Of Team Anna and Arun Maira’s ‘fireflies’

Our industrial output,  slipping into a negative growth mode,  plunged to minus 5.1 percent in October (see headline).  The same month last year saw a robust 11.3 percent growth.  Economics alone wouldn’t  explain such  steep fall to dismal depths within a year.  Corporate leaders talk of a governance deficit.  The government (read PM),  facing the charge of  decision-making paralysis,  points to compulsions of coalition politics that resulted in the govt. having to put on hold FDI in retailing, despite a cabinet decision. Localised protests hold up commissioning of Kudamkulam nuclear power plant. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are engaged in disruptive politics over the future of Mullaiperiyar dam.  And then we have Team Anna  dictating terms to the govt. on drafting the  Lokpal Bill, and giving parliament a timeline for enactment of the Bill.

This then is the scenario in which I got to read  Arun Maira’s  ‘Transforming Capitalism.  The book’s sub-title – ‘Improving the World for Everyone‘ – sounds rather presumptuous , I thought.  But then I wouldn’t fault the author, for it is often the publisher who gives a book the title that   sells.  A  compilation of  Mr Maira’s  newspaper and magazine articles,  the book is designed to help business leaders and managers undertand the social issues they need to factor in,  while making business decision. Mr Arun  Maira,  a Planning Commission member,  has spent decades in the corporate sector –  in the Tatas and later at the Boston Consulting Group.

Transforming Capitalism‘ is the sort  of book  you choose to  read for ideas,  for professional guidance,  and for other info. of  your interest.  You don’t need to start at the beginning  ,  and plod through chapter, after chapter, to get at the guts of it , on Page 148 (as I did) . The chapters, reproduced from Mr Maira’s media writings  ,  are stand-alone pieces  that  people read on morning commute.  As the author says in the preface,  his chapters are longer than Tweets,  but they are short enough to be read during a brief plane ride. You can start anywhere, flip through chapters,  go back and forth. I did this all,  and also revisited a chapter,  in which Maira writes about  people’s movement led by Arvind Kejriwal  – Parivartan.

Reading of all  the good work he has done at Parivartan,  I couldn’t help wonder if too much TV does a person  any  good  for his  reputation or for  the cause he upholds .  Mr Kejriwal  of  Team Anna fame is all over on TV nowadays,  so much so that you can’t escape his  presence at prime-time  talk-shows,  by switching channels, unless  you switch to cartoon channel or switch off altogether.

Anyway,  even as the govt.  announced  the  date for moving the Lokpal Bill  in Lok Sabha  Anna Hazare  reiterated his threat to go on fast from December 27, if,  by then the Bill doesn’t get passed in parliament.  Team Anna may have zero trust in  govt., but their apparant intolerance with the ruling party,  and the ultimatum Anna Hazare sets for the parliament  do not set a healthy precedent  for growth of people’s movement in a democracy.

In refreshing contrast to present day,   the 2009 scenario   of   civil society awakening after RTI,  as articulated by Mr Maira in his book , appeared  conducive to the spread  of  Parivartan-type communities in various  parts of the country. The  communities were driven by  by varied causes –  provision of drinking water,  adult literacy,  village schooling,  micro-lending,  women’s issues and concerns.

Mr Maira,  terming them  ‘communities of practice’,  says the spread of such communities  would transform India from bottom up. The communities  (‘fireflies’, in Mr Maira’s book) that used the provisions of the Rights to Information Act  to help people get their dues and prevent grass-roots corruption can be connected to each other through networking, and not by hierarchies.  The  author would like to see the govt. (with its  power to facilitate ) as well as the corporates (with their  resources) stepping forward to promote a supportive framework that enables many more ‘fireflies’ to rise.  This, according to Mr Maira,  is the only way India can step up growth in a free market economy. This perceptive chapter in the book has been reprinted  from  Civil Society,  a monthly magazine.  Its publisher Umesh Anand  was the one who persuaded Mr Maira to do the book.

And I got to read Arun Maira through  this  programme of  book reviews by bloggers.  Anyone who blogs; and  has flair for books  can access Blogadda for details .

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Is Team Anna a threat to democracy ?

A disgruntled auto driver slapped agriculture minister Sharad Pawar,  brandished a knife, and yelled his head off reflecting aam aadmi’s frustration over price rise and corruption at high places.

Mr Pawar reacted, politically correctly – ‘we should not make much of this’.

Anna Hazare,  politically unwisely,  blurted out impulsively, Ek hee mara ?  (‘Just one slap’). Anna has since been hard put to it,  to put his remark in perspective.

TV news channels made a meal of it, re-playing the action shot right through the 24 hr news cycle,  prompting BJP MP Smriti Irani to take on  the electronic  media that,  she said,  thrived on sensationalism.  Mr Vinod Mehta of Outlook, on a Times Now talk-show,  weighed with his editorial observation   –  ‘it’s the biggest story of the day’

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, to the media hanging out at Parliament House VIP exit: “where is the country going to”.

Prashant Bhushan-to-Rajdeep Sardesai on CNN-IBN:  “Democracy has to be freed from a  oligarchy of politicians and higher bureaucracy”.  Another Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal,  at the same talk-show,  dismissed the anchor’s suggestion that the angry young aam admi with penchant for attack on political netas might have been influenced by  strident stance adopted by  Team Anna members .  Kejriwal countered Sardesai – ‘do you want us to have our lips sealed ?’  To protest was one’s democratic right, though he did mention, for the record, that physical violence was not acceptable to Team Anna.

Talk-show host Sardesai wasn’t the only one to have given expression to a thought that Team Anna, in its self-assigned role as a ‘saviour’  in a democracy,  may well become  part of the problem. Britain’s academic and a Labour peer Bhikhu Parekh, in a recent lecture  on the crisis in Indian democracy,  is reported as saying,  a growing public support for Anna Hazare-style protests, led by unelected campaigners, bode ill for Indian democracy.  In his 2011  address – in the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture series – Lord Parekh reckoned that democracy was in danger of losing legitimacy,  if elected politicians failed to meet public expectations,  and people,  in frustration,  started mobilizing around “leaders” who had no democratic mandate,  but could have plenty of self-serving agendas.

I don’t know if any media other than The Hindu  reported Lord Parekh’s address in London recently.  In his thought-provoking talk Lord Parekh raises eminently arguable issues –  the very stuff of which prime time talk-shows are made.  Wish the Kanwal’s,  Goswami’s and Sardesai’s of our media  take note .

MUDA telecast : passing the buck

Telecast of the Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA)  meetings has been shelved.  Its members  have passed the buck to Bangalore,  seeking  clear-cut directive from Karnataka government,  on whether or not the proceedings of MUDA should be open to the media via closed-circuit telecast.   MUDA isn’t particularly known for fair dealings when it comes to allotment of residential and other sites to members of the public.

To bring a measure of transparency in its public dealings MUDA chairman P Manivannan thought of opening its periodical meetings to the media.  Some MUDA members felt that presence of news reporters at the meeting hall would cramp their style. Meeting their objection Mr Manivannan  arranged for a  closed-circuit telecast of the proceedings to the MUDA press-room.

Which wasn’t okay with some MUDA members,  notably MLAs   who don’t feel comfortable with anything short of in-camera proceedings.  In the government if someone doesn’t want to get anything done,  the issue is referred to the higher authorities.  Papers are put up for approval. And a file is created,  to move from desk to a bigger desk,  till the file finds itself on CM’ s desk.

The issue whether or not to telecast  MUDA meetings has been referred to the department of law and parliamentary affairs.  The file would then move up the bureaucratic and ministerial ladders.  If the matter pertains to policy direction,  which the telecast issue,  presumably, is,  it goes to  CM.  If he deems the issue is worthy of wider consideration,  he could set up a committee.

My hunch is, a matter needing  ‘clear-cut direction’ would  call for a committee deliberation.  Besides,  if they  okay MUDA ,  you can’t stop  GUDA,  DUDA and BUDA (Bellary)  wanting  to  go  ‘live’ in the interest of transparency .

Bhopal, before 24×7 media

Todays’ media people,  fed on 24×7 news channels,   may find it hard  to imagine that there was a  24-hour delay in the Bhopal gas tragedy  making media headlines.   TV those days was limited to a few hours  of evening telecast.  Bhopal 1984 was in B G era (Before Google) ;  and the gas leak that killed over 2000 overnight  happened on a  Sunday night,  well past the  newspaper  deadline (time at which an edition  goes to print) .

I was then The Times of India (TOI) correspondent;  and the English  print media of  that time  meant a  handful of dailies –  Hindustan Times Indian Express and The StatesmanPatriot of Delhi, and  The  Hindu ,  Madras ,  didn’t even post full-time correspondents in Bhopal in the 80s ;  a media outpost,  to which no senior TOI reporter from New Delhi  was happy  to be  posted.  I went to Bhopal, as staff correspondent,  from the Delhi news service desk.

Bhopal  was a city of  ‘stringers’,  in media parlance.  Stringers are locally influential reporters retained by major dailies to file news reports for them.  And then we had carbon-copy hacks, reporting for several media outlets.  They are paid by the column inches they get published. The  complaint some outstation newspapers had was that they got from their stringers  fourth or the fifth carbon-copy  that was barely visible to the naked eye.

Bhopal reporters on media junket to Sagar. The face under the strawhat is Tarun Bhadhuri of The Statesman

This was the media scene in Bhopal 1984.   There was  camaraderie among reporters of major outstation dailies.  We moved together on assignments,  often pooling information,  while respecting  the right to ‘exclusives’  a reporter was obliged to put out now and  then to please their editors.

Reporter at work in back-seat of a car

Barring a few major newspapers that maintained an office with teleprinter connection,  reporters  relied on Post Office telex to send  news reports.  I have once sent a report to New Delhi from a post  office in remote area that still used Morse Code telegraph.

Our teleprinter operator in Bhopal worked four hours daily, from 4 p m ; and stayed beyond 8 p m on request, but rarely more than an  hour or two.  I could phone in  brief reports,  but  you can’t expect to  get too popular with the steno at the news desk  in New Delhi,  if you  phone in your reports too often. Besides, there was STD cost to be
considered.  The phone bills you submit to New Delhi for  reimbursement were liable to be sent back with query as to why and what-for certain phone calls were made,  and if they were  necessary.

Bhopal gas leak happened late on a Sunday night. I was woken up from sleep by a phone call from N Rajan, a media colleague and neighbour who edited local daily Hitavada, and also filed news  reports for Patriot, New Delhi. He had heard from a contact about a  major gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticides factory. The gas  had already drifted our way, though our  Professor Colony residence  was about 5 km from the factory.

As I looked out  from our first-floor balcony I saw residents in our  neighbourhood out on the street, fleeing from the gas spread.  Rajan  and I  – with my wife, son and our dog –  joined the crowd.  It ddidn’t  require a reporter’s nose for news for one to realise that we were amidst a major developing story. Our frustration was we couldn’t report it to our New Delhi offices at that late hour.  No cell phones then.

Our priority was  survival ;  making it  somewhere away from the gas,   which had by then spread to much of Bhopal . We spent the night  with Narasimhan in Arera Colony.  He is a relative and was then a  Bhopal bank official whose house was on  higher ground and unaffected.  On our way up to Narasimhan’s  place we found several gas victims  who collapsed on the street after inhaling the toxic gas  methyl isocyanate.

The morning after the gas leak I started phoning colleagues and contacts, but found them equally in the dark on details. The 8 a m  radio news wasn’t much of a help, by way of hard news. Meanwhile our colleague in The Statesman Tarun Bhadhuri (Jaya Bachchan’s  father) phoned to say he heard from a Union Carbide factory official  that the gas leak was under control and the casualty figure was five deaths.  This was what a Union Carbide official would have us believe that  morning .Anyway we still had the entire day to work on the news report.  That night TOI news desk kept open the Page One lead slot till 11 p m.

At Bhopal, when Rajan and I went to the government hospital – Hamedia – around 10 a m we found a spill-over of gas victims from hospital wards,  to the corridors and scores more were being brought in to the casualty in vans,  three-wheelers and even push-carts. Many of the victims collapsed right on the drive way.

Driving through the town later that day we found dead cattle with bloated belly lying on the street,  waiting to be disposed of.  The army had moved in  and their trucks helped disposal of the dead.  We still  had places to  visit, and contacts to be tapped – at the railway  station (where gas victims, dead and dying, were being taken out of  platforms and waiting halls), at  the police headquarters,  the P R  office,  and the hospitals.  I made a final round of phone calls to other  reporters to exchange notes before filing my news report for the day.

In the absence of an officially declared tally of the gas victims, reporters  worked out a consensus on a figure  –  500 dead .  But then the  headline writers sitting in Delhi  had other   calculations. Upshot was that no two newspaper headlines carried the same figure. We in Bhopal based our guesswork on a  report that all nine cremation grounds in town worked  round the  clock during the  24 hours after the calamity struck.

This was how the Sunday night gas leak in Bhopal made it to  print  on Tuesday morning.

Related write-up –  The night Bhopal turned into a gas chamber

Bhopal 1984 and the Anderson saga

The Hindu op-ed piece that marks  the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy,  makes the point : The powerful can always count on official helpVidya Subrahmaniam writes about the refusal by the then Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson to answer summons from an Indian court ;  and its ruling declaring him as  ‘untraceable’ and a ‘fugitive from justice’.  While reality is  that   Mr Anderson,  now 88,  has all through these years been leading  a ‘life of luxury’ in his private estate in New York state.

What about his extradition ?  India can’t be faulted for not making a formal request in  2003,  some 19 years after the event.  And it took the US government yet another year to reject India’s request.  The latest is  that  a fresh warrant of arrest has been issued by a Bhopal court ; and  CBI ordered to produce Mr Anderson in court.
I happened to have preserved The Times of India report  on Mr Anderson’s   arrest,  25 years ago,  when he landed in Bhopal in the wake of the gas tragedy that claimed at least 2,000 lives and left physically impared thousands of others.

Mr Anderson and two other company executives were picked up by police from the tarmac  as their plane landed at Bhopal,  driven off through a side gate ( presumably,  to evade a bunch of  waiting news reporters) ; taken  to the Union Carbide guest house,  where they stayed for a couple of hours before being put  on the state government plane  to be flown back to New Delhi.

The media,  effectively kept away from the visitors,  were handed out,  as Mr Anderson was safely airborne,  a press statement that said  1) Mr Anderson was charged with 304 IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) , and Sections 304(A),  120(B),  278,  284,  426 and 429;  and  2)  released on a bond of Rs.25,000,  on the surety furnished by a company official.

Those figures  cited from the statute book relate to offences  such as causing death by negligence,  committing mischief,  criminal conspiracy,  making the atmosphere noxious, negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance and mischief by killing or maiming cattle.

The charges looked pretty stiff in cold print.  As the then chief minister Arjun Singh noted in a his statement,  the government could not remain  ‘ a hapless spectator’  to the tragedy….and the power of the state was  ‘committed to fight for its citizens’ rights’.  Mr Arjun Singh has never been short of fitting words,  tailored to suit a given  occasion.

As for Mr Anderson’s comfortable   ‘house-arrest’  in his company  guest-house, well  protected from media media menace;  his release,  and the trip back to Delhi in the state plane,  an official spokesman came up with this explanation:  ‘Mr Anderson’s presence (in Bhopal) might provoke strong passions against him…and  (he was released) also  because we do not consider his presence in the country desirable’.

So much for the Arjun Singh  government’s  commitment  to fight for the rights of its citizens.

State of a students hostel in Karnataka

B R  Ambedkar Post-metric Students Hostel,  Chintamani,  Chickeballapur

(Mis) managed by : Dept. of  Social Welfare

Students:  100  ( against  grants received  for  200  stidents)

Location:  dilapidated building abandoned by its owner 40 years back.

Not whitewashed for decades

No proper drinking water facility

Solar water heaters, not functioning.

Kitchen – unhygenic

Menu  – ragi mudde with sambar

Vegetables – tomatoes and carrot,  discards  by wholesalers.

Details disclosed by minister-in-charge of the district Mumtaz Ali Khan, at a press conference. His thought – ‘the situation is so horrifying that I have no words to describe it’.

Of media access to MUDA meet

The headline is misleading.  Proceedings of a board  meeting of Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA)  was relayed live to the media on closed-circuit TV,  presumably,  for the first time  in MUDA’s history.   How could anyone object to such initiative for transparency ?

But some MUDA members,  notably state legislators,  were not enthusiastic about it . In fact, they opposed any  access to media,  as if  what transpires among MUDA board members is state secret .  Reasons they gave point to their mindset.

Some legislator members are quoted as saying,  1) MUDA board meets are comparable to in-camera  meetings of the Karnataka cabinet.

2) Media presence would  ‘disturb deliberations and decision-making ‘  process at MUDA meeting .

3) There  is no provision in law that ‘mandates’  MUDA to hold an open meeting, in media presence’.

What  they neglect  to mention is there is nothing in the law that bans media  access to MUDA meetings.  If the press had been kept out for so long,  it was for reasons best known to its board members.  Despite objections, or rather because of the member’s reservations,  MUDA chairman P  Manivannan worked out an arrangement,  by which local media can have access to proceedings of meetings without causing  ‘disturbance’  by their physical presence at the  MUDA boardroom. The boardroom proceedings were relayed through closed-circuit TV to reporters assembled elsewhere  at MUDA office.  However audio quality of telecast left much to be desired.

A local newspaper gave its own spin to this lapse,  saying  “it was not known if the audio was deliberately muffled or was due to a technical problem” .  Unpredictable are the ways of our  media.