Indians (understandably) don’t want gay rights

June 29, 2009

Indian religious leaders object to the legalization of homosexuality, according to this report in the CNN. And quite understandably so.

This is one of those instances where the law is trying to get ahead of society and its mores. Even in the US where society has presumably got used to its gays, the laws lag behind. A homosexual can still be barred in the US from joining the military if his leanings are made known.

In India, the society is still conservative and only slowly coming to terms with some loosening of norms in opposite-sex relationships. You don’t tear a society apart by forcing changes on it at a far more rapid pace than it can cope. The result will be anomie, loss of values, and general uprootedness.

To be sure a case can be made that gays have a right to relationships, provided they are consensual. On these terms, gay relationships do not encroach on others rights.

Instead of changing the law, which is bound to be objected to by religious and social leaders, gays could arrive at a tacit agreement with the authorities that there will not be any prosecution simply because two persons have a gay relationship.

In return gays will have to also tacitly promise moderation on a number of fronts. No public displays of affections, and no public solicitation even if it is only holding someone’s hands longer than you need to, or ogling someone through kajal laden eyes. I mention these two, because of lot of folks have complained of being harassed by such solicitations at public places, stores, and community gatherings.

Come on you folks ! We can try to cope. So should you. All a step at a time.


Savitabhabhi and the right to smut

June 29, 2009

News reports from India’s ContentSutra have it that http://www.savitabhabhi.com a porn cartoons web site has been banned by the Indian government.

While we all stand for freedom of speech, I am not sure that we should extend it to the right to publish smut.

What is cute about an online celebration of a sister-in-law who has the hots ? That incidentally was the theme of http://www.savitabhabhi.com, and some of the morally neutered media, US and Indian, gushed over it.

On this point I differ with the ultra-liberals who would argue that it has to be freedom at all costs, even if the freedom is exercised at the expense of good taste, or could endanger our kids who are also online.

Extending the liberal point of view further, this would add up to freedom to be solicited by pedophiles and other maniacs.

The fact is that if civil society is befuddled with confused liberal notions, somebody has to stop the smut online. If civil society does not have the way and means and the will to do it, the government does it.

The government has decided to take up the issue, and ban http://www.savitabhabhi.com. Hopefully, they will extend it to other pornographic sites. Else they would quite justifiably be seen as arbitrary.

I am not comfortable with the government deciding what should be made available to readers online, because the mandarins may misuse it, and they are not sophisticated enough to take a nuanced view.

That the government intervened however reflects the people’s inability to take a call as a concerted group, which is once again a reflection of the breakdown of consensus in civil society and the body politic.

Instead of relying on the liberal reflex, people worldwide have to take a serious view of the proliferation of smut and other things dangerous on the Internet. Just as we practively try to avoid crime on the streets, we should proactively try to stop criminal activities on the Internet.

As on the streets, there is the danger of fascism on the Internet. Governments also tend to want to curtail all freedoms in the name of curbing pornography, as in the case of China’s controversial filtering software for PCs.

But we have to find a middle-path for the sake of decency, good manners our sanity and that of the younger generation. We have to agree, or else the government will have to step in to tell us what is right.

P.S: A web site Savesavita.com has sprouted on the Internet to save the porn site….yet another example of misplaced liberalism.


India’s economic boom is lopsided

June 26, 2009

It is fashionable among India’s new business elites to talk about the boom in the economy, but a lot of it has been awfully lopsided.

About 600 million people, or 60 percent of India’s population, live off the land, according to CNN. Majority of farmers depend on rainwater for crops — irrigation, electricity are a luxury.

Yet presumably in a bid to attract investors, Indian business and investment analysts have trumpeted India’s economic boom. Their comments often reflect a divide in urban/rural perceptions, a lack of knowledge about what goes on outside the cities.

Rather than provide a counter-balance to such skewed perceptions, the Indian media has by-and-large gone along with the urban point of view.

The same business classes are also planning to get the private sector into education, healthcare, and insurance, little realizing that private services are not a substitute for government. If government services are bad, fix it…….let’s not talk about privatization as a panacea.

The few instances of privatization in these sectors in India have shown that the costs of the new privatized services are way beyond India’s poor who are not only in its villages but also in towns.

The boom in India, which has been largely confined to its cities, and particularly in its outsourcing, retail, and telecom industries has created a new class that demands the best in schooling for its kids, the best in food, the best in healthcare, quite regardless of the price.

But these schools, hospitals, and other services are beyond the reach of the poor both in the cities and the towns, further accentuating the huge economic divide in the cities. School fees in some of the better private schools would add up to over US$3000 a year. That is a cost that is way beyond a woman working as a maid in the city who would earn less than US$500 a year, at the peak of her career.

The moves to have private services in education and healthcare and other areas are therefore designed to serve the new elites, and cannot compensate for government action.

While there is no objection to the elites pampering themselves like their counterparts in the U.S., there is a case for the government to set up more of its services. In these sectors there is case for more government.

The poor also have their aspirations for a better quality of life, and if that is not satisfied by government, it will find other avenues, in some cases in increased loss of faith in the system and criminality.

If the political class, corrupt and suspect, have already contributed to an erosion of faith in the system, self-serving prescriptions from parvenu Indian elites can only increase the alienation.


The day the baker in my town closed shop

June 26, 2009

There was once a baker in the town I lived in. He and wife and two daughters each evening mixed the dough, let it ferment, and in the wee hours of the morning lit his oven with firewood to bake fresh and fluffy breads. He then delivered the labor of his love to his customers in the town on a bicycle, with a rubber horn heralding his arrival at the crack of dawn. His job done, the baker went to sleep.

Competition and modernization caught up with the baker and his family. He toyed at one point with mechanization, but that required capital. An entrepreneur who knew very little about the art of making breads, but had a lot of capital, started a mechanized bakery which offered breads that were very cheap, and yes excited the local consumers who were told they were made hygienically, made in accordance with modern global practices, and even had vitamins added to the dough.

Soon the entrepreneur was supplying to a number of towns and cities in the state, and re-located his factory in a cheaper town. To make his operations more cost-efficient, he began delivering bread to my town every three days. Preservatives in his breads kept them going that long.

Our neighborhood baker in the meanwhile folded up his business, and to avoid the ignominy (as he saw it) of working as an employee for the mechanized bakery, took to home delivery of newspapers. All this has happened in the last about ten years or so.

To be sure, there will be a section of folks who will say that worrying about the baker is useless sentimentality as modernization, free markets, and development have to wipe away what is inefficient and outdated. Implicit in this theory is the bias that what is dated is essentially not worthy stuff, unless it is an antique that can be packaged and auctioned to collectors.

Somehow I don’t think that I am alone in my sentimentality for the baker. Even commerce is playing on it. These days bakery chains are talking about the virtues of whole wheat breads, and oven fired breads, and fluffy breads. We had them when the traditional bakers were around, and we didn’t value them enough to preserve them.

The upshot is that free markets and competition cannot be counted on to meet our gastronomical, emotional, and community needs. Supermarkets will kill corner stores, large book chains will kill traditional small book stores, mechanized manufacturers will kill businesses where people work with their hands.

Some of these cornerstones of the past will however come back some ten years from now with a vengeance, this time positioned as boutique stores, designed and priced for the rich. The unassuming and functional corner bookstores or retail store will come back in a new avatar, with another owner, and a lot of snobbery and affectation that will drive off traditional customers.

Civil society has to protect what it values, whether it is the corner store, the local bakery, the vegetable cart, or the local vendor of victuals, by actively supporting these enterprises, buying from them. We are not doing them a favor, but keeping our sanity through this whirlwind of change.

Preserving small businesses has a lot to do with preserving our culture as well. Our culture is not only about owning expensive paintings and listening to music (these days more spectacle than participative). It is about the common relations, the institutions, the people that make up our life. The corner shop where one can stop for a bit of the local gossip, the baker who knows everyone around for mile, and other such notables where part of a community, of the fabric and culture of a society which is fast giving way to impersonal businesses.

Preserving traditional businesses also has to do with empowerment of the people who run these businesses. As the businesses close the self-employed join the ranks of the factory employed.

People also stop taking ownership of what they produce, and that reflects on quality. Once a year, the baker I spoke about used to gift his regulars with a cake stuffed with raisins and nuts. It was his creation, he was proud of it, and the kids loved it. It was not delivered with a large corporate logo in a fancy box, and there were no photo ops for the media. No, this gift reflected a man’s dedication to put in his best efforts to thank his fellowmen for their support.

It was about community, humanity. The baker was one of many who participated in a way of life that is not inexorably doomed to die away.


Coming up for air

June 25, 2009

I am back…..and this time I don’t care if millions of people don’t read this blog.

I am blogging again to keep my sanity in a world where we are indundated each day by marketing hype, cant and bluster in a world where truth has become like the plasticine, the clay our children play with.

It is a world where executives of banks that have taken TARP bailouts are using their company jets for private excursions, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It is a world where the gods of the financial Mount Olympus believe they should get a bail out, and they do get it courtesy US President Barack Obama, if only to save the economy.

A world where the new regulations for the finance industry proposed by Obama sounds like a lullaby, rather than a warning against future misbehavior. It won’t put speculators to sleep, but maybe all of us until the next bubble bursts.

It is a world where corruption and doublespeak continue not only in Iran or China but in democratic countries like the US, Europe and India.

It is a world where norms of decency and civility are fast dying out, and getting replaced by individualism and anomie.

I need to blog, to come up for air.


Nandan Nilekani: a dangerous flirtation

June 25, 2009

Nandan Nilekani is the best among India’s businessmen. But just because he has run a company well, it does not translate into core competence to do a government job well, more so when the job is in welfare.

India’s elite and the media will predictably welcome the move to induct people from the IT industry into government, and from that standpoint Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may score a big point with some of the urban intelligentsia.

Unfolding however is a far more dangerous trend, that of hard core free-marketers, who have made their fortunes from private enterprise, wriggling their way into government, and trying to influence policy. Their prescriptions are almost always built around privatization of vast swathes of the economy, of the education sector, of healthcare, and probably even the air we breathe.

It is the only language a businessman knows. It is also the most fashionable political ideology which many educated people thoughtlessly spout. But it is not an ideology that addresses the needs of the teeming poor. It is a self-serving ideology of the super class.

That the IT industry introduced stock options and high salaries does not reflect its social conscience, but again a high market demand for engineers which pushed up their salaries and perks.

Free market ideology cannot solve a country’s problems as the current economic crisis in the US and Europe has shown.

The country needs as leaders not business people, but people who know how the masses think and feel, and who are also accountable to those masses for those votes. Handpicked technocrats, particularly of the free market variety, will not do.

Like traditional aristocracies, the elite in the IT industry is trying to perpetuate their prominence beyond business, and beyond retirement, by selling the myth that IT professionals can bring a new and positive perspective to government.


“Sorry” is not in George Bush’s lexicon

December 5, 2007

After the joint report of US intelligence agencies reported that Iran had stopped its nuclear program in 2003, the most appropriate approach for US President George Bush would have been to say “ Sorry, but we goofed”.

If he wanted to pass the buck, Bush could have of course blamed the 2005 intelligence report that said that Iran’s leaders were working tirelessly to acquire a nuclear bomb.

Instead, the US President on Tuesday warned that Iran was still a threat – referring to Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which the Middle East country claims is for its civilian program. All this is reminiscent of the hysteria the Bush administration successfully whipped up about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) ahead of the US invasion of Iraq.

This time over it may not be so easy, unless the US totally disregards public opinion both within the country and abroad. There are a number of inconsistencies in Bush’s stand.

Why should the community of nations, led by the US and its allies, impose sanctions on Iran if it is now believed that Iran is enriching uranium for its civilian programs ? How does this approach of the US and its allies sit with its bonhomie with Pakistan’s generals, who have lots of nuclear bombs, which may be used against Pakistan’s enemies like India, and are in far greater risk of falling into terrorist hands ?

This “ my buddy can do no wrong” approach with Pakistan flies in the face of common sense, and only goes to show that the US is harassing Iran, and trying to trigger a war there, because Iran will not toe the US line.

As the US uses this one-sided policy to expand its sphere of influence, and threaten nations that don’t toe its line, countries around the world are unabashedly backing its policies on Iran, as they did earlier in Iraq. Iran is the menace – that is the agreed point of view – though there have only been differences on how to tackle a country that has been prejudged a “menace”.

To be sure, Iran’s human rights record is abominable, but so is the record of many countries the US will not go to war with, and still continues to do business with, like China, like Pakistan. So frankly, what is the justification now to harass Iran with sanctions, and even military action ?

After WMDs, Bush is now talking about WW III