Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Tamil Screenplay - Updates and a snippet

In line with my previous post on my Tamil screenplay writing, I went about trying to get it read. This post is an update on my brief efforts; it will hopefully be useful for other writers. The end of this post summarizes what I learned. It also has a scene from the script.

Initial Approaches

I was not sure who to approach first. A contact gave me an opening with Director Radha Mohan (Mozhi, Azhagiya Theeye). I had a long conversation with him.
The director said that he wrote his own scripts. He did not really need a scriptwriter, as such. He asked me about the kind of story. He said period films need star power for budget - someone like Surya or Vikram. I said my story did not have much heroic scope built in.

After this, I approached UTV, the production house. Their movie wing has a creative person, Ramya, who reviews scripts. I called her.
Ramya said first that they were currently full with releases. But she also asked me who I was working with. I said that I was just a writer, and want my script to be reviewed. Ramya said that this was not the way things worked. They work with directors, not writers. She said an assistant director or director would come to them with a story and then she would review it. She could not simply take a script and go look for a director.
This confused me. In Hollywood, usually the process starts with a scriptwriter. The writer sends the script through an agent to a production house (such as Columbia or 20th Century Fox). The production house, if interested, concludes a deal with the writer; and then they go looking for directors.

I also heard about FoxStar movies, a new formation between 20th century Fox and Star Movies, located in Mumbai. They were the producers of the recent hit, "Engeyum Eppozhudhum". I read an interview by the director of that movie, and decided to call them.
Fox Star's head of development is Neerja Narayanan. I could reach her directly (she is on LinkedIn, by the way; These are pretty corporate people).
They asked me to send a English synopsis. They also wanted my biodata. I sent it to them, but there has not been any response.


After this, I realized there must be something fundamentally wrong in my understanding. I got clarity after having two discussions.
The first one was with a young actor, who is also a relative (He was in the movie Enthiran).
He asked me to go get the movie industry directory, called Variety. It is available in Landmark, in the Cinema section. It has a list of the contacts of all directors, producers, actors, and technicians and so on.
He said that the "writer" did not exist in the Tamil film industry. There were directors, and all of them had their own stories. He had heard that M.Sasikumar (Subramaniapuram) and Samuthirakkani were known to look at raw stories, but that was it. All assistant directors generally had five or six stories.
He said I could contact the directors, and work with them on dialog. There was really only two ways a pure writer could get their script made into a film - if they were close friends with a director, and the director decided to give them credit. The second was if the story had a lot of heroism and a big star wanted to use it. Then they could get a director to make a movie out of it.

My second conversation was with Madhan Karkky, the young dialog writer and lyricist for Enthiran and Shankar's upcoming Nanbargal.
We met in a coffee shop and talked about the scope for script writing for half an hour.
Madhan said that the Tamil industry had no "pure" scriptwriters, as such. If you had a script, you usually wanted to direct it yourself. No director in this industry directs other people's scripts. That kind of process just did not exist.
If I wanted to be a writer, he suggested that there were a couple of options to consider. one was to contact Malayalam film directors, who used scriptwriters. (For example K.Hariharan uses M.T.Vasudevan Nair). The second was to become a dialog writer for directors. This can be done if I had a portfolio, in which I could have a few different scenes sketched out. I could seek appointments with directors. He said they did not like recommendations. So, this process could take many months.
Even if I became a dialog writer, I cannot really make a movie out of my script, unless I became a director.

Summary and Future
It is, thus, weird, that I am a scriptwriter in an industry that does not really use scriptwriters. Hindi and malayalam industries use scriptwriters extensively. But not Tamil. That is how the industry has evolved.
I am not very sure what to do at this point. I already have my next story in mind, but what is the point of writing it if nobody ever makes a movie out of it? I am pretty sure I do not want to be a director.
A tiny part of me tells me that this is how things are for beginners. After all, every director, and every technician out there has seen so many disappointments. Radha Mohan struggled for 15 years to direct his first movie. In fact, his first movie "Smile Please" never saw the light of the day.
If anyone has better information for me or any aspiring writer, please post in comments.
I have below a brief snippet from my script:

வெளிப்புறம் - சாத்தூர் கிராமத்து தெரு - பகல்
வழுதியும் பெருமாளும் மெதுவாக குதிரையில் அந்த வீதியைத் தாண்டித் திரும்புகிறார்கள். பக்கத்து வீதியில் சிறு வீடுகள். சுற்றித் தோட்டங்கள். வீடுகளின் இடையே மரக் குச்சியால் வேலிகள் வைத்து இருக்கிறார்கள்.
தெருவில் போகிற வருகிறவர்கள் நின்று குதிரை வீரர்களை நிமிர்ந்து பார்க்கிறார்கள்.
அந்தத் தெருவின் முடிவில், ஒரு வீடு தெரிகிறது. அதன் தோட்டத்தில் தருமன் குழி தோண்டிக் கொண்டிருக்கிறான். வீரர்கள் இருவரும் சற்று நேரம் நின்று அவனைப் பார்க்கிறார்கள்.
உள்ளிருந்து நாகை வெளியே வருகிறாள்.

என்னப்பா செய்கிறாய்? இவ்வளவு பெரிய குழி தோண்டி இருக்கிறாய்?

தருமன் அவர்களை நிமிர்ந்து பார்க்கிறான். பிறகு, மண்வெட்டியை பக்கத்தில் வைத்து விட்டு நிற்கிறான்.
பெரிய கதை அய்யா. என் தாத்தா ஒரு அருமையான நூல் எழுதினாராம். அதை எங்கோ புதைத்து விட்டதாகக் கேள்வி. அது தான் தேடுகிறேன்.
அப்படி என்ன நூல் எழுதினார்? காம சாத்திரமோ?

தருமன் சிரிக்கிறான்.

காம சாத்திரமாக இருந்தால் இந்நேரம் இந்தத் தெரு முழுவதும் தோண்டி இருப்பேன்.

பெருமாள் சிரிக்கிறான்.


நீங்கள் அரசரின் படை வீரர்களா?

மெய்காப்பாளர்கள். ஆபத்துதவிகள் என்று கேட்டிருக்கிறீர்கள?


ஆமாம். அரசருக்காக உயிரையே கொடுப்பவர்கள்.

அதே தான்.


இவருக்கு கூட அரசாங்க வேலை கிடைத்தால் நன்றாக இருக்கும்

ஏன்? இப்போது உன் தொழில் என்ன?

தருமன் நாகையை முறைக்கிறான்.

இவர் சோதிடர்

(வழுதியைக் காட்டி)
இவனுக்கு எப்போது கல்யாணம் ஆகும் சொல்லேன்? எங்கே போனாலும் பெண்களைப் பார்த்து விழிக்கிறான்.

தருமன் சிரித்து விட்டுச் சும்மா இருக்கிறான்.

இரு. அதை விட ஒரு சோதனை. நான் எந்த ஊர்க்காரன் என்று சொல் பார்க்கலாம்?

தருமன் கண்ணை மூடி ஒரு வினாடி யோசிக்கிறான். பிறகு,
தென்காசி, அல்லது அதற்கு அருகில்.

வழுதியும் பெருமாளும் அவனை ஆச்சரியத்துடன் பார்க்கிறார்கள்.

அவர் சொல்வது சரியா?

சரி தான். குற்றாலத்தில் குரங்குகளுடன் திரிந்து கொண்டிருந்தான்.

சோதிடா, நீ சரியான ஆள் தான். நெல்வேலிக்கு வா. அரசர் சபையில் இடம் இருக்கிறது.

இருவரும் குதிரையை நகர்த்திச் செல்கிறார்கள்.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tamil Screenplay writing - my experience

I just finished a feature-length Tamil screenplay. I could not find many resources for Tamil screen writing in the web. So here goes, for people like me, looking to write feature-length screenplays.

(My new story, a Chola period Tamil historical novella, is at Tamil Story - ஒற்றாடல் )

Note: I have just started approaching people with the screenplay. I have very little knowledge of marketing a screenplay - informed commenters can help here.

Note 2: I am not going into the details of how to form a film-worth story or how to use imagination. I assume that you can form stories and break it into scenes, with drama and dialog.

Screenplays in general
Screenwriters usually write a "Spec" screenplay (for "speculative"). These scripts are not numbered and do not include production information. We are only talking about spec screenplays here.
Spec screenplays are stories - but they are written in a different format than novels or dramas.
At a high level, a screenplay is narrated in scenes that the viewer sees. Each scene has a heading, "action" and dialog.
At a lower level, these elements of a screenplay have to formatted very specifically (at least in Hollywood).
As an example, take a look at the following scene in one of short stories in this blog:
நானும், ராமனும், ரிஷியும் அடர்ந்த வனத்துக்குள் புகுந்த ஓரிரு நாட்களிலேயே சற்றே பயமுறுத்தும் காட்சிகளைக் கண்டோம்.
பாழடைந்த ஒரு பிரதேசம். பாறைகள் அங்குமிங்கும் உருண்டிருந்தன. செம்மண்ணில் வெயில் தகித்தது. அங்கங்கே பெரிய மரங்கள். சில இடங்களில் முள் காடுகள்.
இரண்டு மூன்று இடங்களில் சில மண்டை ஓடுகள் கிடந்தன. ரிஷி சுற்றுமுற்றும் பார்த்தவாறே நடந்தார். நான் ஆவலுடன், "ஏதோ யுத்தம் நடந்த மாதிரி இருக்கிறது?" என்றேன்.
"இலக்குவா, தாடகை என்னும் அரக்கியின் உறைவிடம் இது",என்றார் ரிஷி. அந்த மண்டை ஓடுகளைச் சுட்டிக் காட்டி, "அவளுடைய இரை ", என்றார்.
என் உடம்பு நடுங்கியது. "மிதிலைக்கு இந்த வழியாகத் தான் சென்றாக வேண்டுமா?" என்றேன்.
சற்றுத் தள்ளி கோணல் மாணலாக ஒரு எலும்புக் கூடு கிடந்தது. அதைக் காட்டி, "என் சிஷ்யன் பிங்கலன்", என்றார் ரிஷி.
அன்று இரவு ஒரு பெரிய மரத்தின் மேல் ஏறி படுத்துத் தூங்கினோம்.
மரத்தின் கடினமான கிளையில் படுத்தவாறே நான் வாழ்க்கையைப் பற்றி யோசித்தேன். பல நாட்களுக்கு முன்னால் அயோத்தியில் வில்லையும், அம்பையும் வைத்துக் கொண்டு மாங்காய் அடித்துத் தின்று கொண்டிருந்தோம். இந்த ரிஷி வந்து அழைத்துப் போனார். எனக்கு என் தந்தை தசரத மன்னர் என்னை அனுப்பி வைத்ததில் ஆச்சரியமில்லை. அவருக்குப் பாதி நேரம் எனக்கும் என் இரட்டைச் சகோதரன் சத்ருக்னனுக்கும் வித்தியாசமே தெரியாது. இன்னும் யாரை அனுப்பினோம் என்று அவருக்குத் தெரிந்திருக்காது.
ஆனால் ராமனை, பட்டத்து இளவரசனை எப்படி இந்த தாடி மீசை முனிவருடன் காட்டுக்கு அனுப்பி வைத்தார்? ராமன் மேல் அவருக்கு அடங்காத பாசம். மிகவும் நல்லவன் என்று ஒரு நினைப்பு.

This same scene, in a screenplay will look like this:

வெளிப்புறம் - ஒரு காட்டுப் பகுதி - பகல்
பாழடைந்த ஒரு பிரதேசம். பாறைகள் அங்குமிங்கும் உருண்டிருகின்றன. செம்மண்ணில் வெயில் தகிக்கிறது. அங்கங்கே பெரிய மரங்கள். சில இடங்களில் முள் காடுகள்.
இரண்டு மூன்று இடங்களில் சில மண்டை ஓடுகள் கிடக்கின்றன.
காட்டுப் பாதையில் மூன்று பேர் நடந்து வருகிறார்கள். முதலில் ஐம்பது வயது மதிக்கத்தக்க முனிவர், விஸ்வாமித்ரர், வருகிறார். அவர் பின்னால் இளம் வாலிபன் ராமன், கையில் வில்லுடன் வருகிறான். அவன் முதுகில் அம்புகள் வைக்கும் தூணி தெரிகிறது.
கடைசியில் நம் கதாநாயகன், இலக்குவன், வருகிறான். இலக்குவனுக்கு பதினாறு வயதிருக்கும். அவனும் கையில் வில்லும், அம்புகளும் வைத்திருக்கிறான்.
ரிஷி சுற்றுமுற்றும் பார்த்தவாறே வருகிறார்.
ஏதோ யுத்தம் நடந்த மாதிரி இருக்கிறது?
இலக்குவா, தாடகை என்னும் அரக்கியின் உறைவிடம் இது.
இலக்குவன் மண்டை ஓடுகளைப் பார்க்கிறான். அவன் உடம்பு நடுங்குகிறது.
மிதிலைக்கு இந்த வழியாகத் தான் செல்ல வேண்டுமா?
சற்றுத் தள்ளி கோணல்மாணலாக ஒரு எலும்புக் கூடு கிடக்கிறது.
(அதைக் காட்டி)
என் சிஷ்யன் பிங்கலன்.
வெளிப்புறம் - காடு – இரவு
ஒரு பெரிய மரத்தின் கிளைகள் தெரிகின்றன. அதன் மேல் கிளைகளில், ராமன், இலக்குவன், விஸ்வாமித்திரர் மூவரும் படுத்திருக்கிறார்கள்.

You can see the following about this screenplay format:
1. We are only allowed to narrate what is visible on the screen. Thus Ilakkuvan's "thoughts" go away.
2. We need to narrate whatever is relevant to the story and setting.
3. You can also see the distinct elements here - character names (like Ilakkuvan, Viswamiththirar); action, scene headings (வெளிப்புறம் - காடு – இரவு ), and a paranthetical ( அதைக் காட்டி).

We will understand this weird format better, if we know who the screenplay is meant for.
A screenplay is meant for a director's eye. It is NOT meant for a general audience. Although screenplays should be interesting to read and should follow all correct conventions, it is really a communication from the author to the key production staff.
If you understand this, a lot of the specific requirements for formatting make sense. There are very specific rules on how to write, for example,
1. A Series of Shots
2. Flashback
3. Voice Overs
4. Continuous Action and so on.
Please take a moment now to browse through the excellent Internet Movie Script Database. Look through these scripts:
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Sixth Sense

(Script writing rules even include the number of inches of margin for the dialog or paranthetical.)
While writing my screenplay, whenever I have questions about writing (say) Flashbacks or even showing Superimposed text, I would think about some movie where such a feature is shown, and then refer to the actual script in imsdb.com.

There are also websites available for screen writing format. Please refer to:
How To Format a Screenplay
How To Write a Screenplay

The following items should be avoided in screenplays:
1. Camera Angles (This is for the director to decide); you can refer to POVs (Point-of-Views) though.
2. Acting guidelines (such as - his shoulders shake while crying; that is for the actor to decide)
3. Specific actors (in the Indian context)
4. Songs or song lyrics (in the Indian context)
5. Music suggestions (such as - a lone violin plays in the background; that is for the music composer to decide)

So the idea is to stick to the story and narrate it visually.
An average Hollywood script has 80-100 scenes. An average Hollywood scripts has around a 100 pages. In Tamil, of course, our movies are longer. The thumb rule is that a page of script is a minute's running time. The actual running time, of course, depends on the mix of action and dialog.

Tamil scriptwriting - Technicalities
In Hollywood, because of the specific scriptwriting requirements, many screen writers use software such as Final Draft. These make the writer's job easier. They take care of the formatting. They even prompt character names when you type the first letter. Some such software are so advanced that they can play a line of dialog back to you as a voice (male/female; tenor etc are adjustable). In other words, you can actually have a "staged reading" right in front of your computer.
Unfortunately, none of these work with Indian languages.
I used Microsoft Word. But I also downloaded Google IME from here. Google IME lets you choose Tamil for input into any editor. All that you have to do is choose Tamil in the toolbar and type in Word. When you type, you type in English and it transliterates into Tamil. The Thaadakaa screenplay above was typed using this method. It has some quirks, but is easy to learn.
Now that we have solved typing in Tamil, how do we manage the screenplay format? The correct way is to use a Microsoft Word Template file. There is a file used by English writers called Screenplay.dot, available for download here. Download this file and make it the template for your script, BEFORE starting to write the script. It has to be adjusted for Tamil.
Make this file your template in Microsoft Word (Tools->Templates and Add-Ins).
When typing the screenplay, keep Format->Styles and Formatting panel open and you can easily use the different formats such as Dialog, Character, Action, Paranthetical and so on.

My method
Of course, this was my first screenplay, but I may as well document the method I used.
I first wrote screen summaries on paper; these were sketches of each scene, with some dialog and description. These summaries were for my purpose and so were not formatted.
Then I expanded these and used Word to type in the scenes in some detail.
Finally I rewrote the scenes and formatting to fit what I wanted. The final action scenes were entirely written in Word.
I must have rewritten different scenes several times.
I faced a problem with dialogs; my story was a historical, set in 500 AD. I had to incorporate both humor and a natural flow in such a setting. I found it took much effort to do that.
Action scenes were very interesting to write. I followed the advice of screen writing gurus - I wrote detailed action with very specific settings, including sword fights.

Copyrighting the Script
First, note that when you write something in paper, it is copyrighted to you automatically, by Indian law. In other words, nobody can take that work and claim that you did NOT copyright it; and therefore they are free to take it. The moment you have a work on paper you get copyright.
But, you still need to get a legal copyright in case someone takes your work and claims THEY wrote it. You can read about the details in this website.
There are three methods of copyrighting. I did two of them. The third one is available only after you are actually part of the film industry.
1. Register with Copyright Authority of India. You have to contact a lawyer or law firm for this. They ask for four printed, spiral-bound copies of the actual work. It costs around Rs.5000. The authority sits in New Delhi and it takes them more than an year to deliver a copyright to you. BUT, you will get a temporary ID within 20 days. That is enough for our purposes.
2. Self-Registration - Go to the post office with a sealed envelope containing a single spiral-bound copy of your work. Send it to yourself by registered post. When you receive the envelope, do NOT open it. Keep it somewhere safe. If you get challenged at some point, you can open the envelope in court and prove that you own the copyright earlier.
3. Registering with the South Indian Film Writers Association - The association performs registrations for members ONLY. You cannot become a member unless you are a part of the film industry. But once you become a part of the industry, this registration is useful.
Do NOT share your work without copyrighting - that is the advice given to me by some contacts.

Marketing in Tamil
As I said initially, I am not really familiar with the methods to get attention on a script in the Tamil film industry.
In Hollywood, the agents take care of marketing your script - therefore you first need to impress the agents. Hollywood production houses rely on effective scripts.
The Tamil industry is getting corporatised right now. Usually that is good for screenwriters. But Tamil directors seem to write their own scripts.
Producers do buy scripts, but the original writer rarely gets credits.
In other words, it is not really clear whom to approach - directors? actors? producers?
Only writers of fame, like Sujatha, Jeyamohan, S.Ramakrishnan - who were already famous fiction writers - seem to be engaged by directors for screenplay writing, with credits. I am sure there are many writers out there, but the industry seems to revolve around directors and actors.
I am planning to approach a couple of directors. Let us see how that goes.

(My new story, a Chola period Tamil historical novella, is at Tamil Story - ஒற்றாடல் )

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blaming Victims in a Just World

An year back, there was an accident in Adyar, Chennai. A couple traveling by bike at 10:30 in the night were run over by a speeding lorry.
The couple were married just over an year earlier; and had left their baby at the parents and gone to visit a temple or church.
The next morning I was in the waiting area of a local hospital when I overheard an young doctor and a nurse talking about this. The doctor said, "So they went at 10 in the night to a temple, leaving the baby. How stupid are they?"
The nurse agreed.
Do we expect people to be run over after 10 PM in the night? Of course not. But this pattern was familiar to me. The doctor and nurse were blaming the victim.
I have come across the blame-the-victim characteristic a lot when discussing politics; but also more generally in life in India. I have also come across it, to a lesser extent, in conservative writing in the United States.
A couple of years back, when race attacks were going on in Australia, against Indians, I frequently saw this play out. A letter in the magazine "Week" blamed Indians for not "assimilating" in Australian culture. Some blamed Indians for talking in local language in public. I wrote a detailed analysis of this behavior here.

Of course, blaming the victim is not new to women all over the world. They almost always get blamed for eve-teasing or rapes. Usually they are accused of having provoked men into such behavior.

Why is there a tendency to blame the victim when something bad happens to people? This is particularly important in India. In our road accidents, pedestrians get blamed almost all the time. Plus we have the "aren't we all corrupt?", "aren't we all racists?" crowd always blaming the victim implicitly.

The Just World Theory

In the 1960s, Melvin J.Lerner, professor of Social Psychology at the University of Waterloo, performed a set of experiments out of which came the "Just World Hyposthesis" or the "Just World Theory".
Lerner's findings, later expanded, show that human beings have the "need to believe in a just world" in-built into their psyche. It develops as a part of normal child rearing and every human being will have it.
What does this mean?
While growing up, we are taught good and bad behavior. We are taught to distinguish between them by a system of rewards and punishments. This enforces a belief in us, as we grow into adulthood, that the world is an environment full of justice. People get what they deserve and deserve what they get. That idea permeates into us.

But, of course, the real world is far from just. Just the number of varieties of personalities precludes a guarantee of justice.
Therefore, when we see something that violates our belief (in a just world), we can only resolve the conflict between
a) what is reality and
b) what is our innate belief
by looking for some way to justify the unjust scene before us.
For example, when we hear about a child getting hit while crossing a road, our trust in a just world is violated. Our mind resolves that by one of the following methods:
a) Blaming the child's parents or the child herself for crossing without proper attention
b) Trying to imagine how we can stop such traffic accidents and thus building an assurance in our mind that we can create a just world
c) By the "separated world" mechanism - we tell ourselves that this happens in some kind of parallel world.

(There are actually 9 different ways in which we try to resolve the conflict, as listed by Lerner)

Now option b, if we act on it, is of course, the healthiest. It improves society overall.
But most people who are conservative or authoritarian or over-religious have been found to go with option a - blaming the victim.
In other words, the predominant tendency in conservative societies such as India is to blame the victim.

Thus the doctor and nurse who were discussing the accident of an young couple were actually shocked by the injustice of happy lives extinguished by a careless driver. But they had the need to believe in a just world. They resolved this by blaming the couple's choice of taking a bike at 10:30 PM.

This has implications for a lot of our public debates in India. We hear about unjust accidents caused by badly designed roads and neighborhoods. Almost every person who drives a bike in India must have met with some accident, minor to serious. We hear about normal people, who are killed or maimed by drunken driving or just reckless driving
Every time, we have to be careful never to blame the victim - for traveling without a helmet, or crossing a city road, or going out in the night. The real villains are the people who drive without respect for pedestrians; and the people who designed these killer roads with no spaces for pedestrians.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

P.Sainath is wrong on Jan Lokpal

(Edited to fix link to Sainath's article, on Debojyoti's comment below)
This post addresses a few wrong arguments against the Lokpal process. Many of these are talking points I found circulating in the web. Some of these are also opinions of P.Sainath - the Magsaysay award winner and The Hindu rural affairs editor - who has criticised the Jan Lokpal process in speeches and in an article in The Hindu.

My first article on Lokpal and the IAC movement is here. It has some commentary on Sainath's video speech.

Have Anna Hazare and others worked outside the legislative process?
Argument:Anna Hazare, by his tactics such as fasting, have worked against the electoral process. They have blackmailed the government to include themselves in the legislative process

My response: Nobody has taken away the role of Parliament in passing legislation. The IAC movement or Mr.Hazare himself have not said that they will pass a bill and that should be the law of the land.
Parliament should pass a bill on Lokpal - what Mr.Hazare and others have argued is that Parliament should not pass the draft bill submitted in 2010. Instead they have suggested a different set of provisions for a Jan Lokpal bill.
Is this entirely unnatural or unprecedented? In other words, is it unprecedented for Parliament to consider a law that takes input from non-elected people?
The answer is no. It is neither unprecedented nor unnatural. The much-celebrated Right To Information (RTI) bill was actually lobbied and pushed for by activists. Just last year, the government shelved the plans for GM (Genetically Modified) crops based on feedback from "self-appointed" activists and lobby groups.
This is why the hue and cry about Anna Hazare and others "bypassing" the process is surprising. Do people seriously believe that the laws passed by Parliament on regulating healthcare, education or mining are exclusively created by legislators - without major input from industry leaders or activists? Every law that deals with industry regulation IS being written in consultation with industry leaders.
Thus, the controversy about Anna and IAC creating their own process is ill-founded.

Are Anna Hazare and others self-appointed?
Argument: Who said civil society can be represented by Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption movement? Who decides that these people are representatives of the common people? Only the elected legislators in Parliament are representatives of the people - not self-appointed leaders such as Anna Hazare.
My Response: This question is a very critical one. It is not an attack on Anna or IAC. The general idea seems to be that the electorate has chosen their legislators. Given that, what authority do Anna and others have to "represent the people"?
The answer is, of course, that feedback on legislation in a Parliamentary democracy can come throughout the law making process. Anna and others need not represent everyone, or even a majority in the nation - all that matters is that they have the right to organize a protest and make their voices heard. Nobody can deny them that right. They have the right to lobby for their cause.
Secondly, they actually did have an alternative bill; and legitimate criticism of the
government bill. Therefore, their "interference" in the law-making process was a pretty serious, legitimate effort.
Thirdly, let us not forget that Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or Aan Suu Kyi are all "self-appointed" representatives. It is not as if they were elected figures.

Why have a law when people can vote out corrupt administrations
Argument: Sainath says that people have now voted in the recent state elections. That is the real way to influence policy
My Response:
In any society there needs to be a way to influence (non-violently) the course of laws towards justice. Voting in elections is just ONE way of such influence.
Sainath, in his Hindu article, says that the people in different states voted in the recent elections, and that is how people can influence policy or take action against corruption. This is a profoundly misguided way of thinking about a democracy, both theoretically and practically.
Even in theory, a democracy allows free speech and free association precisely to encourage political activity at all times. People have different non-violent tools to choose and to engage in political activity. Should we all vote once in 5 years and then forget about whatever our representatives do in those 5 years? That is a pretty useless view of democracy. I would say this even if our representatives are all doing their jobs well.
Practically, of course, what Sainath says is laughable. He has been spending the past 10 years challenging the government on farmers' suicides. His whole point was that
governments in the state and center were actively adopting policies that CAUSED the suicides. How did these policies happen when people continued to vote in elections?
The answer is that no country in the world has the kind of perfect political system where we can leave our elected representatives without vigilance. Definitely not India.
The Indian Parliament gave us TADA; POTA; the constitutional amendment that has now lead to forcing everyone to be fingerprinted(Aadhaar or UID scheme). The Parliament gave us the very regressive Information Technology Act of 2010.
People should pay more attention to what the legislators are upto; and protest in case they try to pass a regressive law. That is a vital role - in fact, it is a much more vital role than voting. Voting is over-hyped.

Why should the Prime Minister be brought under Lokpal? He will get subjected to frivolous charges
Argument: The IAC movement and the government now differ on bringing the PM under the Lokpal. Bringing the PM under Lokpal will lead to filing frivolous charges against him/her. It will also lead to influencing foreign policy and national security issues
My Response: I frankly do not understand this argument. We are a British-style parliamentary democracy, with a Prime Minister. We are not an American style democracy. The Prime Minister does not have any special powers that other ministers lack. In other words, if we are ok with having a cabinet rank minister being investigated by Lokpal, then how is the PM any different?
The above argument may make sense in the United States, where the President is the Head of State. In India, the PM is not the Head of State. There is no special theoretical reason why a PM should be excluded, while a central cabinet minster is included.
If people said that ALL cabinet ministers should be excluded, then that we can argue about. But that is not what people are saying. They seem to think the PM has some special status.

By the way, I just want to remind people reading this blog - Around 2003, a young PWD engineer named Sathyendra Dubey was killed when he wrote about corruption to higher authorities. Sathyendra was afraid of getting killed, so he sent the letter directly to which office?
Yes, he sent it ONLY to the PM's Office (PMO). Vajpayee was PM at that time. That single letter to the PMO pinpointed Sathyendra for murder. In other words, the letter was leaked from the PMO and made its way to Bihar; and led to Sathyendra's murder.

Existing laws are enough to tackle corruption
Argument: The Prevention of Corruption Act and other such acts are adequate to prosecute corrupt public officials. Why do we need new laws? We need existing laws to be implemented well
My Response:This argument is very well addressed in the IAC website.
First, the Lokpal is about a process; not just punishment details.
Secondly, existing laws ARE inadequate. There are several reasons for this - one is that CBI's anti-corruption wing actually reports to the Prime Minister. Therefore it has no way to investigate corruption against the ruling party's wishes.
What the Lokpal bill does is, it sets up an independently funded co-equal branch of government. It makes political influence much more unlikely.

The government, its interlocutors and even some well-meaning citizens have muddied the waters about the Jan Lokpal bill. I urge everyone to go through the IAC website and read the actual draft law. It is a critical first move to control corruption.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

English and Tamil Rhymes

There is a dilemma in my home. Prasanna is two now; and we should be putting him in school in an year.
As a part of his fun education we have been buying cds of rhymes.
The Tamil rhymes are a lot of fun. Buzzers' "Kuzhandhai Paattu" - I is one of the best CDs I have listened. Very good songs and animation. You can watch a couple of them at the end of this post.
Me and my wife like the Tamil rhymes - they are very innocent; takes us back to our own childhood.

தோசை அம்மா தோசை
அம்மா சுட்ட தோசை
அரிசி மாவும் உளுந்து மாவும் கலந்து வைத்த தோசை
அப்பாவுக்கு நாலு, அம்மாவுக்கு மூணு,
அண்ணாவுக்கு ரெண்டு, பாப்பாவுக்கு ஒண்ணு
தின்ன தின்ன ஆசை
திருப்பிக் கேட்டா பூசை!

குருவி பறந்து வந்ததாம்
குழந்தை அருகில் நின்றதாம்
பாவம் அதற்குப் பசித்ததாம்
பாப்பா நெல்லைக் கொடுத்ததாம்
குருவி அந்த நெல்லையே
கொத்திக் கொத்தித் தின்றதாம்
பசியும் நீங்கிப் பறந்ததாம்
பாப்பா இன்பம் கொண்டதாம்

குவா குவா வாத்து
குள்ள மணி வாத்து
மெல்ல உடலைச் சாய்த்து
மேலும் கீழும் பார்த்து
மெல்லமாக நடக்கும்
சின்ன மணி வாத்து

These are, of course, written recently. When I was growing up, my mom had a set of older rhymes:

தங்கப் பொன்னே தாராவே
தட்டான் வீட்டுக்குப் போகாதே
தட்டான் கண்டா பொன் என்பான்
தட்டிக் கொட்டி,
தராசில் வைத்து,

We all love these, but we have a problem - the schools have interviews while admitting to KG. The interviews may involve reciting rhymes. Apparently, English rhymes are preferred.
So we got a cd full of English rhymes.
I am sure these all have meaning going back to Queen Elizabeth I, but they make no sense to an Indian and his kid.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a big fall
All the kings horses and all the kings men
could not put together Humpty Dumpty again

I am sure this has some meaning for English men, but you should watch the video. It shows Humpty Dumpty, with a human face, falling down and just breaking apart into pieces. The king's mean try to piece him together again. It looks like a horror movie.

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after

The complicated interpretation is in wikipedia here.
In the 17th century, King Charles I tried to reform the taxes on liquid measures. He was blocked by Parliament, so subsequently ordered that the volume of a Jack (1/2 pint) be reduced, but the tax remained the same. This meant that he still received more tax, despite Parliament's veto. Hence "Jack fell down and broke his crown" (many pint glasses in the UK still have a line marking the 1/2 pint level with a crown above it) "and Jill came tumbling after". The reference to "Jill", (actually a "gill", or 1/4 pint) is an indication that the gill dropped in volume as a consequence. A variant of this is that liquids (specifically alcoholic beverages) were watered down, hence, "fetch a pail of water."
I cannot be teaching my kid about tax policy in 17th century England. All that he sees is Jack breaking his "crown" whatever that means.

Then some of the rhymes are plain nonsensical:

Little Jack Connor, sat in a corner,
Eating his christmas pie
He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum,
and said "what a good boy am I?"


Ding Dong Bell
Pussy's in the well
Who put her in? Little Tommy Thin
Who pulled her out? Little Tommy Stout
What a naughty boy was that to drown a pussy cat?

Ok, that is a new way to kill a cat.

Goosy Goosy Gander, where shall I wander?
Upstairs and Downstairs, and in my lady's chamber
There I met an old man, who would not say his prayers
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs

Cruelty to senior citizens

I am not comparing the "West" and the "East". These obviously make a lot of sense for them. But, why should my kid be learning these? Of all the things, why should my kid learn:
Chubby Cheeks, Dimple Chin
Rosy Lips, Teeth within,
Eyes are Blue, Curly hair,
Lovely too, teacher's pet,
Is that you?
Yes, yes, yes!

I have never seen any blue eyed kid in India.

I am not nit-picking. It is annoying that the schools push us in a direction of meaningless English worship.
I do not like "Sloka" classes in schools either. Making the kids talk in English all day and then having them attend sloka classes seems pretty stupid.
But it seems like I have no choice. I am trying to teach the kid "Humpty Dumpty" without being scared myself.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Did TN swing away from the DMK or not?

There was an article in rediff.com here, a few days back. Titled "Tamizh voter did not punish the DMK. Here is why", it was written by Mr.N.Gopalaswami (a former Election Commissioner of Tamil Nadu) and Praveen Chakravarty.
The article got a lot of comments and I realized its popularity when a friend mentioned it to me in a meeting. I had myself written a comment to that article, buried somewhere - I had argued that the authors were wrong.

This is an important talking point - and we have to be careful about it. What the authors purport to prove is that in spite of the coverage of the corruption cases against A.Raja and evidence of DMK involvement in the 2G scam, the people who vote for DMK continue to do so. But from that, they jump to the conclusion that the TN electorate has not punished the DMK. In other words, corruption is not a big issue in people's minds. Implicitly, being corrupt does not seem to be punished by the electorate.
This is a very serious result, if true.
I decided to do check the numbers myself and analyze the results. This post is a description of that.

The Authors' argument

In 2006 TN assembly elections, the authors say, of every 100 people in a constituency that had a DMK candidate, 46 voted for the DMK.
In 2011, 42 voted for the DMK.
Therefore only 3 people swung away from the DMK; and this is a very small percentage. The authors argue that the election results wound up the way they did, with a massive ADMK win, only because of the alliance between DMDK and ADMK.

Adjusted Vote Share vs Total Vote Share

Here are the links to the wikipedia pages on 2006 TN assembly elections and 2011 assembly elections.

You will see in the bottom of the page, a table with the final breakup of votes. You will see a column called "Vote %" and another called "Adj Vote %".
The DMK's vote percent in 2006 was 26.5%. In other words, out of 100 people who voted in that elections, only 26 voted for DMK.
The DMK's vote percent in 2011 was 22.4%. Out of 100 people, 22 voted for DMK.
This means that 4 voters swung away from DMK in 2011. But what is more important, this 4 as a percentage of DMK voters is 20%.
So 20% of former DMK voters did not vote again for DMK. That is a pretty significant percentage.

But where did the authors of that article come up with the numbers 46 and 42?
They used the NEXT column called "Adj vote %". They used the adjusted vote share, which is the average of the vote shares per constituency.
I think the total vote share is more important than the adjusted vote share. By the total vote share 20% of DMK voters swung away. By Adjusted, less than 10% swung away. I think this is a pretty significant difference.

But let us assume we use adjusted vote shares. All that it means is that the voters of DMK continued to vote for it. That does NOT mean (as the authors imply) that Tamil Nadu electorate had not punished the DMK - people who did not vote the last time, and new voters may have opted for the opposite party, as I will show below.

Swing in favor of ADMK

In 2006, the total vote share of the ADMK was 32.6%.
In 2011, it was 38.4%.
In other words, 6 voters out of 100 swung towards ADMK. The authors have simply not counted this as a reaction against DMK. But, in an almost two party system like Tamil Nadu, the swing in favor matters.

Absolute Numbers
Most importantly, the voting percentage in 2006 was 70%. In 2011 it was 78%. This jump means that the total number of voters who voted for ADMK went up from 10.7 lakhs to 14.1 lakhs. While those who voted for DMK went down from 8.7 lakhs to 8.2 lakhs. Part of this has to do with lesser number of constituencies the DMK competed in (130 in 2006; 119 in 2011). But the difference is just 11 seats. That cannot account for their voters number not even going up with the increased electorate's size (Total votes were 32.9 lakhs in 2006;36.7 lakhs in 2011).

In conclusion, I would say the DMK WAS punished by the Tamil Nadu electorate. I think people are smart enough to realize when they are being conned.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The India Against Corruption movement

(Updated below)
Anna Hazare and team are now working on the draft Lokpal Bill. I wanted to address some of the arguments raised against the India Against Corruption(IAC) movement.
Primarily, Corruption is a systemic problem. It is not something that we have in our blood. The below arguments, instead, address corruption as a kind of individual mind-level thing. That is wrong. It is also counter-productive, because it tries to make citizens feel powerless. That is the goal of these arguments - to make citizens feel cynical and powerless and just give up - while a few people on top can loot the country.

Anna Hazare's tactics

First, Anna Hazare's fast was not a fast to eliminate corruption.
A lot of scorn and disbelief was poured on Anna, because he was apparently trying to end corruption suddenly. The media represented it as a fast against corruption.
But in reality, the GOAL of the fast was very specific - it was to get a few "civil society" members to participate in the drafting of the new Lokpal Bill; and to scrap the government proposed Lokpal bill.
This goal was clearly achievable and they did manage to win it.
The goal was never to "eliminate" corruption with a fast; Anna or the Bhushans or India Against Corruption are not idiots. They did not expect that suddenly all public servants would reform with a fast.
Gandhians are fairly intelligent. They understand how Gandhi used non-violent tactics. Each one of Gandhi's fasts or marches were planned to achieve a very SPECIFIC goal (such as repealing the tax on salt). He never fasted saying he wanted independence.
But thanks to the way we learn history; and the way our media dumbs down issues; Anna's fast was called a fast to eliminate corruption. I think that was a disservice to his fast.

Can we eliminate corruption with a bill?

My short answer would be yes. The long answer is that it depends on what the bill is trying to do.
If the Lokpal bill simply said, "We hereby declare corruption to be a crime. Be gone, corruption" then the above question is valid. But that is not the content of the bill. The bill is neither about outlawing corruption (existing laws do that) or prescribing punishments for corruption (existing laws do that).
The primary purpose of the Jan Lokpal bill is to set up an independent authority on par with the Supreme Court or the Election Commission (This requires an amendment to the Constitution). The bill goes on to specify the powers of that authority; its funding sources and the organizational structure.
Thus the Lokpal Bill is not a "law" in the sense it is commonly understood in India. It is more about setting up a process.
Does the Election Commission eliminate voting irregularities? No, but it brings them down considerably.
This same way setting up a Lokpal structure will REDUCE corruption, over time. That is what the bill tries to do - create Lokpal.
The opponents of Lokpal simply set an impossible standard by asking the question "Will it eliminate corruption". No, it won't - but it will bring it down over time. And that is fine, and better than having no Lokpal at all.

Aren't we all corrupt?

One English magazine ran a story about how we are all corrupt ourselves and so on.
Before I address that specific argument, I want to point out a couple of things:
1. When we had the race attacks in Australia an year back, Outlook magazine ran a cover story saying "Aren't we all racists?". I read through the story; and they were basically comparing the use of fairness creams in India with actual race-based murders in Australia. I wrote a detailed rebuttal of that here.
Whenever someone says "Aren't we all guilty of X?", they are blaming everyone except themselves. The "we" in that question is simply a trick. They are really saying, "I am a nice guy/girl and not guilty, but look at all those other Indians"
It is a feature of predominantly conservative societies (such as India) to either blame the victim or assign guilt to society in a way that is unsolvable.

2. We also have to remember that currently there is a class war going on in India. That fact was laid out in the open from the 2G-scam; the Radia tapes; and Wikileaks exposures. The upper 1% of the country, including corporate media, politicians, and big industrialists are in an alliance to divide the country into pieces and sell all of it.
Thus, whoever asks the question "Aren't we all corrupt" is actually engaged in action AGAINST addressing the corruption problem. The introduction of this "talking point" is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the criminals.

Now, for the actual argument: No, all of us are not corrupt. I have certainly held no public office, and so I cannot be blamed for corruption. I think that is true for 95% of Indians.
The Lokpal Bill is an effort to address corruption by PUBLIC officials. Because they have the most power, this is the correct focus of the bill. Let us say my apartment complex has a secretary and that person is diverting funds. That is NOT the purview of the Lokpal Bill.
We are not trying to become a saintly nation - we are simply trying to control corruption by public officials.
Again, this argument sets an impossible standard. The pundits are saying this - since we are all guilty of some thought crimes at some point, we should not pass the Lokpal Bill because none of us are pure.
If that is the standard, why have the Indian Penal Code at all? Since we have all stolen laddus from Mom's kitchen at some point, we should not have any laws against theft. That is what this argument boils down to.

The Jan Lokpal activists set up an alternative government

The concern was that civil society members "blackmailed" the government to include themselves. Thus they were described as setting up an alternate power center.
I thought this claim is fine in the abstract, but it makes no sense in current India. The Radia tapes and Wikileaks exposures clearly show that we ALREADY have an alternate government in India - it is really the Tatas, Ambanis, a few other industrialists, media persons and then some political families running the country.
Given this situation, I do not see a problem with another power center.

At this point corruption defines India. A few days back I read about pilots getting fake licenses - one of them landed a plane nose first. Corruption is so deep that we cannot trust ANY regulator of the government. Every regulatory authority is an opportunity to make more money and thwart the basic purpose of the regulation. On top of this, we are going to be setting up nuclear plants! And we are going to force all citizens to have Unique IDs! How is this whole system supposed to work when the government is so deeply corrupt?
I would call corruption and criminalization of politics as the worst problems facing India.
It need not be this way. We have strong enough institutions that we could be a nation without any corruption.
Punishment has to start from the top. That is the only way we can clear this mess.

In response to Sayan's comment citing P.Sainath's criticism of the Lokpal:

The "appointment" problem or who forms the collegium in Lokpal is a question not specific to Lokpal itself. It is a problem with creating checks and balances in any "co-equal" branch.
The Constitution sets this process up for the Supreme Court. The President of India appoints SC judges. By all accounts the SC has a lot of power - and its justices are not appointed by an elected official. The President of India is not elected directly by the people.
For the Election Commission, it is the same case. The CEC is appointed by the President.
The Lokpal creation faces the same problem - how do you choose "independent" people who are not elected directly by the people? You have 3 choices:
1. Have a separate election across India to choose Lokpal appointees. There are countries that do this kind of separate elections for co-equal branches. The United States, for example, has elections for state level judges. Federal judges are appointed.
Is this feasible? Can we afford to implement an alternate representational system? And, I think the biggest fear - will that system be dominated by political parties again?
2. Have the President of India appoint the officers to Lokpal. Again, the fear here is that we open ourselves to manipulation by the elected representatives.
3. Arrive at some other way to determine the collegium. This is the approach the current Jan Lokpal team has taken. They have tried to choose a collegium that is "untainted" by politics; and yet provides the correct checks and balances.
The third approach is similar to creating an "independent" investigative commission by appointing retired HC or SC judges. That happens right now.
There are precedents to the above approach. The National Police Commission recommendations 30 years back suggested a collegium that consists of retired judges, eminent people and an equal set of representatives from both ruling and opposition.

Thus, I want to look at the Lokpal collegium problem as a general problem with establishing ANY independent body. I don't think it has anything specific to do with the arrogance of Jan Lokpal writers.
Given that the bill is being written in conjunction with politicians, I hope that a compromise solution will be found that involves more elected representatives. What we will get is an engineered solution. And that is fine.

Ideally, of course, we should not be so afraid of political parties and people's elected repesentatives. But that is how things have evolved. I understand the ideal that people's representatives should ultimately have real power - but as I cited above, that ideal is already broken by having other co-equal branches such as the SC and EC.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Warriors at Home

I live in an apartment in Chennai these days. The residents usually keep to themselves. We don't hear a lot of noises from outside. It is a good community, with some common facilities.
One of these facilities is a Gym. I can see people sneaking in and out some times. At times I walk around the complex listening to the birds. But otherwise I strain to hear a snatch of conversation from any other house.
You see, when I was growing up, we did not have Gyms in our flats. Instead families lost calories by having loud fights in their homes. Everyone could listen in and they usually did. I remember during one of my family fights, the entire neighborhood was standing outside, sometimes cheering. They all had broad smiles in their faces.
I keep saying this - while television saved our nation from itself, it messed up some old-fashioned entertainment and exercise.
People were healthier in olden days because they would have a lot of exercise at home; most of this came from fighting within joint families. This is why the joint family was a great idea. You put together two guys in a room, with a transistor radio in between. They will soon be fighting over the channel to turn to. Now imagine three different families with that same radio.

Our family issues were usually long running epic wars. At any point we may be engaged in a small battle and one or the other may lose. But we were focussed on long term victory and total domination. We even had epic battles, in which the location of the fight kept changing from room to room. One such battle with my brother started in the kitchen; and then my mother joined in and the action went from kitchen to hall to even the toilet.
My brother and me were having lunch. It is a small kitchen, so my brother reached out to get something. It stuck me that he deliberately dropped a bit of his food on my plate.
I yelled at him and we went back and forth. Finally I dumped my plate's content - not on his plate, but on him.
Brother did not expect this and before he could react my mother joined in and asked me what the hell I was doing. She took the plate from my brother's head, and dumped more food into it. And she wanted me to eat it. (Both of us ignored my brother who was sitting with Sambar dripping from his hair)
I ran to the toilet and tried to close the door. Mother follows me in and asks me to eat it right there. I push mother and mother falls on cement tank; cement tank breaks. Mother is fine.
I feel sorry for her. I feel more sorry for myself, because I know that Father will come in the evening; and he may not understand my perspective about the cement tank. In fact I am sure I won't have time to explain my perspective, before the beating started.
I sit at the dining room and was saying abject apologies to my mom, when my brother walks in. He has by now removed the food stuff from his person. He takes a metal pot and bangs it on my head.
There ended the battle of the cement tank.

I had seen some other families - they did not fight. But they also ended up being fat. In our family you have to be nimble. My brother was very nimble, but he also had the knack of saying the exact wrong thing to my Father.
One day we were all eating together. Joking to each other; Enjoying the meal. I remember now that I had a eerie sense of foreboding - the whole setting was unnatural.
Then my Father asked the Family a question - what was his first job?
I stayed quiet. My brother could not. He jumped in and started counting down from Senior Clerk, Upper Division Clerk etc. Father kept smiling and saying no.
Then my brother had a brain wave. He said, "Were you a peon?"
Soon he was running from cupboard to cupboard seeking sanctuary. His idea seemed to be that he could get in a closet and close the door; and Father will then abandon the "battle". Alas, none of our closets had doors. He only got himself wedged in a narrow closet, unable to move, while Father pummeled him.

One of our neighbor families had a different problem. Doordarshan telecast the movie "Mudhal Mariyadhai" in the usual Sunday afternoon slot. In that movie, Shivaji Ganesan plays a middle-aged man who is ill-treated by his wife. He falls in love with a young fisher-woman and they become very close.
This movie fulfilled the fantasy of every family man in Tamil Nadu at that time. Since the actress Radha played the young woman, these guys imagined that they all had their own Radhas waiting for them. They also imagined that they were all being ill-treated by their wives. It helped them feel like Shivaji Ganesan. More importantly, it made them find Radha in every younger woman they saw.
This particular neighbor was in a good mood until the movie started playing in the TV. Then as the movie progressed, the family noticed that he was being morose. he started complaining about his wife. By the end of the movie, he was in a frenzy about being ill-treated. He could not stand his malign family - nagging wife and ungrateful children. He started yelling and screaming. We all were listening and making fun of them.
It took him a few days to come out of "Mudhal Maryadhai" syndrome.

Now, during all this, there was one family, that was annoyingly peaceful. they never fought. We could never hear their voices outside. They were very proud of it and we were all waiting for them to have a big fight.
It finally happened this way. You have to follow this closely.
There was a teen aged girl who lived with her parents in our colony. This girl, thinking back now, was not all that great; but she was there (as Sir Edmund Hilary would have said). Her neighbor had a teen-aged son. This young man took a fancy to the girl next door. She had no idea.
There was a servant maid in the girl's home. That maid was also serving in another house.
Our Romeo thought that his way to the heart of the girl went through the maid. Why? No idea. But he wanted desperately to give the girl a love letter. He could easily have passed that letter on. But our genius, instead, approached the servant maid. He wanted her to pass on the love-letter.
This he did with the help of two other friends. One of these was the son of the peaceful family guy.
As you can imagine, it was not the best plan. First, the maid thought the letter was for herself. Then she was faced with three young guys assuring her that Romeo would take care of his lady love forever (he was in Plus One at that time). She went and told everyone.
One fine evening we were all playing downstairs, when there were shouts from somewhere. I automatically thought it was my family, in battle stations. Well, it was not. Surprise of surprises, the peaceful family were all yelling at each other and fighting. Their son had brought shame on them.

We watched the fight for some time. It followed us in our homes. We talked about it for a few days, complaining about how these families were too loud. Everybody felt very mature and good for some time.
Then my brother asked for a bicycle and all hell broke loose.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Five questions for India's leaders

Since we are having elections shortly; and our state's ruling family now has the pride of being the "invisible hand" behind the 2G scam, here are a few questions for India's "smarter" political leaders:
1. What do you think Government's role is, in society? Do you think government's focus should be on revenue or in ensuring long-term happiness of citizens?
If a neighborhood has a park, owned by the government; and that park is in a prime area of the city; do you think government should set up an SEZ there and bring more corporations and thus boost revenue? Or do you think the park should be available for the citizens to use?

2. Is due-process more important to you? Or are immediate benefits more important to you?
Let us say that you are offering a piece of government land. A corporation offers to provide a lot of benefits to the local community. Therefore, would you bypass an actual auction or bidding process and make the land available to the the said corporation? Let us say the bidding process takes more time; while the corporation can start providing benefits immediately. What is your role as a minister? Would you make sure due process is followed, or would you "cut" the process short?

3. Are party and the government the same?
Let us say that your actions as a minister affects a corporation. Let us say that corporation donates money to your party. Do you consider it necessary to act against the corporation? Let us then say that your party's success is crucial for the next elections and even for the future of India; and let us say the alternative party is horrible. Would you still act against the corporation?

4. Do you think government should be run like a company? Do you agree with the "CEO" title given to Chief Ministers? In other words, do you think the goals of a company and a government are the same?

5. Do you think political parties are open institutions, that are the first level of defense, when appointing a candidate? Or do you think it is the people who should decide if a candidate is fit or now?
In other words, if a candidate with somewhat shady dealings, was likely to win in a constituency, would you still choose them? Do you think people are the ultimate judge of a candidate or do political parties have a role in filtering candidates?

Those are my five questions for Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha, Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi,Modi and all of the rest. I think answers to these are at the heart of the current "ideology" in India.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Vijay TV Westernization debate

The Vijay TV debate show "Neeyaa Naanaa" covered the issue of Westernization last week. The topic of the debate was "Is Westernization desirable or not".
The comments by the people involved made me consider the topic in some detail. Here are my opinions:

Individual preferences
One of the participants in the show maintained that he preferred western food; but went on to claim that this was a matter of individual freedom.
I have encountered this argument before - and it is simply a means to shut the opponent down. It is truly a matter of individual freedom whatever someone chooses to eat; but, once you publicly talk about it in a debate show, any other person also has the freedom to criticize you.
Remember Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty in a show and there was a big hue and cry over it? We were discussing this in a restaurant - and I said public displays of affection were ok. Another guy said he was offended even if a couple held hands in public. I said that seemed a pretty low bar to get offended over. He immediately said it was his personal opinion; and so by implication no one could talk about it.
It is only your personal opinion when you have a thought in your head. When you publicly express a thought, you have the freedom to do that. At the same time, others have the freedom to condemn your thought.
This is a not a trivial issue - it is the basis of a very bad misunderstanding of Freedom of Speech rights. Freedom of Speech right protects you from government censorship. It does not protect you from criticism at all. Your critic has the same Freedom of Speech.
Therefore the issue of Westernization in the private or public sphere is certainly open to commentary - as long as you are not advocating hanging everyone who orders a pizza.

Westernization and Sociology
There is certainly a case to be made that our society is changing rapidly. The pace of this change, the nature of it, its causes are all subject matter for Sociology. If a lot of people in the United States started using Hindi words while talking, do you think everyone would say "Ah...individual freedom at work" and throw up their hands? No, they would study the phenomenon to death - that is exactly why the pace and causes for Westernization are open to study.
Let us take the case of the Valentine's Day celebration. This has become a lightning rod for fights between the Indian culture police such as the Shiv Sena; and people who believe in individual freedom. That is fine. I think the Shiv Sena are thugs too.
But ANALYZING the sudden popularity of that day and the causes for it are completely game for an inquiring person. Such analysis itself does not mean that I want to ban the Valentine's Day - it simply means I want to find out the sociological reasons for its popularity.

Westernization vs Americanization

In the debate show I noticed that everyone stuck to the word "Westernization" even though a lot of what they were talking about was really Americanization or Modernization. These three words have become synonymous in our minds. But they do not mean the same thing.
The West itself, most of the states in Europe, for example, are actually a victim of "Westernization". From Scotland to Switzerland, a lot of homogeneity has developed over the past 50 years. These have been at the cost of local cultures and arts. The United States itself has become very homogenous in this time. This has been due to the cultural "hegemony" of the United States (I do not use the term hegemony in a negative way).
This is an important distinction - because when people broadly say Westernization it means a quest for new experiences or the celebration of a "better" culture, a culture of the Europeans. But the European native cultures themselves are under threat from "Westernization". And this mono-culture is actually changing too.
This is why debating about eating pizza or Dosa seem silly to me - the pizza as we eat it is not "Western" in any sense. The big companies that are pizza franchises are all American; and their preparation has little to do with the pizza prepared in Italian homes. (For one, they would never dream of putting masala on pizza)
There are bigger issues at stake than pizza.
The truth is the USA is a global hegemon in terms of money and power. Therefore there exists a good reason why it exercises cultural hegemony too.
The mono-culture in the USA itself, meanwhile is largely shaped by the corporate media there. Thus, you may as well celebrate "American-corporate-mediaization" instead of Westernization.

Westernization vs Modernization
Neither is Westernization synonymous with Modernization. In the debate show one person mentioned that her husband (who is a Christian) wonders why we should receive money all time with the right hand (as we do in India). She mentioned that she had no answer for this question.
If her point was that there are a lot of absurd social conventions in India, she is right. But that is the case in the West too. I lived in Philadelphia for a few years in an apartment complex that had four blocks. None of these blocks had a 13th floor! The floors reached 12 and then the next was 14. There was no 13th floor because 13 is an unlucky number.
Social conventions and rituals exist in all societies. The Americans have very absurd fashion rules such as not wearing certain colors in the winter.
My point is that it is easy - not really knowing anything about "Western" culture - to say that it is devoid of all the ills of ours.
One common confusion is about the Indian wedding. The Indian wedding involves 500 to 1000 invitees and a lot of rituals in some castes. In a forum debate someone said it was less meaningful as compared to a "Western" wedding.
But the Western wedding (the wedding rituals we see in Hollywood movies are not representative) has its own set of peculiarities. Once you have agreed to marriage as a ritual, almost every society has absurdities in marriages.
As human beings we are prone to meaningless rituals; it is hard to escape them. The NASA countdown to rocket launch is a ritual (the Russians do not do countdowns). The American Presidential inauguration is a ritual. Swearing in a political leader is a ritual.
There is very little specifically "better" about Western rituals.

Western Music
The SS Music Channel VJ Pooja, who was a guest in this debate show, started saying that Western music is better and has global reach. She mentioned that it influences Indian film music a lot.
I am always suspicious of people who claim about a better art or a better music based on regions or cultures. The amazing diversity you find in cultures in this world allows for many different dimensions of music, dance, painting, cinema, sculpture or literature. We cannot claim that one is better than the other based purely on a region to which an art belongs to.
The truth is that Western music has a big degree of penetration around the world because the West ruled most of the world (again, using the term West loosely).

To me, if Indian music borrows from the West it actually enriches Indian music. And vice versa. Music and other arts are not static - they get better when they borrow other influences. This is as true for Western music as it is for Indian music. Instead, it is weird to consider this "borrowing" to be a weak point of Indian music - it is a point in our favor, not against.
I have a great respect for all aspects of music including Western music - I don't think you can compare these music systems at all.
As an aside, the people who make such comparisons also make another mistake - they compare Indian CLASSICAL music with Western POPULAR music. This is a confusing comparison - classical music in any culture has lesser number of listeners (just as classical literature has lower number of readers). This is true in the West too - not everyone is grooving to Mozart over there.

The Biggest Issue
Having said all this, I thought the debate skipped the most important issues of Westernization.
The fact that our language is slowly decimated by schools which require students to speak only in English - that is a big concern. That is a conscious, deliberate attempt by the school system. I have written multiple times about this here.
The fact that all our advertisements in media show extremely fair people who move about in a Western styled landscape is a cause for concern. To me, it seems it makes us identify with white people, thereby subtly making us a client state.

These two combine to show a conscious attempt to push us into a forced Westernization program set by our elites.
That bothers me; Pizza eating does not.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mynah, Aadukalam - the issue with Tamil movies

சமீபத்தில் மைனா படம் பார்த்தேன். அதை பற்றிய ஒரு இணைய விவாதத்திலும் சில கருத்துக்கள் சொன்னேன். இந்த கட்டுரை தமிழ் சினிமா பற்றிப் பல நாட்களாக என்னுடைய மனதில் இருக்கும் சில எண்ணங்களை எடுத்து வைக்கிறது.

தமிழ் சினிமா இந்தக் கடைசி ஐந்து வருடங்களில் நிறைய மாறி விட்டதாகத் தான் எனக்குத் தோன்றுகிறது. அந்த மாற்றங்கள் காமிரா, படத்தொகுப்பு, நடிப்பு, நடிகர்களின் தேர்வு , திரைக்கதையின் அமைப்பு மற்றும் ஆர்ட் டைரக்க்ஷன் போன்ற துறைகளில் பிரமாதமாகத் தெரிகிறது. இதை நான் ஒத்துக் கொள்கிறேன். இது பெருமைக்குரிய விஷயம்.

ஆனால் தமிழ் சினிமாவில் மோசமான அம்சம் என்று நான் கருதுவது கதையிலும், கதையின் பொருளிலும் உள்ள இரு குறைகள்.

வன்முறையின் சித்தரிப்பு

மைனா, பருத்திவீரன், சுப்பிரமண்ணியபுரம் இவை யாவுமே வன்முறையுடன் முடிகின்றன. இந்த வன்முறை தேவையில்லாதது, மற்றும் சரியாகப் படம் பிடிக்கப் படாதது என்பது என் முதல் குறை.
இதைப் பற்றி நான் பேசும் போது, பொதுவாக சில மாற்றுக் கருத்துக்கள் சொல்லப்படுகின்றன.
- வன்முறை வாழ்வின் ஒரு அம்சம். அதுவும் "விளிம்பு நிலை மக்கள்" வாழ்வில் முக்கியமான ஒரு அம்சம். ரியலிசதுடன் எடுக்கப்படும் படங்கள் இத்தகைய வன்முறையைக் காட்டுவதில் ஆச்சரியமில்லை என்பது ஒரு வாதம்.
- மற்றொரு வாதம் கொரிய மற்றும் ஹாலிவுட் படங்களைக் காட்டி அதில் இல்லாத வன்முறையா என்பது.
இந்த இரு வாதங்களும் சரியா?
நான் மேலே சொன்ன படங்களில் வன்முறை ரியலிசத்துடன் எடுக்கப்பட்டதே இல்லை. உதாரணத்திற்கு வெயில் படத்தை எடுத்து கொள்ளுங்கள். அல்லது மைனா படத்தை எடுத்துக் கொள்ளுங்கள். இவை இரண்டிலுமே வன்முறை என்பது முடிவில் உள்ள சோகத்தை மறைக்கவே காட்டப்படுகின்றன. மைனாவில் போலீஸ் அதிகாரியின் கடைசிச் செயல்கள் ரியலிசத்தினால் எடுக்கப்பட்டவையே அல்ல. அவை படம் பார்த்து விட்டுச் செல்பவர் மனதில் சோகம் நிற்காமல், பழி வாங்கிய திருப்தி ஓங்கி நிற்கவே காட்டப்படுகின்றன.
இப்படிப்பட்ட வன்முறையைத் தெளிவாக படத்தின் வணிக வெற்றிக்காக எடுத்து விட்டு ரியலிசம் என்று அதை சமாளிப்பதாகவே தோன்றுகிறது.
அப்படியே வன்முறை கதையில் நடக்கிறது என்றே எடுத்துக் கொள்வோம். அதை அப்படியே காட்டுவது தான் ரியலிசமா என்ன? ரியலிசம் என்பது இயக்குனரின் கட்டு மீறிய ஒன்றல்ல. இயக்குனர்களும் கதை சொல்லிகளும் படைப்பாளிகள். கதையில் ஒவ்வொரு காட்சியிலும் அவர்களுடைய படைப்புக்கு மேல் அவர்களுக்கு கண்ட்ரோல் இருக்க வேண்டும். வன்முறையைக் காட்டுவதற்கு எவ்வளவோ வழிகள் இருக்கின்றன. அதில் ஒன்றையுமே அணுகாமல் ரத்தம் சிதறுவதை ஒரு மெஷின் போல காட்டுவதற்கு இயக்குனர் எதற்கு?

ஹாலிவுட் படங்களில், தரண்டினோ போன்றவர்கள் படங்களில் வன்முறை ஒரு கொண்டாட்டமாகவே வருகிறது என்பது உண்மையே. ஆனால் அப்படங்கள் வன்முறையை ஒரு ஸ்டைலாக ஏற்றுக் கொள்கின்றன. நம் படங்களைப் போல, பாதி வரை காமெடி, பாட்டு முடிவில் கோரக் கொலைகள், மற்றும் பழி வாங்குதல் என்று அர்த்தமே இல்லாமல் போவதில்லை.
முதலில் நாம் தமிழர்கள் பார்க்கக் கூடிய நல்ல கதைகளை, படங்களை எடுப்போம் - பிறகு தரண்டிநோவைப் பின்பற்றலாம் என்பது என் தாழ்மையான கருத்து.

ஹீரோயிசம் செத்து விட்டதா?

சிறிது நாட்களுக்கு முன்னால் ஆடுகளம் படம் பார்த்தேன். மைனாவைப் போலவே அதிலும் அர்த்தமே இல்லாத ரவுடி ஹீரோவும் அவன் காதலும்.
இதைப் பற்றி சிலருடன் பேசிய போது, நான் இப்படங்களில் ஹீரோக்களுடன் நாம் ஒன்ற முடிவதில்லை என்று சொன்னேன். அதற்க்கு அவர்கள், "இப்பொழுதெல்லாம் படங்களில் ஹீரோக்கள் என்று யாரும் இல்லை. கதை தான் ஹீரோ", என்று சொன்னார்கள்.
இது உண்மையா என்ன?
நான் ஹீரோ என்று சொன்னதும் என் நண்பர்கள் ரஜினி ஸ்டைல் ஹீரோ என்று நினைத்துக் கொள்கிறார்கள். எனவே இந்த பதில் சொல்கிறார்கள். ஆனால், ஆடுகளம் படத்தையோ, மைனா படத்தையோ வேறு நாட்டுக்காரர் ஒருவரிடம் போட்டு காட்டி, இதில் ஹீரோ யார் என்று கேட்டால், மிக சரியாகச் சொல்வார்கள் என்று எனக்குத் தோன்றுகிறது.
ஏனென்றால் இவ்விரு படங்களிலும் ஹீரோக்கள் இருக்கிறார்கள். படம் யாருடைய கதைகளை முன் வைக்கிறதோ, யாரிடம் நம் பார்வையை இட்டுச் செல்கிறதோ, அவர் ஹீரோ தான் - ஆணாக இருந்தாலும் சரி, பெண்ணாக இருந்தாலும் சரி. ஹீரோ இல்லாமல் படம் எடுக்க முடியாது என்று நான் கூற வரவில்லை - மைனாவும் ஆடுகளமும் அது போன்ற படங்கள் இல்லை என்று தான் சொல்கிறேன். இரண்டிலுமே ஹீரோக்கள் இருக்கிறார்கள்.

அவர்களுடன் நாம் ஒன்றாமல் போவதற்குக் காரணம் அவர்களைக் கிட்டத்தட்ட ரவுடி அல்லது லூசு போலக் கட்டுவது தான். தவறு நம்முடைய புரிதலில் இல்லை. படத்தின் இயக்குனர் மோசமான, பெண்களை தொந்திரவு செய்கிற, சம்பந்தமேயில்லாமல் மேலே பாய்கிற நபர்களை ஹீரோவாகக் கதையை எழுதியிருக்கிறார். மைனாவின் ஹீரோ ஒரு கடைந்தெடுத்த மடையன் என்பதில் சந்தேகமே இல்லை - இவர் போன்ற ஒருவரை நாம் பக்கத்துக்கு வீட்டிலோ தெருவிலோ பார்த்தால் எரிச்சல் தான் வரும்.
சில பல காரணங்களினால் தமிழில் சாதாரணமான மனிதர்களை வைத்துக் கதை எழுத வருவதில்லை. அடிமட்டத்து மக்கள் என்ற பெயரில் அதீதமான் நம்ப முடியாத, நம்மால் கொஞ்சம் கூட இரக்கம் கொள்ள முடியாத கதாபாத்திரங்களை வைத்துக் கதையை எழுதுகிறார்கள். இதற்கும் அந்த கதாபாத்திரங்கள் ஏழையா பணக்காரனா, விளிம்பு நிலை மனிதனா என்பதற்கும் சம்பந்தமே இல்லை.
உண்மையில், முடிவில் உள்ள வன்முறையை மட்டும் தெளிவாக திட்டமிட்டு விட்டுப் பிறகு மிச்சக் கதையை எழுதுவது போல இருக்கிறது.

சுருக்கமாகச் சொல்வது என்றால், தேவையற்ற வன்முறை சித்தரிப்பு , மற்றும் அசட்டு ஹீரோக்களை விட்டு தமிழ்ப் படம் வெளியே வர வேண்டும். அதற்குப் பதிலாக சர்வதேசத் தரத்தில் படம் எடுப்பதாகக் கூறுவது நம்மை நாமே ஏமாற்றிக் கொள்ளத் தான்.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

My experience with religion

For the first 20-25 years of my life I was a pretty religious person. This blog post tracks my experiences in religion.

I suddenly found a great attachment to religion in 2nd standard. The bullock cart for taking us all to school would wait outside, while I will be chanting Kandhar Sashti Kavasam for half an hour. My teacher did not know what to make of this; she had to wait outside too.
My hope at that time was that I would become a holy man. This lasted until I saw Sri Vidhya in 4th standard (not the actress). I had joined a new school and there was a divine girl named SriVidhya. For the next two years that I studied with her, I do not remember chanting Kandhar Sashti Kavasam.

At that time, performances known as "Kathakalatchebam" were famous in Tamil Nadu. Krubanandha Vaariaar, one of the most famous performers, used to draw huge crowds. He would talk for 10 days about the Ramayanam or Mahabharatham. I call them performances because they were not solely devotional. Vaariaar used to joke a lot; sing; and would have danced if his size had permitted. Sukhi.Sivam, who now talks in television about the evils of coke cans, used to be young and funny then.
WE used to go to a lot of these performances. One of the more devotional and serious ones were by a person named Krishna Premi. He had disciples and a retinue following him ; and so he was more like a "swamiji".
I was very inspired by him (by that time SriVidhya was gone - my parents put me in a gents school). So one day while we were walking to listen to him, I decided that I would ask him my question. My question's inspiration was taken from Vivekananda's question to Ramakrishna(and Nachiketas's question to Yama). "Some say there is God; some say there isn't. What do you think?" (for context - I was in 6th standard at that time)
A bunch of people were standing before Krishna Premi and they were falling one by one at his feet. I was impatient - I was afraid I would forget the exact question. In my mind the time for self-realization had come. I would ask him the question, he would answer it brilliantly. And then he would deserve to take me as a disciple. I may even end up in Chicago.
I approached him and nervously said, " Some say there is God; some... "
He nodded his head and said, "Ok" and moved on to the next person.

At some point in this whole deal, I decided that I knew a lot about religion. I felt that I had crossed the stage of the masses who have to deal with Bhakthi,offer prayers and had to make pilgrimages etc. These foolish people actually did not realize what Vedanta says! I decided that I would follow the Vedanta and Bhagavat Gita and all that.
In this, I was helped by my family. My parents were getting into Vedanta themselves. Discussing Vedanta with different people is an exercise in increasing intensity of self-righteousness. When two middle-aged Vedantins of the 20th century met, their conversation went like:
V1: That is why I have given up all ties to my children. I tell my son, you go to college or become a peon, I don't care. I have no attachments.
V2: Why just to children? I have given up ties to my wife. After my duties are done, I will just leave for (usually Himalayas or Kashi)
V1: Come on, wife and children are not the only ties. I told all my relations....
and so on. They try to beat each other by how much they have given up "attachment". I have not seen one guy (it is always guys) from this circle actually go to Himalayas. They all stuck around until retirement; complained about pension; and are now generally Green Card holders and spend their time watching Asianet for some reason.

My family was also into Sanskrit at this time. I discovered this one day when I came back from playing outside and found a strange conversation at home:
My dad: But ..., you have too much Kshaathram in your voice.
My brother: No, I don't have any Kshaatram
Mom: You are always talking with so much Nishtooram

What the hell? What is Kshaatram? Who is Nishtooram? And they were all talking as if they all knew these words. I did not ask them, of course. I just managed to sneak in weird words myself (such as NiratcharaGutchi) into our conversation. At some points, I would say 50% of the words we used made no sense to each other.
It was just a phase.

In the newspaper Hindu, Khushwant Singh wrote an article that dismissed the idea of reincarnation. I got upset at this and spent one full day brooding about how to answer Khushwant Singh. That is how I developed the "Law of Conservation of Souls".
You see, the Bhagavat Gita says the soul can neither be created nor destroyed. That is similar (in my mind) to saying energy can neither be created nor destroyed. My letter to the editor of The Hindu had the following passage:
"According to the Law of Conservation of Souls, a soul is neither created nor destroyed. But we do know that there are a lot more people and souls in the world now rather than earlier. Where did all the new souls come from? They must be coming from other alien civilizations in distant stars, which are getting destroyed all the time"
They must have had a good laugh in the editor's room about the alien stars.

As a Vedantin, when I went to temples it was pure torture. On the one hand, I wanted to pray fervently about getting marks in Plus 2 exams; or getting at least one neighborhood girl to be my girlfriend.
On the other hand, as a Vedantin I was supposed to realize that all desire is futile; god is myself; and so the neighborhood girls do not exist.
Everything is Maya!
So I would go into the temple and one part of me would be praying and the other part would be like, "Excuse me, why are you praying to yourself? Hello?"

Finally I broke down and decided to go full metal into Devi Bhakti. I started doing 4 hour poojas every Friday waking up at 4 AM. College was missed many times, but what is college before the wishes of my goddess? I went pretty deep into the whole thing; I learnt a lot of theory in Devi worship. When I got into the bus at Nungambakkam and went to Mylapore, I would close my eyes and start praying for every temple along the way. There were a LOT of temples.

So my religious exploration had taken me from meaningless chanting; to Vedanta and philosophy (without gaining any good knowledge of either); to something pretty close to Bhakti. I was in engineering school by that time, and had to get a job. My times of exploration had come to an end.

I do pray from time to time, a short prayer thrown to the universe, just in case someone is listening. It is always a specific prayer about some immediate thing (such as praying for my client to be in a good mood). I am completely comfortable with that.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some thoughts on corruption and regulation

Do we require a mass movement?

A lot of people have invoked the vision of a second freedom struggle to eliminate corruption. Taking them at their word, I will try to explain why it is not.

The freedom struggle included strands of reforming our society. But its primary goal was to eliminate a clear "other" (the British) from a colonial role. For most of the leaders, the "enemy" was NOT the British; the enemy was the colonial system itself. But when translated into a mass movement, the enemy was clearly defined.

In the case of a "mass movement against corruption", who is the "other"? The other is all among us. They are naked exploiters of the system, but we cannot really identify them and stage "satyagrahas" or anything like that.

I think this is a core problem of attitude when talking about corruption - the corrupt are not a distinct group of people.

Should India be corrupt?

Why is India corrupt at all?
Most of us born after independence have assumed that this is the natural status of things - that India is somehow "hardwired" to be corrupt. We do not know any other possible way things could have evolved.
If you read the literature on corruption in India, the conclusions are different. The reason, experts say, corruption took hold in India was because India had a huge License Raj set up very soon after independence. This encouraged, in the first 30-40 years, a systemic fault which pushed people to adjust prices through corruption. Thus corruption in India would have been at low levels if the License Raj had not been set up or did not have so much power.
Jitendra Singh of Wharton management says in an interview:

There was a distortion of incentives within the economy, such that people began expending efforts toward fundamentally unproductive behaviors because they saw that such behaviors could lead to short-term gains. Thus, cultivating those in positions of power who could bestow favors became more important than coming up with an innovative product design. The latter was not as important, anyway, because most markets were closed to foreign competition--automobiles, for example--and if you had a product, no matter how uncompetitive compared to global peers', it would sell.

These were largely distortions created by the politico-economic regime. While a sea change has occurred in the years following 1991, some of the distorted cultural norms that took hold during the earlier period are slowly being repaired by the sheer forces of competition. The process will be long and slow, however. It will not change overnight.

So it is possible that we could have evolved to be not so corrupt; there is nothing genetic or core cultural about Indians and corruption.

Will Individual efforts prevent corruption

People have suggested not paying bribes as a means of fighting corruption. This is impractical. I think this is suggested as a means for blaming the victim.
Let me narrate an incident - this is not so much of corruption, but government incompetence:
Me and a friend were coming back from Bangalore. We had booked seats in a government bus. The bus was there. We got in; had nice seats. I settled down with a comfortable blanket.
Well, about half an hour after the bus was supposed to start, the driver came and told us the bus won't go. We were all frustrated and he gave no explanation. It seemed they had a difference of opinion with some body else and they decided to protest by not driving.
We all got down and were madly trying to find some alternative ( me running around with the blanket wrapped around me). An admin guy came and told us to get tickets in another bus. We all rushed to the counter and tried to get the tickets.
There was one guy who was among the passengers - he was yelling at us that we were making a mistake. We should fight for the original bus to go and demand an explanation. If we did not do that they will keep repeating this.
I sympathized with him; but NOBODY else was listening to him. Everybody scrambled for the tickets, and I got mine too.
I felt ashamed of not fighting for our rights for a long time; but then I realized that what was expected was very high.
People respond to incentives. Given between staying and fighting for a bus that may not really go anywhere, and getting back to Chennai for our regular jobs, 99% will choose getting back to Chennai. This is not because we were all craven fools - it is because that is really the sensible thing to do.
(I have successfully refused to pay bribes elsewhere - before people rush to judge)
This is what I feel about regulating autorickshaws or refusing to pay bribes to policemen - these are problems for the COMMUNITY to fix; not for individual people to fight. People will fight for their rights if very fundamental things, such as their property, their family or their own lives are under threat. Let me correct that - they will fight if these are under IMMEDIATE threat.
A long term threat like air pollution in Chennai also affects our family, lives and property. But we are humans - not given to such long term calculations.
(In fact if we all calculated long term, no one will be building anything in Chennai, given that the sea level is supposed to rise by 1 meter by 2030)

Case Study - Regulating Autorickshaws in Chennai

Chennai autorickshaws are unique in their extortion - They never use their government mandated meters. This results in a very complicated issues for the passenger and the driver. The driver has to know the EXACT location where you are going because if they have to drive more, they lose. The drivers are also badly trained but that is another story.
How do you make sure the auto driver uses a meter?
If I want to get from Adyar to Anna Nagar for a function and the auto guy refuses to use his meter, then I will pay him what he asks after haggling. I will not be staging a satyagraha to shame him. My goal at that point is to get to the function - not the solution of the auto problem. I do know that in the long term, this is what auto drivers understand as well. The stakes are all in their favor.

This is why community organizing is important - in any community, there are people who are generally more concerned with such issues. In Chennai, there is an autorickshaw passengers association. They are trying to influence things, but I don't see much success. But the solution definitely lies in that direction; not in individuals protesting.
Ideally, given some funding, all that you have to do when a driver asks too much money, is to call some number and leave them the auto registration number. Then they take care of all the legalities of punishing the driver. You only have to show up as a witness.

When I was in Philadelphia, I worked on an elaborate website for reporting complaints to the Philadelphia Parking Authority who regulated taxis in the city. There were elaborate rules for recording complaints; for holding hearings; and punishing the drivers including an appeals process. It was very easy to report complaints. Each taxi actually had a phone number listed for reporting complaints.
(Again, I am not saying we should build a website)
But in Philadelphia, this was the city government's function. In Chennai, it IS the Corporation's function, but they are not doing anything about it. I am guessing this is the least of their priorities - because auto drivers are a special interest group. Given a special interest group and a amorphous set of citizens, the interest group will always win.
My point is that there are pretty rational explanations why the auto drivers behave the way they do; and there are ways in which you can combat them without holding a freedom struggle. Individuals refusing to pay over meter charge will not help anyone.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blogging Block

I have not blogged for at least a month. One reason was my efforts to write a big one about the "Aadhaar" project (National ID Card project) and what it means to us.
But there was also one other reason. I had a general chat over IM with a long-time friend yesterday. I ranted and raved about the state of the country. At the end of it I realized I had a nice editorial to write.
So here are my excerpts from the IM; and some additional comments.
My friend asked: What about blogging? Why are you not feeling motivated?
My response went on and on:
Too many scams; and now the mask is ripped off.I dont feel like there is anything new to say. Right now the Radia tapes and the scams and Binayak Sen's conviction basically show the ugly naked face to everyone.
Till now there was some belief that we are heading towards some manageable state.
But now I am sure that there is actually an elite which is consciously pushing the country towards some policies; and the Karunanidhi family etc are very well entrenched. If you protest they can put you in jail for pretty much anything.
If there is one thing I learnt studying the Aadhaar Law, it is this - we need an Indian Tea Party [I am referring to the American crazy libertarian, anti-government movement called the Tea Party]. Basically laws are passed by our representatives;
and these laws have consequences. But much of these are not debated and pushed in.
Then we are accused of breaking the law.
One example is Chidambaram's recent statement about Binayak Sen's conviction
He said that there is the rule of law and they have to go through due process and appeal.He said that is the only way.But he missed the point. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act was passed by all these states and it is plainly unconstitutional.
And so now we have a law that goes against the constitution and the minister is telling us we should obey it
My friend: You think the case against Binayak Sen is fraud?
Me: I dont know, but it is two things. It is guilt by association and should not be treated under sedition. Secondly the judge's comments seem to mean that the judgement was meant as a deterrent and not as a particular sentence for Sen's crime. That is shocking. He is almost saying that because Maoists cause killing and you are associated with them indirectly, this will send a message to everyone not to link with them. That is a very shocking judgement.
It violates all sense of balance
My point is that Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha matter. They pass laws that are sometimes crafted by special interests. The most important laws are passed without debate or interest and then people only realise the laws' effects much later. Such as Sen's case. Now anyone who has "Das Kapital" in his home can be arrested and sentenced.
Take the UID modification in 2003 [ I am referring to the change in the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, that enables compulsory registration of all citizens]. We are only now realizing its implications. When we object, we are violating the law; and they tell us to obey the rule of law.
My friend: ok
Me: Parliament matters. But nobody knows the effects of its laws including the morons who pass them, I suspect

My Friend: Do you know the conditions when the bill was created and passed?
I mean, why did they have a need for that law.

Me: I think they push these through because the police want it in Maoist states but it will be good to do some research. I suspect that other states then adopt them too
That is how the line between a police state and a democracy blur.
There are 1000 different stories there. If u had a journalist staff you could just spend days covering the chennai city budget or laws in state houses or parliament and so on.
For example I found a depressing story in the Hindu that our military and top diplomats are trading visa favors from the US for influencing policy in India
The US consciously promotes that. That was one story and no one commented on it; no ripple.
Our population is under informed and no one is taking up the job of informing them.
The media is mostly corporatised. There is a crying need for independent media
Someone who can cover stories at city level, parliamennt level. I wish there was a Tea Party in India. Just to yell "tyranny" every time.
CNN-IBN in India telecast a story about lobbying. They solicited user comments via twitter during the debate. Most of the comments were supporting lobbying.
Then one guy got the screenshots from the television and website; and looked up the twitter accounts. They don't exist
IBN team was doing this themselves in trying to influence the debate because they are corporate owned and they like lobbying. That just completely depresses me.
These are smart people who think we are all idiots.
At this point in India, no information is available to most people.

My friend got tired of me at this point and left the IM. But not before the damage was done; I may start blogging again.