Plight of the Pedestrians


It is a real pity to witness the daily struggles of the poor pedestrians on Mumbai roads (not much different in other major cities of India), one feels really sad that India has still not arrived as a civil society and a developed nation. Ofcourse, many of the readers would contend that India is still only an emerging or a developing country at best, and so could be excused from having to follow or adopt “developed country” rules and regulations, or human rights practices, etc.,

That would be just hogwash. Countless number of accidents happen on Mumbai roads everyday because we have foolhardy and rash drivers who do not respect any authority. There is a complete absence of civic sense, even on the part of the car owner-drivers, or even on the part of car owners who are driven around by their drivers. One gets the feeling that they couldn’t just care less about the plight of the ordinary pedestrians who are forced to use the roads (over 90% do use the roads as pedestrians).

On one side, you get bombarded by taps on your car windows by beggars, and especially beggar-children, who are deployed on the roads by unscrupulous beggar-parents who may not unfortunately have any independent source of income. It is sad to see very small children being pushed into oncoming traffic at the traffic signals, who pounce once the cars come to a stop. If you feel sad, and open your wallet, then there is a concerted attack by a whole host of beggars at your car asking for money. This in itself is heart-rending, you could see small children precariously positioned on narrow dividers in the middle of busy traffic junctions. One shudders what would happen if there are heavy lorries with protruding girders passing by. This is absolute breakdown of governance and poverty-alleviation programmes. How can governments ignore the plight of the homeless people ? What actions are being taken TODAY ? One can only wonder, may be aloud to one’s spouse or friends. The matter gets forgotten after a while, but one gets reminded every day on the roads. Gradually, it is only but natural that we grow accustomed to this situation and become immune to any beggar trouble. But, as responsible individuals, we must cause some actions to be taken by the government of the day.

How do we do that ? A big question. I don’t have any ready-made answers.

Further, normal pedestrians who need to cross when the signals turn red, or at a zebra crossing, can never be sure they would not get hit by a vehicle driven by stupid drivers. The white line which should be the marker for vehicles to stop at the signal is almost never there for anyone to see, and almost every driver keeps inching beyond the signal thereby disrupting traffic flow on the perpendicular road. Pedestrians have to be extremely careful while crossing, and if you observe their faces you could see the tension. Especially when they are crossing with small children. When there is a free left turn at a signal, no driver respects the pedestrians using the zebra crossing. It is the pedestrians who stop and wait for a break in the flow of vehicles rather than the drivers. Is this a developing country mindset ?

Why can’t the government take decisive action against errant motorists ? How come the traffic in South Mumbai appears to be more orderly and better regulated (though not upto developed world’s standards) but breaks down once you get into the suburbs ? Why is there acceptance of the lack of discipline on the roads, both by other users of the road and the traffic police ?

There is hardly a traffic cop on Singapore roads, or in most European Countries’ roads. In Mumbai, there is a traffic cop in almost all major intersections, sometimes on two or three corners waiting to nab drivers who make illegal turns. But despite their presence, irregularities take place constantly, or should we say with their connivance ? Or just apathy on their part. One can only surmise.

Law Enforcement should do their job without fear or favour. Motorists should be “delicensed” upon repeat offences. Cops should be issued with blackberries for tracking motorists (like what they have done in Bangalore). More traffic cameras are required to be installed. The RTO database has to be lined to the traffic police on the roads.

Progressive mindset is lacking, though we have one of the best set of professional managers in Mumbai, living and working mostly in third-world conditions.

I am sure something can be done and should be done expeditiously.

Cheers

Vijay Srinivasan
29th September 2008
Mumbai

Our Neighbourhood’s Instability


Look at our neighbours ! I mean, the geographical neighbours staring at us from across the borders or the seas !!

The most unstable country in the world, Pakistan, is facing an implosion. Afghanistan, is undergoing a resurgency in fundamentalism, and is torn by fratricidal battles. Bangladesh is caught in a time warp. Burma a.k.a Myanmar is an absolute military dictatorship. Sri Lanka is battling the LTTE again under a hardline President.

And, China is carefully watching us from across the inhospitable border with designs of its own.

How much more uncertain can one country’s borders be ? Compare this with the U.S. which has the peaceful Canada in the North and Mexico in the South with illegal immigration of the peaceful variety as its only problem ! Or, to the U.K. which has no issues except the I.R.A. Or, to France which is surrounded by peaceful neighbours.

No wonder, the borders of India are often described as the next flashpoint of military misadventures, especially of the nuclear variety. Not a very great situation to be in.

However, the way India has managed the problems around it is admirable. India did take assertive actions in separating East Pakistan from the West, and elicited strong condemnation and threats from the U.S. which even sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in 1971. Anyone remembers President Nixon and his infamous Secretary of State, the formidable Dr Henry Kissinger ? India also took action in Sri Lanka at the invitation of Sri Lanka’s Government, but failed in its peacekeeping mission and paid for the misadventure with the life of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1989.

However, in most of the situations, India has shown restraint and avoided pulling the trigger in the first place. Examples abound, the most memorable one was the Kargil War which was an ugly provocation by the illegal dictator of Pakistan, General Musharraf. But after teaching a lesson to the Pakistanis, India executed a rapproachement with the Pakistan leader, and engaged him in active Peace talks.

India assisted in Afghanistan’s recovery after the near extinction of the Taliban government, and lost several engineers’ lives while constructing much needed roads. India has tried to cooperate with Bangladesh but without much reciprocation. India has been wrongfully supportive of the Myanmar junta, with the much justified fear that China would use its influence over Myanmar aggressively if there were no Indian counterpoint. India has rebalanced its views on China, engaging China in a more aggressive economic manner than constraining the relationships based purely on the border issues as India has been doing for the past four decades. India has deepened its relationship with Iran, again over fears that China would gain more influence over Iran’s oilfields and gas supplies, despite vociferous U.S. objections.

All this shows statesmanship and a foreign policy judgement, improved over by successive governments. Congress Party has probably the best foreign policy experience (obviously) in government. The other parties haven’t had the chance and longevity that they have had in governance.

However, despite all of the above engagements, the acid test remains that of Pakistan. How the current government or a future government resolves the vexed Kashmir problem, and reaches lasting peace with Pakistan would characterise how India is viewed as a world power in the 21st Century. This is possible only if India builds a huge deterrence in its power equation, which means India should aggressively invest in building, strengthening, and projecting its military power in a non-aggressive way. This means that India should be spending not less than 5 to 6% of its national budget on defence build-up. Everybody respects power, not a soft nation with high ideals only.

Given the internal diversity, India would continue to face internal dissensions across the country and acts of terrorism. Unlike a Norway/Sweden or a Japan, India is not a homogeneous country. There are a multitude of ethnicities, races, castes, and cultures intermingling in India. Such a challenge is not faced in most countries, even in China which is probably over 95% homogeneous.

In the same vein, India has chosen democracy which is inherently noisy and unstable, though it builds lasting institutions and a freedom of expression much wanted by the people. Hence, it is ironic that India has managed to build on all its internal problems, while simultaneously handling huge neighbourhood problems.

Isn’t that admirable ? Sometimes, India comes out with flying colours. Foreign Policy on the Neighbourhood is one such area. I am sure there are a number of shortcomings even here, but in general one has to appreciate India’s successes in this arena.

Have a good weekend,

Cheers

Vijay Srinivasan
27th September 2008
Mumbai

Transparency and India


“Corruption in India has increased marginally in the last two years, taking its position from 72 to 85 in the list of world’s corrupt countries, according to global watchdog Transparency International. The Corruption Perception Index, prepared on the basis of surveys conducted in 180 countries by 13 international agencies associated with Transparency International, puts India’s integrity score at 3.4 as against 3.5 last year. India and China were at par last year in the corruption index. But this year, China’s position is 72”.

Please see “India slips in Corruption Index : Transparency International” .

Interesting analysis and results from Transparency International – but does anyone care – the government of India ; the bureaucrat ; the official bribe takers ; the common man ? No one does.

It is well known that bribes need to be paid by the common man to get simple things executed, it appears that the common man has accepted that this is a necessary evil and may even be budgeting for “necessary” corruption. This is very unfortunate. Bribes are being paid to government servants who receive their salaries from taxpayers’ money. I was indeed taken aback after reading this piece in the Times of India (this should not have been published in the first place) – “Counter View : It can grease the wheels by Tara Gupta” .

Basically, no one is ashamed of giving or taking a bribe. What kind of society is that ? Bribe is treated as a “tool of convenience”, or a “glue to make things happen”. These things have to happen anyway, whether there is a bribe or not, with a government or court-defined SLA (Standard Lead Time ?).

And, it is a pity to learn that the poor people take the maximum brunt of having to pay bribes. The middle and upper classes seem to have it all “worked out”, or have ways to get things done without having to pay bribes explicitly. They might have the “connections” or have different modus operandi. This is a real pity. It shows why the divisions within society keep getting institutionalized or deeper and deeper, day by day.

And, there is no shame on the part of bribe takers who fleece the poorest of the poor. Even in areas like issuing pension cheques to retired people. Sometimes one thinks the best way to clean up the system is to automate the processes removing the human element from the “system”. Some people might even think that harsh laws should be passed in the Parliament for punishing corrupt officials via special “corruption courts”, and/or broaden the powers of the RTI (Right to Information) Act. Or, politicians and bureaucrats could be banned from public life for corruption.

Wishful thinking, I guess !

Some more coverage in the press – “India plunges further in Corruption” ; and, some more interesting insight – “Rampant Corruption in India : Who is Responsible ? .

I guess it is important for every educated Indian to firmly refute the charms of corruption – it obviously is the easy way out, and cuts the time delays which are inherent in the system. However, everyone who bribes without missing a beat, contributes insanely to the institutionalization of corruption even more. This would only keep worsening the system and the situation in the country, and India would only keep slipping in the Corruption Perception Index. This will keep happening despite the government raising the salaries of government employees recently by a huge percentage – obviously once greased, the hands cannot forget !

There must be a minister for transparency enhancement and he should be measured on the CPI Index performance every year (apart from other indices from other non-governmental, international agencies).

How about that ?

Cheers

Vijay Srinivasan
25th September 2008
Mumbai

Religious Intolerance


When you look at the TV news coverage over the past week or so, it has become impossible not to notice the references to religious imperfections in our society. India has always been one proud country when it came to religious and race diversity and the embedded tolerance in its society which has seen us through hundreds of years of history. While most countries (including the advanced, developed ones) displayed intolerance of one sort or the other when it came to religion, race, or colour, India stood as a paragon of virtue by not only assimilating different cultures and religions, but nurturing them and absorbing the best practices from them, in the process strengthening the underlying fabric of the society.

While there have been sporadic instances of violence against a specific community or religious sect in the past, those had been forgotten or forgiven. However, what is happening currently (like the Gujarat riots of 2002) is going to leave deep scars in our society – here, I am referring to the violence against Christians in Karnataka and the attacks against churches in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. It is likely that fingers are going to be pointed at the state administrations which belong to the Opposition. They could have moved swiftly and stopped the violence.

Some of the news coverage as follows : “Mangalore Shut ; Police, Protesters Clash” ; “Three more Churches attacked in Karnataka” ; “Behind fragile peace fear reigns” ; “150-year-old church set afire in Madhya Pradesh” .

There are two critical lessons from these attacks – one is that political or religious violence leading to arson, looting and deaths should be treated on par with terrorism : no one has the right to go against the sacred Constitution of India, and violate the existing law and order situation, disturbing the communal peace – any one who does that should be arrested and tried against special laws with swift movement through special courts. The other learning is that community organizations and political parties have to disavow allegiance to specific religions only : they need to be equanimous when it comes to such violence in society, not taking sides but pointing out the long-term damage caused to society in an irreparable fashion. This would require determination and courage, and a huge political leadership. Lots of carnage and deaths have been caused due to rampaging mobs whose mental stability is always a big question mark. They go blind and seek revenge, and are encouraged by their stupid leaders who benefit from such imbalances and disturbances.

Government and Law Enforcement authorities have to put a firm full stop to such breakdown of law and order, and protect citizens. Their primary responsibility is to provide protection to all citizens, irrespective of religion, caste, creed, or colour. This has not been the case recently. When people see the firm hand of the government, they will start respecting the government and its leaders / bureaucrats, and most of all the police. This is absolutely required in India.

It is high time that the Indian society recognizes the damage caused, and cooperates in ensuring the scars are removed forthwith and long-term damage is avoided at all costs. Government of India should take urgent actions in empowering the law enforcement for violence and terrorism, with new laws to be passed soon. Look at the example of the U.S. – atleast now !

Have a good week ahead,

Cheers

Vijay Srinivasan
21st September 2008
Mumbai

Death of Free Market Philosophy


This week’s intervention by U.S. government agencies into the equities and money markets signals the start of the demise of free markets. What is astounding is that a Republican G.O.P-led government is executing the worst market intervention of all times. Republicans have always been against disturbing the so-called “free markets” and have been quite vociferous about further market regulation. One excellent example of a de-regulator is the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of de-regulation, and recently said that “the fundamentals of the American economy are still good”.

Basically what is happening is this : the U.S. government has decided to cough up hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to buy up the mortgage debts of troubled financial institutions, in effect paying for the misdeeds and greed of Wall Street investment bankers ; while they walk away from their jobs with millions of dollars in their pockets (not all of them ofcourse, but look at Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers who made USD 17,000 per hour – no, that is not a mis-print !).

The current status is well captured in this Times of India article : “U.S. launches all-out attack on credit crisis” and this New York Times coverage : “Bush Officials urge swift action on rescue powers” .

While it is totally inappropriate and almost criminal to pay for the mental instability on Wall Street which created the mortgage crisis in the first place by packaging and selling the mortgage derivatives in exotic formats, one has to also take care of the larger well-being of the financial system as a whole. It might sound rather socialistic – may be it is – but has not been criticized to the extent required by anyone so far. The other governments and central banks are reacting in almost synchronous manner, pumping up the liquidity in the credit-starved markets around the world. This means that it is OK to make serious errors in judgement and be greedy about other peoples’ money, take regulators for a sweet ride, pull the wool over governments’ and investors’ eyes, mislead almost everyone in the process, and still come out a WINNER !

The best thing would have been to let the financial system self-correct itself, but I guess there is no time left. The U.S. government did the right thing in not rescuing Lehman Brothers, but that course of action differed from what it did with the Bear Stearns case just couple of months ago. So, one can only conclude that the government and the regulators are confused, and when pushed into a corner, they do the only thing that they know well – come out with “all guns” blazing. Exactly what is happening now – and they are going to spend atleast a trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money in the process of rescuing the system. But that looks like OK compared with unofficial estimates of what they have spent in the Iraq war – in excess of USD 500B !

Well, the U.S. sets the trend in almost everything, and this time is no different. I have to wonder how the Republican G.O.P. can now call itself a free market de-regulator. It would be fun to watch John McCain on YouTube now !

Have a good weekend,

Cheers

Vijay Srinivasan
19th September 2008
Mumbai

Soft Nation


India’s record speaks for itself – 15 terror attacks in the last 6 years, and not a single conviction in the court of law. Amazing, isn’t it ? Especially when you take note of the fact that most democratic, liberal countries have enacted tough anti-terror laws and are ruthless in their approach towards tackling terror, post 9/11.

The key drive and motivation behind these countries’ approach and tough actions is two-fold : (a) the value these nations attach to every single citizen’s life ; and, (b) the need to vastly enhance intelligence-gathering by infiltration of terror networks, so as to anticipate potential strikes. Ofcourse, there is a fine balance that needs to be attained between individual, personal liberties and management of security threats. Advanced countries’ citizens understand the same, and have been willing to forego some liberties. Since we all know that these “advanced” citizens value their individual liberties very highly, this is surprising to note – any loss of liberties is unacceptable in a civilized, democratic, and materially advanced society.

Such loss of liberties would have to be accepted in India as well. There is no escaping the fact that terrorism is embedded deep into Indian society, and further accentuated by the non-stop infiltrations from across the borders. I watched keenly the discussion on CNN IBN’s Face the Nation programme conducted last evening by Sagarika Ghose on the topic “Is India losing its war on terror” : very fascinating it was ! You can watch on the web at : “CNN IBN Face the Nation” . Apart from the intensity of the discussions, it was interesting to learn the results of the viewer SMS poll in which 85% of the viewers felt that India was losing the war on terror.

There is an urgent need to formulate a national response to terror, based upon all-party discussions which should be initiated forthwith. A national terror anticipation and management agency should be set up with jurisdiction all over India, supported by a law to be passed in the Parliament. There should be no pandering to regional or other interests when it comes to the effective implementation of such a law. The agency should be vested with adequate powers to operate effectively, and may we say, “ruthlessly”, since every loss of an innocent human life needs to be stopped, and stopped totally. No kindness is required when dealing with suspected terrorists, what is needed is an effective mechanism balanced by judicial reviews. Look at how the U.S. is doing – no terror attack on American soil after 9/11. How did they achieve it in a country which is 2.5 times the size of India – size or population should not deter the government of the day. The only thing which could derail implementation is the announcement of election and the resultant kow-towing to special interests to win votes, which should be avoided at all costs.

Well, last Saturday’s New Delhi bomb blasts are the fourth such terrorist attacks in 2008. This should teach our lawmakers and ministers a hard lesson, as terrorism and its ineffective tackling by the present government could well become the opposition’s main campaign plank in the 2009 elections !

Have a good week,

Cheers

Vijay Srinivasan
15th September 2008
Mumbai

Chennai – A different scenario


I was in Chennai for the past few days.

It was crowded, all right, but nowhere near Mumbai or New Delhi. Or, even Bangalore. The only other place which is better could be Hyderabad.

Ofcourse, there was the usual back-pushing crowd at the airport. You have to encounter people who always wish to know what lies ahead of you, rather than themselves ! They always seemed to be in a perennial state of excitement about what is happening to you, or just in front of you while we are all in a queue. That is not much different from what one would see elsewhere in India, but in Chennai it is taken to the ultimate level, when several people standing behind you wonder what you are specifically doing to cause the queue to move ever so slowly ?! In the process, there is friction, I mean the physical one, which certainly would annoy most people. But in Chennai, that does not annoy anyone, so it seems. Hardly anyone says “sorry” for pushing you, or cutting your rightful path ahead.

However, all that said, it is to be noted that traffic on the roads is more orderly than in most other places. People seem to be recognizing the critical importance and necessity of traffic light signals, and do stop (90% of the time) at the red signal. Where there is a free U-turn, ofcourse there is anarchy, like elsewhere, but I noticed that the drivers are a bit more cautious about cutting into the oncoming traffic, unlike in Malad or Goregaon, or Andheri. Well, time to learn from Chennai drivers about potential reduction in unplanned and “anticipatory” U-turns and impulse management, I guess.

I think that the Chennai Municipal Administration is doing a pretty decent job of removing trash from the roads. Nobody seems to recognize or talk about it – may be it has been like this for a fairly long time ! Obviously, the number of migrants is on the increase, but somehow Chennai is doing a better job of absorbing and managing their expectations overall. The ever-present and constantly available mode of transport are the auto-rickshaws, with not so courteous driver who fix the price when they identify a transportation opportunity in you. The meters do not work, and no one is bothered anyway. You name a place and zip, the price comes and hits you in a momentary flash. Your brain has to be sharp enough to compute the right kind of price and initiate a negotiation, otherwise you are taken for a solid “ride”.

Notwithstanding such experiences, I believe Chennai is one of the better cities in India (a better city would be Hyderabad, and to a certain extent Pune) – it is well-managed, relatively clean, and less expensive than most other cities. There are several downsides – such as the auto-rickshaw “rides”, and increasing pollution on the roads, and “people pushing around” experiences, but these are manageable, one should infer.

Try and check out for yourself,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
12th September 2008
Mumbai