Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Samjhauta Tragedy - The Security Lapse

The Samjhauta Express blast was a tragedy. The loss of innocent train passengers in a blast is to be condemned by all. No matter who did this or what reason, they should be caught and prosecuted.

What has been somewhat soft-pedalled is the lax security environment that is in place in our country. It would not be out of order to call India a soft state. If we examine the overall situation, it does not feel very promising.

The Samjhauta Express is a train that carries passengers between India and Pakistan. Given the nature of relations between the two countries, one would have assumed that security on such a train would have been absolutely tight. I remember the time when Pakistani cricket fans had come to India to watch a cricket match, and the absolute mayhem that had resulted when it was disclosed that some of these fans had not gone back.

And what do we find? The tickets on the train were given out without checking passports, people could roam in the country without any constraints on the platform where the train departed from, luggage was unchecked and people could carry large amounts of luggage on the train without any restrictions.

And how could all this happen? Because the Samjhauta Express was seen as a money making train, and security personnel could make money by looking the other way. To top it all, it was found that the suspects could get into the train, and then get off by making some excuses. A disaster waiting to happen is the exact phrase to use.

Actually, blaming the people on the scene is missing the big picture. When questions were asked about the security arrangements on the train after the explosion, it was found that there was actually no comprehensive security arrangement. The Railway Protection Police claims that it was the responsibility of the various states through which the train passes, while the states deny all responsibility.

Even now, one really does not read about any specific agency being made charge of the security. This case is even more worrisome, since the killed were foreign nationals, and the attack happened due to lack of security.

What are the reasons for such a casual outlook towards security among the people in charge? There are essentially two major factors: Corruption; and lack of accountability. Corruption is so pervasive and the risk of being caught so minimal that everybody is out to make a quick buck without fear. Lack of accountability arises from this corruption, and also because the babudom derives its power from being accountable to none other than a senior.

We need to break these two jinxes on our country if we need to have a good security situation.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:09 AM    

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Inter-state Transport - the Delhi-UP Border Bus Impasse

Around three months back, I had written an article about how the ego clash between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh officials is causing a lot of problems for passengers traveling between the two states. In a nutshell, buses from the UP side were terminated at the UP border and Delhi Transport Corporation's buses to Uttar Pradesh were also stopped at the border.

Earlier, passengers were able to take these buses to their final destinations. But this has now changed and for the worse. So, now if one takes the example of passengers at the border near Anand Vihar Inter State Bus Terminal (ISBT), a passenger who wants to travel to a UP town has to first take a bus to the ISBT, then make his way through the crowd to the UP side and then catch another bus from there. This is very inconvenient for passengers, specially for the ones who have children and luggage.

And why did this happen? Due to ego clashes between the Delhi and UP officials. The most interesting bit is that this is only done to block the state owned buses, and not the private operators. A lot of the private operators have connections with the politicians on either side and hence they will never be affected in such decision making.

After November, a lot of water has flowed down the Yamuna. A court asked the officials to get together to device a solution and at frequent intervals, there are comments in the paper about how the officials from the two states are meeting to resolve this issue.

What do we expect from government and officialdom? That they continue to take measures that will make the life of citizens easier. Is this too much to ask ? This should be top priority at least for the Transport ministers of each state. But that is ideal life; in reality the situation is very different. The top officials and ministers do not get impacted by such a decision or by such suffering, so they don't feel the pain.

If one asks people on the road who are the ones affected by this impasse, they are mostly very pessimistic about a solution and are actually happy about private services being removed from the dispute and being available for inter-state transportation.

And now UP will be in the election mode and unlikely to be able to resolve such a situation for the next few months. So, in the midst of Delhi's intense summer, suffering passengers will have to trundle in the heat and dust to complete their travel. I pass this place on a daily basis and the suffering that I can see on the face of passengers is evident.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:13 AM    

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eklavya - a review

I just sat through a morning show of Eklavya. A pretty interesting movie, pretty taut. And it had only one song, and that too a short song. The last movie based in Rajasthan that I watched was Paheli, which had too many song and dance sequences; in that respect, the time that I spent watching Eklavya was well spent.

Now I am an amateur student of cinema. What that means is that I have not done any kind of studies about the art of cinema, so if I get over-enthusiastic about some part of the movie, keep in mind that this is from an amateur mind. The movie is pretty short, it started at 11:58, and including a short break, ended at 1:45. Not more than 1 hour 45 minutes long.

Now about the movie itself. It is about the palace guard, who is responsible for the safety of the 'rana' (essentially the prince of old, and now in a democratic India, more of an important personality held in awe and respect by the surrounding people). This protection job has been in the family for nine generations, and they hold this job in great respect and tradition. The current holder of this position is 'Eklavya' (Amitabh Bachchan) who is getting old, and unable to see properly in strong light, but who has excellent hearing. He is dedicated to the whims and fancies of the rana (Boman Irani).
He is actually more devoted to the family than you would care to think, being responsible for fathering the heir to the line when the rana is unable to do his duty. The rana does not discover this until the queen is on her deathbed, at which point he gets incredibly jealous and angry.

It is at this time that the whole sequence starts to spin-up. The movie pulls in the son (Saif Ali Khan is considered the son of the rana and in reality of Eklavya), and the repressed and greedy brother and nephew of the rana (Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Shergill, respectively, in short roles).

There are a whole lot of conspiracies ongoing, finally resulting in the deaths of the rana and then his brother and nephew. Vidya Balan plays the role of Saif Ali Khan's love interest, but one gets the feeling that such roles are not going to do anything for her, since she really does not play a significant role.

The movie essentially revolves around the characters of Eklavya and Yash (Saif), but since the movie is so short, there just does not seem enough time for the characters to develop. For example, a bit more about Jackie Shroff in the movie would have been helpful, since that would have helped in depicting his character in more detail. In addition, Sanjay Dutt plays the role of a DSP (although I think in the scenario, an inspector role would have been better). The way his role is shown somehow does not depict a DSP. His role is essentially that of a person who made his way up from rags, and who does not forgive the rana for the way he and his ancestors have mis-treated the untouchables.

Aside from all this, I loved the cinematography. The shots were incredible, in fact, if for some of them, I could get still posters, I would love to have them and put them up on my wall. The scene with Amitabh showing off his knife throwing prowess was great, but it ended up feeling a bit stretched at the end. Again, the scene with the train and the camels and guns was good, but somehow, it did not have the proper tautness in the scene. That part just did not seem slick enough. But if the trend is towards making such a slick movie, then I am all for it.

Overall, a good movie, and I would certainly see it again (as my wife did, since she was watching it for a second time). Buying the DVD later may just happen.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 6:47 PM    

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Andhra Government Screens HIV in the Police Force

AIDS is a disease that is yet incurable. From its beginning in around 1983, it has spread all over the world and afflicts millions of people over the world. It spreads through fluids (blood transfer, infected needle or unsafe sexual contact) as well as to an embryo from the mother. AIDS initially spread through high risk groups in India (sex workers, workers who are away from home for long periods, drug addicts) and is now believed to afflict millions.

India in the past has not dealt well with AIDS in the past, in terms of having a strategy to decrease the spread of AIDS in the country. It used to be that some common measures to combat the spread of AIDS (through unsafe sex) such as promoting condom use used to be seen as sort of threatening the moral culture of society. To spread this message would need far greater promotion through advertising, and governments of the day were seen as squeamish in pushing such advertising.

We are no longer in such a situation. Governments (central, state) realize the importance of creating awareness in preventing the spread of AIDS, and one can see many more campaigns now. In addition, people having AIDS no longer live under a short death sentence. With the availability of the cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs, the progress of AIDS is slowed to a significant degree, such that infected people can lead an almost normal life.

There is significant medical progress happening in the area of AIDS treatment, and at some point, we will see a major breakthrough in terms of curing AIDS. However, to paint this rosy picture slightly dark, in our society, AIDS patients are seen as people to be avoided. A couple of months back, either India Today or Outlook carried a lead story about how AIDS patients are seen as outcasts, and especially in rural areas, are shunned. To change these attitudes, there needs to be public campaigns to promote the concept that AIDS patients are normal members of society who can contribute, as long as the necessary precautions are taken.

In such a scenario, we have the Andhra Pradesh government changing the Police Manual so that HIV positive patients are now excluded from serving in the police force. This policy was set aside by the High Court, and when the matter reached the Supreme Court, it asked the central government for an opinion. The Central Government opinion is good advice, and I quote a small extract: "HIV status of a person should be kept confidential and should not in any way affect the rights of a person to employment, his or her position at the workplace, marital relationship and other fundamental rights,"
scriminatory and counterproductive. Read the whole story at this link.

The Centre has told the Supreme Court that a mandatory testing for HIV/AIDS as a precondition for employment will be discriminatory and counterproductive. The apex court is hearing a petition moved by the state of Andhra Pradesh which has said that as per its revised Police Manual rule, HIV positive candidates are not eligible for appointment.

The latter, in its affidavit, said there should be no discrimination against an HIV positive person in matters of employment, and that they should be put on a par with other members of the society. In the armed and police forces, however, HIV testing may be carried out voluntarily with the provision of pre and post-test counselling, the results of which should be kept confidential.

And of course, the interesting part is that both the Andhra Pradesh government and the Central government are run by the Congress-I, and hence there obviously is no common stand of the party on this. In fact, I looked around to see whether this news is being reported elsewhere, but this news came and went, no discussions, no protests at the policy being followed by the state government.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:27 AM    

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Modern India - Know your neighbours ?

Our society is slowly moving towards a more Western-like society, with people preferring a lot more privacy. This increased focus on privacy also means that interaction between neighbours decreases to a significant extent. This concept is widespread in the US, where people living in apartments do not even know who their neighbour is. I had gone to the Silicon Valley for 3 months, and in the apartment complex where I lived, I didn't know who my neighbours were, or what they looked like.

This tendency is slowly increasing in the massive "apartment complex society" that we are evolving into, and in which an increasing number of urban people are living. People are busy with their own jobs and with their own families, and do not have any time to spend with neighbours.

I have heard tales from Bombay which talk about the same kind of behaviour. People really don't know their neighbours, and in fact, don't mind not knowing them. Indian society has not been like this in the past; people used to know who their neighbours are, know their families, and in many cases know about the happenings and incidents in each others' lives. In fact, there is a corny serial on air in India right now called 'Ek chaabi hain padose mein' which is more about people living as a vibrant community, intervening in each others' lives to prevent things from going out of control, and to keep things cool in the neighbourhood.

Why am I talking about all this? Well, I read an article in CNN about a man in the United States who was found in a house (not apartment though) who had been dead for 1 year, and nobody found out or cared. It is only when there was a complaint about a burst pipe that his home was opened and he was found in front of a blaring TV set. His neighbours assumed that he was in a nursing home, but he had been dead for more than one year.

That was a tragedy. It set me thinking about whether we in India are moving in this direction. I can only hope that our society does not change to the extent that we no longer know or care about our neighbours. I live in a society where I know our immediate neighbours, but that is only because of my parents maintaining relationships with them. And I believe that such an attitude is quite common among the younger generation.

Is such a tendency reversible ? I am not sure, and not very hopeful. From a time of even a decade ago, when we would have social interactions with neighbours, spend time in each other's homes, and generally share in each other's happiness, we have moved a long way. We now have our own TV, our own personal media centers, various places to go with friends (malls, multiplexes, bars, etc). All these are more for the self, and do not encourage community involvement. Before the advent of TV, entertainment would be either a movie out, or with friends (typically from within neighbours). But now we will go long distances to be with friends.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:41 PM    

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lack of Awareness About Cleanliness

When we look around our cities, what do we see ? You see crowds, you see moving traffic, and you may see some beautiful buildings or monuments. Bring your gaze down a bit to ground level, and what do you see? Broken plastic bottles, torn wrappers, stubs of cigarettes and the matches used to light them, polythene bags (some empty, some containing some waste), and assorted other stuff.

If you are lucky, the place you are currently in has been cleaned recently, and there is only a light smattering of filth on the ground. If this cleaning has not happened, there will be a pile of rubbish that you have to carefully tread you way through. And when it rains, this rubbish turns into muck, and emits all sort of smells.

How does all this rubbish get onto the ground? Take a deep breath, stay in the same place for around one hour and keep on watching people around you. You will see how this filth starts accumulating. People from passing vehicles will open the window and drop the remains of whatever they were consuming (eatables, something to drink, smoke, etc.) onto the road.

People sitting by the side will consume peanuts, and drop the shells, as well as the container where they are sitting. A passing dump truck will have the rear not fully closed and hence will keep on leaving a trail of rubbish behind it. A sweeper will have collected the rubbish at the side, and a gust of wind will disperse it initially and keep on dispersing it till it is fully spread all over.

The worst problem is that people you would expect to keep the place clean (or at least not dirty it further), do not cooperate as you would like. I recently went with a group of colleagues to lunch outside the office, and after the lunch, they bought a couple of flavoured mint packets to eat. Once they had finished eating, these were simply dropped onto the road.

I am used to dirtying the surroundings far less, and it was very shocking to see something like this happening. I picked these wrappers up and kept them in my pocket to dispose of later; but this shocked me to the extent that I was rendered speechless and was not able to properly instruct them about their duty. The only good point was that another colleague shared the same viewpoint about ensuring cleanliness, and this gave me a level of confidence.

Why do people do this ? The primary reason that I could see was that people play 'follow the leader'. There is already so much stuff that people can see on the road on a regular basis that nobody thinks twice about leaving more stuff on the road. If everything was spic and span and clean, then a lot of people would think twice about leaving stuff on the road. I also think that civic sense is lacking in a lot of people, and this maybe because even though they do know that they are contributing to dirtying up the place, it is not something that they actively think about.

One way to increase awareness is to target schools. One campaign that seems to be slowly working through using school children as a medium is the cracker-free diwali concept. It should be fairly simple (but time consuming) to inculcate the feeling of cleanliness in children, and they can work as active agents to shame people who dirty up their surroundings.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:17 PM    

Monday, February 12, 2007

ULFA - will talks happen again ??

Sunday morning, a leisurely waking up and relaxing. After a few minutes to allow the eyes to adjust to a new day, I picked up the Sunday Times of India. And what do I see? On the front page, at the side column, there is a small tidbit that states that the Assam government is ready to start talks with ULFA and that they have struck the right chord.
There are can only be two reasons for such a news:1. Either the Times of India has got the story wrong and there is no such news.2. The Government of Assam (and by extension, the Congress) has gone totally bonkers.
Read this article,

The Assam government has reportedly struck the right chord with Ulfa for chief minister Tarun Gogoi to restart a peace initiative.
Sources said a direct contact has been established between the militant outfit and the political leadership. The Centre is also ready to back Gogoi in the endeavour to bring peace to the state.

This whole business struck me as very strange. Let me just do a brief summary - The ULFA wants Assam to be sovereign, out of India, and presumably under ULFA control. They are based out of neighbouring countries and are supposedly being supported by the ISI, which puts them in the same bracket as the Kashmiri terror organizations. They run their own jungle camps, and have killed a large number of innocent people to further their image. They regularly extort money from businsses, in fact from anyone who has money.
In the past (late 2003), India asked the Bhutanese army to attack their bases in Bhutan, and the ULFA were routed from their bases in Bhutan (and the Bhutanese army also suffered some casualties).
This was a step in the path to crushing the ULFA totally. Subsequently, the Indian army also conducted operations against the ULFA, but were called off due to political reasons. The army was forced to participate in a ceasefire when negotiations with ULFA were going on, even as it was reported that leadership of the ULFA had been cornered.
And what was the net result of the ceasefire? The ULFA used this time to regroup and get itself back into a fighting force. Now the same thing is happening, the ULFA is being pressurized by the army, and so we hear the same tactics about negotiations and cessation of hostilies. Do we never learn? Or, are there more nefarious reasons for the same?
One of the reasons that comes up frequently is that the Congress party needs the ULFA to fend off its political opponents, and that in elections, the ULFA issues diktats to voters to not vote for any other party, instead to vote for the Congres. The ULFA has massacred innocent civilians recently, and there can be no grounds to behave in any lenient way towards them.
They are a bunch of criminals, and if the Congress can get above partisan politics, then the ULFA will be treated just like the criminals and murderers that they are. In addition, the nation needs to retain its credibility if we ask others nations to risk their forces against the support infrastructure of the ULFA.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 2:53 AM    

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Parzania Unofficially Banned in Gujarat

Gujarat tries to portray an image as a progressive state, but it trips up ever so often. The latest incident is the movie Parzania, a hard look at the Gujarat riots, which definitely does not portray the state in a positive light. Hence, the movie is getting informally banned in the state, through the pressure of organizations such as the Bajrang Dal. The Express report:

Gujarat's multiplex owners today decided not to screen Parzania after holding meetings with Bajrang Dal activists and the film's director, Rahul Dholakia, who later said that the state state government did not "have the guts to formally impose a ban on the film".
However, what is said to be behind the decision is a veiled threat from Bajrang Dal activist Babu Bajrangi who feels the film has the "potential to disrupt the communal harmony" in the state. Interestingly, neither Bajrangi nor any of his Dal mates who sat at the meeting have seen Parzania.

It is such incidents that take the sheen off the Gujarat development story. The riots of 2002 were a blot on the state (without getting into a discussion about reasons/justifications), and one would have expected that the state would try to correct it's image.
It is not a good reflection on an administration where decisions on whether to run movies are not decided by government policy, but by the wishes of a private individual. And I would expect that the statement of the Bajrang Dal is not a reflection of the wishes of the state. It is the duty of a state to respect and enforce commercial and individual rights, and Gujarat has miserably failed in this particular area.
One can only hope that better sense prevails on the political leadership of Gujarat, and they do not see a movie as threatening their government. And even if they do, as long as a movie (or book, or any other such thing) has got the proper clearances, the Government is duty bound to follow the law.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:55 AM