Tuesday, July 29, 2008

And they laugh at Goa’s horse-trading

How the national media ridiculed Goa and its toppling games over the years; its horse-trading and huge monies squandered on buying or preventing MLAs from crossing sides. Now it’s funny to hear the same media persons and “intellectuals” of the nation speak knowledgeably of numbers, of combinations and permutations when what it all boils down to is a Goa-style toppling party sponsored by the taxpayer: horse-trading and buying and selling of MPs exposing themselves up to the highest bidder. I am watching the BJP members storming the well of the house showing many bundles of Rs1000 notes amounting to a crore each that was given to them to abstain from voting. There is a sense of crushing shame.

The going rate they say is Rs 20 crore per MP. That never ceases to amaze… the obscene amount of wealth that comes out of bottomless party pockets… Forget about desperate farmers killing themselves so that their families can get some compensation. Forget about Oriyas digging for edible roots. We have been trying to link the rivers of the country so that flooding could be contained, so that river navigation could take the load off railways and roads and most importantly, so that our farmers would not be dependent on the vagaries of the climate. But no, the nation cannot afford it. Yet MPs come with a blank cheque attached and funds are no longer a problem at the Centre.

Toppling a government is a major industry, with parties guarding their own and going to unbelievable lengths to keep them from bolting across to the competition. The word “No” does not exist. All demands are accepted, mulled over and delivered. Airports named after candidate’s fathers, turning the thumbscrews on the business enemies of one party’s protégés, the list is endless and backbones get flexible with everyone bending over backwards to comply.

Parliament has never worked as steadily, as diligently or as openly as it has in these few days working towards the Confidence Vote. Sleuths are hired to keep an eye on wavering MPs in Delhi. Sleuths are hired to keep an eye on the enemy camp to see whom they are approaching. Here too in the MP market, the middle men reign supreme. They scurry around between the buyers and sellers pushing MP prices as high as they can go and by the claims of many, the sky is the limit. Here too the middle men make a killing as does the MP up for sale, only the middle man grows fat and healthy on commissions from both parties.

We have entered an age of commissions which are different from kickbacks. Kickbacks are illegal commissions, in the form of a large bribe to an individual in a position of power to use public funds to purchase a bad product for the country. Commissions are legal, they argue, a percentage paid to the facilitator who brings two parties together to do business.

There are those who argue that without a facilitator nothing would get done, that they are the grease that runs the wheel of business. But when this system is used in the buying and selling of Members of Parliament, then we cannot in all conscience call it ‘commissions’ paid to the go-betweens. It’s public money that is being paid by those in power to buy a bad product. Not commission, definitely kickbacks. A nation is at risk while the horse-trading rampages on. If Goa is an example of the ruin of a state as a result of legislators up for sale, imagine the hell the country is headed for with Members of Parliament going to the highest bidder.

Which leads one to the conclusion: whether strong or weak, it’s a ‘stable’ government at all times. Steady and productive; or bursting with horses ready to be traded.

It’s a cop out

"I am never going to speak to you again in my life," declared Bruno. "You are heartless and selfish and care nothing for my future."

"I am not going to pay several lakhs of rupees to get you into the police force," I said, "and that is final."

"I cannot understand you," he said. "This is a position of great importance, both socially and financially. Don’t you see how much respect a police officer commands?"

"That’s why I keep telling you to read the newspapers," I said. "Our police don’t even know when police of other states come in and do their job for them."

"What’s wrong with that? Dogs from other areas come to my jurisdiction do their job and go away, I sniff them out only after they’ve gone. So what, is what I say," he said.

"This is different," I said. "Cops from Kerala came and caught a murderer in Panjim a week ago and cops from Mumbai came in and picked up a murder suspect here in Goa this week. Years ago, Charles Sobhraj was caught in Goa by Mumbai cops."

"How can it be different? The bad guys were caught right? Isn’t that what we want?" he barked.

"Our cops end up looking foolish and what’s worse they complain about it, that other state cops are coming in without telling them," I said.

"Well it’s not their fault," he said. "See how much they have to pay to get into the police force."

"So? That should not turn their analytical brains into mush," I said.

"There’s nothing wrong with their brains," he said. "They have so many pressures on them."

"They have no pressures," I said.

"First, they have to earn back the money they paid to get in, then they have to make a profit. This you can do if you go after the bad guys and then take money from them to let them go, but you know what happens, don’t you," he said.

"No, I don’t. You tell me," I said.

"Before they can even say one word to the bad guy, The Call comes telling him to let the fellow go," he said.

"So? They don’t have to answer The Call," I said.

"You would be the first to answer The Call if it comes from a Minister’s office, or a senior’s office," he said. "So here the officer is faced with a problem, he will have to let the guy go before he can get him to pay for his freedom."

"That’s because the guy has already paid for his immunity from someone higher than the arresting officer," I said.

"There are two sources of stress here," he said. "Reducing the deficit on his police entrance bribe money becomes that much more difficult and the unsolved crime graph goes up."

"I think being in the police force is very boring in Goa," I said. "They don’t see any action, even in a communal riot they are told to stand and gaze until told otherwise. Then the politicians tell their seniors to tell them to lathi-charge everyone. They do so enthusiastically, because they have had no exercise whatsoever for so long. Then they are hauled up before a court of inquiry and their leaders wipe the floor with them, when it was not their fault at all."

"And the deficit on their police entrance bribe money grows,'" he said. "Worse is when almost all the force is used for bandobast duty or as police protection for all the crooks and thugs in the state."

"Police protection is given to people like ministers, nervous MLAs, nervous ex-MLAs, bureaucrats, judges and the like," I said.

"That’s what I said," he said.

"So there you are then," I said, "you have explained how futile it is to become a police officer."

"I think it’s the sun. Now your brains have turned into mush," he said. "I am a dog. I am looking for a job as a police dog. It’s exciting work. My friend Raja said, they feed you well, exercise you well, not like me getting leftovers and sitting locked up in the house the whole day. All a police dog does is run around with his handler at the scene of the crime and just sniff around, following smells. That’s what I love doing and it’s a secure future. In Tamilnadu they pay retired police dogs a pension, soon it will happen here too and I can always opt for VRS."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

More reservations please

We must be the only nation on the planet where our citizens agitate to be counted as Backward Caste and then kill and be killed to be given reservations in all institutions.

They may have something here. There are so many disadvantaged people who need reservations, that extra edge to get their toe in the door so to speak. I have been giving the matter some serious thought and have come up with certain other disadvantaged groups that have every right to demand backward status and reservations.

The first group would be that tiny tribe of Brilliant People. They are at a disadvantage wherever they go. First everyone accuses them of buying their question papers. They move into the workplace and everyone tries to put them down, or tells them not to act too smart. They cannot help themselves – they have to act smart because they are smart and their colleagues avoid them.

The second group is the small group of Average People who actually admit that they are Average. All others around them claim to be brilliant, clever, class-toppers. Everyone else has the solutions for all the ills of the world, but these quiet self-effacing types merge into the background and quietly do everyone else’s work for them. Not having the gift of the gab, these are generally exploited. They need upliftment.

Then you have the Failures in Life, who cannot get anything right. Every action they take is a mistake, every decision wrong. The only solace these find are at the end of a dupatta or rope. They need reservation, because these need more help than anyone else.

Then there are the Ugly People, who are shunned wherever they go. No clear answer is given to them, someone else was selected for the part in the play, someone else was given the job, someone else came along and married her, they are told it would be better if they did the backroom job and did not come in contact with the customers. They need to agitate for reservations and better treatment.

Fat People are sidelined when it comes to getting jobs and passing interviews in places where looks count, like modeling agencies and sales departments. Time was when fat people would walk on the road and thin people laughed at them while children played tricks on them. Now with the advent of television and fast food, this group is getting more representation with most people getting fatter and fatter, and you rarely see children playing on the streets. They too are usually fat.

Dwarfs – no one wants a dwarf in his organization unless it’s a circus. Why don’t we see dwarfs in courts, or colleges, or multi-nationals?

The same with Atheists. With all the fundamentalists trying to rub each other’s religions off the face of the earth, they look with horror and fear at the atheist who says he follows no religion. Institutions shy away, shocked suitors disappear never to return, atheists are not invited out.

And finally that large, floating and unrepresented group – Criminals. They’ve done their time, learned all sorts of activities and crafts in jail, but once they are released, they might as well go back inside again. Once out, there are no decent jobs available, except as paid goons for politicians and mafiosos. At least in jail, they got two meals and bath a day, and a roof over their heads. More importantly they had other cell mates who treated them as equals.

There are many other disadvantaged people: those with squints, those with cross-eyes, those with halitosis or flatulence, those who cannot sing, the unpunctual and the cured lepers. Our rulers have no reservations about dishing out reservations, they could spread the largesse around a little more.

Content enrichment for teachers

A funny thing happened just last month in May. It was so funny that many who heard about it cried. The State Council for Educational Research (SCERT) of Maharashtra arranged a workshop for state teachers from April 25 to May 5 in Pune, called ‘content enrichment programme’. The Council found that many students of class 7 cannot read or write properly and that students generally suffer badly in Class 8 with English and Mathematics and therefore with all subjects.

The teachers were given the same exercise books that they normally correct after the students solve them. Out of 1.25 lakh teachers for classes 1 to 7 across the state, only 10 per cent could answer all the questions in the English and Maths exercise books which were­ the same lessons they taught their students. And the Council got its answers about the poor performance of school students.

The teachers instead of hiding their faces in shame or even hanging themselves from the nearest fans, were loud in their excuses which ranged from: “we needed more time” to “the classrooms were dirty and benches broken” and “we did not get proper food and water”.

Even funnier: The Council discovered that the teachers had difficulty solving questions from Class 3 onwards.

There were some really good teachers in my 16-year brush with academics from primary to post-graduation, and some mediocre ones. In all fairness, though there were a couple of teachers who were generally hated, every one of them knew their job. Even one Hindi teacher who’s feral looks with thin white face, spiky black hair, thin red mouth and pointed teeth earned her the name of Bhookha Bhediya. There was much celebration when she re-located to Australia.

Education those days was holistic. Teachers linked the subjects they taught with life outside the classroom, whether it was English, Mathematics, Sciences, History, Geography or Moral Science. Sports too was given great importance, both individual sports and team events. Team spirit was a big thing in the 70s, if you snitched on your peers, the teachers showed their contempt for the snitch even while they dispensed punishment on the transgressors.

Another peculiar trait among the teachers of my school and college that I remember was how they were especially tough with the well-heeled children of famous parents. Unlike today if the stories I hear are true. Years ago a teacher who slapped a CM’s son was sent on indefinite leave.

I had ventured a suggestion a while back in this column, that teachers too should be tested in the subjects they taught on an annual basis. The 17-and-a-half people who read this column did hail it as an excellent idea, though some relatives of teachers said asking them to quit if they did not get 90 percent and above in their subject was a little too harsh.

Maharashtra is not a backward state, if 90 percent of their teachers cannot pass a simple test in subjects they teach, then this country faces a very, very, serious situation. Someone please tell the Minister of Education to read this. Or better still, please read it aloud to him.

India starving the world of food and oil? Really?

I was doing my bit to help the West through its hard times and ate just one slice of bread and butter for breakfast instead of two. I did a lot of walking too. Western media and people like Condeleezza Rice and George Bush say that Indians are eating too much and India and China are using too much oil which is why global food and oil prices have gone through the roof. Plausible, since we have the largest number of people and two of the fastest growing economies on the planet. Until I read two articles. One was published by Fortune Magazine on 29 May 2006, written by two reporters Nelson D Schwartz and Jon Birger. The other was an article on the business page of one of our Goan papers last week on the oil and food crisis respectively.

The Fortune article named hedge funds and asset management companies in Paris, (Societe Generale Asset Management) Los Angeles (Pimco Commodity Real Return fund) and London (QCM) who were investing huge funds in oil. These funds were holding millions of barrels of crude for retirement nest eggs. There are stories and allegations cleverly placed in international mass media pointing the finger at India and China but way back in 2006 when oil prices began escalating the blame was laid squarely at hedge funds who poured billions of dollars into oil. There was no petrol shortage anywhere in the world the writers pointed out, no supply crunch, it was all due to hedge fund asset managers bidding on 'futures' contracts.

Hedge funds blame traders on the commodity exchanges. Even Western pension funds are putting their money into commodities. In 2005 Exxon Mobil $36 billion - more than any company in U.S. history - and it added another $8.4 billion in the first quarter of 2006. They ended the article with bracing words that the market will work to produce enough eco-friendly alternative energy fuels.

The food crisis article placed the blame squarely on the developed world which is blaming India for overeating. As the world grapples with the worst food crisis in recent years, firms like Cargill, Monsanto, Syngenta and Hong Kong based Noble Group are trading in grains and making huge profits.

Cargill, the US-based agri-business giant, which produces, stores and supplies foodgrains globally, had $88 billion sales and over $2.34 billion profits in 2007, 52 percent more than the previous year. In April 2008 Cargill announced that its profits from commodities trading for the first quarter of 2008 were up 86 percent over the same period in 2007. Syngenta is doing even better, with net profits of over $1.1 billion in 2007, up 75 percent over the previous year. US-based Monsanto and Syngenta are forcing the grain growing world to plant their genetically modified (GM) seeds, even though GM seeds have been accused of triggering crop failures and pest attacks. In 2003 Monsanto, one of the biggest suppliers of grain and vegetable seeds, with penetration round the world, was teetering with a loss of $23 million in 2003, but it made a whacking profit of nearly $1 billion in 2007. The Hong Kong-based Noble Group, listed in Singapore and involved in agri-commodities trade and transport, has seen a 95 percent jump in its profits in 2007.

GRAIN, a network of NGOs working for sustainable agriculture, says speculative investment in commodities futures has zoomed from $5 billion in 2000 to $175 billion to 2007. These include Louis Dreyfus of France, a private agricultural commodities trading firm with annual sales exceeding $22 billion, which does not report its profits.

The world needs food and the world needs oil. The party for the big players in the US, Europe and the developed world is just beginning with them trading between themselves and pushing the prices up, while the marginalized die away silently. So is India eating more? Or is it a clever ploy to divert the world’s attention from the rich nations trading in grain and food? Me? I’m eating two slices of bread ’n butter for breakfast with a vengeance. Let Bush and Rice feed off each other.