Sunday, October 6, 2013

Following one's heart

It seems like a dream out of an ancient, hoary past that I once wanted to be a lawyer. I thought it'd be the best way of setting right the innumerable ills of the world we live in because what underlies much of the suffering we see round us is injustice.

My parents had other plans and I fell in with those plans and became a civil servant. However, my fascination for the world of  lawyers and courts and justice rendered through the magical knowledge and skills of the practitioners of law never quite left me. When my children were old enough to leave me a little time after my duties at home and office were discharged, I returned to writers like John Grisham. Now that I am on a sabbatical and have even more time on my hands, I avidly watch crime and legal thrillers.

Of course, I no longer view the legal profession through  the same rose tinted glasses that I once did. I do know that its reality is so much harsher than even my current construct that I may well shrink from it if now given the opportunity to practice law.

That isn't the point of this post, however.

Its the fact that I did not follow my heart where choice of career was concerned-----and I have no regrets.

My children look amused when I tell them that , its very important for them to have the freedom to follow their hearts. All I want them to know is this -----  it isn't what one does that brings one joy so much as how one does what one does ----- anything done with complete involvement of the heart and mind, with no expectation of reward, but only with the desire to do it as well as one possibly can brings joy as surely as a plant well tended bears flowers and fruit.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A drop of Life

A drop of life
6 February 2011 at 11:33 PM

A week ago, a neighbour sent a mail to the neighbourhood google group, requesting all of us to come forward and donate blood at a camp to be organised by the Thalassemia Society. With a shamefully low pain threshold and a fear of needle-induced infections, I have, I am ashamed to confess, never donated blood. 

This time, I could visualise in my mind's eye the lovely little girl who goes around thanking every one she sees for donating blood So I immediately replied to the mail, promising to be there, and because promises have to be honoured, no matter what, I was there at 11 AM today.

The AIIMS team had a well equipped mobile unit --- it even came equipped with a screen playing "Ajab prem ki gajab kahani" ! A pin prick to test the blood group, a short Q&A session to determine suitability, another ten minutes or so for the 350 cc of blood to take the first step towards flowing in someone else's veins and make her better ---- that's it! I was made to gulp down juice, given an apple and a pear and a Donor's card, and at 1130 AM, I was back home. I felt I could finally look the little girl in the eye if ever I met her, now that I am the proud owner of the earthen coffee mug that the Thalassemia Society gifts to donors.

I have resolved to donate blood once every quarter, and the only regret I have is that I didn't do it earlier. To all those friends who haven't ever donated blood ----just do it! And discover for yourself how incredibly uplifting the experience is.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

not quite a feminist still

Can a woman describe herself as a feminist if she has no knowledge of and control over her financial affairs? 

It began as what I thought was a charming quirk. My salary was a paltry sum before the Pay Commissions began displaying some generosity to government servants. I would spend all of it on buying gifts for my family, especially my brothers. I had a vague idea that there were some deductions called GPF and CGEIS and the salary slips were thin sheets of paper that somehow managed to lose themselves. Beyond those pieces of information, I had not much idea about the salary components, allowances etc.

Matters did not much improve when I got married because I was so focused on setting up home and then bringing up my children that the nitty gritty of how much I earned didn't much engage my attention. It was good enough that I budgeted revenue and expenditure ----and let me say, I did a better job than GOI, as do most home makers. My husband didn't earn much either so when we first decided to invest in a plot of land , where we'd build our post retirement dream house, the weeks of drawing up of lists of essential and non essential expenditures became a learning experience in itself.

Then the Pay Commissions happened, and my husband's promotions began to take place super quick ( because performance matters in the private sector, thank God, even if its frowned upon in GOI!) so the family income increased dramatically. I became more and more complacent, because as a family, we do not party or believe in conspicuous consumption so our expenditure is pretty much limited to (a) healthy food (b) vacations (c) fine dining on occasion. 

That complacence has brought me to a state of affairs where I do not know what my gross salary is,what its components are, which pay grade I am entitled to, what other allowances the government bestows upon its employees, etc etc. Since salary slips and salary credits are now online, I do not even have to take the trouble of filing the salary slips!! My income tax return is filed by my husband, I have scarcely any savings in my salary account, and in the belief that "Sir sir rijak sambāhe ṯẖākur kāhe man bẖa▫o kari▫ā. For each and every person, our Lord and Master provides sustenance. Why are you so afraid, O mind?" I scarcely ever worry about the future. 

What property I own ( either co ownership with my husband or otherwise) I do not know the present value of nor have access to the papers. What jewelry I own is in a locker and there is no co signatory! There is a life insurance policy somewhere ( my father in law has been paying the premium amounts) but I don't quite know what it is. Several years ago, an ICICI bank executive had persuaded me to invest in several SIPs. I did. All of the investments are now redeemable below par !! 

All major investment decisions and major purchases ( cars, for example) are made by my husband, with participation from my younger son vis a vis the latter. 

To summarise, I am a strong believer in women's rights and assert them ever so often except in my own financial matters. 

My resolve for August, therefore, is to do a 360 degree appraisal, sit with a financial consultant  and set my house in order. Or am I over reacting? Is it OK to trust your financial affairs in God and man { beloved husband :) } ??

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A bit of heart

Our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart rather than a piece of our mind. I have always ascribed to this philosophy and tried, by example, to have my children too imbibe it. Only time will tell whether and how far I have succeeded.

This year, on my son's sixteenth birthday, I tried in yet another way to give him that message. One of his birthday presents was a Milaap gift card which he could redeem by making a loan on Milaap.

Milaap is an online platform that enables you to lend to India's working poor. Milaap partners with established organizations that have a strong presence at the grass roots to design customized loan programs. It then shares requirements, backgrounds and photos of all borrowers. The online listing of borrower profiles enables the lender to select the cause and the borrower of his choice and give a loan of minimum USD 50 or Rs 1000. Every month, Milaap sends the total loan collected to its various field partners who disburse the loans. Throughout the loan cycle, the field partners regularly monitor the progress of the borrowers and collect repayments from the borrowers. Milaap makes monthly deposits of the repaid loan instalments into the lender's Milaap account. At the end of the loan cycle, the lender can choose to withdraw the repaid loan amount or decide to relend it to another borrower on Milaap. Through re-lending, a small loan goes a long way and gathers impact.

 Dhruv chose to redeem the Gift Card by making a loan to  the Zaite group to help one of the members buy a deep freezer Ice Cream vending machine which will bring more income and profit as her store will be the first to have the machine in her locality.

Here's how Dhruv described the experience of making a loan to someone he doesn't know, living thousands of kilometres away, in a part of the country he has never visited, living a life he is completely unfamiliar with:

Whether its a gift or a loan, I'd like it to be a person who needs the money not just for buying things (even if its a toilet) but for investing it in an activity which brings him income. It could be money someone needs to get skills which are needed in a job. It could be money needed to buy tools or equipment which make him more efficient and productive. There has to be an output ------a production of goods or services.

What is it about the experience of online lending that you liked the most, I asked him. Its anonymous and impersonal, he said. Those who wish to get a loan do not have to feel embarrassed about asking for a small loan ( young men and women would, he said) and those who give loans do not feel awkward about it as he would have if he had had to personally hand over the amount.

Why did you choose the Zaite group, I asked? Its a simple business model I have seen succeeding in my own neighbourhood (he gave me the example of a local grocery store).

Will you lend again,once you begin earning? You bet, was the succinct reply. 

Do you think such micro loans can change the fate of millions of poor Indians? It cannot,he said. They need jobs, they need the government to stop treating them like beggars, they need the country to become a place where people can earn their living and live with  self respect.

Why did you make this loan then, he was asked. Lets not think this is the solution to India's problem of poor millions, he said, but it feels good to help someone, even if its just 1 person in a million. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

who reads?

I haven't written a blogpost in a while.

It is so much easier to succinctly express one's view on Facebook. Not all subjects, of course, are amenable to being reduced to Facebook status updates but there are enough to keep one happily engaged while supervising a reluctant student ( that's my son!). 

The more important reason is that one writes a blogpost putting heart and soul into it (all right, that's an exaggeration, but it certainly requires more effort than an FB status update) but never gets to know who the readers are, why they read the blogpost, or what they think because readers hardly ever comment. Why, oh why, is it anathema for most people to comment on blogposts? 

I love to write. As a child, I only wrote long answers in school notebooks but as a teenager I began writing a journal, then even got a poem or two and a couple of articles published in the newspaper. 

My love for writing didn't get swamped by the responsibilities at work or my responsibilities as a mother.In office, I wrote long, long hand written file notes that made my bosses tear their hair in frustration or smile in appreciation, depending upon personal proclivity. At home, I drew up lists of every conceivable type and "wrote" a new story every day when it was story telling time for my children. 

A couple of years ago, I discovered blogging, and began writing with great gusto, straight from the heart, sometimes with bits of research ( into legal questions) thrown in, mostly expressing my thoughts ( for what they are worth!) on issues that are significant to me. 

Now, I have half a dozen drafts waiting to be finalised ----on AFSPA, the Saranda Action Plan, the denial of bail, the search for friends etc etc etc. I write a couple of sentences, save the draft, and forget about it for the next two weeks or so. 

The answer to the question "why don't readers comment?" remains elusive and so does the determination to complete the half finished blog posts. Perhaps there's a "gadget" somewhere that will allow me to ask readers this question, with a drop down menu that lists the options any one of which they can tick, including "the posts are too deadly boring to merit a comment".  Is there? I"ll probably not get an answer to this question either.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The economic consequences of Professor Amartya Sen ---- rebuttal

This United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is heading into the tenth and possibly last year of office, a tenure whose crowning achievement might well be the Food Security Bill. One may fault this government for incompetence, corruption, and delayed action but it cannot be faulted for lacking a vision. There has been an overarching idea that underlies many of its economic policies: namely, that the poor and underprivileged in society must be empowered by conferring them with new rights - to work, education, food, and presumably, all basic needs.

Call this the redistribution through rights and entitlements (RRE) approach, which is now associated with the articulate advocacy of Professor Amartya Sen, channelled effectively into policy through his co-author and long-time collaborator Professor Jean Dreze. Their latest book is a cogent exposition of the RRE approach. Nobody can question the moral urgency of helping the poor which is the key objective underlying this approach. But that should not exempt its methods and consequences from critical scrutiny. And this scrutiny reveals some serious failings.
Empowering the poor is not merely a moral imperative, it isn't something we are doing from the goodness of our hearts. It is an economic imperative. If 2/3rd of our population is starving and malnourished and sick, where will we source labour, how will we increase production and productivity, who will provide the market? We aren't doing any one a favour, we are acting in our selfish long term interest. Lets not reduce this to a "moral imperative" alone. 

1. RRE causes instability and vulnerability: Amongst emerging markets, India is the most macroeconomically vulnerable, with a deadly combination of high fiscal deficits, close to double-digit inflation, and high external deficits financed by short-term foreign capital inflows that may even now be starting to flow out of the country. How did we get here, though? Much of the blame must lie with the redistributional zeal of this government. The ultimate cause of macro-vulnerability is the high fiscal deficits in turn caused by the fact that government spending per capita (intrinsic to RRE) has increased by nearly 75 per cent by under this government (see Figure 1).
On the issue of fiscal deficits: 35% of non plan spending is on interest payments ! It'd be instructive to have a break up of these payments. 43% of plan expenditure is on account of energy and transport, and how much of it is translating into REAL outcomes needs study.
We are importing inflation ---- edible oils is a case in point.

This spending contributed to instability directly, because it pushed up rural wages and procurement prices, thereby stoking inflation; and indirectly, because it put aggregate demand on steroids, even as supply capacity was left to languish, weak and under-nourished.

Why was supply left to langush? I draw your attention to a series of excellent articles written by Jaitirth Rao, outlining how supply side could have been /can be revived. It doesn't require massive investments, only common sense, and a dismantling of crony capitalism.
Jerry Rao's articles

For some time, the macro-economic damage caused by RRE remained obscured. Headline fiscal deficit numbers actually declined during UPA-I, because its tenure witnessed a dream combination of high growth and low interest rates which should have resulted in headline deficit numbers substantially below actual ones. Similarly, headline fiscal debt numbers have declined throughout the UPA's tenure, but for bad reasons - India has reduced its debt through sustainedly high inflation. The government may have gained by this, but the aam aadmi has suffered, since his capacity to hedge against inflation is limited. And now, the underlying damage to the overall economy has been exposed now that international investors have become less willing to finance India, as reflected in the plight of the rupee.
There are several reasons why international investors are fleeing India -----the political uncertainty, the massive corruption, the all pervasive pessimism, the unrest in several parts of the country triggered by anti people policies etc etc Its simplistic to pin all the blame on "RRE". 

2. RRE legitimises atrocious policies: If one were asked to single out the worst economic policy in India, energy subsidies - for diesel, kerosene and above all power - must be a strong contender. Consider the bad outcomes that power subsidies cause or abet: bad crop mix, depleted water resources, unprofitable and mismanaged state electricity boards, under-investment in power, lower economic growth and higher carbon emissions.
Does the writer forget that the genesis of the power subsidies lies in the Green Revolution and the contemporaneous urgency to become self sufficient in food?
Mismanaged state electiricity boards are a symptom of the larger malaise of looting the public exchequer by the bureaucracy and the political class and at the very least, an outcome of a complete indifference to the principles that govern our micro level, household level economics. Lets not wrongly label them an  'RRE" outcome?
Given the choice,training and support, at least 1 crore farmers have shifted in AP to organic farming which is far, far less water intensive (and therefore far, far less power intensive). What stops the govt from replicating the model? Is it the fear that organic farming will deal a death blow to companies profiteering from fertilisers and pesticides ,including by diversion of  farm fertilisers to industrial use??

The diesel subsidy hugely benefits the middle class, and there's a brouhaha whenever the govt talks of dismantling it. Is that also a part of the RRE syndrome?  

Now, politicians promising subsidised power for electoral reasons is understandable. That is part of the hurly-burly of grubby politics. But intellectuals providing legitimacy to these policies is another matter. Intellectuals on the Left cannot expect to be exonerated on the grounds that they have not explicitly advocated subsidised power. After all, if there is a right to cheap food and education why isn't there one also to basic energy needs and hence to subsidised power for the poor? And this is not a slippery slope argument - because India has slipped already, finding itself at the slope's bottom which is the shambolic mess that is the power sector in India.

Why should there NOT be a right to basic energy needs? One in six villages is unelectrified even today. Cut the TnD losses, increase efficiency in slothful bijli boards, curb corruption, make green buildings mandatory at least in the public and commercial sector, re work office hours to reduce power consumption -----there are a million things that can be done but are NOT being done and the blame for fiscal deficits laid at the door of "RRE" !

3. RRE undervalues opportunity costs: Governments have limited political capital and must hence prioritise actions, choosing those that maximise bang for the buck. In this view, RRE is problematic because it leads to sub-optimal policy choices. So, instead of enacting a right to education act, why not focus on getting teachers to show up for work, that would have a far greater impact on educational outcomes? Similarly, instead of an employment guarantee scheme, why not create sustainable opportunities for employment creation by eliminating regulatory impediments?
The two are not mutually contradictory. Political capital is GAINED, not lost,if the govt decides that RTE is to be accompanied by such improvements in the govt funded aided schools as require STRICT monitoring and enforcement of existing provisions. Citizen participation is essential here ----the parents whose children suffer must BE EMPOWERED TO hold the teachers and administrators accountable. This requires deentralisation of power which the govt is loath to do. 

The government could defend its choices by invoking political constraints: absentee teachers in rural India cannot be fired because they are also party apparatchiks, and labour laws cannot be amended because of vested interests. But the problem with votaries of the RRE approach is they don't apply the same analysis to their preferred policies. Will RRE not run into the same political and bureaucratic constraints?
A facetious argument. Absentee teachers are not fired because no one sitting in the district hqrs cares. Give the people the power, and see the difference. 

4. RRE overburdens state capacity: Indeed, one of the supreme ironies of the Left in India is that it has been so disrespectful to its core belief in a strong state. Several commentators have noted the problems of creating rights without the ability of the state to honour those rights. The public distribution system is broken but instead of being fixed or replaced, it is being asked to do more. It is as if an emaciated, old man struggling to carry a load of stones is asked to carry another load because that will strengthen his muscles.
The PDS is broken because of poor or absent oversight, corruption, and a callous disregard of the poor. Remedying these does not require fresh investments. It requires (1) political will (2) citizen monitoring via more and more de centralisation, (3) creative solutions such as local level grain banks. It is easy to build a case for scrapping the system, but not so difficult to make it outcome oriented. Let the solutions come from the beneficiaries. Engage them. Empower them. The PDS is not an emaciated, old man, its an able man being continuously weakened by inimical forces. Remove them, and see him spring back with zeal and energy. 

What is worse is that the Left has been ambivalent about or even hostile to the one genuinely important and far-reaching attempt at building state capacity in India: the Aadhaar scheme (yes, it is really hard to think of any other state capacity-building initiative). Regardless of the merits of direct cash transfers (which is only one potential application of the biometric identification project), the important point is that Aadhaar seeks to harness technology to strengthen the ability of the state (and also the private sector) to deliver services in the long run. The Left in particular should be celebrating rather than griping about it.
AADHAAR still lacks statutory basis, it has not addressed privacy concerns, there is a lot of false hype connected with it (I can give at least 1 example), it is needlessly pushing election ID to the background which is THE most crucial document so far as democratic functioning is concerned, it cannot address leakages, adulteration etc. 

5. RRE undermines the state: Intellectually, the most damaging consequence of RRE in India, and least recognised, is that it does not just burden the state, it has the potential to fatally undermine it. How so? The evolution of the state provides one important lesson pointed out recently by Professor Indira Rajaraman of the National Institue of Public Finance and Policy. The history of Europe and the US suggests that typically, states provide essential services (physical security, health, education, infrastructure, etc.) first before they take on their redistribution role. That sequencing is not accidental. Unless the middle class in society perceives that it derives some benefits from the state, it will be unwilling to finance redistribution. In other words, the legitimacy to redistribute is earned through a demonstrated record of effectiveness in delivering essential services.
Delivery of essential services is adversely affected not so much by lack of funds but by lack of motivation, supervision, systems of rewards and punishments, transparency, accountability to citizens etc. To give a simple example, the street lights in Gurgaon don't function, and this frustrates the middle class citizen because he does not know who to complain to,and  if he does find out, no one acts upon the complaint because OUTCOMES that are citizen friendly are not the administration's goal, creating wealth for the elected and appointed executives is. Does THAT undermine the State or "RRE" ?

A corollary is that if the state's role is predominantly redistribution, the middle class will seek - in Professor Albert Hirschman's famous terminology - to exit from the state. They will avoid or minimise paying taxes; they will cocoon themselves in gated communities; they will use diesel to obtain power; and they will send their children overseas for higher education. All these pathologies are in evidence in India. By reducing the pressure on the state, middle class exit will shrivel it, eroding its legitimacy further, leading to more exit and so on. A state that prioritises or over-emphasises RRE, risks unleashing this vicious spiral.
As above

For this admirer of Professor Sen's exceptional academic work two ironies stand out. His Nobel-winning insight was about the importance of broad purchasing power rather than the narrow (physical) availability of food in avoiding famines and mass starvation. It is curious, even mystifying, therefore, to see him forcefully advocate, through morbidity-laden polemic, the physical provision of one type of food - cereals, which are rapidly declining in people's consumption basket - to help reduce malnutrition.
(1) what would the writer recommend, starvation as the preferred alternative because the subsidised food basket cannot contain a wholesome mix?? (2) by all means, generate purchasing power, enable rural resurgence, remove the skewed weightage to irrigated crops, promote dryland agriculture and organic culture, desist from handing out massive amounts to scam ridden SEZs and similar schemes, review and halt fraudulent irrigation schemes, -----there's so much to be done, do it, then scrap the FSB except for a very few, don't place the cart before the horse 

His second major insight was that development was about freedom, especially the freedom to exercise choice. Yet, the RRE approach has privileged paternalism - by determining that the poor need specific assistance - over expanded choice in the form of "untied" cash transfers or broader employment opportunities that enhance purchasing power.
Freedom? One cannot exercise freedom on an empty stomach. Give the poor the choice between doles and employment opportunities and they will choose the latter, but the growth in the past decade has been a job less growth ---- GDP has increased but not jobs, so continuing down the same path, which job opportunities are we talking about which we are denying the poor?

If there is a tension, even contradiction, between Sen, the academic and Sen, the advocate, this government might, in the twilight of its tenure, do well to ask itself: did we draw our inspiration from, and put faith in, the wrong Sen?

Friday, March 8, 2013

the women in my life

One could do it any day of the year, but it's International Women's Day today, so let me thank the women who have made a difference in my life. Many of them will not even read this post, either because I am no longer in touch with them, or because they are not computer savvy, but the Universe has strange ways of making connections happen, so who knows?

There's my mother, beautiful, graceful, intelligent, quick witted ( acerbic on occasions!) well read, intelligent, creative, courageous, and many other things besides. She taught us the values of hard work, perseverance, integrity and self sacrifice, by example. My father's untimely demise nearly broke her spirit but she rallied round. She survived cancer and survived the hardships that have been the lot of her beloved daughter. She loves her grand daughters as if they were nehmat. She is indomitable, and I am blessed to be her daughter.

There was my maternal grandmother, petite, elegant, a tireless worker, someone who'd be up at the crack of dawn to water the greens, who'd embroider complex, eye catching landscapes, who was a devoted wife, a loving mother, a woman of incredible taste who had grown up without the benefit of an education but who learnt enough to spend the afternoon reading, who'd scrimp and save so that she could buy chocolates for her grandchildren, who suffered uncomplainingly at the hands of her wayward son and provided for him till her last breath, who taught me the value of order, neatness and clutter free spaces,whom I recall every time I see a rose bloom, a peacock dance, the sweeping flower arrangements in hotel lobbies.

There's my maasi, ever youthful, ever courageous, she of the lilting voice and sparkling eyes, who'd take her young nieces and nephews (all 6 of them) window shopping in Chandigarh, then have them rest on the pavement and regale them with stories. 

There is my bua, whose phenomenal memory translated into long story sessions which were so vivid in description that when I read the books many years later, I knew before turning the page what would happen next. 

There's my co sister, who is as strong as she looked fragile when I was first introduced to her by my brother in law. She's lovely, independent, fun loving, generous, speaks Hindi with a Kashmiri accent even after decades of living outside Kashmir, and belongs to that rare class of women who never shed tears in public! 

There is Simmi, my friend of more than twenty years, with whom I can begin a conversation after 6 months as if it were only 6 minutes ago that we had last talked. She has the most wonderful sense of humour, an ability to make everyone feel special and cared for, and the increasingly rare faculty of being able to laugh whole heartedly at her own foibles. 

There's Mrs Saasan, my IX th grade Hindi teacher who inspired me to drastically improve my Hindi writing skills, got me interested in chhand and alankaar, and whose eagle eye would never fail to detect the Mills& Boon hidden between the covers of the Hindi text book. 

There's my senior colleague, Jasdeep V Singh, whose immaculate appearance, mellow voice and beautifully draped saris concealed an iron determination to do the job right every time, on time. She was the one who advised me while my children were still very young that the best parenting was one that had an element of detachment ---- clinging mothers make awful mothers, she told me, and that was the best advice I have ever got on parenting. 

There are my nieces, whom I rarely get to meet but whose very presence in my life reassures me that the next generation is getting ready to take on the mantle of gentle but firm feminism from their mothers and grandmothers.

I very fondly and often remember Reena, the young household help who for three years helped me bring up my young children even as I did complete justice to my 9 to 5 job. She was the one who escorted them back from school, made certain they had their lunch, fielded the innumerable calls I made from office and comforted and reassured me, kept the children busy indoors during the afternoon and brought them out to play just as my car drove in so that I could hug them and straight away join the rough and tumble of their play. 

There are all the wonderful women I have met via Facebook or otherwise in the past couple of years ----- Ruchika, whose dedication to her daughter, Manavi, and resolve to move mountains to get Manavi a fair deal from a world unconcerned with differently abled children is awe inspiring, Sunita, who introduced me to the wonderful world of Urdu poetry and whose knowledge of poetry, philosophy and music is as astounding as her courage in the face of adversity, Bhavna Nissima whom I have never met but who feels like a kindred soul, Anita Bhargava whose zeal, passion, sincerity and effervescence are so infectious that I find myself drawn into every civic initiative she begins to pursue (and there are many!), and dozens of other women with whom I relate as a mother, a lover of poetry or music or as a conscientious citizen.

To all these fabulous women, my heartfelt gratitude for enriching my life!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

dharati kahe pukar ke

It was a cloudy day yesterday. It had rained heavily the night before, lightning tore across the sky, thunder rumbled again and again. It continued to drizzle intermittently as the day dawned. The sky was dull, a chill wind blew, it was a little dreary and depressing. Towards noon, however, the sun peeped through and we decided to make the most of it. Driving down the Faridabad road, letting the wind blow in through half open windows, my husband and I reached Manger, then having passed through the village, we drove around aimlessly for an hour or so in what appears to be a  valley. The soil is rusty yellow as are the large boulders and hillocks that abound in the area. There were patches of green on either side of the kutcha road, sarson fields easily identifiable by the radiant yellow flowers and others. Kikar trees could be seen as far as the eye stretches, and their freshly washed green leaves, that covered the branches in abundance, transformed what could have been a bleak landscape into a pleasing  study in contrasts. A goatherd, his dog, and goats scrambling up and down the steep hillocks were the only signs of habitation. Once, a motrorcyclist whizzed past us. There was no other sound, not even birds. At one or two places, sunrays glinted off the surface of the rain water that had collected in large bowl shaped depressions. The ugly plastic bags and sachets that litter the urban and rural landscape were conspicuously absent. We made an attempt to reach Manger Lake, but the road was too make- do to allay my anxiety that we'd have a breakdown at some point, so we returned with the resolve that we'd go looking for the lake the next weekend. 

We returned home feeling strangely calm and relaxed.

Today, we decided to splurge money on a Sunday brunch. The hotel is newly built, and is adazzle with chandeliers and cut flowers. The service was excellent, the food had a tremendous variety, the other guesst were neither loud nor intrusive. Yet, we returned home with only a fraction of the joy we had experienced yesterday.

True it is that the deeper we connect with Earth, the more the harmony that seeps into our lives. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Maanvan te Dhiian

My mother and I have long conversations over the telephone every day, perhaps, an hour or so. Yesterday, we got talking about the Punjabi poet, Avtar Singh Pash. The conversation then meandered through the poetry of Surjit Patar and Shiv Batalvi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam, the lives of Gurbaksh Singh Preetladi and his son, Navtej Singh and all the while I wondered why I had never found the time or inclination to have a real conversation with my mother in my growing up years. Her knowledge astounds me, as does her incredible anecdotal memory. She told me of the day Shiv Batalvi mistakenly rang our doorbell, looking to visit my mother's namesake who was also a Lecturer and Batalvi's fan. She told me of the amazing power and passion in Batalvi's voice when he recited his poetry, his rise to fame, his alcoholism and neglect of his wife, the pall that descended over Amritsar when he died. 

We spoke of Amrita Pritam, her fierce independence, the devotion of Imroz, who nurtured and cared for her through sickness and old age and how devastated Imroz's family was by his choices.

We spoke of Preet Nagar, the vision of Gurbaksh Singh Preetladi, and the tragic death of his son. That's a name I remember, I told her. Yes, your grandfather used to subscribe to the magazine Preetladi, she told me, and that she'd herself read the poetry section while she waited in the Reading Room of the public library from where my father used to bring me the books I needed while I prepared for the civil services examination. I googled and found a blog by that name, e mailed the Editor, and have sent in an annual subscription for Preetladi. Today I discovered that its Editor at one time was Sahir Ludhianvi!

What an abiding love for poetry my mother must have had, and I was ignorant of it in all my growing up years, pre ocupied as I was with my own dreams and fears! There was also the fact that my father was my hero , while my mother had the role of the disciplinarian parent who kept us on the straight and narrow path.  Then I got busy raising my own children, and it is only now that I make a new discovery every now and then about my mother's life as an intelligent, well informed, creative person.  I find that I am more like her than I had ever imagined. I understand also her anxiety and repeated reminders to me that I should not lose my own identity no matter how much I love my family.

This year, it is my resolve to have a mother-daughter vacation. We"ll go to Kerala, which is a place she wishes to travel to, a discovery I made only recently, having spent decades imagining that she'd rather stay home than explore the world. Wish me the best, that I may not get distracted by own responsibilities as a mother to lose an opportunity to get closer to the person that is my mother!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

whence joy comes

It was a sunny day yesterday, but not too warm. In fact, it was perfect weather for a walk, but inertia is hard to overcome so I dawdled and dawdled till I could tell myself that tomorrow was as good a day as any to begin acting upon my resolution to walk every day. Then my son called up from his room (yes,he did!) to ask whether I could text him the grocer's telephone number so that he could call for bread to be delivered. True, a floor separated us. I was in the backyard, half heartedly raking the compost khamba, he was in his room on the first floor. That he'd rather call than climb DOWN the stairs was just the wake up call I needed. 

A little persuasion later, we locked up the house and began walking at a leisurely pace towards the nearest market. We live in a gated neighbourhood, with more greens than most places in the city. Almost every house has a green patch in front with a madhumalti climbing the edge of the facade, and many, many houses have a profusion of pansies, petunias, salvia and numerous other seasonal flowers at this time of the year. There was barely any vehicular traffic at that time so we walked mostly undisturbed by honking horns. Birds chirped and twittered. 

My son began recounting the discussion he had had the previous day with a couple of his friends on woman empowerment. Our  conversation veered round to the low proportion of women in the field of scientific research, and then to  mathematics. He spoke to me of the amazing work done by Srinivasa Ramanujan, the strange and inspiring life of Paul Erdos, the perfection of mathematics, the spell it casts upon a student who is in earnest. Before we knew it, we had reached the market. 

Shopping done, I asked him to wait while I popped over to the store which stocks organic vegetables, fruits, groceries etc. and whose proprietor is a gentle soul I like greeting whenever I can. 

Naturally enough, when we walked back home, my son and I talked about organic farming, whether vegan diets were a fad, animal rights etc etc. I am so glad you have  reverted to chemical detergent powder, he said. I know you are a caring parent, but the organic detergent is a crazy idea, Mom. Why didn't you tell me, I asked. He just smiled, and I knew he hadn't wanted to hurt me! I, in turn, tactically concealed from him the fact that I had run out of organic detergent, not switched loyalties.

 Back home, he leaned against the kitchen shelf while I squeezed kinnow juice for the two of us. We talked some more, and then he carried his beer mug full of luscious juice back to his room and I returned to the book I had begun reading in the morning in preparation for a Book Club meeting.

What an enormous amount of joy I had experienced in these two hours! I said a silent prayer of gratitude to whoever it is who arranges matters sometimes to give us such joy ----- simple, pure, loving.

Friday, February 15, 2013

city of goons

Gurgaon is a city of goons and hooligans.

I experienced that when my mother got nearly run over by a car but not even an apology was forthcoming from the Head Constable driving it. He was far too busy talking on the cellphone even as he reversed the car from the spot where it was illegally parked  to take the trouble of honking the horn. I rushed towards the car to stop it, madly beating upon the rear windscreen, and when it did, I asked him to step out of the car. At first, he completely ignored me, talking continuously on the phone, waving me away as if I were a particularly obnoxious fly. Much yelling ensued ( I was the one yelling, while he continued to talk on the cell phone) and when the offender finally condescended to emerge from the car, it was with a highly exasperated look. I am getting delayed for my father's superannuation party, he informed me. When I insisted on getting his and his reporting officer's name, rank and telephone number , he looked at me as if I were out of my mind. I finally got the details, but even as I was scribbling them down, he vanished! Till the last, he had not removed the cellphone from his ear and was continuously engaged in a conversation. That he had nearly run over a grey haired lady old enough to be his mother was of no consequence to him therefore the question of apologising did not arise. I called up his reporting officer and lodged a complaint. No action has been taken, of course. I am told that the police constabulary in Gurgaon is rolling in wealth, and difficult to discipline because of political patronage . One of its critical jobs is brokering real estate transactions. 

My son had a similar experience when he was pacing up and down a shopping mall, frantically looking for the phone he thought he had misplaced. Are you interested in the girls who are sitting beside us, he was challenged by a couple of young men whom he had not even noticed in the anxiety of having to tell me that he had lost an expensive phone. He was so taken aback that he burst out laughing. Of course not, he replied. Yes, you are, those who had accosted him insisted. Struck by the ludicrousness of the situation, my son who is all of 15 continued to smile while assuring them that he had not even glanced at the group. Kiski chaurh hai, they asked. Roughly translated, they were asking him whose ( goons, politicians, bureaucrats etc etc ) support he enjoyed. They would not believe that his smile resulted not from bravado which had such "support" as its basis but the fact that he had committed no wrong. Before a confrontation of the nasty kind could take place, a member of the gym where  my son works out sauntered over and asked the hooligans, whom he knew since they haunt the mall, to back off. They did, not because my son was innocent of any misdemeanor but the youth who had turned up could summon a couple of hundred "supporters" in a trice, with no more than a phone call. He's a local politician's son, and rolling in wealth.

It isn't good enough that you are educated, decent,hard working people, we have been advised by a friend who is a senior police officer. You must "plant your feet firmly in Gurgaon soil"  so that a mere phone call can have at least a hundred people rush out in your support, whether you are right or the opposing party, he says. 

Is it any wonder then that my sons, who were all of 9 and 11 years respectively when they repeatedly watched Rang de Basanti , so fired were they with patriotic fervour, now wish to study and work abroad? Things aren't so bad elsewhere in India, I assure them, but they don't believe a word of what I say. I hope they will outgrow this disenchantment with the land of their birth and realise that if we wish to live in a better world, we must build it. I hope my hope is not misplaced. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

building the Indian identity

Yesterday, the dhobi's mother rang the bell at 11 AM. She is a graceful woman, in her mid 40s, always neatly dressed in a sari, head covered in the traditional manner.The wrinkles on her face may give the impression that she is older, but then she has not had the good fortune of being born in the affluent classe whose members neither struggle with deprivation nor have any paucity of aids (chemical, organic, out-of-the-kitchen!) to slow down the ageing process. Her husband was an alcoholic who abandoned the family. She has two young daughters who live with the extended family in their native place, waiting to get married. Her son, Satbir, is a despondent young man who had to drop out of school so that he could earn a living. He works hard, is scrupulously honest, and the sight of his drooping shoulders made me ask him one day whether he had nothing to look forward to. I was married off at 18, he said, I have a wife, a daughter and a baby son now, I long to educate myself, travel, I wish I could connect to the world the way you do on your laptop but I have far too many responsibilities to throw away this stable source of income. The family migrated from Rajasthan many, many years ago in search of employment having lost the bit of land they had to the mortgage they could not pay off. They live in a one room tenement in a semi slum on the edges of a group of shining, multi storey, gated, landscaped apartment complexes and earn a living ironing clothes. 

As I handed her the bundle of clothes, she asked whether I could help her in educating Deepika, her grand daughter. Deepika is three and a half years old, a sweet, alert, mischievous looking kid who sometimes accompanies her grandmother, wishes me Good Morning, and politely says Thank You if I have a sweet or savoury for her. There is a government school in their vicinity which -----yes, you guessed right ----is nearly non functional and certainly no place for a three year old. The private schools are far too expensive, even the ones run out of pokey little buildings --- the application form alone costs Rs 250, the grandmother told me. 

I called up a neighbour, who runs a school for under privileged children. A couple of years ago, she had arranged for them a performance by a visiting Israeli musician in a nearby park, which performance I had enjoyed as much as the enthusiasm, discipline and cheerfulness of the students. Of course, she said, Deepika is welcome to join, just make sure there is someone to pick her up after school, she's too little to be sent home in a group. 

So Deepika will begin school next week, in a clean, loving environment. I hope that in the coming years I can help her grandmother in her endeavour to give the little girl a better life than her own.

In the evening, I switched on the television news and every channel carried animated discussions on the political significance of the RSS et al raking up once again the Ram mandir issue. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have announced that the Ram Janmabhoomi temple must be built since it defines the Indian identity. 

I am baffled by this statement. The Indian civilization is more than 5000 years old. By some estimates, we have been around as a civilisation for more than 7000 years. Are we yet to evolve our identity? Is that identity, apparently still too diffuse to enamour the RSS and VHP, to be defined by a temple? If it is, how is that identity of any help to those who struggle to make a living, to keep a roof over their heads, to sleep with stomachs full, to access medical care and education ? Will the Ram temple help Satbir live his dream, will it get Deepika an education, will it give her grandmother respite from relentless struggle? Will it generate employment in villages so that millions don't get uprooted from their social and cultural milieu and struggle to find meaning as nameless slum dwellers in a city?

In my very limited understanding, the core values of the Hindu/Indian way of life are spelled out in the Vedic shloka
"Sarve bhavantu sukhinah, sarve santu niramaya,
sarve bhadrani pashayantu, maa kashchid-dukhabhavbhaveta!

An India where every Indian is free of want and disease, where every Indian lives a life of fulfillment, a nation of hard working, educated, progressive people, a nation which subscribes also to the belief "vasudhaiva kutumbakam" ---- that is the Indian identity true to our civilisational ethos, the identity we must strive to be true to.

How can a mandir define the Indian identity?

Friday, February 1, 2013

empowering the Aam Aadmi

Many years ago, when I first got posted to North Block, I'd stop at the traffic light just short of the gentle upward slope that connects Rajpath with Raisina Hill, and wonder: why can the whole of Delhi not have the same level of enforcement of traffic rules? The first few months, I was driven to work and the driver would take extra care once he entered the Rajpath stretch. This is known as the toughest traffic light to cross, he told me, since the size is smaller than most (it is!) and the penalty for violation immediate!! When I began driving myself, I'd frequently park the car to the side and ask the Traffic Constable at busy stretches like Pragati Maidan why more traffic violators were not being pulled out and challaned. The most common response was: I have but one pair of eyes, I get fatigued, standing hours on end in blistering heat, the traffic volume is far too heavy for the manpower deployed etc etc. 

That made sense ----somewhat. I wondered whether the government could use the services of citizens by empowering them to challan traffic offenders, and I discovered that such a legal provision does exist. Section 21 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provides that the State Government may appoint Executive Magistrates ( known as Special Executive Magistrates) for particular areas or for the performance of particular functions and confer on them such powers as as it may deem fit. I discussed this with a couple of colleagues in the police set up and they laughed it down. That's understandable, of course ----- no person in a bureaucratic set up (which the police force is) who has been selected and trained to fill a position of authority is happy sharing his powers with "ordinary" citizens !

So it really gladdens my heart that the Justice Verma Committee has made this recommendation in its report. Here is what the Committee says:

" To augment the police force, there is need to develop community policing by involving the local population. Willing volunteers should be properly and intensively trained before being able to police the community. This would also motivate them to perform their duty as citizens. Respectable persons in each locality could also be appointed Special Executive Magistrates under Section 21, Cr.P.C. and invested power to deal with the traffic offences and other minor offences including eve-teasing. In addition, to assisting the maintenance of law and order in the locality, their presence would inspire greater confidence of safety in their locality."

We ought to be discussing/debating this recommendation and demanding its immediate implementation. "Immediate" will actually translate into several months, perhaps a year or so, as the government deliberates upon and decides the modalities of implementation, so the sooner we begin stridently demanding that the recommendation be implemented, the better.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

the inhuman juvenile

We have all been shocked and dismayed to learn the fact that the perpetrator of the most inhuman cruelty in the Nirbhaya case is a juvenile, ie, someone younger than 18 years. His case will be placed not before the criminal court but the Juvenile Justice Board, and as per the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, the maximum period of detention to which he can be sentenced is 3 years. For most juveniles, the place of detention is a special home except when the crime is of so serious a nature that the Juvenile Board orders the State government to make special arrangements for his protective custody. The law does not permit a harsher sentence and explicitly prohibits life imprisonment and death sentence. This has appalled the ordinary citizen who had expected the perpetrator of such a barbaric act to be put behind bars for the rest of his life, at the very least. 

Trial as an adult for serious offences

The Justice Verma Committee has declined the suggestion that the upper limit for defining a juvenile be lowered from the current 18 years. Even if we do not lower the limit, we can look at the other alternatives for treating cases where the juvenile has committed as horrendous a crime as in the Nirbhaya case.  There are countries where the law provides for a juvenile to be tried as an adult, and to be sentenced to imprisonment in an adult prison , depending upon the seriousness of the crime and past criminal activity. It is time that we demanded such a provision ----a statutory provision that a juvenile offender be tried as an adult, in a criminal court, for certain types of criminal conduct. 

Disqualification under ROPA

Another worrisome provision of the Juvenile Justice Act is that the conviction of a juvenile for any crime whatsoever shall not be a disqualification under the Representation of People Act. This means that, hypothetically speaking, the perpetrator of the barbarous acts that have led to Nirbhaya's death could some day contest elections, and even worse, the voters would not even be aware of his crime because the Juvenile Justice Act requires that all the records relevant to a juvenile's conviction shall be removed once the appeal period has expired. There is a need to review this provision of the law, and to provide that juveniles who are convicted of serious crimes face the repercussion of getting disqualified under the Representation of People Act.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

build a woman a toilet

Did you know that millions of Indian women are vulnerable to sexual assault when they step out because they do not have toilets at home? Beyond the protests and processions and prayer meetings for Nirbhaya that so many of us have participated in, are you ready to help a woman build a toilet, and help her protect herself from sexual assault?

Here's an easy way to do it ----- make a loan via MILAAP ( I made my first Milaap loan in September 2011, and in the succeeding months, I have made 38 loans. There hasn't been a single default since I made the first loan, and the mails from Milaap revive every month the immense satisfaction I experience in having made a contribution, however minimal, in the lives of women living thousands of kilometres away.

This is how MILAAP works.

Milaap is an online platform that enables you to lend to India's working poor. It  partners with established organizations that have a strong presence at the grass roots and a deep understanding of the 150 million Indian households with no access to water, sanitation, healthcare, education and energy. Milaap and its field partners design customized loan programs and Milaap then shares the requirements, backgrounds and photos of all borrowers. The online listing of borrower profiles enables the lender to select the cause and the borrower of his choice and give a loan of minimum USD 50 or Rs 1000. 

Every month, Milaap sends the total loan collected to its various field partners who disburse the loans and regularly monitor the progress of the borrowers and collect repayments from them. Monthly deposits of the repaid loan instalments are made into the lender's Milaap account. At the end of the loan cycle, the lender can choose to withdraw the repaid loan amount or relend it to another borrower on Milaap. 

Right now, there are at least 15 women looking for a Milaap loan to build toilets ( ----- make a loan today, and make a difference!

On World Toilet Day, the World Bank has informed us that with over 600 million people in India or 53 per cent of Indian households defecating in the open, absence of toilet or latrine is one of the important contributors to malnutrition ----- do your bit, help someone build a toilet by making a loan via  MILAAP .
(updated Novemember 18th, 2013)

Its International Women's Day today ------ and my way of celebrating it is to give a loan to a woman (Rani Chinappan and her group of 4 women) to help her build a toilet.
(updated 8th March, 2013)

On a day that I read the Budget speech and was struck by a sense of deja vu, succeeded rapidly by despair, I also received a mail from MILAAP, informing me that my monthly re payments have come in. I have re lent the amount, to Selvi Kumar of Tamil Nadu, to help her build a toilet. It takes the edge off the sense of frustration and helplessness one feels sometimes. Do it, one feels a tiny bit better at having DONE something, not just fulminated at the government.
( updated, 28th February, 2013, 0945 pm)