bags. "One bag per purchase," the cashier kept repeating till we explained to him that giving out an extra plastic bag really isn't a big deal. I won't bore you with more stories, but you get the drift.

At the same time, there is a growing concern about these nuclear families. Outside the MOCA (Shanghai Musuem of Contemporary Art), after a lazy lunch at the fabulous garden restaurant, Barbarossa, we came across tens of people in the garden sitting with posters with lists on them. They were in Chinese, so I couldn't make out what was going on. A few of the signs had pictures and for a fleeting second I wondered if this was a protest about missing people. But on second glance, the pictures were more facebook-y than anything, and I realised this was a marriage market! Reading the year of birth on the posters, it seems the parents of countless 29-33 year olds had given up on letting their children find a suitable mate and taken to the streets (or gardens!) There were even more people browsing through the posters, mostly older couples, ostensibly looking for a mate for their child. Coming from a country built on matrimonial ads and the rest, it wasn't new -- but the desperate form it took spoke volumes about what the undercurrent regarding the single child is.

Its not just the parents. Young Chinese are definitely thinking about this policy too. For better or for worse, Psingh and I were stuck in the middle of a 5 hour diatribe on the subject (in Chinese) on a local train from Beijing to Shanghai. Firstly, we were told only a chair car was available. 13 hours? Seemed a bit much, but mentally picturing a Shatabdi, we decided to wing it. I won't bother going into how we almost missed the train -- literally running on the platform with our bags as the trains signal went off.... getting into whatever bogey was in front of me... trudging through the local compartments that were teeming with people -- because me and my friends always ending up chasing trains, planes and buses. But when we did get on, it turned out to be 3rd class equivalent of China's train system... complete with seat sharing, smoking indoors and the stench of alcohol. And surprise! The lights were not switched off at night (how much was I missing the Indian Railways at night!) and people are "expected" to talk. And they did! After the initial staring at us, laughing at us, and half the compartment watching Ugly Betty with us on my laptop, they finally forgot us. Unfortunately, we were caught in the middle of a hectic conversation which, as much as we tried, we could not end. Betty, a young Chinese girl who spoke some English, translated a bit for me -- and yes, the single child policy was being hotly contested. Perhaps liberal living will ultimately give way to liberal thinking; it must surely be interlinked at some level. This -- without a free media.

By the way, Betty also asked Psingh and me if we were sisters and then told us that she couldn't tell us apart! Nice racial profiling here, Betts :)

But my own racial profiling aside, I have to say I was so impressed with Shanghai that I kinda want to live there for a bit! Its a newer New York in terms of infrastructure, and time will tell in terms of energy. Right now the World Expo is going on and the city is basking in the glory. Signs are everywhere, the road adorned with flowers, English hotlines have been set up for clueless tourists like me and restaurants are full. In comparison, Beijing is like a sleepy old town, the hotbed of monuments and government. I'd be inclined to make a Delhi-Bombay comparison, but I assure you, these cities a couple of many decades into the future!

That brings us into this whole planning debate, which can get messy. It also takes me back to my living room. Is the Chinese model better? But what about democracy? Can you really plan out entire sections of the city, neat and clean, and then allow people to settle there? Or must it always through extensive debate and protests and have each vote counted. I know that a lot of the older people I have met who have gone to China (even people I met at the airport) feel disillusioned at the fact that India is no where close to looking - and functioning - as developed as China. After visiting China, Kamal Nath's "India China in the same breath" statements seem hollow. That I've met people who have travelled to the interiors and said that development is taking place everywhere makes me wonder if China will ever move towards democracy the way it is moving a few centuries ahead. After all, Google, Facebook, Youtube and other staples of our online lives were missing, and I have heard about email accounts being closed overnight.

In the end, my test to myself is: would I rather be born a girl in India or one in China? Riding the wave of urbanization here, or riding it there.

I choose India -- as long as I can make it to China's banging cities every once in a while. As yes, fill those suitcases!

PS - I had a whole of adventures in China that I'll write about soon-ish! Keep coming back!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On the Cards

Urban Indians are hooked to poker and are playing it everywhere—on trains, in business schools, on movie shoots and in farmhouses.

Delhi seems to suddenly close shop on weekends. Even the phone doesn’t ring often, and when it does, I am usually asked, “You don’t play poker, right? Good. Let’s do something else!”

Poker, the saying goes, takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master. Urban India seems to be spending its lifetime mastering this game. My friend Dhaval Mudgal, 25, lead singer of the popular Delhi band, Half Step Down, arranged to teach me the game at his small flat. “Some games are pretty serious and they wouldn’t want a stranger—or a non-player there,” he said.

His friends were settled around a small table, shuffling cards when I arrived. Guitars and mini bongo drums were in a corner in the bright orange living room. Coronas were being passed around, and IPL cricket was being played on TV. The day’s “buy in” was Rs 3,000 (players buy chips worth a certain amount and play with that; like traditional card games, you have to make your card sequences but poker has the added kick of betting on your hand—and your opponents’). Most of the players had come after work, still in their office clothes, and would go home just in time to wash up and sleep. A poker game lasts for at least four hours. Simrit Tiwana, a fashion designer seated at the table, recounted how she lost a great hand in a dramatic play amidst peals of laughter. So was she playing with only Rs 3,000 tonight? Laughing, she said, “That’s an eyewash. If the game is good, you can end up buying in four times, and then you’re gambling with Rs 12,000.”

In upwardly mobile India, this American game that involves playing with your mind—and money—has struck the perfect chord. That Indians love to gamble is no secret. We’ve been seeing it from the time Yudhishtir gambled away his wife and brothers in the Mahabharata. Today, poker is just exclusive enough and accessible enough to be the game of choice—on movie sets, in overnight trains, in farmhouses and in business schools. Chances are there will be a game at your neighbours’ tonight. And if you are a “shark”, a good player “who really understands the game,” you’ll have a social standing.

In Delhi, on any given night, some12 to 13 poker games are on. “Wherever poker has started, it has stayed,” says 29-year-old Pranav Bagai, an entrepreneur who has started Shark, a design label devoted exclusively to poker products. By Diwali, Shark will have poker tables, and chips, even customised tables, sets and other accessories. A poker table costs around Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 and the chips Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000.

In Mumbai, poker tournaments are becoming popular. Since gambling is not technically allowed, organisers collect money on entry and then players play for prizes like laptops and flat-screen TVs. Weekend trips to Alibaug normally involve poker sets. People have started putting disclaimers in party invites saying that “this is not a poker party” to keep it light and breezy.

So what is the pull? Sakshi Salve, a 27-year-old scriptwriter who “was curious about the game since everyone was playing it”, says poker “tells you a lot about people”. “When you play with them, bluff, bet, win, lose… you see a person’s character. I know so much more about my friends now,” she says. Salve has been hosting a poker evening at her house every few weeks for the past couple of months. Bottles of wine are cooled for the occasion as are crib notes. Her poker gang consists of young, fashionable women, and in her Delhi house, Jimmy Choos, Blackberrys and poker chips go hand-in-hand. Salve feels it’s a good way to spend an evening without going out. “I only gamble as much as I’d spend on a night out,” she says, “so, not more than a few thousand rupees.”

For others, it’s a way to de-stress. Akshat Kretrapal, a student of the prestigious Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, arranges poker games for students. During orientation, about 50 students turned up at poker night to learn the game. Even the professors play with students, “a good way to relieve the stress from a hectic study schedule,” he tells us. Bollywood too is catching up. Producer Vicky Bahri started playing the game three years ago while on location for a movie. A crew member, who had returned from Hollywood, taught them the game. They played daily for 20 days and were hooked. “Now we play every Friday,” he says, “and people often ask me to call them for the next game. We always have new people at our table!” His group enjoys it so much that instead of flying down to Delhi for a trip, they chose to travel by train , making the overnight trip a poker night. He adds, “If you play it with the right spirit, it is a great way of catching up with friends and de-stressing.”

Delhi-based businessman Anirudh Khaitan likes the skill involved in the game. “It’s all math,” says the 32-year-old. “You calculate your chances of winning a hand and then you can decide if you should bet. Say, Rs 50,000 is lying on the table, and you have a chance to put in Rs 30,000—this is your decision: should you put in Rs 30,000 to win Rs 50,000? It would be made much easier if you only have to put in Rs 10,000 for the Rs 50,000 – because your return is higher,”says Anirudh whose farmhouse, many say, has seen legendary poker games. Some months ago, a game that began at midnight ended only at around 2 pm.

Riding on the wave, Powerplay, a Gurgaon-based sports company, is launching the IPRT (Indian Poker Ranking Tournament) on a large scale, starting in Goa and expanding to Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is a platform for Indian players to get ranked so they can play at an international level. And while it is arranging to form a poker team which will have payouts like trips to Vegas and Macau, it also mentions that it is not promoting gambling because poker is not a game of chance, but one of skill.

Players want poker to be removed from the gambling law because they believe luck is but one component. When talking about other players, phrases like “he really understands the game” crop up a lot. There are books, videos, journals and articles that discuss poker plays and what to do when faced with certain set of cards.

Former poker player and author James McManus says, “Sometimes…the game is much more than just a game.” In the 1800s, when poker started gaining momentum, it suited the mood of the American Wild West. McManus writes that poker was a game “whose rules favored a frontiersman’s initiative and cunning, an entrepreneur’s creative sense of risk, and a democratic openness to every class of player.” Poker was tied up with images of gunfire and manliness, but always, a game of winnings. McManus claims to be surprised by “the extent to which poker logic was deployed by the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons to help them figure out when and how to bluff, as well as which adversaries are or aren’t bluffing: from the war between the US and Japan, through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, to the standoffs today with Iran and North Korea.”

Young, urban Indians probably wouldn’t care about world politics, as they comfortably shuffle cards in their living rooms or on train coaches. Seems they are right after Mark Twain’s heart, who might have one of the best quotes about poker: “There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker…It is enough to make one ashamed of the species.”

Friday, April 30, 2010

India Unheard Promo

It was taking too long to upload the video here, so just click on the link and watch it on youtube. The video is only 2:30 mins

We worked really hard! So do see, it explains everything, lets you meet some of the people we trained.

And now... I shall go back to regular blogging :)

Friday, April 16, 2010

The media has failed us

This is a rant. A truly angry one.

I returned from Kumbh/rafting to have my friend Kundan ask me "have you heard about the latest Shashi Tharoor scandal?" No, I hadn't. I turned on our 'trusted' news channels, the ever useless bunch, and found myself in front of the telly for the most part of the day. I needed to catch up on news, you see.

I was bombarded with images of Shashi Tharoor; how he "may" have used Sunanda Pushkar as a "proxy", a woman who he is "friends" with and influenced investors to choose Kochi as an IPL team. Then the anchor went to the ever useful 'reporter on the ground' to ask, "Do you have any updates?" -- "No, none" -- Anchor: "Well, there you have it, no updates and no real information. Breaking news people, we are as lazy and useless as ever!"

The point is this: I don't know or care that Tharoor is guilty. It is the job of the media to tell me the story, not the million allegations they are throwing back and forth. News channels are not meant to gossip central, but no one has told our wonderful editors that.

At night, my own parents, normally really smart people, were on this anti-Tharoor kick. "Arrogant, tweets... " blah blah. I asked them if they had read his tweets or press release, or anything beyond the tv news story. They hadn't. I got angry, but then realised, how many times must I have done this? Trusted by news channel only to be fooled into an opinion by lazy journalism.

The more I think about it: I don't understand the media. And the media doesn't understand the story.

NOW - they ask, where is this IPL money coming from? For three years, they have given (what I assume is free) publicity to IPL, Lalit Modi and the whole gang because it was fancy, fun, had glitz and glamor. All the journalists, who keep having award shows to celebrate eachother, never once asked the tough questions -- where is the money coming from? how are they claiming to make profits? where did the Sahara group find money?

Editors like Rajdeep Sardesai (the most guilty in my view) keep writing columns and tweets lamenting the state of the Indian media and when will it improve, while actively doing nothing but chasing TRPs? We've trusted him, Barkha, Arnab etc etc and allowed them into our living rooms for hours on end, listening to them and their 'expert' commentary. I trust my lawyer, banker, waxing woman for god's sake, so I should be able to trust my anchors.

But I can't now, can I? For every Tharoor, Sania-Shoaib blah blah... they behave more like a gossip column than real news. There are countless stories across India -- good and bad -- that need to be in a news line up. Yes, they will cost money and physical effort to go cover, and you might need to leave an AC studio to do so. But they are important to India. It seems that Tharoor may or may not have had something good or bad to do with the IPL and that Lalit Modi might have allowed shady money into IPL is far more important to India and Indians than the home minister addressing Dantewada in Lok Sabha. Sometimes I thank my stars for Doordarshan and NewsX, the only channels who give you a range of stories, instead of parking themselves in a living room in Hyderabad for a whole day.

We need new people in charge of our news channels because it seems like our current guards have failed us. This is a plea. Please do your duty. Don't chase TRPs and easy reporting, but fight the good fight. Serve the country. I know that has nothing to do with getting nominated to Rajya Sabha or winning India's highest civilian honor. But for yourself and for us.

NEWS. Not opinion. Not gossip. Not allegations. NEWS. Please, please, please.

Monday, April 05, 2010

we are not always born to lead

If you ask my mother, who was a good leader, she will tell you "Shivaji, Churchill, Indira Gandhi..." If you ask my father, he will tell you who wasn't a good leader.."Pandit Nehru.."

We tend to think of national and international level leaders when discussing leadership for obvious reasons. Theirs are the achievements that burn the brightest in the sky, and they are the people who have either risen or been born to achieve monumental change.

I cannot disagree with this. I too have people I admire very much...

The more I leave the books in their shelves and travel around the length of this country, working with grassroots leaders, the more I have begun to deconstruct the beginnings of leadership and how it is formed -- and how it can be encouraged

* We have rungs of leadership, starting at the grassroots level. These are people I have been fortunate to work with, and at times I feel that they are the ones who achieve the most because their fights are the most passionate, personal and often, hardest.

* They are born of their circumstances. Many I know are not the ones "with a vision" - no, they are often fighting hard to earn respect for their communities ("we are not untouchable") or fighting a physical displacement because of the growth of industry.

* It is not at all easy to rise above the discrimination you face because of caste, religion or economics, but it is all the more an astonishing achievement to be prepared to lead your community to a better future. When Ambedkar went to visit Mahatma Gandhi to ask him to speak out against untouchability, Gandhi did not agree. When Ambedkar left, Gandhi was told that Ambedkar was a Dalit himself. Gandhi remarked that he did not know this -- it is easier to feel compassion when you are significantly better off than when you are a victim of these circumstances yourself. (You see, Ambedkar is a upper caste name given by his tutor so that BR could study further in life without discrimination).

* Many of these grassroots leaders (I won't say most, because some were drawn to the NGO life) have battled horrific personal tragedies that would make a lesser person turn to alcohol, drugs, suicide.... or depression. But these people have fought the hardest when backed up against a wall. Now, as vauge as that cliche sounds, the turning point of most of these people has been that they got involved in some local NGO that was involved in either womens rights, education etc etc

* This is the first important point: leadership needs to be harnessed. Local NGOs, through various activities and often a substitute for schooling, teach people how to think constructively. They in turn, understand nuances about issues that concern them, and lead a team from their community that can work on it. You cannot imagine some of the people I meet, shy housewives with pallus draped around them, who lead all the women in their village to defy their families and open bank accounts... it is truly amazing how a million little steps help open a million minds.

* Where we come in is the next step. Our dealings with grassroots organizations and leaders/members is that we are "enablers". Our worldview is bigger, and we have more experts on our staff that can help put context to events around the world, and also introduce new tools as we have access to technology. For example we need to introduce many grassroots people to (a) identity (b) the bigger picture.

* Those fighting for Dalit rights or womens rights only see themselves as those things, whereas, their other identities are pushed back. For example, a Dalit can be from a state, a region, a country, a philosophy. Same for a woman. In terms of the bigger picture, often NGOs oppose development without studying other factors besides displacement. If they correctly understood monetary value for their land, opportunity this project could bring.. or on the flipside their rights as per international conventions many of these struggles would not be for nothing. (Case study: Dongrias vs Vedanta).

* Technology is also another factor that can help raise their work from a strictly low impact local action to one that is accessible everywhere and immediately scalable. Technology also encourages creativity and employment.

* The point is that armed with information, often imparted through tried and tested skill development camps, local leaders can become successful on a national level.

* For me, where I work in a high impact organization at a national level, and for us, we can step outside a community led struggle and see how we can tie up these movements at a national level to have the kind of impact that will generate a movement. For example, we are currently arming many grassroots people with video cameras so that stories of their communities can be brought to a common platform where we can generate action.

* But for this me to grow further/ for the org to grow further we need to educate ourselves in what is out there, what people are doing, and how to build on these things. For example, we meet people from the UN and now have developed a model by which beneficiaries of schemes can document the pace at which they are being implemented. There is a potential to help Google create content in local dialects and so on. Conversations with MDGs help us align our future goals with a common international vision.

*For that platforms that help you meet people with big ideas, a breadth of experience and often the funds are important. It helps connect dots you never knew existed.

I need some helping in thinking..... guys, your thoughts?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Explaining India Unheard

India Unheard Community Correspondents Training workshop

(A new program by Video Volunteers)

India Unheard

The first thing one needs to understand about undertaking such an ambitious project is that India Unheard, in both mission and scope, is a path-breaking program. Taking into account that the mainstream media cannot adequately represent all sections and geographical regions of India, Video Volunteers decided to create an alternative media channel. Funds are always a barrier to entry, and therefore, instead of trying to launch a “channel” on TV, Video Volunteers looked to new media projects, the internet and phone based initiatives to carry video and information from small villages and towns to the cities (both nationally and internationally).

The first question that arises is why? Why are we doing this? I would offer a simple explanation, and one that I vehemently believe in. Along with the basic needs of food, water, infrastructure that communities need, there is a crucial need for creation of a media outlet which can both educate and offer a platform for carrying voices. All too often small communities are fed information from bigger cities, and to that end, this information often has no local resonance. To train local community members to become journalists helps them identity their problems and address them in constructive ways. There is a feeling in the community that ‘someone is listening to us’ which further leads to the confidence that they are too included in the democratic process (beyond election time). For individual members of community media, who are often from the most neglected parts of society – so-called lower castes, women, religious and sexual minorities – it is both a voice and also a paradigm shift in terms of professions available to them. The tag of ‘journalist’ allows their social status to rise and in turn they can help raise the profile of their community.

The next question is how. To sit in a room and plan to bring together ‘marginalized’ sections of society seems an impossible task. The first phase of the plan was simple enough: two persons from each state of India would be selected to participate in this program. We would have to ensure, to the best of our ability, that they would be equally from both genders, and also from the least represented pockets of society. For the purpose of the first phase running smoothly, a decision was taken that these ‘community correspondents’ (CCs) would have to speak either English or Hindi, which meant that immediately their economic profile was raised as they would have to be formally educated on some level. We decided to send out applications throughout the country through grassroots (and some national) NGOs, who could nominate intelligent and driven persons who wanted to explore using media for development work. Applications flooded our office, and a careful selection was made so that a diverse group would be selected. We took special care to ensure that we had adequate North East representation, as this project is pan-India.

This brings us to what. What exactly would these CCs do? Firstly, video is the mainstay of video volunteers, so therefore, video training would be imparted. Since these CCs would be individuals from different regions of the country, it is our responsibility to train them as ‘video journalists’ capable of conceptualizing, scripting and shooting a story by themselves. The second part would be to familiarize them with new media – sms updates, twitter, facebook – so that people could not just follow their video stories but get invested in the individual CCs themselves. On our end, we have to create an interactive website that hosts all these stories, identifiable by themes, CCs and regions, so that it could become a one-stop spot on the internet for finding out stories from the ‘real’ India. An online platform essentially means that our target audience is not necessarily an Indian audience (as broadband speeds and internet penetration levels are quite low) but it is to find and secure a large international audience. Through their interest we can show these videos on multiple websites, TV channels and so on. But for all this to happen, one needed to also create a very efficient system at the Video Volunteers headquarters that could handle the influx of these videos every month. Right now we have about 30 CCs, and if they send in the decided number of 5 videos per month, then VV will have 150 videos come to the Goa office that will then have to be edited, subtitled, uploaded and organized. For that there was a rapid expansion of staff; a program director was brought in from the US along with project managers, editors etc.

When? The program has already been officially launched by our brand ambassador, Bollywood star Abhay Deol in Gujarat. In a month the first batch of videos will come rolling in and VV will find out how well they managed to train the CCs and also the individual capacity of these CCs to produce 5 videos a month. The basis of all this was a 2 week video training bootcamp organized by VV where these 30 CCs were trained in the technical aspects of video production as well as the theoretical concepts of journalism which includes staying away from personal agendas.

So who were these people we trained? I can’t possibly go into all of their personal histories but let me try and paint some stories. A girl who grew up wanting to be a boy but was so abused at home that she tried to commit suicide many times. The clincher is that she was adopted by hijras who took her confused sexuality as an insult to them. Only when she left home and lived on the pavement did she meet her first transsexual and realize she is not alone. We had amazing women who have been victims of severe domestic violence, but have finally stood up to fight for womens rights. We have young men from communities where their peers are either manual laborers or scavengers, but they have stayed in school despite the odds, to fight for a better future. We had many from tribal communities, here to find a platform to talk about how they are being displaced around the country. We had a muslim woman who told us that this training was the first time in her entire life that she had not been forced to wear her hijab and felt free. I had the opportunity to work with all of them in creating a script for their ‘profile videos’ which will be featured on our website and was overwhelmed with their passionate stories.

Outside of the training I am also arranging partnerships for this project. People and organizations interested in supporting, working with or showcasing community media. We are finally going to become a rural newswire, so this means muchos expansion. There is a lot more to be said about the issue but I wanted to explain the many pictures I had put up on Facebook to everyone.

See the pics!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Valley Girl

You expect to see security when you land in Srinagar, but the sheer number of army personnel still takes you by surprise. I had promised myself to enjoy this break in Kashmir without getting involved in any political conversations, especially since I was totally unsure if you should strike up a conversation with the local fisherman about whether he preferred India or Pakistan. Is there any etiquette to this? Can it quickly become violent? Do I want this in the five days that I am here for some R&R?

Kashmir, you all know, is stunning. It was still winter there, so the landscape was a mix of grey and brown. One of the first things I noticed was that unlike other villages and small towns I go to, none of the houses were painted in colors. Especially in the countryside, the homes with their steel slanting roofs, remain true to their brick color. The few that were painted kept a low profile, opting for a muted green. As we drove to our hotel, the fantastic Dar-es-Salam on Nagin Lake, I couldn't help but smile at how completely different the landscape looked from all the other places I've been travelling to recently. I've become used to the Goan beaches, and the hills of Mussurie, and most small towns of India can't help but look alike with the malls, insane traffic and lack of trashcans. Kashmir felt different, special.

I have these memories of going to Kashmir with my family when I was really little. They've been made stronger over the years because of photographs. I don't know if I actually remember playing in the snow, or the apples, or my grandmothers houses, or if I think I do because I see pictures. It doesn't matter, really. Though unfamiliar, it just felt so familiar to me. But what I didn't expect to be smacked in the face with was the overwhelming sense of poverty. Maybe it was the bleak colors of winter, or the almost uniform sense of dressing (phiran), or the lack of tourists which made the city seem sleepy, gloomy, peaceful all at the same time, but honestly, I didn't know what to make of it. Kundan, from the region, told me that his father had told him that in Kashmir, people aren't poor, they still eat two meals of meat everyday. Looking at the fat cheeks of most kids around, I hoped this is still true.

Shops had Hurriyat posters, though my mother said that might have been for the same reason that in Mumbai people have Shiv Sena signs -- to be left alone. But, while looking for walnuts and salwar kameezes, it felt unsettling. But the people took that feeling away with their charm and simplicity. It is a place stuck in time, and the sense of waste -- of resources and of energy -- is overwhelming.

Let me explain -- we drove from Srinagar to Gulmarg for a night. We started at 10:30 in the morning and reached the small village of Magam, which we had to cross to get to Gulmarg. We were told that there there had been some trouble between the Sunnis and Shias, and two houses had been burnt. Trouble over land allocated for a mosque. All the taxi drivers who were also similarly stranded with us made sure they stressed that this was a "local conflict" as opposed to terror/freedom fighter/what-have-you driven. A convoy of army trucks loaded with weapons went into the village, and after an hour we wondered how long this would take. We are busy getting calls from friends in Gulmarg that this could take a few hours. I was on bbm with Kundan who told me that sometimes the curfew lasts longer than necessary, and local hawkers selling tea, coffee, biscuits and the like, make a tiny profit. Almost on cue, food arrived.

When we finally did make it through Magam, it was an odd sight. All shops were shut down, and since all shutters had been painted by Vodafone, it seemed like we were driving through a big commercial. The army personnel and jeeps station at very regular intervals brought an sense of danger and safety at the same time. If my cab driver hadn't been happily reuniting and chatting away with other cabbies during the curfew, I think we would have been rather worried. But normalcy of it all, coupled by the rain that seemed to say 'everyone get indoors' kept the mood upbeat yet under the radar. But our task wasn't over yet. Army barricades didn't allow us to go through although for no particular reason. One friendly army man told us to tell his senior up ahead that we were just going a little further up, to our house ahead of Magam. I thanked my Kashmiri last name, cause the story could be believable! It took a lot of cajoling and pleading. Finally, I think we were let go since we had place in our taxi for two people who needed a lift to their villages on the way to Gulmarg. I suspect some of the army chaps charge for providing this transportation service to locals. Once on our way, our cabbie was muttering that all the army guys are correupt and can be bribed. I decided to keep quiet.

Gulmarg was the amazing ski town I expected it to be -- and then some. To be honest, I really had no idea how popular it was. Not a skier, I was looking forward to a Gondola ride the most. Just as we were about to hop in and get a panoramic view of Gulmarg, a three policemen got into the same Gondola. They were with a senior government official, here for a visit. I tried to make conversation. "So who's here?" (No response). "Don't worry, I come from Delhi where all the VIPs of India live" (No response).

On the way back, a special taxi with snow tires was summoned to take us down from Gulmarg. Fifteen minutes into our downhill drive, we realised that traffic was backed up. 22 army trucks were coming up the hill and needed place. One of them hit our cab at the back. While we sat in the cab for an hour, our cabbie (again having reunions) brought all the taxi drivers and assorted hangers on to show them the damage. Finally, on the way down, when we passed some officers standing on the road, our cabbie called out to them to say "you have damaged my cab .. who will pay for this?" Once out of the army area, he told us that this (and a million other reasons) is why Kashmiris hate the army.

The next cab that took us back to Srinagar was driven by a more gentler chap. His father had been a cab driver, only to have his ambassador blown up 12 years ago in an attack. A hotel owner had been kind enough to help his family buy another taxi. Finally, I succumbed to all the questions in my head and asked him what he thought about India, Pakistan, Kashmir. A focused sort of chap, he just wanted Kashmir to have more tourism so that he could have more business. "Open up Kashmir to India and remove special status?", I asked. "Yes," he said.

Potential is the word that comes to mind after you have done being astounded by Kashmir's natural beauty. While on the shikara, enjoying a peaceful boat ride, enterprising salesmen come up to you, locking their shikara with yours and offer a range of products -- paper mache products, earrings, seeds. (Yes, seeds). At the Mughal Gardens, they waste no time in dressing you up as a local Kashmiri girl (for those who know me, yes, I was a very willing participant) and start taking pictures till you realise you cannot afford to get a whole portfolio shown. Even at the foothills of Gulmarg, where you need to change into a taxi with snow tires, you are caught by locals and told that the "government doesn't allow you to go upto Gulmarg unless you rent boots and jackets from them." (Ya, right!)

In the end, there is deep sense of belonging that people have in Kashmir, more than I have experience in any other part of the country. Maybe its because they don't belong anywhere else but here. Or that they still don't know what "here" is. There were times I felt relief that I was able to say "I am Kashmiri" or "Did you know Vimla Kaul of Srinagar?" because suddenly I belonged too.

I need more time there. So, the moment the flowers bloom, I'm going back!