On the night of the 23rd of December 1982, a police control room in southern India received a distress call from a woman who only said that she was calling from Redwood trail. Inspector Sarah Joseph was asked to find out what was happening at Redwood trail apartments. Sarah and assistant Issac “Ice” Hamilton turned their patrol vehicle towards terrence road where the apartments was located. What happened from then on formed the script of a story. One that was written by fate and guided by destiny.
“Aaron” Purva said softly, “Stand up slowly baby”. Her voice was filled with fear but masked with confidence. She slowly put her hand out so that the 5 year old could grab on to it. “Aaron. Hold my hand” she said again and stretched her hand out a little more from around the ledge. He stood up, unsteadily. His tender fingers trying to get a hold of any support the brick wall behind him could provide. He took a step towards the voice of his caretaker, unaware that a thread from his dress had gotten stuck on a nail in the wall behind him. “Aaron. Come here slowly, baby” she said, stretching her hand as far as she possibly could. She was sweating bullets and her legs were trembling. A gentle winter breeze sailed through the window . Her heart was now beating faster than ever. But she had to remain calm. Aaron shouldn’t see that she’s afraid. That’s what the man from the fire department had told her. They’d be arriving soon but she had to make sure the baby was in her sight. Another breeze entered the house. Momentarily, she withdrew one of her hands to wipe off the sweat on her eyelashes. Instantly, she reached out again. “Aaron, Baby. Come to vapa.” she said, reassuringly.She looked out into the vast expanse of the city landscape, hoping to see a fire truck on its way. Aaron took another step forward. The thread loosened from his dress. He took another step, shakily. “Slowly baby. Slowly”. In his excitement of hearing his vapa’s voice get closer, Aaron giggled and clapped his hands, not knowing that he was standing on a 3foot wide landing, seventeen floors above the ground. Clapping happily, he tried taking another step and lost balance and sat down again. Purva’s heart jumped into her hands. “Stay there baby. Vapa can see you. Stay there”. He heard her voice and giggled and clapped his hands in joy again and tried standing up. The thread was now stretched to its limit. He stood up and turned, the thread put him off balance and tugged him back.He lost balance again and slipped.
“AARON!!!!!!”, she wailed. Her eyes were frozen in shock. Her face, white. Her hands and feet, paralysed. She coudln’t react.
A little while later..
“Are you absolutely sure?” Inspector Sarah asked her assistant Isaac, bewildered. “Positive.” he replied. “How’s Purva doing?”she enquired. “She’s inside. Depressed and traumatised. We should get a psychiatrist here ASAP” he said. “How many people did you talk to?” “27. That’s everyone on this side of the building” he said, pointing to the side facing the balcony they were standing in. “Who called the police?” “Control room said it was an anonymous call from a woman but the residents say that it wasn’t one of them. Must’ve been Purva herself” Isaac answered. “And nobody saw or heard anything other than her screaming?” she asked, amused. “SJ. There is no body. There’s no blood. No crime scene, no witnesses. Just a depressed complaintant. What are we even investigating here?” Isaac asked, trying to convince Sarah that there was no case. “Where did the baby go, Ice? We have to find him. There’s no way Purva will recover from whatever it is she is suffering from without finding Aaron.” “There wasn’t a baby Sarah. Nobody around here has seen a baby in this house or with her. She was probably hallucinating. I’ve called the medical team, they’re bringing some help for Purva. Let’s get out of here”
“Alright. Wait in the car. I need to talk to her again. I won’t be long” Sarah said, not convinced by the overwhelming evidence.
She walked into the room where Purva was sitting, wrapped in a blanket with a mug of coffee in her hand, staring at the wall opposite her. “Purva..Who was Aaron?”she asked. Purva said nothing. “Did you call the police, Purva?” Sarah walked closer and put her hand on Purva’s drooping shoulder.”Purva..I need you to talk to..” she stopped her sentence midway as Purva fell to the ground. “Jesus Christ.No way” she murmured and sat on her knees next to Purva and checked her pulse. There wasn’t one. She reached into her jacket to get her phone but she’d left it in the car. She ran to the balcony and looked down. Isaac was in the car. “ICE! ISAAC!! ISAAAC” she shouted at the top of her voice. He couldn’t hear her. She looked around for something she could throw at the car to get his attention.
Unable to find anything, she took off her shoe and used that. Isaac jumped out of the car, startled and looked up. Sarah was waving frantically at him to come up.
Sarah was waiting at near the elevator for him. She told him what had happened as they walked back into the house. “She just fell. Dropped dead. Something is wrong here ice. I just kn..” she stopped midway through her sentence again and put her hands over her mouth in disbelief. There was a knife through Purva’s stomach. Isaac instinctively took his service revolver out of its holster and searched the house for the culprit. Sarah coudln’t believe what she’d just seen. She looked around the room to check if someone was hiding there. She found the windows locked. So were the cupboards. “This room’s clear” she shouted,to let Isaac know and then looked around for some clues. Isaac came back in the room looking stupefied. “There’s nobody here”
The response to Kerala’s worst natural disaster in a century has shown us (again) that citizens mobilize widely and rapidly when called on. So why doesn’t government take advantage of that more often?
“We were trying to find victims, but everywhere we found only heroes”
Large, white parcels, all safely wrapped up in packing material line up against the wall by the entrance to the club house in a swanky apartment complex in Neotown, Bangalore. Labelled clearly – “Sleeping mats”, “Blankets”, “Bedsheets”, “Gloves”, “Gum Boots”, “Cleaning Supplies”- they are all ready to be loaded on to trucks headed towards the neighbouring state of Kerala where almost a million people have been displaced from their homes and many of them are still living in relief camps and temporary shelters after a devastating flood last week destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, resorts and everything else in its path.
Over 400 people have died so far and many of those who have survived have little to go back to.
The estimated financial loss to the state runs into several billion Indian Rupees but the true magnitude of what has been lost by many families is unquantifiable. For most families in Kerala, a house doesn’t simply provide the security of shelter- it is their life’s toil and savings and building a house is the bedrock of the middle-class dream. For many families, the floods have shaken that bedrock and for some of them, destroyed it entirely.
The task ahead is daunting but while the rivers roar on, a glimmer of hope shined brightly through the grey clouds. All across the state, political and religious lines disolved as people turned out to help those in distress. Fisherfolk with their boats helped move thousands to safer lands, the Indian Navy and police airlifted hundreds of others and classrooms and prayer halls became relief camps. From neighbouring states and cities, thousands of people pitched in to raise funds for emergency supplies and made sure it reached those in Kerala who most needed it. Once again, heroes were born when they were needed the most and with their help, kerala is sure to power through this tragedy.
Tech-enabled Disaster Management
Kerala has one of the most decentralized governance structures in India and it was in full force in response to the floods. Emergency decision-making and crisis response at the local level were left to the the district administrators who were given the authority to do what was necessary to save lives and mitigate the damage. Over time, it would be worth studying the impact this step had on mobilizing resources and manpower to the right places quickly. But at the scale that disaster struck kerala, it was always going to be too much for government to do on its own. 13 out of 14 districts in the state were on “red alert”- the highest level of alert issued by India’s Meteorological Department (IMD). The deadly cocktail of torrential rains (257% more than anticipated for that time of the year) and the unexpected release of water from some 36 dams brought “God’s Own Country”, as it is popularly called, to its knees. Every single dam in the state was filled to capacity and all of them had to be opened (some for the first time in over two decades) in order to prevent a dam burst which would have had even more severe consequences.
Almost overnight, the government’s IT department was able to set up keralarescue.in to help coordinate the rescue operations. Some 1500 engineers (from all over the world) who are part of the Kerala chapter of the IEEE made the website in just 96 hours for the government (for free). The state government deployed it and made it the center of their rescue and relief efforts. The website had everything from district-wise emergency supplies requirement lists to a facility to request to be rescued (which the disaster response teams used to locate survivors) to a portal for solicting financial contributions and even a map of flooded streets using satellite-driven data. The site has logged over 10 million requests for aid in the short span of time that it has been active. It is unclear how many of those very fulfilled by government but citizens certainly responded to the call.
Several organizations and individuals who were able to organize the logistics to send trucks into the worst-affected regions of the state began collection drives all over south India (with financial contributions coming from the North too and organizations like Punjab’s Khalsa Aid setting up camp in Kerala to make food for the survivors). Several truck loads of food, clothes, sheets, sanitary napkins, diapers, water bottles and other essential items reached the survivors with little or no involvement of government. In Bangalore, where I was, heartening stories poured in about auto rickshaw drivers who refused to take money from those who were transporting these supplies in the city and grocery stores offering discounts to those buying supplies in bulk for Kerala. My taxi driver to the airport earlier today narrated how he spent some of his day’s meager savings on buying fuel for the trucks ferrying the supplies to Kerala. The middle-aged domestic help at home donated her new saris to those who’d lost everything to the floods while several others in the city pitched-in in quantities both small and big, realizing that every drop in the ocean counted to making someone’s life a little better.
Through Instgram, Whatsapp and Facebook, those on the ground in Kerala sent updates to those in other parts of the country in real-time (faster than government and even faster than news channels) about the new list of requirements in specific relief camps in each district of the state. These social media powered volunteers were even able to identify and resolve problems with an agility and efficiency that would have been hard for government with its fatigued and anachronistic bureacracy. For example, with some camps housing over 5000 people, a major sanitation issue was reported through instagram- used diapers and sanitary napkins were piling up outside the camps since there was no state machinery running to collect trash. Instantly, a request went out to those in neighbouring districts who had access to incinerators to dispose the waste. In a matter of hours, several people responded with locations and drop off instructions. The problem, of course, is that these informal channels are only anecdotes. But these little anecdotes from all over the state certainly went a long way in mitigating the humanitarian crisis that these floods have set off.
When I put out a request to my friends to contribute in anyway they can, several of them readily agreed to send me supplies or money for supplies if I would hand over supplies to responsible organizations. While some of them even contributed to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund directly, others were more cynical. There was an element of doubt in giving more money to government. I noticed this lack of trust in government even in speaking with some other people around me. It was a curious contradiction given that Indian’s trust in government as per Gallup’s recent poll is among the highest in the world.
Trust or not, the fact is that people turned out on the streets to help Kerala when they could just as easily have sent some money to the CM’s fund online and let government do its thing. But why does this civic activism in our citizens only awaken during times of crisis? What does it take to be active citizens 24×7?
In reality, the assessment that civic activism awakens only in response to disasters like this one is probably a bit harsh. Even in just the past decade, Indians have shown a healthy appetite for mobilizing to effect change. Starting with the protests to Nirbhaya’s rape in Delhi to the massive public support for Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal bill, the incredible response to the net neutrality debate and most recently surrounding issues being heard in the supreme court like the right to privacy and decriminalizing homosexuality, we’ve shown that we will turn out for a wide range of causes provided that there is a clear call to action. People on informal channels of communication like Instagram have figured out that being extremely specific about what you need from the crowd is the most effective way of engaging with it. It is unlikely that a message from the Chief Minister saying “Please help Kerala” would have mobilized even a fraction of the support that the state received thanks to the specific requirements lists that were shared on social media and through keralarescue.in. This is an important lesson that we’ve seen multiple times in other citizen engagement efforts. For instance, asking people for their opinion about a particular issue through an online portal has been proven to be ineffective in multiple projects around the world. At the same time, asking people for solutions to solve that issue based on rigoursouly defined problem statement has led to several innovative suggestions that have helped solve issues ranging from computational biology and astronomy to urban transportation and trash management.
Redefining our democracy
A democracy can’t simply be for the people and of the people. It needs to be made BY the people too. We’ve shown that we have so much to offer to government, not just financially but by way of our sheer capacity to mobilize, ideate and implement on the go. Citizen engagement is not a panacea. It will not solve all our problems but there are some situations where our involvement will help government make better decisions, provide better services and implement projects more efficiently. There is no dearth of organizations (both in India and around the world) doing research on identifying in what context and in what form citizen engagement is most effective. But irrespective of the context, there are two precursors to executing widespread citizen engagement in government. The first, is that citizens should be willing to engage with government and take part in reasoned, informed debate with space for compromises and experimental ideas and the second is that government (and its entire bureaucratic machinery) should be willing to listen to the people. The question is, are we ready to engage? And if we are, is government listening?
To help rebuild Kerala, you can contribute to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund at this link: http://www.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in
For updates about the situation in Kerala, check out keralarescue.in or follow the Chief Minister on Twitter @cmokerala
To contribute to NGOs, consider volunteer groups working on the ground such as: http://rebuildkerala.gtechindia.org
On the 17th of December 2012, India’s capital New Delhi woke up to news reports about the gang rape of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern. When details began emerging about the horrors she was put through the previous night at the hands of 5 men (including a minor), it sent the nation into shock. People were outraged both by the brutal nature of the crime and by the fact that 5 men were able to commit it in a moving bus on the roads of the national capital without getting caught. Despite being afforded the best medical care and battling the odds for almost two weeks Nirbhaya (fearless), as she had come to be called by the nation, succumbed to her injuries on the 29th of December 2012.
Public anger after the Nirbhaya case forced the then government to take immediate action on multiple fronts. A Rs.100 crore (~ $15 million) fund was allotted towards infrastructural improvements such as installing CCTV cameras and for setting up an emergency hotline for women. Multiple fast-track courts were set up specifically to deal with cases of sexual harassment and rape. Private buses services came under more scrutiny and night-time patrolling was increased. 4 years later, nothing changed.
A large part of the “Nirbhaya fund” remained un-utilized at the end of that year. An investigation by CNN-News18 revealed that the call center that handled the emergency hotline was severely under-staffed and didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the volume of calls they received. The courts were still overwhelmed by the number of cases they needed to handle and inspections of private buses and night-time patrolling both reduced in frequency once the public outcry had died down.
It wasn’t the first time India was hearing of such an incident. In a hospital ward in Delhi in 2015, nurse Aruna Shaunbaug died at the age of 66, 42 years after she was raped by a ward boy in the same hospital she worked in. Her case is one of the most discussed in the nation- not while talking about violence against women but in the debate about euthanasia. The attack on her had rendered her unable to move, speak or even eat by herself but she could still feel pain and her eyes reacted to light- the only signs of life left in Aruna in the latter half of her life. Death, as many argued, was a less cruel fate for her.
Aruna in 1973 or Nirbhaya in 2012 were extreme manifestations of a problem that plagues societies around the world- inhumane acts of violence against women. It is estimated that a woman is raped every 20 minutes somewhere in India every day but only 34,600 cases of rape are registered in police stations. 98% of the time, the culprit is the husband or a close relative or someone the victim knows. For reasons including societal stigma, these cases do not reach the doorsteps of police stations which leaves the police helpless but not blameless. The police is infamous for their insensitive handling of cases of sexual abuse- often forcing complainants to repeat their story multiple times to shame them and sometimes asking them to disrobe and show “evidence”. But even in the rare instance when the police files an FIR (First Information Report), the wait for justice is a long and frustrating one and barely 29% of cases end in conviction.
Until 2012, media coverage of sexual abuse was limited to these heinous, gut-wrenching crimes from time to time. A very small number of “mainstream media” organizations covered stories of abuse in daily life. The casual groping on a bus or cat-calling on the streets were common occurrences every woman faced but weren’t “newsworthy” enough to start a national dialogue. The great impact of the Nirbhaya case, and where the media deserves most praise, is the role it played in shattering (to some extent) the taboo associated with speaking about issues concerning women’s safety. Nirbhaya became the faceless mascot of India’s fight against atrocities against women. Everyone had been violently shaken into understanding the seriousness of the problem. Cases of molestation would be featured in the top headlines and, whether out of a fear of being exposed as incompetent on national TV or out of a sense of duty, the police began getting their act together with increased patrolling and a more humane and welcoming attitude towards women who’d come to them with complaints.
In 2013, when the trial in the Nirbhaya case was on-going, the lawyer appearing on behalf of the accused made an appalling analogy and suggesting in not uncertain terms that women must not be allowed to leave the house and that if something were to happen to them, it is their fault.
“Suppose you have a box of sweets and you keep them in front of your house. What will happen? Street dogs will come and finish them (the sweets). But if you keep the same box of sweets in your fridge, will the street dogs be able to eat it?”
The unfortunate reality in India is that his is not an isolated opinion. Women have shattered glass ceilings in fields including politics and business many years before the west but at the same time there exists a section of our population which not only holds regressive opinions but also endeavors, often successfully, to force them on others. Some have claimed that those opinions are held by the old and uneducated while others claim that it reflects India’s urban-rural divide. But these superficial analyses are seldom based on any rigorous research or data. Marital rape and sexual harassment at workplaces are painful reminders that these are crimes perpetuated by people across financial and educational silos. Therefore, while stronger background checks of bus and cab drivers are important, we must be conscious that those solutions are only aimed at one part of the problem. Recent events have proved how easily we will accept allegations against the “village types” for crimes often without any evidence but will overlook those against the “urban types”. My intention is not to point out the blatant discrimination which plagues our society (as it does many others) but instead, I want to emphasize the need for a multi-pronged approach which takes these and other factors into account. Simply calling for harsher rape laws is clearly not the answer. But then, what is? “Violence against women” is not the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s the consequence. It is a consequence of several factors- primarily of patriarchy and of poorly raised men but also of weakly enforced laws and horribly trained policemen, of carelessly designed reporting mechanisms and a terribly understaffed and overburdened justice delivery system. But the encouraging part is that we ask these questions every time a story appears in the news. The disappointing part is that we ask these questions only when a story appears in the news.
Yet, I refuse to believe that our outrage is synced with news cycles. Reading this article, I’m certain, has brought back memories of every single story you’ve heard on TV, Facebook or even from friends. It brings with it anger at the perpetrators, frustration at the apathy of successive governments and soon after, a sense of helplessness. Sometimes we take to the streets to show solidarity and at other times we petition our government online and offline but, unfortunately, they’ve proven inadequate. And it isn’t only about women’s safety. This is true for how we deal with anti-corruption, education, health care, agriculture, pollutions and so on. How do we fix that?
II. Leading from below
Inaction is certainly not an option for our generation. We need to disrupt the social and political status quo and create technologies and processes that actually work. Top-down policy diktats have seldom changed anything in our country in the long term. Token announcements of budgetary allotments and fiery rants on TV channels by party spokespersons are no longer sufficient. We need to get over our cynicism for politics, shed our indolence and realize that a democracy is not just for and of the people- it is also made by the people. And while the protests are great to show support and move governments, we must focus our efforts on being proactive rather than reactive. In reality, seldom do we get opportunities to do that easily. Voting once in four or five years is one of the rare occasions when we, as citizens, make our voices heard to those in the corridors of power (of course, for several reasons, many of us don’t exercise even this constitutional right granted to us). Issues as complex as women’s safety, public health, sanitation, and education among several others, are far too important to be forgotten by the electorate the day after the elections (or the protests). When the election results are out and the new party is in power, will we simply outsource the country’s functioning to a room full of politicians and bureaucrats and let them do their bidding while we go back to our lives? or will we support them, engage with them and start solving problems, faster? This isn’t to say that we absolve government of all its responsibilities. For furthering the public good, we must make sure that those in government have access to the best expertise and if they still fail to deliver, we must be able to move beyond political rhetoric and hold them accountable for it. There are those among us who are terrific lawyers, doctors, engineers, honest bureaucrats, artists, social workers, teachers and those with several other skills. These skills will prove to be invaluable when we dissect the problem at hand. We need to understand how the law works, teach kids and adults new skills and how to be decent human beings, reform ways of working, build tools and apps to solve public problems, run awareness campaigns and do so much more. This doesn’t have to be everybody’s full time job. But when we decide that we want to change something, the question is if we are willing to put our talent to use? And if we are, will government listen?
How many times out of 10 would you listen to a politician asking you to physically go to a bank to either deposit your cash or exchange it for new currency notes, failing which any currency you hold would not only be worthless but also illegal?
Until exactly a year ago I would’ve, in arrogance, vehemently ruled out the possibility of anybody in India ever agreeing to such a seemingly absurd arrangement. What I’d severely under-estimated was the value of two things: 1) Narendra Modi’s reality distortion field and 2) the extraordinary spirit in our people to contribute to social good in our country. This post is about the latter because the former, with no disrespect, is merely a spark- not the fuel or the flame which will carry India into the 21st century and beyond.
Demonetization’s success as a financial policy move has been the subject of intense debate between some of the leading economists around the world. But whether Narendra Modi and his government eliminated corruption, black money, terrorism and, most recently, prostitution in one swift blow is not what interests me. The fact that nearly every cash-wielding Indian cooperated in this massive experiment is infinitely more interesting to me. While one of the drivers for this level of compliance was obviously the fact that no one had a choice in the matter- you needed the new currency to sustain survival- I want to venture out and make a claim with limited evidence- there wasn’t widespread resentment of the move among the vast majority of the population. Why didn’t India take to the streets on November 9th and revolt in many fragmented voices like she always does and force the government to withdraw its announcement? Did the prime minister, in his 30 minute address, manage to teach 1.2 billion Indians the nuances of monetary economics?
I remember blogging impatiently 4 years ago when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance minister Chidambaram appealed to the nation to “control our appetite for gold” in a desperate bid to curb the rising current account deficit at the time. Disillusioned by the extraordinary amount of pushback that plea received from various quarters, I wrote in my blog:
“Does it ever anger you that the government is increasing fuel prices? THINK. It’s YOUR country. It runs using YOUR money. They buy crude oil using YOUR money. It’s a government not an MNC. Their revenue is YOU. Not buying gold and paying more for fuel won’t solve this almost-crisis. But it’ll certainly help. This isn’t to say that government should wait for your help. They can do plenty that they haven’t done already. But what kind of sleepy democracy only wakes up ( partially) every 5 years only to vote and then sits back and hopes for the best? Don’t vote for someone who claims he’ll bring petrol prices down. He won’t. Don’t boo someone who paints a realistic picture. Encourage them. Bite the bullet. Swallow the bitter pill.”
In hindsight the UPA government by that time had lost nearly all of its political capital and that was evident in the elections that followed and I’m inclined, now, to put down our complete and deliberate denial of our own roles in, what is now being called. “nation building” to that lack of trust in government. It wasn’t always that way. OECD’s trust in government stats which recently showed that over 70% of Indians trust the present government to do the right thing, also showed that in 2007, a whopping 82% of Indians trusted the then government to do the right thing. In a world where those numbers are constantly declining, we have chosen to believe in the leaders we elect. We’re proud of our democracy and we expect our representatives to do right on our behalf.
We’ve been taught to look at government in India as though it were a service. The administration, including the politicians, bureaucrats and every “sarkaari employee”,provides us services that we’re entitled to. We vote in the elections to pick the people who run this establishment and we pay our taxes to fund the services they provide. In return for devoting all their time to serving us, we let them have certain privileges- red beacons atop their tax-payer funded cars, tax-payer funded homes in the capital city, tax-payer funded flights and offices and the perks and vices of being “in power”. But democracy isn’t a service. Its a partnership. It is, as that cliched quote goes, a government, “for the people, of the people and by the people”. We’re a lazy democracy. When we’re called to action by big issues that are close to our hearts, we have shown that we are willing to engage and, when necessary, to resist. Through popular movements we have forced both UPA and NDA governments, in the last 5 years alone, to do things like taking stern action for women’s safety, enacting anti-corruption legislation, protecting net neutrality, abandoning an anti-environmental steel flyover project and, now, rejected great sufferings in the hope that it would end black money, corruption and terrorism in our country.
But our participation in democracy can not be reactive. We need to be more proactive and governments must enable that. We need to have well structured processes to make sure that it doesn’t take an Anna Hazare shouting with thousands of people in Ramlila maidan for our voices to be heard in the corridors of power. We’re a country of argumentative Indians, as Amartya Sen famously said. Everyone has an opinion and an idea to solve every public problem. Walk over to a breakfast spot like SLV or Adigas in Bangalore and there you’ll see it: The extraordinary sight of sweaty middle-aged gentlemen in trackpants and running shorts, just back from their morning walks, sipping hot filter coffee and belting out idea after idea for what the Prime Minister should do to end corruption, fix the roads, reduce traffic, solve air pollution and many other critical issues- all before the coffee goes cold.
These random ideas are seldom useful to anyone. The question is this: are you willing to put in your expertise and your time to make some suggestions to government on the basis of which they can take some action? Maybe you’re willing to take that action yourself. Groups like the ugly Indian are good examples of the community taking responsibility to pick up the trash in their neighborhoods to keep it clean. But maybe YOU know exactly why the trash piles up there in the first place and know how to fix that problem? How would you tell government about this? Do the mechanisms exist? Are there people who will listen to you? Are there people who will actually implement it? Are we willing to get involved in that process? Or are we going to say “Its THEIR job. Not ours”? Clearly, the government and we, as a society, have to answer these tough questions to bring real change to our local communities.
This modern day “panchayati raj” is what, I think, will carry India forward and it can only be powered by, as I mentioned at the start of this piece, the extraordinary spirit in our people. We don’t need to fight for Independence but maybe its time to pursue true swaraj and demand the right to make our own contributions to nation-building (beyond beating up people who don’t stand up for the national anthem in a movie theatre).
A farrago of exasperated thoughts and disconnected rants about the enervating persona that is Arnab Goswami. (Originally published on my medium account)
“Exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies being broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalist” -Dr. Shashi Tharoor
For those who are unfamiliar with the mainstream TV media in India, the name Arnab Goswami isn’t one that might ring a bell. For the others, it is a name that sets off a series of bells attempting unsuccessfully to ring over the loud and resonating voice of the biggest showman on Indian television. In November 2016 when he resigned as the Editor-in-Chief of Times Now, arguably at the peak of its popularity, it left a lot of people wondering what he his next move would be. 6 months later, with the birth of RepublicTV, he clarified that beyond all doubt. Arnab had taken his wildly popular evening news show on Times Now called “News Hour” (named inappropriately for it had no news and lasted well beyond an hour) and given it a 24×7 identity of its own.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. As the self-annointed revolutionary in Indian journalism (“we changed the news” was a sticker prominently visible in the Times Now news room) it was only a matter of time before he outgrew the small screen and narrow editorial prowess that Times Now offered him. Arnab has gained his credibility and raging popularity through his complete oblitration of Abhijith Mukherjee (son of the Indian President, for calling women “dented and painted”), Ashok Khenny (a Karnataka MLA, for abusing a Times Now reporter), countless retired Pakistani Generals (for presenting the Pakistani point of view) and possibly most famously, Rahul Gandhi (the vice-president of the Congress party, who slipped and stuttered his way through a rare, one-on-one interview) among many others. He is credited with having broken many high profile cases of corruption including the CWG scam, the 2G scam, the coal scam and more. He took on a lot of important issues head-on and asked questions of the government that no other journalist would ask. That was his USP, captured succinctly in his now famous catch-phrase, The Nation Wants to Know.
RepublicTV: What would happen if twitter trolls had a TV channel
But Arnab Goswami is a double-sided sword that is considerably sharper on one end. Stemming from his strong belief that journalists must take sides, Arnab’s show, as I mentioned earlier, was never a “news” hour- it was an opinion column on steroids, broadcast on national TV under the facade of being a news channel. The problem with that is not the part where he expresses his opinion- a constitutional right which he is free to exercise- but the part where he defrauds millions of people by expressing them on a medium where people tune-in to receive unbiased news. Jokingly, I’ve read that people rarely tuned-in to his show for news- they did so more often for the entertainment. Only now, he’s his own boss.
Arnab Goswami, Managing Director and Co-Founder, RepublicTV
Questions have been raised about the ownership pattern of the newly-born media outlet, christened ARG Outliers Group and funded by Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekar, and whether the coverage will be predominantly biased in favour of the BJP-led government. Whether he is supported by the right or the left, the fact that he almost never presents the opposing argument is beyond disturbing. Once Arnab positions himself in one corner of the ring, he’s also simultaneously made up his mind to position you in the opposite side corner and from that, there’s no coming back no matter how logical or factual your position is.
Arnab is a senior journalist and nobody should attempt to teach him journalism because he’s seen and experienced enough to have an idea of journalism that he believes in. But what he does on TV is not journalism at all and that, everyone MUST question. Just take, for example, the promotions of RepublicTV before the channel went live. In a series of videos Arnab sent a message to a number of politicians and industrialists simply saying, that he’d be back. Amusingly, he picked Rahul Gandhi (who’s from an opposition party with a paltry 44/543 seats in parliament), Arvind Kerjriwal (the Chief Minister of New Delhi) and Subramanium Swamy (who he,despite the “brave” video warning, conveniently interviewed to legitimize his allegations against Tharoor). If the brave journalism that he espouses is one where he is going to spend time finding dirt against opposition members, so be it. If people are more interested in that news as opposed to holding the present government accountable to their many promises and lapses, then he is entirely right.
Or maybe its just that there is simply nothing to hold this government accountable for. That demonetization achieved none of its stated goals and led to the death of Indian citizens unable to access their own bank accounts is not news-worthy enough to question the government. That a person was killed for eating beef within the confines of his own house and that an investigation was launched into whether he ate cow or buffalo instead of arresting the people responsible for his death is not news-worthy enough to question the government. That the patriotism of sloganeering students on a university campus in Delhi was questioned to distract people from the sickening murder of CRPF soldiers by Maoists is not news-worthy enough to question the government.
In the 6 days that RepublicTV has been alive, the stories it has covered are 1) some (unconvincing) audio tapes alleging that Lalu Prasad Yadav has connections to the ISI, 2) accused Arvind Kejriwal of accepting a Rs 2 crore bribe, 3) brought up some audio tapes which, unless you make leaps of faith so large that you could break olympic records, prove nothing about Shashi Tharoor’s involvement in Sunanda Pushkar’s death, 4) the national herald case accusing the Gandhis of laundering party funds- a case that has already taken the accused to court.
Republic reporters are on tape harassing Shashi Tharoor by (extremely creepily) staking out outside his house in Delhi and Kerala and thrusting multiple mics his face everytime he walks in public. My simple question, is this- What do you want him to say that would make you stop? Firstly, if your allegations are true, there should really be nothing for him to say. So you should really just take what you have to the cops and have him tried in court. On the other hand, if you have no real evidence and all you’re looking for is for him to say something controversial on national TV, you’re not going to get that out of someone who has more experience regarding the media than anyone on your pay roll.
But such is the absurd charm of Arnab that you simply can’t stop watching this madness. It’s basically reality TV with a little bit of General Knowledge thrown in. As compared to the time before Arnab, people now recognize BJP, Congress and AAP party spokespersons. People look forward to coming home from a hard day’s work, turning on the idiot box and finally seeing that device live up to its name. And most recently, thanks to Arnab, we all got to learn the phrase “exasperating farrago of distortions and misrepresentations”. But I prefer to describe that channel using Dr Tharoor’s less sophisticated, yet more accurate phrase, “The digital equivalent of toilet roll”.
I don’t know what the nation wants to know. But I sure hope they’re not relying on RepublicTV to find out.
This article was originally written as part of my unfinished submission to the nine dots prize. Maybe next time I’ll actually submit something.
“The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” -Eric Schmidt, Co-Founder and CEO, Google.com
In the year 1947 when John Bardeen and his team at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey were busy inventing the first transistor, Harry S Truman was on the campaign trail with almost every prediction indicating that he would be defeated by Republican Thomas E. Dewey in the elections that would be held the following year. Meanwhile, somewhere in Illinois, Hugh Rodham and Dorothy Howell were celebrating the birth of their first child, a baby girl they named Hillary Diane Rodham and nearly 7000 miles away, 300 million Indians were celebrating their hard-fought independence from over 200 years of British colonial rule.
The invention of the transistor that year ushered in an age of rapid technological progress- one that would have a massive impact on both the new borns- Hillary and the newly born country of India; And though she didn’t know it yet, 7 decades later, Hillary would be part of an election campaign that turned out to be nearly as surprising as the one Truman ran. Only she, was going to be on the wrong side of history. At the same time Great Britain would make world headlines again- this time for exiting the European Union- while India, would become the world’s fastest growing economy and one of the largest beneficiaries of the tech revolution enabled by transistors.
Image Courtesy: Magnascan | Pixabay.com
The invention of the transistor led to the creation of the modern microprocessor and subsequently computers; The most powerful consequence of which was, arguably, the Internet. In recent times there has been a rise of internet-enabled digital technologies. These technologies, especially (but not limited to) Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have changed the landscape of nearly every field they’ve been used in and politics is no exception. President Erdogan addressing the Turkish people using FaceTime during a coup d’état is one of the most interesting cases of the use of digital technologies impacting politics as was the use of the FireChat app by the Iraqi people to communicate after the government shut down the internet there.
Digital technologies have had a multifarious impact on politics. It is important, therefore, to analyze it’s impact starting with election campaigning and voting in democratic nations to its impact on governance and accountability in and dissent of governments around the world. Not to be forgotten, is a component of equal importance in any political analysis- the role of the media and so it is critical to include the impact of digital technologies on news reportage too.
Are digital technologies really making politics impossible? The short answer is no. Contemporary history is evidence of the fact that digital technologies have enabled political campaigns from President Bush and John Kerry in the US in 2004 to Prime Minister Modi in India in 2014. ICTs enabled socio-political movements like the Arab Spring in 2011 and the anti-corruption movement in India that same year. And most importantly digital technologies have enabled a citizen-government interaction in a form and on a scale that has never been seen before. But at the same time, it has also enabled, what some people call, “online echo chambers”- the polarization of opinions on the internet. In other words, digital technologies have enabled every stage of the political process- the good, the bad and the ugly- and we will analyze each of those in chapters ahead.
The dust hasn’t settled on the Apple Special event but I’m back to review my predictions. Firstly, let me convey my condolences to the intern who posted the tweet about the iPhone 7 on Apple’s (new and till now unused) twitter account before it was even announced on stage. Also, for a company whose mysterious aura used to captivate audiences, if the only things you could hide from everyone was the Mario app and the Pokemon Go what-ever-the-hell announcement, you might want to take a step back and evaluate where it all went wrong. It’s naïve of me to expect the return of the Apple of Steve Jobs. But if you want any evidence that Apple has changed, it was all in today’s presentations. More on that in a later post! For now, let’s get straight to it! Predictions from the previous post are italicized. My reactions to my predictions are below them. If you want to read the previous post, it’s here.
An amazingly new iPhone.
Well, amazement lies in the eyes of the beholder. The new iPhone will have a faster processor and a better camera. The difference from its predecessors being that this one will have iOS 10 and as we have noticed increasingly in small yet significant features of iOS 10, there seems to be a lot of on-board machine learning happening which means that the 64-bit, rumored 3Gb RAM might finally be put to more use than just driving that retina display for watching videos.
I got this one right. Not much to add. The processor got a bump up and is faster and more power efficient.
Err. Umm. I’m going to stick my neck out and say no. iOS 10 is Siri-heavy. To my mind, while you can design a mic into the “AirPods”, it’d be quite an experiment to make that deep-dive before giving users time to adapt to them. The other reason this rumor has been gaining traction is the expectation that Apple will remove the 3.5mm audio jack (which is a reasonable thing to assume) and the discovery of a low power Bluetooth chip patent. That chip PROBABLY has something to do with the Apple Watch and less to do with the earphones. My guess would be that the earphones are lightning-enabled.
I got his one half wrong. The Bluetooth chip WAS for the “AirPods”. They made a lovely “double tap to activate Siri”, emphasizing my point about the importance of Siri in this phone. But apart from that, the “AirPods” are a, excuse my French, shit device. Steve Jobs once said “you’ve to take them out and put them away and blah. Nobody wants a stylus”. Find and replace stylus with annoyingly tiny AirPods. That plus the fact that it lasts barely 4 hours and, here’s the most amazing part, it costs $160. Whoever thought that something would beat the Apple pencil at being the most pretentious product ever.
I hate what the iPhone 6 and 6S feel like (I’m not even going to mention the plus versions of those things). But since millions around the world seem to like this new design, Tim Cook-led Apple is unlikely to fix what isn’t broken. But here’s a word I’d expect to be mentioned somewhere in the keynote: Liquid Metal.
Slightly embarrassed that I got this one right for the most part. Liquid metal was NOT mentioned but the new home screen button seems to have used it. I’ll hold out for more details on that one.
With all the weird rich-text and media support throughout the iOS 10 system, it is only logical that Pencil support comes to the iPhone. But the moment those words are spoken at that keynote, remember these words “If you see a stylus, they blew it”. Google it if you don’t know who said that.
Thank god I got this one entirely wrong.
“It’s the best camera that has ever been put in a smart phone”- Phil Schiller, tomorrow. But Phil, if it’s going to be protruding, I still don’t understand it. Just make the phone that much fatter please. Nobody really cares about 3mm. If you want to make the thinnest phone ever, congratulations on losing that battle anyway.
Quote unquote. I got that one right. As usual, the camera is brilliant but it still protrudes. He used the word “courage” to describe the act of dropping the audio jack. Make the iPhone fatter. THAT takes courage. Not that brave after huh?
Here’s why the “best camera ever” matters. Storage. The one tiny but relevant rumor has been that apple will wave goodbye to the 16Gb model. Say hello to 32, 128 and 256Gb! The size of iOS 10 probably has a lot to do with that too.
Easy to get this one right.
MacBook Pro update
It’s feels like it’s been ages since the previous one and they’re really proud of the MacBook so this will be something to watch out for. Expect Skylake, USB-C and Touch ID. I like the rumor about the OLED touch bar for the function keys but somehow that feels like a gimmick they’d have on the MacBook first. I’m on the fence on that one.
So depressingly wrong. DID YOU FORGET ABOUT THE LAPTOP, TIM? Spent all that time making the goddamn AirPods and forgot the MacBook?
This is the one Apple device that has so much scope for improvement, it feels like a joke to me. Sure there’s cool tech in it but if Apple was simply about the tech, it wouldn’t be Apple. I’m waiting patiently for the day when all the bio-engineers and fashion designers sit together in Jonathan Ive’s design studio and say “Can we fire that intern who talked us into releasing this thing and pretend like it never happened and start over?” HealthKit, ResearchKit and CareKit are really, really good. Here’s my problem with the watch- It’s the dumbest smart device to come out of one infinite loop. And while I’m sure that will change in the future (when it becomes capable of existing without an iPhone), in the meanwhile I’d expect it do something to complement the iPhone and change this parasitic relationship they share into symbiotic relationship. Remember the low power Bluetooth chip? That could help, no?
Wrong about the Bluetooth chip again. The in-built GPS is a small step towards independence but the UI remains weird as ever. But there is some seriously cool tech in there that has SO much potential.
[Updated with one additional paragraph I forgot to include when I posted this half an hour ago] Apple’s latest special event is in less than 24 hours and as is usual before this event every year, speculation is rife about what they will announce. A new iPhone is widely expected to be launched but nobody is still quite sure what’s going to be in it. It’s been a while since I last wrote an Apple-related piece so I’m quite rusty but this post is basically my two cents about what could possibly come out of this event. More internet garbage!
An amazingly new iPhone. Well, amazement lies in the eyes of the beholder. The new iPhone will have a faster processor and a better camera. The difference from its predecessors being that this one will have iOS 10 and as we have noticed increasingly in small yet significant features of iOS 10, there seems to be a lot of on-board machine learning happening which means that the 64-bit, rumored 3Gb RAM might finally be put to more use than just driving that retina display for watching videos.
Wireless “AirPods”? Err. Umm. I’m going to stick my neck out and say no. iOS 10 is Siri-heavy. To my mind, while you can design a mic into the “AirPods”, it’d be quite an experiment to make that deep-dive before giving users time to adapt to them. The other reason this rumor has been gaining traction is the expectation that Apple will remove the 3.5mm audio jack (which is a reasonable thing to assume) and the discovery of a low power Bluetooth chip patent. That chip PROBABLY has something to do with the Apple Watch and less to do with the earphones. My guess would be that the earphones are lightning-enabled.
Design Changes! I hate what the iPhone 6 and 6S feel like (I’m not even going to mention the plus versions of those things). But since millions around the world seem to like this new design, Tim Cook-led Apple is unlikely to fix what isn’t broken. But here’s a word I’d expect to be mentioned somewhere in the keynote: Liquid Metal.
Pencil With all the weird rich-text and media support throughout the iOS 10 system, it is only logical that Pencil support comes to the iPhone. But the moment those words are spoken at that keynote, remember these words “If you see a stylus, they blew it”. Google it if you don’t know who said that.
Camera “It’s the best camera that has ever been put in a smart phone”- Phil Schiller, tomorrow. But Phil, if it’s going to be protruding, I still don’t understand it. Just make the phone that much fatter please. Nobody really cares about 3mm. If you want to make the thinnest phone ever, congratulations on losing that battle anyway.
Storage Space Here’s why the “best camera ever” matters. Storage. The one tiny but relevant rumor has been that apple will wave goodbye to the 16Gb model. Say hello to 32, 128 and 256Gb! The size of iOS 10 probably has a lot to do with that too.
But here’s the thing. I get the feeling that Apple is holding back the real updates for next year and that this update is going to be a lazy-product cycle demand device that really is a filler. All year so far they’ve struggled in the market (nowhere near the $120 peaks they hit last year) and the fluctuations might carry on till the end of the year irrespective of what they do with their phones. So once the storm is weathered, you might see more exciting features in the phone. So keep the expectations low.
MacBook Pro update It’s feels like it’s been ages since the previous one and they’re really proud of the MacBook so this will be something to watch out for. Expect Skylake, USB-C and Touch ID. I like the rumor about the OLED touch bar for the function keys but somehow that feels like a gimmick they’d have on the MacBook first. I’m on the fence on that one.
Apple Watch This is the one Apple device that has so much scope for improvement, it feels like a joke to me. Sure there’s cool tech in it but if Apple was simply about the tech, it wouldn’t be Apple. I’m waiting patiently for the day when all the bio-engineers and fashion designers sit together in Jonathan Ive’s design studio and say “Can we fire that intern who talked us into releasing this thing and pretend like it never happened and start over?”
HealthKit, ResearchKit and CareKit are really, really good. Here’s my problem with the watch- It’s the dumbest smart device to come out of one infinite loop. And while I’m sure that will change in the future (when it becomes capable of existing without an iPhone), in the meanwhile I’d expect it do something to complement the iPhone and change this parasitic relationship they share into symbiotic relationship. Remember the low power Bluetooth chip? That could help, no?
Watch it! I’ll try to do a post event piece about what actually transpired and I promise I will compare it with this list and happily take all the rotten tomatoes aimed my way when these turn out to be wrong. LOL.
The article hyperlinked above starts with the sentence “despite the enactment of the stringent anti-rape law”. There seems to be a notion that harsher punishments will be an effective deterrent to crime despite innumerable instances where that notion fails. Harsh punishments are absolutely necessary steps to, well, punish the convicts. But what do we really want? Harsher jails or safer streets? (The former doesn’t necessarily lead to the latter). The problem with candle light vigils and week-long street protests is this: they’re consoled by paper legislation.
Tell me, after Nirbhaya did anyone see increased night time patrolling? Did you see more street lights in your gully? Did you stop seeing auto drivers driving autos in which the license on display is not theirs but someone else’s? Did you hear of psychological evaluation and treatment for rowdy sheeters and eve teasers? In short, did you hear of ANY solutions to the problem?
If we don’t stop discussing how to make more legislation and start discussing ideas about how to stop this insanity, cases like this one will continue to shock our collective conscious repeatedly until that one day when it won’t. That one day when these cases will just become numbers without faces.
A media house recently called the UP women’s emergency hotline, 1090, and found that it wasn’t operational due to some technical issues. 1090 has proved to be largely successful in terms of the number of calls it has received and resolved but the problem it faces is a depressingly familiar Indian story- lack of infrastructure and severe understaffing. We, as a nation, forget too often. Otherwise how did the 1000 crore “Nirbhaya fund” go unutilized for as long as it did? It’s a childish argument to say that the government shouldn’t spend money on the “Statue of Unity” when there are other priorities. But it isn’t too much to ask for the same pace and vigour of implementation with the Nirbhaya Fund. The Modi government has both increased the size of the fund and utilized more but with over 60% of the funds still untouched, even the Supreme Court had to step in.
Spending so much time and effort on debating if juveniles should get stricter punishment will not make the streets safer for women. Women’s safety can’t just be passed into law. It requires more effort than just a bunch of “Ayes” in parliament. We need to step our game up and look beyond punishment. Our goal shouldn’t be to punish crime. It should be to curb it.
“Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo, Maheshwarah, Guru Saakshaat, Para brahma,Tasmai Shri, Guruveh Namaha, Tasmai Shri, Guruveh Namaha”
This post is meant for a selected few. So most others will find this irrelevant. It’s meant for the people who took the trouble to write flattering remarks in my progress reports even though I’d only deserved a knock on the head and a good telling off. It’s meant for the people who actually did tell me off when I’d gone too far in childish exuberance. It’s meant for those I remember dearly with fond memories and others whose memory still sends a chill down my spine (but I still remember dearly). Gurus, they say, are dispellers of darkness. This post is meant for every guru I have ever had- both inside a classroom and outside it.
When I was still too young to remember names and associate them with faces, I had a group of teachers at TVS Academy in Hosur. My mother, I’m sure, knows all their names but I shamelessly admit to not remembering it. This post, and any other post on this blog for that matter, would probably never have been written if it wasn’t for them because my love for writing took off from the little classrooms in Hosur. I still have the little diary in which they’d encourage us to write about our weekend or some festival or just about anything else under the sun. It was then, for the first time that I discovered the joy of writing and that love affair has carried on (admittedly shakily sometimes) ever since.
TVS-A was an unconventional schooling experience and so moving to Bangalore was a big change for me. But, starting from the librarian, Habib ma’am, to my first class teacher, Jaya ma’am, every single person at St Paul’s (both teaching and non-teaching staff) helped me get used to the madness that a traditional classroom is. And later on in middle school, Amrutha ma’am (for encouraging my creative writing), Prathibha Peter ma’am (for the same but additionally also teaching us that Christmas carol- silent nights), Uday Kumar sir (for recognizing my love for cricket), Uma ma’am (for the life lessons on responsibility and discipline), Swarnalatha ma’am (for supporting my quizzing-craze), Geeta Mani ma’am (for more than I can possibly fit into this blog post), Namratha ma’am (for simply tolerating that rowdy bunch of us in ISC) and many, many others (Sangita Ray ma’am, HM Jayshree ma’am, our beloved Hegde sir) taught me a little something every single day which made this 6 foot tall skeleton, a decent human being (or so I’d like to think). And they also taught me English, Maths and Computer Science and all that.
Engineering was a different beast all together. On the battlefield to slay that beast, I had the privilege of getting to know Dr. Bhanu Prashanth sir- the former HoD of the ECE Department at BNMIT. His work ethic is contagious, his commitment is awe-worthy and conversations with him are always enlightening. In that department I must’ve had over 20 professors (Chaitra ma’am, Ayesha ma’am, NKC sir, PPR ma’am) who are among the smartest, most helpful people ever.
And now I’m in this new city on the other side of the globe and lot of things have changed. A lot of things but for the fact that there’s a guru everywhere- for example, Beth (and everyone else at the GovLab)- my universal gurus who transcend nationalities.
Gurus have come in various shapes and sizes, and in various places and forms. And gurus, like I mentioned earlier, are, without doubt, dispellers of darkness. To all of them, in every avatar of theirs, inside the classroom and outside it, those whose names I remember and those whose I do not, I’d like to say thank you. On behalf of the entire group of shishyas you have taught and mentored, Thank you for everything.