A couple of weeks ago, I watched a documentary called Kakkoos. I had watched a trailer before and wanted to watch the full film, so when I found out that it was released on YouTube, I decided to watch. I remembered, from the trailer, that the documentary was about manual scavenging and that it seemed interesting but not much else.

When I started watching it though, I was shocked; some of the scenes were stomach-churning and sometimes so bad that I could not watch.

Let that sink in for a moment: I couldn’t watch scenes from a documentary where my fellow citizens clean shit (oops, human excreta) as part of their daily job.

Here’s the government’s definition of a “manual scavenger” (emphasis mine):

“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

The definition is descriptive but does not capture how horrible the task is and the term “manual scavenging” itself seems so sterile. Scavenging is not a word that you feel repulsed by, so manual scavenging seems benign. Maybe that’s why the bureaucrats chose the term; it doesn’t evoke disgust.

But, the documentary, which is shot in multiple locations in Tamil Nadu and has interviews with numerous folks engaged in this inhumane and soul-crushing work, does. It is a searing film because it exposes the reality of this work and the manner in which people are exploited and suppressed.

I can easily recall the faces of the people in the documentary and remember the despair, anger, and resignation in their voice; their stories are haunting and will jolt you. The genius of this documentary is that it makes you uncomfortable when you watch and disturbs you when you think about this later.

So, why even watch? Because if you live in your bubble and think that your country has “made it” because it’s going digital or because marketing slogans (Swachh Bharat) make you feel proud, this documentary will show the depths to which our fellow citizens have to go simply to survive.

It should shame us that even though there are machines to do this kind of work, we still have no problems with asking people risking their lives (yes, there have been deaths in sewers) and their health to keep our surroundings clean.

This is exploitation and it is oppression and we are complicit because of our silence and because we don’t want to know. So, make the time and watch Kakkoos ; I guarantee that you’ll be disgusted, horrified, and moved. And, it’ll be something concrete that people face daily and not an abstract term like “manual scavenging”. You owe it to the folks who do this every day to, at least, watch.

The year(s) that changed the Indian media

In 2014, when Mr. Modi swept to power as the PM, people spoke and wrote about a changed India. Now, 3 years later, I think that what it changed more was the Indian media and journalism landscape and that in turn has led to the changes in India we’re seeing now.

(I get that some of these are generalizations and that they are not always true about all issues but they are true about many issues a lot of the time.)

Think about it: you have a Prime Minister, who calls himself the pradhan sewak, but refuses to hold press conferences, does a few interviews, maintains only one-way communication (radio, election speeches, Twitter) and the media accepts it without putting up a fight.

Even that would be okay if the media decided to spend its time researching policies, trying to deconstruct the one-way communication, and doing whatever it could to compensate for the loss of direct questions. What did the media do? They simply accepted the change of communication rules and reported what the PM said, throwing a critical opinion in every once in a while.

Compare that with what the media did during the UPA II regime. It was the media that brought the corruption and other issues to the fore and harangued the government. Now, next to nothing!

The media now spends an inordinate amount of time outraging about issues that are peripheral, or important but not critically important while letting the critical issues go by. Instead of applying critical thinking to the government’s actions, the media accepts what the government is saying and chooses to focus on the “distractions” that conveniently seem to crop up. What the public loses when this happens is the right to be informed about what the government is doing and this in turn slowly leads to weakening of the institutions that are supposed to do the checks and balances.

As I was writing this, here’s what the Executive Editor at India Today tweeted:

More than 350 cows at the Gorakhnath temple Gaushala. Several calves ran to Yogi Adityanath as he reached & gave them Gur & their feed

Of course, this is not a representative sample, and this is a tweet, but it is exactly the sort of thing that the government is happy to have the media focus on, while it does bigger things that don’t get reported too well or not at all.

And, what better way to end this post than to point you to the excellent Meghnad‘s column at Newslaundry: Finance Bill 2017: You’ve just been punked. (As, an aside, while the Finance Bill 2017 was being passed, the media was focused on what the UP CM ate for breakfast and other food-related issues.)

This is peak crisis time for Indian journalism. I really hope that they make it. In the meanwhile, go to the non-traditional media sites like Scroll, The Wire, Newslaundry, which have done a way better job of reporting and critical analysis than the traditional media.

PS: Meghnad’s piece Media failed to cover Finance Bill because Parliament reporting is non-existent gives an excellent account of how the media fails in reporting what goes on in our Parliament.

Speaking up as a way of providing cover and more

A couple of weeks ago, when there was outrage in the US about the ‘Muslim ban’ order, I read a piece [1] by an entrepreneur who explained why he was speaking up against the order. He said that when people like him spoke up, it would provide cover for others to speak up as well. That bit about providing cover resonated with me deeply and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Earlier today, I read this Twitter thread (by Anand Giridharadas) about the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, and one of the things said was this:

Please understand, Mr. President, that this too gives permission, by dog-whistling to drifters that they might do what the government can’t.

Reading this my thoughts went to the violent incident at Ramjas College where ABVP members used violence against students and journalists. I started thinking about the increase in the frequency of such incidents in colleges and about how the narrative from the ruling party has always been that “we will not tolerate being anti-national” or that “free speech has its limits” and so on.

What is this, if not providing cover for such incidents to happen? Is it a coincidence that the language, the threats, the violence have been ratcheted up after the BJP came to power? I think not. Look at what the BJP national president said recently comparing the Congress, SP, and BSP to a terrorist. Of course, our PM was not far behind with his concern over electricity and cemeteries in an election speech.

This kind of dog-whistling provides cover for people to openly indulge in hate on Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and even more dangerously in the “real world” by threats and acts of violence.

So, given that the cover is being given to support hate and divide, it is even more important for people to speak up against such incidents and call out bigotry and bullshit when they see it. And, if you think it doesn’t make a difference, it does. Acts of courage and defiance are inspirational; they can give rise to movements and can act as catalysts.

There are people who are now being courageous and providing cover against the assault on free speech and dissent, and the trend towards toxic nationalism. But, to resist, you need more people to speak up and amplify the voices.

Speak up. It is hard but if you want to preserve a democracy, you have to fight for it.

[1]: I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this.

On the periphery

When I was walking my friend to the car today, a family of four or five people walked past and one man tapped my arm and asked me (in Hindi) if I spoke Hindi. I instinctively said No (in Hindi) and kind of turned away; I heard a woman ask (in Telugu) if I spoke Telugu. Then, another man muttered something to her and they walked away.

I’ve had a variation of this experience several times in Bangalore and every time they leave me deeply unsettled. They’re always families and they seem to be from small towns and I always wonder what their story is. Maybe they came to Bangalore and are lost; maybe they were promised a job and were duped by someone they knew. Could they be running a scam? I don’t really know the answer and though the experiences always leave me conflicted, I’ve never sought to find out about their stories.

I’m always going somewhere when these encounters take place and in some cases stopping would make me late; in other cases though, I’ve had the time and I’ve still walked away. I’ve meant to ask about such people but Google doesn’t seem like the right place to find out. Who do I ask?

I don’t talk to ragpickers either; they’re unkempt, usually have a sack slung over their shoulder and scrounge for trash they can sell; I can’t meet their eyes. I wonder what their story is–where did they come from and how did they end up like this?

Yesterday, while going to the office, our cab was stuck behind a garbage truck and a man was in the back, which was filled with garbage, emptying a can of garbage from a restaurant around the place that he was standing. I’ve seen men shoveling garbage from the side of the road on to trucks that reek from twenty or thirty feet away. Where do these folks come from and what has led them to this line of work?

In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Selina Kyle, a cat burglar, tells Bruce Wayne, the billionaire, says (emphasis mine):

There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us. [1]

The part that I emphasized in the above quote keeps playing in my mind every now and then, especially when I see people struggling around me. I wonder about what millions of Indians must have felt when we became independent and what their dreams and aspirations must have been. And, I know we’ve obviously had progress and we have made things better for some people but I can’t shake the feeling that overall we’ve failed a great many people.

It is an inescapable fact that for millions of Indians life is a daily struggle and this is not just for the BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. This article asks an interesting question: does exiting extreme poverty really guarantee that the poor can attain a decent life? Later, in the article, this is a striking assertion:

India has already made striking gains against extreme poverty, but the harsh reality is that 680 million of its citizens live with various forms of deprivation.

You can argue about whether it’s 680 million or 250 million  but you cannot argue that millions of people “live with various forms of deprivation”. How do we reconcile this with the lives that we get to lead? We can’t; we’re just lucky that we had opportunities that were even available to us that we could take advantage of; sure, we worked hard but some people don’t get these opportunities no matter how hard they work.

It’s not fair and the odds are stacked against such people. So, when I hear people talking about sacrificing for the good of the nation or in the national interest, it makes me angry because the people saying this are privileged and for them, sacrificing is standing in a line to withdraw cash or worrying about how to pay salaries to domestic help, and so on. I don’t want to wade further into the great cashless debate, so I’ll stop.

When I thought about this post, I wanted to segue into a book that I’m reading, but this went in a different direction after I started writing. I know this might be a depressing post to read but this isn’t about guilt-tripping or about shaming, but about acknowledging. I think we get desensitized in India because most of the time, things around us are too overwhelming.

But, maybe, if we force ourselves to feel every once in a while, by wondering about people’s stories and imagining living their lives, we have a chance of letting the reality of others disturbing the distortion field around us.

Evolution gave us a marvelous tools, the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to run simulations in our head, mirror neurons that fire when we observe the actions or behaviors of others–all this means that we don’t necessarily have to immerse to experience. We can imagine what it might be like and we can listen to the emotions that follow.

And, then, maybe we’ll get to what John Lennon sang in his beautiful song (watch/listen here):

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

[1]: Here’s a link to the movie’s script, which obviously has spoilers.


On speaking truth to power

A few days ago, our Prime Minister, who, in the past has called the media “baazaru”, was chosen to give out the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism. This is a PM who refuses to have press conferences, who gives creampuff interviews to friendly journalists, but I’m going off track here.

Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, in his vote of thanks to the PM, gave a 5-minute speech that was hailed as courageous and exemplary. I had a Twitter exchange with Mitali Saran, someone who regularly speaks truth to power in her column, about this in which she said that the courage that Jha exhibited should be the baseline in journalism.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, some of the pieces written by journalists, columnists, writers in the US were great examples of speaking truth to power. Here’s the first paragraph of David Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

I can’t recall reading anything as withering by someone in India about anyone so powerful. The US has a great commitment to freedom of speech but it still takes courage to write something along these lines. So, I was thinking about what Mitali said about the courage being a baseline for journalism and wondering why it is not also a baseline for citizens in democracies.

Why should we not expect (us) citizens to speak the truth to power in their own way? Why should it fall only to the activists and the journalists to tell the truth, especially given how easy it is for anyone to publish what they write or create? One reason might be the intimidation tactics used, for example, where a post on Facebook might get you arrested. I get that the fear of intimidation is real and you wonder whether speaking up is worth it, but the problem in such a situation is that it serves to embolden the powerful. And, unless more people refuse to be intimidated and cowed down, how is this situation going to change?

Also, as long as you don’t indulge in hate/racist/misogynist/etc. speech, there should not be be a fear of speaking your mind or the truth to power whatever that power might be. A democracy will be more vibrant when citizens speak truth to power. India’s current laws are not super-friendly to free speech–at least free speech the way it is in the US–but we are a democracy and we do have some freedom of speech.

If you have a “this is not my problem” mindset, I’ll just share what Garry Kasparov, yes that Kasparov, said in a tweet:

Famous last words throughout history. People saying “It’s not my problem!” until it is a bigger one. Small battles now or big ones later.

With Brexit and the US election, the world seems to be moving towards a situation where the discourse is being dominated by the far right. The discourse tends to be one of xenophobia, of faux-nationalism, of racism, and other such things that should’ve been left behind a long time ago. But, these things are making a comeback, and in a tangible way. Just read the timeline of Shaun King to get an idea of the number of racist incidents in the US just days after the US election.

The threats are real. The question is whether you are going to speak up when you can or wait until maybe you won’t be allowed to or when it’s too late.

I think it’s time.

[1]: Ms. Saran seems a bit too formal

Old news is not sexy news

The recent verdict in the Bhopal gas tragedy case — tons of stories here — has set off widespread condemnation by everyone in the media. Questions are being asked about the role of India’s corporates who have remained relatively silent in the aftermath of the verdict. The outrage seems to be everywhere.

This wasn’t the case before the verdict. I don’t remember reading much about the tragedy in the last few years. Maybe a mention during the anniversary, a story here and there but nothing like the deluge of news we’re seeing now. This is not limited to just this story but to other news stories as well. The Nithari killings are another that come to mind.

News stories typically seem start with lots of coverage to the point where there’s an information deluge and then everything just fizzles out. It’s like we’re outraged for a while, things cool down, and then we move on to the next story where we can rage about the injustices.

One problem is that India’s justice system is slow, so things take their own sweet time. In today’s fast-paced age, our attention is easily diverted by the next new thing. Plus, our brains are wired to seek out relative differences and so we get bogged down when we keep seeing something over and over.

This is where the media’s role in balancing coverage and then sticking to a story, long term, would help a great deal. Maybe once the initial frenzy over a story has fizzled out, media outlets could periodically throw stones into the metaphorical pond and create some ripples. If you refuse to let a story die, people will take notice — they don’t have a choice. It’s tricky to achieve a balance but anything else would be better than a start-stop-wait-wait-wait…to infinity-start-again kind of strategy.

The analogy that comes to mind is that of a dog who has got hold of something and refuses to let go no matter what. We need our media to be that kind of watchdog.

The other World Cup that we haven’t won in a while

After a few days of the disappointment that was India’s campaign at the hockey world cup, I have time to collect my thoughts and give a measured opinion.

~@*!&^%. Feels good to get that out of the way. Some observations:

  • We were brilliant against Pakistan – Or were we? Was it that we were good or that Pakistan was bad? I think it was more the former and less the latter. The Pakistan game was the only one in which we pressed from up front, harried their players and were pretty energetic all around. When you defend from the front and push up, you make things happen and the Pakis were never able to settle.  Strangely, we abandoned that strategy in our next matches.
  • We were woeful against Australia – They were fast but we made it easy for them. It was inexplicable how we just dropped off and tried to defend deep. Didn’t work. Back to earth.
  • The refs had something in their eyes when they were officiating our games – This is not the reason for our poor showing but we had a player banned for 4 games (later reduced to 3) after the Pakistan match and he was one of our best against the Pakis. You can’t lose a crucial player for key matches, play with a 15-man squad and hope to do well against the likes of Australia, Spain, and England. Against Australia there was a referral that shouldn’t have been. The worst one was against South Africa – we scored a goal and after that the refs called for a video referral and overturned the goal, gave the South Africans a penalty corner, and they scored from that – talk about freaking momentum shifts. When you’re struggling or trying to make a game of it, you need a few breaks. We didn’t get them and in fact we got shafted.
  • What’s with the goalkeeper rotation? One of the things that Jose Brasa did that left me scratching my head. Why rotate goalkeepers? That’s one position that you don’t want to rotate because it’s such a confidence position but Brasa seemed to think differently. I don’t think it helped our defense to play with a different goalkeeper each game.
  • Our defenders need work Duh. We gave up 5 goals to Australia and Spain, 3 to England and South Africa. Some of the defending was errors that you don’t expect at international level. Mental mistakes happen occasionally but we were guilty of making it easy for our opposition.  For me, these are the sorts of things that coaches are supposed to minimize but we allowed similar mistakes to happen in different games. Not learning, not good. There’s a reason for the saying – defense wins championships – it’s true a large percent of the time.
  • The jury’s still out on Brasa – If he is the answer, we’ve not seen much to bolster that argument. My problem with his coaching style is that he abandoned what we were successful at and tried out things when he didn’t need to. Also, I know it’s a short time but we looked bereft of ideas when going forward, especially in the latter games. Hitting a hopeful ball into the circle is just that – hope. We didn’t have the players or the strategy to break teams down. What irony then that Ric Charlesworth, who we hounded out, has now led the Aussies to the World Cup final. Still, we need to give Brasa some more time. (Maybe we need to get a South Korean fitness and conditioning coach for our players – those Korean dudes have tons of stamina.)
  • Hockey is a pulsating game – If this World Cup has proved anything, it’s that hockey is a fabulous game. Speed, craft, stamina and excitement are what you’d find in most hockey games. Give me a game of hockey over a T20 game any day.
  • Let the coach choose the team and captain –  Fabio Capello, the England football team coach, chooses his players and his captain. He watches club games, scouts players, and then picks his team. Why not make the same thing for our hockey team? Having selectors, who typically have some agenda or the other choose teams, hasn’t worked great for us. Maybe it’s time to try something different. Give the coach some help with scouting if necessary but let the coach pick the team and captain.
  • Hockey is marketed poorly – I read a news report that said that TV viewership for hockey games is the highest in India (worldwide). We could use the gaps in the cricket season to increase viewership and interest in hockey but the state of the hockey administration is a stumbling block.

Let’s hope that India beats Argentina and salvages some pride. Even if we don’t, we can take comfort that we’re not as bad as the Pakistanis who came dead last. Schandenfreude is good sometimes.

Flying through Paris no piece of cake

This story in today’s Deccan Herald was disturbing. The gist is that a couple, who wanted to visit their son in Finland, were detained in Paris and deported to India, ostensibly without a clear-cut reason.

Agriculturist K N Ashok Kumar (59) from Hassan and his 45-year old wife Meenakshi Amma set out on August 25 from BIA airport planning for a one-month stay at Tampere in Finland with their son. Plans went for a toss the minute they landed at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport, from where they had to take a connecting flight to Finland.

It must have been quite an ordeal for the elderly couple. Expecting to see their son, instead they’re detained in a foreign country where they probably didn’t know the language as well.

Ironically, Air France has been advertising in Deccan Herald frequently about their new service, especially that you can get high-quality vegetarian food on their flights now. Presumably, earlier all one got was escargot with Brie, hold the escargot. (Note: I am not sure if the couple in question used Air France.)

Now, people flying Air France to other destinations will have to use Paris as a hub. If the French immigration authorities cause problems, they’ll (people) just switch to other carriers. Parents flying to visit their children, especially first-timers, will think twice about using the airline.

If Air France is trying to improve business, maybe they should speak to the French government about not scaring people away.

Dr. Sudhir Kakar on the recent judgment (Section 377)

This interview of Dr. Sudhir Kakar in today’s Deccan Herald (by Devika Sequeira) is worth reading. Dr. Kakar speaks a lot of sense about the issue of homosexuality in India and provides some historical context as well. I especially liked his answer to to the following question (emphasis mine).

How do you respond to the extreme view often put out that homosexuality is against the order of nature?

Sexuality, like everything else human, partakes not only of nature but also of culture. We do not eat, sleep, work or whatever else, naturally. Any one who fasts, because of his religious convictions or for other reasons, is going against the ‘order of nature.’

If by order of nature, it is meant that homosexuals do not procreate, then celibate Catholic priests and nuns, ascetic yogis and sadhvis, by refusing to procreate are also going against the order of nature and are equally culpable.

Bravo. We need more such sane, scientific voices to be heard rather than the shrill, loud voices that always try to drown out the sane ones.

Do read the full interview.

Another gem from the Upper House

Yesterday it was about “unpardonable acts”, today it’s about reality shows. I kid you not. Today’s Deccan Herald’s Politicos can’t face reality shows how our politicians are highlighting the important issues. (Read the full article please, it’s short and sweet.)

Members cutting across party lines raised the issue and demanded that the government regulate such shows to “prevent” them from polluting the minds of the people. Raising the issue during zero hour, Kamal Akhtar from the Samajwadi Party gave an example of a new television programme, Sach ka Samana, where a celebrity is asked to face a polygraph test.

He said the programme anchor asked a female contestant obscene questions — in the presence of her husband — like whether she would have physical contact with another person. When she replied in the negative, the polygraph test proves her was answer wrong, Akhtar said, wondering what impression this would create on her husband.

What impression would it create on her husband is that he needs to up his game if you know what I mean. But, physical contact with another person, not a man necessarily, could also mean that her husband’s not a hugger or that he doesn’t snuggle up to her in bed or that she needs more hugs from other people around her. Or maybe she likes shaking peoples’ hands.

Nobody’s forced the contestants to be on the show. They’re adults, they’re in the show for the chance to win money. And if they’d watched the corresponding English-equivalent (The Moment of Truth), they’d have gotten a good idea of what the show was about. Maybe they should’ve read the fine print as well. If you’re getting a chance to win what seems like easy money, you have to be smart enough to realize that there almost always will be a catch. (No free lunch, that sort of thing.)

Plus, the whole point of reality shows is to create “simulated drama” so that the show itself is compelling for people to watch. Would anyone watch a show where they asked the contestants questions about whether they flossed or not? People want stuff with more “masala” and TV channels are giving it to them. If we really want to stop such shows, not watching would be the best way to do that–if everyone stopped watching, the ratings would plummet. Because people are watching, the shows are hugely popular and everyone and his aunt is creating a reality show.

But, I’ve digressed. What in Voldemort’s name is the Rajya Sabha doing wasting time discussing reality TV shows. What’s next: a discussion on whether Western toilets should be banned because they’re “from the West”?

I’d better not be giving them any ideas.