Why do rapes happen?

Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.

An aam aadmi’s letter

To whomsoever it may concern.

They call me aam admi. For you babalog, that translates to “ordinary man.” Presumably women are included in there as well. That’s what they call me. I don’t know the first thing about supply side economics. I’ve never listened to Beethoven. I couldn’t tell an IIT from an ITI. There are many things I don’t know. But, I have a God given ability to detect bull shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a few things off my chest.

When we got our independence, I was ecstatic. I was one of the millions who lined up whenever the Mahatma gave us the word. Then, I heard that Pandit-ji had his reservations about me. He wasn’t sure if I would exercise the right to vote responsibly. Well, here’s the thing. Neither did I. Who knows what’s best for the country? Who do we trust? Pandit-ji and his friends came highly recommended by the Mahatma. They had studied at firangi universities, spoke English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Once again, I fell in line when the Mahatma asked me to support his protege. I had a job to find, a family to take care of and mouths to feed. I didn’t have time to think it through. So, without protest, I voted for Nehru, in the hope that he was our Messiah and that he would part the Red Sea and lead us to the Promised Land.

I shed tears when Chacha died. He was our Messiah. We hadn’t yet made it across the Red Sea. In fact, there was no sea. I found myself marooned on a desert with no friendly faces. Pandit-ji, in spite of his firangi degrees and polished accent, had blown it. The lone face that I recognized of Lal Bahadur was but a brief mirage. And that’s when the nightmares started.

They say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. If that’s the case, I must fault Jawaharlal, the tree and not the fruit, Indira. But my gut tells me that that Jawaharlal was not the tree. He was just the guy who watered a tree called the Indian National Congress. This tree did not produce fruits. Rather, it sucked the life out of the ground it grew on, and gave shelter to reptiles and insects and rodents, which in turn preyed on me.

I wish I could write away the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 as a bad dream. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and anxious that the past may return to revive its hold on me. But trust me when I say that I have a short memory and am trying my best to move on.

The damage that Indira wrought was not to my stomach. It was to my psyche. She said, “Garibi Hatao.” I enthusiastically cheered, more in hope and despair simultaneously and not out of belief. As I said, my instincts told me that these were reptiles, rodents and insects. Hope turned to anger and slowly resignation. And then despair, when one of my own turned his back on us and assassinated our Prime Minister. I lost one more familiar face and that hurt me even though I didn’t trust Indira entirely. Her son was another fleeting mirage. I’m told that he did some good for the country, but am not entirely sure what he did for me.

They tell me that we were in a lot of trouble in 1991. And this man named Narasimha Rao bailed us out of this trouble. I didn’t know he was capable of this feat. I voted for him because he was part of this tree that I told you about. Turns out that he wasn’t entirely a reptile. Another fleeting vision as far as I’m concerned.

Things have been getting better in the last twenty years, I’ll happily admit. I’ve got a cell phone. I can see roads being laid. A lot of my friends have left for cities. I see shiny buildings when I visit them. But twenty years is a long time to wait when you have too little to show for it. There was a time I had resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am not being allowed to even do that. I’ve seen things that I now can’t put out of my mind. My aspirations are spinning out of control. My country has changed a lot. And it doesn’t stand by itself any more. The destinies of all countries are now inter linked, they say. I wouldn’t know too much about that. I have no idea what current account deficit means, and why we need foreign investment so we can have supermarkets and megastores. All I know is that there still aren’t enough jobs for my people and things need to get a lot better before we can afford to fritter time on ideological and political debates. I’ve been waiting for a long while. I wish these fellows would get on with the program so my children can have a better future.

What galls me is that, not only are they frittering away precious time but they are using that time to loot my house. There are thieves inside my house, emptying it as I speak and there are folks outside my house yelling “thief.” It’s like I’ve become invisible to both of them. Neither is helping me.

Anna Hazare, God bless him, says he wants to help me. But, I don’t have the time to make it to Jantar Mantar each time he asks. With due respect, he’s not the Mahatma. Those were different days. And they were different men back then. I trust Anna-ji. But he also wants to tie me to a tree and whip me if I try to drown my sorrows in cheap liquor. So I wonder if I should trust a guy who wants to whip me. Like I said, no one helps me anymore.

This chap, Kejriwal, seems to have his heart in the right place. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I guess it’s hard to meet up when one of you feels the need to be in a city and on TV all the time. To Kejriwal, I tell you this. It’s not enough to start an Aam Aadmi party. It’s not even enough to be an Aam Aadmi yourself. You need to come out here and meet me. Don’t tell me about those reptiles. I know about them already. I’ve seen more than fifty years of reptiles. Help me. We’ve been waiting for a Messiah. We’re so jaded that we’ll give you too a chance. And we fear that you too will blow it.

You know what I don’t need? I don’t need sermonizing and moralizing. Don’t tell me things I know. Don’t tell me that I’m illiterate. I know that already. Don’t tell me that I suck because I vote for my religion and caste. I have good reasons for doing so. If anything, my religion and caste guys are the ones who’ve shown up in times of my need over thousands of years. I can’t abandon such instincts easily. Don’t tell me that we need a dictatorship because only dictators can control fools like me. I’m not the fool that I’m made out to be. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m the product of evolutionary intelligence that’s been gathering steam over millions of years. If I’ve come this far in the evolutionary game, I’m pretty sure that I can handle a few reptiles. So don’t tell me anything.  Just step aside and allow me to be. And help, if you can.

I’ve always dreamed of this Messiah in shining armor, who’ll swoop down from the skies and carry us all away into this land where there is freedom and dignity in life. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’ve come around to believing that I, and only I, have my fate in my hands. For that, I need to be responsible. I need to change my habits. And I need to stop making excuses and think things through. I know all of this. But it’s going to be a while before I get there. I wonder if we have the time for me to get there. I don’t think there’s another choice. Let’s see how this one plays out.

Until then, although you may call me an Aam Aadmi, keep in mind that I’m anything but ordinary.

Best regards.

Mango (wo)man.

Capital Punishment in India

The argument against capital punishment: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Hanging a murderer is to seek retribution and to not attempt his reformation. Death penalty is not ethical since none of us have the right to demand or take another’s life. Death penalty is not an intelligent option as it simply erases the offender and leaves the root cause of the offence untouched. No matter how heinous the crime, it is the society who created the criminal. Hanging the convicted is to cop out of society’s responsibility to rehabilitate the criminal. It is to play an unforgiving God and exercising only the powers of destruction and protection and not the ones of creation. It is a step back in our evolutionary process by perpetuating a destructive ‘tit for tat’ cycle.

The argument for it: “To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable.” 

Premeditated murder is unpardonable. It reflects an incorrigible condition which neither time nor hardship can cure. When a human plans in cold blood to seek the extermination of fellow humans, he loses the right to society’s compassion. Not erasing the convicted offender would be to run the risk of repeat offences. Rehabilitating the offender costs money and effort which are better spent on higher priorities with better return on investment. To punish is to deter. To deter is to prevent. To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable and violates the trust of citizens. It is to create an environment where everything is viewed through the prism of self-flagellating tolerance.

Adding a new breed of criminal to the mix: The terrorist

The capital punishment debate is complicated as it is. Now add a new breed of criminal to the mix. The terrorist.

The terrorist is an individual who, for various reasons, has chosen to commit premeditated murder. What the terrorist does is definitely not an impersonal war. It is very personal. The terrorist provides no advance warning of the targets, location or time of attack. Several months of planning often go into an attack. It is hardly credible to view terrorists as passionate individuals who lost their heads over some petty provocation and indulged in an impulsive act, and thus ones to regret their actions later and reform. Terrorists represent the fringes of society where the possibility of rehabilitation is the faintest. They are the closest to a lost cause as we can find. Stopping the growth of terrorism is not a lost cause. Reforming terrorists might be. They combine the passion of a temporarily deranged murderer with the cold blooded-ness of a serial killer and the intelligence of an army. If not destroyed, they will destroy. It is us or them. As dramatic as it sounds, that’s the way it looks from the view point of an ordinary citizen.

The Dilemma: Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri?

The Supreme Court today upheld death sentence to Ajmal Kasab, who participated in the murder of innocent people during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Should we hang Kasab in our lust for revenge? Or should the President pardon him? Will pardoning terrorists encourage more terrorism or will it stem the flow by winning their hearts and minds?

To pardon a terrorist is to break the inviolable social contract that we the citizens have made with our governments to serve the society and to be protected in return. To extinguish the life of a terrorist is to uphold Dharma on which depends the survival of our society as we know it. A Gandhian style of “blank check” tolerance, as history tells us, can make martyrs out of the tolerant. On the flip side, to forgive Kasab is to take the high road and demonstrate the divinity in us.

If you had the choice: would you choose the power to destroy an enemy? Or, would you choose the power to change his mind? Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri? This is a tough call in a country which has taught us both.

The Minority Report

I’m writing about something that happened a long time back. In fact, it was so long back that I was in 8th standard in school. My school was run by the Church of South India. The class was an eclectic mix of rich and not-so-rich, mostly Tamil, Malayali and Telugu speaking, Christian, Muslim and Hindu kids. The common ‘profiles’, as I recall, were the good old fashioned Tamil Brahmin kids, Malayali Christian kids, Tamil speaking Telugu kids who grew up in Chennai as well as those Tamil kids from other parts of Tamil Nadu like Salem, Madurai and Trichi. The last mentioned group of kids came from affluent families who owned vast areas of agrarian real estate and which had made their fortunes on the backs of farmers who tilled their ill gotten land, and now wanted their wards to enjoy a good ‘city’ education.

Needless to say, it made interesting conversation when Sushil Koshi Babukutten, Sanjay Rao (a Telugu kid from Chennai), Saravanan (Tamil Gounder kid from Madurai), Abdul Kader and moi sat down for our afternoon lunch. The conversation mostly centered around the various unflattering attributes of our teachers as usual. The collective innocence of our group was such that none of us had any idea of the schisms that existed between our communities. Yes, I had vaguely overheard conversations in family gatherings about ‘anti-brahmin’ activities in our state. Not having encountered any first hand evidence on this front, I paid little attention to such things. I was more interested in cricket, football, marks and getting homework done on time. And, I suspect, that was the case with the others too.

We were the distinguished denizens of the last row in the class. As to why we had been banished to the last row – there were many theories. I attributed it to my height. Unfortunately, the rest of the group did not have the ability to make such claims. We all suspected that we had been identified as ‘trouble makers’ and segregated in the last row where we could make the least possible trouble. And I also suspect that we all agreed with this assessment.

Abdul Kader was a classic trouble maker. Every school has a don. Abdul was ours. He was flamboyant. He was ruthless. And he set new standards in academic non-performance. His crowning accomplishment came in a quarterly exam when his total of 32 in all subjects failed to cross the passing grade of 35 for one subject. This achievement did not go unnoticed by Mr. Jayaraman, our maths teacher, who’d seen many Abduls come and go in his time. While handing out Abdul’s answer sheet he remarked, “You’ve attempted 3 out of 20 questions. To say that you’ve attempted them is going a bit too far given that you’ve got zero on 100.” Abdul smiled. Mr. Jayaraman was not a man to let such things so very easily. He was well aware of Abdul’s reputation as our don. Such things were mere trifle to him when it came to discussing competency in the Pythagorean method. “Abdul, tell me why you come to school. You’ve spent 2 years in each standard. At this rate, you’ll still be here when your friends have finished college.”  Abdul nonchalantly replied, “Sir, in that case, I’ll skip college and join my friends.” Keenly aware of his inability to influence Abdul, Mr. Jayaraman let go, knowing that he needed to hand out answer sheets to other kids who were by now on tenterhooks waiting for the verdict. He let go, and moved on. Abdul raised both hands in a winning pose like a boxer, and smiled again.

Abdul may have been our don. But, he was the don with the heart of gold. Once he came up to me and said, “You are a “padikarra payyan” (studious kid). If anyone gives you trouble, let me know. I’ll handle it.” Abdul’s reputation was legendary. For starters, he was well connected. His elder brother was the Don of 10th grade. Senior ‘goons’ from that grade would seek Abdul’s counsel. He was always accompanied by his posse wherever he went. He rode a motorbike to school, and generally his arrival or departure from a room or building was a much heralded event. There were also rumors of his ruthless ability to ‘straighten out’ those who did not adhere to his ‘laws’. He would bring us juicy tales of fights with bus conductors, roadside vendors and auto rickshaw drivers. The tales would always end with how he vanquished his enemies. The message was pretty simple and clear. “Don’t mess with me.”

Sushil’s parents lived in ‘the Gulf’. For the longest time, I had no idea what the ‘gulf’ was. I thought it was a town in Kerala. Occasionally, he’d tell us that his parents were coming down to Chennai. After every one of these visits, he’d always come back loaded with something ‘cool’ and ‘mysterious’. I remember that he once brought a Sony Walkman to class, which had headphones and we listened to the Beatles on it. He always dressed smartly, and set new fashion trends in school. He was always smiling. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing him upset or angry at anything. He would make light of the worst of predicaments and counseled us to do the same. In each group, you always have a kid who assumes the ‘elder brother’ role. Sushil was our elder brother. He was wise beyond his years, and always lent a willing ear to our problems. As the elder brother, he also felt obliged to be our group’s financier. He had chockfull of cash, and spent it liberally on ground nuts, grape juice or an occasional Gold Spot for his friends. In return for Sushil’s solutions to life’s problems, I coached him in mathematics. He had one of the worst phobias of numbers I’ve ever seen. Confronted with a simple and straightforward problem, he would freeze with furrowed brows and glazed eyes. After a few minutes, he’d look up and say, “I have no idea what to do.” It amazed me that such a wise man could not comprehend that ‘a*(b+c) =a*b +a*c’. My attempts to tune him into the magic world of numbers proved futile, as time would tell.

Sushil was our hero. He was smart, well dressed and articulate. We all jostled to be seen with him in public. He always had a few kids around him at any point, hanging on to his stories of foreign jaunts. Sushil had a ‘VCR’ at home, and he would come to school every day and tell us the tale of the movie he had watched the previous evening. He stayed with his indulgent grand parents, and made the most of it. He had covered major ground in travel and film watching at the ripe age of 12, and this added to his reputation of wisdom and maturity. Sushil’s most endearing quality was that he treated his friends well. He never had an unkind or sarcastic word for us. He would save us from embarrassment and take it upon himself. He was truly our elder brother who watched out for us. I cared for him so much that I nursed a deep concern about his deficiencies in the field of mathematical sciences. He usually dismissed such concerns with a sweeping “I’ll join my dad’s business in the gulf once this is over. All you need to do is to help me pass.” I swore that I’d do what was humanly possible to get that done.

Saravanan was a typical Tamil speaking Gounder kid, who resisted all attempts to speak to him in any language other than Tamil. His stoic silence to questions posed in other languages masked his lack of comprehension of them. He was medium height, dark with a longish face, and applied liberal amounts of oily substances to his hair. His hair was always neatly combed, with a curl down his forehead, which he guarded vigilantly. He was a boy of very few words. He spoke rarely, and on very few subjects. He was affiliated with another group of kids, who were commonly referred to as ‘hostel kids’. They were his fellow inmates of the school’s hostel, and his hostel network was far and wide. Saravanan was not the first ranker in class. But he was not known to do shabbily either. His consistency in staying in the middle ranks was admired by those in the lower ranks. Nothing perturbed him. No one perturbed him. He was a cactus, who survived on very little water, in the unfamiliar desert of a Chennai school. He was not the most sociable character. Occasionally, all one would get out him by way of response was a grunt. And that was generally well received when it happened.

Sanjay was the kid with whom I related more than others, though he came from a more affluent background than mine. He came from a higher-than-middle class, but not-quite-rich family. His dad was a teacher in our school, and made a fortune from teaching mathematics ‘tuition’ to the rich 12th standard students in our school. Sanjay was seen speaking Telugu to some kids, and Tamil to us, which I found very impressive at that impressionable age. Sanjay tried very hard to create his own niche in the school, but struggled till the end to find that spot in the sun. Otherwise, he was well regarded by his peers, and was known to be Sushil’s right-hand man and confidante.

The year was 1980. We had just returned from summer vacation to start eighth grade. And, that’s when things changed. For starters, our seating arrangements had been re-shuffled to our nasty surprise. Instead of Sushil and Sanjay, I had Saravanan and another kid on my sides. I took it in my stride, although I knew that neither of my neighbors could be placed in the eloquently social category. To my surprise, Saravanan appeared more talkative than usual. He doled out tales of family gatherings during the summer, trips to far flung villages and attendance at what appeared to be political meetings. Slowly, I gathered that Saravanan’s father enjoyed the company of politicians, and made liberal donations to such causes. He mentioned prominent names, and would casually slip out details of their having had ‘tiffen’ or tea at his house. All this was fine but boring. Patiently, I nodded my head way through his ramblings. To me, Anbazhagan’s appearance in Saravanan’s house was not very exciting stuff. And then, one fine day, Saravanan mentioned Periyaar.

It’s probably pertinent to pause here and examine what I knew about Periyaar at that point. Amidst my indifference to politics and political talk, I had, by then, ingested some details on Periyaar. I knew that he was part of some movement which didn’t relish the sight of Brahmins in the state. I’d also heard stories about how Periyaar didn’t believe in God, and how he had once garlanded a deity in a temple with footwear. These stories didn’t endear Periyaar to me. I was also aware of the fact that I was brahmin. So, I made the simple inference that if Periyaar hated Brahmins and if I was a brahmin, then Periyaar and I would not get along well. That I wouldn’t get along with Periyaar didn’t bother me. I had more on my mind in those days, and did not ponder this issue deeply. In essence, I knew who Periyaar was, and where he stood in my book.

So, when Saravanan mentioned Periyaar, I listened. He talked about what his dad had told him about Periyaar. He talked about the things Periyaar had done for the people. At this point, Saravanan made an important mistake. He loudly proclaimed (so loud that others could hear clearly) that Periyaar had once said, “If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first,” and he laughed. By now, the rest of the class had heard this and there was pin drop silence in the room. Even our class teacher who was grading papers stopped and looked up when he heard the silence. He, however, had not heard what Saravanan had said. I could feel fifty pairs of eyes on me. I could see Saravanan’s mocking smile looking back at me to sense my reaction. Slowly he drawled, “So, what do you think about Periyaar and what I said?” I was livid, not at Periyaar but at Saravanan. And I knew I looked livid. “Why don’t you try saying it one more time and I’ll tell you what I think,” the threat was obvious in my voice and I stood up.

By this time, our class teacher, Mr. Rufus Jeyakumar, got up from his chair and had started walking towards us. Saravanan stood up and repeated the statement about snakes and Brahmins. He didn’t get to finish his sentence. The next thing I remember was throwing a punch straight into his mouth, and blood trickling from it. Saravanan swung his arm back, and I was ready by now. I had him pinned under my armpit, and we both collapsed on the table with books and pencils and paper flying around. Mr. Rufus just stood by and watched, as I was told later. That afternoon, Saravanan got the beating of his life. When it was over and I got up, Mr. Rufus looked at me calmly and said, “Are you done? He asked for it. And, you gave it to him. If it happens again, I’ll give it to both of you.” And he walked away.

I’ve remembered this incident all these days, because this was my first direct encounter with bigotry and communal hatred. I didn’t know enough to comprehend why it was there. Nor was I wise enough then to walk away in dignity. But, I learnt that the bigotry was there. I could see it in Saravanan’s eyes. I found it confusing that, only a few months back, the hatred was not there and we’d been just a couple of kids horsing around. In many ways, that was the beginning of the end of our innocence.

This was originally written by me in June 2006. Reproduced in-toto in 2012. If you’re a Madras Christian College school alum who remembers those days, do get in touch. 

An Inconvenient Truth

There are inconsiderate human beings that occupy this planet in every village, town, city and country. Even so, I wouldn’t be straying far from the truth when I say that we Indians occupy a special place in the pantheon of insensitivity. We are a nation of uncaring, indifferent boors, whose lives are only occasionally punctuated by those (increasingly rare) Satyameva Jayate moments, when we sit down and pretend to care about our fellow citizens.

The Inconsiderate Indian

Our indifference manifests in countless exotic ways. It could take the form of spit impelled out of a window of a moving bus or car. It showcases itself in how we drive on the other side of the road, passing those who wait patiently for the light to turn green. Our selfishness blossoms when presented with a long line in front of a small counter with a harassed clerk, and plots clever ways to cut through and get around the indignity of waiting. Mindless road/traffic planners, rude hospital staff, robotically insensitive school principals, gossiping colleagues, uncaring airport staff.. The list goes on. So, it should come as no surprise when our leaders display the same inconsideration that we have so carefully cultivated amongst ourselves. Yet, it surprises us when we hear that our ministers have been pilfering from us, promoting their sons and daughters and circumventing the laws of the land to suit their purposes.

There is one potentially redeeming aspect of the Inconsiderate Indian, which suggests that this condition might not, in fact, be incorrigible. Our strain of inconsideration largely stems from indifference and mindlessness, and is less insidious than its cousin variety that breeds on malice and ill-will. We’re not a malicious people, by and large. But, we, surely, are dim witted. Mindlessness and indifference are progeny of foolishness. In fact, that may be the best piece of information we have at our disposal. That we are mere fools and not evil monsters like what the chinese system has perpetrated. Of course, the worry remains that our behavior is not really borne of our idiocy and it reflects our true selves. In any case, idiocy, in my book, is a far lesser crime compared to malice and leaves room for hope that we may yet overcome this failing someday.

Why are we a nation of dimwitted fools?

Never mind Viswanathan Anand. Never mind that Silicon Valley genius engineer, who invented that clever thing that lets us search the internet. Never mind Homi Bhabha. Never mind J.C. Bose and C. V. Raman. Never mind that ours is the land of Buddha and the Vedas. Never mind the nostalgia from having invented zero. Make no mistake about it. We are a nation of fools. There’s no dearth of evidence or fools, to support this hypothesis, in our otherwise lovely nation.

So, what’s the solution?

This is the tricky part. There are two reasons why this is tricky.

The first part of the trickiness has to do with the possibility that there may exist no solution. There is no magic wand to wave or potion you could force down throats that could rid us of our insufferable mindlessness. I like to think that if there was one, we, in spite of our stupidity, would have found it by now. These sort of things, especially those that involve senselessness, take time to work through. The process of working through stuff is called evolution. Unfortunately, the way evolution seems to be working at the moment, it appears to be favoring the fools. One hopes that this trend will correct itself. If not, we will extinguish ourselves and the problem will solve itself.

Second, I cannot, in good conscience, issue a clarion call to corrective action to you, my reader. For, it would somehow imply that you, the reader, are part of this clan of fools, a notion which seems at odds with the fact that you are a What Ho! reader. What Ho! readers may be misguided. But, they are erudite. They like the finer things in life like What Ho!. They may be many things. But, they are no fools. I say this with sincerest respect and in the fondest hope of retaining your patronage.

Seriously, why are we a nation of fools?

Even a tiny North African country with 10 million people and nothing more than sandy deserts, has found a way to build roads, run hospitals, operate shiny airports and promote civility. I think, the truth is that we, at some fundamental level, seem to revel in our foolishness. We call it jugaad. We call it ‘street smarts’. Our brains work overtime to figure out detours. We are a nation of arrogant, self-centered people which believes that its brand of perverted intelligence is somehow superior because it helps beat the odds. We are a society of fools that celebrates the most ‘jugaadi’ fools. I, for one, take no pride in our jugaad. To me, jugaad is a symptom of how low we have fallen. It is a sign that evolution is favoring the energetic fools amongst us.

The smart thing is to take the straight roads and drive faster. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten this inconvenient truth. How about more sense and less jugaad?

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

There’s a storm brewing in this country, in the form of the alleged 2G scam, which has the potential to unseat the government. Given the complexity of this case, and our own lack of time to comprehend what’s being reported, not to mention who to believe about what, I figured I’d put together a simple dossary of facts and observations on this. Here’s everything you’ve always wanted to know about the 2G scam but were too afraid to ask.

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

Pertinent Facts 

1. 2G is a technology used to provide voice and data services by operators such as Vodafone, Airtel, BSNL, etc

2. Offering voice and data services requires something called spectrum – a band of frequency specifically allocated for this purpose – which is allocated to qualified operators.

3. Spectrum is scarce because it is limited to a specific band of frequencies.

4. To the seller, spectrum is free. There is no cost to creating spectrum since it’s simply the right to use air waves. This complicates things when you try to price it. If something cost Rs. 100, you could add a profit and arrive at a price for it. When a good does not have any intrinsic cost, pricing is subjective and purely driven by demand.

5. In countries all over the world including India, spectrum is treated as a national asset very much like land owned by the government, and sold by governments to buyers in the form of licenses.

6. To the buyer, spectrum is not free since there are limits to availability, and further because governments would like to derive income from the sale, just as they would if they sold a public sector company to private sector

7. The price paid for spectrum by operators affects the tariffs offered by them. As the price goes higher, so will the tariffs since operators have to recover their costs and make profits on the services offered

8. If the prices offered by operators are too high, the common man may not able to afford the services. So, it is not surprising that a government could deliberately set a low price for licenses so as to enable telecom services to reach the masses.

9. If the government deliberately under-prices spectrum, it need not necessarily be misconstrued as “losses to the exchequer”. In any case, any and all “losses” are notional since the government is not losing money out of its pocket. They are “lost” revenue (what could have been).

10. Hence it is the responsibility of governments to devise a proper mechanism so A. operators have a free and fair shot at winning spectrum bids. This creates a conducive business environment and promotes competition in the country which in turn benefits the customer. B. ultimately the needs of common people (consumers) are met, in the form of reasonable tariffs at adequate quality

11. There are several methods to selling a national asset. A couple are 1. Auctions – there are many types of auctions. Highest bid auction is the most well known. 2. First Come First Served (FCFS) – typically used to sell a distressed asset for which there are few takers

12. For something like 2G licenses which are in great demand and have high value and counterbalanced by the need to promote telecom services to the masses, selecting the procurement method is not simple and straightforward.

What happened

1. The NDA govt mooted the idea of First Come First Served. It was never made into policy or ratified by the PMO/Cabinet at that time.

2. The UPA govt which followed continued the FCFS line of thinking and converted it into policy. This was led by Dayanidhi Maran first and executed by A. Raja who followed him. Apparently, the PMO had objections, although I’m not sure exactly what and how forcefully they made them. Net of the story is that FCFS came to be the policy

3. The Telecom Minister A. Raja led the process of procurement – in which it is alleged that favoritism was exhibited in the FCFS process. In other words, some companies were prevented from coming in first, others were favored and another lot of them decided to stay out of the fray not fancying their chances.

4. A number of winners came out of this process – a good number of which turned out to be companies unconnected to Telecom. Some of them were clearly real estate companies and entered the fray for the sole purpose of not creating a telecom business but to re-sell their licenses to an operator for a profit. Think of them as touts and blackmarketeers who buy movie tickets in bulk in advance and sell to movie watchers for a profit. However, there is nothing illegal about a real estate company buying a telecom license, especially if the govt considered them “qualified buyers” when they bought them.

5.  Some of the companies who ended up as “winners” of 2G licenses, promptly turned around and sold their licenses to foreign operators for a hefty profit. The questions that this raises are: A. Did the govt have the right policy in place? B. Did they implement the policy fairly? C. Was the process of bidding subverted in favor of a few, friendly buyers? D. Couldn’t the profit made by these fly-by-night operators (adds upto to Rs. 20K crores+) have been made by the govt instead? E. Were there any individuals or companies who benefited illegally from this? In short, this looked and smelled like a scam when these details came out four years back.

A landmark Supreme Court judgement earlier this week

Earlier in the week, SC quashed 122 licenses granted by the government and asked for these licenses to be re-bid. The court did not place culpability or guilt on any specific person. Instead, it commented on the inherent unfairness of the FCFS buying policy as it pertained to sale of 2G licenses and also on the shoddy way it was implemented by the govt.

It also asked a Trial Court to decide if there should be a probe into the role of Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who was Finance Minister during the period the licenses were awarded.

Observations

To even the most naive and under-informed observer, it is clear that there’s something rotten in Denmark. This smells like a scam. The reluctance of the govt to act/correct for four long years adds fuel to the speculative fire. This has gone on long enough. Our Prime Minister needs to speak up.

The UPA govt and the Congress party are trying to put lipstick on a pig when they blame the NDA govt. Blaming the NDA govt for FCFS is like Dhoni blaming Sourav Ganguly for losing in Australia. They are barking up the wrong tree. The Govt should stop patronizing the people of India and come right out and admit if there were mistakes, and penalize those who committed them. Their reluctance makes one wonder how deep this rot goes.

The BJP has done a poor job of holding people’s attention to pertinent details of this scam. The usual cry of the BJP to call for the resignation of the PM or Chidambaram is likely to fall on deaf ears as the party has 1. done nothing to expose the corruption 2. done nothing to merit their status as an opposition party. In fact, every statement made by BJP may actually weaken the case against the govt. Nothing works worse than a bad argument for a good cause.

Does the SC judgement mean that our cell phone tariffs are going to go up? Well, the telecom companies whose licenses are cancelled cover only 5% of the subscribers. It’s unlikely that prices will go up because of this judgement. The prices may go up for other reasons like  prices have gone far too low for operators to make profits in this market.

Update: The trial court has dismissed the petition from Subramanian Swamy to initiate a probe against P. Chidambaram. Subramanian Swamy has the option to appeal this judgement in the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Swamy’s petition to quash licenses was first rejected by the High Court before the Supreme Court upheld it. This legal battle is far from over.

There are some details which I’ve skipped to keep this readable. Do write back with your observations.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Once in a while, you have a force that arises in this universe which grows its strength only through changing the very conditions from which it arose.

Gandhi. Einstein. Jobs. Yes, he belongs on that list of people we find hard to describe with words, and can appreciate only by the impact they had on our consciousness.

So long and thanks for all the fish, Steve. We will miss you.

3 things everyone can do about corruption

Why is corruption such a big deal? India’s GDP is growing at 7-9% per annum, and presumably will continue to blaze along for some time. So, why fret about corruption when things are looking rosy? What are we complaining about? Don’t we have more important things to do than (Jan) Lokpal bill? We’ve been mired in corruption for 50 out of 65 years. What’s another few years? Is it even possible to fix it? Can this Pavlovian reflex that causes the reaching out of hands under tables and behind closed doors into another man’s pocket be cured?

Beyond the moral aspect, there are tangible and economic reasons as to why corruption belongs at the top of the list of issues India has to confront now.

The Numbers

India’s GDP (est) in 2010

  • Based on real exchange rate: $1.5 Trillion (Rank 12th in the world)
  • Based on purchasing power parity: $4 Trillion and change (Rank 5th in the world)
  • Growth rate: 8.3% (Rank: 7th in the world)

According to these key metrics, we’ve done well. In fact, outstandingly well.  So, why bother?

Why we should care

In the world of economics, capitalism and free markets, the past only evokes admiration and an occasional eulogy. The future is everything. The question that will be in front of us over the coming decade: How long can we keep this up? The answer lies in how we fix our problems. And if we do not fix the fixable, the future will be easy to predict. And, it won’t look pretty.

There are some good reasons to care about corruption:

1. It’s a tax and it destroys morale. Corruption introduces enormous inefficiencies. It raises the cost of living for all except the corrupt. It’s demoralizes the talented and hardworking amongst us.

2. Will growth slow corruption or corruption slow growth? The answer is yes to both. If we don’t kill corruption, we won’t be able to grow. If we don’t grow, we won’t be able to kill corruption.

3. Perception is bigger than reality: We are no longer a sheltered economy living in our own shadows. We are on the global stage. We have to assure our potential partners that we are serious and that they will be treated fairly. It is a mark of leadership. A corrupt nation cannot be a world leader.

3 things everyone can do on this journey

  1. Take a side: It doesn’t really matter which side. If you don’t like Anna, go find someone else who’s worthy of your support. Whatever you do, you cannot stay silent. Dialogue is the life blood of a democracy. As good citizens of this country, we owe it our voices.
  2. Say No to incompetency:  It is said that power corrupts. It‘s perhaps important to realize that incompetency too corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while incompetency corrupts the many. Those unwilling to subject themselves to the tough realities of merit and hard work, resort to corruption. Insist on a job well done, especially if you’ve had to pay them for it!
  3. Try the “rupee for rupee matching contribution” experiment:  Indira Gandhi once supposedly remarked, “Corruption is a global phenomenon” as a way to explain corruption away. We’ve glorified such leaders. These chickens have been roosting for decades, and it will take effort and time to root them out.  While you fight the good fight, how can you tell if your efforts are paying off? Try this: For every rupee you pay as “bribe”, pay yourself a matching rupee. Consider this your corruption provident fund. The size of this fund over time will give you an idea if we’re winning or losing. It’s easy to do. Worst case, you’ll have money to buy a few drinks and drown your sorrows if things take a little longer.

Which Side Are You On?

We are witnessing a remarkable period in the history of the world’s largest democracy. In just a few months, we’ve seen the Prime Minister’s Office censured by the Supreme Court (a first), a Union Cabinet Minister sent to jail (a first) for alleged involvement in the largest scam in our history, and now the spontaneous eruption of public support for Anna Hazare and the movement against corruption

There are polarized viewpoints on Anna’s agitation. There are those who worry if this is anarchy at its finest. They fret over an un-elected, self appointed ‘civil rights society’ holding an elected government hostage. And there are those who feel that enough is enough, and the time has come for voices to be heard and action to be had – in the crusade against corruption. They are coming out in the streets, on Facebook and in the media, anxious to press forward with the momentum and the spring to the step that Anna has brought to it. In effect, they have transplanted their trust (which should have been ideally with their elected representatives) to Anna and friends.

Is this the beginning of the end of an organized way of governing the nation? Or, is it the beginning of the end of old and corrupt ways of doing business? One hopes it is the latter. But, time will tell.

If Anna and friends deserve our support, it has to be for the sole reason that they are our best bets in a nation, in which unstained reputations and selfless leaders are scarcer than tickets for a Rajnikanth blockbuster on opening day. Their methods may not always appear reasonable, and not all of their points of view acceptable verbatim. Change has always been wrought by unreasonable men. Let’s hope they succeed at least in part.

No matter which side we are on, we have to celebrate the fact that we are witnessing a public dialogue of this magnitude in India for the first time. Dialogue is a life force of democracy. The day you take away a person’s right to free speech, you drive a dagger through its heart and mortally wound it.

As Voltaire once said famously “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”

No matter which side we are on, we have the responsibility to defend the life forces of democracy. Any government that fails to honor these forces deserves our firmest opposition, and to be shown the door.

No matter which side we are on, we have to agree that there is only one side. The side that wants to rid this country of the cancer that is surely consuming it. We have an obligation to take the time to find those we trust and give them our support. Whoever they may be. And discard the rest.

India is the world’s largest democracy.  It’s about time we proved it.

3 reasons Why Life Only Gets Better

Reason number one. You are not going to be 16 forever.

Contrary to what they tell you, the best years of your life are not when you are a kid. This is a myth built on bad memories of disgruntled forty somethings, who remember only the ‘Oh, I didn’t have to pay any bills’ part and have long forgotten the parts involving acne, random hormone explosions, homework, exams and ‘you have to be in bed by 10pm’.

Yes, there will come a time when you will be out on your own, discovering the joys of running up credit card bills, managing house-help and warding off pesky telemarketers. As you get out into the ‘real’ world, it will be pizza for breakfast, pies for lunch and brewskies for dinner. Until, of course, the spleen bursts, ulcers sprout, the midriff widens and you see that dreaded furrow on the doc’s brow after an annual health check.

You know what, kids, freedom is not such a bad thing. You get to live by your rules and you get to break your own rules. Freedom is a beautiful thing. It makes you grow. And, growing is a beautiful thing. Unless, your name is Benjamin Button.

Reason 2: Nothing lasts forever, not even money and time.

Money makes the world go around. As the world gets bigger, there will be more of it. You will get your piece of it. Do not read this to believe that all you have to do is sit back and wait for some money fairy to magically rain cash in your living room. You will have to work for it. The good news is that there is money out there to be made, if you have the time for that sort of thing.

Speaking of time, it is the great healer. The most outrageous slings of misfortune, the worst of insults and the heartrending losses – all fade into black or grey, with time. Even in the darkest of hours, remember the four golden words “this too shall pass.” Except in the cases of a CBI enquiry or a re-run of Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gam, when nimble footed escape may be more prudent.

Reason 3: Life is not as bad as it is cracked up to be.

Life is not what you see on the telly. When you grow up, your parents do their best to filter out the bad news. The television industry was invented to do exactly the opposite. They do what our parents do, except that they filter all the good stuff.  Why they do that is because bad news sells. Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense. Everything that happens can be explained by either of two human inventions – free markets and stupidity. Quite often, it is both, and the latter is by far more powerful and innovative.

Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense

There will always be a truckload of bad news. Violence, disasters and wars will never go out of fashion. It will often make you wonder “why live in such a crappy a world?’’. But, bad news does not make the world bad. Remember – for every Voldemort, there is a Harry Potter, for every A. Raja there is a Subramaniam Swamy, and for every Osama there is an Obama. Bad news needs to be heard so folks who can fix these ridiculous situations step in. Every fight needs a few good soldiers.

Doing the right thing.

“Life gets better” does not mean that you are going to swoop in, just in the nick of time to cut the blue wire on a dirty bomb to save a planeload of people. It means that you will be given a chance to do a right thing here, and a right thing there. And, if you keep at it, the chances are that it will add up to heroic proportions. And, chances are that no one will notice. Chances are that you will be an unsung hero.

It’s hard to fathom a cheerful world while in the throes of existential angst. Angst smothers you blind, chokes off the oxygen and stops from you seeing that sunrise on the horizon. It takes time and work to get out from under that pillow of anguish and see things for what they are. That, my friend, is how life gets better if you are willing to give it time.

Conspiracy Theories

Some one once told me that everything in this world is controlled by just fifty people. These fifty people, he said, determine everything. And he meant everything. As in everything  from stock market movements to oil prices to US presidential elections to opium trafficking and mujahideen movements in Afghanistan to installing the next puppet government in banana republics .Whew! I am running out of breath just from listing the responsibilities of those who shall not be named. Fantastic theory, and apparently it has its takers.

Every one loves a good conspiracy theory. But, they relieve us from the banal and real world through imaginative concoctions that contain tiny morsels of truth and liberal doses of paranoid delusion. Life’s too short to be lived in the real world, I guess.

Who killed JFK? The Russians? The Mafia? Lyndon Johnson? Wait a minute, Lyndon Johnson? Come on!

Indian  conspiracy theories are inevitably about cricket, bollywood or politics and at times, all three. A colleague informed me that “3000 crores of money was bet on Sachin getting a hundred in the game against Pak” during the world cup. That, he explained, is why the Pakistanis dropped four catches of Sachin. I scratched my chin.

“err, didnt Afridi take the catch finally? And, Sachin finally never did get his hundred”

“That’s because Afridi is the *ONLY* clean guy on the Pak team. He doesn’t take money”

“The *ONLY* clean guy? Afridi?”

I had to pause to digest this nugget. This was like Lyndon Johnson all over again. If I had to pick the only clean guy on the Pakistani cricket team, I’d go with Kamran Akmal. His ability in dropping catches is genius. And that sort of genius cannot be faked. But then again, I wouldnt know. I am not in the nifty fifty.

The most interesting aspect of conspiracy theories are that they are so far divorced from our day to day lives that they are not actionable. We lose nothing by believing. But, one does struggle to process the data. The first bite is usually juicy. But then, the morsels get lumpier and harder to swallow with each progressive bite.

“Jesus really lived in Kashmir?”  Sometimes even the first morsel is hard to swallow.

A reporter asked if Andrew and Kate had been tipped off about the planned assault on OBL. The question arose because the royal couple had postponed their honeymoon by a day, and the reporter wanted to know if there was a connection. I can only imagine the look of bemusement on the palace spokesperson’s face.

Sorry folks, Hillary Clinton is in all likelihood a female. Osama is most definitely deader than a dodo. Yes, there is a fairly good chance that we landed on the moon. And oh yeah, Obama was born in Hawaii.

Nevertheless, one feels obliged to tip the hat to these unflappable heros who find the unlikeliest of connections between the faintest of dots, and in the process prove that human imagination is indeed alive, unbounded and purposeless. May their tribes flourish!

A note to the nifty fifty if you happen to be reading – I’d suggest punting on global warming, Pakistan, Libya, Egypt, etc for now,  and instead, please please do something first about Donald Trump.

I’m lovin’ it!

Live from McDonalds, in HSR Layout in Bangalore. Folks, the super-sizing of India is well under way. It’s about 1 pm, as we enter the newly opened (well, 3 months back)McDonalds, walking past a mute and vaguely disturbing figurine of Ronald McDonald at the door.

Once inside, we are greeted instantly by a bedlam of loud conversations, juvenile shrieks and employees taking orders. Adding to the decibel levels is a raucous Sunidhi Chauhan bhangra beat over the speakers. Amazingly, the place is chock full. McDonalds – a lunch destination choice? You could have knocked me down with a McAloo tikki. What’s next? Wedding receptions at McDonalds?

It’s my daughter’s birthday treat for a few of her classmates. As they find themselves a separate table, avoiding parental proximity, I wander over to the other side. The place is a veritable zoo. As people fall over each other to order Maharajah McChickens and paneer salsa wraps, it occurs to me that the super-sizing of the Indian version of homo sapiens is well under way. Families, bachelors, school girls and grand parents – they are all here, helping themselves to happy meals and large cokes.

India is chugging at 10% GDP growth and also getting fries with that. Are you lovin’ it yet?

Winds of Change

Live from BDA complex, Koramangala, Bangalore: Winds of change are blowing in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and across the Middle East. The latest scene of action seems to be Imperial Hair Dressers in Koramangala in Bangalore.

I was shocked this morning to find that a coup of sorts was attempted 3 weeks back. Disgruntled elements in the barber mid management (read the ones assigned to chairs 3 and 5) had staged a protest in BDA square over the always prickly issue of salary raises.

There are unconfirmed reports of a facebook page in the early days. Before discontent could reach wikipedia and massive twittering proportions, the ownership much like Gaddafi, moved preemptively to crack down. They had learnt from Hosni’s experience that inaction was fatal. In the dark of night, the entire mid-mgmt team (read barbers assigned to chairs 3 and 5) were shown the door. And, ripples cascaded through the bottom rungs as well.

What I saw this morning was a new set of faces, new uniforms and even a new television set. An uneasy calm seems to prevail. The new crop is abstaining from idle chit chat with customers, and spoke in furtive low voices on conditions of anonymity when quizzed about recent events. The future of Imperial Stylists remains unclear, as an autocratic aging ownership struggles to maintain control.

As they say, when kings fight, the soldiers get injured. My injury is especially severe. My 6 years of investment in training Mahesh (mid mgmt barber assigned to chair 3) have come to nought. Once you get used to the comfort of a barber knowing exactly what you need done as you walk in through the door “not too short, not too long, keep the side burns as-is, and a head massage at end of cut” – it is traumatic to have to start at the beginning all over again. The new guy who has been assigned to me – Manjunatha – seems like a bright bulb and appears to have a cowboy streak when it comes to wielding the razor. Certainly appears that he and I have a long road ahead of us.