No Free Basics Lunch

India’s telecommunications regulatory authority, TRAI finally signaled to Mark Zuckerberg that his Free Basics venture was not going to be allowed in India. He spent countless hours lobbying for it including hosting journalists at the Facebook HQ after flying them business class. In his head, “Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims — even if that means leaving behind a billion people…Who could possibly be against this?” [source].

Now I haven’t delved much into the issue as much as I’ve liked to but I see the opposition’s ‘net neutrality’ viewpoint. It’s also been under attack in the U.S. and cellphone carriers are constantly trying to get around it. It’s based on the simple premise that all data should be treated and priced equally. That’s the only way you can prevent a single entity establishing a monopoly in the market. Essentially, that’s what Facebook was trying to do regardless of Zuckerberg’s claims of humanitarianism. And then there is this type of naïveté that’s essentially right out of the GOP playbook if it was done in the U.S.

Pitching the issue as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ without being mindful of the long-term consequences. No one has yet answered the question that why does a country like India need Facebook to provide ‘free’ Internet access to its poor. And if it is indeed free, why only ‘basics’? Who has decided that the poor will and should only use the Internet for its ‘basics’? I’ve no problem with the ‘free’ part but rather the ‘basics’ part. Facebook’s hold on the world is so strong that he could effectively give free Internet access and people would simply use it only for Facebook, which is fine. Let people use the Internet for whatever they deem necessary. Maybe they’ll see only pron for the first few weeks. That’s ok. Eventually, they’ll discover the other 10% of the web [1]. If infrastructure for the Internet is expensive, well, we should then invest in it or give people the basic bandwidth for free and charge for more use. There were countless ways they could’ve made it work without violating net neutrality. But they chose not to. Therein lies the intention or motive for their actions.

So I would interpret that tweet the same way as the author intended and ask the same question – People who have unlimited access to the Internet have successfully decided (in their head) that people who don’t have it need only the basics. Eat your own dogfood and then we’ll talk.

  1. That’s a joke, BTW []

Mera Rant Mera Patriotism

Maane, I will rant against Indian bureaucracy/security/airports 24/7 but as soon as a foreigner does that, my patriotism starts bristling.

— Rohit Pradhan (@Retributions) January 21, 2016

Rohit is talking about a rant posted by Marion James (see below) who would’ve been just another tourist if he wasn’t the current winner of the Booker Prize and was visiting India to attend the Jaipur Literature Fest.

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Modi-fied India

May 16th, 2014 was the day when India gave a clear mandate to Modi’s BJP. I say, Modi’s BJP and not just BJP because it’s abundantly clear that this is his achievement, whether you agree with him or not. BJP is the first non-Congress party to gain an absolute majority[1] in the Indian parliament (282 seats). The enormity of this result can only be felt after two and half decades of coalition governments.

My experience of witnessing Indian politics, as far as I remember, has always been that of coalition governments. Witnessing the frequent fall of governments especially of the Vajpayee government in 1998 by a single vote after Jayalalitha’s AIADMK pulled support, was a particular low point. In that respect, I’m glad some party has won a clear mandate and doesn’t have to indulge in horse trading with minor regional parties just to govern. Better still, it’s not Congress. It also puts the onus and responsibility on the BJP to govern and own responsibility followed by credit or blame depending on the outcome. Coalitions sometimes act like an effective checks and balances within the government although progress on legislation is slower. But this time around, BJP doesn’t even need to rely on its pre-poll partners like Shiv Sena and TDP which received the second-highest and third-highest seats within the NDA. Basically, it has the mandate to do whatever it believes in; Rajya Sabha dissent notwithstanding.

However, more than the joy about BJP winning an absolute majority, I think almost everyone is overjoyed that the Congress has been dealt such a humiliating blow. It won only 44 seats, the lowest it has ever since India won independence. Personally, more than Modi or the BJP winning, I am more glad about Rahul Gandhi and his sycophantic ilk been booted out. Congress has been responsible for untold economic damage for India. Seven times, it won more seats than BJP did this time, including Rajiv Gandhi’s thumping 404-seat majority in 1984 but India’s economic growth was perennially stagnant. Imagine having that mandate seven times and doing almost nothing to grow India’s economy!

So is it all joy and happiness? Unfortunately nope. This was how I felt after hearing the result:

What problem do I have with Modi? Well, of course, there is that whole post-Godra thing but that’s not the only thing. If it was, then I would have a problem with almost every politician/party in India. My fears are generally more about the tolerance for dissent and respect for democratic values. More on that later. But first on the most obvious and talked-about criticism. His lack of respect for India’s largest minority i.e. the Muslims seems to derive from the few extremist and violent representatives/incidents. Most Muslims I know or even the ones you know have been extremely distrustful of any government because of institutional discrimination. So for any politician to openly neglect them, makes them even more fearful.

It’s akin to Republicans in the U.S. exhorting African Americans to work harder when in fact the things that are holding them back are systemic poverty and institutional discrimination that needs to be addressed first. Modi may not have been directly responsible for the post-Godra riots but his stubborn refusal to even address much less apologize for the horrific incidents that occurred on his watch speaks volumes. You may argue that the Gandhis never apologized for the 1984 riots. Well, that’s one of the reason why we and most of all, Sikhs still hate them. Do we really want to excuse Modi’s behavior by comparing him with the Gandhis when in fact, his stature is based on being everything that the Gandhis are not? Moreover, Modi’s control over Gujarat is considered complete. Almost nothing happens without his consent or rather nothing happens if he doesn’t permit it to happen. This has worked great when it comes to ensuring good governance and strict adherence to rules. But on the flip side, to keep the base happy, he may have let them run amok for a few days just so that “Muslims could be taught a lesson”.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. – Edmund Burke.

It’s a very primal power move. Bal Thackeray used it adroitly in Mumbai so that’s why he is either revered or passionately hated in Mumbai (I’m belong to the latter, if you had any doubts). Anyway, I remain suspicious but I will not brand him guilty because the courts haven’t found him as such. It’s just like, I wouldn’t trust a black teenage male to be around George Zimmerman.

For the long term, all I ask is for a honest and open debate on addressing the numerous inequalities in Indian society and making opportunity equal across all strata of society. But of course, for that to happen, the deep-rooted bigotry and distrust for Muslims among most Hindus must be addressed. Otherwise they’ll continue voting in people who send out religion-based dog whistles. Dissent is something that’s not easily tolerated in India and even more so among right-wing groups like the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

In Maharashtra, we’ve had more experience with the Shiv Sena. If you agree with all their views, you’re their best friend and they’ll pull all stops to ensure you get your way. But express dissent or even disagree a little, they’ll make your life hell. That’s why even Shekhar Suman during the height of his ‘Movers and Shakers’ popularity never dared mock Bal Thackeray. Nikhil Wagle got his offices burnt for publishing dissent in his newspaper. So you can imagine the state of the common citizen. After all can we blame people if they value their life and property over political opinion.

Similarly for people who hold views similar to Modi, he’s the perfect solution for India. But a little criticism and you can see him bristle and his online hordes, most of them who ironically live in the U.S. are more than willing to rip you a new one. For me, more than him, it’s his impassioned supporters who see him do no wrong that scare me[2].

But that may be the worst case scenario and Modi may simply choose to act in his self-interest, like most politicians do, and focus on development and rein in his supporters on the religion aspect. For India’s sake, let’s hope he focuses on fixing the various economic problems that plague India and hopefully work with the U.S. on raising India’s profile on the world stage.

  1. Some say that absolute majority implies 2/3rds majority so this qualifies as a simple majority. I used the general definition of an absolute majority that states “a number of votes totalling over 50 per cent, such as the total number of votes or seats obtained by a party that beats the combined opposition.” So in terms of seats, BJP has an absolute majority but in terms of votes, a simple majority []
  2. The lack of humility and gloating is all over the Internet []

Election Season in India

In a week’s time, election season will finally end in India although that doesn’t always mean we’ll soon have a government. India’s had a history of hung parliaments and more stuff happens behind the scenes post-elections than in the election campaign itself. That may probably shake your belief in the whole ‘world’s largest democracy’ but don’t let it. That’s how it is and probably will be even in many developed countries. That’s a well known bug in Democracy 4.21 and until someone comes up with a patch, it’s not gonna change. You could change to any other system but let’s be honest, there’s nothing out there half as good. Your choices are communism (Cuba, China, etc.), monarchy (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brunei, etc.), dictatorship (North Korea, etc.), or pure chaos and anarchy (Pakistan, Somalia, etc.). Democracy or at least the way it is practiced in India or even the U.S. is the least worst option.

Anyway, after the mother of all segues there (not surprising, right?), whatever happens in India, it is almost assured via opinion polls that the Congress won’t be forming the government. For a change, I have been largely disengaged this time from the election fever. I remember the time in mid- and late-90s, when I used to stay up late night listening to the news and waiting for election results feverishly tracking my eyes on the rapidly-scrolling news ticker. This time, the people contesting the elections have not impressed. The three primary candidates – Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, and Arvind Kejriwal – have been lackluster, threatening, and disappointing respectively. It may eventually turn out that we may have someone else as a Prime Minister in the end. Remember Deve Gowda, Chandrashekhar, and IK Gujral? Did anyone envision them to be Prime Ministers? But now, after their brief stint, they get all the perks of ex-PMs in their retirement. Man, what a con!

Just because I’ve been disinterested doesn’t mean everyone else is. In fact, everyone else is super gung-ho this time or maybe Twitter and Facebook has given them the illusion that people actually give a shit about what they think. Criticize Modi and hordes of his followers will drag your mother-sister through the muck. Support Gandhi and people laugh at you for being a brown-nose (let’s admit it, everyone criticizes Gandhi. He’s so easy to.) Support Kejriwal and…wait, why is anyone still buying his BS?

Anyway, whatever happens in a week, it will be definitely exciting. I just hope Modi doesn’t celebrate by doing what he does best (you know what I mean). Ab ki baar…Gujarat may get a bar?

Brown Traitors

The Devyani Khobragade incident is almost forgotten now and people have moved on to outraging about other things. But I’ve always wondered what about the incident prompted such visceral reactions from folks in India. The tweet above by actress and now-avid Twitterer/activist, Gul Panag [1] unwittingly encapsulates why the issue made Indians reflexively hate the United States.

At the heart of the issue, it was a very simple law and order problem. Khobragade lied on her visa application, underpaid her maid, and implored the maid to lie about it, all of which are serious crimes in the United States. However, the ensuing hullaballoo failed to highlight these issues and instead chose to dwell on conspiracy theories and debates on diplomatic immunity. If diplomatic immunity was in fact valid, India should’ve clamped down on the noise and keep repeating diplomatic immunity ad naseum and whisk Khobrgade out of the country. Other countries go to extreme lengths to protect their citizens charged with crimes in foreign lands but never is the crime excused. Debates on Twitter and the media pontificated on the differences in wages in the two country for both the maid and the consulate staff.

However, the most ridiculous theory thrown out even by prominent journalists and TV anchors in India was how Preet Bharara, the prosecuting U.S. Attorney was conducting a witch-hunt to prove his “American-ness” by punishing “fellow Indians”. Even otherwise educated and aware Indians subscribed to this view and brushed it off as not trusting politicians. The thinly veiled racism was evident but was shrouded in subtleties unlike Gul Panag’s tweet above. Why would a U.S. citizen albeit a brown person be deliberately prosecuting other brown people to prove his “Indianness”? Are all brown people always Indian regardless of what their passport says? Isn’t that similar to likening the norm of being American as being an Anglo Saxon White Protestant (WASP)?

In the history of the United States, the norm has never been more different. It is the ultimate melting pot and although the corridors of power are still dominated by white men, increasingly people of other races and backgrounds have been making their way in there. People like Preet Bharara who otherwise would be lauded on India Shining slideshows on Rediff and Times of India have worked their asses off often in face of still-prevalent institutional discrimination to get to their position.

There were other socioeconomic issues [2] at play too but this painting of Bharara as a “brown traitor” troubled me the most. I fail to understand the underlying sentiment (resentment?) that leads to such reactions. At what point is a brown person no longer an Indian? Does it take 3-4 generations? Any person is free to hold on to his or her ethnic or cultural background as long as they want but is it the right of others to claim such people as their own?

When other brown people who have lived outside India dare to point out inefficiencies in India, it is mostly because they’ve had the opportunity to see better. They’ve had the opportunity to witness a well-functioning government which for the most part takes care of its citizens and provides the basic amenities without much hassle. In today’s globalized age, most urban Indians also seem to be aware of these shortcomings so why the reflexive anger when an NRI points them out? Improvements start with criticisms and that’s how political change comes through e.g. Aam Aadmi Party’s electoral success. So next time, when your cousin from the U.S. come visiting and dares to utter a barely negative remark about India, don’t label him a traitor and ask him to go back to “his” country.

  1. This post is not intended to target Gul Panag specifically but in fact, just to point out how otherwise sensible people harbor deep rooted resentment []
  2. underage and underpaid labor class in India and at times, among Indians outside of India []

Freedom to create discomfort

ARTICLE 19 (A) of the Constitution enshrines our right to free speech. But Article 19.2 restricts it on the grounds of public order, morality and decency, security of the State, sedition, friendly relations with foreign countries, defamation, contempt of court and incitement to an offence. Unfortunately, these clauses are very loosely worded and have become a baggy hideout for weak governments. If we are to preserve our precious right to freedom of speech, then, we must debate 19.2 and narrow its meaning more precisely. Or insist governments emerge from its shadows.

Source: Tehelka.

The above-quoted paragraph highlights what is the key issue in rampant and often random restrictions on free speech in India. I have written on this in the past. The other reason is the reluctance to charge the ones acting on the speech with violence. It needs to be inculcated that no matter how gravely you’re offended, if you resort to violence or issue a actionable threat to do so, you will be dealt with first. There should be no tolerance for violence regardless of the incitement. Start enforcing this law strictly and uniformly and you’ll see how quickly people will stop being offended. Most offenses taken are purely for publicity sake which in turn they use for political gain. Clamp down on this behavior and we may have a semblance of reasonable discussion in the country. One of my ex-professors suggested this:

And I agree.

Same Yet Different

We spent a relaxing three weeks in India. I say relaxing because this is the first time I have not had a major life event during my India trip. Those who have followed my blog over the years will know what those were. We mostly spent all our time in Panvel, my hometown with a short visit to Orissa to visit Ash’s grandparents. I recounted my horrible first impressions after a five-year gap but as soon as we exited the airport, it was all good.

If I had to describe my experience it would be thus, more things have changed but just as many things have remained the same. It may sound cliched but after you’ve visited India several times over the last decade, you get over the rapid change that is at display in form of more malls and increased cell phone usage. These, in fact, are the cliched metrics now. The most significant and noticeable change is the boom in real estate in and around Bombay. New Bombay, or Navi Mumbai is virtually unrecognizable. When I used to go to junior college in Vashi from Panvel, the only structures between Kalamboli and Kharghar was the Khanda village. Now the village is lost in a sea of apartment buildings that almost encroach on the precious mangroves along the creek inlets. Thirty-story apartment complexes in the middle of nowhere off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway (no access) are built purely for investment purposes.

Of course, malls are still ubiquitous but their presence has been tempered by an overabundant supply. The Center One mall in Vashi, once the premier mall, is now near-deserted due to the new InOrbit Mall next door. Inflation is astronomical but wage increases have increased at a greater rate keeping most people content with the occasional grumbling about uncertainty. It is not unusual to ask and get a 30% annual raise on a seven-figure salary. People change jobs frequently and don’t bargain as much while shopping. Newer opportunities are explored and non-traditional careers are pursued. People seem genuinely happy and are kept busy in their daily lives. Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence so don’t quote me to The Economist.

Yet under the optimism and hope, lies a sea of disconent and helplessness at things that have never changed in India. Rampant corruption, nepotism, lack of moral fibre, reckless pursuit of material goods at the expense of basic humanity. Even medical profession are no longer sacrosanct and viewed with suspicion (more on that later). You get astronomical salaries but lack of professionalism still ails Indian businesses; even the ones you hear about as prime examples of India Shining. People in India are just as uncertain about their personal and professional life as we living outside India are except but about different things. Basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water are still reminiscent of the socialism era. It might be easy to point fingers and criticize India for not yet providing basic needs found in comparative advanced developing countries.

As I tweeted, it is simply not possible to write about India while not living in India. Why? And this might not be necessarily a compliment as some had construed. It helps to understand the high level of tolerance of Indians for things as they are. We may exhibit ‘competitive intolerance’ when it comes to social and religious issues but in terms of day-to-day life, we do put up with a lot and at times, are fine with it. This might be considered as resilience but I have to only point toward the example of ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Coping and adjusting is fine but unless you demand change, you will not get it. You first have to expect more to get more. Gurcharan Das’ ‘Elephant Paradigm’ is apt as that’s how slow things change in India. Perhaps it is a good thing because just as good change is kept at bay, so is bad. But after a while, something’s gotta give.

I had promised myself that I will go to India with a blank slate of expectations this time and although some doubted the ability to do so, I think I was successful. Yes, roads were bad but not that bad. It was crowded and humid but then India always has been. Food was still great. We experienced no illness thanks to a steadfast tendency to stick to mineral water wherever we went. Ruan gave us the cover to demand it if we were not at home. In our zeal to show Ruan different sights and experiences in India, we got the opportunity to look at them anew and found it also to be equally fascinating. Barring couple of exceptions, people were warm and hospitable. We didn’t put on the airs of being NRI and people didn’t treat us as any different. Conversations were easier and there was no ‘one-upmanship’ among either.

Overall, it was a peaceful, relaxing, and content vacation. My parents, brother, and sister-in-law got to spend ample time with Ruan and he warmed up to them to the extent that he seemed genuinely distraught while leaving. Of course, he will remember little of this vacation but we hope to return more often; accompanied again with our blank slate of expectations. Three weeks seem short in retrospect but everyone needs to get on with their lives and vacations always end sooner than we want them to.

First Impressions

The first thing you notice when you land at Mumbai International Airport is the mad rush and utter chaos of people trying to get home or onward to their next flight. European flights, I can understand but I have never fathomed why flights that take off from Dubai have to land in Mumbai at an ungodly hour of 4am when the two cities are only couple of hours away. As soon as you exit the plane, you walk along a narrow pathway that takes you past the huddled masses behind plexiglass waiting for their departing flights.

The lack of air-conditioning is immediately apparent as you start sweating profusely thanks to the humidity. You exit the pathway to the low-ceiling-ed immigration enclosure where we were thankfully pointed toward the Family/PIO queue. The joy of having no people ahead of us was instantly mitigated by a dour immigration officer who clearly wasn’t pleased to see us back. In spite of being Indian citizens, he asked…no…demanded to see our H1-B paperwork because in his crazy world apparently Indian citizens never return to India for good. Despite seeing we had a wailing baby who was not happy about being herded around in a crowded humid airport at 4 in the morning, the immigration officer took his own sweet time stamping our passport and then shooing us off after he was done. I began dreading making this trip but the worst was not over.

Eager to get our bags and get out to meet our family after this near-24-hour travel, we entered the baggage claim area and we were instantly thrown into this pandemonium where everyone was jostling to get to their carousel. Trolleys were nowhere to be seen and it seemed that all flights from the Middle East had landed at the same time. It wasn’t that there were no airport staff to help out but in order to get their help, you had to grease their palms. My memories of hating all government staff immediately resurfaced but I had promised myself to not get into any tussles especially with a kid in tow. After asking around, we realized that we were supposed to step outside the airport to get the trolleys from the parking lot. If this was the state of security at the airports, you cannot help but wonder the lack thereof on our coasts that let Pakistani terrorists easily enter.

Our bags took ages to arrive as we silently gritted our teeth and tried to cajole the kid but he wouldn’t let up. After getting our bags, we entered the line with plenty of tributaries for the customs and baggage screening. After resorting to classic Bambiya scolding, we manage to snake forward. Usually I breeze through the customs but I forgot that we were flying via Dubai so the leechers that we call our custom officers were out in force. They instantly took us aside spotting the two iPads and a laptop in our carry-on baggage. Apparently, this is the sign of wealth and potential smuggling. I reverted to using Marathi and whipped out the kids’ iPad and showed them how battered and caked in drool it was; hardly something I was trying to smuggle in. After telling them, it was less than $20 and they could have it if they wanted, they seemed to realize this wasn’t someone they were gonna earn their post-midnight wealth off. We still saw other burqa-covered women and their husbands being harangued for their proclivity to hide gold behind their veils. And to think liberals get up all in arms at racial profiling in the U.S.

After walking past the last constable who collected our custom tickets, we finally were united with our family who we later learnt have been waiting since 1am. The kid finally quietened down and joyous reunion ensued.

This rant may sound like the typical NRI unloading on India upon landing but I wanted to get it out of the way before I narrated all the good stuff. Fortunately, that bad experience at the airport was the worst it would get. In fact, I don’t think I had any other bad experience in India this time at all. There is an Incredible India past the Mumbai airport gates and we enjoyed it for most part. But I was disappointed in the first impression that Mumbai Airport gives to new visitors even if they are Indian citizens; perhaps more so. If you’re traveling to India via Mumbai, expect what we experienced or even worse. If you don’t then at least you will be pleasantly surprised. Or if other cities are better, land there instead. For what it is worth, departing from Mumbai is distinctly better and you have none of the chaos; at least relatively. Also, strangely, domestic airports and staff is drastically better too; both in terms of experience and people; very punctual too (I flew Indigo to Orissa).

More on the good stuff later.

Off to India

We leave for India this weekend. It has been five long and eventful years since we’ve been there. Last time we visited we got married. Since then, I graduated with my PhD, got a job, got a dog, bought a house, shut down a major website I ran, and had a kid. So yes, things have changed. Strangely, we are experiencing just as much trepidation as excitement.

This feeling is not just because of certain uncertainties in our life due to visa and immigration issues but also due to changed feelings of attachments. No longer can I fess up to feeling that I’m returning home when in fact, I have spent nearly a third of my life outside India. The U.S. is just as much if not more than home for us. We first experienced independence, built our life here, and started our family in this country. By buying a house, we are as much invested in America’s economic future as much as it should be in ours (it isn’t always). It has progressively become harder to envision uprooting ourselves and moving lock, stock, and barrel to another country. But at the same time, we haven’t put down solid enough roots to call this our permanent home although in this age of globalizations, economically- and professional-driven ‘refugees’ like us hardly ever do. By experiencing different cultures and work environments by crossing geographical borders, we have become attuned to a certain quality of life and a certain level of professionalism. Add to that, the age factor, change is far more difficult.

All these factors whirl in our heads as we embark on the long journey back to our homeland (or is it motherland?) Friends that we once saw several times a day and spent hours with are now mere acquaintances ending up as mere likes and comments on our Facebook timelines. The virtual contact is maintained with those who choose to be online. I have couple of friends who aren’t even on Facebook. I have missed the birth of their kids and various momentous occasions in their lives just as they have missed the ones in mine. A perfunctory phone call on the occasion was all that we shared. Unless one is courting the other person, no one cares to stay up late into the night chatting or as Google would want us to call it, ‘hanging-out’. They don’t relate to our lives in the U.S. just as we no longer relate to their changed lives in India. We were friends as teenagers but are strangers as adults. We might get together and drink to the days past but I doubt we will talk about our present or our future because they wouldn’t understand our uncertainties or professional challenges just as I wouldn’t theirs. I would like to think they have it easy by having their family around for all the joyous occasions and tumultuous times but I think they may envy our independence and solitude from the family for other reasons.

We have been told to use mineral water or boiled water for any of the kids needs lest he fall ill. We’ve been told by people who have visited India with kids that this is not a joke. We’re blown away by the (literal) vulnerability of being in India. We are way past being impressed by ubiquitous malls and cell phones. Heck, this time we even shopped for clothes and other essentials before going to India instead of shopping there because clothes, as we realized last time around, were just as, if not more, expensive in India. Thanks to rising inflation matched by growing wages, no one in India seems to notice but we do. I asked my brother if I can get only my debit card instead of cash since Bank Simple doesn’t levy international transaction charges, he snarkily replied that Indians use credit cards and have phones, TV, and malls too. That may be true but can I use my credit/debit card as ubiquitously as I do it here? India is way past that for us to understand now especially at a distance. We are aware although just barely of the political tussles and pop culture thanks to Twitter but not to the extent we are tuned in to the world in the U.S. We are afraid that we will simply not relate to the people or things in India. On one hand, I have to fight against picking faults by the way things are done in India (because I’ve seen it done better elsewhere) and on the other, I have to avoid gawking in wonderment at changes lest I come across as a wide-eyed tourist as seen in an inde-Hollywood movie. India still is the land where I spent two-thirds of my life, right?

Personally, I think I’m just going to return with a blank slate of expectations and the sole purpose of spending time with my family. More importantly, being a silent spectator to the wonder of seeing my parents and brother with my one-year-old son. I’m sure that will not disappoint.

Bon voyage to us and we’ll see you on the other side of the world (and hopefully back here in three weeks).

Twitter Handles Blocked in India

There is much anguish in progress right now on Indian Twitter over a government order that lists several YouTube, Facebook, and blog URLs to be blocked. Also included are several Twitter handles. Presumably this blocking has been done to prevent ‘hate speech’ on the Internet from inciting violence that has affected Assam and Mumbai. Without getting into the whole muddle of ‘speech isn’t hateful, actions are’ argument, this government order begs the question whether it is legal or not.

The Constitution of India states freedom of speech as one of the rights granted to its citizens (the government cannot ‘grant’ but merely ‘affirm’ but whatever). But..but, there are certain caveats to this whole freedom of speech thing in India. What are those caveats?

“These rights are limited so as not to effect – the integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Ever see a more succinct yet all-encompassing list? So on constitutional grounds, you really don’t have any freedom of speech rights since your rights can easily be infringed upon using any of these restrictions. ‘Decency or morality’ and ‘defamation or incitement to an offence’ are my favorites. If I was a government babu, I bet I can classify anything you say as under those exceptions.

So however angry we are, let us not be mistaken that our Constitution is in anyway protecting us. On legal grounds, we have violated this ‘right’ many times. All it boils down to is begging the government to not block our URLs or Twitter handles. The government can start by, say pretty please. I have been to this dance before where then-bloggers took up arms against a flimsy third-grade management institute. Ultimately in the long run, the management institute prevailed. This is the government of India. There is no winning here; especially if it has the Constitution on its side.

Kindergartens or Daycares?

In this endeavor, Chandresh Maithil, 28, who will be graduating this year, is channeling his skills and knowledge in setting up kindergartens for children. Maithil’s kindergartens, which will be called ‘Naani Ka Ghar’, will operate with the help of the retired and elderly people.

“These kindergartens will be a self-sustaining social platform that would allow a two-way exchange of benefits between the children and the elderly,” said Maithil, who has four years of work experience before coming to study at IIM-A.

He explains that this is a model based on the arrangements of nature. As young parents go out to search food, the elderly stay at home to take care of the children, passing on traditional knowledge and values as they play with them. With changing lifestyles and emergence of nuclear families, there is an emerging gap between the traditional past and the children which needs to be bridged.

“By playing with and learning from elderly people, the kids will be exposed to lot of love, gentleness and knowledge.

[via The Times of India]

I’m confused. Are these establishments kindergartens or daycares? If they are the latter then Maithil may be on to something but if they are kindergartens then he has a distorted view of early childhood education. I say this from the perspective of having seen my mother run an excellent and successful kindergarten for the past 25 years. Using nature as a model for modeling education ignores the fact that we have moved past the hunter-gatherer stage in our evolution and it seems like Maithil is more concerned about instilling moral values than imparting education.

Although this may be well intentioned, it assumes the fact that nuclear families are incapable of instilling such values in their children and as the last line implies, Maithil seems to believe that only elderly people are capable of imparting love, gentleness, and knowledge. The IIM-A tag (note the use of buzzwords – “self-sustaining social platform”) might be why this story even made it to the pages of a national newspaper. The elderly may have much to teach us but I prefer qualified teachers, elderly or otherwise, delivering education fit for the modern age. The headline of the article seems to suggest that Maithil’s primary objective seems in employing elderly people and not educating children but I may be wrong. I’ll worry about instilling moral values in my kids and rather not rely on a stranger for what may be an integral part of being a parent.

Scenes From India

Scenes From India – In Focus:

Diversity is everywhere in India, from its religions and languages to its economy, and climates. The second-most populous nation in the world, India is home to more than 1.2 billion people. Most are Hindu, but seven other religions — including Islam, Christianity and Sikhism — make up nearly 20 percent of the population. January 26 will be India’s 62nd Republic Day, marking the date in 1950 when the country’s constitution came into force. Collected here are recent photos from across the vast nation, offering only a small glimpse of the people and diversity of India. [41 photos]

(Via www.theatlantic.com)

Fourteen Magic Words

…that can increase voter turnout by over ten percentage points.

The gimmick of the experiment is that it harnesses humans’ natural belief in essentialism (see, for example, reference 14 in the link above), the idea that being “a voter” is more essential than being a person who happened to vote.

As Bryan et al. put it, “people may be more likely to vote when voting is represented as an expression of self—as symbolic of a person’s fundamental character—rather than as simply a behavior.” [emphasis mine]

[Source: The Monkey Cage; Original PDF paper]

Although it is just one study but interesting finding in terms of voter behavior. This is especially significant given the latest brouhaha in India over the futility of voting. Anna Hazare supporters argued for practices beyond voting which is not necessarily wrong but to give up voting rights entirely actually makes things worse. Nitin Pai has argued excellently on how India Against Corruption (IAC) can actually strengthen Indian democracy by endorsing candidates that they perceive as clean. More information and more frequent participation in the political process can only make voting something to look forward to. The Indian voters have repeatedly demonstrated their sharp political awareness by throwing out corrupt and inefficient governments regardless of slick advertising campaigns.

I consider Indian voters at least as smart if not smarter than their American counterparts. Money plays a big part in both democracies but that ought not to dissuade us from exercising our basic right. There is no rule that stops you from further engaging with your government politically after you vote. I may disagree on your methods but I will never consider your actions wrong.

India – Cricket World Champions 2011

This moment shall not go unblogged. Whatay match it turned out to be after the underwhelming semi-final with Pakistan. After conceding 274 runs and getting down to 31/2 with both Sehwag and Tendulkar back in the pavilion, people had started losing hope of ever winning the World Cup in their lifetime. But fans on Twitter kept the hopes alive and India’s much-vaunted batting lineup finally came good as Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, and most importantly, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni saw India home safely. MS Dhoni finished the match in grand style by lofting Kulasekara for a huge six to set off celebrations all over India.

It took 28 years but in the end, it was worth the wait. This World Cup compared to the others had been especially exciting with great performances mostly involving Ireland, Bangladesh, and England. Taylor’s blitzkrieg against Pakistan was also a sight to behold but in the end, it was India that remained consistent and won the day. Shabash, India.

Images courtesy Cricinfo:

India’s Vulnerable Electronic Voting Machines

India’s much vaunted EVM machines are prone to manipulation [YouTube link] and can be used to alter election results. Great work by EVM India. Unfortunately, instead of addressing the problems, one of the Indian involved in this discovery, Hari Prasad was soon arrested by the Indian government. Sounds like a credible conspiracy theory in progress, right?

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