Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How I let my first friend slip away...

"NS" was my first friend. I don't mean the "was" to mean that he isn't my friend now, but because I have lost track of him. My parents say he became your friend from when I was just months old. They said he used to come to our home as a kid to watch TV (the only one of the two in that locality then) but kept watching me play as an infant. It amazes me but doesn't surprise me at all as ever since I gained control of my senses, there was NS, his home right in our street.

Almost everything about him was curious. He is a Jain and remains the only Jain I know in first person till date. I have gone to temples with him and remember seeing him wear the "vibuthi". He had a red coloured bible at home that he got from his Christian school due to which I knew of the existence of bible. For a long time, I have seen a picture of a Jain Tirtankara on top of a tall pedestal with with all sorts of animals sitting on a spiral ramp that leads up to the pedestal. And for years, I had thought that it was Buddha. :)

He was creative! He once showed me a picture of Mickey Mouse dressed in a red wizard's robe. That was the first time I believed that every day people that I meet can draw something beyond match-stick figures with just pencil, crayons and papers. A couple of years or so later, I myself had a small collection of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and then veered off to mythological characters like Hanuman, Rama, Shiva and Krishna. The best I did was a picture of Sita garlanding Rama during Swayamvaram, that I reproduced from "RamaKrishna Vijayam" a spiritual magazine that my parents had subscribed to then!

His creativity didn't stop with just drawing. He was a bit of a science geek too! In his early teens (or may be a bit earlier) he had amused me by making a car chassis using a couple of batteries , motor, a few wheels pulled out from god-knows-whose-toys!

But he was not all geeky all the time. We had a lot of fun flying kites, catching fish from streams flowing on the road after monsoon, playing games involving good guys, bad guys and fights involving all the Tamil movies that we saw.

After close to 20 years, I only increasingly miss those days. I was jogging this morning when for no reason all these memories came up and I felt a sudden rush of stupidity at how I have let such a friend who has influenced so much of my first memorable experiences slip away. Facebook has come to the rescue in making up for the mistake. I have found him in seconds on search and have sent a friend request. Keeping my fingers crossed!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Highlighting Accountability Initiative

I have been watching the social sector for quite sometime now and that includes the policy space. A while ago, I chanced upon Accountability Initiative (AI) and I find myself thoroughly impressed by the work they are doing. So impressive is their work that it actually go me to restart blogging after eons! :). But of course I did post about it briefly it in ThinkChange India

I am usually shy of talking about women in entrepreneurship in itself as an achievement as it makes me feel that the very statement lends support to the notion that men are better entrepreneurs at women. But I must confess that the first thing that made me stop and notice AI is that it is all women at the helm. Somehow. I have a psychologically driven belief that organizations founded and led by women are honest and purposeful than otherwise!

The second thing that interested me was the fact that 3 out of 5 of these women have a common background of education in London School of Economics, which probably means that they have trashed some plum job offers, came to India and focused on development.

AI is primarily interested in finding ways to institutionalize transparency and accountability in all government programs. Their flagship initiative is called PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability) which works towards developing tools to track fund flows right from the top all the way till the grassroots level to understand where and how implementation deviates from the intention. This is accompanied by a parallel capacity building initiative to empower stakeholders in education (like teachers, principals, parents, students). They have visited a village (called Sehore) and conducted awareness-drive of sorts on their entitlements and responsibilities under SSA by means of comics-like posters etc, and documented the lessons they have learnt.

To kick-off PAISA they have done an extensive expenditure track by means of sample surveys on SSA across the country. Their finding paints a very breathtakingly grim picture of planning, implementation, administration.

The PAISA exercise tells me that even if we assume no corruption, the current trend of planning, implementation of fund allocation is toothless and ineffective. The exercise highlights that decision making protocols that estimate the funds needed are short-circuited, definitions of roles and responsibilities at different hierarchies of administrations are confusing, funds often reach the school too late to be of any use and frequently teachers and grass-root level stakeholders often don't even understand the purpose of the fund that arrives at school. Sometimes stakeholders don't even know that they are stakeholders. Worse of them all, there is no formal grievance redressing system and the Parent Teachers Associations that are supposed to raise concerns back to the government don't meet.

What I understand from this is, the very fact that AI is going through with this exercise offers some hope but the is a long, long, long, long way to go before we see the light at the end of the tunnel,and the only way is to help organizations like AI build informed citizenry that raises as much hell as the trade unions do when they don't get Diwali bonus.

Going forward they plan to expand and replicate their efforts out of SSA into other government programs (like NREGA etc). Accountability Initiative's work appears to me to be extensive, purposeful, addresses an urgent need and reaches out to all stakeholders (government, schools, parents). Simultaneously, their presentation is simple, clear and transparent (which it better be :) )

Now the question is, do people like you and I have it in us to take time, stop and take a look at what they are doing and help them?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Humans err, animals pay

These are a few facts that I came across recently.
  • A guy trespassed into the Safari range in Hyderabad zoo and not surprisingly gets mauled by the wild cats. Following that the zoo authorities erected cages within the safari range and put the lions and tigers behind bars!
  • Florida is a known native habitat of crocodiles. A resident of Florida accepts a challenge from his friends to swim across a lake and come back. Again not surprisingly, he finds a fully grown crocodile! The reptile rips his arm apart and lets the rest of him go back to shore. The guy is taken to the hospital. The next day, the crocodile is hunted down. The guy miraculously survives. It is the crocodile that is "euthanized"(check out the usage!)
  • Spanish bull fight is infamous. Everyone knows how it works. This one time, a strong but terrified bull, jumps and easily clears the fence and lands straight into the stands (Take a look at the breath-taking scene!) The bull is captured, order is restored eventually. Later the bull is taken to an isolated place and killed. The place the bull met with its end was all that was different.
Humans err, animals pay!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Back to the glorious past!

Time and again, I come across people who, with a sense of nostalgia, wish to re-establish a glorious era from the past.

"How great it would be to have politicians with integrity as much as Gandhi, Nehru and Patel had".
"People used to be pious and disciplined the days for saint Ramanuja and Nigamanta desikar. Nowadays even in the mutts, crooks roam about! When will our culture regain its past glory?"

When encountered with this situation, my mind goes into a spin. Has the past been better than the present? Does the world degenerate in terms of morality and discipline as it journeys into the future?

Here is what I know from my observation. When I look at my family and that of my friends, I find that "grand parents" have definitely been more meticulous in doing things. The extent of meticulousness is possibly lesser in the "parents" generation. But, when it comes to comparing "parents" with "off-springs"it is not a question of extent, but a question of "intent". It seems people of my generation often ask their parents "Why do I have to be meticulous?". This is a general observation of course, and exceptions sure are present. But again, does it mean that we degenerate in discipline? Or does the very definition of discipline and "meticulousness" go through a change?

In the context of a community as large as a state or a country though, history seems to highlight a potential risk at trying to re-establish lost glory of the past. Hitler, quoted many times as an example of "what not to do", again finds himself quoted. He wanted to build a Third Reich aiming to re-establish the lost glory of medieval Holy Roman Empire (962–1806) and to the modern German Empire (1871–1918). He ended killing Jews in millions and himself.

Khmer Rouge to have got its ideology of "social engineering" by means of creating a self-sufficient agrarian economy is stated to have based its ideology the glorious past of the Khmer civilization which built the great temple of Angkor Wat (see BBC documentary on Angkor Wat). The large water bodies surrounding the temple was believed to be for irrigating a large rice growing project that was the lynch pin of the glory of civilization. Pol Pot forced people to hard labour in rice fields believing that it is the way back to the Khmer civilization. Like Hitler, he too ended up only killing thousands of people without anything good to show. Later elaborate surveys by water engineers revealed that water bodies were not even used for the rice project to begin with! So much for a misconception!

Within India itself various self-appointed guardians of culture further corroborate the lessons we can learn from Hitler and Pol Pot.

I guess the lesson to be learnt is, if there is a natural degeneration of human morality, discipline and culture, trying to regain the "glorious past" only seems to degenerate it faster!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Guha on Hindu civilization

I have like Ramachandra Guha for his uncomplicated and straight talking eloquence. And he continues to impress me! Here is a quote from his two part interview to Rediff. You can read Part1 and Part 2 of the interveiw here. But to me the highlight of the interview was the following piece.

"In the course of debate, some Congress leaders ridicule lots of characteristics of India.

That's not true. The danger in your comment -- that idea that there was greatness in Indian or Hindu civilisation is like that the Ganga it is immortal, pure and beautiful. Like the Ganga that is polluted from source to sea, Hindu civilisation was polluted. Hindu civilisation practised the most degrading form of social behaviour called untouchability.

Hindu civilisation oppressed its women. In Hindu civilisation there was division of manual labour and mental labour.

The greatness of Gandhi, Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore was that they became critics of their culture. I would rephrase your question and say that as Hindus we were fortunate to have reformers like Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru and so on. They pointed to the weaknesses and fault-lines within Hindu culture and civilisation.

By the way, more Hindus vote for the Congress than the BJP so, obviously, they find something attractive in the Congress"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hyderabad Zoo

I couldn't recall the last time I went to a zoo, though I could recall that when I went to Anna Zoological Park in Chennai as a kid, I scaled the railings and almost jumped into the territory of a bunch of Zebras.

I have heard rumors about Hyderabad's Nehru Zoo as the largest zoo in the country and we (my wife, myself and a friend of hers) decided to go find out how good it is. We went to the zoo and found out that a safari ride is available at an additional fee of Rs.25/-. So, we thought we would check that out.

As it was located at the far side of the zoo, on the way to the safari ticketing counter, we got to watch a white tiger located right next to a mob of deers, and a herd of elephants all at a very close range. The white tiger was especially a treat to watch. The tiger could get a clear view of the mob of spotted deers and kept swimming in the waters trying to find its way past the wall that protected the deers.

At the ticket counter, we found that the safari is available not just the expense of Rs.25/- but also at about one hour of time in the queue. When we finally got into the armoured van and ventured into the woods past the iron gates, we found that the lions and tigers were kept inside a caged anyway! All that hyped up fantasies about free roaming wild animals like those in the Discovery channel came to a very disappointing end. I later heard that the animals received the treatment because somebody ventured into the safari range and got himself killed! It be sad if it was true. The animals get punished for the carelessness of the dead man and the zoo authorities!

But the Bisons and a lone bear were let roam free in the range and the curious bear with a smiling face kept following the van for quite sometime giving us a enough time to watch at a very close range! Some return-on-investment! The safari lasted about 20 minutes after which we got to see two really big turtles. This is probably the largest I have seen. Apart from that the other residents of the zoos were all the usual suspects. Jaguar, (non-white) Tiger, chimps, orangs and other kinds of monkeys, and a few wild birds.

Hyderabad seems to be able to maintain parks better than other cities I have visited, and this zoo was no exception with plenty of well maintained greenery.

Overall, the zoo is a good day's off, worth the money you spend on entry ticket (Rs. 20/-). But safari can be safely skipped. The one-and-a-half hour saved on it would be well spent on covering the rest of the zoo (We had to skip the reptile section) and enjoying the nature over a cup of coffee.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Who and What India would be?

Michiko-san, a 60 year old Japanese lady who is an avid traveler and a colleague of mine was telling about her spinster days when she first traveled to UK, then around the world in her quest to learn English by interaction and to explore places. She added "You may think that I must have been rich. But I very much belonged to middle class, but in 1960 Japan's economy was growing and Japanese people felt they can pursue and achieve anything they want"

I thought, now India is in a similar mood. It is growing and its middle-class is ambitious. Only we have more poor people to liberate from poverty, more cities to organize and more institutions to rid of corruption, more people to educate and more laws to enforce.

Just as it happened to Japan, the growth will one day slow down, or worse, come to a halt. And when that happens, even if we have the intention we may not have the excess cash. Whatever we do before then will what determine what and how India would be before we hit the ceiling of growth.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Guha on "Will India become a super power?"

Inspired by a nationalist feeling which paradoxically peaked during my life in the US and fueled further by the "India Shining" economic growth, I must admit that I, for the first time, fancied the chance that India will one day become a super power.

Time has changed since and I believe now that the chances of India being a super power in the forthcoming decades, given the ground realities in India. But I still nurture the hope that India has its chance in being a super power.

I recently ran into a booklet - as big as pocket diary - from "Outlook" magazine which addressed the question "Will India Become a Superpower" written by the noted historian Ramachandra Guha. I have respected Guha for his objectivity in his various articles in India Together and Outlook. So, I found myself compelled to read it. A few of Guha's observations and his conclusion are very interesting.

In the article he succinctly outlined the mood of the wider world and conventional wisdom about the newly formed Indian Republic. According to Guha's observation, world-watchers of 1950s believed that India would not stay united or democratic because its didn't fit the European model of society united by a common language, common religion and a common enemy. For the same reasons, the fact that India is unique in its status as a union and a democracy (however dysfunctional it is)

I have come across a school of thought, especially among the youth of 1970s that the Nehruvian socialist vision had obstructed India's progress had it been under Patel's more capitalist hands. While Guha doesn't directly address this if-else point, he observes right after independence the private sector stalwarts such as Tata and Birla asked for the state interference.
The Bombay Plan of 1944, endorsed by G.D. Birla and J.R.D. Tata among others, asked both for curbs on foreign investment and for an enhanced role for the state...At the same time, Indian capitalists lacked the capital and knowhow to invest in sectors such as steel, power, roads and ports. They were thus content to focus on the manufacture and distribution of consumer goods, leaving capital goods and infrastructure to the State.
What really lead India pulled away from progress is the government under Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s which, citing "political expediency" had failed to liberalize the Indian economy that by then had the right elements such as manufacturing infrastructure, skilled engineering and technical workforce in place.

In his conclusion he quote corrupt and degraded central government, trivialization of media as some of the seven reasons why India will not become a superpower. However, he says India should actually stop trying to be a super power which, in his own words, is a "my penis is larger than yours" way of thinking. Instead he calls for India to judge itself against its own achievements.
"We need to repair , one by one, the institutions that have safeguarded our unity in diversity, and to forge, also one by one, the institutions that can help us meet the fresh challenge of 21st century"

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Writer Sujatha & principle of "Management of the Absurd"

I have been recently reading a lot of Sujatha. For the uninitiated, Sujatha is the pen name of a successful Engineer of yesteryear turned successful writer - novelist, screenwriter in various capacities including screenplay, dialogues for various successful movies including "Roja", "Mudalvan" (Nayak), "Indian" (Hindustani). His other brownie points include being a classmate of APJ Adbul Kalam and supervising the design and production of the now successful Electronic Voting Machine. More details @ Wiki

In his famous collection of essays in Tamil "Katrathum Petrathum" he discussed a book called "Management of the Absurd" by Richard Farson in which Sujatha summarized the paradoxes in leadership that shaped and changed the world. He quoted several examples from the book that made for very interesting reading! For example, the first of Abolitionists - people who voiced equality of African Americans in the US - were non-African Americans; Child-rights activists are almost universally adults; some of the most successful divorce lawyers are happily married!

Sujatha drew parallels in the Indian context. Indian National Congress was instituted by A.O. Hume, a non-Indian. Some of the most ardent pro-Tamil activists had a mother-tongue that is not Tamil.

In fact ironically enough, I think Sujatha himself fits into this paradox if you will. I started reading Sujatha's creations after his death on February 2008. I have known Sujatha before that more for his novels and back-stage involvement in the film industry than for his essays. I have read some of his novels for which he was very famous, including "En iniya iyandira", "Aryabatta" and a few others that didn't find as much mention, like "Niramatra vaanavil", "ilamayil kol" etc. To my surprise, I was disappointed with the lack of quality in all his novels, famous or otherwise. Drifting storyline turns out to be the common denominator in all his creative writings, though the famous ones did have some substance that allowed me to stick with the book till the end.

Ironically, I found his series of essays in "Katrathum Petrathum" as the best of his creations that I read so far. This book truly highlight his unique ability to discuss complex scientific concepts like "uncertainty principle" (yeah.. that wretched concept that we used to memorize in our 11th grade!) in ridiculously simple Tamil, his off the cuff wits, and most of all his well-known versatility in areas as unrelated as creative writing and science.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trees and garbage

How much more pusillanimous we humans can get? We buy a piece of land and make a concrete out of every square inch of it. If our neighbours have a tree and it crosses over into our home, we give reasons like "Oh, the leaves of your neem tree adds up to a lot of garbage inside our compound! In addition it may grow bigger and its roots may or may not destroy the flimsy compound wall. So why don't you cut down your neem tree and we can all live in peace?". And then in an unrelated instant we all wonder why summer temperature is consistently beating 30 or 40 year records for that month.

I say, nature has been bloody kind to us. I say just roast our butts off in one go and get it over with. After all we have been asking for it. It is good for the rest of the world. At least all humans will in one burning moment realize that trees add up more to our useless and selfish life than just "garbage"

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Azlan Shah cup

IPL has put T20 cricket in my living room for way too long. The current T20 world cup seems really boring no matter who plays who and close the match goes. Win or loss, I now want to see an Indian Team doing something other than play cricket and the next best thing we are good at is Hockey! I really wish they relayed Azlan Shah Cup Hockey Tournament.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Its my wife!

Sriramya (my wife) is a package of mysterious talents. She has learnt vocal carnatic music and has classical dancing. This is in part passed down from her parents. But she apparently has an eye for photography too as the picture above shows.

This morning she took bath and was all set to start cooking, when she suddenly dashed out of the kitchen and grabbed my phone as I was playing with it (when I was supposed to work). I thought she was playing my mom and was expecting a glare from her that said "You are supposed to be working now!" But she went straight into the kitchen without meeting my eyes. Not knowing if I should catch a utensil or dodge a knife that flies from kitchen, I pretended to start working keeping one eye at the kitchen. But she came out, and showed me this picture.

At first, I thought it was one of those default pictures that came along with the phone when you purchase it and said "That's good, but why are you showing it to me now?". She tightened her jaws and uttered "I TOOK IT". She lead me down to the kitchen and took a picture of a portion of the newly cleaned kitchen sink! Sure is an awesome piece of work! After all, its my wife :)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Things I hate about IPL

  • For a three-and-a-half hour match, there is a one hour of pre-match discussion, interviews of players, bollywood starlets and others who you can't recognize just makes for such a boring experience before the excitement starts
  • When the ball hit through the air and crosses the boundary line ts not a sixer anymore. It is a bloody "DLF maximum". If it is caught, its not a great catch, its a dumb "Carbon Kamal catch". Come on. These are great moments of cricket. Don't spoil it with such stupid aliases!
  • Mandira Bedi. I am all for glamor provided there is substance. But what is this lady doing in the studios pretending to be an expert? I mean, I am ok if she is the one who is asking questions. But sitting along Arun Lal, Sidhu and Anjum Chopra discussing cricket seems to me as an insult to the intellect of cricket lovers.
  • A month full of cricket, no matter how short each match is, takes the excitement out of cricket. After all, the idea behind in coming up with T20 is to reduce the boredom of the traditional one-day or test cricket. Now it appears we have just moved from boredom to overdose.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Expats for India

I had a chance to meet a number of second generation US-resident Indians over the last year. I am very much amazed by their conviction to make a positive change in the Indian society. I have spent a few years in the US and my life there - which distinctively showed the difference in quality of life between the two worlds - is the primary reason for my interest in social causes in India. So, I could clearly relate to a first generation Indian working from his adopted home, or a returnee (like me) working for India's development.

During my days in the US, I have met a few second generation Indians who either didn't feel strongly for their country of origin or at times were even embarrassed about their Indian identity. A few were involved enough to follow cricket matches and felt strongly about an Indian win or a loss. But given that a majority of the resident Indians themselves don't bother about acting for a social change, and a few even embarrassed to be Indian, there is no fairness in judging the sentiments of NRIs.

But here, I am talking about second generation Indians, who are born in the luxury of a developed nation and really need not have sentimental attachment to a country in which their parents were born and probably spent their first 20 years of life there. One of those I have talked about, has changed career path to a less paying social enterprise from a better paying business enterprise (in the US). The other one went one step ahead and chose to move to India (where there are no immediate relatives) to work on educational development. This is just to mention a few.

Honestly, I don't know how the initiatives of these people will turn out to be on the ground. Some may hit the bulls eye, while some may be totally impractical. But I am really amazed to find how they are inspired so much by the idea of a well developed community, when development is something that they are already born into.

Hats off!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Met an old friend!

I invited TR Deepa, an old friend from school, her husband and her cute son Shashank home. She had been here in Hyderabad since 2003 and me since 2005, but haven't met up till last saturday. Had food at a nearby restaurant. It was a lot of fun meeting her with her family. Her son is an active young man and am sure is going to attract a lot of girls when he grows up (if he already doesn't! :D). Such a smart looking fellow. But for some reason, I found that he is fond of Mehendi! :)

Had a lot of fun trying to recall what we used to do during school and exchanged knowledge about what Xth-friends are doing currently. Special thanks to Girija, another school-time friend of mine, who sent X-std class pictures. We went over it once again. My wife especially laughed @ how I looked then.

Meeting with old friends sure is a lot of fun. Especially when they have toddlers! Not every thing is so happy though.There is one that I still can't digest. Deepa is still taller than me! :(

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The lame Australian advice

I hear from The Hindu that Australia has advised India not to fuel "hysteria" after India reacted angrily over the murder of a student of Indian origin. They have also thrown some light about how big cities work. Precisely this is what was said (as quoted from The Hindu)

“In big cities around the world we do see acts of violence from time to time; that happens in Melbourne, it happens in Mumbai, it happens in New York, it happens in London,”

I don't want to bore anybody going over the details of how many Indians are dead and for how many days this has been happening. The last thing I expect from a government that has fallen flat in protecting citizens of a foreign soil is advice and that too one as lame as "It happens". I would rather be happy with an official apology and a promise to act quickly and decisively to stop such violence.

The Indian side need to take some lessons too. I remember the time when a British teenager was killed in Goa and our self-loathing mentality was so well exploited by the famously careless Indian private media by putting her mother in the spotlight for such a long time. I would say that the one off death of a foreign national in India can be a better case to be dropped in the "It happens" category and move on for more nationally important stories.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Five point 2009

A friend of mine had summed up story in 2009 in just five lines! I liked that. So I thought I will draw inspiration (a better word than copying!) out of his work

1. Awesome wedding at Srirangam
2. Relaxing malaysian Honeymoon
3. Boring return to bachelorhood (for practical purposes)
4. Sustained work on education!
5. Bad job with blogging!