Sunday, 8 December 2013

Voters in India want their country to be a land of dreams

The election results of four major Indian states Chattishgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi spelt a major blow for the Congress –led UPA government at the Centre. The ruling Congress party has been bogged by a series of huge corruption scandals, poor governance and mismanagement of the economy.

The results couldn’t have been better for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 national elections, Narendra Modi has become a new hero in Indian politics. It’s mainly because of his government’s ability to deliver good governance and a steady economic growth in the western Indian state of Gujrat. It’s believed that if the rest of India could match Gujarat’s economic model and growth, India could easily outstrip France’s economy.

What is remarkable about the election results in Delhi is the spectacular performance of the Aam Admi Party(AAP) which literally means a common man party. The debutant party campaigned in style promising to clean up Indian politics and led a very aggressive door-to-door campaign. Their strategic campaign caught up the imagination of many of India’s young and first time voters-   and it paid off.

The election results and manner in which people voted reflects a changing dynamics in the fast changing Indian society. Delhi, for example, is made up of urban voters, whose living standard and access to public facilities are better compared to other states that went to polls earlier this week. There is also a vibrant media and people are well informed. The divisive politics of caste and religion that characterized Indian political landscape in 1990s doesn’t really hold ground in Delhi.

For the rest of India too, the 2014 national elections are going to be very different, again because a big chunk of first time voters are young and have aspirations for a better life.

When India voted in earlier elections, the country was still at the early stages of economic growth, and many of the first time voters were growing up. These new voters have seen what it means to be prosperous, rich, and modern – partly due to the media and globalization. Unlike their parents, who had a different mindset and really didn’t have access to a lot of new things like the media, the internet, mobile phones and a view of the larger world. The new generation, on the other hand, has role models within the society. There are rich and well to do families in the neighborhood that have had the privilege of good education and other basic things in life. They are increasingly aware that development and corruption free governance is what eventually counts. In this aspect, Modi’s development model in Gujrat and his charisma makes him popular.

Indian society is like the waves in the sea - the ones that come later are more powerful and larger. Earlier, being a product of public school, foreign educated and coming from a dynastic background did matter, not just in politics but also in the society at large.  Thanks to India’s educated middle class, IT boom and economic growth millions joined what was earlier an exclusive growth.

Now millions more have joined in on the first rung in that ladder, from living in a state of absolute ignorance to be able to see the light at the end of tunnel.  Millions more are waiting in the wings. They are aware of their rights, want to grow and have a say.

 It’s with this belief they have voted in Delhi and else where, and this might also echo in the national elections: they want India to be a land of dreams.


Saturday, 16 November 2013

SachinTendulkar: an ode to India

Finally, the moment arrived and ended with one of the finest speeches that sent India rolling into tears. Sachin Tendulkar in his final words thanked everyone as a cricketer, father, son, husband, brother, student and a disciple. 

His sense of gratitude was pervasive and touched the chord of everyone who heard him. So far he entertained people with his bat, but today when he spoke, he stood higher than any of his records, and his words were far sweeter than any of his centuries.

No living human being has been celebrated in modern India the way he has been.  For the world a great sportsperson was retiring but for Indians the country’s greatest inspirational figure was calling his day.

Like a God’s idol or a picture that occupied a space in every Indian household, Sachin remained in the heart of every Indian during the last 24 years. In Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s largest slums where humans put up with extreme odds in their grueling battle for survival, Sachin’s name brings about a smile in the face of children and adults alike. Prakash Jodgankan, an elderly Dharavi resident tells me: “ Sachin gave me joy and hope. He has made a name for himself in the world and represented the country with so much dignity. If he is not God who else is? ”

Aziz Menon, a Mumbai based journalist tells how Sachin rallied the entire nation behind him whenever he would walk into the pitch to bat. Cricket united India more than anything else, he says, and Sachin was the unifying force of around 1.2 billion Indians.   

When Tendulkar arrived at the world stage,  India as a nation was going through a turbulent phase. The economy was in tatters, communal violence had plagued the nation, ethnic and regional tensions were on a rise.  The country was loosing direction in every sense.  Tendulkar through his magical batting on other hand was simply on a rampage and pitchforked himself as an international star– it mesmerized Indians and gave us a sense of hope. Here was someone from a country that was making its way up with a massive burden of history, suffering and  struggling to provide a better life for its teeming millions.

Sachin’s career also coincided with India’s story of economic liberalization.  He heralded that era of brand endorsements and he practically endorsed everything.  Prahlad Kakkar, a man behind most of Tendulkar’s ads since 1992 tells that Tendulkar stood for courage, hope and confidence, and he brought out those values in the brands he represented. He said: “ Tendulkar didn’t represent a brand but brands represented him. He showed Indians that you don’t have to be corrupt to be successful and he was very sincere in everything he did.”

Tendulkar’s ads almost act as a timeline of India’s recent history.  People can simply relate to a point in their life in the last two decades by simply looking at those ads.

The tales of Tendulkar’s hero-worship are uncountable. By his own account he says he has met many people who fasted for him whenever he went to bat. His sister fasted every time he went to bat.

What Tendulkar leaves behind: it is just not records that he made in the cricketing arena but more importantly for Indians he leaves  behind a legacy that is rooted in a character built on a strong foundation of great Indian values.

His farewell speech was a reminder that not everything of our values and traditions are nonsense, and great things can be achieved if  you are true to yourself, your family the people around you. He taught Indians to believe in themselves. 

Sachin Tendulkar is a cricket legend but his career is also an ode to India at large.


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

India needs a pink revolution to help its women

Whatever may be the verdict on the Delhi gang-rape case, India needs an all out war  to end the social malaises that subjugates and oppresses its women.

Death penalty is justified

By any definition, the brutal manner in which the victim of 16 Delhi gang- rape was tortured and killed by the rapists is a rarest of rare crime. Whatever the court decides on the quantum of punishment either death penalty- which most people demand and is likely- or life imprisonment, it will send a strong signal in the society.

Let’s give the credit where it's due: the trail was carried out quite swiftly, laws have been amended to widen the definition of rape and there is growing public awareness and consensus that violence against women should be dealt with toughness and without mercy. This itself will act as deterrence to some extent.     

The huge outburst of protests following the Delhi rape was lead largely by India’s young and the middle class. The anger of this empowered section matters in India because of their growing influence and role in the society. It’s precisely because of the anger of the civic society, the activism of NGOS and the role of media that the government buckled, and this case was expeditiously carried out without any delay- dallying tactics.

So it's not a question of whether death penalty is going to serve as a deterrence. It is the continuous vigilance of the empowered that will matter. The death penalty is justified in a society like India, which is still evolving and is at crossroads. India cannot overnight arrive at the same notions of justice that developed world practices. India rarely sends people to gallows.  Violence against women is a deeply rooted social malaise that has gone out of control; so to deal with this, draconian measures are the need of time.     

India needs a pink revolution

The verdict in the Delhi gang- rape will be historical, if in the long term, it is seen as the moment that heralded the process to improve the lives of majority of Indian women after centuries of subjugation and oppression, and this is where the real battle lies.

Jason Burke in The Guardian quotes veteran journalist M. J Akbar. He says : “It is a few weeks of outrage against hundreds of years of tradition."

In a vast part of India, women are disadvantaged at birth.  The dowry concerns make them a liability for their parents and women are treated as commodities. This is  a reality that plays into a man’s psyche. Dowry is one of the root causes for much of the evils surrounding a woman’s position in the society.  Since woman is a commodity that is “bought”, it gives a license to a sex starved man to do what he wants to do with her.

 Despite anti-dowry laws, the greed for dowry is so huge even amongst the  ‘modern’,  ‘educated’ boys and their parents that the practice remains rampant.

India needs an all out war against this social malaise that has over the years encouraged child infanticide and feticides to an alarmingly levels in some northern Indian states.

If the government is serious and there are holistic polices aimed at empowering women, the evils of dowry can be eliminated in a generation.  It will require a strong leadership and huge social movement to ensure that every single girl is given education so that they can be financially independent and socially liberated. This will allow them to challenge the notions of patriarchy and male chauvinism in their societies. It is not going to be easy but if every family refuses to give out dowry, things will change.

 Sexuality and the new media

We spoke to school students in an upmarket locality to find out if they are given sex education at school. All of them said ‘no’, and said their the teachers and parents don’t think that it is an appropriate subject to be discussed. Everyone said they rely on the internet to find answers to matters related to sexuality and relationship.

 In India, modernity clashes with traditional values in an environment that is at best hypocritical.  India cinema and media is general is ultra-modern. Glorification of sex in songs and movies are normal, but society refuses to discuss sexuality openly.  

In rural India, the consumption of content that promotes debauchery and glorifies a woman as an object of sex is particularly high. India has what is called ‘B’ grade movies, where sex and extreme violence dominates the content. This plays into men fantasy in a culture where even courting a girl is considered a sin.  The internet and the mobile phones have made it easier to consume such content in privacy.

With lack of even basic education, heavy consumption of such content coupled with alcohol and drugs at the backdrop of strict social barriers, poverty and even abuse can have fallouts. The manner in which the Delhi gang rape victim was raped, mauled and then destroyed speaks volumes about their animalistic tendencies, which could have been influenced by a combination of above-mentioned factors.

Rape and violence against women happens across all sections of society and all over the world. But if girls are raped every twenty minutes, trafficked and sold for marriages and prostitution, killed at birth, exploited, burnt to death for not brining dowry, there is a serious problem in our society that requires immediate attention.

At the very basic level, there is one more thing that government needs to set right. It is to get the basic transport infrastructure and facilities in place. Creating a world -class transport system with trained staff can greatly reduce many sexual crimes in urban areas.



Monday, 2 September 2013

Mobile internet revolution in India

a long flyover at electronic city in Bangalore 

Cheap data internet mobile services and affordable smart phones are bridging the digital divide in India.

The way to Bangalore’s swanky electronic city tells the story of India. You have to go past massive potholed roads before you are suddenly transformed into a super-highway that leaps over what is described as India’s Silicon Valley.

The taxi driver jokingly tells me, “the potholes remind us that we are still in India!”

Whist everyone say that potholes are a result of India’s endemic corruption, which contributes to the country’s inequitable growth and development; in the digital sphere, however, the story is different.

Affordable smart phones and very cheap mobile internet packages are giving millions of Indians the first taste of the internet by simply bypassing the era of personal computers.

young people showing their smart phones
In the streets of Banglaore, we interview people from all walks of life.  Rajnath a auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) driver tells us, "personally for me the internet is of not much use, but my customers often use GPS maps to give me  directions. Sometimes, it helps me to discover routes I wouldn’t know about. ” Mohammad Sultan, a tomoato vendor, tells us that he uses Google to look out for jobs and keep in touch with friends on Facebook.

 We visit a low-income group market, where the shopkeepers are mostly middle aged. They tell us they don’t use the internet on phones, but say that their children own smart phones.  Salim, a street garment retailer, shows us his Indian made smart phone. He proudly shows us his music collection and tells us that he is very active on whatsapp and Facebook.

India’s mobile market is growing rapidly. There are more than billion mobile phones used by over 600 million people in a country where the average age is just 25. The smart phone market, which occupies 20 % of India’s mobile market share is expected to double by 2014.

Sudhir Hasija
We meet up with Sudhir Hasija, chairman of Karbonn mobile phones- an Indian start-up manufacturing affordable mobile phones. Karbonn has a market share of 4.5% in India.  It sold 35 million handsets in just over three and half years.

The smiling chairman shows us the range of his products. His high-end smartphone is priced at Rs 11,000 ($165) and boasts all the functions of any other popular smartphones. His low -end internet enabled feature phone cost Rs 3000 ($45). The tablets made by the company are just for Rs 6000($90) and  have been given out to rural school children in various government sponsored schemes aimed at educating the less -privileged rural children. 

Mr Hasija says: “our strength lies in anticipating what people want, we know where India is growing and we have different phones for different markets.”

He says: “In India 80% of the population use low -end phones but they want a good camera; they want the radio. The 3G services don’t even exist in rural India hence they need to be given a product that look big, but also has the basic functions and can run on 2G. In urban India the demand is different.  The young population is trendy, fashionable and Facebook savvy. They prefer cheap smart phones.”

 India’s home grown smart phone companies control 30 % of the domestic market and are giving tough competition to the likes of Nokia and Samsung in the low segment category of mobile phones.

 Along side cheap mobile handsets, the mobile service providers are offering data internet at a very nominal cost.

Bharti Airtel, an Indian telecom service provider active in 20 countries in Asia and Africa say the internet data consumption has grown by 117% compared to the corresponding figure last year. It says  2G & 3G continue to lead the mobile segment growth through deeper penetration and consumption.  The company attributes its success to the smart marketing campaign: it rolled out Re 1(0.02 cents) video downloads for its mobile customers across India to give them a taste of mobile internet experience.
Following the success, the company has more recently launched email and Facebook access services at Re 1. Bharti Airtel  has also collaborated with Google to provide Free Zone, which gives Airtel mobile customers access to mobile web search and feature-phone-friendly versions of Gmail and Google+ in India. The first page of a website linked from search results is provided at no data cost.

Rajan Anandan, VP and Managing Director, Google India says,  “the mobile Internet user base is growing really fast in India. Working with Airtel on this exciting trial means that we can offer Internet services at no cost to anyone with a phone.”

We caught up with Pieters Marten, head of Vodafone in India. He said the Internet enabled mobile phones have given a sense of privacy for the first time to many Indians. People can watch, listen and chat freely. In many Indian households such freedom doesn’t exist or is restricted.

The potential of the fast growing developing markets hasn’t gone unnoticed in the developed world. On the other side of the globe, Facebook has announced plans to drastically cut the cost of delivering basic Internet services on mobile phones, particularly in developing countries. It is an interesting example of how in the era of globalisation the rich and the developing world are connected in terms of policy and business sense!

 A report by The International Herald Tribune says that Facebook is working with major mobile manufactures to simplify phone applications so they run more efficiently on phones and networks so that they transmit more data while using less battery power.
It is hoped that in the years to come, with the efforts of global community, the internet and new technologies will greatly empower millions of people in the developing  world and help them to leap on a digital information highway much like the motorway over Bangalore’s electronic city!