Thursday, April 30, 2009 - Information about candidates standing for election

This election (the Indian 2009 election) has seen a much more pronounced push for knowing more about candidates, what their past record, what their wealth levels are. The concept is that an informed decision makes citizens more aware, and if it forces voters to think about the choices they are making, then all the effort has been worth it.
One problem that ordinary people feel is that it is difficult for them to find information about their candidates; or that they don't feel like making the effort to find this information. As a result, there are a number of forums that are trying to make this information (from the disclosures made by candidates while filing their campaign applications) public. Here is one of them:
From the site:
35 States/UTs, 543 Constituencies, 5501 Candidates and counting...
The primary source for the data used for these reports is the sworn affidavits provided by the candidates themselves. Sheer volume of data that has to be read from the affidavits that are often poorly scanned and the lightening speed at which these reports have to be brought out makes it quite difficult to ensure accuracy of every bit of data. In case of any discrepancy in our reports vis a vis the original affidavit of any candidate, the original affidavit should be considered accurate. If you notice any discrepancies between affidavit and our report kindly let us know and we will fix them on our end as soon as possible.

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 5:22 AM    

Monday, April 27, 2009

Taliban seen as saviors by many

It has always puzzled a large number of people as to why the Taliban seem to be generating a lot of support in the Pakistani countryside. After all, a group that believes in a harsh interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and acts to implement their beliefs should not be succeeding at this rate. Even in a society where women are not supposed to have equal rights, are not supposed to show their faces (or their bodies) to strangers, or come out in the open, the customs imposed by the Taliban are draconian. Women cannot come out of their homes unless escorted by a male relative (even if it is an emergency), cannot study in schools, and numerous other such practices are enforced by the Taliban in the area that they control. However, even men are not left untouched - music is deemed un-Islamic unless it is music in praise of Allah, men are forbidden to shave and should have turbans, no watching movies, be sure to follow the calls to prayer during the day, and so on. Recently, they killed both the man and woman who had eloped and whose families had reported them.
So, a bit of research, and one started reading a lot more about the society where the Taliban thrive. The rural areas of Pakistan are societies that are extremely backward; there is little economic development, feudalism and the power of the moneyed and the landlords is immense, the instruments of the state (bureaucracy, police, judicial, etc) are not of much help to the common man and corruption is immense. In such areas, the promise of bringing in Islamic law (sharia) that does not distinguish between the rich and the poor can attract a huge number of people, can make them converts. As a bonus, the people who make up the Taliban are people who resemble the poor rural folks a lot; they are less educated, poor; the difference is, they are part of a movement that can look the moneylender / police man / feudal lord in the eye and not have to back down. Here is an article that explains the Robin Hood type of image (link to article):

In radio broadcasts and sermons, Taliban militants have been promoting themselves as Islamic Robin Hoods, defending Pakistan's rural poor from a ruling elite that they describe as corrupt and oppressive. That message has been resonating throughout the Pakistani countryside, where the culture is deeply conservative and the people are desperately poor. "Justice [in Pakistan] is only for people who have money," Daoud said, while slicing through handfuls of grass with a small scythe. "We are illiterate," he added, "but we are hoping that with Islamic sharia law, our lives will get better."
Enforcement of sharia law is the platform the Taliban have been using to justify recent land-grabs, such as last week's armed occupation of the district of Buner, some 60 miles from the Pakistani capital. Militants have slowly taken over territory in northwestern Pakistan by first targeting unpopular landlords and bureaucrats, according to Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog. "Its systematic. The Taliban move into an area, they use local existing resentments. They often go in with the guise of being Robin Hoods," said Amnesty International representative Sam Zarifi. "They scare away some local thieves, they impose very, very quick justice, very harsh justice, and initially in some places they are even welcomed."

And how are the Taliban fought ? Attempts to reform society to make it more even and less corrupt do not go anywhere (or are not even made); the military has fought the Taliban in parts, but the battle is a battle in which innocents are affected and make them resentment of the efforts of the military; the presence of the US drones that make frequent bombing runs of villages in order to eliminate terrorists are seen as invasions of Pakistani sovereignty, and killing of innocents only serves to inflame the population even more.
What can be done ? The effort has to be bring down the Robin Hood image of the Taliban by reducing corruption levels, by making more development in these regions, and at the same time, confronting them militarily. One wonders whether Pakistan can do all this ?

Labels: , , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 2:35 AM    

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Supreme Court mandates better control of agitations and protests

Protests have been seen as a sign of legitimate dissent, about raising the voice of ordinary people against some action; in many cases, a protest is about having a good outlet for the frustrations of people. However, it is also true that protests have been hijacked by people with vested interests, and in many cases by lumpen elements. So, for every scene of people walking peacefully with placards, you have scenes of youth rampaging, burning vehicles, disturbing the lives and economic well-being of city-dwellers (think about the daily wage earner or streetside vendor who loses out on the daily income on the day that a protest shuts down all other activity).
As we have seen in the past, the Government, of whom it is expected that they ensure law and order on the street, does not intervene in many cases. In some cases, the protests have been called by the ruling party, or by other elements (which the Government does not really want to put down). Consider the case of the Gurjar agitation of last year in Delhi; in broad daylight, the media could see that the agitators were blocking major roads and burning vehicles, and the police had no interest in actually preventing them from doing such things.
In the past, the Supreme Court (and other courts) has actually levied fines on political parties who have sponsored such violent agitations, but not consistently, and of course, there has been very little other prosecution of the people involved in such violence. However, the Supreme Court has now come out with clear guidelines on how to identify the people involved in such violence (link to article):

In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Thursday put in place stringent guidelines to deal with violent agitations that mandate the police to videograph each and every protest to bring to book mischief mongers who take advantage of a crowd and destroy public and private properties. The Bench, while putting the suggestions of the two committees as guidelines, said its directions would operate till Parliament or assemblies enacted suitable laws replacing the apex court's directions for prevention of vandalism of the kind seen during the Gujjar agitation in 2007.
The new guidelines include a provision that says those seen indulging in violence in video footage would be presumed to be the offenders and the onus would shift on them to show that they are innocent. Focusing on compensating the people whose properties were damaged by the protestors, the apex court said not only should the violent protestors pay the cost of damaged property, but they be also saddled with exemplary cost.

This was also a subtle reminder to the authorities that it is their duty to enforce law and order, which includes both preventing people from breaking the law, and prosecuting those who do break the law. One has to wait and see how the actual enforcement of the law proceeds.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 5:31 AM    

The UPA in great trouble - allies speaking against other

In the last election, the NDA was the dominant party, and with the 'India Shining' campaign, it seemed that nothing could stop the BJP led front from coming to power. However, the people of India had different ideas, and did not give the BJP the required number of seats so that the BJP could come to power as a part of the NDA. It was the Congress that had a larger number of seats; it was at that time that the Congress, probably for the first time in its long existence, developed the ability to form coalitions. The Congress looked far and wide, and allied itself with a number of parties that would have earlier opposed the Congress (with some of the alliances being before the election, and some after the election). So the Congress allied itself with people as varied as Sharad Pawar's NCP, the Bihar parties of Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, DMK, PMK, and a few other smaller parties. More importantly, the Left parties, who are sworn allies of the Congress in Kerala and West Bengal were also induced to be supporting parties due to prevent the coming to power of the BJP.
Most of these alliances existed almost till the end of the Congress term, with remaining in power being a great inducement for all involved. However, these stable alliances now seem totally in disarray as we are now in the midst of polls. Take a sample of what one of the most trusted allies, Laloo Prasad Yadav says (link to article):

The Railway Minister, who all along has maintained that Manmohan Singh was the UPA candidate, on Tuesday sang a different tune against the backdrop of his party RJD and the Congress going their own ways to fight the elections in Bihar. "UPA is a confederation of secular parties and does not belong only to the Congress. We will sit together (after the elections are over) to chalk out a common minimum programme and in consultation with all our partners select a leader who will be the prime minister," Prasad told reporters in Patna.
Asked about the strained relations between the RJD-LJP alliance in Bihar and the Congress, Prasad said, "These things are natural during elections. Do you expect us to worship each other. There is a famine of candidates in the Congress, which is busy rebuilding and reviving its organisation. But despite the presence of Congress candidates in the fray in large numbers against nominees of secular parties the NDA will be wiped out," he said.

In addition, everybody knows how the Left is already in open opposition to the Congress, and has been so ever since Manmohan Singh made his effort to push for the India-US nuclear deal. The UPA has also other constituents such as the PMK, and has managed to make enmity with both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh.
Part of the reason for this strain in relations, especially in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is the need for Congress to remake itself in these states. It was in the 1989 election that the Congress downfall in these key states became apparent, to the extent that the Congress is almost non-existent in these states. It is the dream of Congress strategy makers to make the Congress more powerful in these states again, and the only way they can do that is to regain the support of many caste groups that were with them, and are now with these parties. It is also for the same reason that the caste groups are fine with allying with the Congress as long as the Congress plays second fiddle, and gains ground in other states.
The irony of the disintegration of the UPA as a pre-election alliance is that it was the BJP that has been suffering the jolts earlier. They were deserted by Chandrababu Naidu earlier, and on the eve of this election, it was the close partner, Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janta Dal who deserted the BJP (and it was the Congress which was being gleeful when all this happened).
However, does something really change ? If the elections throw up a hung parliament, one can be sure that these parties will come together, as the need to throw up a 'secular' alternative to the BJP will still remain as a glue to make sure that they retain their power.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 2:11 AM    

Friday, April 17, 2009

Afghan law that allowed rape in a marriage to be reviewed

Over a period of history, the concept of rights of a woman in marriage have been evolving; from earlier times where many cultures considered the woman to be a property of the husband in the marriage, most societies now legally consider the rights of both men and women in a marriage to be the same (of course, in realistic terms, this may not be always true, with many cultures believing men to be the superior, and having more rights). However, it is also true that many Islamic countries have a conflict between the rights of men and women in a marriage - there are a number of clerics who believe that woman do not have the same rights (with the Taliban-run Afghanistan being a society where the rights of woman were definitely much lower than that of men).
Inter-linked in all this is the concept of sexual relations in marriage, and what are the duties / obligations of each partner in a marriage. Policies have slowly evolved that the concept of force has been recognized as not valid; if a partner forces the other partner to submit to a sexual relationship by force, then it is now recognized as rape. However, recent events in Afghanistan changed this entire understanding.
Recently, a law was passed in Afghanistan for the minority Shia population that legalized rape within the marriage, allowing the husband to force the demand for sexual relationship within the marriage. The passage of this law outraged people all over, with women's rights groups in Afghanistan protesting the passage of the law; more significantly, western backers of the Karzai Government were outraged and gave public statements demanding withdrawal of the law. All this pressure has finally resulted in a statement by the Afghan President that the law will be revised and brought into conformance with the Afghan constitution and with the Sharia (link to article):

# Afghan law appears to let a man to have sex with his wife even when she says "no"
# Karzai tells CNN he, others unaware of the provision due to the amount of legislation
Karzai told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that he and others were unaware of the provision in the legislation, which he said "has so many articles." Karzai signed the measure into law last month. "Now I have instructed, in consultation with clergy of the country, that the law be revised and any article that is not in keeping with the Afghan constitution and Islamic Sharia must be removed from this law," Karzai said.
The bill languished in the country's parliament for a year-and-a-half before it was recently pushed through in what one legislator called a "chaotic" vote. Women from various parts of Afghanistan marched in the capital Wednesday to protest the law, which has also been criticized by human-rights groups and Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

For now, the measure has been beaten back, but measures to lift women's rights will take time, and many reverses before they can take root, especially in a backward society such as in Afghanistan.

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:02 PM    

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Poor quality of cellular services

Mobile phone companies keep on fighting with each other about the number of new users that they have signed up; their stock prices are dependent on how many users they have and whether they are the number one mobile phone company. So, you will see a lot of news dedicated to which company is the top dog, which company is getting ahead in the game, and so on. For a sample, review this news article:

Vodafone Essar has added more new users in March, upstaging Bharti Airtel and taking the total GSM additions in the month to 10.8 million, 17.4% more than the additions in February. The record growth in the past three months is clear proof of the fact that the world’s fastest growing telecom market remains untouched by the economic slowdown.
India set a world record in January this year by adding 15 million mobile users, the highest ever monthly additions in any country. GSM telcos added 9.7 million in January. But there was a small dip in February to 9.2 million as there were three less working days in the month.

This increase in the number of users is touted as a major factor in the growth of the telecom business in the country and a reason for the decrease in call charges, and this may be true. It is true that the mobile telecom business has expanded like anything. However, a flip side is the quality of these services is dropping like anything.
I have a Airtel post-paid connection in Delhi, and for the past few months, the quality of the service has dramatically come down. As an example, I was traveling with a friend to office, and had to take an urgent meeting over the phone. In the past, it was possible to do this easily enough, all you had to do was to plug earphones into the phone (or use the speaker phone) and you were all set. However, now, in a 45 minute period, the call dropped atleast 4 times. It was mighty embarrassing to suddenly stop hearing the other voice, and realize that the call had dropped (the only reason why nobody made fun of this was probably that they also face similar problems). This is not specific to Airtel, friends having Idea or Vodafone report similar problems.
In fact, there are certain points on my journey where I apologize to people before-hand, knowing that the next 200 meter section of the location will certainly see the call drop (it happens regularly), and calling to customer support had not helped in the past. I would have blamed a phone set if it happened only to me, but it happens to other mobile sets as well. And this is not a new problem (refer this article from 2007). Even 2 years back, problems in telecom service was recognized as a growing problem. From the looks of it, it does not seem that the problem has solved, and TRAI does not seem to be very bothered. The other problem of facing network congestion as a normal day occurrence has also increased drastically.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:26 AM    

Monday, April 06, 2009

Branded fuels - do they really provide any benefits

You must have seen this all the time. You go to a fuel pump, and they ask you whether you want the premium fuel (whether it is petrol or diesel); in some cases, they will tell you that the premium fuel is better for your engine, as well as for the mileage of your vehicle. The fuel will have the name of 'Premium', 'Turbo', or 'Speed', all designed to make sure that you feel that you are taking a fuel much better than the traditional fuel. The television advertisements are all designed to project the same thing, with the fuel supposed to have additives that smoothen the engine, and deliver many other benefits.
Months back, when fuel prices were very high, the oil companies were actually forcing higher consumption of these branded fuel through greater marketing campaigns, as well as through actual constriction of supply of the non-branded fuel at the fuel pumps. So, what is the reality of these branded fuels ? Do their consistent campaigns have any real substance to them ? Does your vehicle benefit if you use such fuels ? Well, the MRTPC did a study, and found that there was no evidence to backup these claims (link to article):

Next time you pay Rs 2 extra per litre to tank up on branded petrol, you are probably being taken for a ride. For, the state-run oil marketing companies have failed to back up their claim of this fuel giving higher mileage and better engine performance before the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC). MRTPC had asked the companies to "clarify the quantitive difference between normal fuel and branded fuel alongwith supportive documents.''
The query, however, failed to get the companies to furnish anything more than letters from additive suppliers in support their claim. While the additive suppliers, the Singapore branch of Chevron and Oronite, have spoken about the benefits of branded fuel, it has failed to impress the Commission as it doesn't regard the suppliers as non-partial authority; on the contrary they are viewed as vested interests. The suppliers' certificates do not talk about any test having been carried out on branded petrol

So, the net result is that oil companies claim that these additives are being used the world over, and are from companies that provide these to fuels all over the world. However, in the absence of any proof, paying extra for these fuels is a risk that a person is taking; there is a good chance that you do not any benefit commensurate with the additional price.

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:09 AM    

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Antarctic ice shelf goes, global warming to blame

Amid all the gloom of the world economic downturn, the entire discussion about climate change seems to have retreated into the background. It has been suggested in some new reports that maybe with the drop in economic growth, the growth in emissions will come down; and anyhow, with companies and governments running into monetary problems, how will they be able to spend the kind of money required to address climate change ? Well, except for a few skeptics, the theory of an accelerating climate change has been accepted as a reality that is affecting our world.
From time to time, we hear that global warming is actually happening faster than many scientists had predicted. The predictions of melting of polar ice are coming true, and these will spell doom for coastal regions (it is predicted that Greenland itself has enough land ice to cause a raise in global water levels, and Antarctica has significantly higher ice levels). Consider this case of ice levels in Antartica (link to article):

One Antarctic ice shelf has quickly vanished, another is disappearing and glaciers are melting faster than anyone thought due to climate change, U.S. and British government researchers reported on Friday. They said the Wordie Ice Shelf, which had been disintegrating since the 1960s, is gone and the northern part of the Larsen Ice Shelf no longer exists. More than 3,200 square miles (8,300 square km) have broken off from the Larsen shelf since 1986.
"The rapid retreat of glaciers there demonstrates once again the profound effects our planet is already experiencing -- more rapidly than previously known -- as a consequence of climate change," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "This continued and often significant glacier retreat is a wakeup call that change is happening ... and we need to be prepared," USGS glaciologist Jane Ferrigno, who led the Antarctica study, said in a statement.

The US was a laggard in acknowledging climate change, and taking steps to counter it. In addition, climate change has so many politics involved in it that it is difficult to get agreements. Poorer nations argue (with some logic, but still hurting the campaign against climate change) that they have contributed significantly lower to current emissions and hence should bear less of the liability, while developed nations claim that developing nations are also potentially huge contributors and should pony up their part of the effort. And in all this, global warming marches on.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:29 AM